Author Conversations: Isabella Maldonado, Tracy Clark, And Tori Eldridge
A Dialogue on City Culture and Diversity
Author Conversations: Isabella Maldonado, Tracy Clark, And Tori Eldridge is part of a series published by Mystery Tribune which features a dialogue between critically acclaimed crime novelists about their life and work.
We would like to thank Crime Writers of Color for their support to make this dialogue possible. For more information on the profiles of the authors and their books please go to the end of this piece.
ISABELLA MALDONADO (IM): With a background in law enforcement, a police detective series was a natural choice for me. Since I came from a large department in the D.C. Metropolitan area, I wanted to write about a major city police department, but not my own (not at first, anyway). I retired to the Phoenix metro area and fell in love with the vibe of the desert southwest.
TRACY CLARK (TC): I chose to set my PI series in the city I was born in, grew up in and now work and live in because I know it best–and I know where the dirt hangs out. A city of neighborhoods, Chicago is a melting pot of ethnicities, cultures, languages, lifestyles. We have everything here. Up to the ritzy North Shore all the way down to gritty South Chicago, the city literally hums with vibrancy and uniqueness.
TORI ELDRIDGE (TE): I feel the same way about sprawling Los Angeles. Where else can a citizen of one city live in glitz, grit, burbs, woods, mountains, or beach? It’s staggering how different our neighborhoods are and how many potential lifestyles we have. Outsiders, might think of Los Angelenos in one particular way, but that’s not the case at all.
We have four million people who hail from over one hundred and forty countries and speak over two hundred and forty languages. Ethnically, economically, and geographically, Los Angeles has to be one of the most diverse cities in the world.
TC: I know what you mean. Chicago has wonderful ethnic communities. From Chinatown to Greektown, Bronzeville to Hyde Park and back, there’s always something new to discover. You can’t go wrong setting your novels in a city like this. And it doesn’t hurt that there’s an undercurrent of corruption and graft running through Chicago’s bones either.
Al Capone called this place home, for goodness sake. There are still Tommy gun bullet holes on the side of some of the buildings! C’mon, if you can’t set a crime novel in Chicago, you’re just not trying hard enough
IM: True enough. But don’t discount Phoenix! It’s the sixth largest city in the U.S., with a sizable police force that provides plenty of grist for a writer’s mill. Phoenix fascinates me, with its sprawling borders (the city limits cover over 500 square miles) and amazing ethnic food. Like most cities, there are extremes of wealth and poverty, and I strive to accurately portray the effects of both. There aren’t as many crime fiction stories set in Phoenix, so I try to give readers a peek into a city they may not be familiar with.
TE: I have family near Phoenix and went to school outside Chicago, so I’d have to agree. You’ve chosen fascinating cities for crime fiction. As a writer in general, how important is location to you?
IM: I view the setting of the story as a critical element. The series I write could not take place, for example, in Bangor or Buffalo. The locale is woven into the DNA of each story and plays a pivotal role in the events that take place. The series begins in July with Blood’s Echo, and I try to give readers a feel for the experience of summer in Phoenix, where the mercury can climb to 120 degrees.
The events in each subsequent book take place about seven weeks apart, so the reader experiences all the seasons: blistering, scorching, hot, and warm. (Phoenix humor).
TC: Location, if a writer uses it correctly, can be as important, as vital a character as your protagonist and antagonist. After reading my Chicago mysteries, I want readers to come away feeling as if they’ve seen, touched, smelled, experienced the city from a different angle. Not on its surface where it glistens and is made up for company—The Mag Mile, the Lakefront—but down in the neighborhoods where working people live, where bad things happen and there’s often no remedy for the suffering.
TE: Much of what I write is steeped in culture, and I don’t necessarily mean ethnic culture—although The Ninja Daughter certainly is—I mean the culture of a society. Every community, whether it’s a single family or an entire country has a culture unique to it. Grounding my stories in a specific location helps me lock into the personality, issues, and feel of a community. Those details inform the characters who live there.
TC: Yeah, I’d like my stories to go where the problems are, to highlight those who are often disregarded and forgotten. These people, their problems, exist on what many would describe as “the wrong side of town” where tourists don’t go. But there’s life on the wrong side, goodness on the wrong side, strength, nobility, honor on the wrong side. And that’s where I’m hanging out.
