Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Kelli Stanley: The City of Ghosts Interview

by Holly West

Hey y'all. It's time for me to let my fan girl flag fly: I've loved Kelli Stanley and her Miranda Corbie series since before the first one (CITY OF DRAGONS) was even released. Kelli appeared on a historical fiction panel at the first Bouchercon I attended, Indianapolis 2009 and I was immediately taken with her heroine, Miranda Corbie, an ex-escort and a former Spanish Civil War nurse now working as a P.I. in San Francisco circa 1940.

The third in the series, CITY OF GHOSTS, came out yesterday, and I'm thrilled that Kelli agreed to an interview for Do Some Damage to celebrate its release. 

Holly West: CITY OF GHOSTS touches upon several historical events/topics: The looting of art during WWII, Americans working as spies for the Nazis, and the Nazis censuring and destroying what the regime considered to be "degenerate" art and literature. One of the benefits of writing historical fiction is that we can use real-life historical events to inform our plots. It doesn't necessarily make the writing easier, but definitely provides some direction. In plotting, do you start with a historical event you'd like to explore in more depth or are your plots more about where you'd like to take Miranda Corbie as a character, then choosing the historical elements to follow?

Kelli Stanley: Holly, you ask the best questions! I know this is going to sound less than definitive, but the answer is both. There are historical elements from this period that I wanted to address—tensions between Japanese and Chinese Americans in Chinatown (CITY OF DRAGONS);  anti-Semitic, pro-fascist American hate groups and how eugenics (and America’s role in promoting it) led to Hitler’s Germany (CITY OF SECRETS).

For CITY OF GHOSTS, I wanted to explore the theme of art—who owns it, who values or devalues it, and what it means to a nation or a culture. That dovetailed historically with what the Nazis were doing to dispossessed Jews and conquered countries like Poland—a wholesale theft and destruction of cultural patrimony. I also wanted to write a train scene—that was purely personal. In every book, there’s at least one scene in which I tackle a noir or hardboiled—or, in this case, traditional mystery—trope. They’re  fun to write—an homage, if you will. The gambling scene in CITY OF SECRETS is another example.

Miranda’s character development is on almost a separate trajectory from the exterior plot mechanics; one of my challenges is to mesh each thread and theme so that they work to produce a united and hopefully seamless result. In other words, I put her in situations that I’m interested in and see how she reacts. In CITY OF GHOSTS, for example, she spends time in Reno because that’s one of the stops on the City of San Francisco streamliner. That gave her a chance to react to the very real sense of desperation that surrounds gambling and prostitution and gave me a chance to explore the history of the Biggest Little City in the World. I also wanted to throw a different kind of case her way—espionage. Not your usual PI bread-and-butter, but the kind of activity that would become far less unusual for a good investigator during World War II. Remember, the OSS is just an idea right now. Miranda’s experience as a spy opens up all sorts of future possibilities, doesn’t it?

HW: Indeed, it does. When CITY OF GHOSTS opens, Miranda has one goal: she wants to earn enough money to get to England to find her mother, whom she barely remembers. At first, I thought, "This is a different Miranda--though war is raging in Europe and she's rightly concerned, it's less about seeking justice and more about accomplishing her goal. It isn't long, however, before Miranda's quest to find her mother intersects with her justice-seeking instincts. The book reveals new information about Miranda and her history, but as a writer, did you learn something new about Miranda as well? 

KS: This will sound daft, but Miranda always surprises me. Sometimes I feel as though I’m just reporting her life, retelling her story, rather than actually creating it. I don’t even like to think about authorship when it comes to her … barmy, I know. But I’ll force myself to step back and put on my author hat …

The first three books of the series form a character arc, and this arc is, in all honesty, what the books are really “about.”  By the end of CITY OF GHOSTS, Miranda is a different person than the woman we meet in CITY OF DRAGONS. No spoilers, but there are two major overarching narrative themes that run through the Miranda series: a hero’s journey and a return home. A combination of the Iliad and the Odyssey, to be honest. Miranda is an angry Achilles at the start of CITY OF DRAGONS. She is not quite as angry and more at peace by the end of CITY OF GHOSTS. Finding one’s mother is a metaphor for finding oneself, don’t you think?

CITY OF SHARKS picks up, as all the books do, when CITY OF GHOSTS ends. Miranda is still on a long journey, both figuratively and (perhaps) literally; she is still a soldier above all else, but even soldiers need to set aside their weapons. There is a great difference between rushing into battle because you have a death-wish and place no value on your life and rushing into battle because it needs to be done and you want to survive to enjoy the peace. Miranda is changing; she acts on the world, the world acts back. No one lives in a vacuum, and—because part of me feels like she is, effectively, real, neither does she.

