I recently had the opportunity to chat with Barb D’Amato, award winning author of 22 books. Her most recent release is Other Eyes. She came to Centuries & Sleuths Book Store on February 20 for an author presentation and agreed to talk to me afterward over coffee.
I’ve enjoyed D’Amato’s books for years and was thrilled to get the opportunity to ask her about her writing and her world view. Actually, I was intimidated at the thought of talking to her but I’d seen her at other author events and she seemed like a gracious person despite her obvious intelligence, so I was pretty sure she wouldn’t snarl at me if I asked a dumb question.
D’Amato has an impressive body of work that ranges from musicals to true crime. In between she has written serial mysteries, stand-alone thrillers and short stories. She is the well-deserved recipient of several awards including the 2001 Mary Higgins Clark Award for Authorized Personnel Only.
I am impressed when a person writes one good novel. Even a mediocre book is hard and sustained work that requires a staggering amount of time to put together. But D’Amato has written well for many years and has regularly produced books with recognizably real characters and plots that surprise with their twists and turns. The mystery is why she isn’t more widely known. Readers who haven’t read her work are missing out on wonderful stories.
It’s always fun when someone you admire thinks the same way you do, so I was charmed that we agreed that short stories are more satisfying to read in an anthology versus a magazine. It has something to do with the heft of the book itself. We agreed that books in print are more pleasing to read than the e-version. And we agreed that reading is just about the most satisfying activity in the world. In fact, D’Amato admitted with a smile that she would almost rather read than write. Fortunately for those of us who read, writing is still something she loves to do.
I asked her what prompted her to start writing. She said she is a chemist by training and did not read novels as a kid. While being a stay-at-home mom, though, she became bored and started to read Agatha Christie. She found the plots of Christie’s stories symmetrical and elegant and she kept on reading mysteries once she finished all of Christie books. “After a while I thought that I could do something like that, and tried my hand at writing.”
D’Amato thinks that Christie’s work still holds up. Her characters are drawn with economy but the details give telling insight into the motivation and morals of the person. She also described Christie as “fair” to the reader because the clues to the puzzle are always there in the story, even if their significance is cleverly concealed. She is generous in her praise of other writers too. The worst she said about anyone was that she felt P.D. James could be “wordy”. “There are an amazing number of people who write mysteries who are genuinely nice people,” she observed.
D’Amato writes in a spare, evocative style that is especially effective in setting up tension. She’s also masterful in describing scenes that stay with you long after you’ve forgotten the plot of the book. In the opening scene of her newest novel, Other Eyes, a baby is crawling across Interstate 90 and oblivious to danger. She succeeds in getting him to the other side without being hurt but not without making my heart stop several times as he inches his way across the lanes. “I haven’t killed a baby yet in any of my stories,” she said with a smile.
D’Amato indicated that there are themes that intrigue her and which she explores in her books. We talked about Death of a Hundred Cuts which involves children with autism and a school director modeled on the late Bruno Bettelheim, founder of the Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago. She said, “It makes me mad where there are people who treat others the way he treated children and families.” The need for fairness and justice reoccur in her books as does the idea that ethics and morality must be the bedrock of a society.
I have been rereading Good Cop, Bad Cop about the raid on the Black Panthers in 1969. This story won the 1998 Carl Sandburg Award for Excellence in Fiction. I asked her about the amazing detail in it about day-to-day police procedures. I am not a policeman, but the details ring true. I feel like a fly on the wall in the squad room when I read the book. D’Amato said she spent time listening to police scanners when they were legal to get feel for police work and had the opportunity through a friend, who was both a writer and a policeman, to do ride-alongs and to observe roll-calls to get the details right.
A lot of her research is now done on the internet. She was able to get a feel for the places described in her newest book through web sites, talking with people who had recently visited Peru and Turkey and looking at their pictures from their travels. Apparently, she can vividly reconstruct through her imagination because I felt like I was right there in the country as I read the book.
Her true crime book was about Dr. John Branion. She said she became involved in that case because her husband, who is a law professor but not a criminal lawyer, got involved at the request of Branion’s wife. When they looked at the case, it was obvious that the physician had been wrongly charged with the crime. But because he had already been convicted, it was a long and tedious journey to get the conviction reversed. Sadly, the doctor died before he was exonerated.
I asked her if she had a favorite out of all the books she’s written and she smiled. “I guess that would be the one I’ve just written.” I imagine that asking a writer about a favorite book is like asking about a favorite child—how could you choose when they are all so different but wonderful in their own way.
The intelligence, humor and insight that are part of her books come straight from their author. I felt energized after talking to her and ready to read with a more critical eye. Let’s hope she keeps writing for a long, long time.