Left Hands and Porcelain Dogs
An Interview with Jess Faraday
Starvation and disease haunt the streets of 1820s Paris, while supernatural terror stalks the night. The once-famous police force is a shambles, its elite Bureau of Supernatural Investigations disbanded. Only Detective Inspector Elise Corbeau remains, spared by a shadowy protector for a purpose not even she knows. When charismatic cult leader Hermine Boucher is kidnapped, all fingers point to her ex-lover, inventor Maria Kalderash. But the further Inspector Corbeau investigates, the more suspects she turns up, until finally, the finger is pointing right back at the Paris Police.
Jess Faraday recently took time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for the BigThrill:
Your training as a linguist and translator sounds like the perfect foundation for writing. Has it proven helpful?
It’s definitely given me an appreciation for the nuances, music and rhythm of language. In written translation (I’m not quick enough on my feet for oral interpretation!) the goal isn’t merely choosing an accurate word, but choosing the best word, and the one that most closely conveys the shades of meaning intended by the author. This carries over into my writing in that I always try to choose the words that not only tell the story, but also convey subtleties of thought, emotion, personality, and character—as well as time, place, and situation.
What made you try your hand at fiction in the first place and how has the experience compared to your expectations?
I’d always fiddled around with writing, but I started to get serious about it, maybe ten years ago. It started, as I suspect it does with a lot of writers, with a set of characters who showed up one day and wouldn’t go away. The novel I wrote with these characters won’t ever see the light of day, though I have published a few short stories with them.
After I’d been doing it a while, I realized that at every job I’ve ever held, I had made myself finish the work faster than it needed to be done so that I could have an hour or so at the end of each day to write stories. At the time I didn’t think anything of it—I thought everyone did that. But now I realize that this was because I should have been concentrating on writing all along.
I never imagined writing would be as much work as it is—both the writing itself and the associated promotion work. I also thought there would be more money in it. I know. I know. But it’s still the best job I’ve ever had, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other.
THE LEFT HAND OF JUSTICE is set in 1820 Paris and features the Bureau of Supernatural Investigations’ last remaining member, Detective Inspector Elise Corbeau. She’s a fascinating character. Talk a little bit about her creation.
When I was researching the history of Scotland Yard for THE AFFAIR OF THE PORCELAIN DOG, I read a bit about its predecessor, the Sûreté—the Paris police, which was Europe’s first organized police force. The original Sûreté was a network of reformed criminals and informants working under the premise that “it takes a criminal to catch a criminal.” A surprising number of the original force were women—and this was in the early 1800s. I knew I had to write a story about one of those women, but put the thought on hold while I finished the book.
The character that became Inspector Corbeau was originally English, and the story was originally set in London. The setting didn’t fit, though. The story went through a number of setting changes, from steampunk to post-apocalyptic desert southwest. There was even a swords-and-sorcery incarnation. In the end, though, the story came back to its roots in the Sûreté.
After the Sûreté founder Eugene Francois Vidocq resigned, his successor “professionalized” the force, which amounted to purging the former criminals, women, etc., and replacing them with squeaky-clean, inexperienced officers. I realized that this moment of transition would be the perfect time for someone like Corbeau to prove her mettle.
Did you get to spend a lot of time in Paris doing research? If not, how did you create such an incredibly realistic setting?
I’ve been to Paris many times and love it. But I’m not one of those fortunate people who get to expense research trips. At least not yet.
I try to use a lot of primary sources in my research—photographs, newspaper sketches, works of art, articles, diaries, letters, maps, etc. For this book I also read Vidocq’s autobiography to get a feel for how the man himself thought about these things—as well as for how a person of his background would use language.
Setting-wise, this particular time period presented some unique challenges. There was no photography at the time, for example. Also, Paris underwent massive urban reforms in the 1850s that destroyed entire neighborhoods, hundreds of streets, and changed the entire physical reality of the city. It was surprisingly difficult to find maps that predated these reforms, so I did the best I could.
In addition to historical facts, I think about the small details of daily life. Not just what people ate and wore, but also how they dealt with weather in the absence of central heating/cooling; how they lit the night without either electricity or gas; bathing and sewage without indoor plumbing—in France this was very different, even from England at that time—and so on.
People had to accomplish the same things they do today, but they had very different means at their disposal. And the tools, technology, and knowledge affected how they perceived their world. Just thinking about how a person got through the day (and night) can generate a wealth of setting detail, as well as clues to why people thought about things the way they did.
Your debut novel, AFFAIR OF THE PORCELAIN DOG and the new LEFT HAND OF JUSTICE, make history come fully alive—oft attempted, rarely accomplished. And they make the pages turn like lightning. And they offer compelling social commentary, not common to suspense novels. How on earth did you do all that?
Wow, thank you—that’s so kind!
People are basically the same throughout time and space. We all need to feed, clothe, and house ourselves; to love and be loved; to give our lives meaning. But every culture throughout history has different technologies at its disposal, and is governed by different social, political, and religious systems. And these systems and technologies influence they way they—and we—relate to ourselves, each other, and the world around us.
It’s easy to scoff at some of the beliefs of the past, and to shake our heads at the things these beliefs have caused people and societies, to do. But people in the past weren’t any less intelligent. They were working with often very different knowledge, and if one traces beliefs and attitudes to that knowledge, the progression of thought to action will often be quite logical.
