In the following interview Barbara Fleming was questioned by a local radio book show host in August 2001 about the recent release of her first mystery novel, HOT STONES * COLD DEATH:

WHEN DID YOU GET THE IDEA TO WRITE THIS BOOK?

Well, I've been writing fiction a long time. I started around 1980 after I finished graduate school at Howard University. I had always read and really loved good mysteries, so it never occurred to me to write anything but a mystery. Anyway, I got the idea to write this book when I was living in Washington, D.C. My husband and I often took our children to visit the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History on the mall and my favorite exhibit was the gem collection. I was mesmerized by how gorgeous and beautiful both the precious and semi-precious stones were. On one of our visits, I saw this breathtakingly beautiful emerald necklace; and I was blown away by the size of the emeralds and the depth of the green color. As I said, the stones were mesmerizing. And it occurred to me right there and then how fascinating it would be to write a mystery where the necklace was stolen. It took a long time to realize my desire to write the story and have it published; but I did it.

WHERE DID MATTHEW ALEXANDER COME FROM?

I think he came from my desire to create a fictional hero that I could identify with, someone who embodied the values and characteristics that I admire. I also wanted to create a fictional hero that my children and other children could look up to and admire. He is a young man who is struggling to make it in America; but he hasn't given up on the American dream.

He knows that the odds are not always stacked in his favor; but he accepts the challenge of surviving on his own terms anyway. He is married to a woman he loves and has two small children whom he adores. I deliberately made him a family man because I think that African-American artists and writers have an obligation to show young men the heights they can aspire to as men. We have a responsibility to model for young men who lack positive male role models what it means to lead a life that accepts responsibility, internalizes good values, respects the law, and values living with character, integrity, decency, and dignity.

WHY DID YOU CREATE A HERO RATHER THAN A HEROINE?

When I look back I often wonder how I had the nerve to write about a man when it would have been so much easier to write from a woman's perspective; but something compelled me to create this young man. I think I needed to create him as much as he needed to be created. African-American men have not had an easy row to hoe in America, so I hope Matthew Alexander can inspire and motivate young African-American men to hold on to the American dream. I hope this young hero can show young men that you don't have to be a basketball superstar or a drug dealer to survive the devastation of inner-city communities that don't give them very many options or much hope as they strive to make it. And, very often, they don't make it. They are killed and incarcerated in shocking numbers in America. They desperately need positive role models, both real and fictional.

But, I also think Matthew's wife, Carla, is a heroine, at least from my perspective. She is his partner in every sense of the word, and she gives him a run for his money in HOT STONES * COLD DEATH. The relationships between African-American men and women are often depicted as antagonistic and misogynistic. However, I personally feel that the bond between the sexes is inherently healing when both partners are committed to supporting and sheltering each other. Much is made of the large numbers of single-parent African-American families in America; but I think all of those mothers yearn for a partner who will love and support them and give them respite from the challenge of raising children alone. A loving partner is infinitely preferable to living a life alone, especially as one gets older.

CAN YOU SET THE SCENE FOR US AS THE BOOK BEGINS?

Sure. As the book opens, something terrible has happened in the Museum of Natural History. Two young African-American men have been murdered; and their bodies, strangely enough, have been placed in an African village diorama. The corpses are dressed as African warriors and are found by a group of women from a Canadian tour group after the museum opens the next morning. The hysterical women spread the alarm when they flee the murder scene screaming like their heads are on fire.

Of course, museum staff rush to the murder scene where they are confronted by the bizarre spectacle of murdered men staged like they are part of the exhibit. It's clear that the men were killed the previous night; but no one at the museum seems to know who the men are or how they got into the museum since the high tech security system wasn't breached; so they have quite a mystery on their hands.

YOU SEEM TO HAVE QUITE A TALENT FOR DIALOGUE!

Thank you. I enjoy writing dialogue. It's not easy to write believable dialogue and it took me a long time to develop an ear for it. But I think it starts with the particular character who is speaking. I believe that in order to write effective dialogue for your character, you have to know who that person is at his or her core. You have to understand the subtleties and nuances of their personality. When you know the character you have created, then you know how he or she is likely to respond in a particular situation or circumstance. If you know the person, then you can depict his or her character with authenticity and veracity. I love that part of writing. It's like call and response. The characters play off one another when they are speaking. They cue one another; and the more complex the character, the more interesting the dialogue. I think the dialogue in my next book, A CASE OF CAPITAL MURDER, which will be released in spring of 2004, is even better than the dialogue in HOT STONES, COLD DEATH.


