Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cool Canadian Crime: Lou Allin

Today David Cole continues his Cool Canadian Crime interviews. Today: Lou Allin

Previously, David interviewed
Louise Penny, Barbara Fradkin, Mary Jane Maffini, Thomas Rendell Curran, Gail Bowen, Garry Ryan, RJHarlick, Anthony Bidulka, and Rick Mofina. This group of authors were chosen by David to represent a variety of mystery genres, styles, and historical periods. More to come.

Lou Allin sings two anthems: born in Toronto, Canada, but raised in Ohio. Her father followed the film business to Cleveland in 1948. His profession explains her passion for classic films and debt to Ted Turner.

A Ph.D. in English Renaissance literature proved to be more of a hobby than a career with 1975 signaling the end of two decades of university hirings as demographics shifted. Discovering that she retained Canadian citizenship, Lou headed north, farther north than she had believed people live, deep into the Boreal forest of Ontario, where men are men and moose take precautions.

For the past twenty-five years, Lou has taught a variety of communications courses at Cambrian College, basic grammar to report writing to Canlit to public squeaking. She lives on her own meteor crater lake, canoes and snowmobiles, hikes and snowshoes in the Crown land preserves around her home. When the blackflies tap her out, she travels to the Four Corners area in the US and visits another Anasazi ruin.

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

LA: Even though I had published poetry and short stories (The National Enquirer paid twenty-five US bucks for four lines about toothpaste), writing a longer work didn't occur to me until I spent a few six-month winters in a cottage on a gigantic lake in Northern Ontario. With no television, reading seemed a good option. At the local library, crime fiction was plentiful, and after finishing a hundred, I said, "I can write as badly as this!"

When Northern Winters are Murder was finished in 1995, it took me five years to find a publisher. For awhile I had a well-meaning English agent (Anne Perry's), who couldn't find a British press who would accept Canadian authors. As for the cast, I was thinking Margot Kidder in her Superman days. By the I had found Toronto's RendezVous Press, I had two more books finished.

DC: How does your training as an English teacher help or hinder your fiction writing?

LA: Contrary to what people believe, English teachers make dubious crime-fiction writers. Everytime they want to break a rule, they have to bend their own fingers. Fragments, for example. Nothing wrong with them. And conversation becomes stilted with pronouns: "It's I" or "It's me" or "This is she" to answer a phone. Also we tend to fall in love with our prose, and that's a fatal flaw. Was it Orwell who said that good writing should never call attention to itself?

DC: Which do you prefer to write: stand-alones or series books?

LA: They both have attractions. With a series, characters become more familiar as the list continues. Avoiding formulas and finding fresh plots becomes the challenge. Beginning a second series is like coming home and finding a new house with a strange family at the dinner table. Everyone seems to know you, but you have no idea who they are.

I've published two standalones, each written before the series saw publication. A Little Learning is a Murderous Thing is an academic mystery. The copper-mining heritage of the Michigan Upper Peninsula reminded me of the Nickel Capital, Sudbury, where my Belle Palmer series is set. Using a university allowed me to revisit the sarcastic banter and petty broils of an English department. Some of the problems at Cambrian College, where I taught, are thinly disguised. Since the book was a hardcover, though, I knew the very colleagues I lampooned would be too cheap to buy it.

The American Southwest became the scene for Man Corn Murders. Thanks to several Four Corners trips, I used what I had learned about the Anasazi and Fremont tribes and their controversial experience with cannibalism. Playing with new characters can be liberating, but the retired aunt dominated the plot until I sprained her ankle and let her niece out to play.

Another influence is the dogs in my life, who channel me to include them in my plots. Freya, a late German shepherd, appears in the first series. Her replacement, Nikon, is in the Michigan book as a puppy. Then comes Bush Poodles are Murder with Friday, my mini. The lively Shogun, a border collie rescue, appears in And on the Surface Die. Oddly enough, the least realistic dog is Tut in Man Corn Murders. I never had a Nova Scotia duck toller, and it shows.

A series is like a partner. The standalone is a one-night date. What a perfect world to enjoy both.

DC: I've always been impressed by the sense of place in your books. Can you tell us a little about how you go about absorbing and recreating Sudbury and now Vancouver Island?

When I first drove to northern Ontario in 1977, I didn't know that I had arrived at the nadir of Sudbury's history as an ecological disaster theme park deconstructed over a century by the mining industry. Forests had been ravaged to rebuild Chicago after the great fire. The remaining wood had been burned to fuel open-pit ore smelting. With no groundcover, soil ran off the hills and acid rain scoured the rocks. Astronauts had come to its blackened moonscape to train (or so the rumour went). At that critical point, the Superstack had just been constructed, supposedly to clean 95% of the air, and a program of regreening had begun. Thousands of people of all ages from business, education, and the community in general began a program to plant over twenty million trees in the next three decades and re-green the hills with "rye on the rocks." So successful was this initiative, that the city received an award from the Earth Summit in Rio. A wasteland the size of New York City had disappeared. Last time I passed on a bus from Ottawa, I didn't recognize the place.

