Linda Lappin, author of SIGNATURES IN STONE: A BOMARZO MYSTERY, winner of the Daphne Du Maurier award for best mystery of 2013, interviews mystery novelist, GIGI PANDIAN author of the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery Series, during Gigi’s recent visit to Italy while researching her new book, MICHELANGELO’S GHOST, set in Bomarzo’s fabled Monster Park, a.k. a. The Sacred Grove.
L.L.: Gigi, how did your writing career begin and what attracted you most to the mystery genre?
Gigi: It never occurred to me that I could have a creative career, but at 25 I was in a PhD program and miserable. Something had to change, so I dropped out with my Master’s degree, got a part-time job and started taking art school classes, and in my free time began toying with a novel. A few years later, I discovered National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the challenge to write a 50,000-word draft of a novel in 30 days. It was the push I needed to finish a novel. I submitted my rough draft to the Malice Domestic Grant competition for unpublished mystery writers, and much to my surprise, I won their grant that year! That’s what got me to take my writing seriously. I joined writing groups, took classes, and put in the time to turn a good idea into a well-executed novel. I’ve always loved mysteries, starting with Scooby Doo and Encyclopedia Brown. It’s one of those unquantifiable things, where I’ve always been drawn to the mysterious in all aspects of life, such as seeking out gargoyles, ruined castles, and ghost stories when I traveled. Though my childhood home was lined with books of all genres, it was the mysteries I was drawn to.
L.L.: I had the pleasure of meeting your parents, I know also that your father is from India, perhaps the greatest story-telling culture of the planet and that your mom is an anthropologist. In what ways did your family heritage contribute to your writerly imagination?
Gigi: It was such a treat that it worked out for us to visit you in your medieval village in Italy! There’s no way I’d be a writer without my parents. In addition to my house being filled with books, my mom took me on academic research trips with her, starting with a trip to Scotland when I was 10 years old. I’ve also traveled to India several times with my father, to visit family and see the country. I’m an only child, so I created my own adventures and made up stories on those trips. My parents were both cultural anthropologists before retiring, and they told me great stories from all over the world, so my own stories were building upon ideas they’d already exposed me to.
L.L.: In what ways does the spirit of place – the genius loci – come into your inspiration or your writing?
Gigi: It’s essential for me to understand the spirit of the places I write about. My books are set in places ranging from San Francisco and Portland in the US to Scotland, France, India—and next up is Italy. I’ve lived in or visited all of the places I write about. The Internet is great, but there are questions, happenstance meetings, and sensory feelings that will never occur to you unless you’re experiencing a place first-hand. I love writing puzzle plot mysteries, and some of my best twists are from unexpected experiences when traveling. My second novel, Pirate Vishnu, is set half in San Francisco and half in India. I’d already written a draft of the book when I returned to India on an unrelated trip. We got lost driving between Trivandrum and Kochi, and the combination of a local map and the generous people who helped us find our way gave me a great idea to solve one of the problems with the book, as well as adding a symbolic layer.
L.L.: In addition to being a USA Today bestselling author, you also have a day job in the so-called real world. Would you like to say something about balancing these two aspects of your life?
Gigi: I have to be very disciplined! In addition to the fact that I set my alarm and get up early every day of the week, one of my sacrifices is that I gave up the Sunday New York Times. I’m very protective of my writing time. At the same time, I don’t want to get burned out. I never work during the evenings. That’s my time to relax with my family and friends.
When things started happening with my writing, I took a three-month sabbatical from my day job. I learned that with all the time in the world, I wasn’t any more productive. It’s a compelling motivation when you know you have to be somewhere in a few hours—you’ll sit down at the computer rather than dawdling for “just a few minutes,” which inevitably turns into much longer. I’m very glad that I didn’t quit my job, because during that sabbatical I learned just how much I missed my co-workers, the work I do in my job (at a civil rights organization), and having structure in my life.
L.L.: We met after you posted a Goodreads review for my mystery novel Signatures in Stone after which I emailed you and we met up in person. How important are social media to writers these days, in your experience?
Gigi: I’m so happy you reached out to me after I posted my review. Our experience is a perfect example of the wonderful things that can come from of social media. It’s not possible to know when a small gesture, such as leaving a review of a book I enjoyed, will lead to so much more. My philosophy is that it’s impossible to know what works for promotion, so I’m going to focus on what’s fun.
I’m on Goodreads primarily as a reader, to keep track of all of the great books I’m reading and would like to read. I enjoy Twitter to get news about subjects I’m interested in, I post updates about my books on my Facebook author page, but my email newsletter is the main thing I use for promotion. My newsletter subscribers are readers who want to hear updates about my books, and unlike fleeting social media (such as how Facebook only shows a post to a fraction of people who’ve liked a page), my newsletter is a way to make sure I reach people who want to hear from me.
L.L.: I know you are writing about the Monster Park of Bomarzo now, a place that also has inspired me. We met after your visit there. Could you tell us briefly about your experience of that place? What thrilled you the most about it?
Gigi : The imagination of people who lived during the Renaissance was amazing. I love the mysteries surrounding the creation of the fantastical creatures that adorn the Park of Monsters. I did research ahead of time, learning about the theories why the stone monsters were constructed in such a manner and with enigmatic Latin inscriptions. Scholars assert theories, but there are no definitive answers.
Once I arrived in the Park of Monsters, the power of the towering stones was captivating. In spite of the fact that I visited during summer when lots of families were enjoying the park with their children, the carvings retained their powerful aura of mystery. I filled my notebook jotting down notes so I could capture that feeling for my next Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery, which is set at the park.
L.L.: What advice would you give to a young aspiring author of mysteries?
Gigi: Don’t be in a rush. Having a career in writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Have fun learning, exploring, and finding your voice. If you write mysteries, Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America are fantastic organizations, providing both camaraderie and useful information on the craft and business of writing mysteries.
An example from my own experience: After my early work was awarded the Malice Domestic Grant for unpublished traditional mystery writers, I was in a hurry to send my book to agents. I thought I needed to strike while the iron was hot. I was wrong. The book wasn’t ready, so in spite of winning a prestigious grant, agents rejected the book. They were right, even though I couldn’t see it at the time. I had to step back and learn the craft of writing. Once I allowed myself that room to breathe, learning about writing became much more fun, and that’s when I was able to find an agent and ultimately two three-book deals from two publishers.
L.L: Aside from your new book set in Bomarzo, what are your other recent projects?
Gigi: I can’t quite believe that my fifth mystery novel came out this month. The Masquerading Magician is the second book in my Accidental Alchemist mystery series about an ancient alchemy book, a living gargoyle who’s slowly turning back into stone, and an accidental alchemist who never set out to find the Elixir of Life. I’m currently writing the forth Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery, set at Bomarzo. My treasure hunt mysteries are traditional mysteries about an Indian-American historian who solves present-day crimes linked to historic treasures surrounding India’s colonial history.
Thanks so much for getting in touch, for inviting me to your beautiful Italian home, and for conducting this interview!