22 August 2009 0 Comments

11 arrondissements to go: Cara Black’s Writing Life


Each of Cara Black’s titles takes her computer-security PI Aimee Leduc on the trail of a murder in a different quartier of Paris — Montmartre, Clichy, Bastille. Aren’t those names alone enough to make you want to read them? The latest is Murder in the Latin Quarter, where Aimee tries to trace a Haitian woman who turns up in her office to tell her that she’s her sister. One of the pleasures of a long, developing series like Black’s is that we’ve come to know the detective and her family backstory – radical mother and police detective father – over the course of eight previous books, giving the appearance of a putative sister an extra sting beyond the impetus it gives to the plot of Murder in the Latin Quarter. In much the same way, we’re getting a gradual underground tour of the real Paris. As Cara points out, she has 11 arrondissements (districts) to go. I hope that at that point she won’t quit: Paris has a lot of suburbs.

How long did it take you to get published? Three and a half years.

Would you recommend any books on writing? Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey

What’s a typical writing day? Up early, coffee, feed the dog and hit the laptop for several hours. I take a break during the day then at four o’clock it’s more coffee and back at the laptop. I re-read and revise the morning’s work or often continue a scene working for as long as it takes.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great? Murder in the Latin Quarter takes place in September 1997 set against the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death. A woman claiming to be Aimée’s half sister disappears and in trying to find her Aimée discovers the body of a visiting Haitian professor at one of the Grands Ecole’s surrounded by a ritual circle of salt. Her investigation leads to back door politics involving the World Bank, the IMF, human traffikers and personal insight into her own past. Murder in the Latin Quarter gave me a chance to explore and go deep into areas of the Left Bank I’d never known about before. The faded charm of the still intellectual center, the old Roman baths, the quarries under old Roman roads used and renamed today.

How much of what you do is: a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write? b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with? c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time? I’m not sure this is a strict answer but one of the reasons I love reading crime fiction stems from knowing that the framework, ie. an investigation, provides a map to follow in the story. The books I read use this framework in a different, fresh way and provide a resolution. Some form of justice is served. So that’s what I aim for in my books, something we get so little of in real life. Since each of my nine books have Murder in the title, it’s a bit of a given, that it’s a murder investigation. Aimée works in computer security and it’s a challenge for me to involve her with murder in each book and make it plausible. It helps that she’s a licensed PI, has a background in criminal investigations previously, so she’s got the skill set and background. She gave up criminal investigation after her father’s death in a bombing during surveillance. In each book, she’s on a journey – an inner one and solving the crime.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why? Well, one of my favorite beginning lines is: The camel died at noon. From The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett. I mean after that one sentence how can you put that book down.

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature? Something Dostoyevski said about ‘don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me moon glinting on a piece of broken glass.’

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing? Alan Furst Marguerite Duras when she was alive

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing? Phillip Kerr knocks me out.

How much research is involved in each of your books? Tons. More than you want to know. But that’s what I love about writing a book set in Paris. I need to know the weather, the politics, what’s on sale in the newspaper that day, the street fashion, the music, the clubs, the new Vespa model, computer technology, what’s in season at the market, everything for that time, that day in Paris in 1997. So it’s semi-historical in a way given that it happened more than ten years ago. But then there’s the older historical research I do in the archives of that quartier, this particular district of Paris; what happened here in the 1700’s, which King built this, the origin of a street name, who built this Metro station, when did this sewer line connect, when did the quarries get sealed over, accounts of life here during the German Occupation, interviews with police, private detectives, the local café owner. It’s endless because I’m always finding a piece of gold, – an overheard conversation, an old newspaper article, a ‘nugget’ at the last minute before I head to the airport that deepens the story, adds another layer or spins in a different plot direction or becomes the seed of the next book.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character? I knew I couldn’t write as a French woman — can’t even tie my scarf properly — but I’d met a female detective in Paris who ran her own agency. Through her I met several other female detectives of all ages who gave me unique insights. Let’s face it, a detective in the traditional mold is a loner, an outsider to society and that’s Aimée. In a way she’s half-American, half-French neither fish nor fowl but being half-French gives her a unique fashion sense. She has elements of my friend, a Parisenne who wear heels even to the Commissariat after her apartment was burgled, the woman you see on the street rushing into a cafe, a contemporary woman living in a vibrant city layered by history. Paris has twenty arrondissements — I’ve got eleven more to go.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour? I had a stalker. He attended several book signings in San Francisco where I live. He’d sit in the front row, close his eyes, then at the q+a ask detailed questions about Paris streets and before I could answer pull out his maps and answer the question himself. He’d follow me to the parking lot talking about Paris. Asking me where I stayed and foolishly I told him the street name one time. Lo and behold, he showed up in Paris at the Red Wheelbarrow bookstore in the Marais the night of my signing. He asked the bookstore owners how to reach me since he’d walked up and down the street and hadn’t ‘seen’ me and acted so weird they almost cancelled the signing. He showed up later in the bookstore with his 80 year old mother, a bag of chocolates and no questions for once! We never could figure that out.

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