Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
I was aware of SG Wong as a local writer long before I met her on a panel at When Words Collide (a splendid Calgary literary convention with a focus on genre fiction). When I learned she wrote about a hard-boiled detective haunted by a ghost, I immediately grabbed a copy of Die on Your Feet, her first Lola Starke novel.
Since then we’ve joined forces with several other local authors to present Writing 101 panels at the Calgary Entertainment Expo. Come visit us if you’re at the show.
1. What is it about noir that appeals to you? And just what is the difference between noir and hard-boiled?
I love trying to figure out the myriad ways human beings/characters will react when they think they’re backed into a corner or when they think they’re riding high. I like examining the hidden aspects of humanity, those things that show themselves when the character wants most desperately to hide them.
It’s easily argued that I don’t write noir; I write hard-boiled detective. I think many of the same themes exist in these sub-genres: cruelty, humanity, the nature of truth, the limits of one’s morals, for example. I suppose the difference between noir and hard-boiled just depends on which side one’s protagonist lands. Otto Penzler describes noir best here.
My short version is that hard-boiled fiction has at its center hope. The protagonist fights the good fight because she believes that something good will out. Noir, though, is all about hopelessness: fighting just makes everything hurt more, and you leave behind an ugly corpse.
2. How do you avoid the trap of letting your protagonist become a femme fatale or similar stereotype of the genre while still taking advantage of the delicious tropes it has to offer?
This is a trick question, isn’t it? Tropes are familiar patterns that can provide great structure, but characters are people. If I write the “strong female character” in noir, she’s always going to be a candidate for femme fatale. To me, though, she’s an imaginary person with real motives and emotions. From those, her actions and words spring. It’s the recognition in the reader of the truth in those emotions and motivations that determines whether I’ve succeeded in avoiding the trap. And that, of course, leads to the discussion of taste: what most people think of as what makes a book a good one or a bad one.
3. What are the advantages and pitfalls of an imaginary setting like Crescent City?
I created Lola’s Crescent City with 1930s-era Los Angeles in mind. (Hello, Raymond Chandler!) I imagined what the Pacific Coast might be like if it had been colonized by the Chinese instead of Europeans, so this alternate history has repercussions for the entire made-up world, not just the west coast of North America. (I can’t wait to toss Lola out into that wider world in later books.)
I think the advantage of using a fictional city is that I get to make up whatever settings fit best for the action. And, yup, it’s also a major drawback sometimes. Not in a bad way, though. It’s just that sometimes I get caught up in researching real history (to inspire and ground my alternate history) when I really ought to be creating the rest of a story.
4. Do you find smoking provides hard-boiled short-hand for sexy, dangerous, or other character traits? What other visible habits do you like to use to reveal character?
Ha. I’d never considered using smoking in Lola’s world as short-hand. I’m old enough to remember emptying out ashtrays for my parents’ friends after a night of mah-jongg in our basement. It was a normal part of social interaction in my family’s circles, and I just used it as part of the world I created because it was, well, normal to me. I mean, just about all the Chinese people I knew growing up smoked, even my dad occasionally.
Alcohol consumption is another short-hand. But the great thing about that is hard drinking can mean weak or it can mean tough. Some characters drink to avoid the pain of something, to drown their sorrows because they just want it all to go away. But others drink so they can handle the pain, which they carry with them tightly, in order to pursue some higher agenda.
5. You first published Die on Your Feet in ebook format, but now it’s also available in print. How did that transition occur? Did publishing in electronic format first hinder a print publication or did it help make the print version possible?
Die on Your Feet was picked up by a digital imprint and they published it in 2013 as ebook-only. Although it was a finalist for an Arthur Ellis Award, I didn’t have much financial success with that edition, so my publisher rejected the second book in the series. That engendered a frank conversation with them about the rights to Die on Your Feet. I did get the print rights back, so I decided to go indie with the entire series. (This after many months trying to interest a traditional publisher in Book Two and in the series as a whole.)
As for being a hindrance or a help, I think that’s tricky to say. With a different publisher, I’d have been published in both formats from the get-go. If I’d not accepted the offer for the ebook-only version back then, I’d have published the book on my own in ebook and print.
But I think I’ll go with “help.” I learned a lot about publishing and being an author, and that experience gave me just enough confidence (misguided or otherwise!) to make a go of it as an independent author. I know there are dollars attached to all of this, but it’s also something in the way of a grand experiment, being a working, publishing author. I tried ebook-only, and it wasn’t quite the right fit for me. Now I’m independent, and we’ll see what I learn.