In the Handbasket: Kelli Stanley and CITY OF DRAGONS

Way back in the day–July 18, 2008, to be exact–writer Kelli Stanley dropped by the Handbasket to blog about the background of her excellent debut novel, Nox Dormienda. You can visit Kelli’s website to read about the exciting things that have happened to her since then, including all the praise-filled reviews she’s been receiving for her latest historical thriller, CITY OF DRAGONS (February 2, Thomas Dunne/Minotaur). I was privileged to read CITY OF DRAGONS early on, and became an immediate fan. So I wanted to have Kelli here at the Handbasket again–but this time I got to ask the questions.

Welcome, Kelli!

What are the roots of City of Dragons? Did the character of Miranda Corbie come first for you, or did she just naturally emerge from the story?

First, thank you, my dear friend, for hosting me on the Handbasket. I miss you!! Considering how busy we both are, I’m just gonna go ahead and pretend we’re in fuzzy slippers and sipping cocoa and kickin’ back. 😉

So, Miranda. Well, Miranda came first, but the story was right behind her. And they grew at about the same pace. Long ago, when the idea of a mystery set around the ’39 World’s Fair first occurred to me, I had no idea it would wind up being as dark as it is. But then there was Bouchercon Alaska—where I first met you in person, remember?—and that first conference really changed my life, which is one reason it’s in my dedication to CoD. It encouraged me to fully embrace my “dark side”, so to speak. And my goals were clear: I wanted to write a paradigmatic noir that would also blow away genre conventions.

The Rice Bowl Party idea came to me during research … I remember getting chills down my back when I thought about what it would have been like to be a Japanese-American caught in that atmosphere. And yet the anger and the despair and the tensions in Chinatown were totally understandable, given human nature and what had happened in Nanking.

Miranda is both actor and reactor, like all of us, so after she walked on stage the ensuing plot developments also developed her. And late in the novel, she commits an act that actually shocked me. I thought about taking it out, but I couldn’t do it, because for better or worse … that’s what she did.

Like so many of her male noir counterparts, Miranda is emotionally damaged and has a troubled past. She’s seen war, lost her true love, worked as an escort. What makes personal hardship a job requirement for the noir private investigator?

I think acknowledgment of hardship is a requirement for empathy. How can you emotionally understand what you’ve never experienced? Someone might be able to reach understanding through sheer intellectual analysis, but I don’t even think Spock was capable of that. 😉 For me, empathy is the foundation of civilization, of society. It’s the thing that makes it work or not work. One of the characteristics that separates out the socio and psychopaths of the world.

In the investigation business, that empathetic experience of what it means to be hungry, to be abused, to be desperate, to lose what you most cherish—it gives you a much better understanding of both your clients and your quarry, and certainly of the world you’re living in. PIs are liminal creatures … they cross boundaries, exist outside “the system”. And like our other American mythic hero, the gunslinger, they need to be capable of traversing both Park Avenue and Hell’s Kitchen … or, to put it in San Francisco terms, Nob Hill and the Tenderloin. Understanding what makes people tick—that degree of experience and empathy—makes for a good private investigator.
And noir, for me, is the crime fiction subgenre that is most free to explore the human soul, flaws and foibles … darkness at the heart of light, ruin of innocence, unexpected heroism in a hired killer. That’s one reason I love to write it … and I think having an understanding of human pain and suffering is what makes for memorable writing … and an effective PI.

That said, the idea for Miranda as an escort fell into place from another piece of research. Diane’s Escort Bureau was real – and was indeed located at 41 Grant Avenue.

Who were the fictional predecessors or character models for Miranda? Were any of them men?

I think every PI has two fathers: Spade and Marlowe. Miranda’s no exception. But she’s got a whole legion of mothers … every film noir femme fatale who walked down the mean streets in high heeled pumps. My original idea—conscious, as opposed to the character development that is organic and subconscious—was to create a character with the superficial attributes of these women—sexual, attractive, manipulative, even dangerous—but with the moral codes that were reserved for the male hero. In other words, a “real” femme fatale, a real woman, a real person, someone for whom beauty is both a meal ticket and a burden and at times a curse, someone for whom harassment is a daily occurrence, someone who has to worry about getting older and is trying to live life on her own terms. She’s going to be objectified, and she knows it. So she takes advantage of it for her own ends.

When you were researching the novel, did you find traces of real-life female private investigators who worked in the first half of the 20th century?

Traces. But I wasn’t really looking. There were an unbelievable number of private detective agencies, though, and I knew female investigators did exist … and that was enough.

Your first novel, Nox Dormienda, took place on the British frontier of the Roman Empire. As a writer, what was it like making that nearly two thousand year jump? Do you see any surprising similarities (or differences) between the women of the two periods?

