By Jeff Ayers
Winner of the Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery Award as best historical mystery of the year in 2008 for NOX DORMIENDA, Kelli Stanley has not slowed down or rested on her laurels. She started a new series set in 1940’s San Francisco featuring PI Miranda Corbie, and now the follow up to NOX is out, titled THE CURSE MAKER. She writes as if she has access to a time machine and her insight into history puts her near the top of the historical genre.
When did you realize you had the writing bug?
Writing has always been there for me. I’m an only child, and I lived a good portion of my childhood in remote, rural locations, so I was always looking for something to do to keep entertained! Reading was my favorite activity—much to the chagrin of our amazingly patient cats, to whom I, at the age of seven, would read aloud.
By the time I was eight, I started writing things for myself … and that’s how my first noir (quite a dramatic theatrical production for my third grade class) came about!
I wrote a lot of poetry in high school—speeches, too, and won awards in speech and debate and composition. And maybe because writing was something at which I’d always excelled, I never considered it as a profession. I wanted to act on the stage, or discover planets or invent new elements or argue criminal law or direct movies! The thought of writing as a career didn’t emerge until I was in grad school for Classics, and I was faced with the prospect of what to do with my degree. I didn’t want to pursue a Ph.D., and I thought, “Why not try to write a book?” So I did—and that book was NOX DORMIENDA, my debut novel. I had dabbled in screenwriting earlier—found an agent and the whole bit—but didn’t want to uproot myself and move to L.A. So I turned to novel writing … and I’ll never forget getting my publishing news for the first time. Someone wants to PAY you for the stuff in your head!! I felt like I was floating for days. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever fully gotten over that sense of elation, and I don’t think I want to.
Why write historical mysteries/thrillers?
Well, the historical aspect started as a way for me to use what I had—an MA in Classics. And I’ve always been interested in history because I’m interested in life! History completely informs the present … I see time as continuous ribbon of human interaction and behavior, not as something boring and dusty and a series of dates and names. What we think of as “history” is really just a subjective narrative—a story—of events, from a particular perspective.
So that’s how I try to write history … visceral and immediate. It’s funny, I signed books at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Conference in January, and I mentioned on a panel that I wrote historical fiction for readers who don’t like history. That struck a chord with a number of people.
As for crime fiction … well, I’m a crime fiction author because I like to see justice win out. I like to expose social and cultural issues that I think need to be addressed, and to me, genre enables me to do these things in an entertaining fashion. I’m less about the puzzle and more about the emotional growth of characters and the consequences of crime and punishment, the devastation that criminality leaves in its wake.
What aspects of ancient Rome most appeal to you?
Rome is not only the eternal city, but the eternal culture. It has such modernity, an almost contemporary feel and take on things—and an almost alien quality as well. Bridging those two extremes, and concentrating on the human link that makes American culture, in particular, resonate with ancient Rome, is my approach to the subject. I’m a humanist—and with my books I try to emphasize that we have far more in common with the Romans than not.
For example, in Roman Britain—where THE CURSE-MAKER takes place—it was chic at the time for the native population to adopt Roman clothes, luxury goods, etc. Roman culture enjoyed a certain cache that is very comparable to how America resonates with the world.
I also like to write about the intersection of cultures, and describing the native traditions—and how they blended or didn’t, with the Roman conquerors—is exciting to me.
How do you make research and establishing the right atmosphere for the setting seem so effortless?
I think of setting as another character, first of all. My goal is to take the reader completely out of his environment and insert him in another world. To do that, I need to capture what it would actually FEEL like, which requires an up-close perspective and a focus on detail. Not a description, not a travelogue, but the impressions that a place and time would make on a person living in them.
We tend to remember in terms of sensory tidbits, and that’s how I focus on the past or on physical environment. One of my professors used to say that no one walked out of a hut one day and announced, “Hey, we’re entering the Bronze Age!”
All that kind of long-distance perspective is not only inappropriate, but to me, it can bog down a reader and distance her from your book. I don’t want my readers to feel like they’re safe and two thousand years away … I want them to feel like they’re side by side with my protagonists.
What sparked the idea for The Curse-Maker?
Cult, religion and magic were particular research interests of mine as a Classics scholar. Even though curses are an ancient form of magic—an attempt to control love and desire, legal cases or a racing bet—they were generally outlawed in many places, including Rome. This wasn’t the case in Aquae Sulis (Bath), where THE CURSE-MAKER is set, and I wanted to explore how and why curse making “worked” for this far-flung spa town on the edge of Empire.
When I traveled to England to give a presentation at the University of London, I also stopped in Bath to conduct hands-on research, thanks to the curator of the museum. Two of the more famous objects on display in the museum, in fact, are integral to the plot of the book … so I get to solve how they came to be excavated two thousand years later!
Do you have any plans to revisit San Francisco in the 40’s?
Definitely! The Miranda Corbie series that I began with CITY OF DRAGONS is ongoing, and the next book is called CITY OF SECRETS. It will be released this September, right after the CITY OF DRAGONS paperback, which means I have (gulp) two books out this year!
I love writing Miranda, and love writing about San Francisco and the pre-war and WWII period. I hope to continue her for many books to come, all the way up through the Cold War.
Besides CITY OF SECRETS, what is next for you?
Let’s see … a book tour for THE CURSE-MAKER, lots of conferences, another book tour for CITY OF SECRETS, more conferences. I hope to write another Miranda short story (I’m very proud that “Children’s Day” is in ITW’s FIRST THRILLS), and am working on the third Miranda book and another contemporary thriller set in Humboldt County, California!
How did your new job at MWA occur?
I served as Vice President of the Northern California Chapter of MWA last year with the fabulous Simon Wood as President. This year I’ve stepped up to the plate and hope to make a lasting contribution to MWA as regional president. I’m looking forward to sitting on the national board!
I also want to thank ITW for being the fantastically supportive organization it is!! I’m proud to be one of the first class of ITW Debut Authors … joining ITW was one of the most valuable decisions I ever made.