Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cool Canadian Crime: Anne Emery

Today David Cole continues his Cool Canadian Crime interviews. I hope you're finding them as enlightening, as I am. Great questions, wonderful answers and exposure to some top Canadian authors. Today: .

Previously, David interviewed
Louise Penny, Barbara Fradkin, Mary Jane Maffini, Thomas Rendell Curran, Gail Bowen. and Garry Ryan, RJ Harlick, Anthony Bidulka, Rick Mofina, Lou Allin. This group of authors were chosen by David to represent a variety of mystery genres, styles, and historical periods. Some of the authors have won or been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis award for best mystery novel. More to come. Thanks, David!

Anne Emery is the author of SIGN OF THE CROSS (2006), OBIT (2007), BARRINGTON STREET BLUES (2008), and CECILIAN VESPERS (2009). Anne was born in Halifax and grew up in Moncton. She is a graduate of St. F.X. University and Dalhousie Law School. She has worked as a lawyer, legal affairs reporter and researcher. Apart from reading and writing, her interests include music, philosophy, architecture, travel and Irish history. Anne lives in Halifax with her husband and daughter.

David Cole: How do you construct a novel? Plot first? Character journey first?


Anne Emery: Character comes first and foremost with me, characters and their motivations. What would make someone commit this crime, or act in this way? What will this character, with his particular mindset and problems, do next? How will they surprise me? And they do that. I remember always being fascinated when writers said their characters sometimes took on lives of their own, and did things the writer hadn’t planned. Now that happens with me. I might have had something in mind for this or that character, but he won’t follow that road; it’s out of character! And I love writing dialogue, particularly between characters known to have sharp tongues in their heads.

DC: How have readers reacted to the main characters in your books?


AE: People are undoubtedly interested in Fr. Burke. In fact, I have had very heated reactions to him. Some readers love him, and some even want to know "what church he is at", so they can meet him. Forget about it; he's not based on a real person. Others are quite disapproving when, on occasion, he misbehaves, and some people have become quite emotional when telling me exactly what they think of him. Readers are also keen on Maura, Monty's ex-wife, who is never at a loss for a pointed word. And they like Monty, and the couple's two children, Tommy Douglas and Normie.

DC: Go back to the days you spent writing what would become your first published novel. Did you think it was good? In daydreaming moments, did you cast the movie?

AE: When I first sat down to write the book I had been imagining, I was afraid it would be really dry when the words appeared on the page: “Bill parked his car and went into the government office, where he hoped to get the information he needed. But the information wasn’t there, so he came out and got into his car, and drove ...” That kind of thing. But once I got Monty and Brennan in the same room—on the same page—I knew it was going to work. I could quite easily imagine movie scenes when I was writing it. It is “visual” to a certain extent, with what I hope are interesting buildings and interiors. And I have the soundtrack: the pieces I used in the chapter headings and elsewhere in the book, all of which I compiled on my own soundtrack CD. I did not get too far in the fantasy of casting, probably because some of my main characters, e.g. Monty, are composites of people I know. I couldn’t get past picturing “locals” in the role. The exception is Brennan Burke. I could quite easily picture Gabriel Byrne in that role. Dream on! I did not make up Burke with Byrne in mind, and they do not look exactly alike in my head, but I could certainly come around to thinking so, if the stars were so aligned! (I’m not holding my breath waiting for a movie to be made, with or without major talent in the leading roles.)

DC: In what ways do you think your upbringing has influenced the kind of writer you've become? When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

AE: I always wanted to be a writer—was always writing stories as a kid—but I didn't take the plunge until a few years ago. And it never occurred to me that I could make a living as a writer; even with all the fictional people and occurrences swirling around in my head, I'm not that delusional. But I was always saying "When I write my book" or "That's going in my book." Finally one day I announced to my husband and daughter that I was going to sit down and try to write that book. In the beginning all I hoped to do was write one. Fulfill my dream, get it done. But halfway through, when I skipped ahead and wrote the ending, I realized I could not give up writing. I had become addicted to it, quite literally. So, at that point, it became a series. My upbringing has a considerable influence on what I write, especially the Irish Catholic background I share with some of my characters. Growing up in that world of Catholic school, knuckle-rapping rulers, nuns, priests, candles, incense, chant, processions and all the rest of it offered a rich vein to tap for my stories. My daughter goes to a wonderful (Catholic) school, but the whole atmosphere is so warm and kind and non-threatening, I ask her what she's going to have to dine out on later in life!

DC: How does your training as a lawyer help or hinder your fiction writing?

