Saturday, February 8, 2014

Featured Author: Marilynn Larew

Marilynn Larew is on tour with Great Escapes Book Tours, and she's here today to talk about her thriller, The Spider Catchers, a novel about sex, money, and terrorism, published by The Artemis Hunter Press.

About the book:

What do the violent takeover of Fez brothels and a new stream of terrorist funding have to do with the disappearance of Alicia Harmon from the Fez office of Femme Aid Maroc? When CIA analyst Lee Carruthers tries to find out, she is swept into a tangled web of dirty money and human trafficking, and people will kill to find out what Alicia knew. If only Lee knew. She’s working blind, and in this case, ignorance is death. Her search takes her through the slums of the Fez medina to the high-rises of the new city and finally to a terrorist camp in the Algerian desert.

Interview with Marilynn Larew

Marilynn, how long have you been writing, and when did you start?

I’ve always been a reader, of course, and I wrote various things – essays, an honors thesis, and a PhD dissertation, but I first wrote fiction when the children were small, and we had very little money. I wrote a short story and submitted it to the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine because I wanted a new dress. I even knew what the dress would look like. The editors decided that the story did not meet their requirements, and I’m grateful it wasn’t published. It was pretty bad.

My next attempt at fiction was after I finished my dissertation. Most students who go through the PhD mill plan to write a book exposing how terrible the experience was. I wrote a novel about a hard-boiled female private detective. I almost sold that one, but the editor who liked it quit, and the woman who replaced her didn’t, so that took care of that.

When I was working in historical preservation, I wrote two books about the history of Bel Air, Maryland, but I didn’t try fiction again until I retired, and then I set out to write the novel I’d always wanted to write.

It’s taken a while. The Spider Catchers has gone through many forms as I haltingly found my way. It was my learning piece. I’m determined that Dead in Dubai will not take so long.

How did you create the plot for this The Spider Catchers?

My plotting of The Spider Catchers is less a process than an Awful Warning to aspiring novelists. I’m a pantser, that is I write by the seat of my pants. I find plotting beyond creating the central characters and making a few sketchy notes very frustrating, so I started writing with the beginning and the end. The middle was a mystery. As I said before, The Spider Catchers was my learning piece. I ripped it up and rethought it many times. So for the final draft, I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen. For Dead in Dubai, I tried once again to plot, but after I went so far I had to start writing. I know more about this plot than I did the other. I’m sketching out from the beginning and backwards from the end in the hope when they meet in the middle it will work. If it doesn’t, I’ll have to fix it. I do not recommend this way of plotting a book, but it’s the only way I can do it.

Which character did you most enjoy writing?

I most enjoyed creating Lee Carruthers. It was fun to make her smart and sassy, capable in many ways that analysts are not. I enjoyed making her tough but tender enough to be recognizable as a woman. She has family issues, more of which will emerge in the next two books, and, because of them, she’s a loner, but she has friends in Fez to help her in her quest. As a matter of fact, I enjoy giving her all of the experiences I’ve never had, except in a Walter Mitty sort of way. Nobody who ever worked for the CIA would recognize my CIA, but it was fun putting it together. I know the Agency has a unit that follows money, but I had to make it smaller for the purposes of the novel, because it had to be something that Lee could deal with personally and not just a faceless bureaucracy. You notice I’ve said several times that it was fun to do something, and it was fun, despite the hard work that it took.

Are you like any of your characters?

I’ve made Lee more like myself that I intended. I looked the way I’ve described her when I was younger. The smart mouth is part of my arsenal too, I’m afraid. My daughter says she can hear me speaking, and a friend said that Lee sounds pretty much like me, sarcastic and a bit world-weary. I’ve never thought of myself as world-weary, but maybe he’s right. If you live in this world long enough and pay attention, you get weary. Maybe things I didn’t know about myself crept out from my id and landed in the book. It’s always a danger that you will show more of yourself than you intended whenever you write.

That's very true. What is your favorite scene in the book?

My favorite scene in the book is the suicide bombing sequence, possibly because it was the most difficult to write. I’m a military historian, and I’ve studied terrorism for years, but I had never really considered the effect all of that explosive had on people. In this scene I had to imagine the effects of a suicide bomb on the people and the structures in the blast zone. I had to imagine bits of metal flying through the air and crashing into human flesh. The concussion throws people around like rag dolls and damages or destroys the buildings in its path, and the flying metal shreds the people. You don’t see that on TV. The aftermath of a bombing is people screaming and moaning, dead and injured and stunned by their experience. After imagining that, I’ll never think of war or terrorism in quite the same way again.

Who are your favorite authors?

Who my favorite author is depends on who’s work I’m reading at the moment. In the past, I’ve enjoyed Jane Austen, and hope I have absorbed some of her insight into character and human folly. I’ve enjoyed Rudyard Kipling’s take on India and hope I’ve learned from him how to describe the exotic and the familiar within it. I read a lot of mysteries. Those from the beginning in the 19th century through the early scientific authors like Sherlock Holmes on to the Golden age of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, to the present.

