By Laura Baginski. Photographs by Michelle Nolan.|
Chicago author Laura Caldwell wasn’t expecting the seven-foot-tall banners of her face at the Kuala Lumpur Book Fair this past March. Same for the camera flashes as she signed copies of her chick-lit novels for four hours. The 42-year-old law professor, who also writes crime novels, spoke about crime fiction at the fair to a packed house, and she says she was written up in every newspaper and magazine in Malaysia.
“It was crazy,” Caldwell recalls. “I was like, I’ll never get this kind of reception [in the U.S.], but I’ll take it where I can get it.”
Book signings in the U.S. are “hit or miss,” she says. File a 2002 signing at an Indiana Meijer for her first book, Burning the Map, in the “miss” category. “They had me sitting in the frozen-foods department,” Caldwell says. Advertising for the event appeared only in the store’s coupon circular, “halfway down the third page under 45-cent green beans. I didn’t sell one book. It was tragic. …And then I go to Malaysia and I have handlers.”
Caldwell chalks up the Malaysian pandemonium to a few factors. Her four chick-lit novels (Burning the Map, A Clean Slate, The Year of Living Famously and The Night I Got Lucky) don’t include explicit sex, a good thing in the conservative, predominantly Muslim country. The genre also provides for light reading, something Malaysian women could use more of, says Faiz Al-Shahab, Caldwell’s Malaysian publisher: “For most [young women], it is a form of escapism from the not-so-brilliant reality here in Malaysia.”
But Caldwell believes the main reason behind her warm reception is her work with the Life After Innocence Project, which she founded in 2009 with Loyola University’s Law School. The program, which helps wrongfully convicted prisoners restart their lives after they’re released from jail, was promoted before her arrival at the fair as part of her talk on crime fiction. A rapt audience of readers, writers and the media listened as she spoke about the U.S. criminal justice system. “In Malaysia they have a big problem with wrongful convictions,” Caldwell explains. “It’s in the papers all the time—journalists are constantly concerned if they write about a politician they can be picked up off the street.
“People there want to start writing crime fiction, but they have the fear that if they run afoul of someone, they will get in trouble,” Caldwell continues. “So they were asking a lot of questions about that [during the talk], and I think what fascinates them is that I can be a lawyer and I can write fiction about whoever I want. And even if someone [in my book] looked like Mayor Daley, they wouldn’t pick me up off the street in the middle of the night.”
Caldwell was inspired to create the project after her pro-bono work on the case of Jovan Mosley, who in 1999 was charged with first-degree murder and placed in a holding cell at Cook County Jail. Mosley remained in that cell awaiting trial for six years until Caldwell and criminal defense lawyer Catharine O’Daniel intervened, forcing a trial that led to his release in 2005. When Mosley became a free man, Caldwell says, he possessed only “a suit for the trial and a Bible. The county had lost the ID he had been arrested with.… Getting a license was nearly impossible. He was like a dead person.”
In September, the book Caldwell wrote about Mosley and his trial, Long Way Home, will be published by a division of Simon & Schuster. Will she target Malaysia for this book, or for any of her crime fiction? “I’m going to visit my publisher in a few months, and it’s on the agenda,” Caldwell says. “I don’t care if I’m a huge best-seller in Malaysia and no one knows me here. …I’ll be like the David Hasselhoff of the literary world.”