This interview is a little different from what I've done before. I originally intended to interview Sandra Scoppettone to coincide with the publication of her latest novel (the marvellous THIS DAME FOR HIRE) but after reading several Vin Packer novels in succession, a brighter idea showed up: why not have a round-table discussion with both of them? As two of crime fiction's most important and longstanding female writers, I knew each would have a lot to contribute -- never mind that they've known each other for over 50 years.
For logistical reasons, the resulting interview between Scoppettone and Packer (also known by several names, including her real one, Marijane Meaker) was conducted over email. They get things started with their own versions of how the two originally met:
Marijane Meaker: I believe the year was 1953. I was living with a gay man from my hometown who worked as a clerk for an airlines. I knew very few gay people except some from the real butch/femme circle. I met them at the old 82 club where the waiters were females in drag and Titanic, the transvestite entertainer came out nightly on a swing in an evening gown singing Balls! Balls! How I love balls!...I was despairing of meeting anyone, and as these people pointed out: I was ky ky. I didn't fit in with their set...One night my "roommate" went for a drink after work with Sandra Scoppettone, who was also employed by the airlines. He called me to say there was this great bar called The Grapevine, in the Village, with all sorts of women, none into the femme pose...all welcoming. He said I should meet his fellow employee, Sandra. I got dressed and caught a cab downtown. That is all I remember about our first meeting, except she was cute, funny, and smart. I liked that.
Sandra Scoppettone: It was 1955. I was working for the now defunct National Airlines as a phone reservation clerk. There was this one guy, Bob, who was a very obvious gay man and we began to talk. Nobody was intending to make a career of this job so he asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I wanted to be a writer. He told me he had a very good friend who was a writer. I asked who and he told me she wrote under the name of Vin Packer. I almost fainted. I had read her first novel Spring Fire and two others that were crime oriented. I thought Packer was very good and I desperately wanted to meet her. He said he'd see what he could do. It seems to me there was some negotiating on his part with Packer, who he told me was really Marijane Meaker.
I worked the 2-11pm shift so going directly home was out of the question. Eventually the night was set. I was very nervous about this meeting. She was an idol to me. There was a bar in the Village called The Provincetown Landing. We went there. I believe Packer/Meaker was late so Bob and I got a table and I had two fast drinks while we waited a short time until she arrived.
She was so funny and smart. I think we immediately started a sparring type conversation, but it was in fun. I kept up with her and we both liked that. She was the first published writer I'd ever met. I don't really remember, but I'm sure I asked questions about writing and her books, because that would be like me. On the other hand, it would be like her to deflect them.
For the rest of their conversation, read on after the jump.
SS: What made you turn to crime writing?
MJM: I wrote a book my editor titled COME DESTROY ME about a sixteen year old boy's fixation and ultimate murder of an affected book dealer into her cups with a strange way of talking and a melancholy disposition. I was amazed when Anthony Boucher reviewed it in his New York Times Sunday column Criminals At Large. He praised it. Paperbacks were just never reviewed anywhere in the early fifties, much less in The Times. I decided then and there to write crime stories so that I could be reviewed. That was the real beginning of Vin Packer's career. 1954.
Before I got the Sunday Times review from Boucher I never read mysteries. My idol was John O'Hara. I thought, and still think, his Appointment In Samarra was a perfect novel. I also loved Carson McCullers. Once I decided to do suspense I read Patricia Highsmith, never imagining we'd one day be living in an isolated farmhouse together at the mercy of wine and winter. She never read crime or mystery, nor anything contemporary. Old Masters. I began reading every suspense book I could find. I liked Graham Greene but until Ruth Rendell came along (and Barbara Vine) I was never excited by the mystery/suspense field. Interested and challenged, but my real loves were Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Peter Taylor and Truman Capote.
When did you decide to write a mystery? What mystery writers might have inspired you?
SS: I don't think of myself as a mystery writer. I feel more like a crime writer even though my last six books have been mysteries. Before I knew I was writing crime, I wrote SOME UNKNOWN PERSON; SUCH NICE PEOPLE (which I wanted to call A NICE QUIET BOY); and INNOCENT BYSTANDERS. They were all crime novels. After INNOCENT BYSTANDERS I couldn't get arrested, as they say. So I was silent for a bit. Then I realized those other books were crime and that this was the field I wanted to write in. As an adult I read crime/mystery novels along with other novels, but then I read them everybody I could find. For months. In a way they were all an inspiration. Some were to write better, and some were to not write that lousy.
But if I were to name names I'd have to say Chandler and Ross MacDonald because they wrote Private Eyes and that's what I wanted to do. So I took a new name, Jack Early, and I wrote my first one, A CREATIVE KIND OF KILLER. The way you were surprised about being reviewed in the Times because your book was in paper, I was stunned to receive an Edgar nomination and a Shamus nomination, which I won. A career was born.
