Hi, welcome to the LA Times. I'm Jean Gindreau and today we have a very special guest, Elaine Pinkerton. Elaine is the author of Beast of Bengal. How are you today?
EP- Hi, I'm fine Jean.
How are you? Thank you for coming onto the show.
EP- Thank you for having me.
I received this book about two weeks ago and I had to finish another book first and then I started reading this book and it is a wonderful book. I'm not quite done. I've got maybe an eighth of a book left. I love this book. Congratulations!
EP- Thank you. It's a thrill for me, I must say. Not my first novel but my first published novel.
Now tell us a little bit about your background.
EP- Yes, well I started out writing mysteries at age 12. I was inspired by Nancy Drew and I loved creative writing all through high school and college and then I found myself doing technical writing. I mean much later, reel ahead. I wrote many, many articles. I wrote for some national magazines and worked for Los Alamos National Labs as a technical writer and a writer for their public affairs department. I published two non-fiction books that were guides, Santa Fe on Foot, which is still in print, and then out in four editions. I think we're due for a new one. And, Santa Fe by Bicycle, and then I discovered a cache of letters. This is a long answer to a short question.
EP- I received a huge box of World War II correspondence after my dad died. My brother sent me from Virginia eighteen months of correspondence. My dad was in India, stationed in a hospital, a military hospital, and didn't have a lot to do. He was in charge of mental and emotional breakdowns as the psychologist in charge of the Neuro-Psychiatric Ward. He had a lot of time to write and write he did. I think there were about five to eight thousand pages of letters, some of them from my mother. This is eighteen months. My dad was in Calcutta, India, serving with the Army Air Force in this capacity. My mother was at home in Ohio and wrote every day. I delved into the letters, quit my day job to read letters. Texas Tech University published From Calcutta, With Love. That wasn't enough. I got so interested in the China-Burma-India Theatre that I decided that I just couldn't stop, actually. I wanted to use more of the letters that weren't in the book. Thus, Beast of Bengal, which is the sequel in a way. Many of the characters are the same, but it's a year later.
So, From Calcutta With Love was just letters published?
EP- Plus a history of the China-Burma-India Theatre.
And this has a few letters in it, but it's more your own story. Is it a true story?
EP- It is. Well, it could be. The letter that inspired me for Beast of Bengal for the plot line was one my father wrote November 10th, 1945. He discovered a dead body hanging in the latrine, just like the situation in the book. In my father's actual letter it was considered a suicide, no questions asked. No autopsy done. And there was a very unceremonious funeral and no real investigation and my father accepted that. It was just business as usual. There was a murder later that day that he had to deal with it, a stabbing. Things were really getting out of control. Here these men were stuck in India without a lot to do. The incredible poverty, the culture shock, drove many to drink, or to madness. It was a very bad scene. Well, at any rate, in the novel, the hanging body was made to look like a suicide. But, it was really a murder.
We find that out right away in Beast of Bengal.
So, this was true about what happened?
EP- The part about the body is true, but WHY the body was there was created my me, by my muse, who decided that it would be a very good beginning.
Yes, actually very good. It gets you right into the book, definitely. So, how much of the book is based on the letters and how much did you invent?
EP- I invented most of it. The letters in Beast of Bengal are actual letters but they've been changed a bit, but they are letters that weren't used in From Calcutta, With Love. Basically. The hero and heroine are Richard and Reva. I changed the last name. Richard and Reva Beard, who are the letter writers in From Calcutta, With Love become Richard and Rita BENET. Rita's situation is based very much on the letters. Not much happens. She's stuck at home. Well, something does happen and I think you've read to that part. She unearths some Nazi spies. But, in the next book, there's a sequel planned, Rita does much more, but I don't want to say too much about the next book. And, in this book she's a schoolteacher and is the character of your mom. Was your mom a teacher?
EP- She was indeed. She was living at home just as Rita was living at home and she went to school. You know, a life of waiting and it was just uneventful. But, Richard, on the other hand, has all kinds of adventures and misadventures and trying to stay above, trying to ignore what was really going on, and yet he's drawn in, in spite of himself and finds himself endangered
How long were they separated?
