A Conversation With Leslie Glass

by Claire E. White

Acclaimed for crime novels that vibrate with chilling psychological
Photo of Leslie Glass
suspense, bestselling author Leslie Glass knows police work from the inside-out. When she's not working on her next book, you might find her at the police firing range at Rodman's Neck. Her intensive research on the front lines has given Glass an intimate knowledge of the twists and turns, procedures and pitfalls of criminal investigation. Her first-hand experience of the day-to-day realities of police work also has given her special insight into the politics, heartaches and conflicts of a New York City cop's life.

Before embarking on a life in crime, Glass wrote in many formats. At New York magazine she wrote and edited the "Intelligencer" column for the first year of its existence. She has been a frequent contributor of both features and fiction to Cosmopolitan, and her short stories have appeared in Redbook and Women's Own, (Great Britain), and have been widely translated abroad. In 1976 Doubleday published her first novel, Getting Away With It. Avon followed with the paperback in 1977, which became a Book-of-the-Month Club Alternate. Next came Modern Love published by St. Martins Press (hardcover-1983; paperback-1984) which was optioned for a feature film and translated in six foreign languages. Glass's first crime novel about a kidnapping, To Do No Harm, was released in 1990. Her now famous "Time" series began in 1993 with Burning Time. It was followed by Hanging Time (1995), Loving Time (1996), Judging Time (1998), and Stealing Time (Dutton, 1999). The "Time" series focuses on Chinese American NYPD detective April Woo, an extremely competent officer who has made her way up the ladder in an environment which is not known for being friendly to women.

People often ask how Leslie Glass, a non-Chinese who grew up in the Bronx, Martha's Vineyard and New York City, came to write about a Asian American female cop from Queens, but it seems perfectly natural to Glass: "A Chinese couple lived with my family, and I grew up in a Chinese kitchen. It was like having two sets of parents," she says. "And my Chinese parents definitely ruled the roost."

In addition to her passions for law enforcement, the diversity of the American culture, and the Asian-American experience, Glass is also fascinated by psychology. This interest has translated into another main character in her "Time" series: psychiatrist Dr. Jason Frank. "I've always been interested in what drives people to do what they do, and the effect therapy has on their lives," she says. "I created Jason Frank to show how a psychiatrist would approach suspects, and crime, as a counterpoint to the law enforcement strategies used by the police."

She is the founder of the Leslie Glass Foundation, which grants graduate research fellowships in the fields of criminal justice and mental health. Glass is also a public member from New York on the Middle States Commission, the agency that accredits colleges and universities throughout the region.

Glass also has several credits as a playwright. Strokes (1984), was first produced by the American Repertory Theatre in Boston and was rated one on the ten best theatrical events of the year by the Boston Globe. She has also written one-act plays to help people deal with social issues: The Survivors was commissioned by the W.T. Grant Foundation for the prevention of teenage suicide and premiered in 1989. It is produced in high schools and community centers around the country. On The Edge was commissioned by the Junior League of New York to help inner city youth deal with the violence in their lives. It premiered in 1991 at Lincoln Center as part of the Mayor's tribute to the United Nations conference on children.

For Leslie Glass, writing is her life. Her philanthropy and other not-for-profit activities have naturally evolved from her deep involvement in the subjects she writes about. "My research and writing open the door to another world, and I just step through." Leslie spoke to us about her latest novel, Tracking Time, her popular character April Woo, and the greatest challenge she's had to face in her professional career.

What was your inspiration for the April Woo mystery series? Have you always been a mystery reader?

I intended to write a series about psychiatrists who have to get out of their chair to change the end of a patient's story, but in the first book Burning Time, Jason Frank needed the help of a cop to save his wife and April Woo took center stage all by herself. And she's kept it ever since.

I understand you did several types of writing before you became a mystery novelist. How did your training as a playwright and nonfiction writer affect your fiction writing?

Craft is very important. If you work for a magazine you have to get the facts in and you have to do it quickly. In playwrighting, there is only dialogue to tell the story. Conflict and resolution is played out on the stage through the things the actors say to each other. In every kind of writing the story is the message and all those forms that a writer learns doing other things are at work in a novel.

How would you say that April has changed since the first book -- how has she developed as a person?

April has changed a lot since the first book. She had moved from Chinatown and knows many more kinds of people. She has been promoted and is now a boss. That changes her position enormously in the department. She's not afraid to take anybody on. She's a much more experience detective, and she's fallen in love so she's had to learn how to deal with her mother. She's moving up and moving on and moving out. Maturing.