Present-day works have a faster pace, and the authors write more openly about difficult topics – rape, incest, human trafficking, terrorism. I’m guilty of writing about the last two myself.  It’s hard to say who my favorite author is today. Ever since I studied the Vietnamese war, I’ve been interested in that great folly, World War I, and the authors I most enjoy reading today have protagonists either working in World War I or in its terrible aftermath: Jacquelyn Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, Charles Todd’s Inspector Ian Rutledge, Todd’s nurse, Bess Crawford, and Kerry Greenwood’s Melbourne flapper detective, Phryne Fisher, who was also shaped by her experience driving an ambulance during the war and her experiences in Paris afterwards. She’s a true child of the 20s – drinking, dancing, and loving as if there were no tomorrow, because she understands that often there is no tomorrow.

How long is your to-be-read pile?

My to-be-read pile comes in two stacks. The history I study: Vietnamese, Chinese, military history, the history of intelligence organizations, and of terrorism is in one stack. My mystery to-be-read pile is large and fortunately mostly in my Kindle. I have blessed Kindle every day since I got it for relieving the weight on my bookshelves. My bookshelves are full of series I like, and I often reread those books just to have a visit with the characters I like. Since a lot of the authors I like best are dead, I’m always on the lookout for fresh meat to feed my reading habit.

Do you have a routine for writing?

My routine for writing is simple. I don’t require any music or scented candles or any other aides to concentration. I just sit down in the morning, do my email, and write for about two hours. In the afternoon I write for another two hours, and after dinner I write for yet another two hours, although sometimes I sneak in some TV in the evening. That’s the plan. Sometimes life intervenes, and I have to go do other things, and sometimes I just can’t stand it any longer, so I go and read something, or even do some housework. But the next day it’s back to the keyboard.

What book are you currently reading and in what format (e-book/paperback/hardcover)?

I usually have two books going, one nonfiction and one fiction. I’m currently reading Patricia M. Pelley’s Postcolonial Vietnam: New Histories of the National Past, in paper. It’s a superb study of how Vietnamese historians reconstructed the Vietnamese memory of the past in ways that would serve the new socialist government. On Kindle I’m reading Ruth Ann Hixon’s Lost Memories, an absorbing police procedural about a young woman who witnessed a murder. She has lost her memory, and with each thing she remembers, her peril grows.

What would your dream office look like?

My dream office would have a secretary in it. I write my books on yellow pads and then dictate into the computer. If I had a secretary, she could type the material from the yellow pads, and I’d have much less trouble with typos. If I have to spend more money, I’d have a fireplace with gas logs and a comfortable wing chair to sit in to write, an oriental rug, and bookshelves on all the walls to allow me to have all my books in the same place.

What’s one of your favorite quotes?

“Life isn’t about how you survived the storm. It’s about how you danced in the rain!”
I don’t know who wrote it, perhaps that old favorite Anonymous.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

I’d love to live in Istanbul. I don’t know why, but the first time I went there, it just felt right, as if it could be home. Hong Kong runs it a close second. That’s a city that never sleeps, exciting, and vital. When I first went there. I didn’t feel like an alien among the Chinese residents, I felt as if I belonged. London and Paris, they’re just places to visit. Istanbul could be home. So could Hong Kong.

When you working on now?

I’m working on the second novel in the Lee Carruthers series, Death in Dubai, which takes place not surprisingly, in fantastic Dubai. That’s a town that never sleeps, either, and it’s the center of Arab money laundering. It lies just across the straits from Iran, and it makes a pretty penny smuggling contraband. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that Lee resigns from the Agency at the end of The Spider Catchers. She’s wondering if there’s life after the CIA, when Cynthia Branson hires her to find out what happened to her husband, George. Finding George may not be as simple as Lee thinks it will be, and there may be terrorists left over from The Spider Catchers out for revenge, or it might be that everybody just wants the mysterious key that George sent his wife from Istanbul.

Excerpt from The Spider Catchers

I draped the strap of my laptop over the handle of my suitcase and climbed the worn stone staircase to the flat, my backpack heavy on my shoulder. Five centuries does a number on steps, even stone ones. I leaned the suitcase against the wall to unlock the Chubb lock on the thick oak door. A tall thin figure stood silhouetted against the French windows. A man. In my flat? Which one of the men who wanted me dead was he? I threw my pack at him and cannoned onto him, landing on his chest with my knees on his arms. I pushed hard on his windpipe with my right arm. He bucked and turned his head so that I could see his face.

“Well, if it isn’t my esteemed mentor, Sidney Worthington,” I said with relief. “What brings you to Paris?”

“Carruthers, get off of me! Are you trying to kill me?”

I leaned back and helped him to his feet.

