Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Interview with Barbara D'Amato
One of the great pleasures of attending mystery conferences such as "Of Dark and Stormy Nights" and "Love is Murder" (now combined into one meeting in February) or "Malice Domestic" is meeting wonderful people. I'm honored and delighted to present today's interview with Chicago author Barbara D'Amato.
Your bio says you were once an assistant tiger handler. How did that happen? Did you like the tigers?
My husband and I had written a musical comedy called “The Magic Man.” It starred David Copperfield in his first theatrical role. When we spun off a children’s theater version, called “The Magic of Young Houdini,” I found that the stagehands did not want to handle the tiger in the change-the-lady-into-a-tiger illusion. It takes two people, the tiger’s trainer and an assistant, to get the tiger from his travel cage into the illusion equipment and out again. I worked this job for quite some time. But the trainer is a skilled person. An assistant handler, like me, is unskilled. And maybe stupid [I did like the tiger and probably didn’t fear him enough]. However, I also worked as carpenter and repair person for the big illusions for years, which was a huge amount of fun. I could tell you how the beautiful young lady is balanced on the points of three swords or levitates or how you cut a person in half. But I won’t.
A writer can learn new techniques by going back and forth between fiction, non-fiction, plays, and poetry. How did writing plays make you a better mystery novelist?
Well, I hope I’m better. One of the things you learn in plays is that you can’t black out between scenes and leave the audience hanging. Grab them right away, get them into the new scene. The mental-change problem is even more difficult in the “magical musicals” Tony and I wrote. After a magic illusion the audience is still saying, “How’d they do that?” when you’re trying to remind them of the plot. And to a large extent this is also true after songs in musicals. I suppose—bottom line—I learned to keep the main plot in the forefront of my mind.
Which of your books or stories is your personal favorite and why?
My favorite story was “Steak Tartare.” It will be reprinted in the anthology “Sisters on the Case,” which contains stories by all the presidents of Sisters in Crime and will be published in October.
“Hard Tack” is a great example of a locked room mystery—in a boat on Lake Michigan during a humdinger of a storm. It also shows a detailed knowledge of sailing. Did you write this from your own experience, or someone else’s?
I have never sailed a big luxury yacht, like the one in the book. But I’ve lived on Lake Michigan all my life. I used to sail a Sailfish out on the Big Lake. This is kind of like sailing a good-sized coffee table. But the basic idea of making use of the power of the wind, of tacking, of coming about, is the same. The difference is that in a Sailfish, there’s no cabin; icy cold Lake Michigan waves are breaking over you all the time. I did go on a real yacht in the course of doing the research.
One doesn’t normally associate dead bodies with Christmas trees. Did you grow up knowing about the Christmas tree industry in West Michigan, or did you research it especially for “Hard Christmas?”
I researched it for the book. I realized I’d been driving past Christmas tree farms all my life and never knew basic things about growing the trees. Much to my surprise, the growers say fertilizers don’t help. The important things are enough water and making sure the trees aren’t crowded or shaded, so that they grow bushy. They are also sheared to make them bushier. The experts use long, ultra sharp blades that look like big bread knives. Christmas trees are one of very few agricultural crops that are harvested in winter.
What is the story behind the story in “Death of a Thousand Cuts?”
Bruno Bettelheim was a spectacularly successful man who wrote books about child development and ran a residential facility in the 1950s and 60s for what he claimed were autistic children. He claimed that autism was caused by cold parenting, especially on the part of the mother. He told the parents of his patients that they had caused their children’s problems and he told the children that it was their patents’ fault. Even back then, researchers saw that boys were at least four times as likely to be autistic than girls and if one of a pair of identical twins was autistic, the other was much more likely to be than a randomly selected child—clear tests for a genetic component. Bettelheim was not a doctor and not trained in psychology. But people took him at his own valuation, and he ruined many lives. Living in Chicago as long as I have, I had heard early on how wonderful he was, then heard the stories come out that he was abusive to his charges, that few of his patients were autistic in the first place, and that few really improved. The Bettelheim character in Death of a Thousand Cuts is a Dr. Schermerhorn, who, unlike Bettelheim, at least has a medical degree. Early in the book, he is gruesomely murdered. Heh, heh.
What are you working on now? Is this project taking you places you've never been before?
The new book stars a woman archaeologist from Northwestern University. She visits coastal Peru, researching the Moche, who lived 1700 years ago, and Anatolia in central Turkey, researching Çatalhöyük, which was a thriving city seven thousand years ago. I’ve been fascinated by what I’ve found out in the last year about ancient cultures, but I have frequently wished that I was as knowledgeable as you.
For more on Barbara's books and stories, visit her website here.