Thursday, June 14, 2012

Interrogation Room Suspect #15: Diana Renn

Tokyo Heist (Viking/Penguin) is out today, so we we've hauled our fellow sleuth Diana Renn into the interrogation room. Tokyo Heist has gotten amazing reviews from the L.A. Times, Kirkus and School Library Journal and it's also made the Summer 2012 Kids' Indie Next List. Go, Diana!

About Diana Renn
Diana grew up in Seattle and now lives in Boston with her husband and son. She graduated from Hampshire College and earned an MA in English and American Literature from Brandeis University. She has taught ESL, writing and literature and has authored several ESL textbooks. She also writes short stories and essays, and enjoys travel, bicycling and taiko drumming.

When sixteen-year-old Violet agrees to spend the summer with her father, an up-and-coming artist in Seattle, she has no idea what she's walking into. Her father's newest clients, the Yamada family, are the victims of a high-profile art robbery: van Gogh sketches have been stolen from their home, and, until they can produce the corresponding painting, everyone's lives are in danger—including Violet's and her father's. Violet's search for the missing van Gogh takes her from the Seattle Art Museum, to the yakuza-infested streets of Tokyo, to a secluded inn in Kyoto. As the mystery thickens, Violet's not sure whom she can trust. But she knows one thing: she has to solve the mystery—before it's too late.

It's tough to interrogate the queen of the interrogators but we did, thankfully, manage to get some information out of her without having to resort to our sneakier tactics.

Elisa Ludwig: Violet is a great heroine—she's smart and curious but also very believable as a teen. How did this character come to you? Was her voice simply in your head or did she come into focus more gradually over time?

Diana Renn: Thank you! When I started writing, it was an adult novel, narrated by a thirtysomething Violet, with a parallel narrative about her teen self in Japan. The younger Violet was more fun to write. I heard her voice like a radio signal. I started over with the younger narrator, and was happily surprised to find I was now writing YA.

While Violet’s teen voice took awhile, I started the novel with an image of her. When I was in Japan, I saw an American girl at a summer festival, wearing a summer kimono and combat boots. She haunted me. I wondered about this girl who was straddling cultures and what her story was.

Elisa: You have written about how your setting chose you, but how did the ultimate choice to set a mystery in Japan inform the writing process? What were the challenges of this particular setting and what aspects made your job easier?

Diana: One challenge was letting go of my travel itinerary and memories from Japan. It was tempting to include every cool place, experience, or person I encountered, and it took many false starts to realize that my story needed to go its own way. I can’t tell you how many months I spent trying to figure out how to get my sleuth and her sidekick to a remote mountain town where people used to farm silkworms. Why? It was going to take them on a fifty-page detour to a dead end. My book has nothing to do with silkworms. Everything they needed to accomplish could be done in other cities and towns. So cutting loose my travel experiences was hard at first, but once I did, the writing got easier.

Initially, I was worried about setting the novel in Japan knowing I could not return there for research. When I needed to fact check or get ideas, I turned to travel guidebooks, the Internet, Japanese friends, books. And YouTube. Tourist videos on YouTube made my job so much easier. Instantly I could recall what it was like to board the shinkansen, or walk through a department store, or lay out a futon on a tatami mat in an inn. Thanks to videos, I could either remember details or gather new details to bring scenes to life.

Elisa: An art heist is a special kind of mystery with its own set of clues and investigative techniques—what sort of research did you do to get the details right? How did the mystery itself evolve through drafts?

Diana: I’m totally fascinated by what happens when art enters the marketplace and becomes a kind of currency. That fascination extends to art heists. Art heists are incredibly complex. They are also underreported. Museums and galleries don’t really like to talk about them, for fear of exposing their vulnerabilities to crime. There are, however, many books and documentaries on this topic, many of which I consulted.

I’m obsessed with the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum heist that happened in the 1990s here in Boston. I studied that heist a lot to understand the types of people who might steal art, who might ferry or harbor stolen art to a buyer, and who might be motivated to find it. I contacted the FBI, the Seattle Police, and various other law enforcement officials to find out how they would go about investigating the type of crime(s) involved in my novel.

Despite all the research, it took a lot of revisions to nail the criminals, investigators, and motives in my story. The research and writing were always going on simultaneously. The story development led to questions I needed to answer with research. The research in turn affected the story development. Characters were added and subtracted as needed.

Elisa: Violet is less than satisfied with her parents and their involvement in her life and the way she learns to forge a better relationship with them is a wonderful subplot in the story. You did such a great job balancing this emotional arc with the action of the story—what is your advice to other mystery writers who might want to create richer characters and relationships in their narratives?

