Persia Walker interviewed by Maggie Bishop
1. Tell us about your latest published book and your current writing project. My latest published book is DARKNESS AND THE DEVIL BEHIND ME. It’s a murder mystery set in 1920s New York against the backdrop of the glittering Harlem Renaissance. It introduces Lanie Price, a smart, sassy society reporter who covers the good, the bad and the ugly among Harlem’s uppercrust. As the story opens, it’s 1926 and we find Lanie hard at work on her Christmas column. She’s frustrated. Once a crime reporter, she has a hankering to do something a bit meatier than stories about the parties of the rich. As Lanie puts it, “After a constant diet of sugar and nothing but, even the most die-hard sweet tooth will get to yearning for a nice, substantial steak.” It’s a case of be careful what you ask for. The sister of a woman who vanished three years earlier walks in and asks Lanie to dedicate her column to the young woman’s memory. Lanie remembers the case vividly: Esther Todd vanished along the snow-swept streets of a December night. The police were indifferent, but their attitude changed when thieves hit the home of Todd’s wealthy society patron. The million-dollar jewel heist had to have been an inside job, and Todd must’ve been in on it. The case was never solved. Hoping to fresh quotes for her column, Lanie starts revisiting witnesses and asking questions, the impertinent kind, just about guaranteed to get her killed.
2. Your resume brims with creativity. Why did you switch from drama to writing? I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller. Drama was one way of doing that, but I didn’t have the assertiveness, the drive to push myself to be centerstage. I’ve found, however, that everything I learned in drama is applicable to writing. Actors learn to create vivid, unique and memorable characters. They learn to physically inhabit these characters, and bring them to life with speech and mannerisms. They learn the tenets of good dialogue and storytelling, conflict and resolution, all necessary skills for a writer. As a matter-of-fact, I often recommend that writers take acting lessons.
3. Describe your first “big break” in journalism. Oh, I had a couple of breaks. First, I got temp work with CNN as a scriptwriter. That didn’t last long because I soon joined The Associated Press. Eventually, I worked at the AP Broadcast News division in Washington, DC. It was one of the best places I have ever worked. Wonderful, creative, dedicated people. You couldn’t wish for a better bunch. I’d say getting to work at AP Broadcast was my first “big break.”
4. What is your favorite memory from working in Munich? Hmm, another hard one. I would say that my favorite memory from “working” in Munich was (a) hanging out at the Chinesische Turm (Chinese Tower) Biergarten. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was in building that sat snug up against the Englische Garten, Munich main municipal park. The beer garden was just inside the park. It amazed me to see people actually leaving their desks, going outside and relaxing in the sun during their lunch break. When I worked in the States, it was very common for me to take my lunch at my desk. I almost never left the building once I reported for duty. I was immersed in news without break for hours on end. In Munich, I learned to take pauses and appreciate the sense of rejuvenation they bring.
5. Where and when do you do your best writing? In bed, with my laptop on my lap. That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? It’s a habit I’ve tried to break, but I always go back to it. When I’m really into a novel, I literally eat and sleep with it. The laptop is always there, on my lap or at my side, when I fall asleep or wake it. The other place I enjoying working is a public library – especially a library without wireless Internet. That’s where I go when I want a change of scenery, and no risk of distracting myself.
6. How has your journalism experience influenced your novel writing? It’s made me aware that writing is a job. It’s a creative job, but a job, nonetheless. That means professional expectations and deadlines. It means not waiting until the “muse” strikes. It means getting it done and getting it done right, as much as possible, the second time around. (Not the first, the second. The first draft is always just about getting it on paper. The second go-through is for editing.) Working for the AP specifically taught speed and an appreciation for simple, declarative sentences. I’d say the only “negative” side to my journalism experience is that it got me used to writing under pressure. So even today, I write best when I’m under deadline pressure. Without some outer pressure, it’s hard to stay motivated.
