Author Joyce Yarrow Shares Stories of Thrill and Intrigue

By , May 16, 2012 9:56 am

Joyce Yarrow a Bronx native, escaped to Manhattan as a teenager and now lives in Seattle with her husband and son. Along the way to becoming a full-time author, Joyce has worked as a screenwriter, singer-songwriter, multimedia performance artist and most recently, a member of the world music vocal ensemble, Abráce.  Joyce is a Pushcart nominee, whose stories and poems have been widely published. Her work can be found through Istoria BooksFunsherpa chats with Joyce to discover more about writing, travel and Seattle.

Joyce, you have written a few mystery books that involve international experiences and complex plots. Can you talk a bit about your process for coming up with the storyline and plots? How do you start and how does the storyline evolve?

Story ideas can strike at any time; the thing is to be present when they do. I was visiting my mom in the Kings Highway section of Brooklyn, when some loud but enchanting music floated into her apartment.

“Oh that’s coming from the Russian couple downstairs ,” she told me. “They hold house concerts on the weekends.”

Before I knew it I was spending time with Isaac and Reina, hearing their life stories over delicious cakes and being treated to recitals by opera singers newly arrived from Moscow. The next day, while shopping at the fruit and vegetable stand alongside elegantly dressed Russian women, a question dawned on me: What if a Russian immigrant named Nikolai had married the mother of private investigator Jo Epstein (the protagonist of my mystery series) and settled in Brooklyn? What if Nikolai’s nemesis from the mother country framed him for a murder that took place in Brooklyn and sent him blackmail notes  stuffed into the sections of a Matryoshka (nesting) doll ? What if Nikolai fled to Russia and Jo Epstein had to follow in order to prove his innocence? A year later I was on a plane to Moscow to find settings and textures for the second half of CODE OF THIEVES.

Travel to interesting destinations appears to be a part of your books. How do you select these locations and what are your favorite things about these cities?

Yes, I have been accused of writing books as an excuse to travel. Sometimes the journey is to newly discovered area of a city I thought I already knew, such as New York. For The Ring of Truth, a newly completed work of fiction, I explored Washington Heights, a haunt of my youth, and discovered a whole new population and vibrant Dominican culture! Some new characters appeared in the book as a result.

One of my favorite things about Moscow is the Metro. The underground stations are more like museums than transit points – long marble-floored corridors lit with golden light from chandeliers and decorated with works of art. What writer would not be impressed by the sheer existence of a Mayakovskaya Station, complete with a magnificent statue of the poet?

I was advised by a Russian friend to carry a plastic shopping bag in the street instead of a tourist backpack. This proved to be a great icebreaker, since I was frequently mistaken for a local. When someone stopped to ask directions or just say hello, I would respond by saying, “Ya Amerikanka!” This prompted much laughter, followed by some wonderful “getting to know you” moments. If I said I was a writer, a long conversation would ensue. Russians love writers, pure and simple. Not for the number of books we sell, or critical acclaim we receive. It’s our lineage – our membership in a club that has the courage to speak out and let the consequences be damned. It took tremendous courage to write in Russia during the Soviet period, and even under Putin it is dangerous to speak truth, even in fiction.

My research took me to towns in the Golden Ring around Moscow, such as Vladimir, Suzdal and Sergiev Posad. My son and I were the first Americans to set foot in Vladimir Central Prison (as visitors – U2 pilot Gary Francis Powers was imprisoned there during the Cold War). We also toured a Matryoshka (nesting doll) factory. Many of these places are featured prominently in CODE OF THIEVES. One car chase scene ends with Jo and Nikolai taking refuge in a hayloft in a tourist village we visited. Hope this isn’t a spoiler!

You were recently in India for your upcoming book. What were the best and worst things about your trip?

Let’s get the worst over with. Beyond a doubt it was the bathroom on the train from Allahabad to Mathura.  No more need be said, if you are familiar with the design of the traditional Indian toilet, which when put on wheels turns into even more of a nightmare. I know for a fact this ‘facility’ has made grown Indian men cry, not just western women like myself.

The best aspect of the trip was meeting my ‘virtual’ friends for the first time. All of them proved to be immensely intelligent, generous, and without exception, good-humored. It’s difficult to describe the fathomless depth of Indian hospitality and the value placed on friendship.  When a musician who stays up most of the night practicing, rises at 5am to fetch you for a dawn boat-ride on the Ganges… well you get the idea.

