When writing a novel, Vicki Pettersson’s favorite part of the process is world building. The New York Times best-selling author creates lush universes with their own complex theologies. In these places, evil can be smelled, angels masquerade as police sergeants and a door in a sleazy motel can open onto eternity.
Pettersson’s new book, The Taken (Harper Voyager, $14), offers up a Las Vegas where Griffin Shaw, a “busted” angel/murdered private investigator from 1960, saves the life of a rockabilly crime reporter, Katherine “Kit” Craig. In this supernatural noir mystery, Kit agrees to help Griffin solve his murder, and Griffin, in turn, helps her unravel a dangerous prostitution ring. The novel—book one in Pettersson’s planned Celestial Blues trilogy—debuted this week, but Pettersson has little time to celebrate. The author is both on tour and on deadline for the second draft of book two. She’s on a nine-month writing schedule, so readers only have to wait until March to find out what happens next to the dual protagonists. Kit has such a strong and lively persona that readers might assume Pettersson invented her first and then built a story around her. But that isn’t the case. Pettersson actually started with a different character and a haunting concept: The character was a guy who died violently in the 1980s and is eternally stuck wearing the clothes in which he died (Pettersson loves her period detail). And the concept was that those who couldn’t get over the idea of their own untimely deaths would become Centurions, a.k.a., angels of death. Writing this twist on traditional Judeo-Christian religion was cathartic for the “recovering Southern Baptist.”
Perhaps parachute pants didn’t work for Pettersson, because she ultimately decided to go with a guy who died in a decade that had better style. Once she had the male protagonist solidified as a well-dressed former denizen of the ’60s, Pettersson brainstormed to find a character who would be a perfect match for Griffin. Since the rockabilly subculture worships Griffin’s home era, Kit was a natural choice.
Celestial Blues is quite different from Pettersson’ last: a dark six-book urban fantasy series called Signs of the Zodiac, which is full of foul-smelling demons. “The only thing I carried over from the previous series,” Pettersson says, “was setting, locale, the flavor of the city.”
The books’ treatment of Las Vegas is refreshing. Pettersson—a 40-year-old Las Vegas native with an English degree from UNLV—doesn’t fetishize the Strip the way out-of-towners often do, nor does she go out her way to avoid it. The city and its history are woven into her stories naturally, just as they are woven into every local’s own life story. And her use of real-life locations, such as Frankie’s Tiki Room, a Metro station house, motels on Boulder Highway and Old Vegas neighborhoods, make her tales all the more authentic.
Pettersson’s two favorite things about Las Vegas are opportunity and malleability. From looking out over vast expanses of desert, she says she grew up believing that anything is possible. As for malleability, Pettersson believes that you can make Las Vegas anything you want it to be—a belief she has taken literally.
Pettersson’s first career was as a showgirl at the Tropicana’s now-defunct Folies Bergère. The strikingly beautiful 5-foot-11 redhead kept dancing when she discovered that it paid more than a job in public relations. Not only did being a showgirl later provide an enticing item for her author’s bio, but a performer’s schedule offered her something that a desk job could not: time to write.
Pettersson has always been a big reader and loved the written word. (Her favorite genre is crime fiction, and her favorite authors include Dennis Lehane, Megan Abott, Laura Lippman and J.D. Robb.) But she didn’t think she could write a novel. “I thought that was what other people did,” Pettersson says. That changed when she started following Compuserve.com’s Books and Writers’ Community in the ’90s. There she observed the way author Diana Gabaldon quietly did her work every day. Pettersson decided to imitate the author’s work habits.
“I stopped talking about writing and started doing it,” Pettersson says. “That makes all the difference in the world. I started on the first day of the new year after I turned 26, and have been obsessed with it every day since.”
Pettersson would share her day’s successes with her friends backstage, telling them how many words she wrote that afternoon. But the trick with writing, Pettersson explained over dinner at the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender (part of research for the Celestial Blues series), is that people don’t care until they do care.
The moment when other people started to care eventually came. “I was trying to have a baby, and at the same time trying to jump-start a career in publishing,” she recalls. “They happened back-to-back, one day after the next. I went to quit being a showgirl because I was pregnant. The next morning, I got a call from my agent that Harper had bought my first book. It’s so strange that things I’d been working toward for years happened in way that couldn’t be planned.”
How Pettersson Stays (dis)Connected
As is expected of authors in the modern age of social-media marketing, Vicki Pettersson keeps an active online presence. She Tweets (@VickiPettersson); she writes a blog (VickiPettersson.com) and she communicates with fans through Facebook (Facebook.com/vicki.pettersson). So how does the author and mother ever find the time (and willpower) to disconnect? Pettersson uses a program called Freedom (MacFreedom.com, $10). “It very cruelly disconnects your computer from the Internet,” she says. “As soon as I hit the ‘Off’ button, my mind just takes this mental sigh; now I can focus. Ideally, if I can get four-to-five solid hours, I’m ecstatic.”