April Smith

April Smith Southern Californian April Smith was born and raised in the Bronx and attended Boston University and Stanford University. She has worked in advertising and television. She has written three novels, North of Montana, Be the One and now Good Morning, Killer, her second Ana Grey mystery. April Smith lives in Santa Monica with her family and is working on her next Ana Grey novel.

Good Morning, Killer teams FBI Special Agent Ana Grey
with a Santa Monica police detective Andrew Berringer on a kidnapping
case involving a Santa Monica teenager, Juliana Meyer-Murphy. Juliana
is released but traumatized, and the details of her ordeal heighten
Agent Grey's obsession with this case. While the kidnapping case
is being pursued, Grey's relationship with her cop lover spins out
of control. Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times wrote,
"A risk taker herself, Smith writes in the forceful style of
a true literary maverick, someone who has earned the right to break
a few rules."

Robert Birnbaum: How much does the fact that you
live in Southern California have to do with what you have chosen
to write about? Or that you write in the thriller genre?

April Smith: Eudora Welty said, "Let your
fiction grow from under your feet." So I live in Santa Monica
and the atmosphere and the cultural values and so forth are around
me. But in terms of writing about law enforcement, I think no matter
where I lived I'd probably gravitate towards writing about crime
because it's such high-stakes drama. Living in Southern California,
of course, I use the resources there. And so I have come to know
agents at the LA field office of the FBI. But I haven't always written
about Southern California law enforcement. When I produced Cagney
& Lacey
on television, that was [about] New York.

RB: Did you write it [Cagney & Lacey]
also?

AS: I produced it and wrote it. Basically, I took
over the show after it had been cancelled and went back to New York
and rode around with the cops and reinvented the show. And interestingly
for those people aware of the mystery writer Robert Crais. I hired
him on Cagney & Lacey, and we both did this together.
That was the beginning of my attachment to writing about crime—
of the visceral experience of pulling up in a squad car somewhere
on 42nd Street, with a big crowd gathered and running with the cops
and not knowing what you were going to find. Literally running into
a doorway and up these dingy stairs with a trail of blood on them
and, at the top of the stairs, who knew what you would find? It
turned out to be a guy who had been stabbed multiple times. And
there you go. Having that adrenaline rush stayed with me.

RB: Are you a thrill seeker?

AS: On paper.

RB: [both laugh] It's interesting that you quote
Eudora Welty in the context of your own place in the world of genre
fiction which has a varying amount of respect, depending, of course,
on who you talk with. Do you care about that?

AS: I would prefer not to be categorized in the
genre. I prefer to think of myself as writing literary fiction,
novels of suspense, but that are literary. Meaning that they take
longer. You can't shoot them out, one a year. And they are multi
layered. Literary, by my definition, would be an artful way of telling
the story and incorporating many layers of meaning. So when you
finish the book, it's not just a satisfying plot, you should be
nurtured in some way by your experience of these characters.

RB: In the case of Good Morning, Killer,
you have two main plots or story lines, but the character, the woman
FBI Agent, Ana Grey, has something else going on. I am not clear
what degree of abuse she has suffered? Was I not reading carefully?
Or were you subtle about the way you presented her recollections?

AS: I didn't want to go over the same territory
as North of Montana. In that book which also features Ana
Grey, you learn more about her childhood and her relationship with
her grandfather. And the kind of abuse was really verbal. He was
a very punishing figure. It was pretty subtle but confining nonetheless.
And she carries that with her. It's a wound that she carries.

RB: So it was subtle, and in this story it was
subtly referenced. Are you assuming that people had read North
of Montana
?

AS: I don't think you have to. This book stands
alone.

RB: There was one moment early that I just heard
a clink as I read it. Agent Grey is in the kitchen of the parents
of a kidnapped girl with the Santa Monica detective, Andrew Berringer,
who happens to be her lover. The detective for some reason is telling
the parents that his first wife was Jewish. Agent Grey blurts out,
"You never told me that." Somehow that was beyond my sense
of the plausible. Were you joking around?

