THE JOHNSTOWN GIRLS
Is there anything special you'd like to tell us about THE JOHNSTOWN GIRLS?
KG. Altogether it took 25 years to write! Yes. I started it a long time ago and have several versions. To tell the truth, I liked the impulse behind all the versions, but this is the one that seems to have the most steam. It has an engine that moves.
How did you get interested in the Johnstown Flood?
KG. I was born and raised in Johnstown. We heard about the flood during those years, even though the Great Flood was too long ago for anyone to remember. My mother and father remembered the 1936 flood which was very bad, but of course nothing can compare to the flood of 1889. In that one over 2000 people were killed in a matter of minutes. And the town was wiped out. Only to be rebuilt by determined survivors. We learned in school that Johnstown was now the flood free city. And of course that wasn't true because there was another flood in 1977. I experienced that one, or the aftermath of it rather, because I went into town during the disaster-area recovery. But the novel is about women and their relationships. I had to do research into memory, twins, teaching, nursing, all kinds of things to flesh out these lives.
What are you doing to promote your book?
KG. I have a number of readings in the Pittsburgh and Johnstown areas. The Press is sending out notices to other newspapers in other cities. I hope for reviews in those places.
KG. Actually I'm torn between writing another Richard Christie procedural and another historical novel. I think the inevitable answer is both, but I just don't know in which order.
When you're not writing, what are you doing (hobbies, family, etc.)?
KG. When I'm not writing I am teaching classes, grading papers, sitting on committees (which means I still have my day job of Professor of Theatre Arts at Pitt). There isn't much other time. When there is, I can be found reading, reading, and reading, which I love to do and watching sports, mainly baseball in season. I'm a huge fan. And cooking, making soup or Lebanese dishes. I even baked Lebanese bread recently.
A MEASURE OF BLOOD
What makes Pittsburgh the perfect setting for a crime series?
KG.Pittsburgh has a lot of "parts." There are gorgeous views, more bridges than in Venice, many trees and parks and also very poor areas, boarded up buildings, dark, rough streets. Needless to say there are dramas of class and race in the very makeup of the city. And in between the extremes there are ethnic neighborhoods that started out as immigrant strongholds and somehow held onto that identity even when mostly taken over by students looking for affordable housing. The people are extremely colorful. The braying Steelers fans that Tom Hanks made sport of on David Letterman. World famous doctors. The grandchildren of immigrants who have come up in the world and who are almost invariably friendly and unpretentious. Pittsburgh is friendly except when a 'burgher is in a car. All bets are off for sweetness. The driver simply wants to get home.
How do you know so much about police work?
KG.I called the police a lot. Then I realized just how much I had absorbed and how much was common sense. I started to get freer about calling my own shots and when I checked with the police on what I had done, I got the nod of approval. I've been extremely lucky. The police have been supportive and open with me. Actually the FBI, too, in the early days when I needed to consult were also helpful. My husband loves to tell people that when I tried certain plots on the FBI consultant, he said I had a fine criminal mind.
THE JOHNSTOWN GIRLS is based on a real event that happened in your hometown. What inspired you to write about this piece of history?
KG.The Great Flood of 1889 is an amazing story of greed and survival in America, a story everyone should know. And I come from Johnstown. And there were subsequent floods. My mother was in two of them. None was as big or devastating as the Great Flood though the lesser floods were plenty serious with numerous deaths and significant loss of property. I wanted to include all three floods to some extent in my novel because I experienced the fear in 1977 that I would lose my mother and I realized that disaster stories are really about those moments of longing for those you love, fear of losing them. When I couldn't get news, when the town was cordoned off, the drama that I knew first hand was that classic one of fear followed by joy at reunion.
How long have you worked on these books?
KG. A MEASURE OF BLOOD took about four years with some off and on time. Actually I began working on THE JOHNSTOWN GIRLS twenty-five years ago. It haunted me. I worked intensely but sporadically over the years.
What was it like to grow up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania?
