LIVES Mini-view: Sparkle Hayter, novelist
"I didn't set out to break rules. It just seems to come naturally to me."
The original title of "Bandit Queen Boogie" was "Macguffin," after the plot device made famous by Hitchcock.
A good contemporary example of a macguffin would be the golden-glowing valise in "Pulp Fiction." In this book, it's the thing inside the statue of Hindu God Ganesh.
The publisher asked me to change it to something less obscure to non-crime readers, and since bandit queens are a strong ingredient in the book, I called it "Bandit Queen Boogie."
The two main characters, Chloe and Blackie, are loosely based on two English women I met while backpacking in India and Pakistan in 1986. Con artists.
I found them fascinating and had long thought of writing a book about two young women who become accidental criminals, and are good at it.
Thinking about them, and imagining how they got into it and where it could lead, became "Bandit Queen Boogie."
My favorite character:
Ganesh. Among the human characters, it's hard to say. I like and dislike things about each of them (and some of those things are things I took from my own self, which complicates it further).
Blackie, Cameron and Diane would be a lot of fun to socialize with. Eddie and Chloe are deeper and more thoughtful, better for long-term friendship. I find Wendy, the right-wing Christian, very endearing, and have a soft spot for Mama Dajgit and Chunky the goonda, too.
Chloe and Blackie came first, but I always knew there'd be a tie to India because the inspiration came from India, a place I love in a complicated way.
Among the things that fascinate me are Bollywood and Bombay goondas (gangsters), and those things came together through the statue of Ganesh, my favorite of the Hindu gods.
The Robin Hudson mystery series books are written in first person, while this book and "Naked Brunch" are written in third person.
It was refreshing to stop writing "I" and be able to be more of an "observer"
in the two standalone novels. The mysteries, too, are darker, more cynical and more personal.
I used a lot of my own road stories, the characters, the places we traveled, in the book. It was great to revisit certain places and people.
The art squat is very closely based on the Chateaudun squat where I lived in Paris for a year with the arts group Kilometer Zero (KMZ). It was a remarkable place, with remarkable people.
I also spent a lot of time working out of a "legal" squat (one of those practical Dutch things) in Amsterdam, and some of that place made it into the Artery squat in BQB, too. A lot of European countries have -- or had, in the case of France -- laws or conventions that facilitate squatting under certain circumstances.
They can be very fertile places for artists to work, providing the space and the freedom to experiment outside of commercial pressure. The lifestyle is rugged and simple, but I've seen some amazing things created in squats, with few or no material resources.
KMZ is a very free-wheeling group. Our friends include a Russian sympathetic to capitalism, a Wisconsin guy who leans towards Marxism, a Christian who helped blind people pray at Lourdes, a wry, beer-drinking Muslim. Members are all ages, all economic backgrounds, different nationalities (though with a disproportionate Canadian contingent).
It wasn't utopia. There were a couple of big blowouts at the squat, but everyone had a desire to be fair and try to work things out and everyone shares a wicked sense of humor, and those qualities made the place work.
It's a cliché to compare writing a book to childbirth, but it's mostly true.
A year later, a mother has forgotten her labor pains, and a writer has forgotten hers, too. Book writing though, has a longer gestation period, probably closer to that of the elephant than to a human.
And after the book is born, it won't kiss you, make you birthday cards, or call you up after midnight and ask for bail money. So the analogy falls short in some respects.
Breaking the rules:
"Bandit Queen Boogie" can be classified as chick lit, in a broad way. It is true to some of the conventions; it's a comedy, the tone and style are light-hearted,
the protagonists are young, middle-class women, who have some boyfriend trouble and aren't sure what they want to do with their lives.
But my protagonists don't always get the guy. That isn't the only or even central focus of the plot ever, though there is always some sex and twisted romance. It's more about adventure and that includes romantic and sexual adventure, but goes well beyond that. I didn't set out to break rules. It just seems to come naturally to me.
[Shown: Sparkle Hayter. Photo: Michel Crotto/Opale]
Author bio: Sparkle Hayter was born in Pouce Coupe, B.C., Canada. In 1980, she ran away to New York City where she ended up in TV news, primarily for CNN. She has also written for the "New York Times", "The Nation" and the "Toronto Globe and Mail," was a regular panelist on CNN & Company. She has also appeared on NPR, BBC and Paris Premiere. Leaving CNN, she went to Afghanistan to cover the Afghan war.
After a particularly hair-raising trek through a minefield behind some Frenchmen and a flatulent packhorse, she gave up full-time journalism. Upon her return to New York City, she got married, took up stand-up comedy, sold her first novel, moved to Tokyo, moved back to New York into the fabled Chelsea Hotel, got a divorce, published five more novels, and acquired a tattoo.
Hayter is the author of the Robin Hudson mystery series ("What's a Girl Gotta Do", "Nice Girls Finish Last", and "Chelsea Girl Murders"), and urban Grimm's fairy tale, "Naked Brunch".
