I’m thrilled to have as my next guest on the Crime Cafe podcast another hardboiled mystery author, SG Wong!
I recently finished her first mystery, the Arthur Ellis Awards Finalist DIE ON YOUR FEET, and I have to say it was amazing. I loved the hardboiled style of the writing and even though I’m not usually a paranormal fan, the combination of mystery and paranormal in the book was fantastic.
That paranormal aspect reminded me in certain respects of the third Mercedes Lambert novel GHOSTTOWN, which actually was geared more toward magical realism. We can talk about that during the interview—maybe. 🙂
In any case, you can win a free digital copy of SLEUTH, the Canadian magazine of mystery fiction, by sending an email to sg[at]sgwong[dot]com with the subject line “Crime Cafe blog giveaway.”
In that same email, if you also say you’d like to subscribe to S.G. Wong’s Reader Group, then you’ll be entered in a random draw for a signed paperback copy of DIE ON YOUR FEET, Arthur Ellis Awards finalist and first in the Lola Starke novel series.
Deadline for the SLEUTH giveaway and to enter the draw is February 6, 2018.
So, with that said, let’s hear from SG Wong!
What if China sent out an expeditionary force across the Pacific Ocean in the 1830s, gambling on rumours of gold? What if its plan to colonize the entire western coast of North America shattered in the face of fierce opposition from Indigenous peoples, as well as competing Spanish missionary colonizers? What if that Chinese contingent were driven back to their original landing place, a much smaller prize than hoped for?
Starting a speculative fiction piece often begins with “what if” and follows a long trail of related questions until an entire world is built and populated with people, events, and stories. One could argue all fiction answers “what if?” So perhaps I should say that speculative fiction focusses on the backdrop—which in turn influences how characters make their choices and how they interact with the events and people around them, thereby creating their story.
“Spec fic” is a broad term under which can be categorized a large number of well-known genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror, magic realism, alternate history…. It’s a real catch-all for narratives that deal with things outside of the mundane realm. How the spec fic elements—be they fantastical, future scientific, or supernatural, etc.—interplay with the narrative heart of a story is, for me, one of the delights of this enormous umbrella genre.
As a child, I’d spend glorious weekend afternoons unsupervised and uninterrupted amidst the hushed and dusty confines of the local public library. Perusing the short stacks, I stumbled upon my first hard-boiled classic: Nate the Great. I quickly moved onto Encyclopedia Brown and then Arthur Hitchcock’s The Three Investigators. Although I never did find my way to Nancy Drew nor Trixie Belden, I eventually discovered Dame Christie in my teens. So I can proudly and truthfully say I’ve always loved mystery fiction.
As a voracious young reader, I greedily eyed my big brother’s tall stacks of grown-up fantasy and science fiction novels and began reading them when I was ten. I can’t say I always understood everything in them then (probably a good thing), but they nonetheless sparked my love for speculative fiction. I couldn’t resist the promise of possibility in the worlds created by those long-ago books.
So I guess it was inevitable, wasn’t it, that I would write crime fiction set in a spec fic world, an alternate reality which I created with a few (hundred) “what if”s?
Though, I suppose should admit that I began with a character. One late night, I found myself wondering, “What if the femme fatale were the hard-boiled PI?” (I’d been reading my way through Chandler.) How would that story unwind? How would she tackle the world? Why would she take the side of the angels? Or would she? What kind of world would allow her to thrive? What kind of world would strive to break her?
I was clear from the start that my femme fatale wouldn’t be Chinese. Aside from the fact that she refused to give up her name, Lola Starke, I felt it was just…too easy.
Instead, I saw an interesting opportunity: what if I write a white woman protagonist in a Chinese world? If my readers were to be predominantly from Canada, the U.S., and the UK, then this small change could have a deep impact, a way for readers to see themselves on the other side of a cultural divide. Much as they’d been for my own life, questions of race and culture would frame Lola’s life and adventures—sometimes quietly and sometimes not.
But what kind of Chinese world? Enter the questions that began this post.
I dubbed my world “Crescent City,” a nod to the Chinese penchant for naming places by their geographical situation. And, since I was reading a lot of Chandler (as well as Hammett), I chose a 1930s-era time frame. It gave me a beautiful backdrop of fashion and architecture and the delicious challenge of writing believable plots using old technology. I revised the real-life 1848 discovery of gold in California by ten years, which allowed my Crescent City a good hundred years of settlement history. Plus, it gave me the perfect excuse to indulge the history nerd in me; an alternate history Crescent City may be, but accurate research would be its foundation.
As for the ghosts and magic…well, it started with an unusual conversation with my mother. (Detailed here.) I envisioned ghosts in Crescent City as commonplace guides or counsellors for the living, tethered through ties of love. Of course, on a strictly practical level, I had to consider just how ghosts were created in such a culture; the only answer that made sense to me was magic. So. I had to figure out a magic system, too. (Oh how that simple sentence belies the wonderful intricacies of the endeavour itself…)
Yet I always remember this: all of this work must be in support of the mystery at the heart of each book and short story. If, for example, the reader isn’t interested in the choices Lola makes, then it won’t matter why she resents her ghost. If the reader doesn’t care about solving the mystery, then they’ll certainly not care how non-magical Lola succeeds against the magical obstacles in her path. You see what I mean?
Ultimately, the “what if” world-building I do is meaningless unless I tell a good story. It’s a delicate balance and one I feel privileged to dare whenever I begin something new. Honestly? I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Arthur Ellis Awards finalist, Whistler Independent Book Awards nominee, and indie author S.G. Wong writes the Lola Starke novel series and Crescent City short stories: hard-boiled detective tales set in an alternate-history 1930s-era “Chinese L.A.” replete with ghosts and magic. She speaks four languages, usually only curses in one of them, and can often be found staring out the window in between frenzied bouts of typing. Her next publication will be in Vancouver Noir, an anthology from Akashic Books slated for November 2018 release.