Sunday, January 17, 2010

To Amateur Sleuth or Not to Amateur Sleuth

by Michelle Gagnon

Gabi asks:
What made you choose the FBI as the agency for your protagonist? And what does a performer in a Russian venue do exactly? Troika? Vodka sommelier? Borscht interpreter?

I chose an FBI agent as my protagonist because I wanted a main character who could go nearly anywhere in the United States, and who had a reason to be involved in a criminal investigation. I have nothing but respect for people whose books focus on amateur sleuths, but for the life of me I haven't been able to come up with a storyline for one that would support an entire series. By and large, when a crime occurs, most people call the appropriate authorities, who then handle the investigation.

Also, even if you do have an amateur sleuth, at some point they're going to need some help and/or inside information- tough to get if your protagonist is a sanitation worker. But that's just me- obviously there are mainly successful series featuring amateurs. I figured that these books can be difficult enough to write, and didn't want to set up any additional hurdles for myself.
So an FBI agent seemed the most logical option for me when I was starting out.

I get the Russian Supper Club question a lot, since it's by far the most interesting part of my bio (and, second to writing, was my favorite job ever. Seriously). I blogged about it once for Killer Hobbies, here's what I said...

The item on my resume that elicits the most attention is always the bit about how I was once a performer in a Russian Supper Club. This generally provokes questions running along the theme, “Were you naked?” (I wasn’t, I swear).

So let’s clear up any misconceptions. This is back when I was a professional modern dancer. I got the supper club job through a friend from one of my dance classes who knew I was between gigs (which is a nice way of saying I was out of work at the time). I usually filled those interims with bartending jobs, but had recently had a bad experience and wasn’t eager to continue slinging drinks. Rent was coming due, and my bank account hovered around zero. My friend approached me after class one day and said, “I know how you can make decent money for a half-hour show three nights a week.”

Sounds sketchy, right? But my friend assured me that there was no nudity involved, in fact the costumes were elaborate to the point of being ridiculous. I tentatively agreed to come to rehearsal that afternoon. If all went well, I’d be onstage the following night. I walked in and met the seven other performers (five dancers, two singers). Over the space of two hours they taught me six dance numbers. I found it curious that everything was set to early-eighties tunes like “Beat It” and “Turn the Beat Around,” (this was the mid-nineties), but figured it could be worse.

I was still reluctant, but agreed to try it out for the weekend. I left the club address with my boyfriend just in case I arrived home with one less kidney (or didn’t turn up at all) and headed to Times Square. A van shuttled us from there to Brighton Beach, where a huge neon sign announced “Club Versailles” on a building that looked like a storage warehouse plastered with fake Doric columns. We went in the back way. I followed my friend down a narrow staircase that opened into the kitchen. The room was filled cooks in ragged tank tops, most with a cigarette dangling out of their mouths (and dropping ash into the food, at which point I made a mental note not to eat the free dinner). They all leered as we passed, following the snaking corridor to a tiny room at the end of the hall where we were meant to change. A rickety screen in front was supposed to shield us from prying eyes, but let’s just say it was fairly ineffective.

As for the show itself, let me give you the backstory (yes, there was a running plot):

Aliens had landed in Brooklyn (this was illustrated by the descent of a miniature spaceship from the ceiling, accompanied by clouds of fake smoke. I was actually fairly impressed by the recent immigrants metaphor). The singers (aka the aliens) learned all about American culture via a series of songs and dances. These included, paradoxically:

-a disco routine where we wore towering French powdered wigs and hoop skirts,

-a Michael Jackson number complete with Jerri-curl wigs and black spandex outfits, and

-a flapper number where we danced the Charleston.

Confused? I was. The modern day equivalent would be teaching people about American History by showing them YouTube clips.

The dining room was packed with families seated at long tables (I was told that most of these were local mobsters). Vodka flowed freely, and kids ran around the room despite the late hour. We closed the show every night by grabbing people from the crowd, dragging them onstage, and forcing them to perform the Macarena with us. I’m not kidding.

And here’s the funny thing: in retrospect, it was the most fun I ever had dancing. Up until then I’d worked with a series of very serious modern dance companies doing “important” pieces. So I’d be rolling around the stage in a black leotard simulating the situation in Rwanda, or wallowing in pieces called “Disconnected” that were supposed to illustrate the dehumanizing effect of machinery on modern existence (mind you, this was pre-internet). And the Club Versailles job was just pure fun, the dance equivalent of a summer blockbuster film. I had a blast doing it for the three months the gig lasted. Then one night, we were all abruptly terminated. Apparently the owner suddenly realized that she could hire Russian dancers for a fraction of what she paid us, and wouldn’t have to provide van service from Manhattan.

So I bid the mobsters a forlorn dasvidania and returned to the bar scene. A few months later, in the face in worsening knee injuries, I hung up my dance shoes and moved west in search of a new life. So in the end, Club Versailles closed out my dance career. I’ll admit it, I still get a little teary whenever “Beat It” comes on the radio...


Gabi said...

Life's path can be a bit twisty but few of us can boast dancing the Macarena with the Russian mob. Thanks for the glimpse behind the scenes of a dancer's life for us couch potatoes. Thanks also for spending the week with us, Michelle.

Michelle Gagnon said...

Thank you, it's been a blast!

Shane Gericke said...

That is a GREAT story, Michelle, and a fine way to close our your week as our grandmaster. Come back any time!

As for the underwear thingy on the other blog item, I'm sure I have, um, no idea what anyone is, er, talkin' about ...

Kelli Stanley said...

Now THAT'S dancing!! ;)

Thanks for sharing a wonderful story and a fabulous week with us, Michelle!!

Modern dancing's loss has been crime fiction's gain, in a big, big way. :)

Uh, one more thing--anybody know how the hell I can get the Macarena song out of my head?! ;)


Michael Wiley said...

I'm with Shane and Kelli: that's a great story and (to return to a topic from earlier this week) one worth telling, even if it's writing what you know.

It was wonderful having you here this week, Michelle.