|Photograph ©Dave Krieger|
Elizabeth Sims talks about her third novel, Lucky Stiff: A Lillian Byrd Crime Story
from Alyson Books 2004
The story line in Lucky Stiff is deliciously complex. How did you come up with it?
I sowed the seeds for the main story of Lucky Stiff back in book one, Holy Hell. In that book, Lillian mentions that she's the daughter of tavern keepers, and that both of her parents died when she was 12. I put that in because I had the idea then that I wanted Lillian to investigate a crime that was very emotionally charged for her. At the time, I didn't have an exact story in mind, but I thought that investigating the deaths of her parents, an event that occurred in the distant past, could be juicy and nicely morbid. So! We catch up with Lillian at home in Detroit, and we again meet characters such as Todd the remarkable rabbit, Minerva LeBlanc the gorgeous and sexy crime writer who has come out of her coma, landlords Mr. and Mrs. McVittie, and Uncle Guff.
Lillian is being Lillian: she's broke, she's trying to string together a half-assed living. She's gotten to know Blind Lonnie, a street musician in Detroit's Greektown neighborhood, who is helping her learn jazz improvisation. And that, improvisation, becomes one of the book's themes.
One night as she's playing, backing up Lonnie, a face from the past appears. It's a childhood friend of Lillian's whom she hasn't seen in decades. They talk. This friend, Duane, is on a quest to find his mother, who disappeared a long time ago. He wants Lillian to help him. As they talk, Lillian realizes that the disappearance of Duane's mother coincided exactly with the deaths of her parents. This gets Lillian going. What really happened to her parents? They died in a fire which was ruled accidental—but was it?
While Lucky Stiff could not exactly be called a police procedural, there's some fascinating forensic material in it, related to the fire. How did you figure out that stuff?
I just sat and thought about how a fire might accidentally start in a place like a tavern, and then I thought about how such an accident could be made to happen. I dug around on the Web and elsewhere and found some tremendously helpful, quite obscure information.
Care to share your sources?
I'm eager to share how I write, why I write, and many details of my fascinating personal life, but hard-won resources—no. But I will say, with gratitude, that I spoke with some helpful people in the arson division of the Detroit Fire Department, and there is an MD in Royal Oak, Michigan who helped me too—Dr. Sherry Viola, a specialist in neurology. I also visited most of the locations I used, to refresh my memory and check my plot's logistics.
You take your main character to greater depths of emotion in this book than you yet have. Would you comment on that?
In this book I wanted to develop Lillian further, I wanted to push her to the limit. This is a dark story. The death of her parents was a terribly significant event for the 12-year-old Lillian: it was the holocaust of her life. She thought she came to terms with it long ago and put it behind her. But it rears up, unbidden, and threatens to consume her, unless she confronts some terrible facts.
As I mentioned, one of the book's themes is improvisation. Lillian finds that she must cajole or trick people into giving her information. How do you do that? By making a plan and setting it in motion, but not adhering to it if circumstances change. In order to act with full effectiveness, you've got to be prepared to throw away the script—or the chord charts—and make up something on the spot. In Lucky Stiff Lillian learns to do this musically as well as personally.
She confronts the terrible facts, and finally she sees that beyond the terrible facts lies the cold reality of moral ambiguity.
Some of the moral ambiguity in Lucky Stiff appears to be about vengeance.
Yes. As Lillian gets deeper into her investigation—which involves an eventful side trip to Las Vegas, by the way—she begins to crave vengeance. But she knows enough to try to keep a lid on it. It's seductive, yet so unhealthy. In the end she finds herself in possession of a mortal secret more dangerous than she could ever have dreamed.
Blind Lonnie represents a Yoda figure, right?
(Laughs.) I guess so. He's like the blind mythological oracles of ancient times, who in spite of being blind—or because of it—see back and forth in time, they see certain things much more clearly than sighted people do, and they have wisdom that is denied to sighted people. Lillian comes to Blind Lonnie for insight, and he does not disappoint.
Do you think readers will be pleased to see the return of Minerva LeBlanc?
I hope so. I brought her back from the coma she fell into after being beaten nearly to death in Holy Hell. She's somewhat impaired by her ordeal, and Lillian must come to grips with that. You know, that's the beauty of a series: you can build on characters and events from book to book, over great spans of time.
In Damn Straight Lillian left Detroit, now she's back in the motor city. How well does the city lend itself to intrigue?
