Monday, October 20, 2014

A Conversation with Historical Novelist Jim Snowden

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Jim Snowden
with Jim Snowden

We are delighted to welcome novelist Jim Snowden to Omnimystery News today, courtesy of TLC Book Tours, which is coordinating his current book tour. We encourage you to visit all of the participating host sites; you can find his schedule here.

Jim's historical murder mystery The Summer of Long Knives (Booktrope; April 2014 trade paperback and ebook formats) is set in the Summer of 1936 in Nazi Germany. We recently had a chance to catch up with Jim to talk more about his book.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to the lead character of your book. What is it about him that appeals to you as a writer?

Jim Snowden
Photo provided courtesy of
Jim Snowden

Jim Snowden: The lead character is Kriminalkommissar Rolf Wundt of the Munich branch of Germany's Criminal Police (KRIPO). He's one of Germany's top homicide detectives, thanks both to his own skill and his good sense in marrying the psychiatrist Dr. Klara Wundt, who advises him on cases.

I find a lot to like about Rolf. He's in some ways close to me. But what drew me to him most was that he was a man of sense and empiricism trying to investigate crime under the Nazi regime. The frisson of that was irresistible.

OMN: Will we see Rolf Wundt in another mystery?

JS: I doubt very much that I'll do a sequel or prequel to The Summer of Long Knives. I liked where it started and where it ended, and the in-between bits explored everything I thought was worth exploring.

Of course, someone driving up to my house with a dump truck full of money could change my mind about writing more Rolf Wundt stories. I'm not made of wood.

OMN: Into which fiction genre would you place your books?

JS: Well, my first novel, Dismantle the Sun, was literary fiction. I like to think of The Summer of Long Knives as a literary fiction/detective fiction cross. I'm sure there are marketing advantages in labeling a book a certain genre, but my main interest with any genre is in seeing how I can stretch it to tell the stories that interest me.

OMN: Tell us something about The Summer of Long Knives that isn't mentioned in the synopsis.

JS: There's a substantial LGBT subplot in the book that can't be discussed in detail without spoiling things.

OMN: Give us a summary of the book in a tweet.

JS: In Nazi Germany in the summer of '36, a determined cop hunts a killer in a land full of killers.

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in The Summer of Long Knives.

JS: I've never lived under a racist totalitarian state, and I hope I never do. But I do know what it feels like to be an outsider in what seems like an oppressively monochromatic world — I grew up as a mixed-raced atheist in heavily Mormon Utah. Also, living in a country whose leaders recently scorned their opponents for being members of "the reality based community" left me with a frustration that is echoed in Rolf Wundt's difficulties with his superiors.

And, now that I think of it, there's probably at least some of my Dad in Rolf. His career, like Rolf's, plateaued while other people used his work to secure promotions for themselves. My Dad's career frustrations, and his sense of humor about them, bled into this.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

JS: I always write outlines and character biographies. They're detailed enough to lay some boundaries, but they leave plenty of room for development. These are not, however, the crucial parts of my outlines. The most crucial question to answer to my own satisfaction is why I'm writing this book. Until I can set down in a few lines what's in the book for me, I know I shouldn't start writing it.

As for whether the book develops as it's written, of course it does. Often I find that I haven't worked out a character's motivation for a particular moment in the story, and the subsequent rethinking forces revision of large sections of the book.

OMN: How did you go about researching the plot points of the book?

JS: I ended up many sources, though it was mostly just one: books. I relied heavily on the works of Sir Ian Kershaw, Laurence Rees, and Richard J Evans.

Details about ordinary life in 1936 Munich were the hardest to come by. Nobody's bothered to write a book like What Jane Austen Ate and What Charles Dickens Knew for the Nazi period.

What I found most fascinating was how Nazi Germany's government and bureaucracy developed. Underneath the image of order was administrative chaos and massive political infighting, all of which Hitler encouraged. This was fun to research and made the book much more exciting to write because the ground kept shifting under Kommissar Wundt's feet, leaving him unsure of which officials would help him and which would try to block him (or worse).

OMN: Given what you just said about research, how true are you to the setting?

JS: The story is set in Munich and environs, and I do try to give those places the feeling of reality. Still, it is my vision of Munich and Nazi Germany, and it shouldn't be mistaken for history. There's a quote I'm fond of from David Shields's Reality Hunger:

Some Graham Greene novel has the disclaimer, "This is a work of fiction. No person in it bears any resemblance to any actual person living or dead, etc., etc. London does not exist."

So, yeah. My Munich aims for the feeling of reality, but don't go looking for it. It doesn't exist and never did. Neither do my Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, or Goering.

OMN: If you could travel anywhere in the world to research a setting for a book, where would it be?

JS: My next book is underway, and honestly, I'd rather not spend time in Virginia's maximum security prison for women, nor am I all that keen to visit Richmond. (Any readers from Richmond are welcome to sing its praises with a view to changing my mind.)

Seriously, most of my works aren't set in exotic places, so when I travel (which isn't often), it's not for research.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests? Have any of these found their way into your book?

JS: I'm an astronomy buff. (I own a small Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and a set of high quality binoculars.) I love science and math. I pay a good deal of attention to politics, both because I'm trying to be a good citizen and because the scientific aspects of political science interest me. I've recently developed an interest in economics (haven't we all). I admire visual art and design, though I can't draw worth a damn. I love stand up comedy and stand up comics, and though I feel no desire to grab the mic, I do some movie riffing with a pair of local actors and we're never all that far from amusing. I like tennis, but I'm a bit out of shape and need to work out to get back on the court.

