By Mark McNease
Whether you’re new to LGBT mysteries or a longtime fan, the name Ann Aptaker should by now be a familiar one. Author of the Cantor Gold series, Ann recently had the distinction of being the first author to with both the Lambda Literary Award (tied with Victoria Brownworth) and the Golden Crown Society Award for best mystery for the same book.
Considering that winning book, Tarnished Gold, was only the second in the series, you can plan on seeing many more featuring the irrepressible Cantor Gold. Thanks to Ann for taking the time to answer ‘6 Questions,’ offering an inside look at her life and writing.
Read more about Ann below, following the interview.
MM: Congratulations on being the first author to simultaneously win both the Lambda Literary Award and the Golden Crown Society Award for lesbian mystery. What have the last few months been like for you, considering this acknowledgement of your writing?
AA: Thank you, Mark, for your congratulations and for this opportunity to talk about my work. So…yes, winning the Lammy and the Goldie awards for TARNISHED GOLD, the second book in the Cantor Gold series, was a thrill, to be sure. In point of fact, TARNISHED GOLD tied for the Lammy with Victoria Brownworth’s ORDINARY MAYHEM. Talk about a thrill! Victoria is a best selling, award winning author and a Pulitzer Prize nominee. So the idea that the Lammy committee couldn’t make up its mind between newbie me and a Pulitzer nominee…oh yeah, I can certainly live with that! You know that old saying, “You’re known by the company you keep,” well, I’m sure in terrific company.
And then going on to win the Goldie a month later, and being the only author to do so in the mystery category, well, whew! It was dizzying, and I don’t mean that rhetorically. Since I didn’t expect it, I didn’t prepare an acceptance speech for the Goldie ceremony (I didn’t expect the Lammy either, but took friends’ advice to write a little something “just in case”), so when they called my name for the Goldie, everything was a blur. I was okay walking up to the stage (I guess I was okay; after all, I got there!) but without written remarks to rely on, and a head literally spinning, I’m pretty sure I babbled. Even now, weeks later, I have little recollection of what I said, something about community …something something…thank you…and made my way off the stage and back to my table, a route I don’t remember at all. And I think someone hugged me.
In both cases, though, I realized how lucky I am to be published by Bold Strokes Books. BSB did very well at the Lammys and Goldies, which isn’t surprising. Their publishing, editing, and production values are very high, and they publish some of the best LGBT authors in the business. I’m particularly grateful to my editor at BSB, Ruth Sternglantz, who “gets” Cantor Gold and how I see her place in American culture and Lesbian mythology.
So yes, the months since winning the awards have been busy and fruitful. Winning has definitely opened some new doors, widened my literary network, to be sure. But reality has set in, too, with life resuming its day-to-day routine. And nothing says you’re “last year’s news” quite like the email announcement from the Lambda Literary Society calling for submissions for next year’s Lammy awards! LOL!
MM: You spent years as an exhibition designer and curator of art for museums and galleries. Can you talk some about that? I imagine many readers will find it as exotic as writing mysteries (I do!).
AA: The art world can certainly be exotic. All those creative people and all their energy in a perpetual struggle with the business side of art, not just in galleries, where the goal is to sell art, but in museums, too, when funding is at stake, or Boards of Trustees who have decidedly non art related opinions and agendas. As a curator, I was often in the middle of it all, trying to keep the integrity of the exhibition intact in the face of so many competing needs, not to mention the creative and emotional needs of the artists. But I love art, so it was worth the battles to get the exhibitions up and running. Over the years, I met many artists, other curators, gallerists, and other art professionals who have remained close friends. They provide a richness to my life.
The exhibition design part of my art life was especially satisfying. My theater background (see the answer to question 5) came in very handy. Designing an exhibition, like creating a theater piece, means creating a world in which a narrative takes place. I LOVED doing that! And now, as I writer, I still do it: I create worlds in which a narrative takes place. Only now I do it with words instead of as a physical presence.
MM: Point blank: why mysteries? What attracted you to writing in this genre, and were there influences you used as a blueprint or inspiration?
AA: Crime fiction turns morality inside out, and I’ve always had an ornery relationship with mainstream morality. Writing—and reading—crime fiction enables me to deal with issues of “right” and “wrong” and how those definitions affect people’s lives. For example, it’s “wrong” to steal, but what if you’re broke, homeless or hungry, with few options for employment (age, for example)? It’s “wrong” to break the Law, but what if the Law defines you as a criminal in the first place? That was our situation as LGBT people for many years, and still is in various parts of the world. Don’t forget, laws are made by people who have the power and authority to make them. Everyone else must simply live—or die—under those laws, whether they are just laws or not. Writing crime fiction gives me the opportunity to muck around in those issues without being preachy. A crime or mystery novel has to be interesting, even entertaining, and most of all, exciting! Let’s face it, crime is exciting! A good crime or mystery novel should be a page-turner all the way to “The End.” If the reader experiences social issues in the book, great; but if they’ve only had a rollickin’ good read, that’s great, too! It’s part of my job to give you a rollickin’ good read.
As far as influences, just reading the daily paper or watching the local TV news provides plenty of material. There’s a parallel world out there, an underworld of struggle, but of evil, too, right under our noses and also in plain sight (corrupt officials, anyone?). But there are literary influences in my work, as well, the great crime writers of American letters: James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, among others. And finally, I always adored those old black and white Hollywood crime movies, the Bogart/Bacall films especially. The air between them crackled while the world around them threatened. Delicious.
MM: Your Cantor Gold books are distinctly noir, with a hardboiled, dockside swagger. What went into your decision to write in that historical era? Did the style come naturally to you?
