Nick DiMartino, employee at University Book Store for 44 years and author of more than 12 novels and 20 plays, has set his latest novel at the University of Washington in the early 1990s. “Student Union” is both the title of the mystery and the last place fictional UW student Allison Yu is seen before she goes missing. DiMartino, who works at the HUB branch of the bookstore, answered a few questions for UWToday about his latest book.
Q: The characters in your book are mostly students. Like many real UW students, they’re trying to find their way, make friends. Where do they all come from?
I’ve been watching students for decades, listening and watching. And I was committed to creating a realistic racial spread of students – to have a cast of characters exactly like you’d really find here. I grew up in south Seattle, with plenty of racial diversity, and the UW population totally reflects that – so in my novel, the characters are Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Norwegian, Italian, African and Mexican. I only wish there had been more Arab students on campus back then.
Q: Tell us a bit about your main character Maria Mendoza and her friendship with the young woman who goes missing.
How did I create her? I once played a game of pool with a stranger. That’s where she came from. Then I dressed her in a good friend’s leather jacket and gave her the friend’s last name. On paper she became Maria Mendoza. I’m a huge believer in friendship. I love friendship stories, stories of connectedness that aren’t just fired by hormones.
Q: “Student Union” takes place right there in the building where you work, and it’s not the first book you’ve set locally. How many others are set at the UW and in the U District?
I write for UW and Seattle people, and hopefully do it in a way that is universal enough that anyone else can enjoy it. But the local reader always gets a few benefits from a local writer, most of all the feeling that I’m talking right to you. Almost all my novels touch base here sooner or later. “University Ghost Story” and “Love in the American Empire” both take place on campus. “Seattle Ghost Story” centers on Ravenna Park. My new novel coming out this fall is about my 25-year friendship with a UW student who later took his own life. It’s called “The Golden Handcuffs” and centers on Montlake.
Q: Do you have a favorite mystery or two by other authors that you’d recommend?
The mysteries that triggered “Student Union” are a series written by an 88-year-old Sicilian mystery writer, Andrea Camilleri. All 18 of them are for sale at the HUB. His Inspector Montalbano series has become one of the most popular television series in Europe. I had a chance to review a new Camilleri. I promptly read eight of them in a row, and totally inspired I dragged out my old manuscript of “Student Union” charged up to do it right.
Q: The mystery already existed?
“Student Union” began as a five-part serial written in 1993 intended to run in The Daily. It never ran. Instead, it was dumped into my file cabinet graveyard where I deposit all the novels I lose faith in. After reading Camilleri I pulled it out, wrote it four more times, and turned it into the mystery it is now. The first draft was contemporary, the last draft was historical, twenty years later.
Easy. Cell phones hit campus. This takes place back when you had to go to the phone to use it. The centerpiece moment of the mystery begins in one of the HUB phone booths.
Q: Which of your new novels are most popular?
Before “Student Union” came along, “Mars Versus Maple School” was the biggest. It’s a memoir of growing up in 1957 as a bookworm on Beacon Hill and writing my first H. G. Wells-inspired story in the fifth grade. Next on the popularity list I would put “Dude,” my novel about how a cat-person becomes a dog-person, torn from personal experience. And also “Changes,” a series of linked stories set in our own very real local bar of the same name in Wallingford.
Q: What’s your process? How do you churn them out?
I write from 2 to 6 a.m. every day, longer on weekends. I write my novels over and over until they’re done, usually at least three times, filling in the blanks, putting meat on the bones, polishing the beginning and ending until they’re perfectly balanced. My new novel, coming out this fall, came out in a very intense five months, but usually, from scratch to finish, writing a book takes about eight months, just short of a human baby.
I’ve even started doing a weekly podcast called “Breakfast at the Bookstore” where I talk with book guru Brad Craft. I passionately believe in the need for an ongoing public conversation about books. That’s what clubs are for. Reading is a solitary joy, and sharing enriches the experience.