AS: Oh, totally. In the next sentence she says,
"I hope they thought we were being entertaining for their purpose
and not slip sliding into the wrong movie." She knows she has
crossed the line right here.

RB: This relationship troubles me because it seems
obsessive on her part.

AS: Uh huh, totally obsessive.

RB: What do you say when you think someone should
be smarter than to get into something like that?

By literary, by my definition would be an artful way of telling the story and incorporating many layers of meaning. So when you finish the book, it's not just a satisfying plot, you should be nurtured in some way by your experience of these characters.

AS: That is the challenge of this kind of story.
If she is going to get into a relationship that is going to result
in violence, basically her shooting her own lover— as the
architect of that you have to ask yourself some pretty challenging
questions. Like, how are we going to still like Ana? Why will we
like her afterwards? How will she react and how will she go on?
And what does it say about her character? Which is why the book
is so carefully constructed to shore up that moment. And hopefully
gives you rational and emotional reasons for why it happens. Even
though it's an irrational moment. But that's part of it. The book
is uncompromising that way. It does disturb a lot of people. Which
is fine with me.

RB: Are we supposed to like him?

AS: You like him up to a point. You have to like
him enough to understand why she likes him. I like him. He has qualities
of protectiveness and sensitivity. But he is very limited. He just
gets himself into a big mess. Circumstances get out of his control.
He thinks she has it all together. Things spin out of control in
this book. Even though every thing seems to be precise. That's the
fun of it.

RB: The book's villain is secondary. I found myself
not being concerned with him. He had no special characteristics
and it was more about the dynamics of the various agencies trying
to work out this case.

AS: That's good. That was the intention. In fact,
in an early editorial conversation my editor actually said to me,
"Don't get hung up on the rapist," knowing that I certainly
could. I spent years researching it. Even the amount that you know
about him and how much he is in the book, that was one of the hardest
parts—getting into the head of a sadistic sexual predator.
Being able to inhabit that guy and make him realistic. In the final
confrontation, to be able to write that realistically. I had some
help along the way, not only with actual research but having experienced
that moment in a training session with the FBI, where I was a hostage.
We were up in the hills in Valencia, and these young agents who
had just come out of Quantico were all armed with paintball guns
and we were all wearing visors and padding. I am a hostage inside
this burned-out house and the FBI agent was playing the bad guy.
He did a really good job and I took a lot of what he did his body
language and responses and sewed that into my character.

RB: Your contact and research with the FBI began
with North of Montana?

AS: Uh huh.

RB: And has it been constant contact?

AS: When I wrote my second book, Be The One,
which is a book about a woman baseball scout, I went away from the
FBI and then came back and a lot of the people were gone, retired.
I needed to create new relationships and I have. And they are strong
and I am proud to say that some of them are my friends now.

RB: I am wondering if the FBI has been significantly
affected over the last few years beyond Hoover's death but with
the emphasis on attending to different crimes. Do you have a sense
of the espirit de corps? Is there confusion about the FBI's mission?
Or is it business as usual?

AS: That's a complicated question. After 9/11
everything changed in the office and in people's minds. Pre-9/11
you could say the bureau was on a much more psychologically oriented
track and the gangster techniques of the Hoover era were really
far gone. It has been reorganized. There are a lot more women agents.
And agents were marrying each other, there is a whole culture of
married agents that has changed the structure—where before
you would be transferred every year from field office to field office
and that doesn't happen quite as much. They realized that people
don't work well under those circumstances. It really is a corporation—
that like a corporation needs people management and they are not
soldiers. So there is a lot more attention paid to human issues
and there are psychologists on call and that sort of thing. Their
approach to crime is much more psychologically oriented. When you
attend seminars in homicide investigations, for example, which I
have, it's not just the forensics. It's figuring out the mindset
of the bad guy and certainly in hostage negotiation—which
is a focus of Good Morning, Killer, it's all about that.
They have training sessions to deal with it. And what people don't
realize about the FBI is it's very fluid. In the time I was researching
Good Morning, Killer, a period of five years the whole
[LA] field office had changed. They had taken out the wonderful
old oak desks and the whole thing is now a pod. Which I use in the
book, which Ana Grey remarks on and helps you to experience. It's
all completely computerized, but what it does is break up the social
structure of what they had. So now everybody is in his or her individual
little cell and communication is different. Hierarchies are different.
Which is not dissimilar to what everyone is experiencing in the
work place. [laughs] That's part of what interests me. Ever since
Lou Grant it interested me—how people work in those
relationships— but to get back to your question, post-9/11
everybody is working unbelievably hard, fourteen hour days, endless
shifts, three days in a row without a break, and it's really tightened
up. More responsibility and more pressure, more scrutiny.

