A chat with the author and review of the novel, The Flats
by Devon Anderson
In her debut novel, “The Flats,” Akron native Kate Birdsall takes readers to the gritty streets of The Flats in Cleveland where the body of a murdered child is found in gruesome circumstances. Through an intense investigation, wrong turns and misread clues, and even the involvement of someone close to detective and protagonist, Liz Boyle, the book takes readers on a ride they certainly won’t forget. It is clear that Birdsall takes great pride in her work, and when it comes to setting and character development, “The Flats” shines.
Liz Boyle is a tough, no-nonsense detective whose uncanny ability to keep meticulous notes on her cases throughout her career is the key to solving the case. She is a fan of loud, gritty punk rock, and readers learn more about her and her own past as the book meanders through the streets of Cleveland and even down into Cuyahoga Falls and the Akron/Canton area. It’s apparent that every single detail in this book was planned down to the letter.
Kate Birdsall has been an avid reader of mysteries since she was ten years old. She noticed that the book she’d always wanted to read didn’t exist, so after a “shitty local rock show,” her wife challenged her.
“She told me I should write a mystery, and I did,” Birdsall laughs. “I wrote the book I wanted to read with the character I wanted to see.”
Liz Boyle is a character that, for Birdsall, encompasses a strong Midwestern work ethic alongside the sense that Cleveland has had for years.
“Cleveland has always been known as the Mistake by the Lake,” she muses. “But, in reality, it’s not that bad.”
She says it was important to leave the action in Cleveland and the surrounding areas, even at the insistence from others to change it. That part of the state was a huge part of her adolescence, and she says it is only in this way that the book is autobiographical.
“I’ve walked the same streets, going to punk shows with a mohawk and a chain wallet,” she says. “It was important for me to keep it there. It didn’t make sense anywhere else.”
Also important to Birdsall was representation for the LGBT community in her book, and that comes through in Liz Boyle’s sexuality, but not in the way one may expect.
“It’s important that she isn’t coming out over and over again. It’s just kind of who she is. It’s not a big deal to her, or to anyone else,” Birdsall says.
“The Flats” is not centered in the fact that Boyle is a lesbian, and it becomes something that one could forget as they read until the name Cora comes up, Boyle’s most recent ex. Her sexuality does not define her, and that makes “The Flats” stand out in terms of representation without exhausting repetition.
Birdsall says that the most valuable lesson she learned along the way was that published novelists really make what they do look easy.
“The first time around, I was this confident writer,” says Birdsall. “It was like I was master of this world. But it’s not like that; you can’t turn out a novel in a weekend. All of the work for ‘The Flats’ has prepared me even more in terms of what to do for the second book.”
Since she’s in the process now of writing the second Liz Boyle novel, she says that the hardest thing is turning off the editor in her head: “I have a hard time getting through that phase of just shutting it up and writing. The second book is a lot harder to write knowing what I know now.”
I can’t speak for everyone, but if “The Flats” is a little taste of what Birdsall can do in a novel, I am itching to get my hands on the second one. “The Flats” is the perfect combination of hometown nostalgia mixed in with some serious whodunnit held together by strong characters and a writing style that begs not to be put down. I loved it.
(Author photo and book cover image courtesy of Kate Birdsall)