Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Crime Writer Vicki Delany Bares All For Open Book

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Crime Writer Vicki Delany Bares All For Open Book

Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most varied and prolific crime writers. Her popular Constable Molly Smith series (including In the Shadow of the Glacier and Among the Departed) have been optioned for TV by Brightlight Pictures. She writes standalone novels of modern gothic suspense such as Burden of Memory and More than Sorrow, as well as a light-hearted historical series, (Gold Digger, Gold Mountain), set in the raucous heyday of the Klondike Gold Rush. She sat down to bare all in a Q + A ...

C: You're one of the most prolific writers I know. You also jump effortlessly between styles and genres, from historical to police procedural. Describe an average week in your writing life.

V: An average week for me is pretty easy to describe. I write every morning for about 3 to 4 hours, seven days a week. In the afternoon, I do whatever non-book writing is required, such as this interview. I’m lucky enough to have been able to take early retirement from my job as a systems analyst in a major bank, and now writing is my full-time job. But it wasn’t always like this. My first book took over four years to write with the job and the family. I do write in different styles and I find that I have to stick strictly to whatever style of book I’m doing until it’s finished. No jumping between books or I’d get confused. I’ll also mention that I read. A lot. I don’t have a TV and I rarely go to movies.

C: A lot of writers say they've written for as long as they can remember, or that they always knew they wanted to be a writer. You came to writing later in life. What got you hooked? Did you have any idea say 20 years ago that would be dedicating so much of your life to writing and publishing?

V: Twenty years ago, I would have had no idea whatsoever that I’d be doing this. But I am so glad that I am. I started out in my writing path thinking I might like to write for children. I took a creative writing course at the community college with that thought in mind. I very quickly decided I did not want to write for children, but I was enjoying the course so I thought, what could I write instead? Ta da! Why not write what I love to read.

C: Let's chat about the Norwegians. What have the Norwegians got that we haven't? We've got cold weather, staid cities, good social programs. So we don't go crazy for dried codfish, we do have a deep pool of very talented crime writers. Why do the Norwegians get so much attention? Why do I feel so aggrieved when I see Karen Fossum's books pushing mine to the bottom row of the book shelf?

V: What do the Norwegians and Icelanders and Swedes have that we don’t? I wish I knew. I suspect they have a supportive writing and publishing community. I’ll quote Louise Penny who says that crime writers in Canada are still expected to sit at the children’s table at the literary banquet. If we don’t get no respect at home, it’s hard to ask for it abroad. Sadly, it is still true that Canadian crime writers are told by agents or publishers to move their books to a U.S. setting if they want to have a chance at it getting any recognition. I’m lucky in that I am one of the few Canadian crime writers with a Canadian characters and Canadian settings published by an American Publisher.

C: Everyone these days has an opinion or projection of where publishing is headed. They use phrases like "publishing is changing", which one might take as code for "dying as we know it". Look into your crystal ball and tell me what you see for writers, readers and publishers in 2020.

V: I don’t think publishing is going to change as much as some people expect. One big difference between the music industry and the book industry is libraries. Libraries buy a lot of books, but they buy books published by well-known publishers who put out catalogues. Publishing companies act as a gate-keeper and that’s an important role. Yes, they keep a lot of good books out, but they also go through the slush pile so you don’t have to. Self-publishing is a great option for people like Barry Eisler and Joseph Konrath who used the traditional publishing industry to learn their craft and to build up a network of followers. They can self-publish now knowing readers will search them out. Someone with a first book they’ve edited themselves? Unlikely.

C: P.D. James, who turned 90 this year, just released Death Comes to Pemberly to rave reviews. This seems so significant for a number of reasons, including the fact it makes me feel like maybe I've still got a few decades to get it right. What authors inspire you?

V: Peter Robinson is high on my list. He’s been writing for a long time and the books keep getting better. Inspector Banks continues to get stronger as a character after some 18 books. I loved Peter’s new book, Before the Poison, a standalone. I can say much the same for William Deverell. Speaking of Canadian fiction, I love how William never bothers to explain things only Canadians might know. In one of his books he refers in passing to Maher Arar. Don’t know who that is? Tough. The rest of us, me included, always think we have to explain things to Americans. E.g. It was almost thirty degrees. A hot day.

C: Do you think writers can "write themselves out" or otherwise run out of things to say? Unlike P.D. James or Elmore Leonard, most writers seem to reach a point where the effort is no longer sustainable.

V: Yes. But some of them keep on writing and being bestsellers, because they’re promoted as bestsellers, ego they are. Says more about the book-buying public than the publishing biz I think. Even dead people are churning out bestsellers these days.

