When I was first introduced to the brilliantly enigmatic work of Erica Spindler, my mother suggested that I read Last Known Victim, what is considered by some as the “piece de resistance” of the author’s vast canon of mystery novels.
Last Known Victim is set in what some locals refer to as “post-post Katrina,” the time when the city was up and running again, but not quite business as usual; many people were still desperately trying to rebuild their homes and lives after the devastating storm. The main character is a matriarchal female detective to both her police force and her extensive Irish New Orleans family, most of whom are cops. This particular book deals with the case of a missing exotic dancer which leads the protagonist down a delightfully suspenseful path throughout Downtown New Orleans’s seedy nightlife, to its well to do residents, and even back to the cold case of the mysterious murder of the main character, Patty O’Shay’s cop during recon just after the storm.
Although series crime writers are great, Spindler writes one story with one case and cast of characters all their own in each of her books. However, her artful and gripping writing style leaves the reader with the same satisfaction if not more than they may take from another writer’s entire series. With each of Swindler’s books I choose to pick up next, be it Watch Me Die (another beautifully dark page-turner set in New Orleans) or Blood Vines, primarily set in California’s wine country, I am always immediately drawn in by the characters, major and minor. Spindler has a way of making her readers feel as if they are there, wherever her books are set, regardless of whether or not they have ever even passed through the place and equally so, intimately familiar with her characters.
Any time you are reading an Erica Spindler novel and think the plot could not possibly further thicken, read a few more pages at most! Miss Spindler was kind enough to answer some questions I had for her on her writing and living in New Orleans.
M: How long have you lived in New Orleans? (If not your entire life, where were you born?)
E: I’ve lived in New Orleans area since 1980. I was born in Chicago, but most of my childhood was spent in Rockford, IL.
M: What are some of your favorite things about the city?
E: There are so many favorites! Here are some, in no particular order; The food. The people. The architecture. The history. Live oak trees draped in moss. The city’s beauty—and it’s grit.
M: When did you first take an interest in writing, particularly crime fiction?
E: My writing turned towards crime fiction in the 90s. I came up with a plot where the hero was an NOPD detective. He was investigating a serial killer operating in New Orleans. The investigation was only a subplot, but writing those parts of the story was so much fun that when it came time to plot another book, I wanted more of that “fun.” I never looked back.
M: Though the city’s tapestry itself is filled with mystery and its history contains many macabre people and events, which aspects of New Orleans do you find the most inspirational as well as which parts of town, landmarks, etc.?
E: Great question! Yes, the city’s tapestry is so rich. I’m a visual person, and very much a sensory writer. Visually the city is beautiful and ugly, new and old, rich and poor; it’s a place revelry and tragedy. The smells can be delicious and repugnant. These dramatic differences inspire my writing. As far as areas of the city I prefer, I’ve used them all because I find them all unique and interesting. There’s just nothing boring—or ordinary—about New Orleans.
M: In previous communications, we agreed that we share a particular fondness for your novel, Last Known Victim (set in post-post Katrina New Orleans). Would you mind elaborating on how and why that novel, of all your gripping and intriguing works, you have a special closeness to the story? With which of the characters did you most identify?
E: I have a special relationship with LAST KNOWN VICTIM because it’s my post-Katrina story. When Katrina hit, I had a brand-new, NOLA-set novel on the shelves. (Killer Takes All) Then the storm comes through and changes everything. Even though the novel was new, it felt old and wrong because the city had changed forever. I felt this urgent need to pick up with all those characters, to see how they fared during the storm, what they went through, and how their lives had been changed. Then inspiration struck: I was back home, on my porch reading an article in the Times-Picayune about the Refrigerator Graveyards. (Great visual image, all those units lined up like gravestones.) The article described how each unit had to be cleaned, and I just thought “What if they opened a freezer and found a serial killer’s trophies?” How would they track backward? Was the serial killer still in the city or had he/she been blown out with the storm?
They would have nothing—and at the time, few resources-to go on. With that, I was off and running.
M: Revisiting our previous discussion of what a great film adaptation could be made of this particular book, in a perfect world, who would you like to see starring in a cinematic rendering of your opus?
Erica didn’t want to speculate here publicly but didn’t mind if I did…
M: Have you ever gotten back at someone you didn’t get along with or another adversary by naming a derogatory character after them?
E: If I have, I certainly wouldn’t reveal it. (sly grin)
M: I have noticed that in a good number of your books there is a wonderfully written sort of connectivity between the detectives and the people and places they investigate, with many delightful twists along the way. Is there any particular reason you choose such (though very challenging, as I have learned from my own experience with writing fiction) a plot motif?