KG. Sweet! Little ethnic neighborhood. Smells of pierogies and kielbassa, small grocery stores where the owners knew your family and what brands you wanted. And in the old days kids could play dodgeball in the street if it was flat and well-paved or sled-ride down a steep street. We felt connected to Pittsburgh. It was the big bit brother down the road. We were Pirates fans for sure. The whole town listened to the 1960 world series.
How do you juggle your career as a theater arts professor at the University of Pittsburgh with your life as a mystery writer?
KG. Eeeek. Sometimes juggle is the operative word. It's tough to do it all, but I love all of it. I tend to get up very early. In those morning hours when lots of people are sleeping and some are rocking babies or walking dogs, I put words on a page.
How does your background in theatre help with writing?
KG. Well it helps immensely. Theatre teaches you early on what a scene is, how a scene is an interaction with tensions. Theatre teaches about motivation and what is going on underneath what is said. Almost all plays are about lying. To oneself. To others. And that makes for the center of a lot of plots.
When I was directing, I would coach actors for hours on four lines of dialogue. We would totally explore inner life. What is thought, felt, seen, attempted. That is definitely good training for writers.
Your husband, Hilary Masters, is a well-known writer who has been honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. What's it like to have two writers in one household? Do you critique each other's work?
KG. Only very carefully. We know how tender the other is. So generally we wait for a whole draft before showing anything. That's the best way not to interrupt or get in the way of the initial impulses. But then, after that, we read and tell the truth. Even if it hurts.
Would you ever collaborate with your husband for a book?
KG. I suppose if we ever were interested in the same subject. Our work is pretty different and so is our prose. But it is not out of the question. He has so much soul. And I am so dogged. I wonder how that would work?
Has there been film interest in your work?
KG. Yes, particularly for TAKEN, my first novel. Even a screenwriter in France wanted to pitch it as a French story (which I would totally love!). Someday, I have been assured, somebody is going to want the whole series because of the ways the relationships change over time among the repeating characters while time passes and challenging new cases come along.
For those new to your series, can you describe the Pittsburgh Richard Christie mysteries?
KG. My series has been called suspense, mystery, thriller, and procedural. I think all things apply in different mixes in different books. The series is very character oriented. Both the victims and the criminals have personal lives in each book and sometimes those lives mirror those of the police. The police have an ongoing story of their personal relationships. They fall in love and out. I feel I know them. One reader told me my books reminded her of the Inspector Morse series. I love that compliment because I like to make my police, and especially Christie, human, flawed, contradictory, thoughtful. Lots of people have told me they've fallen in love with Christie. I have too. As I write him, I love him. There are other important police characters—and one of them in Colleen Greer who is a rookie in book three but well on her way in the profession by book six. She and Christie pretty much share the stage.
How would you describe SIMPLE to someone who has not read any of your previous novels?
KG. The police have to work this case like any other case. The victim is a young woman of great promise, about to start law school. They find out soon enough she was gorgeous, yet somehow so secretive that nobody knew her personal life. When they suspect a handsome and charming gubernatorial candidate of murder, they have to tread carefully. The police are the same recurring characters, but the suspects and victims live a bit better than in previous books. I got to write scenes in SIMPLE between people who have enough money to travel, to eat well, to cater parties, etc. That was fun. Christie is surprised when the wealthy people eat hot dogs. He expected foie gras.
What sparked the idea for SIMPLE?
KG. Quite frankly the repeated news stories of political candidates and their affairs. I'm not casting a condemning eye so much as wanting to figure out how and why it keeps happening, what feelings are involved, how people square secret desires with public life.
Secrets are a large part of SIMPLE. What function do you think secrets perform in peoples' lives?
KG. Well, I teach theatre (dramatic literature and playwriting) and without secrets and lies, theatre in the western world would simply not exist. Secrets provide the motivation and the high stakes for criminal behaviors.
In SIMPLE, you venture into politics for the first time. In what ways did you find that writing a political thriller differed from the rest of your novels?
