A Conversation With Julie Smith

by Clare E. White

Award-winning mystery author Julie Smith was born and
Photo of Julie Smith
raised in a churchgoing Southern family in Savannah, Georgia. Feeling stifled in the conservative environment of Savannah, she escaped into the world of books. After completing high school, she headed off to the University of Mississippi with visions of books and Faulkner dancing in her head. It also happened to be the furthest-away school her loving, but protective parents would permit that was coed. She majored in journalism, then took her graduation money and bought a bus ticket to New Orleans, where she landed a great job writing features for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

After a year, she still longed to see the rest of the world outside the South. So she headed to San Francisco the winter before the Summer of Love. Young and idealistic, she immediately felt at home. She landed a job at the San Francisco Chronicle; at that time there were no women in the newsroom, so they made her the beauty editor. Finally she made the move to cityside and began to cover serious stories, like the rise of infamous cult leader Jim Jones, of the Guyana Massacre. After fourteen years at the paper, she left to form Invisible Ink, a freelance writing firm, with two other women, one of whom was fellow mystery writer Marcia Muller. It paid the bills till 1982, when Death Turns a Trick was finally published. (By then, she says she had five or six masterworks languishing in trunks.)

Encouraged, she became determined to make her living solely from writing fiction and began writing furiously, doing whatever she had to do to pay the bills. Eight books later, she got the call saying that New Orleans Mourning (Ballantine), the first Skip Langdon novel about a female New Orleans cop, had won the Edgar Award for best novel. Julie Smith felt that she had really arrived as an author. She later married and returned to live in New Orleans, where she still resides.

Her books are known for their tight plotting, witty dialogue and interesting characters. To date, she has written sixteen mystery novels: eight about Skip Langdon, five about a San Francisco lawyer named Rebecca Schwartz, two about a struggling mystery writer named Paul McDonald (whose fate no one should suffer), and one -- her latest, Louisiana Hotshot (Forge), -- starring Talba Wallis (aka the Baroness de Pontalba), a private eye with many names, a flair for dramatic poetry, and an unmatched skill with computers. Louisiana Hotshot teams up the young and sassy Talba with an aging Italian, ex-cop p.i. who's not at all sure about his latest employee. The two make an unlikely, yet appealing pair, as they try to track down a child molester in the New Orleans rap scene.

Julie spoke with us about Louisiana Hotshot, what kept her going when times were tough, and the best advice she ever received about writing.

Is there anyone from your childhood that influenced your decision to become a writer?

Actually, there was. When I was in the second grade, there was a talent show at my school. I went whining to my mother that I didn't know how to sing or dance and must be an inferior species. Thinking fast, she said, "Well, I think you have a flair for writing." "Oh, really?" I said, and went away, completely mollified and proud of myself. That was second grade! I'm sure I'd never written anything more than "Happy Birthday, Mommy," on some card or other. But I believed it and never forgot it. See how easy second graders are to fool?

How did you get your start as a journalist?

I went to the University of Mississippi, which has a really good journalism
Cover of 82 Desire by Julie Smith
department. At that time, they made you submit every piece you wrote to an actual newspaper or magazine. Of course many local publications were desperate for material, so it was no time at all before I was a regular contributor to such fine papers as the Oxford (Mississippi) Eagle -- and from there it was only a step or two to the big-time. Well, perhaps it was several steps. After graduation, I took a Greyhound bus to New Orleans and begged the Times-Picayune for a job once a month or so till they hired me. Finally, they said, "Okay, we'll give you the first reporter's job that opens up if you'll start out in the library." So that's what I did -- at $35 a week, and I could just scrape by. Fortunately, I got a dream job in a month -- as a reporter on the paper's Sunday magazine. What a license to steal! I could set my own assignments and do anything I wanted. That's how I got to go to my first Carnival balls, and also visit bootleggers, which still existed in Mississippi.

What led up to your writing a profile on cult leader Jim Jones?

It was so simple and innocent, really. Who could possibly know what it would lead to? (Getting spied on, having my garbage inspected, becoming the object of a letter-writing campaign, civic leaders calling my bosses.) All that came out of a simple announcement that Jones had been appointed to a San Francisco city commission. I was then working for the San Francisco Chronicle, where I had a reputation, not for investigative reporting, but for the offbeat and the amusing. "Miss Smith," said the city editor, "we now have a human rights commissioner who can heal the sick and possibly raise the dead. You interested?" "Bet your boots," said I, but Jones didn't have a clue what a lightweight I was. He thought I was out to get him and did everything he could to stop the story.