RB: I have talked to Alston Chase recently who has written a book about the Unabomber. Apparently
when Kaczynski published his manifesto the FBI came up with a profile
and because someone at ABC knew of him Chase was asked to profile
the Unabomber. His profile was ultimately correct and the FBI's
was very inaccurate. He pointed out the need not only for psych
profiling but also for intellectual forensic profiling.

AS: Well, they got it wrong about the sniper,
if you recall. Just completely wrong. What they will tell you about
profiling is, it is an evolving tool in investigation. It is not
a statement that says okay the guy is going to be white, thirty-five
years old. It's as of what we know now, this is the way we see the
guy but it is constantly updated.

RB: Are you aware of Michael Connelly's last novel, Lost Light, in which there is a (rogue) anti-terrorist FBI unit.

AS: Uh huh.

RB: I would imagine the FBI is not talking about
its antiterrorism efforts.

april smithAS:
For me, counter terrorism is not an area that I could go into and
get any real hardcore serious information. And the FBI is going
into disturbing areas—certainly for the literary world—needs
to pay attention— to monitoring libraries. I am a member of
the board of Pen Center/USA West and last year we gave a major award
to the owner of the Tattered Cover bookshop.

RB: In Denver.

AS: Right, because she stood up to them, "I
am not going to give you a list of books my customers have bought."
Nobody realizes it cost her tens of thousands of dollars in legal
fees to do that.

RB: I get the sense that you are not concerned
with what other genre writers are writing. So what is it that you
read?

AS: For pleasure I read literary fiction. I just
started William Boyd's new book. I love Richard Russo. Jumping back
into the noir field I love Jim Thompson. I consider him literary.
Not genre. Jane Smiley. I love beautiful writing. And Richard Ford.
And one of my favorite books is Blood Meridian, Cormac
McCarthy. That's an extraordinary book.

RB: A little dark.

AS: Totally dark but the language and what he
does to animate that landscape is completely original.

RB: Given where you live, do you think much about
the conversion or the further development of this book into a movie?

AS: It's on my mind. But I have learned over the
years. This was attributed to Phillip Roth, but I don't know if
he really said it, but somebody said, "When you sell a book
to Hollywood you throw your book over the Rockies and forget about
it."

RB: [laughs]

AS: I can't really do that. It is so quirky and
so unpredictable and so irritating that I don't even call my agent
anymore.

RB: How different is the TV world from the movie
world?

AS: It's a different animal. The difference is
in television you have to have something on the air next week. In
film there is no reason to do anything. You don't have that pressure.

RB: That would make for a good deal of inertia.

AS: Yeah, and you are not going to do it until
you build up enough momentum like signing a star or you have the
money. But in TV it’s a production line, literally. So people
have to perform, do their jobs and get it on the air and make decisions.
That doesn't mean that it runs smoothly, but it has to run. I am
wired that way, the New Yorker in me. Just do the job, so I like
TV.

RB: What do you make of the things that HBO is
doing?

AS: The Sopranos is my favorite show
of all time.

RB: There is also OZ, Six Feet Under
and now The Wire.

AS: They are all very tough and hard-boiled and
male-oriented, but they do a great job because they give the creators
freedom. And they don't dictate from some muddled point of view.

RB: And why does that work?

AS: Because if you have talented, professional
people and you give them the opportunity to do good work, I think
the chances are they will do good work.

