Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mystery Writer Joyce Yarrow on New York Streets, Russian Gulags, and Indian Poetry

Joyce, I enjoyed reading CODE OF THIEVES; it was exciting and educational!

      Jo Epstein is a cool creation—independent, poetic, street smart, brave.  How did you go about choosing all the pieces of her character? 

Thank you Julia, I’m so glad you connected with Jo.
My brother Rick and I grew up together in a tough neighborhood in the SE Bronx. Rick used his street smarts to become an ace  detective, whereas I chose to write poetry and eventually, novels. 

So in poet/detective Jo Epstein, I created a hybrid, based on both of us.  I also gave Jo some characteristics drawn from a friend who hosts the Seattle Poetry Slam and is capable of quoting Shakespeare or Milton one moment and bad-mouthing hecklers the next. In CODE OF THIEVES, Jo provides security services for Scandals, the fictitious bar hosting the NY Poetry Slam team.

 Jo notes that “Privacy . . . was a word that in our post-911 world was rapidly losing its meaning, like democracy.”  Jo understands, as an investigator, that anyone’s privacy is a tenuous thing.  But is her comment about Democracy fueled by her disenchantment with government (or yours)?

I wrote CODE OF THIEVES around the same time that the story broke about the NSA warrantless wiretapping. So Jo’s views on the value of civil liberties do reflect my own. She is not ‘anti-government’ per se – having seen the danger of anarchy first-hand while growing up in NY. Like most P.I.’s she values her contacts in the police department, while at the same time protecting her sources, and her freedom to act independently.

     Did you travel to Russia to research this book?

Yes – and my trip to Moscow and The Golden Ring proved invaluable. In addition to Vladimir Central Prison (we were the first Americans to tour this infamous prison) almost every place my son and I visited made its way into CODE OF THIEVES—the home where we stayed in Moscow, the Monastery of St. Euthimius and the Matryoshka factory in Suzdal, the headquarters of the Moscow Criminal Police at 38 Petrovka Street,  even the disco at the Vladimir Hotel.

A highlight of the research trip was dinner with a Commander in the Russian Criminal Police, who blessed my plot. Commander Eshau was very generous. He helped me to add dimension to the antagonist in CODE OF THIEVES –who has a strong association with the Russian criminal subculture known the vory v zakone, (thieves-in-law). The vory adhere to an intricate set of rules of conduct –the ‘code’- as referenced in the book’s title.  In the old days, they prided themselves on sharing their loot and contributed to a communal fund that helped the families of members who were imprisoned. Today their ranks have thinned and they have been pushed out by the modern Russian mafia.

     Matryoshki, the Russian  nesting dolls, figure very prominently in your plot.  Do you own any?  How did you go about researching them for this book?

A writer is fortunate indeed to discover a ‘telling detail’ that transforms into a symbol powerful enough to generate a storyline. When I asked myself, ‘how would the blackmailer of a Russian émigré communicate with his victim?,’ the answer came back loud and clear—he would send messages inside a series of Matryoshka dolls that fit together in the same way the plot of a mystery unfolds. From that point on, I knew CODE OF THIEVES would have a solid structure J.

Great! One of your characters says “Everyone in Russia  has at least one ancestor or family member who has been in prison.”  This is a shocking fact!  How did you come to find out this stark reality?
As documented by many historians and of course by Nobel prize-winning Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 14 million people were imprisoned in Stalin’s GULAG ‘labor camps’ from 1929 to 1953 and another 6-7 million were sent to camps in remote areas of the USSR. It made sense to me that most Russians would have a family tree affected by this tragedy.

     Jo identifies Putin as “still undoubtedly the most powerful man in Russia,” but that was written before Putin’s recent rise to the presidency.  Is Putin good for Russia, or bad?

