Marie Sutro: the next Thomas Harris?
An interview with Paula Gail Benson
I had the wonderful good fortune this year to meet and work with author Marie Sutro on the Killer Workshop presented by the Capitol Crimes and Palmetto Chapters of Sisters in Crime. Marie is one of the most organized, resourceful, and congenial creative persons I know. When I learned her second novel was being released, I quickly purchased her first. I was surprised to read Steve Alten’s endorsement: “Marie Sutro’s debut novel, Dark Associations, may just be this generation’s Silence of the Lambs.” By chapter two, I met her psychopathic villain. Marie’s intricate descriptions and fast-paced action combined with a flawed protagonist seeking justice amid chaos keeps her readers turning pages. If you haven’t already discovered her, please join us for this brief interview, then check out her Kate Barnes’ novels Dark Associations and Dark Obsessions.
Welcome, Marie, to the Stiletto Gang!
As a San Francisco Police detective, your protagonist Kate Barnes deals with some sordid and horrifying events in life. Marie, you personally are so outgoing and gracious. How did you find the “dark” place inside Kate and how are you able to revisit it without it overwhelming you?
Thank you for the compliment. I use the same tool to find my way into the dark as I do to find my way into the light. Trying to empathize with the character opens doors into feelings, motivations, and behaviors that at first blush may be entirely foreign to me, or (in the case of a villain) morally repugnant. Once the door is open, research provides the context to put everything into proper focus. One of my goals is to try to shine spotlights on the darker sides of humanity so we can learn from it. That process starts with empathy for our fellow human beings.
Like all lofty goals, it can come at a price. Delving into the darkness repeatedly takes a toll. I’ve learned the value of establishing limits on how much time I spend on dark topics (whether researching or writing). When I near my limit, I’ll get up and take a walk, watch a cartoon, play with my cats, or even run to the store. By focusing on the end goal and managing my exposure, I can keep the darkness at bay.
In both your books, Dark Associations and Dark Obsessions, you use juxtaposition and surprise to bring the readers into Kate Barnes’ world. Dark Associations begins with “the Big Bad Wolf” viewing a beautiful blonde woman. A reader might expect this is the mind of a perpetrator, but in a few paragraphs you reveal it is Kate, who has resisted becoming a mentor for this enthusiastic student. Through juxtaposition, you develop Kate’s character as well as showing the relationship with the Tower Torturer, the serial killer she is attempting to catch and stop. Similarly, in Dark Obsessions, at first Kate appears to be in danger of getting a traffic ticket when she actually is about to be asked on a date. How did you decide to use surprise and juxtaposition to introduce your characters and begin your stories? What advantages did it give you?
Juxtaposition and surprise are great ways to introduce characters and subplots in a detective driven mystery. They give me the ability to immediately tell the reader to expect the unexpected and to be ready to consider facts from different angles while panting seeds for future plot twists.
In Dark Associations readers are encouraged to question whether Kate really is a hero. Like most of us, she is a flawed human being but she has been brutally ravaged by life experiences. The question of what makes one person who faces extreme adversity into a hero, while another is made into a villain is fascinating to me. Juxtaposition and surprise allowed me to plant doubt about Kate’s hero status and whether she can maintain it.
Dark Associations takes place in San Francisco, while your new Kate Barnes novel, Dark Obsessions, has Kate traveling to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The first has Kate facing a professional dilemma, while the second starts with her confronting personal demons. Did you know from the outset this would be Kate’s journey or did it develop as the plot of the first book progressed?
Originally I conceived of Kate’s story in a three-book arc. The second book was intended to focus on her attempt to confront the personal demons that threaten her ability to do her job as well as her ability to connect with others. At first the story was going to be set in Seattle, but the more I thought about the nature of the issues she needed to confront, I realized there was no better setting that the dark reaches of the Olympic Peninsula. Pulling her from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco and dropping her into a small community where she only knows one person was the best way to challenge her professionally and personally.
On the cover of each book, there is a symbol. Could you tell us about each, how they were selected, and how they impact the stories?
The symbols on the covers are the first puzzles the reader is exposed to in each story. In Dark Associations the epigraph includes the symbol as well as an ancient Norse poem, which sets the tone for the book. The symbol is soon revealed to be a Norse Thorn. It is an ancient Nordic rune used as a calling card by an insidious serial killer known as the Tower Torturer. He chose it for two of its many meanings, which are male power and dominance.
In Dark Obsessions the cover symbol is an original design based on ancient concepts pivotal to the final reveal. After lengthy research and considering different possibilities, I designed it on a cocktail napkin while having dinner with my husband.
What do you see in Kate’s future?
As previously mentioned, I had originally conceived of Kate’s story in a three-book arc. Yet, reader response and my own journey revealed she is definitely a character with legs. I am currently writing the third book in the series, but Kate is persistently whispering she has a lot more to offer.
Marie, thanks for joining us and best wishes with your continuing series!
Marie Sutro is an award-winning and bestselling crime fiction author. In 2018, she won the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for the Best New Voice in Fiction, for her debut novel, Dark Associations. Her second novel, Dark Obsessions, was released in April 2022. A member of Sisters In Crime, she also volunteers with California Library Literacy Services.
Her father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served in the San Francisco Police Department, collectively inspiring her writing. Marie resides in Northern California and is currently at work on the next book in the Kate Barnes series.
I’m just catching up, Paula Gail. enjoyed reading about Marie’s books. They sound fascinating!