A Conversation With Triss Stein About Her Erica Donato Series
Posted by Barbara Leavy on Jul 10 2014, 11:05 AM
     I lived the first seventeen years of my life in Brooklyn. So the titles of Triss Stein's first two books in her Erica Donato series, Brooklyn Bones and Brooklyn Graves ,caught my attention. Reading them would be like revisiting my youth. What I never expected, however, was the shock of recognition I experienced when I first met Erica.  It is said that there are only six degrees of separation between two people.  I began to wonder if Stein, when she created Erica's back story, had met someone who happened to describe my life to her. 

     When I was born, I was taken by my parents to live in a three-story brownstone owned by my paternal grandparents. The neighborhood was called Williamsburg and the name may be familiar to many who do not even live near New York City.  It is a gentrified area in which can be found some of Brooklyn's most upscale restaurants and boutiques. At first people who could not afford to live across the bridge in New York City moved to Williamsburg and other nearby neighborhoods, now equally gentrified and redeveloped.  But now prices for homes in Williamsburg are beyond most peoples' reach.  The house that my aunt and cousins lived in with my grandfather was sold by my aunt for fourteen-thousand dollars, seven of which was still owed to the bank. My counsin, her daughter Harriet, has kept track of that house and when last sold, it cost a million dollars.  In Brooklyn Graves an on-line newsletter is called Brownstone Bytes. 

     But when I was very young, my father worked hard to get us out of Williamsburg and out of the other run-down apartments we lived in after leaving his parents' brownstone.  The changes in Brooklyn neighborhoods after we left are part of Stein's books. In any event, my family moved to a more desirable part of Brooklyn called Flatbush.  We could walk to Prospect Park and spent many Sundays at its then famous zoo. But, again, when I was seventeen, I left Brooklyn for good and now only rarely visit friends who have bought homes or apartments in the now-desirable parts of the borough. Even more rarely do I avail myself of one of New York's major performance centers, the Brooklyn Academy of Music--but I should do that more often..

     Fast forward several years. At age twenty-two, I was a single parent with children whose support and education I was responsible for.  I had a very young daughter and son. Erica is the widowed parent of one adolescent daughter. Here is where my life's path and hers converge.  In Brooklyn Graves, Stein condenses Erica's back story. "I remade my life and in the process I accidentally became a scholar.  When I went back to school to become a high school teacher because I thought it offered a better future for us, my professors encouraged me, and I got some fellowships and then I started a PhD program at City College." I had been an undergraduate at Queens College, which is a part of the City University of New York, at one of whose branches Erica does her  undergraduate studies. I too was working for certification as a secondary school teacher in order to have a secure income for my family. Encouraged by professors ,I too received some fellowships without which I could not have pursued a PhD. The only deviation from Erica's path was that my graduate work would be done at New York University.

     I will probably never forget a sentence in Brooklyn Bones because I thought it was about me.  Erica started the path toward secondary school teaching and "fell in lovbe with scholarship."  To judge from her books, at some time so did Triss Stein. In the Afterword to Brooklyn Graves,  Stein says that the book is a "blend of actual history and fictional (but possible) history." Obviously, much research went into the wtriting of it.  The love of scholarship that unites me with Stein and Erica Donato is the starting point of the following interview/conversation. 

                                                                     End of Introduction

     Tell us something about your background as a writer. 

     Of course I began as an avid reader, like almost all writers.  I always thought I wanted to be a writer but had no idea about how to get serious until I was in my thirties.  I've given it up several times as life interfered, but found that it never gives me up.  I had two mysteries published by Walker many years ago, and turned in the third just about the time they dropped their mystery line with no warning.  That was the beginning of one of the periods when life kept happening, and writing was set aside.
     When I was ready to start again, I could not face a new book, so I wrote some stories.  To my surprise, they weren't bad--not great but not terrible--and I learned I missed writing after all.  That's when I went back to the old manuscript that eventually became Brooklyn Bones. I tossed out the terrible second version; ripped apart the first, keeping what worked; and wrote it again. (This is the short version of a long story!)

     Did you always intend to write mysteries? 

     No, I intended to write children's books. I used to be a children's librarian.  The first one I wrote was not published, and it looked then as if genre fiction might be more open to new writers.
     Without being an all-out constant fan, I enjoyed mysteries and it was an exciting time in the mystery world.  The whole idea of what a mystery could be was expanding in every direction.  I was inspired by Susan Isaac's Compromising Positions, which was a terrific first book set in the boring Long Island suburbs with a housewife heroine.  It made me think maybe I could do it too . . . even with the handicap of never having been a tough PI, living in exotic places or studying at Oxford. 

     How did this series come about? 

     First, after the earlier mysteries, I had a better sense of what had worked and what hadn't.  I needed to think through my lead character, give her a complex life and make her someone who is not me, but I could know and understand.  Second, I only had to look around me to know that most New Yorkers aren't walking the mean streets or joining gangs.  They have jobs, children, parents, communities.  It's life that is not so different from the more usual settings of traditional mysteries.  Was there room for a series set in the big, not-so-bad city that reflected that? Third, I realized my first three books had an underlying theme of parents/children.  This was accidental, and I am probably the only person who knows it.  I thought, ok, if that's what matters to me, that's what I should be writing, upfront.  Finally, what else really interested me?  History. And New York.  And Brooklyn, a collection of small towns each with a unique history and vibe.

     Unlike me, you were not born and raised in Brooklyn. Do you live there now? 

