In 2004, with three literary novels under her belt, Katia Lief entered the world of crime fiction with Five Days in Summer. She’s written a book every year since; the last four form a series, with the fourth and final part due out in the spring of 2013.
LS How did crime writing come about?
KL I started as a straight literary novelist. Marion Boyars, who had her own small imprint, published my first two novels. Life went on, and I had a day job. I did all kinds of things—I worked in offices, I was an assistant, I did a little freelance writing.
LS But you didn’t mind your day job, because your real job was being a writer?
KL You know, I did mind my day job. I’d been a writer since I was about 19. I was always encouraged, but I tended to reject the encouragement—maybe it’s my personality.
LS Who encouraged you?
KL Various teachers, and my parents. My father’s a musician—and a retired music professor at a college—and my mother is a retired elementary schoolteacher. I grew up on the East Coast in the ’60s and ’70s, and it was a different kind of time. Nobody was talking about business school. I came from a very creative, liberal family. So they thought being a writer was great and gave me a lot of encouragement. I was passionate, and threw myself into writing. At 19, I decided to try something longer and wrote my first novella, and then I wrote a couple more. By the time I was 20 or so I was writing a novel. I taught myself to write novels by writing novels; eventually I went to graduate school.
LS And you did all these different jobs.
KL Aside from the many crazy jobs I had as a teenager, my first real job was working at [the publishing house] Simon & Schuster. And I was shocked, I have to say. I was shocked by having to be a secretary. I was still under the delusion that being educated and smart trumped being a girl. And that took me by surprise. I remember going around to employment agencies and being told I was good for secretarial jobs. Now I know it was just reality: you start at the bottom and work your way up. But I was very stunned by that. I don’t think I got a lot of practical advice. And I couldn’t do things like typing. So there was an employment agent who looked at my résumé—I had failed the typing test again—but she looked at my résumé and then she looked at me and said, “I used to babysit for you!” It turned out that she had been a student at the college where my father taught. So she fudged my typing speed and sent me over to Simon & Schuster, and I got the job.
I was technically the executive secretary—though I had no skills—on the marketing side for the library and education manager. It was a very small department, four great young women. This was before computers. I had a typewriter but didn’t know how to type. And I had a great boss. I would do things like type a letter and not proofread it, not look at it and bring it into her, and it would be, you know, all symbols—“Dear #$%&!?*.” She would say, “Um…” She was nice; she was good about it. I lasted about four months. And when I walked into her office to quit, before I opened my mouth, she offered me a promotion! But I turned her down. I said, no, I need to go out and I need to write. I think the advice I would give that young person now is “Take the job,” because I ended up doing administrative assistant work for 10 years. I should have taken that job and been practical. But I wanted to be a writer.
LS So remaining an administrative assistant kept a kind of divide in your head, between your real work and your not-real work as an administrative assistant?
KL Absolutely. I didn’t feel that was where I belonged. And I eventually became good at it.
LS And a good typist?
KL Yes, well, through writing all those novels. That would have been around 1980, and in 1985 I bought a computer, a dedicated word processor. But until then, and I was very prolific, I was just typing and retyping and retyping every draft. I became a fantastic typist. So ultimately I was able to make my living at that.
LS Were all your jobs around publishing?
KL No. After Simon & Schuster I worked for a literary agent for about a year; I also worked as an assistant to the writer Erica Jong for two years. By then I was a really good assistant. I liked working in small places at what were, ultimately, dead-end jobs. Working for Erica was interesting, without a doubt, on many levels. I worked in a bank. I worked for the Big Apple Circus. I worked for a Broadway producer. I worked part-time a lot of the time, so I could write novels. It wasn’t all publishing. I worked for a company called the New Forty-second Street, the ones who rehabilitated the theaters on that block on 42nd St. That was my last full-time job ever.
LS So it was the perfect education for being a writer, inadvertently.
KL Yes. I think the longest I ever worked in one job was two years—that was Erica. I was frugal. I spent almost nothing; I would save up my money and buy time either to write or travel. I did that for a decade, in cycles.
LS Was the travel to feed the writing? Did you see it that way?
KL I just loved to do it. Ultimately, it still comes up, because it pops up in your work. Now, suddenly, in my late 40s, I’ll write a scene that takes place on a beach in Greece, because when I was 25 I was there for three weeks on vacation. I just love to travel, I always have, though I haven’t been able to do a lot of it since my kids were little.
