Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Author Interviews: Marilynn Larew

Marilynn Larew is a thriller writer who is trained as a historian, using that training to shape her writing. She wrote her dissertation on the Cincinnati bank the caused the panic of 1819, and she retains a strong interest in the way money behaves. Her love of architecture comes from a stint at the Historic Site Survey in the Interior Department. Her interest in terrorism during the days of the Red Brigades led her to teach a course in the history of terrorism. In her Lee Carruthers series, Lee is a CIA specialist in money-laundering who gets involved in cases about terrorist funding in Morocco and the illegal arms trade in Dubai. She watches the headlines for new plot lines and new places to take her heroine.

She is a member of the Sisters in Crime, the Guppies, and the Chinese Military History Society.

1. Many of your books, especially your Lee Carruthers series, are set in a wide variety of countries. What makes you write about those settings, and who tends to be your intended audience? Do you think “locals” versus “foreigners” would have a different take on them?

I write what I like to read—thrillers set in places I’ve been or places I’d like to go. I think “locals” probably read cozies, but I can’t write cozies, because that’s not my life experience. When I was a kid we moved around a lot, usually every two years. The result was I went to 14 schools before I graduated from high school. That also meant that I didn’t develop the deep connection with friends and locale you find in cozies. I was always a new girl, and before I really got settled in, we moved along to another place. My father was a radio engineer, and these were the golden days of 500 watt radio stations. He loved to put the stations together and get them on the air, but he quickly grew bored with the everyday running of them, so he looked for another new station to put on the air. The result was that I was really a “foreigner” in my own country. This is probably why Lee Carruthers is a loner. As she says in The Spider Catchers, she has sources everywhere but no friends, although I think some of her sources could be called friends.

My audience is women aged 40 or 50 and above who like strong female characters and like to travel, although I have discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that a fair number of men in the same age bracket like Lee. I’m not sure why, but one of my friends told me that she is “hot.” That came as a great surprise to me, because I had not deliberately tried to write to her that way.

2. How long did it take you to complete your book—first draft, editing, the publishing process?

It took me several years to finish The Spider Catchers. This includes time I spend doing other things because I couldn’t get the plot to work. The first plot had Lee going around to all the ports of Morocco following a human traffic ring that sent captured women out to a mothership standing off shore. It was great fun, and I learned a lot about Morocco, but I couldn’t figure out a way to end the book, so I put it away for a while to think about it. When I decided to focus the plot on Fez and the Algerian Sahara, it went fairly rapidly, probably a year from start to sending it to the editor. Then it took another six months before it was ready to publish.

3. What is one opinion about writing you’ve had that’s changed over your career?

I somehow thought it would be easier. After all, I’d been reading mysteries and thrillers for a very long time. How hard could it be? The answer is very hard. I knew generally how a plot should run, but I didn’t have the tools to put the book together. It took a critical reader telling me to go out and learn how to write a novel before I did what I should’ve done—read a lot of how-to books. Even yet it’s not easy. I’m a “pantser,” that is, I write by the seat of my pants, knowing the beginning and the end and working the middle out as I go. That’s not the most efficient way to write, but I have found that trying to outline makes the whole process difficult and the product stale, and I lose those new ideas I get as I write. I’m not saying it’s inspiration, I’m just saying that one thing leads to another, and that happens only when I’m writing, not when I’m outlining. Parts of it have gotten easier over time, because I know Lee and what she would do in a given situation, but getting her to do it is another matter.

4. Is there any terrible advice you’ve received for your book or career? Bad advice you’ve overheard someone else be told? (If not, are there any common writing rules you don’t agree with?)

Writers are often advised to “write what you know.” I suspect this is more for writers of literary fiction than for writers for genre fiction, for genre fiction by definition deals with situations that the writer can’t “know.” I’ve often wondered why anybody ever invited Hercule Poirot to spend a weekend in the country, because every time he went to a country home, a corpse turned up. Of course, writers of genre fiction deal with the human condition, the human character, and motivation, all things we know. But we don’t know about the corpse in the library or a genuine conspiracy to destroy the state. These are things we invent. I had a very strange experience when I wrote about something I do know, terrorism, if only from academic research. In The Spider Catchers, every time I invented something rotten for my fictitious terrorist group to do, within the week the real terrorist group it was based on actually did the rotten thing. It was really creepy. The only thing that writers of genre fiction can do is make their characters and plots reasonable, for their readers will know if they don’t.

5. What are your biggest concerns about the current literary world?

My biggest concern in the literary world at the moment is the chaos in the industry. Publishing houses are being combined into giant corporations, and they don’t publish authors who write what is called the mid-list. They only publish writers who are proven bestsellers. How is one to get a start? You can see the effect on agents. Many agencies, in addition to trying to find publishers for their clients, have started selling packages that include editing and formatting e-books for people who self-publish. I’m not sure what will happen next. Perhaps the big publishers will disappear and publishing will be ruled by small publishers and people who self-publish.

