Please welcome our April author of the month, Denise Hamilton!
Review and synopsis of Last Lullaby:
Denise Hamilton once again turns L.A. inside out in her new Eve Diamond adventure. This time around Eve is interviewing a customs agent at the airport when all hell breaks loose in a hail of gunfire, leaving two people dead, and one little girl abandoned. And things only get more interesting when suddenly everyone wants a piece of the little girl; customs, INS, and a civil rights lawyer. As Eve follows the trail, she finds corruption, greed, exploitation, and once again, danger headed straight her way.
In her latest powerfully insightful, intelligent, and suspenseful novel, Hamilton once again strikes all the right chords. Hitting on such hot topics as illegal aliens, poverty, and drugs, she explores the underbelly of L.A. in all its tragic and hypocritical shame. We also get to see Eve fight some very personal demons in the form of an ex-lover, a current lover, and an unexpected event that shakes her world. Filled with explosive intensity and emotion, this latest is perhaps her finest, and although heartbreaking and dark, she leaves room for hope and redemption in this city she calls home.
Interview with Denise:
1. Your novels always hit on topics that are timely and relevant, and sometimes controversial, how do you decide on which ones to write about?
I was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times for 10 years and that influenced me tremendously in what I write about as a novelist. LA, like most big global cities today, is increasingly a mixture of the haves and have nots, of the Third World living cheek by jowl with the first world, of decaying (and them sometimes regentrifying) inner cities, bustling ethnic enclaves and far-away suburbs where people keep their customs and traditions from home but now must adapt to life in a big American city while grapping with all the temptations, dangers, hopes and fears of their adopted land. To me that’s a fascinating, explosive and volatile mixture. I’ve met people and heard stories that are unbelievable in terms of the suffering, the hopes, the degredations, the struggles and the abuses. So that nexus, where all those things come together, is the crossroads where I set my novels.
Ironically, I was never a crime reporter, I was an education reporter for five years, doing stories about test scores, academic trends, school uniforms and textbook debates. But since young men are the group most at risk for killing and being killed, I wrote more than my share of murder stories. I was the one they sent out to interview classmates, school officials and friends and family. With a notepad and a press pass, I had instant entre to people’s homes and permission to ask the nosiest, most intrusive and personal of questions. I needed that to write my stories, of course. But there is so much that never made it into the newspaper. Journalism, after all, is very fact-based, the who, what, where, when and why. That was why eventually I turned to fiction. I wanted to tell larger stories. My characters are very different than the people I wrote about. They have to be to fit into all the twists and turns of my plots. But the emotional truth is there. It’s like they say, that through fiction you can get at the truth better. I really believe that. You can create situations that testify to the reality out there, unconstrained by the facts. Many of these people whose tragic stories I recounted in the paper had haunted me for years, and I eventually had to write novels in an attempt to exorcise them from my brain. So I gave them more complex lives, back stories, motives, secrets and complicated relationships. And as in real life, not always a happy ending.
Because of my years as a reporter, I will never run out of stories but neither will I run out of curiosity about how people live and struggle and sometimes die. Even though I’m a novelist now, I still have a reporter’s heart and mind. I call myself a “non-practicing reporter.” But I sure like making it up after all those years of hewing to the facts!
2. Tell us a bit about your research for your latest novel.
“Last Lullaby” was inspired by a story I did about a little boy who had been trafficked into the United States by a man and woman posing as his parents. The child was sick. His identity was a mystery. The INS and the Thai government wanted to send him back to an uncertain fate. Everyone seemed to have a very vocal opinion on this child, and he became an utter pawn. I found it ironic that while everyone was arguing for what they claimed was in his best interest, only a group of Thai human rights workers, two young fiesty women, were really looking out for the child himself. It was a fascinating, horrible, sinister and ultimately uplifting story, because the boy was saved and adopted and allowed to stay in the U.S. That was my jumping off point. My child in the novel is very different, the motives and players of the do-gooders and evil-doers is completely different, the action unfolds in different ways, with a much different denouement, but it is a classic example of a writer saying “what if?” and taking it from there. I had felt very moved by this child’s plight, and I hope I infused some of this into Last Lullaby, in which Eve has very personal reasons for finding the little girl. But in another example of the fictional and real life script diverging, my situation is very different from Eve’s. I am married with two little boys that I adore.
3. What did you find most disturbing? Most enlightening?
I knew I had written a murder mystery but it wasn’t clear to me until I finished how profound my feelings were about the parental-child bond, the hunger and yearning that parents have to protect children and what lengths they will go to and also the circumstances that lead parents to give up children. In reporting the story I did on the little Thai boy, I found it very disturbing how so many people where using the child as a pawn to advance their own interests.
