Let’s start with the most basic of questions: Why do you write?
There’s a delightful picture book I used to read my kids about a mouse named Frederick who spends all summer basking in the sun while the other mice in the community are hard at work laying in food for the winter. The others complain, rightfully so, until winter sets in and Frederick becomes the community storyteller, giving back the light and warmth he has stored up to help them survive the winter.
That is the writer, the teller of stories: on the one hand, an essentially useless member of society, lazy and with no productive skills, yet on the other hand, helpful in getting through times hard or dark. I spent most of my first thirty-five years aimlessly absorbing stories and ideas, before time came to shape a few of my own. I write because I read; I tell stories because stories were what shaped my life and helped me survive.
So why mystery stories?
Mysteries may not be the perfect vessel to hold a story. Crime fiction often justifies its taint of triviality, earning the reader’s sense of disdain at noble themes betrayed. When strong plot is an integral part of the whole, as it is in this genre, it becomes all too easy to forget that structure is a servant to the story, not its entire purpose.
Still, in the mystery the great themes of the storyteller linger on, the willingness to address the ideas of Death and Purpose and Courage and Sacrifice that look out of place in mainstream fiction. When I construct a mystery, I am sending my characters off on the modern equivalent of a holy quest, a search for truth and righteousness, a reassertion of the order that exists in the universe.
Kate Martinelli, SFPD homicide detective, is a knight on a Quest?
Sure. In the Arthurian saga, the reason Lancelot is the knight is not because he’s a perfect human being, but precisely because he is just a man, flawed enough to give in to his desire for his best friend’s wife. Kate Martinelli is a good cop (cops being modern society’s knights-in-shining-Kevlar) not in spite of her flaws, but because of them. Her fears and needs enable Kate–and through her eyes, the reader–to perceive the drives of others in ways a perfect person might not.
Isn’t that stretching things a bit?
Again, sure. That’s what fiction is, a stretch–stretching reality, stretching credulity, tugging at the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief (as John Gardner put it) until that reader has willingly strolled into the depths with Kate and her band, then out the other side.
Do you have all this in mind while you’re putting your stories together?
Good heavens, no. While I’m actually writing, all I’m aware of is the next step, and how that will progress toward the end I hold in mind, and peripherally how the action ties in to the vague, underlying themes of that particular book as a whole. Which themes, by the way, I can’t begin to articulate until long after the book is finished.
Many writers have the habit of referring to their characters as if they were real people, in closer control of their lives than the mere author is. This sounds at times daft, to talk about Kate Martinelli’s motivations or Mary Russell’s history; worse than daft, it sounds self-conscious, irresponsible, or even, God forbid, cute. Nonetheless, for many of us it is a sort of shorthand reference to the way a story progresses, the way in which we as writers depend on the unseen workings of that dark and hidden part of the mind that is busily organizing the plot and providing footholds on the precipitous walls of the storyline. Most of the time, I couldn’t tell you exactly how my characters are going to get to the end of the book (although I do know more or less what they will look like when the book ends–who’s still standing when the dust settles, as it were) any more than the majority of people could analyze how they put together sentence after sentence in their native tongue. Writing fiction is a language one learns, as a child learns to speak, passively at first and with increasing confidence as experience grows.
Not that confidence is ever truly attained: I am always both exhilarated and terrified when I set off on a hundred-thousand word novel, not knowing how I’m going to get to the end. More often than not, I reach the 120 page mark and think, I’m not going to be able to do it this time. It is a work of trust to push forward, to have faith that the back of the mind will carry on through the darkness and into the light. I’m currently setting off on the journey for the dozenth time, trusting that the words will add up to another novel (Folly, 2001). Perhaps by the fiftieth book, it might get easier.
What would you say your books are about?
Passion. Fear. Relationships and solitudes, and the ways in which people grow.
