Ever meet someone, and with a few questions know you were destined to become friends? That's how I feel about fellow-author, Tina Whittle, to whom I was introduced a few weeks ago. We've chatted a bunch via email, and then she agreed to be interviewed, and when I got the answers back, I knew it was fate.
And then? Oh, and then I read her book. Blood, Ash & Bone released in March of this year, the third in her Tai Randolph mystery series, and let me tell you - it's awesome. Seriously, I couldn't put it down. Tai is a total bad-ass, and her boyfriend Trey is a trained killer with a helpless-puppy vibe that's irresistible. The story takes place in Savannah, a city I'm learning to love almost as much as Charleston, and the flavor of this sleepy southern town is palpable in the story. It's beautiful and alive, even though it's clear from the story Tina weaves Savannah has a much darker past.
I am not a huge mystery fan, by any means, but now I have to get all three Tai Randolph books and read them. Because I'm in love. No exaggeration.
Oh, and did I mention I get to hang out with Tina face-to-face this coming THURSDAY, APRIL 11, at Blue Bicycle Books here in Charleston? We're doing an author chat with my friend Jenny Milchman (more on her later this week!!!), and I hope to see you there!!
In the meantime, get to know Tina by reading our interview. I think you'll like her as much as I do!
LR: I love that we are opposites – you, a Southern girl, and me, a Yank. I saw, though, from the very first description of Blood, Ash and Bone (your newest Tai Randolph mystery), your book drips with history, which I also love. The Civil War, the Confederate Army, the past rising again. What makes you write the present with such an eye to the past?
TW: Like Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” In the South, ghosts mix with flesh-and-blood folks, visions with dreams. Stories get passed down like heirlooms. We each carry our pasts with us in the narratives that we tell about ourselves and others, and as a writer, I enjoy exploring the ways that our personal stories intersect with our cultural stories, our individual lives with history.
LR: What got
you started writing about Tai Randolph? How’d you discover what makes Tai so special to you?
TW: That girl has stuck with me — through a dozen rewrites, multiple versions of her backstory, her language, her job, her sex life. No matter what I’ve thrown at her plot-wise, she shows up, sleeves rolled to her elbows, grinning. I like her voice — whip-smart, mouthy at times, often laced with cuss words, but true to how she sees the world and the people in it. And I found her voice by letting her talk — if I buy her a beer, or pour her a cup of coffee, she’ll tell me everything I need to know, even if I don’t quite understand at the time. So I learned to trust her, and she seems to trust me back. So far, we get along very well.
LR: Atlanta is Tai’s home. I know the Georgia Lowcountry is yours. Have you ever lived in Atlanta? Do you go there a lot still to help you write local color?
TW: I have never lived up there — we’ve always been kissing cousins, Atlanta and I. But I was up there a lot in the late eighties (my then-boyfriend/now-husband went to Georgia Tech) and I developed an appreciation for this city that always a little too big for its britches. I visit often (I have friends and family in the area, plus I do several promo events up there when a new book comes out). The last time I went up there to write, I stayed in Midtown, in a hotel with a balcony, so I could literally soak up the sounds and smells and lights on the city as I wrote. But even when I can’t get up there, I read the online version on the Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine, and Creative Loafing. Most of the real local color never makes it into my books, however — my editor would never let me get away with Atlanta’s true weirdness. I can only include the tiniest taste.
LR: I have a brother who nitpicks everything I write from a “does this happen in real life.” It’s great for me, because I get the feedback pre-publication. He’s a firefighter with experience working with SWAT teams, so when I saw your books include SWAT, I wondered: how do you research to make sure people like my brother don’t email you a litany of “you got this wrong” complaints?
TW: Research takes a village — my particular village is an annual conference called Writers’ Police Academy (here’s a link if anyone’s interested in learning more — http://www.writerspoliceacademy.com). It’s a weekend of hands-on interactive workshops held at an actual law enforcement training facility taught by working police officers, federal agents, private investigators, forensic examiners, CSI technicians, firefighters, and EMTs. I’ve been twice, and during my classes I’ve gotten to watch a K9 drug search, shoot up bad guys in a firearms training simulator, suit up in tactical gear and stage a SWAT raid, search a crime scene, analyze blood spatter, ride in an ambulance with full screaming siren, participate in an interrogation, and — in one memorable afternoon — get slapped in handcuffs, which the training officer said I did “like a pro.” I still don’t know what he meant because I was afraid to ask.
