WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Kathleen, I am so excited to get to interview you about your marvelous novelThe Dime. It ultimately took me by surprise—in ways epic, tender, ferocious, and ultimately just a marvelous read. The first thing I want to ask is how did you come up with the concept, and what made you pursue this novel, and how did you find the narrator’s voice?
Kathleen Kent: The inspiration for The Dimecame from one of my short stories, titled “Coincidences Can Kill You” published in the crime anthology Dallas Noir. I had been writing historical fiction, but always loved the crime genre and leaped at the chance to write something that was a little bit different from the usual contemporary crime fare. Initially, I thought it would be a “one off”, and I would go back to writing historical fiction. But the publisher was really excited about expanding the concept, and the character of Detective Betty, into a full-length novel. With their encouragement, I spent several years developing the story, which, I’m delighted to say, will be a series.
MT: The narrator is actually a lesbian, which surprised me. I honestly wish I had read this book prior to writing my list on great LGBTQIA+ crime novels. What made you decide to not only veer away from the usual sexualities and orientations of most law enforcement officers in novels, but also make it something of a central point to the novel?
KK: My first intention with writing a crime novel---as I have done in my historical novels---was to make my lead character female. I love strong women in narrative fiction, and wanted to develop a character that was resilient when challenged, and who was also different from a lot of the female characters portrayed in Noir-ish novels, i.e., a victim, a sexual foil for the male characters, or a cunning villainess. I worked in the corporate world in New York for many years in male dominated fields before turning to writing full time, and I have always admired women who endure in spite of the challenges and difficulties thrown at them. I think I must have been designing the Det. Betty character in my head for a long time, because when I set my mind to envisioning her for the story, she appeared almost in her entirety: red-haired, six-feet tall and a lesbian. And, because I like giving my characters as much head wind as possible from beginning, and just to make things more interesting, I also made her a Polish Yankee from Brooklyn. I liked the idea of ruffling a few south-of-the-Mason-Dixon line readers.
MT: I know this question may be tough to answer, or at least navigate, but I do have to ask. In this country, there is a lot of resentment and lashing out at law enforcement officers. Similarly, many crime writers take different sides—pro law enforcement, or anti-law enforcement, or sometimes in the middle, like some of Don Winslow’s novels. How did you approach this book, and how did you look at the different stances on this topic?
KK: I have some law enforcement officers in my family and so it may have been easier for me to examine both sides of the equation. My main focus in the book, however, was to focus on the internal politics of race and gender within the Dallas Police Department. Until recently (we now have a female police chief) Dallas had some of the lowest numbers of female officers in the country for such a large, sophisticated city. Not only did I want to show the conflicts within the department, but illuminate the changing cultural environment in Dallas, and its struggles with reconciling the disturbance of the Old Order: white, Anglo-Saxon and straight.
MT: The novel—and its protagonist—go through a lot, both in the sense of trauma and ideology and such. There’s the issue of sexuality, cartels, extremist religious people, and more. For such a short novel (at least, comparably to other books that deal with these subjects) you handle the topics really well, sometimes not taking sides but presenting the truth honestly. How did you go about this?
KK: This goes to the heart of what I found was the most difficult to achieve in a standard novel format. It took quite a bit of editing to distill a lot of action into a few hundred pages, but keep the integrity of the characters. It was a learning curve for me, because historical fiction allows for a slower burn in plot development, whereas, in crime fiction, the pace has to stay fast and furious. I relied heavily on my editor to keep me on the right track. I also wrote in the first person, which was new for me, and I think it made it more personal and allowed Betty to reveal herself with greater intimacy.
MT: What made you decide to take the protagonist out of her element in Brooklyn and to Dallas, TX?
KK: I grew up in Texas, but moved after college to New York City where I lived and worked for over twenty years. I adopted a son, and subsequently living in the City became too difficult. So I moved back to Texas for family support, and was both charmed by its cultural growth, and confounded by its adherence to intolerance of those who fell outside of acceptable “norms”. Through Betty I got to see Dallas through the eyes of an outsider---from the sublime to the ridiculous.
MT: Would you ever consider making a series around the protagonist of the novel? Her voice is so alluring and intimate, while also defying and sternly advocating for her own rights as an individual. At least for me, there seems to be so much room to explore:
KK: I’m delighted to say that I’m editing the sequel now, which is titled The Knife. As with the first book, it will be published by Mulholland Books. Many of the same characters that were in The Dimewill be returning, but I have a whole new cast of wonderful characters to keep Betty on her toes.
MT: How many books did you write before you got your break-through novel? How many books before obtaining an agent? What advice would you give up-and-coming authors, or struggling authors in general, who want to make an impact on the crime community just as you have?
KK: I think my publishing story is a bit unique. I went to college with the intention of becoming a writer, but ended up working in several commercial enterprises for two decades. I didn’t write my first novel, The Heretic’s Daughter, until I was in my mid-forties, and it took me almost five years to complete it. I knew nothing of the publishing business, and had no contacts, so I started with blindly querying agents who I had discovered through the Writer’s Market. The agent I eventually signed with acquired my publishing deal with Little Brown in 2008. Miraculously, with a lot of support from the publisher, this first novel became a NY Times bestseller within the first few weeks of publication. I wrote two more works of historical fiction--The Wolves of Andoverand The Outcasts---before writing The Dime. The publishing business has changed so much in the past ten years. There are more people writing, and more options for self-publishing, and it makes the conventional publishing route very competitive. If I could give any advice to writers developing their narratives, it would be to follow the untraveled road; to find characters and story lines that are unique, but that offer some glimmer of hope in these dark times.