     Yes, for 38 years! We moved to Brooklyn when I was pregnant with our first child.  I worked all over Brooklyn then, for the public library system, and had heard about this neighborhood with potential called Park Slope.  On our very first look around, we found a beautiful, big apartment we could afford, on a street with both trees and a subway stop.  My husband went from "I'll never cross that bridge to live" to "How quickly can we make an offer?"  How lucky was that?  My hope with my series is that I bring both the inside knowledge of a long-time resident and the objectivity of an outsider.

     How many changes in Brooklyn have you witnessed first-hand? 

     The paragraph above tells the whole story of the biggest one we have lived through there.  We were able to buy an apartment and then, a few years and another child later, sell it for a profit and use the money to buy a house.  Children who grew up here cannot do that now.  I've gone from people who said, "Why Brooklyn of all places? Why not Scarsdale? (my mother-in-law was convinced we were moving into a slum!) to "Oh, I love Brooklyn; if only I could afford it!" Even in Paris, "tres Brooklyn is considered a compliment these days.  I find this both fascinating and hilarious.

     What was your first response to Brooklyn when you became familiar with it? 

     I worked all over Brooklyn for the public library system. My career goal from the start was a job with a big urban library system. I lived, then, in Brooklyn Heights, very old and charming, and worked, then, in East New York and Brownsville, very tough, very depressed.
     After a few more years and several other neighborhoods, I might have ended up with a broader knowledge of the borough than most Brooklyn natives.  I found the diversity and constant change and how people were coping with that endlessly interesting. Perhaps I was too naive to realize the city was in tough shape at that time, the '70s. The truth is, I just loved it.

     I remember reading somewhere, or perhaps hearing you say that there are great differeces  in sections of Brookyn and that you plan to make different ones the background to your Erica Doato series. Can you describe some of those differences here?  

     Continuing with what I wrote above, my perception of Brooklyn was that it was, in many ways, a collection of small towns with many small town attitudes. I grew up in upstate New York, near the Canadian border.  A trip to Syracuse was an excursion to the big city . . . and I've met lots of Brooklynites over the years who consider an annual trip to Manhattan, otherwise known as "the City," to be a big excursion.  At the same time, every neighborhood has pressures from change--the children of the last wave of immigrants  resenting the current wave is just one example.  Conflict, the essence of mystery writing, is built right in.
     And there are always intriguing surprises in the history.  I've put some up on my web page (Brooklyn has wild parrots! And secret tunnels under a busy avenue) but there are a few more surprises.  The Mohawk neighborhood populated by men who came from the upstate reservations to do high steel construction for a season.  Weeksville, the lost and then found again pre-Civil War community of "free people of color." The branch library on a street corner well known for ladies of the night . . . even in the daytime.
     So I invented Erica, who shares my interest in local history so much she is working on a PhD in it. Which gives her an excuse to write about and research different neighborhoods. And ask questions. And then learn that sometimes people don't want the answers to be found.

     One similaity between me and Erica in rebuilding our lives is that both of us have had to deal with adolescent angst. I know that you have two daughters and now a baby granddaughter whom you are wild about.  If your daughters, reading this conversation do not get annoyed, can  you comment on how your own experiences with adolescents made their way into your books? 

     Chris is not based on either daughter, though bits of both have crept in.  Her life experiences are quite different too, so that leaves me a lot of room to imagine her as her own self.  However, some qualities are, let's say, universal in teens . . . and so are some parental reactions.  I'm told I capture that, and if it's true, it's because I haven't forgotten any of it.  I just tell it a little differently in fiction.     The tricky part has turned out to be something else.  When I first had the idea for this series, my daughters were past their adolescent years but not by a lot.  I could use little details of teen life in New York and be fairly certain of getting it right. With a long break in the writing they are now entirely grown up.  I have to keep reminding myself that Chris is a teen in an endless "right now," not in my daughters' teen years.

     It was my experience as a single parent that my attempt to create a future for myself aside from my children involved a delicate balancing-act. I knew they were my first priority but they did not always see it that way.  When a daughter starts having boyfriends, her mother's relationships can make her uncomfortable. With a son, Oedipal issues hover in the background.  Times of course have changed--for better or worse.  When my children were young, there were far fewer single parent households among our acquaintances and family. I tried to resolve these problems by keeping my personal life  separate from theim.  Not always successfully. 
      You haven't gotten into these problems very much, but enough so that I can foresee conflicts in future books.  Do want to give us a hint about where you might go with Erica's personal life separate from Chris?

      I originally started this with Chris resenting that her mother might have someone else of importance in her life. A member of my writing group told me I had it all wrong. As a teen, she was thrilled when her divorced mother started dating! It gave her mothr an interest in life besides her and lifted some pressure.  I thought that made sense, and had lots of potential for us in this series.
      However, Chris does and will continue to have strong opinions about her mother's dating life, especially with the great wisdom she has gained from having a first boyfriend herself. (Referring back to my earlier reference to my daughters, both are fairly opinionated.) 
    So far, Erica, like you, is very cautious about keeping her dating life separte from her parental life. As Chris gets older, I guess I will have to think about these issues.  I think I'll finesse the female Oedipal issues by making sure Chris considers her mother's men to be quite old! My work in progress begins with her giving Erica unsolicited dating adice, which is meant to be both true to life and funny. You'll have to wait for the book to find out what the advice is! :)

Visit Triss Stein on her website: www.trissstein.com.

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