[Editor’s Note: For readers interested in publishing, be wary of any agent or even publisher who offers to sell packages for editing or formatting ebooks. While the literary world is indeed changing, any request for money directly from the author, whether that be fees or services, is a long-standing red flag for someone who does not make his or her profit through book deals, but by preying on hopefuls. If you are interested in hiring an editor or formatter, look for independent companies or freelancers whose focus and expertise is self-publishers in which all creative control and final say remains with the author, never someone who claims to be a part of hybrid. Visit Writer's Beware for more information on common literary scams.]

[Questions six and seven redacted by author’s request.]

8. Where do you find yourself getting stuck most often—beginning, middle, or end?

Like many writers, I find myself most often stuck in the middle. The beginning is fairly easy as I lay out what the situation is. Since I write thrillers, the situation is not often a murder, but a complicated geopolitical question or a missing person. That’s not to say murders don’t occur, but they’re not the primary focus. Since I write by the seat of my pants, I don’t have a firm outline, although I usually know what the ending is going to be, but that can change as I write. It’s the middle that’s the difficulty as my heroine investigates the situation. She has to ask questions, lots of questions of lots of people, and it’s important that this not become tedious. New events, red herrings, even new plot lines have to be introduced to make the plot go. It is these new things introduced that sometimes make the ending change.

9. If you could hire someone to do any of the writing work for you, what jobs would you assign to him?

If I could hire somebody to do any job connected with my book, I’d hire someone to do the last proofreading. This is because my eyes are bad, but it’s also because after you’ve read the manuscript so many times, it’s very difficult to pick up a mistake.

10. What is an assumption people make about your career that bothers you?

There are two things that people assume about my career that I dislike. One is that writing is just a hobby for me. It’s a job, and it’s meant to be profitable. Number two is that because I’m working at home, I’m not really working. People think that they can just interrupt anytime they want to.

11. Tell us a little about your book, The Spider Catchers.

The violent takeover of Fez brothels and a new stream of terrorist funding have something to do with the disappearance of Alicia Harmon from the Fez office of Femme Aid Maroc. When CIA analyst Lee Carruthers tries to find out, she is swept into a tangled web of dirty money and human trafficking, and people will kill to find out what Alicia knew. If only Lee knew. She’s working blind, and in this case, ignorance is death. Her search takes her through the slums of the Fez medina to the high-rises of the new city and finally to a terrorist camp in the Algerian desert.

12. How much unpublished work do you have sitting around?

I have parts of two unpublished books on hand. One is Hong Kong Central, the third in the Lee Carruthers series. It takes place during the Hong Kong democracy demonstrations. I was working on that when my latest, Aftermath, muscled in and demanded to be written. I also have the start of a book about a military coup which takes place in Istanbul. It remains to be seen how much damage the failed coup last year has done to the plot.

13. Being a historian, how much artistic license do you give yourself when while writing about the real world? How accurate do you feel you have to be in your writing?

Having been trained as a historian was a curse when I first started writing fiction. Scholars write bland prose, it’s just the nature of the game, and I had to spend a lot of time deliberately introducing passion into my writing for fiction. The second problem was my absolute need for everything to be historically accurate. In The Spider Catchers, I had a great deal of trouble with airplane schedules. Casablanca is Morocco’s entry airport, and all flights leave from there. If you want to fly from Fez to Tangier you have to fly first to Casablanca and then from Casablanca to Tangier. It took a great deal of thinking for me to convince myself that I was writing fiction and I could set up airline schedules anyway I wanted to, but I finally learned. The same with the flight from Orly in Paris to Casablanca. I finally set that schedule up to meet my plot requirements too. I still like to be accurate as to the geography of the book, not much trouble for The Spider Catchers and in Dead in Dubai, because I was working with Google Earth, maps, and photographs. For Hong Kong Central, there’s a problem. I know Hong Kong fairly well, and that sometimes provides a stumbling block until I can teach myself again that I’m writing fiction.

14. If you met people like your characters, would you get along?

Whether I can get along with my characters depends on the plot of my book. I create characters to be likable or unlikable. I’d have to get along with Lee Carruthers, or I couldn’t write a series about her. She probably has a lot of my fantasy characteristics. She certainly has my voice. My daughter says she hears me speaking whenever she reads one of my books. In The Spider Catchers, I like Kemal, Lee’s lover, although he occasionally annoys Lee by being protective. I like Driss Bouchta, a Moroccan intelligence officer and Lee’s longtime friend. Alicia Harmon is annoying. I’m not the only one she annoys. Readers at a book club universally were annoyed by her. I made her that way. And then there are the Bad Guys. I made them bad and intended them to be unlikable. I think genre fiction is like that, especially mystery fiction. There you create a world of good and evil and work through your plot so that good is rewarded and evil is punished.

15. What was the hardest part in writing your book?

For me the hardest parts of writing a book are writing the first chapter and the last chapter. The first chapter is critical in “hooking” the reader. It has to be interesting and active and show just enough of the plot for the reader to want to turn the page to chapter two. I find the last chapter difficult too. It’s a summing up, rather like when Hercule Poirot gathers everybody in the study and tells them What Really Happened. It has to be short enough not to bore but long enough to tie up all the threads into a coherent pattern. For a series writer, it also has to provide a short hook to the next book.

The Spider Catchers:
Dead in Dubai: