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April 1, 2005

Fiction meets fact as bestselling author Iris Johansen and real-life forensic artist and veteran northern New Jersey police sergeant Daniel Sollitti get together to discuss their work. Mr. Sollitti completed his formal forensic art training at the United States Secret Service Training Facility in Maryland and studied 3-Dimensional clay reconstruction of a skull under forensic sculptor Seth Wolfson. Ms. Johansen's newest hardcover, COUNTDOWN --- her sixth thriller featuring forensic sculptor Eve Duncan --- will be released on May 10th, while last year's bestseller, BLIND ALLEY, is now available in paperback.

Iris Johansen: I have a routine as a writer, setting aside time every morning to work on my novels. I've given Eve Duncan a routine for her forensics, retreating into her private studio to work for hours on end, and into the night, when there is a project on hand. You must have a schedule for your forensic work. Is it anything like what I've created for Eve? Does it vary if you're creating a sculpture or drawing?

Daniel Sollitti: As a police officer, forensic art is done in addition to my regular duties. Full time, I'm assigned as a supervisor in the Bureau of Criminal Identification. I oversee a team of police officers who take, classify, and file the fingerprints of all persons arrested. They also do crimescene photography and latent fingerprint work. Since I work in a densely populated city in the Northeast, the finding of skeletal remains is an unusual occurrence. My reconstructions usually come from areas that have desert regions or densely wooded areas and even from the mountains. When a forensic case does come in, however, I throw myself at it, and the hours seem to fly by. I have to be reminded to eat or sleep. Unfortunately, patience is a quality I must remind myself to practice. That is why I enjoy the process of sketching the reconstruction. Once the tedious work of cutting and placing depth markers on a mounted skull is complete, and 1:1 photographs are taken, I love to let my pencil flow and just "find" the victim's features. I can complete a sketch in several hours. By this time, my natural curiosity takes over and I want to see the victim's face as soon as possible. The sculpture method is much more time intensive. Texture in the face that takes hours in the bust is accomplished in a few seconds with some strokes of a pencil.

DS: When I work on a reconstruction, I'm working with existing physical facts and materials. As a writer, you create solely from imagination. One of the motivations in my work is Project EDAN (Everyone Deserves a Name). When you first created Eve Duncan, she had the same desire --- to give anonymous victims a name --- and it motivates her still in the new books like BLIND ALLEY and COUNTDOWN. My interest in Project EDAN is derived from my law enforcement background. How did you come up with Eve's?

IJ: Eve's desire to identify and bring "the lost ones" home was based on her background and character. Her love for her murdered daughter, Bonnie, and the knowledge that she had never found her was a constant torment and spurred Eve to help other parents in similar situations.

Thankfully, I have no such personal history. I first happened on forensic sculpting while watching a TV documentary. It fascinated me and immediately brought a swirling barrage of questions and possibilities: What would lead a person to such a career? What if the motivation was both tragic and personal? In this case, the career preceded the creation of the character.

DS: Let's talk about characters and affiliations. Project EDAN supplies forensic art and reconstruction to "cold case" unidentified missing persons and law enforcement agencies that do not have access to forensic artists. So, like Eve --- and Jane --- the artist is not formally affiliated with a law enforcement agency. Why did you choose to have your heroes be independent artists, as it were? Do you think that makes them more vulnerable to the cases that envelop them?

IJ: Yes, I did want my artists to be vulnerable and independent. The first reason is simply that keeping Eve independent means that her work can come from anywhere. For example, at the opening THE FACE OF DECEPTION --- the first Eve Duncan suspense novel --- she is working on a skull sent to her by the Chicago PD. She lives in the Atlanta area and is known to the police there, so more often than not her work is local. But it doesn't have to be. Secondly, I felt that independence would make them more vulnerable. Eve and Jane have never been trained by law enforcement either in tactics and weaponry or in distancing themselves emotionally from the job. Nor are they bound by the protocols of an officer, partnership, precinct, etc. And finally, frankly, lifting the restrictions of protocol gives me more freedom as a writer. I can fully immerse one or both of them in the suspense itself. I can craft my novels so they brim (I hope) with the adventure and fast-paced, tightly woven plotting that can come from giving your lead characters a personal stake in the outcome of the story.

IJ: My hero Eve Duncan is a forensic sculptor. Jane MacGuire is a sketch artist. You are both. Please tell us a little bit about the similarities and differences of working in these media.

DS: I'm a natural pencil artist in so far as it's a medium I feel most comfortable with. I've drawn since I was a child. Pencil, crayons, chalk ... whatever. I've always loved to draw. My rendering of human faces brought me into forensic art, specifically composite drawing. Two-dimensional reconstruction (sketching) of human remains was just a natural extension. I never had much experience with clay sculpting until I found its forensic application. The sculpture captures the 3-dimensional quality of a person. This is especially useful if the person has a unique profile. I believe in doing both a sculpture and a sketch. Some viewers react better to one form than the other. In the end, whatever type of reconstruction triggers a recognition is the way to go.

DS: You've made Jane a painter, and she, like Eve, has assisted the Atlanta Police Department. We know from your early books that Jane was a computer whiz. Yet, despite forensic sciences relying on computer generation, you've chosen to have her hand-draw her composites. From my work I know that the success rate of hand-drawn composites is higher than computer generated ones since you can incorporate more perspectives and minute details. Is that why you chose to steer Jane the way you did?

IJ: During my research I learned that the accuracy factor was higher in hand-drawn composites. But I also wanted to include the psychological insight between artist and witness. Exploring this connection is yet another way for me to immerse Jane in the novel's action. Focusing on hand-rendered images also allows me to explore concepts that have always personally fascinated me: the artistic force of instinct and the power of the creative drive.

DS: For me, the trickiest parts of recreating a face are the nose, hair, and eye color, as they are subjective rather than scientific. What does Eve Duncan struggle with?

IJ: Eve has problems with the same areas that you do. I expect that most forensic artists would agree that these are the hardest areas. In a profession of exact measurements, as forensic sculpture is, the subjective is always the hardest. As I've become more familiar with forensics, my admiration of the forensic sculptor has grown enormously. That's why I always try to stress the initial painstaking work and then I let Eve's instincts take over. What sets Eve apart from her peers in the novels is her ability to sense the spirit of a "lost one" in addition to his/her physiology.

IJ: Let's turn our attention to everyday practicalities. Eve Duncan works in consultation to the Atlanta PD. Although she has a modern studio and equipment, she doesn't have anything like what television viewers are seeing on CSI and other forensic television shows in terms of manpower, resources, and technology. How real are those shows in terms of what a "normal" police department would maintain?

DS: Believe it or not, I don't watch many cop or CSI type shows. I get enough of the real stuff at work. Sometimes these shows hurt law enforcement because they create unrealistic expectations. The television-educated public, when chosen as jurors, expect some high tech, magical forensic whiz to waltz onto the stand and "crack" the case for them. I think they are disappointed when an investigator stands before them with a blow-up of a latent and points out minute details in a print individualizes it to a suspect. I can attest to this: any real police-maintained facility would probably be cluttered. There would be a caffeinated beverage within reach. And finally, there would be a highly dedicated individual tucked away, doing some very important work to give justice to a person he never met.

IJ: Thank you for taking the time to give my readers even more insight into the work of a forensic artist. Best of luck in your work.

DS: I'm delighted to have had this opportunity to share ideas with you. Thank you for inviting me to participate.

Copyright © 2005, Bantam Dell Publishing Group