Dave Justus is author of the first and many other games in the Lifeline series from Big Fish—including the eponymous original; Lifeline 2: Bloodline; Lifeline: Silent Night; and Lifeline: Halfway To Infinity—which have enjoyed nearly 7 million worldwide downloads to date. He is also the co-writer, with Lilah Sturges, of the comic books Everafter: From The Pages Of Fables; Public Relations; Fables: The Wolf Among Us; and more.
Lifeline games are games, but they're also novels. Part of the growing "interactive fiction" genre, the games are entirely text-based, with the reader making choices throughout. It goes like this: A stranded astronaut contacts you, asking for help in the form of a person to talk to as well as ask for advice. Sort of like if "The Martian" were a game instead of a movie, and you got to talk to Mark Watney the entire time he's stranded on Mars.
Lisa: How did you get involved in writing the Lifeline series? Did you have any background in the game industry? What was the genesis for the first game?
Dave: I came to Lifeline in a sort of roundabout way. The original game was being developed by Three Minute Games, a tiny three-man skunkworks within Big Fish. They'd had some minor successes, but they'd come up with the concept for Lifeline and wanted its release to coincide with the release of the Apple Watch. They offered the job to my friend Daryl Gregory -- who is one of the best writers I've ever read, and I thought as much before I ever met him -- but he was too booked to do it, so he very kindly suggested me for the position. Three Minute took a chance on me (I'd barely been published at that point), and gave me tremendous freedom under a very tight deadline. They knew they wanted about three days of gameplay, a sci-fi story with a nongendered protagonist in a "choose your own adventure" style, and they needed it in five weeks. Beyond that, I was free to do whatever I wanted... which was both amazing and daunting.
I had no background in games whatsoever, but I honestly think, in this case, that worked to my advantage. I'd been an avid NES gamer in my childhood, had spent plenty of time with Infocom games like Hitchhiker's Guide (whose DNA you can certainly see in Lifeline), and had played several Playstation games growing up, but the last one I'd really sunk any amount of time into was Tomb Raider 2, back in college. Once I graduated, I had very little "mad money," and I chose to apply that to comics (which I've been collecting since I was eight) rather than video games. But in the case of Lifeline, I think it worked out very well, because I wrote the game purely as a conversation. I wasn't thinking in terms of "power-ups" or acquiring weapons or typical video game structures; rather, I wanted it to feel as much as possible like the Player was receiving texts from a real human being. And the feedback we've gotten has largely indicated that that's exactly what people feel when they're playing: They're not controlling a sprite, they're talking to an actual person.
Lisa: How much text is in these games? As much as a typical novel, say 80,000 words, at least? Or far fewer? Also, you say they wanted three days of play, but I note there are breaks when Taylor is busy. What's the breakout between "idle" time and actual play? How did you figure out how long the breaks should be? What's the longest? The shortest?
Dave: The first Lifeline game is a little over 50,000 words -- more in the range of a novella, or possibly a YA novel. Because of the way I ended up structuring the game (in that I didn't really know what I was doing and wanted to give people the most bang for their buck), a Player who makes it to the end of the game alive will actually have seen the bulk of the game's text. Hopefully no passages that contradict any others, obviously... but I wanted to put as much info as possible on the screen.
Lifeline 2: Bloodline had almost twice as many words. It was very freeing for me, because I felt like I could go into so much more depth on Arika's character, her world, and her quests... but it was a lot to ask of the team on the other end, specifically in terms of translation to other languages. For subsequent games, we've looked for a happy medium in terms of word count: not so much that it causes panic attacks at the Big Fish offices, but enough that the authors can stretch their legs a bit and the Players can, we hope, feel satisfied with the end result.
The "idle" time was essential to Three Minute's concept of a real-time conversation; it takes time for the characters to walk to a new location, or to eat a meal, or to rest for a bit. The first "long" break in the original Lifeline comes when Taylor sleeps on the first night -- the Player must give Taylor some information that creates a life-or-death scenario overnight, and we wanted Players to be tense, anxious to see whether their advice had been Taylor's doom or salvation. I believe that the longest break is six hours (for a character to sleep); delays can be as short as a couple of seconds, if we want to employ them to help with the timing of a joke or something. I originally feared that the breaks would be a turn-off to Players, that no one would want to wait an hour while Taylor walked around a crater. And indeed, after one death, the games give you the option to switch off the "real-time" mode and play with no delays whatsoever. But what we found was that, overwhelmingly, the majority of Players chose to switch back to "real-time" after trying "fast" mode. The preference for the delays is considerable.
