The end of last season was a rush. We were all racing to the summer and the relaxing sunny days ahead. If you missed our event with Anna Dowdall on May 5, you can check out the video of our event here.
APRIL ON PARIS STREET was released by Guernica Editions in October 2021.
“In April on Paris Street, a Montreal private investigator of half-Abenaki heritage takes a case that looks like old-school damsel in-distress rescue but that then turns into something unnervingly different. The narrative weaves working class Ashley Smeeton’s personal story (trying to connect with her Abenaki relatives, the death of a grandmother she’s hardly known, an ill-considered fling with a handsome vaurien) into the story of the privileged young woman, Mirabel Saint Cyr, whose fashion mogul husband hires her.” It is a gorgeous novel that takes the reader on a journey through Montreal and Paris.
APRIL ON PARIS STREET is filled with incredibly complex and duplicitous characters. The story itself feels like background to the lively characters. It is much like an Agatha Christie novel, where you can imagine each character having a novel to themselves. You also mention the Orient Express at one point. I wonder if you’d talk about any literary or creative influences?
How can I deny the influence of Agatha Christie and why would I want to? Utterly without pretension and highly accessible, her books are genius. But my influences are probably a real mix of this and that. I love Ursula Curtiss, and my first book, After the Winter, meant to read fallaciously like mid-century romantic suspense, is a tribute to her. Then there’s Rebecca West, for the admirable subtlety of her female characterizations. Lucy Montgomery is probably partly responsible for my love of immersive setting. And if Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins can have all over the place “run on” plots, why can’t I? And, finally, there is nothing UK screenwriter Sally Wainwright has done that I haven’t wanted to imitate.
The women you write are strong and determined, even when others think they’re indecisive or weak. Creating a book filled with very different multi-dimensional women must be a challenge.
Can you talk about characterization and how, as a writer, you approach character development?
I’ve been drawn to writers whose female characterizations are considered ground-breaking or at least in some way unusual. In crime fiction, it is so easy to fall into sexist gender tropes. There is a prevalence of female victims in books by both male and female writers. I cracked a Canadian hard-boiled crime story recently, saying I’d stick with it if the first female character wasn’t a hooker. Not only was she a hooker, but she also didn’t show up until page 81. In some ways what I do is almost elementary. I try to create female characters who don’t stab each other in the back; don’t talk about men all the time; take centre stage in the book; have a wide range of human preoccupations, and whose behaviour can be very unexpected. In crime fiction, this latter element is part of how a writer can misdirect the reader. You hit the nail on the head in your question, and the depths and strengths of women in my books are part of the reveal. My three novel endings one way or another are meant to be feminist repliques to commercial crime fiction with its voyeuristic female victims and typical endings.
There are several doubles in the novel. Some we cannot mention, but near the beginning of the novel, there are two women named Mira, thugs described only as Thug One and Thug Two and other paired characters who work together to bring the story to the page. Can you talk about this in APRIL ON PARIS STREET, and how doubles work to amplify the tension and conflict in the writing?
A probing question. I’m not sure I can answer it fully. I have had a lifelong obsession with doubles. Maybe I am a little double myself, one way or another? But…having dumped all the doubles I could think of, related to form, plot, setting and character, into April on Paris Street, I guess I can stand back and say, almost as a reader, that they add to the uncanny feeling of the story, of things not being ever quite what they seem. Maybe almost philosophical, as if I want to portray an uncertain world of ramifying and duplicating realities, even of eternal returns. However, I hope I’m not as nuts as Nietzsche, although everybody should be a little bit crazy once in a while.
Ashley is a working Private Investigator, and the Saint Cyr case is not her only job. In many novels with a PI as the lead character, we don’t get to see other cases they are working on. I couldn’t help but wonder if the ones in APRIL may appear again in a future novel. Can you talk about your choice to include such detail with the other cases?
It was part of my need to embroider motifs of doubleness wherever I could. The other cases are like mini plots, reflecting on and modifying the main plot and the theme, ie, betrayal where you least expect it. The neighbour’s wrong un boyfriend isn’t such a wrong un. The overworked pediatrician’s husband on the other hand exemplifies the double life. Etcetera. My second book, The Au Pair, explores a theme of tragic plagiarism and I also work in snippets of another plagiarism case, with comic overtones, to foreshadow the direction of my main plot. I do this type of thing almost automatically. I’m like a bower bird sorting my objects and colours, only they are themes and variations on themes. I could easily use these in future books! April on Paris Street ends with Dominique of the bright green eyes gone missing in the mysterious east (end.) Maybe Ashley will be hired to look for her.
You do such a fine job of describing in vivid sensual details the surroundings in the novel: the cold, the wind, the darkness. How does physical space play a role in your storytelling?
Thank you for your kind words. The “place” of the story is the world I need to wander around in as I write. Again, it’s not a deliberate choice as much as a natural predilection. Even as a kid, I always preferred books that built a very complete world, in both its natural and human-made aspects. The interplay between setting and character fascinates me, as it is subtler than the tango between character and plot and captures the impalpable via mood. In crime fiction in particular, setting’s menacing and unknown aspects are a gorgeously ambiguous interactive frame for the unfolding story. Place, in my estimation, is what contributes magic to stories.
Paris and the Parisian Carnival really come alive in the book. Have you spent time there? Have you gone to Carnival? Have you been to a masquerade party? I’d love details on the research.
I was raised in a French-Canadian community and participated in many local Carnavals as I was growing up. I once won a prize as a Pierrette on skates. I love Paris, who doesn’t, and have spent much time there, in modest hotels in sketchy parts of the city. And I did spend five days in Paris, just researching Carnaval. I went to the research centre of the Archives Nationales de Paris, the archives of Le Figaro, a Musée Carnavalet special exhibit, and there were relevant collections at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Musée Bourdelle too.
Ashley meets her father’s family for the first time in APRIL ON PARIS STREET and it is a complex relationship, given she didn’t grow up with Abenaki traditions and culture. How much will you dive into this with her if she appears in the next novel?
I don’t know! But probably quite a bit if she is to feature in a future book. However, to keep things fresh, I might invent a mysterious and just discovered half-sister, who dies in problematic circumstances perhaps. Just to add a wrinkle. That, by the way, is a contrivance of my first book, After the Winter. No matter how detailed my characterization, I like to place my rounded characters adjacent to fairy tale and fable plot elements. I’ll never write social issue novels, although I adored reading them when I was younger.
From Guernica Editions:
Anna Dowdall was born in Montreal and recently moved back there, which surprised no one but her. She’s been a reporter, a college lecturer and a horticultural advisor, as well as other things best forgotten. Her well-received domestic mysteries, After the Winter and The Au Pair, feature evocative settings and uninhibited female revenge, with a seasoning of moral ambiguity and noir. She reads obscure fiction in English and French and thinks Quebec is an underrecognized mise en scène for mystery and domestic suspense.
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