“Would have if I’d been armed,” I said. “How did you get in? Paul didn’t say there was anybody here.”

Sidney sat down on the sofa and rubbed his throat.

“I didn’t stop in the cafĂ© downstairs.

I put my hands on my hips. “There is no way you picked that lock.”

“The Agency has a key.”

I turned my back on him. “Why am I not surprised?”

The Central Intelligence Agency owns the fifteenth century building where I live and work when I’m not out saving the world.

I turned back. “To return to my question,” I pressed. “What brings you here? You’ve never visited me before. You don’t visit your people. You summon them.”

“I’m on my way to a money-laundering conference in Brussels.”

Sidney is the head of the CIA unit that tracks the vast spider web of dirty money, the billions and billions of dollars that are the profits from crime. Money laundering
is big business because crime is big business. From my office in Paris, I pursue the toxic spiders and seize their money. Arms merchants selling death, drug smugglers selling oblivion, slavers selling women and children. We unravel the international web of shady men and shifting entities that keep it all moving. Usually it just goes to
enrich the usual suspects. These days it can also go to fund terrorism.

“Then you should be in Brussels.” I went to get my suitcase and laptop from the hall where I had left them. “This is Paris.”

“Don’t be a smart-ass.”

“I was a smart-ass when you hired me, Sidney. You didn’t visit me for the sake of my beautiful green eyes. What do you want?”

“A cup of coffee would be nice,” he said, crossing and recrossing his legs. He’s uncertain about whatever it is, I thought. All he has to do is fold his arms across his chest. He folded his arms across his chest.

“So would an answer,” I said.

He ran his hands through his short gray hair. “I need you to go to Fez. You’ve got a reservation on the two o’clock Air France flight to Casablanca.”

“Wrong answer, Sidney. I just got off the red-eye from Baghdad. Usually you let me do my laundry before you dispatch me to save the world again.” I crossed to the window and looked out. There wasn’t any sun in the street. My street never got any sun. “Why?”

“Alicia Harmon, the woman who runs the Femme Aid office in Fez, has vanished, and she’s got to be found. You know the place and the people better than anyone.”

Femme Aid is part of a network of similar offices the Agency set up around the world to monitor human trafficking. It’s a cover, but it actually does provide help for women in distress.

“Nobody’s seen her since the twenty-first of August,” Sidney said.

“My God, Sidney, that’s two weeks! Why didn’t the station in Rabat do something?”

“They did. They couldn’t find a trace.”

“And I will? Why didn’t you send somebody sooner? I’m not the only person on the payroll.”

Sidney joined me at the window. “I needed you to finish the Baghdad job.”

I turned on him. “Yeah, right. That was real important. I found one and a half billion dollars, a fraction of what the contractors have stolen. The Swiss banks have had to jack their buildings up several feet to accommodate all the new dollars in their basements. It was all computer work; I could just as easily have done it from here.”

“I needed you there to put the fear of God into them.”

I snorted. “Sidney, they fear neither God nor man. There are too many of them. There are more contractors in Baghdad than there are flies.”

“Look, Lee, you set up that office.”

I would not take the dirty black suits out of my suitcase and put the clean ones in without a fight. I was too tired.

“So what? Why does it have to be me? This is a job for Clandestine.”

“You know Fez and the people. Anybody else would have to waste time reading in, and that would take time, Lee. Time we may not have.”

“Sidney, if you’d sent somebody else in the beginning, you would have had more time.”

“That’s not the point. I didn’t. In her last—” He didn’t like the way that sounded. “In her most recent report, she wrote that she had found a link to terrorist money.”

“Terrorist money!”

“Something she stumbled over, I suppose. I wrote asking her what she was talking about, but she disappeared before she answered me. I need you to go and find out if she really learned anything about terrorist funding.”

“Who is she?” I asked. “I never heard of her.”

“She’s a contract employee about five years younger than you are,” he explained. “She came on board right after she graduated from Wellesley. I picked her up at a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society. She’s descended from generations of slave traders and generations of abolitionists, and she’s passionate about slavery. That’s why I hired her. But she hasn’t got any street-smarts.”

“She’s not supposed to, Sidney. She’s an analyst.”

I moved to the sofa. Rather than take the wing chair facing me, he joined me there, and we sat stiffly side by side. He twisted a gold button on his Yale blazer and looked uncomfortable.

“You’re an analyst, and you’ve got streets-smarts.”

“I’ve developed some. That’s why I’m still alive.”

About the author:

Marilynn Larew was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and after a living in a number of places, including the Philippines and Japan, she finally settled in southern Pennsylvania, where she and her husband live in an 150 year old farmhouse. She has taught courses about the Vietnamese War and terrorism at the University of Maryland and traveled extensively in Europe and Asia. She likes to write about places she has been or places she would like to go. She has published non-fiction about local history, Vietnamese history, and terrorism. This is her first novel.

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