4. L.A. is one of your most prominent characters next to Eve, what is it about this city that strikes you the deepest.
LA is my hometown, it’s where I spent most of my years as a reporter, and I love it, for all its pulsating life and diversity and dangers. It’s one of the big global cities of the world, encapsulating all that is best and worst in humanity. But the LA I write about is usually the one you don’t see in the movies – it’s not the rich white Westside or Hollywood celebrities, although those characters do move in and out of my novels. But they are more concerned with desperate people trying to eke out a living, and what happens when they die unnaturally. I explored so many fascinating nooks and crannies of LA in my years as a reporter -- places and subcultures and communities you might not ever want to visit in person, but that readers seem to appreciate learning about from within the pages of a book. I take you on that gritty noir tour of the LA you won’t see as a tourist.
5. How closely does Eve’s experiences as a reporter match your own?
Eve is my wilder alter-ego. She takes things to much more extreme levels than I ever did as a reporter. Many of the plot lines in my novels are inspired by stories I covered, but some are equally inspired by stories I myself read in the paper, or stories that people have told me during my reporting, or stories that caught my interest and made me say “what if?” But while we might share some professional experiences, Eve is ultimately a work of fiction. She’s flawed and vulnerable and impulsive (as I am) but I’ve never taken home a street kid (the way Eve does in Sugar Skull) or been held up by bad guys in a Chinatown motel (the way Eve is in Last Lullaby.) But all thoese scenes are outgrowths of things that I imagine might happen if I as a reporter pushed the envelope as far as I could. I have, however, been on a brothel raid with the cops (like Eve does in Jasmine) where I hid behind an unmarked police car until I was sure that the bullets wouldn’t start flying. And what I found inside was very much like what Eve discovers. And that will always haunt me.
6. You express some pretty ardent opinions, which are refreshingly empathetic, towards illegal aliens, poverty, and ethnicity in your novels, are these yours, or Eve’s, or bothJ?
I’m a first generation American. My mother was a Russian/French immigrant and we spoke French at home. My husband’s parents were immigrants. His mother lives with us and we speak Spanish at home because she’s more comfortable with that language. So a multicultural, multi-ethnic society is second nature to me. Plus living in LA, in a suburb that is majority minority -- heavily Armenian, Russian, Korean and Latino -- it just feels right. As to poverty, we didn’t have much money and I had academic scholarships all through school or I wouldn’t have made it, so I know that world too, though certainly not the dire poverty of some of my characters. Still, it’s never escaped me that so many people on this planet struggle just to survive, and that our materialistic society often overlooks these people, at least in popular culture. I know that what I write is popular culture – if my books don’t entertain you and keep you up way past your bedtime, then I haven’t done my job. But while I’m writing page-turners, I’m also interested in talking about marginal characters whose struggle is utterly compelling to me, whether it’s caused by poverty, race, class, ethnicity, crime or a mixture of these.
But equally important, I think all my novels deal with family too, in one way or another. Kids, parents, how they interact or fail to and what the consequences of that are.
7. It was great to get a glimpse of Eve’s past in the form of her ex-lover, tell us a bit more of what has made Eve who she is today.
We are going to find out more about Eve in Book 5. I have purposefully left her past somewhat vague, because there will come a time when she will investigate a mystery that involves her own family history and secrets. Eve is a loner, she finds it hard to trust people, she’s an outsider, and that is perhaps why she is comfortable being a journalist, the eternal observer instead of participant. She works too hard, she probably drinks a bit too much and she’s ambivalent about motherhood and marriage. But she’s not as tough as she thinks she is, she’s flawed and vulnerable, and I think that this makes her more appealing (at least to me) as a character.
8. When did you discover you wanted to write novels?
I always wrote as a child but I figured it was an indulgence, something I should do around a “real” career. Then I stumbled into journalism, which allowed me to write for a living and paid me to experience LA viscerally and collect the plots and characters and local color that I would later use as a novelist. What finally prompted me to take up fiction was that I joined a fiction-writing group in Silverlake, where I lived, (it’s an LA neighborhood northeast of downtown). This group was mainly working Moms and we’d meet every other Sunday evening at someone’s house to read and critique work. At first I sheepishly brought in travel writing from my many adventures abroad. But one night I panicked and thought, oh-oh, they’re going to kick me out if I don’t bring in some fiction, since this was, after all, a fiction-writing group. (They wouldn’t have, really, they were very kind and supportive, but it gave me the incentive to stop daydreaming about writing a novel and actually write the first chapter of what became The Jasmine Trade.) When I brought it in to read at the group, my fellow authors said, “this is fascinating, we had no idea this was going on just 10 miles east of where we live, what happens next?”
