Monday, July 15, 2024

In conversation with… mystery writer Barbara Wilson

Globe-trotting translator-sleuth Cassandra Reilly returns—this time to the country where she was born: America.

Barbara Wilson is the author of seven previous mysteries, including Gaudí Afternoon, which introduced translator sleuth Cassandra Reilly and was made into a movie starring Judy Davis and Marcia Gay Harden. She is a winner of two Lambda Literary awards and the British Crime Writers’ award for best thriller set in Europe. As Barbara Sjoholm, she is the author of fiction and narrative nonfiction, and a translator whose work has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts. For her contributions to lesbian literature she received the 2020 GCLS Trailblazer Award. She lives in the Pacific Northwest. We caught up with Barbara to find out more about her latest Cassandra Reilly mystery.

What are the origins of the Cassandra Reilly series?

Cassandra first appeared in a short story I was asked to write in the late 1980s for a British anthology of feminist mysteries, Reader, I Murdered Him. For several years around that time I was frequently in London, where all my books were being published by Virago and The Women’s Press.  I also lived in Seattle, where I was the co-publisher of Seal Press, but while I paid attention to American feminist and queer issues, I also had this other life in London, and a connection to the British feminist and international scene. I was doing a lot of traveling for pleasure and for work throughout that period and had friends, sometimes expatriates, in cities like Barcelona, Brussels, and Amsterdam. So it seemed natural to create a character, born in the States, who was based in London but had no real fixed address, and who made a living from translation. I was translating from Norwegian during those years and also having my own fiction translated by publishers in Germany, Italy, Finland, and Japan, so I was often thinking about language and place. My maternal grandfather was an Irish immigrant from West Cork and my Irish-American mother went to college in Kalamazoo, so some of Cassandra’s background mirrors that side of the family (the other side is Swedish).

What attractions does the mystery genre hold for you?

I’ve always liked genre writing and I was a fan of mysteries from an early age, starting with Agatha Christie and James Cain. I had begun to read some women’s mysteries that had a more feminist message in the late 1970s, like the Kate Fansler mysteries by Amanda Cross (Carolyn Heilbrun). Around 1983 I heard an anecdote in Seattle of two collectives at odds with each other and for fun I started writing a mystery of my own. Initially it was just a satire, but I could see that the mystery genre had some unexplored possibilities. I experimented with making the characters diverse in a way that reflected my circles and I created twin characters, one straight and one newly gay; the lesbian twin was Pam Nilsen, part of a printing collective in Seattle.  When Murder in the Collective came out in 1984 and was popular, I wrote two other mysteries that more explicitly combined politics around sex work and gender with an investigation undertaken by Pam, a somewhat clueless but likable lesbian sleuth.  

The lesbian mystery really took off in the 1980s and led to a very durable genre that, probably more than any other form of lesbian writing, really captured the day to day lives of queer people in a realistic way—except for all the murders, obviously.

What I was trying to do with the Cassandra Reilly character became quite different than what I’d done with Pam, who was deeply embedded in her Seattle community.  I was still working with gender and queerness, but by setting in the stories and novels in other countries, I also explored how same-sex attraction manifests in other cultures. My model for the Cassandra stories and full-length mysteries was more the caper model. Not all of them featured corpses, but there were usually heists and dubious identities. Cassandra is very much a flexible adventurer, for whom detecting comes naturally, even though it’s undertaken reluctantly. As a translator she’s used to disentangling meanings.

Can you say more about why Cassandra is a translator?

I made Cassandra a Spanish-to-English translator because I too had studied Spanish at one point for a year at the University of Granada in Spain and had spent quite a bit of time in Barcelona. I ended up as a translator of Norwegian and Danish myself, but I’ve always kept Cassandra working with the Romance languages. Gaudi Afternoon takes place in Barcelona, but the project she’s working on is a magic realism novel by Gloria de los Angeles, from South America. In some of the stories in the collection, The Death of a Much-Travelled Woman, Cassandra is working with authors like Luisa Montiflores, from Uruguay, who is also a character in the new mystery, Not the Real Jupiter. 

