Interview: July 16, 2004
July 16, 2004
Bookreporter.com's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight Team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek) recently spoke with Pam and Mary Perri, who write under the pen name, Perri O'Shaughnessy. Pam and Mary discuss their fascination with Russian history, which inspired them to write UNLUCKY IN LAW, the tenth installment in their Nina Reilly series. They also talk about how they began writing together --- and have continued their collaboration for so many years --- and offer a sneak peak at their upcoming book, which will take Nina Reilly to Germany to unravel the mystery of three missing college students.
BRC: UNLUCKY IN LAW references the Romanov empire. What made you decide to explore that time in history and weave it into a modern day story? How did you conduct your research?
PO: We both studied Russian in college and always had an interest in things Russian. One sunny spring day, we were visiting our mom's grave at the cemetery in Monterey, talking about our next novel, when we happened to discover that a man claiming an odd connection to the Romanovs was also buried there in a picturesque section full of Russian graves. That set us off. The Romanovs inspire such emotion in people and continue to be a great source of controversy. We couldn't help finding it a great launching point for our next novel, which we wanted to start with someone digging up a grave.
We spoke with the cemetery coordinator who, by good chance, happened to have known this person, and we decided to base our story on the idea that someone is buried in Monterey with murky Russian connections. We next found ourselves doing a lot of reading about the Romanovs and their times, and inventing fiction based on some compelling facts and fantasies.
BRC: You have continued to develop Nina Reilly's character, and she once again experiences some major changes in this latest novel. Is Nina based on anyone in particular?
PO: Nina is herself, not Pam or Mary, although she has flashes of both of us.
In the beginning, many of the physical facts of her life --- her work in South Lake Tahoe, her cabin up there, her life as a sole practitioner --- arose out of details from Pam's past, and these were useful markers for us. We wanted Nina to have a family, because we are a close-knit family and too many characters in fiction seem to live without those awesome, blinding responsibilities. We wanted her single, so that her romantic life could be an evolving dynamic. We wanted her to be impulsive, hard-driving, ambitious, passionate, but flawed and often mistaken. Nina Reilly's all that, and more. She constantly surprises us.
BRC: One of the more interesting aspects of UNLUCKY IN LAW was the manner in which Klaus Pohlmann, the senior partner in Nina's firm, was presented. The courtroom scenes involving Pohlmann were particularly edgy, as he walked a fine line between lifelong eccentricity and early stage senility. What inspired Pohlmann?
PO: We first thought of Klaus Pohlmann as a kind of heroic maverick, still at the top of his form, still raising eyebrows and hell. When we started our draft, we realized he had gotten very old, as those of us who are lucky do, and like so many, he was ignoring some inevitable waning of his abilities. The question became, had he become a complete, doddering fool? How much remained of his wisdom, earned through many, many years of experience that might still help guide Nina through a tough case?
BRC: UNLUCKY IN LAW is the 10th novel in your Nina Reilly series. What is the most challenging aspect of writing and sustaining a long-running series?
PO: The biggest challenge is discipline. We are full of stories, and Nina Reilly, in all her complexity, has blessed us with a useful framework to tell many of them. But we are also lazy bums with families and other enthusiasms, so making the time for such a major undertaking, a novel a year for the past ten years, generates all the normal tensions. How do you balance family, work, art, travel, adventures, good health, etc.?
BRC: Please share some background details on Nina Reilly for readers who may not be familiar with the character. Do you recommend readers read the series in order?
PO: Nina was born and raised in Pacific Grove, California. A single mother, she attended Monterey Peninsula College of Law while raising a toddler and working part-time at the Pohlmann firm to support herself. After law school, she married Jack McIntyre, an attorney at that same firm, moved to San Francisco, and worked at a huge corporate firm in a high rise downtown.
In the first novel of the series, MOTION TO SUPPRESS, Nina's marriage is on the rocks. Separating from Jack, she and her son, Bob, move up to South Lake Tahoe where she opens her own practice, taking anything and everything that comes through the door.
She hires an assistant, the able, taciturn, intimidating Washoe Native American, Sandy Whitefeather, and hooks up with another old friend, private investigator Paul van Wagoner, a macho hunk with a heart. And so it all begins.
Of course it's fun to read a series in order. Nina goes through such an odyssey of adventure, heartache and joy in the course of these books. However, many readers do read them out of order and find it isn't a problem.
