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?
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.
AS: 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."
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.
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.
RB: What was the last movie that excited you?
AS: 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]
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?
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.
AS: 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