Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Belly up to the Bar with Neliza Drew!

Well, I'm finally Damaged enough to join this crew. I knew it would happen, if I kept reading crime novels. I'm elbow-deep in edits for my next novel, the Nazi hipster craft beer cozy, so I cheated a little for my first post. I interviewed Neliza Drew, whose debut novel ALL THE BRIDGES BURNING came out this month. It's a great mystery thriller with a kick-ass heroine. I'm a stickler for realistic fight scenes--I actually choreographed some of the fights in Blade of Dishonor at the fight gym where I trained at the time--and while Davis Groves doesn't always lead with her fists, when there's rough and tumble action, it's done well. You can find out why in the interview that follows. Among the many things Neliza Drew has done, she's now a karate instructor.

TP:
Neliza, belly up to the bar. What can I pour you?

ND:
It's been crazy-hot for days on end, so let's go with an ice-cold club soda. 

TP:
Davis Groves is a smart-ass ass-kicker who came up hard. One thing I love about Davis is that she doesn't have a "code" but almost a child's sense of what's right and wrong, and take-no-BS attitude for those who can't stop making problems for themselves. Does she have an inspiration in fiction, and in real life?

ND:
So much of Davis is informed by and inspired by the girls I used to teach at the regional detention center. She started out, twenty years ago in an awful short story that has thankfully been lost, as a kind of alternative to the few female sleuths I'd read at the time. 

Back then, I hadn't fully discovered the richness or depth of the crime fiction genre. This was pre-Amazon and my family wasn't big on mysteries and thrillers, so the books I had access to were what I could find in small bookstores or my local library. I scribbled her down because I wanted to read about a younger, more screwed up, less "honorable" female protagonist, more of those have been published and found their way onto my radar. 

The parts that make her feel "real" though, came from my former students and watching how they dealt with the crap life threw at them. It's not uncommon for someone who's had to "group up fast" to keep a childlike moral compass because they, rightly or wrongly, believe it's worked for them so far. You hear it a lot in people who think anyone who hasn't had it as hard as they have (no matter how they define it) has no reason to whine or complain. It's a coping mechanism, but it sounds mean and uncaring. 


TP:
Davis is based in Florida, but you decided to bring her home to coastal North Carolina, rather than keep her in the chaotic playground of Florida craziness. What made you set the book there?

ND:
What made me set the book there was laziness. 

I knew she wouldn't live near her family, that something had happened to test her loyalty and make her move away. I also needed a reason to cement the mother, Charley, someplace because it would be too hard for her to keep moving around and keep custody of Lane on her own. 

Davis lives in South Florida. It's full of plot possibilities and I've been watching it change for two decades, so again...laziness. Charley needed somewhere else and I stuck her in the county I grew up in. Plus, winters there are gray and depressing, which seemed perfect for a story about confronting a mess of one's past demons, guilt, and family dysfunction. 


TP:
You've been both a teacher in classrooms and in the dojo. How has that influenced your writing? 

ND:
I have to let stuff "simmer" for a stupid-long amount of time, so most of the time at the dojo has been too recent to really affect much. The time at the detention center, though, colored a lot of Davis's past, her attitudes, her relationship to her family, and some of the plot.

In eight-and-a-half years, I spent all but one of those at the regional detention center and about half of those years were spent teaching the girls all day, every subject. Spending all day every day (including summers for several years) with girls who've been locked up can be a powerful and informative experience.


TP: 
You write damn good fight scenes thanks to your experience. Who are some of your literary influences?

ND:
I know I'm supposed to pull out some classic tome, wax poetic on the Big Boys of Noir, or craft a nostalgic essay on Goodnight Moon. I'm not that good a writer. 

I grew up on Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. At some point, I discovered the Nancy Drew books, and while the classics were fun, the ones I really liked were the "Case Files," which were in hindsight the worst bits of the older books dressed up in the worst of the 80s.

In the 90s, I read all the Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller books and kept up with both until a few years ago. One day I'll get back. I read all the Karen Kijewski's Kat Colorado books and about the first quarter of Grafton's alphabet. I have loved everything I've read by Robert Crais since The Monkey's Raincoat with the exception of Hostage. For whatever reason, that's possibly me, I cannot seem to finish that book. 

