Splitting her time between New York City, Milan, and countless travels, author Joanna Crispi writes novels as worldly as she is. Just released on Vook's store, Soldier in the Grass takes place in the civil war-ridden Congo and follows a French lieutenant and the woman who saves his life as they fight to escape the country . The Guilty Ones bring us to modern-day Rome, where two Americans and a Frenchman find themselves entangled in a trial abroad that spirals out of control. Joanna's work as a criminal defense attorney inspired The Guilty Ones. Currently in Milan, Joanna spoke to Vook over the phone to tell us more.
Did you start writing after you began your legal career? No, I started writing when I was ten years old. If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said a writer. I went to law school and practiced law, which delayed my completion of novels for a decade. But I always wrote through those years.
How does your legal background influence your writing? My experience as a lawyer is in the area of criminal defense. Writing novels and criminal trials both involve telling a story. A trial is a true test of narrative because each side, defense and prosecution, is asking the jury to believe its account of events. At the end, when both sides are finished telling their story, the jury renders its verdict for one or the other. In a trial, witnesses have to be credible. It’s the same thing when you’re writing a novel; your characters have to be believable. The experience as a trial lawyer over time results in the ability to assess credibility in an intuitive way. You know when someone is lying.
Another interesting aspect of trials is jury selection, which requires decisions about who would be the most open-minded or favorable with virtually no knowledge, so one is judging on the basis of facial expression, demeanor, etc. Those kinds of assessments of human nature were fascinating to me.
We’re so excited to have your novels on Vook. I’m personally reading The Guilty Ones right now. Do you read eBooks? Here in Milan, not surprisingly, it’s harder to find books in English and they are more expensive, so eBooks are a wonderful resource.
I profiled The Guilty Ones on our blog a few weeks ago. The story was inspired by your own experiences during a criminal trial. Now, one can’t help but think of the Amanda Knox trial in Italy. The Guilty Ones was written before the Amanda Knox trial, but it’s the kind of thing that the novel addresses. The legal system is imperfect and the accused are swimming against the current. For all intents and purposes, in a criminal trial, the jury will convict unless you can affirmatively disprove the prosecution’s case. You don’t have to prove your innocence; you have to disprove the prosecution’s case. A trial is not about guilt versus innocence. A trial is about what can be proven in court. The Guilty Ones draws from both sides of the line that criminal defense lawyers walk, the line between what constitutes a crime and guilt.
Could you tell us what inspired Soldier in the Grass? I’d been watching French news for years. Africa is covered quite extensively by French media, much more than in the US. During the rebellion in the Congo, which took place in 1997, rebels targeted the white colonial population and the French government sent in troops to rescue French nationals. It was a short but violent episode that completely immersed me. The story in the novel is purely fictional, but the historical context is factual.
Travel is a huge part of your life. Do you keep a journal while you travel? I don’t keep a travel journal, but I write everything longhand in notebooks, the ones they sell here in Milan for a dollar. I fill them up with notes, drafts of novels, random observations. I date each notebook, so it makes it easy to go back and find what I wrote at any particular time.
How did you start with New York Quarterly Books? The NYQ poetry magazine was founded by William Packard, a renowned playwright and poet. I met Bill when I came to New York after law school. He edited The Guilty Ones as well as an earlier novel of mine, Roxanne and Alexander, about the wife of Alexander the Great. He finished editing Soldier in the Grass just days before he passed away; it was the last thing he did in a life of literary achievement. NYQ Books wanted Soldier in the Grass to be the first book it published as a tribute to Packard and a continuation of his legacy. His handwritten notes are included at the back of that edition. I am so fortunate to have had three of my novels edited by him. Our friendship is what kept me writing.
What is your writing process as you develop stories? Well, I don’t start writing until I see the whole story in my head. Then I write the story down in 2-3 pages, from beginning to end. The first novel I wrote took me forever. I had characters, I had a story, but I didn’t have a beginning and an end. When you start writing before you have a beginning and an end, it’s easy to get lost. So I recommend having a map in case you lose your bearings.
Do you have any other advice for fellow writers? Yes. If you’re just starting out, it’s very important to finish a novel. The first time you finish something, the chances are it won’t get published. But finishing is such a benchmark for writing. So many people who want to write never make it to that point. Once you finish something, you’re in a position to know how to do it better the next time. You learn through finishing.
Published by New York Quarterly Books, The Guilty Ones and Soldier in the Grass are now available on Vook.com. Visit Joanna on Facebook, where she shares author news and stunning photos of her travels.Disqus