In Jaipur, I stayed with Santosh and Lalit. Their level of banter and pranks made me feel I’d wandered onto the set of I Love Lucy. We did take a break from laughter long enough for me to interview them about their marriage as background for the new book. Since they are likely to read this interview, I will refrain from discussing the matter of the hat, which is still unresolved and continues to keep me in stitches six months later.

Speaking of your new thriller, we understand you are co-authoring the piece, you are co-authoring it with Arindam Roy. Can you talk about the co-authoring process? How exactly does one write a novel with another writer?
I may never know the complete answer to this question, since the writing process is ultimately mysterious. Arindam and I do have our moments of enlightenment, but there are times when we stumble around in the dark, hoping for a meeting of minds. When you put together two passionate writers from vastly different cultures and literary traditions, who speak British vs. American English, and live 12.5 hours apart, you get a stew requiring cupfuls of patience, spoonfuls of daring, and a dash of telepathy.

We started with Arindam outlining the main events of the book and creating many of the characters. He is a journalist by trade and gifted at scaffolding stories, so that’s his job. My strength is in the actual writing of dialog and creation of scenes, so we stay out of each other’s way, and that’s good. We do brainstorm on the phone and have even written scenes on Skype. Each of us is responsible for certain chapters and main characters in the book, which gives us more quality time with them than a solo author might have. However, this can also result in creative tension, when one author ends up writing scenes and dialog for a character who is ‘owned’ by the other.

Fortunately for us, the themes in our book are universal; it is only the textures and cultural backdrops that vary.

Do any elements of your stories come from your own experiences? What inspires your stories?

When I was 14, my brother Rick, who is 10 years older than me, graduated from Criminology school. The night he was assigned his first surveillance, I begged him to take me with him. We still laugh about this. Over the years he has told me many stories about his experiences as a detective, and when I decided to write a mystery novel it seemed only natural to integrate some of Rick’s qualities and some of mine in Jo Epstein – poet and private investigator. The neighborhood in the Bronx where Jo tracks down Sonny Rodriguez is the one where Rick and I grew up. Although Jo is tougher and more street savvy than I will ever be, I was able to use this gritty setting to lend verisimilitude to her exploits. One reviewer said that the city itself was a character in Ask the Dead. This encouraged me to continue to look for stories in other, less familiar places, with confidence that I would find them and make them convincing.

Like most stories, mine stem from a conflict of some kind.

You mention in your blog that “Pictures can also help a writer keep track of themes or intentions within a book” – what favorite photos of yours have appeared in your own writing space?

One of the pictures I hung in my writing space while writing CODE OF THIEVES served to remind me of Jo Epstein’s mission to prove her stepfather’s innocence. I took it while riding the subway in New York:

I also posted pictures taken in Russia, such as this one in front of the telegraph office in Moscow a favorite ‘meeting’ place in Moscow.

And of course, pictures from Vladimir Central Prison, where the story of CODE OF THIEVES began. This picture shows contraband confiscated from prisoners:

Any tips for people who get stuck with the ‘writers block’?

My tip for writers who feel blocked is to take it one sentence at a time…like much in life, if we lower our expectations, it’s amazing how much we can accomplish!

Finally, as a Seattle resident, can you share some of your favorite places, activities, and eats in Seattle?

Ah Seattle…so rich in culture and beauty I hardly know where to begin. Richard Hugo House is a terrific resource for writers, and offers classes (I teach there occasionally) along with readings and innovative theatre events. Within the city there are acres and acres of parklands, thanks to Frederick Olmstead, who also designed Central Park in New York. In Discovery Park and Seward Park you’ll find Seattleites (including me) watching Blue Herons and Eagles, launching kayaks, hiking, and picnicking along the beaches. Pike Place Market is a Mecca for both tourists and locals alike, offering a real taste of Old Seattle and amazing views of Puget Sound.

My favorite neighborhood is Columbia City – located in zip code 98118 – the most diverse in the nation! Columbia City hosts a monthly ‘Beat Walk’ that fills the streets with music and food lovers. Did I mention the Seattle Film Festival?…one of my favorite yearly events. And last but not least is the legendary Elliott Bay Books in Capital Hill, which is thriving in spite of all the obstacles faced by independent bookstores.

