Y’all, I have been itching to introduce y’all to Kelli Stanley, who is just made of awesome. You’ll love her. And then you’ll be blown away by her books–trust me on this. She’s on tour right now for her newest, THE CURSE-MAKER (which has gotten rave reviews, including a starred review from Booklist).
I recently had the wonderful chance to interview her, and I am delighted to bring her to you today. Meet Kelli, and after the interview, check out the contest!
TMC: What drew you to writing crime fiction?
KS: My first crime fiction writing—and noir, at that—was a play I wrote in third grade about a gangster, a French spy and a falling out among thieves. The gangster—played by yours truly—dies at the end … of course! It was a noir! 😉
I’m not sure how or why I was fascinated with these themes early in life. I grew up reading fairy tales (plenty of criminality there), Nancy Drew at age seven and Holmes by the time I was nine. Part of it is the idea of control over the uncontrollable, and to see justice done, of course… we read and create just worlds and hope that the real one will follow suit. But I was also drawn to high drama and had a precocious sense of tragedy.
Crime is the essence of man’s cruelty to man, and I think somehow I’ve always wanted to explore why and how human beings can be capable of selflessness and selfishness, nobility and venality … all at the same time.
TMC: Which is more difficult to deal with in life: the apologetic repeat-offender petty criminal or the unrepentant morally ambiguous liar?
KS: Mendacity is a real challenge to handle, so I’d go with the liar.
The apologetic repeat-offender is predictable. He’s convinced himself that he didn’t mean to do something wrong … he’s rationalized criminality and has no intention of ever going straight. Crime and survival are his entire life—his job and his identity. What’s interesting about him is that there are certain crimes he will not commit, certain actions that are too transgressive for him. So the petty criminal—let’s call him “Fingers” for short—looks at crime as a time-clock job at a factory. He apologizes for it, rationalizes it away, and if someone wants him to do something outside his job description, he probably won’t do it. I think this makes Fingers retrainable, ultimately … if you can get him to embrace a new habit and a new job.
Now, the morally ambiguous unrepentant liar is a much bigger problem. First, as a liar, she’s the ultimate unreliable narrator. The habitual liar is devoid of boundaries, and she’s capable of any crime—not just petty ones. Secondly, she can characterize nearly any action as being justified in some way … and will claim God is on her side. This “apple pie” sociopath—let’s call her “Phyllis”—is the ultimate manipulator. The seeming ambiguity of her morality is really just rationalization on steroids … she will always make sure she’s entitled to what she wants. She’ll also make sure her actions are framed within the best possible light, and stand on an outraged sense of self-righteousness in order to justify them. Quite a number of Nazi war criminals remained unrepentant and tried to rationalize the most heinous atrocities the world has witnessed … and lied and lied and lied.
Phyllis is smart, manipulative, and a sociopath, pure and simple … and very, very dangerous.
TMC: Which would be the more interesting character to write about, and why?
KS: If we take Fingers and Phyllis above—and these are just two possible potential characters that fit the description—I think Fingers would be more interesting, because he’s a criminal with boundaries. That’s a potent contradiction … the mixture of criminality and code, even of honor, in someone who can also exploit, wrong or harm other people. Fingers comes to life for me, particularly in a period noir.
As a sociopath, Phyllis is interesting as a catalyst … much like Phyllis Nirdlinger in Double Indemnity. But the really fascinating character in that book and film? Her fall guy, Walter Huff.
TMC: What is the biggest risk you’ve taken in your life?
KS: I’ve always been a bit of a risk-taker. My mom has a movie of me riding an elephant at a zoo or fair when I was about five. I remember it, actually, and I remember being told by the handler to keep both hands on the harness. Instead, when I saw my mom and dad with the camera, I waved. J
My life has been a series of long jumps … I opened a business with my mom and partner with little capital and no experience. I returned to school when I was in my thirties. But by far the biggest risk I’ve ever taken is publishing a book.
Writing a book isn’t really risky … it’s your time and your energy, yes, but you’re not asking someone else to invest in it. Publishing is a different story.
At the end of 2006, I made a very dicey decision. I’d not yet received my first publishing contract (that came in January of 2007), and I decided to not go on for a Ph.D—to try to make a go of writing as a career. I accepted a part-time job (which I still have) in order to reserve more time for growing the career that I really wanted. I’m not there yet, and I think about the risk every day. It’s a scary, scary thing. Reminds me of that scene—was it in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?—where they have to close their eyes and leap across the abyss. I’m still leaping!
TMC: What makes you cry?
KS: The same things that make most people cry. Loss. Pain. Disappointment. I have a tremendous fear of letting people down and aching insecurities. Fear of failure, too.
I also cry when I’m moved by beauty or generosity of spirit. I cry at It’s A Wonderful Life. I sobbed like a baby once when I heard James Galway play “Danny Boy” live. I felt transported, like I was in another plane of existence.
