Suzanne Chazin is the author of the new mystery novel Voice With No Echo, the fifth in her Jimmy Vega series, which also includes A Place in the Wind and No Witness But the Moon. She is based in suburban New York.
Q: In your acknowledgments, you write, “Writing fiction about current events is a roller-coaster experience.” How did you stay ahead of events when you were writing Voice With No Echo?
A: The terrible stuff at the border is so horrendous. I thought about doing that, but I realized it was possible that by the time I wrote the book the entire separation would be a thing of the past. Now they’re sending everybody back.
My fear is that it’s so in the moment and so emotional that it would be handled before the book came out. It’s hard.
I was writing real stories about immigrants in 2011 and 2012, and I fictionalized it. People were saying this is not going to be an issue, and then the whole world overturned.
My husband is a retired firefighter, and my first series was about NYFD firefighters. 9/11 happened, and then it was, “How dare you write about firefighters?” I have a bad habit…
It’s been a weird thing for me. I’ve been following [the controversy over the novel] American Dirt. When I found out it was this big, I was excited. I thought it sounds like a mainstream book that blends a political issue with being compulsively readable. That’s what I’m trying to do. Then there was the backlash.
I read the book. I thought, Well, some things don’t feel right, but it’s a thriller. But it isn’t positioned as a thriller.
Q: Did you get questions about your own background in writing the Jimmy Vega novels?
A: I’m not big enough to knock down. The critical community—some are very supportive people. Overall I feel I’m the wrong person to write the stories, but I just get ignored. People who read the books come to it very fairly. I do get one-star reviews with no comment, but I get very thoughtful comments.
Q: This is the fifth book about Jimmy Vega and Adele Figueroa. How do you think they’ve changed over the course of the series?
A: They’ve deepened their relationship significantly. They met in the first book, she almost moved to D.C. in the second book, in the third book he shot and killed an unarmed man and she makes the choice to stay with him, in the fourth book he helps her.
They don’t need to get married to be committed. Jimmy is very independent, and Adele is a mother and has her daughter to raise. They’ve grown a lot closer and are strongly connected to each other. They’re yin and yang.
Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write this novel, and did you learn anything surprising?
A: I knew one of the things I loved about the fourth book was the character of Max Zimmerman. He had more of a story to tell. It was important to me to keep the stories in the New York area. One of the things was the sanctuary movement, people finding ways not to be deported.
I thought, what if a local immigrant needed sanctuary, and decided on Max’s synagogue? Then [in real life] a local synagogue’s handyman was deported, and the Jewish community rallied. He was deported over the border without a wallet or cell phone. They were able to bring him back.
I set out to write a fictional story, but the real thing happened.
What surprises me is that we continue to have so much polarity on the issue. It saddens me. We’re missing the middle—where are the things we can do to make the process humane and see what’s good for the United States long-term. But we’re not doing that. It only gets worse.
I try to show all the sides—there is a center, and we’re missing it right now.
Q: The book’s title is taken from a poem by Julia de Burgos. Why did you choose that?
A: Julia de Burgos was a Puerto Rican poet. All the poems [forming the books’ titles] are from different time periods. When poets write poems, they’re speaking to a different time period, but the echo resonated with me.
There’s a sense of loss, of being ignored, of not being recognized. All these years later, we could say the same things about immigrants in our midst today.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: The sixth book. It will come out this time next year. The tentative title is The Fragile Edge of Earth, from a poem by Cesar Vallejo. I always [consider] the notion that people are out there living very uncertain lives; they don’t know their future.
I’m not trying to write necessarily about the immigrant experience, but if there’s a diaspora—some of the family is here, some somewhere else—what if some people are safe and some may be sent back? You live with chronic dread and loneliness. What drove this series was the sense of, What does that feel like?
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: There is gravitas [with the series] but they’re enjoyable to read. These are mysteries—I get a kick out of it when people say, I didn’t know who did it. They’re broccoli brownies—they’re fun to eat but you do get some nutrition.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Suzanne Chazin.