MATTHEW ALEXANDER DOESN'T TAKE ANY STUFF OFF OF ANYBODY. WHY DID YOU MAKE HIM SO HARDBOILED?

I did that deliberately because I felt that it was important for him to be able to hold his own with people who have power over him. He's very sure of himself and he's also very assertive. I know that isn't the way African-American men are expected to behave; but I wanted him to be that way because it's not often that our heroes are depicted as the last man standing. Somehow we always manage to get killed or discarded before the plot is resolved. I wanted him to be strong, to be insolent, to be tough, and to be successful at what he does. As I said, that's generally not the way African-American men are expected to be; but Matt Alexander is that way and he survives because he's smart. He pushes the envelope but he knows when to pull back.

WHY DID YOU SET YOUR MATTHEW ALEXANDER MYSTERY SERIES IN WASHINGTON, D.C.?

That's an interesting question. I think Washington, D.C. is a fascinating place. There are so many layers of wealth and power in that city. When I lived in D.C., I was always intrigued by the fact that every nearly every important person in the world passes through that city at one time or another. You live there and you go to receptions and dinner parties and you meet famous people that you never thought you would meet in your life. It is a fascinating city for that reason. The other reason I chose Washington is that the District of Columbia has historically been an important city for the African-American middle class.

When you live in the District of Columbia, it is fascinating to watch the complexities of African-American society. Who people think they are, where they live, whether they're native Washingtonians, whether their ancestors were slave or free, where they work, what GS salary level they receive, how light-skinned they are-all play out in the social life of the city. African-Americans have a multi-layered sophisticated society in the District of Columbia which has never been captured in the major daily newspapers of the city.

It takes time to learn the complexities of the city. I had to live there many years before I began to understand it; and I left before I had time to complete my education. I also set HOT STONES * COLD DEATH in D.C. because of my alma mater, Howard University. I loved the idea of attending the largest African-American university in the world; and I wanted Matthew Alexander to be a Howard alumnus as well despite the fact that he turns his back on academia for the District of Columbia Police Department's homicide division which he loves.

WHEN DID YOU BEGIN TO READ MYSTERIES?

I started reading mysteries when I was in high school. I began with Agatha Christie who is still one of my favorite authors. I have always been a voracious reader of all types of fiction, especially mysteries. I have read more mysteries than I can count; but as time goes on I find myself reading as much non-fiction as fiction. But I still read a lot and I enjoy it. My study is filled with books from the ceiling to the floor. My daughter recently packed many of my paperbacks away in boxes to make more space for our computer; which probably won't matter much in the long run because I'm still buying books.

YOU SEEM TO KNOW THE INNER WORKINGS OF MUSEUMS QUITE WELL. HAVE YOU EVER WORKED IN A MUSEUM?

No, never. My husband has worked in the museum field for almost 25 years; but I never have. Several of my readers who do work in museums have also commented on the fact that I did a good job of capturing the interpersonal dynamics of the museum administration's response to the murders; but it wasn't because I had personal experience. I have probably learned things from listening to my husband over the years and from discussions I've had with him and/or his colleagues. But I have another explanation for how realistically I depicted the museum administrators' responses to the murder investigation.

At a certain level, I think most people in positions of power would respond in the same way if they were confronted by events that have the potential to quickly spin out of control and threaten their continued power. I depicted the nature of the threat and the museum administrators' response to the threat based on the different work experiences I have had that were not in the museum field. I think most people in power would have responded similarly if they found a couple of dead men in their office and didn't want the media to find out about it. Human nature is fairly consistent especially when there is a lot at stake. People in power are very good at protecting their turf, especially if they stand to lose their hold on power.

CLEARLY FINDING DEAD BODIES IN THE SMITHSONIAN MUSEUM ISN'T GOOD FOR PUBLIC RELATIONS!

