I'd read a few of Mark Troy's Val Lyon stories and found out he had a cool new female character now, Ava Rome. Time to get the lowdown on that I figured...
Q: What makes Ava Rome different from other hardboiled characters?
Ava believes in the Hawaiian law of the Splintered Paddle. It was the first law of Kamehameha the Great who united the Islands. The name of the law addresses an incident in his life, which might be apocryphal, but the essence of the law is that the defenseless will be protected from harm. It is no longer a statute in the state, but it is deeply ingrained in the culture of the Islands and deeply ingrained in Ava. The law does not require innocence, but merely defenselessness, and neither does Ava. She will protect anyone who is defenseless, even if this puts her in opposition with the police.
Q: How did you come up with the character?
I had a series with another character, Val Lyon, who, I would characterize as medium boiled. I wanted a harder character and seized on the guiding philosophy of protecting the defenseless as a way to do that. Creating a new character allowed me to develop a new backstory that is more consistent with her actions. Ava is a former MP/CID agent so she has the skills necessary to stand up to very powerful opponents. The military experience is also the source of some of the dents in her psyche. The deepest dent, however, was her failure to protect her brother when she was a teen-ager. That failure was what caused her to adopt the splintered paddle philosophy.
Q: What are your thoughts on the whole eBook revolution?
I like ebooks and the experience of reading them. I have a lot of ebooks on my iPad. So does my wife. Between us we have a huge library on our devices. We also have a huge library of print books, which require a different level of interaction than ebooks. Print books need to be shelved and displayed. Although I like ebooks for their compactness, for their potential to expand the reading experience with interactive elements, and for the instant gratification you can get from buying in online stores, the lack of a way to display them is a drawback. The books a person owns tell something about them. When you walk into a person's home and see books, you know that these people are living on a different plane than people in homes without books. The books a person displays in their home or when they are out in public give you an entre into interacting with them.
This lack of display is also a problem for discovering new authors. Physical bookstores, in my opinion, are more egalitarian than online stores. In a bookstore, the books by new authors or lesser-known authors are shelved side-by-side with those of established and best-selling authors. Sure, stores use end-cap displays and other techniques to feature the bestsellers, but it's easy to walk past them. Online stores, such as iBooks or Amazon, tend to present books based on sales rank. iBooks is especially bad about this. It's hard to get past this feature. If a book is not already a best-seller, you need to know the author or the name of the book so you can search for it.
Q: What's next for you and Ava?
Ava is working on a cold case from World War II. A Japanese-American Buddhist priest died under mysterious circumstances in the Tule Lake concentration camp in California. She uncovers a serial predator who might still be active. I'm aiming for publication in 2015. After that, she will take on environmental degradation and international timber smuggling.
I'm also planning to do more ebook short stories. I like shorts, but I think the word count required by most publications is too limiting for the detective story. A story of 5000 words is fine for amateur sleuths or stories with twist endings, but it doesn't allow enough room for the convolutions of the detective story. Detective short stories work better as novellas, but until ebooks came along, there were not many places that published novellas. The Rules, is an Ava Rome novella that is only in ebook. I'd like to do more of those.
Q: How do you promote your work?
Not very well, I'm afraid. I have a website—www.marktroy.net. I try to do social media, but I'm not comfortable in it. I have heard publicists say that every author should have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, so I do, but reluctantly. I try to tweet a couple of times a week, but, seriously, does anybody actually read Twitter? I contribute to some of the lists, such as Short Mystery Fiction Society and DorothyL. My preferred way to promote is to attend conventions. This year, I will be at Left Coast Crime, Killer Nashville, Bouchercon and maybe a few others. I enjoy appearing on panels, but mostly, I like to hang out in the bar and talk to readers.
Q: What other genres besides crime do you like?
I like history and historical fiction. When I was in high school, I discovered the novels of Frank Yerby. From that point on, I was hooked on epic, historical fiction. This cold case, WWII story in progress is a lot of fun to do, because there's so much history about it. However, I'm finding that I have to limit my reading or I will never get the story finished.
Q: What's your idea about the psychotic sidekick in PI novels like Hawk and Joe Pike?
Sidekicks are important in the PI novel because, although the hardboiled fictional PI is a loner, nobody is truly alone. Nobody is possessed with all of the skills and knowledge necessary to do the job in a complex world. Sidekicks help to round out the main character and provide an extra dimension to the story.
Are Hawk and Pike psychotic? They have worldviews that are more limited, less nuanced than the main characters' and they don't hesitate to use violence when necessary, but neither they nor most sidekicks are unfeeling. As the Spenser and Elvis Cole series have gone on, Hawk and Pike have become more complex.
What I find most interesting about these characters is the bond of loyalty and respect that connects the main character and the sidekick in spite of all the obvious differences between them. Those differences are often cultural and philosophical, and they can also be racial, linguistic, and sexual. Two other protagonist-sidekick pairs that I find interesting are Joe R. Lansdale's Hap Collins/Leonard Pine and Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise/Willie Garvin. Ava Rome's sidekick is a Japanese American named Moon Ito. Like Hap and Leonard and Spencer and Hawk, there's a racial difference between Ava and Moon. Like Modesty and Willie, there's a gender and linguistic difference. Willie Garvin speaks Cockney English; Moon Ito speaks Pidgin English. Like Joe Pike, Moon keeps his emotions under a lid.
Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation?
Robert Crais is surely influential in the way he has developed Joe Pike from Elvis Cole's laconic gun supplier into a complex character with a lot of baggage of his own. Another influential author is Lee Child. His character, Jack Reacher, is not technically a PI, but, in Reacher, Child has stripped the PI character to the barest of bones. He is a complete outsider and loner who enters a culture, sizes up the problem, sets things right and moves on. I think more and more PIs have to navigate multicultural landscapes and the best examples of this are S.J. Rozan's Lydia Chin/Bill Smith stories. Another writer who brings multicultural settings to life is Mercedes Lambert. Her stories featuring LA lawyer, Whitney Logan, are beautifully written, noir tales. Sadly for us, Lambert passed away leaving us only three stories, so her influence is limited. The list of influential authors should include Laura Lippman who has updated the female PI in a dowager city.
Q: Why do you write in this genre?
The short answer is that this genre is what I like to read most. I started writing mysteries with an amateur sleuth in mind, but soon after I began, I discovered the Shamus Awards. When I read the list of nominees/winners, I realized these were the authors I admired most and that I had read most of the books. So I abandoned the amateur sleuth and took up the PI.
My take on the PI is that he/she is an outsider who must make sense of the culture and people in order to solve the mystery. This is different from the amateur sleuth who is usually confronted with an anomaly in a familiar milieu or the police procedural in which the protagonist works a familiar system with known rules. The PI, on the other hand, enters a strange milieu with unfamiliar rules. He/she is like an explorer in the wilderness or a traveler in a new land. As reader and writer, I feel I'm learning a lot more in the PI story.
Ava is an outsider. Like Reacher, she grew up on Army bases so she has no strong roots anywhere. She is living and working in Hawaii, but is not Hawaiian. She's a newcomer to the Islands and the culture, like I was when I lived there. Even though she adopts its philosophy, she is still learning all its nuances.
Finally, what I like about writing in this genre is working through ambiguity to get to a mostly satisfying conclusion.