Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Joyce Yarrow: From the Crime-Ridden Bronx to Crime-Ridden Mystery Novels

Istoria Books is thrilled to release Joyce Yarrow's mystery,  Code of Thieves (originally titled The Last Matryoshka in hardcover), this March. Here Joyce talks about her life, her PI brother, her writing, and her thoughts on "place as character":

Tell us about your writing journey -- when you started, if you always wanted to write mystery, what led you to mystery writing.

Joyce: Ah, my writing journey. Most writers start as readers. The public library was just a few blocks from our apartment in the Bronx and was definitely the safest place in our crime-ridden neighborhood, where gangs rumbled every night and even walking to school could prove perilous.

My own writing juices began to flow when I discovered the music hidden within words. I set William Blake’s poem, “Infant Sorrow” to a melody with guitar accompaniment and went on to become a full-fledged singer-songwriter, with many side journeys into poetry published in short-lived magazines. Wonderful days!  When I moved to Los Angeles, I got caught up in the film world and was hired to script narration for a documentary (my first gig as a professional writer). This meant sitting in the editing room and “writing to picture,” a great discipline for a writer—you have to let the visuals speak for themselves and use words merely to enrich the viewer’s experience. 
I loved writing for film and TV, but the cleaner my prose grew the more I wanted to try my hand at writing a book in which words would be allowed to breathe. The gap between writing scripts and short stories to authoring novels seemed impossibly wide and I wondered if I could close the distance by writing a mystery novel. The mystery genre is highly structured and requires strong characters, a tight plot that builds suspense, and a satisfying solution at the end—at least I would not get lost in the wilderness of literary fiction (that came later). An avid mystery reader, I was a total neophyte when it came to mystery categories. So when my first book, Ask the Dead, was published and hailed as Bronx Noir, I had to look up noir to make sure I knew what that meant. 

You are a Bronx native. Can you tell me a little about what growing up there was like? How'd you land in Seattle?

Joyce: I vividly remember reading The Little Princess at the age of eight. Growing up in the Southeast Bronx, it was easy to relate to a heroine who survived by living entirely in her imagination. We lived on a street that had the highest crime rate in New York (no kidding!). Being observant was also a prerequisite for survival. I think this vigilance on my part gave me some foundational skills as a writer – I became a people watcher at an early age out of necessity.

I’ve sampled life in places all around the country and settled in Seattle because of the supportive scene here for artists of all kinds. The Northwest has much natural beauty and is also a great place to raise a family. Not to mention the plentiful micro-breweries…

A matryoshka
(pronounced ma-TROO-shkah)
You have a brother who was a P.I. Your protagonist, Jo Epstein, is a P.I. Did you rely on your brother heavily for background? 

Joyce: My brother Rick has carefully reviewed my books for accuracy about the P.I. lifestyle. It irks him that in so many books the P.I.’s end up not being paid. I was only 14 when Rick finished criminology school and was hired to conduct his first surveillance—a warehouse in New Jersey. I begged him to take me with him and we still laugh about that. Maybe that night was the genesis for my becoming a mystery writer – I wanted to find out what I had missed!

Can you tell us any funny/interesting stories your brother shared with you about being a P.I.?

Joyce: My brother is the soul of discretion – a prerequisite for staying employed as a P.I.  However, Rick did share the following story with me recently:

Many years ago, in Los Angeles, an elderly Italian man came to see me. He said he thought his wife was cheating on him. She was always late coming home from work and wouldn’t tell him where she’d been. He handed me a photo I assumed would show off his ‘trophy wife,’ some kind of blonde bombshell. Instead I saw a swarthy, short, very plump woman dressed in black.

The next evening, I waited at the sewing factory for end of the shift. When the doors opened, out came what seemed like hundreds of short, plump women, all dressed in black. It was impossible to pick out his wife.

The next day, I bought a box of chocolates and asked the security guard to give it to Mrs. __ when she came out. The strategy worked and I followed her out the gate. She went to a church where a bingo game was in progress. And as it turned out, she went to a different church every night to play bingo. Her husband disapproved of gambling but was immensely relieved to find out that bingo, rather than infidelity, was the reason for his wife’s strange behavior.