RB: How is it that the HBO people have discovered
that amazing thing and other TV people haven't?

AS: Because the networks are besieged by all different
kinds of pressures and pressure groups. From the advertisers mainly,
to the big companies that own them. It's an advertising pressure
to get the numbers that will justify what they do. They also think
inside the box. HBO doesn't. They take creative risks. It's so obvious
to you and I [laughs] or anybody else, that that's the way to go.
But it's a mess working for the networks.

RB: I would imagine HBO's expectations are not
what a network would have.

AS: It's a whole different kind of viewing. You
commit, you pay extra money for it and you commit to it and you
are there. You are not going to get seduced because it's free to
go somewhere else. It's a whole different viewership.

RB: HBO also has been very smart about the videos—which
is the lucrative back end—people who don't have the cable,
though I can't imagine there is anybody like that besides me, end
up going to the video store.

AS: Right. That's big business. They do a great
job.

RB: Unfortunately the creators don't get any of
the video money.

AS: Well, I don't know what the rules are in cable.

RB: So no one has come up with wanting to do a
movie about a female FBI agent of Salvadoran background?

AS: She is biracial, Salvadoran and white. But
she doesn't play Hispanic; she plays white, because that is part
of her journey of discovering her identity. So who could play the
role?

RB: No I wasn't going there. I was making sure
there are no whispers of interest.

…in television you have to have something on the air next week.
In film there is no reason to do anything. You don't have that pressure.

AS: No we haven't …if there is interest
there is real interest; if there is lukewarm interest it's not worth
talking about because it will only drive you crazy. So, I have learned
that.

RB: You don't want to be crazy.

AS: I'm crazy enough. [laughs]

RB: Are you at all interested in writing a screenplay?

AS: Uh huh. It'd be fun. Sure I'd be up for that.
That is a whole different world. Different people and relationships.

RB: You live in Southern California, you write
stories that deal with violence and depravity and terrible crime.
What is your life like? Do you sit in some quiet idyllic place to
compose these stories? You go swimming everyday and then write,
staring out at the ocean for a few hours?

AS: Pretty close. Basically I am a mom. I have
two kids. Eleven and seventeen and my life is very ordered and very
family oriented. Very much around the kids. But when they go to
school I go to work. And I swim at the Y and I go to my little office
that's a block from the beach and it's in a building with a bunch
of shrinks. I’m on the first floor so often I will hear the
after effect of these sessions with couples, right in front of my
window [laughs]. I get all kinds of dramatic dialogue, I stay there
all day and stare at the wall and write. Oblivious to the beauty
of Santa Monica or seeing the darkness in it. Whatever. What I like
about living there is the ability to be in the outdoors. I bike,
I hike, and I work out. I like that a lot.

RB: Are you friendly with other writers?

AS: Uh huh. I have my book buddies and TV buddies
and usually the topic of conversation is complaining. [both laugh]

RB: That would be universal.

AS: I am buddies with Bob Crais and a wonderful
biographer, Eric Lax.

RB: He wrote a Woody Allen biography.

AS: He is working on a new book about penicillin—how
it changed the world.

RB: This is an amazing time where people are writing
these odd books that on the face of them don't seem to have much
appeal. Someone just sent me a book about cadavers, Stiff
by Mary Roach. There was a book on dust. Somebody is publishing a book called Mirror Mirror, a history of reflection.

AS: These are writers who like to be in libraries.
In Eric's case, he spent a lot of time in England doing the research.
Again, it's all about relationships and the rivalries. The rivalries
in medicine are just fascinating.

RB: Will there be a movie?

AS: Before they make one of Good Morning,
Killer
, they'll make a movie of Penicillin. [laughs]

RB: Do you go to many movies?

AS: I do. I see everything.

RB: So you are like a normal American. Everything?

AS: Yup, we go to movies once a week, my husband
and I. We have date night.

RB: I won't ask anymore about that. I feel compelled
to announce my own diminishing interest in going to the movies.
Not a lot of compelling movies and they are shown in shoeboxes.
Videos are better.