Lisa: Let me return to what you said about wanting players to feel as if they're talking to an actual person instead of "controlling a sprite," and how your lack of game-industry experience felt like an advantage to you. This might rankle seasoned game writers and narrative designers, since we're quite serious about our craft and its tradition beyond power-ups and what's "typical." Have you since become part of the game-writing community, instead of a sort of self-described outsider? Or do you still see yourself that way? I'm asking because text adventures in particular have a history and set of best practices that predate what we think of as video games today.
Dave: Please believe me when I say that the last thing I intended here was to cause offense. When I say "typical" structures, I only meant the things that I, personally, thought of as aspects common to NES and arcade games, based on my own history with them. As I mentioned, I'd also played many text games back on my old Apple IIe, and I was primarily drawing from my (admittedly fairly hazy) memories of those while trying to construct Lifeline.
I would definitely still consider myself an outsider when it comes to game writing. I'm in Texas -- nowhere near Big Fish or Three Minute, out on the West Coast -- and I don't wind up getting to attend all the expos and conventions with them. I would be very interested if you could point me to resources for the best practices that you mention -- I perpetually feel like I sort of stumbled into success with Lifeline, and I keep waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, "We know you're just faking it. It's time for you to leave." That day is going to suck.
Lisa: Great answer ;). I'll send you some links later on so you can join the game-writing party! Next question: Older players or those younger who've discovered the series anew might compare Lifeline to the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which were first popular in the 80s (I was a huge fan). Were those an inspiration for you?
Dave: They absolutely were. I was a voracious reader as a child -- the sort who would read the back of cereal boxes, just because they had words on them. My parents and grandparents, much to their credit, always indulged this behavior, so I had shelves and shelves of books, including probably two dozen or so Choose Your Own Adventure titles. The one that stands out in my mind, to this day, is Inside UFO 54-40, credited to Edward Packard -- it was a terrifying science fiction story, bleak to the point of nihilism, in which all paths led to defeat, and the best ending could never actually be reached. And it blew my tiny mind. It was the bridge between kids' books and adult literature for me. Once that book had broken me, I could not have cared less about Beezus and Ramona; I was ready for the Overlook Hotel and moon monoliths and Nadsat.
Lisa: I first came across your work back when I was with Big Fish, as manager of the narrative design team. How did the relationship between Big Fish and 3-Minute Games come about, in as much as you can share with readers?
Dave: I'm probably not the best person to answer this one. My understanding is that Three Minute were operating as a skunkworks under the auspices of Big Fish, coming up with all sorts of games like Feed Your Monster and Poll Party. Basically, they were testing different styles of games, different pay structures, seeing which combinations worked best. They had the idea for Lifeline -- from its style to its pay structure to its length, everything came from them. They had done the work in order to make the determination that this was the best admixture of elements... and they got it very, very right. How much I contributed to that, it's hard to say; they had laid the groundwork for me so well, all I had to do was step in and not completely fall on my face. I'm grateful every day that they set me up to succeed, and I'm happy that I was able to deliver something that achieved what they were hoping for.
Lisa: Let's talk about the structure for a Lifeline game. Branching choices can quickly lead to a very complex structure unless you create small branches that loop back to a main narrative, and/or employ the use of stats to track choices. How do you plot out the varying narratives in Lifeline?
Dave: The "complex structure" that you mention is something I ran into very quickly when I was working on the first Lifeline. Even when you only provide binary choices -- which, so far, is all we've done -- those branches can quickly grow out of control as each one doubles, then doubles again, until from a single node you've created a mountain. I had to train myself to weave the elements back together, to keep things from ballooning out of control. When I took on the original assignment, I thought, "Oh, this will be just like writing a short story." But it's not; it's like writing thousands of very, very short stories, of a few sentences each. It took me a painfully long time to make that distinction, but once I did, I was able to realize where I'd gone wrong, and start to plot out "nodes" where the threads were drawn back together. That made my work so, so much easier.