7. What is your strength in crafting a novel? (character, plot, setting, etc.) Good question. Honest answer: I have no idea. I tend to come up with very complicated plots. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. I love complex characters, too. I’ve been trying to simplify matters, actually. DARKNESS AND THE DEVIL BEHIND ME has a much simpler plot, for example, than HARLEM REDUX, my other 1920s mystery.
8. Who influenced you the most in your writing career? How? You might find this an odd combination, but I’d have to say Somerset Maugham and Jessica Fletcher. As a child, I loved reading Maugham, especially his novel THE RAZOR’S EDGE. His short stories about British expatriates living in Southeast Asia fascinated me, too. I loved how he described nuances in character, and the passion, or even evil, that can lurk beneath the banal. As for Jessica Fletcher, I used to watch MURDER SHE WROTE while living in Munich. I loved that show, absolutely loved it. I especially loved the opening credits, where she’s typing away and finishing her manuscripts. Every time I saw that, I thought to myself, “Why you can do that, too. All you need is confidence. Just believe in yourself, and have fun. Like she does.”
9. What advice do you have for newly published authors? Start thinking of yourself as running your own business, and of your book as your product. Respect your work, be in love with it if you want to, but develop some sense of detachment and try to see it as others do. They have no emotional attachment to it. Publishers and booksellers see your books as products in which they’ve decided to invest and by which they plan to earn them money. They are your business partners. Readers are your customers. They see your books as a potential source of entertainment. Whether partner or client, they’re all worried about getting their money’s worth. It’s your job to do make sure they do.
10. Tell us something about your part of the country – we love travel. When I was living in Munich, and people asked where I was from, I’d say, “I’m an island girl.” They’d say, “Oh, the Bahamas, Virgin Islands, what?” I’d say, “No, New York City. Manhattan, to be exact.” They were shocked. They would laugh. “New York City, an island?” Many people don’t realize that New York City is composed of boroughs, one of which is the island of Manhattan, with the Hudson River on one side and the East River on the other. As a matter-of-fact, according to the U.S. Postal Service, Manhattan is New York City. (Whenever you send a letter to someone in Brooklyn or Queens, for example, you write Brooklyn or Queens on the envelope. But when you write to someone who lives in Manhattan, you address it to New York City.) Not only is Manhattan an island, but it’s a small one at that. You can cross it by foot, from east to west, within an hour with minutes to spare if you don’t stop. Another secret? The skyscraper section is actually quite small. Most of Manhattan has low-rise buildings. Some of that changed with the recent real estate boom, wherein appeared high-rise condos, but for the most part, it’s still true. Manhattan is also composed of very clearly defined neighborhoods. They are miniature cities in themselves. In each, the people eat, dress, speak, even think differently. An important point because New Yorkers tend to be highly neighborhood-centric. Except for work and play, they’ll live in the same neighborhood they’re entire lives. So for all of our renowned sophistication, New Yorkers (native New Yorkers, that is), are as “small town” in many ways as anyone in so-called Small Town, America, and we’re definitively “island” people.
11. Chat about your pets – we love those, too. Back in September, I went to the ASPCA and adopted two “older” kittens, MacPherson, a black-and-white male, and Sunday, an orange tabby female. Miki P., as we now call him, has developed into a big bruiser. He’s a very people-oriented kitty, extraordinarily curious, loves to explore suitcases, closets, etc. He spends hours dashing up and down the hallway or staring out the window. I wish we had a garden where he could run free. Sunday has now gained the nickname of Cupcake. With her sweet pink nose and orange coloring, she reminds me of a strawberry cupcake. She likes to go off on her own and sleep the afternoon away.
12. What is your favorite southern setting in a novel? I’m sure you get this answer a lot, but I have to say it’s New Orleans. I’ve never been there, but I’ve been in love with the city ever since reading Anne Rice’s INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE. Every film I’ve seen set in the Big Easy, every item I’ve read on its history, only deepenened that fascination. Katrina was a heartbreaker, of course, but I believe that New Orleans will regenerate. As a setting for any tale, it’s mesmerizing.
Visit Persia’s website http://www.persiawalker.com/