EP- Eighteen months.
EP- Not in the novel but in the book, I mean in From Calcutta, With Love, the prequel. From Calcutta, With Love could be considered a prequel.
In real life they were away from each other eighteen months.
EP- Um humm.
That's a long time. Tell us about the title of your book. Where did that come from?
EP- OK, well, Beast of Bengal actually refers to the tigers that used to roam around Calcutta. There were actually tigers in The Maidan, which is a plaza-like area, except it's all grass. It's a huge sort of gathering place, public space, the green lungs of Calcutta. But, one of the English kings killed them all off, you know, just for sport and there were a lot more tigers around Calcutta in the past. But as the Army Air Force had to clear space for staging areas for munitions, which were transported across Burma to China. That's the whole story of the CBI, China-Burma-India Theatre, and so the tigers' terrain became unavailable to them. So, I was thinking tigers
So, why beast instead of beasts?
EP- Well, there's one particular beast that you meet really on the first page, who is really the true evil beast and the others are just... There is a real tiger in the book. I don't want to give it away, but he's a much nobler character. The animal is just doing his job. Actually, he'd like to do his job, but I won't say too much about that, it's a narrow escape. Tell us what it’s like to write a book. Like, how long did it take you? How many hours do you write per day?
EP- Well, it took three or four years. I'm part of the Los Alamos Writer's Group and people advised me. They were extremely helpful in planning the plot. I had written enough novels but this is the first published novel. Without a good framework, it doesn't matter how beautiful the description is or wonderful the dialogue or if you like the characters, you have to have a good structure. It's like a house. There has to be a good frame. So, I spent quite a bit of time developing the plot. Then I got my cast of characters. I had Indian characters in the subplot, all of whom were real. There were people like them in my father's letters that he alluded to, but I had a great deal of fun researching what they would say, what they would wear, where they lived, and their names, and so on. The writing was sort of a bell shaped curve. At first I only spent maybe two hours a day but then when I got into the novel, it consumed me and I had a convenient surgery that kept me home from my day job only enough to recover. No, it's legitimate. It was legitimate. That's what the doctor said. It was foot surgery, some minor thing that I had to take a week off and then I really got into it and wrote maybe seven, ten hours a day. But I did write every day. Oh about, two-thirds of the way through, the characters...I was just a scribe. The characters took over. I was just taking it down and that was the really, really exciting part.
EP- And that is why I can hardly wait to begin the sequel because they are so impatient, the characters. They’ve come alive, huh?
EP- They have. They came from my parents. They took on a new identity. Richard and Rita and now they’re champing at the bit.
So, tell us about the sequel?
EP- Well, I don't want to give away the ending.
Of course not.
EP- But it takes place at Mahabalipuram, which is south of Calcutta. The novel, the Indian parts from the novel or the military parts are all in Calcutta are around the military hospital in Alipore. But, the sequel is in Mahabalipuram, where ancient ruins were just uncovered by the tsunami.
Have you been there?
EP- I have only been there via Google and via articles that I'm uncovering. I have some very wonderful correspondents in India via email that have really been very helpful. For example, sending pictures of The Maidan in Bombay, where Gandhi gave his "Quit India" speech, which begins the Beast of Bengal. Well, my characters, I won't tell you which ones, go back to India, and, I won't tell you this either. They don't have to...Richard doesn't have to go to work right away, so they have time for a vacation. Rita really wants to see. So they go to Mahabalipuram and the Indian characters find out that they are there. These Indian characters were no friends of the Allies and there is an ancient myth also that is generated from the city, kind of an Atlantis in Asia. And, murder and mayhem follow Richard wherever he goes in this case. But, I can't give it away partially because it isn't formulated completely and also because the characters will tell me once I set up my writers' schedule in about a week. I have a lot of business to take care of. Last year, I worked as a librarian for a public school and I'm sorting things out. There's a lot of stuff I saved all year and now here's summer.
