I am not going to even bother to pretend I am anything but a Carolyn Crane fan. I have enjoyed the hell out of all four of her Associates books. I had lunch with her last year at RWA and she was smart, charming, and kind. Plus she wore the best ever dress to the RITA awards which, woo hoo, she won. (She’s nominated again this year for Into the Shadows.) So, I was happy to get a copy of her latest book, Behind the Mask, and even happier she agreed to answer my questions.
Be warned: While there aren’t any big spoilers in this interview, if you don’t want to know anything about the storyline, stop reading now.
Carolyn: Hey, thanks so much for having me here, Dabney! It’s lovely already and I’ll try not to use too many exclamation points. (!)
Dabney: OK, I have to ask: Forensic botany? That’s a thing? How on earth did you come up with that as a career for Zelda, your kick-ass heroine?
Carolyn: This actually is a thing! Forensic botanists help narrow down information about crimes by studying plant material at the scene of a crime or on a suspect, that sort of thing. For example, they could tell if a suspect visited a certain area by studying the pollen on his clothes, they could tell if a body was moved and where from, or glean clues from broken branches or mold, things like that. Fun fact: the Lindbergh baby case involved forensic botany.
Dabney: And is that obscure plant that figures in the story, Savinca, an actual kind of flora? If so, how did you learn about it? If not, why did you create it?
Carolyn: The Savinca verde plant is totally made up. My earliest idea for the story involved Zelda posing as a prostitute trying to pretend that she didn’t understand about plants while trying to solve a botanical mystery, and a villainous scientist who realizes she knows more than she’s letting on. I had coffee being grown at first, and Yacon (a root vegetable), but flowers were somehow more dramatic and evocative, and that was something I reached in discussions with author Penny Watson – she consulted on a lot of the botany stuff, and she was great! A lot of this stuff and even the key to the mystery was her idea. There is nothing like having somebody who is both a subject matter expert and author helping in a case like this.
Dabney: Your hero Hugo is a man with a great deal of darkness in him. We hear his backstory through Zelda and she acknowledges there’s lots about him that remains unknown. How would you define Hugo? Is he a hero? An anti-hero? A different man in different times?
Carolyn: When Zelda encounters him, Hugo is holding onto an outdated image of himself, as I think a lot of us can do. He’s this retired killer on his windswept mountain who sees himself as this dark person, a self-image that stems from his bloody past as a ‘murderous Robin Hood’ (as a very astute reader recently put it!) as well as from his childhood as an unwanted boy. Yet he’s caring for this orphan and living on the same remote mountain as this tiny rural flower growing village, to which he is a reluctant benefactor. His relationship with Zelda is transformative—she shows him what he is, and also what he can be and helps him grow into that. His relationship with the boy is like that, too, a little.
Dabney: Zelda is the first female Associate lead you’ve written. Zelda has quite the toolbox of skills–you make it clear that without her, the Associates would flounder. How does being female help Zelda? Do you think there are ways it hurts her?
Carolyn: With her CIA agent background, Zelda brings a lot of understanding of the realities of the field and the realities of running agents to the Associates, and she grounds Dax, who is the big picture visionary. I guess that’s not necessarily a matter of being a female, though I do think women tend to be smart about details and realities. I think being female hurt her because she’s in the background as a leader, and I think that’s easy to do as a woman, to let a guy take over. That is her mistake with Dax.
Dabney: Behind the Mask is the second book in a row you’ve where there’s a child (frequently put in danger: Stop that!) as a significant character. In both Behind the Mask and Into the Shadows, the hero’s feelings about the kid illuminate who the hero, fundamentally, is. What calls to you about that emotional journey?
Carolyn: Hugo is so lethal, such a dangerous person, he would be soulless without that boy. I loved him with Paolo to show his tender side—or as much of a tender side he is capable of at first. And Paolo is also a great flash point for him and Zelda. She’s cool-headed in lots of ways, but fierce about a kid not growing up right. I also really love characters growing and learning from each other, and with Paolo, we could see Hugo learning things from Zelda. He sees how she relates to Paolo and we see him slowly learning from that. I like to see a character grow and evolve, and the Hugo/Paolo relationship helps illuminate that.
You know who inspired me to use kids more and in a smart character-based way was Jill Sorenson. She is the ultimate master of the kid secondary character. Sometimes I worry I won’t do kids right because I don’t have any, but I ask a lot of questions and my CPs let me know when I get something wrong.
Dabney: One of the things you do really well in the Associates books is, for lack of a better term, “make shit up.” You create technologies, governments, and agencies that aren’t real–although they’re immensely readable. What’s your favorite thing you made up for Behind the Mask?
Carolyn: Aw, thank you! I think it’s those rare flowers, because of how metaphorical they turned out to be. They are a deep blood red; blood is life, but it also signifies death. Also, the savincas can never be allowed to bloom or they lose their value for the wholesale florists, so when the flowers do bloom, it is a sign of death or trouble for the farmers. Hugo sees himself in the flowers at first, in that you never want to see their blood-red hearts. Later, he and Zelda allow a patch of the flowers to bloom. Both of them come to embrace their complexity.
Dabney: So, do you have an opinion on how to teach fractions? I ask because I found the parts of the story where Zelda and Hugo disagreed about how Zelda should be teaching Paolo math both fascinating and funny. Did you talk to math teachers when you were writing the book?
Carolyn: My mom and sister are both teachers, so it was kind of natural to go there, to have that be a flashpoint. But to research that specific sort of thing, I did lurk around math teaching blogs and I read about the importance of bringing lessons to life in a tactile way for kids over rote memorization.
Dabney: And then there’s Dax who, for the first time, we see somewhat clearly. We learn, I think, that he’s Greek, that he is haunted by the calls he makes (the greater good routinely requires sacrifices), and that he uses sex–possibly combined with pain–to dull his pain. Did I miss anything? Some how I imagine that his will be the last Associates story you tell. Yes? No?
Carolyn: Yes, you have him down perfectly. He is also a billionaire who uses his fierce understanding of cause and effect to make tons of money as a way to fund the Associates. The really dangerous thing about defining Dax this much is that once I get to Dax’s book, I might wish I had more flexibility with him. With Thorne’s book, I went back at the last minute and changed things about him that I’d written in Macmillan’s book to make things I wanted to do with Thorne possible.
But I kind of love Dax the way he’s evolving, and I have this vision of him really imploding. I did imagine that I’d write him last, but the way I pick the next Associate is through emotion, or just who has the most energy for me in the current book, and that is kind of Dax, though I’m liking Rio, too. I have this thought of putting Rio with a nun with amnesia. (Er…twins, secret babies and amnesia…are my years of watching soap operas showing?) I’m not sure if I’ll really do that.
Dabney: Do you have an end point in your mind for when this series will be finished?
Carolyn: No. I chose to work in romantic suspense because I think it is such a flexible subgenre where I could tell as many types of stories as I please. So, I’ll keep going until that runs out.
Wow, these were such great questions. Thank you so much for having me!!
Dabney: Thanks for being here. Readers, Behind the Mask comes out on May 19th.