Monday, July 20, 2009

RJ Harlick: Cool Canadian Crime

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: RJ Harlick.

Previously, David interviewed
Louise Penny, Barbara Fradkin, Mary Jane Maffini, Thomas Rendell Curran, Gail Bowen. and Garry Ryan. 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!

RJ Harlick
is an escapee from the high tech jungle. After working for over twenty-five years in the computer industry, first for major computer corporations such as IBM and DMR Group, then with her own management consultancy practice.

Originally from Toronto, she now divides time between her home in Ottawa and a log cabin in West Quebec. Her love of the outdoors shows in her Meg Harris mystery series, where the wilderness setting plays almost as large a role as the main character.

She has also published short stories with the latest When the Red, Red Robin… appearing in the Ladies Killing Circle Anthology, Bone Dance. One of her stories, Lady Luck, was a winner of the 2002 Bony Pete award and appears in the Bloody Words Anthology.

DC: You have a wonderful sense of place in your series. I feel as if I am right in that canoe with you rushing down the river. How did you come to select this Quebec location? And what does it mean to you?

RJH: I love the Great Canadian Outdoors. I spend much of my time skiing or hiking the many trails that meander through the forests that surround our West Quebec log cabin or canoeing its many waterways. So when I set out to write the Meg Harris mystery series, it was only natural that the setting be this Quebec wilderness. And what better place for murder, for as we all know, a forest no matter how beautiful can be a dark and dangerous place.

DC: Your series character, Meg Harris, is neither a private detective nor a cop, but a private person with a strong sense of fighting against injustice. Why did you decide to use an amateur sleuth?

RJH: I felt that I would have more leeway in my story telling by using an amateur sleuth. I would not be bound by the protocols of police procedure. Rather Meg Harris has the freedom to solve the crime in a manner that suits her and the particular crime best. Meg doesn’t need a murder to set her into action. Often it involves an issue that is close to Meg’s heart, such as the potential destruction of her northern paradise by a gold mining operation in Death’s Golden Whisper.

DC: Is there any of you in Meg Harris? In fact do any of your novels reflect or are influenced by real people, places or events in your life?

RJH: I suppose there is some of me in Meg. We both share a love for the outdoors. We both come from Toronto. And we both have black standard poodles, in fact Meg’s dog Sergei is the only character based on a real one, my poodle DeMontigny. But Meg is younger and suffered from an abusive marriage. I, on the other hand, have been very happily married for 35 years.

I do however sometimes draw on my own experiences for the story telling. The whitewater canoe trip Meg makes with Eric in The River Runs Orange is based on a canoe trip I did with my husband and I’m afraid Meg’s apprehension of whitewater pretty much reflects my own.

DC: The native theme plays prominently in your series. I believe you are not of aboriginal descent, so am curious to know what prompted you to tell their stories.
RJH: At university one of my favorite professors brought the culture of the Iroquois and other Indian tribes alive for me. So when I realized that West Quebec is the traditional territory of the Algonquin First Nation, I knew that I had to include an Algonquin Reserve. Initially I planned on only one or two Algonquin characters, but I’m afraid I fell in love with them and so did Meg, in fact one in particular. So their stories, the issues facing Algonquins today and their traditional ways have become the focus of the Meg Harris series. In the latest book, Arctic Blue Death, I have broadened this focus to include other indigenous people, in this case the Inuit.

DC: Given that you write about other cultures, research must play a key role in the writing of your books. How do you go about conducting this research?

RJH:Much of my research is gained through the internet and books. But the research I find most valuable and also the most fun is to visit the communities, such as the Kitigan Zibi Algonquin Reserve near Ottawa. For Arctic Blue Death, I spent a week in Canada’s Arctic, on Baffin Island visiting the towns of Iqaluit and Pangnirtung and met a fabulous bunch of people who were more than generous with their time in helping me discover the far north and its people.

DC: How do you construct your novels? Do you follow an outline or go where the characters take you?

I have tried to outline, but I’m afraid before I know it Meg takes me in directions I never planned on and often the story ends up being quite different from the one I initially intended. In fact, in most cases I have no idea whodunit until the very end. So I find myself frantically writing the last chapters, just so I myself can find out whodunit.

DC: I noticed that you spent many years in the high tech industry before becoming a mystery writer. What prompted you to take up writing? And why crime writing?

RJH: One summer, after a significant birthday, I asked myself what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and knew the answer wasn’t continuing to work in high tech. Since I’d always had the idea of writing at the back of my mind, picturing myself in some idyllic location plunking away on my novel, I decided that the time had finally arrived to live out that dream. And because I love reading mysteries it was a no-brainer that I would try my hand at writing a mystery novel. As for the idyllic location, that too has come to pass, for much of my writing occurs at my log cabin deep within the Quebec woods.
DC: Who do you write for? Yourself, your publisher or the reader?

RJH: I suppose I really end up writing for myself and, of course, Meg, for she has many stories she wants told.

DC: Could you tell us about your next book?

Arctic Blue Death is scheduled for release in September. As I mentioned earlier, it takes place in the Canadian Arctic. This book is about Meg and her family. When Meg was a child her father’s plane went missing on a flight over Baffin Island. He was never seen or heard from again. Suddenly thirty-six years later, her mother receives some anonymous letters and curious pictures that suggest he might be alive. Meg flies to Iqaluit to search out the truth no matter how painful and in so doing finds herself embroiled in the world of Inuit art forgery and murder.

In this book I not only delve into Meg’s past and the events that helped shape the person she is today, but I also explore the land of the Inuit and the culture that has helped to sustain them for thousands of years.

DC: I believe your publisher RendezVous Crime publishes one of the largest selections of Canadian mysteries. The books, however, aren’t widely distributed in the U.S. Where can people go to buy your books?

RJH: As much as I wished my books were readily available in the big box bookstores, they aren’t. But they can be obtained through special order. They are also readily available online via Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other online US booksellers. And I know several independent mystery books sellers keep them in stock, such as the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pa.

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