(Editor’s note: For the latest installment of our “Story Behind the Story” series, we invited San Francisco author Kelli Stanley to explain the background of her second novel, City of Dragons--the first book in a new series--which is being released today by Thomas Dunne/Minotaur Books. Set in 1940 San Francisco, the work introduces Miranda Corbie, a 33-year-old private investigator, former Spanish Civil War nurse, and erstwhile escort, who gets mixed up in the murder of a small-time numbers runner. All while anticipating the reopening of her city’s latest world’s fair, the Golden Gate International Exposition. Fellow novelist George Pelecanos calls City of Dragons “big and ambitious, both reverent and original,” while Linda Fairstein says, “Stanley’s dialogue bristles with attitude, the atmosphere is as thick as bay fog, and her protagonist is a great new dame in crime fiction.” In addition to penning fiction, Stanley is a film and old radio buff, and blogs at Writing in the Dark.)
I guess you could say that City of Dragons feels like the book I was born to write. I can at least tell you that a good part of my life has been spent in preparation for it.
My first novel, Nox Dormienda (A Long Night for Sleeping) (2008), drew upon some knowledge I had gained from an expensive education and a lot of years in academia, and fused it with an abiding affection for the rhythms of mid-20th-century noir, as developed by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and other writers of the hard-boiled pulps. I’m thrilled that I get to continue that series with Minotaur Books; it makes me feel better about the pile of student loans still in my files. But I always planned to mainline the noir tradition, to tackle the actual pulp-fiction era, to grapple with the stereotypes that it created and that are still with us, and to distill it all into something that is purely my own.
The past is problematic for American culture. We tend to glamorize it, own it, categorize it, and file it away as “been there, done that”--if anybody thinks about it at all. But for some reason that has nothing to do with anything other than kismet, I’ve always been drawn to the 1930s and ’40s--even as a child. I wrote a play at age 8 in which the gangster antihero dies, after trying to heroically save the French spy with whom he’s in love. And no, this was before I saw Raw Deal or even Casablanca.
I knew who Jimmy Cagney was. I devoured a fondly remembered magazine called Nostalgia Illustrated every month when I was 10, and listened to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, as well as rebroadcasts of classic shows such as Inner Sanctum and Suspense and The Shadow. I’d buy my 50-cent copies of the big DC 100-Page Super Spectaculars, and relished reading the adventures of Golden Age superheroes like Doctor Fate and Alias the Spider. During the relatively short time I lived in the suburbs of San Jose, California, I’d race home from school to catch the Dialing for Dollars movie on KTVU--usually something from the ’30s or ’40s. No cartoons for me, except, of course, for Bugs Bunny on Saturday mornings.
My point is that I was preternaturally drawn to this era, and the fascination stayed with me through adulthood. I gave three cheers for the VCR, when it finally made its appearance in the Jurassic age of personalized entertainment, and my repertoire of film knowledge made me a whiz at certain questions on Jeopardy and while playing Trivial Pursuit. And for many years, this, well, obsession--it sort of floated in the backdrop, a part of who I was and am, without any practical application or way to share it.
Life took me to different places, and let me try different ways to make a living. Survival is always the foremost task in front of us, and I survived as a comic-book store owner for a while, and worked as an employment counselor. I even sold advertising for an escort service--go figure. Who knew they needed to advertise?
Eventually I found my way back to school, and finished my education with two BAs and a Master’s Degree in Classics. At the same time, I wrote. Nothing novel-length, though I did pen a few screenplays. A lot of poetry, nothing serious or at least publishable. Well, actually, my entry for an Ernest Hemingway writing contest was pretty funny.
While in graduate school I first conceived of the idea of writing a mystery. I always loved mysteries--traditional, too, though I knew Bogey before I knew Christie. But I also wanted to write about Rome, not as “historical fiction,” but as noir--as a thriller--as something raw and in your face but at the same time accessible and, well, fun. And then on one fateful night during Noir City, the annual San Francisco film festival hosted by Noir Czar Eddie Muller, it struck me that I could just damn well write Rome like a translator, not an encyclopedist. The history would be accurate, and there would be no anachronistic similes allowed, but the voice would be an homage to the noir rhythms I hear in my dreams. And that, folks, is how “Roman noir” came to be.
