Denise Hamilton


Denise Hamilton Case File
DENISE HAMILTON [Interviewed by Ali Karim]

Can you give us some background as to how your book ‘The Jasmine Trade’ came about?

The Jasmine Trade Jacket I was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times for ten years and during that time I covered a lot of crime, even though I was not a bona fide crime reporter, I was actually an investigative reporter. Because there is such a great deal of crime in LA with a lot of teenagers and kids committing crime, I was constantly being dragged to murder scenes. One of the more fascinating stories I covered as a reporter was the phenomenon of ‘parachute-kids’.


There are wealthy Asian families that come over to LA, buy a house in a very upscale suburb and put their kids into the best schools they can find. These kids have very high test scores as they are highly motivated. The parents go back to Asia as they have factories in Mainland China, Malaysia or wherever the labour is cheap. The kids are left behind and basically raise themselves as they live alone in these big mansions. I did a front page story about this in the LA Times. It was such a sensational story that one of the editors downtown called my editor and asked him to check out my sources to make sure that I didn’t make the whole thing up. As you know in American journalism there is a long tradition of people making things up, from the recent Jason Blair, Janet Cook scandals - You know this happens every couple of years. Of course I didn’t make it up. My theory as a reporter is that no matter how bizarre, surreal or perverse something is; it exists somewhere out there. You just have to find it - do the leg-work. So I did the story on ‘parachute-kids’ and I got very close to some of these very young kids and teenagers. After the story ran, I did a few follow-ups and then Iost touch with them. But these kids always haunted me and I wanted to know what happened to them? Did they turn to gangs? Did they grow-up to become doctors, engineers or lawyers? They appeared so lonely and haunted in so many ways. They were very sophisticated and mature in many ways as they were paying the mortgage, raising younger siblings but on the other hand they were also very naïve. When I would walk into their homes they would tell me how much they had in their bank accounts and when their Dad was going to be in town next. If I had been a person of malicious intent I could really damage these kids.

Then I joined a fiction-writing group. At first I wrote some travel literature and then I thought well if I don’t write some fiction they’re going to kick me out. The group were all working moms so I wondered what I would write. So I thought well I’m a white female LA Times reporter, covering a very multi-cultural community. In fact Los Angeles is very much like London, in its diversity. So I thought I was very interested in these so-called ‘parachute-kids’ and I thought I want to write about them, and I want to write about them from the perspective of a reporter. The reporters’ entrée would be the murder of one of these ‘parachute-kids’. In a crime novel there always needs to be some horrible thing happen in order to get the reporter out at the scene. I never set out to write a mystery or crime novel per se. I wanted to explore the whole phenomenon of this particular part of Los Angeles. So that is how THE JASMINE TRADE started out. I wrote a chapter for my writing group and they asked me what happened next, and so I wrote a second chapter and in ten months I had the novel.

So how did you get ‘THE JASMINE TRADE’ published with Orion UK in the New Blood series?

I met Jane Wood at one of the mystery conferences in the US, and she was just so lovely and I just hoped that she would be interested in my book. Eventually it came to pass (laughing). Other mystery authors who I’ve talked to have told me that Orion in the UK is such a fabulous publishing house and so it has been perfect for me for Orion to take THE JASMINE TRADE. I really find working with Jane an absolute pleasure as she is a real stand-up person and I knew Orion’s reputation in the industry is second to none in producing classy crime-fiction. The next thing I knew was that I was one of these nine authors in the New Blood series and I was absolutely thrilled.

What do you consider is the most important element in crime writing?

I think you have to have an interesting plot and a new twist, something that hasn’t been done before. Equally important to the plot is character. I think you really have to have both, strong character and strong plot. I find myself always ricocheting back and forth between character and plot. I have to try and make the characters three-dimensional and also make the plot move forward. That’s the tension you need.

Some do not consider the genre to be “literary” enough and at times it does not get the accolade it deserves. Do you believe that this is the case and if so have you any views on how people’s views might be changed?

