Interview with Gaslight Mystery Author Victoria Thompson
I recently had the distinct honor and utter delight of posing interview questions to an author as talented as she is gracious, Ms. Victoria Thompson. This Edgar and Agatha award-nominated writer is the author of over thirty books, including one that is the featured work (Murder in Chelsea) of the upcoming Great Kills Library Book Discussion Group, scheduled to convene on Saturday, February 8 at 11 a.m.
Please call the Great Kills Branch at 718-984-6670 to register for this event. E-book, large print as well as standard-size print copies of Murder in Chelsea are available in the NYPL's circulating collection. You can place a hold for Murder in Chelsea with your library card.
Please allow me to express my sincere and profound appreciation for your graciously assenting to this interview. The fact that your books, quite literally, fly off of our library shelves on a consistent basis, and are requested months in advance of their respective publication date, is an indisputable testament to your immense talent as a writer. In particular, your Gaslight Mystery Series captivates many of our patrons as well as myself.
I recall reading the first book in that series, Murder on Astor Place, and fervently hoping that the author of same would continue to write additional works using the characters of NYPD Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy and former society debutante turned mid-wife, Mrs. Sarah (nee Decker) Brandt. Happily for all of your readers, you have authored fourteen additional titles in that series. What served as your motivation to commence writing that wonderful series?
I had been writing historical romances for a long time, but the historical romance market had been glutted, and after my 20th novel, my publisher didn't offer me a new contract, so I was without a publisher. I'd been trying to write a contemporary suspense novel but had gotten only rejections on my proposals. Then one day my agent called. She'd had lunch that day with an editor from Berkley. They were looking for someone to write a mystery series set in turn of the century New York City with a midwife as the heroine. She knew I'd been using mystery subplots in my historical romances and asked if I would be interested. I prepared a proposal and Berkley loved it. I came up with the idea of a police detective to be her cohort, so I claim Frank completely as my own idea.
The famous and quite prolific author Taylor Caldwell wrote many riveting historical works, such as Great Lion of God, in which the time and place of the plot featured in Caldwell's books were depicted in such exquisite detail that it caused readers to feel transported back in time to the relevant era. In Jess Stearn's work, The Search for a Soul: Taylor Caldwell's Psychic Lives, he describes Ms. Caldwell's reported recollection of eleven past lives, lending credence to Mr. Stearn's prior assertion that Ms. Taylor's ability to mentally transport readers back in time stemmed from Ms. Taylor's subconscious recollection of prior lifetimes. Many readers, including myself, can very nearly hear the rustle of petticoat skirts and hear the rumble of the wheels of a Black Maria rolling down a cobblestone street while reading any of your books in your Gaslight Mystery Series. Do you ever experience a feeling of déjà vu when penning one of your historical works? If so, for what time period and any particular ethnicity?
Very interesting question! My historical romances were set in the Old West, with cowboys and cattle playing a big role. I had never ridden a horse or fired a gun in my life, and while I did a lot of research, that can only take you so far. I often felt that I somehow just knew things that later turned out to be true. I'd often get fan letters from readers who had done the things I'd written about, praising me for how accurate I was! It was a little spooky. So I'm not sure if I believe in reincarnation, but I at least believe in genetic memory that passes down memories through the generations.
In June 2011, the Romantic Times Book Review published a blog that you wrote, in which you state that the experiences of your grandparents, who immigrated to this nation from Italy around the turn of the last century, provided some of the background for some of your mysteries. In Murder in Chinatown, you mention one result of the 1875 Page Act and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act—a result that the proponents of said Acts probably did not envision, in which the legal admittance of women of Chinese and other Asian nationalities was severely limited with the reported aspiration that men of Chinese and other Asian origin would be "sojourners" in America, working for a short while in this country as terribly exploited laborers before returning back home, not establishing a family in America for lack of a wife. Instead, many men of Chinese and other Asian origin married American women of various ancestries, such as the spouses of Irish descent featured in Murder in Chinatown.
