Monday, January 31, 2011

Talking the Talk

I have a life-long love of learning foreign languages. I see them as the clearest window into another culture. Learning another language is the best way to gain an understanding of how people in other countries think and view the world.

I’ve learned Farsi almost entirely through immersion, with my husband, his relatives, and Iranian friends as my teachers. It all began the first time my in-laws came to stay with us—and remained for six months. Farsi became the language of our home, and I picked up quite a lot without even noticing my progress.

In the early days, I’d sit at the kitchen counter helping my mother-in-law prepare the evening meal, while she told me the names of various food items and cooking methods: jafari (parsley), tadiq (the crispy rice from the bottom of the pot), joosh miad (the water is boiling). I learned that Iranians don’t express their preference for tea based on its taste (strong or weak), but rather by its appearance: por rang (dark or “colorful”) and kam rang (less dark).

As my Farsi skills improved, I discovered that my husband and I have very different concepts of what constitutes fluency in a language. I’ve always believed that the best measure is how well you master colloquial speech. If a non-native English-speaker says to me: “Check it out. That lazy s.o.b. totally phoned it in this time,” I’ll never even notice he said it with a Spanish accent.

Which makes things only frustrating when I practice Farsi on my husband and he responds like this “Don’t say goshneh-ee. You sound like a peasant.” Never mind that’s exactly how he’d phrase the question “are you hungry?” I’m supposed to use the more formal gorosneh hasti.

It puzzled me that he insists I talk like a classroom textbook until the time I wanted to tell my mother-in-law something, but couldn’t quite remember what. I stumbled a bit, then said faramoosh kardam. I forgot.

A big smile spread over her race and she told me how elegant my Farsi sounds.

Elegant? I stared at her blankly. On a good day, the best I can say about my Farsi skills is that the language rolls off my tongue without getting snagged somewhere. On a bad day, it feels like I’m choking out the words, one by one.

My husband stepped in and explained. “You could have said yadam raft. Faramoosh kardam is more formal.” (Guess who taught me that one.)

I started getting compliments: “You speak Farsi so well” or even: “You speak it better than we do.”

Oh sure! I assumed the aunt who told me that was engaging in another peculiarly Iranian cultural practice called ta’aroff—the art of dissembling, of telling white lies out of an excessive sense of politeness.

But then I realized what she really meant. That I spoke the language more “properly” than she did. Not more fluently, smoothly, or confidently. She thought my speech sounded educated, compared to a native’s more informal idiom. Which is never a bad thing in Iranian culture.

So now when I complain that my Farsi sounds stilted and unnatural, my husband suggests that I work on my accent. In his opinion, fluency is judged by how much you sound like a native, not whether you master the local slang.

What about you? Do you speak any foreign languages and how do you judge when you’ve become fluent?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: A Roman Romance

Today's Off The Beaten Track contributor is the wonderful Christina Phillips. She's always loved writing, and while her efforts in eighth grade usually involved space ships, time travel and unfortunate endings, as soon as she discovered romance novels a whole new world opened up. She now writes ancient historical romances about strong heroines and gorgeous warrior heroes who, no matter how torturous the journey, are guaranteed a happy-ever-after. Christina was born in the United Kingdom, but now lives in sunny Western Australia with her real-life hero and their three children.

Thank you Alli, and the wonderful ladies at Novel Adventurers for having me on your blog today!

I thought I’d chat today about the historical background of my ancient historical romances for Berkley Heat—FORBIDDEN (out now) and CAPTIVE (out next month). The Forbidden series is set during the first century AD, during the early years of the Roman occupation of Britain.

I’ve always loved history and growing up in England I took our rich heritage for granted (you can bet I’m kicking myself now!). We’ve been invaded by Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans, and as a teen I adored reading sexy romances of fearless warriors and their beautiful maidens. But I never expected that one day I’d be writing them!

And yet as soon as Maximus, the Roman centurion hero of FORBIDDEN, stormed into my head late one night, I was hooked. Why was he searching for his Druid princess lover when they were the deadliest of enemies?

The reason I chose Wales as my setting was because of its links to the Druids, and the fact the Isle of Anglesey—then known as the Isle of Mon—was the Druid stronghold. I wanted the odds stacked overwhelmingly against Maximus and his heroine Carys being able to declare their love for each other and having her a Druid—and a Druid princess at that—fit perfectly.

