Kelli Stanley is the acclaimed author of two very different series. Her “Roman noir” books are set in the first century AD and feature physician and sometime investigator Arcturus. The first in that series, Nox Dormienda: A Long Night for Sleeping (with a tip of the hat to Chandler’s The Big Sleep), was a Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery Award winner and a Macavity Award finalist. Kirkus Reviews thought that novel “takes the reader on a colorful tour of this singular culture high and low, from jails and brothels to the corridors of power. First-timer Stanley is sure-footed and enthusiastic about history … and crafts a satisfyingly intricate puzzle.” The second novel in the series, The Curse-Maker, is just out and finds Arcturus investigating a murder in the sacred spring at Bath, Brittanica. Booklist noted of this second installment: “Stanley serves up fascinating and never heavy-handed information on Roman life.”
Stanley’s other series is set in San Francisco of the 1940s and features Miranda Corbie, a former escort who has become a private investigator. The first in that series, the 2010 City of Dragons, earned starred reviews and plenty of praise. Publishers Weekly found it a “stunning first in a new series [that] introduces a gutsy, independent heroine who isn’t always likable.” Booklist likewise thought it is an “impressive new mystery [that] takes readers back to the San Francisco of 1940.” The second in that series, City of Secrets, comes out later this year.
Kelli, thanks so much for taking time from your very full schedule to talk with us at Scene of the Crime. How about starting with a discussion of your connection to the locales in your fiction?
I write two series that are both very much location-specific. The Miranda Corbie series (dark private-eye/noir in style), which started with City of Dragons, is set in 1940 San Francisco, where I live … San Francisco, that is, not 1940, though sometimes I feel like I’m a time-traveler! I fell in love with San Francisco as a little girl—it was the closest big city to me—and I’ve been in love ever since.
My ‘Roman noir’ series is set in late first century Roman Britain. As a classicist, I was interested in the outlying areas of Empire, the places where native or indigenous populations carved out independence from Rome. I also absolutely love England—the history, the traditions, the customs (where else do you find cheese-rolling contests?), and since you should always set a book where you hope to visit, I rooted my first series there. My most recent book, The Curse-Maker, is the sequel to my debut novel Nox Dormienda, and is set in Aquae Sulis, which we know better as Bath.
The Curse-Maker was born out of a trip I made to Bath while in England for an academic conference. I was there to make a presentation and lecture at the University of London, and afterward I visited Bath in order to physically examine curse-tablets – research I was able to perform thanks to the generosity of the curator of the museum.
What things about San Francisco and classical Britain make them unique and good physical settings in your books?
Well, San Francisco is a unique, fabled city of unmatched physical beauty, a torrid, fascinating and colorful history, and a sophisticated and diverse melting pot of cultural influences. It’s also captured the imagination of countless creative people—writers, artists, actors. Most people can recognize it immediately—the Golden Gate Bridge is as iconic as the Empire State Building, and more films have been shot here than just about any location outside Los Angeles or New York.
There’s simply no place like it!! As many people in the crime fiction community discovered when they attended Boucheron in 2010.
As for Britain—again, we’re dealing with a land that gave birth to an incredible coterie of creative individuals. If “ley lines” exist, they must run through the UK and San Francisco. And of course, the physical landscape can be breathtaking … when I first saw an English river, I felt like Tolkein had come to life. All the fairy tales and legends and literature, the cultural influences, the history, the mother-country feeling, even the tradition of superb mystery writers … for me, England—or Roman Britain—was as natural a choice as San Francisco.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
As a writer, I try to root myself in reality as much as possible, so setting—and authenticity of setting—is crucial to me. But I don’t consciously determine who or what takes center stage when I write. I prefer to let my subconscious do the work!
San Francisco, Aquae Sulis or Londinium competed for attention as much as any other character would. Not exactly knowing how it will all come out is an intrinsic part of the joy of writing for me.
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?