Not only do I come away from this conference with tons of in-depth knowledge, I get to marinate for a while in the world of professional law enforcement — picking up their vocabulary, their experiences, their attitudes and understandings of a life I can never participate in because I’m on the civilian side of the thin blue line. Even more importantly, my respect grows for the women and men in these professions — the ones who show up for us on our worst days, who put their lives on the line for us over and over. The ones who run toward trouble instead of away from it. The heroes.
LR: You open Blood, Ash and Bone with a reluctant sparring match between Tai and her boyfriend Trey. I love their dynamic, from the very get-go. Both strong, powerful. She is teasing, taunting, and he wants only to protect her. How do you balance writing a strong, exciting woman, with a boyfriend who is clearly dominating in the sparring ring?
TW: He may dominate in the ring, but Tai dominates pretty much everywhere else. Because of Trey’s particular kind of brain damage (sustained in a car accident two years before the first book in the series) he prefers to hand off most emotional decisions and judgment calls to someone else. He’s still physically adept, but his emotions and thinking patterns are a little skewed. Tai knows how to talk rings around him, but he knows how to defend . . . and dig in his heels. It’s an intricate dance between these two, and not just on the sparring mat — each one has a particular armor, with its own particular chinks. Learning about each other makes their relationship stronger, but it also makes them better adversaries. Which — as Tai discovers in Blood, Ash, and Bone — can also be fun. As is the sharing of tender parts when the armor is finally removed.
LR: What brought you to mysteries in the first place? Why write all the murder and violence?
TW: I’ve always loved the puzzle aspect of mysteries, especially the so-called “play fair” ones, where the reader is provided with all the clues the detective has and could — theoretically — solve the crime before said detective. So there’s the mental challenge of the genre; as reading goes, it’s very active.
But there’s also the subject matter. Most mysteries feature a murder — sometimes gruesome, sometimes comical, but always there’s a corpse lying about. Why read about this? Why write about it?
Partially to make sense of it, I suppose. In our real lives, we are subjected to horrors on a daily basis, a lot of them senseless and brutal and not always met with justice at the end. Fiction provides a catharsis of sorts. Chaos is routed, order restored, evil doers punished and victims mourned. And then life goes on, as life always does. In my work, I focus less on the crime and more on the people it affects. The violence happens mostly off-screen because I’m more interested in the ripple effect these crimes exert on the lives of my characters. I’m more interested in the emotions of the survivors — grief, despair, anger, satisfaction — than the forensic details. I want to explore how people re-knit their lives in the aftermath, the before-and-after of a violent event. To me, there is something beautiful in that process. A hard-won grace.
LR: Were you a compulsive reader as a kid? If so, was there a particular character on whom you had a literary crush back then? (Mine’s Calvin O’Keefe from A Wrinkle in Time.)
TW: I think “compulsive childhood reader” is on every writer’s résumé. I was so obsessed that my second grade teacher took my reading textbook away from me and hid it on the top shelf of the supply closet. When I was nine, I discovered Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and didn’t look back (my first literary crush was Sherlock Holmes; still is, as a matter of fact, especially in his current incarnation by Benedict Cumberbatch).
LR: Favorites time!! Favorite book?
TW: I’m going to use the criteria of “book I’d take to a desert island if I could only have one” and that would be House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. You can read that book eleventy-zillion times and never figure it out. It’s a book about a movie that may or may not exist about a house that may or may not exist, but if it does exist, it is somehow bigger on the inside than on the outside. It’s terrifying (I had to hide the thing behind the sofa, literally, and I avoided closets for a loooong time after I finished it). It’s gorgeous. It’s heartbreaking. It’s profound. I can’t recommend it because it will mess you up. But should you wade in despite my dire pronouncements, just be warned— your brain will end up bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
LR: Favorite movie?
TW: The Princess Bride. I never get tired of that movie. I can quote it almost verbatim. I still cry everytime the grandfather says “As you wish” at the end.
LR: Favorite band/album?
TW: The self-titled second album by The Indigo Girls, the one with “Closer to Fine” on it. I come back to those lyrics over and over, finding something new again and again. I realize this makes me a cliché, but whatever. I am a proud, happy cliché.
To learn more about Tina, feel free to visit her web site, or drop her a line sometime.
And thanks, Tina, for stopping by this morning. Can't wait to see you Thursday!!!