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S.J. Rozan Builds Her Case

As part of a special series profiling mystery writers, CBS News Correspondent Anthony Mason interviews S.J. Rozan.

She is a woman whose talent spans two professions. She can design a building and she can create a novel.

When Shira Rozan was in college, she dreamed of being a writer, but she decided to become an architect:

"I wanted a real profession," she explains. "And I'd always been interested in architecture and in design, and in really what makes things work. And understanding what's kind of behind the walls and why things stand up and some things don't. And what the secrets were really. I always had a feeling when I was a kid that I didn't really know what was going on. Everybody else knew stuff that I didn't know. And this was a way to know that stuff."

Today, she can say: "And that's what I know now. You know, I'm the one who knows where the brackets are and stuff."

Now a project manager for a New York firm, Rozan coordinates the engineers, designers, and consultants on the construction site.

She recently helped restore Shepard Hall at City College.

Anthony Mason: "What kind of shape was this building in?"

Rozan: "This room was a disaster."

About a decade ago, the architect picked up that old idea she had in college and began to build on her dream. She started to write.

Anthony Mason
Here's Rozan reading from No Colder Place: "A building going up doesn't live, it grows. Like the monster Frankenstein built - hammered, welded, bolted together out of things you bring from other places.... And while it grows it pulls a little life from each of the men who work on it, making them leave something, something they are behind."

Mason: "You said you always wanted to write a mystery. But where did that desire come from?"

Rozan: "It came from the same place as - the same reason I went to architecture school. Because you get to know what's going on. I mean the detective does."

Under the name S.J. Rozan, Shira began plotting crimes:

Mason: "So what's more difficult, building a building or building a mystery?"

Rozan: "Oooh...Probably putting up a building is harder because you can be stopped by so many things that have nothing to do with you. Writing a book you can only get stopped by yourself."

But she hasn't stopped. She's just published her fifth novel, A Bitter Feast. It all began with a private eye named Bill Smith.

Books by S.J. Rozan

Rozan: "My first character was Bill. He was the voice I had been hearing in my head - this is probably also material for my shrink - since I was like 9."

But Rozan knew he needed a sidekick.

Rozan: "I wanted him to have a partner, but not a partner like him...It meant someone almost defined by what the classic American white male private eye isn't."

It meant a young Chinese private eye named Lydia Chin.

Rozan, reading from China Trade: "I'm a good bodyguard. I'm a great shot, and I can fight; but at five-one, a hundred and ten pounds, I'm not very intimidating."

Rozan knows just where Lydia lives in Chinatown, and can take a visitor there: "This is the street Lydia Chin lives on. She lives in a building on this side of the street, which I made up. It's actually sort of right about here."

Mason: "Yeah."

Rozan: "But it's a little wider, and it's 5 stories tall."

Mason: "So did you just sort of walk down this street one day and say 'This is where she lives?'"

Rozan: "This is the one. Yeah, that's what happened. Also it had a hill. And this is the only street in Chinatown with a hill. I like the uniqueness of that."

Rozan, reading from A Bitter Feast: "My office is on the west end on Canal Street. My name's not on the street door. Lydia Chin Investigations is not on the buzzer. Chinese people don't like to admit they need to hire someone to help solve their personal problems."

Mason: "Why did you decide to set your books here?

Rozan: "Chinatown?"

Mason: "Yeah."

Rozan: "Chinatown is tremendously interesting...It's a part of the city that hasn't really been explored in crime literature or in any general literature. It's as though Chinatown didn't exist. People write about New York without mentioning Chinatown at all."

Rozan, reading from A Bitter Feast: "We're a superstitious bunch, we Chinese, putting our faith in signs and wonders and the helpful and unhelpful interference in our daily lives of a teeming multitude of gods and ghosts. Not that anyone in my generation really believes any of this. Especially not ABCs like me -- American-Born Chinese."

Mason: "Did you find this place sort of impenetrable in any way?"

Rozan: "No. No, I never did."

Rozan grew up in the melting pot of the Bronx, where foreign faces were familiar. Her brother had a Chinese schoolmate who became a family friend:

Rozan: "I thought all my brother's friends were weird because they were boys, you know. But Eugene wasn't any weirder thn anybody else. And you know, his father talked funny but my grandfather talked funny. He was from Russia. And there wasn't anything different about them."

Rozan may be comfortable in this world, but her trip into Chinatown has made some critics uncomfortable:

"It never occurred to me that this was a problem," Rozan says. "It has occurred to me since. And it's occurred to a number of other people, apparently." Rozan continues, "To my face, what I get is 'Why do you think you can do this? Why do you think you know enough to make this work?'"

Rozan argues a writer's job is to use her imagination. That, she says, is how she created Bill Smith:

Rozan: "I'm not a tall white guy either. But I don't get any objection to that... I won't get into a discussion of whether I have the right to do this with someone who thinks I don't. But I will get into a discussion of whether I've done it well."

Rozan researches her books intensely and often becomes personally involved. For one story she needed a sport and chose a game she didn't know. She could have just watched a basketball game. Instead, she learned how to play it.

The group is called Never Too Late Basketball. Rozan still goes every week. She loves it, she says, even though "I have the group record for injury."

This summer, after 10 years of writing about Lydia Chin, she finally went to China. Even in The Forbidden City, Rozan found something familiar: "More basketball courts and a game. Oh my God, I wanna play. But look. They're no taller than I am. They're just kids."

Writing mysteries, once a late-night and weekend hobby, has become a full-time job. Now, Rozan works part-time at the architecture firm.

Rozan: "I sometimes feel when I'm doing architecture that I feel really clever that I pull it off, you know. And then I remember that I really am an architect. It really is almost two entire lives, two separate lives I have going."

She knows how to build a case and how to construct a skyscraper. For Shira Rozan, all that's left is to master her jump shot.

©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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