Claudius, the Roman Emperor at the time, hated Druids with a passion and wanted all trace of them wiped out across his Empire. Couldn’t be better for the purposes of my plot! I now had historical back up for my Romans’ determination to hunt down and eliminate the elusive clan of Druids who had escaped them during the initial invasion.

The second book, CAPTIVE, follows the story of Carys’s best friend Morwyn. After she’s captured by a tough Gaul mercenary she’s taken to Camulodunum—present day Colchester in Essex in S.E. England—which at that time was the Roman capital of Britannia. It was only after the Boudicea revolt in AD 61, when Camulodunum was razed to the ground, that Londinium (present day London) became the capital city.

AD 51, the year in which CAPTIVE is set, is also the year when Caratacus, a displaced Briton king, rose up against the Roman invaders in what he hoped would be a decisive battle. I was intrigued as to how he and his rebels managed to evade the Romans for so long and Caratacus and his vision for freedom became a vital thread of the book.

I’d love to giveaway a copy of either FORBIDDEN or CAPTIVE to one lucky commenter—just leave a comment in this post or let me know what ancient or unusual time period in history do you love reading about in romances?

Entries will close at 11.59 February 4, 2011 EST.
Between a warrior and a princess comes an erotic passion as all-consuming as the hatred between their warring worlds…  
Excerpt: Over 18s Only, please!

Trained in sensuality, a Druid priestess finds herself falling for the wrong man—the warrior who’s taken her prisoner…

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Eighth Wonder of the World

The Amber Room (Янтарная Комната, reads Yantarnaya Кomnata) in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo (Czar's Village) near St. Petersburg was a gift from the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I to his then ally, Peter the Great, in a gesture of celebrating peace between Russia and Prussia. The room was often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World due to its rare beauty, but its fate proved to be anything but peaceful.

The room was designed by German baroque sculptor Andreas Schlüter and constructed by the Danish amber craftsman Gottfried Wolfram at Charlottenburg Palace in Prussia. Transported to Russia in 18 large boxes, it was originally assembled in the Winter House in St. Petersburg, but later Czarina Elizabeth ordered it to be moved to the Catherine Palace in Pushkino a.k.a. Tsarskoye Selo. The new space was bigger and so more amber was shipped from Berlin. After Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli, an Italian architect, who also built many palaces in and around St. Petersburg, redesigned the room, it occupied over 55 square meters (approx. 180 square feet) of wall space, glowed with six tons of gold, amber and other precious stones, and was worth 142 million dollars in today’s money. Czarina Elizabeth used it as her private meditation hall. After the revolution, the room became a part of the museum, well preserved and diligently cared for by the Russian historians and curators.

When Hitler invaded Russia, returning the Amber Room where it belonged was very much a part of his "Operation Barbarossa.” The Russian officials tried to dismantle and evacuate the treasure. Unfortunately due to the amorphous nature of amber, which is a soft stone that grows hard and brittle with age, they couldn’t strip down the ornaments: the amber started crumbling. To preserve the artifact somehow, the keepers covered the room with dull wallpaper, but their efforts proved to be futile. When the Nazi the forces entered Pushkino, the room was discovered and taken apart with typical German efficiency - in 36 hours. The treasure was sent to Königsberg (nowadays Kaliningrad) and re-assembled in a local museum.

The true mystery of the Amber Room begins in 1945 when it was supposedly dismantled again and packed for evacuation because Königsberg was being severely bombed by the coalition forces. Several witnesses claimed that crates made it to the railway station, but no one knows what happened to the illustrious chamber afterwards. Many different hypotheses have been entertained and many individuals tried and even claimed they had found it, but no one ever did. The Soviet Union had sponsored several search missions, none of which managed to solve the mystery. In 1998, a German team announced it found the Amber Room buried in a lagoon. Later, a Lithuanian group declared it found the chamber in a silver mine. Neither turned out to be true. Interestingly enough, bits and pieces of the treasure keep washing out into the world like amber from the sea. An Italian stone mosaic, which proved to be part of the room, turned up in western Germany in 1997 - in the possession of the family of a soldier who belonged to the deconstructing team in 1941. Some gold remnants were also found in a small town near the German-Czech border.

