‘The Conversation,” A Talk with Robert Crais

Robert Crais, known to lovers of suspense and crime novels for having written mRobert Crais, Exley Fotoany New York Times bestsellers, including Suspect and Taken, has just completed The Promise, his twentieth novel and the latest in his Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series.

He began his career by writing television scripts for shows such as Quincy, Miami Vice, and LA Law.

He credits Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, Robert B. Parker, and John Steinbeck for influencing his writing style.

In The Promise, Elvis is hired to find a woman who’s disappeared. He learns she’s an explosives expert who worked for a Defense Department contractor. Meanwhile, LAPD K-9 Officer Scott James and his dog, Maggie, track a fugitive to a house filled with explosives…and, a dead body. As Elvis Cole embarks on a search for the missing woman, he learns the two cases intersect, and could very well bring an end to the lives of Joe Pike, Scott James, Maggie, and his own.

I get the feeling in The Promise that Elvis Cole is still evolving. Will you talk about that?

He is evolving because I am. My first published novel, The Monkey’s Raincoat, came out in 1987. I’m not the same person now as I was then. One of the reasons I’ve stayed interested in Elvis and Joe—maybe the primary reason—is I expect them to evolve over time, as people do. That’s why, to me, they’ve remained fresh. There’s always something new and interesting impacting their characters—helping to define who they are as people.

 You’ve created two iconic characters in Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. Will you describe their relationship over the course of the series?

It’s dependable. At its core, the series is about friendship and loyalty. It’s about having someone you can trust regardless of the situation. Elvis and Joe grew out of my love for the Hollywood notion of the buddy-picture or the bromance. It goes back forever—with Pancho and the Cisco Kid, and much earlier.

There’s a reason people respond to this situation: in the darkness, we want a person we can trust at our side. At our core, we’re pack animals, like gorillas or wild dogs. We want to gather, have a family. Elvis and Joe are representations of family. They’re partners; they’re each that friend we all wish we had. I think that unfaltering friendship is worth writing about. I like to see it grow and evolve over time. I like to explore how they came to be as people and as friends. I think that’s what I’ve done over the course of the series.

In The Promise, as in some of your other novels, you’ve augmented the private detective first person POV with a combination of first and third person narratives, along with multiple points of view. Will you talk about that?

I think it makes for a richer reading experience. To me, employing those writing techniques are the same as a painter using different colors. The backdrop of the novel is my canvas. I want the fullest possible experience for the reader, and a full writing experience for myself. I’m the artist who writes the stuff, but I’m also my own first reader.

I work my way through the characters and their evolution over the course of the year it takes to complete the novel. I want to be entertained and need to stay interested in what I’m doing. The more “colors” I use, the richer the canvas becomes. If I’ve done the dance correctly, by the time a reader finishes the book, the experience will have been deeper and fuller.

I was amazed by the pinpoint accuracy of your writing from the POV of Maggie, a German shepherd. It reminded me of Jack London’s White Fang, only more detailed, but just as dramatic. Tell us about that.

It was very important to me to make Maggie as realistic as possible. I created Maggie and Scott James in Suspect out of respect for the human-canine bond. Anyone who’s ever had and loved a dog knows what that’s like: the sense of loyalty, devotion, and the relationship the two develop.

When I researched that relationship, I learned amazing things about dog perception, cognition, and why dogs do what they do. I wanted to depict Maggie as accurately as humanly possible—because I had to translate the ways of a dog so any human being would be able to ‘get it.’

Once Suspect was published, I began hearing from people who were involved at various levels within the canine community. They were extraordinarily complimentary about how I’d depicted Maggie. It was very gratifying because I chose to do scenes from Maggie’s point of view and wanted—as best as any human could—to portray how she would feel; how she’d perceive the world, and what would motivate her to do what she does. That portrayal became one of the joys of the book for me. I really loved being in Maggie’s head because she’s so pure. And, I enjoyed opening those doors to other people.

You once said, “I gave up this artsy thing when writing novels and went back to what I knew.” You described your first two novels as being on the “worst-ever” list, and decided to change your storytelling technique. Will you tell us about that?

You mentioned my TV work. At a fairly young age, I got involved with television. I loved it, and plunged headlong into writing for mainstream television, and did it for ten years. Over that period of time, the stresses of TV production began to tell on me.

I’d always had the desire to write books—things that would be mine as opposed to collaborative pieces, as they are in Hollywood.