TMC: What (other than politics or religion) makes you feel outraged, wanting to rant?
KS: The usual suspects again. Racism and ignorance. Prejudicial behavior against groups of people. Blind selfishness and self-centeredness, and the idea that because someone wants something, they are entitled to it, no matter the cost to others. People who act with no regard to the existence of other people—and other people’s rights—infuriate me. I’m also passionate about the environment. We have only one earth, and we share it … not only with a lot of other human beings, but with other forms of life. It bothers me when greed is put ahead of environmental or animal welfare.
Something else, too … lack of humility. Any success people achieve—in this kind of business, especially—is directly linked to the kindness of colleagues or strangers. Readers, reviewers, librarians, fellow writers who have endorsed your books, your publisher’s team … the list goes on. No one can achieve success by themselves—or without luck—and I have no time for people who don’t acknowledge the help they’ve had along the way.
TMC: What is your favorite curse word?
KS: “Fuck”. It’s so versatile! I personally don’t understand why words like this are labeled as profanity, and words demeaning other people aren’t. The suicides caused by bullying last year are a terrible proof of the power of words. Words of hate are what I find offensive … not Anglo-Saxon.
TMC: On to book questions:
What do you think is the biggest challenge you face with this series? (Is it period detail, quantity of research, etc.)
KS: The biggest challenge I face with this particular series is history itself. Too many readers have too many memories of repeating names and dates in smeary chalk on a blackboard.
So I actually write historical mystery-thrillers for people who don’t necessarily like history—that’s my secret agenda, to convince people that history is part of the human continuum, and offers crucial lessons for us … even two thousand years ago.
TMC: And finally, tell us a little bit about The Curse Maker.
KS: THE CURSE-MAKER is a fond homage to Hammett’s The Thin Man and Red Harvest … and also an up-close look at how superstition and fear can be used to control people. Roman belief in the supernatural (ghosts, raising people from the dead, sÃ©ances) is peppered throughout the story—how did curses work? How did they fit in to the culture? Why were they legal in Aquae Sulis (Roman Bath) and not in other places?
It’s also a novel about the love between Arcturus and Gwyna and how they individually wrestle with feelings of guilt in the relationship. There’s a secondary mystery in the story involving Gwyna’s health and apparent descent into depression.
Humor plays a role in THE CURSE-MAKER, too—Arcturus tends to crack wise, and a lusty femme fatale named Sulpicia is throwing herself at him (and making Gwyna jealous). His own possessive buttons are being pushed by Philo, the leading physician in town, who is clearly smitten with Gwyna.
It’s a lighter book than my 1940 series, and intentionally so … a break from the heavy-lifting involved when I write Miranda. Still, it addresses some disturbing issues and is very much a mixture of hardboiled/noir style and an authentically ancient setting.
Here’s the Booklist review:
Stanley, Kelli (Author)
Feb 2011. 320 p. Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, hardcover, $24.99. (9780312654191).
Tourists visiting the Roman baths in Bath, England, can see tiny clay tablets on display, tablets that carry
curses ranging from trivial (“May the one who stole my gloves in the baths last week get a rash”) to
homicidal. In this second in her Roman noir series (the first, Nox Dormienda, 2008, won the Bruce
Alexander Award for best historical mystery), Stanley seizes on this curiosity and crafts an entire mystery
around the murder of a man who inscribed curses for a living. Set in Brittania in the first century CE,
during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, the novel stars Arcturus, a Roman physician, and his wife (who
gives considerable help to his solving mysteries). Here, Arcturus and wife Gwyna travel from Londinium
to the spa town of Aquae Sulis (Bath) because Gwyna is suffering from an unknown ailment that has all
the earmarks of contemporary depression. Arcturus himself is suffering from the guilt of not being able to
save the young son of General Agricola. As soon as the couple arrives, they see the spectacle of a body in
the Sacred Spring-the body belongs to a curse maker. Besides writing an engrossing mystery, in which
the first murder leads to a typically Roman orgy of revenge, Stanley serves up fascinating and never
heavy-handed information on Roman life. For fans of Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series.
– Connie Fletcher
So now, MSWers, I want to ask you, let’s pretend you could have revenge, like Kelli writes about, and curse someone–and get completely away with it (and somehow, it doesn’t count against you as a sin, or as evil)–what would it be? hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm? (Other than politicians. We’ll just take for granted that whoever you don’t like on the other side of the aisle is going to be hairless and sexless and muey unhappy for a long long time. ‘kay?) Or, if that one is too scary to answer, tell us what makes you laugh or cry? ONE of the commenters will win a SIGNED ARC of THE CURSE-MAKER from Kelli plus a $25 gift certificate from an online bookstore of your choice (and remember, there are a lot of indies who ship for free).