Interviewer Luan Gaines:Was Tabula Rasa inspired by a real case?
Shelly Reuben:A few years back, investigators in New York State discovered that certain children who had supposedly died from “crib deaths” had, in fact, been murdered by their mothers. The psychologies of these murdering mothers and how their communities responded to them suggested some of the plot elements of Tabula Rasa.
You are one of very few certified fire investigators. Is this a difficult field for a woman? Has being a woman offered any advantages in the investigating process?
I was very fortunate to have fallen in love with and married a New York City Supervising Fire Marshal, who then taught me how to investigate fires. When we started our own company, our first clients were insurance companies, and we were sometimes called in to do fires so fresh that the fire scenes were still smoldering. This on-site experience was invaluable in my training and serves me well today when I investigate both product liability and insurance fires.
Besides Tabula Rasa, have you found inspiration for your other novels from your work?
Origin and Cause was inspired by our first product liability case, which involved a corpse, a car, and a lawsuit for a faulty carburetor. Spent Matches took off after my husband told me about a fire he had investigated that involved a strip club and the spontaneous combustion of rags. ¬ And after a belligerent woman sued one of our clients for delaying the response time of fire apparatus, I was so taken by her truly majestic arrogance that I gave it to one of my characters in Weeping.
What part of a fire investigation is based on instinct? I ask this because Billy senses a hovering malevolence while sifting through the debris of the fire in Sojourn that affects his approach to the case and the mother involved.
After investigating dozens of fires, it is possible for an experienced investigator like Billy to walk into a room and know instantly where a fire started. When a methodology is thoroughly ingrained, our subconscious minds can sometimes observe, integrate, and analyze the variables quicker than our conscious minds can do it. What we call “instinct” is just that quick-fix of experience that precedes the conscious, detailed, and systematic analysis of the evidence which, inevitably, must follow.
As a young boy, Billy Nightingale has an excess of curiosity, a real interest in how things work and why. How does his experience with the fire in his father's barn determine the course of Billy's life?
Billy, having been accused of setting an incendiary fire, had a personal motive for knowing what caused it. But he hadn’t expected the process of fire investigation to intrigue him so much that he would want to follow in Delmore O’Shaughnessy’s footsteps and become a fire investigator himself.
When you first introduce the mother, she appears harmless, if confused. How do Social Services determine whether she is sincerely distressed or is a danger to her child's welfare? How much does Billy and Sebastian's input weigh on the decision?
In Tabula Rasa, the social services worker didn’t care at all if Edith Tuttle was a menace to her child. All she cared about was her paperwork. Billy and Sebastian manipulated her into allowing them to keep the child.
If the Bly's hadn't been on hand to adopt the baby saved from the fire, what would normally be the child's fate?
The baby would have been murdered in a fire by its mother.
You have combined fire investigation with child protection in this novel. Is this another area of interest for you, or primarily a plot device?
As a teenager, Merry yearns for her birth mother and sends a letter to an agency that reunites birth parents with adopted children. In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of such organizations?
They don’t seem to be breaking any laws, but when it comes to how these organizations function, I find it odd that adoptive parents are so often left out of the equation. Tabula Rasa provides a fictionalized account of what can happen when things go wrong. And I believe that things do go wrong in real life.
Merry's adoptive parents want to shield her from her family history, a potentially damaging one. What is your view of nurture versus nature?
Tabula Rasa answers that questions better than I can. The title means “blank slate,” so that should provide a clue.
Have Billy Nightingale and Sebastian and Annie Bly appeared in previous novels, or are they new to Tabula Rasa?
This is Billy, Sebastian, Annie and Merry’s maiden voyage. They are coming back in The Skirt Man to be published by Harcourt, Inc. in June 2006.
Adoption is a serious issue in Tabula Rasa, as Merry must be protected from those who mean her harm. Is this case an exception?
People who adopt have to deal with the same problems that all parents must face everywhere. How do I teach, mold, and protect my child? An added danger can occur, in fiction or in real life, when a biological parent comes back to menace that child.
You work in a difficult field, left with the aftermath of tragedy. Is there emotional fallout for you? Does this kind of work become emotionally exhausting?
Puzzling out the origin and cause of a fire requires absolute attention to details, the integration of many variables, and coming to a conclusion that explains all of the evidence. Fortunately, most of my cases do not involve deaths or injuries. The work is intellectually exhilarating.
Your field is a natural source of human-interest stories, especially when mysterious circumstances are involved. Do you limit the number of storylines in a given novel? How do you determine the number of plotlines you use?
The basic idea for a story dictates all of the other variables, including if and how many sub-plots there will be. Everything follows from the idea.
What specific story elements do you require when writing a novel? Has it all come together in your mind before you write or does the plot evolve as you work?
I start out with the nucleus of an idea:
Baby survives murderous mother. Healthy family adopts her. Despite her background, can she be raised Tabula Rasa, blank slate, and evolve into a good, productive, healthy individual? After that idea-nugget is defined, what follows are outlines, character studies, location searches, research, and hard work.
Have you always wanted to write or did your work lead you to the mystery novel genre?
I decided to become a writer when I was seventeen. I had never had any other professional goals or intentions. Being taught how to investigate fires was a stroke of good fortune that is contributing mightily to my reservoir of story ideas.
Are there any authors who have influenced your work, either in the mystery genre or in general? If so, can you name them?
The greatest influence on my writing was O’Henry. I believe that studying him provides a master’s degree in imagination, plotting, and characterization. He was a genius. I was also influenced by the lackadaisical joy of William Saroyan’s stories, and by Agatha Christie’s wonderful imagination and her incredible ability to make characters come to life with just a line or two of description. I guess the other Big Four would be Edmund Rostand for Cyrano de Bergerac, John Steinbeck for East of Eden, Charles Dickens for everything, and Alexander Dumas for The Count of Monte Cristo, which is my favorite novel.
Have you begun work on your next novel? Can you share something about it with us?
I will finish writing The Skirt Man this week. It is about a farmer who wears a skirt, drives a tractor, stutters, and dies in a fire.
What advice do you have for would-be writers?
The same advice that Winston Churchill gave at Harrow School on October 29, 1941.
“Never give in—never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”
It would be up to each, individual prospective writer to figure out how to apply that quote to his/her writing and life.
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines
conducted her interview with Shelly Reuben via email for curledup.com.
Click here to read her review of Tabula Rasa.