It has been said that there is no story that has not already been told, that is not old and familiar. It is in the telling, however, that a story is raised to a higher level. That is precisely the kind of story telling Suzanne Chazin has accomplished with her latest novel LAND OF CAREFUL SHADOWS. With pitch perfect prose, she offers an intimate glimpse into the world of undocumented immigrants in a moving and psychologically complex murder mystery. The tension never stalls in this unflinching and searing examination of the human heart.
Suzanne Chazin is a former journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Ladies Home Journal, People, Money, and other publications. She is a former senior editor and writer for Reader’s Digest and has taught writing at New York University, Sarah Lawrence College, and the Smithsonian. Her Georgia Skeehan mystery series, published by Putnam, is about a New York City female firefighter turned fire marshal. LAND OF CAREFUL SHADOWS is the first in the new Jimmy Vega series.
Your volunteer work with Hispanic immigrants became the inspiration for your latest novel, LAND OF CAREFUL SHADOWS. Was there a story or common refrain that particularly touched you?
I live in Westchester County, New York, in a suburban area that has seen a very large increase in Latino immigrants over the past two decades. I live three miles from a train station where day laborers often gather, and I was struck by this obviously needy group of people so desperate for work. As the daughter of immigrants myself, I felt drawn to their situation and began volunteering at outreach centers in the area. I got to know some of the immigrants and found them to be humble, decent, and resourceful people who went about their struggles with quiet determination. I felt their story hadn’t been told––or at least not in a readily accessible way to mainstream audiences.
Was there a reason you chose to make your protagonist male instead of female?
In my first series about the FDNY, my main character, Georgia Skeehan was a female firefighter. Oddly, I found that it was always easier to write from the point of view of her lover, Mac Marenko. I have always been more comfortable with the way men think for some reason. So this time around, I decided to make my main character a man, by name Jimmy Vega, a homicide detective. It’s really the best of both worlds because this series is also very much about his female counterpart, a lawyer and community activist named Adele Figueroa. I get to deal with the problems that plague Vega––his growing estrangement from his daughter. And I get to deal with Adele’s constant need to balance her personal life and professional obligations.
What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing the book to life?
One of the things I love about being a writer is that every book is a brand-new challenge. In LAND OF CAREFUL SHADOWS, there was the challenge of creating new characters with the emotional weight and heft to carry a series. There was the challenge of navigating the world of the undocumented with dignity and accuracy. (I did over two dozen in-depth interviews with men and women from all over Latin America who live their lives without papers.) There are the challenges of making a story exciting and plausible at the same time (one of my favorite challenges). And then there’s the importance of just writing a damn good book—one that is fun to read and worth a reader’s time and effort.
Are there plans to translate the book and subsequent ones in the series into Spanish?
I think every writer would like to see her book translated into every language. I think a good story should be able to travel to any culture. That said, I would be especially delighted if this book were embraced by Latinos. It’s too early to know, however. But I’m hopeful.
Do you see any hopeful signs that things might be changing for undocumented workers in the United States?
Absolutely. I’m writing this just hours after President Obama went on television and pledged executive action to end the gridlock in Congress and provide a path to documentation for children who came here by 2010 and parents of children who are American citizens. I’m not a political person, but I don’t see how a policy that consigns a group of people to a perpetual underclass helps them or the country. We are a nation of immigrants, and when anyone succeeds we all succeed. Work that pays a living wage, access to higher education, decent housing and economic stability are the cornerstones of the American middle class. For too long, the undocumented have been denied any chance to work their way out of poverty. I’d prefer to see a bipartisan solution worked out in Congress. But my hope is that Obama’s actions will begin to nudge the country in that direction.
Your Georgia Skeehan mystery series is about the brave firefighters of New York City, and much of your insight into the workings of the NYFD comes from your firefighter husband. Can you talk a little about what that collaboration process looks like?
My husband was the first reader for all my FDNY books and he was the first reader for LAND OF CAREFUL SHADOWS. I know a lot about the FDNY through being married to him for almost twenty-seven years—and he’s an avid reader so he has a natural sense of story and is good at coming up with clever ideas. That said, my Georgia books were mainly about arson investigation and my husband was never a fire marshal, so we don’t actually collaborate. I’m more like a sponge, I suppose. I suck up ideas and then find a way to use them to suit the story and characters in my head.
What do you consider the key to a great adventure mystery?
Characters the reader cares about and can root for. That doesn’t mean they have to be consistently good people. But they have to be people I’d want to spend time with (ten to twelve hours at least, since that’s what it takes to read most novels). I also like a story where I really don’t know how a character is going to get out of his dilemma. Of course, that presupposes that when he or she does, I buy their solution. But when I do, it’s a delight to read. I love the mental puzzle of mysteries and thrillers. Mystery and thriller readers are very active readers. They engage characters and stories in very concrete ways. If you make a factual error, trust a mystery/thriller reader to catch it.
Who is your favorite mystery writer?
I have always aspired to write like Dennis Lehane. His early mysteries were beautifully crafted and the characters really brought Dorchester to life. I think Gone Baby Gone is one of my all-time favorite books. I also love Julia Spencer-Fleming, Louise Penny, and Jenny Milchman, to name a few.
What book would we be surprised to find on your nightstand?