Experts say it is unlikely that the room was entirely destroyed by bombing because no burnt amber was found around the Königsberg's museum. Another theory was that the treasure was put aboard Wilhelm Gustloff, the German flagship that sank shortly after it sailed from Gotenhafen, struck by three Russian torpedoes. A radical idea that the Soviets destroyed the artifact themselves was met with great indignation from Russian historians, who had embarked on the room restoration mission in 1979. Originally, the restoration team counted only three amber carvers with the appropriate skill level, but eventually it grew. The project took over 20 years and was finally completed in 2003, largely due to the fact that Germany donated $3.5 million dollars to the effort. The new room was opened on the 300-year anniversary of the city of Saint Petersburg by the joint endorsement of the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. And thus, the room’s turbulent fate was finally at peace.

Except some people are still searching for the world’s largest lost treasure: a recent claim by the Amber Room Organization states that the room was transported to the county of Saalfeld and hidden in an old underground cave. The group is seeking a production company to make a movie about their discovery.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Killer Charisma

The Bikini Killer, the Serpent, the Asian Charles Manson, Lobo. These are among the nicknames real-life serial killer Charles Sobhraj has accumulated in his long, notorious career. That plus several biopics published on his life, movie producers vying for film options, his own publicist in Paris, prison parties, beautiful women swooning over him wherever he goes, and most recently, a gorgeous young bride in Nepal. 
Charles Sobhraj was born in Saigon to an unwed teenage Vietnamese mother and an Indian (Sindhi) father. Soon after his birth, Sobhraj’s father left the family and his mother remarried a French army lieutenant. The  family moved to what was then known as Indochina. As a teenager, Sobhraj moved back and forth between France and Indochina. By the time he reached the age of 20, he’d already served time for burglary. By 30, he had married and had a young daughter but served more time for auto theft, smuggling, armed robbery, and evading police. He moved his family from Paris to Bombay to Kabul then across to Greece. Soon, he began crisscrossing Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia to lead his life of crime. Wherever he went, he used his charm and ability to persuade people to do things for him, picking up lovers, accomplices, and followers with ease, escaping prison by tricking wardens, and making enough money to live the high life.

But by the mid-‘70s, Sobhraj’s hijinxes had turned deadly. His victims were young American and European, mostly women. He killed his victims by whatever means necessary, be it burning, drowning, poisoning. He’s allegedly responsible for at least 30 murders over a decade and along a trail that includes Pattaya, Bangkok, Bombay, Hong Kong, Calcutta, Kathmandu, and Kuala Lumpur. He gained the nickname the bikini killer because his first known victim was found floating in a tidal pool wearing a flowery bikini.

It’s incredible that Sobhraj got away with bold crimes for so long, in so many places, with so many fake identities and stolen gems and money, and leaving behind ample evidence for the authorities. And yet what makes his story even more fascinating is how far sheer charisma got him and with relatively minor consequences. Nearly everything about this case is hard to believe, more the stuff you’d expect from a Bond film than the evening news. Flamboyant is a good word to describe Sobhraj’s life.

For instance, in most of these places, Sobhraj stole money and gems to finance his comfortable lifestyle. He didn’t kill his victims for money so much, it seems, as for the adventure of it, just because he could. For much of the past few decades, his loyal “crime family,” including his brother and ex-lovers (the ones who’ve lived), have refused to squeal on him (earning him the comparison to Charles Manson). It’s been reported that he still has thousands of followers, including a few on a Facebook page. In 1986, Sobhraj threw a party in a Thai prison where he drugged prisoners and guards alike. Once they fell asleep, Sobhraj walked out without anyone stopping him. He’s managed to escape not one prison but several and in various countries. On one occasion, despite being a fugitive in Paris, he hired a celebrity publicist and charged high fees for media interviews. (One report claims he received $15 million from a film studio that optioned rights to make a movie about his life. Not sure which studio, but rumor has it, Bollywood has a biopic in the works.)

For years, a Dutch diplomat, Herman Knippenberg, focused his efforts on collecting evidence against Sobhraj with little or no help from international authorities. Sobhraj would still be a free man today if he hadn’t visited Nepal in 2003 and been spotted by a journalist who happened to recognize him. So far, his seven years in a Nepali prison have been good to him. Sobhraj boasts about eating gourmet meals and having a private TV and email access in his cell. Back in Europe, his French wife lodged a case with the European Court of Human Rights, claiming he hadn’t received a trial. He finally did have a trial and is now serving out only a 20-year sentence. His charm and good luck continue to serve him well. I’m not sure what happened to the first wife, but in 2008, the 67-year-old prisoner married his beautiful 20-year-old Nepali fiancée who, along with her attorney mother, are lobbying hard to prove his innocence and have his sentence commuted. 