Her new book, "Bandit Queen Boogie", was just released. She lives in Paris.
About KMZ: Kilometer Zero is a non-profit collective of artists and writers based in Paris who are trying to build an alternative forum for ideas without any advertising or corporate support.
Excerpt: "Bandit Queen Boogie", by Sparkle Hayter
A little Italy, a little France, a little crime, a little romance...
Meet Blackie and Chloe: two best friends who decide, over tequila shots, to spend the summer backpacking through Europe.
Blackie wants to go a little crazy -- drink, smoke, flirt, meet men, have a romance or two. Chloe wants to nurse her broken heart and bury her nose in a book.
One is dark and boisterous, the other blond and quiet. Together, they're an irresistible combination . . . to cheaters and shady fellows on expense accounts, looking to lure the girls to their hotel suites for a little harmless 'fun.'
Discovering a latent gift for the con, Blackie and Chloe beat the bad guys at their own game, lock 'em up, take the money and run. It's the perfect crime - until the intrepid tag team hits the wrong mark in Monte Carlo.
When their latest 'victim' turns up dead, the jig is up, and the bandit queens are on the run. Chloe and Blackie's ride through Europe gets a whole lot wilder, with a passel of unsavory characters in hot pursuit of the mystery women last seen with the dead man and his golden statue.
Cheeky and subversive, fueled by mistaken identity and international intrigue (helped along by inept gangsters, a man who sketches God, a runaway heiress, sexy bullfighter, two errant filmmakers and a van full of Buddhists), "Bandit Queen Boogie" is an antic tour of Europe on the wrong side of the law. If only every jaunt down the Blue Coast was this much fun...
For nine years, Michelle "Blackie" Maher and Chloe Bower had been best friends, and in that time, neither knew the other was born a thief.
If they hadn't gone to Europe the summer after college graduation and become accidental criminals they might never have known, though if Chloe had thought about it, she would have seen it in Blackie all along. Blackie always underpaid on dinner tabs, borrowed money without paying it back, had an amusing and largely harmless amoral side to her, and a great ease in rationalizing it all.
She liked to quote something her father said when she was twelve and they were wrestling a side of beef into the back of her Dad's chevy after he swiped it from a meat wholesaler who had shortchanged him on some construction work:
"It's a sin to be too generous with the greedy, Blackie."
Many people would have been surprised that these two very different girls had that of all things-crime-in common. Outside observers could never quite figure out how these two had ever bonded, matter and antimatter as one of Chloe's boyfriends would later refer to them.
In fact, lawbreaking had been at the root of their friendship, nine years B.E., Before Europe. In eighth grade, they'd both been caught smoking in the john and sent to the same Stop Smoking program after school. They were the youngest reprobates in the class. After everyone else in the circle had talked about why they started smoking and how long they smoked, it was Blackie's turn and she said, "All I can think of right now is that there are 30 smokers in this room and we could all be smoking and having a lot of fun."
When they had to pick a 'buddy' to help them through the course, Chloe picked Blackie. After class, they went off to smoke behind the 7-11-Marlboro reds for Blackie, Benson & Hedges menthols for Chloe. Neither wanted to quit smoking and they conspired to fake their smoke sheets for class and lie about their progress until they were sprung from the program. With this small, and unhealthy, act of rebellion, they became co-conspirators, the first step toward friendship.
Their pact required celebratory cokes, and the smoking of more cigarettes. Blackie showed Chloe how to 'French inhale,' blowing the smoke out her nostrils like a dragon, and Chloe showed her how to blow smoke rings, perfect, silky gray Os.
As they sipped and smoked, they discovered they liked the same bands and TV shows. More important, they disliked the same people, particularly one mean clique of girls who had invited Chloe to a premium slumber party recently then withdraw the invitation publicly the next day.
"I didn't want to go anyway," Chloe said. "I was afraid I'd fall asleep during the night and they'd call me dead and eat my heart and liver."
"And suck the marrow from your bones," Blackie agreed.
Nobody could have been more shocked that they had anything in common than they themselves were. They'd seen each other in school and just always assumed they were in parallel universes.
Chloe was cool, blonde, quiet, bookish, ambitious, and came from an upper-middle-class family with a well-known photography business that handled class photo and yearbook contracts in three counties. They belonged to a (not overly exclusive) country club, lived in a big two-story house in an established part of town and had fine china that not only matched but had been passed down two generations almost intact, with just the loss of a gravy boat.
Blackie looked tougher, a bit feral, with dark hair, dark eyes, a tattoo. She was friendly, got good grades without trying and never did more than she had to in school. Her father was a carpenter who had started his own business, her mother a homemaker and part-time Avon saleswoman, and they lived in a more modest house in a newer subdivision.
Long after her father's construction business became successful the family still drank out of mismatched glasses, two of which were survivors from a set Blackie's grandmother won at bingo, which Blackie jokingly referred to as the 'heirlooms.'