The book was written while Medvedev was President and it was obvious at that time that he was a figurehead and Putin would return to power, just as he has. Russians have always preferred strong leaders, and there is no doubt Putin qualifies in this respect. On the other hand, his persecution of opposition leaders and journalists is well-known and greatly resented by the populace—and personally, I do not think he is good for the development of democracy in Russia.

 Are you of Russian heritage?

My own heritage is murky…but I do know that my last name, Yarrow, was shortened by a busy customs officer on Ellis Island from the original Yaroslavky. This name is common in Belarus, I am told, but it could also be of Polish origin.

      At one point we are told that “Amnesia is a common folk remedy in Russia,” and that Yeltsin was “a drunk . . . who gave away his country’s resources to Mafia thugs.”  Are things better today in Russia, the same, or worse?

Since I am no political scientist, I can only share anecdotal evidence. Some of the young people I met in Moscow were very optimistic about the new economic freedoms. They were also the sons and daughters of the exceedingly rich elite that emerged in the 90’s, due to the boom in oil and gas. The older, and I think wiser, people I met seemed to agree with the French proverb,  ‘The more things change the more they stay the same.’ Although I found this view to be widespread, Russians are not the pessimistic, depressed people portrayed in literature and the press. On the whole I found them to be bright, enthusiastic and well read—willing to stay up all night and talk world politics at the drop of a hat. And they LOVE meeting writers!

One Russian tells Jo that “Americans are seen as misinformed cretins gulping down press releases fed to the media by the military industrial complex.”  Actually, I think it’s not only Russians who have this perception of America—but do you think it is the primary view of Americans by Russians?

The character in the book who utters these cynical words is busy justifying his own nefarious activities by painting others with the same brush. That said, many of the people I met were angry about the war in Iraq. They were also sympathetic with the American people, who they see as betrayed by their leaders – a familiar scenario in Russia.

It’s impossible to generalize about Russia – it is so immense! What I tried to do was to present a well-rounded view based on my own experiences and research.  One of my most treasured reviews was written by a Russian-American, Lyuda West, who said “The author touches different aspects of Russian life, from criminals’ rules and corrupted officials to "New Russian" businessmen and ordinary people, adding to it the mystery of a murder and secrets of the past.”

Are you working on a new Jo Epstein mystery?

Yes. The story has a scientific bent this time…

Have you read CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, perhaps the most famous of Russian crime novels?

Yes – Dostoyevsky is a favorite writer and this book in particular. He was so far ahead of his time – in introducing the ‘anti-hero,’ now a fixture in literature, in introducing deep psychological profiling as part of the story, in having the courage to explore the darkest depths of the psyche with compassion and clarity.

     Who are some of your literary influences?

Oh my. As a young poet I’d have to say Rimbaud – and as a budding story writer, the existentialists—Sartre and Camus. Then later, Simenon and Chandler for mysteries and Flaubert and Franzen for literary fiction (alliteration a coincidence). Lately I have been reading Indian authors, since I am collaborating on a book with a writer from Allahabad. I am delving into Rabindranath Tagore’s works—poetry, short stories and plays. I love Kiran Desai.

Wow--a lot of your favorites are my favorites, too!  I teach THE STRANGER and it's become an influential book for me.  I also once taught Chandler's THE LONG GOODBYE in a mystery course--such great books!

Thanks for chatting, Joyce!

The feeling is mutual, Julia.  Your questions revealed much about your own passion for looking under the surface and getting to an author’s intentions. I appreciate this opportunity to share some of the underpinnings of CODE OF THIEVES and to re-visit some of the choices I made both as a writer and a traveler.. J

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Now Reading

Code of Thieves, by Joyce Yarrow.  What a fun yet tense book, in which sleuth Jo Epstein, a poet and a private investigator, takes her investigation all the way from New York City to Moscow in order to prove a man's innocence.

The secrets she exposes along the way put her at odds with the police and in danger of losing her life.

I'm impressed with Yarrow's spare writing style and fast-moving plot.

More later, which will hopefully include an interview with Yarrow about all things Russian.