An Interview with Sara Gran

Sara Gran’s latest mystery novel, Claire deWitt and the Bohemian Highway, was released this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  It’s a sequel to the excellent Claire deWitt and the City of Dead published in 2011.  Gran formerly worked in used and rare books, for places like The Strand and Shakespeare and Co, as well and on her own as an independent bookseller.  Books - real and imaginary - play significant roles in her novels.  Her private eye, Claire deWitt, is profoundly influenced by an elusive French book of detection from 1959, entitled Détection, which guides - and haunts - her actions throughout the novels.  I recently interviewed Gran over e-mail:

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I understand you used to work in rare books, both for shops like The Strand and on your own.  Could you tell us more about your previous life as a bookseller?

I’ve always been obsessive about books. My parents were not collectors, but they were very avid readers, and they were (and are) indiscriminate in the best way: they read what interests them, not what’s hot or collectable. And somewhere along the way I developed a somewhat warped, almost talismanic interest in books-as-physical-objects. So working with books was always a fantasy for me. I used to go to these little indie bookstores, like St Marks book back when it was on St Mark’s place, and I thought the rude bookstore guys who worked there were coolest people on earth. I really couldn’t believe it when I applied for a job at a bookstore and I GOT IT. Of course, the reality was a lot of hard, dirty work--but I still loved it. And I still think people who love books and stay with that love are the coolest people on earth. 

Are the naming conventions for the series a nod to classic mystery series of the past?  (Claire deWitt and the...; Nancy Drew in the...)

Yes, the great old books and also TV shows. They’re fun but a lot of work to come up with!

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Several old books populate the pages of Claire deWitt and the City of the Dead, but of course the one that casts the longest shadow over the narrative is Détection by the great French detective Jacques Silette, first published in 1959.  This book often has a profound - even life-changing - effect on those who read it.  Could you tell us a bit more about the inspiration for this book and the mythology behind it?

Well, I’m going to answer that with a story: yesterday I went to the Rose Bowl flea market here in LA. And something from Black Sparrow Press, which I’m sure you and your readers will know, caught my eye at one of the booths. So I look and it turns out this guy has stacks and stacks of unused paper book covers (paper wrappers) from Black Sparrow Press, plus a bunch of printing blocks. His friend worked for the printer and, long story short, saved them all from the trash. So he was selling the blocks that had printed Paul Bowles and Wanda Coleman and John Fante and Charles Bukowski, and no one wanted them. I asked if he’d tried ebay, other book dealers (this guy was not a book guy, just a very cool and smart flea market guy), everything I could imagine. And he said no one wants this stuff. He has a whole garage full of this stuff and no one wants it. So, in part, that’s what Détection is about: the fact that we writers put so much into our books, and we hope they will change readers lives, and sometimes they do--but then twenty years later they’re at a flea market and you can’t give them away. This guy has the plates that printed Post Office, one of the most beautiful books in English. But to me--I could cry just thinking about that book. Détection is a book that really changed Claire’s life, and then she went out in the world and found out that no one gives a shit, and that is a heartbreaking place to be--a religion with no members. An equivalent book for me has been Nelson Algren’s book Nonconformity, which likewise has had such an impact on my life and no one else seems to care about. I have given away probably a dozen copies of this book and not one person has loved it like I do.

My other favorite old book mentioned in City of the Dead is Poisonous Orchids of Siberia.  Could you tell us a bit more about that one?

Thank you! My other favorite book, after Nonconformity, is The Golden Guide for Hallucinogenic Plants. The fact that that book exists is proof that wonderful things can exist in this universe. I like Golden Guides in particular, and field guides in general, especially odd ones. 

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How about you -- what are some of your favorite rare books?  Are you an active book collector?  What do you collect?

Most of my favorite rare books are rare in the colloquial sense, not in the bookselling sense of “valuable.” They are uncommon, but no one really wants them, which is fortunate for me. I don’t collect first editions, but I do enjoy early printings of some of my favorites--I have some early Charles Ports novels and some early Andrew Vachss mysteries that really make me happy. I don’t collect in any thorough, completist way, but I buy a lot of books about whatever interests me at the moment, and usually end up writing about it. At the moment, I’m excited by books about Marian apparitions; stage magic; locks, keys, and locksmithing; cons and con artists; and specifically art-related cons (and I welcome suggestions from your readers in these areas). And I will almost always buy something interesting and affordable in the fields of yoga, folklore/magic, flowers, criminology, and early detective fiction. My rule of thumb is: how hard will it be to get this book again if I want it? 
 
What are some of your favorite mystery writers of the past? How about of the present?

Claire DeWitt is, in many ways, an homage to my favorite fictional detectives, some of whom I feel like I grew up with. My father has always been a big fan of Nero Wolfe, and you will see a lot of both Nero and Archie Goodwin in Claire. I also drew a lot of inspiration from how Rex Stout organized and structured his series. Andrew Vachss’ Burke series is another big inspiration--it’s a rare series where the “detective” (in quotes because Burke is not really a PI) grows and changes over the years, as people do. Jim Sallis’ Lew Griffith series is also very much about a flesh-and-blood person who changes over the years, and Sallis also brings a real sense of poetry to the mystery novel. And Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe is just the all-time best, especially in The Big Sleep.

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Claire deWitt and the Bohemian Highway comes out this month. What’s next? Are you already at work on the third book in the series?

Yes, I am, but I am also busy writing for TV and film, so it will be a few years before the next book. And after an extremely busy few years where I’ve had almost no time to read, i am going to spend a lot of time during the rest of 2013 sitting around reading detective novels! 

Visit Sara Gran on her website, or on Facebook or Twitter.

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