I guess any city is fertile ground for intrigue, but I spent a lot of time in Detroit and feel it's better than most. For instance, Greektown, where Lillian and Blind Lonnie play, is this half-thriving, half-depressed ethnic neighborhood where people used to come to dinner and watch belly dancing and Greek music in clubs. Now there's a large gambling casino right in the main block, which I fear is siphoning customers away from the small establishments. It's a gritty place where you can imagine unfortunate things happening. There's just this feeling in the air of vague menace, as well as despair. When I was there recently I couldn't believe how many more panhandlers there were than a few years ago.
What is it about Detroit street life that fascinates you so?
I have a passion for the morbid, the lost, the fucked-up, the hopeless. Why do people choose the paths they do? I'm repelled by street people, because they're often dirty and unattractive—but yet I'm intensely drawn to them too. They're much more complex than they seem, just like you and me.
What do you mean?
Well, I'll put it this way. Right-wingers tend to classify street people as lazy and deserving of their lowly status. And lefties tend to totally excuse street people from any accountability whatsoever. Both views are simplistic and wrong. Not all panhandlers are homeless, not all the homeless are lazy, and not every street person wants to leave the street. In Lucky Stiff I only deal with street people peripherally, but I'd like to do more in a future book.
Todd, Lillian's rabbit, has become a character in his own right. Do you have a rabbit?
Readers love Todd, and I have fun with him. But no, I don't have a rabbit. One of my childhood friends had a rabbit, a very sad little beast who was locked in a small cage almost all the time, down in the dark cold basement. I thought about that rabbit a lot, when my friend and I would be playing outside in the sunshine. I really wasn't much of an animal-loving kid, but that rabbit's existence made me feel a sort of horror, and actually a sort of repugnance for my friend and her family. That rabbit was the first thing that I remember trying not to think about.
When I decided to give Lillian a pet, I wanted to NOT give her the typical cat or dog, so I created Todd the rabbit. Todd is my ideal vision of a pet, and his and Lillian's relationship is an ideal person-pet bond. Todd complicates Lillian's life: she must feed and care for him, and make sure he's OK emotionally. And she welcomes this work, because she benefits greatly from her relationship with Todd. He's a warm, interesting companion who brings a little bit of stability to Lillian's more or less haphazard life.
You do play the mandolin, don't you?
Yes, my first CD is coming out next month!
That's a lie, isn't it?
I think of it as more of a joke. Ha-ha! I do play, and I have for a few years, working on the basics. The mandolin is a different sort of instrument, very versatile. It's tuned the same as the violin, so you can get at practically everything in the violin and fiddle repertoires, plus you can play four-note chords. The challenge is finger strength and flexibility. You've got four courses of double strings under high tension, so they require your hands to be good and firm, but agile, too.
That sounds just a trifle suggestive.
I don't quite know what to say to that.
Have you done any street busking, as you have Lillian do?
Yes, mostly as a test of guts. It's surprisingly terrifying to stand on a city streetcorner, open your case, tune up and begin playing. What you're saying is, "You there, passerby, should stop and listen to this good music, and throw some money into my case while you're at it. Because it's worth it!"
One more question about character. What was the genesis of Duane, Lillian's old neighborhood buddy?
I gave myself a challenge with Duane. I wanted to write a character who is more or less intimate with Lillian. A character she can buddy up with, someone who'll not just be a two-dimensional foil for her, but a significant character in his own right. And I came up with Duane, who was a kid in the neighborhood with her, they were two little budding homos, and even though they were separated for decades, they fall back into a deep friendship when they reconnect as adults.
In some ways Duane is the stereotypical fag, a fussy guy deeply concerned with his clothes and appearance. Yet he's also very unlike the stereotype. The stereotypical gay guy is a coward, but Duane actually winds up facing down a tremendous demon. At first he's scared, but eventually he finds his own way to a position of strength.
What's the demon?
His own hatred.
Does Lillian help him in this?
Not really. She and Duane take turns rescuing each other, but in his defining struggle, Duane is on his own, and he comes through beautifully. His life in fact becomes a lesson for Lillian, but it's unclear whether she will learn that lesson.
You speak of Lillian with a certain wistfulness.
I have tender feelings for Lillian. I want the best for her, but she persists in making choices that lead her to heartache and loss.
But she manages to have fun along the way!
Yes, she does, and the fullness of her life is what I work hard to deliver to readers. I cherish intelligent, perceptive readers more closely than I cherish my identity as a writer. Without them, I have no identity. Readers bring me to life as I bring my characters to life. No joke.