Nox led me directly to City of Dragons. I was out of school, faced with an uncertain future. And with the support of my family, I decided to cross my own Rubicon and try to make a career of writing. I knew I’d need a new series to break into a major publisher and thus have a better chance at surviving on what I could make as a writer.
Because of the long lead time to publication (I was notified in January 2007 about the scheduling of Nox’s release in July 2008), I was able to take the plunge and educate myself about the wonderful world of publishing and think about what to tackle next. One of my areas of interest is world’s fairs, particularly the two expositions (one in New York, the other in San Francisco) that were held in 1939. I’m a collector of all kinds of things--from comic books to cocktail ware--and I’ve amassed a good assortment of ephemera, postcards, menus, guidebooks, etc. from San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE). So I thought I’d try my hand at a series set on manmade Treasure Island, featuring a female private eye.
Flash forward to Bouchercon 2007, in Anchorage, Alaska. My first Bouchercon, my first major conference. And it hit like lightning. Many amazing feelings and thoughts and all kinds of energy came out of that event (not to mention a chance to meet future Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin--which I passed up, by the way). I came home, determined to start the next series, and to make it real, to make it not only about the past that I loved, but the past I deplored. It wouldn’t be a nostalgia-infused neo-noir extravaganza, but a straight-on recognition of the beauty and the horrors and the heroes and the villains, and most of all, the gray life in between. And I wanted to make it an ode, a valentine to the City of Hearts, San Francisco, one of the few places that has ever felt like home to me.
I still thought it would take place on Treasure Island during the fair, which operated for two summers, in 1939 and ’40. But during the course of research--actually, while reading one of the picture-laden Arcadia volumes on different districts in San Francisco--I found some photos from a Rice Bowl Party in Chinatown.
This was a three-day outdoor party, held during Chinese New Year celebrations--back when such things as three-day parties were possible. The entire city gave itself over to Chinatown, with parades and fashion shows, and auctions and dancing and street carnivals and fireworks--until the wee hours, every night. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and a chance to close down the city and walk around drunk, all while ostensibly raising money for Chinese war relief.
At the same time, I discovered how many Japanese-American businesses were based in Chinatown ... and how the Chinese community had organized boycotts against Japanese goods and stores during the last Sino-Japanese War. And I thought, what must have it been like to be Japanese and living in Chinatown after 1937 and the horrific Rape of Nanking?
I remember that moment. I remember the feeling that poured over me, and I knew that this was the place for me to start. Treasure Island and the GGIE would play a part--my protagonist, Miranda Corbie, would work there at the midway (or Gayway, as it was labeled), protecting fan dancer and actress Sally Rand and her girls at the notorious Nude Ranch during the season. But the first book in my series would open off-season, during the Rice Bowl Party of 1940. And with the murder of a young Japanese numbers runner.
I subsequently wrote a Treasure Island-set short-story prequel to City of Dragons, called “Children’s Day,” that will be published in the next International Thriller Writers anthology, First Thrills: High-Octane Stories from the Hottest Thriller Writers, edited by Lee Child and due out from Forge this coming June. And a chunk of my second Miranda Corbie novel, which I’m still writing, is set on Treasure Island as well.
There are other themes in City of Dragons: my obvious love for the San Francisco setting, and a tribute to Hammett in both the staging of a murder at the neo-Gothic Pickwick Hotel and a brief scene at John’s Grill (where Sam Spade stopped in The Maltese Falcon to refuel himself with an “order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes”). My new novel will be published just a couple of weeks before the 80th anniversary of The Maltese Falcon’s original publication--which happens to coincide with both Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year on February 14.
I’ve also tried to write a response to the stereotypical view of a beautiful woman as the eternally evil object, the amoral yet fascinating femme fatale. Miranda uses her face and body to make a living as a detective. She’s also a former escort. She’s an object in a world that continually objectifies her. So she uses her weapons on her own terms and for her own purposes, and she’s tough as hell because she’s had to be. If she doesn’t look out for herself, who will?
City of Dragons is the culmination of many dreams ... childhood plays and George Raft movies and lyrical prose and staccato rhythms. Of hats and bourbon and Chesterfield cigarettes in the midst of the most horrifying atrocities the world has witnessed. Of what it means to be a woman at any age and any time, and what the past might have been without a censor to view it through. It’s a love letter to San Francisco and noir … and I hope you enjoy it.
READ MORE: “Kelli Stanley: From Small Press to Big Success,” by Heather Moore (Writing on the Wall).