Interview With an Author: Gigi Pandian

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Gigi Pandian and her latest book, Under Lock & Skeleton Key
Author Gigi Pandian and her latest book, Under Lock & Skeleton Key

Gigi Pandian is the USA Today bestselling and multiple award-winning author of the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt mysteries, the Accidental Alchemist mysteries, and several locked room mystery short stories. Her works have won her the Agatha, Anthony, Lefty, and Derringer awards, and her debut novel was awarded the Malice Domestic Grant. A breast cancer survivor and accidental almost-vegan who adores cooking, Pandian lives with her husband in Northern California. Under Lock & Skeleton Key is the first in a new series that draws upon the author's own family history and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Under Lock & Skeleton Key?

The book was many years in the making, with various facets of inspiration, so I’ll focus on one of my favorite elements here: I adore mystery authors from the Golden Age of detective fiction, such as John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie, who wrote mysteries that were a combination of brilliant puzzles and alluring characters. I wanted to pay homage to those books in Under Lock & Skeleton Key.

A locked-room mystery, also known as an impossible crime, is the ultimate puzzle, and that type of mystery was especially popular during the Golden Age of detective fiction. When done well, it adds another level of enjoyment to a book because there’s a ghostly atmosphere, and you’re wondering how on earth can there be a rational explanation? But at the end the author pulls it all together, and it’s incredibly satisfying. I’ve written several locked-room mystery short stories in that style, but I wanted to see if I could accomplish that on a larger scale in Under Lock & Skeleton Key.

Are Tempest, Sanjay, Ivy, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

All the characters I write are based on my cumulative life experience, but for the most part, no character is based on a single person. The closest I came to basing a character in the book on anyone in real life is that my dad’s voice pops into my head when Tempest’s grandfather speaks. They are both South Indians who love to feed people and show their love through food.

I grew up in a multicultural family, and I find myself creating lots of characters that come from blended families like mine because if feels natural and allows me to write interesting and nuanced characters.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

This is a big question because I actually wrote a completely different version of the book years ago! When I first had the idea for Tempest’s story, the book was set across two periods of time and three locations, and I thought it might become a stand-alone thriller. Instead, as the characters developed, I tossed out that early draft and gave each element of the story more breathing room. Under Lock & Skeleton Key became the first book in a traditional mystery series. But I’ve saved all of my early, abandoned chapters and ideas for elements of future books.

How familiar were you with magic and magicians prior to writing Under Lock & Skeleton Key? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write the novel?

I did a lot of research into magicians and magic history for the history of Tempest’s family and the supposed Raj family curse: the eldest child dies by magic. I wanted to create a mysterious aura around Tempest’s family, as is true with classic stage magic. My love of stage magic began with the classic detective novels I mentioned earlier. When puzzle plot mysteries were popular, magicians were often seen as sleuths. Magicians create misdirection, just like mystery writers do. And an impossible crime story is the ultimate puzzle, so magicians are the perfect sleuths to unravel them.

I’m now a fan of lots of modern-day stage magicians, have a few magician friends who I’ve peppered with questions, attended workshops, seen a lot of shows, and read a lot of books. I’m careful not to reveal secrets that should stay hidden, but I love the ideas behind magic that can be used to create deception in mystery fiction.

I can’t say exactly how long the research took because I was doing “research” for years before I thought of it as research. It was simply fun.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

Anything is possible! What I mean by that as I got to learn more about magic behind-the-scenes, I learned that magicians dream up the illusion they want to show to the audience and then figure out how to pull it off.

If you could hire Secret Staircase Construction to install a secret room/area in your home, what would you have them build for you?

I live in the Bay Area in California, so my house isn’t very large. I have a small office for writing, with beautiful bay windows, but I’d love it if one of my bookcases slid open to reveal a secret reading nook with a window where it’s always raining. Director Guillermo del Toro created this stormy-all-the-time window at his home, and I loved the idea when I heard about it.

Several booksellers have listed Under Lock & Skeleton Key as the debut of a new series. And at the end of the novel, Tempest seems to be entering a new chapter in her life. Will readers be able to follow her on her journey? What are your plans for the series?

I’m delighted to share that I recently signed the contract to continue the series. The Raven Thief comes out in March 2023. It’s another impossible crime story: One murder. Four impossibilities. A fake séance holds a very real crime. And now, I’m already at work on Book 3 in the series, with an idea for Book 4 that I’m excited about.

Will all of the books include recipes?

Yes! I learned how to cook from scratch a decade ago, when a cancer diagnosis left me with some food restrictions, but I didn’t want to give up eating delicious food. I discovered how much fun cooking is, so I love creating recipes and sharing them. Recipes are in the back of each Secret Staircase Mystery, the back of my Accidental Alchemist novels, and I have a recipes section of my website.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I just finished reading Deanna Raybourn’s latest Veronica Speedwell mystery, An Impossible Imposter and Elly GriffithsThe Stranger Diaries. Both were excellent. Next, I haven’t decided if I’ll pick up The Bangalore Detectives Club by Harini Nagendra or Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo (translated by Louise Heal Kawai).

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

It’s either three or more than twenty, so I’ll stick with three:
Elizabeth Peters
John Dickson Carr
Aaron Elkins

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

This is probably a strange answer, but I loved Scooby Doo TV mysteries so much that I vividly remember how much I adored my Scooby Doo picture books. When I was a little older, I loved lots of mystery series for kids, like Encyclopedia Brown, Trixie Belden, and the Three Investigators. I’ve been drawn to mysteries from a young age.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

My house was filled with books and there were no limits.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Just about everything we were forced to read in high school! I loved reading at that age, but I hated being told what I was supposed to read.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Borrower of the Night by Elizabeth Peters. It was everything I loved about fiction rolled into one—mystery, romance, travel, adventure, and humor—and it made me want to write my own novels. My first novel, Artifact, was inspired by the book. I wanted to write an Indian American protagonist into a book like that, which I hadn’t seen done before.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

No book is for everyone, so I don’t have one book I can universally recommend!

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

Miss S is a new Chinese TV show that’s based on the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. It’s set in 1930s Shanghai instead of 1920s Melbourne, and while it’s beautiful on its own, I especially enjoy seeing how different cultures handle the exact same story lines.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Waking up to the sounds of nature while on a writing retreat with my wonderful writers' group. It would be somewhere isolated and foggy, with plenty of good coffee, a big kitchen, and reading/writing nooks. After writing all morning, we’d meet for a meal and then go exploring. When the sun begins to set, we’d head back, light a fire, cook a delicious meal, and tell stories.

What are you working on now?

I’m at work on Book 3 in the Secret Staircase mystery series. Tempest and her friends and family have such big personalities that it’s always a challenge to get them to stick to my outline. But that’s the fun of writing.

Under Lock & Skeleton Key
Pandian, Gigi