New Faces

Meet Paula L. Woods
by Gwendolyn E. Osborne
Several years ago, someone gave me a beautiful calendar. It was called I, Too, Sing America: The African-American Book of Days. Compiled by Paula L. Woods and Felix H. Liddell, it contained African-American art, photographs, historical information, and biographical data. It was too beautiful, too special to write in. The book has a special spot on my keeper shelf as a reference book. Woods and Liddell also produced I Hear a Symphony: African Americans Celebrate Love and Merry Christmas, Baby: A Christmas and Kwanzaa Treasury.

Five years ago, Woods went solo with the publication of the anthology Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction of the 20th Century. It is a chronological collection of stories and excerpts by nearly two dozen African-American mystery writers that sits prominently on my reference shelf.

Last year, she made the transition to mystery writer with Inner City Blues. The mystery set in 1992 during the Los Angeles riots introduces detective Charlotte Justice. The book, which will be released this month in paperback by Ballantine/One World, was recently named an Los Angeles Times Best Novel of 1999. (TMR has reviewed Inner City Blues.) Woods has completed work on her second Charlotte Justice novel and took time to talk about her work.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I'm an L.A. native and bona fide bookworm. It was a nickname my father gave me and I guess it stuck, given the number of books I read, review, and have authored over the years. I went to USC as an undergrad and UCLA grad school.

In 1995, you compiled an anthology of work by African-American mystery, crime and suspense fiction called Spooks, Spies and Private Eyes. How did the collection come about?

I met Walter Mosley in 1992 at a booksellers convention and was shocked to know there was another successful African-American crime writer after Chester Himes. As I began to investigate further, I found out there was this vibrant group of African-American writers that most people had never heard of. That was enough to get me started on compiling the stories in the anthology.

Who is Pauline Hopkins and what is her legacy to the current crop of African-American women mystery writers?

In doing my research for Spooks, Spies and Private Eyes, I discovered Pauline Hopkins, who I knew as a journalist and novelist, had written the earliest mystery short story by an African- American woman. So in many respects, she's a literary godmother to a lot of us, from established masters like Eleanor Taylor Bland to the newer writers like myself.

To what do you attribute the increased African-American presence in the genre since 1980.

For one thing, the increased popularity in African American writing stimulated by Alice Walker, Ernest Gaines and later, Terry McMillan and Toni Morrison affected all kinds of writing -- literary fiction, mystery, romance, science fiction. And while it's an old story, Walter Mosley's recognition by President Clinton also got a lot of people to thinking about the Black perspective on crime -- not just as perpetrators or victims, but as heroes. Not that there weren't African Americans writing crime novels along with or even before Walter, but the much-deserved recognition he received made a lot of people hungry for more crime stories told from an authentic Black perspective.

When the general public thinks of African-American mystery writers, the names of Chester Himes and Walter Mosley readily come to mind. Why is that? Who and what are they missing?

The world, literally. Just to name a very few, there's Gar Haywood's excellent L.A.-based Aaron Gunner series -- All the Pretty Ones Are Dead -- is a knockout. Colin Whitehead has written a brilliant mystery, The Intuitionist, which is in part about elevators mechanics in New York. One of Charlotte Carter's novels is set in Paris. And I understand Robert Greer, who has written a Denver-based series featuring a Black bailbondsman, has just written his first medical thriller.

Was that the beginning of your interest in mystery writing?

Not my interest in the genre -- I'd been reading mysteries since I was a child -- but putting Spooks, Spies and Private Eyes together did get me to thinking about the kinds of voices I wasn't hearing.

When and how did you decide to make the leap from mystery reader to mystery writer?

Just by sitting down and thinking about what issues were important to me as a writer and how the conventions of the mystery genre could be utilized to tell my stories.

How long did the process of writing Inner City Blues take?

About three years start to finish.

Where did the title of your novel originate?

I'm a big Marvin Gaye fan, so when I was thinking of titles for my novel, I naturally turned to his music. When I began to think about the layers of meanings around the song "Inner City Blues" -- crime in our communities, Charlotte's lingering depression over tragedies in her life, the infamous 'thin blue line' of police officers, the uses I make in the book of the color blue, it all just fell into place.