How does he do it? A lot of people are asking that question.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Crossing the Line

The Cessna putters along the stony runway, strong wind gusts pushing the tail off course. Just when I think the pilot will abandon the take-off, he guns the engine. I suck in my breath and grab the sides of the cracked leather seat I’m sitting on. With eyes squeezed shut, the flying tin can shudders beneath my feet and finally builds to a quaking crescendo. When we’re airborne, I pry one eye open and figure if I’m going to die, then it might as well be with a bird’s eye view of one of the ancient world’s unsolved mysteries-the Nazca Lines in Peru.

Luckily, the plane steadied and I made the journey safely, but I’d already forgotten my fear of dropping out of the sky like bird doo-doo once I got my first glimpse of the mysterious lines that can only be seen from the sky. Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the Nazca lines are situated on an arid plateau 250 miles (400km) south of Lima and date back to between 400 and 650 AD. There are hundreds of geometric shapes, which include drawings of hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys, fish, sharks, and llamas.

No one knows for sure who made the shallow lines, but scientists agree the lines were made by removing the red rocks on the surface of the earth to expose white rocks beneath. From the ground, these lines appear to be a mish-mash with no apparent rhyme or reason. But from the air, these odd patterns take on a totally different meaning. The two most well-known lines are the 295 feet (90m) high monkey an extravagantly curving tail and a condor with a 426 feet (130m) wingspan.

Discovered in 1927 by passengers on a commercial flight taking a new route, the Nazca Lines have baffled anthropologists, archaeologists, and ethnologists, as well as lay men. Many have tried to discover the who the creators are for what reason the lines exist, but to date, but to date, no one has any concrete answers. Here are just a few of the theories that have been put forward:

Maria Reiche, a German mathematician, spent her life studying the lines and claimed the indigenous people of Nazca created them as a way of communicating with their gods in the sky and also as an astronomical calendar for agriculture.

In the 1970’s, American Jim Woodman tested out his theory that the creators of the lines used balloons made of fine Peruvian cotton and reed baskets. He asked the Aymara Indians to make a hot air balloon that could have been used by the Nazca people from that time period. From the sky, he could see the lines clearly but without using technology, he couldn’t signal those on the ground as to where to move the rocks. His theory literally blew sky high when the balloon caught fire and the two pilots made a narrow escape.  

Swiss author Erich von Däniken held a theory that a long time ago, aliens visited earth. After the aliens disappeared the Nazca people made the lines in the hope they would get the message and return. Many people like to poo-poo this theory, but those who believe it will very quickly point out the spaceman figure on a hill near the main lines.

Anthropologist William H. Isbell believes the kings of Nazca ordered the people to make these lines because if the commoners were working, then they couldn’t procreate. And if they couldn’t procreate then their inadequate stores of food would become strong enough to sustain a limited population. 

Anthropologists Markus Reindel and David Johnson believe the lines are markers for subterranean water. The figures show the water stream, and zigzag lines show where they end. American Professor of Anthropology, Anthony Aveni has a similar belief but adds that the lines are connected with calendar, water, and mountain deities. It’s with this belief, he feels the Nazca people celebrated a water cult and used the figures and lines for ceremonial dances.

John D. Miller analyzes ancient buildings worldwide and has discovered they often hold a value of 177 feet. He bases his theories on several holy numbers and units of measurement and believes the Nazca Lines fit within the 177 feet model. 

The Code of Carl Munck believes ancient sites around the world are precise positions on a global, coordinated system in relation to the position of the Great Pyramid of Giza. An ancient system called Gematria or Gematrian numbers are found in ancient myths and religions, including the Bible, and according to Gematria experts, the Nazca Lines fall neatly into this patterning.