What was Jim Jones really like in person? What was your reaction when you heard about the Guyana mass suicide?

"When I was young I always heard that Southern writers always write about the South -- eventually. However, I never thought that applied to me because I never understood my hometown and never fit in... one day it came in a blinding flash -- I could work with a character who was as alienated as I was. And thus was Skip Langdon born!"
To me, he had no charisma at all. I found him a crude power-grabber, but couldn't get anyone else to listen. The first I met him, he was seated on a throne-like chair with about ten of his followers seated around. He rose, and they rose in unison. My scalp prickled. I later put the scene in a book, giving the experience to my detective, Skip Langdon.

As for Guyana, after the horror came the fear -- there were rumors of a hit list. and the police were taking them seriously. I actually went to a safe house and hid out for the first week.

What led up to the publication of your first novel?

Oh, about seven years, five agents, hundreds of rejections, and six books.

During the tough times before your first mystery novel was published, what kept you going?

Maybe a bit of it was that thing my mother said to me when I was seven. Somehow, for some reason -- inexplicably, you might even say -- I believed in myself. Also, I really, really, really wanted it. (A career as a writer, I mean.) Desire is everything -- far more important than talent, or even luck. My sister had beauty, talent, and luck -- she was quite a budding actress in her youth (see Mittie Smith as Mrs. Wally Schirra in The Right Stuff) and she gave it up simply because she couldn't be bothered to stick with it. Today, she's an English teacher and perfectly happy. Absolutely wouldn't have worked for me. No way.

How did you deal with the rejection?

Not very well. Well, actually, pretty well. I had to realize that rejection was part of the process and treat it professionally -- that is, as just another hurdle to be overcome. ("Challenge" I guess we'd say today.) It got rough toward the end, though. One night I had a blind date with a really cute guy. He asked me what I did for a living and I burst out crying. He never asked me out again, but guess what? The next morning -- I'm not kidding, the very next morning -- my agent called to say she'd sold my book! I always considered that guy kind of a lucky charm.

I'd like to talk about the creative process itself. What are your surroundings when your write? Do you have a special place and/or rituals ?

I work in my home office with my cat on the desk. I used to have a complete ancestors' shrine with my Edgar on a pedestal surrounded by pictures of Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Eudora Welty, but then we moved and I no longer have the wall space. Naturally, my desk doesn't face a blank wall nor do I have my back to the door; and there are plants in every corner. In other words, proper principles of feng shui have been applied. I dare not set up an office without them!

As for rituals, the main one involves timing -- I'm a night writer, something I learned over a period of time, so I no longer even try to write in the morning or early afternoon. That's completely unproductive and just makes me feel bad about myself. I also try to divide the writing day into several parts, separated by long breaks.

When you start a new book, how do you approach it? Do you start with a character or specific setting in mind?

I usually do, yes, although the setting is easiest. First, it was San Francisco because that was where I lived. then New Orleans because I so much wanted to write about the city. Next, I want to set a book on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and another in L.A. The one to be set in L.A. will be there because it fits the character I have in mind. For the Gulf Coast, the character fits the place, because that came first. Usually, I also start with the germ of an idea too -- as in Louisiana Hotshot: Underage girl gets molested and because she declines to identify the perp, he can't be found. Determined mother enlists detective to hunt him down. Actually, that's a little more developed than most of my ideas. The one for 82 Desire, the book before that, was this -- what if you were waiting for your husband to get the car at the airport and it seemed like he just wasn't coming back --- (Ever had this happen?) and he didn't. Okay, so I have that much in my head. Then I sit down with a yellow pad and try to work out a basic story -- very bare bones -- and after that, the all-important back story. Once I know who really did what to whom, I can see the action. That's when I start to outline.

I'd like to talk about your latest book, Louisiana Hotshot. We first saw the Baroness of Pontalba in 82 Desire; what prompted you to give Talba her own series?

Cover of Louisiana Hotshot by Julie Smith
Her mama, Miz Clara, always says that girl's just too big for her britches. She certainly wasn't going to be satisfied with the bit part she got the first time. I'm about halfway serious -- she's a big character and fun to write about. A lot of reviewers made the point that she ought to have her own book. Who am I to argue?

The book also deals with some series issues, such as child abuse. What prompted you to tackle this subject?

I have teen-age nieces.