One of the things that was apparent to me early on in making translation Cassandra’s livelihood is that the non-binary nature of changing words into other words means that there’s always a space between meanings. And I think that space reflects Cassandra’s own way of living and her gender presentation, which can be fluid. She’s a lesbian, but she’s not an American lesbian. She’s not fully a British lesbian either. She’s never had a long-term relationship and her affairs have often been with queer women in other countries, where queerness can present differently. So “translation” has that sense in the fiction about Cassandra. However, I’m also very interested in actual translation as a practice and as a form of literature. Cassandra often struggles financially as a translator and can feel insecure and marginalized, which reflects the reality of freelance book translation. Only very recently have translators had their names on book covers and been given credit along with the authors. Generally they’ve been invisible—necessary but neglected. So I play with that invisibility in writing about Cassandra—she has a lower status in literary circles and is constantly complaining about the writers whose work she translates. At the same time, her ability with languages is a sort of super-power, and in terms of investigating crimes it can give her an edge. 

Cassandra in your newest book is considerably older than when we last saw her twenty years ago. Not all mystery writers “age” their detectives. Why this choice? 

I myself was in my late sixties when I started to write Not the Real Jupiter, I thought it would be more interesting to jump forward in time to Cassandra as woman “hovering around seventy,” as she says. In some ways she’s not that different—she’s still working as a freelance translator, she’s still single, for instance—but in other ways she’s starting to wonder what retirement would look like, to look at some of her friendships as anchors and to see London as more than a base. This becomes more apparent to her in Not the Real Jupiter, when she’s stuck in Oregon because of a murder case, and starts to panic about getting back to life in London. 

There are certainly women mystery writers who keep their detectives young enough year after year to continue to be able to do the physical things private eyes or cops need to do, but I think that can end up being awkward. Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, a character I’ve always liked, is still kicking ass and getting regularly beat up by the bad guys even though, by rights, she should be past seventy-five by now. I find that jolting sometimes. There’s also a certain amount of artificiality with a detective who started out in an analog world that is now digital, and who seems to have no memories of that earlier time when you didn’t just Google suspects, but had to gumshoe everything. 

I’d always been interested in the character of the elderly female sleuth, who often appears in the Golden Age mysteries as a sort of spinster busybody who’s unseen because old women are unseen, and who’s allowed to gossip and ask questions because she’s so harmless. I’m thinking of Miss Marple of course, but also Miss Climpton in Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey series, who eventually manages an office full of undercover female agents. I also really liked Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax character, who’s a spy in her sixties and investigates international espionage cases.

I was fascinated by the idea of writing about a queer sleuth of seventy who was technically a spinster. While women around her are often retired, Cassandra is still working for a living and eager to do so. She’s physically healthy, yet the prospect of the time when she will be more slowed down by age weighs heavily at times. Why shouldn’t readers of any age encounter an active older woman engaged in meaningful work, travel, and new experiences, while also dealing with issues of mortality? 

I should mention that I was just finishing Not the Real Jupiter when the virus struck and most travel began to cease. But I’m hopeful that Cassandra can resume her globe-trotting after she’s had her vaccine from the NHS in London. 

What made you decide to begin writing about Cassandra again?

Cassandra was always a delightful part of my life, from her first appearance in my imagination so many years ago. I began thinking about her again a few years ago when I was asked about reprinting a story in a British anthology, Deadlier: 100 of the Best Crime Stories Written by Women. That coincided with resuming visiting London again on a regular basis and seeing longtime British and expat friends. I had originally stopped with the mysteries because I began to get so interested in narrative nonfiction, in essays, journalism, travel books, and memoir. I began to spend more time. in Scandinavia, translating and writing cultural history for university presses. It’s been intellectually challenging as well as satisfying to work on issues to do with the indigenous Sami people in the Nordic countries. 
But after one big research project I felt I needed some fun, and I wrote a couple of long stories about Cassandra. Eventually I jumped into a full-length mystery and remembered how happy it made me to spend again with Cassandra, one of my oldest friends.


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