Debbi Mack interviews crime writer V.S. Kemanis on the Crime Cafe podcast.
Read along with the podcast or, if you’re in a rush, download a copy of the show notes here.
Debbi: Hi everyone. This is the Crime Cafe, your podcasting source of great crime, suspense and thriller writing. I’m your host Debbi Mack. Before I bring on my guest, I’ll just remind you that the Crime Cafe has two ebooks for sale: the nine book box set and the short story anthology. You can find the buy links for both on my website, debbimack.com, under the Crime Cafe link. You can also get a free copy of either book, if you become a Patreon supporter. You’ll get that and much more if you support the podcast on Patreon, along with our eternal gratitude for doing so.
Debbi: Hi everyone. I’m so pleased to have with me today another lawyer who’s written about what she knows. Her legal career is in criminal prosecution, but her creative pursuits include writing novels and short stories, as well as being a dancer and choreographer. Our guest today is V. S. Kemanis.
VSK: Hi Debbi.
Debbi: Hi. Hi Vija.
VSK: How are you? Thanks so much for inviting me.
Debbi: I am so glad you are here, and thank you for being here. I just finished your first novel and really enjoyed it. I assume it’s safe to say that your protagonist, Dana Hargrove, was inspired or informed by your work as a district attorney?
VSK: Yes, indeed she was. I wrote that novel, the first draft of it, shortly after I had finished the first 10 years of my legal career. The first five years were as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, and the second five years of that was with the New York State Organized Crime Task Force. And I kind of included both of those experiences and put them together to develop my character and also to develop the case that she was investigating in that novel.
I had just finished doing a big investigation and a case against the Colombian narcotics cartel operating in New York and mostly their money laundering activities, which were really fascinating and a lot of work. I worked on that for a good four years and so a lot of that went into the novel.
Debbi: That’s really something. In your first book, Dana is a neophyte dealing with all these ethical issues and divided loyalties. I was impressed with the way you wove all the different levels of conflict into the story. Do you plot that out all ahead of time or do you plot some and improvise some?
VSK: I do some of both. Yes, I start out writing a novel with a general plan, a general plot idea, and I also write a very detailed outline before I actually launch into writing something, but invariably it ends up changing a little bit along the way as I write, and I realize that some things don’t fit other things. I go back and review what I’ve written earlier on and have to change some things, but that’s what really makes it exciting for me, I think. Because it really becomes its own work and the characters will lead you certain places.
“I start out writing a novel with a general plan, a general plot idea, and I also write a very detailed outline before I actually launch into writing something, but invariably it ends up changing a little bit along the way as I write, … but that’s what really makes it exciting for me, I think. Because it really becomes its own work and the characters will lead you certain places.”
But certainly in terms of the broad outlines, I have usually in mind the cases that I’d like to highlight in the novel. Also ethical conflicts as you noted. I tend to really love those.
Debbi: Those are great.
VSK: Yeah, both the legal professional ethics as well as just personal moral dilemmas that people are faced with. All my novels have the interplay between the professional and the personal, which is an area that just really fascinates me, because it was a big challenge in my life as … working very hard and trying to raise a family at the same time, so.
Debbi: My goodness, I got to say my hat’s off to you. You started off writing short stories because you said they were easier to squeeze into the cracks. That was it. Squeeze between the cracks of a demanding legal career. Do you enjoy writing short fiction?
VSK: Oh, I love it. Yeah, that was my start, and it’s very satisfying to be able to work on a shorter project and then come out with something, a finished project within a couple of weeks. With a novel you have to really devote a long time as you know, spending a year or more getting it together, but it’s very satisfying to write a short story.
And the other thing about it is I love language. I love playing with words and the way they sound, and the way you put them together, and how they come up with different feelings the way you put them together, so that in a short story you have to be very concise, very exact, have no wasted words and come up with the mood or the feeling that you’d like at the end of it. So it’s a challenge and it’s fun and satisfying all in one.
