A Better Future

It’s forced me to go back to those earlier stories, to make sure there’s something new for the old reader, and that everything comprehensible for the new reader too. For me, there was a clear point in the manuscript where things change, but for other people those points were different. I bristle a bit when Claire’s called self-destructive. That has been a huge inspiration. I’m going to write another Claire book. ¤
Désirée Zamorano is the author of The Amado Women. How do you balance your novel writing with your industry writing? I think it’s the same with characters: there’s interesting and there’s nice. There’s a unique experience in staying with characters throughout the course of a series. What is the genesis of this series? Each reader finds these clues at a different point. I grew up in New York City, which was majority minority. For me, it’s an aberration when I see an all-white environment, although I know for some white people it is true to their experience. You can look at it as one novel spread out in a series over the course of a lifetime. When I lived in New Orleans, it was 85 percent African American. [Laughs.] I’m much more conscious of that going forward. The two of us talked in Culver City about her writing and later by email; the conversation has been condensed for clarity and edited for fan-girling. What are the themes that propel you, that you want to explore? That seems very self-destructive to some people, and that’s reflected in Claire’s story. They’re not gods whose altar you want to worship at. This means looking at each story as if it’s a gemstone: we’ve seen one facet, now let’s look toward a different facet. I try to give each book its own thematic structure. Growing up in New York in the ’70s, there was no option to be this certain type of woman who doesn’t speak up, who doesn’t say what’s on her mind. I’m going to write her a better future, and maybe that will bring me a better future. Since I started writing, I knew I wanted to write a detective series. My real idol in that is James Sallis, who writes the Lew Griffin series. Andrew Vachss does that really well, too; in his series the characters age, kids grow up, people get old, kids go to college, people marry and divorce, just like they do in real life. The books are really like the America I’ve lived in. OCTOBER 29, 2018

SARA GRAN IS the author of the stunning novel Come Closer and the brilliantly complex and layered Claire DeWitt detective series. Was that your intent as you created that world? He said it worked. He had this amazing comics series in the ’90s called The Invisibles, although I didn’t read it until the 2000s. I’m not sure if it’s an unreliable narrator so much as an unreliable narrative structure — there’s a certain point where things flip and it becomes more and more clear that what’s happening is real, and all the clues have been really subtle. Brooklyn was majority black when I grew up there, and I believe the second largest category was Latinx. It’s been a worthwhile challenge. I lived in the Bay Area; San Francisco is not entirely white but it is very white, but when I lived near Oakland, 10 years ago, it was also majority black. Crazy, crazy stuff. I grew up with different kinds of people. I always struggle with that. I always wanted to do a series for all of these reasons, and then I started a book when I was in New Orleans in 2007 — I started writing a character who was not a detective, it was going to be something else altogether. So this contributed to this sense of going into this narrative, this dream world where you are sucked into it and can’t get out. Except something went horribly wrong with the Claire DeWitt series — I recently lost my parents and my life has gone to hell, as hers often has! That’s the nice thing about writing a series. Likable versus interesting. When you look at some of the numbers for this country you realize some white people live in this all-white universe but that’s never been how I was raised, or how I choose to live. What is your series’s genre? Some of those things she does may seem self-destructive but are actually constructive. Or maybe it’s a peepshow with different windows, and you’re looking at a different view every time. I just was focused on the character, and the character changing, and ended up with this weird narrative structure. Claire DeWitt is fierce, yet compelling. It’s accurate, but it’s not the whole picture. How difficult it is to appreciate life as it unfolds, how easy it is to just let it be this long, infinite road of dissatisfaction. She does go on self-destructive binges, especially in the second book — there’s a drug binge that leads to her nearly dying in a car accident, that’s definitely a bad thing. So I really loved all of these ideas, this idea of staying with a character and having her sort of be an avatar for your life. Another one that I love, coming from a completely different background, is Andrew Vachss’s Burke series, much more crime, much less mystery. I realized, “Oh, this character could really be something. I have a bunch of pilots out there at various networks and places that will probably not get picked up but that are fun to work on. It’s hard, it’s ridiculously hard. My father was big fan of the Nero Wolfe books, by Rex Stout. I want each book to work as a standalone, which pushes me in a good direction in that I reexamine the origin story, everything that’s happened before the books begin. It’s been five years. I wrote for Berlin Station for season three and might do another season if we come back. For the Claire DeWitt books, I feel that there is a mini-genre of character-driven detective novels that are about the detectives, and not about the crime. I’ve been asked, “Do you ever have to put something aside because it doesn’t fit in a book?” And the answer is: “Yes.” But the great thing about a series is that I very often have the opportunity to use that thing again, coming up in the series. So I have hundreds of pages of notes, and one page of an actual book. They’re procedural, but also character driven. Women have always been like this. People shouldn’t do that! ¤
DÉSIRÉE ZAMORANO: I first discovered you via your novel Come Closer. That is a real reflection of me in my life and people telling me, “You’d be making more money if you did this,” or, “You’d be more successful if you did that,” and me having to summon up the spine to say, “No, that’s not what I want to do.” Life is really short, and I don’t want to devote it to making money, to being famous. And of course in the Chandler books no one cares about the mystery, they don’t always even make sense. The woman thing comes into people’s perceptions of my work, but not my perceptions of it. It was intoxicating. I know I am reaching an impossibly high standard every time I publish, every time I get a script out there as a woman. This could be the series I’ve wanted to do.” So I reworked that, and that became Claire DeWitt. I’m going to continue to work in TV. I want to resolve the loose threads and start a new arc for the series, which I have 20 million notes for. [Laughs.]
