Today, I'm very pleased to have an interview with Peggy Blair. Peggy's first novel, THE BEGGAR'S OPERA, will be released in February 2012.
JILL: Give me a one sentence summary for The Beggar’s Opera (your debut novel, which will be out in approximately 129 days, give or take...)
PEGGY: Inspector Ricardo Ramirez races to find the vicious killer of a Cuban street child in a devastated country where sex tourists and the spirit world share the streets, and where even the Internet is illegal.
JILL: What can you say about your current work-in-progress (you do have a two book deal with Penguin, after all...)
PEGGY: The second book, The King’s Indian, is out for review with my editor. I’m working on the third in the series now. It further develops a character I introduced in The King’s Indian, an Aboriginal detective named Charlie Pike, and, like The King’s Indian, splits the action between Cuba and Canada.
JILL: Hey lady of many hats!!! You’ve been/you are a lawyer, a realtor and an author. Hmmm... I hope you stick with author, but if you have to choose a fourth career, what would it be, and why?
PEGGY: I think it would actually be closer to a ninth or tenth career – I’m afraid to say I’ve been a bit of a gadfly. I have been a negotiator and trained negotiators internationally; have been a consultant, policy analyst, professor, mediator, and antiques dealer. I was the senior legal counsel to a non-profit medical association after working as a senior adjudicator in the Indian Residential Schools settlement process, hearing stories of sexual and physical abuse. I worked briefly as a Deputy Chief Adjudicator in the same process before deciding to go into real estate, which is one of my passions.
But my next career, if I could make a living at it, would be as a visual artist. I paint, draw, and sketch, and am just edging into commercial territory now. I think it would be one of those jobs where I didn’t feel like I was working. Writing, to me, is satisfying but work – painting is fun.
JILL: It sounds like setting might have been the easiest part of writing for you. What was the hardest part?
PEGGY: The Beggar’s Opera really popped out almost fully fledged. I think I wrote the entire book in about three weeks.
The hardest part was the year or so of polishing that followed the many, many times it was rejected during the querying process.
It wasn’t the querying process, by the way, that resulted in my getting representation. I finally gave up on querying (which began to feel like the definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different outcome) and entered The Beggar’s Opera in some national and international competitions, including the prestigious CWA UK Debut Dagger.
When it was shortlisted, everything changed: agents started contacting me asking for my manuscript and pitching why I should consider their agency.
But I wouldn’t have the wonderful agent I have now if I hadn’t met Scottish author, Ian Rankin, in the bar at Harrogate, England, shortly after losing the Debut Dagger. As it turned out, he and his son had just been to Ottawa for Bluesfest, which gave us something to talk about. That chance discussion resulted in his referral to his publisher, through whom I met Peter Robinson, my agent and Anne McDermid, his Canadian counterpart. Couldn’t be happier.
JILL: If you had to choose someplace outside of Canada or Cuba to set a mystery, where would you choose and why?
PEGGY: Possibly China. Or somewhere in the Balkans. I love the idea of setting a mystery in a country that’s in transition, which was what I loved about Cuba. I set The Beggar’s Opera in 2006 because Castro had just been taken ill and no-one knew whether he’ll be back or not. Cuba may be a dictatorship and the government may tightly control information, but the outside world is being brought in all the time because of the influx of foreign tourists. Cubans are tremendously well-informed, and highly educated, which makes for an interesting pool to draw on for characters.
Eastern Europe is similar. I spent some time in Ukraine as an election observer during the Orange Revolution and was assigned to a number of small towns close to the Russian border. It was almost feudal – little thatched houses, old women bent double from decades of beet-picking. Every now and then a cart would go by with a goat sitting in the back. And yet my translator was as urban and sophisticated as you could imagine: a young woman wearing clothes that put me to shame.
It was the same in Kiev. We went over told to take our warmest parkas and toques and our biggest boots and to expect impoverished conditions and places with no heating. I got off the plane to find some of the most stylish men and women I’ve ever seen, ate in what may be best restaurant I’ve ever been in and stayed in one of the nicest hotels.
I’ve been to Serbia three times on a UN contract, training mediators in human rights. Belgrade reminds me of Havana, with its devastated buildings leftover from the war (downtown Belgrade was bombed and not all that long ago). It may be poor, but it has some of the loveliest, most generous, people I’ve ever met. It’s the kind of place where I commented on a watch that one of my new Serbian friends was wearing only to have her arrive the next day with a little ribboned box and the watch inside as a gift for me.
I went to the southern part of Serbia, which is Islamic, twice. It produces some of the finest jewellery in the world. There were Mercedes full of Russians lined up in front of these rows of tiny gold and silver stores, all engaging in money-laundering. I’m sure I can find a plot in all of that somewhere.
JILL: What was the best writing advice you ever received?