KG. I always do research. For SIMPLE I went to the county jail for instance and got ideas for scenes. But I also went to law offices and took in the mood, the decor, the work atmosphere. Besides that, I consulted with a super attorney who just knows a lot about the world of politics.
How long have you been writing?
KG. Two answers: all my life. From babyhood, I was telling stories, apparently. But the other answer is: From the late 80s when I got serious and decided to get an MFA in writing even though I had a Ph.D. in theatre. Getting that degree was fun and it gave me confidence. Everybody likes to be cheered on. At first I wrote short stories. Then I wrote novels that now sit in drawers. Then one summer, just exhausted with revising the same novel over and over again, I played around with an idea to "teach myself plot." Actually to "make myself plot." I made myself do what I'd been telling students to do: high stakes, actions with consequences, etc. That was how I wrote my first in the series, TAKEN.
How has your work or life experience affected your writing? Is there an incident that has changed your life and influenced your writing?
KG. Meeting my husband, the wonderful writer Hilary Masters. He influenced me to write every day whether I liked it or not. He was right, the routine, the habit, is important. But more than that, he's an amazing person. I always tell him he's highly spiritual. There I am making lists of tasks and he is noticing cloud formations. He says he's a failed poet.
What's something no one ever asks you?
KG. No one has ever asked me why I cry so easily. I ask myself that all the time. I was reading the paper this morning about how when Pirate's pitcher A.J. Burnett had a bad game, the fans cheered him anyway as he left the mound. He was stunned by that much love. I cried to read about it. I said, "Oh, what is wrong with me?" My husband said, "You're right at the bone, always." It's why I write. What would I do with all this otherwise?
This interview with Kathleen, conducted by fellow thriller writer Julie Kramer, originally appeared at the ITW website, The Big Thrill. It is reprinted here with their permission.
You certainly know how to nail a novel, Kathleen. In a starred review, Publisher's Weekly praised HIDEOUT as "a top-notch, emotionally satisfying police procedural." Yet as a university professor of theater, did you ever consider writing your novels as plays or screenplays?
KG. I was totally thrilled, by the way, with that starred review-didn't think it would ever happen to me. I've been told my novels are already very filmic. I hope that's true. But I haven't written screenplays or plays—and here I have to explain something. Even though I teach playwriting and have directed many plays, I am not a playwright. That form works best from people with actor sensibilities. Playwriting is a great form of art, a tough form (I think the toughest) and it requires an extroversion that I simply don't have. I couldn't go on stage to save my life and I shy away from the kinds of actions that drive plays. I'm on the directing/writing end of the performing arts. There is interest from time to time in my novels from film people and I would love to hand one over and keep doing what I'm doing, that is, fiction. It feels like that's the form that's right for me.
What makes Pittsburgh the perfect setting for a crime series?
KG. Pittsburgh has a lot of "parts." There are gorgeous views, more bridges than in Venice, many trees and parks and also very poor areas, boarded up buildings, dark, rough streets. Needless to say there are dramas of class and race in the very makeup of the city. And in between the extremes there are ethnic neighborhoods that started out as immigrant strongholds and somehow held onto that identity even when mostly taken over by students looking for affordable housing. The people are extremely colorful. The braying Steelers fans that Tom Hanks made sport of on David Letterman. World famous doctors. The grandchildren of immigrants who have come up in the world and who are mainly friendly and unpretentious. It's friendly except when a 'burgher is in a car. All bets are off for sweetness. The driver simply wants to get home.
Your previous book, THE ODDS, received much acclaim, including an Edgar-nod. Was there ever a time you worried about pulling off a sequel?
KG. Well, it helps that I have recurring characters. They seem to have their own lives. I use the same police characters throughout as part of my series—Richard Christie, Artie Dolan, Colleen Greer, John Potocki. Their personal lives progress as the novels do. That totally interests me. But most of the other characters come brand new to each new book. It's a different story, a different case.
