Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Stanley Steams Ahead

The Kirkus Reviews Web site today carries a good-size chunk of an interview I conducted recently with San Francisco novelist Kelli Stanley, the author of City of Secrets (Minotaur)--her new and second book featuring 1940s San Francisco private eye Miranda Corbie, following last year’s City of Dragons. You’ll find that Kirkus interview here.

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But as I have suggested, there’s more. Only about a third of the exchange I had with Stanley about her work actually made it into Kirkus. So below, I am featuring much of what was left behind. The questions here cover Corbie’s history, the author’s long-standing interest in world’s fairs, and the right-wing hate groups that figure so prominently in City of Secrets.

J. Kingston Pierce: From reading your novels, as well as the Web-posted yarn, “Memory Book,” we know that Miranda Corbie was born in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire and that she’s now a chain-smoking private eye, with an office in the Monadnock Building, on Market Street. But give us some more details of her past, including things you haven’t yet incorporated into the novels.

Kelli Stanley: After college (at Mills College in Oakland) she undertook a number of jobs. One of them was teaching farm workers displaced by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Later, in the mid-’30s, she traveled to New York and met Johnny, a reporter for The New York Times.

He became the love of her life, someone that she could finally trust and give herself to. They traveled to Spain during the Civil War--Miranda trained as a nurse briefly and talked her way in as a volunteer so she could be with John. He was killed in ’37, and she returned to the city of her birth, and drifted into working for Dianne’s Escort Service and Tea Room (an actual business, as most of the businesses are in the series).

Eventually she met Charlie Burnett, a P.I. on the shady side of the street, and worked for him as divorce-case bait. After solving his murder, she was hired by the [San Francisco] world’s fair administration, and secured her own P.I. license. Her second big case (at the world’s fair) involved the Incubator Babies. When she’s not working for herself, she acts as a security guard for Sally Rand’s girls at the infamous Nude Ranch on Treasure Island’s Gayway.

That’s the skeleton of Miranda’s story ... and you’ll notice a lot of gaps. I delve into her history little by little, mostly as it’s revealed to me. The reason for this is simple: when we meet someone for the first time, they don’t come complete with a detailed biography, and I find fictional characters that supply life dossiers to the reader to be unrealistic.

So Miranda--when she first appeared, in City of Dragons--should feel like a 33-year-old woman with a dark past and an uncertain future, at a time in her life when she’s groping for something even she’s not sure about.

A video tour of San Francisco’s 1939-1940 world’s fair

JKP: As you just said, Miranda does part-time work along the Gayway entertainment zone at San Francisco’s 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition. What attracted you to that world’s fair, and why is it a useful part of your novels?

KS: I’ve always been drawn to the idea of a world’s fair ... maybe it’s because I attended Expo 67 in Montreal as a 3-year-old!

They were such spectacular, giant epic events, and so ephemeral--and yet so important in the history of Western culture. They helped spur technological advances like electricity and television, they exposed Middle America to foreign countries and cultures, and they helped shape and define the future. Artists like [Pablo] Picasso and [Georges] Braque, who were heavily influenced by African art, saw it for the first time at a world’s fair, and with that inspiration, of course completely redefined modern art.

They were also grossly racist and colonialist. Historically, world’s fairs were like a cultural Olympics, with each country competing against each other and trying to demonstrate its cultural and political superiority. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, they became a showcase for colonialism, and colonized peoples--along with midgets, dwarves, and people with physical abnormalities--were put on display as a combination trophy/freak show.

Even in 1939/1940, Ripley’s Believe It or Not featured sideshow performers, and a “Midget Village” was a staple on the Gayway.

Miranda’s world’s fair, in other words, represents the tension between the beauty and ugliness of the era I’m writing about, all on a larger-than-life scale. Treasure Island was truly spectacular ... the colored lights at night in fountains of cascading water, the Art Deco statues, the flowers and trees and plants and the Tower of the Sun.

