Interview: Tamara Siler Jones
by Gayle Surrette
Bantam Interview ISBN/ITEM#: INTTSJones
Date: October 2005 / Show Official Info /
SFRevu: Since this is the October/Halloween issue, I guess I should ask what scares you? And the flipside what makes you feel safe?
Tamara Siler Jones: The easy answer to the first part is that I have a phobia of falling. I don't like being up on chairs or ladders, and the sensation of falling terrifies the heck out of me. That's a simple thing, though. The harder answer is one I face every day - that I'll flinch as a writer and my readers won't get their money's worth.
As for safety, that's at home, with my family, especially my husband. He makes me feel safe. Corny, but true.
SFRevu: There's a real approach/avoidance component to murder mysteries. Most of us don't want to have any such thing happen to anyone we know or to ourselves but we seem to be fascinated by the 'killer' and by 'crime'. Since you write about crime and its solution what draws you to the genre -- both reading it and writing your own stories?
T.S. Jones: I actually don't read that much crime material unless it's research related. I've never been a big true-crime fan, but I have read some. Most of my crime reading is strictly research and that seems to lean more toward the psychology of murderers, the killers' methods, clue structures, and how to apply forensic techniques. In fiction I'm drawn more toward character-centered thrillers and anything that makes me think. I read all over a broad spectrum of writers and genres and styles, but lately I seem to be drawn toward dystopian literature (at least that's what my recently-read pile suggests).
What draws me to writing crime... Well, I like to drop my characters into situations where they have no choice but confront things they'd rather not look at, let alone deal with. The books aren't about the crimes as much as they are about decent people trying to make sense of horrific things, real and imagined. While I include the killer's perspective, the stories are about the people who stand and say, "I won't let this keep happening." My characters confront the darkness and stare it in the eye as best they can. My books are gruesome and brutal, yes, but handing out a teddy bear and a hug doesn't make the bad things go away.
SFRevu: If you didn't write forensic mysteries, what genre would you most like to try your hand at? And why?
T.S. Jones: Commercial mystery thrillers, much like what I write now, but without magic. I like books that make me think, and I like writing stories that take a look at things from a non-standard angle. I love playing with dichotomy.
SFRevu: I think I remember that Agatha Christie once said that she'd wished she'd made Hercule Poirot younger when she first wrote about him because people liked him and kept asking for more books. Do you think that you'll feel the same way about Dubric Byerly? It seems that with his arthritis and other ailments and the drain from the ghosts that he won't be able to stand up to many more cases that require so much physical exertion?
I have to smile at that one. Dubric's age isn't a problem - at least not yet - in the sense that his physical limitations get in the way. I'm more concerned about him as a developing character. He's fairly set in his ways and it's a constant battle for me to find challenges that kick him into developing and growing as a character. His mind's made up about a lot of things and he's very resistant to having the blinders pulled off. He's a bit of a stick-in-the-mud and shifting his thinking, even a little, is my biggest challenge with Dubric. I like his age right where it is, but someday I might write some "younger" Dubric stories.
SFRevu: I find your world quite intriguing. In Ghosts in the Snow, I felt the world was an interesting mesh of middle ages and yet there seem to be so many modern sensibilities especially in Byerly and Rolle. From some of the descriptions in Threads of Malice it seems more like a post-apocalyptic and so long after the event that people have forgotten most of the technology which they once had. Does your world have this feel in order to allow Byerly more ability to use nearly modern forensic methods of investigation? How do you feel that this world constrains the character or helps you with the plotting?
T.S. Jones: It's always been a post-apocalyptic world that's struggling to move forward again. That concept is a tricky thing to illustrate when the highest technology level achieved is roughly that of 1865 and so much of it is considered archaic by our standards anyway. In Threads of Malice, I had an opportunity to show a less controlled area where the technology and artifacts come into play much more than I could in the tight setting of Ghosts.
Dubric exists in a world that is greatly of his own making. He's well educated, intelligent, and can make logical leaps. That helps him solve the problems I dump in his lap. It's a constraint in that clues that modern criminologists could use - like fingerprinting and blood work - aren't available to him at all, and that distance communication is essentially non-existent. He's on his own. Dubric mostly uses his senses and reasoning to figure out his clues. For things he doesn't know and can't deduce, he consults others who can. As a writer, the limitations of Dubric's world keep me more character centered than event centered and, I hope, that makes the stories tighter and more compelling.
SFRevu: When you're writing do you find that whole scenes come to you like watching a movie in your head or do you have to strive for each word to build up the scene? Also, do you plot everything before beginning the story or do you just jump in and then plot as you go along and the characters let you?
