So back during the ferret discussion amid the plagiarism discussion, I got into an email discussion with Lori Armstrong , native South Dakotan, award-winning mystery author, and keeper of some good cover juju the likes of which I haven’t seen since PC Cast. Seriously, Armstrong’s covers? Creeptastic, and appropriate for her genre. They give me the jibblies like damn.
I’m fascinated by authors who base much of their writing in their home states, especially when the state is one that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention on an individual level, and I’m fascinated by the sparsely-populated but increasing numbers of the female private investigator protagonists in fiction that isn’t paranormal-based. So I asked Lori a bunch of questions about South Dakota, bikers, guns, detectives and writing, and she was kind enough to answer them. I’m nosy, really, and I should probably work on that flaw.
Lately, states attract attention because of political scheduling of primaries, and while there’s attention paid to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, not a great deal of focus is paid to the Dakotas…
(editorial insert by Lori —see? We’re still referred to as “The Dakotasâ€ and North and South Dakota have been separate states since 1889)
Most people think of South Dakota as a barren wasteland full of barren wastelands, or one of the five “red stripe down the middle” states during election years. Set me straight – tell me about South Dakota – the best part about being relatively ignored by the rest of the country, and the worst part of the same.
Lori: Politically, yes, we are a red state, with three measly electoral votes so we don’t get any of the campaign stumping, which isn’t all bad. I think it’s easy to confuse “red stateâ€ with being a “redneck stateâ€ and it is not the same thing. We’re very independent voters out here. All the political party line bullshit aside, we continually elected Tom Daschle (at one time the senate minority leader) as our senator, and other democrats (2 of our 3 reps in congress are democrats) not because of party affiliation, but because of what he or they could do for our state.
As far as living in flyover country, beef country, the breadbasket of the word…the best part is the wide open spaces and geographical diversity. I see beauty in the rugged unpopulated country where there isn’t a store or town for 40 miles, and in the rolling plains where you can see for 50 miles, and in the mountains, and in the starkness of the Badlands, whereas folks from metro areas see…nothing. Or so they gleefully tell me. “How can you live there? There’s nothing to do!â€
At one conference recently, a woman saw my name tag and said very condescendingly, “You’re from South Dakota? Oh, I’m sorry.â€ How do you counter that attitude? You don’t. While I admit I would’ve liked to punch her right in her botoxed mouth, (yeah, I know, how redneck), I refrained because secretly I felt a little smug; I knew she wasn’t tough enough to live here for a day, let alone 100+ years.
I’m 4th generation South Dakotan on both sides of my family. My great-grandparents and grandparents and parents have lived through years and years of drought. Dealing with blizzards which kill cattle and family members, worried about fires and floods and hailstorms that wipe out entire crops and an entire year’s wages. Why? Because we’re tied to the land and this way of life people who’ve never lived it can never understand. That’s what I try to get across in my books; the splendor and the horror of living in rural America, even if you’re not involved in agriculture, as many of us here aren’t, you are surviving and thriving in the modern day Wild West. I understand the next generation’s need to escape, and as you get older, the desire to never leave here. The mixture of the people who stick it out here, year after year, with low wages, limited choices in everything from transportation to jobs to healthcare to politics, the warring between the â€˜old ways’ and the â€˜new ways’ of changes not only in agriculture and business, but in dealing with racial prejudices, continued sexism, and the bias from outsiders who think ruralism = idiocy.
In the announcement for your book deal (congratulations!) it was mentioned you’re a former firearms professional. What in the world does that mean? You sold guns? Fixed them? Worked for the NRA? Did you twirl a pistol and jam it artfully into your tooled leather holster?
Lori: Have you been peeking in my windows, SB Sarah? What did you think of the metallic tassels on the bottom of the holster and the matching fringe on the chaps? Seriously, my husband, brother-in-law and sister-in-law own a firearms business, primarily manufacturing commemorative firearms. If you see gold-plated rifles or pistols or shotguns with intricate artwork, like the image of John Wayne, or state centennials, or fundraising guns for Pheasants Forever, chances are damn good it was created by their company, located right here in Rapid City. I worked in the family business for 10+ years as a bookkeeper, which meant in addition to the financial end of things, I logged in gun inventory purchases and dealt with some of the rigid regulations passed down by the BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) for businesses with an FFL (Federal Firearms License). I never assembled or disassembled the various types of gunsâ€”that’s left to the gunsmiths and I stayed out of the sales end of it.
Which is your preferred gun?