Absolutely. The museum staffers are adamant in their denial of any responsibility or complicity for the murdered men. In fact, they are indignant that the men have the nerve to be murdered in the museum. They defend each other to the hilt; and strenuously deny that anyone working at the museum could have committed or have been involved in such a heinous crime. Lieutenant Matthew Alexander, on the other hand, is far more skeptical. Human nature being what it is, he knows that everyone at the museum is capable of murder given appropriate provocation. Museum staffers are especially distressed that the murders have occurred during the midst of their budget hearings on capital hill. Conflict mounts fast during the first week of the investigation as museum staffers hang tough in their collective denials of any knowledge of the men or details of the murders. Matt Alexander is equally steadfast in his belief that they know more than they are admitting to him.

EMERALDS ARE A PART OF THE PLOT IN HOT STONES * COLD DEATH. DID YOU HAVE TO DO RESEARCH EMERALDS WHEN YOU WROTE THE BOOK?

Well yes, I did. I knew next to nothing about emeralds or any other precious gems for that matter. So I bought several books about precious and semi-precious stones and went to work educating myself so I would seem to know what I was talking about in the book. I learned that emeralds are far more expensive than diamonds depending on the size and quality and that they are far more fragile too. I love the emerald green color. It is so mesmerizing and so seductive.

TELL ME HOW YOU ACTUALLY WROTE THE BOOK.

That's a good question. When I first started writing I wrote in long hand and then typed what I had written as I went along which is a very satisfying way to write. You tend to edit your sentences far better when you write in long hand. But, I felt that it took too long to write that way. When I began to write fiction I had two small children and a full-time job as well as a house to run in addition to other family obligations. So I didn't have a lot of time. As Toni Morrison has said, I was writing in the margins of my life-on weekends, in the evenings after I put my children to bed, whenever I could squeeze in the time. That went on for more years than I care to remember.

I eventually graduated to a home computer and at that point, I decided that I would try to compose on the computer. To be perfectly honest, I didn't think I could do it; but I can. So, HOT STONES * COLD DEATH was written on the computer from start to finish. The disadvantage of writing on the computer is that you don't edit your original draft as well as if you were writing it long hand. The intimacy of the connection between you and the pen and the paper isn't there any more. You don't have the opportunity to scratch out words and sentences that you're written and write them over again on the next line, or to go back and re-work the entire paragraph. You also lose the time element, the leisure and balance that I felt in composing in long hand.

What I have found in composing on the computer is that I have to edit my text much more than when I wrote it in long hand. So, it may be that I haven't saved the time I think I have. At some point I should go back to writing long hand and compare the time involved to that of composing on the computer. But, even if I find that writing my first draft in long-hand is shorter, I wonder if I would go back to composing that way. The technological imperative is very compelling; and it would be very interesting to see if I could give up the computer at this point.

HOW DID YOU LEARN TO WRITE FICTION?

That is a very interesting question. In my other life, I am a trained social scientist (a developmental psychologist). So, I was trained to write technically and to document and footnote scrupulously. Writing creatively is one of the hardest things I have ever tried to do because all of my prior writing efforts had been diametrically opposed to fictionalizing anything I wrote. I have never taken a creative writing class, but I did attend several creative writing workshops during my summer vacations from work. The workshops were one to two weeks in length, so I didn't learn to write there; but I was exposed to a community of aspiring writers and we all talked about our individual struggles to become creative artists despite the demands of our normal lives.

The other thing that I have been exposed to is writing groups. Some people function well in a writing group because of the support and feedback they receive. I personally don't function well in a writing group because of how intimate and personal my writing is to me. My writing is grounded in my worldview, my perception of how the world works. I write to try to make sense of the world, so writing is very therapeutic for me. It would be very, very difficult for me to voluntarily subject my writing to analysis by a writing group. My writing is too much a part of who I am. So, I essentially learned to write fiction on my own. I probably shouldn't have done it that way; but looking back to when I started, I couldn't have done it any other way. I know that I still have a lot to learn; but I look forward to the process of evolving and becoming a better writer than I am today.


HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO FINISH HOT STONES * COLD DEATH?

