San Francisco-based author and musician Deborah Grabien blends musical elements and mystery in many of her novels. The author of the Haunted Ballads series, Grabien mixes historical sleuthing and old English ballads in books featuring musician Ringan Laine and his talented significant other, Penny Wintercraft-Hawkes. That five-book series began in 2003 with The Weaver and the Factory Maid, and concluded with New Slain Knight in 2007. Publishers Weekly found the latter work “enthralling,” while Booklist declared, “Grabien once again creates a fascinating thriller by blending traditional folk music and lore with elements of the supernatural.”
In 2008, Grabien launched a new series, the Kinkaid Chronicles, featuring John “JP” Kinkaid, guitarist for Hall of Fame rock band Blacklight, and his long-time girlfriend, Bree Godwin. The first novel in the series was Rock and Roll Never Forgets, which Kirkus Reviews termed “a deft mystery nicely integrated with a fascinating backstage look at a rock star’s life.” That life is made ever more complicated by multiple sclerosis. Second in the series, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, came out in 2009, prompting Publishers Weekly to note, “JP’s perky narration and his love for Bree keep the pages turning.” Third in the series, London Calling, from 2010, is, according to Booklist, a “tip of the hat to the politically charged music of the English punk-rock band The Clash.” The fourth series installment, Graceland, comes out next month. Grabien has also written a number of stand-alone titles, including Still Life with Devils.
Deb, thanks for stopping by Scene of the Crime. Let’s start things off with a discussion of the crime scene in your Kinkaid books.
I actually have more than one. San Francisco and the Bay Area is my primary love, but I love Southern England and France as well. I’ve lived, worked or both in all three at one time or another. I fell completely in love with San Francisco during the whole Grateful Dead-Jefferson Airplane era. My sister was a rock journalist nine years my senior; she moved to Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, in 1970. My first visit, I’d snuck out here in autumn 1969 after Woodstock, took one look at the place, and just went dingdingding, no more calls please, we have a winner, this is Home! I followed my sister out in June 1971, just before my 17th birthday. Except for fleeing back to Europe for a few years, I’ve been here ever since, nearly forty years. France (Paris and the South) and London, I visit whenever I can. That’s not as often as I’d like. Between illness and finances, travel isn’t as easy as it used to be.
What things about San Francisco make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
SF has been either the number one or in the top 3 destinations for visitors worldwide for something like 50 years. It has the most beautiful natural geography of any American city, but our uniqueness is as much in the sociopolitical and artistic sense as it is in the geophysical sense. We’re uber-lefty, uber-progressive, more so than anywhere in the US. We live on unstable ground, the earth constantly moving under our feet. I’m not sure the Summer of Love or the Beats could have come from any other place.
In terms of the books, the City itself, the fog, the way it looks, the way the water moves under the Golden Gate, the geography, become an integer in my standalone thriller, Still Life With Devils. In that one, a serial killer who may not be completely human uses every inch of the city, every twisty street, every quirk, as a tool and an ally. In the Kinkaid Chronicles, the City is much more benign. JP Kinkaid is a London expat superstar guitarist who falls in love with the City (and, as it happens, with a much younger girl named Bree) on his first trip through, and comes back here to live. He’s the narrator, so we see the City through his eyes, which means I have to write it that way.
Did you consciously set out to use location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
Nope. That will come up as the characters, on whatever journey they’re on at any given time in any given book, feel it or see it or share a moment with it.
How do JP and Bree interact with their surroundings? Are they natives, blow-ins, reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitants, cynical about it, boosters? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonists?
Sticking with the Kinkaid Chronicles, JP Kinkaid is a Brit who relocated. He fell in love with the music scene in San Francisco on his first tour here with his Rolling Stones-level band, Blacklight. He fell for the geography, and for the general vibe of the place. And he also fell in love with Bree Godwin, a teenager, and a San Franciscan born and bred.
The City affects him in subtle ways, which he isn’t even necessarily aware of, but in more overt ways as well – little things, like telling Bree when she suggests a walk that okay, cool, but can they do it out at the Beach, because his legs (he has multiple sclerosis, as do I) aren’t up to what he calls the local alps. Because they live in lower Pacific Heights and Ocean Beach is flat. We are, after all, famous for our hills.
Oh, the locals love it – I’ve certainly never had a negative reaction from a local reader, vendor, librarian or reviewer, and in fact, the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley has a few of mine that specifically deal with SF and the Bay Area. The first series I did, the Haunted Ballads, was set in the south of England (partly in London, partly in Somerset near Glastonbury, and one all the way southwest, in Cornwall), and those have been well received as well. My very first novel, Eyes in the Fire, was set almost entirely on Dartmoor. It got very nice local reviews.
I don’t know about reactions from the locals to the sections of my books that are set in France. And Then Put Out The Light is a standalone set mostly in Paris and the Cote d’Azure. The Famous Flower of Serving Men, which is the third Haunted Ballad, has a French ghost in it and leads to a road trip to Bernay, in France. And most recently, the third Kinkaid, London Calling, is set at the Cannes festival for the last half of the book. I’d love to see some local reactions to those. I actually created a fictional town in the South of France called Les Sirenes sur Mer (Mermaids by the Sea), just so that I could give them a corrupt and racist police chief. Racism is what the story is about.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
The nearest I’ve come to that – literally pure bad luck – was to randomly pick a year for a very old crime for the third Haunted Ballad, Matty Groves. I needed a year somewhere between 1620 and 1630 in which the monarch in charge dissolved Parliament. I needed a political upheaval. And I picked the one year in British history when absolutely nothing happened. Seriously, I was tearing my hair out. The palace records for 1626 are basically: “On this date, the King had a nice bath.” “On this date, the King picked his nose.” It was absolutely infuriating. I had to go back, choose another year, and rewrite a bunch of dates.