It’s the ideal setting for Miranda, because as much as she’s drawn to the beauty, she’s not blinded by it.

JKP: City of Secrets is a murder mystery, focusing on the slayings of two young women, whose bodies were despoiled after death with anti-Semitic insults. However, the book also ties those crimes in with what were then current, and ugly, themes of “racial hygiene” and eugenics. In your Author’s Note at the front of Secrets, you say that Nero Wolfe creator Rex Stout became a leading defender of human rights and a foe of American fascists before and during World War II. Is that true?

KS: Yes! Isn’t that cool? I had no idea about Stout’s heroism. I mean, we know about [Dashiell] Hammett and what the McCarthyites put him through--but Stout was a committed and fervent anti-fascist.

He was a member of the Friends of Democracy, an organization founded by the Reverend L.M. Birkhead. In the course of researching Birkhead I learned about Stout’s activism. Nero Wolfe’s creator was also on the original Board for the ACLU, and founded the Writers War Board immediately after Pearl Harbor.

[FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover hated him (of course) and thought he was a communist, but the truth is that Stout abhorred totalitarianism of any kind. He was a true liberal.

JKP: While writing City of Secrets, were you conscious of parallels between the rise of American right-wing hate groups in the 1930s and ’40s and similar threats today?

KS: Unfortunately, the similarities are all too apparent.

Right-wing hate groups follow the same pattern today that they did 70 years ago:

Appeal to middle-class and working-class fears of an “outsider” appropriating power and money--the outsider could be black, Jewish, Chinese, female, gay, Catholic, Irish, Italian, Polish ... just about any category other than male, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant.

Wrap said appeal in the American flag and proclaim it patriotism, particularly by identifying the cause with the American Revolution ... The Defenders of the Christian Faith and (in City of Secrets) the Musketeers were actual groups.

Vilify the president (if a Democrat) and refuse to work with the government. Conspiracy theories tend to run amok in these organizations ... a popular corollary to the “Birthers” was the claim that Franklin Roosevelt was “secretly Jewish.”

Get very, very angry, and recognize no rights other than your own. This is the fundamental difference between true “social conservatives”--like, say, the Amish--and people who want to ram their own, privately held beliefs down everyone else’s throat.

I think that sums it up pretty well. FDR was absolutely loathed by these people, even though New Deal programs helped make it possible for group members to dole out their dollars for hate sheets. FDR represented change--perhaps the greatest change in U.S. government history. For the first time, “for the people” would mean something tangible to the poor.

This scared a lot of people. And corporate fat cats--like Henry Ford and Robert McCormick--wanted to fan the flames of fear and anger, because it helped preserve their power. Ford was a notorious anti-Semite, and of course he hated labor unions.

Not a lot of people know that there was a credible fascist coup plot against FDR in 1933 ... led by wealthy businessmen, including a DuPont.

Perhaps the tragedy of our own era is the lack of real dialogue and willingness to work together. A lack of moderation and tolerance. I respect a healthy difference of opinion, especially if it’s grounded in reason, logic, and good faith. In my opinion, the unwillingness to listen to others is the first step toward political fascism.

As the adage goes, if we don’t remember our history ...

JKP: You allude periodically in your stories to the Incubator Baby Case of 1939 as being important to Miranda Corbie’s career and reputation. Yet I don’t believe you’ve ever told the specifics of that investigation. Will readers ever learn them, or is this going to be like one of those elusive cases so often referred to by Doctor Watson in the Sherlock Holmes tales?

KS: Well, it was certainly not my intention to be a tease! I originally thought I’d write two books “in the middle,” then two that were prequels, then go forward with the sequels. Sort of like Star Wars, though hopefully the prequels would be better!

The two prequels are the Incubator Babies case and the murder of Burnett, Miranda’s old boss. I hope to write them after books three and four. Who knows, maybe I can convince my publisher to make book four one of the prequels! I think they would like the series to be a bit more well-established before I crank out novel-length sequels, though, so that’s the reason for the delay. I’m really looking forward to the Incubator Babies, in particular. I received an e-mail from a reader who actually was an incubator baby at Luna Park, and it was so cool to hear from her!