The key to making a sympathetic historical character is making that character and his/her goals relatable. This means helping the reader to understand the belief systems and knowledge base from which the character is operating. The key to creating an interesting historical story is to give this sympathetic character a problem the reader can understand, and force the character to use the means at his/her disposal to solve it.
How would a person find love if love were against the law?
How would a talented person develop their talent if they had no access to education or training?
How would a person do what s/he knows is right, when the person or group upon which s/he depends is heavily invested in preventing it?
The larger questions are the same across time and space, but the ways people find to answer them, and the tools at their disposal are different. It’s interesting for me to research how the character would solve the problem, and hopefully it’s interesting for the reader to watch the solution unfold as well.
In a blog post, you wrote that for historical novels, “the research can be overwhelming.” Given that, what keeps drawing you back to the genre?
The research is overwhelming, but it’s also addictive. Writing historicals gives me the excuse to keep doing it. What other job will pay me to learn what the first European umbrellas were made of (silk and baleen), when the first mass-produced envelopes appeared (1845), or why November of 1891 was unusually cold and rainy in London (unprecedented drop in atmospheric pressure)?
In interviews and blog posts, you sound incredibly enthusiastic about the actual task of writing. A lot of writers will be envious, reading that. Talk a bit about your daily writing routine, please.
I’m not always enthusiastic about it, but I am generally pretty disciplined, especially when writing a first draft. If I don’t get through the first draft, beginning to end, I won’t finish. Period.
I usually start the day with some sort of exercise—biking, running, walking the dog, or tae kwon do. Then I plant butt on chair, hands on keyboard, and get to it. I can’t work with any sort of distraction, so no TV, music, or internet while working.
I don’t always want to write, and sometimes I truly hate what I’m working on. Fortunately “writing”includes lots of different tasks—research, editing, structuring, promotion—and if I don’t feel like moving forward in the manuscript, I can do one of those instead. It all feeds the beast.
This year I’ve managed to get to a place where I can work on more than one thing at a time. This is also good for my restless brain, but it means I have to keep a list of deadlines somewhere in plain sight, to stay on track.
And deadlines can be a writer’s best friend, because if you have a deadline, you have to finish the project whether you want to or not.
Apologies in advance for asking a question you probably get tired of hearing, but it’s such an interesting choice: why work with LGBT characters?
When I start a story, I often begin with a situation—a time, place, and a problem. The characters arrive after that, and gradually show me who they are.
One of the ideas that sparked the story behind Porcelain Dog was the idea that punishing men for “indecent acts” would somehow protect “the children”—it’s exactly the same argument one will hear today from people who want to legislate other people’s private lives. The character who could best point up the illogic and danger of this line of thinking turned out to be a gay man under threat of the sodomy laws at the time—a gay man who, it will turn out, does a great deal more to help endangered children than the society that would punish him for his private life.
Inspector Corbeau arrived fully formed, and very definite about who she was. I really didn’t have a lot of say in the matter. She and Dr. Kalderash are outsiders—women in men’s professions, and people without family ties. Though they start out on opposite sides of a case—police officer and suspect—their similarities ultimately draw them together.
There are so many stories to tell—so many different kinds of people and the situations they get themselves into. I think a lot of people, now are open to reading about characters who may be different from them, even if the Gurus of Marketing have yet to notice. Book covers may whitewash the characters inside, characters of color and LGBT characters may be relegated to their respective bookstore ghettos, and children’s writing workshops may still be cautioning female authors to use their initials because “boys don’t read books written by women or featuring female characters.”
But my experience has shown that most people just like a good story. And that’s what I hope I’m giving them.
Somewhere you said (or maybe wrote) that you like sidekicks more than main characters. Why?
Probably because I identify more with sidekicks than with the ostensible stars of the story. I’m the person in the corner taking notes, not the one rushing into the burning building to save the baby. Whenever I read about the Stars and the Sidekicks—Holmes & Watson, Batman and Robin—I always wondered what the sidekick’s stories were. Eventually I decided to write them.
Here’s your chance to say anything and everything about your new novel that we missed, above! Go for it.
THE LEFT HAND OF JUSTICE was an experiment in so many ways: a totally different time and place (Paris in 1828 and London in 1889 may as well have been different planets!), my first lesbian protagonists, first foray into steampunk, and first supernatural story. That’s a lot of firsts!
All those firsts made the plot very difficult to pin down. Ultimately, though, I think it’s a really good story with three very strong characters—the down-on-her-luck detective, the misunderstood genius, and the morally ambiguous mentor.
The paperback release date is March 19, but Bold Strokes Books will be making the e-book available through its website on March 1, at a special introductory price. I do hope everyone will run out and get their copy!
Jess Faraday is the author of the Lambda-shortlisted novel of historical suspense, THE AFFAIR OF THE PORCELAIN DOG. She is also the mystery editor for Elm Books. She lives and writes in the Western United States.
To learn more about Jess, please visit her website.
Tabor earned an MFA from Johns Hopkins University and won the O.Henry Award for short fiction. He was the host and writer of the national PBS series, “The Great Outdoors, andco-creator and executive producer of The History Channel special, “Journey to the Center of the World.” He lives in Vermont, where he is at work on his next novel and a memoir about his days as a street cop in Washington, D.C.