The Holocaust in Her Soul, Romantic Comedy in her Heart:

An Interview with Rochelle Majer Krich

by Reed Andrus

 

 

In the short period of a single decade, Rochelle Majer Krich has established herself as a major player in the field of mystery literature, having produced a wealth of genre material­-nine novels and five short stories. Her debut, the psychological suspense novel Where's Mommy Now?, won a 1990 Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original. She followed a few years later with Agatha Best Novel nominations for the first two books in her police procedural series featuring Jessie Drake­-Fair Game and Angel of Death. One of her short stories, "A Golden Opportunity," has also been graced with an Anthony nomination.

I met Rochelle at­-where else?­-a Left Coast Crime gathering in Tucson, AZ. We happened to cross verbal swords in one of those thoroughly enjoyable and impromptu dealer room discussions, this time centering on the styles and presentation methods used for police procedurals. I'm an admitted old guard type when it comes to this sub-sub-genre, a fancier of multiple viewpoints, having been weaned on Ed McBain's humongous 87th Precinct outpouring. But recent reading revealed that many newer authors were opting for single protagonists, writing in either first- or third-person viewpoints. When I expressed my dismay at this trend, Rochelle immediately took me to task, challenging me to read her Jessie Drake series before making rash statements. "Well, why not?" I thought, deciding at the same time that an interview was in order.

Since then, I've devoured three of the four Jessie Drake novels produced to date by this exceptional writer. What can I tell you about them? Among other things, that Rochelle Krich is a natural storyteller, can write rings around many of her peers, creates wonderfully complex characters, and knows how to weave powerfully topical social issues into her plots without resorting to polemic or damaging those tender-but-necessary elements of mystery. Rochelle's Orthodox Jewish family history is fraught with tragedy, and she's incorporated that history into her storylines with dignity and skillful professionalism. I've become hooked on her series, learning much about Judaism and the Holocaust. I fully suspect her stand-alone work is just as interesting and addicting. But enough of my opinions. Let the author speak for herself, beginning with the response to my usual request for background information:

"I was born in Bayreuth, Germany, in 1947. My parents, both Polish Jews, had been interned in various labor camps during the Holocaust (my father lost a wife and two daughters), and met after the war. I was about four years old when we immigrated to the United States. We lived briefly in Washington Heights, New York, but my mother and her best friend, a woman whom she met in one of the camps, convinced their husbands that a less urban surrounding would be preferable.

"So the two couples bought a chicken farm in Lakewood, New Jersey, and we all lived together in one house. A few years later, my father sold his share of the farm, and we eventually moved to Crown Heights, in Brooklyn; then, in 1960, to Los Angeles. I still remember how awed my classmates were when I told them I was moving­they were drooling with envy, certain that I would be meeting movie stars at the grocery market.

"In Lakewood and Crown Heights, I attended a Jewish elementary school, and in Los Angeles, a Jewish high school. I earned my B.A. in English from Stern College. My Orthodox Jewish world was rather sheltered. I have never regretted it, not for a minute, but I think that part of my passion for reading was the vicarious enjoyment it provided me of experiences and worlds that I would probably never know."

What were the literary influences in your life? What kinds of books stimulated you?

"I was an avid reader even as a child. I don't remember my early childhood favorites, and wonder as I am writing this, what German fairy tales or children's stories my mother read to me. I do know I loved mysteries early on and read the usual­Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Agatha Christie. I absolutely adored Du Maurier's Rebecca, and became enthralled with Frances Parkinson Keyes. My parents thought I was a dreamer, and my head was always in a book.

"When I was eleven or twelve, I developed an insatiable hunger for anything to do with mythology. I read tome after tome, and would have my father drag the volumes up to the Catskills, where we vacationed summers, and drag them back to the city to renew them at the library. My mother loved to read, too. Saturday mornings, while my father and brother went to synagogue, I would lie next to her in my parent's bedroom and we read our books­a romance, a saga, a mystery. Her favorite mystery writer was Erle Stanley Gardner."

Can you tell us more about your own family, and how they've reacted to your success with mystery writing?

"I was studying for my M.A. at NYU when my mother's lung cancer recurred. I returned home to be with her, and that was when I met my husband, Hershie. We married, had six children (I tell people that "we leased with an option to buy!"), and when our youngest was about two, I decided to write my first mystery. We've been married for 29 years, have four grandchildren, and our lives are far busier than either of us likes. Hershie and our children are wonderfully encouraging of my writing, although they have all expressed at one time or another that I'm married to the computer."

With your liberal arts education, what made you choose the mystery genre?

"Why mysteries? Because I've been addicted to them since my childhood; because when they are good, they satisfy me intellectually and emotionally. I love the puzzle aspect, but more than that, I love, both as a reader and as a writer, a world in which justice has been restored. I've never written anything outside the mystery genre for publication, although in college I wrote several non-mystery short stories for the literary journal. I would love to write a romantic comedy screenplay­my daughters are nagging me to do it, and it's on my 'someday' list­-if I could just get ahead of my schedule!"

Where's Mommy Now? was released to considerable critical approval. Was this your first published book, or had you practiced on your craft previous to that successful entry?

