Thursday, January 20, 2011

New York Underlife with S.J. Rozan

My guest is S.J.Rozan, a born and bred New Yorker who grew up in the Bronx, lives in the West Village, loves her city, and knows its every corner like no one else. She is an author of the Lydia Chin and Bill Smith private eye series, which are set in New York and now counts 10 novels and an even greater number of awards and nominations. Winter and Night, which unfolded a story about politics of a jock-ruled small town, won the Edgar, Nero, Macavity, Maltese Falcon, and Best Hardboiled Novel awards.Reflecting the Sky received the Shamus, Edgar, and Anthony. S.J. has also written two standalone novels and 32 short stories, including Double-Crossing Delancy which won the Edgar Award for best short story. Her latest book, On The Line, in which Bill gets a call informing him that Lydia has been kidnapped and he has 12 hours to find her, was released in fall 2010. S.J. also edited the Akashic short story collection, Bronx Noir, and teaches a writing workshop in Assisi, Italy. Last year, she traveled to Mongolia, where she stayed in a ger (akin to a yurt) instead of a hotel, and brought back fascinating pictures and stories. You can find them on

The place where we met was just below 14th Street on the West Side and called itself Snice. It had wooden tables and dim lighting and looked just like the kind of a coffee shop Bill Smith would be meeting someone in for a quick rendezvous. I checked out the crowd, half-way expecting to find Lydia already waiting for him, but no one looked quite like her. I wondered if Linus Wang – Lydia’s cousin and a genius computer geek, whose help Bill had used many a time, would like this place. Snice had an interesting restriction on computer usage: you could only use your laptop if you sat at a long “community table” sharing your working space with a few other people, plus there was only one electrical outlet to refuel one’s dying digital equipment. Linus always makes me smile – maybe because I’m partial to talented geeks, or maybe because his favorite word is “dude,” and so is mine. Alas, neither Linus nor Bill walked through the doors, but their creator did! And it was nice of her to share her stories and answer my questions.
When did you start writing? Did you want to write as a child?
I wanted to write as a kid, but in college I decided I wanted to have a career, do something useful for humanity. I studied architecture, got my degree, got a job – and a great job in New York City too, but something was missing. One day, I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t happy – and it wasn’t just because I didn’t like my job – I didn’t like my career. So I got an adult ad catalogue from the Pratt School, found a mystery class in it, and took it.
Did that class help you to write your first book?
Right away, it was more fun than anything I’ve ever done. It was thrilling. After the class, I found myself a writers' group, joined it, and two and half years later, finished my first book. Writers groups are great. I still belong to a writers' group, although a different one – and as a matter of fact, I am going to my writers' group tonight.
How did you invent your characters?
I always wanted to write private eyes – the character who can’t save himself but can save others. Private eye is about moral ambiguity. So this is how I invented Bill. But my private eye had to have a sidekick – every P.I. needs a sidekick, because sidekicks can do things that the main character can’t or doesn’t want to do. This is how Lydia came about. In order to be an interesting contrasting duo, Bill and Lydia had to be different from each other as much as possible. I studied a lot of Chinese stuff in college, even Chinese architecture, so I made Lydia Chinese. Originally, she was supposed to be a sidekick, but in the first published book, she turned out to be more of a main character – in fact, Lydia was the character who ultimately sold the series. At the time, Lydia was completely unique – there was no Chinese private eye woman and so the “Lydia” book got published first.
How long did it take to publish your first book?
The first book that got published was not the first book I wrote. Altogether, it took six years to see my first book in print. It came out in 1984 from St. Martin’s Press. In the meantime, I kept my architect job, and I wrote short stories too.
Did you always live in New York?
Yes. I was born in Bronx, went to college in Oberlin, Ohio, graduate school at the University of Buffalo, but other than that, I always lived in New York and I like to write about it.
Where do you get your ideas?
I got the idea for China Trade from an article in the (New York) Times about an academic serving time in prison; his specialty was Chinese porcelain export. No Colder Place came from work – an architect in New York angered someone on a construction side and got thrown down the stairs. I thought what if someone got killed rather than just injured. Winter and Night originated from the Columbine killing. Ghost Hero was based on a real person – a Chinese poet who won a Nobel Prize and is in prison.
How did your writing style change over the course of years?
It definitely broadened. And I am more willing to take a chance.

If you were not writing, what would you be doing?
I started my career as an architect, but if I had to make that choice now, I would be a gardener. I would live in a big house and take care of plants.

You teach a writing workshop in Assisi, Italy, every year in August. How does it work? How many people come, where do they stay, etcetera?
The Art Workshop International has been going on for 30 years. People come to study not only writing, but art, painting, immersive Italian, and even cooking. Painters work in the morning because light is better, and I teach in the afternoon. The writing workshop is a two-week session with 10 students. It is never more than 10 students; in fact quite often it’s six or seven, so the group is very small and tight. The students’ levels vary – there are often people who have completed their novels and there are students who have not even started writing, but have an idea. Regardless of where they are, students work very hard, and the two-week immersion does wonders – it changes their perception of themselves. People come there thinking of themselves not as writers, but as doctors, teachers, retired nurses, etc., but the two weeks they spend with other writers, transforms their mentality. Two weeks of talks about words and sentences completely unplugs you out of your normal life and puts you into an artistic cocoon of sorts. And of course, Italy is beautiful, and food is great. The hotel Giotto lies within the walls of the old city of Assisi and is housed in an ancient piazza with terrific views. And besides writing, there’s lots of things to do around.

If you want to read S.J.’s posts and news, or see Mongolia, visit
S.J., thank you so much for the interview!


  1. I can't believe I'm so late to the party, but I just discovered the Bill and Lydia series this year when I read The Shangai Moon. It was one of the best books I've read lately, so now I want to go back and read the rest of the series! Thanks for these insights today.

  2. S.J., what a thrill to have you here! I love your cross-cultural books, and it's great hearing how you mine your ideas and how you created your characters. Now if I can just get myself to Assissi...

  3. I love SJ's books, but haven't read them all yet. I'm trying!

    Lina, you're the first female I've known to use the word "dude". Love it.

    Me, too, Supriya! I'd love to get to that workshop!

  4. Count me in on the wish list for Assisi! It sounds like the perfect place for a workshop. Thanks, S.J., for this insight into your writing process. I've long been a huge fan of your books. I always feel as though I've learned a bit more about the world we live in after reading them.

  5. I would love to read some romance novels set in the Opium era in China.