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: Vicki Delany
Previously, David interviewed Louise Penny, Barbara Fradkin, Mary Jane Maffini, Thomas Rendell Curran, Gail Bowen, Garry Ryan, RJ Harlick, Anthony Bidulka, Rick Mofina, Lou Allin, and Anne Emery. 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!
Vicki Delany writes everything from standalone novels of suspense (Burden of Memory) to a traditional village/police procedural series set in B.C. (Valley of the Lost) and a light-hearted historical series (Gold Digger) set during the Klondike Gold Rush. Next is Winter of Secrets, to be released in November, 2009 by Poisoned Pen Press. She also blogs with five other mystery authors about the writing life (named as one of the top 100 creative writing blogs by Colleges Online) at Type M for Murder!
David Cole: Here’s a question I always love to ask. For you, what comes first character or plot?
Vicki Delany: Setting! My books are very setting focused. With the Klondike Gold Rush books in particular I had in mind doing a series set in the Yukon in 1898, and from that I wondered what sort of characters would live there at that time, and only then did I start putting the plot of the first book together.
The Molly Smith books are set in the fictional town of Trafalgar, British Columbia, which is based on the real town of Nelson, which is my favourite place in all the world.
It’s a perfect setting for a mystery novel. Like its inspiration, Trafalgar is surrounded by mountains, and very isolated. It is eight hours drive to Vancouver or to Calgary, and the nearest city is in another country – Spokane, Washington. You need a passport to go to the mall. The population is a mix of long-time residents, people born and raised in the valleys and mountainsides; transients, neo-hippies, aimless youth, spiritual-seekers; and newcomers such as the comfortably retired, attracted by the beauty, the isolation, the artistic community, and the area’s reputation for independence. Such a mix of people brings the potential for conflict, which is the key to any crime novel.
I thought that it would be a great place to set a book, and the small, isolated town seemed natural for a police procedural series with lots of family involvement. First I had Trafalgar, then I had a young woman trying to make it as a police officer in the town where “a substantial number of the residents had seen you performing as Number Two Wise Man in the Grade Three Christmas pageant” and only then did I start working out the details of the plot. The plot of the first book is, not incidentally, particularly well suited to that place. It concerns plans to build a memorial to Vietnam Era Draft Dodgers, which actually happened in Nelson.
DC: You’re really successful, writing two series and throwing in a standalone. Why such variety?
VD: Doing a variety gives me the opportunity to write different types of books. Different in terms of tone, I mean. My standalones tend somewhat towards the darker end of the spectrum, the Molly Smith books are middle-boiled, traditional police-procedurals set in a small town (I think of them as Hamish Macbeth meets Cindy Decker), and the Klondike books are intended to be mad-cap. If I tried putting all that in one book, or even one series, I’d have a real mess. The one thing I don’t do is short stories. I’m planning to spend some time this fall trying my hand on short stories. In August, I spent a wonderful weekend in the company of Peter Robinson and his wife Sheila on Wolfe Island at the Scene of the Crime Festival, and Peter told me that he finds short stories a way of stretching yourself, moving beyond your boundaries as a writer. I want to try that.
DC: Is there one type of book, standalone vs. series, than you favor over another?
VD: The short answer is no. I am a reader as well as a writer and in each of those capacities I think both types of novels have their strengths. A standalone novel suits a story about a person facing a critical life choice. In real life most people, unless they are a Mafia hit man or a super-duper secret agent, might have one great adventure in them. A standalone novel gives the protagonist that one opportunity to achieve great things; to have that grand adventure; to meet the everlasting love of their life; to conquer evil, once and for all. In a standalone, the characters face their demons and defeat them. Or not.
Series novels present a different challenge. The central character, or characters, confronts their demons, but they do not defeat them. Their weaknesses, all their problems, will be back in the next book. In each story the series character stands against, and usually defeats, someone else’s problem or society’s enemy, but she or he moves only one small step towards the resolution of their own issues, if at all.
DC: There are great elements of history in your standalone novels, and the Gold Rush series is purely a historical. How do you come to this, is history - in itself - an interest of yours?
VD: I majored in Modern European History at University, and yes, it still is very much my interest. They say that young people today are lacking any knowledge of their Canadian history, that we’re losing our historical narrative. If that’s true I think it’s a tragedy, so perhaps in my own way I’m trying to rectify that. Historical knowledge is an important thing. For example, there wasn’t a single murder in the town of Dawson in the year that was the height of the Gold Rush. Not one. I think that’s an incredible statistic and the reasons for it should be widely known: the North West Mounted Police (precursors of the RCMP) got there first and put the stamp of law and order on the town. Guns were strictly banned. Think that had something to do with the low murder rate? I do. Does that have something to teach us today?