"The first book I wrote was titled The Get. It dealt with an agunah, an Orthodox Jewish woman who has her civil divorce, but whose husband refuses to give her a get, the Jewish divorce, without which she can never remarry. I wrote the book because I was appalled by the terrible limbo in which agunahs find themselves, and it gave me great pleasure to 'pull the trigger' on this fictional recalcitrant husband. I sent out the 705-page manuscript unagented, received numerous encouraging rejection letters (a terrific oxymoron, I think), and had the good sense to immediately begin another mystery.

"The next book was Where's Mommy Now?, and this time I found an agent (well, there was an almost-agent who extolled the book's virtues, then two days later found a thousand things wrong with it. He offered to help me edit it, but I declined). The agent I did sign with sold Mommy for a very modest advance to Pinnacle Books (Zebra­-now Kensington), but I was deliriously happy! In the meantime I had considerably abridged The Get, and when an Avon editor phoned me at home (Avon calling?) to tell me she'd loved Mommy, and wondered whether I had written anything else, I told her about The Get. Avon bought the book (the title was changed to 'Till Death Do Us Part), and my next stand-alone, Nowhere to Run."

So where does creation of the Jessie Drake character fit into this picture, and why, after so much initial success with your stand-alone books, did you switch over to a series?

"Sometime after writing Mommy, I wrote another mystery, which I'd called Death Across the Board. It featured the male detective from Mommy and 'Till Death, a character who is secondary in each book to the main female character. I received sixteen (16!) rejection letters for Death Across the Board, and paid attention when three editors said the same thing: great story, great writing, but the detective hero is bland.

"I was offended, hurt, defensive­-in short, a writer­-but quickly decided that if three editors had come to the same conclusion, I would be stupid not to pay attention. A writing colleague suggested that I change my male detective to a female, and Jessie Drake was born. I'd never felt connected to my poor male detective (my fault, not his!). I immediately felt connected to Jessie in many ways. I cared about Jessie. I wanted to know what was going to happen to her and her family. I knew intuitively what had shaped her, what her personal demons were, but at the time I had no idea that she was Jewish! We (she and I) discovered her Jewishness together in Angel of Death.

"When those rejection letters had arrived, bringing disappointment with their slim, one-sheet contents, I'd been disheartened. Now I thank those editors for seeing more clearly the flatness of my male detective, and for pushing me to create Jessie.

"With Jessie as the heroine, I sold the book, now titled Fair Game, to Mysterious Press. They bought the next Jessie, too-­Angel of Death-­as well as a stand-alone, Speak No Evil. In the latter legal thriller, my heroine is an Orthodox Jewish criminal defense attorney who finds herself in dual jeopardy when she becomes the suspect in a series of murders of criminal defense attorneys­and also a potential victim. Following Speak No Evil came Fertile Ground, another stand-alone (this time for Avon, to whom I had returned). Then two Jessies: Blood Money and the new book, Dead Air."

How does writing stand-alone novels compare with producing a successful series? Do you consciously differentiate your style and plotting between the two types?

"I've enjoyed writing the stand-alone books as well as the Jessie Drake series. I suppose Speak No Evil and Fertile Ground could have been Jessie Drake mysteries, but I thought the tension and suspense in each book would have been more immediate if the central character was the one who finds herself in jeopardy. With stand-alone novels I'm also able to explore new worlds, create new characters. As for the series­-there's a wonderful sense of comfort and familiarity in writing each of the Jessie books, like coming home after a vacation, and I love having the opportunity to explore Jessie's character and take her into new, uncharted territory. Readers definitely connect more with series characters and take an intense interest in the way the characters' lives develop.

"My stand-alone stories are generally novels of suspense, where the heroine finds herself somewhat in the dark and must fight larger forces of evil. With the Jessie mysteries, my challenge is to write a police procedural that is suspenseful, and I have to do a great deal of homework to make certain that I get the procedure right!"

How do you go about developing your stories? Do you follow an outline, or do the books just write themselves?

"I begin with a four or five page outline­-or a proposal, now that I'm fortunate enough to be able to sell a book on the basis of an idea. I don't like to stick to the outline, but it's a comfort having one. I generally know the identity of the killer, but I have no idea how I'm going to expose him or her. The truth is, I love not knowing and love being surprised by plot developments I never anticipated."

Your books contain a large amount of historical detail, as well as realistic investigative and procedural information. Do you research each book separately? How much time do you spend researching a topic?

"I love doing the research, but unlike some more organized writers, I don't do it all in advance. That would, I know, save me time and prevent me from interrupting the narrative flow, but I find that I'm always too eager to begin the writing, and so I leave the research until it's necessary. In a way, though, this allows me to be more excited about what I'm discovering, and I hope I'm able to transmit that sense of discovery into my work. In the course of my writing, I've interviewed infertility specialists, coroners, district attorneys, criminal defense attorneys, and rabbis. I've visited fertility clinics, sat through a criminal trial, and suffered through a tedious voir dire. In Dead Air, which deals with the radio talk show psychology, I interviewed Dennis Prager, a Los Angeles-based radio talk show host, and visited the studio. And of course, I've talked to police detectives. I've been fortunate to have as a friend and mentor, Paul Bishop, an LAPD detective and a mystery writer whose latest book is Chalk Whispers.