“I love playing with words and the way they sound, and the way you put them together, … in a short story you have to be very concise, very exact, have no wasted words and come up with the mood or the feeling that you’d like at the end of it. So it’s a challenge and it’s fun and satisfying all in one.”
Debbi: I just have to say, do you think it’s a particular challenge for somebody like a lawyer who is so used to explaining everything in minute detail, in their normal writing, say your legal writing?
VSK: It is definitely, no question about it. And in my earlier drafts of my novel, sometimes when I have my beta readers read them and they go, “Yeah, you know, that’s just a little bit too much detail there.” You know, us lawyers probably just really get off on a whole big long legal discussion on, you know, going off on tangents and everything else. But the reader wants to get to the point. So that has been a challenge in writing the novels and I enjoy that too.
I go through after the first draft and there are many, many, many drafts and just pulling things out, and trying to distill the legal parts of it to a very understandable form and entertaining form too. Because as you know in the courtroom, sometimes things are a little bit boring. It’s not always all excitement.
VSK: So yeah, you pull out the exciting moments and it doesn’t make it inaccurate, but it makes it more exciting. Definitely leave out the stuff you don’t need to have in there.
Debbi: Or leave out the parts people skip as Elmore Leonard said.
VSK: Exactly. Right.
Debbi: What made you decide to have several years passed between each of the books in the series?
VSK: That idea came to me after I’d written the first one, which I started out in this, not really intending necessarily to have a whole series, but after I wrote the first one, which by the way went through many, many, many drafts and was written in the mid-’90s and wasn’t published until 2012, so you could see what happened to that one.
But when it was finally published, I said, “Boy, I really like this character.” But at that point I had a whole lot in my own legal career, and so I had tons of ideas in my head and wanted to have an experienced lawyer protagonist. And so I couldn’t keep her as a rookie. I wanted to skip several years from my next book to make her an experienced prosecutor, which she is in the next book called Homicide Chart. She is a good seven years into her career and she is prosecuting homicides, which is only given to the more experienced prosecutors.
And then I just liked her so much, I wanted to continue on and also explore different stages of her life and career. That made it interesting for me because, of course, if you skip six years down the road, her family’s very different, her family life. Her career is very different and it made it more interesting for me. Plus they are very, they’re stand-alones. You don’t need to necessarily read each one in order, although you will get a little bit more depth of character if you do that, but you don’t have to.
About her protagonist: “I just liked her so much, I wanted to continue on and also explore different stages of her life and career. That made it interesting for me because, of course, if you skip six years down the road, her family’s very different, her family life. Her career is very different and it made it more interesting for me.”
Debbi: I was going to say there’s at least a theme of her, a thematic tie-in between all of them in terms of it’s always Dana and she’s come a little bit farther each time.
VSK: Exactly. Yes. Yes. She’s come further. The first book, she’s a rookie. Second book, she’s a real experienced prosecutor. The third book, she’s a supervisor and she’s supervising an inexperienced felony assistant DA. In the fourth book, she’s an elected DA of a suburban county, actually where I live, so you can guess where that is, north of New York City. And the fifth book, which is going to come out in January. She’s a judge.
VSK: So that makes it interesting too. We get all aspects of her career.
Debbi: I love that. That is such a great concept. I suppose you didn’t really start off thinking about that particular story arc when you started with the first book, did you? It just sort of came to you?
VSK: It just kind of came to me along the way.
Debbi: Wow! That’s really cool.
VSK: And also the other thing that’s really interesting is that when you have things take place in different years, there are different kinds of cases that maybe are more prominent during that particular time period.
For example, the fourth book which came out last year, Deep Zero, dealt with cyberbullying in a high school setting, which is really in the news a lot. So when you, and again, the first book that was at the height of the Columbia narcotics cartel cocaine trade in New York city in the ’80s so you, if you pick a time frame like that, you can also focus on the kinds of cases that are really interesting for that time period.
Also, you have to be a little bit with it in terms of technology changes. That’s also an interesting thing to kind of put into the novels, see how that changes people’s careers and lives. So yeah, it’s been fun.
