Jane Haddam has been writing about Gregor Demarkian for a very long time—since 1990, when Not a Creature Was Stirring was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Paperback. There have been 28 books in the series featuring the former FBI agent, but the books are not so much about him and his friends in that small Philadelphia community as they are about the people who do horrible things to each other. Jane Haddam is intrigued by them and their stories.
Born Orania Papazoglou, Jane Haddam is a quiet, almost reclusive author living in a small town in rural Connecticut where she writes and watches the wild turkeys wandering across her sunny yard. You surely would not imagine that from her books. She’s thoughtful and insightful and not easily fooled. She sees the evil beneath the surface. She has faced personal tragedy and gone on. And so have her characters. Michael Connelly once said that he puts everything on the page. If you want to know Jane Haddam, read her books—she’s there on every page.
Lynn Kaczmarek for Mystery Scene: First of all, congratulations on the great reviews of Hearts of Sand in Publishers Weekly and the Fall #131 issue of Mystery Scene! Did you ever imagine when you wrote the first book that the series would be so long? How do you keep it interesting for yourself and your readers?
Jane Haddam: I actually remember working on the proposal for the first book in this series. I was sitting in this very office and my in-laws were coming over to Meet the Baby—that's my older son, Matt—for the first time. I was sitting in this very chair, in the sunroom I use as my office, when I looked up and saw my sister-in-law JoAnn wandering around in my backyard. Apparently, knocking on the front door didn't occur to her. I don't think I thought much about how long the series was going to last. I didn't even know if anybody was going to publish it.
As for keeping it interesting—well, it's interesting for me. And the books always focus on the suspects, not on the detective, which means I deal with new people each time. I've always tried to keep Gregor in focus but not as the focus, if that makes sense. I hate those series where the detective ends up leading the life of a hyperactive soap opera—gets accused of murder! gets shot! gets three divorces! has a brain tumor!—because the writer is desperate to find something "interesting" to say about the life of a character she writes about all the time. Most of us don't live lives that interesting, and we're damned glad.
I’ve always loved your descriptions of Cavanaugh Street in the middle of the Armenian neighborhood in Philadelphia where your cast of characters lives. Does it really exist?
I always say that if Cavanaugh Street existed, I would live there. So no, Cavanaugh Street doesn't really exist. It's loosely based on Astoria, Queens, which used to be the Greek neighborhood of New York. It isn't really any more, and it was never quite that well-heeled, but that was the idea.
The reason for why there and why that is a little more complicated. Father Tibor was one of the first characters I came up with for that book, and I wanted to use him to talk about the Eastern Churches. I didn't want to use Greeks, because at the time I was getting complaints that Greek names were impossible to pronounce and that readers were being put off because they were afraid to say even my own name and look "stupid" by not getting it right. So I chose Armenians, because those names were not intimidating, and then I had the choice of two possible significant Armenian communities—one in Philadelphia, and one in Fresno. I've never been to Fresno, so…
Although your books are engaging character studies, they also touch on some very controversial issues. You’ve talked about abuse of all kinds, the public school system and mortgage fraud, among others. Does the issue drive the story or does the story raise the issue?
I think the issues are part of the atmosphere. For better or worse, we live in the kind of interesting times that Chinese curse is supposed to be about. And we seem to have gotten to a point where nobody is actually listening to anybody anymore. I'm neither a liberal nor a conservative, but I have friends and relatives who are both liberal and conservative. And I got bothered by myself, because at that point I was doing what I see so many people doing—reading one kind of magazine, listening to one kind of news broadcast, hearing only one side of the message and knowing nothing about the other side except what my side was saying about it. So I sat myself down and made a concerted effort to read everything by everybody. And I kept trying to get into the heads of people on various sides of various issues, to try to think the way they think so that I could understand what was going on.
My novels always start with characters, but those characters usually live in a world where issues are paramount—because I think we live in a world where issues are paramount. Of course, this causes me more than a little trouble. Since I'm not consistently either liberal or conservative, and since I really do try to present all the different sides, I often find myself with everybody mad at me. We've also gotten to a place where even to try to understand and make sense of the other side is considered a form of treason. If you present the other side as anything but irredeemably stupid and evil, you must be one of them. It can sometimes be a relief to find that the characters wandering through my head this time don't have any interest in any issue at all.
The early books in the series seemed to be character-driven books wrapped in holiday glitz and marketed as cozies. The book covers were particularly “cute.” Then somewhere along the line the books became darker, as did the book covers, and although it appeared that all was calm and peaceful on the surface, there was evil underneath. Is that the message you’d like your readers to get?
I hope my readers don’t have to get that message from me—if you haven’t figured that out by the time you’re 14, you’re in danger in a dangerous world. But closed communities are pressure cookers. And pressure cookers are places where bad things are going to happen sooner rather than later. They're good places to set mysteries.
As for the covers—I think part of the problem is that I was unclear, when I started, just where I wanted to go. I'd already written a more-or-less cozy series under my birth name, and I wanted Gregor Demarkian to be more like—all I could think of at the time was "like P.D. James." I didn't think I was talented enough to write like P.D. James, mind you, but that was the goal. And then life intervened. My husband [mystery author William DeAndrea] got cancer and died young and left me with two small children, and the rest of my life blew up, and suddenly the books had a very different tone to them than they'd had at the beginning. You could see glimmers in some of the earliest books—say, Precious Blood—but things definitely changed, and that was when St. Martin's took over.
