Interview with Wendall Thomas, author of Drowned Under

Travel agent Cyd Redondo returns for another crime-solving adventure in her second mystery, DROWNED UNDER. In this interview, author Wendall Thomas talks about the Golden Age movie stars who served as the inspiration for her wisecracking protagonist, how she researched all the fashion data that Cyd incorporates in her hilarious commentaries on her clothes, makeup and accessories, why both books in this series revolve around endangered species, and what has surprised her the most about the community of mystery writers she joined two years ago when her debut novel, LOST LUGGAGE, was published.

 

Question: Your protagonist, Cyd Redondo, is a wisecracking travel agent from Brooklyn who becomes enmeshed in crimes that bring her to faraway, exotic lands—like Tasmania in this second adventure. Did you have any of the Golden Age movie stars in mind when you were creating Cyd? She has a definite screwball comedy vibe.

Wendall ThomasYes, absolutely. Barbara Stanwyck’s comedies—especially The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire—definitely inspired me. Stanwyck has Cyd’s streetwise attitude in both films, and she’s small but packs a punch, which I hope Cyd does too.

Now that I think about it, seeing her tiny, feisty showgirl in a room with eight professors in Ball of Fire (along with the early elevator scene in Silence of the Lambs) probably had something to do with the idea of Cyd being overprotected and towered over by her gaggle of “brousins.”

But screwball stars in general—Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Carol Lombard, Jean Arthur, Judy Holliday, and also ‘70s comedies from Barbra Streisand and Goldie Hawn—were where I looked for inspiration and also for strong, funny women. I’d gotten very tired of the “Type A,” humorless career women in films and books, and longed for some resourceful, sexy broads, so I figured I would try to write one.

 

Q: Can you name three mystery authors—or any authors—whose work influenced the way you write?

WTThis is always so hard, as I feel like all sorts of things sift into your work that you don’t even realize. Still, I’d have to say that Janet Evanovich, for sure, as Stephanie Plum was one of the first real screwball protagonists I found in modern mystery. And Dorothy Gilman, as I sucked down all the Mrs. Pollifax books when I was in high school. I think she made me believe it was possible to do an amateur sleuth series in a variety of locations, rather than confining it to one small town/community.

I love Wilkie Collins’ No Name, and I think there’s a bit of Magdalen Vanstone in Cyd, in terms of her determination and her tendency to make risky, knee-jerk decisions. I would love to think there’s a tiny bit of Flannery O’Connor’s sarcasm in the narration, but I can only bow before her.

 

Q: Cyd’s stunning commentary on her clothes, makeup and accessories in the midst of action sequences makes for a hilarious juxtaposition. How do you research all of that fashion data?

WT: This is embarrassing, but I go to Macy’s. I’m not much of a designer girl myself, but for some reason, Cyd just showed up in my imagination as a bargain hound and expert in mid-range designers (except when it comes to lingerie, where she goes high end). So I took a notepad to Macy’s and Loehmann’s—and now when I’m having a tough writing day, I look back at magazines from 2006 and troll eBay.

 

Q: Both of your books have a plot that involves endangered species. To what degree does this topical concern also manifest itself in your private life?

WTI started researching wildlife crime in about 2004, speaking to the Wildlife Crime Prevention Unit at Scotland Yard and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, and uncovered so many more horrific stories than I could use in a comic series, without turning it into a full-on tragedy. The situation for endangered species has only gotten worse since then. I think it’s probable that the next generation will grow up in a world where rhinos, tigers, elephants and thousands of other species will be as mythical as the Dodo was for us. So I think the issue is worth keeping in the public eye…and, of course, I donate to the World Wildlife Fund, etc.

But on a broader level, there are a lot of things I feel are important—libraries, bookstores, academic freedom, reasonable royalties for writers and musicians, manners—which seem to be endangered, so that informs the things I make important to Cyd as well. That’s probably the place where I reside in the character. That and a crippling sense of responsibility.

 

Q: Just for fun, play casting director for the big-screen adaptation of DROWNED UNDER.

WT: If I had to choose someone who might actually be able to get a movie made right now, I’d probably go for Amy Adams, Anna Kendrick or Kate McKinnon. They’re all quite different, but all three of them can pull off physical comedy, which is crucial for the character.

 

Q: Coming from academia, teaching as you do at UCLA’s Graduate Film School, what has surprised you most about the people you’ve met since you joined the world of mystery writers?

WTHow lovely everyone is. I know I’ve said this in interviews before, but I’ve been stunned by how generous mystery writers are, from the most famous on down. Hollywood and academia tend to feed on paranoia and pretension, but at least in my limited experience, the mystery community is much more civilized and fun. Maybe it’s because it has librarians.

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