Author Sara Gran. (Deborah Lopez / Houghton…)
Sara Gran doesn't believe in studying writing. If you consider yourself a writer, just write. That's what Gran did for years on a notepad, often on the subway going to and from her job at the famous Strand bookstore in New York City before her first novel, "Saturn's Return to New York," was published in 2001.
Working at the Strand was like going to graduate school for books, says Gran, who sorted through thousands of paperbacks during her shifts. "It always cracks me up when people romanticize books and talk about them in this flowery way — 'Oh, I love the smell of books,'" she says sipping on an iced tea at Fix coffee shop in Echo Park. "I have thousands of books and I collect books, but books are dirty, filthy, smelly things. They're not these romantic fairy objects."
Gran is blunt, much like Claire DeWitt, the detective who stars in her current series of mystery novels. The second in that series, "Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $20), comes out on June 18 and finds DeWitt struggling to solve the murder of her former lover, a popular musician named Paul Casablancas.
The action takes place in moody San Francisco and explores the psychology of DeWitt, who snorts crushed painkillers and cocaine and is obsessed with one of her earliest cases, that of a missing girl in the 1980s in New York City's East Village.
Rather than reading like a straight crime novel, the narrative dodges in and out of the shadows in DeWitt's mind, eventually illuminating a deeply troubled searcher. DeWitt is a woman bent on finding herself through the act of finding others.
In one flashback scene, DeWitt recalls one of the first kisses she shared with the dead man.
"[H]e leaned over and kissed me — not for the first time, but it still felt like something. Like something I don't remember having felt before, or at least for a long time. Like a door had been opened that had been shut so long ago that I forgot it was there, and whatever was behind that door was younger and brighter and less burdened than what I'd become," writes Gran.
"A lot is autobiographical about her," says Gran, who has tattoos on her calves and is wearing a form-fitting black skirt with a slit up the back. "We're the same age, we're from the same city, we've lived in a lot of the same places. Although I'm not nearly as cool and interesting as her. I wish I was, my life would be so much better."
Gran's life seems just fine at the moment, though. She worked for two years as a writer on the gritty TV crime show "Southland" and is collaborating with the director Guillermo del Toro on an adaptation of Corinne May Botz's book "The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death" for television.
She also plans to write two more novels in the Claire DeWitt series, but she isn't looking much beyond that.
"I have no plans at all, no goals, no nothing," she says with matter-of-fact resolution. "I've learned better than to make plans for the future."
Gran moved to Los Angeles a little more than a year ago, having grown up in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, which she says she doesn't recognize today. She likes the gritty side of cities, just like DeWitt, and fondly remembers the now tragically hip neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when there were "very few lofts and a lot of prostitution."
It was in Williamsburg that she met Bob Urh, the musician she has lived with for the last 18 years. Gran's life with Urh lends "Bohemian Highway" a deep sense of realism when it comes to the lives of the musicians that populate its pages.
Now, at 41, with five novels under her belt, Gran calls herself "old." When it's pointed out that 41 isn't necessarily considered old these days, Gran laughs.
"I guess I would like to distance myself from this whole generation, which I'm rapidly despising," she says. "Just the obsession with the food and the beer.... They are completely out of touch with reality. I don't think life should be lived for base physical pleasure."