Of the Kinkaid novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
I love all the Kinkaids – they make me really happy. Books of my heart. The locations really infuse the books, and become more vivid as JP evolves and grows up more, because at heart this is a coming of age series; he just happens to be growing up as he approaches 60, in the incredibly muffling enabling world of a rock star. As he starts noticing the world around him more, things become more vivid because he sees them more clearly. But here’s a few bits.
From Rock & Roll Never Forgets:
“I may not be the most observant man alive, but I’m not entirely dim, either. I can do basic sums. If I took that whispering back in the kitchen earlier, and added in the look on her face, and now the desire for a conversation on neutral territory, it all added up to a Big Announcement.
“’Right. Stay in the neighbourhood, or were you thinking down at the beach?’ Our part of town, Pacific Heights, is called that for a reason. ‘I honestly don’t think my legs are up to the local thirty-degree angles tonight, love. Let’s do the beach, all right?’
“Immediately, she went into protective mode. ‘Oh, John, I’m sorry! Why didn’t you tell me you were relapsing? I could have kicked everyone out earlier -‘
“’Bree, belt up, will you? I’m fine.’ I stood up, doing what I could to hide the shakes in both legs. ‘It’s mostly just the jetlag catching up. A walk will do me good – just, not up one of the local alps, all right? Let’s head for flat ground.’
“She drove us out to Ocean Beach. It was a good night for it, no fog in sight – the Marin headlands looked so close, you felt you could count the trees on Mount Tamalpais, across the water. The tide was mostly out, just beginning the evening push back landward, and we had a lot of beach to walk on. It was early enough for the usual hordes of beer-soaked teenagers to be elsewhere. By full dark, they’d be out in force, lighting driftwood fires and generally being pains in the arse, but for now, it was the two of us, and soft wavelets moving up onto the edge of the shore, and the stars sparking to life overhead.”
From While My Guitar Gently Weeps:
“It was a gorgeous afternoon, just beginning the long slow slide into evening. The Bay Area gets some of its most extreme weather around late summer and into early autumn; we’d got lucky, and the first day of Indian summer had hit the Bay. The result was a glorious sunlit dream of a day, mid-seventies, without a touch of fog anywhere.
“We were halfway across the Golden Gate Bridge, heading north into Marin County. Sailboats dotted the Bay – even Alcatraz, which usually gives me the creeps, looked benign.
“I’ve never learned to drive, and Bree, behind the wheel of our Jaguar S-type, loathes driving the bridges. Can’t say I blame her, not really. The lanes are narrow and there’s nothing but a few plastic orange sticks to separate you from oncoming traffic. Besides, it’s a damned long way down. She rarely makes any conversation when she’s navigating one of the bridges. Her attention is usually reserved for glaring at other drivers who look to be coming too close to the Jag.”
From London Calling:
“It was pouring outside, absolutely pissing down rain. That’s normal for San Francisco in early February; we get these endless El Nino winters, day after day of steady miserable downpours, where hillsides wash away and posh homes slide into huge sinkholes and people start thinking right, maybe the Druids were wrong and the sun’s not coming back after all.
“By the time winter hits February, the days seem about two hours long and it’s dreary as hell. These are the days when anyone in their right mind stays indoors, doing whatever makes them happy.
“Actually, the two things that make me happiest are music and my wife, but doing either of them before breakfast isn’t really an option these days. Multiple sclerosis has a habit of kicking in hardest first thing in the morning, or at least mine does. And I’m not really functional before coffee and a look at the newspaper anyway, you know?”
“Next day, with Tony driving, we dropped Bree off at the licensed kitchens she works out of when she’s catering, and headed off with a list of things that needed getting.
“The way it works in San Francisco is, most private licensed caterers don’t own their own restaurants. And the problem is, the City’s got a powerful restaurant union, and they’ve got a death grip on catering contracts. Also, they’re not what you’d call welcoming of competition. The City doesn’t let you cater out of your house, and that means people like my wife have to buy insurance and then wave proof of that insurance at one of the few licensed kitchens out there that aren’t behind the doors of a restaurant. Industrial kitchens, those are; the one Bree uses is all the way out near the old shipyards.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Favourite writers vary by mood, but my three constants are Shirley Jackson, Robertson Davies and Peter S. Beagle. I do love Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, as well. I don’t know that they influenced the way use place in my own writing, but they certainly use it to good effect in theirs!
What’s next for JP?
The fourth Kinkaid, Graceland, comes out in April 2011. That one takes place back and forth between three settings: at home in SF, in the mythical town of Ofagoula, Ohio where JP’s strongest influence and idol, Farris “Bulldog” Moody, lives, and the ballroom of the Waldorf in NY for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Deb, many thanks again for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Deborah Grabien and her books, see her homepage.