Interview: Stefanie Pintoff’s Writing Future Takes Root In The Past

June 15, 2010
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Sandra Ruttan: IN THE SHADOW OF GOTHAM is already a multiple award winner. It won a best first crime novel award from Minotaur/MWA, and has gone on to win the Best First Novel By An American Author Edgar. How have these awards defined your journey to publication, and establishing yourself as an author?

Stefanie Pintoff: In addition to being incredibly honored by these awards, I’m also well aware that they’ve smoothed my entry into a very crowded mystery field. The Minotaur Books/MWA award gave me my start, since the “prize” was what every unpublished author desires most: a publication contract. And the Edgar win – which was absolutely thrilling! – has attracted attention that otherwise would never have come my way, not to mention establishing additional credibility for me as a writer.

The night I won the Edgar, several people told me to take a look at the list of past winners because I was suddenly in pretty heady company. But those past winners also reminded me that a debut alone doesn’t establish an author’s reputation; succeeding books do. If I want the kind of long-lasting career I hope to have, then my goal must be to make each new book better than my last.

Sandra: I think people always dream of winning awards, without thinking of the flip side of the coin. Your second book, A CURTAIN FALLS, was recently released. Did you struggle with the pressure of trying to improve upon an award-winning debut?

Stefanie: Actually, the thought never crossed my mind – I was too busy struggling with the pressure of my deadline!

I do feel A CURTAIN FALLS is a better book, as I learned many valuable lessons from publishing my first book. I’m always going to want to write the best book I can – to keep growing as a writer – every time, award or no award.

Sandra: You’ve mentioned the original contest you won that got you your publishing deal motivated you to finish the manuscript. Was this the first manuscript you’d attempted? The first you’d completed?

Stefanie: Yes, it was. I’d always been a voracious reader – but I’d never tried to write fiction, only wished that I could. When our daughter came home and I was deciding whether to return to work right away, my husband proposed that I stay home with her and try to write the book I’d always dreamed of. So I did. Admittedly, my progress was very slow until she started school.

Sandra: When you started IN THE SHADOW OF GOTHAM was it the plot or the setting or the character that came first?

Stefanie: Honestly, I’m no longer completely sure – but I think it was the character of Alistair who came first. He is loosely modeled upon one of my law school professors, from whom I borrowed a couple of real-life traits and created my criminologist: larger than life, absolutely brilliant, and just as enamored of the good life as he is his academic passions.

And almost immediately after I had conceived of my criminologist, the ideas kept coming:

What if … there had been a terrible, senseless crime?

What if … there was a criminologist who believed he knew the killer responsible – because he had interviewed him, spent time with him?

And what if … he had been more involved than he initially let on?

Soon I had conceived of not only the dedicated but self-absorbed criminologist, Alistair Sinclair, but also Simon Ziele, the detective who would more than be his match.

And it was never a question but that my book would be set in New York. I’m one of those people who became a New Yorker the moment I set foot here. The city and its history are endlessly fascinating to me.

Sandra: You grew up as an army brat and moved around a lot. How do you think this experience has affected your ability, as a writer, to establish a strong sense of place?

Stefanie: Someone who isn’t “of” a particular place is always something of an outsider – forever observing what goes on around them while never becoming part of it. It’s a unique viewpoint – one that I use not only to establish a sense of place, by noticing details that others may overlook, but also to create my protagonist. Any detective must be a good observer above all else – and so I created my detective, Simon Ziele, to be an outsider. His viewpoint can be unique precisely because he is always observing those parts of New York he can never be part of – whether because of his ethnicity, his religion, or his class. Even in his native Lower East Side, his education and ambitions have set him apart to the extent that he is no longer at home. Fundamentally, this is now who he is: he can hold his own anywhere, but he’ll never truly be part of anything or any place.

Sandra: You write historical crime fiction. I’ve gleaned from other interviews you’ve done that you have a deep love of history, particularly the history of New York City, so would I be correct in assuming it’s important to you to get the historical details right?

Stefanie: It’s essential – I love doing the research and I always aim for accuracy.

