Stephanie Kane was born in Brooklyn and came to Colorado for the first time to attend the University of Colorado Boulder. She went to law school and joined a practice in Denver, founded and ran a karate studio in her spare time, and eventually became a successful crime novelist. Her books have won a Colorado Book Award and two Colorado Author League Awards. Clearly, she is busy.
But Kane took the time to talk with us about her newest crime thriller, A Perfect Eye, which launches on Thursday, September 5, with a reading and signing at the Tattered Cover LoDo. The story is set right here in the Mile High City, at the Denver Art Museum, which works hard to avoid the combination of fine art and murder. Luckily for readers, that's where fiction comes in.
Westword: So what's it like for a local author to begin the public life of a new novel at the Tattered Cover?
Stephanie Kane: Exciting and daunting. You never get over the fear of bombing.
Your newest novel centers to some degree on a piece by impressionist Gustave Caillebotte. What drew you to that work?
I began with the genre. And it never occurred to me not to use a real artist; for my imagination to soar, I have to start in a real place.
Realism tends to leave me cold, and I have no idea what to make of contemporary art. I needed a painting that wasn’t as flashy as modern or as edgy as the experimentalists, and I didn’t want Sam Peckinpaugh-style seventeenth-century religious gore. Impressionism is more my speed.
But there are a fair number of impressionists. Why Caillebotte?
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I was drawn to Caillebotte because he was obscure. Talented, tormented and complex. He’d trained as a lawyer but bucked his wealthy father to become an artist. Critics were brutal to him, and even his peers found him eccentric. But he supported his friends and secured their legacy by buying and displaying their paintings and willing them to the French state. When you see the magnificent collection of impressionists at the Musée d’Orsay, it’s thanks to Gustave Caillebotte. Digging deeper, I found two women in his life who had totally different personas and names. When I discovered they were really the same woman, I was hooked.
Caillebotte is known for his blue-gray palette and top-hatted gentlemen strolling with umbrellas on rainy Paris streets. Far less known are his landscapes. It just so happens that the Denver Art Museum owns one. That painting was the model for the Caillebotte in my book.
Do you consider A Perfect Eye to be an ekphrastic novel? Is the story about the art, and the art about the story? Or is Caillebotte's piece just the jumping-off point for the mystery?
In an art thriller, the art can’t be just a device; I think it has to be central to the plot and themes. In A Perfect Eye, a forged painting inspires a gruesome murder. Why an art forgery? Forgers don’t do it for the money; they do it to prove the experts wrong. Making the bad guy a forger let me explore who gets to call himself an artist, who and what determine value or worth, and the relationship between truth and art.
This is your fifth thriller. What brings you back to Colorado? Is it just a matter of "Write what you know?"
I don’t believe in writing what you know. If you already know it, why write about it?
To bring a setting to life, I have to live or at least go there. Once I’m there, the act of discovery begins. To bring that sense of discovery to the page, I try to look at even familiar places through new eyes. If the setting’s new, I try to see it through the eyes of someone who belongs there. Inside sources are priceless; you won’t find what they tell you in a reference book.
The insiders I interviewed for A Perfect Eye gave me a window into the museum’s culture and how they felt about their work. There were some neat surprises. When I asked a conservator about using a palette knife as a weapon for an attack in her lab, she was disappointed. Just a palette knife? she said. One of her pet peeves was staff and visitors who stand too close to the art; I’ll never come closer than eighteen inches to a painting again.
An insider can also tell you what to look for in their world. A Perfect Eye’s sequel has a scene in a theater. To get the setting right, I went to a play. Beforehand, I asked a friend who’s an actress and a playwright what I should focus on. The auditorium, the scenery, the stage? The audience, she said. Watch what they do just before and after the curtain rises. I was so busy watching them, I don’t remember the play. Her tip brought my scene alive.
Who are your favorite crime authors?
They’re all over the map, from Denver novelists Mark Stevens and Harry Maclean to Adrian McKinty and Tana French. I also like British writer Paul French, whose Murder in Peking is about the murder of a British diplomat’s daughter in China in 1937 just before the Japanese invaded. And I have a peculiar affection for Jim Thompson, a seriously underrated hard-boiled 1950s crime writer whose work is truly chilling.
What did you love to read as a kid? Who was the first author who inspired you?
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My family were big readers. At home it was everything from Ray Bradbury to Greek mythology to pulp fiction, the Beat poets and William S. Burroughs. I haunted the used bookstore for old copies of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. They’re still on my shelf. In high school I fell in love with Homer and The Iliad. But the first writers who really inspired me were science fiction and mystery short-story writers. I like compression, and I think they taught me the value of beginning, middle and end.
Any other Denver institutions you'd like to write about at some point? What venues in Colorado seem to just be crying out to be a crime site?
GRACe studios, a converted meat-packing and rendering plant in Globeville. Gentrification, code violations and rising rents have driven Denver’s starving artists to America’s most toxic zip code. GRACe is north of I-70, past old pig farms and the stockyards. It’s fenced with barbed wire and bordered by a junkyard with mountains of tires and rusting cars, a lamb slaughterhouse (at 6 a.m. you can hear them scream), vacant land with tall native grass, and the scenic Platte River Trail, over which cyclists in colorful shirts fly past Superfund sites. Across the river are an abandoned water tower and an old metal bridge where a Judas goat used to lead lambs to the slaughter.
Because Globeville will be the only place newcomers can afford to move to, the artists will be forced out once again. In the meantime, it’s an ideal setting for a crime involving consumerism run amok, insatiable greed, cannibalism, and the death of civilization.