Shaun’s QuadrantJanuary 2006
Shaun Farrell Interviews Paula Woods
Paula Woods is the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery novels, including Inner City Blues, Stormy Weather, Dirty Laundry, and Strange Bedfellows (published this month). Two of Paula’s books hit the Los Angeles Times bestseller list, and Dirty Laundry, the third book in the series, was named Best Mystery of 2003 by The Seattle Times and The South Florida Sun Sentinel. In addition to writing her own novels, Paula has worked as an editor and writes book reviews for The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. Visit her website (http://www.woodsontheweb.com).
Shaun Farrell: The protagonist of your novels, Charlotte Justice, endures a number of tragedies over the course of four books. She confronts the devastation of her husband and daughter being murdered, she fights racism and sexual advances from her superiors and coworkers, she witnesses multiple murders/suicides, and she learns that her family hides some pretty dark secrets. How much of Charlotte’s character arc did you know from the beginning, and how much have you discovered along the way?
Paula Woods: I've known about Charlotte and the secrets her family have been hiding from the beginning. That's because I developed a bio for Charlotte and key members of her family when I was planning the first novel, Inner City Blues. Doing that really helped me because as the cases unfold in the mysteries, the family drama can, too. I even know a couple of other big secrets about Charlotte and her family that I haven't revealed yet! That will have to wait for further books in the series.
SF: You tackle some heavy themes in your novels. Two of the most consistent of these themes are racism and sexism, which are particularly apparent within the LAPD. I must confess my naiveté concerning these parts of your books. Is racism really so rampant in the LAPD, at least the LAPD of the mid 1990’s?
PW: Some of the women with whom I spoke described it that way. But most of the successful women deal with the harassers in no uncertain terms and move on. These are women who do carry weapons, after all.
SF: Is the LAPD more tolerant today?
PW: In many ways, yes. I recently attended a conference on women in policing that the LAPD sponsored and the speakers painted a much more positive picture. Yet there were some women during the breaks who I overheard complaining about the lack of promotions to the higher ranks for women of color, so I'm sure there are still improvements to be made. The biggest difference I see is in Chief Bratton, who has made it his stated priority to promote more women to command positions.
SF: You thank people within the LAPD on your acknowledgments pages, yet you don’t glamorize the work of officers or paint them to be angels. These people have serious flaws, just like ordinary people. How are your books received by police officers?
PW: Based on the e-mails and comments I get the police officers who've read the books seem to enjoy them.
SF: Strange Bedfellows deals, in part, with the circumstances surrounding the murder of Charlotte’s husband, Keith, and Charlotte’s daughter. You really deepen the complexity of how and why Keith was killed, and we see that some of Charlotte’s relatives where involved in hiding the truth from her. How do you think Charlotte will change with these startling revelations?
PW: When you leave Charlotte in Strange Bedfellows, she's back in her therapist's office, not really sure of what's to come, but in the hands of a good guide for the journey. That's exactly how I felt when I finished the book--not sure of what her future reaction to her family or the LAPD will be, but willing to deal with it. I think that's a good place to leave her while I sort it out.
SF: It’s ironic that Charlotte’s job is to see through the lies people tell and discover the truth, yet she couldn’t do that with her own family. It’s a wonderful way for you to showcase Charlotte’s vulnerability, despite the fact that she’s an incredibly strong woman.
PW: Many perceptive, strong people have a blind spot when it comes to those closest to them. Charlotte's no exception to that.
SF: Now, your fans have been waiting awhile to see the trial of Steve Firestone, a character who I personally love to hate! Do you think Steve is redeemable?
PW: Steve Firestone has harassed Charlotte and her partner, Gena Cortez, from the time they joined the department. He's got a lot to answer for, on both fronts. Yet he's a character I enjoy writing. He's got a lot of complexities that I haven't been able to fully explore. So I plan to give Steve some thought, maybe write a couple of stories from his point of view, and see what he might have to say
SF: When you do address this issue, will we see the return of Gena Cortez?
