|Rochelle Majer Krich: Mystery Meets Social Conscience by Way of Hollywood|
Domestic violence, fertility clinic scandals, Holocaust victims bilked out of their inheritance, murder, even talk radio psychotherapy find their way into Rochelle Majer Krich's mystery novels. This doyenne of the mystery genre with nine novels and one movie to her credit, welcomes readers to a world of Orthodox Judaism, murder, family, mystery, marketing, research, creativity, what-ifs and social conscience.
Each morning this former high school English teacher shuts herself in her L.A. home office, pushing to meet her fast approaching August deadline for the fifth novel in her Jessica Drake mystery series. But Krich opened the door to Crescent Blues, offering readers a rare glimpse into her writings and her life.
Crescent Blues: How has being a mystery writer changed your life and the way you perceive life?
Rochelle Krich: For one thing, my life is much busier! I don't seem to have much free time. I'm either researching and writing, meeting deadlines, editing a manuscript, correcting galleys, arranging for promotional opportunities and simultaneously trying to run a household. The positive side is that I'm never bored. Writing mysteries has also made me more cautious when I'm around strangers, and I'm always careful to lock my car doors. [Editor's note: in Krich's novel Fair Game, one of the victims is killed because she left her car door open.] I don't think, though, that writing mysteries has made me cynical or unduly suspicious.
Crescent Blues: Your first novel, Where's Mommy Now?, won the prestigious Anthony award for best paperback original. Then director Kevin Meyer made it into the movie Perfect Alibi, starring Teri Garr, Catherine Quinlan and Hector Elizondo. How did you manage to grab the gold ring on your first writing-go-round?
Rochelle Krich: Serendipity. A local cable TV book show host interviewed me and mentioned the book to her friend, Bruce Cohn Curtis, a producer. Bruce loved the book and told me someday he'd produce it. Years passed, and he kept his promise. We've become good friends, and he wants to produce and direct another one of my books, Till Death Do Us Part. Just today he phoned and told me he's serious about doing it -- it's "his baby," he says. So who knows? I hope history will repeat itself, and his promise will come true.
Crescent Blues: Tell us about your experience in filmmaking. Were you involved in writing the script or providing consultation on scenes and characters? What was it like to watch your characters turn into movie stars?
Rochelle Krich: I'd heard numerous stories (horror ones, for the most part) from writers who had sold their books to be made into films, so I was prepared to hate the script. Actually, the script wasn't terrible -- a little thin on character, and minus peripheral characters that gave the book more layers.
Mostly it stayed true to the plot. In the book, my amateur sleuth has a husband and three children; in the script, she (Teri Garr) is the widow of a detective and has a shrill aunt (Estelle Harris, who played George Costanza's mother on Seinfeld) who is nagging her to remarry. I didn't mind that change, and it allowed the writer to develop a relationship between Teri Garr and the homicide detective, played by Hector Elizondo. The screenwriter/director also added a speeding car scene (don't ask) which ends up in a steamy sex scene that made me cringe at the screening, to which I'd invited my father. To his credit, the writer wrote a deliciously creepy scene that I wish I'd created myself.
Technically, I was the consultant but the screenwriter didn't particularly want my input. In one case, though, I persisted. In the book, the killer makes a woman's death look accidental. In the script, the killer attacks the woman, starts choking her and pushes her down a flight of stairs. I mentioned that this was a serious problem -- a medical examiner would notice marks on the woman's neck and realize this was a homicide. The writer told me I was being picky. I told Bruce (the producer) that the movie would immediately lose credibility with the audience. Bruce agreed, and the choking was eliminated.
In another scene, a character dies an interminably long death that becomes comical. At my request, they trimmed the scene, but not enough. It still struck me as melodramatic.
I thought the casting was perfect, and seeing my characters come to life was incredibly exciting -- and almost unreal. And a great deal of fun.
Crescent Blues: Did you visit the set, meet the stars, have the whole Hollywood experience?