Lori: I have a Walther P-22 (considered a â€˜plinker’ by folks who like more firepower) and we have a Remington 870 shotgun. I’ve shot a variety of guns, and always thought I’d be the 9mm Glock kinda chick, but the ones I’ve tried don’t fit my hand very wellâ€” I’m not petiteâ€”and I’m not patient enough to dink around with different grips to get a good fit. My dream handgun was an H&K P7 — is very pricey, so I gave it to one of my characters in the Julie Collins series. I’ve had my eye on a sweet Sig Sauer, a Taurus Millennium Pro and a compact Kahr Arms pistol, but I haven’t ponied up the cash for either yet (Valentine’s Day is coming, hon! And you know what I want…) The cool thing is I can give my characters the guns I’d like to have, and I love doing hands on research messing with all different types of firearms.
Why do you think American culture in particular is so fascinated with firearms?
Lori: If you’ve never fired a gun, it is a heady experience, feeling that power in your hand. Out here, guns are tools; you have to have the right tool for the job, hence multiple guns, especially if you hunt. Then there’s the whole gun â€˜collector’ side of the equation, which I’m thankful for every day because it keeps a roof over the Armstrong’s heads. It’s funny, whenever my husband and I go someplace and people learn he owns a gun business? All the men bombard him with questions, want to talk shop, and it’s like he’s living their dream: being paid to be around guns. All. The. Time. And I will admit, it freakin’ rocks to have a gun expert at my fingertips whenever I need one. But I will also admit, since he is around guns 50+ hours per week, we don’t personally own a lot of firearms, which shocks a lot of people. They expect us to have an arsenal, wear camo and have NRA mudflaps on the truck.
Writing question time! When constructing a mystery, where do you start – with the solution working backwards? From the beginning, writing without a plan, aka by the seat of your pants? Or from another point of access altogether?
Lori: It’s a little bit of all of that pansterâ€”plotterâ€”then some heavy duty bargaining with the writing Gods. When I start, I know the main plot thread, who gets killed and why, who did it, and the 8 to 10 “blackâ€ moments. As far as the secondary plot threads, of which I usually have at least one, I sort of wing it and see where it goes. For me there’s already a bit of inherent knowledge when you’re writing a series character, so I’ve known up until the last Julie Collins book (SNOW BLIND, Oct. 08) where I’ve been headed with the series since the first book.
There have been big discussions in the mystery world the last few years of the demise of the purely plot driven mystery, meaning, where the characters are secondary to the discovery of â€˜whodunit.’ My books are first and foremost character driven; the plot has to evolve out of the characters reaction to the situation, whatever it may be. Even as much as I plotâ€”and I find I plot more, the more books I write – invariably things happen in the book I didn’t foresee. That’s the fun part, the magic part of writing and why I keep doing it. Oddly enough, I usually don’t have those AHA moments until I’m finished with the first crappy draft and I go back and start editingâ€”which used to be my least favorite part of the process, but now is my favorite part. Seems like I can’t actually figure out what the hell the story is about until I’m done writing it and maneuver it into what I envisioned in the first place.
In fiction, there are a lot more male PIs than female PIs, though the female superpowered superhero in romance, paranormal, Fantasy and Science Fiction is becoming much more common. Do you think more female PIs who aren’t superpowered will come along?
Lori: Honestly? No clue. I’m afraid that sub-genre of any of those genres will get a bit James Bondish, which for me was getting stale until Daniel Craig slipped into the role and shook it up again, and made Bond a real man, not a caricature of the perfect stud. Don’t get me wrong, I like reading about chicks with special gifts, the ability to kick ass, then, have sex for three days straight with a guy hung like a bull…and still be able to behead the bad guy one-handed, and save the world in an evening gown and heels.
Why do you think superpowered women are more common than plain old everyday human mortal badasses who have investigatory skills and a penchant for cussing?
Lori: Because it’s a fantasy, and every woman would like to see herself in that role. I don’t think it’s a coincidence women are drawn to those â€˜I can do everything, be everything’ types of books. My character, Julie, is a little over the top, as far as how many punches she can take without puking in the bar fights she gets into, the gruesome bodies she discovers and the umm…excessive drinking and smoking and sex, but she relies on her guts and her smarts, rather than a psychic insight or incredible physical strength. Sometimes she’s wrong. Sometimes she makes mistakes. It is her frailties and her hidden humanity, which we all have that fascinates me and wants me to peel back the layers to see what else she’s hidingâ€”not a sudden knowledge of weaponry she didn’t know she possessed, but what makes her so bristly and ready to do the right thing, even if it isn’t necessarily the legal thing. I will admit I take some hits from folks on the rough language in the books. I refuse to apologize because it is true to the character and that’s what matters to me. There is so much diversity with strong female characters it is a great time to be a reader.
