by Cynthia Chow
& Lorie Lewis Ham
This week we have another Poisoned Pen Press author with us, Triss Stein. We have a review of her latest mystery novel Brooklyn Bones, an interview with Triss & details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of the book.
Brooklyn Bones By Triss Stein
review by Cythnia Chow
When Erica Donavan was summoned home by a hysterical phone call from her fifteen year-old daughter Chris, Erica assumed that it stemmed from any of a myriad of teenaged, hormone-driven reasons. What she definitely didn’t expect was for Chris and their contractor to have discovered the body of a young woman literally holed into their Park Slope brownstone’s wall. A widow since her husband was killed by a drunk driver when in her twenties and estranged from her father since he moved away with his girlfriend, Erica has relied on Sergeant Rick Malone, a police officer and her father’s best friend. While Rick attempts to dissuade Erica from looking into the mystery behind the body, Chris begs Erica to look into the dead woman’s fate and even begins to investigate on her own. When Erica receives a threatening phone call warning her to stop raising questions about the events of the 1970s, the suspected time of the young girl’s death, Erica agrees with Rick and sends Chris off to a camp for her own protection.
Erica moved from her blue-collar side of side of Brooklyn to the much more upscale Park Slope side following her husband’s death to pursue a PHD degree in history, focusing on Brooklyn’s diverse and rich origins. It is her working thesis, as well as the fact that Erica has stayed out of the dating field since her husband’s death, that leads her best friend Darcy to give Erica’s name to the wealthy and intriguing Steve Richmond, who wants to hire Erica to research the history behind development protests to avoid any possible issues for his investor client.
Erica’s research into Brooklyn for Steve leads to the discovery of a dark history of slumlords, tenant exploitation, drugs, and runaway teenagers seeking a new future. Even more disturbing is that Erica uncovers her own home’s connection to the rotating cast of residents who may have included the dead woman.
As Erica attempts to cope with a mercurial teenaged daughter, the loss of a close friend, and the discovery that she misses and needs her father more than she realized, she reveals the truly fascinating history of Brooklyn during the free-loving and drug-filled times of the Seventies. While landlords viewed their tenants as dropouts, draft-dodgers, and addicts, the residents themselves were often attempting to escape hopeless futures and abuse while pursuing their artistic dreams. Erica as well befriends an acerbic and bitter disabled reporter who reported on events during that period and may hold the clues that place them all at risk. Erica is a relentless researcher and admirable mother who attempts to protect her family while learning to trust and risk relying on others. Stein has created an extensive collection of quirky but complex characters as well as crafting a plot that weaves Brooklyn’s fascinating history with its current issues seamlessly and in a manner that is completely compelling.
Interview with Triss Stein
Lorie: How long have you been writing?
Triss: On and off, since I was a child. I was inspired by Jo March, like a lot of women writers.
Lorie: When did your first novel come out?
Triss: 1993 (!)
Lorie: What was it called?
Triss: Murder at the Class Reunion (a title I never liked much)
Lorie: A little about it?
Triss: A successful journalist returns for the first time to the home town where she was never happy, to write a story about her 20th high-school reunion. The murder of a classmate becomes a much bigger story and forces her to look at her own family as well as her town.
Lorie: Have you always written mysteries/suspense?
Triss: I started out writing for children and wrote a full-length middle grade children’s fantasy, never published. Then I decided to try writing a mystery, inspired by Susan Isaacs’ Compromising Positions. If she could set a successful mystery in a Long Island suburb–not quaint, not glamorous, not scary– maybe I could use my life experiences too.
Lorie: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Triss: I have lived for a long time in a part of Brooklyn, Park Slope, that has become the epitome of gentrification. (Lots of conflict there, in a charming setting.) I am not a native New Yorker, though. (Lots of seeing all this with an objective eye.) I find Brooklyn neighborhoods surprisingly similar to small towns, each having its own history, conflicts, customs. (Lots of weirdness and surprises. I will never run out of Brooklyn stories.)
I wanted a real Brooklyn girl (not like me) to tell the stories, but she needed to have some objectivity (just like me). Meet Erica Donato, who is now a Ph.D. student in urban history, and has traveled a long way (in life, not in miles) from her Brooklyn neighborhood. She has a teenage daughter (why not add some extra conflict?). Her work has a way of drawing her in as old crimes collide with new ones.
Lorie: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Triss: I do write to entertain. I think “tell me a story” is a fundamental human need. However, I am not creating crossword puzzles. I like to read, and try to write, mysteries on the border between too silly and too grim, somewhere in the realm of resembling real life conflicts, real fears and real emotions. Plus, I am taking readers on a little trip. Place helps create the story.
Lorie: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Triss: Now retired from a day job, and with kids grown up, I try to start right after breakfast and write until lunch time. I’ve learned that is my most creative time of the day, though I can proof read, edit and so on any time. True confession: I have a weakness for getting side tracked by “useful chores” that aren’t actually writing. I mean, doing laundry or filing bank statements isn’t fooling around, right?
Lorie: Do you outline?
Triss: I find out what I think by writing it. I wish I could outline and keep vowing I will next time, but it does not work for me. I have some characters and a situation, a beginning and I usually know where I will end up. Other than that, it’s a journey in the dark with the headlights on. (I stole that metaphor from E.L. Doctorow.) It’s definitely not an efficient way to write a book!
