Please welcome December's featured author Lori G. Armstrong, as we talk about her series featuring Julie Collins - bad girl extraordinaire!
Synopsis and Review of Lori's latest novel: Shallow Grave
Publisher: Medallion Press ISBN-10: 1933836180
While out on an ordinary insurance case, Rapid City PI Julie Collins just happens to witness the subject crash to his death. At first, it seems just your ordinary case of death by ATV, but further investigation will reveal that what tripped him up was a shallow grave, now all but empty leaving behind only questions concerning who was once buried there, and why were the bones moved?
Meanwhile, Julie will also have to face a deeper look at her biker boyfriend's nefarious activities when she goes undercover to figure out why the till is coming up short in his strip joint. And if that's not enough for this rough and tumble gal to handle, she also gets a surprise visit from her dead brother's lover, who brings along the nephew she never knew she had, along with some possible answers as to who is responsible for her brother's murder three years ago.
While there's a lot going on in this latest from Armstrong, she more than adeptly keeps it all together, with the end result being a tightly wrapped plot full of suspense and thrills that answers questions readers have long been asking. But, as good as her plotting, pace, ability to sustain suspense throughout is, that's not even the main reason this comes so highly recommended. As before, what makes this author stand out is her lack of inhibition and political correctness when it comes to her characterizations; there are no angels here, but there is plenty of heart and soul, reminding us that good people should not always be defined by their deeds alone. Eschewing the black and white for the more realistic shades of grey that make up the human mind and heart is what sets not only this latest apart, but the other titles that have come before. If you haven't yet read this author, you should.
Interview with Lori Armstrong:
1. Your main character, PI Julie Collins, is refreshingly different from the squeaky clean, sober, smoke-free, celibate-unless-married, and politically correct versions of many PI's out there these days. What inspired you to go down this potentially risky road with a heroine who breaks every rule as opposed to the safer Mrs. Marple type?
I’d like to say I created Julie because I’m a rebel and I wanted the “bad girl with a heart of gold” story told accurately in the PI niche of the mystery world, and who better than a real bad girl like me to tell it? (Insert hysterical laughter) I didn’t intentionally set out to write Julie as the anti-Marple (zero offense to Marple fans) she just sort of blew onto the page in all her angry, chain-smoking, tequila swilling, cussing, sexual glory. I’ve always been drawn to stronger female characters, the mythic warrior goddesses, the iconic female PI’s, the pretty girls who hide discomfort from also having big brains behind smart-ass quips and foul language. Julie is a woman who gets knocked down, and gets back up. She is also a woman who won’t apologize for her opinions or her sexuality. She’s ballsy, and that makes some folks uncomfortable. Oddly enough, I find she makes more women readers uncomfortable than men readers. Someone once asked me if I’d hang out with Julie (after she finally believed I wasn’t actually Julie Collins in a suburban housewife/mother disguise) and I had to think about it, but the answer is yes, despite the fact Julie’s always getting into bar fights.
2. It often seems that even with the best intentions, Julie is always teetering along that very fine line when it comes to "morality," at least as it's defined by some; what is it exactly that pushes her over to the "dark side" more often than not?
A sense of injustice – real or imagined. Julie doesn’t condone vigilante justice, but on some level she understands it. She started out believing she saw things only in terms of black and white, (right and wrong) but now she realizes she was fooling herself; everything is gray – only a darker or lighter shade.
3. If she had only one or two sentences to justify herself to those she might offend, what would she say (expletives included, naturally).
You asked! - What the fuck do you care how I live my goddamn life? It’s not like I give a shit about yours. -
4. The love affair between her and the very bad boy Tony has got to be one of the more compelling draws for those who enjoy a love story filled with angst, drama, and vulnerability. But still, one has to wonder - as grey as Julie's definitions are of right and wrong - how is she able to rationalize Tony's even more blurred distinctions between the two?
I know there are mystery purists out there who don’t believe mysteries should delve into the details of romantic relationships (and if we as authors do veer that direction, God forbid we leave the bedroom door open!) To me, as an author and a human being, love is the only real thing matters. It’s the thing that keeps you going, it’s the thing that gives you comfort, it’s the thing that causes you angst, it’s the thing that is an actual, tangible thing you can hold onto in the form of a physical touch. It is so complex, and love – or lack of – or loss of – usually is the driving force in any situation, not just relationships. Still don’t believe me? I could argue love of money and the desire to do anything to get it is a major plot point in lots of fictional stories. Or the love of killing in serial killer thrillers. Or the loss of love in revenge stories. Or the love of solving puzzles. Love is passion. And too much passion or too little passion is what makes for compelling reading.
As far as the drama that is the Julie/Tony situation? Oy, what a timely question. In SNOW BLIND, Julie is dealing with all of these gray areas in her relationship with her father, his family, her business relationship with Kevin, and how much she’s willing to overlook in the name of love with her very bad man. At one point Martinez says to her: “You know I don’t sell puppies.” Julie has finally found the man who understands her and accepts her as she is. What gives her the right to say: I fell in love with you knowing exactly who you are, but now, can you please change? The beauty is in the acceptance, and the idea everybody is worthy of that of all-encompassing, obsessive, I-would-kill-for-you/die-for-you kind of romantic love. Besides, we all have flaws; some are just bigger than others.
5. Were these types of characterizations originally a tough sell to prospective publishers who seem to prefer the bland and ordinary? And did they try and convince you to tone things down a bit?