In Murder on Fifth Avenue, in a scene of tension between Malloy and NYPD Officer Gino Donatelli, you wrote, "If necessary, Frank would remind him of the way he'd let Gino assist him on cases when no other Irish detective on the force would have worked with an Italian." And, of course, a recurring issue in the inchoate romance that has been percolating between widowed Mrs. Brandt and widowed Det. Sgt. Malloy is Malloy's perceived "inferior" social status to the daughter of a direct descendant of a Knickerbocker, serving as a great obstacle to the progression of a courtship between Brandt and Malloy. Was the xenophobia and struggles that would not have existed but for the unfair discrimination of others experienced by your grandparents the chief motivation for your reiterated theme of prejudice, and the barriers erected by same or is there another basis for your recurrent focus on this important issue?
I never really knew my grandparents. My grandmother died when my dad was a little boy, and my grandfather never spoke English well and died when I was a teenager, so everything I knew about him was really second hand. I don't think I even understood the kind of discrimination they endured until I researched my Gaslight novels. What really motivated me was realizing that immigrants today are enduring the same kind of discrimination my grandparents endured, and their assimilation into American culture is remarkably the same process my family experienced. My grandparents immigrated from a very poor country as teenagers, looking for a better life. They were Catholic and didn't speak English. They lived in ethnic neighborhoods and didn't really need to learn English well. Their children didn't learn English until they went to school, and they became truly bi-lingual, speaking perfect English out in the world but communicating with their parents at home in their native tongue. Those children (my dad) grew up and became productive citizens and good Americans. Their children (my generation) were forbidden to even learn the native language. We are Americans, so we only speak English! In one generation they were completely assimilated, and by the second generation, all traces of 'foreign' are gone. This is exactly the way every wave of immigrants has assimilated and the way our Latino immigrant families are assimilating today, too. I thought it was a valuable message for those who want to think these immigrants are somehow different. It's just history repeating itself, and in another generation, we will think nothing of seeing Latino leaders just as we think nothing of seeing leaders of Italian descent today.
One of the benefits and delights of being a writer is the ability to rearrange history and established reality, at least in the arena of the printed word. One of the author Anne Perry's characters, Hester Latterly-Monk, worked with the legendary Florence Nightingale on the battlefields of the Crimean War. In one of your historical romance books, Winds of Fortune, your character, Maud Campbell, works as a nurse under the aegis of Clara Barton, foundress of the American Red Cross, and her beau, Sean Tate, is one of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders. Theodore Roosevelt is also featured in some of your Gaslight Mystery Series works. Are there any other historical figures that you would like to incorporate into your forthcoming books?
I do take liberties with history now and then, like when I used the Elephant Hotel in a book when by that time, it had been abandoned. However, I don't like to mess with history too much. You'll note that I have Theodore Roosevelt doing pretty much the things he really did when he was a Police Commissioner. If I see an opportunity to have another real historical figure appear, I'll use him or her, but only if I can do so without violating the truth as we know it about that person. The Gaslight Mystery I'm working on now is set during the Spanish American War, so I'm going to mention Roosevelt's Rough Riders and possibly Clara Barton, too. I may have some more real people appear if it works, but I don't like to force them to do things they never would have done.
Ernest Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon, "When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature." As a writer, you are extremely adept at creating characters that are three-dimensional beings, and the relationships between same impresses your readers as very realistic. For example, in Murder on Astor Place, the mystery begins with Det. Sgt. Malloy willing to participate in the then-common place practice of accepting bribes in his capacity as a police officer. The uplifting moral effect that Mrs. Brandt exerts over Malloy in this and other regards increases over time. Do you have a favorite character amongst your literary creations? If so, what traits or abilities does that character possess that especially endear him/her to you?
