In an interview with distinguished author Claudia Riess, centered on her third book in her art mystery series, Knight Light, Riess casually displayed many of the qualities of a great storyteller, which she no doubt is. She shared moments of her life, her career, and her future. Happy about signing a new three book contract with Level Best Books, Riess said she is committed to continuing the series that began with Stolen Light.
Riess, a Vassar graduate, has a twinkle to her tone when telling a story over the phone. That twinkle is the magic that makes her books so enjoyably readable. She confessed many of the exotic places her characters visit that come to life in her novels are due to research done in her Manhattan [Murray Hill] apartment.
Joking about her new three-year contract for three books, she said, “I just got an exercise bike to stay in shape, so I will last through the writing of the three books.”
When asked how she goes about writing her books, Riess explained, “I don’t map out every detail, it really depends on what kind of novel I am writing and apparently, I have gotten into producing six of these art history novels, so it is a little bit different. When I wrote either a courtroom drama or a romantic kind of book – where the relationship is in conflict between two people with a general theme, I did those more organically and on the fly verbally riffing. With the art mystery books, these entail a little more research and a little more detail, because I like to be faithful to history. The things that I make up, the fictionalized history, things that might have been, in other words they are in character with the real person or the real events, meaning they might have occurred. These plots get complicated and so what I do is start off with these 5″ by 7″ cards with scenes that I foresee and developments that I foresee and the relationship between the two protagonists as I see that, but then it all goes spot. All bets are off once I sit down, because the characters come to life and they are more compelling then these 5″ by 7″ cards. Once the characters start moving through space, they take me along. I have to be careful, because sometimes the characters get carried away and I have to shorten the dialogue, so it does not become overpowering of the general plot.”
She noted that she does put the scenes in order via the cards and thus keeps the momentum of how the whole mystery plot evolves.
Then she admitted, “Once I sit down to write, these things change and sometimes I find midway through, wait a minute I am having these characters acting out in this particular way and thus need another scene way back towards the beginning that will justify this occurrence. I find that the most fun, that is fixing things.”
When asked how she would describe herself as an author, Riess responded, “Nobody has ever asked me that. I love art and art history, and I am a hopeless romantic, so I guess I write a hybrid novel. I sometimes write very spontaneously and quickly, other times I become sort of obsessive over lines and paragraphs, grammar, expressions, and I know when I am getting too hung up, that I have to separate myself from the work, take a break and come back, and it all flows more smoothly.”
When asked was she born to be writer, Riess answered, “No. I know that sounds so self-righteous somehow. I didn’t start off with that feeling [of being a writer]. I was actually a dancer! I was thinking of doing it professionally. When I was around 13/14-years-old, I was in Eve Gentry’s dance group, but I had my choices of Vassar or Bennington, who gave the largest scholarship, yet I chose Vassar – where I was still ahead of the dance group there. Dancing as a profession became less prominent, but I loved words and my love of art is almost organic. When I was very young, my parents used to take me to the art museums in NYC. Art has a very close feeling for me. It’s integrated with my love of my parents, and my brother who actually became an art history professor. I guess he was influenced the same early on. My dad was an English professor and my mother was head of circulation at the library where my father was teaching in Brooklyn at Long Island University.”
So, when did she realize that she was a great storyteller? “My first storytelling experience was when my father used to tell me stories when I was young,” she said. “I would tell his stories in class and I remember when I was in first grade, I was sent to the kindergarten to tell these stories. But I didn’t write books until later on.”
About the mystery art series, Riess shared, “When I write these books, the characters are traveling all over the place, and some of these places I have never been to, so you have to involve a little subjectivity and a little observation that is not part of the setting itself, but is integrated with it. It gives the scenes an authenticity. I somehow [through research] put myself actually there.”
Having read Knight Light myself, what I can promise is that if you enjoy wonderful storytelling revolving around mystery, and including art history and appreciation, you will enjoy this book. Riess has a knack of staging her scenes in such perfect tempo that you just don’t want to put the book down to see what lies ahead in the narrative.
You can learn more about Riess’ process and career during a Zoom talk presented by the Hampton Bays Library on Thursday, May 13 at 7:00 p.m.
For more information about Claudia Riess, visit claudiariessbooks.com.