Cara Black is a New York Times and USA Today best selling author whose chic Parisian sleuth Aimee Leduc has been praised by Lee Child as “one of the best heroines in crime fiction today.”
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and today Cara talks about her eighteen Murder in Paris mysteries, working with the chief investigator in the Princess Diana enquiry, and why she chose a natty dressing, whip smart dwarf as Aimee’s right hand man.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- How P D James convinced her to write mysteries
- The heart-breaking true story that got her started
- Her passion for all things French
- The writers she admires most
- What she’s done that’s the secret of her success
- How recordings of French street music inspire her
Where to find Cara Black:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Jenny: But now, here’s Cara. Hello there Cara and welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.
Cara: Thank you for making this happen, I really appreciate it.
Jenny: Beginning at the beginning – was there a “Once Upon A time moment when you decided you wanted to write fiction? And if there was a catalyst, what was it?
Cara: Well I think beginning at the beginning, it was about being readers in the family. My dad was a huge reader. I read all the time which I think as you’ve touched with other writers- we’re all readers first. Maybe I thought “Oh, it’d be great to write some day”, but it wasn’t until I heard a story in 1984 when I was in Paris visiting my friend.
She told me about her mother who was a hidden Jewish girl in the Marais. It really struck me, because her mother was 14 years old, came home from school one day and her family were gone.
It was 1942, and of course they didn’t know what we now know. She stayed hidden in the apartment thanks to the concierge, and later I found out thanks to the concierge that his son was a French policeman who contrary to many, actually helped her hide there until she found out her family had gone to Auschwitz.
I found a lot of that out later; but I never forgot that because I grew up in California and I never had to worry about food on my plate or clothes to wear. So I remember 1984, when I came back to San Francisco and I told my father about it. I’d never really met anyone, but I met her mother as well. I’d never really been that affected personally by World War II, but fast forward to 1993 – about ten years later- we were back in France.
I had a young son, and we stayed one night in the Marais because we were coming back. I remember I put my son to bed and I went out on the street; I was looking for that apartment my friend had shown me in the Marais where she’d stayed. I think I found it, I’m not sure.
But I stood in that street- it was 17th century and I thought about my friend’s mother and I thought; what if I had been a mother in 1942? What would I have done to put food on his plate, a roof over our head, and to save him? What if what I did then came back to bite me fifty years later, because it was basically fifty years later.
I really was struck by that. So I came back, and talked to my dad about it, and he said “you know you’ve always talked about that. You need to write about that, you need to write that down”. So there you have it! That started my life of crime.
Jenny: Your Aimee Leduc series has been a total hit – a USA Today and New York Time best selling series and now up to 18 books. . . Are you still on target to publish this month??
Cara: Exactly, yes. On June 19th the eighteenth book comes out, Murder on the Left Bank.
Jenny: I can’t wait. What attracted you to the mystery genre?
Cara: What attracted me to the mystery genre was again my father. As I said he was a big reader, and he was always reading. When he retired he would read mysteries- he would go to the library on Saturday, take out seven books and read a mystery a day.
I was like “oh dad, how can you read that pulpy fiction?!” I had read mysteries like Nancy Drew- I don’t know if you have Nancy Drew in New Zealand- but I liked it, although I was young. So when my dad and I were talking about this, he said “why don’t you write about this?” I didn’t even have a computer then, so this was a while ago.
He was telling me I should do research on it, and I did have to write letters. He said “why don’t you read a mystery and see what you think about that?” I must admit, I doubted him. I was searching for a way into the story, and he handed me P D James’ Unsuitable Job For a Woman; that just opened my eyes. I really realised that her books were sure. You’ve got this really pllucky, vulnerable heroine who had a gun in her purse and wore heels. It was kind of very cool, and there was a lot of social comment in it.
I thought maybe I could tell the story with someone like that. I could use the mystery novel, detective fiction as a framework to tell the story, which has really worked.
That’s what I like; I want to have a framework. When you talk about just fiction, to me that seems so big and enormous. I want to have something that incites the story, like crime, and the framework of an investigation – going down the trails – like the ‘False Peace’, or ‘Red Herrings’ and getting clues and putting it together. That really spoke to me as a way to tell the story.
Jenny: Aimee has been described by Lee Child as “one of the best heroines in crime fiction today,” so thats a remarkable achievement! She’s half French, half American, with a typically French sense of style. Have you managed to pin down just what it is that gives French women that “Je ne sais quoi?” And have you managed to copy a little of it yourself?
