Pure Fiction: Profiles of Buddhist-inspired novelists who make up stories to tell the truth about our world
By Andrea Miller, Shambhala Sun
Susan Dunlap: Mysteries grounded in Zen
By Louis Peitzman, San Francisco Chronicle
August 13, 2009
By Autumn Stephens, East Bay Monthly
1998 interview by Sue Trowbridge
Susan Dunlap has created three memorable mystery heroines - Berkeley, California, police officer Jill Smith, medical examiner Kiernan O'Shaughnessy, and meter reader-turned-amateur sleuth Vejay Haskell. Her latest book, No Immunity (Delacorte), now available in paperback, is an O'Shaughnessy mystery set in the mountains of Nevada. To most readers, however, Dunlap will always be the Bard of Berkeley, a city that provides her with endless amounts of inspiration for her novels starring Smith. From the streetcorner jewelry vendors and homeless people on Telegraph Avenue to the city's notoriously cantankerous city council, Dunlap captures the freewheeling spirit and quirky charm of Berkeley and its citizens. Jill Smith, a police officer who nevertheless distrusts authority and whose cases often force her to confront her deepest fears, first appeared in 1981, making Dunlap a true pioneer in the field of crime novels with female protagonists. She lives in Albany, a small community just north of the Berkeley city limits, and is an active member of Sisters in Crime, having previously served as president of the organization.
ST: Your first mystery, Karma, was published in 1981, predating Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky's first novels. What made you decide to write a mystery?
SD: I had just been married for a couple of months, and I had some time off from work. I was sitting in the living room and I was reading an Agatha Christie, and I blithely said to my husband, "You know, I could do this." There was sort of a long pause from him, and he restrained himself from rude comment. What he said was, "Well, go ahead." Since I had some time off from work, I didn't have any other excuse, so in fact I went ahead. This was 1972. I wrote a book about encounter groups and twins, which will give you an idea of how close I was still to school. When kids write mysteries, they write about twins and triplets. So it was not a great effort, but nevertheless it was a book, and I finished it and I sent it out, and they sent it back, and I sent it out, and they sent it back.
By the time they'd sent it back the second or third time I'd written a second book, and likewise a third and fourth and fifth and sixth. I think it was the seventh book somebody bought. So the question you might be asking is, "What made you think you should continue to write?" It was really that I just liked writing. I had a half-time job, so I had time to write. The rejections that I got were increasingly better rejections, which is not to say good, but the editors who saw things asked to see the next manuscript. So there was always a little bit of encouragement.
ST: After so many rejections, how do you get yourself psyched up to keep writing?
SD: For most jobs, you go to school or there's an apprenticeship period or something like that. For a mystery writer, you're really on your own. It's very much independent study and trial and error. Some people have writing backgrounds. I didn't, other than being an English major. So I really learned as I wrote, and I could see afterwards some mistakes that I'd made in one book that I wasn't going to make again. I could see the possibilities that I hadn't tried.
I did change characters. That was one of the things that I saw - the first three books, the character was a social worker, which is what I was. After the third book I could see the limitations to that, and so I decided that I would go with a cop. The first thing I thought about was an Albany cop. Then every so often, you get a really good idea, about six times in life. This one was, not as much happens in Albany. Why don't I put my cop in Berkeley, where there are more possibilities, different kinds of people, different kinds of crime, different environments? So I wrote three of those, and it's the third one of those that sold (Karma).
ST: What happened when the book was finally published? Did it get a good reception?
SD: It got no reception whatsoever. It was published by a Canadian paperback house that was part of Harlequin Books, the people who did romances.
ST: Is that PaperJacks?
SD: PaperJacks, yes. They bought a hundred mysteries and they were going to put them out and distribute them the same way they do their romances, on the theory that readers would become attached to the PaperJacks line and then buy everything in a line regardless of who it was by. My book, Karma, was #70. By #30 they realized the error of their ways and they canceled the entire line. So the only place where my book ever went out was to a little paperback club that they had, I think, just in Canada. They did give me the rights back, which was very nice, and I sold it to another Canadian paperback house that published it and presumably distributed it wherever two or three moose are gathered together, because I never saw it anyplace, nor did anybody else. They went out of business, for obvious reasons. Then I sold it to Dell, which has in fact distributed it where people can get it.
ST: Are you a lifelong California resident?
SD: No. I'm from New Jersey.
ST: How long have you lived here?
SD: Since '68.
ST: Did you move here to go to college in Berkeley?
SD: No. I met somebody from out here. He said, "It's always warm and sunny in California." At that point it was February in New York, and I was working for the welfare department and going on home visits, and it was zero for a month and there was a garbage strike. Against the background of that were the words, "It's always warm and sunny in California." And I thought, well, I don't need to hear that one twice, so I got a you-drive car and headed west.
ST: And found out soon enough that it wasn't always warm and sunny.
SD: Right, exactly.
ST: How long did you continue your day job as a social worker?
SD: Until my second book had been bought, and then I thought, I put all these years into learning to write, and I can't really do this job and produce a book a year, the kind of book that I would like to have a year. I just have to take the chance and quit my job. But it's a scary thing to do. There was a long time that I would wake up at four in the morning sweating, which of course is the only reason in the world to be up at four in the morning, anyway.
