Monday, January 11, 2010

Interviewing Hilary Davidson - The MacGyver of Murder

By Steve Weddle

What do David Foster Wallace, New Orleans cemeteries, and Pompeii brothels have in common? Hilary Davidson. (I figured I'd just tell you, right? I mean, c'mon.) Davidson's debut fiction, THE DAMAGE DONE, is due out in October, but it's hardly her first book. The Canadian New Yorker has written about 20 nonfiction books and a gazillion travel articles, interned at HARPER'S, and is now one of the busiest freelancers around.

Oh, and she's a heck of a crime writer. But to say Hilary Davidson writes about crime is like saying Casablanca was a war movie. The characters and stories she develops transcend any genre, digging their fingernails into the back of your soul, dragging their way down into the core of your being.
Her stories have appeared in CrimeSpree, Beat to a Pulp, Thuglit, and many others.

Steve Weddle: Though THE DAMAGE DONE, due October 2010, is your first novel, you’ve written 20 non-fiction books, articles for 40 magazines, and gobs of stories. How is the anticipation for the novel different? Does it feel all new all over again?

Hilary Davidson: I've been excited about getting work published in the past, but the thrill from fiction is the greatest. Aside from some essays and interviews I've done, the journalism has a limited shelf life. Most of the books I've written have been travel guides for Frommer's, and while I love finding new places to write about and mapping out walking tours, I know that people eventually toss those books away. I'm really hoping that they don't do that with THE DAMAGE DONE!

SW: Did you begin thinking about writing violent, brutal, murderous fiction when you worked as an intern at HARPER’S MAGAZINE in the 90s? What was that like?

HD: Working at HARPER'S was an incredible experience, because I got to work with people who were at the top of their game. Lewis Lapham was the editor-in-chief then, and the magazine was publishing pieces by writers like David Foster Wallace, who would come into the office to work and hang out. He was writing what became his very famous piece on cruise ships then, and I was supposed to help him out by doing the extra bits of research. It turned out that he didn't need a researcher but a sounding board, as he'd written a 40,000-word story. Listening to him talk and watching him cut pages of gorgeous prose was an education in itself.

But hanging around with geniuses made me see my own writing dreams as completely out of reach. I wanted to be practical, and I figured that, if I were lucky, I'd go home to Toronto and get an editing job. That's exactly what I did, but things didn't work out as I'd planned. Magazine editing was interesting, but I wanted to write. I pitched stories to my magazine, and they laughed at most of them. Then, one day, I scored with an idea that they loved... and they assigned it to a freelance writer. Frustrated, I started freelancing for The Globe and Mail, a national newspaper in Canada. The more I wrote for them, the more I felt like I could make a go of a writing career.

I was terrified about quitting my job, because I was single and had no idea how I'd support myself if the writing didn't pan out. I waited to quit until I lined up steady gigs with different magazines. I ended up being really fortunate as a freelancer, but being too busy was my excuse for not writing fiction for years. I'd write bits and pieces, but until I started treating fiction the way I treated journalism, I got nothing finished.

SW: What have you learned as a freelancer that has helped you with your fiction?

HD: The most useful thing is the most boring: routine. I've been self-employed for 11 years, and if I didn't stick to my very dull writing routine, I'd get nothing done. When I started working on fiction, I waited for inspiration to strike, and it took me a long time to acknowledge that my inspired days were few and far between.

I also learned to deal with rejection, because I’ve had so much of it. Everyone tells you not to take rejection personally, which is easier said than done. The key thing is not to let a story rot in your computer because someone said no. My rule is that a rejected story gets sent out again within 24 hours.

SW: In addition to your travel writing and your fiction, you also write about celiac disease. What the heck is that?

HD: It took me a long time to find out. Celiac disease is a genetic disorder that roughly 1 in 100 people have, but hardly anyone has heard of it. It causes an autoimmune reaction when you eat gluten, which is in wheat, barley, and rye. I was sick for years with headaches, stomach problems, ulcers, and joint pain, and finally got tested for celiac in 2004. The only treatment is a gluten-free diet. My health problems cleared up after being on the diet for a few weeks.