Summertime. Yeah. Great. Have you been to Calcutta?
EP- No, I've been to New Delhi and I'm going to India at the end of this year. Not Calcutta. But I haven't actually been to that city. I visited through all kinds of books and hearing about it. But, I would like to go and I probably will go. There's a huge book fair and I have some contacts. A Scottish person, whom I met through email who's married to a lady from Calcutta and they would like to meet me in India. I would like to go and see where the 142nd General Hospital is.
Are either of your parents alive?
What would they have thought of this book?
EP- They would be really, really happy. My father always believed in my writing from my first poetry when I was about age twelve to the journal I kept faithfully. It was a five-year diary. I wrote every day for five years and became really a devoted journalist. He would like it, I think. I think Rita, who’s based on Reva, my mother, would be really glad she gets to play a much bigger role in Murder at Mahabalipuram, which is my working title.
OK, now, was it difficult to get a publisher? Where do you go to get a publisher for your first published novel?
EP- Published novel, you know, being published in non-fiction isn't a huge help when it comes to changing genres so I tried agents. None of those worked out even though they were promising contacts, one from the Maui Writer's Conference, which I regularly go to and am planning to go to again next fall. They said "Well, it isn't quite my cup of tea," or "I don't just love it." It has to be wonderful charisma or chemical attraction by the agent. Well, I also tried contacting publisher's directly, and then I followed a friend's advice. I will mention her, Shirley Raye Redmond. Wonderful, wonderful disciplined writer and a brilliant writer. Lots of books out. Anyway, she said, "I sent something out once a week, every Friday." Well, my day was Saturday and I just, every Saturday, sent queries out, reading my Writer’s Digest. There, in an article, was Pocol Press and I thought well, I'll try just an email query. I told them about the movie connections and communicated some more and they decided to acquire it. Now, I could have waited for Harper, Random, or a Putnam but I thought, hey, a book out is better than just waiting for the perfect, well, they are perfect, they're a good publisher, a bigger publisher. I'd worked a lot on the novel. I'd worked a lot on the revisions and it was ready to be born. It had been in an embryonic stage and matured. It was time to get it out and I feel very fortunate that Pocol loved it and wanted to do it. And it's a great cover, too.
Where did that come from?
EP- They generated that. I fell in love with a painting that I seen at a gallery by Tom Pallmore and I was really keen on having a painting used for the book cover and I tried my best to get that to happen but it never did. They knew how important it was to me to have a tiger on the cover and they found this guy (tiger). I'm pretty sure it's a guy but maybe it's a female. I need to ask them. And, they put him on the cover and the fact that he's behind a bar is rather appropriate. The clue is in the book, the bar. You have to read the book to see why it makes sense.
You mentioned a possibility of a move being made from the book?
EP- Well, actually, it's in development. I met someone who is a Hollywood casting director, Patrick Cunningham in Los Angeles. I met him at a writer's conference and he fell in love with the first book From Calcutta, With Love. The publishers owned the movie rights and I decided to write a whole new book. I'm not a screenwriter. I wish I were but I thought in the fiction form it would be easier for an adaptation to take place. It's actually going to really go into production in the fall. I'm not the screenwriter. The company is PAC-3, so...
That’s very exciting.
EP- Well, a lot of movies get made and never really finish, but I'm hoping for this one. And I went so far as to... I called Johnny Depp's agent, because Johnny Depp would be a perfect Richard Benet. Don't you agree?
EP- You'd agree he would be perfect for that part and they said, "Well, send the novel," but don't send it until September because Johnny Depp is doing Pirates of the Caribbean II and III but they said they would look at it. The CEO of the company, Mr. Cunningham, knows the agent for Johnny Depp. He knows everybody, one of those Hollywood people. So, one can dream. One can dream so I just hope that they are airlifting this to appeal to Johnny Depp. I've studied the Johnny Depp websites, all created Depp-aholics, one of which I am, and he's always looking for different roles, and this is different.
It is different.