Phew! And this is just a short list of theories. It’s very easy to Google to your heart’s desire to find out more. For me, floating with the birds, staring wide-eyed at the lines below, wondering who, why, and how, was an experience I’ll never forget. Maybe one day, we’ll find discover the real reason behind the Nazca Lines, but for now, I’m happy to analyze the theories and come to my own conclusion. And in case you’re wondering, I did kiss the ground when we landed.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Mystery of the Persian Mummy

An ancient mummy turns up in Pakistan in the hands of a corrupt antiquities dealer. As three countries quarrel over ownership of the find, speculation grows over who actually lies inside the gilded sarcophagus: a 2,000-year-old Persian princess or a modern Pakistani woman? Sounds like the premise for a Steven Spielberg movie.

But it’s not. This really happened.

In 2000, Pakistani police arrested a man in Quetta, a town near the Iranian and Afghan borders, for attempting to place an antiquity on the region’s thriving black market. The artifact in question was a carved wooden sarcophagus in which lay a gold-crowned mummy, complete with face mask and breastplate. The sarcophagus was carved with inscriptions in cuneiform, the writing system of the ancient Persians, and decorated with images of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian deity. The Iranian antiquities dealer handling the sale claimed that the mummy had been found near Quetta following an earthquake.

When archeologists at the National Museum of Pakistan examined the mummy, they were thrilled. A preliminary examination showed that the embalmed woman was likely Rhodogune, the daughter of Xerxes I, who ruled Persia in the fifth century B.C. If proven authentic, the mummy would be an amazing find, since no Iranian mummies had ever been found before. Not surprising, since Persians of that time were Zoroastrians, who neither mummified nor buried their dead, but left the bodies out in the open to by consumed by vultures. The Egyptian-style mummification led to further speculation about the princess’s identity: had she been the Egyptian wife of a prince during the reign of the earlier Persian king, Cyrus I?

A few months after this announcement, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran began to squabble over rights to Her Highness. Taliban officials in Afghanistan insisted that she’d actually been found across the border in their territory. The Iranians claimed that she’d been a member of the Persian royal family and therefore belonged to them. They threatened to turn the matter over to Interpol. The Pakistanis had possession of the mummy and were determined to keep her.

But the evidence didn’t hold up to further scrutiny. The cuneiform inscription stated that the princess was Rhodogune, a later Greek translation and not the Persian name used in her lifetime. A forgery expert concluded that the image of Ahura Mazda was not authentic. It had been carefully copied but was missing some essential elements. Carbon dating showed that the wooden sarcophagus was only 250 years old, while other tests revealed discrepancies in the Egyptian mummification practices. Some elements were correct—removal of internal organs hands crossed over the chest, bandages properly applied. But the heart was missing. The Egyptians believed that the heart was the repository of wisdom, a quality the deceased would likely need in the afterlife, and therefore they would have left it inside the body.

The plot thickened when scientists examined the princess herself. Far from being 2,000-year-old royalty, she turned out to have dyed blond hair, a broken neck, and the physical traits of a local Pakistani. An autopsy revealed that she had not been dead for more than a few years, likely the victim of a murder. So had the forgers killed her themselves when they needed a body for their fake mummy?

When I first read about this story, I found the whole thing bizarre and intriguing. To pull off such a fraud would require a great deal of planning, equipment, and secrecy – and possibly someone willing to commit murder. You’d need experts in archeology, mummification, and people with the skill to do the job properly. But the whole fraud unraveled due to sloppy attention to historical detail. Did the forgers think that no one would notice?

Perhaps not. Maybe they’d intended to sell Her Highness to an unsuspecting millionaire wanting a unique artifact for his collection and not caring enough to put authenticity to the test. If they’d intended the princess to be the Archeological Find of the Century, you’d think they’d have paid closer attention to archeological accuracy.

Still, it makes for a good story. Maybe someone should call Spielberg.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Let's Talk About Places

Our guest today is Kaye George, an award-winning short story writer, and the author of several mystery novels, including CHOKE, the first book in Kaye’s Imogene Duckworthy series that will be released in May 2011 by Mainly Murder Press. Her latest short story, “Twelve Drummers Drumming,” is now available at Dark Valentine. In her other lives, Kaye has been a mainframe computer programmer, a nurse's aide, a bookkeeper, a mental health center secretary, and even a short order cook and a janitor in a tractor factory. She also plays the violin. Can you imagine all the stories this woman can write? Well, read her post below and find out for yourself. And don’t forget to visit Kaye at

Since this blog is run by world travelers, it seems a good place to discuss settings and a problem I have with them. I'd like to ask a question of the readers, too.

