WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Erica! I am such a big fan. I know you’re the poetry editor at Guernica! So where did your love for crime novels come from? What was your first or favorite crime novel growing up?
Erica Wright: The closet library to my hometown was a bit of a drive, but my mom would take me often, especially during the summer. There was a small, metal rack of Nancy Drew books, and those kept me occupied for awhile. I never imagined that I would write a crime novel myself, but the same was true of poetry for me. I was a reader before I was a writer in both genres.
MT: Kathleen “Kat” Stone is such an interesting person, with such an interesting voice. How did you go about crafting this character? Were there any other character or books that gave you inspiration?
EW: I started writing The Red Chameleon when I was teaching English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. My students wanted to be detectives and forensic scientists. They wanted to work for the CIA and the FBI. I didn’t know anything about these fields, so I started researching in order to have better conversations with them. Soon I became fascinated with undercover work and the notion of someone’s talent being an ability to take on different personas. The book definitely started with Kat. I drew inspiration from Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhouse and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum.
MT: Your books seem so short but feel packed with story, dialogue, intrigue & so on. How long does it take you to write a Kat novel, and what is your writing style like? Are you a morning, afternoon, or night writer? How many words or pages do you try and write a day?
EW: It takes me about nine months to finish something that looks like a book in low light. I believe in the messy first draft approach, so I would never show that document to anyone. Revision takes me awhile, but I love that part of the process, that thrill when a hodgepodge of words starts to become a real scene or chapter. I try to write for 1-2 hours each day. A friend of mine here in DC is finishing his PhD, so we work together a few days a week. That makes a whole heap of difference, having someone sitting across from you, typing away. Plus his research on Botticelli and Michelangelo is more beautiful than mine. I’m usually googling statutes and (lately) herpetology. For example, I just learned that you can get what’s called a python massage, which is supposed to boost your metabolism or some such.
MT: How does your love for poetry bleed over into your love for crime novels? Do you think the two are intertwined? If forced to choose between the two, which would you focus your writing in?
EW: It took me awhile to find the links between poetry and crime fiction. My first draft of The Red Chameleon was definitely overwritten because I’d dwell too long on a detail, turn a paragraph into a badly written prose poem. But I definitely think there’s an attention to detail required of noir, an intensity of focus that appeals to me. A well-placed clue is not unlike a well-placed line break. Hopefully I’ll never have to choose between the two, but poetry is my first love and what sustains me in an increasingly bewildering world.
MT: Kat seems to be focused, at least in the second book in the series, on modern day issues, controversial issues—yet you feel careful not to be judgmental (except through Kat’s viewpoint) and you try not to turn any characters into martyrs. What helps you keep a distance from your writing while also being enveloped in Kat’s world?
EW: It’s so tempting to get on a soap box, and I certainly have some strong opinions. But Kat isn’t me, and I want to be honest about her views and experiences. This was especially difficult with my third novel, The Blue Kingfisher, which is set before the most recent presidential campaigns began in earnest. There’s a scene based on real events where a group is protesting President Obama’s immigration policy, and Kat is dismissive of the small crowd. I really had to resist the urge to make her preternaturally interested and knowledgeable about an issue that is now receiving widespread attention. Basically, there’s an urge to make her woke—maybe even a little psychic—in a way that would be satisfying but anachronistic. More broadly, villains are fun to read, but it’s also chilling how people with good intentions can take a wrong turn. That scares me more than a monster with a hacksaw in the backyard.
MT: How do you go about researching Kat’s novels? I know some people choose to research as they go along, but others believe in doing all of the research beforehand (and, for some, after). How do you feel about research?
EW: I mostly save research until after I’ve figured out the story. I’ll make notes to myself along the way, details I want to factcheck or add. Most of what I find doesn’t actually end up in the book because of the reasons you mentioned in your previous question—wanting to dive into controversial issues without making an argument about them. I suppose it relates to John Keats’s notion of negative capability, a preference for doubt rather than certainty. I will say that for The Blue Kingfisher I spent a long time trying to find an old New Yorker article about a man who kept a shark in his Manhattan apartment. You could see the shark swimming if you stood on a particular corner in Greenwich Village, but I thought, if I can’t find this article, nobody except for my college roommate will believe this really happened.
MT: What’s next for Kat? How many books have you figured out, and what do you think the next Kat book would be like? Any spoilers?
EW: I’ll be working on edits for The Blue Kingfisher soon, and I’m really excited about this story. In all my novels, I’m trying to explore that gap between the haves and the have-nots. In New York City, they often live next door to each other, so it creates a particular type of tension. In this addition to the series, Kat gets her hands dirty more than before. Plus, it starts in my favorite place, where the George Washington Bridge meets the Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse.
MT: Thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed by me, Erica. I’m extremely delighted to be turned toward your work and I have always loved powerful women in detective/crime fiction, so this just feels like fate? Again, thank you—and do you have any closing remarks?
EW: Thanks so much, Matthew! I love powerful women in noir, as well, and I’ll never pass up a chance to recommend a few authors I admire like Julia Dahl, Radha Vatsal, Sara Gran, and Steph Post. They’re all writing these incredible, complex, absorbing series. I’m lucky to be writing at the same time as them.