Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Mystery Writer Susan Oleksiw on Sanskrit, Photography, and W.B. Yeats

Susan, I must start with this, because I find it fascinating: you have a Ph.D in Sanskrit. Sanskrit! What drew you to this language, especially to achieving expertise in it?
That’s a pretty common question for me. I have a friend who loves to introduce me to new people because she can then mention of my degree. She tells me she’ll never know another Sanskritist and just loves doing it. I have been drawn to India since I was a young girl, when I received a collection of stories set in Asia. That might have been the end of it but I went to a girls’ school that offered courses on Asia and then again to a college that offered even more. By then I was hooked, and went to graduate school (originally in art history, but I soon switched to Sanskrit—I was in love with a language). I love India, and after I left the field I thought I’d never really be able to go back. But things have changed enormously, and now I go almost every year for two or three weeks, visit friends, and generally become my old self.

How do you pronounce your last name?
It’s actually phonetic, but you have to look closely at it. Oh-LEK-see. Think of the final w as in window.

I’ve known your name for quite some time, because I purchased A Reader's Guide to the Classic British Mystery, and it is a well-thumbed copy. Was this your first published book?
This was my first book in the mystery world. I edited a collection of essays on Asia some years earlier, but I didn’t really think of it as “my” book. When I have to look something up, I go to the shelf and pull off the copy I use for reference, and I feel once again how I felt when I first held it in my hands. This is truly, and deeply for me, my first book. That feeling has never faded.

What made you turn from nonfiction to fiction and your Mellingham Mysteries, featuring Detective Joe Silva?
When I was in college a freshman English professor suggested I try writing stories. Which sort of tells you what my student papers must have been like. But he was right—I tried it and loved it. I started writing stories, and then was soon writing a novel. I think I spent more time on that novel in college than on any of my class work. I think I threw it out in a fit of cleaning, and I would love to find it, but alas I’m pretty sure it’s gone. Fiction fit me well, and although I got caught up in studying all things Indian, I returned to fiction after about a seven or eight year hiatus. But I never stopped writing something.

A terrific story!

You co-founded a publishing company called Level Best Books; tell us about it. How did you come to create what you call a “publishing cooperative?”

Level Best Books grew out of another publishing company. A friend and I started something called The Larcom Press, to publish a literary review, The Larcom Review. This lasted for about 5 years before we ran out of money—the overhead was way too high. But just at the end we had begun the process of publishing a collection of short crime fiction, and I just couldn’t walk away from it. So, I contacted two writer friends I knew and admired, and we went off for lunch in a fabulous restaurant in Gloucester, where, over popovers (they don’t serve dinner rolls), we came up with Level Best Books as a name and a plan—to publish an annual anthology of crime fiction. And we were off and running . . . The fifth anthology is now at the printer’s and just about ready.

You are also a photographer; the snapshots on your web page are arresting and beautiful. Have you ever worked as a photographer, or is it an unpaid passion?
Thank you for the compliment. I like my photographs, but I sort of take them for granted. If I like them, I put them on the website; otherwise I pay no attention to them. My husband thinks I should pay much more attention to them. I have a very different reaction to them from my reaction to my writing.

Photography is something I discovered about ten years ago, and I am wondering if it was an accident. My grandfather became a professional photographer fairly late in life and had two photographs published in Life and another comparable national magazine. My mother was in love with photography for as long as I can remember, and always had a camera with her whenever we went anywhere on vacation. But, the real surprise was when we cleaned out my mother’s house and found cartons—I mean CARTONS—of photographs of relatives and family events, going back to the Civil War. My husband pointed out that lots of families have a few old photographs, but not CARTONS of them. So I guess photography is fixed in the family DNA.

That's an interesting notion--that a love of photography could be inherited. A certain type of perception, perhaps.

You love Sanskrit and you've been to India: would you ever consider living there?

I have lived there when I was studying. I spent all of 1976 there and again, a year in 1981-1982. I have thought about moving there, but I’m not sure it’s practicable. Even though my husband (he does have a name, by the way, Michael) loved it too, I’m not sure he wants to live there again. I’m hoping to spend more time there—three to six months every couple of years, but I’m not sure about that yet.

You seem to be a well-traveled person. Aside from India, where else have you gone on this earth? Do you have a favorite place? (This is a favorite question of mine, because I love hearing about the far-flung places).
When my brothers and I were young my parents took us off on a trip every year. We toured Canada (one of my father’s favorite places), the American West (another favorite spot), all of New England, especially Maine. I’ve been through probably more than half of the States, and most of Europe, most recently Portugal. I think, however, I still love India, and given any chance at all will head there to Kerala. We lived in Trivandrum, Kerala, South India, which was a quiet backwater state capital until about ten years ago, when Indians realized that foreigners would pay to sit out in the sun. No Indian has ever figured this out, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from capitalizing on it.

