Photograph ©Dave Krieger
with Elizabeth Sims
Elizabeth shoots the breeze about Easy Street, fourth in the Lillian Byrd Series.
The fourth in your series of Lillian Byrd crime novels begins at a hotel in Detroit and ends on a boat in the Atlantic Ocean. Did you have a good time writing it?
I had a blast with this one. Lillian not only gets around, she finds it necessary to adopt various strategic identities: a veterinary professional in Cleveland, the adopted daughter of a Chippewa medicine woman in Boise, and a slutty marina chick in Ft. Lauderdale. Lillian's luck is always hard, but it gets even worse in this adventure. It all starts at a retirement party for Erma Porrocks, a detective she's known for years. At the party it's clear to Porrocks that Lillian's so poverty-stricken that she isn't even eating enough, so Porrocks tries to help her by paying her to help renovate her house. Lillian makes the critical mistake of trying to help someone else in turn, which leads to mysterious death and chaos.
Death and chaos—typical Lillian themes.
Yes, and given the strength of Lillian's conscience and her sense of loyalty, she's got to avenge the violence and clean up the mess.
There's hidden treasure involved. How did you get the idea for that?
I have an impressive collection of trashy true-crime books, and in one of them I read about Prohibition-era gangsters hiding money in the walls of their hangout. I thought how interesting it would be for somebody's hidden stash to make trouble for a down-and-out person who stumbles upon it. So I took that ball and ran with it, to use the kind of cliché I avoid in my writing. Hm, I might better say, I took that cup of sugar and made my own cake with it.
Thank you. Lillian herself only finds the dregs of this treasure, and she has to figure out what it was doing there and why it led to someone's death. Pretty quickly she realizes that Porrocks, the owner of the house, might be in danger, and soon after that she realizes that she herself isn't safe.
There's a morbid, yet very funny scene in a decrepit boathouse where Lillian is trying to hold onto a dead body as it gets pulled away by the river current. How do you come up with something like that?
You just imagine what it would be like. How would things go for Lillian when she finds this body? Well, you just know she'd have a hell of a hard time. She's lying there on the dirty planks of this boathouse and she has to figure out how to secure the body without letting go of it.
What parts of Detroit do we get to know in this book?
We learn a little bit about Wyandotte, a community south of Detroit right on the Detroit River, where Porrocks's house is. There's the aforementioned boathouse on the property. We also get to see more of the Detroit street-people scene, which I explored a little in Lillian's previous adventure, Lucky Stiff.
Yes, the character of Drooly Rick is rather more fleshed-out than one might expect: he's not just a one-dimensional prop.
Actually, what you mean is two-dimensional, like a flat plane. Something that's one-dimensional would be a line. Then there's the real world, which is in all three dimensions: height, length, and depth. When you say something is one-dimensional, you mean it's flat, but what you should really say is two-dimensional.
I'm glad to know that.
Well, Drooly Rick is this unfortunate, gentle loser, a more or less functional alcoholic who nevertheless tries to hold a life together for himself and his girlfriend. Street people have goals just like everybody else, only theirs are usually very short-term. Drooly Rick wants to help his girlfriend buy a bus ticket to Tennessee, and Lillian tries to help him buy it, but it leads to—well, to something very unfortunate.
The best intentions…
I guess you could call that a recurring theme as well. We also have greed, deception, self-delusion, and of course, love. Lillian meets this incredibly hot neighbor of Porrocks's and falls into this passionate affair. This neighbor is incredibly helpful to Lillian, up to a point. I don't want to spoil it.
There's another very funny, yet terribly sad, scene where Lillian poses as a Chippewa shaman in order to extract information from a paraplegic Native American wannabe.
Yes, Lillian must overcome her pity for this poor person in a wheelchair and ruthlessly manipulate her into telling her a secret. Whenever Lillian assumes a false identity, it's for the purpose of getting at the truth. She is good at figuring out other people's weaknesses and vanities, and she uses these to get what she wants from them. Basically, she's learned that most people love to be flattered, they love to be listened to, they love to think they've got a new friend or a new champion. Well, who doesn't? But the thing is, while most people are quite skeptical about any number of things, when it comes to their vanity and pet ideas, they are not at all skeptical. Not at all on their guard against treachery. Lillian exploits this fact, using the full powers of her creativity and sense of justice.
In this book, the Calico Jones story becomes almost a sub-plot in itself. Do you have fun with that as well?
You're referring to the cheesy detective fiction Lillian loves. Yes, she reads another Calico Jones book and finds tremendous inspiration in the boldness and glamour of the heroine. She absolutely moons over the athletic, competent, sexy Calico Jones. The book is called Encounter in Borneo, and in it Calico must foil a mad scientist who's trying to take over the world by controlling its climate by means of a vat of mutant insect larvae at a secret location in the center of Borneo.
Lillian becomes totally absorbed by the story, and yet she can never remember the name of the author. It's just a little perversity I like to throw in.
You also like to poke fun at politically correct attitudes.
Yes, I have to find release somehow. Calico Jones helps me do it.
What made you decide to bring back the character of Lou?
Lou, a female animal control officer in Detroit, first appeared in Holy Hell. I decided I liked her so much I'd want to bring her into another book, and it just worked out that she ought to come around and help Porrocks set up her electronics in her new house. Lou falls in love with Porrocks, but we don't even know if Porrocks is gay or what. Readers love Lou too—she's this mush-hearted giant of a butch who doesn't quite know how to go about getting the love she deserves. When I got back the line edit of the manuscript, I found that my editor, Angela Brown, had written in the margin, "The glorious return of Lou!" Lillian's friend Billie, the red-haired waitress, also comes back in this one.
There are some truly dark and poignant times in this story. How do you incorporate that with the humor?
Lillian discovers that she has the capacity for ultimate violence. She's always had the capacity to premeditate mischief, but now, well, she goes a step further. Some of the scenes are not both funny and sad, they're just sad. But yes, they're incorporated into a narrative that relies on humor to get you through. I don't calculate these things—I just write what seems right, I write what makes sense to me and makes me feel I'm being honest and entertaining.
Readers want to know about Todd.
Ah, Todd, Lillian's pet rabbit. Well, Todd plays an important role in Lillian's investigation in Easy Street—they travel to Cleveland together to gather some facts, and Todd poses as a pet therapy animal for the elderly. He does an excellent job. But he's old and sick, I'm afraid. Don't look at me like that. I can't discuss anything more about Todd right now.
What's next for Lillian Byrd?
I guess the better question would be 'What's next for Elizabeth Sims?' Several things are going on. One, my publisher, Alyson Books, is undergoing some major changes, and things are very up in the air. My editor, Angela, has left the company, and that's a real loss for me. And two, I want to reach more readers, and that means I must break into the mainstream market. I'm trying to get a publisher for a literary suspense novel I've written, and I have some other projects going. I do want to write more Lillian Byrd novels, because I love it so much. Well, stick around, because the best is yet to come.