PW: I'm not sure about that. I've often thought about Gena while writing Strange Bedfellows and Dirty Laundry, books in which she does not appear. I have some ideas about what she's doing while Charlotte's pursuing her own cases, but we'll have to see if she shows up in Steve Fiestone's universe, or one of her own
SF: I want to ask you a question about Hollywood, a subject you tackle in Stormy Weather. Do you think Hollywood is making progress in creating more dynamic roles for people of all color, not just white, or are they still spinning their wheels?
PW: Still spinning their wheels. For example, there was a report I saw last fall that was issued by UCLA's Ralph Bunche Center for African-American Studies (2005 Hollywood Writers Report) showing that minority representation was at only 10% in television writing. That was for minorities of all races, which, while improving, is still abysmal.
SF: Let’s take a step back for a moment. How did your writing career get started? Did you always want to be a writer?
PW: I can't say I actively wanted to be a writer. I remember, however, writing short stories as a child, including one about a cat with ESP who solved crimes and went on adventures—maybe I was channeling Lillian Jackson Braun or something. Anyway, I started writing because I had a brainstorm to develop a book of days on African American history, and I ended up collecting 1500 entries for every day of the year. That book, I, Too, Sing America (you can find the citation on my website) was the first book I wrote (with co-author Felix H. Liddell) and I ended up editing several anthologies, including one of black crime writing, before writing my first crime novel.
SF: Tell us about the first books you published, like I, Too, Sing America and Merry Christmas, Baby. How do you enjoy being the editor versus being the writer?
PW: Those books were fun to do because they included African American fine art as well as text. My responsibility for the anthologies like Merry Christmas, Baby or Spooks, Spies and Private Eyes, the black crime anthology, was to select the text, or to work with writers on short stories that would be included in the collection. You use very different muscles editing someone than writing yourself. The downside is it can make you much more critical when you're writing your own stuff!
SF: How invested do you become, emotionally, in the characters in your novels?
PW: When you spend a year writing them, or several years in the case of Charlotte Justice and her circle of colleagues and family, you do get attached to them. Not so much that I wouldn't put them in jeopardy, but that's the fun of creating my own fictional universe. I can do whatever I want.
SF: How many Charlotte Justice novels do you think you’ll write?
PW: I've got tons of ideas for Charlotte novels, more than I can possibly write in one lifetime! I'm usually thinking one to two books ahead when I'm writing, but sometimes a direction you thought you might go for a future book changes by the time you finish the one you're writing.
SF: Has anyone in Hollywood shown interest in making a film based on your novels? Halle Berry could pull off Justice quite nicely!
PW: Lots of interest, no firm deals yet.
SF: What does your typical writing day look like?
PW: Up at five, write until nine. Edit, repeat.
SF: What are you reading right now?
PW: The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde. It's a crime novel, a police procedural, set in a fantasy universe where nursery rhyme characters are real. So in this first of Fforde's new series the victim, Humpty Dumpty, has a great fall...or was he pushed? It gets pretty far out by the end of the book. Something your readers may get a kick out of reading.
SF: What authors have inspired you the most?
PW: Walter Moseley, Octavia Butler, Ann Petry (an African American writer of the 1940s who wrote an awesome book, The Street, which was the first book by a black woman to sell over 1 million copies)
SF: Since Far Sector is a magazine of speculative fiction, I must ask what writers/filmmakers of science fiction, fantasy, or horror do you most enjoy?
PW: As I said, Octavia Butler, but also Ursula LeGuin. I was also a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkein, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Frank Herbert in college
SF: What are you working on right now?
PW: A couple of short stories that features a cop gone bad. Not sure if he'll end up being Steve Firestone, but a guy with Steve's kinds of issues.
SF: Paula, is there anything else you would like our readers at Far Sector SFFH to know?
PW: I've got a sweepstakes on my web site that will provide one lucky winner with a weekend in Los Angeles and a tour of locations in Strange Bedfellows and the other books. You can find information on my web site at www.woodsontheweb.com.
Copyright © 2005 by Shaun Farrell. All Rights Reserved.