Debbi: Oh, honestly, I have struggled with that part of it. Not having practiced for so many years, it’s hard for me to keep up with what lawyers are keeping up with there.
VSK: Yeah, although I have a lot of this stuff in my head because of my experience. Every time I write a book, I also do a little kind of backup research, and go in and kind of tighten things up and make sure that I’m saying things correctly, because in a way they are fact-based, but it’s totally imagination. But the underlying basis for it is the New York state law. So I have to be familiar with that and know that I’m saying the right thing.
“I also do a little kind of backup research, and go in and kind of tighten things up and make sure that I’m saying things correctly, because in a way they are fact-based, but it’s totally imagination. But the underlying basis for it is the New York state law. So I have to be familiar with that and know that I’m saying the right thing.”
Debbi: Are you still practicing?
VSK: Two years ago I retired from the second part of my career, which was I spent 10 years at an appellate court in Brooklyn. So I was a court attorney, then I worked for one of the judges on the court, and then I ended up for the last three or four years of that as a supervisor in the court. And it was a very, very busy, busy job. It’s the busiest appellate court in the country, the Appellate Division in Brooklyn.
So I read every single case put out by the court. I edited them, I talked to the judges and worked with the judges on them. And anyway, I am now retired from that since 2017, so it’s been two years and a little bit more time to devote to my fiction writing and dancing. So, that’s fun.
Debbi: That’s excellent. Wonderful. So you were writing novels while you were still in practice?
VSK: I was, yeah. The first novel I started when I was on a break between, I had kind of two sections of my career. As I said, the first 10 years were the DA and the Organized Crime Task Force, and then at that time I had two young children in the mid-’90s. I took off some time to spend more time with my daughters and raise them. And then when they were in school, I started a small business. I had about 10 years of time when I was a small entrepreneur. I opened and ran a dance wear business and taught dance, which is my other love, ballet and contemporary and jazz dance. So I actually owned a store for 10 years, and then I went back to the second part of my legal career with the Appellate Division from 2007 to 2017. So I’ve done a lot of stuff.
“I had about 10 years of time when I was a small entrepreneur. I opened and ran a dance wear business and taught dance, which is my other love, ballet and contemporary and jazz dance. So I actually owned a store for 10 years, and then I went back to the second part of my legal career with the Appellate Division from 2007 to 2017. So I’ve done a lot of stuff.”
Debbi: You keep changing.
VSK: Yeah. Makes it interesting.
Debbi: It does. It certainly gives you more material to work with.
Debbi: Given that, do you have any time management tips?
VSK: Time management? Well, maybe I just, I don’t know. I just like to be constantly doing, just sometimes doing more. You can get more done when you’re doing more. It’s kind of strange that way, you know? Because if you take too much free time, you can lapse into inertia. That’s just my own personality, I feel.
So when I was working full-time, a very, very tough full-time job, I would just, it was important to me to write. So I just made the time on the weekends and not every evening, but some evenings of the week when I came home from work. You produce less, but you’ve set that time aside and you have to do it every week to get that writing in. You just can’t let it go.
“[W]hen I was working full-time, a very, very tough full-time job, I would just, it was important to me to write. So I just made the time on the weekends and not every evening, but some evenings of the week when I came home from work.”
VSK: Yeah. Yeah.
Debbi: I know the feeling. So tell us a little bit more about your work with the DA. What was it like, I assume to go right from law school into something like that?
VSK: It was, I think I tried to portray some of those feelings in my character Dana in my first book. When you’re young and you know, I grew up in California and then I went to law school in Colorado, so I used to visit New York City a lot because I had family here. But it was really also my first experience of living in the city and it was in the ’80s when the crime rate was just much higher than it is today. You know, that the ’80s was really the crack epidemic and there were just, the murder rate was much higher and so forth. So it was just very, very busy and in a way, somewhat overwhelming.