LS So at 29, you were published?
KL Marion Boyars may have signed me up when I was 29, but I was 30 or 31 when the first book came out. She may have gotten me really on the cheap. I basically said, “Okay!” And then she bought a second book from me, really quickly.
LS What made you think, I can do better than this?
KL I got an agent. Marion’s dead now, and this is ancient history for me, anyway. I have a lot of respect for her. She was very much her own person, as a person and as a publisher. She read my book and then invited me to brunch one Sunday. We met and talked, she looked at me across the table and said, “I want to publish your book.” There were no committees with her. That was beautiful. The fact that there was hardly any money wasn’t an issue, I’d been trying for so long and it mattered so much to me. I was thrilled. I got the agent because she was a very tough cookie to work with.
LS Who edited you?
KL You know, it’s funny, looking back, she really copy-edited me. They didn’t edit there so much. I didn’t really know that, because I had never been edited then in the way I have been since. Which I feel is a very important part of the process. I work really well with editors. An editor can get me to write better. So when I think I’m done, when I give my work to editors who are good, they’ll get me to make it better. And I’m old and wise enough to know that that’s a really good thing for me.
The first novel Marion published was about boarding school; the second was kind of a comic novel about dating. I wrote many unpublished novels. I really could not tell you all the novels I wrote. I have them in a box. Some are on big, giant disks, some that got transferred. Some were typed and were never on a computer. I have a box, and I hope my house doesn’t burn down. And someday when I’m really old I’ll sit down and read them, at a time when it’s not too disturbing to do that, and I’ll see what was any good and what wasn’t any good. But I wrote a lot of different kinds of things. I wrote whatever I wanted. The novellas were kind of experimental. I can probably safely say that the protagonists of most of the novels I wrote were young women.
LS Were you influenced by anyone? Erica Jong, did she come into it?
LS I really got to know her work when I started working for her. I think Fear of Flying is a really good book. Her feminist voice—the feminism that she was able to channel into her fiction really successfully, specifically with Fear of Flying, in 1973—was a very important thing. I understood that then, when I worked for her, and now, 20 years later, I really understand it. It was a seminal novel for women, and for literature. It had a strong female protagonist who took a risk, who just turned her back on convention, and who did not die at the end. She did not experience the inevitable ending, famous in literature about women, which you saw even in Thelma and Louise, and which you can point to over and over and over. She didn’t do that, and she was successful, and it’s a good novel in every way.
LS Were your early published novels good, do you think?
KL Yes, considering I wrote the first one when I was 25—it was my master’s thesis, but I had already written it and I just handed it in as my master’s thesis! And I got it published! I think it was good for me at that time. I think if I were to write the same thing now I would do it very differently.
I hadn’t read it for decades. That book was about a teenage girl. I don’t know if there was even a very active young-adult market at that time, but Marion didn’t publish it as one, and it really needed to be one. I know that now. It was just published as a regular straight literary novel for adults, but it was about teenagers. Now I have a teenage daughter. Last year she was interested in reading it, so I said sure, here. But then I thought I’d better see how far I went with sex and drugs, and I read it again. I wrote it at a time when none of that mattered; I wasn’t thinking about children reading it. So I had to read enough of it—I kind of skipped around in it—to remind myself that it’s not particularly inappropriate. It’s about some difficult things; and it was good and I was pleased with it. I liked what I read.
It’s a scary thing, to go back in time and see something you produced decades ago. You know, if you don’t write books or make art, and if you’re not keeping a journal, other than in photographs you’re never really going to face your old self. There’s a lot in that that can be good—not having or needing or even being able to face yourself in the past. I thought, I could be the mother of that person now, or the mentor, or the teacher. And I thought, okay, that was good, you did good, that was fine. I didn’t cringe in embarrassment. But I didn’t read it cover to cover, either.
LS So from Marion, you got an agent. Was that a sort of disloyal thing?
KL I got the agent because I felt so exposed, working with her. I realized it’s not a healthy thing for a writer to do business with the person they’re working with editorially. I learned that you want someone who can do your business. Marion had a cover designer whose work was kind of terrible, and I didn’t want to say that. I asked her if I could submit some designs; bristles went up. You need an agent to help you navigate that sort of thing. So the agent is going to have all those hard discussions. It’s easier for everybody, and I can just stay out of it.
