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Cara Black: International woman of mystery novels

photo: steven fromtling

If you walk down market Street with mystery novelist Cara Black, what else do you talk about but murder? As she chatted about the chilly late July weather, she occasionally flipped her hair away from her eyes, only to have the wind blow it back. But at the mention of a real unsolved murder case here in San Francisco, Black’s eyes widened and she asked for details. She then shared a true story about another unsolved murder here, a locked-room killing in her own neighborhood involving a victim from France.

France and death are not far from the surface when Black talked with the Marina Times about how this soft-spoken San Francisco woman became a bestselling mystery writer.

Her tale begins in early adulthood, when she became infatuated with France, the French, and, let’s face it, French writers. During a trip to Paris, she met up with a French author. “I had read one of his books in high school, and it opened my eyes to what story is, and how beautiful writing can express so many things,” she said. “So I had written him a fan letter; he’d written back and thanked me. When I went to Paris, I looked him up, which was pretty audacious, but I was 18 years old,” she laughed. “He took me out for coffee and spoke with me. We went to his corner cafe. I had an espresso, which I’d never had; he offered me a cigar. It was pretty cool. I thought, ‘This is the life of the writer.’

She didn’t act upon that inspiration right away. “I kept notebooks, but I’d lose them in Europe,” she said. It wasn’t until she started spending more time in Paris in the 1980s that the real foundation for her career was laid. A friend took her to the historic Jewish quarter, Marais, and showed her where her then-14-year-old mother had hidden from the Nazis. “She showed me this place. I never forgot that. Coming from California, we always had food to eat; it was
very different.”

In the 1990s, Black returned to Paris. She located the apartment where her friend’s mother had hidden, “and I started thinking: What if I lived during that time? What if I had a young child? What would I have done to survive — to put food on the table? I wanted to write about that.” Her own young son soon entered preschool, freeing up enough of her time to take a writing class at UC Berkeley Extension, “and three and a half years later, I had a book.”

Success came quickly for Black, if you speed past the years it took her to actually write that first book. Once she had the novel completed, it was bought by the first publisher she approached — without an agent — and upon its publication in 1998 Murder in the Marais even went on to be nominated for the Anthony Award as best first novel.

But if that makes other aspiring authors grind their teeth in jealousy, Cara Black is in most ways just like other writers. Born in Chicago, she moved to Silicon Valley with her parents “when Silicon Valley was orchards.” She later moved to San Francisco, where she attended City College and San Francisco State, and her husband enrolled at the Art Institute in North Beach. She now lives in Noe Valley and is still active in her writing group. She typically writes on her laptop at home — no trendy cafe for her — and sets a goal to write a scene each day.

She found her publisher after following some advice from her husband, a bookseller who had a bookstore on Mission and Second, in what is now the Cartoon Art Museum. “He was always telling me, ‘You have a special kind of book; it’s a foreign mystery.’ This was before The Da Vinci Code, before the Swedish books [by Stieg Larsson]; Americans weren’t reading many [foreign mysteries]. He said, ‘You’ve really got to think about this. Go to the bookstore. Do your homework. See who publishes your type of book.’ I found Soho Press, which does international, foreign crime. They took unagented submissions, which is pretty rare. So I submitted to them and they were interested.”

She hasn’t looked back since then, following up with about a dozen more Aimée Léduc books, including the current novel — Murder at the Lanterne Rouge — and a new one due for publication in 2013. The books and their research have allowed her to indulge her love for the City of Lights, which she visits on a regular basis, dividing her time between Paris and
her hometown.

“I love San Francisco. It’s a great city. It’s very European and unique,” Black said. “I wouldn’t want to live full-time in Paris — not that I could. But in San Francisco, I love being able to get away, being able to drive 20 minutes to Muir Woods.”

Black tries to go to France every year to spend time in Paris, see old friends, learn more about the city that clearly fascinates her and inspires new books with each neighborhood she explores. She takes her readers to the Paris that hasn’t been over-exposed by popular media and tourism. In turn, some of her readers use her novels as travel guides to Paris; even visiting the places Aimée went. “It’s just experiencing Paris another way. Everyone has their own Paris, whether it’s just from A Moveable Feast or they were there. They’ve all got this vision of Paris. That’s wonderful. But this part of Paris [in my books] is a little different. Sometimes that’s a little intriguing, because not necessarily would they go into a sewer. But Aimée does.”

Black called herself “a Right Bank gal” and admitted that other people know the famed Left Bank better than she does. In her books, she has only ventured to the Left Bank once before, and she will do so in a future book. “But I feel a lot of people know Saint Germain much better than I do. If I wrote about it, it would probably be different.

“There are parts that I feel are really exciting about Paris and France, and that’s what I want to talk about, to explore. It’s wonderful to see Paris as it is today, which is a very big mixture of different ethnic groups.”

She then began to tell a story about riding the Number 6 line on the Metro in November 2011, a trip that was interrupted when someone committed suicide on the tracks. She remembered the weather, the reactions of the people, the location of the nearby psychiatric hospital, and more.

Paris and death, all in a day’s conversation with Cara Black.

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