Ruttanís latest novel, The Frailty of Flesh is the second in a gritty
series following three Royal Canadian Mounted Police detectives solving crimes
in British Columbia. Despite being Canadian, Ruttan is now based in Baltimore.
She talked to Shots about the novel, what inspires her to write, and the
challenges of selling Canadian crime fiction to the world.
you describe your new novel, Frailty of Flesh to Sandra Ruttan virgins?
from Crimespree magazine, read it and said, ĎRuttan is Rankin with
is both dark and personal. Although the subject matter is distressing, one of
the things I was pleased reviewers picked up on with the first book was that I
didnít exploit the crimes for cheap thrills. I handle the subject matter with
sensitivity, and the reason I write about these types of crimes is because there
are important things to say about family dysfunction, about abuse, and how
dealing with these crimes affects the police.
endorse 'Rankin with ovaries' as a description of your work? And what do you
think it means?
always make me a bit nervous, because there can be a backlash from readers. Iím
a huge Rankin fan. The first author I had sign a book for me was Ian Rankin. I
also think whether or not it fits is up to the individual. Whatís dark to one
person may be trivial to another, depending on their tastes and prior reading
I do think
that itís possible to see a Rankin influence in my work, particularly with
Frailty, and in my case I have a focus on family relationships that
underlines the entire book. Perhaps thatís my maternal side coming through a
bit, hence the reference to Ďovariesí. Or maybe itís just as simple as the fact
that Iím a woman.
there are things Rankin has dealt with in his books that come through in mine as
well, like problems within the police department. We read things we find
interesting, and we write about things we find interesting.
actually see my character Tain going for those incredibly long walks in the dead
of night. I could also see him listening to music, but not drinking. Tain has
made a conscious choice to turn away from booze.
readers will be unfamiliar with the world of your characters purely because of
the Canadian setting. How difficult was it to get a Canadian police procedural
published? And do you think that says anything about the perception of Canada in
the eyes of other countries?
I banged my
head against the wall for a few years, trying to get an agent to take on a
Canadian-based series, or find a publisher. I couldnít get a Canadian publisher
interested, and what seemed to be the reason was that they didnít want to
publish something that portrayed a darker vision of Canada. Agents wanted
something with a U.S. setting. I eventually found a Canadian agent, and they
also suggested relocating the work, but I managed to get them to shop it with
the Canadian setting, and it sold quickly.
its nice image. The absolute truth is that Iíve seen quotes from the families
of tourists whoíve been assaulted or even murdered in Canada, saying they never
would have believed that would happen in Canada. Iíve seen quotes from people
within the literary community, suggesting the worst crimes to be found in Canada
would be pinching money from kidsí lemonade stands.
baffling view of an idyllic crime-free country that just doesnít exist. My
biggest problem with it is that as long as Canada holds on to its nicey-nice
image, itís hard to persuade people that there are serious issues that need to
The Frailty of Flesh and What Burns Within, it seems to me your
big idea as a writer is the way crimes often illuminate Ė or originate with Ė
family breakdown. Is this how you see your work?
thatís a fair assessment. I have a bit of experience working with children from
abusive homes and would describe my own upbringing as dysfunctional, which is
the norm now, but back then it wasnít so prevalent. My mother is bipolar, and
it took a lot of years for her to get the treatment she needed. When I was 17 I
found her hallucinating because of an overdose, and when she got to the hospital
she was fighting with the staff because she didnít see hands, she saw maggots.
She was in intensive care for four days before they stabilized her, and when she
was released from the hospital she was sent to an institution.
When I was
much younger I remember her being away for a while. I really donít know where
or why. Nick Mamatas said if you wanted to be a successful writer, you needed
to be prepared to have even your closest family hate you, because youíd pour
your experiences on the page. My writing gives me a chance to explore some of
my own experiences and sort through some things, but I say that with some
caution. I try to never sacrifice the thread of the story being told for
features a lot of buried secrets. You think everyone has a skeleton in the
cupboard, or is this more to do with the nature of crime fiction?
are some people who donít have skeletons in the closet, but not many anymore.
crime fiction centers on people with secrets because many criminals do operate
in the dark, they donít broadcast their crimes. I also think there are things
in our lives we donít talk about sometimes because weíre still processing them,
but they can influence our choice and behaviour.
features three POV characters in Nolan, Hart and Tain. What sort of difficulties
does that give you as a writer to juggle with three perspectives? What
techniques do you use to distinguish the three narrative voices?
working with three protagonists. The great thing is that the different
relationship dynamics they have with each other allow me to reveal different
facets of their personalities. We probably see the greatest range with Ashlyn,
because of her personal relationship with Craig and her working relationship
with Tain. At the same time, Tainís apparent lack of a personal life allows me
to occasionally slip things in unexpectedly.
