Kristine Kathryn Rusch is an award-winning writer of mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, and romance, with scores of novels to her credit, both in series format and stand-alones, as well as how-to’s for the freelance writer. Her awards range from the Ellery Queen Readers Choice Award to the John W. Campbell Award. She is the only person in the history of the science fiction field to have won a Hugo award for editing and a Hugo award for fiction. Rusch is the former editor of the prestigious Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and before that she and Dean Wesley Smith started and ran Pulphouse Publishing, a science fiction and mystery press in Eugene. She lives and works on the Oregon Coast.
Writing as Kris Nelscott, Rusch has published the Smokey Dalton mystery series set in 1960s Memphis and Chicago and featuring a black P.I., about which Booklist declared, “This series has all the passion and precision of Walter Mosley’s early Easy Rawlins novels, but it is not derivative. In fact, Smokey just may be a more compelling character than the celebrated Easy.” Kirkus Reviews was equally enthusiastic: “A blistering rendition of the ’60s racial wars marks this series as a standout … you don’t need to be a fan of private-eye novels to admire Smokey: You just need a conscience.” Salon.com added further praise for the six novels of the series: “Somebody needs to say that Kris Nelscott is engaged in an ongoing fictional study of a thorny era in American political and racial history. If that’s not enough to get ‘serious’ critics and readers to pay attention to her, it’s their loss.” And Publishers Weekly also lauded the books, noting of Days of Rage: “Edgar-finalist Nelscott’s sixth Smokey Dalton novel deftly interweaves the issue of race with politics, societal question and personal relationships.” The long-awaited seventh series addition, The Day After, will be published in 2012.
Meanwhile, the incredibly prolific Rusch has created a hybrid mystery and sci fi series with her Retrieval Artist books. The Edge Boston noted of that series: “Part CSI, part Blade Runner, and part hard-boiled gumshoe, the retrieval artist of the series title, one Miles Flint, would be as at home on a foggy San Francisco street in the 1940s as he is in the domed lunar colony of Armstrong City.” Publishers Weekly called it a “provocative interplanetary detective series with healthy doses of planet-hopping intrigue, heady legal dilemmas and well-drawn characters,” while Booklist raved, “Rusch mounts hard-boiled noir on an expansive sf background with great panache.”
Kris, it’s a great pleasure to have your with us on Scene of the Crime. You’ve got mystery series set in Chicago and on the moon–that’s got to be a first for us. How about we start with your Smokey Dalton books. What’s your connection to Memphis and Chicago?
I grew up in the Midwest. Chicago was the city, scary, big, powerful, and interesting. I travel there whenever I can. The first Smokey Dalton book is set in Memphis, and I traveled there for research. I find that when you go to a locale, you learn small things that become quite valuable to the story.
What things about Chicago in the 1960s make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Since I’m working off the history of the time, I work off the history of the place. Each place’s history is specific, which then allows me to tell very specific stories. It’s fun and it makes me use my history degree in a way that I had never imagined when I was in school.
I always use setting as a character, whether I’m writing mystery fiction or science fiction. My Retrieval Artist novels, which I publish under my Kristine Kathryn Rusch name (my real name), are mysteries set on the Moon. I call that my 87th Precinct series, because I deal with all kinds of characters. I research that as heavily as the Kris Nelscott novels–except (unfortunately) I can’t travel to the Moon. (Yet.)
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 can’t write without knowing every single detail about the setting. In fact, when I do the Smokey Dalton novels, I do primary research in newspapers and one thing I make note of is the weather for my time period. That way I know if Smokey is battling heat or a blizzard. And it really informs the fiction. We interact with our settings every day, and by having characters interact with their setting, it makes the readers identify more.
How does Smokey Dalton interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Smokey?
I never lived in the South, so I felt uncomfortable writing about a Southerner, mostly because of language usage. So I gave Smokey years in the North, just to make things easier for me. He hasn’t been a native of any of the places he interacts with. In fact, he’s actively masking his identity in Chicago.
Chicago in the 1960s from the point of view of a black man who lives on the South Side is quite a difficult place to boost. The poverty, gangs, and crime make living there a day-to-day survival story. So that’s how he interacts. Often the small stories that no one remembers from the newspapers–such as a dance at a cultural center–become very important to my plotting. So it does have a global effect on him and a small effect on him all at the same time.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
The local (Chicago) reaction has been marvelous. The reaction from the black community wonderful. The Nelscott books are bestsellers in France, and the reaction there has been amazing. I went on a book tour there in a few years ago, and found myself discussing U.S. politics because of the setting and themes of my books.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
Nothing major. I am anal about my research. Not even a funny story, I’m afraid.
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?
The spirit of my novels, huh? Well, Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels really had a major impact on my decision to write historical fiction. I think Daphne Du Murier’s Rebecca really taught me about place, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby taught me how to write about the interactions of characters
When last we saw Smokey Dalton, he was dealing with the death of activist Fred Hampton in Chicago. The next book takes him to the days after the end of the Chicago 7 trial and all the riots. That’s tentatively called The Day After and will be out in 2012.
Thanks again, Kris, for stopping by Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Kristine Kathryn Rusch or her other pseudonyms, see her homepage.