AE: Being a lawyer, and being close to a number of other lawyers who are in the criminal courts every day, gives me a feel for the procedure, the language, the atmosphere, and the cast of characters in the courtroom, and provides lots of little anecdotes that I can use, changing the circumstances and the participants to protect the identities of the guilty or the innocent, as the case may be. I may take note of a major courtroom drama or a little incident like the client who couldn’t get home after court because he sold his bus ticket for a smoke. Being a lawyer can be a hindrance in a way, too, if I’m not careful. I have to remember that only a small proportion of my readers are lawyers, so I don’t really need—and nobody wants to read—a “cover-my-ass” legal brief to explain why, for instance, I have a judge making a certain ruling to further my plot.

DC: Music features prominently in your novels. Can you tell us about the importance of music in your work?

AE: My two main characters are musicians. My narrator, Monty Collins, is a bluesman in addition to being a lawyer. And most of the time he’d rather be blowing his harmonica than listening to the lies of his clients. Fr. Brennan Burke is a choirmaster, and he does only the great, traditional music of the church, not the dumbed-down, nursery school kind of music some churches started to do in the 1970s. I cannot imagine my own life without music, and some of my characters and story ideas are directly inspired by a piece of music. I tend to work out plot ideas, or difficulties, by going for a walk with my MP3 player on, and I usually come home with a solution. That is the one and only thing I can claim to have in common with Einstein! He turned to music when he found himself having problems working out his theories. On a much less exalted level, I do the same! The following quotation is attributed to Victor Hugo: “Music expresses that which cannot be said, and on which it is impossible to be silent.”

DC: Your novels are set mainly in your home town of Halifax, Nova Scotia. How important is Halifax as a setting for you?

AE: Halifax is steeped in history, from colonial times through the First and Second World Wars, when it was the main departure point for troops leaving for Europe. It’s not an old city by European standards, but it has a respectable provenance for a city in the “new world.” It still has some great old buildings, some from the seventeen hundreds. And we have a wonderful Victorian court building downtown, with carved faces set in the stone; I use that setting in the first scene in my first book. If the city had been slapped up thirty years ago, with nondescript modern architecture, I wouldn’t have much fun describing the place. In fact, I’d probably look for another setting for the books.
DC: Why do you set your novels in the early 1990s?

AE: I wanted my characters to have come of age in more interesting times in history than the 1970s. I am fascinated with the 1940s for some reason, so I'm happy that they were born in that decade. But a more practical reason is that I wanted Fr. Burke to have been formed as a priest when the mass was still in Latin, and the music was Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. Also I wanted his father, Declan, to have some history in Ireland in the 1940s, and Declan's da to have taken part in the Easter Rising in 1916. So, in order to keep Monty and Brennan and their contemporaries where I want them in terms of age, in their forties or fifties, I set the stories in the early 1990s.
DC: Don't think about this too long. Name five of your favorite novels, and give us a sentence or two why.

AE: Dostoevski, Crime and Punishment. Read this and immerse yourself in guilt!
John LeCarré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I am fascinated by tales of espionage during the post-WWII era, and this is one of the greatest. Among its many attributes are unforgettable characters and brilliant dialogue.
Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Wonderful satire, portraying Wall Street greed and other aspects of American life, with acutely drawn characters. And lines like this: “Grinning grinning grinning grinning, the greaseball lounged in triumph.”
Kirk Makin, Redrum the Innocent. Not a novel, but the true story of the wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin, a long, detailed book that hooked me right from page one.
James Joyce, Ulysses. I won’t presume to make any comments ...

DC: How about a tiny sneak preview of the next novel?

AE: My fifth book, scheduled to be released next year, is called Children in the Morning. The title comes from the Leonard Cohen song, “Suzanne.” The case is that of Beau Delaney, who’s a bit of a showboat, a prominent lawyer whose exploits have become the subject of a Hollywood film. He’s also the father of ten children. Now he’s charged with the murder of his wife, Peggy. Lawyer/bluesman Monty Collins is defending Delaney on the charge but, in order to do that, he has a whole lot to learn about Beau Delaney. Monty’s pal, Fr. Brennan Burke, has a hand in the investigation, too. But Burke is also lending a hand to Monty’s estranged and sharp-tongued wife, Maura. In so doing, the priest finds himself burdened with unwelcome secrets of his own. We have two narrators this time around: Monty and his little girl, Normie, a child who has the gift—or curse—of second sight. When Normie starts having visions that seem to involve Delaney, nobody knows whether they reflect something he’s done in the past, or something he might do in the future. And we ask ourselves who—the father or the daughter—will be first to uncover the truth about Beau Delaney.

Photo credit: Danny Abriel, Dalhousie University

1 comment:

Bernard S. Jansen said...

Some great advice in this interview, for writing in any genre.