"You know what? The bastard blows me out of the water. This guy writes Maine like Ardai writes New York. If you're not reading him, you don't know what you're missing." --Chris F. Holm, author of "The Collector" series, The Killing Kind, and Red Right Hand.

"A refreshingly new voice in noir." --Ed Kurtz, author of Nothing You Can Do and The Rib From Which I Remake the World.

"A glorious boilermaker of noir and East Coast gothic. The action is taut as a sprung snare and Bagley tightens the screws with every page." -- Laird Barron, author of Swift to Chase and Blood Standard.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Speaking Canadadan: An Interview with Sandra Ruttan (and how you can win a copy of her latest novel)

Sandra Ruttan is the author of Suspicious Circumstances (Tico Publishing, 2007), What Burns Within (Dorchester, May 2008) and The Frailty of Flesh (Dorchester, October 2008). The latter two novels feature her series characters Nolan, Hart and Tain. Sandra is also the head honcho at Spinetingler Magazine and a reviewer for Mystery Bookspot. A native of Canada, she recently relocated to the U.S.

Give us a quick pitch for your latest novel, The Frailty of Flesh.

Nolan confronts one of his demons, Tain wrestles with a crushing wound from the past and Hart suffers a devastating loss as the personal and professional lives of the constables collide with tragic consequences. Sounds cheery, doesn't it?

Tell us a little about the genesis of your three protagonists: Constables Tain, Craig Nolan and Ashlyn Hart.

Craig Nolan has a lot of personal issues that he's been trying to control, and in The Frailty of Flesh they come bubbling to the surface. Craig's work, and his identity as Steve Daly's son, are his salvation. When his image of his father is threatened and there are problems at work Craig starts to come unglued.

This has a direct impact on Ashlyn Hart, who's personally involved with Craig. Ashlyn is a level-headed person and usually handles things better than Craig and Tain. Due to the subject matter of the first book it was necessary for Ashlyn to be physically attractive, but I don't think of her as quite the knockout some have assumed she must be. I think of her as pretty, but with such a compelling personality people warm to her quickly.

Tain is the closed door of the bunch. He tries to keep everything buried, to keep his personal life completely off limits to his coworkers. In reality, he doesn't have much of a personal life now, but that's because of the tragedy that haunts him, and in The Frailty of Fleshreaders will learn about the personal loss he's suffered. Frailty tests his relationship with Ashlyn as well.

The dynamic between these characters is one of the more interesting aspects of the series. How much planning goes into their relationship and how much is just a matter of putting the three of them together and seeing what happens?

A lot of it is about putting the three of them together and seeing what happens. There were certain things I knew when I started What Burns Within. I knew how it would end. I also knew that the second book would test the relationship between Craig and Ash.

Beyond that, I don't know that much book to book. I look at the natural reactions these individuals would have to each other and the situations they're dealing with, and that's how things unfold. By focusing on character impact and reaction I think it helps me keep the characters consistent. It also allows them to evolve organically as the series progresses. I really like having three protagonists because you can show the reader different facets of the character's personalities through the different interactions. It's also a lot easier to nudge one person to cross a line than it is to get two people to look the other way when you're doing something you shouldn't do. This adds an extra layer of personal tension to the story arcs that makes writing them interesting.

Your series has dealt with some heavy issues like religious fanaticism, rape and child abuse. How have readers responded?

A few people have been wary about the subject matter, but I haven't received any hate mail or strong complaints. Reviewers seemed to pick up on the sensitivity displayed in dealing with the subject matter of the first book. I don't try to exploit these types of stories for shock value, or just use them to manipulate the reader into caring more. The reality is, cops who are confronted with a murdered or missing child are usually going to find it harder to cope with than the murder of a prostitute. I've dealt with child issues in the books because I had a lot of things I needed to get out of my system after working with abused children.

I think my biggest challenge centers on the fact that I don't try to give easy answers. The conclusion doesn't come wrapped up with a bow on top. The stories center on how the events affect the protagonists, and while other lives are touched on, I don't try to give the "sexually-abused-as-a-child-in-front-of-the-fireplace-so-he-became-a-pyromaniac" answer. In a procedural the focus is more on the evidence than on the psychology, and there's almost a sense of reluctant acceptance on the part of the constables. People commit atrocious acts, and they have to see them with their own eyes. Sometimes it really gets to them, but they have to try to focus on the investigation rather than their feelings. That's a tough thing to do when you're confronted with the body of a four-year-old child, just weeks before Christmas, which is the situation Tain and Ashlyn find themselves in at the beginning of The Frailty of Flesh.

So what's next? Are you working on the next novel in the Nolan, Hart and Tain series or something else?

