Photo by Ernst-Ulrich Shafer
Elizabeth Sims is the creator of two well-received mystery series: one featuring Detroit-based reporter, Lillian Byrd, and the more recent Rita Farmer books: The Actress, The Extra, and On Location (August 2010 release). Sims has earned high praise for the Farmer books, set in L.A. Of the first in the series, The Actress, Booklist noted, “Intricate and surprising, this is a gripping read and a promising start to a new mystery series.” Publishers Weekly termed The Extra, an “entertaining second Rita Farmer misadventure,” while of the just published On Location, Kirkus Reviews commented, “You just have to love Rita.”
Ez, thanks so much for taking the time to visit with us on Scene of the Crime. Congrats also on the reception of the third in the series.
First of all, could we start out with a description of your connection to Los Angeles?
My current mystery series features actress and crime-buster Rita Farmer, whose epicenter is Los Angeles. I started coming to L.A. in about 1994 on business and to visit friends and family. The city, I instantly recognized, is the womb of popular culture for the whole world, followed closely by Japan, whose pop esthetic I fell in love with in San Francisco’s Japantown. I spend as much time in L.A. as I can. I love it, and to make sure I keep loving it, I can’t live there. If I lived there I’d grow to hate it. The traffic would make me commit suicide on a daily basis.
What things about this place make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
L.A. is the city where people with big dreams go. The movie business is this golden magnet; the level of hustle all around you is palpable, for good and for ill. By contrast, New York is a city where dreamers go too, but most people think you have to be intelligent to make it in New York. Whether that’s true or not, people think that looks and hustle will get the money hose turned on you in L.A. In fact, brains matter as much in L.A. as they do in New York. That’s a well-kept secret.
As far as the physical setting, L.A.’s got everything: wealth, poverty, the freeways, the mountains, the beaches. Political issues. The Coast Highway. The romance of California comes to a very sharp point in L.A.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I think every good author strives to make setting as important as character. If you don’t, the reader turns off the light and goes to sleep early.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
Very few people are in L.A. by accident. Most are there because they want to be there, and they feel engaged with their city. (L.A. being really an agglomeration of a bunch of cities counting millions of people.) Therefore the place itself looms large in just about every citizen’s life. I write about L.A. as I’ve experienced it, and as I imagine lifers do. I don’t give a lot of description; I prefer to show the city in light of how people feel and react to it.
I might add that it’s a cliché to write L.A. as this den of corruption and false hope. There must be a thousand novels that do that, because it’s so cheap and easy. I give a much more nuanced look and feel.
How does Rita Farmer interact with her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Rita?
My heroine, Rita Farmer, came to Los Angeles from her hometown of Durability, Wisconsin. Like most Angelenos, she’s got a love/hate thing going with the city, but mostly it’s love, because she understands possibility, and she’s patient. Working at times as an actress, Rita has a pretty direct relationship with the city. If you want to be here, you’ve got to learn to cope with the challenges of traffic, crowding, and competition, and I think the city itself has helped Rita do that.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
[brag alert.] I’ve been told that I nail Los Angeles. One of my proudest moments came when my agent was talking with a New York editor who had read the first in the series, The Actress. The editor said, “Elizabeth used to be an actress in L.A., right?” And my agent said, “Well, she’s got a little acting experience, but no, she’s never tried to make it in L.A.” And the editor said, “I can’t believe it! I was a struggling actress in L.A. myself, for two years, and it was exactly like that!”
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
Actually, the mistake I’m most chagrined about is a character name in The Actress. I created a character named Gary Kwan whose family had come to America from Japan. Then a reader told me that Kwan is a Chinese surname. I’d been so in love with the name Gary Kwan from the moment I’d thought of it that I never even considered researching it.
Of the Rita Farmer novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Here is an excerpt from The Extra.
“By six o’clock I was alone in the apartment. I drank some water and stood on the patio, going over tonight’s sequence in my head. I listened to the sounds of North Curson Street, my little street in West Hollywood—cars whooshing by, a siren way off in the distance somewhere, a kid laughing out by the curb.
“And as the lemon light of this Los Angeles late-summer day disintegrated into evening, my feelings arranged themselves in layers, like one of the big sandwiches at Canter’s or someplace: excitement laid over fear, laid over wondering, laid over feverish thinking to make sure I get everything right, plus mustard.
“I waited, and the lights came up in the city around me. I thought about my fellow humans here in Los Angeles. Night in L.A.: everybody with their dreams, everybody with their heart’s desires. The sky deepens into that blue-vein color and you evaluate your day, what you’ve done and—you can’t help it, you relax because the earth is relaxing, even if you can only allow yourself a little relaxation, because you have much to do yet. Because everybody knows night here in Los Angeles is unlike night anywhere else.
“You look out for excitement when it’s nighttime. Excitement could be coming straight at you—in the form of an out-of-control druggie driving a carjacked Porsche at 110 mph—or in the form of a handsome stranger in the candy line at the movies who turns to you with a smile and a funny question.
“Movies, movies, movies. You’ll be driving at night and you’ll gain altitude on an overpass and you’ll see searchlights sweeping the sky at a premiere, and your impulse is to follow those swinging cones of energy to their roots. Something new is happening there, something is happening that has never happened before.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
As unfashionable as it is, I love Ernest Hemingway, whose writing was so about place. Growing up in Michigan and reading his Nick Adams stories—they were meaningful to me. Another favorite writer is Joan Didion, her nonfiction. She wrote lots of essays about Los Angeles, and I just gobbled it up. She was pretty cynical about the city, but her work was so evocative I still love it. Lately I read that she considers Hemingway to have been one of her key influences, and I think that’s wonderful.
What’s next for Rita?
In my book being released in August 2010, On Location, Rita must travel from L.A. to the Pacific Northwest, where I’ve home-based for seven years. It’s very different from L.A., needless to say, which makes for both suspense and humor as Rita and her associates deal with the forests, the mountains, the locals, and the rain, rain, rain as they search for Rita’s missing sister, Gina. It’s gotten rave pre-publication reviews, so I feel secure in guaranteeing readers a good time.
Thanks again, Ez, for the great discussion.