ST: When did you start riding with the Berkeley police?
SD: Early on, I did a ride-along, and then more recently, the Berkeley police have a Citizens' Academy. I was in the first class of that, and that is 10 weeks on how the police department works. It's wonderful for citizens; it's superb for a writer. I did a couple ride-alongs with that. In the meantime, the Berkeley police have been very good at answering questions. I've gone down, I've taken tours through the police department, I've called people for questions.
ST: Are they pretty happy with the way that you portray them in the books?
SD: It's hard to say. I think that the police think that my cops are not nice enough. The street people think my cops are too nice. So I figure I'm on pretty safe ground here. But my research is accurate, and I'm real careful about that.
ST: Do you feel that the people who read your books are getting an accurate representation of Berkeley?
SD: What I think I'm giving them is the tip of the iceberg. My goal is to give people interesting characters. We don't need to read about people who are doing nothing more interesting than we're doing ourselves. We need to read about the people who are doing interesting things which in themselves describe a certain element of Berkeley. But a lot of people have said to me, "Oh, I've been to Berkeley and I do read your books, and I love the sense of Berkeley. I lived here, I moved away, this is like coming home." And that really pleases me. What I really try to do with Berkeley is to give kind of the underpinnings of the city in the sense of the ethics of Berkeley and the fact that people are really committed to the things that they believe in.
ST: Berkeley's street people are also very much a part of your books. Do you go out and talk to those People's Park denizens?
SD: I know some people, and yeah, I have been to breakfast with people who have given me insights into their lives. It's an intriguing and integral part of Berkeley, and I think the thing that impresses me most about Berkeley is the basic respect for the integrity of the individual. I try to bring that forth in my books too, so that I don't give you stereotypes of street people. I want to give you individuals. If I have a character who's a street person, I want to know, how did this happen? It's not a life that I would choose. What's involved in it, what are the real dangers, and what led people to that life when there's no way out?
ST: Is doing research for the books something you enjoy, or is it something you have to make yourself do?
SD: It depends on what the research is. The Berkeley books, usually something comes to me. Because of all the experimentation in the city, the city does provide for me. In Sudden Exposure the city provided me the Naked Guy and the nudity movement. For that, for instance, I went down to the city council meeting, and it was like everybody on the city council had said, "Oh, Susan Dunlap's here. Why don't we write her first chapter for her?" I had to do virtually nothing. This whole display of people progressively taking their clothes off in the city council chambers just sort of played out in front of me.
ST: How about doing the research for the Kiernan O'Shaughnessy books?
SD: Yeah, now that's fascinating.
ST: Are you one of those mystery writers who likes to go to autopsies?
SD: I do like to go to autopsies. I have a very strong stomach. And yet, I will say that the last time I saw a dead body who died of natural causes and they didn't do an autopsy, it was a large woman, and they just looked at the body, and the cause of death was fairly obvious - it haunted me for a long time to just see this body left there in the middle of this large, cold empty room on a slab. More so than seeing an autopsy. It's not easy to see an autopsy. There are a lot of regulations and privacy issues. It's not like you can just walk in and see one. But the Kiernans, the medical things are so interesting. I'm fascinated by medical conditions that are not my own. Once something is my illness, I have a whole different viewpoint on it. It no longer fascinates me. But things that are not likely to happen to me are interesting.
ST: One of my favorite things about Jill is that she confronts her fears all the time. She's constantly confronting her fear of being paralyzed, or her fear of heights. She's not afraid to show that side of herself.
SD: Yeah, I like to deal with that. I think it's important to face your fears. The fear of paralysis I had from doing yoga. It wasn't an overriding fear, but it was something that I remember talking about with other yoga teachers, the idea that you couldn't use your body when we were doing so many body things. The fear of heights that Jill has I just sort of threw in. It's not my own fear at all. But it was interesting to look at a fear that wasn't my own. You tend to be rather cavalier about fears that you don't have.
ST: Many mystery characters don't seem to have that level of awareness about themselves, their fears and their flaws.
SD: There's one quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, who says something to the effect of, you should never not do anything just because you're afraid to do it. She said it better than that. What exactly is fear? We take our fears so seriously, but in fact they're nothing but thoughts and illusions. It's important to see them for what they are.
ST: When did you decide that you wanted to write other series and other characters and put them in other settings?
SD: I've always done that, actually. When I started, the first hardcover book that I sold was one of the Vejay Haskell books set in the Russian River. I had sold that after my first Jill, which was wending its way to the moose in Canada at that time, going through publishers that were folding. So I thought at some point, OK, I'll try something else. I love the Russian River area and I love the possibilities of that book. Actually, what happened with that was that the early Jills really didn't have much of the things you're talking about with Jill. They were more straight mysteries and less character. When I did Vejay Haskell, because she was an amateur, the book depended more on her relationship with people, and what she thought of things. The atmosphere of the Russian River where it's cold and damp in the winter, it forced me to do more with atmosphere and more with character. When I came back to Jill, I saw that I could do more with her. Jill really benefited from me doing that.