I'm not a coder by nature. I use Twine as the basis for these games (and then a lot of proprietary processes happen afterward, most of which are beyond my comprehension), and in that program I do my best to branch and reconnect smoothly. It's a tremendously useful GUI for people like me, people who need their hand held throughout the process. No matter how carefully I've plotted things in advance, every Lifeline game has led me in unexpected directions; the story that wants to be told is, without exception, better and more interesting than the story I lay out at the beginning. I trust those feelings, trust that when Taylor or Arika or whomever pulls the narrative in an unintended direction, that I'm getting a real sense of what the story should be, instead of forcing it down avenues that aren't true to the characters. (This, by the way, is a fantastic way to drive the rest of the development team insane.)
Lisa: What's an example of a node? Also, did those driving the process have a sense of what came before so you weren't all reinventing the wheel? What you're describing here reminds me of the awesome discussion over at Choice of Games, where they do a great job of teaching newbies how to avoid this kind of ballooning while preserving the need for meaningful choices.
Dave: I think of nodes as "have-to" moments in the game. If, say, by the end of a day, Arika has to learn a certain piece of info, encounter a certain prop, have an opportunity to eat, and fight a specific foe, then I have four nodes for that day. If she can't move on without acquiring an object or having a conversation, then I know that, no matter how wildly things balloon, all roads must lead back to a single point. The order in which they're encountered may or may not matter, but generally speaking, these are the crucial passages; the Player's decisions upon hitting these nodes will have a major effect on what follows in the game.
Lisa: How many different endings could players get in a typical Lifeline game? How do you make sure those endings make sense for the previous choices made in the game?
Dave: Generally, there are a few deaths along the way. These are paths where the Player has made an egregious mistake, or else has willfully decided not to aid the protagonist. Those are, of course, the "bad" endings -- no one should be proud of killing their hero. Then there are the "good" endings, where the Player has done most things right, and has achieved an ending that is satisfactory, although not the best one could hope for. The hope is that the Player will feel good about these... but will still have a nagging sense that they should return to the game, and work for the best possible ending. And we'll tell you when you've achieved that; we want Players to know when they've gotten all the items, or defeated all the villains, or done the best they can. I write stories with Pyrrhic victories, sometimes -- blame Inside UFO 54-40 -- but there's always a "best" ending, and that's the canon ending that leads to the next game in the series.
Lisa: Does this ever backfire? It strikes me as different than most casual gameplay, where player character deaths are generally avoided. Do you lose some players by opting for Pyrrhic victories?
Dave: I had that fear at the outset, but to the relief of all of us, the Player reactions to character deaths seem to be a deepening of involvement, not an abandoning of the game. It seems to largely be the case that, if a Player loses Taylor by pushing the character too hard or by supplying incorrect information, there's generally a sense of culpability in the death that makes the Player want to try harder the next time. I've seen dozens, maybe hundreds, of people on social media expressing genuine grief and sadness over character deaths in the Lifeline games.
Lisa: (This last one's for my stepson, who loved the first game when it went viral at his high school a few years ago.) You set up Taylor as a gender-neutral character, an interesting choice. Can you talk about your reasons for that? My stepson notes that most of his classmates assumed Taylor was either female (most of the women did this) or split evenly between male or female (mostly guys).
Dave: The gender-neutrality of Taylor's character came from Three Minute Games, but I thought it was a fantastic idea. At that time, it was easier than I thought it would be to write such a character -- when gender signifiers are removed, you realize how similar a kick-ass male and female protagonist actually are. It's grown increasingly difficult, as Halfway To Infinity introduces a doppelgänger Taylor, to keep the pronouns correct -- but I'm happy to face down that challenge. Seeing so much fan art for the character has made me realize just how much room we've left for interpretation. I don't consider that there's a "right" answer at all. People who know me have told me that they see a lot of me in Taylor... but for every argument for "male," I see another one, just as convincing, for "female." I love that I don't have a definitive answer. I hope that I never do. I hope that I can continue to write a character that resonates with everyone who reads it.
You can download the game to your favorite device. See the Big Fish Lifeline page for more info.