The only part
I find challenging sometimes is deciding whose point of view a certain scene
should be told from. You definitely have to watch which character knows what,
or what they were thinking in a specific scene.
techniques Ö I just follow the characters. They have their own values, beliefs,
interests and potential conflicts of interest that colour their thinking. I
have to try to make sure those things come through, but only if theyíre relevant
to the story being told.
relationships between Nolan, Hart and Tain lie at the heart of Frailty.
When writing it did you start with the emotions or did you start with the plot
and let the emotions follow?
I guess you
could say I started with the emotions, because the one thing I knew from the
outset was that Craig and Ashlynís relationship would be put under enormous
I had to consider where we left off at the end of What Burns Within, and
what the reasonable repercussions of those events might be. From there, I let
the dominoes fall. I also knew there were certain things about each character
that I wanted to explore. One, Craigís relationship with his father, and how
insecure Craig really is. Another, the horrific tragedy thatís been haunting
Tain for years. The nature of the cases under investigation in Frailty
allowed me to bring those things out in this book.
I notice in
places the book succumbs to some confusion over the use of the word partner to
mean both sexual partner and cop partner. Do you think the increased influence
of politically correct terms in fiction makes it harder for writers to craft
definite possibility. I think the double meaning worked out well for one scene
in Frailty, though. The simple reality is that Iím not sure political
correctness should dictate how we write things, but when youíre dealing with a
police force thatís trying to be politically correct you have to consider that.
I bounced around on a lot of RCMP websites to find out if they referred to
Natives, Aboriginals or First Nations, because Iíve heard all of those terms
Trying to get
things like that right can be frustrating.
a stickler for realism in fiction. What research did you do for Frailty?
I had to
research things like typical sentences for certain crimes within Canada. Itís
disturbing to realize that murderers can sometimes be paroled in just ten
of the true stories that influenced Frailty was about a family that was
preparing for the upcoming parole hearing of the man whoíd killed their
daughter. It had been a particularly gruesome murder of a teenager, and just
ten years after the conviction they had to go to speak to the parole board about
their loss and try to convince them that their daughterís killer should stay in
jail. That story really bothered me. I donít know how these people can ever
move on when they have to revisit the crimes again and again to try to keep a
convicted killer behind bars.
I work within
the realm of realism, but that doesnít mean there arenít liberties within the
work. I aim for whatís plausible.
spoken in the past about how you turned to and then rejected organised religion
in your youth. Do you have an alternate belief system which is reflected in your
Some of my
beliefs will filter through the work. In What Burns Within the notable
one is about affirmative action with fire departments. In terms of any
religious philosophy Ö Thatís harder to say. My own beliefs are hard to pin
name-checks a couple of books such as Steve Mosbyís The 50/50 Killer or
Tom Piccirilliís The Fever Kill. Is this your equivalent of product
Itís my way
of giving nods to works that I admire, but having said that, I also carefully
consider what I really think my characters would be interested in reading.
add that anyone whoís read those two books will see some parallels with the
underlying themes in Frailty.
several influences, from Laura Lippmann to Ian Rankin. Have your reading tastes
changed since youíve been publishing your own work? If so, in what way?
tastes have changed. For one, Iíve become more discerning as a reader. The
more I learn about the craft, the less tolerance I have with lazy writing.
I know you
don't want to be nasty to anyone, but can you give me examples of writers you've
moved away from or ones you started reading after being published?
I donít want
to name names, but thereís one author I own about twenty-five books by that Iíve
stopped reading. The reason is because it felt like every book was the same
book, just with a few swapped out secondary characters.
That said, I
think the author has since stopped writing both of the series that Iíd followed,
so perhaps we hit the same realization around the same time. I know they have
other work out there that I may some day check out, hence avoiding the use of
As for what
Iíve started to read, thatís a long list. Tom Piccirilli, for one. James
Reasoner. Both have impressive backlists and are phenomenal writers. Allan
Guthrie. Steve Mosby. Kevin Wignall. Tess Gerritsen. Rick Mofina. George
Pelecanos. Dennis Lehane. Sometimes, Iíll deliberately pick a bestselling
author and read a work by them to see whatís selling well, but not often. I
read for background research for interviews, and then there are the rare books I
read for pleasure, which include works by Rankin, Val McDermid, Cornelia Read,
Mark Billingham, Stuart MacBride, Simon Kernick Ö
Saying I read
their books for pleasure almost sounds a bit perverse, doesnít it?
thing: I deliberately pushed myself to read more American authors. I cut my
teeth on British crime fiction, but I have had to learn to understand the
American publishing scene, since I have a US publisher.
asked to review books or blurb authors, so I read a lot of debut authors or the
kinds of book that get pushed by publicists, but I make a point of going back to
writers who consistently deliver on the page. I read the best to remind myself
how high the bar is set.
recently agreed to a deal with Dorchester for the third book in the series,
Lullaby For the Nameless. Does Dorchester demand any interesting
restrictions on content or style that you can tell us about?
