Monday, May 7, 2012

A Visit with Barbara D'Amato

Barbara D'Amato served as 1999-2000 president of Mystery Writers of America and is a past president of Sisters in Crime International. She writes a mystery series starring Chicago freelance investigative reporter Cat Marsala, a series starring Chicago patrol cops Suze Figueroa and Norm Bennis, and standalone novels. Her thriller Foolproof, co-written with Jeanne M. Dams and Mark Richard Zubro, was published in December 2009. Her latest release is Other Eyes.

Barbara, You've held a number of unusual jobs, from assistant tiger handler to teaching mystery writing to Chicago police officers. When and why did you decide to become a writer?

For years, my idea of a perfect day was work all day, make dinner, then read a mystery. Like almost all the mystery writers I know, I finally thought "This looks like fun. I should write one." It's MUCH harder than it looks.

What does the job of crime researcher entail? And how do you conduct research?

I no longer do active crime research for legal cases. Searching old paper files, interviewing police officers and running after witness, videotaping possible routes of fleeing felons--all that is a young person's job. For my fiction, though, I do visit possible crime scenes. Plus, thank goodness for the Internet and Google Earth.

What was the result of your research of the Dr. John Branion murder case?

Dr. John Branion had been convicted of the murder of his wife and was in prison in Illinois when I first met him. His second wife, Shirley, whom he had married while out on bond pending appeal, had seen an article about my husband, Northwestern law professor Tony D'Amato, securing the freedom of a man imprisoned in Mexico. But Tony is an international law specialist, not a criminal law specialist. I looked at the facts of the crime and could see no way for Dr. Branion to have gone home at lunch, shot his wife, then picked up his son at school, visited a friend, and gone back home to discover the body. Let alone the fact that the neighbor in the adjacent apartment heard shots while Dr. Branion was still at the hospital. While new appeal briefs were being written, I started working on what I thought would be a short article on a time alibi that might help the case. It turned into a book that took five years to write--The Doctor, The Murder, The Mystery, published by Noble Press. Dr. Branion was never freed by the system, but I am glad he and his family could know as a result of the research that went into the book that he was innocent.

Tell us about your latest book, Other Eyes

Blue Eriksen is a forensic archaeologist who became famous, much to her amazement, when her book Goddess became a bestseller. It was scholarly, it had footnotes! She has recently seen evidence that the hallucinogen psilocybin can prevent or cure addiction to many illegal drugs. She is now testing ancient mummies for evidence of the use of hallucinogens in the development of religions. Other Eyes takes her to Peru and to Catalhuyuk in central Turkey, considered the first city in human history. Unknown to her, someone is following her to kill her.

Have you used the research you've conducted for law enforcement agencies as background for your books?

The research I've done on crimes, and the police officers' wonderful stories, get used in my fiction constantly. I wouldn't want to waste such riches.

Are your son and husband involved in your work?

My husband has a wealth of law tales and also keeps me from making mistakes in legal processes. My son Brian has read my stuff since he was in middle school. It was good to have somebody a generation younger to look at it. He would find phrases I thought were the latest thing and draw cornbobs in the margins, meaning "Mom, this is corny." He is now a published author-- Beauty [Delacorte] and In the Courts of the Sun [Dutton]. A wise writer friend once told me that he thought the reason children of writers often became writers was that they know it isn't easy.

How has writing changed your life?

Writing has made it possible for me to go places, meet people, and see processes I never would have otherwise. [Never would have had the nerve otherwise]. It's enriched my life.

Who most influenced your own writing?

Agatha Christie. Nobody else has plotted so cleanly, so crisply, so fairly, and yet so deceptively.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Don't try to jump on a trend. If it takes a year to write a book, then however long to find a publisher, then a year or so to go through editing, copy editing, and so on, the trend may be gone. In any case, your best asset is your own voice.

Thanks for the visit, Barbara.

You can visit Barbara at her website: where you can read the first chapter of Other Eyes. She doesn't Tweet but shares a blog site with other Chicago-area writers titled: The Outfit, a Collective.