HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Nothing stranger than the Monday after Malice. I woke up this morning, exhausted, but missing everyone! One of the joys of this year's conventions--and there were many--was watching and listening to Femme Dana rock the place as Toastmaster! (She also won the Agatha for Best Short Story...hurray.)
I did the official interview with her--here's a lovely photo via the fab Elaine Naiman. (Dana's husband took many many photos--and I can't wait to see them!)
But there was also a terrific essay about her by Femme Toni. It's so perfect--and was in the official program book. But just in case you weren't in DC--here's a chance for you to read it.
Digging Below the Surface
By Toni L. P. Kelner
I’ve known Malice Domestic Toastmaster Dana Cameron for years, and can honestly say that she’s one of the best friends I could ever wish to have. She’s generous, loyal, a great conversationalist and enormously fun to spend time with. She is also, as her readers and fans know, an amazingly talented writer, and I admire her greatly. But here’s the fascinating thing about being friends with Dana – I learn something new about her every time we get together. There is so much more to her than you see on the surface.
Of course, that’s appropriate given Dana’s former life as an archeologist. She’s often told the story of how she was talking to a friend about some of the incidents that happen on site. Once she was working at a dig in New England when a pot hunter with a metal detector showed up, and when he was challenged by one of her colleagues, he actually pulled a gun on them. Fortunately, it all ended without bloodshed, and the friend said, “You should write a book about this stuff!” Dana usually concludes with something like, “So I wrote a mystery.” As if any archeologist could put just down her trowel and write mystery novels as exciting and layered as the Emma Fielding series!
This is where you have to dig below the surface to find out what really happened between that eureka moment and the publication of Site Unseen. In fact, you have to go back before then, to realize that Dana had already written a nonfiction volume. But there’s a big difference between scholarly work and mysteries, and Dana tackled this new task with everything she had.
She wrote the first draft in secret, not even telling her husband James. She then edited the heck out of it, with James’s able help. At the same time, she was reading mysteries and attending lectures and events to learn more about the nuts-and-bolts of crime fiction. (She even showed up at one of my talks, bless her heart. Fortunately, I didn’t scare her off.) That amount of effort would be enough for most aspiring authors, but Dana went even further. She submitted her manuscript to the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was accepted – to give you a hint of what that means, in a recent year, only twenty-two percent of applicants got in, and very few of those were genre writers. Dana was determined to do everything she could to learn her craft, but she’s too modest to say how hard she’s worked.
Dana’s first foray into urban fantasy shows a similar pattern. When she talks about her first Fangborn adventure, “The Night Things Changed,” she describes how writing the story was a revelation because for once, she didn’t need to start with research. She could just make it up. As if just any writer could come up with a completely fresh take on vampires and werewolves.
Again, you have to dig to find out what else she did. Despite her admission that she didn’t have any references to consult, she did check out anthropological studies on cross-cultural views of vampires and werewolves. She also read vast amounts of modern urban fantasy and paranormal romance to see what other writers were doing. Only then did she devise the Fangborn. And of course, she neglects to mention the fact that an intriguing background was only the start of what became an award-winning short story. (“The Night Things Changed” won the Agatha and the Macavity and was nominated for the Anthony.)
Her approach to writing “Femme Sole,” her first piece of noir fiction, was just as thorough. She’ll tell you she went historical for the Anna Hoyt stories because she already knew the era, but as you could guess by now, that’s only part of the tale. Dana doesn’t talk about the extra research she did, or her efforts to create a character who was true to her time, or the analysis of what noir means in terms of tone and world-view, rather than just using the hard-bitten private eye trappings. And again, she needed a plot and such to go with all that to get her those four award nominations. (Those would be the Edgar, the Agatha, the Anthony and the Macavity.)
Then there’s what Dana does to prepare for author appearances. If she’s participating on a panel, she’ll hit the web for information about her fellow participants, and if she has books by any of them, skims them to refresh her memory. If she’s moderating a panel, you can be sure she’s done even more in-depth research: reading at least one book by each participant, visiting participant’s blogs and web sites, and writing out her questions well in advance. I cannot imagine how much work she’s done to make sure she does a good job as Toastmaster this weekend and I suspect she’s reread every one of Jan Burke’s books and as many of Jan’s stories as she could get her hands on.
Now you might think Dana’s thoroughness only applies to her writing life, which is, after all, informed by her training as an academic and a scientist. Except that if that were true, how would you explain her approach to Christmas presents for my daughters? Like many people, she often gives gift cards, which is great. Kids love gift cards. But here’s the below-the-surface part. She didn’t just grab a card at whatever store she was in. She found out that the girls are big into art and which art store in the area was the best so she could make a special trip to get the gift cards. Then she planned a day so she could take them to lunch and then to the art store. She even got them ice cream. It wasn’t just a present – it was an event!
Now that I think about it, you could say that Dana herself digs below the surface in everything she does, so I guess it should be no surprise that we have to dig below the surface to fully appreciate her and her work.
HANK: Yay, Dana! Who else was at Malice? Did you have fun? Any special memories? (And thanks, Toni, for letting me swipe your essay!)