I’m one of those old-fashioned humanists who don’t believe that human nature has changed much. The powerful women of ancient Rome were demonized or accused of witchcraft in the histories or in speeches … and one of the most ancient Greek poems extant is a diatribe by a poet named Simonides in which he compares different types of women to animals (the vixen, the sow, etc.). So there is a strong undercurrent of a kind of distrust of the power of women, particularly beautiful women, that goes back a long, long time … way before Darin yelled at Samantha! 😉 You might say the femme fatale is embedded in Western culture.
As a writer, noir is what I’ve always wanted to tackle, and though I of course am over the moon to be able to continue the Arcturus series—I get very attached to my characters, and I spent many years studying Rome—this period, the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, feels like what I was born to write. It’s truly been a dream come true to see it materialize!

1940 San Francisco is a central character in CITY OF DRAGONS. Where does your intense affinity for the city and the period come from? Past-life experience, perhaps?

I’ve always loved San Francisco. When we lived in San Jose, taking the occasional trip to the city was like going to Disneyland. Later, when we moved to rural Humboldt and northern Mendocino counties, I took every chance I could to get back and revel in both the beauty and the urban-ness of it all. It’s really one of only two places I could picture myself living—the other being New York.
As for the period … maybe we should get all Shirley MacClaine for a minute. I was born with this very odd sense of nostalgia for the period. I mean, my parents were born in ’39, so their memories are mostly of the late ‘40s and ‘50s. My yearning went back further. I resonated with the music, the movies, the popular culture … it was bizarre. I was the only kid on the block who could tell you who won the Oscar in 1934, or do a Jimmy Cagney impression.

And you know, nostalgia is an interesting word. The Greek roots literally mean “home-coming” … and in some way, this period always felt like home to me. So who knows? I’m ready to embrace my past life, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of this one. ☺

CITY OF DRAGONS has been getting wonderful reviews and you have a massive personal tour planned to promote it. What’s next?

Thanks so much, sweetie. You’re one of the godmothers of the book—you blurbed it for me before we sold it! So I’m feeling very lucky and very blessed to have gotten it this far, and now next week (Yikes!!) is the launch date.

I’m currently working on the sequel to City of Dragons—tentative title is Country of Spiders, and it takes place three months after CoD. A short story prequel to the novel—“Children’s Day”—is being published in the next ITW anthology, FIRST THRILLS, on June 22—I’m very excited about this project, as the anthology is a combination of stories from ITW Debut authors and legends like Lee Child and Ken Bruen. Talk about thrills!!

And at some point, Minotaur will be bringing out CURSED, the sequel to NOX DORMIENDA. So I’ve got my hands full, but you know, my goal has always been to be able to write full time—live modestly, but to be able to support myself through my work. If I can get to that point, I’ve got other stories I want to tell … graphic novels, a stand-alone thriller set in Redwood country … and of course, continue my series for as long as possible. I could happily write Miranda for the rest of my life, and would love to get her into the McCarthy era.

Thank you again for having me over, Laura!! I loved the cocoa and marshmallows … sigh … now it’s back to work!! 😉

You know you’re welcome any time, dearest Kelli. But, uh, COUNTRY OF SPIDERS? Sounds terrifying–and I know it will be loaded with suspense!

City of Dragons (released February 2, 2010), the first of a series, has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist, is an RT Book Reviews Top Pick, and an Indie Next Book for February. “Children’s Day”, a prequel to City of Dragons, will be published in First Thrills: High Octane Stories by the Hottest Thriller Writers, coming June 22nd from Tor/Forge.
Kelli’s debut novel, Nox Dormienda, won the Bruce Alexander Award and was nominated for a Macavity. She lives in San Francisco, and frequents old movie palaces, speakeasies and bookstores. You can find out more about her and her books at her website:

8 thoughts on “In the Handbasket: Kelli Stanley and CITY OF DRAGONS”

  1. Mari says:

    I’m lining up to get my copy!!! It’s always great to read something featuring you, my friend!

  2. Great interview, you guys. I especially loved what you said about empathy, Kelli. It’s something everyone trying to develop a character should have in their minds.

  3. Theresa says:

    This sounds so interesting. I can’t wait to read it.

  4. Aw, thanks, Mari!! 🙂 I can’t wait to see you and the hubby at Mysteries to Die For!!! 🙂


  5. Thanks, Soph!! I’d hope that people develop empathy no matter what they do in life, cause when you think about it–that’s what makes life livable.

    It’s kind of a survival mechanism, too … instead of claws and fangs we’ve got a built in ability to empathize and cooperate … if we use it.

    Thanks for stopping by, sweetie!!


  6. Theresa, thank you so much!! 🙂

    I hope you enjoy meeting Miranda and reading City of Dragons!!


  7. Hi Laura and Kelli! Thanks for a great interview. Kelli- I loved your discussion of the fear of powerful women in ancient Rome and how the modern femme fatal comes out of that long-standing tradition. Miranda sounds fascinating. I can’t wait to get my hands on the book.

  8. Joelle, thank you so much for that wonderful comment!! 🙂

    In Western tradition, a woman’s primary power has been associated with her beauty … and that beauty itself is distrusted as an almost “magical” thing to be wary of, a power that will lead men astray.

    Just a femme fatale in ancient clothes, I’m afraid. 🙂

    My hope is that Miranda reflects some of the challenges all women of any era face … and of course, she’s got her own way of dealing with things … 😉

    Thanks again for stopping by, and take care!!


Join the conversation!