Thursday, July 3, 2014

Interrogation Room #43: Diana Renn, author of LATITUDE ZERO

We get pretty amped around here when one of our own sleuths comes out with a new title. Today, we're talking to Diana Renn about her wonderful second book, LATITUDE ZERO. This mystery about a teen who gets caught up in a questionable death during a cycling race is a heart-palpitating, hair-raising ride with wonderful characters and a vivid setting. Here's the synopsis:

“I have to run,” said Juan Carlos. “You will call? Please? It is very important.” “Yes. I will call. Definitely. At two.” 
That’s what Tessa promises. But by two o’clock, young Ecuadorian cycling superstar Juan Carlos is dead, and Tessa, one of the last people ever to speak to him, is left with nothing but questions. The media deems Juan Carlos’s death a tragic accident at a charity bike ride, but Tessa, a teen television host and an aspiring investigative journalist, knows that something more is going on. While she grapples with her own grief and guilt, she is being stalked by spies with an insidious connection to the dead cycling champion. Tessa’s pursuit of an explanation for Juan Carlos’s untimely death leads her from the quiet New England backwoods to bustling bike shops and ultimately to Ecuador, Juan Carlos’s homeland. As the ride grows bumpy, Tessa no longer knows who is a suspect and who is an ally. The only thing she knows for sure is that she must uncover the truth of why Juan Carlos has died and race to find the real villain—before the trail goes cold.
And a little more about Diana:
I write contemporary YA novels featuring globetrotting teens, international intrigue, and more than a dash of mystery. My first novel, TOKYO HEIST (Viking/Penguin), came out in 2012, my next, LATITUDE ZERO, releases July 3, 2014. I am also the Fiction Editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network), an award-winning online magazine dedicated to short form writing for teens. 

1. This is a highly original story—what sparked the idea, and what personally attracted you to it?

Two ideas fused together in this book, and for a long time I thought they might in fact be two separate books! First, I had an idea that I wanted to write something about Ecuador, because I once lived and worked there. In fact, the earliest seed of this book was probably a short story I wrote called “Latitude Zero,” using a washing machine for a desk, in the patio off of a room I rented. I was interested in writing about a country that was perceived as corrupt, and writing about a person who went there with an off-kilter moral compass, seeking freedom and confronting her own limitations. The story was too big to be contained in a short story, and never really worked, though I revisited the idea and characters for many years.

The second idea I had was for a mystery set in bicycling culture, which, at the elite level, is often seen as corrupt, tainted by doping and cover-ups, in the post-Lance Armstrong world. I played with both ideas and realized they overlapped in a fascinating way, with this issue of corruption. I’m also personally interested in international bike racing, and thought that combining my bike book idea with my Ecuador book idea would let me set this story on a larger stage and significantly raise the stakes.

2. Tessa is a wonderful, relatable protagonist because she's made some bad decisions, but she doesn't want to let these missteps define her, and her quest to solve the mystery of el Cóndor's death is also the quest to redeem herself. What surprised you most about this plucky character?

Thank you! She’s a girl whose moral compass has gone slightly askew, and that can happen to any of us. She has to figure out for herself what it means to be a good person, and to do good things in the world. I knew early on that her personal quest – finding her values -- would be enmeshed in the quest to solve the mystery. What I didn’t realize was how tough she really was. She became quite outspoken, able to advocate for herself and for others, in a way that I had not planned. She also became aware of the very real problems of other people in the world, not just her own problems, and developed more empathy.

3. With so many likely suspects for el Cóndor's death, Tessa has quite a challenge on her hands, and readers are drawn into a head-spinning number of possible explanations. Any tricks for fellow authors who might be managing multiple red herrings in their story?

Yes, there are a lot of suspects. My books are sometimes called “complex mysteries,” and that’s because they deal with more than one crime and quite a few suspects. In LATITUDE ZERO, this happened partly because I wanted the reader to question –as Tessa does—who is good or bad, or what that even means. As a result, many characters end up looking suspicious.