Cara: Oh, I’m not at all like Aimee unfortunately! Sorry to burst your bubble, but I appreciate it in other women!
You know when I was in Paris, I started going back in the 90’s and I had friends. I wanted to write the current, modern day, young French Parisian. You know – what she was like, what she dealt with – putting it all together – you know – that tousled but chic look – yet being vulnerable, witty and smart and having troubles with men, because they do.
I met a friend after work once at a bar having a drink, an aperitif, and she looked fantastic. She’s really nice, smart and warm. She said “Oh, he just broke up with me”, and I went “you?!” I couldn’t believe it. I thought- there’s no hope for the rest of us!
But they’re women, and I wanted to reflect modern day women, the people I was meeting. I also got to, in the course of my research, meet a woman who was a private detective. I really said, “well how do you do it?”
She responded “it’s all about women blending in. Women blend in, and can stand out.” She had a motorcycle and a car with her trunk. She had this boot full of disguises. Seriously! How cool is that? She could follow somebody on a motorcycle and they wouldn’t necessarily recognise her with her hair in the helmet. Then she could switch to her car, survey them or follow them and then get out and change her outfit.
I thought, women can do that! Women can stand out or blend in to the scenery. They’re much less threatening I think, then a man would be. I also met an older woman who belonged to another detective agency. She looked like somebody’s grandmother and she’d been doing it for a long time.
I was talking to her and it was about 6 o’ clock; it was a dark winter night in her office. She said, “sorry Cara, I have to end the interview. I have to go and do surveillance.” I thought, surveillance? It’s cold outside. She said: “oh yes, but I’m prepared and I’ve been doing surveillance all week.”
I said to her, “well how could you have been doing it all week? Wouldn’t people recognise you by now?” And she said, “look at me Cara. Nobody notices me; I’m invisible”. I thought to myself; that’s really true. So I think it’s a strength that women can bring to this profession. Like I said, being able to blend in or stand out as needed.
Jenny: Murder on the Left Bank is due out this month – and the story line about her father’s death and “dirty cops aspect that’s underlined so many of the stories takes center stage – did you have the full story arc in mind before you started Book One?
Cara: Not really Jenny. I think that there was always secrets that Aimee had; she knew there were secrets. Everyone had stone walled her, her father, her godfather – I knew whatever secrets about her parents, her mother and her father would be something that got under her skin.
She was always trying to figure that out and it was a driving force; to deal with the demons. Were they like this? What was the real story? Why did her mother abandon her?
So that was always in the background. I didn’t have any full arc, but I thought that one of her wounds was searching for family, and now she has her own little daughter; how is she going to come to terms with that? That’s about as far as I got in that sort of character arc.
Jenny: And then as you wrote, the details of it started to emerge? Is that how it happened?
Cara: Yes. Something would happen- I would think “well of course she’d wonder about this, she’d question this person or she wanted to know more, or she’d put this theory to work and find out it wasn’t like that at all”. People lie for different reasons, and I think people always lie is what someone tells her in a story, even for a reason that has nothing to do with the question you’re asking as well. People don’t like to talk about the past also.
Jenny: Your books are wonderful for vicarious travel!! You’ve said they’re a “trip to Paris without the air Fares” And you go so far as to record every day sounds – the clip of heels on pavements, water gushing over cobblestones, the whoosh of the milk steamer – what you call the street music of Paris….
Cara: Oh definitely, absolutely. It’s wonderfully atmospheric; I’m sitting in a little closet in San Francisco in my little writing nook writing away. I need to go to Paris, and I need to bring the reader to Paris and bring it out on the page. So I often do, and they’re really simple sounds.
I’ll put the recording on my phone, and I’ll just hear the cadence of how people talk. It can be something small, but just to get that insight. That brings me back to that bus ride or that cafe where I ordered a fresh orange juice and they’re making it through those old fashioned juicers.
A man would come in and bring in the wine shipment, and the concierge from across the street comes in and complains about something. It sort of takes me to that moment in the cafe where I take a lot of notes, but I can’t remember all that. So I go there with sounds; I find it really helpful.
Jenny: Aimee’s off sider – Renee – smart, devoted, secretly in love with her – and a dwarf… It’s a poignant aspect of the story that she is so blind to Renee – how did he evolve as a character – and can there be any “happy resolution” for him?