The months after I was diagnosed were an odd time. I was overjoyed at feeling well for the first time in my life, but sad because I assumed that my career as a travel writer was over. I felt like I'd never eat out at a restaurant again, let alone visit another country. But as I got used to eating gluten-free and learned what to avoid, I got bolder. The irony was, when I started traveling again, I learned it was easier to eat gluten-free in Europe and South America than it is in North America. I started a website in March 2008, the Gluten-Free Guidebook, to help other celiacs who wanted to travel. I shared things I'd found, and that led to people from different countries sending me tips and writing up reports about their cities or countries. It's been incredible. Now that the gluten-free diet has become trendy, there's a lot of interest in the subject.

SW: What is in the room with you right now that you could use to kill someone? In a story, I mean, since you’re no longer an intern and, presumably, aren’t as keen to murder anyone.

HD: Let's see... there's my antique letter opener, which could double as a dagger, and I have some cables lying around that I could use to garrote someone. There are a couple of gargoyle bookends that would deliver quite the blow to the head, and a brass picture frame with sharp edges that cut deep. That's just at my desk, for starters. Think of me as the MacGyver of murder.

SW: Did you learn anything as a restaurant reviewer for Toronto Life that will make my life easier when I’m dining out? Tips? Tricks? Secret code words?

HD: I wish! The key to being a truly good restaurant reviewer is never to let the restaurant know you're writing a review. I've written chef profiles for dining magazines, and I know what tricks they pull when they see you coming. It's not like they can magically cook better food, but they will have waiters fussing over you, they'll send little amuse-bouche plates out of the kitchen, and your wineglass will never be empty.

SW: When you toured the cemeteries in New Orleans, were you impressed by the number of crypts, as opposed to dug graves? Did you get a chance to tour any of the crypts?

HD: You've just hit my little secret: I love cemeteries, and I seek them out wherever I travel. I have a soft spot for New Orleans, because my first-ever freelance feature was about St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. I got a full dose of the folklore -- including the tale of how voodoo priestess Marie Laveau's daughter was struck dead by a bolt of lightning in the middle of a midnight ceremony -- and got to see inside a few crypts. Creepiest fact? Crypts could be rented. It takes about a year for a body to be "naturally cremated," as they put it. Then you can rent the crypt out again.

I try to work my fascination with cemeteries into my work, both with fiction and nonfiction. I put a tour of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn into my New York guidebook, and there's a lot about graveyards in the Toronto guidebook I write every year. I blame my cemetery love on the fact that I grew up in Toronto. There's a huge cemetery there called Mount Pleasant, and people use it like a public park. You can't visit it without seeing cyclists and people with those jogger baby strollers. Toronto is a strange, gothic place.

SW: I read somewhere that you did some work in a brothel in Pompeii. Is that something you can discuss?

HD: I have to admit, I got there more than 1,900 years too late to see the place in action, but even the post-Vesuvius scene was very interesting. The brothel had great frescoes, including several that were painted above certain doorways. The frescoes advertised the sexual specialty of the lady working in each room. Outside, down the street, a penis was etched into the stone to guide travelers there. You can't beat ancient Rome for decadence.

SW: What makes crime fiction appealing to readers and writers?

HD: There are probably as many different answers as there are readers. For me, there's something elemental about crime fiction. I mean that when you take a character and strip away the normal social mores and conventions, what remains is raw and unpredictable. As a reader, I want to see them get there -- or else learn how they got there.

When I think about the novels I enjoyed reading last year, I remember characters more than I do plots. I'm thinking of books like Megan Abbott's BURY ME DEEP, Jason Starr's FAKE I.D., Sophie Littlefield's A BAD DAY FOR SORRY, Dave Zeltserman's PARIAH and Sean Chercover's BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD -- I'd follow their main characters anywhere. Ken Bruen's LONDON BOULEVARD grabbed me the second I picked it up, like all of Bruen’s books do, because of the character's voice. Their characters live on in my head.

