It was about time I met Karen Grigsby Bates. She keeps showing up at the most interesting times. Several years ago, a friend brought an incredible sweet potato and praline pie to a potluck dinner. When asked for the recipe, she said she'd gotten it from Eric Copage's Kwanzaa: An African American Celebration of Culture and Cooking (Morrow, 1991). The contributor? Karen Grigsby Bates.
A few years later, there was a buzz about an etiquette book with an Afrocentric twist. You guessed it...Karen Grigsby Bates and Karen Elyse Hudson collaborated on Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times (Doubleday, 1996). The book, which has a spot in the reference section of my keeper shelf, goes beyond situations that Emily Post might encounter such as racial profiling and employment discrimination.
Earlier this year, I ran across a blurb on a new mystery about a murder that takes place at a National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) convention. As a card-carrying NABJ member, I was intrigued. Karen Grigsby Bates' first novel, Plain Brown Wrapper, lived up to the promise of the premise. I can't wait for the next Alex Powell mystery.
Karen Grigsby Bates is a reporter for People magazine's West Coast Bureau. She also serves as a contributing columnist for the Los Angeles Times and is a frequent contributor to National Public Radio. Seems like she's likely to show up anywhere. I decided it's probably a good time to find out more about Karen Grigsby Bates...
Please tell us a little bit about your background.
I'm a transplanted East Coast kid who's lived in LA for almost 15 years, and still can't stop hoping for snow each winter . . . I've been writing since about age six in one form or another, and I've always gotten in trouble--probably since I was old enough to talk--for having "Too Many Opinions"!
I did my undergraduate work at Wellesley with a double major in sociology and black studies. I wrote some for the school paper, but more for the literary magazine. I spent the summer of my junior year at the University of Ghana, just outside Accra. (I loved it. I think I was Ghanaian in my last life.) I also completed the Executive Management Program at Yale's Graduate School of Organization and Management.
You work as a journalist. How difficult was the transition from journalism to fiction writing - particularly mystery writing - for you?
Actually, it wasn't that hard. In the course of normal reporting, there's always more than one would like to tell when writing a story, but the newspaper format, unless it's a long feature, doesn't allow for things like nuance and extensive background, so fiction is a great place to finally be able to stretch out and write. You can't be sloppy, but you can indulge in more detail.
As for mystery writing, that was harder, mostly because there is a set of rules that go with the genre--rules, by the way, I'm still trying to master. There is lots of room to move within the formula, but the formula itself seems pretty static. Some of my favorite mysteries don't bill themselves as such--I think Snow Falling on Cedars is a good recent example--they're just great stories in which some questions have to be answered.
How did the idea for Plain Brown Wrapper come about and how long did it take to get it published?
I was at an annual conference of the National Association of Black Journalists, and whatever year that was--maybe 1994, 1995? --it occurred to me that journalists are such interesting and often volatile people, this particular conference would be a perfect setting for a murder. (I've certainly seen people look daggers at each other in some of those big receptions!) I probably wrote it, off and on, for about three years, and it was published a year after that. So, four years total.
What is Plain Brown Wrapper about?
PBW, as I call it in shorthand, is about a reporter who is looking to discover who killed her editor/mentor, and why. In the course of that odyssey, she explores a lot of issues of class and race that are often simmering just below the surface of our daily relationships, but for the most part remain unspoken.
What does the title mean?
It's a reference to the aesthetic preferences of the dearly departed. And it plays into what I just mentioned, about class and race. And I think that's all I'll say about it, in case some people want to draw their own inferences as they read the book.
Who is Alex Powell? What motivates her?
Alex is a single woman in her mid-thirties with a fine mind, quick temper and sharp tongue. She's deeply loyal to her friends, and good at her work. She spends a lot of time--maybe too much time--questioning authority. But that's what reporters do, isn't it? (I've always wondered: do we question authority because that's our job, or are we drawn to the job because it gives us a legitimate reason to question authority?) What motivates her is injustice, and she sees the inability of the LAPD to discover who killed Everett Carson reflective of a larger injustice: Black lives, by and large, are investigated less rigorously than white ones.
You and Alex are both Los Angeles newspaper columnists. What other similarities do you share? Is the book semiautobiographical?
Actually, I gave Alex the job I should have in real life! I'm a contributing columnist for the Los Angeles Times Op-Ed Page, but Alex has a staff job there. I figured one way or the other, the Times needed a columnist who speaks to the issues or race and class and how that is perceived by many Black Angelenos, so I figured if reality couldn't do it, fiction would. (My day job, by the way, is as a news reporter for People magazine's West Coast Bureau.)
While the book is not autobiographical, Alex and I do share several similar characteristics: we get called on the carpet a lot for our pointed observations, we've got some great girlfriends (Signe, for instance, is modeled on two very real friends), and we do like a good meal and a good glass of wine. Alex, alas, metabolizes hers much better than I do. And she exercises while I only contemplate it. So her fictional dress size and my real one are a few digits apart . . .
Describe Karen Grigsby Bates' Los Angeles.
It's part Oz, part 9th Circle. It's one of the most segregated cities I've ever lived in (and I've lived in Boston, so that's saying a lot!), but it does possess an energy and an openness that I haven't seen in other big cities. It's also a city that is constantly evolving, morphing into something else. The demographics change so quickly that the Los Angeles of 1987 bears only slight resemblance to LA 1992, or 1995 or 2001. Change is good, but it's stressful (for most of us, anyway), so the level of anxiety here is pretty high. Very different from the stereotype of laid back we're often slapped with.
What is it about Los Angeles that has spawned so many mystery writers?
That constant change means you can't ever completely know the city, which makes it prime fodder for investigation of its dark corners. Too, it's a city where the many circles that make it up, don't often overlap. So unlike places such as NY, DC and Atlanta where there are at least subsets of some of these circles, in LA there usually aren't. Which means if you walk into a circle in which you don't normally travel, that's a whole new world, literally. And literarily.
To what do you attribute the increasing numbers of African-American women moving into the mystery genre? What drew you to writing mysteries? Are you a longtime mystery reader?
I think we were just overlooked in the genre before--women in general were--and as a couple of people show the way, more see that it can be done, and do it. I've been a mystery reader for decades--but I didn't know always that they were mysteries. As a child, I loved The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, part of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia series--it was a mystery, albeit not in the orthodox sense. And later, I adored Jane Eyre and Rebecca. I reread them every couple of years, still.
I think I was drawn to writing mysteries simply because I like reading them so much, and I wanted to see if I could do it.
How does the process of writing a mystery differ from the other writing you've done?
You have to have what the people in the movie industry refer to as continuity: if he's picking up something with his left hand and has a gold watch on page 53, he'd better still be left-handed with that watch on page 108--or you'd better have a good explanation for why he's changed. (Ambidextrous? Watch stolen? Broken finger on left hand? Etc.)
How did the idea for your book, Basic Black come about?
I've been too many places where people showed up at dinner parties, unannounced--with four extra friends, "forgot" to send thank you notes for wedding presents, wore dresses that looked like they came from Ho's R Us to the office Christmas party, and so on. Karen Hudson, my coauthor, and I just figured people forgot what their mamas taught them. Or maybe they weren't listening. And now they were having children, wanting to pass on some basic knowledge about manners, and they were stumped. Also, we wanted to include something about the challenges of being Black in a society that often doesn't value Black people or our culture. So we had several reasons for wanting to write the book. It's been five years and it's sold very well (will be in paperback in January), so we think we made the right decision.
I've called Plain Brown Wrapper a mystery of manners. Is that a fair comment? Why or why not?
That's exactly right, Gwen. It's an examination of our social mores of a certain strata of society through fiction. Someone once described it to me as "Jane Austen with a bad attitude." I took it as a compliment.
What has surprised you most about the response to Plain Brown Wrapper?
Some of the reaction of some Black folk. While in general the reaction has been very positive (lots along the lines of "thanks--somebody finally showed how we live!") there were a few who thought Alex and her friends lived a little too large: too well-educated, too well traveled, enjoyed eating out and vacationing too much. But there's always been a Black middle class and it has expanded hugely in the last 30 years, so this way of life does exist for a good segment of Black America, and I wanted to see that in print in an enlightened way.
How would you describe your sense of humor?
Mordant. Quirky. Pointed. But not mean-spirited. Not usually, anyway.
How do you approach development of your characters?
I actually drew up bios for all the main ones: dates of birth, family background, education, job history. Major character traits. Music they'd most often listen to--and music they wouldn't be caught dead listening to. That kind of thing. It helped to know who my people were before I put them on the page.
What kind of research was involved for your first mystery? Where did you get the answers to your technical questions?
Read everything, ask everybody! I did specifically consult with doctors and cops when I needed answers for the medical implications of certain sections, and the general procedures that were necessary re: taking a dead body away from a public place, etc., but I didn't want to dwell overly on those details. That's for people like Eleanor Taylor Bland and Paula Woods, who write fine police procedurals.
Will there be another Alex Powell mystery? When?
Oh sure, we haven't seen the last of Alex. I'm working on the second one now, and having a great time with it. It's called Chosen People, and in it, Alex has to investigate the death of a controversial author who spends an awful lot of his life explaining to the rest of us who counts--and who doesn't--in Black America. As you can imagine, there are strong feelings in "Da Camoonity" (as Alex's boss, A.S. Fine, likes to call Black Los Angeles--but only when the two of them are talking!) about his work. I'm hoping for next fall, but we'll see how much I get done. The day job does get in the way a lot!
Will we see Paul Butler again?
If he acts right.
Which writers have influenced you?
The list, as Signe would say, is long: I love the smart-ass humor of Janet Evanovitch, Donald Westlake and Robert Crais; the focused intensity of Gar Haywood, the way Walter Mosley, James Lee Burke and Grace Edwards can give you a good sense of place; and how April Smith and Michael Connelly and Jan Burke can raise your blood pressure with their plot; how Carolina Garcia-Aguilera and let me into worlds and communities I wouldn't otherwise have a prayer of visiting; and how Eleanor Taylor Bland and Paula Woods let me watch "the po-leece" do their work. Those are just some of the mystery writers I admire . . . We haven't even gotten to the other genres.
What do you read when you are not writing?
I am a promiscuous reader, so everything. At least three papers daily, a few books a week. I couldn't stop reading while I'm writing any more than I could stop breathing. It's reflexive.
Right now I'm reading Blues Dancing by Diane McKinney-Whetstone with my book club. Prior to that, I finished Robert Crais' thumping good Hostage. And next on the list: David McCullough's biography of John Adams, and The Corrections. (Sorry, Oprah!)
What's next? What are you working on now?
The second Alex Powell book, Chosen People, which I described earlier.
Can you tell us anything about your life outside writing, about your family or other interests?
I'm married, live in Los Angeles with my photographer husband and my swaggering 10-year-old son. I do some volunteer work, feed assorted starving artists who just happen to drop by on weekends during the dinner hour, and like to take photographs when the professional photographer isn't around. Oh, and I spend some time picking up Spanglish from telenovellas--Spanish-language soap operas. How's that for cultural exploration?
What advice can you give mystery writers who are getting started?
Go with what intrigues you, which may not always be what you know best. Part of the fun of writing fiction is the ability to do the research. Martin Cruz Smith had never been to Russia before he sat down to write Gorky Park (another fine mystery masquerading as straight fiction). He just studied maps, movies and books. And people who had been there, even lived there, were flabbergasted to discover he'd never been. So don't let things restrict you that aren't really restrictions in the first place.
How can readers contact you?
Readers can contact me at this address:
Karen Grigsby Bates
c/o Carrie Feron
10 East 53rd Street
New York, New York 10022
Thanks, Karen. TMR has reviewed
Plain Brown Wrapper
December 13, 2001