This week on the blog I've interviewed Monika Younger. Monika designed the book covers for all three of the Dreamslippers Series novels and the poetry collection Broom of Anger. She's a joy to work with, and I've loved every single one of her designs. A professional book-cover designer with more than ten years of experience designing for the major North American publisher Harlequin, she also designs covers for indie authors.
Lisa: You've designed covers for Harlequin, including their mystery line. How did you get started with that, and what's it like to design for that publisher in particular? Also, please share one of your favorite cover designs for Harlequin.
Monika: The mystery line I design for is called Worldwide Mystery. Worldwide Mystery is an imprint owned by Harlequin (now Harlequin/Harper Collins). I started with the publisher in 2003 when I was hired as a full-time designer in their art department. I worked for Harlequin in-house for two years designing covers for their series books (Harlequin Romance, Harlequin Presents, Intrigue, etc.) and single-title books (MIRA, HQN). In 2005 I started freelancing and retained Harlequin as my client. I work with several art directors there, and they are all amazing people to work with. Freelancing work with Harlequin is now mainly focused on Carina Press (their digital line, which covers several genres) and Worldwide Mystery.
One of my favorite recent mysteries (which I designed) is Brooklyn Bones. For this title, I was given more flexibility to experiment with a new look for the author. It was a fun project to work on, which took me away from the usual photographic style.
Lisa: Tell me how you approach working with authors. You send us a questionnaire before you begin designing our covers. Why is that an important step?
Monika: To represent a story meaningfully and accurately on the cover, I need to be very familiar with it. And since I cannot read all the books I design covers for (I would be reading more than designing), I have to get as much information from the author as possible--a summary of the novel, character descriptions, setting descriptions, important visual elements, themes and meanings, etc. All this helps me to figure out what is the best approach for the cover design. Once I get as much information as I feel I need, I come up with two or three cover layout options to present to the author. Usually one of the selections is approved with or without further revisions. After the front cover is approved, I design the back cover and spine to complete the book jacket.
Lisa: I get compliments on the covers you designed for the Dreamslippers Series all the time. What was your goal in designing these covers? Do you have a favorite of the three? Or is Broom of Anger your favorite? How was that project different for you?
Monika: Thank you. I think Bound to the Truth is my favorite. The symbolism on that cover is very powerful to me. I absolutely love it.
Broom of Anger was one of my all-time favorite projects. It was my first non-fiction (poetry) cover, and I had a lot of fun with it. As you know, there were many versions considered before the final was selected, and they were all fun to do. I don’t know how else to describe it but “fun.” I enjoy designing covers--playing around with graphic elements, photography, typography--and having it all come together on the screen is sometimes still magic to me.
Lisa: What other work do you do? What's your background?
Monika: In the last couple of years, I have been focusing on book-cover design, as it is my favorite area of design, but my training/education is in graphic design, so I can design anything from business cards to billboards and logos. I studied Graphic Design at Conestoga College. Previous to Harlequin, I worked full-time for a greeting card company and a full-service marketing firm in Mississauga.
Lisa: What do you enjoy about book cover design? What makes it special?
Monika: Books/novels/stories are interesting, compelling, and inspiring--and the cover has to reflect those elements. I love coming up with ideas and answering the question, "How can this story be represented visually so it will compel the audience to select it/engage with it?" It's a fun puzzle to solve. I love combing through stock photography web sites, font web sites, dissecting and altering images in Photoshop--I enjoy everything about it.
Learn more about Monika Younger's work at www.youngerbookdesign.com.
The Dreamslippers Series Boxed Set + Bonus Story released in February. With this release, I decided to focus on an online, or "virtual" tour, since the boxed set is only available on ebook. I'm also happily slammed with game-writing projects this year and already had a commitment to speak at the Associated Writing Programs conference in D.C. around the date of the launch.
This time we included a giveaway, and 83 people signed up to win copies of all three novels in paperback, ebook, and audiobook, as well as the boxed set. Congrats to the winners!
The tour had three components: reviews, an interview, and spotlights.
