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STEFANIE PINTOFF - Stepping Out of the Shadow

Written by Ayo Onatade

Interview with Stefanie Pintoff, Shots Magazine

Stefanie Pintoff is the Edgar® Award winning author of In The Shadow of Gotham. Her work has also been nominated for a number of crime fiction awards.  A former attorney (avid reader of crime fiction), she is now a full time writer she lives in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
For those of us who don’t know much about you would you mind giving us a bit of background information?
I got the chance of a lifetime when my first manuscript won a writing contest.  It was the annual unpublished mystery contest that Minotaur Books sponsors with Mystery Writers of America.  And the prize was what every would-be writer desires most  a publishing contract.  That manuscript was In the Shadow of Gotham.  And a year later, it was on bookstore shelves everywhere. 

Have you always wanted to write?
Yes – as is probably natural for anyone who loves reading stories as much as I do.  And like most fiction writers, I’ve always written extensively – even when I was doing other things. 
What were you looking for in a novel that made historical crime fiction so attractive?
 I became fascinated by early criminal science and how it was being used to solve crime at the turn of the last century. By 1905, more innovative criminal scientists were beginning to challenge the prevailing opinion that criminal behavior resulted from a flaw of nature – a view popularized by Lombroso’s theory of the “born criminal.” Scientists like my Alistair Sinclair sought to disprove these notions by interviewing and learning from a variety of violent offenders. This practice was not uncommon, but it was highly controversial people worried that if we came to understand the criminal too well, and then we might excuse (and not punish) his or her behavior.
Can you tell us a bit about the characters that you created? Are they based on people that you know?
I came up with a pair of heroes who are flawed and unlikely partners.  My criminologist, Alistair Sinclair, is loosely based on one of my law professors at Columbia – someone who was as academically brilliant as he was enamored of the high life in NYC.  I conceived of the down-to-earth Simon Ziele to be his perfect foil.  Simon’s character is loosely drawn from the best traits of certain people I’ve known.  Alistair’s academic learning complements Simon’s street-sense. 
What makes a character real for you?  Must you work out everything about them before hand or do you just let it flow?
Definitely the latter.  I work out important traits of characters beforehand – but it’s only through the writing process that characters begin to flesh out and become real.   
In The Shadow of Gotham has been likened to Caleb Carr’s The Alienist.   How do you feel about having your book compared to such a novel?
I’ve always taken it as a compliment and been extremely flattered.  I’m a huge fan of his work, not to mention that of other terrific writers who’ve found early New York to provide a rich setting, such as E.L. Doctorow and Jed Rubenfeld.    

What was the impetus for the novel?
When I first decided to write crime fiction, I realized that what intrigued me was the challenge of creating an imperfect profiler. Someone who would be brilliant and passionately devoted to his subject – but egocentric to the point of dangerous folly. Someone who would be just as enamored of New York City's high society as he was his academic passions. And almost immediately after I had conceived of my criminologist, the ideas kept coming What if ... there had been a terrible, senseless crime? What if ... my criminologist believed he knew the killer responsible – because he had interviewed him, come to know him? What if ... he had covered up the killer's violent history to further his own research?
        Soon I had conceived not only of my dedicated but self-absorbed criminologist, Alistair Sinclair, but also Simon Ziele, the down-to-earth detective who would more than be his match.

What made you decide to write a series instead of a standalone novel?

Most of my favorite crime fiction writers are series writers – so that was the tradition I saw myself entering.  But I’m sure there’s a standalone in my future as well.   
Your books are set in New York, did you deliberately decide to set your series in New York?
There was never a question but that New York City would be a central character in my books.  I’m one of those people who became a New Yorker the moment I set foot here – and I find the city and its history endlessly fascinating. 

There is also a great sense of place in the novel In The Shadow of Gotham and it is also very atmospheric.  Was this intentional?
Definitely.  I see New York as an important character in the book.  Because I’m writing about early 1900s New York, I’m always conscious that my setting is both like – and unlike – present-day NYC.  I try to incorporate scenes that capture that sensation for readers.  For example, in Simon Ziele’s 1905/1906 New York, he navigates streets where pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages, and automobiles (both gas-powered and electric) vie for space.  The new underground subway rumbles below; the El train squeals above.  That actually symbolizes what I love about my time period  the clash between old and new – late-Victorian custom and early-modern progress – is real and apparent.
Your lead character Detective Simon Ziele is engaged with what is at the turn of the century the first use of criminology and forensic science to investigate crimes. Are you interested in forensic science?
Criminology is a passion of mine, and I introduce elements of “new” science in each book - fingerprinting in the first, graphology in the second, and ballistics testing in the third (experts had just discovered that is was possible to match a particular gun to the bullet it had fired). 

And why did you believe that this would be an interesting topic?
The early 1900s were a time of rapid advancement in criminal science.  I love the zeitgeist of this era, itself characterized by a tremendous faith in possibility.  People - especially scientists - believed that the next big discovery was just around the corner, certain to change everything for the better. 