C: Your Klondike series from Dundurn Press is a superb addition to the lacklustre fiction collection on this very wild and exciting time in Canadian history. What inspired you to set a mystery series in that time and place?

V: It is sad just how ignored Canadian history is in fiction (with a few notable exceptions). I was inspired to start the series when I was on a wilderness camping trip a few years ago. There were several Europeans in the group and I commented on how strange our ancestors would think of us paying good money for what they would have considered hardship. I started telling the group about the Chilkoot trail and the struggle people went through to get to the Klondike. And I thought – that would make an interesting book. I’ve been to Dawson City, fascinating place. Of course it’s very different today than it was back then. The Klondike gold rush is actually quite easy to research. There are so many historical accounts, and what’s unusual for a writer of history - so many photographs. What’s important about the Klondike, in terms of Canadian history, is what a uniquely Canadian event it was. The police were there first, and when all those miners and prospectors crossed the border what they found was the waiting arm of the law. In the year of the heyday of the rush, 1898, there was not a single murder in Dawson City. Why? Something to do with a ban on firearms perhaps, or the presence of a professional police force?

C: Crime writers get dissed in a number of ways, including the insinuation that crime writing and good writing are mutually exclusive. Crime writers are most visibly absent from the major literary awards, including the Giller and GG's despite the fact far more people read crime than general literary fiction. Will we ever see a day when this is not the case?

V: Probably not. The Canadian literary establishment is too traditional, too wrapped up in a post-colonial mindset. If they started letting crime books in, where would all those writers of dreary pretentious tomes get work? And where would they get money, if they had to compete with crime writers for grants? Not from the sales of their books. Again, there are notable and worthy exceptions.

C: You have literally travelled the world this year. How has travel informed your world view and changed or inspired your writing?

V: My travels have certainly informed my world view, but I can’t say that they’ve affected my writing except that I am how I write. I lived in South Africa for eleven years under apartheid. So I know something about power and oppression.

C: Three great book recommendations ....

V: Only Three! I’m afraid I’ll have to pass on mentioning my personal friends. The Canadian crime writing community is very close and I have made so many good friends who write wonderful books. To mention three would be to slight the fourth… and the fifth…. I’ll also limit my recommendations to books recently read, otherwise I’d never be able to narrow it down.

As previously mentioned, I loved Peter Robinson’s standalone , Before the Poison. Unexpectedly it’s a modern gothic, which is a genre I love and also write in. (More than Sorrow, coming Sept 2012 from Poisoned Pen Press). I didn’t think men could write gothic or that gothics could feature male protagonists. I was wrong. The only thing that makes this a crime novel is that in the past a crime was committed (or was it?) and the protagonist is attempting to uncover the truth. No shootouts, no fist fights, no cops, no robbers. No formula. Just a good story well told. That Robinson has never received any prominent Canadian literary award is indicative of what we discussed earlier. He’s dismissed in some quarters because he writes ‘mysteries’.

I loved The Ridge by Michael Koryta. The writing itself is simply amazing, an example of truly literary writing in a crime novel.

My third pick is William Deverell’s I’ll See You in my Dreams. The writing is exceptional, particularly the way Deverell can write the same character as a nervous, awkward young man, and then as an experienced old man reaching the end of his career. Deverell is a master at slipping touches of comedy into a book that is emotionally very moving and deals with serious social issues.

C: What's your funniest story about an in-store author event or behind-the-scenes at a conference? Got any gossip you want to share?

V: My very first booksigning was at a store in London alongside my good friend the writer and musician Rick Blechta. Scare the Light Away is a standalone suspense novel in which a woman reads her mother’s lost diary of being a war bride, and thus uncovers the secret of her past. An elderly lady came up to our table and I began my sales pitch. Her face began to crumble. Tears began to flow. “I don’t… think I’d… care for that,” she sobbed. “My husband died a year ago. I’m reading his journals. I thought I knew him…. But I didn’t. “ Whereupon she burst into tears and fled.

Not funny at the time, I can tell you. It’s a wonder I ever did another book signing.

Gossip, oh, I know so much gossip. But you’ll have to wait. Here’s a tip – if you want to know what’s happening in crime writing in Canada, meet the authors, talk about the books, and maybe even hear some gossip, you have two opportunities. Bloody Words, the Canadian mystery convention, is being held in Toronto this year on June 1 – 3rd. (http://bloodywords2012.com/). In August, it’s the Scene of the Crime Festival, the only festival devoted strictly to Canadian crime writing, on Wolfe Island on August 11th. (www.sceneofthecrime.ca)

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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C.B. Forrest

C.B. Forrest is the author of the literary crime novels The Weight of Stones and Slow Recoil.

Go to C.B. Forrest’s Author Page