But I write historical fiction, creating a world that’s part-real and part-invented. So my real goal is to remain grounded in the spirit of the times, even when I abandon strict historical accuracy for my own inventions. I’d like to think that blend – of the real and the imagined – is actually part of historical fiction’s appeal. My standard is to make sure that what’s invented could have been true even if it isn’t.

Sandra: How much time do you spend on researching as opposed to writing?

Stefanie: For the current book I’m writing, the third in the series, which takes Detective Ziele into the hidden world of anarchist plotters and secret societies, I spent about four months researching before I started writing in earnest.

Apart from a specific research topic, like anarchists, newspaper archives are probably my biggest resource, now that I’m comfortable with the basics of life in 1906. I always read as many daily papers as I can access for the days I am setting my next story. Though I won’t use most of what I find, everything from the headlines to the society pages to the crime blotter tells me something about the time period I’m trying to capture.

Sandra: Is it almost a guilty pleasure for you, or does it ever become a distraction?

Stefanie: You know, the research is actually a springboard for ideas: I find it impossible to read a news story or even a restaurant menu without imagining characters, conflicts, and story scenarios. The hard part is to decide which ideas best serve my story – and to let go of the rest.

Sandra: Has accuracy ever gotten in the way of a particular plot development you’ve had to change?

Stefanie: No, it’s usually the other way around: sometimes my desire for accuracy leads to plot developments. For example, in Gotham, I used the 1905 mayoral election as inspiration for a major plot thread. It was a dirty election, in which ballot boxes were thrown wholesale into the East River and Tammany toughs beat up those voters who supported the wrong candidate.

Sandra: When you read historical fiction is accuracy important to you?

Stefanie: It is – though it’s the author’s ability to capture the spirit of the age that is most important to me. “Accuracy” to me implies strict adherence to “facts,” as you would expect in non-fiction. With historical fiction, I want authenticity: an invented story that might have been true. If I’m transported and made to feel part of another place and time, then I’m a happy reader.

Sandra: Your new book, A CURTAIN FALLS, features the same protagonist, Simon Ziele, and criminologist Alistair Sinclair. What do you like about continuing with the same characters and continuing a series? What did you find challenging?

Stefanie: At the heart of a good series is the continual emotional development of the principal characters from book to book, providing readers the opportunity to share in that growth. Doing this well is both the most challenging part of continuing a series – yet also what I like best. Do it poorly, and the characters may seem stale or stagnant. Do it well, and you’ve provided your readers with new friends to follow as they move along life’s journey. To me, this challenge is especially interesting in the case of Ziele, who is recovering from a deep depression when we first meet him in Gotham. In A Curtain Falls, we see him coming out of that and living his life more fully – both personally and professionally.

Sandra: You’ve given your protagonist, Simon Ziele, a deep pain that he’s wrestling with from before the first lines of the first page. How do you think loss defines him as a detective and a person? Is there risk in the possibility of him finding future happiness?

Stefanie: When we first meet Simon Ziele he is still reeling from the loss of his fiancée aboard the General Slocum steamship disaster, which claimed over a 1,000 lives and was the worst tragedy to strike New York City prior to 9/11. Ziele played a part in the rescue efforts, suffering an injury to his right arm – a permanent reminder of that fateful day. Ziele’s personal loss and humble beginnings are central to his character and tenacity as a police detective. And yes, while there is a risk that Ziele finding future happiness may change him in meaningful ways, I would like to think the possibility exists.

Sandra: What do you and Simon Ziele have in common?

Stefanie: First, we are both fascinated by new technology – and second, we share a deeply skeptical view of the world. But we also harbor an essential optimism that good people and their actions can make a difference.

Sandra: If you could travel to an alternate universe where your characters really existed, who would you most want to spend time with? Why?

Stefanie: For a night out in early 1900s New York, I’d definitely choose Alistair – he would know where to enjoy an extravagant dining experience, entertain me with interesting conversation, and top off the evening with a fine symphony, opera, or theater performance.

For a good friend, I’d choose Isabella – she’s a good listener and shares my love of all things canine.

And if I weren’t already married, Simon Ziele would be a pretty good catch: he’s intelligent, considerate, and loyal to a fault.

