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What is it about the Gilded Age that fascinates you?


We could be here all day if I really started in on that one! I suppose at the most general level it’s my perception that the period is so utterly strange compared to our own, and yet eerily similar in many ways. And if ‘history repeats itself’, or as someone said, ‘rhymes’ (never understood that, frankly), the late Gilded Age offers a rather unsettling forecast for our next few decades.

What about the Gilded Age isn’t understandable?


I used to live in France, and went to school there for a time. I'm a certified Francophile -- but I’m not a Frenchman, and never can be. There’s too much about culture that must be lived. And since I can’t go back and live in 1900, I have only echoes to go on, and even those are interpreted from my own point of view. It’s regrettable, perhaps, but we are all creatures of our time and place, as much as we might like to think we otherwise. It’s been said – well said -- that ‘the past is a foreign country’. I think that comes as close to it as it’s possible to come.

The hardest (indeed impossible) thing is to free my mind from its post-Freudian, post- World Wars, post-military/industrial complex, post-whatever-you-fancy views. I'm a creature of the twentieth century, for good or ill, and I think the utter insanity of great segments of the twentieth century killed off a species of hope – an almost Utopian sense of promise that people in 1900 felt very deeply – that the world would be a kinder and saner place a hundred years hence.

In those days, most believed that technology and science – as well as developments in the understanding of the human mind -- would fundamentally transform society for the better. Then came 1914 and the horrible knowledge that science and technology could be perhaps more easily applied to killing at an industrial scale. 

So there’s no way we today can un-know what happened to humanity – at human hands -- from 1914 on. Not, of course, that ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ began then, but perhaps it was the industrialization of inhumanity that did.

With that all said, the Gilded Age wasn’t Utopia, not even close. Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner knew it when they coined the term itself. It was solid gold laid over something much baser. But ... it did have a sheen. I wonder whether 120 years from now future generations will say the same about our time.


Have you always wanted to be a novelist?


Pretty much. I’ve done a lot of other things, mainly to make a living or because it’s what I thought I should be doing. And I didn’t hate most of them. But I love writing and always have, so it’s nice to be able to do it as my day-job.


What would you like people to get out of your novels?


That they can disappear into them, wander around safely, and then come back out when they like. I hope that they will develop a bond with my characters – not that they have to like them all or like what they do, but rather to see them as fully featured human beings that they care about. If the characters become real enough to a reader, the greatest compliment I can be paid is that they will start imagining what Sarah or Alicia or Arthur, et al, might do in a certain situation that is not in one of the books. That means they’ve become as real to the reader as they are to me.


Does a reader need to read the Avenging Angel Detective Agency™ Mysteries in order?


Absolutely not! The stories are all independent and very different one from another. Some of the characters overlap, so there is always a benefit in reading them in order if you wish to understand the prior history of a given character, but it is by no means required. I write them so that readers can choose whichever story or stories sound most interesting to them.


Weren’t Victorians a bunch of stuffy prudes?


If they had been, none of us would exist today. Victorian and Edwardian society had rules and a kind of reserve that we don’t possess anymore. I’m not sure that made them stuffy. In fact, sometimes restraint made them all the sexier  People had to use their imaginations. And unlike today, the social rules they had to follow made it easier, not harder, to know how to behave properly in any given situation. Nowadays we have to figure everything out on the fly, and never know if we’re offending someone.


What scenes do you most enjoy writing?


I enjoy writing anything that I can clearly see or hear, when the keyhole is opened and I can peer through. Then I feel as though I’m more or less taking notes as I watch and listen. If it starts to feel like I’m ‘figuring out’ what comes next, or how this person or that ‘should’ act, I stop. It’s not real then and I never like the result. My motto is ‘don’t make shit up’.


Do you work from an outline? Do you know the whole story when you begin?


My writing is like raindrops on pavement. Just a drop here and there, at first, and then more and more of them, until the pavement is wet. When I can see how the individual drops connect one to another, I will then write out an outline and fill in the blanks from there. And emphatically no to the second question – I don’t know the whole story when I begin. The story is revealed to me in bits and pieces as I go, and as I open myself up to listen. It's more a process of discovery than creation.


In The Buffalo Butcher, you take us into the world of Gilded Age vice and prostitution. How real is all that?


I will say that as far as historical context goes, there’s nothing in Butcher that I can’t document. The methods used by Gilded Age procurers and pimps haven’t changed much, either, in a century. In most cases women (and some men) are lured into prostitution by a process of grooming that is both brutal and cruel—the step-by-step dismantling of a person’s will and sense of self-worth. But what makes Butcher different, though, is that I see it as a story in which the victims find ways to exercise their will and regain their self-worth. I won’t claim that parts of the book aren’t difficult to read, but they are very real indeed and do, I think, lay a foundation for a kind of triumph.


What’s your feeling about the publishing industry?


Whew. Look, I’m fortunate to be repped by a small and very dedicated new publisher who have been incredibly generous with me. I had an opportunity to sign with one of the big publishers, but turned them away because big companies are good if you’re big, and not so good if you’re small. I felt I would be a very small fish in a very large pond. Now, maybe one day I’ll be big, but even then I wouldn’t switch, because what matters to me is quality and remaining an individual and not a cog in the machine. Now with all that said, large or small a publishing business is just that—a business, and people are in it to make money. And as is true of the entire entertainment industry, oftentimes the artist/performer/creator is ironically at the bottom of the pile. Everyone gets paid before a writer does: retailers, distributors, printers, publishers, advertisers, designers, editors, bookshops, agents—but that’s the way it is and if you want your work to find an audience, you’d better suck it up. At the end of the day, I’m delighted that someone is willing to do all of the very hard work of transforming my manuscripts into books, and they’re entitled to be paid for it.


Are your characters based on real people?


Short answer is that some are, and some aren’t.  But in no case do I attempt to write biography … I’m a fiction writer, and so when things appear about a person who existed in history, my take on him or her is a fictional one. Fortunately, while today’s human beings may have different ways of processing information, expressing themselves, or behaving, their deep-down motivations are age-old and unchanging. The waves on the ocean’s surface may be large or small, but at the depths things are always quiet and calm. My job is to get under the chop and see what’s below.


What else do you like to do with your time?


I like to spend time with my wife. I enjoy tinkering with mechanical things, physical fitness, occasional travel. I’ve done so much travel in my life that it doesn’t hold as much fascination for me as it did. I think for many years I was collecting or gathering experiences, and now I am sharing them. For a while I felt like the Dead Sea, so much coming in and nothing coming out, and I don’t anymore.  Nowadays travel for research is what I enjoy -- I just returned from a blockbuster visit to research a new Avenging Angel book. More to come!


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