T.S. Jones: It's not really like a movie, but closer to a 3-dimensional, almost real space where I can describe what I see and smell and touch, while altering the angle of perspective to get the best view of the parts I want to show. I mostly make it all up as I go and I've found that the less I think and fret, the better it is. I never worry about anything when I'm composing other than telling the story as accurately as I can. I thrust the problem upon the characters then follow along as they figure it all out. I have a very loose, very vaporous idea where the story's heading, but I'm never right. The characters, though, always know.
SFRevu: Ghosts in the Snow won the Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Memorial Award for the best first SF/Fantasy Novel of 2004. I often wonder does winning such an award make it harder for an author to write their next work (living up to the expectation sort of thing) or does it help by letting the author know that "Yeah, I can do this and people like it."
T.S. Jones: You'd think I'd get jazzed over awards and great reviews, but I tend to crawl away and hide. Ghosts garnered an amazing amount of notice, especially for a first novel, and I'm thankful that Threads was finished when Ghosts hit the shelves. Threads was a struggle to write (can I craft another great book again?) but I had no one watching me or expecting great things other than myself. The book I'm currently writing, Valley of the Soul, has been torture to work on. Winning the Compton Crook froze my writing for at least a month (I had a medical scare about the same time which didn't help), and the early, incredibly positive remarks for Threads haven't helped much either. I'm woefully behind schedule on Valley. It should have been finished in August, but I'm still composing. (It's not due until December, but I like to finish really early) Not only am I having to meet expectations that were set by Ghosts, I have to meet Threads' as well. That's a mighty high bar to hit.
SFRevu: I'd think it takes a lot of research going in to each of your mysteries to date. Do you think you spend more time on the forensic/plot of the book or the psychology of the killer(s)? And how much of the background of the world do you have to research; for example, Maeve's description of her weaving and how she 'signs' her work gives so much weight to the reality of the world. Do you also weave or did you have to research this as well?
T.S. Jones: Research is research. When I'm spinning a story idea, I do a lot of general researchy stuff. For Threads, for example, I read up on John Wayne Gacy and Dean Corll, looked up industrial era architecture, wrote a lot of notes about silkworms, and even surveyed different kinds of sheep. Most of the pre-book research is to get a feel for where I'm going with the murders, the terminologies, the way things look and feel. I don't use a lot of specifics from this round of research, it's just general stuff. I do take a lot of notes though.
General idea in my head, I start writing. As I work through the story I'll run into things I hadn't anticipated - like Maeve having tinned food in her cellar. I'll then go research again, check up on specifics (especially the applicable dates, if it's technology related) and go a little more in depth. If adjustments need to be made, I'll make them then, then move on until the next odd thing pops up.
I have a bachelor's degree in art and I took two semesters of textile weaving while in college. I own a four-harness loom so a lot of Maeve's work is from my own experience, but I really don't weave much any more. I do make quilts and most visual artists, whether in textiles or any other media, tend to sign their work in some way, whether a signature on the front, a tag on the back, or initials carved into the base. It just made sense to me that Maeve would find a way to mark her art as her own.
SFRevu: Writing the type of books you do that are so horrific in content, how do you manage to put the whole thing out of your mind and bake bread, make a quilt or just have quiet time with the family after writing a particularly nasty scene of murder and mayhem?
T.S. Jones: I have more problems going into a night of horrific content than coming out of it. For example, I saw one particular scene in Threads coming on the horizon and it took me about a week to work up the guts to write it. That's a lot scarier to me, knowing that something really, really bad is going to happen. Once it's over, it's just over and I'm on to the next scene. The story at hand rarely leaves my mind. It's just like any other mentally taxing type of job and it's spinning in the back of my head pretty much all the time.
SFRevu: Do you think your hobbies refresh your creativity for the next writing session or are they just a way to use a different area of your brain for a while?
T.S. Jones: A little of both. Quilting is, for me, very technical in a zen sort of way. I'm a competition level piecer and I make intricate blocks, like New York Beauty, to relax (any quilters who read that will likely cringe). There's just something about a complicated pattern and a lot of fabric that makes me go "aaah." It's the same muscle I think - several people who know me say I make quilts the same way I write books - but I use it in a different direction and it stretches and relaxes me.
SFRevu: What authors do you read for pleasure and what movies do you enjoy? What is it about those authors or movies that you like?
T.S. Jones: Reading for pleasure. Oh, I remember the days when I could! I make time to read and I just pick whatever sounds good. Currently I'm reading George Orwell's 1984, Mark D.Giller's Hammerjack, Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, and I recently finished Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby. My favorite author to read is probably Stephen King, overall, but I read so many different things I hate to dump all my adoration on his head. I like books that have three-dimensional characters and make me think. The story and characters in House of Leaves aren't that unusual, but the structure just amazes me. Wow.
As for movies, I'm all over the board again. Favorites include The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Schindler's List, Pirates of the Caribbean, Million Dollar Baby, Spiderman, Mystic River, Sin City and The Ring.
SFRevu: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions.