|Welcome to our New Faces column, where you'll meet some of the latest mystery authors to be found on your bookshelves. This time we're chatting with Denise Hamilton, whose debut mystery is THE JASMINE TRADE, now available from Scribner.
Welcome, Denise! Tell us about yourself.
I am a former Los Angeles Times reporter turned novelist. During my 10 years
at the Times, I covered the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, the
break-up of the Soviet Union and youth movements in Japan. But the bulk of
my career was spent in the suburbs of Los Angeles, especially the San
Gabriel Valley, an area east of downtown that has become a port of entry for
the growing immigrant Asian communities, especially the Overseas Chinese.
Inspiration for my novel The Jasmine Trade came from a Page 1 Times story
about "parachute kids" - the middle and upper class Asian teens who live in
LA, often on their own, while their parents stay behind to run businesses in
Asia. As a freelance journalist, I continue to write for the Los Angeles
Times and have also been published in Wired, Cosmopolitan, Der Spiegel and
New Times, Los Angeles.
I'm a Los Angeles native who grew up here and have watched it evolve into a
First as well as Third World Capital, and it's the space where those two
meet that fascinates me. I have an bachelor's in economics from Loyola
Marymount University and a master's degree in journalism from Cal State
Northridge. I am also a Fulbright Scholar who lived and taught in former
Yugoslavia during the Bosnian War (in the now trouble-plagued former
republic of Macedonia).
I've done consulting for New York University's Institute for War, Peace
Reporting and Washington, D.C.-based Search for Common Ground; written a
handbook on multi-ethnic reporting and led workshops in the Balkans where I
helped reporters of Albanian, Turkish and Macedonian ethnicity work
cooperatively to produce a monthlong newspaper series.
I now live in the foothills of a Los Angeles suburb with my husband and two
Are you now writing full-time?
I am still a working journalist. I am now trying to balance journalism and
Tell us about your road to publication.
Around 1995, I joined a writing group, and at first I brought in a bunch of
travel writing from all my trips. Then, realizing I had to plunge into
fiction and, having always had fantasies about writing a novel, I started
thinking about what I could write.
Back in 1993 when I was still at the Times and reporting in the San Gabriel
Valley , I had written a front page story about "parachute kids" that was
reprinted around the world. The topic fascinated me, it was so complex and
dramatic and poignant and psychologically rich and layered, and to me it
perfectly illustrated the changing face of contemporary, multicultural LA
and the cultural clashes faced by immigrants. And I knew I couldn't do the
topic justice in the LA Times, not even in a 75-inch newspaper story. I
wondered what happened to these kids after I left them at night, the next
weekend, the next year. Did they get into good colleges, become model
citizens? Did they carry a lot of psychological baggage and how did that
affect their lives? OR did they slip into anomie, gangs, fractured
As a reporter, even if you get months to work on a story, at some point, you
always have to put it to bed and then run off to start the next one. But
with this topic, I knew I wanted to dig deeper. I kept thinking about these
teenagers with hormones running amok, caught between two cultures, torn
between filial piety and rebellion, being vulnerable and seeking emotional
connections with people, trying to make up for what they lacked at home. I
imagined the thin filament on which they dangled, in this new world of
America, while trying to maintain traditional Chinese values. So I knew I
had to write about parachute kids. They had taken up residence inside my
head, for better or for worse. I also recalled another reporter in our bureau
writing about a young girl who had been murdered in a car-jacking. And I
started imagining...what if that girl had been a parachute kid? And what if
there was more to the story than a random act of violence.
As to who my protagonist would be, well they always say write what you know,
and I'm a white female journalist who spent a long time in the LA suburbs,
often covering different ethnic groups and cultural clashes and how
immigration was reshaping the landscape in almost every conceivable way -
from finance to real estate to schools to crime to social service agency
Anyway, so I made my character a single, Chandleresque dame who drinks too
much, is ambivalent about her job and makes some unwise choices. But she's
also someone the mainstream can relate too. I wanted the novel and the
readers to move through the kaleidescopic landscape of contemporary LA with
this reporter, feeling a bit surreal and unmoored and learning along with
her. Reporters, just like cops and PI's, have via their notepads a bona-fide
passport to move through all levels of society - from the richest and most
powerful to the homeless street kid and everyone in between. Reporters
observe and remark and learn, and that's what I wanted my character Eve to
do and hopefully the reader as well.
So I wrote the first chapter of The Jasmine Trade and brought it in to my
writing group. They were all excited, they were seeing a window into a
cultural phenomenon and world they had never imagined before, (but which I
took for granted since I had researched it for so long). They thought Eve
was saucy and interesting, they liked her voice, and they wondered what
would happen next. So then I had to run to the computer and write chapter
two. I wrote the novel almost in serial installments or "stories" for the
eight women in my writing group. It felt less daunting somehow, than
thinking that I was embarking on a N-O-V-E-L.
My take on LA was this: With all apologies to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner
and Philip K. Dick, I believe the future of Los Angeles does not lie in the
teeming vertical claustrophobia of decaying urban centers. Rather, it is
under construction today in quiet hillside suburbs where the last empty
spaces of the Wild, Wild West are meeting and fusing with an even wilder
East. Here, big American developers wouldn't dream of breaking ground until
their feng shui consultants have vetted the land and signed off on
blueprints. Here, every blond-haired, blue-eyed sales agent in the new
master-planned communities knows why the phone number on her business card
ends in a triple eight - that's the luckiest number in Chinese numerology.