While not all book bloggers assign star ratings to the books they review, several on this tour did, with three coming in with 5-star reviews. The first one, for Framed and Burning, book two in the series, came from Anteria Writes:
Each character sees their dreamslipping ability as something different. Mitch could care less, Cat sees it as a curse that gets people killed, and Grace sees and uses it as a gift. Cat is the great-niece of Mitch, granddaughter to Grace. She is, of course, the youngest and least experienced using the dreamslipping and has had the worst experience with her gift, blaming it for the death of her childhood sweetheart. Mitch and Grace are siblings. They’ve each made their way in life, using their talents, natural and supernatural. And those talents have brought good and bad things to each of them.
Along with success we find jealousy, loathing, contempt….Mitch has the idea that there is plenty of room in the world for all art. But humans are inherently competitive and greedy. So they try to take down Mitch in his prime, but he wins out, becoming a coveted artist. Thus, begins the journey to find an accidental killer.
The story is woven perfectly to tell each person’s story in that person’s personality. We have the seriousness in Cat’s narratives, the eccentricity and grounding in Grace’s, and the disjointed, emotional feel of Mitch.
The nominations and awards this book has received were well-deserved.
The second 5-star review came from The Book Adventures of Emily, which has hosted the series in the past:
Cat in the Flock is super awesome! There is so much mystery and suspense! I've posted spotlights of this series, and it always piqued my interest. The dreamslippers are so amazing; I can't describe how much they fascinate me. Cat McCormick is such a great main character. She isn't cliche or confusing; she gets straight to the point, and I love following her on this road of mystery. The overall writing style of Cat in the Flock is super straight forward and enjoyable! I can really see the care and effort Ms. Brunette put into this book, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.
Another reviewer, Book Fidelity, praised the book for the portrayal of recent college grad Cat McCormick as well:
Through some fantastic storytelling, we are plunged into this world of dreams and curiosity. Cat is wonderful and real in that she makes mistakes, but keeps moving forward. Also, the idea of detective work including psychic abilities is just plain awesome. I definitely recommend this book (and series) for fans of Kelley Armstrong, Patricia Brigs, and Karen Marie Moning.
The blogger at Rosepoint Publishing gave the book 4 out of 5 stars and acknowledged, "Guessing whodunit isn’t so difficult. It’s how the protagonist gets us there, the maturity of her dreamslipping powers, and the peripheral characters that adds to an overall enjoyable read."
The most exciting 5-star review came from J Bronder Reviews, who has now posted on all three books in the series. The blogger writes, "This is a great series and one that I strongly recommend. I loved all three books and can’t wait to see what happens next."
I was happy to meet a new book blogger on this tour in Reeca's Pieces. The name of her blog made me smile, and I shared this anecdote with her: Back in grad school when I was studying for my MFA in fiction, I used to write short "flash" fiction pieces that would appear in between the longer stories in my short story collection. My classmates called these "Lisa's Pieces."
Reeca asked great questions about the inspiration for the series, which is not one thing but many. Here's the first:
I read a lot of supernatural and psychic mysteries and interviewed four of Seattle’s top writers in the genre for Seattle Woman magazine. I was also a huge fan of the TV series Medium; I loved how psychic visions came to the protagonist in her dreams. I’ve always been an active dreamer and for many years suffered from PTSD-related nightmares, so dreams have held great significance for me.
Read the rest of the interview on Reeca's blog.
A huge thank you to Sage's Blog Tours for hosting and to the book bloggers who give generously of their time, effort, and opinion to tell their readers about the books they love.
Buy links and details for the Boxed Set + Bonus Story are here. If you've read every book in the series, please take the time to review the boxed set online. I could really use the reviews to get the boxed set in front of more readers. Thank you!
Also, for those of you who are fans of the series, I'd love to hear from you in the comments below. If I continue to write the series, what would you like to see? Tell me if there's a particular character you're most interested in, any questions you have, and so on. If you've read the bonus story in the boxed set, I'd be interested in knowing if you'd like to read a whole novel devoted to Amazing Grace's early years.
Book blogger Cheryl Macciarelli chose me as Author of the Month for March, and as part of that, she published the below interview. I'm sharing it here on the blog so visitors and subscribers don't miss it in the frenzy of social media updates this month, as we're also running a Partners in Crime Tour. I love good questions, and "CMash" didn't disappoint.
Do you draw from personal experiences and/or current events?
