S.J. Rozan, interviewed by Qiu Xiaolong
Over the years, the NorCal East Bay chapter of Mystery Readers International has had many "At Homes" -- intimate evenings with favorite mystery writers. We've hosted Anne Perry, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, Janet LaPierre, Sharan Newman, Laurie King, Rochelle Krich, Carolyn Hart, James Ellroy, Steven Saylor, Janet Evanovich, Eddie Muller, Taffy Cannon, and many others.
These events are held in private homes, and they're similar to Literary Salons. Since so many of our cyber members and friends aren't able to attend these intimate evenings, I thought it would be fun to have a "visiting" author each month interviewed by another "visiting" author. This month we feature S.J. Rozan interviewed by Qiu Xiaolong.
Born and brought up in the Bronx, Rozan is an architect in a New York firm whose practice includes police stations, firehouses, zoo buildings, and the largest terra cotta restoration project in the world. Rozan has also worked as a self-defense instructor, jewelry saleswoman, and janitor.
Rozan is the author of the highly acclaimed Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series, including Mandarin Plaid, Concourse, China Trade, and most recently, the Edgar Award-winning Winter and Night. She has won numerous other awards for her work, including the Shamus and the Anthony. Her next book, due out in summer 2004, is a stand-alone novel called Absent Friends.
S.J. Rozan runs an on-going series of panels on the subject of "Crime Writing and The American Imagination" at New York's 92nd Street Y. She has a BA from Oberlin College and a M.Arch. from SUNY/Buffalo and lives in Greenwich Village.
Qiu Xiaolong: Your stories are narrated through alternative perspectives -- with one book from Lydia and another from Bill, the two partner protagonists for your series. What do you want to achieve through such a structural approach?
S.J. Rozan: The first book I began was from Bill Smith's perspective. I was interested in creating him as that mythic American voice, that alienated heroic narrator we all recognize. That narrator has all the attributes that would allow him to become one of what Tom Wolfe refers to as the Masters of the Universe -- the ruling class. He's a straight, healthy, middle-aged white guy, and that gives you priveleges in this society. But this mythic character -- one of a set that includes, besides the private eye, the western lawman, the crusading journalist, and the renegade cop -- refuses the societal rank to which his situation entitles him, because the cost in terms of the corrupt use of power is too high. That's what makes him a hero, this refusal. So I was writing from this voice, because that voluntary refusal puts the character in a great position to see and deal with the legal and especially the moral corruption around him, which is, to my mind, what the crime novel is best at. (I'll talk more about that later, in answer to another of your questions.)
But this stance requires a lot of soul searching, and the best way to do that is to externalize it -- to provide the character with an opposite number who wants the same things he does, but sees totally different ways to get there, so they can talk in dialogue (and action!) instead of subjecting the reader to a constant stream of internal monologue. So I created Lydia to be as different from Bill as possible. She had to be a woman because he was a man, small because he was big, young because he was middle aged, impetuous because he was steady and slow-moving. And then I decided what the hell, if I made her from a totally different ethnic group, everything -- what's for breakfast, when the New Year starts -- could be a subject for debate.
I put a lot of thought into creating Lydia Chin as someone to whom things looked very different from the way they looked to Bill, and the result was that a few chapters into the first book (one that actually came out later in the series) I began to wonder what the things that were going on actually did look like to her. All we had in that book was Bill's take on her, and her dialogue. It seemed to me like a waste of a golden opportunity if I didn't write from her point of view and see what she was really thinking, as opposed to what he thought she was thinking.
QX: A related question. For me, this narrative structure provides an inner tension for your series, because there is always another perspective in the background, especially such a complementary
perspectives, male and female, occidental and oriental, yin and yang, not to mention the attraction between the two. Did you plan it with your first book?
SJR: I didn't plan it, but it was this inner tension that appealed to me from the beginning. I distrust certainty, especially moral certainty; and because I know that whatever either of my narrative voices says, the other is likely to say, or at least be thinking, "No, that's not how it is," I can avoid making pronouncements. That's not the job of fiction, in my view. Fiction's job is to ask questions.
QX: When did you decide to write fiction, and why crime novels?
