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“Emily Dickinson put it best: Tell all the Truth but tell it Slant. History is a powerful form of knowledge, but it is often told dryly and with a limited focus. I like the ability to bend history, to tell it at a slant, to be as faithful as I can to the facts but even more so to truth.”
In Ona Russell’s latest novel, Rule of Capture, we are in Los Angeles in 1928. One of the victims of a Ponzi scheme, Ohio probate officer Sarah Kaufman is in the city to attend the trial of the perpetrators, in particular of the “friend” who convinced her to invest. Sarah is eager for justice and committed to seeing the trial through. But when a Mexican woman she barely knows winds up dead, Sarah’s plans are thrown upside-down. She finds herself in a nightmarish trial by fire, one that takes her from the glamour of Hollywood to the Tijuana frontier, tests her deepest beliefs and leads her to discover not only a killer, but a part of Los Angeles built on a terrible secret.
Russell says that “The 1920s were about much more than flappers and bootleggers. Like our own age, it was a time of heightened tensions between tolerance and bigotry, wealth and poverty, freedom and oppression. These are the issues that inform my historical mysteries.”
Russell is a credentialed mediator and holds a PhD in literature from the University of California, San Diego, where she also taught for many years. Russelle is the author of two previous Sarah Kaufman historical mysteries, O’Brien’s Desk and The Natural Selection. The latter was a finalist in the California Commonwealth Club Book Awards. She has been widely published and is an accomplished public speaker, lecturing particularly on the topic of “literature and the law.”
January Magazine: Rule of Capture is a legal mystery that takes place in Los Angeles in the 1920s. What inspired you to write a historical novel set in that time and place?
The era really found me. I situated the story in the 1920s because I was led there by the news clippings that formed the basis of my first book. After becoming fascinated with the period in general, however, especially after realizing how similar it was to our own time, I decided to stay there. Los Angeles was another matter. In trying to figure out the setting of my next book -- I had initially planned a series that would include every state in the Union! -- I came across a little known but incredibly important court trial held in L.A. in 1928. This led to other discoveries that I thought could provide interesting plot twists. Plus, my grandfather owned a shoe store in L.A. that I decided to weave into the narrative. Also, I was born in L.A, my daughter and parents live in the city, and it was a relatively close place to do research. So, voilà! Los Angeles!
Like Rule of Capture, your first two novels, O’Brien’s Desk and The Natural Selection, feature a real person, juvenile social worker and counselor Sarah Kaufman, as their heroine. What’s special about Sarah and how did you come to choose her as the star sleuth for your mystery series?
I was introduced to Sarah while doing research for O’Brien’s Desk. O’Brien was my husband’s grandfather and a prominent judge in 1920s Ohio. He frequently appeared in newspapers of the day, accompanied by his court appointee, Sarah Kaufman. I was immediately struck by Sarah, a Jewish woman who had made a name for herself in a male-dominated and gentile environment. She was a working professional at a time when few women left the home and a civic leader involved in all sorts of progressive causes. But she also lived with her siblings, never married, and was an aspiring writer. This gave her a complexity that I thought could be developed. The more I read and imagined, the more convinced I became of her fictional possibilities. As a Jewish woman myself, I identified with her, so much so that I laid flowers on her grave to thank her for inspiring me. In life she was a crusader for justice; in fiction she’s the same. And I’m proud to say that as a result of my first book, the real Sarah Kaufman was inducted into the Toledo Civic Hall of Fame.
There are strong elements of feminism and civil rights in all of your novels. What made you decide to pursue these thematic issues in your historical series and in this new novel?
It’s a combination of personal experience, education and history. I come from a family that values diversity and human rights. I approach the world from this perspective, and when I encounter opposition, I react. With respect to religion in particular, I’ve experienced my fair share of intolerance, and my reaction has taken many forms, including writing. Writing is for me a way to work through these experiences, to lay them bare and alter the narrative to my liking. Since the 1920s saw the rise of the KKK and all manner of bigotries, it’s natural, given my bent, that I would be drawn to these topics. My academic training was also a factor in my interest in such themes as it both exposed me to the pervasiveness of intolerance and taught me the importance of examining the context in which it occurs.
What do you find the most fascinating about historical fiction?
Emily Dickinson put it best: “Tell all the Truth but tell it Slant.” History is a powerful form of knowledge, but it is often told dryly and with a limited focus. I like the ability to bend history, to tell it “at a slant,” to be as faithful as I can to the facts but even more so to truth. I like research and getting the details right. But I love bringing unknown or underappreciated people and events to life. To do that, you sometimes have to fill in the missing pieces. Historical fiction gives you the permission to do so, as long as what you construct is consistent with the character and the time. I really believe that this kind of excavation and reimagining of the past is my calling. I feel most alive when I’m involved in the process of resurrecting the dead. The historical genre also allows me to teach about the past, to show its correspondences to the present, for instance, while entertaining with (hopefully) a compelling plot.
Are you working on a new Sarah Kaufman novel and, if so, what can you tell us about it?
Yes and no. Sarah will be a character in the next book, but not the protagonist. She’ll be older and act as a kind of adviser. The story will take place in the 1940s, during WWII. And that’s about all I can say without giving away a critical piece of Rule of Capture. | April 2015