Agatha Donkar, a photographer and writer based in Chapel Hill, NC, has recently been delving into the photography-themed mysteries of Meredith Cole, a mystery writer based in Charlottesville, VA. I’m pleased to host both women here for a quick interview on Cole’s books — and grateful that the chat, given their respective hometowns these days, didn’t turn rivalrous. — Art Taylor
Lydia McKenzie, an urban photographer who isn’t making as much from her portraits of prostitutes as her artistic colleagues shooting pictures for tourists, isn’t entirely satisfied with her life — and then her subjects start turning up dead. In Meredith Cole‘s Posed for Murder and Dead in the Water, Lydia’s photography and insatiable curiosity draw her into an even seedier side of Brooklyn than she had been traveling before. Cole draws on her own filmmaking background to give Lydia an artist’s eye and a detective’s curiosity.
Agatha Donkar: Lydia McKenzie is an urban street photographer whose work drags her into situations she might prefer to be well out of. Why photography? Do you have a background in photography yourself?
Meredith Cole: I have never considered myself a photographer, although I love to take photos, and have taken classes. But the choice of photography was inspired by my first career: filmmaking. I directed feature films and wrote countless screenplays in my twenties. Cinematographers and photographers look at the world in a different way than other people, and they sometimes use a camera to shield and protect them. I liked the idea of having a sleuth who was always observing and evaluating her environment. I also liked the idea that she would have evidence (her photos) to look at later and find clues.
Living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I had quite a few friends who were working as photographers in fashion and were showing their work in galleries. I borrowed a lot from their experiences, which I found really fascinating.
The subjects that Lydia focuses on in her work — prositution, murder — are subjects that may be distasteful to the general public. Do you feel as though Lydia might occasionally long for the drive to make more commercial images? Is there something in her character that draws her to the slightly darker side of city living?
Lydia is drawn to the dark side in her work. It’s probably also what makes her such a happy city dweller. I think it’s also what makes her a unique character and ends up getting her mixed up in murder investigations, like the deaths of prostitutes in Dead in the Water. One of the reasons her day job is so different from her art is so that she can keep her art “pure.” I think she would really hate to do something commercial just to make money.
Why New York City? It’s a perfect setting, but did you consider any other major cities before settling on New York?
I didn’t think about any other city or setting for the story. I was living in Williamsburg when I wrote the first book, and writing about the place was a great way to get out all my feelings (both positive and negative) for the place. The neighborhood is really like another character in the book. I don’t think I could ever run out of stories. With its mix of ethnic groups (Hasidim, Puerto Rican, Polish), art galleries, industrial neighborhoods turned into art studios/music venues/restaurants, luxury lofts, and all the energy on the streets, I have plenty of new subjects and new tensions to explore.
Particularly in Posed For Murder, it’s specifically Lydia’s work that lands her in the center of investigations. When you write, how do you start? Do you work from ideas for the images that Lydia is creating, building the story around them, or does the story engender the images that she is working on for its own purposes? The idea of Lydia’s art imitating life, and then life imitating her art with the second set of murders, was fascinating to me.
The idea that her photos inspire a murderer was at the heart of the story from the very beginning. That someone, obsessed with the lives and deaths of the “lost girls,” who wanted to call attention to their lives, could also inspire more violence and more death made the story interesting and complex for me. I wanted Lydia to have to question her art and her own intentions — and of course be really, really motivated to stop the killer.
In both novels, Lydia’s subjects are primarily women, and the victims, linked to her photographs, are as well; and the Stop the Violence! benefit at the end of Posed for Murder calls attention to that as well. Can you talk about those themes? I felt as though both books made strong statements about violence against women.
Sadly, as women, we are in more danger from those people that we are close to then any stranger on the street. I didn’t want to write another thrilling story where women are killed and then a man rides to the rescue. I wanted Lydia to be forced to think about her own relationships and how she felt about issues like domestic violence and prostitution.
I took a very influential class in college: Self-defense. I thought we were just going to learn how to fight back from an attacker. But in the class we learned a lot about gender dynamics, and how women need to go against a lot of the behavior that is considered “feminine” in order to defend themselves. We had to use our voices and whatever strengths we had to rescue ourselves. We also had to strategize on how to get out of situations that are very scary (waking up with someone in your bedroom, being surrounded by multiple attackers, etc.). I used elements of the class quite a bit in Posed for Murder. I wanted Lydia to have the same empowering experience as I had.
Lydia’s relationship with Detective Romero ends on a very ambiguous note, as does the future of her career. Can you give readers any idea what is going to come next for Lydia — a snapshot, perhaps, of what’s in store for her?
The third book is almost finished. It’s called Murder Under Development. Lydia is investigating illegal tenants for a big real estate company, and discovers an elderly resident/art collector murdered. She suspects that the development company got rid of her as part of their plan to remake the neighborhood, but she also investigates the woman’s estranged family in Brighton Beach. Meanwhile, Lydia’s parents arrive in their RV with a separate mystery to solve, and Romero becomes seriously ill and needs her help. Lydia will need to make a decision about whether to stay or leave Brooklyn. Her commitment to her photography will be put to the test, and relationship with Romero will definitely go through some significant changes.