Rebecca Pawel’s most recent novel is The Watcher in the Pine from SoHo Crime. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.
Hi Rebecca. Tell us whatever you’d like to share about your background, current life, childhood, whatever strikes your fancy.
I was born and raised in New York City, and that’s marked me in ways that I think are basically good. For those who have read DEATH OF A NATIONALIST, I’ll say that Gonzalo’s relationship with Madrid is roughly my relationship with my home city. I love it dearly, and am extremely pro-urban, an unusual phenomenon in the U.S. (possibly slightly more common in Europe, where, however, being urban means something slightly different).
I teach in a public high school here in the city, the High School for Enterprise Business and Technology. I have a Masters in teaching English, but my undergraduate degree was in Spanish, so I have two licenses, and this semester I’m fortunate enough to teach one English class and one Spanish class, which is really fun, and keeps me on my toes.
What was the genesis of setting a novel in Spain of the 1930s?
It’s become such a dominant part of my life that it’s hard to remember how it started! But basically, in the summer of 2000 I started arguing with a friend and former professor (Persephone Braham, who the book is dedicated to) about whether Ellis Peters’ 2nd Cadfael novel One Corpse Too Many was a â€œcozy.â€ (She said it was, I said it wasnâ€™t.) Persephone was preparing to teach a course on Latin American detective fiction that summer, and she’d asked me if I knew of any mystery novels set in Madrid. The mixture of â€œmystery novelâ€ â€œMadridâ€ and the plot of One Corpse Too Many (end of a bitter Civil War, a murder committed for personal reasons and disguised as an execution, and two men on opposite sides who work in tandem to find the killer) got mixed up in my mind. No one who’s familiar with Spanish history doesn’t know of the legend surrounding the siege of Madrid in Civil War. So I had my two protagonists, and my siege, and my setting.
The murder Tejada commits at the beginning of the novel, and his subsequent evolution, was my personal reaction to the Amadou Diallou case. I wanted to figure out how an apparently sane human being could empty a clip into another human being, and then seriously say that he had committed no crime at all, because he happened to be wearing a uniform as well as a gun at the time.
Did you always want to be a novelist? What was your road to publication?
I’ve always written, and generally, yes, I’ve always written novel type things, although they never got to the length of real novels until I was about 15. My grandfather was a novelist and biographer, and my aunt is a journalist, so being a writer was accepted very matter-of-factly by my family. No one talked about â€œwantingâ€ to be a writer. If you wrote, you were a writer, period. If you were published, that was nice, but I grew up knowing that most writers have both day jobs and manuscripts in drawers. I always knew that I’d write, but I always assumed that I’d do something else as well. I started submitting my fiction to publishers and agents who I knew through family in my teens. It was all rejected of course, which was probably just as well. DEATH OF A NATIONALIST was the first piece of real genre fiction that I wrote, and it occurred to me that there might be a market for it. So I went online and looked for â€œmystery publishersâ€ on Yahoo, and found Soho, which publishes â€œcrime fiction set in exotic locales.â€ I checked them out further in â€œWriter’s Marketâ€ and thought, â€œif anybody is going to publish this, it will be Soho.â€ So after nerving myself up for six months, I sent a query letter and sample chapters.
Laura Hruska (my editor) asked to see the whole manuscript and I was thrilled. Then I got the manuscript back with a handwritten postcard saying something like, â€œthe book is tempting, but we only publish series, and I do not see a continuing character. Tejada would be the only possibility and he doesn’t seem likely…â€ By that time Iâ€™d already completed a draft of LAW OF RETURN, so I drafted this whole careful letter to Laura suggesting that she might be interested in both books. The Saturday after receiving Laura’s note, I had dinner with my parents, and showed them the postcard…my very first handwritten almost not-rejection letter. My mother was holding the card up to read it and I suddenly said, â€œWait, wait, there’s something written on the other side!â€ I grabbed it out of her hand and read the back, which continued. â€œIf you have further thoughts about a continuing character please call me.â€ So I junked the letter I’d carefully drafted, and called Laura up. She read LAW OF RETURN and about three weeks later she called me up and offered to buy both books.
You were in Barcelona last month. Tell us about the trip.
Two words: Woo hoo. Soho is a wonderful press, but they’re a small outfit, really more like family. Ediciones B (my Spanish publisher) are strictly big leagues, and they’d arranged a huge publicity campaign to coincide with the Spanish translation of the book coming out. I got to do radio and TV interviews, and was taken on a day trip out to the ruins of Belchite viejo, a town bombarded during the Spanish Civil War and never rebuilt, to do a photo shoot there. And people in the hotel called me Srta. Pawel and took messages for me from the publicity people. It was like being a celebrity. Kind of a strain, but very cool for four or five days.
Actually, I was invited to Barcelona for a conference on the European Crime Novel, put together by David Barba, a journalist and short story writer whoâ€™s a friend from the Semana Negra (another mystery festival in northern Spain). David did a fantastic job at the conference. My only regret was that I was occupied with publicity for the book and didn’t get to go to some of the round tables (and socialize with other friends from the Semana).
Who do you enjoy reading?
This is always an embarrassing question, because I re-read a lot, and read relatively little new stuff. So among my old time favorite authors; Walter R. Brooks, Terry Pratchett, Dorothy Sayers, Ursula K. Le Guin, Agatha Christie, Patricia Wrede, Jane Austen. Among mystery writers: Charlotte McLeod, Robert Barnard, (some early) Ellis Peters. New authors who I like: Jasper Fforde, Lorenzo Lunar (Cuban, and untranslated), Lorenzo Silva (Spanish, and untranslated)
SoHo Press seems to have a taste for crime novels in exotic settings. How did that come about?
Really, you’d have to ask them. But I believe the Soho crime imprint got started actually doing translations of foreign crime novels. (They publish Akimitsu Takagi and Seicho Matsumoto, for instance.) Then, since there was demand for the translations, they expanded into crime novels set in foreign countries, and that’s pretty much what they do now. Soho crime is distinct from Soho Press, which leans towards international stuff too, but has fewer guidelines. All in all, it’s a nice outfit to work with, because the staff is so small that you can know all of them, and they’re genuinely interested in the books they publish.
What’s next for the Tejada series?
The fourth Tejada novel is probably going to be the last one, at least for a while. It’s set in 1945, in Granada, which is Tejada’s hometown. He goes home to deal with the murder of a family member, and ends up confronting his family, and some of the influences that have made him who he is. It was a hard book to write, partly because I think Tejada becomes a nicer person as he gets older, so conversely, he gets more obnoxious as he gets younger, and dealing with his memories of being an angry teenager attracted to the Fascist party was kind of difficult.
Your style is often described as â€˜spare.â€™ How did you develop your craft?
As I said before, I grew up at least close to the publishing business, knowing authors, editors and agents, so it never really had the kind of mystique some people attribute to it for me. If anything, I grew up hearing scuttlebutt, and everyone at Soho (and in the publishing world beyond) has been incredibly nice to me, so it’s actually better than I expected. But the business part of it has always been a means to an end for me. I still have unpublished manuscripts in drawers, and I’m sure that I’ll write other things that won’t find a publisher. That won’t make me stop writing
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