Rochelle Krich: I visited the set a few times and talked with the stars, most of whom were warm and friendly. At the wrap party, everyone in the cast and crew signed a copy of Where's Mommy Now? That's something I'll always treasure.
I was impressed by the careful attention to detail and consistency. In one scene that takes place at a bar, the continuity person measured the amount of liquid in the glasses and the length of the celery stick to make sure everything was the same in subsequent takes. I was also impressed by how quickly the actors learned their lines. There were several funny mistakes, a result of footage left on the cutting room floor: In one scene Teri Garr is getting into a car with the detective and putting on her sunglasses. In the next frame in the car, she has no glasses on.
Crescent Blues: What did you like about the movie? Anything you'd do differently?
Rochelle Krich: I liked the casting, the production values, and most of the storyline. Much of my dialogue stayed intact -- I was grateful for that. I thought the background music was too loud and melodramatic. And that speeding car scene…
Crescent Blues: After such a momentous beginning, what kind of pressures did you face, sitting at the keyboard to write your second novel, Till Death Do Us Part? Was instant success a blessing or a problem?
Rochelle Krich: Actually, I wrote Till Death Do Us Part first. I sent it out unagented, received encouraging rejection letters (a terrific oxymoron, I think) and set about writing Where's Mommy Now? I think, in retrospect, I was lucky with the order of events, because you're right -- I would have felt pressured to equal the book that had been made into a movie.
After I sold Where's Mommy Now? I revised Till Death Do Us Part -- lopped off several hundred pages from a 705-page manuscript by beginning later in the book. I'd come to realize, after putting the book aside, that I'd started the story too early. The book deals with an Orthodox Jewish woman whose vindictive husband won't give her a "get" -- the Jewish divorce without which she can never remarry. Originally, I began with the courtship and dissolution of the marriage. The revised version begins with my heroine already having her civil divorce. It was tighter, and I showed the problems that led to the divorce by means of short flashbacks.
Crescent Blues: From everything I've read about you, religion plays a very important role in your life. How do your religion and your writing reinforce (or interfere with) each other? What particular veins of the Orthodox tradition do you find most helpful to draw on in your work?
Rochelle Krich: Writing has actually made me more comfortable about being Jewish in non-Jewish settings. When I became a published writer, I was initially apprehensive about broadcasting my Orthodoxy, not knowing how it would be received. The first time I went to dinner with a group who had invited me to speak about my books, I ordered a fruit plate. When one of the women asked me whether I was on a special diet, I replied yes, but didn't tell her that I keep kosher. Now I'm up front about the fact that I keep kosher and that I can't do signings on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays. So writing has been liberating.
Being Orthodox also helps me keep my priorities straight. I tend to be compulsive about my career -- I write late into the night and seek numerous promotional opportunities. If I didn't keep the Sabbath, I would be writing or promoting on Friday nights and Saturdays, but when sundown arrives on Friday, I shut off my computer and feel no guilt. I don't answer the phone or write or fax. I use the 25 hours to focus on my family and my faith, to become spiritually centered.
I have occasionally missed out on a promotional opportunity because it conflicts with my Sabbath or holidays. While I may have felt a flash of disappointment (I'd be lying if I claimed otherwise), a moment later I realize that not being able to participate is an important reminder that while my career is supremely important to me, it doesn't define who I am.
In writing about Orthodox Judaism, I try to present the richness of the traditions and lifestyle and to dispel the stereotype of the Orthodox Jew who lives in a hamlet and has no connection with the secular world. Orthodox Jews are not all rabbis and their wives. They are doctors and plumbers, engineers and businessmen, homemakers and teachers, scientists and electricians.
I also enjoy drawing on the ethics of Judaism. In Speak No Evil, for example, my heroine, Debra Laslow, a criminal defense attorney, frequently asks advice from her father, a rabbi, when she's conflicted about her profession, or when she's not sure what the Torah law -- the halacha -- would tell her to. I learned a great deal about the criminal justice system in that book, and also about the Jewish legal system.
