Today I am pleased to present an interview with one of my favorite writers, USA Today bestselling author Gigi Pandian. Gigi is the child of cultural anthropologists from New Mexico and the southern Tip of India. After spending her childhood being dragged around the world, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt mystery series (Artifact, Pirate Vishnu, and Quicksand) and the Accidental Alchemist mysteries (The Accidental Alchemist). Gigi’s debut novel was awarded a Malice Domestic Grant and named a “Best of 2012” debut by Suspense Magazine, and her short fiction has been short-listed for Agatha and Macavity awards.
And last week, Gigi’s second novel, Pirate Vishnu, was awarded the Rose Award at Left Coast Crime!
Please welcome Gigi to the blog.
Tell us about your journey as a writer.
I’ve been making up mysteries since I was a kid. As a small child I adored Scooby Doo, so I made up my own Scooby Doo adventures so I could have even more of them. When I was a little bit older, I wrote a cartoon series about Minnesota Smith – a female Indiana Jones. This pattern continued, but I didn’t think seriously about writing novels until many years later.
I left a PhD program once I completed my Masters, because that’s when I finally realized I needed to be doing something more creative in my life. I got a part-time job, started attending art school, and spent my free time at cafes writing a mystery novel. Now that I was following my creative passions, my whole life fell into place.
What was your road to publication like?
I began to take my writing seriously when I was awarded a Malice Domestic Grant [ http://www.malicedomestic.org/grants.html ] for a draft of my debut novel, ARTIFACT. That’s what gave me the push I needed to learn more about the craft of writing, finish polishing the manuscript, and query agents.
I took the time necessary to turn a good idea into a polished book – through workshops, books on the craft of writing, and critique groups – so I found an agent relatively quickly. Finding a publisher was more difficult. I learned that my novel was in between mystery subgenres, which made it a tougher sell to big publishers.
While my agent was pitching the novel to publishers, I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. With so much uncertainty in life, I wanted to be in control of something in my life. I decided to self-publish ARTIFACT, with my agent backing my decision that the book was ready for publication. I had a year of cancer treatments, so I used that year to learn how to self-publish successfully. My efforts were rewarded when the book was well received.
Self publishing was so much work that I was thrilled when Henery Press made me an offer to publish the whole series, and when my agent sold my second series to Midnight Ink. Even though it took a while to find my footing, I ended up signing two three-book deals within a few months of each other. The hard work up front paid off.
One of the inspirations behind the Jaya Jones series is the late Elizabeth Peters, a grande-dame of mystery writers. Tell us about that. What else inspired you to create Jaya’s character and the series?
My favorite books when I was a teenager were the Vicky Bliss mysteries by Elizabeth Peters. Vicky Bliss is an art historian who’s brilliant and beautiful, and who uses her PhD to go on adventures across the world, solving mysteries and being wooed by a charming art thief. The books are both escapist fantasies and also incredibly smart mysteries that teach the reader about history and involve clever puzzle plots.
When I started writing, I knew I wanted to write books that combined light-hearted adventure with deeper world history, just as those Elizabeth Peters novels do. I grew up going on research trips all over the world with my anthropology professor parents, so the academic life was very familiar to me. My dad is from India and my mom is American, so writing a diverse character from two worlds came naturally.
That’s how I created Jaya Jones, a history professor in San Francisco who was born in India to an Indian mom and American dad, and who solves present-day crimes linked to historical treasures related to India’s colonial history.
Jaya’s sidekick, Sanjay, is an equally delightful character. Where did he come from? The dynamics of the relationship between Jaya and Sanjay are a great source of interest and occasional tension in the books. Was that something you planned from the beginning, or did it just develop as you began to write?
I’ll let you in on a secret. Sanjay was never meant to appear on the page at all! I needed him to play a tiny part off-stage in the first book, but as soon as I put pen to paper, he sprang to life and there was no stopping him.
Sanjay is Jaya’s best friend, a stage magician who goes by the moniker The Hindi Houdini. Magicians are such fun in mystery novels because their art of deception gives them insights into mysteries. Sanjay turned out to be such a colorful character and so good at solving mysteries that I had to give him his own set of locked-room mystery short stories – otherwise he would have taken over Jaya’s books!
Speaking of relationships, the other main character in the series, Jaya’s love interest Lane Peters, is an equally charming guy. I sense shades of Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief or Charade. Where did you find this handsome guy with a shady past?
From the loveable art thieves in novels (such as Elizabeth Peters’ John Smyth and Hailey Lind’s Michael X Johnson in her art forger series) to charming con men in movies (such as Cary Grant characters, and Neal Caffrey on the TV show White Collar), I’ve always loved this type of character.
The latest Jaya Jones, Quicksand, is set mostly in France in a series of stunning locations, including Mont Saint-Michel. (Movie rights, anyone?) Tell us a bit about this, including how you got the idea for the different locales and how you went about doing the research for the settings.
I knew I wanted to write a series that took the characters on adventures all over the world. Because of my academic background, I do a lot of research in libraries. Even today, there’s so much information you can’t find online! At least not easily. And once I have general ideas, I visit the locations in person. Again, even though there’s so much information available online, visiting a place in person provides perspective and ideas that wouldn’t have otherwise come to light.
For example, I knew that I wanted to set QUICKSAND partly on Mont Saint-Michel. The remote destination on the northern coast of France was once only accessible during low tide and over the years was used as a fortress, a monastery, and a prison. I read up on the fascinating history of the Mont, but once I visited I learned so much more. The experience of walking around the eerily silent cobblestone streets at night helped me create the atmosphere in the book, and my abbey tour guide told me history that I wouldn’t have learned from books. Based on her tidbits of history, I was able to do more research to verify the facts, but I would never have set off on an obscure line of research without that tour.
Historian Jaya Jones finds herself on the wrong side of the law during an art heist at the Louvre. To redeem herself, she follows clues from an illuminated manuscript that lead from the cobblestone streets of Paris to the quicksand-surrounded fortress of Mont Saint-Michel. With the help of enigmatic Lane Peters and a 90-year-old stage magician, Jaya delves into France’s colonial past in India to clear her name and catch a killer.
Sign up for Gigi’s newsletter at http://gigipandian.com/newsletter/, connect with her on Facebook (facebook.com/GigiPandian) and Twitter (@GigiPandian), and check out her gargoyle photography on the Gargoyle Girl Blog (http://www.gargoylegirl.com/).