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Sparkle Hayter

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Sparkle’s revenge

Growing up in Alberta, Sparkle Hayter cheered the junior hockey team and worked for an oil company. The journey to published novelist has been a strange one.

Robin Hudson, reluctant gumshoe, network news producer, and wisecracking narrator of Revenge of the Cootie Girls, makes her home in the East Village, a hip, mildly dilapidated neighbourhood in New York City. Robin’s creator, Canadian writer Sparkle Hayter, lives a few blocks away in Chelsea, an equally shabby-yet-fashionable district.

Sparkle HayterAnd that’s where the similarities begin.

“Robin’s like the angel on my shoulder. Or the devil. Or both,” says Hayter, sitting in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, where she has lived for the last four years. She is discussing the latest of her three Robin Hudson mysteries.

“She is, I think, me. She’s more like the real me than the me most people see. She’s me without having to tone anything down to be nice to other people,” claims Hayter, whose books have garnered critical praise in Entertainment Weekly, Playboy, and Publishers Weekly. “She’s just always shooting her mouth off and sticking her foot in it.”

Hayter pauses, aware, perhaps, that some people look down on fiction that is, in fact, autobiography. “I should stress that I make a lot of this stuff up,” she adds. “My mother does not think she is the Queen of England.”

Published recently by Viking Penguin in the United States and Canada, Revenge of the Cootie Girls follows Robin Hudson as she shoots her mouth off through the frantic, nighttime streets of downtown New York City on Halloween. What begins as an official girls’ night out with her ever-present pack of “goilfriends” ends up a convoluted scavenger hunt as Robin tries desperately to find her missing All News Network intern, the earnest and innocent Kathy.

Born in Pouce Coupe, British Columbia and raised in Edmonton, Hayter (yes, Sparkle is her real name) looks around the lobby of the hotel whose past residents have included Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, and Sid Vicious, and tries to explain the journey that has brought her here. “I came to New York on a fluke, like Robin, during spring break. And I just fell in love with it. I had saved a lot of money working at Syncrude [an Alberta oil company] and I just got the idea that I had to move here and finish my degree. So I did.”

Recalling her childhood in Edmonton, Hayter admits to a fondness for hockey. In high school, she joined the junior hockey cheerleading squad for the Edmonton Nets, a Tier II team. “I was notorious. I knew Mark Messier back when he was shorter than I was,” she says, adding with some degree of pride that it was Messier – an Alberta boy – who helped win the New York Rangers their first Stanley Cup in 50 years.

Hayter gave up cheerleading to attend the University of Alberta, but later transferred out. In 1986, she graduated with a degree in film and television production from New York University. A senior-year internship at CNN led to a full-time job, but Hayter left when her visa expired because she couldn’t get a green card. She returned to Canada to look for work, but packed up again soon after, this time for India and Pakistan.

Hayter travelled alone, passing the time on long train rides by writing the first draft of what would eventually become What’s a Girl Gotta Do, the first Robin Hudson book. “I had wanted to be a writer since third grade, when I got over wanting to be a cowgirl,” Hayter explains. “I published some poetry in Quarry and Fiddlehead when I was a teenager. But you can’t make a good living at it until you’ve had some experience and got some things out of your system.”

So Hayter shelved What’s a Girl (“It was only to entertain myself”) and continued to make a living. After a brief stint with Global Television in Toronto, she got her green card and eventually took off to Afghanistan with her boyfriend. “We freelanced for The Toronto Star, for CTV, basically whoever would pay us…. It was an incredible adventure. But what I learned from it was that I don’t like getting shot at, I don’t like walking through minefields behind farting horses, and I don’t like dysentery. I realized at that point that I wasn’t going to be a foreign correspondent. I realized that I should be writing. When I got back, I put all my eggs in that basket.”

After returning to New York in 1992, Hayter pursued the more conventional course for the literary hopeful: She imitated other writers, producing what she calls her bad Hemingway novels. (“One was a combination of Hemingway and Judith Krantz.”) At some point, she had an epiphany and erased all reminders of her previous, imitative self. “After I destroyed the last bad Hemingway book, burned it in the fireplace, I was going through a bunch of papers in my closet, cleaning out my life. And I found my notebooks with this funny mystery set in a place like CNN.”

After 37 rejections, What’s a Girl Gotta Do was published in hardcover by Soho Press in 1994 and won the Arthur Ellis Award for best first novel. When Viking Penguin bought the novel’s paperback rights, the company also signed Hayter to a contract for two further Robin Hudson books, Nice Girls Finish Last, published in 1996, and Revenge of the Cootie Girls. Henry Holt emerged from a recent auction with a contract for two more Robin Hudson books, numbers four and five in the series. “Then, I don’t know,” says Hayter. “Maybe I’ll try to do a screenplay or write a play. But I think Robin is the kind of character who can grow and develop over a number of books…. She’ll last as long as I have the energy to do her.”

Hayter has some regrets that her heroine, who grew up in Minnesota, one hundred miles from the border, is not actually Canadian. “I’d love to write about being Canadian in the States. Sometimes you feel like a bit of an alien, wondering why all these people are acting nuts.

“I’m a Canadian by birth and by temperament,” she adds. “But practically, I’m a New Yorker for life now.”

Revenge of the Cootie Girls is a “kind of love letter to New York,” Hayter says, explaining her affection for her adopted home. “I think of New York as the world’s city. I don’t really think of it as the United States of America. I think of it as being the crossroads of the universe…. It really changed my life, inspired me in a lot of ways.”

Hayter says she writes at night, which may explain how she manages to write almost a book a year in what may be the most distracting city in the world. “If I get the urge to go to Central Park and just play around, I can’t really do it at three in the morning. And I write every day for at least four hours. Not that I’m always going to use what I write, but I force myself.”

Writing books in what used to be a male-dominated genre makes Hayter thankful for writers like Sue Grafton, Sarah Shankman, and Marcia Muller – “women who really broke the genre open for women, for the more hard-boiled protagonists. Of course, we always had the cozy ones, the ladies who investigate the death of the vicar…”

Hayter considers her books to be more than mere genre potboilers, though, and thumbs her nose at purists put off by Robin Hudson’s exuberance. “I don’t feel bound by the mystery genre at all, and some people in the genre resent that. I’ve taken a couple of knocks for it…. If you write a book with a murder in it, it shouldn’t have to conform to certain rules. I use some of the classical conventions, but I turn them on their head, have fun with them. My books are not murder mysteries. They’re comedy mysteries that have murders in them.”

She thinks for a moment, then adds with what one imagines is a Robin Hudson-like smile: “I don’t think anyone is doing anything quite like me and I don’t think anyone wants to.”