I spent a good many years in academia, writing papers in which everything was designed, controlled and predetermined down to the final Ibid. As a novelist, I try to suspend my consciousness as much as possible … even though I use a loose outline for plotting, what scenes I write—whether dialog, prose, etc.—is never a conscious decision for me.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I’ve had amazing support from San Francisco reviewers, press, and the library system. Book stores, too. City of Dragons was reviewed by the Chronicle, and chosen as one of their top fiction books of the year by local authors. I was very humbled by this—the Chron generally doesn’t review crime fiction at all, and to be on the same list as Isabelle Allende was an incredible honor.
The Curse-Maker launches February 1st, so I won’t hear about any reaction from Bath residents for awhile. However, even though my debut novel (Nox Dormienda) was published with a small press and did not enjoy robust distribution, the British readers who have contacted me about it were uniformly complimentary—I’m relieved to say!
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
In City of Dragons, a few local readers reminded me that I made a goof on a directional when Miranda was walking toward Chinatown. I get quite a few queries about whether or not “escorts” existed in the ‘30s (they most certainly did; I’ve posted an actual ad for “Dianne’s Escort Service” – where Miranda once worked – on my website), and whether people used profanity as depicted in the book. Our common view of the 30s and 40s has been completely shaped by film and Hays Office censorship—and one of my goals is to present the past with the kid gloves removed, the veil of repression lifted. I try to recapture both the beauty (Art Deco design) and ugliness (segregation and racism) of the era.
The fact is, married people did not usually sleep in twin beds. And while profanity was certainly not as ubiquitous as it is today, people used it. Carole Lombard and Martha Gellhorn were infamous for their colorful use of profanity. Miranda’s use of language is not gratuitous—it’s a strong element of her personality, psychology and character.
Of your two series, do you have favorite books or scenes that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
“The city sparkled, her neon winking, shining like a bride on her wedding day. It was night, and the double lit street lamps danced a fox trot in the fog, and south of Market the overnight to LA pulled from the station, rumbling through the rich and fertile land just south of San Francisco, orchards stretched and sleeping, the only light the lantern of a farmer, worried about his crop.
“Whistles blew, and longshoremen strode across the piers, unloading cargo from a ship pulled in, crew tired, while the smoke poured from the factories on the shore, paper and glass and steel and aluminum, machine parts made by men bent in a perennial hunch, working through the night, coffee and a cigarette their only companions.”
From The Curse-Maker:
“Gwyna showed emotion only once. There was a place on the Great Plain I wanted her to see. Not many farms around it, though plenty ringed the downland, with wheat and barley and fl ax growing like the buttercups. She could see it from a distance, and I knew she was curious.
“’Arcturus—what is that? Those stones–’
“’No one knows, Gwyna. They are the oldest of the Old Ones.’
“She looked at me then, almost like herself. She was excited. ‘Can we see them?’
“A light rain fell, and the green downland hummed with crickets. Wild hares dug in the soil, making large warrens, some of them older than the Romans in Britannia. Dark birds flew overhead, lighting on the giant rocks that rose up from the Earth like fingers, grasping at the sky.
“Gwyna dismounted, walking up to one of the large blue stones, taller than any man. Silent, reverent touch. She walked the circle, in and out, laying her hand on each one in turn. There were tears in her eyes.
“’Thank you, Ardur,’ she whispered.”
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?
Too many to count, though I’m most heavily influenced by Chandler, Hammett, Hemingway and Steinbeck in prose. Poetry has been hugely influential—I grew up reading it, wrote it through my youth and won translation awards while I was a graduate student. As far as place is concerned, Thomas Hardy was my earliest teacher. His portrayal of Edgon Heath in The Return of the Native demonstrated how sensual landscape can be.
What’s next for your protagonists?
Miranda’s next book is called City of Secrets; it deals with American fascism and anti-Semitism, and will be released in September.
Arcturus’ second adventure is The Curse-Maker—if it proves successful enough, I hope to find him back in Londinium and—eventually—Rome itself.
Great stuff, Kelli. Thanks again for taking part.
For more information on Kelli Stanley, visit her homepage.
Also see this recent interview.