My special guest author today is mystery novelist Claudia Riess. She’s chatting with me about False Light.
During her virtual book tour, Claudia will be awarding a $50 Amazon or Barnes and Noble (winner’s choice) gift card to a lucky randomly drawn winner. To be entered for a chance to win, use the form below. To increase your chances of winning, feel free to visit her other tour stops and enter there, too!
The book is on sale for only $0.99 during the tour.
Claudia Riess, a Vassar graduate, has worked in the editorial departments of The New Yorker and Holt, Rinehart, and Winston and has edited several art history monographs.
Please tell us a little bit about False Light.
Academic sleuths Erika Shawn, art magazine editor, and Harrison Wheatley, a more seasoned art history professor, set out to tackle a brain teaser. This time the couple—married since their encounter in Stolen Light, first in the series—attempt to crack the long un-deciphered code of art forger Eric Hebborn (1934-1996), which promises to reveal the whereabouts of a number of his brilliant Old Master counterfeits. (Hebborn, in real life, was a mischievous sort, who had a fascination with letters and a love-hate relationship with art authenticators. I felt compelled to devise a puzzler on his behalf!) After publication of his memoir, Drawn to Trouble, published in 1991, he encrypts two copies with clues to the treasure hunt. On each of the title pages, he pens a tantalizing explanatory letter. One copy he sends to an art expert; the second, he releases into general circulation. The catch: both books are needed to decipher the code.
When the books are at last united 25 years later, Erik and Harrison are enlisted to help unearth their hidden messages. But when several research aides are brutally murdered, the academic challenge leads to far darker mysteries in the clandestine world of art crime. As the couple navigate this sinister world, both their courage under fire and the stability of their relationship are tested.
What inspired you to write this book?
I wanted to tackle the crime of art forgery. Since my M.O. is tweaking history without contradicting it—dreaming up events that might have occurred—I pored through articles and book summaries for some individual or event that would ignite my imagination. Eric Hebborn appeared out of the morass like a deus ex machina, delivering all the elements to jump-start a suspense. He was a brilliant craftsman, admired even by his detractors. His death in 1996, a probable murder, remains a controversy to this day. His delight in mischief-making is intriguing in and of itself. But what nailed the project for me was a quote from his book, Drawn to Trouble: Confessions of a Master Forger (1991): “Letters can destroy nations, raise up and cast down religions, and with what contemptuous ease alter our personal histories. But like all dangerous things there is something fascinating about them.” Perfect. I would devise a brain teaser on his behalf: he would encrypt two copies of his book with clues leading to the whereabouts of many of his counterfeit old masters. On each title page he would write a tantalizing letter. One book he’d send to an art authenticator with which he had a love-hate relationship; one he’d release to the general public. Both books were needed to unlock the code.
It would take three decades for the books to come together, unleashing much havoc, including murder. Would my amateur sleuthing duo—an academician and an art magazine editor— be up to the task? I was off and running.
What exciting story are you working on next?
Right now I’m working on the third book in the art mystery series, Knight Light, scheduled for release this fall. Doing battle with the denouement, tossing my protagonists hither and yon. As frustrating for them as it is for me, no doubt. But really, I love being beset with plot problems. It’s a great mental exercise, and it’s so satisfying when it all comes together. This time, Erika and Harrison are drawn into a murder mystery that involves newly discovered clues, maddeningly vague, hinting at the fate of an art collection looted from a gallery during the German occupation of Paris.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I knew that I enjoyed writing (there’s such a definitive ring to the noun Writer!) when I was in Second Grade. My teacher used to send me to the Kindergarten classrooms to tell stories, something I guess I was relatively good at. I babbled on. The stories had no endings, and no one seemed to care. Who knows, maybe no one was listening. Anyway, I used to write the stories with endings after school. My parents praised them. However, I didn’t consider myself a writer until my efforts were validated by a more objective reviewer: Sol Stein of Stein & Day, who published my first novel. I’m not sure why, maybe because of some residual lack of self-assuredness, I still inwardly wince a little at the designation. I feel more comfortable with “I write,” rather than “I am a writer.”
Well, I don’t write from morning to night, but I don’t have another job either. (I used to be the bookkeeper—non-professional but compulsive— for my husband’s practice of ophthalmology, but he retired in 2004.) I generally write at least a few hours every day. I find it invigorating and exhausting. I seem to live the experiences with my characters, and since they’re a lot younger than I am, it takes a lot more out of me than it does them.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
My work in progress resides in a document on MacBook. The keyboard of the Mac responds to the lightest touch. I feel comfortable when I’m typing on it, but not quite free as a bird. I reread passages, on occasion catch and correct inconsistencies, that sort of thing. However, when an idea for a scene, a dialogue, a plot twist pops into mind when I’m in the middle of, say, cooking dinner or watching TV, I rush to my old Toshiba laptop (the computer geek who fixed it ten years ago said it would last no more than six months), and I send myself an email. The “subject” may read something like “KL/ E and H insert Greg scene.” And then I type at breakneck speed, much faster than the keyboard was made to tolerate, causing words to run together, letters skipped, who cares. Spelling, sentence structure, redundancy, inaccuracy—I’ll sort it out later, when I’m back on the Mac.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
After an hour on the ice rink at Rockefeller Center in my little flared short skirt with pompoms, I wanted to be an ice skating star. Later, I wanted to be a modern dancer. When I was twelve a bright and creative Bennington sophomore joined my dance class at The New Dance Group in NYC and I decided Bennington’s the college I would attend. For a while I was a member of Eve Gentry’s Dancers. Some years later, when I chose Vassar over Bennington, I realized the role of dance in my future would be peripheral.
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