Cara: He came from a real life situation, but he was a female. I live in San Francisco, and I used to be a pre school teacher.
I had got my teaching credentials, and I was on the teaching staff of the small pre school. As teachers we would form a panel and hire new teachers. I remember I was on this panel with several otherteachers and we had many applicants.
They were all very qualified, they had all the credentials and one of the applicants was a dwarf. I remember thinking: she had everything that was needed, but she wasn’t much taller than our four year olds.
In that job, it’s a lot of physical work as well; dealing with young children, putting materials away, cleaning spills, just many things. I was thinking- and I feel very guilty about this- and it’s not something to be proud of, but I felt like what if it was physically hard for her and what if the children didn’t respect her because she wasn’t much taller than they were and they made fun of her?
So, that’s what I thought – I didn’t say that, but I remember we all voted and picked another candidate. I wasn’t the only one. So we hired the other candidate, and then about two months later I was down at our sister pre school which was down town at the time.
I had to go for a teacher meeting, and I went early because I heard one of the teachers was doing this great art project and I wanted to steal their idea! We have very low tables so the children can just stand. We were gathered around this big table, and the children were all wearing smocks all engaged in this project.
I was looking for the teacher, and I just kept looking. Then I realised; it was the teacher we did not hire who was at the table with the children wearing a smock. She was working with them, and they respected her. This project was humming along wonderfully. I just thought, oh my goodness. It hit me in the gut, and I felt terrible, guilty.
I realised I had been looking at the teacher’s disabilities, not her abilities. I watched the whole art project feeling very guilty, and realising that her children had learnt such a bigger life lesson because of dealing with her and seeing what she could do, and seeing how they respected her.
So I think I’ve always felt guilty about that, and I’m assuaging my guilt through the character of Renee because when people see him, he’s a dwarf. That’s the first thing that sticks in your mind, and as you point out he’s very smart and has so much going for him. He’s in love with Aimee who regards him as her best friend. So it’s poignant, but it’s part of their history and it might continue that way.
Jenny: In this last book, Aimee comments something about “Oh he’s very grumpy today, he needs a girlfriend” and you realise that she’s pretty blind to what’s going on as well.
Cara: Yes, totally. But I think that does provide sexual tension – if it ever came out their whole relationship would change.
Jenny: It might become intolerable for them to be business partners; you just don’t know, that’s right.
Jenny: You’ve also built up an amazing network of contacts there. You’ve said for example that a Brigade Criminelle inspector who was in charge of the Princess Diana enquiry spent hours talking with you about one aspect of a plot – do you recall now what that enquiry was about?
Cara: He’s a man, and he’s retired now; Commandant Jean-Claude Mulès. I often see him when I’m in Paris. I just got back from Paris and he was in Spain, so I missed him.
Often, and especially when I was writing this story – I think it was in 2007 when I met him originally, he was often questioned by people. He’d talk to movie writers and script people to make sure they’d got the French police procedure correct, or to answer questions about it. So that’s how I met him in that capacity.
I would often take him out for a drink, and say “here’s what I’m thinking of- would that of happened? Would the police do this?” Because the system is so different from here. He would tell me a lot of procedural things, and I’d use them in different books. But it was in 2007 when I met him for a coffee, and I wanted to ask him about a specific procedure and ask what he thought about it.
He was very irritated; he said he’d just got off the Eurostar from London and he wouldn’t talk English with me because he’d been talking all morning! So we had to do it in French. He went on about these people in wigs and being in the British Court, and I questioned – why?
And he told me it had been ten years. He kept saying “ten years”. I asked him what that meant, and he said “well, ten years; 1997-2007. The Princess Diana investigation”.
I asked, “what’s that to you?” And he replied, “what do you mean? I was in charge of the investigation!” I thought; I’ve known him for about three years and I didn’t know that!
I thought, boy I really need to hone up on my questioning techniques! Why I never thought to ask that… I’m not a journalist! So he started to tell me about this, and I thought it was fascinating. I decided that I would set my story in 1997, which is when one of the stories happen, but in the aftermath.
That went on for weeks, months; it was always in the headlines. For a long time, it was this huge tragedy. I remember I set it shortly after, and he said he could tell me some details he was working on. It wouldn’t be apart of the story, but Aimee would be totally aware of it as the world was. So there was just this great truthful information and detail I could put in, just being the fabric of the story that day.
