Friday, April 27, 2007

Gwen Freeman on Loving Mysteries, Creating Art, and Having Top Secret Clearance at the CIA

Gwen, you are an accomplished woman: a philosopher (your major), an artist, a writer, a lawyer. You once worked for the CIA. (More questions about that later). Do you consider yourself a Renaissance Woman?
I would be honored to be so described, but to me all of these endeavors are a form of puzzle solving. An aesthetic challenge, a plot that needs to be worked out, a client’s legal problem. Since I enjoy problem solving, I can’t take a moral high ground doing what I do. (Although I’ve heard that the view from the moral high ground is wonderful.)

Selfish pleasure aside, I would like to think I will leave the world better off than when I came in. I have always liked the concept that, when we are born, we are each given our own “bag of tools and book of rules.” To use the talents and skills we have to enrich the world, even by just one contribution--such as a child raised to be a good and loving person, or a joyful attitude that makes people happier--is purpose enough.

What got you into mystery writing?
For my twelfth birthday, my BFF Lindy gave me Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, and I was hooked. When I was reading a good mystery, I was blissfully happy. By the time I got to law school, and my leisure time was limited, I stopped reading anything that didn’t involve a body and a denouement. The summer of my second year (at the University of Virginia Law School), I got the internship at the CIA, and my hours were 6:00 in the morning until 2:00 in the afternoon. Well, all my friends had jobs at law firms that summer, and worked until 7:00 or 8:00 at night. This left me a lot of time on my hands. In order to keep myself amused, I decided to see if I could write a mystery myself. No false modesty, it was just awful! But I had fun doing it and I felt I could do better so I carried the manuscript—and the dream—around with me for years until the kids got older, the lacrosse games got fewer, nobody needed me to drive them anywhere, and I realized that once again I had time on my hands.

Your book, Murder, Suicide, Whatever has a quirky heroine named Fifi Cutter, which I find to be an interesting name. How did you come up with it?

Do you remember that country song “A Boy Named Sue?” Same concept. I was going for a silly name that at first glance would give the impression Fifi’s parents hadn’t given any rational thought at all as to what to call her. A name that would irritate the already cranky Fifi every time someone commented on it—-but there will be a revelation in a book to come that will add a whole ‘nother dimension to the name.

Her brother Bosco is a sort of loveable jerk. Is he based on any brothers you know?

Partly based on my brother John, with his ridiculous ability to charm everybody. He came to stay with me in LA one summer, and within two weeks he couldn’t walk down the street in Hollywood or Santa Monica without somebody calling out “Hey Freef!”.

But, unlike Bosco, John is very honest, and has become very hard working. Bosco’s less savory characteristics are P.G. Wodehousian, added purely for comic effect.

I visited your gallery online, and I love your work, especially the way you use color. Did you minor in art?
The University of Virginia (I went there as an undergraduate as well) would not permit a declared minor, but I took enough art classes to have declared a major. I was afraid, though, if I declared a double major in art, that it would be negative when I tried to get into law school. But my art studies began much earlier than that, I started drawing at one and half (my mother has the little stick figure to prove it), and took painting from Judith Wengrovitz, and Elizabeth Campbell, two noted Washington D.C. area artists. And thank you for your kind words, I love color. Sometimes I wish there were even more colors than there are.

Your father is “the scientist who pioneered night vision technology for the U.S. Army.” What does that mean? That he invented it, or tried it out? How did that work out for him?

My father was the Chief Scientist for the Night Vision Laboratories. He was the principal genius and analytic force behind the second generation of night vision technology. The first generation, in limited use in WW II, was based on heat, and not very reliable in many battle situations. But the second generation was based on the break through realization that there is always some light, even if undetectable to the human eye. The idea is to magnify that light to a sufficient degree, and then you could see. That is the “green” night vision in common use today. My dad appreciated and relied upon many brilliant people that he worked with, but seventeen of the principal patents that went into the technology are held in his name. (Unfortunately for the fortunes of the Freeman family, the US government is the owner of the patents.)

Wow. You come of brainy stock. You now work at a law firm in L.A. How does it compare to Virginia, where you grew up and went to school?
Virginia is very beautiful, and I will always love the state, and be tied emotionally to the sad and noble history (as you may know from reading my website, my Mother was a civil rights activist). The people are gracious and admirable. But we gotta face facts: I’m a yoga-practicing, vegetarian Unitarian. As an old boyfriend once said “A woman of strange sensibilities.” I love my rag top sports car, Ethiopian food, outsider art galleries, and the LA sense of humor. I’m also a complete wimp when it comes to bad weather. I have never taken a beautiful day for granted.

And that's a good thing. You interned at the CIA. Did they let you do any covert stuff?
I was an overt employee, which meant that it was presumed to be known by our enemies that I was employed by the Agency, such that I would not have been welcome in, say, the Soviet Union (remember the Soviet Union? Ah good times!) But I had a top secret security clearance, on a need to know basis. I sat on the Afghanistan desk, and received raw data from the teletype. Seriously. The teletype.