Most police procedurals start with a murder. HIDEOUT begins with an accident. Talk a little about how you decide how to open your stories. Is it a struggle? Or does it come in a flash?
KG. I believe each beginning is a matter of what relationships I intend to explore. I knew I wanted to work on the relationship of the Rutter brothers and to their lives on the borderline of constant danger and addiction. I also knew I wanted to feature Addie Ward (the character I fell in love with as I worked on this). She's a vital 83 year old with a lot of soul and the ability to try to get to know and understand all kinds of people. That puts her in danger here. I knew that's where I was headed and the start was dependent on circumstances that would get me there.
How do you cast your villains?
KG. I just wrote an essay about casting as I write. I try to flesh out the villains by letting them have pasts, thoughts, second thoughts, wishes, dreams, etc. I do get "casting" images. I've said many times that Gabriel Byrne and Robert Downey Junior are models for characters in my books. Ryan and Jack are so young I don't have a long list. I do like the young man in Breaking Bad. Jesse Pinkman. I think of Ryan and Jack as two sides of him. (As for casting Addie, I imagine an American Vanessa Redgrave, whoever that is... )
Evaluate the usefulness of outlining, from your perspective.
KG. It's great for other people, not for me. I would lose interest. I go to the computer every day not sure what will happen but dying to know. I write as a reader, letting the story unfold with all its warts and surprises. Sometimes I have to throw away pages but it's worth it to me to explore.
How did you become so adept at police procedure?
KG. I called the police a lot. Then I realized just how much I had absorbed and how much was common sense. I started to get freer about calling my own shots and when I checked with the police on what I had done, I got the nod of approval. I've been extremely lucky. The police have been supportive and open with me. Actually the FBI, too, in the early days. My husband loves to tell people that when I tried certain plots on the FBI consultant, he said I had a fine criminal mind.
Have you ever been arrested?
KG. No, thank God. That would be hard on me. I can write tension but I live a very modest life that's all about good beds and food and reading. I visited the Allegheny County Jail for the next novel in the series, that is next year (SIMPLE) and wow, I dropped my fantasy of committing a crime so that I could go to jail and have all the time in the world to read and write—meals made, all that. When I saw the cell, the mattress, the kidney shaped table, the stool, and the rest of the hard surfaces, when I smelled the smells, I decided that I would have to continue living a too busy life.
You are married to another writer—Hilary Masters—what are the challenges vs. rewards of such a relationship?
KG. Funny you should ask that now. We've been saying for years that there is no problem. We're like a writing colony except there are only two of us. We don't show anything until it's done or well on its way. But we understand each other; we know what a murmured half-sentence about a morning changing point of view means; we know a bad day is one with no writing and good day is one with several hours spent on a novel. But now, this summer, with both of us with books coming out, we've had several of those gritchy exchanges that contain, "No, what I need now is . . . " But we're okay. The books are almost out. And soon it will be back to writing and evenings with the lamps on and books in our laps.
THE ODDSdo you think of it as similar to or different from your other books?
KG. That's a hard one. Each novel feels different as I'm writing it, but of course there are similarities, one of the main ones being that the core cast of characters remains the same. There's Richard Christie, the Commander in Homicide, and close to him are Artie Dolan, a terrific detective, Colleen Greer, a detective who is new to the Homicide Squad and who has a crush on Christie, and John Potocki, a really good guy, another detective, a salt-of-the earth sort. They feel very real to me. I think I end up thinking of a plot, a crime, and then I sock these guys with it.