My lead characters tend to be smart people who share at least some of my interests.

OMN: How did The Summer of Long Knives come to be titled?

JS: The title The Summer of Long Knives came from coupling the title of a Spike Lee movie, Summer of Sam, with the name of a kill-crazy day in Germany's history, the Night of the Long Knives. Since the book is set in Nazi Germany and concerns a serial killer, it seemed appropriate.

I didn't want to be too hands on when it came to cover design, though my publisher gave me the option. I'd rather see what an artist comes up with than present them with a list of demands and specifications. I knew there was plenty of Third Reich imagery to work with. What I didn't want was an umpteenth variation on Nazi kitsch.

The first cover Greg Simonson showed me looked similar to the one that we went with, but instead of the image of BDM girls, it had an image of the SS dagger penetrating a Wehrmacht helmet. It was a handsome cover, one that bore a slight resemblance to the Inglorious Basterds movie poster, but I told him that the book doesn't take place during the war and that none of the victims were soldiers. Greg went back to the Adobe trademarked equivalent of the drawing board and came up with the cover we have, which I think presents the book well.

OMN: What kind of feedback have you received from readers?

JS: The most frequently asked question from readers is what happened after the ending. Don't be afraid to ask this question. You'll find my way of refusing to answer is very polite.

Readers also like to ask about, or talk about, the historical figures who appear in the book: Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, the Goering brothers and so on. They seem to be most surprised about Albert Goering, a fascinating man about whom more should be written. He plays a pivotal role in the book.

OMN: What specific authors influenced how and what you write today?

JS: Kurt Vonnegut, Virginia Woolf, Harlan Ellison, Vladimir Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Johnson, Jeanette Winterson, Zadie Smith, Ivan Turgenev, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Cervantes, Lewis Caroll, Julian Barnes, David Mitchell, Albert Camus.

I'll stop here.

OMN: What do you read for pleasure?

JS: My diet tends to swing between very highbrow literary fiction and DC Comics, with little time spent in between. I love the raw energy of comic books, Batman especially, and afterwards I love to be lost in language and thought.

OMN: What kinds of films do you enjoy watching? Might any have had any influence on The Summer of Long Knives?

JS: Julia Sweeney, the Saturday Night Live alum, inspired me to write a list of my forty-two favorite movies since the year of my birth (1971). You can find the list on my blog (http://wp.me/p2AdFn-pl). Did any of these films inspire any of my books? Hmm … I'm sure they all did to one degree or other, in ways difficult to explain or trace. A film that's not on the list, the HBO movie Citizen X, inspired The Summer of Long Knives, insofar as it's about the difficulties of pursuing justice while living in a dictatorship.

OMN: Suppose The Summer of Long Knives is adapted for television or film, and you're asked to assist with casting. Whose agents are you calling?

JS: Okay … in this scenario I've presumably been paid millions of dollars, so I'll entertain the fantasy:

Kriminalkommissar Rolf Wundt: Christian Bale
Dr. Klara Wundt: Tilda Swinton
Anika Wagner: Mila Kunis
Kriminaldirektor Helmut Brüning: Pierce Brosnan
Hauptstürmführer Weissengel: Ben Whishaw
Joachim Epp: John Hawkes

Of course, it's one thing to play fantasy casting director, quite another to see how these actors all fit together as an ensemble.

OMN: Create a Top 5 list for us on any topic.

JS: Top 5 Films Related To The Rise or Fall of the Third Reich:

1. Der Untergang (Downfall);
2. Cabaret;
3. Conspiracy (HBO film);
4. Escape from Sobibor; and
5. Schindler's List.

There are others I value, of course.

OMN: What's next for you?

JS: I'm finishing up a play about the Wannsee Conference, and working on a new book.

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Jim Snowden Book Tour

Jim Snowden is a writer, editor and educator who lives in the Seattle area with his partner, journalist Venice Buhain. Jim's passion is telling stories about people who find that the rules they've lived by are turning against them.

For more information about the author, please visit his website at JimSnowden.com and his author page on Goodreads, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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The Summer of Long Knives by Jim Snowden

The Summer of Long Knives
Jim Snowden
A Murder Mystery

In the summer of 1936, the racial and political climate in Munich are growing tense, and Kommisar Rolf Wundt and his wife Klara are increasingly desperate to leave Nazi Germany while they still can. But when a member of the League of German Girls is found brutally murdered and posed in the yard of a dilapidated farmhouse, Rolf's supervisor declares that they can't leave until he's solved the case.

Rolf's investigation leads him from the depths of the underground Communist movement to the heights of Germany's elite Nazi society, exposing the cracks in Germany's so-called unified society as well as the unspoken tensions in Rolf's complicated marriage.

Ultimately, long-buried secrets and overwhelming evidence are laid bare, but how can Rolf bring the killer to justice in a country devoid of justice? And how can he protect himself, his wife, and his former lover from the barbarism of a corrupt and power-hungry government?

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)  BN.com Print/Nook Format(s)  iTunes iBook Format

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting the interview. It was a fun change of pace on the tour.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for featuring Jim for the tour!

    ReplyDelete

 

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