By J. N. Duncan
I’d like to welcome Jess Faraday to ITW’s THE BIG THRILL. She’s the author of TURNBULL HOUSE, a Victorian era mystery released this month. TURNBULL HOUSE is the second book in the series which began with THE AFFAIR OF THE PORCELAIN DOG. Jess graduated from the University of Arizona and UCLA, andshe works as the mystery editor for Elm Books. In the past, she’s worked as a copyeditor, lexicographer, and book translator. She even taught high school Russian. Let’s find out what she has to say about her upcoming mystery.
Your series takes place in the late Victorian age. What sparked your interest about 1890s London that made you want to set a story here?
I’ve always had an affinity for that era. It’s hard to explain. It’s a fascinating time culturally, scientifically, and politically. It was a time of unprecedented technological development and savage social inequality. Scientific discoveries abounded and philosophy flourished. The detective story was born. A great society surged forward on the backs of multitudes of forgotten laborers—many of them children—who eked out short, difficult lives under the most shocking conditions.It was a time of incredible contrasts—contrasts that must have been reflected both in society and within the individual.
And of course the frock coats =)
While not unique, it’s certainly unusual to have a gay protagonist in a mystery story. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you or what your interest is in pursuing this avenue?
As so often happens, I came up with the idea behind the series while researching a different project. The Labouchere Amendment of 1885, which criminalized real and “attempted” indecency between men, became the basis for the first book in the series, THE AFFAIR OF THE PORCELAIN DOG. I was struck by the fact that, at this time as well as now, the ostensible reason for criminalizing affection between men was the protection of uninvolved, hypothetical children. The argument was as false then as it is today, but packed an identical emotional punch—and it swayed many people. I felt that making the protagonist a gay man under threat from this law (while trying to solve his case) raised the stakes for the protagonist, while also pointing up the hypocrisy of the idea behind the law.
The main character, Ira Adler, is not what one would expect of a Victorian era character. He has a bit of a seedy background. Tell us about what makes him tick.
Actually, there’s a story behind this.
I try to stay out of online arguments, but one of the few that I have engaged in was with a young man who insisted that in steampunk—a hybrid of Victoriana and science fiction—it’s only realistic to write about white, upper-class men, because (according to him) only white, upper-class men had access to education, science, and technology at that time—and by extension, because these were the only people who (he thought) had any sort of social agency. Putting aside, for the moment, the fact that steampunk is a kind of science fiction—and that as such, an author chooses which aspects of reality to dispense with—it enraged me to have someone tell me that, essentially, writing about people like me was neither “realistic” nor worthwhile!
This argument stuck with me to the point that, I’m a little ashamed to admit, it shapes my writing to this day. It’s ludicrous to say that someone who isn’t white or upper class (Ira is an olive-skinned Jew who grew up on the meanest of the mean East End streets) has no agency. They may not have the influence with official institutions enjoyed by members of the upper class, but there are other spheres of influence, and other ways of getting things done. There are definitely parts of London I’d rather walk through with the Artful Dodger at my side than, say, Prince Charles.
Ira comes from a low background—abandoned in a workhouse as a toddler, a teenage runaway, a hustler and occasional burglar as a young man, and eventually the “kept man” of a crime lord. His story is one of continual growth and change, however. As his circumstances improve, he becomes more self-aware, and begins to develop a moral compass. He’s constantly walking the line between a sort of hedonism that comes from a lifetime of deprivation, and taking the high road. His cases force him to examine this line hard and often.
Gay culture in Victorian England is, I would expect, a far cry from what it is today. Can you give us a little background on what the experience may have been like? Was this something you particularly wanted to explore with the story?
The perception of homosexuality as an identity, rather than a behavior, really began with the Oscar Wilde trials—at least in this time and place. A person’s experience depended, of course, on who they were, and where they fit into society. There were men of many different social levels who went to Ira’s part of town to seek out anonymous sex. There were other places where men who enjoyed men’s company tended to congregate socially. There were also discreet, long-term committed relationships, to which people turned a blind eye. There were other variations that I didn’t explore. Although I did try to research gay life in Victorian London thoroughly, the theme is secondary to the plot and character development.
What’s the Twitter (140 character) synopsis of your story?
Yes, you can go home, but should you?
You also teach writing. What have you found to be the most useful advice to offer aspiring writers?
Finish it! You can go back and make it pretty later, but you’re not going anywhere until you finish that first draft.
Given your interest in writing gay mysteries, could you offer some other potential authors for readers to check out who would like to explore this topic in the mystery genre?
Some of my favorite gay mystery authors are: Greg Herren, Marshall Thornton, Michael Nava, and Eric Andrews-Katz. For Lesbian mystery, I love J.M. Redmann, Nene Adams, Radclyffe, and Gabrielle Goldsby.
In general, what authors have inspired your writing the most?
I read everything. If there’s nothing immediately at hand, I’ll read cereal boxes, the back of a sugar packet, matchbooks—anything.
In addition to the authors listed above, some of my favorites include: Cherie Priest, Mikhail Bulgakov, Joanne Dobson, Elizabeth Kostova, Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Gallagher, Josh Lanyon, F.E. Higgins, Gyles Brandreth…and oh so many others.
If you could sit down for dinner with one of these authors, who would you want to hang out and chat books and writing with? What would be on the dinner menu?
I’d really like to sit down with Dr. Bulgakov. I recently read his memoirs (A COUNTRY DOCTOR’S NOTEBOOK), and I think we both have a similar appreciation of the humor in absurd tragedy, as well as a propensity for making ourselves the calm center in the middle of chaos. There would definitely be a nice red wine on the menu, and lots of fresh fruits and veg, which had to be hard to find out in the snow-swept Russian countryside in the early twentieth century.
TURNBULL HOUSE is the second book in the series. Can you give us a little hint about what is coming down the road in book three, FOOL’S GOLD?
In the first two books, Ira’s cases turn up facts that disrupt his carefully constructed life. In FOOL’S GOLD, London spits him out altogether, and he finds himself bound for California. There will be gunfights, robber barons, and swooning ladies driven to frenzy by Ira’s exotic accent. Ira will have crimes to solve and decisions to make…not the least of which will be whether to return to London or to make a new life in a new country.
Given the importance of gay characters in your story, if you could meet one gay, historical figure, who would it be and why?
I’d really like to meet Allen Ginsberg. His poetry meant a lot to me when I was younger, and still does. Also, he was such an important part of American literary and cultural history—I think he would be fascinating to talk to.
Jess Faraday is the author of the Lambda-shortlisted historical mystery THE AFFAIR OF THE PORCELAIN DOG, as well as the steampunk thriller THE LEFT HAND OF JUSTICE. She also moonlights as the mystery editor for Elm Books.
To learn more about Jess, please visit her website.