And, as I mentioned earlier, since we meet Miranda when she’s 33 (and with a dark and complex history), these cases will be mentioned because they were crucial to her career as a PI. As a matter of fact, someone involved with one of those cases plays a role in the third book.

JKP: In City of Secrets, Miranda receives a post card from the mother she never knew, who’s living abroad but wants to see her after so long. How might that affect the plots of future Miranda novels?

KS: Because I continuously research, scenes and events morph and change as the novel develops, and characters do, too. [But] I can tell you that Miranda is obsessed with finding her mother when the [next] book opens.

I mean, think about it: Here’s a woman who’s never known parental love, unconditional love. Who found a person [Johnny] to trust and to depend upon and whom she adored once in her life, only to lose him. She’s never really had a family. Rick and Bente and Alan and Gladys, No-Legs Norris, the girls at Sally’s, Shorty Glick at Midget Village ... her friends have been her only family.

So now she’s handed a mother. She’s excited, terrified, wanting to hope, but not trusting to fate because she has every reason not to. There’s a mystery at the heart of that post card, and that’s also Miranda’s job ... to uncover the truth, to unearth secrets.

One of the biggest mysteries at the core of this series is the discovery of who and what Miranda is. The search for identity is a potent one, hero’s journey aside. I also think it speaks to women in particular, because we are so often defined by our roles in relationships.

Well, Miranda has no real relationship other than a few good friendships. She’s not really a daughter, she’s not a wife. She’s her own woman. And here’s a post card from someone who claims to be her mother, someone of whom she has dim but cherished memories, someone she’s been able to create for herself over time, a kind of fantasy parent.

What if her mother isn’t the kind of person she wants her to be? What if she is? And what if the woman who wrote her isn’t her mother at all?

JKP: Finally, I think it’s interesting that, in the dedication to City of Secrets, you mention that your own mother, Patricia, is your “best friend.” Not every daughter can say the same thing about her mother. What makes your relationship with Patricia so special?

KS: First, thank you for reading the dedication!

Motherhood is one of the themes of City of Secrets ... it’s filtered throughout the novel, both in the main case and within Miranda’s personal life. I wanted to dedicate this particular book to my mom, because she is, to me, the ideal mother, my greatest friend and source of wisdom, and because she’s fighting cancer.

My mom is truly a special person. My father once said she’s the “kind of person who makes flowers grow.” That’s a beautiful thought, and very true about Mom.

As an only child, I’m very close to my parents, and Mom and I have an incredibly strong daughter-mother bond. We’ve been through so much together ... we owned a business (a comic-book store) [and] traveled together whenever we could. Mom has always loved me unconditionally and has supported me in whatever I wanted to do. She’s a gentle person who is loyal, and only gets angry over social and political injustices or if her family is threatened. She’s also extremely strong, patient, and just, I don’t know ... pure of heart, I guess. She spends most of her time trying to help other people.

She’s currently on chemotherapy for cancer, and recently fractured her hip. But she still wanted to come to Bouchercon [in St. Louis] with me. She routinely sells my books to every medical person she meets while she’s being treated. That’s my mom. I only wish Miranda (and everyone else I know) had a mom like mine.

READ MORE:Kelli Stanley’s City of Secrets” (My Book, the Movie).

1 comment:

kathy d. said...

City of Dragons is a terrific book. Miranda Corbie is like smart, courageous, bold, opinionated, politically sharp like V.I. Warshawski, but world-weary and a bit jaded, as she's seen war and other horrors and had to support herself in a tough profession in a tough environment.

And that Kelli Stanley adds bigotry and social justice issues to the mix just makes it jucier. I look forward to reading this book, and congratuate the writer for winning the Sue Feder Historical award.

Not usually a fan of historical mysteries, this is an exception -- along with Ariana Franklin.