A Talk with Stephan Talty

As a New York Times bestselling non-fiction author, you’ve introduced us to Captain Morgan, Napoleon, the Dalai Lama, and most recently Agent Garbo, a Spanish spy who helped Britain trick Hitler during WWII. Why did you decide to turn to fiction, and how did the writing process differ this time around?
I grew up reading novels and I always wanted to write fiction; in high school, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Salinger were my idols. I wrote my first novel when I was 22, while working at Doubleday Books as an assistant to a great editor named Jim Moser. Jim read it and told me to put it in a drawer and to pretend it never existed.

I then went on to work in newspapers and magazines and eventually to write non-fiction books. But I’d always wanted to return to novels and, having done some police reporting at the Miami Herald, I felt I knew something about that world. My mind returned to the setting for my first novel—which was Buffalo—and I started there, with the place where I’d grown up.

You’ve described Buffalo as “the original Detroit.” Why? And what is your relationship with Buffalo?
At the beginning of the 20th century, many people thought Buffalo was going to be the next great world city, another New York or Berlin. I was told growing up that there were more millionaires per capita there than anywhere else on earth. It had opera houses and museums and, like Detroit, it was the place to make your fortune. As the century wore on, Buffalo even produced one of the great luxury cars of all time, the Pierce Arrow. Today you can still see the mansions near Delaware Park where the great merchant princes of the city lived.

Then it all fell apart. The great future never arrived, but sometimes you turn a corner in Buffalo and you stumble across one of those monuments to its past. There were ghosts all around you, things you could sense but that no one really talked about. I used to run cross-country races in Delaware Park and drive by the stone mansions on the way to the course. In high school, I worked at a restaurant called The Pierce Arrow where there were pictures of these fabulous luxury cars, and my summer job during college was working at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, which was filled with portraits of the men who’d built the city. I felt like I was like wandering across a stage that had been set for a drama that was never performed.

In that way, we’re like Detroit. We rose fast and we fell fast. But Buffalo got there first.

I’m grateful I grew up in South Buffalo; it was an intense, colourful, memorable place. It had its dark side, too, as every city does, and as every city in a crime novel has to have. But I go back a few times a year and always look forward to it.

How is Buffalo connected to Ireland? Does the Clan na Gael actually exist?
South Buffalo, where I grew up, was known as an Irish place; my class in high school was filled with O’Briens and McCarthys, and the history of Ireland was something that was in the air. My parents emigrated from Ireland in the 50s, so we were just one step away from County Clare. The Irish had come to Buffalo to work, and many of them eventually settled in South Buffalo. There was a connection to the old country in the faces and the names and the music.

The Irish republican organization Clan na Gael does exist, and most of the history of that organization in the book is accurate. It’s not something I encountered directly growing up, but I did hear tales about the IRA and Republican heroes. My father told me many stories about the rebels, and a key plot point in BLACK IRISH, which hinges on Buffalo’s involvement with the IRA, actually happened when I was a boy.

Your non-fiction titles have focused on men. Why did you choose to make your central protagonist a woman? And how do gender dynamics play out in the department she works in?
It’s a good question. I wanted someone who would be an outsider as a Buffalo detective, and that position is still dominated by men. South Buffalo, when I was growing up, was really a two-fisted, sharp-witted working class neighbourhood, and I wanted to see how that would appear through the eyes of a woman. It’s also important that Abbie went away and came back; she’s an exile in her own home and she has to protect people that don’t quite trust or accept her.

Abbie is searching not only for a serial killer but also for closure—a reckoning of sorts with her own past. In what ways is BLACK IRISH about family?
One of the things I both loved and hated about South Buffalo is that it’s so tight-knit. People knew your cousins and your uncles and when you were introduced to someone you’d practically trace your whole family history right on the spot. Abbie is the daughter of a famous detective, but she’s adopted, so again she’s part of the neighbourhood and she’s not part of it. That gives her a double vision, wanting to be part of the place that denies her again and again.

All of this fuels her ambition. She wants to outdo her father. She wants to show him that she’s really his daughter, but there are things about the neighbourhood—secrets and traditions—that she can’t make her peace with. That adds to the intensity of the story. It’s always personal for Abbie when it comes to the County.

What’s next for Stephan Talty—will we be seeing Abbie again?
I’m working on the next novel now. Abbie will be back, and working a new case. She’s bought a house on Elmwood Avenue, which is my favorite street in Buffalo, and is hoping for a quieter life. But that, of course, is impossible.