If you would like a list of the novels in order, you can consult our web site, www.perrio.com.
BRC: You have a great line about lawyers in the book. Ginger says, "Never go to a lawyer who golfs or can talk to you about the latest movies, because those are sure signs of a procrastinator." We sense that you feel rather strongly about the way lawyers should approach their profession. Are we right about this?
PO: Actually, that was a joke. It's easy to take cheap shots at lawyers, and sometimes we indulge. In fact, we have great respect for the profession as a whole. It's stressful, unforgiving, challenging, and attracts the brightest minds. Let them have their golf, right along with movie nights and martinis. They deserve a break.
BRC: Some of our --- and your --- readers may not know that Perri O'Shaughnessy is actually two individuals. Could you introduce yourselves and tell us your respective backgrounds?
PO: Pamela and Mary are sisters who grew up in Southern California and collaborated right away, getting lost together, singing together, and trading books and influences. After college, Pamela attended Harvard Law School and practiced criminal and family law for sixteen years in the Bay area, South Lake Tahoe, and Monterey. Mary studied English at Santa Barbara and after graduation worked on the east coast on multimedia shows and documentaries.
Pamela has a son. Presently, she commutes between Nevada and Hawaii. Mary, married to a scientist with three children, lives in the San Francisco area and at Lake Tahoe.
BRC: What inspired you to start writing collaboratively?
PO: We both wanted to write novels. Pam started novels and never finished. Mary started novels and never finished. Finally, we worked together with the deceptively simple goal of completing one book. After we finished the book, we realized another problem --- it was no good. We handed it back and forth until we couldn't fix it anymore. This happened over a long period of time. You could say the collaboration was organic. We didn't set out to be a team; things just worked better that way.
BRC: As you live in California and Hawaii respectively --- which are three time zones and a lot of water apart --- how do you collaborate long distance?
PO: Sometimes we do live closer than other times. We've both spent lots of time up at Tahoe over the past few years. However, credit the telephone and the Internet with making our often long-distance working collaboration successful technically. We talk on the phone almost every morning of the week and sometimes again later in the day, discussing the work in progress along with any irritating personal issues or juicy gossip. We travel together on car trips and talk, too, when we're together. Thousands of words exchanged, heated disputes, creative bursts, and a story emerges.
We started in the days of 300 baud modems, spending up to ten minutes to transmit three pages of text to each other. We've since graduated to email, and boy, is that an improvement. Usually one person starts writing up to eight chapters before the other jumps in to begin revamping. We take turns on that part. Then the chapters fly back and forth, in a state of constant flux, for many months.
BRC: What writers have influenced each of you?
PO: In the course of a lifetime, you read them all and go through many phases creatively. Probably, each book takes hints from whomever we were reading at the time. However, a few old and current favorites for Pam: D. H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, Elmore Leonard, and Steve Martini. For Mary: the Bronte sisters, all the old Russians, Jeffery Deaver and Alexander McCall Smith.
BRC: You also have published a number of short stories outside of the Nina Reilly continuity. Do you have plans to publish a collected volume of those stories?
PO: Right now, we have a collection tentatively called SINISTER SHORTS, which should be published within the next two years. We have many stories that have not been published before to be included that will startle, occasionally please, and maybe dismay Nina Reilly fans. They come from a different place than the novels so far, somewhere darker, spookier and less predictable. They defy categorization, ranging from conventional mystery fare to experiments in form. Honestly, we don't know what people will think; in fact, I can't wait to find out.
BRC: A number of current suspense/thriller writers with series have been publishing stand-alone novels. Do you anticipate doing any stand-alone --- or solo --- books, in addition to the short story collection mentioned on your site?
PO: Our twelfth novel will be our first stand-alone, a psychological suspense thriller, right now called KEEPER OF THE KEYS. (When you move into a house, do you change the locks? No? Neither do most people. After you read this novel, you will.)
BRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?
PO: The eleventh novel in the Nina Reilly series is in progress. We are still tossing around titles for this one, but we can tell you a few things about it. The first line currently reads: "Nina Reilly lay on her stomach, her eyes closed, a white washcloth draped over her backside."
The main story begins two years ago, when a tourist was shot just outside a casino at Tahoe. Without leads, the case is headed for oblivion until Nina gets involved. Three young witnesses, all brilliant college students, have disappeared. Nina must travel to Germany to track them down, and untangle some of the most esoteric and demanding mysteries of mathematics to save their lives.