SJR: I always wanted to write fiction, and specifically crime fiction -- again, I'll get to the crime fiction question a little later. When I was a kid I was sure I'd grow up to be a writer. But when I went to college I decided that wasn't going to happen. First of all, I thought people don't just become writers, not regular people like me; it was like running away to join the circus, it didn't really happen. (Though of course it does, otherwise who's in the circus?) Also, I thought it was important to DO something the world needed, to be of service (which is its own kind of arrogance). So I went to architecture school.
I'd been out of school 8 years, working at the same firm I'm still with (I'm the architectural equivalent of "Of Counsel" now) and I had a truly great job, working in a responsible position on a number of fascinating buildings. (The Women's Rights National Historical Park; a new building for the 41st Precinct, whose original station house was formerly known first as Fort Apache and then, after the city did a particularly thorough job of "urban renewal," referred to as The Little House on the Prairie; a combined Police Station and Firehouse on E. 67th St; and buildings at the Bronx Zoo. Among others.) And I wasn't happy. I knew it wasn't the job, because as architecture jobs go this one was great. And a little voice in my head started to ask every now and then, "Weren't we going to write a book?" So I thought, Well, I'll try it, and if I don't like it I can at least cross that off my list, and maybe run away and join the circus.
QX: For you, what can the crime novel form accomplish that other types of literature cannot?
SJR: Now we get to the crime novel. When I thought of myself as a writer, it was always crime I saw myself writing. From the beginning the crime novel seemed particularly good at three things.
First, the crime novel, like any kind of "popular" art, is a mythic form. The hero I spoke about above is one sub-story, but the Ur-story of the crime novel is the eternal battle between Light and Darkness, Chaos and Order. Good and Evil. (Just as the Ur-story of Science Fiction is what it means to be human, and Romance's is making a true connection.) The ramifications of this battle, especially in the morally ambiguous areas around the edges, are what fascinate me.
Second, the best crime novels deal in deep emotions. I'm not one of those people who finds death funny, is interested in obscure poisons or murder methods, or gets revenge on people who irritate me by killing them off in my books. On the contrary, I find death, betrayal, power and powerlessness, fear, and the inability to protect your loved ones from disaster to be deeply painful, disturbing, and thus compelling themes.
Third, crime novels today take on societal issues -- racism, gay-bashing, child abuse, terrorism -- which are where the modern version of the Good/Evil battle is being fought, and which "literary" novels refuse to look at. This wasn't always true; think about Pearl Buck, Sinclair Lewis, James Baldwin, John Steinbeck. But it seems to be true today, when "literary" often seems a synonym for "self-absorbed." So for the time being I'm sticking to crime novels, which are about something.
QX: You are an architect, and it is natural for your readers, including me, to be interested in the relationship between your architect career and your writer career. Tell us more about it.
SJR: Critics often claim to see a relationship between my structuring of a story and my architectural training, and that may be there, but I don't use my training in any conscious way that would create that relationship. I think being an architect has brought two main elements to my writing. I became an architect not to be a famous designer, but because I wanted to know what was under the surface -- behind the walls, above the ceiling, beneath the floor. I wanted to know how things worked and why they were shaped like that and made out of that and attached to that in that way. Sometimes, and especially in restoration work, it takes a lot of digging, study, and deductive reasoning to figure these things out. So my work became a practice ground for the kind of thinking a crime novel (and in fact any novel that deals in human motivation) requires.
The second thing architecture has done for me is show me the value of criticism. From the moment you do your first design in your first semester of architecture school, your best professors are always trying to see what it is you wanted to do and how to help you do that better. That's what a good editor does with a book, too. By the time I came out of school I could tell when I was getting criticism worth incorporating into the work, and when someone was just talking to impress me and himself; and I'd learned to shut up and listen to the useful criticism, to try changes that suggested themselves on the basis of it and to stand firm on issues that were important to me. All of this is translatable to writing, and if you're lucky enough to have a good editor -- as I had at St. Martin's, and have at Bantam -- you can really benefit from their work.
QX: Lydia, a rebellious ABC (American born Chinese), is a character with unmistakable ties to Chinese culture, and Chinatown is often an interesting and convincing background. How do you do your research?
SJR: I love research. I always do books that are somehow involved with something I want to know more about, so I have an excuse to do what I wanted to do anyway. For Lydia and her world, I read a lot of Chinese-American writers, to try to understand the concerns of ABC's like her. I've learned a certain amount about Chinese art and history. And I have Chinese friends, and spend a lot of time with them and a lot of time in Chinatown, which is not far from where I live. I do a good deal of walking around, shopping in little stores, and drinking tea. And eating! When I need something specific, like the fashion world information for Mandarin Plaid, for example, I ask around until I find someone who knows someone who'll talk to me and show me around.
