Author Q & A
March 2008 

1- This is your first novel outside of the Eve Diamond series. What made you want to branch out and try your hand at Lily Kessler? 

I loved the idea of taking a female OSS spy and plopping her down in post-war Hollywood. After surviving World War II, Lily Kessler thinks finding a missing starlet in L.A. is going to be a cakewak. She quickly finds out that the city and its denizens are every bit at treacherous as the world she left behind. But the sun is shining and the birds of paradise and bougainvillea are blooming and everyone's well-dressed so it doesn't look dangerous. So that's one thing. Secondly, as an L.A. native, I've always been fascinated by the huge shadow cast by Hollywood and I'm also an absolute sucker for the 1940s—music, fashion, art, design, political crosscurrents and the criminal underworld that thrived hand in hand with the police. Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong era. When I learned about the real-life 1949 disappearance of a young starlet that was never solved, I knew I had the creative inspiration for my fictional tale. In many ways, 1940s Hollywood wasn't so different than today—the same desperate longing for success existed, the craving for power, sex, riches and influence. There was corruption and moral decay. People were not who they seemed. There was artifice and scheming. There were just fewer people and buildings, and more natural landscapes. I also think, oddly enough it was a hopeful time, this odd era of transition between World War II and the 1950s. That flies in the face of traditional noir, but then so does my book. 

2- There is an underlying feminist message in The Last Embrace. What do you hope some female readers will gain from "meeting" Lily Kessler? 

I think Lily was emblematic of her time, as are many of the other female characters in this book. They've tasted freedom and independence during the war, it's given them self-confidence, and now they're trying to navigate through an increasingly conservative post-war era that would like them to give up much of the freedoms they've learned to enjoy. I wanted to dramatize that conflict. I also love the dramatic possibilities inherent in a group of young women all living under one roof and trying to make it as Hollywood actresses. They're vying for stardom, for boyfriends, they're 'silky and competitive as cats' yet they also take the time to help each other. It's a very conflicted kind of friendship, but it seems very real to me, not sugar-coated. The last thing I'd like to say is that noir has traditionally been an overwhelmingly male genre where female characters are portrayed as sexpots and femme fatales. In The Last Embrace, I've tried to reimagine that macho male noir territory with a variety of female characters—starting with Lily Kessler—who are every bit as capable as the men, but without the swagger. Even though they're plunged into a very dark swirl of intrigue, there's a basic life-affirming optimism that prevails, a ray of light that pierces the cynicism and fatality that would triumph in traditional noir. 

3- In The Last Embrace the narrative point of view shifts among many of the characters. Why did you choose to tell the story this way? 

My Eve Diamond series is narrated in first-person and I wanted to try something new after five books. I also felt that it suited this narrative better. It's more cinematic, which is how I envisioned the action in my head as I was writing the book. The story unfolds kaleidoscopically, and everyone perceives a different reality. It's only at the end that all the characters and strands come together. 

4- How did your years as a journalist help you prepare to write mystery fiction? Is Vile Violet based on anyone you really came into contact with while you were a reporter? 

Journalism taught me how to write in a fluid, narrative style, meet deadlines and sidestep writer's block (you acknowledge you have no idea what happens next, then put one word in front of another until you have a sentence, then another, and somehow it all catches fire again after a few pages). Journalism honed my sense of wonder about stories and people, it helped me listen for accents and marvel at the way people speak. It brought me into contact with criminals and cops and victims and survivors and con-men and saints and everybody in between. Violet McCree is entirely fictional, and yet her personality weaves bits and pieces of many people I have known, not all of them journalists. 

5- As a Los Angeles native you are in a unique position to imagine your hometown 60 years ago. What parts of the backdrop of the novel come from your own experiences in California, and what is the product of research? 

So much of old Los Angeles is gone now, razed to build hi-rises and shopping malls, but you can still catch glimpses of an older, more genteel city in certain streets and alleys, in some residential neighborhoods, in hotels and watering holes where old ghosts still hide out. As a journalist I interviewed a lot of people on the fringes of old Hollywood. They're still around, but they dwindle with each passing year. To research the era, I read lots of oral histories of people who grew up in Hollywood, plus biographies, memoirs and histories. When I'd meet someone who remembered that era firsthand, I'd badger them for details and recollections. My own mother came to Hollywood (from France) in 1949 and told me stories about riding the Red Car home at night and studying English at Hollywood High. It was a smaller, more friendly place, and you'd run into movie stars doing their grocery shopping or walking down the street. People talked about hearing Steve Allen perform his radio monologues, watching Sinatra record, helping Montgomery Clift learn his lines at a coffee shop. I tried to convey that small town feel, the serendipity, but the book is really a melange of all my experiences and research, it's hard to separate it out. 

6- You dedicate your book to Ray Harryhausen. Did he act as inspiration for the Max Vranizan character in any way other than his career choices? What was your reasoning behind the dedication to him? 

I knew from early on that I wanted to have a character who could epitomize the Hollywood 'backlot,' the magic that goes on behind the scenes to create the illusions that we all love about the movies. The more I learned about Harryhausen and his mentor Willis O'Brien, the more I realized that it was basically these two guys and their brilliant obsession that created the entire industry. So they were towering giants to me. I hadn't even seen this part of Hollywood examined in fiction, but I thought it was perfect for this novel. A very different twist on the tortured eccentric artist. 

7-What can your devoted readers expect next from you? Are you working on anything currently? 

I hope to revisit Eve Diamond soon, and I'm also working on another standalone, a thriller set in contemporary Los Angeles. In my spare time, I'm also writing an alternate reality novel set in Los Angeles that is quite different from anything I've ever explored before. I have no idea where it's going but it's a cool outlet for my more outlandish ideas.