Dorchester has been great about the content. Thereís only one thing they asked
me to consider so far, and that was to find a way to inject a little hope in the
ending of Frailty. The compromise was to take one shade of dark off it,
but all that required was the deletion of one sentence. It didnít change any of
the substance of what happened.
Can you give
us a sneak preview of what Lullaby For the Nameless is about?
Burns Within and Frailty, the past case Nolan, Hart and Tain worked
on when they first met has been alluded to, but never fully explained.
For the Nameless readers will find out. When a current case ties directly
to the old case it brings back unpleasant memories. Instead of using flashbacks
and memory sequences the story will be told with intersecting timelines. Itís
an interesting challenge, going back just a few years, and writing the
characters as they were then. This case was Ashlynís first plainclothes
assignment, and sheís green. She has to find her feet and her self confidence,
and this predates her relationship with Craig, who sheís actually partnered with
in this book. Changing the relationship dynamics is interesting and allows me
the opportunity to get to know the characters better.
I notice on
the Dorchester website youíre running a competition to name a minor character in
Nameless. Can you tell us more about this?
like to enter to win a chance to have a character named after them in the third
book can send an e-mail to
Sandra@sandraruttan.com by December 1. Thereís a trivia question Ė what
police department do Nolan, Hart and Tain work for? Ė and the answer should be
in the body of the e-mail. Subject line Ďname contestí.
a character in a novel by John McFetridge, called Swap. Iím not sure
when Swap is being published, but although part of my name has been
changed, I have a walk-on role as a member of a wife-swapping club.
I like the
idea of having a wild fictional life, because thatís not at all like the real
me. I think itís fun to allow people to have the chance to have a fictional
publisher and editor of the Spinetingler webzine. Now that youíre busy
with contractual obligations, what does the future hold for Spinetingler?
have a good team in place, helping with Spinetingler. As long as weíre
able to continue producing a quality ezine weíll continue. Weíve trimmed back
to three issues per year, and weíve cut those back to six stories per issue as
well. We want to maintain a high standard. I hope we can keep it going for
another few years, anyway. Time will tell.
Iím also interviewing and reviewing for Mystery Bookspot, and that
means that I can continue doing those things as time allows, even if we have to
end Spinetingler at some point in the future.
interviewed quite a few times for someone whoís only had three books published.
Tell me, are there any questions you always wanted to be asked but never have?
I can think
of things I havenít been asked about, like my near-death experience and why I
didnít graduate from high school, but Iím not sure Iíd go so far as to say Iíve
always wanted to be asked about them. I donít mind any question, though. At
least, I havenít minded any question Iíve been asked so far.
you set a book in the US now that you've spent a fair bit of time there?
answer is yes. One of my hesitations was because I'd heard of Canadian writers
moving their works south, and being criticized for getting something wrong. The
reality is that when you haven't lived in a place or spent a lot of time there,
you just aren't going to know the setting as well, and then you're more likely
to make mistakes.
I also felt
that my writing usually has political shots that crop up in it. Not about
politics per se, but about government agencies like social services, and I think
we have to be very careful about pointing fingers at other countries if we don't
really understand how their society works. A lot of people assume Canada and
the US are so similar it shouldn't be a big deal, but from living here for six
months I understand just how many little things are different, things I might
otherwise get wrong.
the other project I'm working on at the moment is being set in the area I live
now. When I'd originally thought of the idea I'd thought about setting it where
I grew up in Ontario. It was reasonable to have an outcast Native boy in that
setting. When I decided that the setting would be in Carroll County that seemed
less reasonable, because of the local demographics. I may still have the
character be Native, but I need to carefully consider that. If I don't feel it
would be plausible to most local readers, I'll move in a different direction.
And then there
are other little things, like the fact that here they have Chick Fil-A, but they
don't have Harveys. I can't run into Beckers and grab a Mars bar here, and to
me, that's an example of the kind of thing you need to know to capture the
essence of a setting.
Also, as a
Canadian, do you find using a US-English spell check irritating?
been dealing with that for years, and we read books that come straight from the
US, so not really. When Iím typing an e-mail I just ignore the red line,
because my natural instinct is still to spell words with the u, for example.
This is actually something that my stepchildren find confusing. The other day
my stepdaughter asked, ĎWhatís this word? C-o-l-o-u-r.í She knows how to spell
words harder than that, but this was the introduction of a new concept. I
explained itís colour, but that in Canada we spell it differently. My stepson
followed that with a typical kid question Ė ĎWhy?í Try explaining that one.
I once set my
spell check for UK spelling, and at that point I realized that Canada really
does have its own English, because although we spell many words the UK way,
there are many words we spell the American way.
Interviewerís note: the preceding text was spell-checked using the
Canadian-English option on certain world-famous brand name word processing
software to give you good people the authentic Canadian reading experience.
out Sandraís website
FRAILTY OF FLESH published by Leisure Books, Oct 2008 $7.99
If you've been tempted by
the above, Sandra has kindly allowed access to the first two chapters as
downloadable pdfs - click here