Popular Canadian crime novelist Ian Hamilton discusses the health scare that inspired his recent thriller The Disciple of Las Vegas—and why he hates The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comparisons.
Zola: Your Web site bio says “a life-threatening health scare” led to you creating the character of Ava Lee. What happened?
Ian Hamilton: I had an aneurysm in my aorta. It was found by chance during an ultrasound to see if my liver was enlarged. My liver was fine; the other news wasn’t so great. Eight hours of surgery left me in pain, drugged, and contemplating life. I went home after two days in the hospital—they don’t want you taking up space for too long in Canadian hospitals—and on the 2nd day at home, I began to write the first Ava Lee novel. I started with the name—which came to me out of nowhere, but seemed perfect, and still does—and one sentence: ‘They always seemed to call in the middle of the night, either ignorant about the time difference, or too desperate to care.’
Zola: You’re a white, straight male. Ava is an Asian lesbian. Why make your main character so outside your own experience? Was it difficult to write from such a different perspective?
IH: On the surface, it might seem a stretch for a white, old, straight, Caucasian male to write about a young, Chinese-Canadian, gay female, but I never thought about writing about anyone else for even an instant. This wasn’t cynical on my part. I didn’t make any checklist of my character’s traits, and I didn’t pre-plot. Ava came to me fully formed.
The thing is, I’ve spent my entire life surrounded by strong women, and was fascinated by the gap between the perception of Westerners that Asian women are somehow submissive and the reality—which is that they run countries, run businesses, and run families with equal adeptness.
I have also been traveling in Asia for more than 20 years and was an avid reader about Asian culture and society, and I was always talking and asking questions about things like family dynamics. One of the nicest things that has happened to me is that Chinese readers actually have difficulty believing I am Caucasian.
Zola: You wrote four Ava Lee novels in eight months. What was your work schedule like? Did you ever get writers’ block?
IH: Writing four novels in eight months does seem a tad obsessive, I admit, but I was having fun and none of it seemed like work. As well, I didn’t think of them (and still don’t) as four books. I thought I was writing one long book in segments. I have now finished the seventh in the series, and that still applies. I have worked hard at not repeating or recycling my characters and the story lines. I deliberately held back information in the earlier books, and have tried to keep expanding the story line and the characters.
As for schedule, I write when I feel like it. That happens to be most days because it is still fun. I am an early-morning person, and that is my favorite time to create. But when my head is into a book, it can’t be shut off. I think plot when I’m walking, and I’m always writing dialogue in my head. I don’t keep notes, but luckily my memory seems to retain most of it.
Zola: Ava has been compared to Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Are you a fan of those books? What are your favorite crime novels?
LH: I really enjoyed Dragon Tattoo but thought he lost the trail after that. Salander is a compelling character, but totally different from Ava. I am really quite uncomfortable with the comparisons because I don’t think they are apt.
I do absolutely love the crime/mystery genre and have a large collection of James Lee Burke, Michael Dibdin, Reginald Hill, and so on. My favorite, though, is Richard Stark‘s Parker series. I do wish they would stop making movies from them, though. The films never get the character right.
Zola: What sort of research did you do for the book? Did you visit Vegas? What do you prefer: The Strip or Old Downtown?
LH: Shockingly to some, I have hardly done any research except to double-check that my memory isn’t deluding me. Every place I write about, I’ve been to—and often more than once. The restaurants I mention, I’ve eaten in and so on. The crimes I write about, I am either familiar with on a first-hand basis or I have access to files and legal records. I have one notebook, a Hilroy, that is now half-filled with hand-written notes and is the sum total of what research (aside from files and legal records) I have done.
Vegas—I have been many times. I do love the place for four days at a time, and these days I always stay on the Strip: Wynn’s, The Palazzo, Paris. I always walk the entire length back and forth every morning when I’m there, and the only thing I don’t like is that they’ve built those damn pedestrian crossovers on all the major intersections.
Zola: How’s your poker game?
LH: I am most definitely mediocre. I can hold my own in a 1-2 or 2-5 cash game at Aria or The Venetian. But when the stakes get higher, the local sharks pound the stuffing out of me.
This article was updated on September 29, 2014
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.