Diana: Thank you! Balancing the emotional arc and the mystery plot was a challenge. In early drafts, the two arcs were competing, or confusing. Beta readers weren’t sure if it was a contemporary, character-driven story or a true mystery. Eventually I chose to foreground the mystery without sacrificing the emotional arc. What really helped in the end was crafting scenes that could do “double duty” – conveying character development and furthering the mystery plot at the same time. For example, in early drafts I might have a scene where Violet finds some clues (mystery plot) and a separate scene where Violet confronts her father about some issue (emotional arc). In subsequent drafts, I was able to combine those scenes, so that Violet might unearth a clue while having it out with her dad or confessing her feelings to someone – or the reveal might lead to an emotional scene — within the same two or three pages. This strategy cut down the word count too.

Later, I created a chapter-by-chapter chart where I tracked the mystery plot and any subplots, coding them in different colors. In that same chart, I wrote out questions I wanted to leave the reader with, regarding both the mystery plot and the emotional developments. Finally, I did lots of journaling from the points of view of my main characters. That helped me get into their voices and characters.

Elisa: What did you learn from the writing of Tokyo Heist that you have taken with you into your subsequent work?
Diana: I’ve learned that I love mystery! I resisted the genre label for a long time, mainly because I feared plot. But I had so much fun putting together this puzzle. Mysteries are difficult to write, but there’s nothing more satisfying to me than those moments when plot points, clues and revelations all suddenly work together, and everything clicks into place.

I’ve learned to be a better planner and think through problems before I write myself into a corner. I’ve learned that charts, timelines, and other graphic organizers can be used at any step of the process. I’ve learned that the mystery has to be introduced early on – ideally in the first ten pages, and definitely in the first twenty.

Above all, I’ve learned that mystery demands clarity. This is key. A mysterious, atmospheric, ambiguous story is NOT a mystery. As the author, you have to know who did what, and when, and where, and why – maybe not all of that when you begin, but at some point. You have to know what the effects of a crime are and how they will ripple through the entire book. You have to be able to separate the clues and red herrings, and put the right weight on each, and plant them. Then you have to wipe away your fingerprints and your footprints for the reader.

Elisa: This is a book that could appeal to so many different types of readers: mystery buffs, manga fans, art aficionados, anyone curious about Japan and Japanese culture. Who do you envision as an ideal reader for Tokyo Heist?

Diana: I do hope the book appeals to these various readers – though those weren’t groups I had in mind when I wrote. I wrote for a teen girl who was introverted and creative, who made sense of the world through some kind of art, and who needed to discover her inner strength and resources.

Elisa: What are some of your influences, literary and otherwise? 

Diana: These days I read a lot of contemporary fiction, both YA and adult. I’m reading more mysteries than ever. In YA mystery, Peter Abrahams and Alane Ferguson are two favorite authors of mine. I also love John Green, for the voice and the intelligence of his young characters. I love authors who introduce me to other places and cultures. Laura Resau is a favorite YA/MG author of mine – she writes such rich stories with global settings, places I’m dying to visit (and a dash of mystery, too!)

I also really love art as a source of inspiration. I poke around in art galleries and museums as often as I can. (I swear I’m not plotting a heist of my own!) Exploring a different medium always triggers new ideas for me.

Elisa: What is your writing process like? Pantser or plotter? When do you prefer to work, and how do you stay focused?

Diana: My writing process is strange. I sketch out ideas in rough outline form. I try to write 30-50 pages. I reevaluate and sketch out more ideas. I revise and push out 30-50 pages more. And so on. I seem to write deeper into the story as I go, while pushing the length out little by little. So I’m a combination of pantser and plotter, I guess.

When drafting new material, I prefer to work at night when my family is asleep, outside fades away, and I have a stretch of uninterrupted time. I pay for it the next day with fatigue, but if I can stay alert from nine till midnight, I can get some good, workable material. During the cold light of day I can then edit and plan the next chapters. As for staying focused, I watch almost no TV – I purposely don’t get wrapped up in series dramas, since those characters will then take over my mind and my creative energy. Also, I swear by internet blocking software; I use “Freedom.”

Elisa: What's next from you?

Diana: I’m working on a new YA mystery (unrelated to Tokyo Heist). I tend not to talk about works in progress until they’re ready to face the world, so that’s about all I can say right now.

Elisa: Do you have anything else to confess?

Diana: Yes. I can’t write in a cafĂ© at all – too distracting – but the physical prototype for one of my characters works at my local Starbucks. I drank a TON of coffee there over the years while stalking studying this person, and spent God knows how much money on frequent coffee breaks. Now, when I get my occasional latte, I see him and smile to myself – he’s aged out of the YA market, beyond the age of my character, and he has no clue was used as a model!


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