I then edited the information, and sorted it by importance and sensitivity. I can’t tell you a lot about what I read (because I don’t remember, not because it was so secret), but I can tell you this: when the US surveillance was taken off Bin Laden in the summer of 2001 I told my husband that it was a bad idea. When the Taliban blew up the twin Buddhas, I said to anyone who would listen “We’d better step in and stop them now. They’re testing us.” And when I read in the LA Times that Taliban operatives had shot the opposition leader three days before, I sat down on the bed with great foreboding and said “Oh this is bad.” My Mother called from DC at that moment, hysterical. I ran and turned on the TV. As I watched the twin towers fall, I turned to my husband and said “It’s Osama Bin Laden!”

So at the risk of further fueling the conspiracy theorists, I have a sad feeling that on September 10, 2001, there was a young woman sitting on the top floor of a nondescript office building in Northern Virginia, in what purported to be a temporary employment agency, getting instant feed on her computer, putting it into a classified report, and trying to tell everyone that something bad is going to happen soon.

Wow. That's pretty intense. But I think all mystery fans like a good conspiracy theory.

What are you reading now?
I just finished Martha Grimes The Old Wine Shades and The Winds of Change; she’s a favorite author along with Reginald Hill, Ian Rankin, Janet Evanovitch, Joyce Porter, and PD James. As for newer authors, I just finished David Skibbins Eight of Swords and I have Lori Lacefield’s The Seventh Survivor on the top of my “next” pile.

Are you writing another Fifi Cutter book?
I am. I am about 80% through with it. It will feature a trial with VJ, but won’t be too courtroom-y. And of course Bosco will be scheming to come up with outrageous plans to make money and get the girl. One of the girls. Okay, one of the many girls. You know Bosco.

And love him.

As an attorney, you specialize in cases dealing with insurance coverage and bad faith. Does that mean you’ll know if I don’t go to church on Sunday? :)

Well, I won’t know, but I know Somebody who will know, and you can’t get insurance coverage for the consequences of dissing Him.

I have interviewed many of your Capital Crime compatriots: Robert Fate, Troy Cook, Sheila Lowe. Do you ever tour together?

We have not, not all together, although it would be great. One of the good things about a small publisher, or at least Capital Crime, is the camaraderie the authors have with each other. Robert, Bruce, Sheila and I did a signing together at the Barnes & Noble in Valencia, and Sheila and I have done two signings together, one at The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood and one at Mysteries to Die For in Thousand Oaks. And both Robert and I have had our launch parties at Mystery and Imagination Bookstore in Glendale, but not, of course, together. Mystery and Imagination is just two blocks from our offices, and Knapp Petersen & Clarke (my law firm) sponsored my launch, which was very touching. My partners all came, as did a lot of clients. Meant a lot to me.

Your book is set in L.A., and demonstrates great knowledge of that area (and that attitude). Did you ever consider setting one in your home state?
Absolutely. How could I not? The clash of Old South and New West is irresistible. Remember that revelation about Fifi’s name I teased you with? Well, in book three, Fifi’s Dad’s family trace their roots back to Virginia, and…

Ah, darn. I hate dangling carrots. :)

Who is your favorite mystery writer?

My very favorite? Yikes. Okay, deep breath…for never-get-tired-of-and-read-over-and-over, I’m going to have to say Joyce Porter and her Dover series. And Reginald Hill, as much for Joe Sixsmith as for Dalzeil and Pascoe. I know, that’s two. But I just can’t.

When you write, what’s your most constant craving? Does the Dalmatian in your photo sit with you while you compose?

When I write I am happy, so cravings are banished. And Milo does sit with me, as does his “brother,” Stitch, the hyper-active, crazy Weimeraner/Greyhound/Whippet/Dalmation mix, except there’s not so much sitting on the part of the crazy one. Stitch makes an appearance in Book Two. I did a very LA thing last weekend, and had a professional photographer of some serious note, Frank Bruynbroek, come to take their portraits. I haven’t seen the proofs yet, but Frank called my husband Andy last night and said he was very pleased. He might even to include Milo in his upcoming book, which is fair since I have now incorporated him into my book as well.

Where can readers find out more about Gwen Freeman and her new mystery?
My website will be updated in the next few weeks, as soon as I can come up with a great title. I liked “Life’s a Trial” but Capital Crime is of the opinion that it doesn’t say “mystery” so I have to nut up here and think harder!

Thanks for chatting with me, Gwen!


Robert Fate said...

Julia –

Bravo! I’m not sure how you did it. Gwen is not a shy girl, but you would have to say she is a very private person – and you got her to spill the beans about a lot of things. Good show! And very nice to have some warning about what the crazies Fifi and Bosco have in store for us.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Bob. She's an interesting person, too, isn't she?

Glad to see you here in blog world.

Lill said...

Okay, you've done it again. I'll be looking out for Fifi and also searching out Robert Fate's "Baby Shark" because just before I came here to read your latest post, someone asked me if I'd read "Baby Shark" by "someone named Fate" and said that I'd like it, even though I'm not big on graphic violence. When I saw Robert's name on the first comment, I got that Lattice of Coincidence feeling and googled him to find out that he'd written the book someone had just told me about. Sheesh! Is there no end to this serendipity? Great interview, btw, as usual.


Julia Buckley said...

Hi, Lill!

You flatter me. I love that. :)

Baby Shark is a great book; it's violent, yes, but his style will catch you from the start. There's something sort of Hemingway like in his clean prose. And there are a lot of really interesting characters there. Bob's a rising star.