AS: True.

RB: What was the last movie that excited you?

april smithAS:
I loved Amores Perros. That's one that pops to mind as a
great movie. Original, fresh, exciting.

RB: Did you like Y Tu Mama Tambien?

AS: I liked that too.

RB: Are you doing a big tour?

AS: Yes, eleven cities but it seems like more.
They keep adding cities. I love doing this and it's great. I am
thrilled by Knopf's support for this book.

RB: Is this where you say nice things about Sonny
Mehta.

AS: [both laugh] Well, Sonny really likes this
book. So I am thrilled to be out there and, yeah, I just flew in
from Minneapolis this morning going to New York and Pittsburgh and
Philadelphia and Detroit. I am happy to do it. Really happy. We
just signed to do another Ana Grey book for Knopf. So there is some
long-term faith that she will remain interesting.

RB: That remains to be seen.

AS: So they said to me, "How much more can
Ana Grey take after Good Morning, Killer?"

RB: What do you think?

AS: I can't say. Too new.

RB: My own experience, hence the skeptical remark,
is that I started out reading a series with John D MacDonald and
Robert Parker. I found that I could only go so far with them. Tom
Perry's Jane Whitehead series, even though I like the writer, at
some point it didn't matter to me. But I don't know what that threshold
is.

AS: Neither do I. But I know that the next Ana
Grey book will be consistent with this one. It's not going to be
a bargain-basement version. It will be as elaborate and layered.
It won't be a book-a-year kind of deal.

RB: I remember when I met Walter Mosley for the
first Easy Rawlins book, he was clear on there being a limit to
the amount of books in that series.

AS: I don't have that plan.

RB: So what do you start with when you know so
much about the character?

AS: In this case I can't really say at this time.
I know a couple of things. She will be somewhere in the backlash
in the events of Good Morning, Killer. There will be some
continuation of that. She will be based in Los Angeles and surrounded
by a lot of the same characters, but she will be assigned to Portland
or someplace in the Northwest. A change in venue where she will
be a different kind of outsider. I think one thing you can say about
Ana is that she is an outsider. This will play that theme in a different
way and she will be plopped down in some situation she will need
to adjust. So we'll see. But it will be new atmospherics, a different
palette for the writing.

RB: So you are starting with a setting.

AS: Uh huh. A setting and a character and an attitude.

RB: When you disclaim the book-a-year impulse
that means you are going to write and when you think it's finished
you are turning it in?

AS: There still is a reasonable time frame.

RB: What is it?

AS: In my mind it's a year and half. It's not
five years, which the other books were.

RB: Does that mean you know more?

AS: Yeah [laughs] I think after three novels I
learned something. Seriously, it took that long.

RB: Do you have ambitions to write the great American
novel?

AS: Do you mean a non-crime book?

RB: No. I agree with you that some crime stories
transcend the genre. James Ellroy's American Tabloid is
a crazy, wonderful book.

AS: And Scott Thurow is not a crime writer to
me. Not particularly. I don't have that particular ambition. [pauses]
No, I don't want to go further.

RB: [both laugh] Okay. Have you surprised yourself
from the time you wrote your first novel? Or is all this moving
in a predictable linear progression?

AS: It isn't that at all. At least my internal
experience of it is chaotic and uncertain and completely anxiety
provoking. When you look back on it like most things it seems to
have a pattern. No, every step of the way was uncertain. North
of Montana
was written completely on spec. And then I had to
get Be the One in shape to sell it. I didn't have a two-book
deal, so that was a selling process and a revising process. And
this one, too. I just go from book to book, never certain of the
outcome. And I think Bob Crais once said, “If anybody tells
you they haven't lost a book at some point they are lying to you.”
In the writing process as much as is in your head and you have sold
other people. There is that dark night of the soul where "This
thing is not going to work, I have totally blown this."

RB: And then what do you do?

AS: And then you talk to your husband.

RB: [Both laugh]

LA is not on a human scale. It's not manageable. It doesn't reach out to you.