Cover of Tracking Time by Leslie Glass
In your latest book, Tracking Time, April Woo comes up against some very disturbed teens during the course of her investigation of the missing psychiatrist, Dr. Maslow Atkins. What went into your decision to create the characters of Brandy, Allegra and David?

Those voices have been around me for a dozen years. I've seen kids growing up with my own kids. I've seen the atmosphere change from the eighties to the nineties to 2000. I know how young people think and talk. They're out there, and their parents are out there without a clue.

How did you manage to get the dialogue so right for Brandy and David? Did you do any special research? Their voices and attitudes (unfortunately!) ring quite true.

As I said, I wrote them because they were there. Columbine hadn't happened yet. It was just something I had to document. Specifically there was a case in New York, two in fact, and they led me there. Usually it's something real that happens here that sets me off.

Another interesting developing character in the series is April's friend, psychiatrist Dr. Jason Frank. What originally drew you to this character? I think his marked interest in clocks and time is a very telling aspect of his personality.

Cover of Stealing Time by Leslie Glass
Jason is a composite of many psychiatrists I know. I wanted to write about a psychiatrist who doesn't eat his patients when the therapy isn't going well. Shrinks have such a bad rep I wanted to tell about them from the inside, how they care for their patients, how their lives really work. They come off so mysterious in the movies, just coming in to solve the problem in the end. With Jason we see a little more process.

The city of New York itself is an important part of this series. As a lifelong New Yorker, what draws you to the city? What do you find most fascinating about it?

Oh God, New York. That skyline knocks me out. Chinatown. Flushing Queens. The variety. The energy. You can feel it everywhere. So much going on. So much competition. So much to look at and negotiate. It's exhausting and invigorating. I never get tired of it. Except in dead of winter.

April is a woman of contrasts: an American born Chinese who struggles with her identity. Her traditional Chinese mother (Skinny Dragon) hates her job and just wants her to marry a nice Chinese doctor. How did you gain your insight into the Chinese family background?

I grew up in a Chinese kitchen, just like April. My caretakers when I was a child were Chinese. I did Asian studies in college. Went to China, read a lot. It's just deep in my blood.

Sai Yuan Woo (or Skinny Dragon Mother as April calls her) is such a great character, providing both angst and comic relief. What or who was your inspiration for Skinny Dragon?

My own caretaker was exactly like her. Fortunately, or unfortunately for me as a kid, I don't have to make a lot about her up.

Skinny Dragon seems so selfish and outrageous to an American, and as a reader sometimes I wish April would stand up more for herself. But that's because I'm imposing American modern cultural mores onto another culture, I suppose?

"Rejection is the greatest challenge any writer has to face. Lots and lots of rejection....We all want recognition. We all want to be the Best. We all have to get over it."
Yes, exactly. Many non-Chinese readers can't understand why April doesn't stand up for herself more. Why she takes it. The Chinese know. The cultures are different -- completely different -- in this respect. In the West we live for ourselves. In Asia, the individual takes the back seat to the country, to the county, to the family, to the parents. You're not supposed to be for yourself. So the person who satisfies his own dream to the detriment of his mother is considered the selfish one.

One of the themes of this series seems to be the conflicts felt by many people between their American upbringing and their duty to their families, which often were raised in another country (April vs. Skinny Dragon, Mike Sanchez and his Mexican-American culture). Do you think in themes when you write, or do they naturally evolve from your characters?

I've internalized the themes. I don't think about them anymore. I just think about the characters and what they would be thinking and doing. I love writing about the conflicts between parents and children of all cultures.

What's next for April Woo?

April will be developing more, maturing more. She may get married. She's definitely getting out of the house soon. Her odyssey in the police department will take her into prison, into the courts, internal affairs. She may get promoted again, who knows.

I'd like to talk about the creative process itself. What is a typical writing day for you like?

I usually start at dawn. Right now that's about 6:45. In winter it's later, in summer it's earlier. I like to work two or three hours and take a break. Exercise. Go out to lunch, then get back to it around five and work from five to eight. It rarely happens like that. I work until the phone rings and then I get distracted. If I can get back to writing later, great. If not I try to go to bed early and start again the next day.

Have you ever suffered from writer's block? If so, how did you overcome it?