Yes, and yes. The deal for book three in the series, Lullaby for the Nameless, has just been announced. In Lullaby readers will finally find out what happened on the first case Nolan, Hart and Tain worked together when a new case directly connects to the old one. It will be told with intersecting timelines, and should be published next November.

I'm also working on another book that isn't a procedural. It's a real departure for me from what I've done to date, but that's all I'm saying.

You've lived in Maryland a few months now. Are you pretty well settled in or still adjusting to life in the States?

Still adjusting. Every now and again I get called out on speaking 'Canadadan', as my stepdaughter calls it. It's the little things you don't realize you can't get here that sneak up on you. A few weeks ago Brian and I were heading to Baltimore to pick up Jon Jordan, Ayo Onatade and Penny and Denny, to deal with some pre-Bouchercon things. Jon asked if we were bringing donuts and I just about said, "There's no Tim Hortons here."

And last weekend we went to Gettysburg. How weird is that? I live where Civil War battles were fought. I'm fascinated by the local history. I've always loved Baltimore, since Homicide was on, but getting to live here and explore the area is wonderful.

Canada is not known as a hotbed of crime fiction. I think a lot of Americans have a notion of Canada as a sort of idyllic place where nothing bad ever happens. That's mostly because we're too lazy to learn about other countries. Did your agent or publisher try pressuring you to set your novels in America or to "write American"?
My first agent did talk to me about relocating the series. He was Canadian though. I think it was harder years ago, and that things have started to open up a bit. I don't blame Americans. I think this trend goes down to unoriginal promotional platforms because of the constraints of the publishing industry. The same standard things are done for most books, to greater and lesser degrees, and publicists don't really have the proper time to come up with a specific marketing campaign for each book. If they did they could find ways to sell Canadian content easily. The 2010 Olympics are in Vancouver and Whistler, and there have been all sorts of interesting issues with protestors and construction. I have three RCMP officers in the Greater Vancouver Area. There's so much material I could mine there, and people often like to read books set where they're traveling. There isn't a lot of well-known commercial crime fiction set in the GVA, and this seems to me like a natural sales avenue for the books, but it's outside the scope of what the publicists are usually able to do.

That said, the publicists at Dorchester have been fantastic, and I feel they've done everything possible to work my books. I've been fortunate. They're big fans of the books themselves and it's great to know that you have a supportive team working with you. The Canadian setting hasn't been an issue for my editor at all and they want a third book, so obviously the books can sell.

Now that I live in the U.S. I think I'd feel more comfortable with a U.S. setting.

As for "writing American" I do have to use American spelling, and occasionally I slip up. Last week my stepdaughter asked, "What's this word? C-o-l-o-u-r?" She's in grade 1 and she knows how to spell tougher words than that, but the Canadian spelling threw her off. She's always reminding me I live in Westminster now, so I have to say and spell things right. She gives me a harder time than my editor does.

How are things going with Spinetingler? I got the impression for a while last year that you might ready to call it day.

It was very hard to stay on top of it when I was getting divorced. I do feel that if it can't be done to a certain standard, it should fold. Having said that, it's hard to balance life and writing and the ezine. I've been fortunate. Bookspot Central adopted Spinetingler and they handle the web design and uploading. Jack Getze has joined as a regular editor. James Oswald was reviewing submissions for most of last year, and did a fantastic job. The team that works with me is what keeps Spinetingler going.

Who is your all-time favorite crime writer and who do you think is an up-and-comer?

Ian Rankin. I know, I know. One of these days people will start asking who my second favourite is, just to get a different answer. :)

As for an up-and-comer, that's hard. It's easy to point to Sean Chercover and Cornelia Read, both of whom inspire me. I think Steve Mosby is poised for a major breakthrough, and I also think Russel D. McLean has a long career ahead of him. There are a few debut authors I'm looking forward to reading, including Grant McKenzie, Kelli Stanley and Rebecca Cantrell.

Of course, there are several others. It's impossible to come up with a conclusive list.

Parting shot time: what do you most want everyone to know about Sandra Ruttan?
Recently, on a panel at Bouchercon I said that people who encounter me online often seem to think I'm a hard ass. Someone from the front row piped up with, "Yes, you're a lot different in person!" I'm actually pretty easy-going.

I have a real split personality. By nature I'm an extrovert, but because I can get intimidated easily I tend to shy away sometimes. It's something I have to work on.

Want to win a signed copy of The Frailty of Flesh? Damn right you do. So send your name and address to patricksbagley@yahoo.com (with the subject header RUTTAN DRAWING). I will throw all entrants' names into a hat and let one of my kids pull out a winner. The deadline for entries is 12:00 a.m. (Eastern Time) November 1.

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