Author Interview: Stefanie Pintoff
For this interview, I had a helper - longtime customer and book club member, Twila Price, who is as enthusiastic a fan as I am of Stefanie’s books. Her questions are noted.
Q: What’s your first approach - plain storytelling, historical, or do you go at it from a pure mystery standpoint? Or is it character based?
A: Since my starting point is always the murderer, I’d probably describe my approach as a blend of storytelling and mystery. Who is the killer? What is the motive? What method does he choose?
Once my killer has sprung to life, I know how the story must end - or, rather, how this particular killer will try to end it. So I craft my story, working backwards to the beginning, repeatedly asking “what’s happened to bring these characters to this point?”
The history is important, but it comes after the story is set - since I believe the best historical novels are those that never forget they are stories first.
Q: I like that you introducing elements of “new” science in each book - criminology in the first, graphology in the second. Is it part of the fun to write books set in this time period because the old ways of thinking were changing so quickly? And will you include a new discipline in each book?
A: Thank you! It is part of the fun that the early 1900s were a time of such rapid change. I love the zeitgeist of this era, itself characterized by a tremendous faith in possibility. People - especially scientists - believed that the next big discovery was just around the corner, certain to change everything for the better.
I do try to include a different forensic innovation in each book. In my next one, for example, ballistics plays a large role. Experts had just discovered that is was possible to match a particular gun to the bullet it had fired, and that opened incredible possibilities.
Q: I think your main character, Simon Ziele, could quickly enter the mystery “canon” of classic characters, as he has all the terrific elements that make a character well loved. He’s smart but vulnerable, flexible in his thinking, and has an interesting back story. He’s not out of place in company as disparate as P.D. James’ Adam Dalgleish or Louise Penny’s more recent Armand Gamache. How did you come up with him?
A: You’ve just mentioned two of my favorite detectives! Ziele’s character is loosely drawn from the best traits of certain people I’ve known. I actually came up with my criminologist, Alistair Sinclair, first - and then conceived Ziele to be his perfect foil.
Q: I really like that you seem to truly revere mysteries as a form, that you aren’t just writing an historical crammed full of facts, you’re writing a good story first and foremost. Each book had a twist I didn’t expect. Any favorite authors who have been inspirational?
A: Definitely! Jeffrey Deaver for what he does with suspense and modern-day forensics, and P.D. James for what she does with character and psychology. I’ve also been inspired by traditional masters like Dickens, who experimented with narrative form through serialization - always finding ways to keep readers hooked until the next installment.
Q: In the first book, one of my favorite characters was the murder victim, who didn’t seem (and I assume wouldn’t have been) an anachronism. Here’s Twila’s question about her, and I couldn’t have put it better: “What made you make Sarah a mathematician working on the Riemann hypothesis? I loved that aspect of the novel since I work for the American Mathematical Society. It was neat to see math and a mathematician in a mystery.”
A: Even though when we meet Sarah in the first pages of the novel, she is already dead, I wanted to make her an interesting female character (not a stereotypical female victim). I felt that making her a mathematician accomplished that - since, by default, she had to be a strong character to be in a PhD program at the time. (This allowed me to incorporate the feminist movement as well). And, since Columbia’s mathematics department had been the first to grant a PhD to a woman (in 1886), it also felt authentic.
My college roommate was a mathematician,and from her I learned about a lot of interesting math puzzles - Fermat’s Last Theorem, the Riemann hypothesis, and more. I also saw first hand some of the difficulties that woman in mathematics face, even today. What has been surprising to me has been how many women mathematicians have written to me saying that Sarah’s experience in her PhD program has parallels with their own, as late as the 1950's, 60s and 70s.
Q: Twila also asks (and I had the same question for sure): “Could there be a viable future for Simon and Isabelle? I loved their interactions in the novel, but I’m thinking that the class differences would be enough to sink any real attempts at a relationship. But I am a sucker for romance, so I can’t help but want them to become closer.” And I agree, but a relationship would also ruin any tension that exists between them, sometimes tricky for a series to handle. I think Victoria Thompson has done a great job, and Anne Perry drew it out but something was a little less interesting after Monk and Hester got married. I would go so far as to say that the series went a bit flat.
A: Isabella and Simon will definitely become closer in future novels - but as you rightly point out, the class differences are a huge obstacle. I also think that Simon’s feelings of tremendous guilt over Hannah’s death are an issue. But, as the series grows, you never know...
Q: And I have to ask: serial killers are so overused but you’ve actually managed to make them fresh, and I especially appreciated the note at the end of the second novel. Can you talk about serial killer books a little bit?
A: Of course! I’ve always been more interested in serial killers than in those who kill for other reasons (crimes of passion, etc.). Their motivations and personalities tend to be more complex, and they pose more of a challenge to understand.
If I’m able to keep them fresh, it’s because I find them so unique. For example, in A Curtain Falls, I was able to incorporate my long-time fascination with the type of murderer who is compelled not only to kill, but to write about it. These men - for so far, they have universally been male - have been theatrical and fame-seeking in their own, distinctive ways. From Jack the Ripper to BTK, Albert Fish to the Austrian killer Jack Unterweger, we’ve seen very different examples in real life history. I draw upon each of them in some way in creating the “series killer” who stalks the actresses of A Curtain Falls.
Q: And what about research? I know you live in New York, so you must be able to get primary source material pretty easily. How long does it take for you to set the stage, so to speak?
A: You know, I’ve loved New York City’s history since well before I thought of writing a book. In the years before I began writing, I was always up for an architectural tour of Upper East Side mansions or whatever special exhibit was featured at the New York Historical Society. So a lot of what I learned back then remains at my disposal, to make use of today.
I probably spend about four months researching whatever my current topic is, filling in more and more as I continue to draft my manuscript.
Q: I also enjoyed the fact that you are playing with different mystery “tropes” - the theatrical mystery, the locked room (the first book was basically a locked room book), and the use of Timothy “Poe” as an actual character in the second. Any previews of what’s up your sleeve in coming books?
A: I’m just finishing the third in the series - tentatively titled A Broken Truth - which takes Detetcive Ziele into a New York City underworld filled with hidden ciphers, secret societies, and anarchist plots.
Q: Finally I really enjoyed the verve and narrative drive that you’re brining to the historical novel. I also think that the ability to pace a narrative is more of a gift than anything else, but do you have any secrets to share in that regard?
A: You know, every terrific writer I know is first - and foremost - a great reader.
I’ve always been an avid reader, and I’ve learned narrative acing just from being aware of what my favorite writers do. So if I have any “secret”, it’s that!
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