TE: What about Google Maps? I’m a visual person. I drive around, take photographs, comb the internet, and even cruise up and down streets on Google Maps. Even if I’m very familiar with the area, I like to know exactly where my fictional characters are in their environment. I like to see what they might see.
TC: I do the same. I found a funky little bar I used in a book from a GM search. The exterior of the bar I borrowed, the interior I made up.
IM: I don’t use Google Maps much for writing. I’m old school and drive around making notes in a police notebook. I’m not averse to technology though and have occasionally used Google Earth to double check the topography of a place I’m describing. Phoenix has several mountain ranges which are included in the stories. If I don’t get those right, the locals (who call themselves—I kid you not—Phoenicians) will make sure I hear about it!
TC: What about fact and fiction? I change the names to protect the not-so-innocent. If I pick a place, I name it something else and fiddle with the location. If I write about a real person, I change the name, fiddle with the gender, maybe, but here you’re kind of on safer ground.
If the character is a good guy, people always think you based it on them, and they’re fine with that. If the character’s a real nutcase, no one ever recognizes themselves. They always assume you’re writing about someone else. Generally, though, I stick to facts and reality when the story warrants it and if the issue is in the public domain. And I take whatever creative license I can get away with without having to hire a lawyer.
IM: One of the things that locals enjoy when they read my stories is that they recognize the landmarks and locations I sprinkle liberally through each book. I am careful, however, not to have anything bad happen in a real place. If there is to be a murder or some other misdeed, I’ll make up the place.
For example, I refer to “Phoenix General,” a hospital that does not exist. As for people, I create those out of whole cloth as well. The Phoenix Police Chief is a completely invented character that is unlike any chief I have ever known. The senior detective in my series, Sam Stark, is an amalgam of various detectives I’ve run across over the years, but not any one individual.
This amuses me, because many people have written to me telling how much they love Sam and they’re convinced he’s really toiling away in a cubicle in the bowels of the PPD Homicide Unit.
TE: I like to ground as much as I can in fact: real locations, actual committees, notable restaurants. I even know the exact routes my characters take when traveling in Los Angeles because traffic and travel time is big deal for us. I don’t always share those details, but I know them. However, certain truths are best left to fiction.
To avoid casting doubt on public officials or organizations, I inserted fictional characters into real committees, made up a proposed railway line that would fit with actual Metro routes, and invented my own local politicians. The most careful decision I made had to do with gangs in Los Angeles. Dangerous business. So I invented my own gangs and anchored them into existing L.A. gang history. A little bit of fact, a whole lot of fiction.
TC: Right. The goal is to entertain, not denigrate.
TE: What about taboos? Is there anything about your city that you won’t highlight?
IM: The good, the bad, and the ugly, I try to show it all.
TC: If it’s out there, I think I can find a way to work with whatever it is to tell a good story. Hopefully, by highlighting something, I can give it some resonance. I’d think long and hard, however, about using something that might bring someone personal pain. If I found myself in that situation, I’d likely not highlight it. Respect, compassion, empathy, that’s where I’m coming from, always.
TE: I haven’t run across anything that feels taboo, but I am very sensitive about misrepresentation or mono-representation. I don’t want my readers to come away with one fixed perspective about my city and its neighborhoods.
TC: How about cultural issues. We’re all writers of color. I don’t know about you, but I naturally see the world through an entirely different prism than another writer who might not share my cultural experience. I walk around in the world all the live long day unapologetically black. How the world looks back at me, how it rises up to greet me, or doesn’t; which doors shutter, which one’s open, tell a story. How can I not incorporate that into what I write, if only tangentially? Have your cultures and heritage influenced your writing?
IM: Definitely. I’m a voracious reader, and it seemed that the crime fiction books I read only had Latinos in certain roles. They were cast mostly as “the villain,” or sometimes as “the goofy sidekick.” Rarely did I see them as the protagonist, or in a wide variety of roles. I took a chance and made my lead character a Latina and included her large ethnic family and culture in the mix.
TE: The Ninja Daughter is an homage to my Chinese (and Hawaiian) mother and my North Dakota Norwegian father. Writing this book brought me closer to my parents at a time when they were getting ready to leave this life. My mother passed away while I was writing it, but my father was able to read a completed draft.
…Chicago was a city of neighborhoods. Sounds friendly, doesn’t it? There’s an underside to that label that is steeped in decades of painful racial and cultural division.
