Monday, July 26, 2010

9mm interview: Stella Duffy

Welcome to the latest instalment in Crime Watch's ongoing series of quickfire author interviews; 9mm - 9 MurderMystery questions put to a variety of New Zealand and international crime, thriller, and mystery authors. I hope you're enjoying the series.

Today is something of a mini-milestone, marking the 25th instalment in our regular series of quickfire author interviews. Given the series has been going for just on four months, this isn't too bad I think - close to three interviewees every fortnight on average - and certainly the calibre and breadth of the authors involved is much more than I could have imagined or hoped for when I started the series in March.

I'll be doing a 9mm overview post this week, so please take the opportunity to give some feedback as to what you've liked/disliked, and how I could make the ongoing series even better in future.

For the 25th instalment in the 9mm series, Crime Watch is featuring the mult-talented Stella Duffy, who grew up in the small rural town of Tokoroa in New Zealand (a town revolving largely around the forestry industry). From a crime-writing perspective, Duffy is most famous for her Saz Martin series. However Duffy is also a writer of other ‘styles’ of books, an actress, comedian and improviser, and has also written for radio. She is the author of twelve novels (five in the Saz Martin series), over thirty stories, and eight plays.

Duffy' novel STATE OF HAPPINESS was longlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize. She has also worked on screenplays and teleplays, and co-edited the crime collection TART NOIR with Lauren Henderson (Duffy’s story in that collection, “Martha Grace”, won the 2002 CWA Short Story Award). She was the Stonewall Writer of the Year in 2008 for THE ROOM OF LOST THINGS.

Her latest work (released just last month) is THEODORA: ACTRESS, EMPRESS, WHORE, a novel based on the story of Theodora of Constantinople, who "rose from nothing to become the most powerful woman in the history of Byzantine Rome", and became a saint of the Orthodox Church. The book has been receiving some great reviews. In a recent review in The Guardian, Tom Holland said "Duffy certainly makes the most of her material: not only is Theodora herself engagingly brought to life as a sassy, wise-cracking tart with a heart, but Constantinople, the great imperial capital whose crowds she woos and seduces, is also a pulsingly vivid presence."
Duffy also blogs about writing and life in general at "Not Writing But Blogging".

But for now, Stella Duffy stares down the barrel of 9mm...

The Crime Watch 9mm Author Interview:

Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
Very fond of Marlowe. Also read a lot of Miss Marple as a kid (not Poirot, think I was looking for girl role models and Hercule doesn't quite manage 'lady' as well as Miss M!), and - speaking of girl role models - I devoured the Trixie Belden books when I was a kid (buying them from Tokoroa Mackenzies if I remember rightly), hardly known at all in the UK where Nancy Drew (soppy and posh as far as I was concerned) got much more of a look in, the Trixie books were a staple for me from about age 8 to 12/13.

What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Wow, that's hard. Possibly the Magic Roundabout book, which I still have. Was also very fond of the big hardback/hard pages ABC. And two pop-up books (one about kittens in a flower garden I think) which belonged to my older siblings.

Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) -unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
Before coming to UK in 1986 - several plays, parts of plays, revue sketches for Victoria University Drama Club (which a bunch of us re-founded in 1981,and called a club because we thought 'society' sounded too poncey - I see they've changed that now!) We also did the first Vic Uni summer Shakespeare, the Midsummer Night's Dream Adrian Kiernander directed in the summer of 1982/83, I was production asst ... we must have been fairly enterprising youth. After Vic I wrote sketches for a Town & Country Players show at the Depot (as was) in 1984, and then Vital Statistics (women's theatre company)in 1985/86. Then once in UK, was writing (and improvising) more theatre, eventually in about 1989 I started one (unfinished) novel, one short story (published in Me & Marilyn Monroe, Daphne Brassell Assoc - NZ press), and then I wrote my first book which was published fairly quickly. (And the longlist of work I'd written previously, though not novels, might explain whythat 'first' novel was relatively easy to sell - because it certainly wasn't my first writing!)

Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do youreally like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Well, given that I turned my youthful 'hobbies' - theatre and writing - into my work, I don't tend to have a lot of leisure time. My main activity is writing (primarily novels, then stories/theatre, am working on a film idea right now), and so in 'leisure' time I tend to work in theatre. The past few years I've really enjoyed directing (most recently for London-based NZ theatre company Shaky Isles) and also performing (Improbable's Lifegame, this summer, at the Lyric Hammersmith.) I love my garden, so I work on that when I can (40 foot of south London fruit tree idyll, great cherries this year) and cooking, I like to cook.

What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't inthe tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn¹t initially consider?
The hometown that is Tokoroa - stop. Don't just drive through (there's moreto SH1 than Taupo). Check out the lakes (Whakamaru, Arapuni, Maraetai), the forests, the people - I gather there's a pretty cool Polynesian festival every year now.

The hometown that is Loughborough Junction/Brixton - stop. Just just get tube/bus through. Brixton market is great, the Red Gate Gallery in Loughborough Junction is cool, the Cambria pub has excellent food, the Rtzy is a fine cinema and has a great balcony for drinks overlooking Windrush Square.

Interestingly, both places loved far more by locals than their reputation might suggest!

If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Bette Davis, c All About Eve/Margot Channing, please.

Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
Always the last book - am really excited about having written my first historical novel in Theodora. In literary terms, The Room of Lost things (about the Brixton/Loughborough Junction) area is probably the 'best' written, and in crime terms, Mouths of Babes is def the best structured of my crime novels, Parallel Lies has the best narrator, and Wavewalker (my 2ndnovel) is the best-most-unsung book!

What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller's shelf?
I was rehearsing a play in a cold church hall in south London, my then-partner/now-wife Shelley arrived unexpectedly, I excused myself from rehearsal thinking something dreadful must have happened, she'd driven across the city to let me know there'd been a phone call saying Serpent's Tail were going to publish Calendar Girl. I screamed, then went back to rehearsal.

What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a booksigning, author event, or literary festival?
Um ... Being asked to sign a pair of (clean, new!) knickers for someone's sister. Being asked out on a date. Being forced to sit in a book tent along with five other authors when NO ONE was buying any of our books in a French festival, while outside the market and life was all going on, so grabbing US crime writer Vicki Hendrix and forcing her to run off and play with me (US crime writers are far better behaved than UK ones).

Being told repeatedly how great my poetry is, by a (young, drunk) woman who simply would not accept that I wasn't Carol Ann Duffy.

Thank you Stella Duffy. We appreciate you taking the time to talk with Crime Watch.


So what do you think of this 9mm interview? Of the 25-instalment series (thusfar) as a whole? Have you read Stella Duffy's Saz Martin series? Or any of her other novels? Does the story of Theodora intrigue you? Please share your thoughts and comments.


  1. Craig - Thanks for this great interview! I'm fond of historical novels and mysteries, so I look forward to reading Theodora, actually.

    I love the sense of humor that comes through in this interview : ). Thanks for sharing it.

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  3. I've read short stories, but not one of her novels. They're on my must read someday list.

    I love how often authors get mistaken for other authors!