MJM: Both of us have done series: you with your lesbian quintet starring Lauren Laurano and I did three John Fell books for young adults. What did you like/dislike about writing your very successful series? Now that you have launched a new one with THIS DAME FOR HIRE, what will you do or not do that you did in your first series?
SS: I never intended to write a series. The first book, EVERYTHING YOU HAVE IS MINE, was a stand alone in my mind. Of course I see now how naive that was. It is a perfect setup for a series. However, at the time I wrote it I wasn't even sure my agent could sell it because it was about a lesbian PI and her relationship. But the timing was just right. She sold it to Little, Brown right off the bat. I wanted to show that lesbian relationships are basically like heterosexual ones. I think they've been together about eight years when we meet them for the first time.
My original contract called for the first book in the series and a second book about PI Fortune Fanelli, the protagonist in my first Jack Early book. And then my editor talked me into writing a second Laurano and I knew we'd never see Fanelli again.
I liked writing about NYC and a female PI. I didn't like writing about the same people over and over. In fact, by book four, I was very tired of it. But that time my contract was a two book deal for Laurano. I'd always said, (and I still believe this) that a series shouldn't run more than four books. But I needed the money.
Despite what you might think, it was not a particularly successful series in the eyes of the publisher. Nor did I sell the amount of copies that makes a series successful.
As far as my new series, I've already made the first difference. I'm not writing in first person present tense, which a lot of people hate. Larry Block wouldn't give me a quote because of that. This time it's in first person past tense. But everything about this new series is different. It's once again in NYC but the time is 1943. I get to have everybody drink and smoke a lot. And I don't have to write sex scenes. I hate writing them. What new is there to say, after all?
MJM: When I wrote Fell, I didn't know I'd write Fell Back and Fell Away, so I hadn't planned well, nor had I planted enough fascinating recurring characters. My editor said "Fell is not exactly falling off the shelves." I replied, "He's not on the shelves to fall off," taking a slap at the distributors, but despite good reviews and an Edgar nomination, sales perhaps reflected my lack of foresight. I always felt Fell should have had a brother instead of a baby sister, so he could have interaction with a close contemporary. Dib, his dull roommate, who could have been developed were he not so dull, I had to murder in the second book he was so boring to write.
SS: Why did you leave crime writing behind?
MJM: I don't think of myself as leaving crime behind, just off to the side for awhile. I did do the three Fell books which were crime novels...and recently I've done a book about a transgendered MTF (male to female) who solves a kidnapping and will ultimately join an insurance agency as an investigator... I also did a major book about a crime in Oak Ridge Tennessee during the WWII which could not be prosecuted because everything there was so highly secretive they could not have had a trial, but that book was rejected by two publishers when I took it back to follow their suggestions (they both agreed on one thing) and never resumed an interest in this very exhaustive look at the city which along with Los Alamos made the bomb...I love to write YA novels and find a freedom to write about anything from Conscientious Objectors during WWII to a sadistic concentration camp guard from Auschwitz in the YA genre. I've also done fantasy for middle grade kids. I think most adults don't care that much about "causes" or moral choices, which kids are interested in and which inspire classroom discussion. I like to write that kind of book, and can do it with crime but crime answers the act with an outcome whereas in YA you can be provocative without being judgmental. Your audience can decide what is to be done about it.
Why did you abandon the YA field when you had such a good reputation?
SS: Did I have a good reputation? I'm not sure about that. I was accused more than once of writing about "hot topics" because I wrote about gays, lesbians, rape, and alcoholism. The truth is I wrote about what interested me. But by the time I got to Playing Murder, I was already writing adult crime novels. I had nothing more to say to YAs. I think I'd exhausted the topics that were important to me and I wanted to move on. I've never said never again. If I thought I had something to say in that form I'd do it. By the way, before I wrote my first YA I read dozens of them, including you.
There’s a big revival of noir right now, new writers and old. Vin Packer is included among these books. How do you feel about Packer being reprinted?
MJM: Some call it noir and some call it pulp and I never felt that I wrote either. Noir is dark and pulp used to refer to fiction written for detective magazines at a penny a word. I felt I was writing paperbacks. But I'm always glad to be included, and to have new readers for Packer.
What are your writing habits?
SS: I write in the morning. If something happens and I can’t get to my desk by 10:30 the day is shot for me. I have to be in front of my computer screen by 9. At 12 or 1:00 I’ve had it. I usually get 5 pages done in that time. I write 5 days a week when I’m creating, and 6 when I’m rewriting. On the final rewrite it’s 9 to 5 or 6, 6 days. I write directly on the computer. I’ve never written long hand. My first draft is everything that comes into my mind. I don’t rewrite until the whole book is finished. I keep a list of characters. No notes. I don’t know how long it takes me to do a book, maybe 6 to 7 months. But I’ve never gotten through a book without some major interruption so it ends up being a year. Your writing habits?
