C. J. Songer:
Marriage as the Root of All PI Novels
Forget the avocados and oranges. Mysteries constitute California's most important export. From the genre-shaping work of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler to the neo-noir epics of James Ellroy and the C. J. Songer's tough-yet-tender protagonist, ex-cop Meg Gillis --
What? You haven't read anything by C. J. Songer? Where have you been? Well, don't worry, I won't tell. Just go read her, right away -- you're lucky we caught this early, while she only has the two books out. And before you said that in public. Sheesh.
Crescent Blues: Let's take it from the top -- what was the seed that eventually grew into Bait and Hook, the first books in the Meg Gillis series?
C. J. Songer: Well, the "seed," appropriately enough, came from my husband. [Smiles.] I wanted to find a way to re-connect him to his police department past. He had to retire on an injury, and he had a very hard time reconciling himself to that, so he severed many of the ties. He put all of his police stuff in a box and wouldn't talk about it, on the theory, I think, that it was easier not to be reminded of what he couldn't be anymore.
We'd still get together with some of our police friends and families away from the department -- I made a point of dragging [my husband] to things -- and he always came more alive when he was there, hashing over old times with the buddies. So a few years later, when I was deciding to start writing officially, it was very natural to use a police department setting akin to the one that we'd known, and then need his input to be sure I was writing it right.
Crescent Blues: Do you see Meg as a descendent of the classic PI -- a loner, following a strongly held (though sometimes hard to articulate) moral code even when it conflicts with the letter of law or her own best interests. Or is that simply a projection of your readers?
C. J. Songer: I see Meg as Meg. I don't know how my readers see her. She does have a very strong moral code, even if it isn't always immediately obvious, and yes, sometimes that code demands sacrificing herself for somebody else's good, but isn't that true for everyone? We all deal with that, I think. Meg's simply a woman of our times, trying to figure the best way through this thing we call life.
Crescent Blues: One of Meg's strengths is that while she's a strong, assertive woman working in a traditionally male occupation, she's also very believably feminine. How do you achieve that balance?
C. J. Songer: I just write her as she is. [Smiles.]
Crescent Blues: Sometimes male readers find it hard to identify with a female protagonist -- what has your experience been with Meg and male readers?
C. J. Songer: Well, most of them seem very taken with her, which is gratifying, although one or two have mentioned wanting to smack her because she just won't behave. They don't think she's wrong, exactly, but they do feel very strongly that she shouldn't take such chances, and that she should listen more to her guy. I'm trying to see this as a good sign...
Crescent Blues: Some of your readers have said less than flattering things about Joe Reilly, the homicide cop Meg meets in Bait and then in Hook. No spoilers, but I suspect Reilly's not leaving anytime soon. Can you tell us more about how you see the relationship between Meg and Reilly?
C. J. Songer: They don't like Reilly? Really?? But he's such a New Age, sensitive kind of guy! He's honestly trying here, you know. I have to say this -- he's being very patient, giving her running-room, and she's just dragging him around, dissing him. It's fortunate that she's good in bed. And that she really likes him. And that he really likes her.
Crescent Blues: What about Mike, Meg's partner? I admit, I worry about him. I keep remembering that scene in the Maltese Falcon where they're repainting the door from "Spade and Archer" to just "Sam Spade." Sure, he's a rogue, but without him, how could you manage to get Meg into a book's worth of trouble?
C. J. Songer: Oh, I never thought of that -- Thank you! You know, there's quite a trend in mysteries these days of killing off the Significant Other. Now, see, I've been threatened with bodily harm if I slaughter Meg's S.O. but, Mike, well... [C. J. strokes her Freudian slip -- er, chin.] Hmmmm...
Crescent Blues: Meg's not only an ex-cop, but the widow of an officer slain in the line of duty. What made you decide on that background for her?
C. J. Songer: I'm married. [Smiles.]
Crescent Blues: Not only are you married to an ex-police detective, but you worked for the Glendale, Calif., police department. How has that affected your work?
C. J. Songer: It's the root of all ev -- oops, I mean, writing. Seriously, it is what has fueled me and it is what fuels the books. It's a very difficult culture to express or to comprehend. If you're in it, you generally can't see its oddities as oddities and you embrace them as natural and necessary to survive, which in a sense, they are. If you're outside of it and have never been in it, then much of the behavior and the automatic reactiveness can seem bizarre.
I was in it at least partway, because I tend not to embrace things, and I'm still connected to it, although I've been living outside of it now for a while, so perhaps I have a reasonable perspective of both sides. I'm trying very hard to be true to the culture as I've experienced it, in all of its good and bad aspects.
Crescent Blues: How much can you draw on your own background and that of your husband and friends, and how much do you actively research aspects of your books?
C. J. Songer: It's sort of a blend of both. I do a fair amount of training in weaponry and methods of self-defense because I find it very interesting and challenging and liberating and exhilarating and frustrating and a bunch of other things like that. In that sense, I actively research. Where I need more specific input as to departmental procedures or whatever, I usually check first with my husband, because he's knowledgeable and handy, but I also have a number of friends I can call on. When in doubt, I do!
Crescent Blues: Although Meg sometimes bends the rules -- breaking the law or the terms of her understanding with Reilly when necessary -- she never does it lightly, and she always ends up paying a price. Is that by design?
C. J. Songer: Isn't that how life works? Maybe it's the way I've experienced it. [Smiles.] I don't have a design, per se. A number of the things people have asked me lately have to do with my writing process, and there seems to be a "deus ex machina" implication to some of those questions, as if I'm writing by hovering over a little diorama someplace, ready to reach my godlike hand in and alter the goings-on at my whim. I'm a great believer in taking personal responsibility for things, so I'm somewhat nonplussed myself to be saying, "No, no -- I just write what's there." But that's how I do it.
I try to be true to all of the people I'm interpreting -- if Meg does such-and-such, what's Reilly going to do? If he's reacting this way, how's Meg feeling at the moment, what's most important to her? That kind of stuff. I guess I believe that Meg would be the first to deny that the term "honorable" applies to her -- she doesn't see herself that way. But I do. And when you're a pragmatic realist who finds yourself operating stupidly honorably, well, then, sheesh, no wonder everything's going to hell!
Crescent Blues: What kinds of books do you like to read, when you have the time -- mysteries, or something else entirely?
C. J. Songer: Don't tell anyone, OK? I like science fiction.
Crescent Blues: Does your law enforcement experience influence how you read other mysteries -- are there things you can't read because they don't ring true, or things you find particularly compelling because they do?
C. J. Songer: Yes.
Crescent Blues: Such as?
C. J. Songer: Uh...can I call a friend?
Crescent Blues: How have the cops or ex-cops you know reacted to Bait and Hook?
C. J. Songer: Many of them don't read cop-fiction because of what you mentioned in your previous question. So far, thankfully, the ones who've read my books and who've talked to me about it have liked [the books] a lot.
There are operational differences between police departments -- big city versus smaller-town, for instance, sheriffs versus a PD, or the way a certain area of the country handles problems as opposed to another geographical location. But there are some things that are just absolutely specific to the cop experience across the board, and the response I've gotten has been extremely positive.
I have a rather hard-bitten Internet friend from one of my Tactics lists who's a sheriff with a department in Kentucky. He's one of the last people in the world…