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Aaron Elkins Interview

Las Vegas, October 17, 2003
© 2003 italian-mysteries.com

Aaron Elkins' GOOD BLOOD is #11 in the Gideon Oliver Mystery Series.
Our Carlo Vennarucci interviewed him recently at the
Bouchercon World Mystery Conference in Las Vegas.

Aaron Elkins Author Page

Carlo Vennarucci (cv):   What can you tell us about GOOD BLOOD, your new mystery novel set in Italy?
Aaron Elkins: I used to teach for the University of Maryland where they offered courses for the American soldiers stationed overseas. I spent six months in Sardinia and in Sicily. While there, I traveled a lot through Italy. On one vacation trip with my wife, we took the train into Switzerland and we passed what seemed to me to be the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. This was over twenty years ago. It was on Lake Maggiore just out of the town of Stresa. I didn’t know what it was; it looked like a gorgeous garden and palace and I thought it was a really ritzy hotel. Well that turned out to be Isola La Bella, which is one of the Borromean Islands; they’re the gems of Lake Maggiore. They were built up during the 16th Century; they’re terraced, just fascinating. I said that I’d like to come there someday. Well, twenty years later I got an idea that had something to do with the faded Italian aristocracy that still existed post 1945. So I thought Stresa and the area with the palace would be a lovely place to travel to and spend a few days. This side of Lake Maggiore is very beautiful with lots of Victorian architecture. It just fitted everything I wanted. I invented an island because there wasn’t any island that suited me in which I had an old aristocratic family that had once had title of Count because one of their great uncles had been Pope for about five minutes in the 1400s; and I just took it from there. There’s a lot about Italian culture in it.

cv:   Is this new book one in the Gideon Oliver series?
Elkins: Yes, and as is in most Gideon Olivers, if your protagonist is a forensic anthropologist, you need skeletons; so that usually means you need something like a prologue because it takes a little while to become a skeleton. So there’s a prologue of some time before, in fact, some forty years before and then we move into today’s story.

cv:   What specific research did you actually do there in Stresa?
Elkins: I spent a week there, staying at the Hotel Primavera, which plays a big part in the book. Mostly I just looked around taking tons of notes. And, as always, I stopped in at the police stations to ask questions about procedure--both the municipal police and the Carabinieri.

cv:   Were they fairly receptive to your questions?
Elkins: They always are. My approach is always that I’m writing a book that’s going to be set in this area, the police will be in it, I’m on the side of the police, they never look stupid in my books and I want to make sure I don’t write anything silly that’s so wrong that that people laugh at it. So police always like to do what they can. There were places where they didn’t do it. Egypt wouldn’t talk to me when I was there. My foreign language skills are not that great and sometimes they miss the gist of what I say--I tell them I’m a writer and then I say I want to know what exactly happens when a dead body turns up--and then their ears perk up and want to know just what I’m talking about. I got in trouble in Tahiti on that because they thought I was talking about an actual body.

cv:   Your third and last book in the Chris Norgren art series was published over ten year ago. Why haven’t there been any more?
Elkins: I liked the series and enjoyed writing about him. But it’s a question of market. Readers liked them too. An author doesn’t sell to readers, authors sell to editors and publishers. With forensics being so popular now, they really like the Gideon Oliver series. They want the Gideon Olivers and that’s what they’ll get. It still pays the bills for me. I’d like to do another Chris Norgren book, but it’s unlikely I will. I'm not looking for sympathy here; the Gideon Olivers are a pleasure to write too.

cv:   When you write a book, do you have it pretty well planned out before you start?
Elkins: Yes, but it doesn’t always go there. I’ve had two books now where I’ve had to actually change the killer in the book. In a mystery, when you think about it, that’s not easy when you're way into the book. I try to write fair play mysteries with fair clues for the reader. So if I change the murderer, I then have to go back and change a whole lot of motivation, clues, and red herrings to make the solution rational. I basically start with an outline in which I have the basic idea of a story and I think I know who did it. I then usually have in mind, not chapters but a series of incidents and the places they’re set in.