MJM: When I have begun a novel I start work at around 3pm and go to 6:30 pm. Then I leave it alone until midnight when right before bedtime I read what I wrote, pencil in changes and try to think of the next day's opening sentence. I write six days a week. I write about 7 pages a day, double-spaced, 12 font.
I usually rewrite the first 50 pages over and over until I have my voice. I often think, at the beginning, the book is wonderful. This is called false euphoria. Eventually I calm down and see the flaws. But until I am absolutely sure of those first 50 pages, I don't continue writing.
When a book is done I always have a small amount of rewriting to do, too. I keep a notebook as I go along with ideas for future chapters, news clips that are important, anything relevant to the story. It takes me about five months to do a complete novel.
SS: Since this is being posted on a blog that's devoted to crime I'd like to hear more about the Vin Packer books. I'm not sure you know how highly regarded they are. I know almost all of them have been inspired by true events..."ripped from the headlines" could you reveal more about that. Who, what, Why?
MJM: I have always been an avid newspaper reader so that a few of the cases I fictionalized were probably "ripped from the headlines." The first one I ever did was the Fraden/Wepman case: two homosexual men who murdered the mother of one, for money, giving her a champagne cocktail. Of course I wanted to call it The Champagne Cocktail case and Gold Medal insisted on calling it WHISPER HIS SIN. This book inspired Anthony Boucher, the N.Y. Times crime columnist to write me about the Parker/Hulme case, two New Zealand girls who also murdered the mother of one. I sent for the transcripts and worked entirely from them to write a book I called Why Not Mother? Parker had written in her diary "Thousands die every day. Why not mother?" But Gold Medal called it THE EVIL FRIENDSHIP. Again, the protagonists were homosexuals, afraid of being separated as the mother of Parker planned a move from the country. Both girls were sent to prison. A bad movie was made from this case called Heavenly Creatures. The girls were far more interesting than the movie presented them...and many years later it was revealed that Hulme was actually Anne Perry, the famous mystery writer. No one seems to know what became of Parker when she got out of prison.
The next case I fictionalized was the Emmett Till "wolf whistle" case. For once Gold Medal kept my title. DARK DON’T CATCH ME, from an old black saying "Dark don’t catch me in this town." Of the eighteen crime books I did for Gold Medal, these three were the only ones "ripped from the headlines." The others were stories of my own invention, one or two inspired by "cases" a child psychiatrist would tell me about, explaining why often my protagonists were teenagers, the others from my imagination.
I was always interested in young people, though, in the underdog, in racial prejudice, and in small town life. My hometown was dominated by a huge prison in its midst, Auburn prison, where New York license plates were made. Growing up we were always aware of prisoners coming and going on the trains, of the parental threat that we would end up there if we weren't good, and of all the tourist homes in town where relatives of prisoners stayed during visits.
Even all these years later my latest M.E. Kerr book is set in a prison town and narrated by the warden's daughter. I knew her well, and was always fascinated by the fact her father preferred to have murderers work around his yard, rather than thieves and thugs. He felt that the later often had habitual behavior problems and he didn't trust them on his property, but he felt murderers usually did it only once. Criminals don't really interest me, but the individual who happens to be a victim or be an offender by the combination of chance and luck always interests me. My Kerr books often feature such people but they are not crime books except for the Fell series: Fell, Fell Back, Fell Away.
When did you first became interested in crime, and what kind of criminal interests you?
SS: The funny thing is that I didn’t read mysteries growing up like most crime writers say they have. My uncle wrote for the pulps and he’d often read his stories to me. My father, who wanted to be a writer, was a snob about my uncle’s writing. He thought of himself as a literary writer, whatever that is. So being Daddy’s little girl, I became a snob about it, too. It wasn’t until I was an adult that it dawned on me that my uncle got published frequently, but my father never did.
I think I was eighteen or so when I started reading crime novels. I was very interested in real crimes and followed them in the papers. There was no glut of crime on TV like there is now. And I don’t think there was even that much in newspapers. But if it was there I’d find it. I wanted to know why they did it.
Today, the real life criminals who interest me are in the so-called upper class. I’m not at all drawn to celebrity crimes. But murders committed by people with a pedigree are endlessly fascinating to me. I’m also drawn to some serial killers. Ted Bundy is a good example. But guys like him don’t come along too often.
What's next for you?
MJM: I have just created a transsexual detective, actually an investigator for an insurance company. I hope my Scotti, who is in the process of becoming Scott, will be a series character. First book is called Scott Free, but it has not yet been sold. What about you?
SS: I'm not sure. I guess it will all depend on how well THIS DAME FOR HIRE does. I'm about to turn in the second in the series and that's the end of my contract. This is where my agent takes center stage.