AS: And you go on.

RB: Do you show your work along the way?

AS: I don't really show it to him as much as I
used to. I know enough to know it's going to change. And I have
enough faith to know that today was not a brilliant day. Tomorrow
will be better, in terms of the work. It's like running a marathon,
writing a novel. You just have to have that long view. In fact in
swimming, I discovered this was a surprise to me; I am not a sprinter.
I can swim the long course better.

RB: Along the way do you have to get it right
or do you push out a draft and then revise?

AS: I work out a draft and go back. I am not in
to the perfection of the sentences at the moment. Although you try
to clean it up. I am not immune, like when you have written something
awful or off the track. I am not immune to the voices and the devils
that assail you. Believe me. What I learned, for me anyway, that
it never really comes together until the very last pass. The very
last pass.

RB: That might be tautologous. The very last pass
puts it together, which is why it is the last pass.

AS: I mean the last time, the hundredth time,
somehow it's all clear. Then you know what belongs in the book and
what doesn't belong in it. But not until then, so just forget about
it.

RB: How good is your relationship with your editor?

AS: Excellent.

RB: One of mutual respect?

AS: The time that I spend with Sonny Mehta is
just gold. He is very perceptive. And I think he knows my neurotic
mind. So he can head me off at the pass. Like he did with the rapist.
It's very efficient. We will spend two days together intensely and
get a lot done.

RB: When you are introduced to people that you
don't know, do you say, when asked, that you are a writer?

AS: I say I am an author.

RB: And they say, “What would I have read
of yours?”

AS: Then you sort of cut through it and say, "I
write mysteries." And then it's okay.

RB: You don't say, "I write literary fiction."

AS: No, I don’t say…[both laugh] right,
it's sort of a mouthful. But then it's okay. And they get it and
it's fine.

RB: Is your everyday life marked by a lack of
cultural conversations?

AS: It depends on the context. The times I am
talking to people are when I am working out with friends, girlfriends.
We'll take long hikes. That's when we really talk. Mainly, it's
about kids. And work, and that kind of thing. I have other friends
where things go in another direction, where things are more spiritual
and working out problems of morality and the world and politics.
I need to have place to do it. It doesn’t happen at the corner
coffee shop because I am not there long enough. It's when I am in
Minneapolis or walking down Newbury Street, I say, “Wait a
minute, people live differently here.”

RB: Do you have as sense of isolation in Southern
California?

AS: I do. It's a fragmented life style.

RB: Not a lot of street life.

AS: There isn't because you are in your car. It's
not a good thing. It's not good for the soul.

RB: So?

april smithAS:
Well, you have kids and you have a career. It's good for kids in
terms of athletics and growing up outside. It's easy. Look, every
place has its advantages and disadvantages. What I am seeing on
this tour, the peculiarities of every region are very deep. Really
very idiosyncratic.

RB: What struck you about Minnesota?

AS: How livable and hip it was. Lovely uptown
neighborhoods with really funky interesting stores. A whole store
twice as big, three times as big, as this space devoted to spices.
Exotic interesting spices, right next to a huge used bookstore apparently
almost as big as Powell's.

RB: Wow, which banishes one stereotype right away.
I think that many people think that in Minnesota that they just
use salt and pepper.

AS: [both laugh] Exactly, and just watch reruns
of the Mary Tyler Moore show. It just struck me as relaxed and just
on a good human scale. LA is not on a human scale. It's not manageable.
It doesn't reach out to you. As a writer when you are in your writing
head you are always trying to figure it out and put pieces together
and synthesize what it means. So there is plenty to try to figure
out. About what is America and how are people living differently.
Maybe that's why I want to take Ana out of LA. Portland is a port
city and it's a mix of cultures and it's reinventing itself on a
daily basis.

RB: Oregon has been resistant to large-scale development.
There were years in the '70s and '80s when they were trying to discourage
people from coming there.

AS: Oh yeah, especially Californians.

RB: Well, good. Thank you very much.

AS: My pleasure.

© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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