PEGGY: It was probably feedback from New York agent, Donald Maass, who told me I needed to increase the microtension in my manuscript. He went so far as to re-write a few paragraphs for me, which was extremely helpful. What that means is there has to be something going on in almost each paragraph that raises a question the reader can only answer by reading on. Don has written an amazing book called Writing the Breakthrough Novel. I bought it, read it, kept re-reading it and re-wrote my manuscript completely. And that’s when it actually did break through, with the shortlist to the Debut Dagger in the UK.
JILL: Give me three tips you’d like to share with aspiring authors.
1) Read Allan Guthrie’s on-line tips on Pleonasms. There should be a link on my blog. These are unnecessary adjectives, as well as all the words we use instead of “said,” like hissed, snarled, whispered, etc. Get rid of them. You want your writing to be crisp and clean, and these are redundancies that interfere with the flow of your words.
2) Get very good external readers. These need to be people who will be brutally honest with you. Strangers are good. I had the Ottawa Gay Book Club read my manuscript – I only knew one member (the one who arranged it) and never did know the names of the others. They were great at telling me what worked and what didn’t.
3) Do not, not, not, write a book in which different characters all speak in the first person. I’ve seen this repeatedly, and it is completely jarring to put the reader inside one person’s head and then yank them out and plunk them in another’s. It’s also confusing. But more importantly, it comes off as a bit amateurish, much like using pleonasms.( I have a ton of writing tips on my blog, Getting Published, peggyblair.wordpress.com, organized by topic.)
JILL: How much planning/background/outline do you do for your victim?
PEGGY: I don’t do any planning for any of my characters or even for the plot. I just start writing and things develop from there. I generally have a rough idea of what the story is going, and I try to write the ending first so that I have a destination. The epilogue in The Beggar’s Opera was written first and interestingly, despite lengthy (relentless, one might say) revisions in the editing process, it was left almost untouched. But the path to get there winds all over the place. If I had outlines, I think I’d feel constrained.
JILL: What’s your recipe for a Mojito?
PEGGY: A handful of fresh mint, which you crush in the bottom of a glass with a spoon. Add lime juice and white rum in equal measure (e.g. a jigger, or to taste). Add a teaspoon of sugar. Lots of ice. And top with sparkling water or soda water. I usually taste it and adjust as needed.
JILL: What are your thoughts on writing in first-person versus third-person?
PEGGY: The Beggar’s Opera was originally written in first person. I think first person is easier to write but much harder to pull off. Either everything has to happen through that one character’s perspective, which is difficult, or you have to switch from first person to third person at times, which doesn’t always work so well.
I finally re-wrote the whole thing as third person and it worked much better. Third person also lets you see characters through other eyes, and I like that for my books because there is always one character from ‘outside.’
JILL: What kinds of events or promotions do you have lined up for your first book?
PEGGY: The Beggar’s Opera won’t be out until February 12, 2012 so I’m not quite sure what Penguin Canada has in mind in terms of promotions and events. There is a publicist working on that now. I do know that there will be a launch both in Ottawa and in Toronto. We’re talking about using a Cuban restaurant in each city as either the site of the launch party or to cater, and I’d like to see us have Cuban music and art as well as Cuban food on hand. Since it’s the dead of winter, I think we can do something really fun and escape to Havana for an evening. I’ll keep you posted!
JILL: If you could bring one dead author back to life (just for an evening) who would it be and why? And, no, you can’t say, “barhopping in Havana with Hemingway”.
PEGGY: I may bring a dead author back to life in one of my books (Inspector Ramirez is often accompanied by the ghosts of his unsolved murder victims). Hmmm. That’s a tough one. Most of the authors who have inspired me are still alive. I’d say Shakespeare but I think he’d be hard to understand, kind of like me speaking French in Quebec, where I can’t understand a word of joual. It probably would be Hemingway, but I wouldn’t bar hop with him, I’d go fishing with him and pick his brain while he was still relaxed and sober.
JILL: Let’s end on lucky thirteen. What’s the one question you wish I’d asked you, but didn’t. Now ask and answer it.
PEGGY: How about, who’s your favourite character?
I’d have to say it’s Hector Apiro, who is a pathologist and surgeon, and Ramirez’s best friend but lives with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. My copy editor says he’s a mensch, which means someone that’s honourable and has integrity, the kind of person you’d like to have as a friend.
I can always feel a scene start to crackle when he and Ramirez sit in the morgue, discussing philosophy or religion or Russian literature. The highest compliment I had from an external reader is that she totally forgot about his size, even though Apiro stands on a stepladder during the autopsies he performs and there are constant references to pictures hanging below eye-level on the walls of his office, and so on. He’s probably my most interesting character, although it’s hard to choose. I’m also very fond of Maria Vasquez, the Cuban hooker with a good right hook, and of course, Ramirez, who balances on the knife edge of corruption every day.
Check out Peggy's blog: http://peggyblair.wordpress.com/about/