Mostly I have multiple suspects because of the nature of the world in which my crime takes place. Pro cyclists on a team just don’t operate in isolation, and there are people with close access and financial interests in them—which means opportunities and motives abound. In LATITUDE ZERO, an elite cyclist dies under unusual circumstances. In real life, and in this book, many types of people have access to elite cyclists, from managers to mechanics to masseuses. I made a list of everyone who would potentially be involved or implicated, then gradually narrowed it down.

If you have a mystery that takes place in a certain “world” – a sports world, the art world, whatever it is – you do have to think of the people who would have opportunity and motive, list them all, and decide which ones you want to deal with in your book. At least three, to keep the reader guessing, and probably not more than six. And if you cannot make a list of potential suspects, then you may need to widen your character’s world until you can come up with a list. For every person on that list, you should be able to think of a motive and opportunity for crime.

4. You open up new worlds to your readers here, whether it's Ecuadorian culture or competitive cycling. What sort of research did you do for this book? In what ways did your settings inform your plot?

I thought both cultures (Ecuador, cycling) would be relatively easy to portray. I am an amateur cyclist, and I follow professional cycling to some extent – I have passable knowledge of pro-cycling history and the current major players. I lived and worked in Ecuador. However, I still had plenty of research to do. I have never raced, and can barely change my tire – but I have pro cyclists and bike mechanics in the book. I connected online and through local bike shops with people who are in those worlds, and I had experts read my manuscript and vet the details. I was on sturdier ground with Ecuador but still connected with people from there or living there, and had readers check my details and language, since many things have changed since my time there. My sister traveled there for work when I was writing this, and she became my avatar, taking pictures for me, finding resources, and even doing a bike ride!

With both cycling and Ecuadorian culture, the settings gave me clear parameters I could establish and then move around in. Like pins on a map. I could figure out the types of bicycling events, venues, and people I wanted my teen sleuth to cross paths with. Out of that came certain clues, suspects, tools for the crime, and red herrings. In my Ecuadorian setting, I wanted to range all over the country—show the jungle, the Galapagos Islands, everything – but I had to remind myself I was writing a mystery novel, not a Frommer’s Guide. Tessa goes there in the second part of the book, the pace didn’t lend itself to leisurely sightseeing at that point, and I ended up restricting her movements to the capital city, Quito, and immediate environs. I do kind of wish she’d seen more along the way, but the story made certain demands on the setting at that point in the book. That is a hazard of setting suspense fiction abroad. If a character’s life is flashing before her very eyes, she’s probably not admiring Mount Cotopaxi or some baroque building façade. Allowing places for the unique setting to leak in, while keeping the tension high, is a fun challenge.

5. I know that the resolution to this mystery changed through your drafts. Can you talk about that process (without spoilers, of course)? How important is it for a mystery writer to know the ending from the very beginning and what tips would you offer to another writer who's rethinking hers?

I thought I knew the ending, but I was wrong. Then I was wrong again! I had my criminals all mixed up, and I even changed a big part of the crime. I spent a lot of time writing and then realizing things were not working, then deleting and starting over. That wasn’t very efficient, but I got great character insights and fresh ideas along the way. The main crime and the related crimes had to fit together. I felt like I was building an intricate machine, or a motor, and something kept rattling around and I’d have to take it apart again. And again. I think with some books you just have to try writing ideas and see if they work, and this was one of those. But what I’ve now just learned from my third book is this: if you can write mini-outlines of where you are headed, and float those ideas by trusted readers or critique partners before you do the actual writing, that can really help. Figure out the logic “off the page” as much as you can, so you will have fewer words to throw out if you find you’re heading in the wrong direction.

6. One of the things I love most about this book is the way you handle the villains. They're believably wrong without ever getting too mustache-twirly. Do you have any tips on conjuring up complex bad guys?