Yes, all of the above. But I wouldn’t call my books autobiographical. It’s surprising to me that I have to explain this, but I don’t actually have the ability to psychically pick up other people’s dreams. Still, this question comes up often when I read my work publicly!
What was the inspiration for this book?
This book was inspired in part by my rekindled love of genre fiction. Back in 2008, I interviewed top mystery writers for a Seattle Woman cover story. Reading their work reminded me of when I first fell in love with reading as a child, and that was genre fiction like Nancy Drew. Academia had beat this out of me, unfortunately, so it was wonderful to be drawn back to it as an adult. After all, being an adult means you’re allowed to read whatever you want! After the Seattle Woman cover story, by 2009, I’d joined the game industry as a writer full-time, and by 2011, I was working on the story design for primarily mystery games. That led to a pent-up need to create my own plot and characters, since a lot of game writing happens by committee.
Do you start with the conclusion and plot in reverse or start from the beginning and see where the story line brings you?
I plot the entire novel out in a very rough format, with questions and multiple possibilities noted, writing this in marker directly on my wall, which I’ve painted in whiteboard paint. Then I begin to write, and I give myself permission to explore questions, try different paths, and deviate when necessary. So I guess I’m a hybrid writer. Several times I didn’t know a character would appear and act that way in a scene until I was in the midst of writing it.
Your routine when writing? Any idiosyncrasies?
I don’t have a routine. I probably should, but I have to flex my novel-writing time around game-writing projects, and those have harder deadlines. The only thing I really need besides uninterrupted time and quiet is to make use of my laptop’s “wifi off” function, which is a lifesaver.
If you could co-author a book, who would that writer be?
To continue reading, here's the full interview at CMash Reads.
Also, you'll see lots of opportunities to win free books and gift certificates running until April 2. Throw your hat in the ring!
Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai, China. He is the author of the award-winning Inspector Chen series of mystery novels, Death of a Red Heroine (2000), A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), When Red Is Black (2004), A Case of Two Cities (2006), Red Mandarin Dress (2007), and The Mao Case (2009). He is also the author of two books of poetry translations, Treasury of Chinese Love Poems (2003) and Evoking T'ang (2007), and his own poetry collection, Lines Around China (2003). Qiu's books have sold over a million copies and have been published in twenty languages. He currently lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter.
Qui and I are old colleagues and friends. I served as a beta reader for his first novel before that was even a thing, and the two of us worked together teaching English at St. Louis Community College. During me recent trip to St. Louis, he told me about his interesting indie project, a poetry collection written in the voice of Inspector Chen, a character he's developed over the course of a multi-book series. Chen trained in poetry, and it informs his thoughts and is a compelling aspect of the series. But this is the first time the poems have been gathered into a collection.
Lisa: Poetry has been an integral part of your Inspector Chen series since the beginning. Why fuse these seemingly disparate genres—poetry and crime—into one?
Qui: To begin with, I love poetry, and I cannot but have my Inspector Chen love it, too. In an age with few people reading poetry, it's just my way of smuggling poetry into crime fiction. But it's also more than that; in classical Chinese novels, there're more poems than in my Inspector Chen novels, usually with a poem at the beginning of a chapter, and another at the end of it, and more with a new character being introduced. And I think it is justified for varying lyrical intensity in the narration--like the use of blank verse in a Shakespearean play, so it sort of carries on the Chinese tradition. But more importantly, at least so for myself, I want Inspector Chen to observe not only from a cop's perspective, but from a poet's as well. The two sometimes come into conflict, which may also make the character more complicated.
Lisa: That’s really fascinating; I didn’t realize Chinese novels integrate the poetic form so much. And yes, I enjoy the two sides of Chen’s brain, poet and inspector. Together they lead him to a sort of third way of doing things that seems to be a negotiation between the two. There’s a lush, philosophical quality to his thoughts that make his perspective such a pleasure. I’m curious: What have readers said about this unique poetry/mystery mashup? I know we’ve talked about the differences between readers in the U.S. vs. your foreign readers. Are those abroad more receptive to reading poetry with their plots?
