[from PW’s 2011 feature on mystery writers and their PI’s]
What first appealed to you about the PI as a heroine? Did you always envision Kate Shugak as a series character?
If I had been smart enough to see A Cold Day for Murder as the first in a series that would last 19 books and counting, I would never have killed off Abel, Kate’s mentor and the eminence grise of that novel. No, the first Kate Shugak novel was written more as a writing exercise, in between writing two science fiction novels. It was definitely the lazy woman’s way to write a book–it was set in my home state so little research required, it featured Aleuts (I was raised with Aleuts), and Kate was a woman because I’m a woman and it’s always easier to write in your own gender.
How were you influenced by earlier examples of PIs in crime fiction, both classic ones like Philip Marlowe and more recent (and more female) characters like V.I. Warshawski, Kinsey Millhone, and Anna Lee?
I was more influenced by Sherlock Holmes, whose stories I had about memorized by the time I was twelve. I am ashamed to say that I hadn’t read a lot of crime fiction until I started writing it, and then, look out! Beginning with Sharon McCone, the first woman PI who could take a punch, Kinsey, Vic, I inhaled them all. Later I even started reading Miss Marple and Miss Silver and Lord Peter because he was smart enough to fall for Harriet Vane, no mean sleuth herself.
Are there any drawbacks to writing about a character who exists, in a sense, between the civilian world and the world or law enforcement?
Rather the reverse. “Let’s face it, you never met a rule of evidence you liked,” as Chopper Jim once said to Kate Shugak. She can get away with much a sworn officer cannot. Very results oriented, Kate, and not one to worry about fruit of the poisonous tree if she can nail a perp who is hurting her Park rats.
Private eyes often have strong ties to the areas where they work. How do locations and settings help define Kate?
The Kate Shugak novels are as much about Alaska as they are about crime fiction. Alaska is one of the characters, it is omnipresent and all-influential, from the oilfields in Prudhoe Bay to the crab fishing grounds of the Aleutian Islands to the Quilak Mountains in the Park. But then all my novels are like that. I always start with a place, then I figure out who lives there, and then I see what kind of trouble they can get themselves into.
In P.D. James’s first Cordelia Gray novel, men scoff at the idea of women in the PI field, calling Gray’s chosen profession “an unsuitable job for a woman.” Do you think there are any inherent differences today between male and female PIs in crime fiction?
Would anyone but a fool dismiss Vic Warshawski or Clara Rinker because of their gender? Or Kate Shugak? Not unless they wanted their nuts handed to them on a platter.