LS Is he still your agent?
KL Until last week. I changed. Seventeen years, and I changed agents. We parted very amicably. Now it’s Dan Conaway at Writer’s House.
LS What is it you want from your new agent?
KL I signed with my old agent at William Morris when I was pregnant with my first baby. I had no idea how having kids was going to knock me off-track. I was deluded, I think, like everybody else having their first kid. It’ll be fine, I said, I’ll just do what I do and we’ll be fine. Oliver, my husband, sometimes still says to me resentfully, “You said it would be like having pets.” But that’s what I thought, too.
My old agent was unable to sell the thing I had written at the time, and then I think three years passed and I had another kid. When I wrote, because I was very prolific and very intense about it—I was never a writer who could just kind of pick at things—I would get absorbed in the whole world of the novel and become very, very driven. And since we couldn’t afford babysitters, I thought that if I started writing something, I would end up frustrating myself, and it would become intolerable. So I just didn’t.
LS After your children were born, did you feel you’d go back to writing eventually? That you could pick it up again?
KL I got to the point where my daughter was maybe three, and she had started school full-time. I was desperate to work, desperate to write. And we needed the money. My husband does well, but it’s expensive having a family. I thought, well, okay, I really have to work; I want to work. What can I do? I can do two things really well: I can type and I can write novels. And so I thought, I’ll write a novel. Because I want to stay with my kids. And that’s when I decided to write crime fiction.
One of the perks of teaching at the New School, where I was an adjunct teaching a fiction workshop, and where I still teach, is that they allow you to take a free class every semester, which I’ve done occasionally. I had signed up to take a one-day thriller-writing workshop, but I couldn’t attend because my child was sick. Being frustrated by not being able to go to the class, I bought a book on how to write thrillers instead, and it turned out to be excellent. I was trying to start something, and I didn’t really know where to begin. The book really clarified what the genre is, and what the sub-genre is, and informed me of the fact that there were sub-genres in the sub-genres. It’s called Writing the Thriller. It also gave reading lists; I really used it and chose a sub-genre, something that’s called domestic suspense. Women in jeopardy. It meant that I could write a suspense novel that came out of my daily concerns, merge my desire and intention to write a novel with the all-consuming life of having a young family.
It wasn’t really a calculated idea. I had tiny children and thought I would write about that life being threatened, and it turned out there was a sub-genre called contemporary domestic suspense. I wrote my first thriller about a mother who’s abducted at a grocery store, and later one of her children is abducted, too. I set out to make it as suspenseful as it could be, based on what I had been learning. I learned a lot from the book; I learned a lot after reading the book’s reading list and asking myself as I read, what scares me? What is working here? How do I write a bad guy without being ridiculous? What are the most effective literary tools for creating a visceral feeling of suspense? Why was I bored by a particular book? I really tried to analyze and distill it all into the book I set out to write.
One big inspiration for me was the 1988 Dutch movie The Vanishing. It is so disturbing. I was riveted by it. I first watched that movie with my husband when we were dating—it was on TV. He fell asleep on the couch and I was sitting literally on the edge of the couch. I took from it a very strong sense that suspense worked best at a very slow boil. When the tension was really tight—it’s a less-is-more approach—it was due to very specific things. At the very beginning of that movie, a couple are going on vacation. They’re arguing in the car, and the argument is so bad that he stops the car, she gets out and he drives on, leaving her standing at the side of the road. The area is wavy with the heat, and she stays standing there, and that’s all that’s happened, but you feel so gripped by suspense just watching her stand there in silence, by the side of the road, in the heat with the traffic going by. He comes back and the story continues, but it is already suspenseful. I really tried to emulate that sense of slow-boil tension when I wrote my first thriller.
LS What are the key elements of that? Are there definite no-no’s? For instance, can you ever cut away from the story?
KL You have to stay within the story. I also feel if it works, it works. You can cut away to something else, but it must be tangentially related to part of the story. It may appear to be outside the story, but there’s an implicit promise to your readers that it is going to resonate and be part of the story later. You can’t cheat them—at least, not right away.
LS You are withholding?
KL You have to! Think of a friend telling a story and how they dole it out. Some people are really good storytellers, and some people mix it all up and make it confusing. It’s all the same thing. How to parse out a story. I think I had to learn that. I’ve been conscious of it. When you write anything, you have to make choices from the beginning about how you tell it, what information you give out.
