Sara Gran Interviewed
Q: A quote from one of Claire’s favorite books reads “Detectives aren’t made, they’re born; a detective only needs to somehow be shown his true nature.” In The Infinite Blacktop, you go back to Claire’s childhood, her troubled home life, and the detective stories that brought her and her friends together. With this backstory in mind, what do you believe: are detectives born or made?
Sara Gran: I wouldn’t take born too literally here: the reference is less to genetic heritage and more to formative childhood events and circumstances. Detectives and writers have the same problem: we were born into various worlds where there was a distinct difference between our lived experience of reality and what people told us reality was. I believe that our drive to find the truth and pin it down in a book is a result of trying to rejoin that difference.
Q: A young Claire is distraught when the NYPD finds a dead child in the Gowanas Canal. When little effort goes into solving her murder, Claire spirals out of control. What made this case particularly impactful for her?
Sara Gran: The case is impactful to Claire because she sees herself in this girl who’s been murdered—this girl whom no one has missed, no one has cared about, and no one will avenge.
Q: Throughout the book, Claire seems to be unwanted wherever she goes. Do you think this detachment makes her a better detective?
Sara Gran: The world of the Claire DeWitt books is just a little to the left of reality—it’s not an alternate universe, but it’s slightly out of register with the mundane world. One facet of this world is that detectives are more prominent than they are in our real, more boring world, and people have a love/hate relationship with them. I think there’s a kernel of reality in that because many people have a love/hate relationship with the truth that detectives represent: we like it when it makes us look good; we like it less when it gets uncomfortable. So I think I would reverse your hypothesis: Claire is forced to detach from people because, as someone committed to the truth, she makes people deeply uncomfortable.
Q: Claire describes the book Détection as “a spell. A virus. Somehow Silette knew just the right proportion of ink to pulp; letters to space; black to white…Détection gave just one thing—the truth…” What are some books that have shown you “the truth”? Has a particular detective book inspired you the same way?
Sara Gran: As I get older, I realize why the smart people who wrote the Ripley Scroll and the Bhagavad Gita and Pale Fire made their work so hard: something is gained when we struggle with a text and make it our own. Smart writers protect their words from glib, foolish interpretations by leaving glimmering, multifaceted clues rather than dull and one-sided statements, and give their readers the gift of the possibility of some self-realization with their books. One book of many that inspired Détection is Nelson Algren’s Nonconformity, a strange little thing that, if you let it, will change you.
Q: As a writer, do you have the answers to the mystery before you start writing, or do you go along for the ride with your characters? What was your writing process like for this book?
Sara Gran: I definitely go along for the ride with my characters. Each book is a mystery for me as much as it is for my characters. If you want your reader to be surprised, you, the writer, ought to be surprised with them.
Q: You’ve written for both the screen and the page. Which medium do you find most effective in telling a compelling mystery?
Sara Gran: The page is superior to the screen in many ways, this included. The screen is highly superior in paying bills, though, which counts for a lot in this life, right or wrong.
Q: What real-life cases have most fascinated you? Has a true crime case ever inspired you to write one of your stories?
Sara Gran: Funny – my mother passed away last year, and when I read this question, I was overcome with sorrow because two of our favorite conversational topics were Etan Patz and JonBenét Ramsey. Who else will talk about Etan Patz with me? No one, that’s who. For the rest of my life, I will not have a meaningful discussion about Etan Patz. My mother had a special connection to child-kidnapping cases: as a child she was close to the Greenlease family, and the tragic kidnapping and murder of Bobby Greenlease in 1953 had a profound impact on her. The Etan Patz case, although I didn’t know the family, had a similar impact on me: it made the world a darker, more frightening place. The Patz case was particularly eerie as he seemed to simply vanish.
Q: How do you think Claire has evolved since the first book in the series?
Sara Gran: Well, devolved might be more accurate. When we met Claire in City of the Dead, she was pretty stable, and she’s been coming apart since then. But coming apart isn’t a bad thing: it’s a necessary phase to go through if we aspire to become useful and beautiful and meaningful. In alchemy, it’s the dissolution phase, a step toward refinement and eventual perfection. So maybe moving forward, she will be evolving and will be putting herself back together (coagulating) in new and interesting and equally challenging and sharp-edged formations.
Q: What’s next for the detective?
Sara Gran: You’ll know when I do! But things have gotta get a little bit easier for both of us in this next chapter moving forward. We both need a break.