HW: In the synopsis page for this book on your website, it refers to CITY OF GHOSTS as a "novel that asks tough questions of the past that have yet to be answered in the present." That's a powerful description. What are some of the questions it asks and do you think we'll ever have satisfactory answers?

KS: The questions are both concrete—“What happened to Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man?”—and abstract. To whom does art belong? Why does it matter? Is it worth a person’s life? Who decides how much value it has? Artistic ownership is a thorny question, even in 2014. The Elgin Marbles, for example—should they be repatriated to Greece, when the country can’t afford to give them the physical protection they require as ancient artifacts? Or should they stay in the British Museum? To whom do they belong? Tough questions and even tougher answers.

Every Miranda book addresses questions of guilt—why did we stand back and let fascist Spain conquer the Republic? Why did the government not intervene to save Jews stranded on the MS St. Louis? Why were so many people willing to turn a blind eye toward Hitler and Hirohito and Mussolini, and why was cultural propaganda far more anti-Communist than anti-Fascist?

There are some answers here, but—because similar issues exist in the modern world (China is a totalitarian regime with a horrific human rights record, yet American and multinational corporations continue to build its economy), I don’t think anyone really wants to hear the truth. For the record: there is no morality or ethics in business, and business dictates policy. I’m not anti-Capitalist, I’m just pro-ethics, but without regulation and oversight, well … we have Dupont and Ford celebrating Hitler and China making US Olympic team uniforms.

HW: A key aspect of Miranda's personal history is that she lost her lover, Johnny, in the Spanish Civil War and it's wounded her deeply. She's a heroine, to be sure, but the loss she's suffered defines her. She's unrelenting in her quest for justice, but is she really doing it for Johnny? Is that her way of keeping him alive?

KS: There’s a refrain in every book, including CITY OF GHOSTS, Miranda repeating words her dead lover told her: “You’re a good soldier, Miranda, you’re a good soldier.” Miranda does what she does because of the fire inside her, but also because Johnny died fighting “the good fight.”

When you go through great grief, you have a strong desire to carry on that person’s goals, dreams and ambitions—it is a way of keeping them with you, of keeping them inside you, of enacting the need you had for them when they lived and the need you still feel.

At the same time, Miranda was involved in “lost” causes before she met John—for example, there are a few allusions throughout the series to her time teaching hungry children in Salinas during the Depression. As the ultimate outsider—thanks to her gender, beauty, history, moral code, strength, politics and inability to normalize social behaviors—Miranda empathizes with other outsiders. You find her in Chinatown because she feels more at home there than on Nob Hill.

She found her soul mate in John. And going through that loss propelled her to the front lines of the fight.

HW: You use some real-life historical figures in your novels, as do I. Though I might fictionalize their actions or speech, I try to characterize them as closely as possible to what historical accounts have revealed them to be so as not to misrepresent them. Do you have any "rules" about using real-life people?

KS: Same rules as you, Holly—I try to be as truthful to the historic record as possible. At the same time, I really enjoy filling in the blanks!

Fritz Weidemann (Nazi Consul in San Francisco and character in CITY OF GHOSTS) was profiled by Life Magazine in 1939. I bought a copy (I own a large run of these magazines from ’39-’41) and was able to touch on details like his favorite restaurant in San Francisco  and the tailor who made his clothes. Other elements I had to infer—for example, why Hitler idol-worshipped the man. I try to arrive at a portrait that feels psychologically accurate and truthful to the person I’ve researched. Some liberties, obviously, must be taken, but not with the subject’s personality—that, above all else, must make sense and be believable.

Incidentally, the people at the Nazi costume party—and the spy case Miranda is told about—were all true. Those people did socialize with Fritz and the short tale about the German spy flying to Los Angeles was actual history. I try to weave in as much accurate, historical detail as possible.

HW: I feel like I have a personal connection with Miranda Corbie--some parts of her history remind me of my dear friend, Doris, who passed away at 91 in 2008. Beyond that though, Miranda is such a vivid character that while I'm reading, she jumps off the page and lives in my imagination. Do you ever picture her as an old woman? Do you know how her life plays out?

KS: Ouch, that’s a hard question. And while I’m thinking of a good response, thank you for those kind words about Miranda! My goal was to make her seem as real to readers as she is to me.

So … fighting in Spain, surviving Dianne’s Escort Service and the pitfalls of being a PI … all require an extraordinary amount of toughness. Growing old requires more.