QX: In one of our talks in Philadelphia, I remember you touched on the necessity of adhering to the conventions of the crime novel genre and of moving beyond them at the same time; can you talk more about it here?
SJR: The conventions of the crime genre that I consider important are a strong, involving, foward-moving story; fully-realized characters; and a setting that the reader can see, hear and smell. Additionally, the story must involve one or more problems (who? how? why?) the reader cares about solving. (The first three are really just the "conventions" of good fiction, but a lot of "literary" fiction seems to be taking a pass on them these days.) Each subgenre, then, also has its own conventions -- the alienated private eye, the cop who's a member of a team but a renegade at the same time, the brilliant amateur. These provide the framework for the mythic quality I spoke about above.
In talking about moving beyond these conventions, I mean that a good crime novel must also be about something beyond its own story. The myths a society uses are its ways of telling itself what's important and how to act: courage, loyalty, kindness. They're not just a recounting of who went where and did what. We're writing myths in this genre, and our stories are read that way. The entire reason art exists -- oh, this is where Rozan goes way out on a limb -- is that, having developed the capacity for abstraction, we humans also became dependent on it. If I say to you, "Loyalty is important," you and I are both bored. If I say, "A man must be ready to die for a friend," you may agree but tomorrow when someone asks you what we talked about you may not remember. If I tell you a story in which a man gives up his life for a friend, and I tell it well, you'll be touched and you'll remember, and I will have gotten my belief about that value across to you.
It's when the conventions of the crime story are used but a writer doesn't move beyond them, I think, that gives the genre the bad rap of being "cliched."
QX: Do you have a larger theme in mind when you write the crime story, something you want to say through the story?
SJR: Yes, because of the reasons above. Stone Quarry, for example, was about betrayal and unconditional love. The theme and the setting are often inseparable, for me. Reflecting The Sky was set in Hong Kong, a place of duality: a Chinese area settled by the British, made up of two major land masses, with a life lived as much on water as on land. So I planned the book to be about duality, also. Each major character has a mirror image (though the mirror is often distorted) and the story centers around two pairs of brothers and a kidnapping in which there are two separate demands for ransom.
This method of working from a theme is what makes it possible for me to write without an outline. I make sure I'm very clear about the theme before I start. Then, because the theme seeps into my unconscious mind and permeates all my thinking about a book, the choices I make as I go along tend to support the theme, and are therefore right for the story. It's a difficult way to write, and having done nine books doesn't make it any easier -- I thought at some point it would get easier, but no -- but I've learned to trust the process. And I can't imagine outlining. How could I know what's going to happen until I get to know the characters and see what they're capable of?
QX: What are you working on now?
SJR: I'm working on the final revisions of Absent Friends, which is set in New York in the weeks immediately following Sept. 11th. It's a crime novel, of course, and a pretty dark one. It's outside my series, and not about terrorists; its theme is the nature and uses of truth and heroism. As a New Yorker living a mile from where the Trade Center used to be, I found it absolutely impossible not to write about what New York was like during those first weeks. Bantam will bring out Absent Friends next summer.
QX: You have already brought your characters to Hong Kong. Any plan to bring them to China?
SJR: I'd love to send Bill and Lydia to China! Shanghai, and maybe Xian... It's down the road for them, absolutely. Also, I just got back from a trip to Japan, and the idea of Bill and Lydia in a culture so alien to them both is almost irresistible. But New York will always be their home.
QX: Do you have anything different in mind for future writing?
SJR: Yes. Having done Absent Friends -- which, as I say, was a necessity more than a choice -- I'd like to continue to alternate series books with standalones. The non-series books allow me to stretch literary muscles the series doesn't use, like cross-training to improve your abilities in your main sport. (If only something would improve my abilities in basketball!) The book to follow Absent Friends will also be a standalone, set in New York. Then Bill and Lydia will be back (a Lydia book, set in the world of gold and gems). I'm not sure yet what the book after that will be. I'm thinking a Bill book before the next standalone, but I don't have an idea for it yet. That's probably just as well, because as it is I'm two books ahead of myself.
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