Grigsby Bates on Her New Mystery Novel

Host Farai Chideya and Karen Grigsby Bates discuss Bates' new mystery novel, Chosen People, about a Los Angeles reporter out to solve the murder of a controversial black writer. Chosen People is the second book in Bates' Alex Powell murder-mystery series.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

If you're a fan of mystery novels or race novels, or novels period, you're going to like Alex Powell. She is a sexy journalist who has a constant eye for trouble. Sort of like her author, our own, very own, from DAY TO DAY, Karen Grigsby Bates.

Karen, welcome.

Ms. KAREN GRIGSBY BATES (Author, Chosen People): Thanks, Farai.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: So this is your second Alex Powell novel.

Ms. BATES: It is.

CHIDEYA: And it's called Chosen People. And Chosen People is the title of the book within the book. Its author very quickly gets off'ed, and Alex Powell is there to unravel the mystery.

Tell us a little bit about your heroine. This is her second book.

Ms. BATES: Alex is a reporter for the fictional Los Angeles Standard. It is the daily newspaper of record in Los Angeles. And so she goes out and finds stories, writes about things, out and about in L.A.

She happened to have been at a book signing at the largest black bookstore in L.A. when the now-dead person - who wasn't then - James Simpson Lee Hastings Jr.…

CHIDEYA: You had fun naming him, didn't you?

BATES: I had fun naming him because I wanted to call him Simp, short for Simper. Came to the bookstore and read to the avid interest of the black people assembled there about his chronicle of the upper middle class black people he wanted the world to know about.

And in the course of spending the evening at that bookstore he ends up quite dead in the first chapter.

CHIDEYA: A good start to a novel that includes race, class, sex - what else can we add to this? You have a lot stewing his book. And at one point you said to me, oh, this book is darker, you know, tonally than your previous book. But it also has just this wonderful love story in it. Tell us about the love story.

BATES: Well, Alex in the first book ends up partnering in the amateur sense, the amateur sleuth sense, with her old boyfriend's best friend. She had not known him all that well before. But they end up being at the same place, at a conference of black journalists when the journalist of the year is killed before he gets his award.

And Paul tends to tag along because he doesn't trust her instincts and he thinks she's going to get into a lot of trouble and maybe hurt. And in the course of that first book, they discover that they're attracted to each other and they become very friendly.

And they are, by the second book, they're lovers. And I wanted to have a black man that I knew and recognized. You know, you hear a lot of bad stuff about brothers, and I'm thinking where's the good stuff for the black men that I know. The, you know, my husband, the friends of my husband, my coworkers, the people I come across in doing stories who are not beating their wives, who are not baby's daddies, who are taking their, you know, their personal and professional responsibilities very seriously.

So Paul is an amalgam of a lot of the black men I know and love and respect.

CHIDEYA: Your book transcends genres. And it's a mystery novel, it's a race novel, it's got a lot of humor in it. How do you have time to write, first of all, and how did you come up with the tone of these books, which are sharp, witty, but also have a lot of deep issues in them?

BATES: Well, I wrote something that I wanted to read. And so I wanted a lot of the plot in these books to be driven by social issues, specifically social issues that are of interest to the black community and to me as a black woman. How do I have time to write?

CHIDEYA: Cause you've got a family and you've got a full-time job.

BATES: But it's one of those things I can't not do. I mean I don't watch much television anymore because I write and I read, and those are the two things that I really like to do. So you do have to cut out some things in order to make room for others, and those are the things I've chosen to do.

CHIDEYA: What are the mechanics of writing for you? Are you an early riser? Are you a weekend writer? Are you a late-night writer? How do you do it on a mechanical level?

BATES: You know, I like to think of myself as the writing equivalent of a bulimic. You know how bulimics talk about how they eat everything and then they purge and it all comes out? Because of this job and because I'm in the office so early, it takes a lot to do it. I can't sit down for three hours every day and do those four or five pages that a lot of authors talk about doing.

And I felt bad about that for a while, and then I realized it's just not me. It's not how I write. And so I tend to eavesdrop a lot. You hear a lot of interesting things. And in reading a lot you see there are a lot of interesting ideas just sort of out there in the ether.

And then when I'm writing I sit down and I might do a couple of chapters at a time. When I'm really on a roll if I'm not too tired - and that does gives you kind of energy when you feel like, okay, I'm in a groove now and I'm going in the right direction. Then you can come home and you can do a couple of pages, you know, in the evening before you go to bed maybe.

Certainly on weekends I did a lot of writing, and I took some vacation time off and did writing. But I'm really fits and starts, and I've just become resigned to that.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. I am also working on a novel and I'm a writer pretty much in the vein that you are. And right now I'm feeling guilty because I've got a first draft that needs honing. So when you see me in the office, you can just yell at me.

BATES: Don't feel guilty. Because, you know, I was interviewing author Susan Strait(ph) a couple of weeks ago, and we were talking about how we do our work. Well, Susan was taught by James Baldwin when she went to get her master's at Amherst.

And she said she was sort of worrying aloud to him at one point, I don't think I'm going to be able to do this every day page by page. And he sort of rolled his eyes and said, what you have to remember is everything up until the time you write is preparation. So even though you think you may not be doing anything, you are. And when it's time for you to write, you will sit down and write. And she said it turned out to be true, and I think that's going to be true for us, too.

CHIDEYA: That's fantastic. Well, I just have to ask as a final question, are we going to see more of Alex?

BATES: Depends on how busy my day job keeps me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Well, Karen, thanks so much.

BATES: Thanks, Farai.

CHIDEYA: NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates is the author of the Alex Powell mystery series. Her new book is called Chosen People. You can hear her regularly on NPR's DAY TO DAY.

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