What a wonderful collection of memories those trips must have provided!

On your webpage you quote Gustave Flaubert: “Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.” Why does this quotation inspire you?

I once went to a conference and at the end of a somewhat rewarding and tiring two days found myself in a party on the tenth floor of a very high end hotel, holding a glass of whatever and listening to extremely well dressed powerful women talk about their programs and fundraising and more of the same. All of a sudden the inanity of it all came over me and I thought I’d lose my mind. I realized I hadn’t held a book or written a sentence in two days. I kept my mouth shut and got out of there as fast as possible. I will never dress that well, and I will never have that level of sophistication, but I will never give up writing—no matter what I’m promised. I’d rather be shackled to my desk trying to figure out what my characters are up to—although I will take the occasional break to enjoy a glass of wine and admire my husband’s orchid.

That is really great to hear, Susan. It's an inspiring attitude.

Your new book is called A Murderous Innocence. I love the oxymoron. What’s it about?


The title comes from a line in Yeats’s poem “A Prayer for My Daughter.” It’s a beautiful poem with many of the allusions we associate with him—his vision of the future and the ending of one era and the beginning of another. In the poem he prays that his daughter have certain qualities despite the new world coming that probably will not honor the modest qualities he wants for his daughter, and that they not be swept away by the values of the future, the murderous innocence of the sea. It is an arresting image, and one that seemed to express the violence that is done to decent people by the sweeping destruction of drug addiction. People hardly know what is happening to them until it’s too late.

I look forward to reading it. How did you come to create the character of Joe Silva? Is there any significance to his last name?
Silva is a fairly common Portuguese name in Eastern Massachusetts, where I live, and Joe represents the long-present Azorean community in his values and culture. When I was struggling with the first chapters of the first mystery novel, which turned into Murder in Mellingham, Joe literally drove down the street, parked his car, got out, and looked over the town green. He decided he liked it well enough, and I knew I had my series character. I liked him enormously right from the beginning—which is a good thing, considering the role he was going to play.

I love to hear about that first meeting between an author and her protagonist. :)

Do you read often, or does writing take up much of your time? What do you read when you are able?

Given a choice between reading and writing, I’m usually writing. I have to schedule reading time—there are so many books on various tables throughout the house. I read both fiction and nonfiction. I recently finished reading Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us, which is a wonderful novel, and am now reading The Working Poor: Invisible in America, by David Shipler, a powerful indictment of our social system in that it structurally produces poverty and maintains it.

You offer editing services to those who need them. Are there particular things you find yourself editing repeatedly? That is, are they style errors, plotting errors, grammatical errors? Other?
I offer editing services, but it has been some time since I did that. I think I’ll take it off the website because I just don’t have time any more. That said, I do the editing for the anthologies and did it for The Larcom Review. I do notice how language is changing—enormity for large, bemused for amused, etc.—but I also recognize that language IS changing, and I can’t shovel sand against the tide. New writers tend to lack balance between plot and character, and sometimes forget that we have to see something in the main character that makes us care—he or she has to feel human.

What advice would you give to someone writing her or his first mystery?
I tell new writers to remember that reading a story is the same as living the experience of the characters. Don’t short change the reader—make the story live for the reader. Tell me if the character is hot and sweaty, or if her shoulders are so tense they ache because she’s afraid to relax in the presence of her new boss, or someone is following her and she can hear the click of his heels on the sidewalk. Tell me what she is experiencing and I won’t care if I forgot to close the window upstairs and it’s raining. I’ll be hot and sweaty with your character, tense and frightened, and listening for those footsteps.

So well put. Thanks so much for chatting with me, Susan!
Julie, thanks for your patience and for inviting me to do this.

4 comments:

Pat B. said...

Julia and Susan:

What a lovely interview. I must read that book!

Susan, one of my favorite poems has long been "Black Marigolds," translated from the Sanskrit by by E. Powys Mathers. I often quote this line:

"Even now I know that I have savored the hot taste of life,
Lifting green cups and gold at the great feast."

I'd love to hear it in the Sanskrit.

Thanks to both of you for an intriguing read at the end of the day -- something to dream on. :-D

Pat Browning

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Pat! And what a lovely poem.

John Dandola said...

Susan's take on what new fiction writers lack is right on the mark and her advice to novice mystery writers is invaluable.

Julia Buckley said...

Perhaps even to veteran mystery writers, or those of us who are in between the two. :)