Any good novel, mystery or otherwise, is a story told on a number of levels. The Martinelli books (which aim at being both good and novels) are first of all mysteries–good, entertaining stories. They also follow the development of Kate herself from a strongly defensive person (in A Grave Talent) who hides behind a nickname and gives out nothing of herself to others, into a woman able to commit herself to friendship. Around her are woven together the lives of the other series characters, her partner, her lover, her community, and their stories. And finally, each book in the series is the story of an individual who is the central concern in that book and no other: the artist Vaun Adams in A Grave Talent, Brother Erasmus in To Play the Fool, the adolescent Jules Cameron in With Child, and now, in Night Work, a woman who has been glimpsed in the last two books, the minister Rosalyn Hall.
Two of the four Martinelli books are about religious figures, and religion is a common theme in your other novels as well. Why is that?
I have an academic background in theology, so that many of the books I’ve written, particularly in the other series I do about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, incorporate religious concepts. Religion is a passion every bit as driving as sex or greed, and as Brother Erasmus in To Play the Fool devoted his life to serving God with his every breath, similarly in Night Work, Roz Hall strives to balance her Christian ministry with her identity as a feminist lesbian, while others in the community find inspiration in the violent Hindu goddess of destruction known as Durga, or Kali.
Where are you going from here?
To the San Juan Islands in Washington state, where a woman is in the process of rebuilding her life and at the same time a house on an island. This will be a stand-alone suspense novel, called Folly.
(From Mystery Scene Magazine, )You see, the thing is, in California, everyone’s writing a novel. Or a screenplay, if you’re south of Big Sur, which I’m not. So when my kids were old enough to grant me a few hours to myself each week, away from my job as full-time mother (gardener, carpenter, plumber, accountant, research assistant, cook, you name it), and I sat down and wrote a book, there was excitement, but not a whole lot of anticipation. Half my husband’s students had dense, two-ream novels, generally of an experimental nature, to share with the world. Granted, mine was only a third that long and possessed a rudimentary plot, but still, nobody assumed that a manuscript in the hand was worth a hardback on the shelf.
So of course, I sat down and wrote another one. And then a third, with different characters.
I started writing fiction in 1987, when my second child was four and entered preschool three mornings a week. I had spent most of the previous seventeen years gathering to myself a pair of academic degrees, a Bachelor’s in Comparative Religion followed by a Master’s in Old Testament Theology. For ten of those years I’d been married to an academic who travelled a lot during university holidays; for the last seven, we’d had children along with us. Had I not been so caught up in a subject as basically, well, useless as theology, I might have been employable with my Master’s, but at the end of those years, I had two kids, a house that was no longer about to fall down around our ears, a lot of odd skills, and, suddenly, the desire to write fiction.
I grew up with fiction. We had a television only sporadically during my childhood, which meant I read a lot, most of that fiction. Having spent seventeen years immersed in Fact, I now turned back to my first love, and sat down one day to write, “I was fifteen when I met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.”
Mary Russell carried me through that first book, which eventually became The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and then a second while I dutifully mailed the manuscript off to one publisher after another, whose names I hunted down in the local library as being not too averse to having unsolicited manuscripts darken their transom. (This was, remember, almost ten years ago, in that golden age when a writer could attempt such feats.) The manuscript, naturally, returned home with prompt regularity, a form rejection clipped to its title page. I came to treasure those that had been signed by a human hand, or—rare bird—typed instead of photocopied.
After a couple years of this, I realized that I had sufficient energy either to write, or to shop the stuff around, but not both. That’s when I went looking for an agent, and again, in those halcyon days, agents didn’t have fifty to a hundred enquiries a day dropping through their box. I wrote to five agencies in the San Francisco area (New York? where’s that?) and had various responses from each, but Linda Allen was the only agent who liked both Mary Russell and Kate Martinelli without hesitation. I threw myself at her feet, and we have been together ever since.
After picking myself up from the ground beneath her shoes, I went back to waiting. It was different now, because this was some sort of a partnership, but other than a brief and thrilling flurry of interest in 1990, nothing happened until the much-blessed Ruth Cavin at St Martin’s Press decided to risk their all, or a very small slice of their all, on A Grave Talent. Surely you heard the yell, in early December, 1991? When Linda called to say that she had sold the book? That I would be a Published Author? That they were actually going to give me a few dollars for the thing? I know the neighbors heard it, half a mile away.