As a writer, crime fiction lets me put characters into extreme situations and access powerful emotions. When THE DAMAGE DONE begins, my main character, Lily, has just come back to New York because she's been told that her sister, Claudia, is dead. Then Lily discovers that the body belongs to a stranger who'd stolen her sister's identity, and that her sister is missing. Claudia is a grifter and an addict, and Lily doesn't know whether she's playing a deadly con game or if she's in trouble. Hunting for Claudia forces Lily into some ugly situations, and makes her dredge up parts of her past -- like their mother's suicide -- that she'd rather keep buried.

SW: What’s your favorite room in your house?

HD: My husband and I live in a one-bedroom apartment in New York, so I don't have many rooms to choose from. But my favorite place to be is at our dining table. We have a row of south-facing windows that make me feel like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. I haven't bought a telescope to watch my neighbors with... yet.


For more on Hilary Davidson, check out her site.


David Cranmer said...

Terrific interview.

Hilary is a joy to work with and hands down one of the finest writers around.

Paul D Brazill said...

Top interview. Hilary's short stories are some of the best I've read :

“Beast,” Insatiable,” Anniversary” (My Fave),“Stepmonster,”and
“Son of So Many Tears - which I read yesterday & dreamed about - are all quite magnificent. Really, really.

Jen Forbus said...

Fun interview, Hilary! I especially love the McGyver of murder! So looking forward to THE DAMAGE DONE making its grand debut.

Unknown said...

I'll echo David on this one. Hilary's one of the best writers going. Here fiction never fails to impress.

Chris said...

Yup, I'll join in on the literary love-fest. Hilary's stories blow me away; she's got a rare gift for the short form. (Go. Read them. NOW.) I'm dying to see what kind of character work she can do with a whole novel to play with.

Also, David Foster Wallace? DAMN. I can't even imagine what that must have been like. An education, to be sure.

Also also, that Weddle fellow's not too shabby in the writing department, either, and pretty good with an interview, too!

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Fantastic interview, Steve -- I love your sense of humor. You have a lovely interviewee who is a gifted and talented writer (but you already knew that!). The first time I came across a Hilary Davidson story ("Insatiable") - I was hooked. I look forward to THE DAMAGE DONE in October. How apropos to be interviewed on DO SOME DAMAGE -- just perfect!
If Hilary gets that telescope -- her neighbors better watch out -- they certainly may show up in one of her stories.
Thanks, Steve and Hilary, for such an entertaining read.

Pop Culture Nerd said...

I love how Hilary seems so nice and yet she daydreams about killing people with picture frames.

Several years ago, I toured Pompeii and walked past a brothel but didn't go in. I now wish I did. Those frescoes must be really something. And I would've had my picture taken with the Penis in the Stone! It sounds so Arthurian.

I hope you do get that telescope, Hilary, so you can spy on your neighbors and write about them!

Ilana said...

Hilary is so incredibly talented - I can't wait til the whole world fully discovers her genius. Counting down to The Damage Done!

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks, everyone, for your great comments and for taking the time to read the interview. I was grateful that Steve wanted to talk to me, and I'm still blushing because of his wonderful introduction. As Chris pointed out, Steve is a terrific writer. If you haven't read his story "Missed Flight" over at BEAT TO A PULP, you really need to.

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Sophie Littlefield said...

I've been looking forward to Hilary's book for a while now. She's a rare one all right - brave and has the range to do interesting things with her characters, subtle one minute, cataclysmic the next.

I feel like Megan busted open noir for women. I think Hilary's going to keep that going - proving that women can be every bit as unapologetically dark and visceral as the best male writers in noir.

I hope that doesn't get me in trouble - i mean it as a compliment to a handful of really gifted writers, men and women both.

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