AA: I find mid twentieth century America fascinating, especially New York during that period. The city was truly golden then, with post-World War Two exuberance in full swing: the night clubs and jazz clubs were hopping with all-star acts, Broadway had seasons of excellent shows, there was nearly full employment enabling many people to enjoy all that the city had to offer. The American Dream of home ownership—especially in the boroughs and the inner suburbs—a well-paying job and secure family life was in reach of more people than ever before in the nation’s history. But there was a dark side, too, a suspicion that all was not quite right just below the shiny surface. The veterans who came home from World War Two had experienced the horror of what humans can do to each other, and how some people profit from it. They brought this disillusionment home with them, fueling the tension between a newly exuberant population anxious to get on with life after the deprivations of the Depression and the War, and the corruption and greed that powered so much of the American Dream. Putting a Lesbian who’s trying to make her way in life into this cauldron became an ideal literary instrument for me to tell an American story, an LGBT story, and a New York story. For Cantor Gold, an out butch Lesbian, crime (she’s an art thief and smuggler) was the only sensible route to financial stability and survival in a world which wanted her—and all LGBT people—in jail, in the psycho ward, or dead.
As far as the language of the books, yes, the tone and rhythm of the language does come natural to me, but as someone who adores the elasticity and expansive scope of English, all styles or dialects of English are more or less natural to me. Right now, I’ve been toying with a story set the late nineteenth century, so the language is more formal, the rhythm entirely different than the patter of the Cantor Gold books. But I hear the Victorian rhythms of the characters as clearly as I hear the speech patterns of Cantor Gold and her noir milieu. And I also do considerable research to make sure I get the vernacular of each time right. For example, in our time, and Cantor’s twentieth century, we simply make a call on a phone. But in late Victorian times, when the phone was new, it would be referred to by its full name as a telephone. Today, what we call “the news media” was called “the press” in Cantor’s time. So research matters, but my writer’s ear needs to hear the music of the language.
MM: I usually ask about the personal life first, but here we are. We’re both New Yorkers. Are you a native, a transplant? What’s your New York story?
AA: Absolutely a native, born and raised. I went to elementary school in Brooklyn, high school in Manhattan at Quintano’s School for Young Professionals (the founder, Leonard Quintano, a lovely man, has since passed away. A skyscraper, City Spire, now rises from the space where this tiny little school once occupied the floors above a music store, a beauty products shop, and I forget what the other store was). The school was set up for students whose professional lives in theater, dance, music, etc., interfered with attendance at a regular school. Classes were more fluid, lessons sent along with students touring in shows. I was a theater kid, so this school was perfect for me. My closest friend there was Paul Jabara, who went on to win a Grammy award for writing the Donna Summer hit, “Last Dance,” among other tunes, as well as appearing in acting gigs. Paul and I had great teenage times together in New York! Oh boy, did we ever! Later, still a young man, he died in the first wave of the AIDS crisis. His passing tore me up. I still think of him, still cry.
MM: I have several more questions, but this is called ‘6 Questions,’ so this is it: What’s ahead for you as a writer, and for Cantor Gold as a character/series?
AA: Book 3 in the series, GENUINE GOLD, releases in January 2017, and I’m currently writing book 4, still untitled as of yet. Book 4 completes an initial arc of the Cantor Gold saga, with book 5 initiating the next arc. The series, as I envision it, will move Cantor through the 1950s, when American life was changing, both for good (more economic opportunity, strong labor unions, political stability, the earliest stirrings of an LGBT rights movement with the founding the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society, etc.) and ill (conformism, Red scares and witch hunts, Jim Crow, etc.) Even Cantor’s criminal world undergoes changes reflective of the changes in America: as American business became more corporate, so did crime, with massive syndicates knocking out independent operators. Cantor has to navigate this changing environment, not only as a criminal herself, but as a Lesbian now faced with a political movement whose long-term goal is to secure rights for the LGBT community and incorporate that community into the fabric of American society. For someone like Cantor, who understands the difference between “rights” (which are conferred by those with the power and authority to confer them) and “freedom” (which is a way of life), the politics of the budding LGBT movement presents her with a conundrum. On one hand, she’s of course supportive. But on the other, she’s aware that there could be trade-offs to her personal independence as a butch Lesbian. As a criminal and outsider, she’s suspicious of groups in general, and the American Dream in particular. She sees both as instruments of conformism, with the American Dream’s added sin of championing so much that is tacky.
Beyond the Cantor Gold series, there are short stories I’d like to write, plus an idea for a different series, and there’s that story set in the late Victorian era. If I only had the time to do it all!!
In the end, though, I’ve come to accept myself as a writer. It’s really what I’ve always wanted to be. It took a lot of life, a lot of years, and the wisdom of age to finally commit to it, but here I am.
More About Ann
Native New Yorker Ann Aptaker spent most of her adult life as an exhibition designer and curator of art during her career in museums and galleries. But in 2012 Ann took the extraordinary step of leaving her curatorial career to pursue her lifelong passion for writing. Despite the financial risk the loss of a paycheck represented, Ann’s need to write was simply too urgent to ignore, and her life as a curator shepherding other people’s art took a back seat to nurturing her own creative voice.
Her first book, Criminal Gold (released November 2014 by Bold Strokes Books), was a Golden Crown Literary Society’s Goldie Award finalist. Her next book, Tarnished Gold (Book Two in the Cantor Gold Crime Series, released by Bold Strokes in September 2015), was honored with a Lambda Literary Award and a Goldie Award, both in the mystery/thriller category. The third book in the series, Genuine Gold, will release from Bold Strokes in January 2017. Told from the point of view of a Lesbian art thief and smuggler, and set in mid-20th century New York, the Cantor Gold series resurrects the outlaw spirit of Lesbian life and addresses LGBT culture and its relationship to the law, issues still resonant today.
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Facebook: Ann Aptaker, Author
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