Debut Author Spotlight: Radha Vatsal

By E.A. Aymar

Radha Vatsal‘s debut, A FRONT PAGE AFFAIR, doesn’t read like a first novel. First novels aren’t supposed to be this self-assured, or detailed, or full of three-dimensional characters (both real and fictional) who vividly bring the 1910s to life. I settled down on the couch with A FRONT PAGE AFFAIR on a Friday morning and didn’t get back up for about four hours. Part of that is because I’m super lazy, but mainly it’s because I was completely absorbed in Vatsal’s story. Her protagonist, Kitty Weeks, is a young reporter who stumbles upon a murder that she’s desperate to write about, but finds herself constantly frustrated by journalism’s patriarchal structure. Framed against the backdrop of World War I, and tackling cultural issues that still resonate today, it’s impossible not to let yourself slip into the novel.

So I decided to ask her a whole bunch of questions about it.

It’s not uncommon for people to say you’ve got to start with a dead body on page one. But you delay the murder in your book, and still manage to hook readers on the first page. Did you go back and forth (with yourself, or your agent or publisher) on when that corpse would appear on the page, or was it even a thought?

Firstly, thanks! I’m glad that worked out. I think the corpse needs to appear when the corpse needs to appear. Actually, my editor had me cut some material I had written that leads up to the party but, when I cut it, I still felt I needed to fold it back in; the reader needed some knowledge about the main character and her world before the murder happens. We didn’t explicitly discuss page numbers though.

One of the great things about A FRONT PAGE AFFAIR is how timely it is, particularly regarding issues like immigration and feminism in the current campaign season. Was any of that intentional, or entirely coincidental?

Again, thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed that aspect of the book. One reason I was drawn to the 1910s is that, as you point out, the issues that were important back then still seem relevant now. I came up with the idea of this series several years ago, and in a sense, its timeliness seems to have increased since then. It’s interesting to me, though, how so much fiction and so many movies are set in the glamorous periods right before and after the 1910s: the turn-of-the-century robber baron era, or the Roaring ’20s.

There’s also some great commentary about the limits of female journalists in the 1910s, along with examples of a few women breaking through that barrier. I love that you don’t shy away from these social issues. Did those issues inform your novel before you wrote it, or did they occur organically during the writing?

I wanted to create a heroine who, although she wants to be independent, isn’t thoroughly modern and is governed by the mores of her time. For me, a historical mystery with an anachronistic protagonist wouldn’t make sense and it wouldn’t be much fun to write. When for instance, I watch a show like The Americans, which I enjoy, I wonder, where are the babysitters? It’s great that these spies are parents, but how are they leaving their kids at home at night? I think realistic and practical obstacles—like the fact that the newspaper business wasn’t particularly welcoming to women in the 1910s—add to the story, and to the challenges Kitty has to overcome. She has to solve the murder while figuring out what she can and can’t do as a female journalist in 1915 New York.

I’m blown away by the amount of research you must have done for this novel. Every detail seems intentional and particular to the 1910s. You’ve already discussed (on your site) how you did the research, but I want to know–do you enjoy it? Is extensive research a facet of your writing that will always be necessary for your work?

I love the research. I wouldn’t have been able to write the novel the way I had, if I didn’t do the research. It helps that I conceived of this as a series so I know I’ll have a chance to build on the things I’ve learned, and if I don’t use it in this book, I’ll use it in the next one. I personally enjoy reading books where I learn a lot. I love Dick Francis’s mysteries because I’ve learned a lot about jockeys and racing, even though I have no interest in horse racing, or books like Dune or Lord of the Rings where you feel immersed in a new world. The research helps me write in a way that keeps me engaged. I’ve learned things that are true that I’d never be able to make up. 

And yes, I think extensive research will always be a part of my work at least for the Kitty Weeks Mystery series.

Is there something about the era of the 1910s that appeals to you?

Everything about the 1910s appeals to me. It’s a tumultuous and transformative period in American life. It’s during this period that the country changes from being “Victorian” to modern. From being a secondary player in world events to a leading power. And you see that change take place in so many arenas: politics, culture, the film business, the role of women. It’s fascinating and I hope to capture some of that sense of change in this series.

Kitty Weeks seems destined for a series, but is there another time period you find interesting enough to write about?

Right now it’s all about Kitty Weeks for me. I imagined this series as covering the war years and all the changes that happened from around 1915 to 1919 or 1920. I think when I’m done I’ll have the 1910s out of my system and be ready to turn to a different period.

If you are working on the second book, how’s it going? Any challenges or pleasant discoveries you want to share?

I’m almost finished with book two, and it’s going well, thanks. Pleasant discovery: I really enjoying writing at this pace (a book a year I hope), and being with the characters and doing the research. And as much as I think I know about the characters and period, I’m always learning more.

What other art forms do you enjoy? Is there a song (or songs), movie, TV show, that you found yourself turning to as you wrote A FRONT PAGE AFFAIR?

There’s some great work going on in TV. I was really inspired by The Wire, where over the course of the different seasons the show’s writers explored different aspects of Baltimore, so that when you’re done you really feel like you know the city. It sounds crazy, but I’d like to do the same for the late 1910s so that when you’re done reading the series, you feel like you know that moment in American history.

Along those lines, you studied early cinema at Duke. Any interest in ever writing a screenplay? And what’s your favorite movie? Okay, that’s tough. Three favorite movies.

I’ve tried my hand at writing screenplays and one day, I hope to return to that. Okay, let’s do this: two favorite directors. Hitchcock and Orson Welles. A favorite movie by each of them: A Touch of Evil (Welles), Vertigo (Hitchcock). I highly recommend Truffaut’s book on Hitchcock, and My Lunches with Orson by Peter Biskind.

(Ed. Note: And I need to mention a terrific book about Orson Welles I read a couple of years ago by one of my former professors, Marguerite Rippy’s Orson Welles and the Unfinished RKO Projects: A Postmodern Perspective.)

What’s been a pleasant surprise you’ve discovered in your publishing journey?

The people. Mystery/thriller writers are a great group of people. They are very supportive. You feel like you’re becoming part of a community. I hadn’t expected that.

Radha Vatsal grew up in Mumbai, India, and came to the United States to attend boarding school when she was sixteen.  She has stayed here ever since.  Her fascination with the 1910s began when she studied women filmmakers and action-film heroines of silent cinema at Duke University, where she earned her PhD from the English Department.  A FRONT PAGE AFFAIR is her first novel. 

To learn more about A FRONT PAGE AFFAIR, click on the cover below:

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E.A. Aymar is Managing Editor of The Thrill Begins and the author of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2013) and You’re As Good As Dead (2015). He writes a monthly column with the Washington Independent Review of Books, and his fiction and nonfiction have been featured in a number of respected publications. He holds a Masters degree in Literature and lives outside of Washington, D.C.

To learn more about E.A. Aymar’s novels, click on the covers below:

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