I, too, had a friend and neighbor that passed away at 101 last year. That generation was amazing. I can’t really see into the future for Miranda—it’s hazy—but I’m not sure that I see her as old. I’m not sure that she has enough of that particular type of toughness. Surviving the inequities of age is harder than charging with the Light Brigade, you know? I mean, I think about her—wonder if she was around when Kennedy was shot, for example. Ultimately, I think Miranda would want to go out in the same way John did.

About the farthest I can see ahead for her is the Alger Hiss case right after the war. The Cold War and all the hysteria of the Black List—and Miranda would be about 40, so a good age. I’d really like to write her through the war and into the ‘50s and see where life takes her.

HW: During the writing of CITY OF GHOSTS, you lost both of your parents within a month of each other, which subsequently delayed your finishing it. I know the loss was profound for you--how did it affect the writing of this book? Did you approach writing differently when you were able to come back to it? Was the process healing in any way?

KS: Another tough question. Losing my parents was also losing two-thirds of myself. As an only child with no close relatives or friends from childhood—we moved around a bit until I was 13—they were the repositories of my history, the only family I had, parents whom I could call up when my own memories and recollections were fuzzy. So, in a sense, I feel wiped out, lost and almost insubstantial.

They were my best friends, and not a day goes by when I don’t think about them or feel the pain of missing them. I had to learn to live life without them and I’m still learning—and, ironically, developed PTSD, something from which Miranda suffers. That made me understand her even better.

The thing is, a book has a trajectory that belongs to the book, not the author. I started CITY OF GHOSTS when my parents were alive. I had to finish it after they were gone. I was a different person, but the book had to be the same book, Miranda had to be Miranda.

It took a long time for me to even open up my subconscious because it wasn’t (and still isn’t, actually) a comfortable place to be. I knew my parents wanted me to be successful and they were both very proud of my career, so I had to finish the book. Plus, I had a patient publisher who was waiting on me. So I pushed myself and wound up writing probably 35k more words than necessary. I’ve always been an overwriter, but the excess was a direct result of the pain I was feeling.

Finishing the book was therapeutic; writing it probably was, too, but so is waking up every day. When you’re in grief, just living becomes its own therapy and its own battle, something Miranda understands very well.

HW: You've now written three books in the Miranda Corbie series. Do you have a favorite?

KS: No, no favorites, though CITY OF DRAGONS, in my heart of hearts, probably has an edge, just
because it was Miranda’s introduction to me and to the world. Actually, the three books feel like three parts of an extra long novel—more connected than separate, and all detailing those narrative themes I mentioned above.

I do have favorite bits—the gambling scene in CITY OF SECRETS, for example—some of the San Francisco descriptions in CITY OF DRAGONS—the Berkeley and Reno and train scenes in CITY OF GHOSTS.  And CITY OF GHOSTS was partially modeled on The Maltese Falcon—the existential quest—one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and (of course) a huge influence on me.

HW: What's next for Miranda? What's next for you?

KS: Right now, I’m writing CITY OF SHARKS—it was time to write about Alcatraz, and, thanks to my author pal Julie Kramer, who has been wanting me to use this title—I decided to take the plunge, so to speak.  The main plot deals with the publishing industry in 1940, but, as in every Miranda novel, there is a lot more going on …

My current contract will be up with that book but I am, of course, hoping to write Miranda for as long as I can write. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to write other things—right now, I’ve got a YA trilogy and a couple of thrillers—stand-alones with series potential—on the drawing board, plus another period mystery/hardboiled,  lighter in tone. Plus, I haven’t forgotten about Arcturus and Roman Noir, but because the second book is out of print I haven’t been able to invest the time to write another. That may change; everything does. I’m hoping to up my production output, that’s for sure, and, as I said, keep Miranda in Chesterfields for a long time to come.

Kelli Stanley writes the Miranda Corbie series of literary noir novels, set in 1940 San Francisco and featuring the ex-escort, former Spanish Civil War nurse and iconoclastic private eye Miranda Corbie--called, by Library Journal, one of "crime's most arresting heroines." CITY OF DRAGONS won the Macavity Award and was nominated for a Shamus and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; CITY OF SECRETS won the Golden Nugget for best mystery set in California, and the third, CITY OF GHOSTS, comes out August 5th. Her first book, NOX DORMIENDA, is set in Roman Britain and won the Bruce Alexander Award. Kelli  lives in San Francisco and holds a Master's Degree in Classics. Visit for more info.

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