What lies ahead? In a way, it’s a real gift to be a woman in this business and to be held to a standard that is 10 times higher than my male peers. The third book, I recently realized (thanks in part to our conversations!), is about happiness. To me, who wrote a book as a woman or a man is not interesting, but I have to constantly think about it because people are not judging me as a human, as a “gender neutral” man, but as a gendered female writer, and they are judging my characters in the same way. But I think a lot of the things she does that seem to not make sense do make sense. Your novels very casually include ethnic minorities, people of color. To do the work she needs to do, she needs to have a different frame of mind, a different mindset. SARA GRAN: Come Closer was a hard book to write because the narrative structure of that book is unusual, and I didn’t realize at the time how unusual it was. So here you have really traditional mystery, Wolfe; more modern mystery, Vachss; and this Terence McKenna/Robert Anton Wilson stuff that I’d always been really into but never knew how to apply to fiction before. He wrote very new-age-y, Terence McKenna drug stuff. Season three is going to be amazing, and I’m really proud of it. It was run by Jason Horwitch, creator of the show Rubicon, an amazing writer and good friend from Southland. The eagerly awaited third in the series, The Infinite Blacktop, is out now. I’ve never had the opportunity to slack off. Grant Morrison said he intentionally wrote a character as an avatar of himself, that he was going to have amazing, interesting, fascinating things happen to his character and he hoped that they would happen to him, and they did. Each book has its own thematic vocabulary, both in terms of the imagery, and in terms of what it’s about. It’s a challenge, but I try to look at it as a positive for myself (it is of course a huge negative, and a huge net loss, to the world at large). What’s being nice, and what’s being kind? Can you chat a bit about fierce Claire, character-driven novels, and “unlikable” characters, as written by women? Another big influence on my series was a comic book artist named Grant Morrison. It’s one of many reasons I haven’t had a book out in so long. Those things are probably wonderful, and to the degree to which I have them I appreciate and enjoy them, but I don’t want to sacrifice anything that’s important in order to have them. [Laughs.]
Originally Claire DeWitt was going to be a series of three or four books, and now I think I’m going to do it for the rest of my life. The second book is very much about love and relationships. I don’t want to do that! A successful TV writer, she has worked on Chance for Hulu, Southland for TNT, and, most recently, Berlin Station for EPIX. What is actually being good and what is making someone feel good? I hope I didn’t write myself into a corner with that. Between everyone in my family being sick and having to make a living, it’s been really, really rough. Why is that? Also, I think of the difference between being kind and being nice. The first book is obviously about trauma, and loss, and how you go on after that, and how you have to change after that. These novels are a fascinating and entertaining eclectic mixture of esoterica, deadly poisons, drugs, and mysticism; the influence of Jacques Silette with his handbook Détection, simultaneously a shadow and a beacon for Claire. I have zero advice on how to balance anything to anyone, other than just try not to cry too much. When I was a teenager up until now, when I had nothing to do I’d pick one up and read it. I know I have a career in Hollywood not because I’m good enough, but because I’m better than a lot of candidates, who are given a faith that no woman is ever given in this business.