Oh, my, that's like asking a mother which of her children is her favorite! I love all the characters I've created for the Gaslight series, even Mrs. Malloy! Actually, ESPECIALLY Mrs. Malloy! You may think that a writer creates a character and knows them inside and out, but that's not true. The part I love most about writing fiction is creating a character and then getting to know him/her over time. I find a character will tell you things about himself that you never would have guessed. This is especially true in a long-running series because the writer gets to spend a lot of time over a period of years with these people. Just like friends you know for many years, you learn more and more about them as time goes by. I had no idea what Sarah's parents would be like, for example. Sarah's mother has turned out to be a delight, and I was as surprised as anyone when she helped Sarah on a case the first time. What I love about creating characters is the ability to burden someone with a dark, sad past and help them learn and grow and rise above that past to a bright future.
Your website announces that "four more" of your historical romance books are now available in e-book format. There has been some speculation, occurring in many quarters, that libraries might become "semi-extinct," as the demand for the printed word will dramatically decrease in direct correlation to the continued escalation of books and other forms of previously printed material available in e-format. Of course, libraries provide a vast array of services, such as providing a forum for ESL classes, functioning as a site for hobby-focused groups to convene and as a setting for community events, all of which extend well beyond the scope of providing hard-copy books. Still, many contend that libraries of the future will consist chiefly of buildings with computer banks instead of edifices lined with shelves containing the printed word. Reversing the direction of "time travel" normally employed by you in your books, what is your best prognostication as to what the "typical" library will consist of in twenty years' time from the present?
A new bookstore just opened in my town. We hadn't had one for about 8 years, so it was a treat to have one again. One thing I noticed immediately the first time I visited, however, is that books represented only about half of the merchandise for sale there! As you say about libraries, they were offering lots of other 'services,' even accessories for ebook readers! Real books will never disappear completely. For example, while I love reading fiction on my ereader, I wouldn't dream of doing research on one. I need that research book in my hand. I need to be able to flip through it and discover things and scan the text for interesting tidbits and, most importantly, look at the pictures! Libraries are repositories of knowledge. They may change the way that knowledge is stored and distributed to patrons, but they will always exist, and they will always have stuff there for people to look at. We probably can't imagine the technology we'll have in 20 years that will make books easier to look at, but I'm sure it will include books in some form.
Two of your Gaslight Mystery Series (Murder on St. Mark's Place and Murder on Fifth Avenue) books were nominated for the prestigious Agatha Award, and amongst your other accolades, you were the winner of the 2011 "Romantic Times Career Achievement Award." According to your website, you conduct seminars on "How to Write Popular Fiction." You also founded two writers' groups, NOVELISTS, INC. and PENNWRITERS. What advice would you like to impart to aspiring writers such as myself?
Actually, my second Gaslight, Murder on St. Marks Place, was nominated for an Edgar® Award and Murder on Fifth Avenue was nominated for an Agatha Award. And in addition to doing seminars and speaking at conferences, I also teach in Seton Hill University's MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction. I love working with writers. My advice would be to spend time learning your craft and mastering the techniques of good writing. New technology has made it easy for aspiring writers to publish their own work, which tempts them to publish it before they are really good enough or at least as good as they can be. Resist that temptation and spend time mastering you skills before you publish, not 'creating a platform.'
Who are your favorite authors? What authors served to inspire you to pursue your passion for writing?
This is another one of those 'which child is your favorite?' questions! I'm not sure I could say that any particular writers inspired me to write. I've read thousands of books in my life and I've always enjoyed reading. I also have always enjoyed writing, and I have been making up stories in my head since I was a child. One day I realized I could write those stories down so other people could enjoy them, too, and that's when I became a writer. If you'd like me to recommend authors I particularly enjoy in my own genre (which will help narrow the list!), I'd say some of my favorites are Anne Perry, Charles Todd, Rhys Bowen, P.B. Ryan, C.S. Harris, Tasha Alexander, Carola Dunn, Maureen Jennings, Ashley Gardner, Jacqueline Winspear, and Catriona McPherson.