How would you describe your books to someone who is about to read them for the first time?
When we first meet Simon Ziele he is still reeling from the loss of his fiancée aboard the General Slocum steamship disaster, which claimed over a 1,000 lives and was the worst tragedy to strike New York City prior to 9/11. Ziele played a part in the rescue efforts, suffering an injury to his right arm – a permanent reminder of that fateful day. Ziele’s personal loss and humble beginnings are central to his character and tenacity as a police detective.  In his first murder case following that tragedy, noted criminologist Alistair Sinclair complicates his investigation. Alistair is convinced the killer is someone he interviewed in the course of his experimental research into the criminal mind. And though Ziele remains suspicious that the solution may not be so simple, he works with Alistair and proves himself more than up to the task of adapting tried-and-true detective methods to the sometimes-unorthodox innovations of new forensics.
Who were your influences when you decided to start writing?  Do other  books still influence your writing and if so what other types of writing are you attracted to?
Jeffrey Deaver for what he does with suspense and modern-day forensics, P.D. James for her mastery of character and psychology, and Dennis Lehane for his terrific surprise endings.  I’ve also been inspired by traditional masters like Dickens, who experimented with narrative form through serialization - always finding ways to keep readers hooked until the next installment. 

Were you a big reader of crime fiction before you started writing?
I was and still am a voracious reader of crime fiction.  I became hooked when I read my first Nancy Drew novel – and crime fiction has been my favourite genre ever since.   

Is there a crime novel or novel you wish that you had written?
Since every writer has her own style, I’ve never considered that particular question.  But I constantly marvel at the way my favourite writers develop a great plot or create a uniquely memorable character. 
Do you still find the time to read?
Absolutely.  Every terrific writer I know is first and foremost a great reader.  And since my own goal is to grow as a writer with each book, my own reading is part of my education.  
Do you have a work schedule?
I write every day.  Because I have a young daughter, my most productive hours are early morning before she wakes, and then between 9 and 330 when she’s in school.  

Plot or character?
That’s a hard question, because both are important to me.  And while plot comes first in terms of my book planning, I’m aware that character is the lifeblood of any story.  The books I love best are those that captured my heart with their characters. 
    And in a good series, character is essential. Showing emotional development is both the most challenging part of continuing a series – yet also what I like best. Do it poorly, and the characters may seem stale or stagnant. Do it well, and you’ve provided your readers with new friends to follow as they move along life’s journey. To me, this challenge is especially interesting in the case of Ziele, who is recovering from a deep depression when we first meet him in In the Shadow of Gotham. In A Curtain Falls, we see him coming out of that and living his life more fully – both personally and professionally.

In The Shadow of Gotham not only won the Edgar Award® for Best First Novel in 2010 and the Mystery Writers of America/ St Martin’s Minotaur First Crime Novel Award in 2008, but it was also nominated for an Agatha and Anthony Award for Best First Novel and also the Macavity Award for Best Historical Novel.  Were you surprised about the amount of recognition that it received and has this had a knock on effect on your subsequent novel?
I was surprised – and I’ve been very fortunate.  In addition to being incredibly honoured by these awards – I’m aware that they have smoothed my entry into a very crowded mystery field. My sense is that those who liked my first book went on to read the second, and from reader comments, most enjoy the direction the series is taking. 
A Curtain Falls is your second novel and it is set amidst the theatre?  What drew you to this?
I thought the theatre was the perfect setting for a plot about greed, jealousy and the obsessive desire for fame. I was able to incorporate my long-time fascination with the type of murderer who is compelled not only to kill, but also to write about it.  These men - for so far, they have universally been male - have been theatrical and fame seeking in their own, distinctive ways.  From Jack the Ripper to BTK, Albert Fish to the Austrian killer Jack Unterweger, we’ve seen very different examples in real life history.  I draw upon each of them in some way in creating the “series killer” who stalks the actresses of A Curtain Falls.
Your third book is a Secret of the White Rose and this time Detective Simon Ziele finds himself investigating the murder of a judge and thus finds himself within the judicial world in New York City.  How interesting did you find the research for this novel.
This book takes Simon Ziele into the world of New York’s legal elite – and the city’s anarchist underbelly – when the judge presiding over the trial of a notorious anarchist is murdered.  The research was fascinating, and there are obvious parallels between the anarchist attacks of the early twentieth century and the terrorist attacks of today. 

What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
I have three passions:  My family. Books.  And travel.
What do you find the most difficult when you are writing?
The beginning.  The start of a new project – the blank page – can be terrifying.  But then my ideas and words begin fitting together, the story takes hold, and anything is possible. 
And finally, can you tell  us what are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just reviewed the proofs of my third novel, which will release in the US this May.  My next project will be a departure from the historicals, as I’m working on a contemporary thriller about a secret FBI unit.  But like the Ziele series, it will be heavily forensic – a reflection of my continuing fascination with all forensic science. 

Published by Penguin £6.99 December 2010

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