Qui: I believe it’s something worth trying for a writer to write in the genre, but at the same time, to push the limit of it—if that’s what you call the unique poetry/mystery mashup. From what feedback I’ve gotten from my readers, I think they like it. Yes, we’ve talked about the differences between readers in the U.S. vs. readers elsewhere. For instance, Poems of Inspector Chen have been translated and published by my Italian and French publishers, and during my tour in France in October, one of the most rewarding experiences there was the discussion with 300 high school students in Lyon about that poetry collection, which they studied in class. But I want to add, readers here are also so enthusiastic about the poetry. During a recent conference sponsored by the Ahmanson family in L.A., for instance, the host offered the poetry collection to everybody attending the conference. A very large audience indeed. It’s just her way of supporting poetry and Inspector Chen, which I understand and appreciate.
Lisa: With your background in literary poetry and fiction, what drew you to the detective genre in the first place?
Qui: I've always loved crime fiction. But the way I started writing in the genre was accidental. In the mid-nineties, I went back to China for a visit after staying in the States for seven or eight years. I was so impressed by the changes taking place there that I wanted to try my hand on a novel about the society in transition, but I had not written fiction before, so I had a hard time putting things together. Then the knowledge of the crime fiction genre came to my rescue, so to speak. I reshuffled the contents, and used the genre as a ready-made framework for what I wanted to say. In fact, when I submitted the manuscript for Death of a Red Heroine to my publisher, I was not even that sure it was a real crime novel. But my publisher liked it and wanted me to expand it into a series. So here I am, with book number ten of the Inspector Chen series coming out in French in September. But because of the accidental entry, you may still notice the sociological traces in all these books.
Lisa: Wonderful—that explains so much. It’s interesting to hear you say your original plan was to write about society in transition. You weave this into the plots well, or rather, you deftly use plot as a vehicle for immersing your reader in that transitional society fully. It’s one of my favorite aspects of the series. How has that waxed and waned over the course of the series? You say now with ten there are still traces…
Qui: With so much happening in contemporary Chinese society, I’m capable of putting each Inspector Chen investigation in a specific social, political, cultural backdrop, in which the crime and the investigation are directly or indirectly commenting on it, and also commented on by the society in transition. For instances, Death of a Red Heroine against the backdrop of the split personality imposed on individuals living under an authoritarian regime, Red Mandarin Dress against that of the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake against that of China’s ecological crisis, Enigma of China against that of governmental cyber control, and Shanghai Redemption against that of uncontrollable corruption under the one-party system… And with so much still happening there, Inspector Chen has a long way to go with a sociological perspective. After Becoming Inspector Chen, the manuscript I’m working on also has such a background focus on the lack of an independent legal system in China.
Lisa: Let’s talk about your latest book, a collection of Inspector Chen’s poetry in one volume. It’s a brilliant, yet curious choice. Are there other models for what you’ve done, taking a fictional character and making him the “author” of a book of poetry? What made you decide to do this now?
Qui: For myself, it’s not exactly a curious choice. I don’t think I had any models in mind while compiling the collection, but I benefitted from the “mask” theory elaborated by Yeats. According to him, a poet could speak behind the mask of a character. And I found the experience truly liberating, for I could suddenly write about things familiar, relevant to the inspector, but not necessarily to me. It’s also experimental in exploration of the reversible interrelationship among the creating and the created in the process of fiction writing.
Lisa: I’m also intrigued by your decision to self-publish this book of poetry. What has been your experience so far, as someone whose work has always been traditionally published—first with SoHo Press and now with St. Martin’s—stepping out into the wilds of publishing on your own?
Qui: The Poems of Inspector Chen was published traditionally in France and Italy. But I’m quite aware of today’s difficult poetry market. For me, it’s a labor of love, but not necessarily so for every publisher, which I understand. About a year ago, I happened to talk to a friend about it, and he helped the project greatly with his expertise in the field of self-publishing. It’s really to his credit that the poetry collection came out here like that.
Check out Qui Xiaolong's web site for book links and more.
Robert Dugoni is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon bestselling author of the Tracy Crosswhite Series: My Sister's Grave, Her Final Breath, and A Clearing in the Woods. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed David Sloane series: The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One, and The Conviction. Dugoni has twice been nominated for the Harper Lee Award for Legal Fiction, was a 2015 International Thriller Writer's finalist for thriller of the year, and the 2015 winner of the Nancy Pearl Award for Fiction.
