By Daniel Ford
I’ll have plenty more to say about Erica Wright’s The Red Chameleon in next week’s 5 Books That Should Be On Your Radar post, but for now I’ll tell you that Wright’s main character, private investigator Kathleen Stone (or is it Kat? Or Katie? Or Katya?), is the perfect blend of brassy, troubled, and master of disguise.
Wright talked to me recently about what she wanted to do before discovering writing, the origins behind The Red Chameleon, and how she fell in love with her characters.
Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to be a writer, or was it a desire that built up over time?
Erica Wright: I wanted to be a zoologist until eighth grade biology class when we dissected a frog, and I passed out. My teacher was close with my mother and thought, "How am I going to call Paula and tell her that I killed her daughter." I survived, though, so they're still friends. I have been writing poems and stories for as long as I can remember, but never considered pursuing publication until my twenties. I grew up in a town of 500 people, and while their professions are varied (the coolest is a beekeeper who owns her own farm), there are no novelists that I know of. So it was a gradual realization that I could write for a wider audience than myself.
DF: Who were some of your early influences in the crime genre, and which modern crime writers are you currently hooked on?
EW: The first book I remember re-reading as a child was Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn. It's not a mystery, but it set the tone for my gothic interests. I've never met a ghost tour I didn't like. In college I went through a Poe phase, but also enjoyed Doyle. (Do we have to say Sir Doyle?) I'm pretty sure that I would still be obsessed with the BBC "Sherlock" if I'd never read The Hounds of Baskerville, but there's also something fun about re-imagining the classic stories. In terms of modern mystery writers, I'll read anything by Sara Gran or Megan Abbott. And I love my press mate M. R. C. Kasasian's Gower Street Detective books, another take on Sherlock Holmes.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
EW: My background is in poetry, so my favorite part of fiction writing is the routine. With a new poem, there's a lot of work that doesn't feel like work. You're walking around the block, thinking about whether "shatter" or "shudder" works better in stanza three. When focusing on a novel, I set daily goals for myself, say, two hours or two thousand words. While I might have to heavily edit what I produce, the effort is satisfying. I didn't use an outline for the first draft of The Red Chameleon, preferring the so-called "pants-ing" method. Of course, that meant that the first draft needed some overhauls to get the plot in shape. I used a loose outline for its sequel, The Granite Moth, and have a detailed outline for the third book. Maybe next time I'll be done experimenting and can settle on an approach that works every time. Probably not.
DF: Where did the idea for The Red Chameleon originate?
EW: I started teaching in the English Department of John Jay College of Criminology in the fall of 2006. My students were pursuing careers I knew nothing about. They wanted to be detectives, forensic specialists, CIA operatives, FBI agents. I started researching these fields to have something to talk about during our conferences. Since most graduates would end up in the New York Police Department, I became somewhat familiar with the training requirements and different opportunities. While I hoped that none of them would go undercover, an often dangerous and demoralizing job, I was fascinated with this small part of police operations. I was also reading a lot of mystery writers at the time—Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, M. C. Beaton—so looking back, it almost seems inevitable that I started tinkering with this book. At the time, it surprised me.
DF: How much of yourself ended up in your main character Kathleen Stone?
EW: In his book Here Is New York, E. B. White writes, "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy." I remember reading that opening sentence in the Strand bookstore and feeling a thrilling jolt of recognition. Small town life has its advantages, but privacy isn't one of them. I lived in the city for 13 years, and it was great that nobody knew what I was doing unless I told them. Kat takes her need for privacy to whole other paranoid (rightfully, it turns out) level, but I definitely share that impulse.
DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?
EW: I fell in love with the characters as I wrote, particularly Dolly. I sat down to write a scene that conveyed Kat's wigmaker, Vondya Vasiliev, as a sort of mother figure. Then Dolly, a drag queen at a famous club called The Pink Parrot, was there, just hanging out. In the books, Dolly sort of insists on being Kat's friend, and that's how I felt about him as a character, too. He insisted on being in the book. What I mean to say is that when I finished my first draft, I knew I couldn't abandon any of these people even though the plot in general and many scenes in particular needed some major rewrites.
DF: The Red Chameleon has gotten some great reviews from the likes of The New York Times Book Review, O Magazine, and Publisher’s Weekly. What has that experience been like?
EW: Fainting goats have nothing on me. As might be obvious from my frog story, if I'm overwhelmed, I fall right over. I managed not to pass out when I read The Times review, but I started sweating and my ears started ringing. It has meant a lot to me that reviewers have written about my book. Not only is it a debut, but it's out from an independent publisher. Even the ambivalent responses haven't bothered me because I know how much effort it takes to read a book and articulate a viewpoint. Book people are the best people.
DF: How do you balance writing and marketing your work (i.e. book tours, engaging with readers on social media, etc.)?
EW: I set aside a little time each week for what I think of as the business side of writing. I see if I have any work that's ready to be sent out, query bookstores about readings, make sure my website doesn't look too amateurish. Last week, I spent an hour creating a newsletter signup form via MailChimp. (My brother's a tech genius, so hopefully he's not reading this. I'm sure that should have taken me about five minutes.) In general, though, I think it's better not to stress about self-promotion. I definitely post to Facebook and Twitter about personal news, but try to make sure that the majority of what I share is about other people. Or, you know, breaking taxidermy news.
DF: What’s next for Erica Wright and Kathleen Stone?
EW: A sequel to The Red Chameleon, The Granite Moth, will be released this November, so lots more shenanigans.
DF: What advice would you give aspiring authors?
EW: Root for others as much as you root for yourself. And if that sounds cheesy, I promise that it's actually kind of selfish, too. If you celebrate the success of friends, you get to have a lot more cake.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
EW: I was named after Erica Kane, Susan Lucci's character from "All My Children." Well, “named after” might be a bit of a stretch, but my mother watched the show and liked the name, so here I am. No Emmy, but I do like a good villain.