Lorie: If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Triss: I am still searching for the perfect method. I am an organized person in real life; I am starting to think being a little disorganized in the writing process is what stimulates the ideas.
Lorie: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Triss: Yes and no. The first agent who read my first book took it on. (Great.) After awhile I realized she did not know the mystery market that well. (Not great.) She was determined to see it in print and did sell it. (Great.) The second book was accepted immediately. The publisher sat on the third for a very long time–my agent had decided she was no longer interested in repping fiction (not great) and the publisher turned it down. (Awful.) A couple of weeks later, they announced they were dropping their mystery line. (Consoling.) There are no lessons here except that anything can happen in publishing.
Lorie: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Triss: An experienced agent told me she personally loved this book, Brooklyn Bones, but that she didn’t know anyone who was buying ”literate, non-gimmicky” mysteries. Yikes! What becomes of all of us readers who want to read such books? After hearing similar words from several other agents, I approached Poisoned Pen Press where that’s exactly what they want to publish.
Lorie: Future writing goals?
Triss: Another book about Erica is in the works. This one includes Tiffany glass windows and beautiful, historic Green-Wood Cemetery. I have many ideas for stories where history and modern crimes collide, and if I get to write and publish them I will be a supremely contented and lucky woman.
Lorie: Writing heroes?
Triss: Ahh, that one is tricky, as I know a lot of mystery writers. Let me mention a few I don’t know personally: Kate Atkinson, for her hugely original way of telling a story; Tana French, for her stunning plotting; Kerry Greenwood, for writing diverting fluff that is also smart; Lindsey Davis for making a remote time come alive so delightfully. I have also been a fan forever of the mainstream writer Penelope Lively.
Lorie: What kind of research do you do?
Triss: I used to be a professional researcher in the business world so I have some skills. For general background, I use history books, photos, newspaper articles, museum visits, site visits to refresh my memory about how something looks, Web. I look for experts to answer those weird questions mystery writers have- most people love to talk about their work. If I’m stuck for a particular piece of knowledge, I throw it up on a few mystery writer listservs and usually someone has a good idea. (It has dawned on me that writing about the place where I live may have been a foolish choice. I could have chosen Paris or Istanbul and had to make research trips!)
Lorie: What do you read?
Triss: I read a lot of mysteries, but often just to see how something is handled–it’s the difference between being a reader and a writer. I do often read mysteries by people I know and books recommended by other mystery readers and writers. I have certain mystery writers whose new books I always find.
Besides mysteries? Quality mainstream fiction, most recently Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. Next up is Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. I like a variety of non-fiction too: history, travel, biographies, memoirs and I have a weird fondness for food writing.
Lorie: Favorite TV or movies?
Triss: When I am seriously writing I find it very relaxing to be passively entertained by other peoples creations. I’ve lately discovered the hilarious Big Bang Theory, and luckily for me, there are several previous seasons! I’m pretty hooked on Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, Antiques Roadshow, History Detectives, The Good Wife, Parenthood, Modern Family, Once Upon a Time, Sherlock, Mad Men, Inspector Lewis. I will watch a MASH rerun any time I stumble on one. I have been known to watch The View if I am lying on the sofa sick.
Lorie: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Triss: Accept that you have to work at it. (I’ve seen many aspiring writers who really don’t get this.) That means: read critically, learn to write/plot/structure, maybe join a critique group or take a class. Glue your butt to the desk chair and practice, practice, practice. As the old joke goes, that’s how you get to Carnegie Hall.
Lorie: How do you feel about the growing popularity of e-books?
Triss: Anything that gets people reading and sells books, is a good thing!
Lorie: Do you read e-books yourself?
Triss: I use a Nook for traveling and it is great for saving space and weight in my luggage. Otherwise, I still prefer books. A lot.
Lorie: Anything you would like to add?
Triss: I started out as a librarian and I love talking books at any opportunity and in any format: conventions, book clubs, library programs.
Lorie: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Triss: I like animation, and sometimes sneak into a Disney movie even though I have no handy small children to use as an excuse. I even have a few animated favorites like Fantasia on DVD and might watch them in a low moment.
Lorie: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
Triss: http://trissstein.com. I’m having fun with this. It has some short stories, photos, fun Brooklyn facts and background about the series. No Twitter (or at least – not yet). Facebook, yes, Author page: Triss Stein. My personal account is Triss Finkelman Stein. (I try, not always successfully, to resist using FB as a way to avoid working.)
Lorie: How do you compete in an overcrowded market?
Triss: If I knew that, I would write a book about it and make a fortune!
I managed a research study on this for Sisters in Crime a few years ago, and the most important way people hear about new books turned out to be just what it always has been–good old word of mouth. Of course the ways to generate that in this digital age seem to multiply overnight. There is a lot of discussion and uncertainty, in all corners of the book world, about how to make it all work, but one key seems to be just getting your name out there and becoming part of the community.
To enter to win a copy of Brooklyn Bones, simply email KRL at life@kingsriverlife[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Brooklyn”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen March 1, 2013. (This contest is for longer than usual because of the second event) U.S. residents only.