KG. This one doesn't start with blood. This one is about poisonschemotherapy, heroin, alcohol in excess... Christie is seriously ill, in the hospital. Colleen and Potocki are working together and they are "lent to" the Narcotics Squad. They're quite unhappy about it, but right away there's a case that looks like an intentional overdose and so it's much more in their bailiwick... But that overdose and the police involvement is just the engine getting it all going. At the center of my story-idea are four kids, a family of four, that have been abandoned. These kids are amazing even to me, and I wrote them. They have no money and nobody to love them, but they are capable nonetheless and... they are loving. When a guy is wounded in the drug wars, they care for him. They actually do a sort of battlefield temporary surgery. Also at the center of my novel, sharing the stage with the kids, is this wounded fellow. He's been in jail and has definitely been in trouble, but he's physically gorgeous and in terms of his personality, he's an innocent. Think "young Paul Newman." He's a magnet. People are drawn to him. I don't want to give away any more. Enough.
There are so many kinds of mystery or crime novels. Which kind are you?
KG. I was labeled a thriller writer the first three times around with TAKEN and FALLEN and AFTERIMAGE. My books are also proceduralsthat is I follow and research what the police would actually do in these situations. So what I write is a combination of sub-genres. THE ODDS is, like the others, a merger of thriller and procedural. There are some very bad guys in it. And threat. And darkness. I like dark, tough stories.
KG. I don't know. I always have. Big trouble. Souls in jeopardy. People who are marked for life by some family dynamic.
Where does that come from? Your life?
KG. Probably. But it's tricky. You see I had a super-attentive, watchful mother. Three meals on the table every day of her life. Made us clothes. Yet I read the Eileen Simpson memoir, Orphans, and I identified. And I identified with Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. So it seems this is a core story for me, these children unlovednot just the abandoned children of THE ODDS, but when I look back on it, Christie, Colleen, Marina, Joe, Frank Razzi, David Hoffman, and about thirty others in my work. After all, there's the baby in TAKEN, alone out there in the world. I didn't know what my theme was when I started writing. I mean I didn't know consciously, but in the third paragraph of TAKEN I'm describing Commander Christie, the way he sees and understands people. And I say that if he had seen Marina walking down the street, looking good, looking happy, "he would have seen sadness in her and understood she was one of what nearly all of us are in his opinionmotherless children." Beyond that I can't explain it, but my heart responds to those who haven't been mothered and I am fascinated by those who miraculously, in spite of that lack in their own lives, know how to do ittake care of people.
Interview by Sloan MacRae, Marketing and Communications, U. of Pittsburgh
How important is Pittsburgh to your novels?
KG. Oh, integral! It's the mood and the ethosa gritty, cheerful working class city, full of ethnic neighborhoods and plenty of bridges. There are supposedly 446 of them, and if that's true, that's more than there are in Venice, Italy. I love putting my cops and criminals on the bridges, the parkway, in the parks.
Do your characters make the city the butt of their jokes?
KG. No. That happens more often from people who don't know the city. And it happened more often in the past. I can think of famous moments in filmthe Preston Sturges Sullivan's Travels, the dark Requiem for a Heavyweight. Those films have outsider jokes about the city in its dirty days. But it's clean now, actually beautiful, and Pittsburghers love their city. After all, it was once again named the #1 livable city in America by Places Rated Almanac for 2007. It had been #1 in 1985 and remained the only city in America to make it to the top twenty every year. Besides, I think of our city as coming into its own lately. It will be featured in the film of Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Even the young boy, Shane, in Weeds, trying to save his family from disaster, says he's done research on the internet and he knows where they need to go to make everything rightPittsburgh. And there's a new Kelsey Grammer comedy series called Back to You set herethe characters are news anchors.
And there's the recent Jeff Goldblum doc, but that's about show biz. What do you think people outside of Pittsburghsay in New York or Kansas Cityknow about Pittsburgh?
KG. It's always interesting to see which items about Pittsburgh the New York Times picks up. Or the national news networks. Definitely the Steelers, the Pirates, and the Penguins. For sure, we are a sports town. Ben Rothlisberger, Heinz Ward, and Fast Willie Parker are known by sports lovers everywhere, not to mention in the recent past Bill Cowher and Jerome Bettis making the sports news regularly.
We're known lately for Luke Ravenstahl, our baby-faced mayor, only 27 years old. I believe Dave Letterman asked him one night if he'd finished his homework and was allowed to stay up this late.