I love Eddie Valentino, Talba's new boss. Their interactions are really funny -- and touching too. I have to admit, I'm picturing Albert Finney when Eddie talks (must be the bags under his eyes that everyone notices). What or who was your inspiration for Eddie?

Eddie began as a foil for Talba. I imagined a semi-racist, semi-sexist, but basically good-hearted curmudgeon forced to deal with someone younger, smarter, more hip, more computer savvy, and also black and female. No specific person actually inspired him. Then I started meeting actual detectives, whom I interviewed about their work. No doubt some of them crept into Eddie's character -- and probably bits of my father as well. He hates to hear women swear.

At night, Talba is a respected poet and her poetry features in the story. Have you always been a poet?

What a flattering question! I don't know that I am now. But several times in the past I've written poems for my characters, and I've approached the process very differently from writing prose -- as a much more left-brained (or is it right-brained?) experience -- what I mean is, I try not to think about it too much, just empty my mind and let the story flow without censorship. I rewrite, of course, but that first flight is always an exhilarating experience. I love doing it. But I do try to tie the poems to some kind of story, so that I don't feel too lost. Stories are my home territory.

Is it difficult to write poetry for a fictional character, such as Talba? Do you have to put yourself in her mind, so to speak, in order to write it?

Yes, you do have to put herself in her mind. Sometimes it's unbelievably easy, and sometimes frustratingly difficult -- every now and then my empty mind just won't fill up, and I have to take several runs at it. I'm working on the second Talba now and I'm finding the poetry harder than before -- I think I've now taken a deep breath, looked back, and found something gaining on me! By that, I mean, I guess, I've gotten a little scared of it and I'm losing a certain amount of spontaneity.

Who are some of your favorite poets?

Wallace Stevens hands down. Of contemporary poets, Jim Seay is very good. There's a local New Orleans poet named Brenda Marie Osbey that I like a lot. Actually there are a lot of good local poets right now -- there's a good book called From a Bend in the River that has a lot of wonderful New Orleans poetry in it.

What's next for Talba? Can you give us a sneak peek?

"I had a great writer friend who used to say, 'There are two kinds of people; those who've finished a book, and those who haven't.' So, sez I, apply seat of pants to chair, put one word after another (this is the second best bit of writing advice I ever got,) and don't get it right, get it written. It's a proven path to becoming that second kind of person."
The next book is based on a true story I heard in a class. I'm getting my PI license -- purely because Talba had to do it, I thought I would. And for that I had to take a forty-hour course, in the course of which the professor told an amazing story about a case he worked on in which a young girl was attacked in her home (not raped -- assaulted with a weapon) and her boy friend was framed. The real story was extremely complicated and had racial implications. Sign me up, Talba said! So I did.

Talba's mother, Miz Clara is a colorful and entertaining character. How did you create Miz Clara? Will we be seeing her again?

Well, don't I just love Miz Clara. She certainly didn't turn out like I thought she would. What happened was this: My husband and I went to a local French Quarter joint for a casual Sunday night supper, only to discover a poetry reading in progress. A riveting young black woman, Mada Plummer, read a poem about her mother called., "How did She?" It was sort of a hymn to a mother who'd managed to provide not only material things, but joy to her family despite tremendous personal hardship. Even at the time, I remember thinking, "What must it be like to have a mother like that?" Well, I can truly say that that poem -- and that poet -- were the inspiration for Talba and Miz Clara, but, oh my goodness, I had no idea what it would be like to have a mother like that till I started to write about her! What a piece of work Miz Clara is. If I thought she was a saint, I was mightily mistaken. A saint she ain't. But she sure wants her kids to be saints -- also the first black president and Speaker of the House respectively. Yikes. What a mouth on her. Yes, we'll certainly be seeing her again -- if Talba's too big for her britches, like mama, like daughter.

Another of your popular characters is police detective Skip Langdon, last seen in 82 Desire. How much of Julie Smith is there in Skip Langdon?

Cover of Crescent City Kill by Julie Smith
When I was young I always heard that Southern writers always write about the South -- eventually. However, I never thought that applied to me because I never understood my hometown and never fit in. So how was I going to write about it? The answer probably is already obvious to you, but I seem to be a bit on the slow side. However, one day it came in a blinding flash --I could work with a character who was as alienated as I was. And thus was Skip Langdon born! In that way she's exactly like me. However, she has resourcefulness and competence I can only dream about. Also, I'm nowhere near her height (six feet) and couldn't even fathom having her weight problem when I first thought her up, but I'm fast acquiring it.