I've also said before that had I met Zoë Sharp's Charlie Fox back before I started writing Davis, I might never have felt compelled to create her. Not sure Charlie and Davis would get along as one is disciplined and well-trained while the other charges on blindly, expecting disaster and halfway not caring.


TP:
I'm a big fan of Crais as well. Everyone forgets Bad Joe Pike is a vegetarian... You're a practicing vegan. I know they have a reputation for being preachy, but I never got any grief from you (or Alex Segura, another vegan crime writer I know). What made you embrace Lord Seitan? And thanks for introducing me to veggie chorizo crumbles. My breakfasts have never been better.

ND:
Glad you've found some tasty veggie crumbles. 

About eight years ago, a local book club I was in picked The Jungle as their first read. Between that and the vegan guest speaker at school showing videos that looked like outtakes from the book, I was too grossed out to eat meat for months. By the time I stopped being grossed out, I realized I didn't miss it, so I never went back. Turns out since eggs and most dairy were already on my "icky" list, it was pretty easy except for trying to eat in airports. 

I'm not super-militant about the whole vegan thing (which means a lot of vegans would wrinkle their noses and call me a "plant-based eater"), but I purposefully shop for cruelty-free cosmetics and hygiene products, and I avoid secret animal-based ingredients whenever I can.

Technically vegans eschew leather and leather products, but my vegan-eating sister (who is also a big environmentalist) and I found a quandary there. Synthetics don't last as long, resulting in more waste, and aren't really any more sustainably produced. Buying used keeps stuff out of the waste stream longer -- especially since leather is durable and repairable -- without requiring new animal sacrifices. 


TP:  
You travel a lot, and I have the postcards to prove it. Will Davis hit the road in the future? and what would be your favorite place to set a crime novel?

ND:
I honestly didn't think I traveled that often. I do love a good road trip, though. They're cheaper than destination travel. I can pack my own food. I get to explore lots of stuff. And I love driving back roads.

Davis grew up on the road, but not in a fun free-wheeling kind of way. Still, that sense of impermanence sticks with her, so I imagine she'll meander around. I may have also drafted a few novella-length stories of her teen years that are hanging out on my hard drive. 

There is a Davis idea I have that would take her to San Francisco and then backtracking through some of the places she lived growing up. Might take me a few years. 

I love a good motel so eventually I'm going to have to put that fascination to good use. 


TP:
Novellas are hot right now. I hope we see some of those. You've set a few of your stories in the juvenile justice system and in schools. If you had a magic wand and could pass one law, or erase one, whatever- change one thing- to improve how we treat teens in reform schools or the justice system, what would it be?
ND:
I'm not sure one law, give or take, could change much. The Zero Tolerance laws passed in the wake of events like Columbine did more harm than good. The stories that got the press were the (usually white) honor students with plastic knives for food and similar insanity, but ZT laws did a lot toward funneling children of color into the school-to-prison pipeline. Once in the system, it's very difficult to fully escape, so introducing students to the system for petty reasons can have disastrous effects. 

The whole juvenile system is a messy hodgepodge and most everything legislatures try to do to "fix" it, tends to make things worse because they listen to lobbyist, capitalists who want to privatize the systems, and administrators who haven't been "in the trenches" in years rather than the people who do the work and who also do the caring. 

Like schools, if you hire well, pay well enough, and treat your employees well, you will tend to have more caring staff and fewer problems in places like programs and juvenile detention centers. When the state slashed funding, that became too obvious to all but the state leaders. 


TP:
That doesn't give me much hope. But to end on a light note, what would be your last meal? (PS, if you come to NYC we've got to go to Blossom. Sarah said the mock duck with cashew cream was amazing). 

ND:
The last truly awesome vegan meal I had was at De La Vega in Deland, FL of all places. I could definitely go for that again. The husband makes a delicious vegan shepherd's pie, too. 

1 comment:

Al Tucher said...

Illuminating interview! To that list of kickass women protagonists I would add Greg Rucka's Tara Chace.