They gave me one of the great good things in my life, because they published Somebody Else's Music—not just my favorite Gregor, but a book I'd been trying to write on and off since I was in high school—and put it in hardcover and did a wonderful job with it. And it was horrendously long, but they managed it anyway. But I have no idea what to call the subgenre I'm working in. The word "cozy" has changed almost beyond recognition in the past 15 years—we don't seem to call anything "cozy" any more unless it's "cute," and if there's one thing I'm fairly sure I'm not, it's cute.
Why was Somebody Else’s Music so special for you?
Somebody Else's Music is the story of a set of high school girls and what has become of both them and of the girl they ruthlessly tormented. To the extent that it's autobiographical, it corresponds to my life in junior high (7th and 8th grades, specifically). I "went away" to high school and actually had a great time there. But when I was 12 and 13 and 14 and for many years afterwards, when I was dreaming about getting the hell out of Dodge and becoming a real honest-to-God writer, the novel I always imagined myself writing was that one. It didn't have Gregor Demarkian in it then, of course, because I hadn't thought up Gregor then, and all the different versions I tried weren't mysteries. But I kept trying and trying, and the books never turned out right, and I kept throwing them out. And then I wrote SEM. And it finally worked. I really love that edition.
But it's interesting. That book is not about an issue. The whole "bullying" thing hadn't made it onto the radar then. But even though it wasn't an issue book, I probably got more hysterical mail and over-the-top, frothing-at-the-mouth amateur reviews than I have on any other thing I've written. I hadn't realized just how sore a subject the whole junior high/high school thing is for so many people.
Your books often find themselves in small, closed communities. And lately highlight the more sordid nature of the rich. Tell me about Hearts of Sand (published in September)—what inspired the story and the old money Connecticut beach town setting?
As I said, I always start with character, and I started this time with the character of a woman who has been in hiding for 30 years after having (almost) been caught committing a very public and ultimately celebrated crime. That sort of thing happens—it happened a fair number of times in the '60s, and ended a number of different ways. Some people went to jail. Other people stayed in hiding until they couldn't stand it any longer, came out, and found themselves basically forgiven. And what always struck me most forcefully about those stories was the way in which the families handled it, the way friends handled it. The law expects the friends and families of these people to act like automatons, to pick up the phone and turn them in as soon as they've made any contact, but that's not what people do. I don't even think it's what they should do.
Any plans to write anything under your birth name again? And are you working on another in the Gregor Demarkian series?
I don't actually write under the name Orania Papazoglou any more—I haven't since I became Jane Haddam. It's been close to 30 years now, so I'll probably stay Jane Haddam. But although I hope to continue with Gregor—for a long time, too—I do have partials out for two possible new series. I'll probably have to pick one when the time comes, but I'm knocking wood that it does come.
Yes, the next book in the Gregor Series is called Fighting Chance, and it's about a case where it looks like Father Tibor Kasparian ought to be one of the prime suspects. Any more than that, and I give too much away.
Let’s talk process—when do you write, where? And what’s on your desk right now?
My desk is a huge worktable that I took from my parents' basement when I was in graduate school. Now it goes everywhere with me. It's moved continents. I write first thing in the morning. I get up at around 4 or 4:30, make a 60-ounce cup of Double Bergamot Earl Grey tea that I let steep for 20 minutes, and just go at it, even before the tea's ready to drink. My office is a sunroom at the back of my house, so I end up looking at the wildlife—wild turkeys, deer, turkey vultures once. I really hate wild turkeys.
What book(s) are you reading now and what does your To Be Read stack look like?
I'm reading Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell. I just finished rereading Dorothy L. Sayers' Have His Carcase. My TBR pile has taken over my living room coffee table and is about to fall over.
Tell me something about yourself that your readers don’t know.
I'm scared to death of appearing in public. I haven't been to a major conference for two decades. The thought of a ton of people makes me sweat. The unfortunate thing is that I know that if I can actually make myself get there, I'll have a great time, because once I start doing it I find it a lot of fun. But that doesn't get me out of the house.
A JANE HADDAM READING LIST
GREGOR DEMARKIAN SERIES
Not a Creature Was Stirring (1990)
Precious Blood (1991)
Act of Darkness (1991)
Quoth the Raven (1991)
A Great Day for the Deadly (1992)
Feast of Murder (1992)
A Stillness in Bethlehem (1993)
Murder Superior (1993)
Festival of Deaths (1993)
Bleeding Hearts (1994)
Dear Old Dead (1994)
Fountain of Death (1995)
And One to Die On (1996)
Baptism in Blood (1996)
Deadly Beloved (1997)
Skeleton Key (2000)
True Believers (2001)
Somebody Else's Music (2002)
Conspiracy Theory (2003)
The Headmaster’s Wife (2004)
Hardscrabble Road (2006)
Glass Houses (2007)
Cheating at Solitaire (2008)
Living Witness (2009)
Wanting Sheila Dead (2010)
Flowering Judas (2011)
Blood in the Water (2012)
Hearts of Sand (2013)
PATIENCE CAMPBELL McKENNA SERIES (writing as Orania Papazooglou)
Sweet, Savage Death (1984)
Wicked, Loving Murder (1985)
Death's Savage Passion (1986)
Rich, Radiant Slaughter (1988)
Once and Always Murder (1990)
STANDALONES (writing as Orania Papazooglou)