I'll discuss settings first. Some authors write stories that depend on a particular one, some write portable stories that just happen to take place somewhere. I've written both kinds, but I favor using a specific place, a place that can give a mood to my story.

If I heeded the oft-given advice, write what you know, I would stick to places I've been, and I usually do that, but not always. Using a real place, but changing the name so I can play with the details, gives me the most leeway. I feel more comfortable doing this with small towns. When setting a story in a big city like Chicago or Minneapolis, I prefer to use the real name and try to put the atmosphere of that city in the piece.

I wrote a story set in Chicago because part of the story involved the cold my cop protagonist was suffering from. Putting him in Chicago in the winter made his sneezing and sniffling so much worse! That icy wind off Lake Michigan whips through the streets, cutting through your snow coat, your scarf, your gloves, and chilling you to the bone. When I was attending Northwestern University in Evanston, just north of Chicago, I had a Russian teacher who was raised in Siberia. She said they would go skiing at forty below in her childhood in Russia, but Chicago, with its incessant wind, felt colder.

I wrote another story that couldn't have taken place anywhere but Lake Minnetonka, outside Minneapolis. The story centered around a contest that used to take place on the vast lake when we lived there. All winter long, the lake was used for recreation: skating, snowmobiling, ice fishing. But the ice grew thin and perilous as spring warmed the air and the geese returned. An old pickup truck would be left on the ice at the end of the ice-fishing season, the ice houses would be removed, and, as the fragile shelf thinned and melted in the strengthening sun, the truck would break through the creaking ice, getting a few inches lower every day. People would drive by, even stop and stand on the shore to watch, and they would bet on the day it would sink and disappear into the water.

One more example – my story, DEVIL'S NIGHT. The title event is something that happens in Detroit the night before Halloween (actually for several nights), and it's pretty horrific. The practice has subsided in recent years, but when we lived there in the 1980s, it was going strong, with more than 800 fires set some years. In the 1970s, a time of increasing civil unrest as the Viet Nam war ground on, a tradition arose, fueled by the poverty and frustrations of inner city minorities, of burning buildings, usually local businesses, on that night. Young thugs would roam the city starting fires, mostly in the blighted inner city, but sometimes in the more well-off suburbs as well. It got so dangerous that firefighters from across the country would volunteer to travel there and help combat the fires. Everyone living in the area would smell the smoke on the crisp, night air and shudder. Many places were destroyed every year.

None of those stories could be transported to another place. But I've written others that take place in generic places, with the emphasis on the character and relationships, although I usually have a region in mind.

But I have a problem and wonder if other writers experience the same thing. I can't set a piece of fiction, long or short, in the place I live at the moment. Luckily, I've lived in a lot of different places and can draw on all of them. But I seem to need the distance before I can start setting a place on paper (or into a computer).

I have a theory on that. While I'm living here, near Austin, at the moment, I see the music clubs, the university students, the eclectic mix of citizens; I'm in the middle of everything, the vibrant downtown, the plays and concerts and football games; all the details distract me and it's hard to choose what to use.

With distance and time, the essence of the place is distilled. I can actually see places I've lived more clearly now than when I lived there. Maybe because I only remember the details that have stuck with me, the important things, the characteristics that make a place what it is. The extra stuff, the white noise, is gone.

I know lots of authors write about the places they live, and do it well. But I have the same problem with my imagination that I have with my hearing (or so my ENT says). The background noise gets in the way.

So, the day I write about Austin, will be the day I'm living somewhere else.

Does anybody have any other theories about this? Different or similar experiences? Do readers like to see certain settings versus others?

P.S. If anyone is interested, my Chicago cop story, HANDBASKETS, DRAWERS, AND A KILLER COLD, the one that got me an Agatha nomination, is included in my recently published volume, A PATCHWORK OF STORIES, available on Smashwords and Amazon as an ebook, and as a paperback at Amazon and Createspace. DEVIL'S NIGHT is in the collection, too. The Lake Minnetonka story, TRUCK CONTEST, will be included in an upcoming anthology, called Fish Tales, not yet released. To read my stories in The Dark Valentine, click here:

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.

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S.J., thank you so much for the interview!