cv:   Do you see any more books set in Italy on your horizon?
Elkins: Sure, I like to write about Europe, and Italy in particular. Italians are colorful and they are lively. So it makes it easy and fun to write about them. As you know, there’s a lot of theater, especially when they’re having public arguments. I remember the feeling on my first trip watching two people argue at a café on a square in Bologna. I thought these two old guys were going to kill each other. But no, it was just typical argument. They were both alive at the end, and still seemed to be friends.

cv:   You have co-authored a couple of books wife your wife. Does that work pretty well?
Elkins: Let me just say that our marriage is more important to us than our joint literary career, so we dropped that. I’m terrible to work with, I really am. I’m not a team player. I don’t do well sharing ideas. It’s not for me and I got on her nerves too much. Charlotte was great to work with, though. For a writer, she's absolutely ego-less, but I more than make up for that.

cv:   Are there any contemporary mystery writers that inspire you?
Elkins: Contemporary? I guess not. I never have read many mysteries, but I loved Conan Doyles’s Sherlock Holmes. For years and years and even now once in a while, I read Conan Doyle to go to sleep. I find it peaceful and relaxing. I read the one-volume anthology so much (and dropped it on the floor so often when I fell asleep) that I finally had to buy a second copy. And now that's not doing to well either.

cv:   Do you always go with the same publishing house for your standalones as well as your Gideon Oliver series books?
Elkins: No, it’s very, very unsteady. Sometimes, I’ve left the publisher; sometimes the publisher has left me. What happens is that editors move around a tremendous amount. I’ve been with Morrow for the last few books, but the person that brought me on board left, and then my editor left when they got purchased by a huge company. Then the editor that replaced him left and my publicist left and my books were orphans. Nobody was interested in them. Editors these days don’t do much editing, what they do is acquire authors and their careers depend on how the authors they acquire do. So, when you’re somebody else’s child, it’s not a top priority to them. That makes it tough to get attention.

cv:   Are your books published in other languages?
Elkins: Yes, a dozen altogether, mostly European. In Italy, it’s always Mondadori, the yellow "giallo" books.

cv:   Is your new book GOOD BLOOD going to be published in Italy?
Elkins: I don’t know. The Frankfurt book fair is going on right now so we’ll see. If it is, I will let you know that.

cv:   Is Germany a big market for your books?
Elkins: Switzerland. As you may know, when you sell a book overseas you don’t sell the rights to a certain country, you sell the language rights. Books in German are marketed in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. But the publisher is Swiss. The books do well there.

cv:   Of all your books, which one has been the most successful in terms of sales?
Elkins: LOOT. And I think that is because it got the biggest push. That was when I first joined Morrow and I had the new editor that liked me and the publisher liked me and so they made the push. Books have to be good, but if the publishing house is really behind you it’ll be a big seller. If they’re not it just won’t.

cv:   Is there one book, that’s you favorite?
Elkins: The further back you go the more I like them. I’m really the least confident writer in the world. My stuff looks like garbage to me as I write it. I'm usually afraid to send a book in when it’s done. On my first few books, I said to my wife that I was going to send a note telling my editor I knew it was awful, and to just tell me what they wanted changed. She told me that that wasn't very good politics, and if they didn't like the book, they'd surely tell me. Smart girl, Charlotte. Even now I feel exactly the same way every time. On the last book I did, I felt in my stomach just as bad about it as I always do, but in my head I knew that if I read it in fifteen years, I’ll say, "I only wish I wrote this well now." So when I look at my old books, they look like good writing to me. But my recent books don’t. Maybe the struggle of creating them is still too new.

cv:   What books have you been writing since you completed GOOD BLOOD?
Elkins: Only one, which is a little over half-way through. It's another Gideon Oliver, tentatively called Unanticipated Consequences, and it's set in the cattle ranch country on the island of Hawaii.

Good Blood | Fellowship of Fear
A Deceptive Clarity | A Glancing Light