Thank you! I love mustache-twirlers, but those are stock characters and best avoided, so everyone here got a clean shave. I think villains are intriguing when they have complicated pasts, and when there are things about them that are relatable and even likable. Or perhaps they have lost sight of their original goals, or made a series of poor decisions, or made some horrible mistake, or told some lies, or done the wrong things for the right reasons. They’re human. I think it also helped me that my villains changed during the writing of this book, and so I had already done a lot of character exploration and seen these people as complex and multi-faceted before they got the villain label in my mind. Once I made firm decisions, it was a matter of going back and teasing out the bad behavior and thinking a lot about their pasts, who they were before the bad stuff, and how that informed their motivations.

7. This is your second book. What were some of the challenges in following up your debut novel? What was easier this time around?

People say the second novel is hard, and they’re right. You have less time to write it, and more voices in your head, and, in this case, people with financial investments in it. That’s a lot to carry around. New pressures. I did have to shake all that off at some point and just write it for myself and have fun with the writing. A big advantage I had this time around? Knowing that I was writing a mystery, from the outset. With TOKYO HEIST, I had written a book with “mysterious elements” that became a traditional mystery over the course of multiple revisions. So I had better planning going into this. And I learned so much from working with my fantastic editor, Leila Sales, that I had her voice in my head coaching me along the way. Pacing and scene management were much, much easier to execute. I had more tools in my writer’s toolbox. I knew what I needed to do, structurally.

8. At this point, I'd say you're the reigning queen of the teen travel mystery! What excites you about this genre?

Ooh – queen of the teen travel mystery? How fun is that!

So I think the teen mystery genre is just exploding. So many great mysteries have come out over the past several years, and keep coming out . . .  I can barely keep up! (For a partial list, check out the ongoing roster of all the YA mystery authors listed on our blog!). And all these great teen mysteries just keep raising the bar, making it harder for all of us! Especially when you get mind-blowing, genre-crossing mysteries . .. mystery + sci fi, mystery + paranormal, mystery + historical . . . I’m in awe every time I read about new publishing deals or forthcoming books.

I love the challenge of writing a complex YA mystery plot while simultaneously focusing on character development. Readers are demanding—they want fully realized characters AND plot twists, clues, suspense, all that. I think that’s why a lot of the YA mysteries on the market are quite long, compared to the classic Nancy Drews. We’re spinning a lot of plates, resolving mystery plots and character arcs and subplots all at once.

In terms of the teen travel mystery—I’m not sure if that’s a full-fledged genre yet, but I hope it will be. We need more books with international settings and diverse casts; why not mysteries? There are certainly lots of contemporary teen novels out there already in which travel figures prominently. I love books where teens travel partly because I had a huge case of wanderlust as a teen, and never got to travel until I was older. And partly because so many teens today are really out there traveling the world—volunteering, working, studying, visiting family, adventuring, exploring. There are more opportunities than there used to be, and fiction should reflect that. Teen travel mysteries present exciting opportunities for teens to unravel mysteries, encounter something new and unfamiliar, get lost, and find themselves in the process.

9. What are you working on now?

I’m in the editing phase of my third novel, BLUE VOYAGE. This one takes place in Turkey, and it’s about a teen girl who gets entangled with an international gang of antiquities smugglers. It’s coming out next summer. It’s been so much fun to write, to take a virtual trip to Turkey, and kind of refreshing to have the whole book take place there. And the main character is a real departure for me. I’m having so much fun with her voice and her complex circumstances.

10. IR Classic Question: Anything you'd care to reveal under the pressure of interrogation?

Here I am writing and talking about bikes and bicycle advocacy and sports . . . yet I have not ridden my own bike in nearly a year! Both the tires are flat and it’s literally gathering dust. My excuse? I was in a chair for the past year, writing and editing this book! (And then the next one!) But I will soon, very soon, be out on the road once more. If  I could bike and write simultaneously, that would be ideal.

Learn more about Diana and LATITUDE ZERO:
Find her on websiteTwitter and Facebook.

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