With Jessie, who discovered in Angel of Death that she's Jewish, I can explore so many facets of Judaism through her eyes.
Crescent Blues: Many of your mysteries explore the theme of trust betrayed. What do you consider the source of this recurring motif?
Rochelle Krich: A fascinating question, one I hadn't considered. Thankfully, I can say that this has no relevance to my own life experience. I am fortunate to have family and friends who are faithful and caring. But I suppose I have a devious imagination! The truth is, that I'm fascinated by the human condition, by the way people relate to each other, and I think that there are many forms of betrayal that can lead to violence: betrayal between husband and wife, partners, mother and daughter, sisters, brothers, friends. The possibilities are endless, and endlessly intriguing.
Crescent Blues: Can you give us a sneak preview of your current project? How will it develop the themes you've established in your other books?
Rochelle Krich: I'm writing the next Jessie Drake mystery, tentatively titled Wayward Son. The book begins with the murders of a plastic surgeon and two of his staff, and deals with teen violence. There's a section in the Bible that talks about the wayward and rebellious son who is executed by the people in the city when he refuses to "listen to the voices of his parents." I'm going to explore the layered meanings behind that. I'm also planning to bring Debra Laslow into the book -- it's a natural meeting (Jessie's a detective, Debra's a prosecutor), and Jessie could use a girlfriend.
Crescent Blues: How did Jessica Drake evolve into a series character?
Rochelle Krich: Jessie was born in response to 16 rejection letters that I received for Fair Game (originally titled Death Across the Board), three of which said that the writing and plot were great but the detective hero (a male) was bland. I immediately knew that I wanted to learn more about Jessie -- I cared about her as I hadn't cared about the other detective. When I was writing Angel of Death, Jessie and I realized at the same time that she was Jewish. Well, okay, I had a small head start. So I went back to Fair Game, which was in galleys, and inserted a brief reference to the fact that Jessie's mother had some distant Jewish relatives.
Crescent Blues: Each of your characters seems whole and individual and utterly believable right down to the way they chose their cantaloupes. How do you get to know them and their lives so intimately? Are these real people?
Rochelle Krich: I'm fascinated by people. I like to watch the way they walk, the way they gesture. I listen to the way they talk, and laugh, and argue. When I write, I try to put myself into the mind of the character. I suppose that there are bits and pieces of real people in the characters I create, but I've never transplanted a real person into the pages of one of my books.
When Where's Mommy Now? was published, a casual acquaintance approached me at a school event and insisted that she was the basis for the character of Laney Tolbert, the amateur sleuth. I told her no. "But we drive the same car," she said. I told her I didn't know what kind of car she drove. "But we live on the same street!" I told her I had no idea where she lived. "But my best friend lives on Las Palmas, and Laney's best friend, Kate, lives on Las Palmas." Nothing would convince this woman that she wasn't the model for Laney. When I recounted the experience to my husband, he told me I'd been foolish -- I should have agreed, and she would have bought hundreds of copies of the book!
Crescent Blues: How have readers reacted to Renee Altman, the on-air psychotherapist in your current Jessica Drake novel Dead Air? What inspired you to take on the challenge of making such a self-centered personality the core character of your latest mystery?
Rochelle Krich: I've been surprised by the mixed reactions to Dr. Renee. I created her as a self-centered, opinionated woman who is caustic with her callers and doesn't always hear what they're saying. I realized it was risky writing a central character who isn't particularly likable, but I balanced that by showing her to be a caring, worried mother determined not to give up custody of her daughter.
Some people dislike Dr. Renee. Some feel sorry for her. Some think she's off the wall in the advice she dispenses. Some think she's doing fine. This illustrated to me that the way I envision a character and write the character isn't necessarily the way that character is perceived by the reader. And that's the beauty of books. Films, while exciting in their own right (and I'm a movie lover, as are my daughters), limit a person's imagination. Books allow the reader to add his or her own vision of a character.
Crescent Blues: Renee seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to the radio psychologist Dr. Laura. Has this caused you any problems?