I’m a sucker for memoir and biography. I just finished Take This Man by Brando Skyhorse, a really compelling and offbeat memoir about a writer who grew up with five different stepfathers and whose mother convinced him that he was Native American when he wasn’t. I’m just about to start reading, The Ghosts of Hero Street by Carlos Harrison, a book about the twenty-two Mexican-American families on one street in a small Illinois town who sent a total of fifty-seven soldiers into battle in World War Two and the Korean War. It’s a reminder of the sacrifices so many immigrants have willingly made to our country—something I think we too easily forget these days.
What writers have had the greatest influence on you?
Well, as I said, I have always loved Dennis Lehane. Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent was truly a game-changer for me in that it said, “You can write a popular mystery/thriller and also make it a high-quality novel.” As a child, the book that had the most influence on me was The Diary of Anne Frank. None of the fiction I read as a girl could top the reality of her story and the straight-on voice of a hopeful thirteen year-old girl. Two of my favorite all-time books are David Benioff’s City of Thieves, a coming-of-age story that takes place during the Siege of Leningrad in World War Two. Also, Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup about a privileged South African girl who impulsively marries an Arab man and goes back to his country to reinvent her life. Like all of Gordimer’s work, it’s absorbing and significant, both in language and sentiment.
Is there a certain kind of book you steer clear of as a reader? As a writer?
I love all sorts of books—not just mysteries and thrillers. But any book I read has to have a compelling dilemma and a character or characters who are willing to confront the dilemma with humor and their own particular world-view. I tend to have a fifty-page rule with most books. If I’m not swept up in the story within the first fifty pages, I won’t read any further. As a reader and a writer, I can’t read anything badly written or that feels formulaic. Lazy, sloppy writing tends to put my ear out of tune.
What was the last truly great book you read?
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. It’s a great read on every level: a compelling mystery, a wonderful coming-of-age story and a meditation on life in all its complexity. The language is beautiful and the story is engrossing. It’s the sort of book you just sink into and keep reading until you discover that it’s two a.m.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read?
I was on a tight budget in college and went through in three years. I took a lot of short cuts to make that happen and unfortunately, one of them was not taking enough English classes and skimming books I should have read. As a result, I have to say that my greatest regret is not having read much of the classics, from James Joyce to William Faulkner. I did read Steinbeck’s East of Eden a few years back, but I’m terribly under-read on the classics unfortunately.
Do you ever experience writer’s block, and, if so, how do you push through it?
Writers block is just your desire to write a final draft on the first draft. It’s simply not possible. Writing is a struggle. I’m starting my first draft of my third Jimmy Vega book now and I’ve constantly got the angel and devil on my shoulders. The angel is telling me, “Now Suzanne, you know you have to produce a few thousand words today.” And the devil is saying, “Your refrigerator is empty. The radiator needs painting. Your daughter needs new ballet shoes. How can you possibly write when there is so much else to be done?” I just have to ignore that second voice—unless it tells me to eat some chocolate. Then I always give in.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Don’t write to please the market. Write about something you care deeply and passionately about. That’s all you have to give to the world—your passion. So don’t waste it by imitating someone else. Also, you get better at writing the longer you do it. Keep trying. Keep getting feedback. If you’ve exhausted all other channels, consider paying a professional editor to give you feedback. It could make the difference in your work.
You’re hosting a dinner party. What three authors would you invite?
Lee Child, because he’s warm and funny and just a really talented and wonderful man. Julia Spencer-Fleming—a gracious and charming writer. I haven’t met Louise Penny, but I’ve corresponded with her a little and she is someone I’d really like to meet. I could think of a dozen more, easily. Writers are so much fun to be with and mystery/thriller writers are the best because they’re smart, witty, and unpretentious.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Once you have a car that runs, a roof over your head, and enough money for the basics, you really don’t need a lot of “things.” The older I get, the more I cherish a good book, a walk in the woods with my husband and children, a great conversation with a good friend, and the luxury of time to create a story I can be proud of. When my son was ten, he desperately wanted a video game player (I can’t even remember which one). For his birthday, we bought it for him. But I insisted we make a “day” of the purchase. I told him, “This video player will be obsolete or broken in a couple of years, but our day out will be a memory forever.” And that’s just the way it turned out.
Tell us a little about the next book in the series.
It’s called, A Blossom of Bright Light and it will be out at the beginning of November 2015. Jimmy Vega makes a split-second decision at the beginning of the story that quickly thrusts him into the epicenter of a disturbing case involving the cold-blooded murder of an innocent. Before it’s over, Vega and Adele Figueroa will find themselves facing down an evil that has quietly been lurking behind their small town’s tranquil façade for decades—and it’s poised and ready to strike again. It’s a fast-paced, gripping story but also a story with heart in that it takes on several important issues in the undocumented community—among them, the way the current immigration laws separate families.
Suzanne Chazin is the author of two thriller series. Her first, about the FDNY, include The Fourth Angel, Flashover and Fireplay. The series has been called “searing and emotionally explosive” (USA Today), and her heroine, fire investigator Georgia Skeehan, “incredibly strong” (People Magazine). Chazin’s newest mystery series stars Jimmy Vega, an upstate New York cop navigating the world of the undocumented. The first book in the series, Land of Careful Shadows, is due out in hardcover from Kensington on Nov. 25th. It has already garnered advance praise from Lee Child, Julia Spencer-Fleming, S.J. Rozan, Reyna Grande, Maggie Barbieri and Publishers Weekly, which called the book, “timely and engrossing,” and Jimmy Vega, “engaging, psychologically complex.” A former journalist, Chazin’s essays and articles have appeared in American Health, Family Circle and the New York Times.
You can read more at Suzanne’s website or connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.