All you have to do is look at the bestseller lists to see who sits on top of those and you’ll soon see that it is mainly crime-fiction. I think there is a snobby elitism amongst parts of the intelligentsia, where some people perhaps view crime-fiction to be not as worthy as say general fiction. To me demarcations in genre are completely artificial and I think it really is all a matter of marketing. ‘Crime and Punishment’ is crime-fiction as well as literature, and I could name many others. I think really we all like to be told stories and solve puzzles and these are two things about human nature that are fundamental. Crime novels allow us to do both. In my work I guess what I am trying to do is to write about my Los Angeles - the contemporary multi-cultural LA in which I live, and not the rich white Hollywood that is portrayed in the movies, on the Westside, like Malibu. Everything I’ve written about is in the suburbs where in LA you have the third world living cheek-by-jowl with what people refer to as the first world, and we get a really interesting view as the immigrants bring all this social diversity, their cultural side, their customs and food. I live outside of LA which is very multicultural. We have Armenians, Latinos, Koreans and Asians and this is the future, and that is what I am trying to wrote about - The LA that is away from the studio gloss, where the vast majority of the people live and try and eek out an existence.

What novels were the early books that you read, that either influenced you, or made you take up the pen?

I have always been an avid and omnivorous reader. I always have to read before I go to sleep at night. When I was writing The Jasmine Trade, I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler. Not because I wanted to write like a middle-aged white guy in mid-twentieth century LA, as my LA is a very different place and I am not a man. He wrote about Hollywood and the west side of LA, but I liked his noir style and I guess I wanted to translate that into the twenty-first century multi-cultural Los Angeles from a female reporter’s perspective. His character is a PI, and mine is a reporter who acts almost like a PI as she has her press-pass, her notebook and people tell her everything! It’s amazing how people tell you how often they sleep with their spouse! I have sat in many living rooms and been amazed at what people have told me. Very rarely have I had doors slammed in my face with the yell ‘Fuck you, get outta here!’ - So to me it’s been a fabulous training ground.

What are you working on currently?

The second Orion book is called Sugar Skull and it takes place in the Mexican-American community in Los Angeles, and is again an area I know something about in terms of culture as my husband is first generation Mexican-American and my mother-in-law who lives with us, is much more comfortable speaking Spanish, so we speak Spanish at home, she also speaks different dialects and is knowledgeable about many of the old traditions of Mexico. One of the important festivals for Mexicans is ‘The Day of the Dead’ which is like ‘all saints day’ or ‘all souls day’ over here, right after Halloween, like Guy Fawkes. In Mexico people take these little skulls made out of sugar and put them on their ancestor’s graves. They basically go to their cemetery and have a picnic, they eat, they drink beer, light candles and have a party of sorts. They have a different attitude to life and death, as the spirits of their ancestors are much more with them, and in fact a lot of the Anglo cemetery-goers have complained to the church about these parties taking place by the graveside as they felt it was disrespectful. But it is not disrespectful in the context of their culture.

Anyway I had the title of the book Sugar Skull before I had the plot. I loved the idea of having something sweet as well as sinister, namely Sugar Skull. I typed it into Amazon to see if anyone else had used that as a title, and I was amazed that it had never been used, so I was really pleased as it appeared to me to be the perfect title for a crime-novel. The book takes place around ‘The Day of the Dead’ in the Mexican-American community. When I was at the LA Times I used to do a murder round-up, which refers to the spate of murders that often takes place after a long hot weekend, like your 3-day ‘bank holiday’ weekends. In the round-up we would write one paragraph about each person that was murdered, and on average there would be thirty murders, so we’d really only have the space to write the name, occupation, age and perhaps how the person was killed. In Sugar Skull, Eve Diamond is assigned to write the murder round-up story, and she sees some connections in the murders, because due to race, class and gender, some of people murdered who shouldn’t know each other - do. The climax takes place at a ‘Day of the Dead’ concert. And it’s coming out in November from Orion in the UK.

I am currently writing the fourth Eve Diamond book, which is called SAVAGE GARDEN, and that I guess is due for publication in 2005 in the US, while Orion is planning to publish the third Eve Diamond book called LAST LULLABY and that should be out in the UK next year.

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