MT: Who are your favorite crime writers, both past and present, and what effect have they had on your writing style and career?
KK: Growing up my favorite authors were Dickens, Poe and H.H. Munro who were all fascinated to a greater or lesser degree with the macabre. Consequently, there are a lot of dark corners even in my historical fiction. Some of my favorite authors are those who cross genres. Cormac MacCarthy can be considered historical fiction (The Border Trilogy), science fiction (The Road), but also crime fiction (Blood Meridian). One of my favorite crime fiction writers has always been James Lee Burke and his Dave Robicheaux series. His writing is tension-filled, but he writes in the kind of evocative prose you often find in historical fiction. Currently, I’m a big fan of the following female authors: Attica Locke, Louise Penny, Tana French, Patricia Cornwall and Hannah Tinti.
MT: I feel so lucky to have discovered The Dime. It’s one of those books that is rare and hard to come by—as easy and quick of a read as it is heavy and deep with emotional, logical, and ideological issues. What was the hardest part about writing this novel?
KK: I think I had the most difficulty with the pacing. I’d spend too much time in character development and lose narrative steam in the process. I often likened it to playing three-dimensional chess. There were a lot of plot elements that had to be tied together at the end, but it always came back to the characters. You can have the greatest plot idea in the world, but if your readers don’t care about the fictional people inhabiting it, they are going to put the book down.
MT: Would you ever give a book like this to the president of the United States? If so, what would you hope he would gain from it? What other book might you give him, crime or not?
KK: Well. . .if you’re speaking of the current president, I’m not sure he would read it, or perhaps any book that wasn’t his own. I would have given with pride, however, my first book, The Heretic’s Daughter, to our previous president, as he loved American history and would have hopefully appreciated it. The book is based on my nine-times great grandmother, Martha Carrier, who was wrongfully hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692.
MT: Do you ever find yourself—your personality, your history—bleeding into the words you write and the pages of your novel? I read an author’s advice recently; he said never include your own history in books, because no one wants to read that. What are your thoughts on this comment?
KK: My theory is that, like our dreams, we can’t help but put aspects of ourselves, and the people we know, into our books. Consciously or not, I think it’s going to happen. You can’t spend years on a project and not be self-referential at times. But in the hands of a good writer, even quotidian experiences can become enlivening, inspiring and memorable.
MT: You really nailed down a lot of really important issues in the South. As someone who is from South Carolina, but who also lived in San Antonio for years, I found the book incredibly true to who Southerners are, both good and bad. How did you go about delving into this topic? Were you ever judgmental about the people you wrote of, and did you ever have a favorite or least favorite character?
KK: I think because I grew up in Texas I had a fondness, as well as a great disliking, for elements of the South. Every person is a composite of multiple traits, good and bad, and I tried to create complex fictional characters that reflected some of my own experiences. I try to maintain compassion even for an unsavory character, because contempt for that character can be the kiss of death for a writer. The resulting characterization will lose complexity, relevance and substance. My favorite character in The Dimeis, of course, Betty. But I also love her life partner Jackie and her work partner Seth. The character that was my least favorite in the story (other than Evangeline Roy and the Roy family) was Bob Hoskins, Betty’s fellow detective. But even he managed to reveal some endearing qualities.
MT: This novel is incredibly relevant today, given all that our country is going through, and all of the problems its citizens face. What do you think is the most important takeaway for everyone from this novel? Do you view this book—and its associations with all of the horrors of the South—as hopeful or condemning?
KK: It’s sometimes difficult to maintain hopefulness that the country is not backsliding permanently into rabid intolerance and bigotry. The truth is that those abhorrent qualities have always been with us, but, because of social media, the bad news travels with lightning speed. The good news is that we have made substantial progress, but obviously the battle for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and religious and cultural freedoms are being threatened daily. For me, Detective Betty has become emblematic of those struggles. I get emails weekly from women who are thrilled, and very moved, that there is a book that gives a voice to certain aspects of the lesbian experience. Fortunately, I also get emails from men who think Betty is a phenomenal badass!
MT: Lots of crime writers are drawn to write about the state of Texas and the issues it faces. What drew you to the state of Texas, and why do you think it’s so important that we look through the lens of various people in an effort to understand different people and places?
KK: Texas was a good incubator for my series, because I grew up here, and also because it’s in a state of transition. It’s becoming more and more ethnically diverse and, because so many people from other parts of the country are moving here, it’s stretching the political and cultural boundaries. It’s not always been an easy transition, but the friction those opposing forces create is the fuel for my Detective Betty series.
MT: What book is next for you? Please tell us there’s another book in the works—and hopefully soon! You have rapidly become one of my favorite writers.
KK: I don’t yet have a release date for The Knife, the follow up to The Dime, but I think it will be published some time next year. I’m also sketching out the plot for the third book, so, hopefully, Detective Betty will be around for a good while.
MT: Kathleen, I think I’ve overloaded you with questions for now. I’m sure I’ll have a lot more when your next book comes out, given you actually want another email with Writers Tell All. We love your book and love your writing in general. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, feelings, ideas, or comments you feel are necessary, and thank you again for participating in this interview.
KK: Thank you so much for all your support and enthusiasm for The Dime! It was a risk changing genres, but creative fire thrives on risk, and I’m so thrilled that Betty has been so well received. My maternal grandmother, who first told me the stories of Martha Carrier and the Salem witch trials, used to say that there are no such things as witches. . .only ferocious women. And we’re going to need a legion of ferocious women, and men, to keep us moving toward the light.