Here's a heads-up everyone. Stefanie Pintoff is an author to watch. She was the Winner of the 2008 St. Martin's Minotaur/Mystery Writers of America Best First Crime Novel Award for her debut book, In the Shadow of Gotham. Fortunately for us, Stefanie was willing to take time for an interview, so I could introduce her to you.
Lesa: Stefanie, I just wanted to let you know I was impressed with your debut novel, In the Shadow of Gotham. It won the first Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America Best Crime Novel competition. How did you come to enter the competition, and how did you hear you won?
Stefanie: Thank you very much! You know, while my contest was brand new last year, St. Martin’s has sponsored other national contests for years – and they’ve launched some pretty amazing careers, including those of Steve Hamilton and Michael Kortya (past winners of the best private eye contest), and Donna Andrews and Julia Spencer-Fleming (past winners of the best traditional contest). So when I noticed the new Minotaur/MWA Best First Crime contest on the Minotaur website, I decided I would apply. Because it was a broader contest, encompassing all types of crime fiction, it was a good fit for my historical mystery.
The contest deadline motivated me to finish my manuscript, and I mailed it off two days before it was due. I heard nothing for three months and – just when I had almost entirely forgotten about it – I got a phone call from my editor at Minotaur saying I had won. Then everything changed. One month, I was learning how to query an agent; the very next, I was at the Edgars banquet receiving the award and meeting some of my favorite authors – on the verge of becoming a published author myself.
Lesa: You're a promising new writer. Would you tell us about yourself?
Stefanie: I’m a New Yorker whose love affair with the city began the moment I moved here for school. I grew up as an army brat, but now I’ve lived in New York almost seventeen years – much longer than anywhere else. I first attended Columbia Law School, earning my J.D., and then I returned to academic studies and earned a Ph.D. from New York University. Obviously I really liked school!
Throughout it all, I was captivated by the city’s history, so I began frequenting all the tours and special exhibits that various organizations in NYC regularly offer – from the AIA (American Institute of Architects) to the New York Public Library and the Historical Society. And I’ve definitely put this interest to use in writing my mystery series.
I worked very briefly as a lawyer and for longer as a teacher, but I now write full time. I live just north of NYC in Westchester County with my husband and our wonderful seven-year-old daughter.
Lesa: You have a Ph.D. in literature. When did you decide you wanted to write? Why did you want to write crime fiction?
Stefanie: I think like a lot of writers, I was a voracious reader first – and even now, nothing compares to the pleasure of losing myself in the pages of a good book. I decided I wanted to write when I became a mom. I was waffling whether to return to teaching or not, when my husband made a suggestion: hadn’t I always wanted to write a book myself? I had, so I decided to stay home with my daughter and write my first book. Of course, that didn’t work very well until she entered kindergarten – but my efforts formed the beginning of what became In the Shadow of Gotham.
Why crime fiction? The simple answer is that it’s the genre I’ve always loved best, and I wanted to write the sort of novel I most enjoyed reading. For me, the appeal is found in how crime novels embrace a world that’s fundamentally chaotic and unjust, and – if they don’t entirely re-order it – at least they make it easier to understand.
Lesa: In the Shadow of Gotham is a fascinating historical mystery. Would you tell us about the book?
Stefanie: In the Shadow of Gotham is a novel that explores the intersection of a terrible murder, the fledgling science of criminology, and my detective’s own story. In November 1905, Detective Simon Ziele has just left the city, hoping to rebuild his life in a small Westchester town following the loss of his fiancée in the Slocum steamship disaster (the worst disaster to strike NYC prior to 9/11). But the brutal murder of a young woman draws him right back in – and his investigation is further complicated when noted criminologist Alistair Sinclair becomes involved. Alistair is convinced the killer is someone he interviewed in the course of his experimental research into the criminal mind. And though Ziele remains suspicious that the solution may not be so simple, he works with Alistair and proves himself more than up to the task of adapting tried-and-true detective methods to the sometimes unorthodox innovations of new forensics.
Lesa: I found it intriguing to read about a criminologist working with criminals at the beginning of the 20th century. Can you tell us about that practice at the time?
Stefanie: I think because modern-day criminal profiling is so popular on television and in contemporary books, many people don’t realize it has roots that stretch far back into earlier centuries and draw from many different disciplines – law, biology, and sociology as well as early psychology.
