By Gwen Florio
One of the great pleasures of doing a debut spotlight interview is the introduction to new work and a new author, one whose next book gets an automatic spot on the TBR list. That’s certainly the case with Jennifer Kincheloe’s THE SECRET LIFE OF ANNA BLANC. Jennifer is as warm and funny – although, thank heavens, worldlier and less impulsive – than her protagonist. You often hear agents and editors say they want to read the novel they haven’t read before. THE SECRET LIFE OF ANNA BLANC – which Lori Rader-Day calls “fast, funny and fabulous” – is that novel.
Anna Blanc is a delightfully contradictory character – I think of her as a Scarlett O’Hara with heart. How did she come about?
Anna Blanc is what happens when you take a brilliant, spirited girl, deprive her of love and opportunity, spoil her materially, insist that she be beautiful, charming, and passive, and then use her. So, with regards to her origins, she has a lot in common with Scarlett O’Hara. (Without the blatant racism, although racism was and is still a major issue in Los Angeles.)
THE SECRET LIFE OF ANNA BLANC tracks Anna’s struggle to break out of her gilded cage and do something meaningful. She wants to use her head. She wants to control her life. She wants someone to truly love her. Society keeps pushing her down and she keeps popping up.
Like Scarlett, Anna is glamorous and self-absorbed, but smart and courageous. She risks everything to save prostitutes. I think that’s why people come to love her. People compare Anna to Scarlett O’Hara, Sherlock Holmes, and even Lucille Ball, because the novel is humorous.
You told me that this book began as a film script. Why and how did you make the transition?
I started out writing screenplays because I thought they’d be easier for a novice. (They weren’t.) Paul Foley, a successful screenwriter who teaches at the USC film school, mentored me. This was a miracle. He is incredibly brilliant and generous. He taught me how to tell a story.
My husband wasn’t interested in screenplays, but he loved fiction. I switched to fiction because this was something we could do together. I honestly didn’t prefer one form to the other.
Once The Secret Life of Anna Blanc had morphed from script to novel, how did it get to publication?
After I turned the screenplay of THE SECRET LIFE OF ANNA BLANC into a novel, I entered it into a contest. Liz Bonsor from The Blair Partnership (TBP) literary agency saw the first chapter posted on-line. She found me through LinkedIn. At first, I ignored her invitation because I didn’t know who she was! She said she wanted to talk to me about my writing. TBP reps J.K. Rowling. I couldn’t sleep for about a month. Then TBP sold my novel to Seventh Street Books. You could say my path to publication has been paved with miracles. And hard work. I rewrote the novel so many times. There are a hundred and forty different versions of the book on my computer.
The novel is full of terrific period details, everything from high fashion to the workings of different classes of brothels. How did you research those?
For clothes, I read the fashion section in the 1907 Los Angeles newspapers. Not only did they show me what dresses looked like, they expounded on what was in style, out of style, which clothes were appropriate for which occasions, what they were made of. I read the Sears catalog. I read American novels written in the period to see how they described the clothes, and their cultural significance. I studied the budding couture industry of the time. I went to museum exhibits. I read an entire book on period underwear, and another from the 1900s on how to do laundry. To supplement that, I collected thousands of digital photographs of clothes from the 1900s—underwear, shoes, hats, women’s clothes, men’s clothes, jewelry. You can find them on my Pinterest page.
Researching the brothels was trickier. Little is written about prostitution in LA in the 1900s. I mostly went to memoirs of Angelenos, newspaper articles, letters to the editor, and books about prostitution in other cities during the era. I did find this little booklet, the 1897 La Fiesta de Los Angeles Souvenir Sporting Guide, which was made for tourists, and had the names and addresses of all the brothels in Los Angeles, along with the names of the girls. I looked at maps of the red light district. Then I hit the jackpot. I found a historian’s dissertation on prostitution in Los Angeles in the 1900s, and got it off microfiche at the library. I reached out to the historian, Anne Marie Kooistra, and she agreed to review the novel for historical accuracy. She gave it the thumbs up and it made her laugh.
I put that level of effort into every facet of the book.
You deftly layered references to serious social issues—child labor, women’s limited choices, poverty, racial and ethnic disparities—beneath a surface of broad humor. Was that part of your original intent, or did you include it as a result of your research into the times?
My original intent was to give homage to Alice Stebbins Wells, a police matron who became the first female cop in Los Angeles. She paved the way for other women. We can only imagine the battles she fought. She inspired the book. So, yes, the social issues part was intentional. The humor came because I rarely approach anything with a straight face. I can’t help it. (Except interviews because they scare me.)
At a Bouchercon panel, you likened writing a novel to getting your Ph.D.—“simply” a matter of hard work. Discuss, please.
When I started, I knew nothing about writing. I read tons of books on craft, and treated it like graduate school—three years of working a crazy number of hours and learning everything I could.
I’m in a writer’s group with people who are more talented than I. But maybe they haven’t had the luxury of time, or for whatever reason, they’ve never finished a novel. Finishing a novel is scary and it’s hard work. It’s all about persistence—a lot like getting a Ph.D. Most people never finish.
Did your background as a research scientist factor into the writing or subject matter, and, if so, how?
My perfectionism comes from my research background. When you do policy work and your numbers are going to the legislature or members of Congress, you absolutely have to get it right. Historical fiction sets a similarly high bar. People will call you out if you make mistakes.
People always love to hear about the toughest part of the job: What’s your routine?
At the beginning, I wrote all of the time—anytime, anywhere. I’m more moderate now. Marketing demands a lot of time.
My best work happens in the car while my son is at soccer practice. There’s no Internet.
And, finally, the eternal question: Plotter or pantser?
I plot, but that doesn’t mean entire chunks of the story don’t go out the window, which is why I have 140 versions of the novel alone. For instance, there’s a different villain in the screenplay than in the book. I use a screenwriting outline to draft out novels, because that’s how I started. Then I deviate as needed.
PS: What’s next? More Anna Blanc? Or … ?
More Anna. Book two is set in Chinatown and is based on true stories. Chinatown had the corner on vice. It housed all the gambling, two-thirds of LA’s saloons, and most of the prostitution. It was only a few square blocks. All kinds of crazy stuff went down. Slavery, hits, tong wars (tongs are Chinese gangs). At one point, most of Central Station’s officers walked that beat. It had its own Chinatown squad.
In 1908, somebody “stole” two singsong girls from a Chinese tong president. He thought the rival gang did it. He wanted the girls back and promised a $1,000 reward for their return. The LAPD coveted the money and they wanted to avert a conflict, so they began hunting the girls to give them back to their “owner.”
I thought that story begged to be told.
Jennifer Kincheloe is a research scientist turned writer of historical fiction. She grew up in Southern California, but has traveled to such places as Nicaragua, Ethiopia, and Papua New Guinea. She earned a Masters degree in Public Health from Loma Linda University and a PhD in Health Services from UCLA. She adores kickboxing, yoga, and developing complex statistical models. She was on the faculty at UCLA, where she spent 11 years conducting research to inform health policy. THE SECRET LIFE OF ANNA BLANC is her first novel. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and two children, two dogs, and a cat.
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Gwen Florio is a veteran journalist whose first novel, Montana, won a High Plains Book Award and Pinckley Prize for crime fiction, and was a finalist for an International Thriller Award, Shamus Award and Silver Falchion Award, all in the first novel category. Dakota was published in 2014 and her third novel, Disgraced, comes out in March 2016.
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