Dana Cameron is a noir writer with a difference. She is an archaeologist.
Drawing on her knowledge of digs and all they unearth she writes edgy fiction that digs deep into the behavioural motivation behind crime.
In her first book, ‘Site Unseen’, her protagonist discovers that archaeologists ask the same questions as detectives. She has written for ‘Boston Noir’ and her writing is imbued with careful research and logic. There is a lot of thought about how cultures and sub cultures shape behaviour.
She met me at The Slaughterhouse and we talked about excavations and crime.
Scroll to the end of the interview for more links to Dana’s work.
To what extent do you think detective work is like an archaeological dig?
While I’ve been an archaeologist, I’ve only read about being a PI or police detective or spoken to professionals in those fields. I get the impression the jobs are virtually the same, with a few exceptions, including the urgency of solving a crime. Both are reconstructing events that happened in the past based on material evidence as well as the documentary record or personal interviews. There’s often a disconnect between the way people behave in public versus what they do in private, and both detectives and archaeologists have to account for that. At heart, both professions are about human behavior and motivation.
I suspect detective work is like archaeology in that there are many, many more hours of painstaking work, comparison, and recording than appears on the surface. There’s a chain of evidence (we call it context, in archaeology) because in the same way a crime scene can be contaminated or altered with time, you can’t put an archaeological site back after you’ve excavated. Excavation is fun and it’s the thing people think of when they imagine archaeology, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg, and even that isn’t as glamorous as is popularly portrayed.
It’s digging very precisely measured and recorded holes without union pay or benefits. Fastidiousness and use of all the senses—plus a load of research and a little intuition—are required in both jobs. What I imagine is similar is the satisfaction when two pieces of the puzzle fit —click!—together, literally or figuratively.
Is there a point for you as an author, when in excavating the motivations for a murder, you begin to dig into the psyches of your characters and what do you find there?
When I began writing, I always started with the setting of the story, because that dictated the motives of nearly all my characters. Because I knew what my main character was doing there—conducting an archaeological excavation—I knew who else was there and what they had at stake: an economic interest in the property, a political agenda, a desire to keep something hidden, professional ambition. Most of the antagonists were not professional criminals, and that led me to consider what would make an otherwise ordinary person turn to murder. What worried me was that, considering some of the motives, it is a remarkably thin veneer of the social contract between the characters and their decision to commit murder. What reassures me is that the vast majority of real people, even given the emotional or economic pressures my characters had, don’t resort to crime.
Most recently, I’ve been starting with my protagonists, their strengths and weaknesses, and setting up antagonists specifically against those qualities. Anna Hoyt has a valuable tavern, but no real power against the crooks preying on her in 18th-century Boston. Gerry has fantastic powers as a PI and a werewolf, but what if the lynch-pin of his faith, his belief that all werewolves are dedicated to protecting humans, is wrong? It makes him incredibly vulnerable. Amy is a liberal reporter, the woman she knows only as “Spooky” is a covert operative with her own rules; together and individually, they have to decide what peace and democracy is worth. One life? A dozen? A hundred? Their own lives?
Inevitably, when I’m digging into the psyches of my characters, I’m playing out philosophical debates and emotional questions with myself. The summer I spent alternating perspectives between a stalker and his victim was one of the most grueling and intense ever, and having freed myself to go to those places, ask those questions, I know it won’t be the last time I experience that. It comes down to one question: driven to an extreme, what would you do? Are you capable of taking action? Speaking up? Staying silent? Changing yourself? Changing your mind?
That’s why I love writing crime fiction: you get to tackle all the big questions.
Archaeology is the exploration of the past, do you think that detective work depends on the past in order to execute justice?
I think understanding the past informs our notions of justice, and detective work, like archaeology, depends on context (including the past). But “justice” is different from “legality,” however, and knowing someone’s history and background might lead an investigator to pursue (or not) one avenue or another.
Tell us about ‘Boston Noir’.
Boston Noir is one of the dozens of the award-winning “City Noir” collections published by Akashic Books. Dennis Lehane is the editor and I was delighted to be invited to contribute a story along with writers like Dennis, Lynne Heitman, Jim Fusilli, and Brendan DuBois. I’ve lived in or near Boston most of my life, and have used the area and its history in one way or another in most of my work. “Femme Sole” was an opportunity to try something new to me, writing noir and in the third person. Never having written noir, I realized I needed to find a balance between including all the elements of a traditional noir story, and not sounding like I was trying to mimic the writers who’ve defined the style. So I chose the North End neighborhood—a waterfront is always a great setting for crime—and set the story in the 18th-century. As soon as I decided that, I knew I could honor the conventions and structure but keep my own voice, and Anna Hoyt, my protagonist, emerged and took over.
How would you define noir and how does it differ to the rest of your writing?