Here, Latino workmen have become adept at installing built-in woks and
storage cupboards for 50-lb. bags of rice.
This is a world that is only now seeping into American letters and cinema.
It is too nascent, too unformed. Yet while unique to Southern California, it
also transcends time and place the way our favorite parables always have. If
Raymond Chandler were writing today, he'd send Philip Marlowe to investigate
the disappearance of a Hong Kong businessman with a beautiful young wife
whose El Monte computer chip factory was robbed of silicon-encrusted chips
worth their weight in gold. The Midwestern extras who yearned for Hollywood
oblivion in Nathanael West's Day of the Locust would be recast today as
survivors of Pol Pot's killing fields now living above a Vietnamese noodle
shop in Alhambra. And instead of chronicling white hippie culture in San
Francisco, Joan Didion might hunker down in a Monterey Park nightclub with
Hong Kong's "golden youth," whose parents have shipped them across the
Pacific for safekeeping in advance of the British Crown Colony's return to
So what I strive for is the purity of vision of the old LA, but brought into
contemporary times to reflect all the changes. I'm now 150 pages into the
sequel - which is called Sugar Skull - and I'm still juggling fiction and
journalism. I find that the cross-pollination between journalism and fiction
to be very helpful. Interviewing people and hearing stories gives me ideas
for future novels. And now that I"m a novelist, I am even more on the
lookout for that telling phrase, the sprightly dialouge, those little
details, the pacing and narrative drive of good magazine journalism that has
to hook readers in at the beginning and proceed to a middle and an end, much
like a good novel.
What led you to write mysteries?
I chose to write a mystery because its parameters appealed to me. There was
a clearly established blueprint to follow, a structure. Someone gets killed
in Chapter One. In each of the subsequent chapters, the sleuth discovers
clues and meets people who help push the narrative along. At the end, you
find out who did it and things get tied up somewhat, albeit often in a messy
and true-to-life way.
This appealed to me a lot. When I thought about sitting at the computer,
trying to write The Great American Novel, I just didn't have a clue where to
begin. And I thought of all the byways and tributaries where I could get
stuck. But a mystery, now there was a pure and distilled form. Plus, I've
always been a fan of Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald and Walter Mosley
and love how they navigate the reader through an unknown world. I wanted The
Jasmine Trade to update that genre, bring it into the present, and show you
contemporary multicultural LA. I set out to make LA a character in my novel,
but not the LA of Chandler, but parts much further east and less white.
I found I loved the noirish voice I developed, and how I could comment about
LA and race and class and even my ambivalence about journalism. I realized
that after driving around interviewing people for all those years, I had a
lot to say, observations that would never have been appropriate for a
newspaper story, but that were perfect for fiction. It took me a year to
unlearn how to write like a journalist, to use the inner voice, to wisecrack
and make personal comments, to not attribute everything, to get away from
the facts and into the nuances. Also, I don't think I could have ever
written this novel if I had still been at the Times. I needed the
psychological distance to be able to write freely and not wonder what
editors at the paper thought about my fictional character reflecting parts
of my own personality.
What kind of research was involved for your first book?
My "research" was conducted during my 10 years as a Times Staff Writer and
in the six subsequent years as a freelance journalist. I have so many
stories and interesting characters floating around in my head that I could
write a dozen books. And I hope to!
What do you find to be the most challenging/difficult part of writing a
For me, as the mother of two young children, and as a working journalist, by
far the most difficult thing is finding the time to write.
How are you promoting your new release?
I am doing a book tour along the West Coast (see web site for details) and
will be at Bouchercon in NOvember. My Web site is www.denisehamilton.com and
I am trying to keep it updated and add information but I'm a newbie at this
so please bear with me.
Who are your influences as a writer?
I read widely, and not just in mysteries, but in biographies and history. I
can't think of anyone who has been a huge influence, except perhaps Raymond
Chandler, and that in only the broadest possible sense. I love Susan
Straight, the unfinished memoir by Albert Camus, Lost in Translation by
Nicole Mones, The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning, anything by Dame Edith
Durham, who wrote the most fabulous travel literature about early 20th
century Albania, Paul Bowles, My Traitor's Heart by Rian Malan, which delves
into apartheid in South Africa, King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild
about the exploitation of the Belgian Congo, Joan Didion, Robert Stone, oh
so many many different authors.
What does your family think of having a mystery author in their
They are surprised. After reading the book, my husband told me, "that was
pretty hard-boiled." Most people are using to seeing me as a journalist, or
as the kindergarten mom fumbling with a grocery list in one hand a toddler
in the other.
Tell us about plans for future books.
I am about 150 pages into the sequel, called Sugar Skull. I hope to finish
it and turn it into my agent by the end of the year. So that means it might
come out in 2003.
How can readers get in touch with you?
They can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I also have a website at
Denise, thanks for joining us, and best of luck! Readers, we have a review of The Jasmine Trade on our Suspense page.
September 30, 2001