I did both trial work and appellate work. I tended to do better, I feel at the appellate work because, you know, I love to write. So it’s a lot of writing and you’re more prepared for the appellate work. What you do is you write a brief, and then you go and you argue, orally argue, in front of a panel of four or five judges in a little bit more dignified setting.
The trial work I found very, very stressful for me. Some people just really thrived on that stress. To me it was just a little bit too much stress because you really never always knew whether your witnesses were going to show up, whether everything would come together. You had time limits when you had to go into court and tell the judge that you are ready for trial when you never were completely ready for trial, but you were like almost there. And so if the judge says, “Okay, you’re ready for trial. Let’s send you out to a courtroom for your trial,” then you have to be crossing your fingers that all those loose ends will just come together magically. And usually they did.
“The trial work I found very, very stressful for me. Some people just really thrived on that stress. To me it was just a little bit too much stress because you really never always knew whether your witnesses were going to show up, whether everything would come together.”
But you’re kind of like on the edge of your seat a lot so, and you have to think on your feet a lot, which was a challenge. But it was also fun. I did like examining witnesses and so forth. But anyway, it was a very different time.
Then the next five years with the Organized Crime Task Force, technically I was doing civil litigation because in New York, the forfeiture laws, I was developing a big forfeiture case against all of the criminal proceeds of the cocaine trade. That’s done in the context of a civil case. So it has all those aspects of, you know, depositions and paperwork and discovery and all that went along with it. But that was fascinating work too.
Debbi: I can just imagine. How would you describe your books? Are they legal thrillers, legal mysteries, crime thrillers? How do you like to describe them?
VSK: That’s a good question because interestingly, some of my reviewers have said, “I don’t know what these books are.” No, they don’t say that. These books have elements of, and I agree with one reviewer who said “The books have elements of mystery, suspense, thriller, police procedural, courtroom drama.”
They’re a little bit hard to pigeonhole. They’re even almost, sometimes people think they’re literary because I don’t know they have kind of family issues involved. But I don’t generally like categories. I just think it’s hard to categorize most people I think, and people like to put stuff in niches and so forth. But what I would say is they’re not technically mysteries. They’re not classic mysteries. They’re not always whodunit, but some of the books the reader will not know who did a certain crime and you’ll find out later.
In some books you will know who did the crime, and it’s a matter of … the legal ethics involved are the main focus of that particular crime. Or in some books, Dana won’t know who did the crime, but the reader knows. So you know, they’re a little bit, they’re a little bit different. Each one is a little bit different. So it’s kind of hard for me to answer your question, what they are. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them, whatever you might want to, what category you might want to put it in.
Debbi: Actually the way you just described them intrigues me all the more because to me it can be so confining to try to find that so-called this is your niche genre, you know what I’m saying?
VSK: Yes, it is.
Debbi: I prefer to think about people crossing genres and taking elements of, you can take noir and you can take hard-boiled and you can take police procedure. You could kind of swirl them all together into something.
VSK: The best of all of them.
VSK: Right, and I do in most of them, I do have quite a bit of procedure in them, too. So, yeah, you could even say some chapters of the book are police procedural ,because I will go into, you know they’re investigating and they have to get a search warrant and they have to, whatever. So those kinds of things.
Debbi: Exactly. Those things–
VSK: Whatever’s needed for the story.
Debbi: Those things that some people call legal technicalities.
Debbi: Always makes me go “ahhh!”
VSK: “Ahhh.” Yes.
Debbi: It’s the law, not just a technicality.
VSK: Yeah, yeah.
Debbi: Let’s see. What do you plan to do after you finish the series?
VSK: I’m looking forward to trying something different. I do plan to have one more book after the one that’s coming out in January. The one that, as I said, they’re all six or seven years apart. So the one coming out in January, Dana is in mid-life and it takes place in 2015. And I do have a sixth book planned that I’ll publish in 2022, and it will take place in 2022, so we’ll bring her all up-to-date.