As for Vancouver Island, the primary product was timber and now tourists. From the air, it's apparent that the island has been logged several times, with only the most remote trees surviving from ancient days. Unsatisfied by this destruction, the timber companies want to turn their clearcuts to real estate and reap the profits. Joni Mitchell was right about the tree museum. Old-growth cutting should be banned. Some of these Douglas firs are three hundred feet tall and over a thousand years old.

DC: If you could go back to the beginning and change anything about Belle Palmer, what would you change?

LA: Long-term plans for my character didn't figure. I was trying to write a book, like having a baby, not worrying about where it was going to college and whom it might marry. Before long I realized that to be realistic, the character had to age. Even dicing with seasons, winter, summer, winter, fall, Belle was heading for her later forties. With the kind of action I enjoy plotting, I was asking a lot. That's why five books seemed enough, ending with Memories are Murder. She's in a parallel dimension along with her father and Freya. And her taxes for lakefront will never increase.

Holly Martin in And on the Surface Die is a mere thirty two, an RCMP corporal ready to roll. I'm just getting to know her, and I must accept her youth and lack of experience. Belle has fifteen years on Holly and sees the world differently.

DC: You wash up on a desert island. Which books would you wish to find awaiting you?

LA: Recently I faced a ten-thousand-dollar move across country and strait from Sudbury to Vancouver Island. A dollar a pound. What novels did I take? My first edition Thirty Nine Steps along with three other Buchan novels and all of Nevada Barr. These books I knew I would keep re-reading. I was ruthless, but I flinched at Dickens and brought Great Expectations, the best crime novel of the last millenium along with Robertson Davies' Fifth Business, the Canadian equivalent.

DC: As a writer, what have you not done yet that you'd like a chance to do?

LA: I'd love to write a historical. Victoria appeals to me, late nineteenth century through to World War One. Emily Carr would make a natural sleuth. For a change, I might use the first person. On the other hand, thrillers make big bucks. Woman in jeopardy fleeing with a child with health problems could be a sale. All I need is the location. Pacific Northwest or Ohio, where I grew up?

DC: Do you think Canadian crime writers face different odds from their US or British counterparts?

LA: I'll try not to whine. The biggest problem Canadian crime writers face (except for those with big publishers) is that north of the border we have only ten percent the number of readers down south. Also there is a very unreasonable prejudice by agents and publishers against novels set here, Louise Penny and Giles Blunt aside. They insist that readers would prefer not to read about a Canadian setting. If the voices on dorothyl, an on-line mystery group of over 3000, are to be believed along with the audience of every Canadians panel I've served on, this is an unfortunate myth. Gallic shrug. What's the solution?

DC: Biggest compliment?

LA: Vancouver Island replaces long snowy winters with long rainy winters, so often the outlook is bleak. Then a piece of mail from a reader comes along and revives me. The most touching compliment I received was from a blind lady, who "reads" the books on CD. She said that the settings were so real that she could see the scene. That made me grin from ear to ear.

DC: What advice would you give unpublished authors?

LA: Write like hell. Start early. Start late. But start.

Get an opinion from another author, not a relative or friend. The mystery community is very generous with its mentoring.

If you want to make more than chicken feed, get an agent, a reliable one listed in directories or better yet, recommended by a successful author friend.

If you just want to be published, study the markets and send to the few places which take books over the transom. Poisoned Pen Press. Five Star Gale. Smaller presses in the US and Canada.

Don 't stop writing. If the first one is published, the second better be lined up like the next train in the station.


Northern Ontario Movers said...

This book is best read while sitting someplace really warm! The author has done an excellent job of writing about the snowy north, makes me really feel like I'm there. Brr. The book has a unique voice too. Apparently she loves old movies, and you can really tell. She's got a quirky way of looking at things. Makes for a nice change.

Janet Rudolph said...

Which book? all?

Sunny Frazier said...

I was saddened to be informed of the uphill climb Canadian authors face to get read in the US. Lou, we've talked a bit about this after I featured writers from Canada in The Murder Circle. It's not like we need a passport to buy books!
Loved the interview, I feel I now know you even better. I'm going back to read interviews with all the other Canadians featured on Janet's site. Janet, thanks for giving our neighbors a chance to shine.

Janet Rudolph said...

and, a special thanks to David Cole for all these wonderful interviews!

Lou Allin said...

David's our new hero in Canada. And you, too, Janet, for sponsoring us. We'd love to show you all a good time in Victoria BC in June of 2011 at Bloody Words. Our magical island is easy to get to and hard to leave.

Visit our site at www.bloodywords2011.com

Janet Rudolph said...

Love to make it to Bloody Words... one of these days...

David Cole is my hero, too. He's so supportive of other writers.