Code of Thieves takes place in Russia, as well as New York. Tell me a little about your trip to Russia for research, how much of it made its way into the book.

Joyce: I have been accused of becoming a novelist simply to justify my wanderlust.  The trip to Russia with my teenage son was the epitome of mind-expanding adventure. We stayed in what was once a communal apartment in Moscow and Ian never complained about the lumpy bed or the bland food. But when we entered Vladimir Central Prison and the doors clanged shut behind us , he turned to me and said, “Mom, this is not the usual tourist experience, is it?”

In addition to the prison, almost every place we visited in Russia made its way into Code of Thieves. Lena’s apartment in Moscow, the Monastery of St. Euthimius and the Matryoshka factory in Suzdal, the headquarters of the Moscow Criminal Police at 38 Petrovka Street, the chaos at Sheremetyevo International Airport, even the disco of the Vladimir Hotel. The trip was invaluable . So was Google Earth, which I used to explore many settings in Code of Thieves that I did not visit personally. 

The settings in Code of Thieves -- both Russia and New York, but especially Russia -- are so strongly portrayed you can almost hear balalaika music in the background! Tell me a little about why such strong settings are important to you as a writer, how they almost become a separate character in your books.

Joyce: Like a bass player in a band, a story’s setting plays an essential role that is often not fully appreciated. How can one tell a credible tale without including geographical and cultural details that reveal personality and create atmosphere?  

Scandals, the New York nightclub where Jo Epstein exchanges security services for rent, is a “person” as much as a place. As Jo puts it:

Scandal’s was like a woman who dressed down every night, progressively shedding her layers of respectability. For dinner she wore her business clothes—hosting those who were out to impress a client with trendy insider dining and phony “I bumped into so-and-so” stories. The poetry slam loosened things up—definitely casual—but some basic coherence was still required to deliver words from the stage. It was after hours when Scandal’s jettisoned her inhibitions and stripped to her undies, sleek lingerie, thongs, whatever was handy. At that point it was my job to prevent bad things from happening—to keep an eye on what went on in the bathrooms that wasn’t related to hygiene, to listen for voices that crossed the boundary from boisterous to confrontational, and to make sure it was the drinks, and not the police, that kept coming.

Why did you decide to make Jo a poet? It's such an unusual combination -- poet and P.I. Were you tipping your hat to other famous investigators with unusual hobbies (Sherlock Holmes and the violin, for example)?

Joyce: I had no idea I was going to write about a poet/detective. Until one night at the Sit ‘n Spin (a bar in Seattle that shared space with a Laundromat), the Slam MC started ad-libbing on stage. Her street-smart wisecracks, mixed with erudite comments on performance poetry and rabble-rousing quips, got me to thinking. What if she were actually a private investigator moonlighting as a poet? I got out my notebook and Jo Epstein was born.

Who are your favorite mystery writers/series?

Joyce: I teach workshops on The Place of Place in Mystery Writing, and some of the mystery writers I feature who consistently create memorable settings are Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, and Kate Atkinson. And of course Georges Simenon—Inspector Maigret is Paris. I also read a lot of non-genre fiction and lately many Indian authors, such as Kiran Desai, whose sense of place is so palpable you can touch, taste and smell the atmosphere in every paragraph.

Will readers be seeing more of Jo Epstein?

Joyce: Maybe.
Code of Thieves by Joyce Yarrow (Istoria Books, March 2012)
Full-time private investigator/part-time poet Jo Epstein travels to New York and eventually to Russia to help clear her emigre stepfather of a murder rap and to discover who is sending him threatening messages in the form of Russian nesting dolls (mastryoshkas). Her journey takes her to dark places in her stepfather's background and in Russia's history as it shrugged off the weight of communism and embraced a frightening new freedom. Hear Joyce read a snippet from the book here.
  • "Intricately layered like the Russian nested doll..."  Library Journal
  • "You'll want to discover the secrets buried in (Code of Thieves)..." Lesa Holstine, Lesa's Book Critiques
  • "Joyce Yarrow....may very well prove herself to be the Mickey Spillane of the 21st century...." Seattle Post Intelligencer