In 1905, more innovative criminal scientists were beginning to challenge the prevailing opinion that criminal behavior resulted from a flaw of nature – a view popularized by Lombroso’s theory of the “born criminal.” Scientists like my Alistair Sinclair sought to disprove these notions by interviewing and learning from a variety of violent offenders. This practice was not uncommon, but it was highly controversial: people worried that if we came to understand the criminal too well, then we might excuse (and not punish) his or her behavior.
And as I mention in the book, Alistair’s access to more violent criminals was also limited by a virtual race against time. Unlike today, when convicted murderers typically spend years on death row before facing the executioner, justice worked fast in turn-of-the-century New York. Appeals were adjudicated in months, not years – and the execution date usually followed within weeks, if not days. So someone like Alistair had very little time to gain the trust of and then interview the worst offenders.
Lesa: In my review of the book for Mystery News, I said in some ways the writing reminded me of Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island. Who would you say influenced your writing? Who do you like to read now?
Stefanie: I enjoy a wide variety of crime fiction (including Dennis Lehane’s) – and I certainly learn something from everything I read. But I’d say my influences are largely classical works from mid-to-late-19th and early-20th-century detective fiction: Poe, Collins and Dickens followed by Christie and Conan Doyle. And because of their wonderful portraits of old New York, I can’t omit mentioning Dreiser, Wharton, and more recently Doctorow.
In terms of what I like to read, my first love will probably always be historical fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed Louis Bayard’s The Black Tower and I’m looking forward to Drood and The Last Dickens. But right now I’m reading something very different: Louise Ure’s latest, Liars Anonymous, which is terrific.
Lesa: I thought Louise Ure had an unusual lead character in her book. In yours, I really liked Simon Ziele. Are you working on a book that will bring him back? If you're working on another book, would you give us a sneak peek?
Stefanie: Thank you! There’s a lot of myself in him, so I’m glad you find him appealing. He will be back next year in The Darkest Verse – which takes him into the heart of the theater district to investigate a killer who targets actresses of the Great White Way, leaving his writing as a calling card. It’s been great fun researching the history of Broadway and Times Square at the turn-of-the-20th-century – as well as the budding science of handwriting analysis, which plays a pivotal role in this sequel. And of course Ziele will be partnering once again with Alistair and Isabella to track down a killer as brilliant as he is ruthless.
Lesa: Stefanie, what has been the most exciting thing about being a published author? What have you enjoyed the most? Is there anything that surprised you?
Stefanie: There is no single sensation more exciting than walking into a bookstore or library and seeing my novel – transformed from the story in my head to a real book that others will hopefully read and enjoy.
What I’ve enjoyed most is the chance to meet and get to know others involved in the mystery community, including authors, readers, librarians, and booksellers. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how warm and helpful everyone in the mystery community can be – and I’m not the first to find it ironic that people who read and plot crime for a living are among the nicest I’ve ever met.
Lesa: I'm going to say thank you, and wish you good luck with your writing career. I have one final question. I know you used the New York Public Library for research. I'm a public librarian. Do you have any special memories or comments about libraries?
Stefanie: Just in the last several years, more and more collections of materials are moving online as documents are digitized. While this makes it easier for researchers – and the greater accessibility is wonderful – I do fear something is lost. For example, when looking at the old restaurant menu collections housed at both the New York Public Library and the New York Historical Society, there is something an online picture cannot replicate about the look and texture of the real document.
Going into a library – especially a major research library – is always something of an adventure. You never know what you’ll find … and sometimes your original search actually leads you to something far more surprising and interesting. For example, I was researching the various newspapers of the day popular in 1905 when I was reminded of the story about William Randolph Hearst and how the Tammany Machine stole the mayoral election right out from under him. It’s a tale of voter fraud and intimidation that is shocking, even by looser standards of the day – and of course I incorporated it into my novel. I would have found it later on, either online or in one of many books about New York City history. But the process of discovery wouldn’t have been as much fun.
Thanks so much, Lesa, for inviting me speak with you here today; it’s been a pleasure.
And, thank you, Stefanie, for taking time to answer questions. If readers enjoy historical mysteries, I highly recommend In the Shadow of Gotham. I think Stefanie Pintoff is only on her way up.
Stefanie Pintoff's website is www.stefaniepintoff.com
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In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff. St. Martin's Press, ©2009. ISBN 9780312544904 (hardcover), 400p.