Interview: Judith Greber/Gillian Roberts

Please welcome Judith Greber, author of many mystery novels, including the Amanda Pepper series (as Gillian Roberts).

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
A long walk, ideally near water with husband and dog followed by any combination of the following: working at the computclaireer, playing the piano, playing with watercolors, reading a good book, spending time with friends and family, good food, good wine, and laughing—as long as it includes laughing.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I don’t know that it’s a “signature” to anyone but me, but I’ve been wearing “Paris” by Yves St. Laurent for more than a decade. I think it’s very much out of fashion now, and no longer easy to find, but I love it.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
The first is said only a little tongue in cheek: When we lived in Los Angeles, and I was still afraid even to dream of being a writer, let alone say I was one, I was introduced to a man who proudly told me he was a writer—the first I’d met. “I’ve written two Gilligan’s Islands,” he said. I thought “Wow! I bet I could write that badly!” And so I did. (Write. I hope not that badly.)

My tv, movie, novel, and playwriting friend Jerry DiPego was a real help once I began as a mentor sharing valuable writing ideas, encouragement and as a first reader.

And now I’m going to break the rule about not counting family and say that the most significant and meaningful encouragement was from my husband. My family of origin in no way encouraged me (quite the opposite), but my husband, after years of hearing me say how I was going to write “someday” actually got me started when our youngest entered kindergarten and I was deciding what to do next. He asked me why this wasn’t the “someday” I’d talked about, and when I came up with all manner of reasons (all of which translated into fear of failure) he made up a face-saving “Grant” which promised to feed and shelter me if I’d make “someday” now, and write every day while the children were in school. And so I (finally) began.

Do you listen to music when you write?
No. I get too emotionally involved with music to have it be background.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
The book I am finishing right now would be bittersweet chocolate poured over candied ginger. It takes place during the Spanish Inquisition, so it has to have a dark, tart complexity. (Full disclosure: I am crazy mad wild for candied ginger dipped in chocolate and I would probably answer that way no matter what I’d written!)

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Lots of my stories begin with a situation I find upsetting or something I feel I should have known. This time, it was the fact that the Spanish Inquisition was here, in the Americas, in New Spain (now Mexico. Back then only the city was called Mexico)

I learned this about the time of 9-11 and in the interim, the War on Terror, militant Islamism and the increasing cries for less separation of church and state in the U.S. merged into an idea for a novel. This coincided with the decision to wind up the Amanda Pepper series and my desire for a new challenge.

The result of all that is a story about life (and death—there is a murder, and a mystery along with an auto-da-fe and burnings at the stake) when you are an outsider and not allowed to exist. My working title is The Heretic’s Boy, and it’s set in 1649, in Mexico City, New Spain.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I am drawn to injustice, either by the state or ordinary individuals. I’m particularly upset by the abuse of power by designated “helpers”: parents, teachers, medical personal, clerics, etc., etc., etc. One of the joys of writing mysteries has been to vicariously avenge a few of these.

Oh, and secrets. Love them, but doesn’t every mystery writer?

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
I’m going to talk about Francisco Alba rather than Amanda Pepper because he’s on my mind right now. He’s a young man in his twenties whose family has been in New Spain since the Conquistadors. He’s smart and good-looking, raised in privilege with the obligatory Spanish outsized sense of entitlement, excessive pride and over-sensitivity to whether his honor was being respected. All of that was expected of a man in his time.

But when he returns to New Spain after three years in the Philippines dealing with the family import-export business, he learns that his father was arrested by the Inquisition as a converso, a secret Jew, a heretic, and therefore he, too, is in danger. Trying to learn the fate of his family, trying to plan an escape from a country with sealed exits, having no identity, no ability to find employment, constantly worried about being discovered by the Inquisition’s soldiers and spies—all of that plus a relationship with a Spanish-Indian midwife who involves him in a mysterious death—turns him into the man he becomes.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
This is not anything I ever think about (do all the other writers?). I have an image of Francisco, but not in terms of anyone else. However, here are three people who perhaps together come close: the Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal for his intelligent, handsome sexiness, Jean Valjean for recreating himself while being persecuted by an obsessed person, and Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy, just because.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Charles Dickens, so he’d tell me the ending of Edwin Drood; his friend Wilkie Collins who wrote the first mystery novel, The Moonstone, which I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed. I think those two men would be great fun as well. Ross MacDonald because I am sure he’d be interesting and I loved what he did with the genre. Agatha Christie, who needs no explanation. And to bring in the living, Kate Atkinson for the way she writes whatever genre intrigues her at the time, and when it’s a mystery, spins seemingly effortless mazes with amazing characters and finally, Ruth Rendell, who is simply the best. I would ply them with the best food and wine possible and expect their writing secrets in return, of course!

What’s next for you?
First, final tweaks to The Heretic’s Boy. And then, because I’ve always hop-scotched from one sort of book to another—so far: contemporary mainstream to historic saga to contemporary mysteries to a historical mystery now—I’d like to continue my crooked career path and return to the present. At the moment, I have two ideas starting to spin—one a stand-alone psychological suspense and the other, a funny (I hope) mystery for middle-graders. And then there’s the idea of another Amanda Pepper. She’s great fun and I love spending time with her, so who knows?

***

Judy Greber and her criminal alter-ego Gillian Roberts grew up right outside of Philadelphia, hometown as well (by amazing coincidence) of Gillian’s series protagonist, Amanda Pepper. Both now live just over the Golden Gate Bridge, in Marin County, California, and spend as much time as possible in a small Mexican town on the Pacific.

Judy published several mainstream novels in which people died, but nobody sleuthed: The Silent Partner, Easy Answers, Mendocino and As Good as It Gets. At some point along the she discovered the joys of murder, and split her person like an amoeba. Gillian was born and took credit for writing the fourteen prize-winning books in the Amanda Pepper series, starting with Caught Dead in Philadelphia plus two other mysteries, a collection of short stories and a how-to: You Can Write a Mystery.

The Amanda Pepper series is being reprinted in e-book format by Untreed Reads and is also available through Audible.com and other audio formats. Visit her at http://www.gillianroberts.com.

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6 thoughts on “Interview: Judith Greber/Gillian Roberts”

  1. Judy, thanks for stopping. What a nice guy to be married to! My own husband said kind of the same thing when I was fired a couple summers ago – “Are you going to finish that novel now?”

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  2. Love your answers–your fabulous humor comes through in all of them! 🙂

    Re: music, I know exactly what you mean by emotional involvement. Have never been able to put that into words but I am always amazed at the powerful effect of music. Nicely articulated!

    And I am thrilled to hear that you’re thinking about writing another Amanda Pepper…have enjoyed every single one so far. Thanks so much for visiting us.

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  3. Thank you all! I hope you will get a chance to read that book, Sarah–it’s out looking for a publishing home right now. And another great husband–Mary–you did finish that book, didn’t you! Never underestimate the power of a good man. And thanks, too, Kristi–sadly, there’s always enough injustice out there to provide material for mystery writers, isn’t there? And I agree, Cynthia about music’s power–in fact, I’ve recently started taking piano lessons again. Staying true to my mystery creds, I’m murdering my loves–Beethoven and Chopin–at least at the keyboard!

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