LS I’ve heard comedy writers talk about comedy in the same way.
KL Laughter and fear share suspense. Humour is also suspense. Suspense is just developing in your reader the need to know what happens next—a joke is a great example.
LS How did you get to crime? Were you interested in crime?
KL No. Suspense was what interested me. I didn’t really read thrillers or mysteries at all, unless a book happened to be one and I happened to read it. I was interested in suspense as a fictional element.
LS How did you learn how to do crime?
LS With all my writing, whenever I needed to learn something about how to write a novel, every time I felt that I had hit a wall in my own fiction—that I was grappling with plot, what is plot versus story, how do you move plot, or if I was feeling that my characters were flat or dialogue was difficult—I would write a novel, and that’s what I focused on. I wanted to learn plot, so I wrote a plot-driven novel. Dialogue, so I wrote a dialogue-heavy novel. Whatever the weakness was that nagged me, I would write a whole novel focusing on trying to master that.
LS It’s like putting yourself through school.
KL Yes. So at that point, the latest thing on my mind was the element of suspense. I didn’t even understand that there was a hardcore thriller market. I was thinking about the element of suspense, you know, that feeling where you just can’t put the book down. I wasn’t thinking in terms of mystery novels or anything like that. I just meant, across the board—and it could be in a biography, say—what is it that makes you have to read it, as opposed to being something that bores you? And that can occur in any genre, and it should occur in every genre. I think it should be at the core of any successful book. So for me, a page-turner could be highly literary, without much of a plot, but it’s a page-turner. So what is it? I thought, well, if I’m going to do this, if I’m going to write a novel—
LS By the way, what is the answer to that?
KL I think it’s an emotional connection. And tapping into something universal, in the human condition.
LS Vanishing Girls, the third in your quartet about the detective Karin Schaeffer, was published in June, and the fourth, The Money Kill, is coming out in the spring. Is this the end of Karin Schaeffer?
KL Yes, it looks like it will be the end. I’m going to start something different. It will still be crime, but geared a little bit less directly to mass-market-type publishing. I’m going to allow myself to try to dig deeper into the characters. In mass-market you really have to move it fast, which I’ve learned to do, but I love characters, so I wanted to pull back a little. I haven’t killed Karin off. I couldn’t do it. I thought about it. I really like her and her family. So in my mind there is always an opening, and if I wanted I could always go back and do it again.
LS Did you know from the first that there would be four books about her?
KL No, not at all. It came about when I found out my publisher was going to publish the first two of those books a month apart. I had just submitted a proposal for the second novel. It was approved, so I thought, why not make them a series? I’d always thought about writing one. So I simply retrofitted the proposal to the characters from the first book. It was easy, and it became them. It was absorbing, writing a series. It was really great to be able to grow the characters over a long period of time. And that’s what led me to do this next kind of work.
Becoming a self-publisher
LS So you got started in self-publishing by taking your backlist and putting it into print.
KL Yes, I re-released my backlist as e-books and print-on-demand before I changed agents, and despite my old agent advising me not to. I’m not criticizing him for that opinion, because at the time, and even now, the entire publishing industry—agents, editors, publishers, writers—we’re all trying to figure this book market out as it goes. And two or three years ago it was even more bewildering than it is now. It is gradually starting to clarify. I simply ended up, without really realizing it, participating in a movement of writers who were taking out-of-print backlists and releasing them on their own. I was not the only one. I did it with seven books because I had seven books to do it with, and I did them all at once. I did that all on my own, so by the time I’d changed agents it was all in place.
LS Who helped you?
KL Nobody. I asked questions anywhere I could. I think I’d heard of Smashwords and I looked at that, and at iUniverse and Lulu, which are all self–publishing websites, but when I started to read the terms and the agreements I began to analyze what it all meant. I’m the kind of person who researches vacuum cleaners for a week when I need to buy a new one, so I know I’m over the top. But this was so challenging, and I just kept reading about it and trying to understand it.
I quickly became aware that there is a real disparity in terms of what you can earn, depending on how you do it. There was the question of royalty percentage, and also of control, and how the books would look. Suddenly, instead of handing it over to the publisher and just saying, well, they’ll take care of that, they know what they’re doing, you have the option of controlling everything yourself—or of handing it over to a self-publishing outfit and losing a lot of royalties. I thought I would look at all the options and really delve into it, and ultimately decided that I would make the most money by keeping the control myself.