"I get my ideas from many sources. Sometimes they just pop into my head. In Mommy I wondered what if a woman hired an au pair to help with her children, and didn't realize what kind of woman she was inviting into her home? Nowhere to Run features a woman who is trying to hide a terrible secret, even from the husband she loves. I wanted to deal with the dire consequences that lack of communication can have on a relationship. Speak no Evil takes to task the criminal justice system and examines date rape, a subject that I find confusing and troubling.

"I'm an avid newspaper reader and clip articles from newspapers and magazines all the time. Sometimes an article will find its way into a book (in Blood Money I mention the hijacking of elderly residents of board and care facilities, something I read about in the LA Times). Other times a small nugget in an article will lead to an entire plot. I find myself drawn to social issues. I've dealt with infertility and the assisted reproduction industry (Fertile Ground), with date rape (Speak No Evil), with child abuse (Fair Game), with Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis (Angel of Death), with Swiss bank accounts (Blood Money); with domestic violence and the media (Dead Air). I don't sit down and say, what issue shall I tackle next? But I want to write about subjects that I find compelling­after all, I'm going to be spending many, many months with that subject."

The Holocaust information presented in Angel of Death and Blood Money is both fascinating and heartbreaking. It's a tribute to your storytelling skill that you never allow the social commentary to overcome the mystery elements. One aspect of Blood Money that I particularly admired was the way you incorporated clues to solving a crime inside a documentary interview with a Holocaust survivor.

"One of my goals in writing Angel of Death was to illuminate readers about the veracity of the Holocaust­particularly readers who might not pick up a work of non-fiction. I'm particularly offended and frightened by Holocaust deniers, who title themselves revisionists (á la David Irving, who was soundly defeated in April in his libel suit against historian Debra Lipstadt by a London judge who called him a 'liar' and 'anti-Semite.')

"I'm so gratified that you enjoyed Blood Money. Since it tells some of my father's story, you can imagine why it would be such a personal book for me. Writing about my father's experiences was difficult, because they were real, and because I had to try to obtain a certain objective narrative voice. But I felt honored to have been able to write about his experiences (a small part of them), and especially gratified that readers and reviewers love the Nathan Pomerantz character who is based on him."

We've previously, er... discussed the various methods and styles for developing a book that is otherwise labeled 'police procedural.' I've always been partial to the ensemble point of view, but other authors and readers seem to have no problem with first- or third-person narratives. You also chose the latter voice. Do you plan to continue with Jessie as the principal protagonist?

"The focus to date has always been Jessie: it's through her eyes that we see the people around her. I haven't contemplated changing that, though I do want to flesh out the characters of the people she works with. I don't think I did that much supporting character expansion in Blood Money; there's a little more of Phil Okum in Dead Air. But thanks for mentioning it­--it's something I'm always thinking about, wondering how much to develop the other characters and 'risk' slowing down the story."

Given your lengthy tenure in Los Angeles, and the wide variety of thrilling storylines you've produced, it seems natural that some of them would make their way into film. What has been your experience with that medium?

"Where's Mommy Now? was filmed as 'Perfect Alibi' with Teri Garr, Hector Elizondo, and Kathleen Quinlan. I was prepared to hate it, because I'd heard numerous horror stories from authors whose works had been translated into film. I thought that the script stayed true to the book for the most part, although the screenwriter added a speeding car scene (HBO offered to do "behind the scenes of a stunt") and a steamy sex scene that was quite embarrassing to me when I saw it at the screening, along with my father and mother-in-law and various other family members and friends.

"The script was thinner than I would have liked, the main characters less well defined, and some of the secondary characters disappeared altogether. I was pleased, though, by the casting, and the screenwriter/director retained much of my dialogue. There were also some original scenes which I found deliciously creepy and I wished that I had thought of them. I have to say it was exciting and other-wordly to watch characters who sprang from my imagination walking, talking killing."

In closing, can you share your future plans and give some inkling as to what is in store for your characters and readers?

"Following the advice of my editor and agent, I will continue to focus on the Jessie Drake series, although I definitely plan, at some point, to write more stand-alone books. I've completed two more short stories (that makes five now); one-­"Widow's Peak"­-will be published by Intrigue Press this November in an anthology titled Unholy Orders; the other­-"You Win Some"­-will be published next year by Berkeley Books in an anthology tentatively titled Women Before the Bench. Right now I'm working on Wayward Son (title is tentative), a Jessie Drake novel in which I hope to introduce her to Debra Laslow, my criminal defense attorney from Speak No Evil. This episode deals with teen violence. You'll be pleased to know that the murders take place in the first chapter! Jessie is also continuing to explore her new-found Judaism (did I mention earlier that Jessie's discovery of her heritage predates Madeleine Albright's similar discovery?), and she'll be trying to connect with her father, who has been in the background, not just in the books but in her life. "And well, don't forget those romantic comedies!"

This interview originally appeared in the August/September 2000 issue of Mystery News.