July 06, 2012
Paula Priamos’s The Shyster’s Daughter is a beautifully written, charged, addictive “detective-noir” memoir—utterly absorbing and packed with sharp details, evoking a Southern California rarely seen on the page, replete with strip bars and casinos.
Priamos investigates the mysterious death of her high-profile defense lawyer father, describing the shady deals and characters that led to his disbarment. She also gives a vivid portrait of her Greek American family caught up in the scandal-obsessed, drug-addicted culture of California in the closing decades of the twentieth century.
Direct, evocative, emotionally honest, brave, and funny, The Shyster’s Daughter is a suspenseful investigative journey, but its emotional core vibrates with her homage to her deeply flawed and deeply loved father, and to their complicated and enduring relationship.
Priamos is married to the critically acclaimed, award-winning memoirist James Brown. This is her first book. I admire Priamos as a writer but also as a person. She’s a no-nonsense straight talker with a superbly dark sense of humor.
Congratulations, Paula. Describe the experience of publishing your first book.
Thanks, Victoria. Well, with an older writer husband who has shared with me some of his war stories about the publishing industry, I guess you could say I was prepared for my own impending battle scars. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was just how politically correct the publishing industry has become. When words for a writer is our tool for precision, the only tool we use in which to communicate and create art, I find it odd that there are some people who have told me I shouldn’t use certain words such as the word ‘shyster’ in the title of my book, even though in any dictionary the definition means “ a corrupt lawyer”. For the record, no ethnicity “owns” a word. It’s absurd and it’s censorship in the ugliest form. If one follows that argument, I suppose me and my Greek ancestors reign over 80,000 words in the English language.
The publisher at Etruscan Press said he welcomed the political and social implications of my book and he said I wouldn’t have to change a thing. I knew then that I’d found the right place for The Shyster’s Daughter. It’s been interesting getting the book ready for publication, reading and re-reading proofs and finally seeing the manuscript come into book form.
Your family’s dynamic is incredibly complicated and strange. I can’t help but wonder about their reaction to your memoir.
Because I am the daughter of a defense attorney, I knew to change some locales, character names and identifying characteristics to preserve anonymity. I’m sure there will be some relatives who don’t want to confront certain issues I raise in the book. There are some who would rather leave the mysterious way my father died buried along with him. There are others like my younger brother who have been incredibly supportive. But I think “complicated and strange” is an apt way of describing the Priamos’ family dynamic.
How long did it take you to write TSD? What was your greatest challenge? What came easiest?
I’m thinking it took around a year or so. The easiest parts to write were the memories I wanted to remember like the time my father fearlessly took on two burglars we caught coming out of our house one evening. Other parts were a little tougher emotionally for me to put into scene like the night before my father died, how he called me to tell me he’d just cheated death. That phone call is something that has haunted me and I wasn’t so sure I wanted to share it with the rest of the world.
I was so impressed by your details and wondered if you’d journaled along the way to remember so precisely? I’m thinking of the sharp details, like the cheerleaders all wearing Love’s Baby Soft scent, or even the yellow Post-It notes on the storage items.
Thanks for that. I don’t necessarily keep a daily journal. I do keep a spiral college ruled notebook with me when I’m working on something new and free write good lines that pop into my head and things like that. That’s my process—coming to the blank screen with some handwritten pages. The rest follows.
The memoir is darkly funny, but also an emotional read—and I imagine difficult to write? (The part that killed me was at the end when your youngest stepson thumps against the car seat and says, “I’m too young for this.”)
Jim has mentioned how painful it is to write memoir and at times it is like that moment with my youngest stepson or my father’s funeral. But in most cases, at least for me, I welcome the chance to reconnect with my past. I don’t always just see the darkness.
Only writers really get to re-imagine the most important scenes from their lives, and I suppose people who spend a lot of money and time on therapy sessions. Those details (and thanks for the compliment) came back to me while I was sitting here reliving them all over again. My father is gone but my memories of him are that much more vivid because of the memoir.
I’m curious about your nonfiction because it has such a narrative fictional quality. I’m wondering if you’ve tried fiction?
I found my voice off a lean little novel I wrote and was never seen by any editors. It was titled The Girl Who Loved Hemingway.
I’m working on a new novel, a literary thriller about crimes of passion. There is more going on in terms of the structure, but I won’t get into that. Even though it’s a dark story, it’s still a love story with a lot of plot twists and some psychological depth. My spiral notebook is bright yellow this time.
Etruscan Press is a great small literary press with an eye for talent, having two National Book Award Finalists on their lists. How did your book come to Etruscan Press?
Although I had a New York agent, I took matters into my own hands and sent the book out myself to independent presses. Within five hours I received an email from the head publisher of a prominent university press who said it was one of the best memoirs he’d ever read, and he’d read it all afternoon on his smart phone. At the time his words really encouraged me and while he was sending the book through the proper academic channels, the head publisher at Etruscan Press notified me he was also interested in publishing the book and that I wouldn’t have to wait for reviews. He’d simply publish it.
I know your husband Jim Brown wrote about you in This River. You write about him as well in TSD. Without getting too personal, how has this been for the both of you? Do you influence each other’s writing styles? Does he edit your work? Do you edit his?
Ha! Yes, he originally had me in a pale pink bathrobe in that book. I never wear pastels, but it was his vision of me so I backed off. Jim has been very influential to my writing style, reminding me to always be concise and tell a story of consequence. He has me look at his writing and I tell him, no matter how irritated he might become with me, the truth. He does the same for me. But I have to say, with The Shyster’s Daughter I wrote without much input from him because I wanted to structure the book with two narratives that converge toward the end. He is a traditionalist and thought I should just stick with a linear narrative, period. I respectfully said okay, but then wrote it my way.
Your connection with your father is so strong and enduring. I imagine he would be incredibly proud of you. I’d love to know what you think he might say to you about this memoir.
My father taught me to be bold and unafraid. My husband jokes that the way I think and act, sometimes it’s like I’m half-man. But that’s my father’s influence. I could picture my father shaking his head, saying, “What the hell are you doing, telling all my secrets?” But he’d have a big smile on his face when he said it.