I alternated those books until my publisher said, "Well, people aren't as interested in characters in small towns, and we'll pay you more for Jill." It was not much at that time, and I had to make a decision and continue living indoors, so I thought, OK, I'll do another Jill in a row here and think about things. So I did a couple Jills in a row. But it's hard for me to do the same character book after book. I'm so intensely in Jill, looking through her eyes, being her, that when Jill and I are done with a book, we need a little time apart from each other. It's good for me to do a different character. So I started doing Kiernan, who is very different from Jill. I think Vejay and Jill are not that different, but Kiernan really is. And she doesn't want this soft stuff, she doesn't want to deal with what her emotions are. She wants to put that stuff in the back of her mind, close it off and go on about her business and take no shit. She wants to look people in the face and not budge and demand an answer and just charge on with what she's doing. I find that fascinating. So I like doing her, and I like going to different places, because it's an entirely different kind of writing.
When I'm writing Jill, in writing about the city that I love most in the world, and I love the people in it and I love the possibilities, and Jill works by police procedure but also because she knows the people so well and who would do what and where she could find out what and what behavior is not normal for this kind of person. She knows the places that she loves, and what are the possibilities for these places, what it's like to live in earthquake country, what the dangers are when you build a house hanging off the hillside. When Kiernan goes someplace, she knows nothing. She's really stepping into the unknown, so that everything is new, and she's thrown back entirely on her own abilities and her knowledge. My latest book, No Immunity, is set in the mountains of Nevada, and deals with the possibility of disease being brought in from other countries. There's the suspicion of a massive plague. She is in a place where she has no support and is entirely dependent on her own skills.
ST: I think that the one thing that the characters all have in common is the distrust of authority.
SD: Yes. It's entirely true. Vejay Haskell deals with the bureaucracy of PG&E. Kiernan was fired from being a medical examiner, so her one experience of working for authority hasn't worked out well and she has no intention of dealing with authority, and in fact gets herself in trouble because she can't keep her mouth shut when she's face to face with authority. With Jill it's a whole lot more subtle. She has a real basic distrust of authority and she's taken this job where she is the authority in the city that most hates authority. She has trouble with the bureaucracy of the police department. She's forever being caught between the police department and the city. I think a distrust of authority is in a sense a very female position. The purpose of authority is to keep the status quo, and for those of us who are women now, we spent our life trying to change the status quo so that it's only realistic to be suspicious of authority.
ST: Since Cop Out ends with Jill being suspended from the force, is there any chance that she might strike out on her own?
SD: Anything could happen. I like to think that when she and I are not working, she's lying on a beach in Mexico contemplating her future. I honestly don't know what will happen.
ST: Do you think you'll ever bring back Vejay Haskell, who last appeared in print in 1986?
SD: I don't know. My source is gone from PG&E, though she still works up there. I think if there were a great outcry I would certainly think about it. But Vejay is definitely on the beach in Mexico in the working characters' resort, as opposed to the old characters' home.
ST: How did you get the idea to write a book about a meter reader?
SD: The idea for that series came when I was walking back from dinner with my friend, the meter reader in the Russian River area, and she said, "When you work for PG&E, you can never take a sick day like you do at the welfare department, a mental health day. If you call in sick from PG&E, you'd better not be seen outside. You'd better be truly sick." I thought, well, if that were the case and you couldn't be seen anyplace, you've got no alibi at all for anything that happened that day. Then, of course, I thought, a meter reader, in a small town in a rural area like that, the meter reader is the person everybody trusts. You think nothing when they go up on your porch, into your back yard. There's a wealth of stuff that a nosy person could find out if they were a meter reader. And of course they know everybody there because they're walking a route. So it was really fun to do those books. Then there is the Russian River. It's just a very nice area, with a very divergent population moving up from San Francisco, that created a lot of possibilities then for the groups of people getting in each other's face.
ST: What's your average writing day like?
SD: I have the worst possible schedule. I get up and I go to the Y or bicycle or hike or do something in the morning, and then I go by Peet's and I get a latte, maybe sit outside and read the paper with my latte. Then I come home, and by that time there have been a number of phone calls. So I answer my phone messages, and I make breakfast, and it's now getting to be like 11 or 12. At some point I start to think, well, maybe I should work here. There's a point of panic, and I sit down and I turn the computer on. But the computer has Freecell on it. There are 32,000 games, of which I have gone through some number. So I play Freecell a while, and then I turn on WordPerfect and I look at stuff, and then I play a little more Freecell.
When I get more serious about writing, on a good day, I'll rewrite what I did the day before. Then when I start writing myself, when I get serious, then I switch from Freecell on the computer to solitaire on the table, because actually, the movement of your hands kind of puts you in a different space and it's good for writing. It's not uncommon for me to not get to seriously putting words on the computer 'til four in the afternoon, and then I'll work into the evening. It's not a system I would recommend to anyone. Every so often I think, OK, I'm going to get up and I'm going to start writing like everybody else does, and then at noon I'll be free. But it never works.