Jenny: Absolutely. That’s one of the things that’s great about the whole series; you get those little facts going back in history as well.
Moving to a more general focus, away from specific books to your wider career
Jnny: Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success?
Cara: I don’t know if I have a secret to success! When I started writing, I was lucky enough to get into a writing class and then a critique group. But what really struck me was that the first draft is a first draft – I never expected as I wrote it that it would be publishable. I always realised from that first teacher I had that it’s a process.
I think I learned that from him very well, or I could take it in. We all know that, and I could actually accept it, and go “I’m just going to write this and figure that this is a work in process as it is, and I will get down the ideas and the story, go back and hone it in however many drafts it takes”. I think a lot of people who were in my class; people could not hold the course. It’s about going on and polishing, making your book sparkle. Even though that’s a difficult process.
I think to write a really compelling story, you as a writer have got to do that. At least I do. Voltaire said, “writing is re-writing”, and I really took that to heart. I have no problem with re-writing, and I expect that in my process. But then I don’t outline. Some people outline and then write meticulously. For me, that’s very difficult.
Jenny: That’s interesting. How many drafts would you normally have for one of your manuscripts, or is it more of an organic process than that?
Cara: It feels more organic, because as I write- even before we began talking- I was going back to what I wrote yesterday and re crafting and re writing it. You know, sometimes it’s just a line, or a word. I look back to what I’d written previously the day before, and then I look at that, and then I move on. So I’m constantly tweaking.
Sometimes when I have the full draft, I look and I think; oh no, this should go here! It’s like non stop for me. But I do feel it’s important for me to look at what I did yesterday; look at it, and move on otherwise I’d be spinning my wheels. For me it’s a longer process then some of my friends who write a detailed outline, and the writing is very quick. But for me – that doesn’t feel fresh to me, but everyone’s different.
Turning to Cara as reader
Jenny: The series is called “The Joys of Binge Reading” because I see it as providing inspiration for people who like to read series . . . .So – turning to your taste in fiction who do you “binge read?”
Cara: When I find a book to read- I’ll be in an airport at a book store, and I’ll see a book and I’ll pick it up. I’ll think, oh! I love this! And it’ll be number six in whatever series. For me, I like that. It doesn’t bother me.
That happened with Deborah Crombie. She lives in Texas, but she writes a UK series. So when I found one of hers I went right back to the beginning! So she’s someone I love. I know her, and she’s really a great person.
I like Phillip Kerr- he wrote the Bernie Gunther series. He sadly passed away this year, it was terrible; only two weeks before his book came out. But he has a long running series of Detective Bernie Gunther. I’ve devoured all of them, and after he passed away I actually went back and started reading them from the beginning again. Kind of like a grieving process. But if there’s someone I like, I just read it.
Circling back to the end
(I see this as a bit of a narrative)
Jenny: At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, what would you change – if anything?
Cara: Well I got to change something that I’ve always wanted to change. It was funny- my editor, while in the process of doing the tenth anniversary issue of the first book Murder in the Marais, they said “now’s your chance. We’re doing reprinting- if there’s anything you want to change in this first book (because sometimes you write the first book and you’re sort of stuck with everything!) now’s your chance”.
And I was like, yes! Her age- take out her age which was on the first page. That kind of limits her biologically to several things. I wanted her younger, I wanted it to be loose, with nobody to actually say. So we did it. Unless you have an older version, you will never know her exact age. So to anyone who’s writing a series or it turns out to be a series; don’t get too specific in the beginning, because it could nail you down!
Jenny: What is next for Cara as writer? New projects under development?
Cara: Well I’ve sent the draft for the next Aimee Leduc- number 19- to my editor, so I’m waiting to hear back. Then I’m working on an idea for a historical fiction based in World War II, and then another Aimee Leduc.
Jenny: Oh, great!
Jenny: Where can readers find you on line?
Cara: You can find me on Facebook- I have an author page, Cara Black Author. I also have a website: www.carablack.com. I’m on Instagram- you can’t get away from me if you look out for me!
Jenny: Well it’s been great talking to you, and we look forward with interest to Book 18!
Cara: Thank you so much Jenny. I have an old friend in New Zealand. I don’t know if she used to live in Christchurch, but Marg if you hear this- hello!
Thanks Jenny, talk to you later!
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