17 Responses to “Author Joyce Yarrow Shares Stories of Thrill and Intrigue”

  1. Tom Wayne says:

    Why do spy thrillers always involve Russia?

  2. Joyce Yarrow says:

    Excellent question Tom – Even after the Cold War (so expertly documented in John Le Carre’s wonderful novels), the Russian spy is still a rich character for writers to explore. However I did not choose to write a spy novel but rather to investigate the Russian criminal sub-culture known as the Thieves in Law…(Vory v Zakone) who since the late 19th century have live by a strict code that includes contributing money to a communal fund that helps the families of those who go to jail and are, in an odd way, respected by the Russian Police. It is the Vory who drive the plot of CODE OF THIEVES.

    I really enjoyed Martin Cruz Smith’s ‘Gorky Park’ because it’s written from the point of view of a Russian detective and shows the gritty side of life much in the same was as Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard … if you have not read this yet, I highly recommend.


  3. Debasree says:

    A very interesting interview, i must say…am glad to know your upcoming book has India as its backdrop…waiting eagerly for its publication…meanwhile i would like to treat myself with Ask the Dead and The Last Matryoshka!! :) :)

  4. Joyce Yarrow says:

    Debasree – thank you so much for your interest in my work and for your support. Since deciding to work on a book set in India I have never looked back.. the Indian literary community is the most supportive I have ever encountered!

  5. Tom K says:

    I loved reading your interview and looking forward to reading the book. You cracked me up when you mentioned Indian railway bathrooms. My son was telling me about being on an Indian train last year and having to choose between two. There was a sign posted for Western style on one and another for Indian style -well, he said he could see the tracks through the hole for both and opted for the Indian style one because it was more ‘hygienic’!

  6. Joyce Yarrow says:

    Thanks Tom – I thought I might get some reactions to the remarks about ‘train hygiene’… Sounds like your son is a seasoned traveller already!

  7. admin says:

    With more intelligence conflicts moving to places like the Middle East and China…any chance Jo will make it to these destinations?

  8. Joyce Yarrow says:

    Hi Admin (Raphael I presume),

    Yes – Jo plans to visit a controversial destination in the next book, but this place is closer to New York than the ones you’ve mentioned. Here’s a hint: surrounded by water and isolated by design, a political pariah yet admired for its music and culture… :)

  9. Candace Dempsey says:

    great interview. Can’t wait to read the latest book by the talented Joyce Yarrow.

  10. Joyce Yarrow says:

    Thanks Candace Dempsey – I hope your excellent book, Murder in Italy, is selling faster than Cannoli’s in lower Manhattan!

  11. You make me want to leap up from my chair where I hunch over my pc and fly off to an exotice local where, with luck, I’ll be isnpired as you were! I love your Jo Epstein books!

  12. Joyce Yarrow says:

    Thanks Jane… let me know what exotic locale you choose – perhaps I’ll see you there.

  13. Jacqueline Seewald says:

    Sounds like a wonderfully exciting novel, Joyce! And yes, my
    spy thriller DEATH LEGACY involves Russians too!

  14. Ramaa says:

    want to read the book.

  15. Joyce Yarrow says:

    Thanks Jacqueline – Death Legacy is on my to-read list for sure.

    Thanks Ramaa!

  16. Enjoyed the interview very much. Thought it was interesting how the people in Russia celebrate writers the way they do, but that makes perfect sense.

    You’re collaboration experience sounds very similar to the arrangement I had with a director in NY writing screenplays. He came up with basic story ideas and wrote rough drafts of scenes and it was my job to put those in some semblance of order and add dialogue. I liked that arrangement as it took advantage of the strengths we each have as writers.

  17. Joyce Yarrow says:

    Maryann – yes, the way Russians open their hearts to writers is one of the many extraordinary aspects of their culture that I experienced – there is also a non-materialistic streak in many Russians, not related to communism but I think having deeper roots to when the connection to the land was communal. This is something I’d like to research more.

    Your screenwriting collaboration sounds like a win-win arrangement and encourages me in my work with Arindam! Thanks!

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