I am so happy to have Carrie Patel stop by Literary Escapism! She is getting ready for the release of her debut novel The Buried Life.
The gaslight and shadows of the underground city of Recoletta hide secrets and lies. When Inspector Liesl Malone investigates the murder of a renowned historian, she finds herself stonewalled by the all-powerful Directorate of Preservation – Ricoletta’s top-secret historical research facility.
When a second high-profile murder threatens the very fabric of city society, Malone and her rookie partner Rafe Sundar must tread carefully, lest they fall victim to not only the criminals they seek, but the government which purports to protect them. Knowledge is power, and power must be preserved at all costs…
Literary Escapism: What was the catalyst behind The Buried Life? What made you write this story?
Carrie Patel: I wanted to tell a story about change and discovery, and I wanted to write it in a setting that was mysterious, wonderful, and dangerous at the same time. I was inspired by a lot of Victoriana and gaslight, as well as stories like The Phantom of the Opera, which is also, in a way, about parallel worlds and the dark surprises within them.
LE: Your prologue definitely entices the reader. Was it one of the first things you wrote or one of the last? What tone do you hope it sets for the reader?
CP: The prologue was one of the last things I wrote. Now I have to confess: the very first draft began with Malone waking up. When I realized the error of my ways, I changed the beginning substantially, and that included adding the prologue. In general, I wanted the prologue to draw the reader into the central mystery. The plot at the heart of The Buried Life surfaces slowly, and my hope was that the prologue would give readers enough context to place the revelations as they came.
LE: What was the inspiration behind a setting that is primarily an underground city yet still maintains connections to the surface?
CP: I wanted this to be a story about discovering the past, not about determining whether the surface was still livable. It says something different about Recolettan society that they choose isolationism and life underground even when it’s no longer strictly necessary. It’s a parallel with their chosen ignorance about their own history.
LE: How would you describe the time period that The Buried Life is set in?
CP: It’s post-post-apocalyptic. Recoletta (and cities like it) are the places that rise and thrive after a world-altering disaster, when the changes wrought on civilization have long since become part of the fabric of society.
LE: In your story, history is not taught but is instead hidden away. What made you decide to only allow history to be seen by the privileged few?
CP: As a bookworm and as someone who’s naturally curious, cordoning off history seemed to create a situation ripe for conflict and discovery. The people who shape Recoletta see knowledge as a powerful and dangerous thing. And since the most significant event on their cultural landscape is a period of strife that all but wiped out a world full of advanced civilizations, containment seems like a viable preventative strategy. But, obviously, it’s something that can’t last.
LE: What drew you to write from the perspective of middle class people, most prominently policewoman and a laundress?
CP: The conflict in The Buried Life is largely about a knowledge gap. If the protagonists had been members of upper-class whitenail society, there would have seemed to be less for them to discover and less for them to overcome in discovering it. The social gulf between the protagonists and the people they’re investigating is part of what makes their respective searches interesting, in my opinion.
LE: You put a slightly different twist on the mentor/rookie dynamic by having the superior officer be female. What made you include this twist and do you hope that more stories will follow your example?
CP: The gender choices just felt right for the characters. In my mind, Malone was always a woman and Sundar was always a man, and the tension between them was less about their gender roles and more about their different perspectives and what she reluctantly realizes she needs to learn from him.
It is a deviation from the norm, but my main goal was to create two interesting, symbiotic characters rather than a role reversal for its own sake. That said, I think it’s easier to create interesting characters when you’re willing to take risks with them, and I always love reading stories that do that. I read a comment from Max Gladstone to the effect that, when he’s determining a character’s gender, he asks himself what his first impulse is, and half of the time, he does the opposite. That always sounded like a pretty good way to avoid formula.
LE: You take a certain approach to writing the mystery within The Buried Life, dropping hints here and there for readers and characters alike. Who do you consider an influence on your investigation narrative? Who or what are you most influenced by in general?
CP: I don’t read a ton of mysteries, but I do enjoy speculative fiction that has a mystery built into it. David Brin’s Sundiver was one great example of mystery built into science fiction. Perdido Street Station was another (although the reader has an information advantage over the characters), and that was also a great touchstone for the politics and some of the “feel” of Recoletta. Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City is a really fun, gritty sci-fi mystery, and the lead character is a private investigator who pursues her case in a lot of unconventional ways. That’s much closer to Malone’s style than police procedural.
LE: The Whitenails, the group of upper class individuals in your story, feel refreshingly new and different. How did you go about creating them?
CP: I began with a question about who would be on top in this society. That led to a question about who would have started out on top and how they would have transferred their power. In a survival-focused society, such as Recoletta at its inception, the people with the most influence would have been the ones with the most useful skills. That would include doctors and engineers, and it would also include masons and miners. These would have been the people keeping the city running and teaching key skills to others. Quite often, they would have been the ones keeping their hands clean while less-skilled citizens performed more menial tasks. And since survival would also have required strict social organization, I assumed that the transfer of authority across generations would have been relatively straightforward. Recolettan society is conservative enough that a social structure would stick even when it’s outlived its usefulness.
LE: Which character is the most like you? How so?
CP: It’s probably a split between Jane and Malone. Malone’s driven and goal-oriented, which I can definitely identify with, but Jane has a natural curiosity that I also know all too well. They’re both stubborn in their own ways, and anyone in my family could tell you that definitely describes me!
LE: Which character was the most difficult to write?
CP: Malone was probably the hardest. She’s fairly terse and unexpressive, but she still has to communicate with the reader. Writing this balance and avoiding some of the clichés of badassery were challenging.
LE: What is your writing process?
CP: For something with as many plot points as The Buried Life, I need an outline. I don’t hold to it rigidly, but I like to have a good grasp on where the characters are going and how they’re ultimately getting funneled into the conclusion. From there, I start at the beginning and keep going until I hit the end. I’ve tried writing ahead when I get stuck, but that doesn’t really work—I always feel like I need to know exactly how I got to a scene before I can actually write it.
Carrie Patel was born and raised in Houston, Texas. An avid traveller, she studied abroad in Granada, Spain and Buenos Aires, Argentina. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Texas A&M University and worked in transfer pricing at Ernst & Young for two years. She now works as a narrative designer at Obsidian Entertainment in Irvine, California, where the only season is Always Perfect.
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