by Karen Harper
PITTSBURGH NOIR is a collection of 14 stories by writers, each either a resident of or with strong links to the city. Each story takes place in a different neighborhood—according to the Akashic model for the series. Pittsburgh is a friendly city—sports crazy, lots of working class sensibility, unpretentious. And Pittsburghers love their city for its ethnic neighborhoods, its spectacular skyline, and the sports teams that keep us entertained (and tense). But lust, revenge, and dark impulses exist here too because those are all too human motives. And those motives make for great stories.
Is Pittsburgh noir different from, let’s say, L.A. noir, other than the setting? Or is noir the same wherever it takes place since its focus is on character?
I think that’s a great point. Character is important. Pittsburgh is different from LA. Many more winding (almost country) roads, pockets of unusual neighborhoods, hidden architectural jewels, lots of history. But when it comes down to motivations, those are going to be the same—jealousy, betrayal, resentment, need, hunger, worship of beauty, prejudice.
Is there such a thing as rural noir or do we need a city setting?
I’ve been thinking about this. I think noir is possible anywhere—I do. I think people will disagree on this point. Rural may be the hardest to get at. Cities are the easiest. But I have been asked about islands—when I was vacationing in St. Martin, the people at the Miami Herald asked me if there could be Island Noir. And when I thought about it—thought about the class struggles, the crowded club scenes in certain parts of the island, I thought, yes, I can well imagine whole novels with a noirish cast taking place here.
The synopsis of your anthology has one of the best definitions of noir I’ve seen: private moralities…the dark underbelly of existence…their secret lives. Yet except for the concept of ‘dark underbelly’ in this definition, is noir really different from say, a cozy murder mystery? How so? Private moralities and secret lives are part of most fiction.
Hmmm. Good question. Private moralities and secret lives ARE part of most fiction—and theatre. Theatre would be nowhere without lying–characters who lie. I think in noir fiction the lies are often unresolved and crime more often than not goes unpunished. Cozies are more likely to believe in justice and in any case, I tend not to feel much pain in cozies. Instead I’m delighted by the quirky characters and closed settings. The cozy part isn’t just ‘tea cozy’ but space, too. Mainstream non genre fiction might range over many many places, locations. But noir fiction is likely to limit to several tight scenes—just not cozy ones. More dangerous ones.
Your anthology’s Publisher’s Weekly review is stellar. Ironically, the stories PW highlights are those by women, including your own. Have women come into their own as writers of noir when that “subgenre” used to be dominated by male authors? If so, why?
Two things. Yes, women have come into their own. Women write crime very well; for one thing, women know about oppression which is almost always an underlying aspect of crime fiction, especially noir. But also, Johnny Temple, the publisher of Akashic books, is very much aware that there are wonderful women writers everywhere and he urges gender equality in the collections.
Praise for stories in Pittsburgh Noir include such wording as “packs a wallop” [your own story] and “a lethal bite.” Do noir stories need a surprise or shocking ending to be successful?
No, I don’t think so. That’s one of the templates for sure. I wasn’t looking specifically for surprise endings but I was always hoping for ‘rightness’ at the end–conclusions that weren’t tricky, that you could really buy. And conclusions that accounted for the desperation of the earlier parts of the story.
How does your own theatre background affect your Detective Richard Christie Series or your writing in general?
It definitely does. Often when I’m doing the scene writing part of my novels or stories, I feel like a theatre director. All the experiences I’ve had of guiding an audience’s focus and gaze to where I want it, of “framing”–planting an idea and then developing it, and then following through–all of those things are theatre lessons that stand me in great stead. But otherwise I think it’s a lot about casting in my head, wanting real, very real, people as characters. Richard Christie has digestive problems. I can hear his breath patterns. I know when he has a nervous tick. Working with actors has definitely helped me to write fiction.
I love your one title names for your series. Is there a reason beyond the impact of one particular word that you have stayed with the short titles? Especially Afterimage is intriguing. Can you explain that and your other choices?
It could take a lot of time to explain my titles! The short version is that editors kept asking me for title changes. TAKEN was originally PIRATE’S CHILD. TAKEN is a better title. When I was pushed and found that word (it was before all the other TAKEN titles became so popular in fiction and film), I fell in love with the word. The novelist Hilma Wolitzer told me that she thought it a wonderful word and she told me that it had more entries than any other word in the OED. No wonder it resonates. After that I tried titling my second novel GRIEF. “Get rid of it,” I was told. “Find a verb.” So I came up with FALLEN which also has lots of good meanings. OK, I got the command to look at verbs. So I titled the third one WATCHED and, guess what? I was sent back to the drawing board. I started asking people for suggestions. I said one strong image for me was the way my character Colleen (a detective) knew she had seen something but didn’t know what it was; something had made a print in the blink of an eye. A colleague said he had tried to get his son to call his academic book AFTERIMAGE. How was that as a word? (His son had rejected it.) A noun! I tried it on Ruth Cavin and she said yes. So now I was allowed nouns. The fourth novel had several working titles. One was THE KIDS. But by the time I submitted it, I had changed it to THE ODDS. And that stuck. The fifth novel (about to come out) was once titled THE OLD BIRD. I liked it but I was instructed by my agent in this case to find something scarier. So HIDEOUT it became. Whew.
Do you prefer writing novel or story length and why?
Novel. I love being inside something for a long time. But of course with a novel you can write for years without knowing if it will work. A story you can put aside after two weeks or a month and then get back to it some other time. A novel wraps you up for better or worse.
You obviously have great demands on your time with your career teaching theatre at the University of Pittsburgh and “real life.” How do you balance all that with your writing time? Any words of advice for other authors?
I’ve done pretty well at balancing up to this point. This last year was a bit tougher. I managed everything but felt the fatigue. My advice is to get up early. If you get up at 4 or 5 you can get in a couple of hours of writing before the day begins for most people. Besides the early morning is wonderful—it allows all kinds of wishing. I also work equally seven days a week. I read about writers who take the weekend off. It seems sane. I wonder if I could do that or if I would feel at loose ends . . . I plan to try it out some time.
Can you tell us a little about your future projects?
Done things: THE ODDS will be released in a trade paper edition in July. HIDEOUT comes out in August. SIMPLE, the next novel, happens in roughly a year. BLOOD, the next novel after that, also written, about a year after that. (You see I’ve tried an adjective and a noun.) It’s frustrating to wait (all writers know that) so I’m messing with a book about writing and a new novel idea. Karen, thank you so much for your good questions.
Kathleen George lives in Pittsburgh where she is a professor of theatre at the University of Pittsburgh. Her fourth novel THE ODDS was nominated for an Edgar® award for best novel of the year by the Mystery Writers of America. Previous work includes the novels TAKEN, FALLEN, and AFTERIMAGE—all set in Pittsburgh and featuring Detective Richard Christie. Her next two novels are slated for publication with St. Martin’s Minotaur in 2011 and 2012. They are HIDEOUT and SIMPLE. She’s also written books about theatre and she has directed many plays. She loves the ’burgh.
For more information, please visit Kathleen’s website.