So, who is Charlotte Justice?

Charlotte is a thirty-some odd year old homicide detective in the LAPD's elite Robbery-Homicide Division, the same group that investigated the Ennis Cosby murder. Charlotte is the only Black woman in homicide unit and therefore is under a certain amount of pressure from her coworkers and the LAPD brass.

What is the origin of her name?

In Inner City Blues, Charlotte says her father named her for his home town of Charlotte, Arkansas. Now if you're asking me as a writer where it came from, I must say I was struck by the surname Justice and how giving it to a Black law enforcement officer raised all kinds of interesting questions regarding justice and whether we as African Americans get any under the law and what responsibility does a woman in Charlotte's unique position carry along with that name.

What motivates her?

I think a deep-rooted sense of seeing the wrongs in her world made right. I think most of us, meaning us Black folks, walk around with a strong sense of the injustice done to us individually and as a people. Charlotte's in a position to see that rectified, which I hope makes for satisfying and thought-provoking reading.

Was the transition easier or more difficult than you expected?

It was just vastly different. Because I also review books and have edited other anthologies, I was used to critically examining other people's work. In some ways that made it harder because I was turning that critical eye on my own writing at the same time I was producing the pages. Talk about having that nagging little voice in your head!

How does the process of writing a mystery differ from other writing you've done?

There's lot more fact checking and double checking to be sure you've got the continuity issues straight. I'll never forget Tony Hillerman, who writes a series set in the Native American culture, laughing about a character having blue eyes in one part of his novel, and another color later. That's the kind of thing that makes writers cringe.

What kind of research was involved for your first mystery? Where did you get the answers to the technical questions?

I spent a lot of time interviewing Black police officers in the LAPD, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and others. I was lucky enough to get to take call with some LAPD homicide detectives and actually work a case. That put me in touch with crime scene teams, the coroner's office, and a lot of other technical people who were very helpful.

Who are your main literary influences?

As a student, I was tremendously influenced by Zora Neale Hurston and Ann Petry. Petry's The Street remains for me one of the most influential crime novels of the mid-twentieth century.

Historically, Ross MacDonald is one of the important California-based crime writers who's inspired me. Among current writers, in addition to my African-American favorites, I'd say Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, SJ Rozan and Harlan Coben are always good reads for me.

What and who do you read when you're not writing?

Fiction for reviews, and compelling nonfiction. Right now I'm reading bell hooks' latest book, All About Love, which is a series of meditations on the meaning of love in our lives from every conceivable perspective.

You're a native Los Angelino. Your book makes some not so subtle observations about the Los Angeles Police Department and the criminal justice system. How would you describe the post-O.J. climate in area? How does it compare to the post-Rodney King atmosphere there?

The LAPD right now has been rocked with scandal over several officers who planted evidence on innocent and not-so-innocent citizens. I think the department is going to be suffering the consequence of that for a long time--a perfect climate for my Charlotte Justice novels.

What is it about Los Angeles that spawned so many mystery writers?

I think writers, like a lot of other people over the past one hundred-plus years, have a fascination with L.A. From the really early writers who came here like Chester Himes and Langston Hughes, through those who write of L.A. and don't even live here anymore, like Mosley or Paul Beatty, there's something about the fantasy of all that sunshine and palm trees that makes is seem like a new Utopia. And the seedy underbelly exposed by writers like Nathaniel West, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald and others created an irresistible contrast that I think continues to stimulate young writers.

What did writing Inner City Blues teach you about yourself?

Two things: One, that I can succeed in accomplishing a big goal, even one that seems as insurmountable as writing a novel. Two, that I actually like the writing life more than I thought I would.

What's next?

I've just finished a second novel, featuring Charlotte, that revolves around the death of an old Black Hollywood film director. It's called Stormy Weather, and we're in the midst of setting a publication date now.

Is Charlotte still a cop? Will we see Dr. Aubrey Scott again?

I'm not telling. You'll have to read it when it comes out.

Thanks, Paula!

January 15, 2000

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