I can't afford to have writer's block. People write me every day asking when the next book is coming. I do have difficulty the first two hundred pages of a book. The setup in this kind of book is very hard. It's like a very difficult puzzle. I just keep at the teeny tiny pieces until they all fit.

Although this series has plenty of action and suspense, the complexity and development of the varied characters never suffers as result; readers really get involved with April's life and want to know how she will resolve all the conflicts with her family, and with Mike. Do you make a conscious decision when you write not to let the action take over the people?

I'm really a novelist first. I don't enjoy writing the action scenes as much. They require a lot of research and knowledge I don't naturally have. I always have to do research. Then I have to make sure the research doesn't take over the book. Left to my own devices, there would only be the character scenes. I actually write a lot more of them than appear in every book. They get cut to keep the pace going. And sometimes I miss them later. Balance is all, and it's very tricky. Even my best fans complain when they think I didn't get something right.

What is your advice to aspiring mystery writers?

Read, read, read, read. Write short stories. Listen to people talk. Practice, practice, practice.

Tell us about the Leslie Glass Foundation. How and why did it get started?

My parents were both very committed to social issues. My father went to college on scholarship and had a profound belief in the importance of subsidized education for bright young people. I am interested in criminal justice and mental health, immigrants, people who are at risk. We support research that shows what kind of programs and treatments really work. I'm very proud of the work we do.

Why is your charitable work so important to you? Do you think that the younger generations are as interested in "giving back" to the community as the older generations? (The Junior League, for example, has a real challenge on its hands keeping members for more than three years at a time.)

Writing and the foundation are the cornerstones of my life.
Cover of Hanging Time by Leslie Glass
Both of them are my day jobs. I love the foundation because it gets me out. I get to visit places and people I would not otherwise know. I feel privileged to work with all kinds of people, to see what's going on in the world, to try and have an impact. I know how difficult it is to keep people involved in not for profit. Young adults who have jobs give more of their energy to their jobs, when they have children, too, what time is left? I know in my case I consider it part of my job, so it has its permanent place. But I don't go out to work and my kids are grown. Everybody has to find his own way to make giving back a valuable experience.

It is obvious from the way you write about cops and from your charitable activities that you think they are basically good people doing a difficult job. What experiences have influenced your view of the police? Why do you think that cops are sometimes viewed negatively so by the public?

Good question. There are over 40,000 cops in New York City.
"I can't afford to have writer's block. People write me every day asking when the next book is coming....It's like a very difficult puzzle. I just keep at the teeny tiny pieces until they all fit."
Each one has his or her own story. Many are second or third generation cops. Some come from very poor communities and are moving up. There are good cops and bad cops, and some really terrible ones. I personally do not know the rogues, the chronic shooters, the intimidators. And I don't really enjoy the part of my job that calls for graphic description of sadism. But this kind of novel calls for it. Readers like it. And I want to tell the truth. But since I have to do sadism, I'd rather have the bad guys be the sadists. Cops do an impossibly difficult job. I see the environment they work in. Not attractive. Not comfortable. Often dangerous. I've seen cops shot at and I've seen cops deliver a baby on the street. I've seen them risk their own lives to save someone they don't know and wouldn't like if they did. I do think many of them are heroes. So many authors write about the rogue cops, the rogue detectives. It's open season on them. I'd rather write about the cops who are trying to do a good job.

The police background in this series has such a realistic, vivid feel to it. How have you researched police procedure and situations over the years? What was the most memorable incident that you remember when participating in a ride along?

Wow, can't answer that. A decade in the cops. I've done a lot. Been to the labs. Been to the range. Been on ride alongs where drug raids have occurred. Every incident is memorable. I work with Crime Stoppers so I know the stories of New York's most wanted, and how they get caught. Every monthly meeting is memorable.

As a writer, it's important to find the time to write with no outside distractions. How do you manage that, while juggling family, friends and your charitable work at the same time?

I am usually reeling with too much stimulation. I don't know how I get it all done, and no one else does, either. I think when a due date gets closer and closer, I kind of drop out...more and more.

Photo of Leslie Glass
What is the greatest challenge you have had to overcome in your professional life as a writer?

Rejection is the greatest challenge any writer has to face. Lots and lots of rejection. Getting it wrong and trying to make it right. Not getting your back up is a big challenge. Overcoming ambition is it, the biggest. We all want recognition. We all want to be the Best. We all have to get over it.

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