An interview by Gloria Hildebrandt with Sarah Yates, author of Playing a Deadly Patent Game:
Your main character, Virginia Hopper, writes pornography for tabloid publications in Montreal. It seems very unusual for a female to write porn, and ironic for her to have the name Virginia. Why did you give this character this career? How does this work affect her time in Manhattan?
I started my professional career by writing soft-core pornography and other tabloids in Montreal, in the year of the FLQ crisis. I lived there then. I made up a story to get the job and then kept on writing until I came back west. I was the first woman they’d hired to do the job except for a tarty woman named Blanche who will appear in the next novel. I loved Montreal; it was a liberating city and the shock I had writing pornography, after writing in university English and writing diaries, letters and trying a failed novel are experiences I was able to use with Virginia. Why did I use that name? I’ve always loved it and can play with it, not Vicky but Virgin. It was too much fun so I kept it.
How did her writing affect her time in Manhattan? Well, she’s good at research; you have to dig to get the ideas when you keep writing pornography. Of course, you can’t be a virgin. We didn’t hire those. But it can’t just be all rote either. In fact, it was a fertile writing ground for me, writing true crime, some detective and confessional stories, quite turned me around. The next novel, to which I will return after Christmas, Tabloids Titillate, was the second in this series with Virginia. I utilize more of the experience there but also play with it a lot. The element of reality and make believe; the two sides of character always intrigue me.
There are moments in the book that suggest this is not the first book to include Virginia Hopper. How many other stories featuring her have you written and do you hope to publish them as well? Do you see a long series of future mysteries for Virginia?
I have written two previous Virginia Hopper stories: Grief Kills and Tabloids Titillate. Both were runners up in the Canadian Literary Aid Competition in 2006 and 2008 respectively. But it’s like being a bridesmaid and never a bride, if it didn’t win first prize (and it was one of the listed 10), it didn’t get published. Each time, after a brief try at getting them published, I got back down to rewriting the next. I have loads of stories in my head and I see now as being a fertile time to tell them. I’ve started two other Virginia Hopper books and I hope she proves popular enough, to let me publish them too.
What, if any, elements from your personal life have you drawn on in the writing of this novel?
It’s the character of Virginia that I see most as almost an amanuensis; she has many of the characteristics that motivated my life. She’s curious, a little bit insecure but adventurous enough to try things she can’t quite get or doesn’t get easily. No fool but a bit ditzy. She wants to go to different places, even though she’s a little scared of what will happen there. I know her.
In this book, I utilized as well my experience of working with Robert Paulsen, who appears in the book as a character off-side. In other words, he’s a patent lawyer in Manhattan (practising in intellectual properties, I believe is the official term), a man greatly respected in his field and who practised for 50 years there. When I was publishing his autobiography Not in Kansas Anymore I became fascinated with patent law as an area unexplored in murder, as a motive. This isn’t a true incidence, of course, but I utilized some of the cases and had Bob check my work for accuracy. He has lived with ALS for 15 years, still at home. Amazing, eh? I admire his wife and him enormously.
My first murder with Virginia Grief Kills – deals with the death of a father and the grief and family changes that follow although, obviously it isn’t true in any way. I did know a couple of artists, who might have inspired Hartley Hopper, none of them [my husband]Ted [Howorth] who hasn’t the artistic ego that used to attract me so greatly.
For the most part, I don’t utilize actual happenings but I do explore character situations and emotions that are real in my life, as I do in my other series – Lucky Lou Gets Game (2011) and Lucky Lou Grooves in a Heartbeat (2014).
I first started writing mysteries because of that first failed novel. I got 100 pages written and didn’t know how to move it forward and finish it. It contained a lot of ideas but it had no structure. Structure has always been my problem as a writer; I know characters and tend to write them better. I come from inside. This book was my first with a deliberate plot to move it forward, though the others have them too, but I knew the characters and that gave me the freedom to tackle the complex plot.
How do you remain focussed and motivated on writing fiction when publication is not guaranteed?
I’ve always loved writing; it was my escape from the world when I got depressed. I used to do that often; I had little money but I didn’t need it to practise my first love, which was writing and reading. I moved around all over the country, back to England looking for where I belonged, accepted my outsider status and wrote to stay grounded. Characters and plot have played out in my mind since I first wrote a puppet play when I was about 12 and my sister Ruth and I won a prize for it and for its production, puppets, play, the works. She was a visual person and, like me, loved story.
I would have loved to be published sooner but recognizing that I wasn’t brilliant, decided that I needed to learn the craft of writing by writing. I wrote hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles and had them published. It was my livelihood, as was writing/editing art catalogues (hence I have an artist father character), a woman who publishes art magazines as the wonderful boss. I adore Louisa Young. She’s a composite of so many women I’ve met and loved in life: earthy, full-bosomed, take-charge types who are still immensely sexual. I just love her. Maybe, she is part of me or who I would like to be!
How do I remain focused? Well, for years – more than 20 obviously – I wrote mystery stories when I could, when I didn’t have other work or while I had other work, very early in the morning or whenever. When I was depressed, having that other world was all I needed. I have never spent an enormous amount of time trying to get them published, though I knew I had to do it. I wrote them, put them out there once or twice, got them rejected or ignored and went back to writing more. I have drawers full of them.
This time, I promised myself that I couldn’t write another one until I had this one published. I read mysteries and I know that many of them aren’t as well written as mine are, so why not? I have so much to learn still, however, so I keep writing and helping other people write their stories. I’ve played with structure in my writing career writing radio and puppet plays, theatre as a play of people, in magazine stories and in writing curriculum and even art catalogues. I started with an idea, often a structural one and when I knew the editors as I came to know a few, got away with writing all sorts of fun stuff.
From editor Judy Brandow I learned how to write a good magazine article and because of her, I won a fair number of magazine awards. She was patient and wonderful to work with. There is some of her in Louisa Young, not physically or anything but in her innate professionalism and in her occasional impatience after some insightful teaching or editing, I suppose. She took care of entering things and getting things done, pushed me by giving me some odd assignments like on friendship and other such topics, but allowing me to explore palliative care, some family issues, thyroid and medical. Journalism and the discipline of writing gives you a lot of skills. Virginia is learning these from Dave. I don’t know where he came from but I adore him. Physically, he is like a doctor I once knew.
I don’t write fiction for other people. I write it for me, except my young adult novels which are differently constructed, softer, etc. Those I write for others. Maybe now I’ve started by getting this published, things will change. I really would love some discussion about the book. Already, I’ve learned from one of my readers – Sandra Bernstein’s father actually – one of the things I need to make better in my next book. And Jack, the mystery bookstore owner here, suggested I re-write the second one. I think he’s right. I have another two planned but it needs a rewrite and has some fabulous elements in it, ones worth exploring.
What do you hope readers will take away from Playing a Deadly Patent Game?
Mostly pleasure and a bit of fun. It is infused with my love of New York, a city I know pretty well over 30 years of visiting and working there. I never forget my love of the approach and I loved writing that part for Virginia. It’s a city with energy and character and vibrancy. In fact, in this book I consider it a character.
I’ve just had a call from a reader who said she couldn’t put the book down and was left guessing. That’s what I want, I think, a reaction and like my other new friend Gloria – my bookkeeper actually – I want people to get immersed and entertained in the world I’ve created. She liked that about it.