After I accosted approached him at a recent PNWA conference, he agreed to participate in this back-and-forth interview, which unfolded over several weeks, suspended briefly as we both took vacations. A fan of his Tracy Crosswhite series, I'm thrilled to bring Dugoni to my readers.
Lisa: I just finished reading My Sister’s Grave, and wow. You took a tremendous risk with your twist at the end. What compelled you to go that route? At what point in your process did you know that’s how it would end?
Bob: With this book I knew at the beginning. I really was playing with an old legal maxim which is at the start of the novel. I wanted to point out that a maxim is never 100 percent accurate. There’s a key moment in the book, after the reveal, where this is spelled out.
Lisa: The legal maxim first appears in the quote you use to open the book, right? From Sir William Blackstone, “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Tracy Crosswhite upholds this maxim, though, not to stop the suffering of an innocent man but out of a driven quest to find the truth. You portray her sharp instincts so well—that scientific truth-seeking is my favorite aspect of her character. Do you think of her as the hero of the novel? Or is someone else? I don’t want to give the ending away, but she has a counterpoint in the story, like yin and yang. Are there two heroes in your mind?
Bob: No, I really see her as the hero. She’s lived with this case for 10 years and had the courage to follow through on it when most others would have given up. She’s heroic in many ways.
Lisa: Fair enough. Another risky aspect is writing in a different gender than your own. Tell me about the challenges of pulling this off.
Bob: First, I decided not to try to write from the perspective of a woman. I thought that would be a huge mistake. Instead, I wrote from the perspective of a person who has been wounded, trying to survive, day to day, with that wound. That’s a universal existence not dependent on gender. On the other hand, I have four sisters and a strong-willed mother. I’ve worked in a profession with a lot of strong-willed female attorneys. I tried to draw from those experiences.
Lisa: What tipped you over to creating Tracy? She’s pretty badass all the way through, so kudos to you for the portrayal. At what point did you move from “that would be a huge mistake” to “this is the way I have to write this story”?
Bob: I never worried that it would be a mistake. Years ago I wrote the story Damage Control with the protagonist Dana Hill. I did the same thing. I never tried to write like a woman, just a person going through a difficult time in their life. Men and women are not the same, I recognize that, but I think in many ways we’re similar when it comes to the basic things in life we want and how hard we will fight to achieve those things.
Lisa: You mention in the acknowledgments section conversations with two researchers who gave you insights into the minds of sociopaths and psychopaths, but I note that your general idea for the novel preceded these conversations. Where did the idea come from, initially? Did knowing you were going to use that twist to show the maxim isn’t absolute mean you had in mind there would be a psychopath in the book from the beginning?
Bob: Actually, Tracy Crosswhite is a character in Murder One, a David Sloane novel. She has a very small part. When I was deciding to start a new series, I went through my old novels searching for a new lead character. She was really an unlikely choice, but she made me curious. I wanted to find out more about who she was and how she went from being a high school chemistry teacher to a homicide cop. I know that sounds odd, since I created her, but I really had to stop and explore who she was at her core. I do a lot of research, and it often comes up in a different book than intended, or in more than one book. Unlike some books, I knew in this book I wanted a psychopath because of the nature of the crime and the location and setting.
Lisa: I enjoyed the town as a sort of character in its own right in the story. Why is that important, both in terms of and separate from Sarah’s murder?
Bob: Because of what the police told me about a murder. They said a murder is rarely about one person. A murder impacts an entire family. When I mentioned she lived in a small town, they said the murder would impact the entire town. Everyone would know Sarah, and everyone would live life a bit differently after she disappeared. It’s a scary thought.
Lisa: What are your future plans for Tracy Crosswhite? How long will you keep the series going?
Bob: I’m just going to follow ideas that come to me. I’ll write Tracy stories until I feel as though I’ve exhausted her and I’m no longer excited to get up in the morning and continue on with her journey. I’ve written four, and I’m a long way into book five. I really enjoy the people I’ve created to surrounded Tracy and my intent is to explore each of them.
Check out Robert Dugoni's web site for videos, book links, and more.