It meant a great deal to him that I would care so much about our heritage to share it in this way. Of course Lily’s parents are nothing like mine, but still, the cultural influence is very strong. At the same time, my novel also has a wealth of other cultures in it that reflects the diversity of Los Angeles.
IM: Same here. My books contain diverse characters on both sides of the law, as happens in real life.
TC: I said earlier that Chicago was a city of neighborhoods. Sounds friendly, doesn’t it? There’s an underside to that label that is steeped in decades of painful racial and cultural division. City of neighborhoods. You stay in yours, I’ll stay in mine. It’s the unwritten pact. There are always three sides to a place—the public one, the private one, the secret one. I try to dive deep on the latter two. That’s where the meat is.
TE: Los Angeles reminds me of dot art. At a distance you see this amazingly cohesive picture. But step in close, and every one of those dots will captivate you.
IM: Having been raised in the DC area, known for its international residents, I learned early on to respect cultural differences and appreciate certain universal human experiences at the same time.
TE: I grew up in Hawaii, which, even now, is more like growing up in a different country than another American city. Hawaiians are a race of people. We had our own sovereignty. We have our own language and rich culture of music, dance, customs, and spirituality. But we also have kama’aina culture created back in the plantations days when people from China, Japan, Portugal, Philippines, and Korea immigrated to Hawaii in search of work.
Of course, now, that cultural mix has expanded to include people from all over the world. But the ethnic experience is different from other American cities and states. It is entirely unique and, in many ways, far more inclusive. That’s why I enjoy writing and reading multi-cultural stories.
We’re not monolithic, none of us. So, I ask. I listen. I approach everything with an open mind and with respect. And then I write.
TC: I include everyone in my stories—black, white, Hispanic, Asian, female, male, gay, straight, rich, poor, because that’s how the real world looks and I want my story to reflect the real world. None of us lives in a vacuum. I didn’t just land on the planet without any understanding of “others.”
I’ve shared space, worked with, gone to school with, spent time with and become friends with all kinds of people from all walks of life. I’ve seen them. They’ve seen me. We know each other. But I don’t ever assume I know everything about an ethnic or cultural group, not even my own. We’re not monolithic, none of us. So, I ask. I listen. I approach everything with an open mind and with respect. And then I write.
IM: My cast of characters is also diverse, with Latino, white, black, and Asian characters because that reflects the community in Phoenix. When writing about characters from another ethnicity or culture, I draw on my experiences to do so in a respectful way.
TE: Same here. I draw on experience, observation, and research. I’m fascinated about other cultures and am always eager to learn. In my younger years, I was an actress and a screenwriter so my approach to characters is to get inside them and let them embody me. It can be quite schizophrenic at times, especially when writing dialogue!
TC: Have you received any criticism and/or praise for the way you’ve portrayed your city?
IM: I’ve gotten praise from the locals about how I portray Phoenix, which is a huge relief since I spent most of my life on the other side of the country and had to study hard to get things right. People native to other cities (as far away as Auckland) have written to tell me they have become intrigued by “The Valley of the Sun” after reading my books and would love to visit. When I mentioned this at a book signing, one of the locals rolled his eyes and said, “nice going…you’ve gotten us another snowbird!” (More Phoenix humor).
TC: I haven’t received any yet, but I’m only two books in. It’s coming as sure as night follows day. Chicagoans have opinions about everything.
TE: Although my novel doesn’t drop until November, I’ve had early readers tell me they saw Los Angeles through a new set of eyes. One reader, said he wanted to come back and visit just to visit some of the places I described. I felt very good about that.
Isabella Maldonado is an award-winning author, a retired police captain, and a regular contributor on television News Channel 12 (Phoenix NBC affiliate) as a law enforcement expert. The first book in her police procedural series, Blood’s Echo, won the Mariposa Award for Best First Novel.
Tracy Clark, author of the Cass Raines mystery series, lives in Chicago. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Chicagoland Chapter, PI Writers of America, International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America-Midwest. Her debut novel, Broken Places, earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly and was nominated for a 2018 Lefty Award for Best Debut Novel.
Tori Eldridge is a Honolulu-born thriller writer who holds a fifth-degree black belt in To Shin Do Ninjutsu and has traveled the country teaching seminars on ninja arts, weapons, and women’s self-protection. Tori’s gritty debut novel, The Ninja Daughter (out 11/5), draws from her own Chinese-Norwegian heritage, her extensive ninja training, and her 35 years living in Los Angeles.