New Orleans is vividly portrayed in your books. What do you love most about New Orleans? What do you miss about the Bay Area?

What I think I love most about New Orleans is that people here (French Quarter people, I mean) see themselves as part of a neighborhood, and that includes all classes of people -- from wealthy to homeless. ALL these people interact as part of a whole. Tourists find the natives friendly, and they're right. But they're more than friendly. They really do care, and they take care of each other. What I miss most about the Bay Area is the view -- and in the summer, the weather. It seems to have gone in the opposite direction from that described above -- right now I find it alienating, and a poor venue for artists (partly because it's currently so expensive). Sorry to sound curmudgeonly -- maybe it would be different if I were young. I was young in San Francisco and it was like a wonderland then.

Tell us about your house. It is really haunted? What do the ghosts do? Do they seem friendly?

Oh, I've moved. But my old house was definitely haunted. The ghost seemed not so much friendly as indifferent. The cat hated it, though. It never moved anything or really manifested, except to poor Gumbo, who eventually made her peace with it too. Mostly, it smelled -- like jasmine when jasmine wasn't in season. That's why I don't think it was the ghost of the man who was murdered there twenty-five years ago (did I mention that?). I think it was a Nineteenth Century lady. My neighbor's ghost is much more aggressive -- even chewed on his arm once. (And, no, Kip doesn't do drugs -- it's just the way these old houses are.)

On your website you are giving a grant for starving writers. Please tell us about that.

Years ago, during my period of greatest struggle (and it was a long one),
"Somehow, for some reason -- inexplicably, you might even say -- I believed in myself. Also, I really, really, really wanted it. (A career as a writer, I mean.) Desire is everything -- far more important than talent, or even luck."
I thought, "If I ever get out of this financial hole, I'm gonna start a foundation. I'll give writing grants to struggling writers, and part of each grant will involve a stay at a kind of writer's colony, a gorgeous hacienda overlooking a bay in Mexico. But this will be no ordinary writer's colony -- it'll be an incredibly brilliant ongoing literary salon at which the grantees can meet other writers, editors, agents, journalists, poets, and anyone else involved in the writing life. And I'm gonna call it "Casa Mysterioso." Later, I expanded the idea to include all the arts. Well, I did get out of the hole, but not far enough out to fund such an ambitious project. Then, when I found myself resisting what to me was the utterly vainglorious idea of an author website, my husband said, "Why don't you start Casa Mysterioso online? And I realized I could. I hooked up with a non-profit to award the first grant -- $2000 for a novel-in-progress, and I also established a $500 poetry prize, which I'm administering myself. You can enter that one just by posting your poetry on the site. To enter the novel-in-progress competition is a bit more complicated, but you can also do that from the site, which also offers author interviews, reviews, even travel tips!

What is your advice to aspiring writers?

Don't get it right, get it written. Tattoo it on your body.

I learned it from a crusty old city editor who used
Cover of Other People's Skeletons by Julie Smith
to yell it out whenever a reporter said, "I just have to make one more phone call." Only he usually preceded it with, "For Christ's sake!" You had to make the deadline, no matter what -- if it wasn't good enough, or complete enough, or it was libelous, God forbid, you could always change it for the next edition. Hey, the next draft is even easier -- nobody's even seen it. I had a great writer friend who used to say, "There are two kinds of people; those who've finished a book, and those who haven't." He didn't have a clue how prophetic his words were. It turned out we had a guy in our writer's group who read us a new chapter each month -- each time of a completely different book! He was a wonderful writer and never got past the first chapter. So, sez I, apply seat of pants to chair, put one word after another (this is the second best bit of writing advice I ever got,) and don't get it right, get it written.. It's a proven path to becoming that second kind of person.

Describe for us your idea of the perfect Saturday in New Orleans.

Sleep late. Coffee on the balcony (or Café du monde if you're visiting.) If you're me, then putter for the morning; if you're a tourist, a street car ride to the Garden District. Lunch at Remoulade -- raw oysters to start, then maybe turtle soup and a Bloody Mary. Which will put you in nap mode. So a nap next, preferably with your true love. Then, if you're a tourist, a walk around the French Quarter. If you're me, maybe go out to City Park to walk, or just stroll by the river. Finally, dinner in the courtyard at Marisol or Bayona. Music at The Tin Roof or Mama's Blues. And then, if you're still up for adventure, dancing at Café Brasil. Do half of that and you've still had a perfect day.

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