Dangerous Histories, from the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

Anyone who says people don’t read anymore clearly has never sat in the traffic snarl that annually surrounds the LA Times Festival of Books. Even the lines for public transpo were packed – and never has congestion more warmed the cockles of my heart.

I started off the festival with Dangerous Histories, a panel featuring Kelli Stanley (a finalist for the LA Times Mystery/Thriller book award, with City of Dragons) and Tom Franklin (the winner of the LA Times Mystery/Thriller book award, with Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter), moderated by Denise Hamilton.

Tom Franklin, a droll southern writer, was Alabama born and raised. He “finally, at the age of 30, left the south. And went north to Arkansas.” Attending the University of Arkansas for grad school gave him perspective: “I realized what a weird and screwed up life I had, in a lot ways.” Tom had worked various jobs, from cleaning up toxic waste to a morgue, and he still holds the hunting record for biggest deer kill in his family, and has killed a deer with a knife. In his own words: “when I got away from the south, I began telling all my stories, and people were like whoa, that’s really weird. I told one of my stories, the killing the deer with a knife story, the first time I met my wife and it’s a miracle that she’s married to me. I really freaked her out – she thought I was a scary hick. I always wanted to be a scary hick…”

On using locations in his writing: “I think setting should always be a character, and it always has been with me.” Growing up in Alabama, he knew the landscape well, from Spanish moss to live oaks. In one story, he: “wanted to have a dead live oak, I thought I was clever. My wife took that out for me.”

The title of his book, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, comes from how Mississippi school children are taught to spell Mississippi (M – I – crooked letter – crooked letter – I – crooked letter – crooked letter – I – humpback letter – humpback letter – I).

On research: “I’m a terrible student of history – at the University of South Alabama, I took a history course called U.S. History until 1864, and I swear to god I didn’t know why it stopped there…” Admitting he prefers pictures to text, Franklin’s a big believer in ordering a Sears and Roebeck catalog for the time period you’re writing (a trick he learned from Steve Yarbrough – you can get a reproduction online for $7).

By contrast, Kelli Stanley is a Classicist by training: “The thing that I found myself most drawn to, when I was studying this stuff, was translation. When I’m writing a novel, I feel like I’m trying to translate a place and time and people for you, the reader.” For Kelli, telling stories from history is a way to investigate the issues from history that are still with us today: “I wanted to get away from intellectual excercises, and really write and creativity address issues that really, to me, were the things that matter the most. In that, in writing popular fiction, I feel like I can do that. It’s like teaching to a wider audience – an audience interested in far more things than what Caesar did in Gaul.”

Her academic background fuels her Roman Noir series, but when researching for her 1940’s series, Kelli swears by a vintage phone book from 1935, and loves Life magazine – she has every issue from ’39, ’40, and ’41, and says the letters to the editor are a fascinating way to take the pulse of the country’s mood. She’s also a big fan of eBay, and loves to find objects from the places she writes – for her upcoming novel, City of Secrets, the story revolves around the San Francisco World’s Fair, so she went online to buy a souvenir from that fair – which turned out to be a small ice pick, which in turn became the murder weapon of her story.

On making the transition from scholar to writer: “Crime fiction offers us a chance not only to right wrongs, it offers us a chance to make sure that the world that we’re writing about, as imperfect as it is in real life, we can find a little bit of perfection in how we depict it. We can find resolution, we can find closure – and we can find justice for victims, which is one of the things that motivates me.”

It made for a fascinating panel and a wonderful way to start off the weekend.