E: It is a challenging way to write. And I’ve often told myself to plot a simpler story, but that’s just not the kind of storyteller I am. I go for depth and connectivity (love that word), twists and turns, atmosphere and emotions. I just can’t do all that and “simple” too.
M: When you are about midway through writing one of your novels, do you necessarily already know yourself how all will unfold? Can you describe your thought process when it comes to major plot turns and game changers?
E: By midway, I do know what’s coming, the big picture, not necessarily all the details. It’s difficult to describe the thought process, and truthfully much of that work is done before the novel is begun. The hero, his goals and motivations, the crime and antagonist, the setting and themes have all been carefully thought out, and as I write it’s like weaving the threads together to create this tapestry; or fitting the puzzle pieces together to get the final, clear image. No doubt, stuff emerges that’s a surprise. Twists, turns, details. That’s part of the creative magic that makes writing so much fun. But all the upfront work leads up to what is the one, best conclusion.
M: What are some of your personal attachments to New Orleans as well as New Orleans living?
E: Gosh, the attachments abound. My husband and I didn’t get married here, but our honeymoon was spent in a U-haul truck, loaded with everything we owned, driving from Rockford, Illinois to start our new life New Orleans, Louisiana. Our kids were born here, my books written here, friendships found and lost, life lived—in all its messy glory. The city of
New Orleans is literally woven into the fabric of who I am, as a person and a writer.
M: Is there a part of the city/Greater New Orleans Area that has not yet been incorporated into your plot lines that you would possibly like to embrace in future works?
E: I’m currently fascinated by NOLA’s neighborhoods. I’ve begun a paranormal thriller series called The Lightkeepers, and the third in the series Fallen Five, featured several of them I hadn’t used before. One of them was Lake Vista, which I was fascinated to learn was designed in 1939 to be a Garden City, a concept much like today’s New Urbanism. (And how about those mid-century modern homes? Fabulous.) As I said earlier, there’s nothing boring about New Orleans!
M: As a New Orleans native which local hot sauce do you prefer? Crystal or Tabasco?
E: Crystal. Sorry, Tabasco.
M: You represent people of countless walks of life and backgrounds in your characters. What were your youth and life before being a brilliant novelist like?
E: Pretty ordinary, actually. Middle class, mid-western kid. Divorced mom, one of four kids. I studied to be a visual artist and got my MFA from UNO. But I’ve always been a student of human nature, fascinated by why people behave the way they do. How they behave in groups; the ripple effect one terrible act can have on everyone it touches. I realized, too, along the way that I have something I call “The Dark Gift.” It’s the ability to take the most innocent occurrence and turn it into something pretty damn dark. It’s something I’ve always done, but now I’ve learned to use the ‘gift’ and channel it into my writing.
M: In closing, is there any personal statement you would like to make to the people of New Orleans, readers, and future readers?
E: To the people on NOLA: keep being wonderful and unique, because it’s the people of New Orleans that bring it to life—and inspire me to write!
Learn more about my books at ericaspindler.com and while you’re there sign up to be one of my Partners in Crime, or visit me on Facebook, Instagram, and Goodreads.
Regarding Miss Spindler’s choice not to answer my question about who might do her characters justice in a film rendering of Last Known Victim (had she answered, ambitious celebrities would possibly be beating her door down for the roles) and encouraging me to speculate, here goes.
As the main character, certainly a strong actress with much experience, perhaps Susan Sarandon (who was recently seen at a Mardi Gras party to which I was invited). Costarring (without giving away too much of this must-read for crime buffs) I can imagine Jennifer Carpenter as well as Vera Farmega. Playing the principal male characters, it is feasible that Joseph Gordon Levitt could do a great job alongside Mark Ruffalo, as well as perhaps John Hamm.
I cannot quite articulate why these hypothetical choices, but they make sense in my mind, Perhaps when you take my advise and pick up this book, you will see my reasoning or maybe come up with a better hypothetical cast of your own.
Since Erica Spindler agreed to my interview, I have been reading another one of her works of crime fiction genius, The Other Girl. In this book, the author begins in the area of the Harmony, Louisiana area. This I found on her website, along with Bone Cold, which I will be opening as soon as I close the case, so to speak on my current enthralling read. I hope to see much, much more from this incredibly unique, talented author, a woman who KNOWS how to write our city for what it is, wonderfully eccentric and a bit rough around the edges, the qualities people travel hundreds of miles daily to see. I urge, in closing, do not miss on a page of any work by Erica Spindler. The lady knows what she’s doing!