Let me ask you a question about biker culture: I don’t know many people who can afford a Harley, with the price point they demand nowadays, and, granted I’m in the wrong part of the country to be asking this question, it seems I see a lot of people “dressing up” in biker style rather than actually participating in that culture. Do you think biker culture is going to die out? Or is it a relatively ignored but thriving subculture in the US that only demands attention when a whole lotta bikers gather in the same spot?
Lori: No. I believe there will always be fringe groups, who see themselves as modern day rebels who are mindful and prideful about not fitting in. I live 30 miles from Sturgis South Dakota, home of the infamous Sturgis Bike Rally, where half a MILLION bikers descend on us the first two weeks of August, every year without fail (remember, we have 750K in our entire state). So we have a very large â€˜real’ biker population of those people who’ve come here, found their niche and stayed permanently. I’ve watched the rally change over the years from a serious biker gatheringâ€”with deadly, big time, name recognizable biker clubs (don’t call them gangs, no seriously, don’t) fighting an all out turf war over the local drug trade, what â€˜colors’ are acceptable to fly, and ownership of strippers and strip clubs, and bike shopsâ€”to yuppies having their bikes “traileredâ€ in â€” meaning they don’t ride them across country, but have them shipped here, which signifies pussy in the real biker world. So there are a lot of poseurs in those two weeks. Mostly the doctors, lawyers, stock brokers and dot comers who can afford the hefty price tag Harley Davidson motorcycles come with these days, who grow their beards and their hair for a month before the rally starts so they think they look badass. They have new leathers and matching boots, and a fake attitude while they’re â€˜roughing it’ in a hotel. The real bikers, you know the mechanics, cooks, welders, and other blue collar workers who still drive the piece of shit bikes that break down all the time and actually exist in that shady life 24/7, they camp out and suffer through the weather because it’s what they know and all they can afford.
One year during the rally, when I was still waitressing, I waited on the vice president of the Hells Angels. I was nervous as shit, because he had on the vest, with all those patches, proclaiming who he was. He was an absolute dream customer. Counter that with a guy I’ll name Dick, a high-powered attorney from the east coast, who literally made me cry and redefined prick. Give me a real biker any day of the week. Purchasing a $50K bike, slapping on a bandana and piercing your ear before coming to Sturgis does not make one the real dealâ€”and usually these assholes want to prove how tough they are by being jerks to everyone around them.
It is interesting to watch them get their asses kicked. And no, I don’t feel sorry for them. Men and women who live that alternate lifestyle, officially as members of a particular biker club, are not people to mess around with. They are deadly. I use a fictional biker club in my books, but I do not sugar coat how ritualistic and barbaric some of the clubs behave toward each otherâ€”and women in particular.
Let’s see: you, and your heroine, are take-no-shit women who cuss a lot. (Obviously, I can’t understand that at all.) You are published with a newer publisher that “took a risk” with your books, and you’re both now reaping the benefits of that risk. Do you think established publishing houses will wake up to their missed opportunity and make the “risk” of a flawed but heroic female PI protagonist a more common entity? Or will new publishing houses continue to break molds and cause change from outside the established houses?
Lori: I have no earthly idea how things work, how decisions are arrived at in the publishing world. Medallion Press took a chance on me (the 16 yr old daughter of the CEO, Helen Rosburg pulled my submission out of the slush pile, read it, loved it and made her mother read my book, no shit) because my book was differentâ€”which is precisely why the NY pubs didn’t want it. And the series has gone on to be nominated for major awards in the mystery industryâ€”as well as winning a literary award. Who’da thunk it?
There’s been talk that the PI genre is dead, for a number of years, but I don’t see where that’s necessarily true either, but I do believe there are trends no one can predict no matter how long you’ve been in the business. It’ll be interesting for me, to go from being published as a mass market paperback original with an independent house, to hardcover with a big house when the first book in my new series comes out from Touchstone/Fireside (Simon and Schuster) in April of 2009. I guess maybe the smaller houses are taking bigger risks, because they have less people to answer to. Case in point: the Edgar nominations were recently announced and a couple of independent publishers —Bleak House, Akashic Books and Busted Flesh Pressâ€”all had nominated works, which I think bodes well for all the smaller presses in all genres. But I’m mighty glad Touchstone/Fireside is taking a chance on me and my style of storytelling.
Thanks to Lori for tolerating my nosy ass questions, and for some smart responses.