STEELE INTERVIEWS: Gwen Florio [Dakota]

dakota

Former foreign correspondent Lola Wicks is back. The independent, outspoken, brassy reporter took a position at a small-time newspaper in Magpie, Montana. After being downsized from her job in Kabul, she left her post Baltimore to find some bliss with local sheriff Charlie [“When it came to Charlie, Lola considered herself a realist about the temporary nature of most relationships.”]. When a local Blackfeet girl, missing for months, is found dead with a strange brand on her forearm, Wicks uncovers a larger story connecting other missing girls from the reservation. Turns out she’s right but it might be more dangerous than she assumed as sex trafficking, drugs and the big money in the oil fields of North Dakota factor into the disappearance. Another thoughtful page-turner with magnificent sense of place and descriptive scenery by Gwen Florio.

Gwen and I spoke by phone recently.

Amy Steele: How did you make the jump from journalist to fiction writer?

Gwen Florio: I started writing seriously about 20 years ago. I was working for the Philadelphia Inquirer and there was a wonderful writing workshop in Philadelphia. I joined that and started working seriously on writing fiction. I read almost exclusively fiction. Joining this group gave me some guidance.

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Amy Steele: What made you write the thrillers that you’ve done?

Gwen Florio: I did not set out to write thrillers. I read a lot of literary fiction and thought that’s what I would write. I wrote some previous novels and they could easily translate to thrillers. One of them was just dreadful and just shouldn’t see the light of day. The second one was better and that one got me an agent. She couldn’t sell it and she just said “write another book.” So I had something intact which was the prologue to Montana. I googled how to write mysteries and read a lot about the genre. I really stumbled into it. I’m really glad I did.

Amy Steele: It sounds like you had to do a lot of research and there’s a particular structure.

Gwen Florio: There is a particular structure and coming across that made it really familiar to me like writing a long newspaper series or big magazine piece. Those are all really structured to keep the reader plodding along. I kinda relaxed once I had those guidelines. I rearranged some of what I’d written. It took some of the fear factor out. I could relate it back to journalism in a way that felt familiar.

Amy Steele: How has your journalism career influenced your novel writing?

Gwen Florio: It demystifies writing. I don’t sit around and wait for inspiration. I’m so used to deadlines that I just sit down and write. That’s the great gift of journalism. Writing is a job. You really tune your ear into how people talk. You’re listening for great quotes. The rhythm in that quote or anything which gives you a sense of who they are. It really helps you with dialogue. I feel like I know how to write believable dialogue. It gets you to a lot of different places and different experiences. It exposes you to things. When I was reporting my newspaper stories there was all this great information that just didn’t belong in the stories that was just so interesting. So now I can put that in my books. It wasn’t wasted.

Amy Steele: There are lots of twists in Dakota. How do you keep track of characters and plot?

Gwen Florio: Badly. I’m working on one right now. I forgot some names and I put in some lines. You’d think I would make a timeline. I’m getting better at that. I tend to go back and forth and see what I’ve written before. I don’t outline. I kind of outline as I go along. I make a little summary of each chapter so I can check back before I go on.

Amy Steele: Where did you come up with the idea for Lola Wicks?

Gwen Florio: I made her a reporter for a couple reasons. It’s the old ‘write what you know.’ Reporters in general tend not to have very exciting lives but I could make hers exciting. Also I feel bad about what’s happening in journalism so writing about her being downsized and dealing with that was my own way of saying “screw you” to the industry and highlighting what’s happening in the industry.

Amy Steele: How would you describe Lola?

Gwen Florio: She’s a person who struggles with being her better self. She’s so impatient and so focused on getting the story. I like putting her in situations where she’s actually forced to stop and pay attention. She does not like to accept help. But she has to. You can’t be a lone wolf in some of these situations especially the one I put her in and I like watching her struggle. She reluctantly accepts Jan, the other reporter, and they have a good partnership. But she’d rather not do that. She’s kind of a pain in the ass but a likeable pain in the ass.

Amy Steele: What do you like about her?

Gwen Florio: I like that she will not be deterred. She’s going to find out what happened no matter what. She does have that capacity for friendship, though she would rather not, she does yield to that. She’s never going to be a softie but some of her hard edges are sanded down.

Amy Steele: You tackle several issues in Dakota: sex trafficking and transient workers. What interests you in writing about these topics?

Gwen Florio: You see an influx of men from all over the country. Louisiana. People who worked in oil jobs that dried up. Anywhere that the housing market went bust people come to North Dakota to work. There’s been a massive change to an impoverished rural area. Flooded with men who don’t have ties to the area and flooded with money. People who live there are making a ton of money but they’re kind of trapped too. Pretty little farm towns. Isolated. Huge trucks are going by all the time or men are living next to you and coming and going at all hours. If you’re a woman there I hear it’s horrendous because you’re constantly harassed because there are so few women. I read that every woman is either packing or carrying pepper spray. I’m fascinated by that kind of social upheaval.

Amy Steele: What’s the Native American population out there?

Gwen Florio:In Montana it’s 7%. They are our largest minority group. The reservations are really isolated. For them to get jobs on the oil fields is huge. That’s why I set it up like that. I’ve done a lot of reporting from the reservations. The problems they face are so intense.

Amy Steele: I drove cross-country in my early twenties after college and my friend and I stayed on an Indian reservation in Utah. Near Bryce canyon and Zion. We felt very white.

Gwen Florio: Montana is very white. I will go for days and days without seeing a black person and it just blows my mind. Not like Philadelphia. It’s good to get in a situation again where you’re in the minority.

Dakota
by Gwen Florio
Powells.com

purchase at Amazon: Dakota

Montana
by Gwen Florio
Powells.com

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