Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Author Snapshot: Barbara Fister

Anyone who knows Barbara Fister even slightly is not in the least surprised to discover that her novels are smart, sophisticated and deeply concerned with the larger world. In many ways, all of those words -- smart, sophisticated, concerned -- describe the Madison-born and Minnesota-based author perfectly.

An academic librarian at a liberal arts college, on her own Web site, Fister says her “research interests are wide, not to say idiosyncratic, but they all have to do, one way or another, with how various media shape our understanding of the world.”

These interests -- and even passions – inform Fister’s work. “I’m particularly interested [in] the role of anxiety in the formation of social issues,” says Fister, “in life and in fiction.”

In her second novel, Fister says she is exploring “how anxiety becomes a device for the suppression of dissent in In the Wind.” The book draws parallels between the contemporary insouciance regarding civil liberties and the counterintelligence practices of the era around the Vietnam War. Fister herself tells us that she would “like to think I’m contributing my small part toward carrying on the feminist contribution to the PI genre.” And, sure: there’s that. But there’s so much more here, as well.

A Snapshot of Barbara Fister...

Born: Madison, Wisconsin
Resides: Rural Minnesota, US
Birthday: I’m 53. I’m not big on birthdays.
Web site:

Please tell us about In the Wind.

The book draws on the resonance between the present state of our civil liberties and the excesses of law enforcement during the Vietnam War era.

A woman who has been working quietly in a church on Chicago’s West Side goes on the lam, accused of having killed an FBI agent in 1972, when she was a member of a radical offshoot of the American Indian Movement. The narrator of the story, Anni Koskinen, has recently resigned from the Chicago PD after getting on the wrong side of her fellow cops, and is not quite sure what to do with herself; her only job so far as newly licensed PI has been tracking down a teenage girl with bipolar disorder. By happenstance, Anni helps the fugitive escape, then gets involved in her defense -- which is tricky because her closest friend is not only an FBI agent himself, but the son of the murdered man. But even he is unhappy with the way the FBI is handling the case, and is troubled by the direction the bureau has been heading. Her investigation leads down some mean streets, up to the White Earth Reservation, into the past -- and, of course, into a whole lot of trouble. Which, when all’s said and done, is her business.

I had to reach for the smelling salts when Kris Nelscott, whose Smokey Dalton series is one I’ve long admired, read the book and said I was “Sara Paretsky’s heir apparent.” I’m sure Paretsky is too busy writing to think about heirs, but I like to think I’m contributing my small part toward carrying on the feminist contribution to the PI genre.

What’s on your nightstand?
A lovely big pile of books, including Minette Walter’s The Chameleon’s Shadow and Andrew Pyper’s Wildfire Season.

What inspires you?
I get my dander up about a lot of things, and writing is a good outlet. In the Wind was a therapeutic way to deal with my negative feelings about George Bush. It was strange, as I did research for the story, to read about counterintelligence practices exposed after Watergate; they’re identical to what’s going on today. When Chris Dodd read from the 1976 Church Committee hearings this past December on the floor of the Senate as he filibustered a bill sanctioning warrantless wiretapping, it sent chills up my spine. We’re in a weird time warp; the only thing missing is the outrage and the tear gas. That said, though my book has political themes, I try to play fair with the issues. Anything less would belittle the very real issues at stake, and straw men don’t make for very compelling characters in fiction.

What are you working on now?
My next book deals with the immigration debate and the aftermath of an exoneration. A black man who has spent 20 years in prison, convicted in a highly-publicized rape case, is released after his conviction is overturned. The woman who is raped wants to know who was really responsible -- especially once she discovers that several women have been attacked since in similar circumstances. Anni Koskinen starts to investigate just as another highly-charged crime is stirring passions in Chicago, when an undocumented alien is arrested for the murder of a young woman who had been missing for months. As with In the Wind, what really interests me is the way in which general social anxiety shapes the way people respond to crime, and how that anxiety is manipulated for various ends. While it sounds as if I’m on a soapbox, I’m not: I just think this stuff makes for compelling stories.

Tell us about your process.
I’m what someone at Crimespace evocatively called a “fog walker.” I can’t map out a story in advance, I have to discover it as I go groping along. I’m sure it would be more efficient to work from an outline, but I just can’t do it. If I can see two or three scenes ahead, I’m doing well. Thank god for word processors.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
There’s a cat trying to climb into my lap. He’s jealous of all the time my laptop spends there.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I was in fifth grade I wrote a story about a horse that was a whole eight pages long. I was very impressed with myself.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
I would be reading them. (Which I do, anyway.) I have a job I like quite a bit -- as an academic librarian and college teacher. I enjoy writing fiction, but I fit it in when I can. I feel a little guilty saying this, because I know how many people’s fondest desires are caught up in the identity “writer.” For me, it’s something I love to do, but it’s not who I am.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
That’s a very interesting question, actually. You’d think it would be when my agent closed the deal on my first book, in a preempt the day after he put it on the market. But that was both unreal and fraught with anxiety. I hate having my hands shake every time the phone rings. It may sound corny, but my happiest moments are when I write a scene that really works. There’s no anxiety involved, no regrets, no ambition to be someone other than who I am; just pure satisfaction.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being a writer?
Hmm, I’m beginning to visualize Gabriel Byrne sitting in a chair on the opposite side of the room asking me these questions as he tents his hands in front of him. “Being a writer” is a phrase that makes me oddly nervous. I guess I’m only comfortable with it as a verb: to write, not as a descriptive noun: a writer. I write. That’s easy.

What’s the most difficult? Avoiding the hype and hysteria about how to market yourself. I see so much unhappiness among people who act like stage mothers to their inner child. That’s no way to treat a kid.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
I don’t get many questions about it; not that many people know I write mysteries.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?

Read any good books lately?

What question would you like never to be asked again?
What do you think of my book trailer? (Or any other marketing topic.) Look, Doc, I’ll level with you: I think capitalism, which celebrates greed as a virtue and separates us all into winners and losers, like some cosmic American Idol show, appeals to our worst nature and fosters intolerance and inequality. Too much bad energy is generated around books as product and authors as brands, and none of it actually benefits readers. It’s gotten so bad that writers go on discussion lists to chide people for checking books out of libraries. It would be much more beneficial to think about developing a healthy book culture than to focus so much on selling ourselves. I think my inner librarian is coming out.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
Well, quite a few people know this, since I wrote about it in an article that got picked up at Slashdot (“News for Nerds”), but I’m a self-disclosed anarchist librarian -- which is not an oxymoron. In reality, libraries are a model of anarchist philosophy. They are full of ideas that coexist side by side, even though they disagree with one another. You may think we’re creating order, but actually we put all those books together so they can have a good brawl. No single authority gets to decide which answers are the right ones. Anyone who comes in the door gets to make up his or her own mind. When it comes to crime fiction, two of Ranganathan’s laws of library science, first laid out in 1931, provide a model of tolerance: every reader his book, every book, its reader. Forget the bestseller lists and the hype -- just be open-minded, look for the unusual voices that speak to you, find the right match, and all will be well.

Is our time up already? I must say, I feel much better. This therapy seems to be working.

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OpenID said...

What a fabulous interview! I'm glad to know more interesting things about Barbara.

Theresa de Valence
Authors deserve Better Software To Write

Monday, March 30, 2009 at 10:15:00 AM PDT  

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