Yes. BLOOD TIES made it to the final round of the 2002 St. Martin’s/PWA Best First Novel Contest, and I got a really nice rejection from the senior editor. I had quite a few agents interested in the book initially, but the response always was they wouldn’t know how to “market” it to publishers, and Julie was a tough character to sell, which in the book world is the kiss of death. I was naïve, I guess, I wasn’t willing to change her. Since I also write romance, I put the book aside for a while and worked on other projects. A few months later I saw an ad in Romantic Times BOOKClub Magazine for a new publisher called Medallion Press, who was looking to build a mystery line, and they were willing to take unagented submissions. So I submitted. They called me four months later with a contract offer.
With Medallion, I feel lucky in that my editor trusts me and she’ll let me stay true to Julie’s voice. Not once has she asked me to tone down the language, change the controversial content, curtail the on-page violence, or soften the sex scenes. That kind of freedom has been amazing, and part of the reason I feel Julie is a believable character, because she isn’t run of the mill, nor is she a caricature. Granted, I’ve had complaints about those things too – especially the language, but I don’t apologize for any of it. Period.
6. In addition to your strong characterizations, another potentially controversial aspect of your novels is your very candid focus on some of the more timely issues that American Indian cultures are facing and the impact these challenges can have state-wide; why this plot direction as opposed to the more typical serial killer/damsel in distress/mafia/government cover-up/etc…?
A big reason I wanted to explore the problems of Indian culture is because the South Dakota setting is a huge aspect of my books. I’ve lived in South Dakota my whole life and it’s embarrassing how much I don’t know about the Lakota Sioux (even when I have cousins who are enrolled members of the Oglalla Sioux Tribe). Mostly what is reported locally is the bad stuff; the tribal council infighting, the greed when it comes to Indian gaming, the food bank/welfare issues, the child abuse/sexual abuse/alcohol abuse/drug abuse statistics. It’s depressing as hell. It’s easy to turn the newspaper page and go “oh well”, not my problem. There is no more corruption and nepotism in and around Indian reservations than there is anywhere else in business, government or religious organizations. The fact that reservations are sovereign nations means all three of those problems are tied together. To not address those serious issues would be cheating, as much as revisiting the fictional Native American stereotypes, heap Big Indian Chief, Lakota elder, Lakota wise-woman, sweat lodge-dwelling, horseback riding, powwows dancing, peace pipe smoking generalizations would be. Does that part of their culture still exist? Absolutely. Is that all there is? Absolutely not. I’ve tried to handle how the serious issues get shunted aside as honestly as possible without resorting either to the deification of the Indian culture or the glorification of it. Yeah, yeah, what do I know as a white girl? Not much, but I hope what I’m addressing shows I’m learning, that I can change my own attitude, and that I care profoundly.
7. Okay, all that aside, your fans undoubtedly get a kick out of living vicariously through this wonderfully drawn kick-ass female; is she as fun to write about as she is to read?
Yes…and no. Julie is a demanding character to write, since I rarely get into anyone else’s point of view. The woman is a page hog and doesn’t want to share the stage with anyone. She’s not always a particularly happy character either, and it can be tricky not to get sucked into her angst. I don’t even want to get into when Julie won’t cooperate with me and insists on doing things her way instead of what I have planned (True story: When I first started HALLOWED GROUND, in the second chapter, Julie was stuck at a stop sign in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, literally for six months. She wouldn’t budge. I actually drove down to Pine Ridge three times to try and talk some sense into her and show her the options of where she could go. She wouldn’t talk to me, either in my head or on the page. I wasn’t making any progress on the novel, which at the time wasn’t such a big deal because I hadn’t sold BLOOD TIES yet, and it wasn’t under contract. One day, I was driving along in my car, and Julie’s little voice in my head said, “I’m not supposed to be in Pine Ridge.” I immediately went home, rewrote the scene, putting her where she wanted to go the book changed completely.)
8. Have you ever participated in the biker rally at Sturgis?
Living in this area you can’t avoid the 500,000 people who descend on us the second week in August every year. My first Rally experience was in high school when I was 17 and worked at a restaurant/campground halfway between Rapid City and Sturgis. This was years before the “Legendary” Buffalo Chip Campground opened, and all the wild stuff happened in the Sturgis City Park. In order for any female to be allowed admittance to the park, you had to umm…flash the guy working the gate – which I did not know at the time. So after our restaurant shift ended, I piled in a car with a bunch of my guy coworkers, heeding the rule not to go anywhere alone during Rally week, and we headed to Sturgis Park to experience the “real” Rally. Needless to say, I did not gain admittance to the park that night! Like Julie, I tend to hide when the bikes roll into town, unless one of the fabulous rock concerts tempts me at the Buffalo Chip, or the Glencoe Campground. And let me tell you, you see some pretty unbelievable things going on with folks who are way less inhibited than I am – or even Julie is, for that matter.
9. This one might get you shot if answer wrong; Harley or Yamaha?
Real bikers ride Harleys. But…the old ones break down all the time; the new ones are too expensive for the average man to afford. So it’s a catch-22 for the biker contingent these days.
10. And finally, what's next for Julie Collins?
I’m finishing up the next book in the series, called SNOW BLIND and it will be released from Medallion Press in October 2008.
Bio for Lori G. Armstrong –
Lori G. Armstrong left
the firearms industry in 2000 to write crime fiction.
"Former firearms industry professional Lori Armstrong's RITUAL SACRIFICES, the first in a new mystery series featuring an Army sniper who has returned home to run her family's South Dakota ranch, to Trish Lande Grader at Touchstone Fireside, in a good deal, in a two-book hardcover deal, by Scott Miller at Trident Media Group (NA)."