EP- Army psychologist. And then, I needed to dream a bigger dream. I'm very involved in the Santa Fe Film Center and I envision a Johnny Depp Festival, a whole week of Johnny Depp films.
Sounds like fun. I think I've seen them all.
EP- Well, I'm glad that you agree that he'd be perfect for Richard Benet.
Oh yeah, definately.
EP- He looks the part and I could just see him racing across Calcutta and pouring his heart out to Rita, lovely Rita. I haven't thought who would be Rita. It used to be Wynonna Ryder but after the bad publicity, and she does smoke!
She would be wonderful! What about book signings?
EP- Yes, I am signing at Otowi Station along with Leslie Dendy, whose book Guinea Pig Scientists for Young Adults, so we'll be together the Saturday before Father's Day. It's June 18th, at Otowi Station. It's one o’clock, one in the afternoon and my writer's group, the Los Alamos Writers, are bringing refreshments, and it promises to be really good.
OK, at Otowi Station on June 18th at one o'clock? OK, where is this book available?
EP- It is available at Otowi Station and my publisher will be doing a lot of blogging and online sales. For those who live here, it would be much more fun to go to the signing because we'll be reading and I'd like to autograph and inscribe copies. However, one can go to pocolpress.com and order there. But I really hope that people who are able to come to Otowi Saturday the 18th at one will do so. And, they'll have it afterwards as well.
And where in Santa Fe?
EP- I did a signing at Collected Works on May 21st. It was really fun and every chair was filled. People seemed interested in the reading. Nobody left. A lot of books sold and I probably will be getting a slide show at Travel Bug August 6th, I think the date is, with pictures that I unearthed from World War II. A big album of black & white pictures my father had taken, snake charmers, of temples, the fellows, all kinds of things. Some of whom are named in the letters and I'm putting them on CD so I'll have a World War II passage to India show which is August 6th, Saturday. That will be at five o'clock. It's called the Travel Bug in Santa Fe. Also, I'm doing a signing in Albuquerque at Book Works on August 14th. We're just setting that up. But, I really want time to write. So I'm not going to be traveling about. I did just get back from the Book Expo of America so I didn't really want to set up a whole lot of publicity beside word of mouth. So, I appreciate you having me on.
It was great. It was my pleasure. To end the show, would you like to read a paragraph from your book?
EP- I would love to. OK, I'm going to read, well, it's a little more than a paragraph, it's a chapter, but I'll just read a bit of it. This is the Indian subplot unfolding. This is chapter four.
On the outskirts of Calcutta, under an orange moon, hyenas howled and the big cats roamed. A band of Indian independence fighters pitched tents. Hoping for a good night's rest before they began their campaign to oust foreigners, the men fell asleep on their mats just as the constellations appeared over East Bengal. A few hundred feet from the sleepers, two men stood talking under a palm tree. One was East Bengal native Ravi Ghosh, Hindu leader of an extremist splinter group of the Indian Independence Movement. The other was a diminutive Tamil named Sanjay Roy. Exhaustion covered Sanjay like a shroud, as he'd walked all day to come to the insurrection camp from the Alipore District. He'd made the three-hour journey from the 142nd General Hospital, where he worked as a bearer. There had been no time to prepare; he made the journey without food, water or shoes. The latter item he'd loaned to his twin, Shubi, to wear at the army hospital. During Sanjay's mission, Shubi would fill in for him as bearer. The brothers had often made a switch before, but it had been a joke. This time was different. This time it was dead serious.
Very good. Well, Elaine I want to thank you so much for being on the show today.
EP- Thank you, Jean. It's been a real pleasure.
And I wish you very, very much success with this book and it is a great book. I loved this book.
EP- I so appreciate that and readers do go by word of mouth so I'm glad you're enjoying it.
And, I can hardly wait for the next one.
EP- Murder at Mahabalipuram!
We'll have you back on the show then.
EP- Oh, thank you very much! I hope to get to that writing sooner rather than later.
Thank you once again and thank you for watching The LA Times.