After that, I would like to try something completely different. I have some ideas for a literary pursuit, kind of about an artist, a young woman in Manhattan. It’s just kind of percolating in my mind now that I would like to work on a novel of that nature, completely different. But in between, I always write short stories. Every time I finish a novel I do a story or two, and I got a couple of them in anthologies this year and in Ellery Queen, and that’s a lot of fun. I’ll continue doing stories definitely.
“I would like to try something completely different. I have some ideas for a literary pursuit, kind of about an artist, a young woman in Manhattan. It’s just kind of percolating in my mind now that I would like to work on a novel of that nature, completely different. But in between, I always write short stories.”
Debbi: That’s fantastic. Congratulations on getting in those publications. Those are highly regarded.
VSK: Thank you. It was a good year for me for short stories, 2019, because also my latest story collection got a literary award. It was really exciting for me. It got Best Story Collection, the Eric Hoffer Award. So that was nice to have.
Debbi: That’s wonderful. Congratulations. What does the DA’s office think about your fiction career?
VSK: Oh, that’s interesting. You know, I have very few contacts, I have a couple of friends that I worked with in the DA’s office, and they’ve enjoyed my books and haven’t said anything one way or another about it. As far as the person who was the DA when I was there, Robert Morgenthau, he’s passed and I’ve never discussed it with him. So I frankly don’t know what they think about them.
But I know the friends that were assistant DAs when I was there, they’ve enjoyed them and they see reflections of what it was like. So that’s been nice.
Debbi: That’s fantastic. What writers have most inspired you as an author?
VSK: Writers? Well, I’m all over the place. It’s funny that I tend to read a lot of stuff that isn’t crime fiction. But yeah, it’s hard for me to just come up with someone off the top of my head. Certainly short story writers I can think of that inspired my short stories like Alice Munro and Katherine Mansfield, and just have really been essential for me reading a lot of those short stories.
But, yeah, I’m drawing a blank probably because I have so many writers that I just enjoy. I’m constantly reading and love so many of them.
Debbi: Me, too. Same here. Is there anything else you’d like to say that I haven’t asked you about?
VSK: Oh, interesting. I just really appreciate you having me on here to talk about my novels. I must say it’s been a real adventure for me writing them because these characters, as you know, you have a repeating character in your books. They become a part of your life and I almost relate to them as people now. You know, they live with me. So Dana’s family, friends, colleagues, I’ll probably miss them when I finish writing these books, but they will always be with me.
VSK: And it’s fun to be able to put in, although they are completely brand new things, these novels, it’s really fun to put in little bits and pieces of your own life, and they get all mixed up and just become something completely new so that I’ve been able to put in family issues. Even my dancing I’ve been able to put in there as far as just issues with her sister. She has a sister who’s a Broadway performer, and they go to dance class and dance together, so stuff like that. It’s just fun to incorporate everything.
“And it’s fun to be able to put in, although they are completely brand new things, these novels, it’s really fun to put in little bits and pieces of your own life, and they get all mixed up and just become something completely new so that I’ve been able to put in family issues. Even my dancing I’ve been able to put in there as far as just issues with her sister.”
Debbi: That’s fantastic. Your books sound so amazing. I can’t wait to read all of them.
VSK: Well, thank you. Thanks so much for reading the first one. I’m in the middle of reading Identity Crisis and wow.
Debbi: Thank you.
VSK: As soon as we hang up I’ll go back and keep reading. It’s getting exciting.
Debbi: Thank you very, very much and I want to thank you, Vija, for being here today.
VSK: Oh thank you, Debbi. It’s a great podcast you do here.
Debbi: Thank you so much. I appreciate that and keep up the good work.
VSK: Thank you. You, too.
Debbi: Thank you. Before we go, I’ll just remind you that many of our season one guests contributed stories to two Crime Cafe ebooks that I sell, the nine book set and the short story anthology. You can find them along with my Patreon page on my website, debbimack.com under Crime Cafe. And please leave a review for the podcast if you would. And on that note, our next guest will be the author of the Dexter novels, Jeff Lindsay. He’s coming out with a new series character. Should be interesting! Until then, take care and happy reading.
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