There's the medical community, a very prestigious one that produced Jonas Salk and the famous polio vaccine as well as Tom Starzl, the transplant pioneer. (I just met him at a dinner event. Very impressive man.) There's Heinz (Teresa and the famous ketchup and the whole big company with its many products). US Steel, Westinghouse . . . Help me here.
US Airways, PPG industries, Alcoa, Bayer, 84 Lumber . . . .
How does the city figure in AFTERIMAGE?
KG. Well, as in TAKEN and FALLEN, it provides the police force, the sports teams, the highways and bridges that the characters travel, the restaurants and fast food joints they eat at. The parks. I guess I'm drawn to parks. In AFTERIMAGE, there is a murder in a house in Regent Square (near Frick Park) and two days later another murder victim is found in West Park. In FALLEN Schenley Park and Frick Park are both important. I'd better confess here. Most of the places are real. A few are made up. I know some people want everything to be absolutely real, but I'm a rebel about that. If I need a business or a street that doesn't exist, I create it. Oh, and now that I think of it, the city provides news anchors. I have a friend who moved away, stayed away for nearly twenty years, and returned to find the same news anchors working. "Where else?" she asked.
I just read somewhere that we have the most trees per capita of any city in the US. Maybe it's the parks.
KG. I didn't know that. Fantastic.
Do you intend to write a series? Recurring characters?
KG. I didn't start out doing that, but my characters are still interesting to me. Detective Richard Christie is a charismatic fellow. I've had readers (of both sexes) tell me they had crushes on him. Some of the other characters do, too. For AFTERIMAGE, I've added a new detective to the Homicide Squad, a woman, Colleen Greer. She has a crush on Christie. She's grown up, she knows better, but there it is. She wants to be around him. Detective Artie Dolan is still a major character. And it's great fun to bring back other detectives and other civilians for cameos. So this is the third in a series and the fourth is in the works with these same people. The series seems to be in control of me instead of vice versa.
Who is the main character?
KG. In AFTERIMAGE, Colleen Greer is. But I seem to be doing a thing in all three novels so far in which a woman or two women act as the typical protagonists, but Christie is crucially important to all of them. He shares the stage with them if he doesn't absolutely upstage them.
You've been described in the past as a writer who gives as much time to the criminals as you do to the police and the heroes. Nick Pileggi said something like that. Why is that?
KG. I don't know. It just . . . happened. I started writing what the criminals were doing, thinking, and even how they were like the protagonists. And I got very interested in these bad guys. They're working, too. They're trying to solve things, too. Trying to make something right for themselves. I don't mean to sentimentalize them here. They're often very bad.
KG. Very. There were some deeply pathological baby traffickers in TAKEN. There was a charming, disturbed seducer in FALLEN. And there's a desperate predator in AFTERIMAGE. I don't want to say any more. I'm already giving too much away. Like so many other people I find evil interesting. But I want to understand it, too. One common theory has it that evil is always banal, empty. My evil characters aren't empty. They're "at work." Now that sounds very Pittsburgh!
Does your work in theatre help you at all in writing crime novels?
KG. At first I thought, What is this? Why am I doing these two different things? Then I started to notice how many theatre references there are in most crime novels. And I attended a few conferences, only to find that most of the crime writers had theatre backgrounds. My current theory is this: what fuels plays/theatre is lying, pretending, and indirection (high stakes and the characters unable to say what they mean). Not to mention the tricky interweaving of suspense and dramatic irony. These are also the basic ingredients of mysteries and thrillerspeople speaking lines that have subtext, people covering the truth and then uncovering it. So I conclude that these two different things I am doing are very much related.
Is AFTERIMAGE theatrical?
KG. I think so. I hope so. There are funny scenes and tense scenes. And puzzles. I hope so.
Good luck with it.
KG. Thank you.
Do you really go to all those restaurants you write about?
KG. Mmmm. Yes. I feel it's my duty.