I was working full time when I wrote it. So I'm guessing that it probably took a year to finish the first draft. After I finished the manuscript, I left it to languish because of the demands of work and other challenges I was experiencing in my life at the time. Eventually, I went back to the manuscript and began the excruciating process of editing it, which is far more arduous than writing. I would edit several pages or a chapter and put it down. This went on for months because at the time, my heart wasn't in it. This was probably due to the fact that I had been sending my work out to agents, editors, and publishing houses for years and all I had gotten was a steady stream of rejections. I had a file at least two to three inches thick full of rejection letters. So I had to work my way through that resistance that descends on you when you have been laboring so long to get your writing published without success. But, I did overcome that struggle; and one of the steps I took was to discard the file of rejection letters. I threw them out and never looked back.

HOW HAS HOT STONES * COLD DEATH BEEN RECEIVED?

Wonderfully! I can't begin to express how gratified I am about how well HOT STONES * COLD DEATH has been received. It is a marvelous experience to have readers tell me how much they enjoyed reading it. You can read comments and book reviews readers have written on my company's website silvermaplepublications.com and on amazon.com and Barnes and Noble (bn.com). Writing is a solitary process. You labor alone really, not knowing whether what you're doing is worthwhile but hoping that you're getting your message across. Then you have the audacity to put it in print, to put it out there for others to read, assess and critique and that is awesome. It's like a roll of the dice with your first book. You are exposed in the most awful way. And then it happens, the feedback you have dreaded in your heart. However, the feedback from HOT STONES * COLD DEATH has been wonderful. I am truly gratified at readers' responses to the book.

My readers have told me over and over again that they loved reading HOT STONES * COLD DEATH. I was in the state office tower in downtown Columbus, Ohio, the first week of July, 2003, after having lunch with former colleagues; and I saw a woman who had bought a copy of my book. I didn't remember her, but she remembered me. She told me how immensely she had enjoyed it, and I was thrilled all over again. She also said that she was going to submit a review to amazon.com. My mystery novel has moved people and that has moved me to the depths of my heart. I have gotten more joy and personal satisfaction from publishing that novel than any paid work I've ever done in my life.

I will never forget the time I was selling the novel myself at a local street fair and a middle-aged white couple walked by my booth pushing their bicycles. When the man spotted my display he said: "I've read that book and it was marvelous! I stayed up to three 0'clock in the morning reading it!" I was amazed since it had only recently been published and I was having trouble getting it distributed. I asked him where he had found out about it? It turned out that he had gone to the same undergraduate college as I had and that he had read about HOT STONES * COLD DEATH in our alumni magazine. I sent the alumni magazine a PR kit on the book weeks before and they ran it, bless them. He said he ordered it from Barnes & Noble and they got it in very quickly.

We talked about the book and he asked me a very intriguing question. He said: "What did you read that prepared you to write that book?" I was blown away by that question because no one had asked me that either before or since. And, he was right. I had read several books that informed my thinking with respect to the plot of HOT STONES * COLD DEATH. One of the books was The Golden Bough by James George Frazier. Another was Black Athena by Martin Bernal. Cleary, that reader's comments were very perceptive and truly appreciated.

I UNDERSTAND THAT THERE ARE MORE MATTHEW ALEXANDER MYSTERIES IN THE WORKS.

Yes, you're right. My next book is tentatively called A CASE OF CAPITAL MURDER; and it's scheduled for release in the spring of 2004. It's another Matthew Alexander mystery; and the plot is also set in Washington, D.C. Several of my readers have asked me why I didn't spend more time describing the character of Matt Alexander in HOT STONES * COLD DEATH. They want to know more about what makes him tick. They also want to know more about the relationship between him and his wife, Carla. Well, my readers will really get to know Matt Alexander in A CASE OF CAPITAL MURDER. His character is highly exposed and sorely tested in the next mystery.

WELL, IT'S BEEN A REAL PLEASURE SPENDING THIS TIME WITH YOU. HOST STONES * COLD DEATH WAS A PLEASURE TO READ AND I WISH YOU ALL THE BEST WITH IT AND YOUR FUTURE BOOKS!

Thank you for having me. It's been a real pleasure to be here and spend this time with you.

 


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Yellow Springs, Ohio 45387

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