Partners in crime . . . writing

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April 11, 2013

Victoria residents Kay Stewart and Chris Bullock are partners in life and crime-writing. Their third mystery in the Danutia Dranchuck series was published this spring. The series features a female RCMP constable who grows more complex with each new book. The authors will be in Vancouver April 18 at 7:30 p.m. in the Peter Kaye Room, Lower Level, Central Library, 350 W. Georgia, for the Aurthur Ellis Shortlist event.  Stewart and Bullock recently answered Lynne Van Luven’s questions about the context for and development of  their new mystery, which they’ll launch in Nanaimo at The Coffee Vault (499 Wallace Street) on April 22 at 6:30 pm.

The two of you have logged a total of 50 years as professors of English at the university level. How difficult was the switch from that sort of intellectual work to the challenge of writing crime novels?

KAY: During most of my university years, I was a sessional lecturer, teaching writing and introductory literature courses. So I didn’t have the same stake in academic research and publication as Chris did. Before we began our first crime novel, I had published short stories as well as personal essays and writing textbooks. The stretch for me was moving from short fiction to the novel–no more sketching a character or setting in a few sentences.

CHRIS: In contrast, the switch from intellectual work to writing crime novels was very difficult for me. I discovered that knowing about the theory of fiction–about kinds of characterization and various ways of structuring plots–was little help in writing fiction. So the first drafts of chapters I wrote for our first novel, Deadly Little List, were hopelessly expository, full of reflection and very little action. The turning point for me was taking a writing class with Marilyn Bowering and learning to write in scenes. I also discovered that I needed to notice the life around me rather simply reflect on it, so writing fiction has involved an expansion of perception for me.

You both have lived in Alberta and taught in Edmonton, where there is a sizeable Ukrainian community. Did that influence the creation of your protagonist, who is named Danutia Dranchuk?

 KAY: Definitely. It was important to me that the book reflect something of the Canadian mosaic. I’d had Ukrainian students and neighbours, and I’d recently been fascinated by Myrna Kostash’s revisionist history of Ukrainians in Canada, All of Baba’s Children (reissued 1992). However, I didn’t want my protagonist’s ethnicity to be her defining trait. So I created Danutia Dranchuk, of mixed heritage like many of us. I expect that at some point she will be called upon to re-examine her cultural roots.

Unholy Rites takes Danutia and her “sidekick” Arthur Fairweather to England. Why did you move the action from Victoria, BC, to the wider world stage?

CHRIS:  We hadn’t intended to move Unholy Rites outside Canada, but were drawn by a particular area of England. The landscape and customs of that area seemed to ask us to set our novel there.

KAY: Changing the setting was also a device for keeping our interest as well as the interest of readers. We both enjoy exploring new places and trying to capture the flavour of their inhabitants. By moving into the wider world, we set new challenges for ourselves as well as for our protagonists.

Your acknowledgements thank the “well-dressing community of Derbyshire” for sharing their craft, but I am wondering when you knew this was going to be an integral part of Unholy Rites–before you started the novel, or part-way through?

CHRIS:  Initially, we went to the Peak District in Derbyshire to sell our first novel (A Deadly Little List) at a Gilbert and Sullivan festival.  While at the festival, we toured around a bit and became fascinated at seeing ancient hill forts and stone circles, and witnessing originally pagan customs like well dressing. Our original idea was to set our novel around a stone circle called the Nine Ladies. After mapping out this idea, we discovered that a local crime novelist had already written a book with exactly this setting. So we switched from monuments to customs, and started our second joint writing project with well dressing as a focus. As it turned out, our research into well dressing also led us to some other strange places and areas of interest.

Unholy Rites leaves the reader wondering about Danutia’s future as a RCMP constable. Without giving away any of the suspense, can you talk a bit about your plans for the novel series?

KAY: Like most young women of the last half century, Danutia is faced with questions about “work-life balance,” or, more accurately, “work-life imbalance.” These questions arise in the first book, A Deadly Little List, and intensify in Unholy Rites. The issue may–or may not!–come to a head in book four, which I’m working on now. I don’t know how it will turn out. If her life is like that of most women I know, her world will shift again just when she thinks she’s found some balance.


The authors will also appear in Victoria at Chronicles of Crime bookstore (1048 Fort Street) Thursday, May 23, 7 pm in At The Mike, a “conversations with crime writers” event. 

On May 25 from 9:30 to 1 p.m., they will be part of “Making Crime Pay: A National Crime-Writing Month Mini-Conference” at the Greater Victoria  Public Library, Central Branch and will be part of the afternoon “Speed-Dating” event as well.

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