BookView Interview With Author James Gilbert

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors..

Recently, we interviewed James Gilbert about his writing and recently released novel, Murder at Amapas Beach (An Amanda Pennyworth Mystery), an entertaining crime yarn filled with unexpected plot twists and fascinating local descriptions. (Read the review here.)

James Gilbert is the author of four novels and eleven books on Twentieth Century American History. Born in Chicago, he attended Carleton College in Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin. For a number of years, he was Professor of History at the University of Maryland. During this time, he traveled and lived abroad in Europe, Australia, and Latin America. Murder at Amapas Beach is the third novel in the Amanda Pennyworth mystery series and based on his frequent visits to Mexico. He currently lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. 

Murder at Amapas Beach is the third installment in the Amanda Pennyworth Mysteries series. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about writing mysteries since you wrote your first mystery novel?

          Undoubtedly, the most surprising and interesting thing I’ve learned about in the continuing Amanda series is Amanda herself.  Living with an imaginary character through three novels has made her a person that I know almost as well as any real individual.  In each book, I have tried to reveal more about her to the point that she has become as alive to me as anyone I know.  It still seems remarkable to me that fiction can be so immediate and present and close to reality.

How do you develop the clues and twists in a mystery story like Murder at Amapas Beach? Do you draw from real-life cases, or are you inspired by other writers, or do you come up with everything yourself?

          Like any writer, especially a mystery writer, I have my favorite authors.  These differ so widely, however, that I’d be uncertain as to who or which one inspires me the most.  That is because I’m particularly drawn to the works of the noir novelist, Raymond Chandler and Donna Leon’s stories set in contemporary Venice.  I can’t think of two authors more distinct in their approaches to mystery.  But I find both to be remarkably inventive in their own unique ways.  I will say that in the case of the first Amanda novel, I was particularly concerned about a fellow writer, someone I knew quite well, who hadn’t published a novel for several years, and I wondered how desperate one might be driven to publish, and how this situation might lead to deadly consequences.

          In large part, however, the Amanda series is based on imagining a unique and unexpected situation in which a crime occurs, and then letting the details play out.  So in general, the plot twists and clues are all of my own invention.

Murder at Amapas Beach begins in Puerto Vallarta, and bounces between Mexico and the United States. What kind of research did you do to be able to paint a vivid picture of the settings for readers?

          The research I did for Murder at Amapas Beach is, first of all, based on my extensive and personal acquaintance with Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Chicago, and Wisconsin (the three settings of the novel).  I also studied city maps, photographs of actual places: streets and buildings and natural surroundings—even native trees and flowers.  On occasion, I also consulted records of seasonal weather forecasts.  The purpose, of course, is to make the fictional world as real and believable as possible, as if the reader is present at the moment.   

As both a reader and a writer, what do you think is the most important element of a good mystery novel?

          To my mind, there are two distinct elements that make for a good mystery story.  The first, and most important, is the main character who must be both a memorable personality as well as likeable.  The detective or sleuth needs to be a character with whom the reader can empathize—and, in my estimation, it should also be someone who exhibits the doubts and misunderstandings and confusions of an ordinary person.  If she (in this case) is someone who, despite her misgivings and reluctance, is drawn into solving a mystery, so much the better.

          The second important element is setting.  I think that the best novels take place in environments that are, in themselves, interesting and even exotic.  That is one reason why all of my Amanda Pennyworth novels are set in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico—a resort city with a variety of fascinating and distinct neighborhoods and a very diverse population.

Do you base any of your characters on real people, either in whole or in part?  

          I believe it is inevitable that characters in any novel are, in some measure, derived from real people, and particularly from the study of how people look and act—even if they are someone only casually observed.  In the case of the Amanda Pennyworth novels, I developed the main character from my experience working as a consultant for United States State Department.  In this capacity, I read hundreds of promotion files for employees stationed in foreign countries, and came to know what their duties were and how they related to the Department bureaucracy.  Amanda, who in the novels is the U.S. Consul in Puerto Vallarta, is a kind of imagined composite of these men and women who represent the United States abroad.

Which scene or chapter in the book is your favorite? Why?

          My preference is for the dinner party held in an elegant apartment in Racine, Wisconsin, overlooking the shores of Lake Michigan.  All the invited guests, except Amanda Pennyworth, the amateur sleuth, are suspects in the murder of the glamorous Danielle Overman who was murdered while on vacation in Mexico.  The host plays a nasty game, asking everyone to write the name of the person they suspect on a slip of paper.  The results are tallied by Amanda and with unexpected…and deadly results.

          I like this scene especially because it flushes out the hidden animosities of a group of couples who are apparently close friends.  And particularly because it drives the plot of the novel to its surprise ending.

Mystery is one of those genres where readers can sometimes come to expect a certain outcome or story structure. Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want/expect?

          I think that every reader of a mystery (myself included) expects a satisfactory ending and a plausible explanation of how and why the crime has occurred.  Whether the perpetrator is hauled off to prison or trial is not important to me.  What matters, and this is where I believe the most creativity lies, is how the ending reveals something profound about the sleuth—something more about her reasoning and even about her personality—and, of course, an important and perhaps unexpected revelation about the victim and the perpetrator.  I hope that Murder at Amapas Beach achieves both.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?

          Almost everything about being a writer can, at one point or another, present a challenge, whether it be the elaboration of a plot, the development of characters, the research necessary to make fiction come alive, and, of course, the daily grind of actual writing.  However, what I always find most difficult is the very beginning and making the commitment to embark on what I know will be a long process.  Once I start, however, and once the novel becomes a part of my life, I find that the excitement of creating characters and situations makes that initial decision very worthwhile.

Who and what ultimately inspired you to become a writer?

           I suppose I have always wanted to write, and in my other career as a historian, I was the author of a number of books on modern American history and culture.  This was immensely satisfying and important to me, but, at the same time, I felt constrained by the limitations of non-fiction. And so I turned to writing short stories and novels.

          As to who inspired me, I should mention Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald among older authors, (and too many more to mention), and, of course, a huge variety of contemporary writers.  But I should add that I find in almost anyone I read, traditional or present-day, beautiful passages, brilliant turns of phrase, and surprising twists of plot that make me want to emulate their remarkable achievements.

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