So then I had to write the second chapter to satisfy them. When I read that, they asked what happened after that? So I ran to the computer and banged out the third chapter. I had two babies in diapers at the time and was working as a journalist, and writing Jasmine was my little creative/intellectual outlet, it was what I did for me. If the kids were napping and I wasn’t too exhausted, I’d sneak off and write a chapter. I’d write in the car, on the backs of grocery receipts if the kids fell asleep on the way to the market. I’d write after they went to bed. The book was ultimately written in a series of chapter installments for the lovely ladies of my writing group who kept asking, “What happens next?”
9. Any particular inspirations?
My experiences as a reporter, driving around LA, reading the paper, listening to stories at parties, in the street, in line at the grocery store. The world is a wide and fascinating place. I wanted to be noir like Raymond Chandler (but from a young woman’s perspective in 21st century multicultural LA) and tough but flawed like Helen Mirren’s character in the BBC series “Prime Suspect.” I guess those were two touchstones. But with that first book, I never imagined it would be published. I was just putting one word in front of the other, without an outline or any idea where it was all going, but knowing that I had a story I wanted to tell and that after 15 years of driving around the streets of LA, I had a lot of ideas and opinions and observations about the world around me, that I had never been able to put into my journalism stories because it wasn’t appropriate, and now for the first time, I could just let it all out. It was very a very freeing feeling, once I gave into it.
10. Any particular favorite authors you’d care to share with us?
This isn’t a mystery but I just read Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem and thought it was a masterpiece in capturing an era and recounting the lives of two motherless boys, one black, one white, in Brooklyn, amidst gentrification, race, class and the damage done. Perhaps because I’ve lived and worked abroad in difficult places, I love Dan Fesperman’s books about Sarajevo homicide detective Vlado Petric and I’m thrilled to learn he’s finishing a new one on a Pakistani “fixer” at the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. I am also a big fan of Joseph Kannon and Robert Wilson. And so many others. I don’t want to leave anybody out so I’d best stop now.
And finally, what’s next for Eve?
“Savage Garden, “ will be published in Spring 2005.
When Silvio Aguilar invites Eve Diamond to opening night of a play that his big-deal playwright friend has written, Eve is expecting a glittering night mingling with the city’s cultural elite. But 40 minutes before showtime, the play’s notoriously unstable lead actress still hasn’t shown up and Eve is drawn into a search for the diva, whose body is found at the bottom of an ocean cliff. Who killed Katarina Venturi, and what do Silvio, his playwright friend, the playwright’s neurotic and troubled wife, a Hollywood producer, the diva’s former drama teacher, a drug-dealer neighbor and a mysterious new boyfriend know? As Silvio falls under suspicion, Eve must find the real killer and decide if she should trust an ambitious new minority reporter in the office who is hiding her own secrets.
Denise Hamilton writes the critically acclaimed and best-selling Eve Diamond crime novels. Her third book, “Last Lullaby,” is due out from Scribner in April 2004.
Joseph Wambaugh, author of The Onion Field, The New Centurions and The Fire Starter, says: "Unforgettable L.A. TIMES reporter Eve Diamond is back in LAST LULLABY, bringing 21st century L.A. to life in another vivid, exotic, multicultural urban crime novel, full of suspense and mystery. The steamy sights, sounds and aromas are not of Philip Marlowe's L.A., but the old detective would surely have approved of Eve Diamond's style in her relentless quest for justice on those ever mean streets."
Hamilton’s debut, national bestseller “The Jasmine Trade” (Scribner 2001) was shortlisted for a number of literary awards including the 2001 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, which is named after Edgar Allen Poe and voted on by the Mystery Writers of America
“Jasmine” was also a finalist for the WILLA Award in contemporary fiction, which is named after Willa Cather and honors women writing in the West.
Her novels have been Mystery Guild selections and “BookSense 76” picks. They are published in France, Japan and England.
Hamilton is also an award-winning journalist. Her work has appeared in Wired, Cosmopolitan, Der Spiegel and New Times. She has won first place awards from the Los Angeles Press Club for feature and business writing.
During 10 years on staff at the Los Angeles Times, she covered the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, the break-up of the Soviet Union and youth movements in Japan. But the bulk of her Times career was spent in the suburbs of Los Angeles, where she used her overseas experience to cover the city’s multicultural communities that feature prominently in her series.
A Los Angeles native, Hamilton is also a Fulbright Scholar who lived and taught in former Yugoslavia during the Bosnian War. In one of her many Balkan adventures, Hamilton hitchhiked into Albania with $200 in her backpack and relied on the kindness of strangers as she criss-crossed the most isolated and backward country in Europe.
The recipient of various grants and fellowships, Hamilton has done consulting for New York University’s Institute for War, Peace Reporting and Washington, D.C.-based Search for Common Ground and speaks frequently at universities, libraries and literary festivals.
Hamilton lives in Glendale, a Los Angeles suburb, with her husband and two young children.