The next time they heard such a noise (and remember, there were two kids with healthy lungs in continual residence) was a year and a bit later, when I heard that Grave Talent was nominated for an Edgar award. (No, I didn’t yell the night the book actually won; frankly, I didn’t believe it.) It wasn’t the money that mattered, which wasn’t all that much at the beginning, anyway. It wasn’t the vindication, or even any sense of reward for efforts past. It was that finally, nearly five years after I began, despite the fact that everyone in California has written a novel, mine was to be a real one.
At last, I had an excuse to sit and tell myself stories all day.
LK: In the first Mary Russell book, you say you received these manuscripts at the bottom of a battered tin trunk, and that you as editor do nothing more than decipher Ms Russell’s handwriting. Is this true?
LRK: You think I could make this stuff up?
LK: Er, right. Okay, next question. You first wrote a book about a San Francisco cop and a sort of female Rembrandt (A Grave Talent), then about a girl named Mary Russell who meets Sherlock Holmes (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice), and then about a holy fool (To Play the Fool), and later about a woman who investigates “cults” for the FBI (A Darker Place) then a Vietnam vet (Keeping Watch)… Is this all the same Laurie King? Couldn’t you repeat yourself just a little?
LK: Why not? I mean, look, some of your novels have to do with religion and others to do with art and with clinical depression and the myths of Dartmoor and building houses and the inheritance laws of the British aristocracy and now you’re off on the Northwest Frontier of all places with spies and maharajas and pig-sticking, for heaven’s sake—
LRK: Take a breath.
LK: (gasps) Thanks. But really, why?
LRK: Because I have a very low threshold for boredom.
LK: I see. I think. You’re saying that you tell yourself the sorts of stories that you’d like to read, written with intelligence and wit for readers of equal intelligence and wit?
LRK: I’d never say something that arrogant.
LK: All right. Well, moving on: You spent a lot of your life studying religion; isn’t it a little odd to then become a writer of mystery novels?
LRK: I don’t think so.
LK: Couldn’t you please, just once, give me an answer that’s longer than my question?
LRK: They’re your questions.
LRK: Oh very well. Religion and crime fiction both plumb the depths of human behavior and that larger essence we call the soul. Both address the questions of loyalty and responsibility, interconnectedness and independence; the very word “mystery” carries overtones of the numinous: it’s not just a puzzle, but an investigation into the workings of the human spirit, both in the commission of the crime, and in its solution.
LK: And you use the big picture of religious inquiry and truth to lend depth and focus to the individual case at hand, just as in Keeping Watch you drew on the experiences of half a million ground soldiers in Vietnam to illuminate the effect of psychological abuse on one young boy thirty years later.
LRK: That’s a slight oversimplification, but—
LK: And now you’ve set a story of loyalty and responsibility in India’s North-west frontier, where recent American involvement in Afghanistan makes the imagery of 1924 British experiences with the quagmire ring particularly poignant.
LRK: I don’t know that I’d use the word “poignant.”
LK: Well, I would. And I’m particularly interested in the way in which you use the great tapestry of human events—trench warfare in the Great War, Ghandi’s swaraj independence movement—before which to play out a tightly choreographed story among your dramatis personae, which in turns invites the reader to identify his or her own life story with that of the slightly larger-than-life characters of the novel.
LRK: All good books do that.
LK: Hmmm. We’re back to the monosyllabic answers, are we?
LRK: It hardly matters; you’re wordy enough for both of us.
LK: But honestly, in The Game you bring together the people and land of northern India, the British Raj in all its strengths and its weaknesses, Bolshevism, government policies toward the Indian Native States, the dazzling life of a maharaja’s palace, the habits of wild boars, magic tricks, life on a steamship, the Dalai Lama, and the Flapper movement—you even manage to tip your hat to both Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. How on earth do you manage all that in one book?
LRK: You’ll just have to read it and see.