As you pointed out, my standalones have a back-story of something that happened in World War II that is affecting the events of today, and in those books I’ve tried to emphasise the importance women played in our history, something that is often undervalued.
DC: Many of us come to writing from a previous work life? And you?
VD: Not any more. But for many years I did. I worked full time as a systems analyst at a big bank and was a single mother of three to boot. For years I was what I call a Sunday writer, meaning that the only time I could find to myself to write was for a few hours on the weekends when the kids were busy. It took me four years to write my first book that way. The children got older, and I had a bit more time to myself, and then they grew up and moved out of the house and I had all sorts of time to write! When I was working, I would come home every night, feed the dog, and sit down and write.
I was lucky enough to be able to take early retirement two years ago, and so I am no longer a Sunday writer. When I retired I moved out of the suburbs to a place in the country that is now my own little writer’s retreat. From my desk I have a view out the window over a farmer’s field (last year wheat, this year beans) to a line of trees in the far distance. Perfection.
DC: You write, what, two books a year? Most writers would consider that to be a lot.
VD: Yes, I’m now doing two books a year, one in the Klondike series and one Smith and Winters. I haven’t written a stand-alone for a few years, but I have one percolating at the back of my mind. I also do a lot of promotion, long-distance trips as well as local bookstores, plus online stuff such as writing for two blogs.
DC: Any tips for those of us who procrastinate just to get one book done?
VD: I don’t really have any tips – my time is my own now which helps immensely. I write seven days a week, every day when I’m at home. I never write a word when I’m on the road, but I’m thinking that might have to change. As for tips, my only tip to beginning writers is to do what you can. If you’re busy with your job, home, family, write when you can, read a lot, and remember that one day your time will come. It did for me.
DC: What’s the state of Canadian crime writing today?
VD: Wonderful! You need no more evidence than to look at this great series you’re doing for Mystery Fanfare. When I first starting writing, Canadian crime writers were told to set their books in the U.S., that no one would read a book set in Canada. There is still some of that – I know a writer who has just been given a three book contract from a major publisher (Canadian offshoot of a U.S. publisher) who had to change her locale from Toronto to New York – but it is rarer. Look at me – I’m published by an American publisher (Poisoned Pen Press), and they’re happy with my settings. In Canada itself though, crime writing don’t get no respect. The idea of a crime novel being nominated for a non-mystery award is laughable. The Canadian literary world is pretty snobbish that way. But I’d suggest that writers such as Peter Robinson, Gail Bowen, Louise Penny, are laughing... all the way to the bank, as they say. And we mystery readers are laughing too, as we read great books by Louise or Anthony Bidulka or Rick Blechta, books about places we can relate to.
DC: You’ve said that Canadian-set books are becoming more acceptable to publishers. Are there any differences between Canadian mystery books and American?
VD: Other than spelling, eh? (labour vs. labor)? I read a lot, but even I haven’t read everything, but I’ll stick my neck out and say there aren’t a lot, if any, hard-boiled Canadian mystery novels. I certainly don’t think there are any noir books. Remember that our national motto is Peace, Order and Good Government. (As has often been said, at least we get two out of the three!) Our fictional police can be conflicted, but they are rarely corrupt, and definitely not owned by the mob. If you remember, Giles Blunt’s John Cardinal gets in trouble for taking a bribe, a big bribe, but it’s all sorted out, and Cardinal goes on to better things. It is my impression that Canadians have more of a sense of “the policeman is your friend” than Americans do, and we certainly don’t have the idea that our government is somehow out to get us. (Okay, they get us in a more polite way). Corrupt or sleazy police, evil government, black helicopters are American themes that you don’t see in Canadian books.
Perhaps some Canadian writers who move their settings to the U.S. take on those subjects.
Generally speaking (very generally) Canadian books, even police procedurals, are concerned as much with personalities and relationships as with solving the crime. Gail Bowen is the perfect example, in my opinion, of Canadian crime writing. Her protagonist cooks dinner, goes to work, sends her kids to school, spends weekends at the cottage, fusses over her friends. And, oh by the way, gets involved a crime, and solves it purely by her intellect. Gail’s protagonist, Joanne Kilburn, most certainly does not own a gun and has probably never taken a class in self-defence. But the books are not cozies; they are serious books about serious subjects.
Weather seems to matter a lot in Canadian books. I guess that’s because we are, as a Northern people, so aware of it. Many of the Canadian books I’ve read had a very important seasonal component. Giles Blunt – Black Fly Season, Louise Penny – Dead Cold (which had a different name in the U.S.). When my first book came out, a reviewer said something like, “Thank God, a Canadian book that isn’t all about winter angst.” Which I thought was rather mean, as some of the best books from any country are about winter angst.
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