To me, noir fiction is about desperate people who don’t have the usual recourse to the law (for whatever reason) and are forced to resolve a criminal matter themselves. Usually, the protagonist is not a professional, and may be shady or even criminal him- or herself. I think there has to be a choice, in the end, or a sacrifice of some sort—the ending may be satisfying but is usually grim or bittersweet at best. So in “Femme Sole,” Anna lives in a time where there is nothing like a modern police force and as a woman, she doesn’t have the same social status as the men who threaten her, so she must find a way to take matters into her own hands—and survive.
With amateur sleuths, they usually are working with the local law enforcement to solve a crime, having been sucked into the investigation because of their specialized knowledge. Emma Fielding’s archaeological expertise and her access to various communities is one example. For me, these stories are similar to noir in that the protagonists discover ways to use their own skills and abilities. Unlike noir, however, amateur sleuth mysteries are ultimately more optimistic about changing things for the better. Emma thinks she can be a force for good in the world; Anna Hoyt is just concerned with surviving the next murky situation she finds herself in.
PI characters, like Gerry Steuben in “The Night Things Changed,” may take some of the same latitude as noir characters (there is a strong tradition of PIs in noir stories, of course), but Gerry, being a werewolf, assumes much more of the burden of investigating and meting out justice than he did when he was a cop. His powers hamper him as much as they aid him. And in my WIP espionage thriller, my covert operative has been trained to do things most people can’t—but does that mean she should?
All my characters are to some extent self-appointed in their pursuit of justice, and in most crime stories, there is an element of ethical debate—what is right for me to do? But in noir, it’s less theoretical because what is at stake is usually personal survival.
Do you think that revenge is lawless justice?
Holy cow–what a complex question!
It depends. If you’re talking about someone just going out and killing or hurting someone in retaliation for a perceived wrong, then yes, it is a kind of lawless justice, meaning that it is outside the law and justice perhaps only in the eyes of the person taking the action. I think there can be revenge, or attempts thereat, through the legal system. I think there is revenge that is not illegal, and is merely spiteful or meant to be hurtful. But are these true justice? Depends on your point of view, depends on your culture, it depends on what you think of the law. Now I have to go back and re-read The Count of Monte Cristo, for one.
In terms of lesser slights, I think living your life well is the best revenge—is that lawless justice?
Revenge, retribution, retaliation…all very slippery ideas, in the real world. But in fictional worlds… they make for great writing.
Nowadays identity theft represents a real threat that is being dramatised in fiction. To what extent do you think that crime fiction has at its heart the need for identity to be intact enough to survive menace?
May I say, I am having the best time with these questions, Richard! Most stories—any genre, any period—have some kind of conflict, and identity is usually at the heart of that. I believe identity is integral to crime fiction. The protagonist is inevitably challenged, torn between doing what is safe, what is smart, what is right. Hamlet is torn between avenging his father and regicide. In Chushingura (or The Forty-Seven Ronin), Yuranosuke gets drunk and eats meat on the night before the anniversary of his master’s death (unthinkable breaches of respect) in order to convince his enemies he’s not a threat—he’s tormented by this offense, but commits it so he can serve the larger imperative of revenge. Sam Spade has some pretty low moral standards, but sending his partner’s murderer to jail defines him as a detective and as a person.
In my own worlds, Anna Hoyt has to decide whether survival is worth submitting her self in marriage; Gerry Steuben has his faith shattered and must decide how to continue.
In each of these cases, decisions are made by the protagonists as to how far they can go, survive, and yet still be true to themselves. The identities being challenged—prince, samurai, detective, businesswoman, Fangborn—are even more important because they are internally determined by the characters. It’s how they see themselves, their self-definitions, and that matters more than external notions of who they are.
I think the point Charles Gramlich makes in his Chin Wag interview is spot on: Thrillers (and here I would say, most crime fiction) push the character to the edge, but he or she comes back, self intact, whereas in horror, the self is shattered and remade. In all the instances above, the characters would not be protagonists if they did not retain that one thing, a core of themselves. The story wouldn’t exist without that conflict in those characters.
What inspired you to write?
The short answer: someone held a gun on me.
The longer answer: I’d wanted to write since I was able to read, but decided at a very early age that I didn’t want to get into bar fights or run with the bulls (which is what I thought writers had to do). So I gave up that dream and turned to another, archaeology—this all between ages four and nine or ten. What I didn’t realize until much later was that I was studying humans and their needs and motivations at a very personal level—examining their homes, their belongings, their trash, their public and private documents—which is really excellent training for a writer. Scientists and researchers have to communicate, and by learning to teach, I learned something about telling stories. I won’t say archaeologists are detached, but they do learn to look at things critically within context, and that, along with my academic background, taught me a lot about editing. And I kept reading voraciously the whole time.
The event that really flipped the switch took place on a site in Maine.