LS Does it take a lot of time?
KL It took a huge amount of time to set it up, but much less now. At this point I don’t have to spend a lot of time on it.
I hired people to do the conversions for me. The problem there is that you need different conversions for different distributors: Kindle requires the file to be converted in a specific way that is completely unique to it, and you need a completely different set of conversions for iTunes, Barnes & Noble and Kobo, for instance. There is a very standard conversion called epub that almost everyone uses, but Kindle uses a file form called Mobi. Some people can do it themselves—I tried and could not.
I found someone who was really great to do the conversions, and I found someone else to do the print-on-demand (POD) files, who was also really great, but, you know, each step of the way it was tough. You know what it’s like after a hard day in front of your computer trying to figure out something you don’t really understand, and it was like that day after day. It was very frustrating. Then I had to decide, do I pay for all seven books, not just one? I was afraid to spend the money times seven for the e-conversions, the POD conversions and the cover designs. My website designer was going to do the cover designs, which was great, but they were going to be pretty costly, and I just felt I was digging myself into a hole, and I wasn’t sure if it would even be worth it. I was a little embarrassed. I had to tell my husband that I’d have to spend $5,000, and how did he feel about that? And he said it was okay, that I had to do what I had to do. My hope was that I’d make it back in a year. But what I really wanted to do was to get it out there for my readers, since I was and still am publishing traditionally, and I have readers who wanted to buy this work.
LS The last four books are all still in print?
KLThey were all published by HarperCollins, and they’re all still in print.
LS So when will those go out of print?
KL That’s an excellent question. It used to be, before e-books, that when the publisher was no longer making enough money to sustain storing the stock in the warehouse, they would make the decision to put the book out of print. They would shred your books, and you would get a notice that your book was now out of print. Contractually, when that happened, the rights to that work would revert to you.
LS So from now on, isn’t any future publisher of Katia Lief able to just make her backlist available as print-on-demand, because you’ve established that you have loyal readers?
KL Yes, they’ve figured that out now. And their contracts reflect that, so they essentially hold the rights to your work in perpetuity.
LS Where does this leave you?
KL It’s not all a good thing for writers. Publishers are there, trying to survive. It’s a stormy time in publishing right now. Publishers do very good work and provide an excellent service for readers, but nothing is perfect. What we all know is that for a long time people have been writing excellent books that have not managed to be published but should have been (and equally terrible books have been published that should not have been), and publishers can only do so much. Through self-publishing, we now know that people are putting books out there that readers love and buy, and then publishers think, hmm, we should have published that.
So the gates are breaking down, but I don’t think that means that traditional publishers should no longer exist. There are people who feel there’s no place for traditional publishers anymore, but I’m not one of them. I still think they still have a very powerful foothold and role in publishing. As a self-publisher, you cannot beat their print distribution—you can’t get anywhere close to it—but in e-distribution it’s a level playing field, and that’s where it’s really complicated. That’s where there’s contention between traditional publishers and self-publishers, because anybody can publish a book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Kobo or iTunes, and Google, too, now. What self-publishers have that the traditional publishers don’t is the ability to price low, which some people feel is destroying publishers’ ability to stay in business. It’s a difficult question, and it’s still in the process of working itself out. I entered into it only because I couldn’t get the answers from the people I worked with a few years ago. The best answers I got were “Don’t do it.”
LS Do your students ask you about this?
KL Yes, it always comes up. I always encourage people to do both. I always say, look, what any aspiring writer really wants is a beautiful publication with a really good publisher who will give them wide distribution and pay them a great big advance. That’s plan A. I always say start with plan A. Start at the top. Try to get that. But if that doesn’t work, look at small publishers. And if that doesn’t work, self-publish. It’s your work. If you believe in it and it matters to you, do it.
LS I have to tell you that after we met and you gave me one of your books, I started reading it on the train home. I didn’t just miss my stop but the stop after that!
KL The best thing readers say to me is “I couldn’t go to sleep. I stayed up late and I’m exhausted today.” That’s what you want to do as a writer. I want to get the readers so involved in what I’ve written that that’s all they want to do. As a reader, that’s all I want from a book.—LUCY SISMAN