Sandra: You’ve said that you write crime fiction because it’s what you most loved to read. What was it that captivated you about crime fiction? Was there a particular book or author that won you over, or an issue?

Stefanie: There was no one book that won me over to the genre. But from the time I was seven and picking up my first Nancy Drew, it was clear that crime fiction was my passion.

I read Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.D. James as a teenager, then expanded my tastes even more broadly as an adult. I’ve always liked the analytical component that crime fiction offers. And I’m fascinated by how the story’s crime creates an intense pressure on characters – one that never fails to reveal something interesting about human psychology and society.

Sandra: You’ve gone from lawyer to teacher to author. It’s an unusual journey. Are there things you learned or did in your previous careers that have helped you as an author?

Stefanie: As a lawyer, I learned the importance of meeting deadlines – and how to craft clean, clear prose. And as a teacher and academic, I learned a great deal about the craft of writing.

I’d say the common element among all my varying paths is my love of stories. Because law is essentially about storytelling: taking the facts and weaving them into a compelling argument. As both an academic and a lawyer, I learned to pull stories apart and analyze them. Not surprisingly, it’s more satisfying to create them in the first place!

Sandra: We both have daughters who are eight. Mine has already developed a deep love of horror and CSI. Does your daughter share any of your interests related to your writing? How do you, as a parent, balance what you tell her about what your stories are about?

Stefanie: My daughter has her own interests – and at the moment, they involve music and science more than fiction writing. She is a huge reader though, which I’m thrilled about. She knows that I write crime fiction involving murder, and she’s been exposed to that through the lens of fantasy in her own reading; her tastes run to wizards and Greek gods. Obviously, I don’t mention the darker elements of my books.

Sandra: You’ve described yourself as a voracious reader. Do you still read as much, or is writing making that more challenging? What are you reading these days?

Stefanie: The writing (and all that comes with it) definitely makes reading more challenging. I love it just as much – there are simply fewer hours in my day when I’m not working or being a parent.

I recently finished Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, reading all three books back-to-back. I thoroughly enjoyed it; his Lisbeth Salander is one of the most unique and compelling characters I’ve encountered in years.

Currently on my nightstand is Jeffrey Deaver’s latest, The Burning Wire. He’s one of my favorite writers; he shares my fascination with the science of forensics, though with a modern-day approach.

Sandra: Are you still reading ink on paper, or have you moved to an ereader yet? If so, which one, and what do you like about it?

Stefanie: At the moment, I’m using my husband’s hand-me-down Kindle. Because he shares my same reading interests, I have an entire library waiting for me.

Truthfully, I prefer the experience of reading a hard copy book – but like most city-dwellers, I’m challenged in terms of bookshelf space. What I like best about e-readers is that there’s always room for one – or one hundred – more books!

Sandra: I have to admit that I’m LOST depressed these days. What about you? What are your guilty pleasures? What’s your favorite TV show? When you aren’t writing or reading, what are you doing?

Stefanie: My favorite TV show is Dexter; it’s the only show I make it a point never to miss. I like the show’s unique point of view, and the fact that the writers never stop trying to surprise us.

My other favorite is more along the lines of a guilty pleasure – HGTV’s “Showing New York.” As someone who has moved – and renovated – more than my share of homes, I’m perpetually real-estate obsessed. And it’s easy to be so in New York, with its historical homes, challenging spaces, and block by block location differences!

Sandra: Do you have any plans for a standalone or a children’s book? What does the future hold for Stefanie Pintoff?

Stefanie: I’m working on an idea for a standalone now, since as much as I enjoy writing my historical mystery series, I’m always interested in new ideas as well. I’d love to follow the example of those authors who successfully alternate between their series and standalone efforts.

For more information about Stefanie Pintoff, IN THE SHADOW OF GOTHAM and her latest release, A CURTAIN FALLS, visit her website.

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Sandra Ruttan

Sandra Ruttan is the bestselling author of SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, HARVEST OF RUINS and The Nolan, Hart & Tain series. For more information, visit her website: http://sruttan.wordpress.com/

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