A pot hunter came out to the site where a colleague and I were surveying, and when my friend told him it was illegal to dig there without a permit (which we had, of course), he pulled a gun on us. A transit is not much to hide behind, and while this guy was screaming at us, I had to decide whether he’d shoot if I ran into the woods or whether he’d shoot if I did nothing. So I just memorized everything I could about him and his truck, and eventually, he left. We made a police report; months later, he was arrested for applying for a permit to dig on that site.
After that, I was telling the story to another friend, along with anecdotes about other near-misses in the field: the time a cement mixer rolled off the road and onto the site we’d just left for lunch, the friends who were shot at for working too close to someone’s concealed still, etc. She reminded me that these sorts of events weren’t necessarily commonplace and said I should write them down. Suddenly, I knew I had to try fiction. I began to write, found a writing group, attended Bread Loaf Writers Conference. My goal was to find tougher andtougher (and better) criticism for my work.
The questions that arose after that event are what got me writing fiction, though I’d been writing lots before then. The urge to explore human behavior was always there.
There is no single theory of archaeology. Michael Schiffer, one of the founders of behavioural archaeology, rejected the processual assumption that the archaeological record is a transparent fossil record of ancient societies and that the artefacts are destroyed by numerous cultural and natural processes. If we transpose that to detective work, to what extent is it impossible when dealing with cold cases that reopen dormant and unsolved crimes, to effectively decipher the past?
I’ll see your Schiffer and raise you a post-processualist…
Taphonomy is a word from the Greek, roughly meaning “the study of graves.” It’s one of my favorite words. In archaeology, it refers to the site formation processes that affect a site after it’s abandoned. Artifacts may be destroyed because they are too fragile to survive, or carried off by animals, or picked up and reused by humans, and are subject to weather, geological shifts. Any number of factors, at scales from the molecular to the global, affect how a site and its evidence may or may not be preserved.
Understanding these processes helps us interprets sites. Schiffer is right: sites aren’t usually completely intact time-capsules, and neither are crime scenes. Knowing how taphonomic forces work (and knowing how, say, bodies decay, the rate at which certain insects reproduce in a corpse, how animals may disturb or gnaw on bones and material clues, how soil chemistry affects the preservation of bones and artifacts,etc.), gives us more information to work with. But in archaeology, you can only make a good case for what might have happened; you can’t prove it. You can only prove what absolutely couldn’t have happened. Not completely satisfying, but still extremely useful.
So while I think cold cases can be re-opened with newer scientific techniques, and these offer more solutions and possibilities than in the past, they’re not perfect. CSI is glossy fun, it is entertainment, but it does real forensic experts a disservice by suggesting that these answers are now instantly available and irrefutably accurate. What we actually have is more ways of trying to solve a crime, more avenues of exploration. I think that is amazingly helpful to families who’ve lost loved ones and can now identify their remains. It’s not necessarily a straight line to who committed the crime, however.
Are you expanding your repertoire (with urban fantasy, noir, espionage, and historical crime fiction) in order to develop specific skills as a writer? Or are you inspired to write these different stories and are then changed by the experience of having written them?
For the most part, I started exploring different subgenres by being asked to contribute to anthologies. After that initial moment of giddiness at being asked to try something new, there would be the inevitable panic every writer faces when confronted with a new challenge. In some cases, it allowed me to explore genres I’ve loved but was not currently writing. In others, they were completely new to me, but the conventions and structures gave me a framework to start with, and then I got to discover another part of my voice. One WIP is not the result of an anthology convention, and that’s an espionage novel. I’ve always loved them, and want badly for this one to be something I would enjoy as a reader.
I am changed by what I write, and I’ve decided, as a writer, you can’t know too much about yourself. When I find myself shying away from writing a scene, and try to figure out why, it is often revelatory (and there’s usually some great material to exploit within that reluctance). Writing some characters makes me approach political issues differently than I might have before. It was easy writing about an archaeologist: I knew a lot about Emma and we shared many things in common. I’m not a werewolf, an 18th-century tavern owner, or a covert operative.
When I’m trying to make those characters real, I have to delve into emotions we might share, some of which aren’t very comfortable but are very powerful. If I can translate that into character building, I’m very happy. And, usually, that reflection gives me more insight about myself and others, which gives me more to work with.
Writing can change you emotionally and intellectually, but also physically. I now have a bad knee and ankle, thanks to several years of the mixed-martial arts training I used to inform several characters. I started running, because of Emma. Because I make music playlists for every story, novel, or character, years later, when that music comes on, I find myself having flashbacks to a particular piece of work. It’s weirdly Pavlovian, and can get a little freaky if I’m at a party and suddenly hear music that I used to write a brutal scene. But if I need to revisit a character, I have the environment to facilitate the work. It’s sunk into my bones.
Thank you for giving a profound and far-ranging interview Dana.
“Femme Sole” has been nominated for the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, and
Macavity awards for “Best Short Story.” You can read it, for a short
time, at her website.
Dana blogs with The Femmes Fatales, ferociously talented women devoted
to the fine art of crime fiction.