Their differences, as much as their similarities, helped them stay friends through high school and college. They had different ambitions, so there wasn't any negative competitive energy between them.
They went for different kinds of guys, eliminating a common friction point between friends. They never much liked each other's boyfriends, but this was less of a problem than if they had liked them too much, and at breakup time it was easy to say, "You're better off without him," and "He'll never find another girl like you," and sound convincing.
Or, as Blackie said after Chloe was dumped by John Carey in senior year of college, "This is the best thing that ever happened to you. You're free of that weighty albatross at last. Get dressed. I'm taking you out to celebrate."
Blackie was not surprised by these events. John Carey had been a yo-yo since Christmas, when his best friend got engaged to his pregnant girlfriend. Chloe was infected with the matrimonial virus around the same time John, watching his buddy go down, was inoculated with the antibodies.
One day he'd be withdrawn and aloof to Chloe with no seeming reason, then he'd feel guilty or turn needy and be loving, warm, and solicitous. Her confidence in herself was steadily eroded by the increasing drip-drip of his ambivalence.
It had been a sad thing to watch.
A couple of months later, when Chloe caught the bouquet at a same-sex wedding reception for her favorite professor and his boyfriend, John's ambivalence turned to cold hostility. It was obvious to everyone but Chloe. As Blackie noted, you could almost see that gotta go light turn on inside his head.
"What reason did he give for the breakup?" Blackie asked now.
"He pitched it as an artistic imperative -- a great writer needs to have a lot of different experiences, he needs to know a lot of women, he can't be hemmed in by conventional relationships. Look at Kerouac, Lord Byron, Hemingway, Henry Miller, Ted Hughes," Chloe said, mimicking Johns voice. "It's dangerous to keep a wild thing like him in a cage...He'd only hurt me worse down the road -- this was for my own good."
"FUCKER! But he's right about the last part, it's for your own good."
"So I listed all the great artists who were greater for being married, like Gustave Mahler."
"Chloe, you don't for one moment think this guy is going to be Jack Kerouac or Ted Hughes."
"He's got talent."
"He's clever and superficial. I bet you a buck he ends up in his dad's investment business. He's a tourist."
"Do you think John will come back to me?"
"If he has any taste and intelligence at all, honey, he would. So in other words, no. Oh God, I hope not."
"Don't say that, Blackie. I love him."
Over tequila poppers and tapas at a campus bar, Chloe cried and drank and wondered aloud what to do with the rest of her miserable life if John didnt come back to her.
They were both enrolled at Columbia grad school in the fall, but how could she go to New York if they were no longer together? Risk seeing him with some other woman, or women? And that summer they had planned to go to Europe together, but how could she go now --
"You're not going to cancel Europe because of him, or Columbia in the fall, Chloe. That's insane. Just abdicate your dreams to him?"
"Fu-uck it," Chloe said, hiccupping. "You're right. I should go to Europe anyway."
"You should," Blackie said, and an even better idea suddenly occurred to her. "I should go too."
"Yes," Chloe said. "Please."
"God, yes. A little Italy, a little France, a lee-tle romance."
The first sign that there might be some trouble on this trip was the choice of guidebooks.
Chloe bought the upscale Mousseline Travel Guide, with its subtle, blue matte cover bearing no picture whatsoever, just the words, "Mousseline Guide to France" in plain white letters, an understated style reflecting the discerning, just-the-facts approach inside.
Blackie bought the backpacker's Bible, the "Lonesome Roads Guide," which was chatty, frank, and included offbeat advice on which hostels had chiggers and where to find the black market in Marseilles.
Neither one thought anything about it. They prepped for the trip with maps, web sites, and by watching old movies set on the Riviera, most starring either Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly, and of course Cary Grant who, they agreed, played a great heterosexual. Though still depressed about John, planning for Europe took the edge off for Chloe.
The only person who felt any foreboding about this trip was Blackie's father. He didn't want her to go, claimed it was because he couldn't replace her in the office. He was afraid to say the real reason out loud because of superstition that saying it might bring it about-that as an American she was a walking bull's eye when she stepped outside her nation's borders.
So she wouldn't be identified as an American he bought her a backpack with a big glaring Canadian flag on it, two maple leaf lapel pins (in case she lost one), and several t-shirts.
One said Canada in big red letters above a red maple leaf. Below that it said, "We're not America." It was supposed to be a joke motto, poking fun at America and at Canada's own mythical lack of identity at the same time. To her father, who came from Canada, it was a kind of shield.
When he and his girlfriend and Blackie's mom and her boyfriend came to see her off at the airport, he said, "You watch out for those rats and mashers over there."
Mashers was his old-fashioned term for a wide variety of pickup artists, continental seducers, and white slavers. It was the same thing he said before she went to her first mixed party, to New York sophomore year, and before every first date.
Blackie said what she always said, "And they'd better watch out for me."
Excerpted from "Bandit Queen Boogie" (July 2004, Three Rivers Press)
© 2004, Sparkle Hayter. All rights reserved. Used with permission.