I adopted this ‘literary’ point of view in contrast to the way television writers approach a story. They plan things out; make a pitch to others on the project; then wait until people sign off before they can write it. That’s how the business works.

I had this notion that a novelist—an artist—just sits down, goes into a trance, has no idea what’s going to come out, and starts to type on the keyboard. And, a few days later, there it is: he’s created art. When I attempted to write my first novel, that’s how I approached it. After being a TV ‘hack’ for so long, I was going to be an artist. I started typing, just creating stuff out of whole cloth. I ended up with a five-hundred-fifty page manuscript. It was a disaster. A couple of years later, I tried again; and the same thing happened. It was a big mistake.

After those two strikeouts, I thought maybe art is for other people. The TV thing had turned out okay, so maybe that would be how I’d write the third book.

I wrote The Monkey’s Raincoat which really worked out.

 So, it’s safe to conclude you outline or plot out your novels?

Yes, I do that. What I’ve learned over the years, after talking with so many writers in all genres, is this: we are all different. There’s no one correct way to write. Some people can sit down without a thought in their head and begin to write; and it comes out as a beautiful story. That’s how it works for them.

But it doesn’t work for me. I have to know where I’m going.

Looking back at twenty novels, I can’t complain.

 You also once said, “The beginning of a novel is the most difficult part for me.” What did you mean by that?

The beginning of the novel is when I’m figuring out what the book will be about. The shorthand way of saying it would be to use the word ‘outline.’ To this day, that’s the hard part for me. I’ve learned people have different definitions for the word ‘outline.’ People who like to make it up as they go are terrified by that word.

Often, the implication is that it’s some sort of linear act where each chapter is successively outlined. That’s not true for me. I take an organic approach, thinking about the characters and the story; and slowly develop different thoughts, scenes, and chapters, the majority of which wind up in the trash. It’s a way of growing the story over time. It can take many months. Once I have that storyline—that collection of themes and characters that gets me from the beginning of the piece to the end—I’m off and running. Typically, the actual writing is far less stressful.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

Oh, we’re going to play that game. (Laughter). Let’s see, if I weren’t a writer I’d probably be a cargo pilot in the South Seas, or an architect.

Yeah, an architect. They create and construct.

 What’s surprised you about the writing life?

If I pretend I don’t know what happened, what surprised me is that I would be as disciplined as I am. Writing really takes an enormous amount of self-control and discipline. There are plenty of more fun things to do than to sit at your desk every day and write.

 I assume you successfully deal with the near-universal temptation to procrastinate?

Absolutely. The reality is—especially on a bad day, but really, on all days—it’s a job like any other. Only, you’re your own boss, and the boss, meaning you, is the person who must keep the writing you, in the chair, focused and committed to getting the task accomplished. You have to consistently force yourself to keep writing.

 What do you love about the writing life?

What I love about the writing life—despite the bad days when I have to force my way through—is when I’m there ‘in the moment,’ when what’s happening on the page is real and true and good; and I’m there with Elvis Cole or with Joe Pike or with Maggie and Scott, and I’m in complete touch with my emotions. That’s when things come together and may burst into something I hadn’t necessarily planned.

There’s no better feeling. That’s what it’s all about.

 What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?

The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is it isn’t easy and it shouldn’t be. You know what? If I was too productive, if the pages flowed easily and I found myself vomiting out books at an unimaginable rate—as some writers do—I hope I’d be smart enough to throttle back and look for what I’m doing wrong.

After twenty books, I think I’ve learned who I am as a writer, and how I have to go about writing my books. I don’t measure myself against other writers. If I have anything to offer as a writer, it’s my world, my point of view, and my sensibility.

 You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?

I’d probably invite a couple of painters. There would also be a couple of architects. Painters and architects fascinate me. I think we all do the same thing: it’s just that their mediums are different. Their brains work in a different way and I’m fascinated by that. I’d also invite someone like Ray Bradbury or Robert Heinlein, science fiction writers. They would see the world very differently than I do.

 Congratulations on your twentieth novel, The Promise, which cross-pollinates Elvis and Joe with characters from another series, namely Scott James and Maggie. This complex and suspenseful novel is heading straight to the bestseller list.


‘Playing with Fire,’ A Conversation with Tess Gerritsen

Tess Gerritsen was a physician and Board-certified internist before turning her talTess Gerritsen, photo Jacob Gerritsenents to writing. The Rizzoli and Isles series, featuring a homicide detective and medical examiner, propelled Tess to the status of an internationally bestselling author; and was the foundation for the popular television series of the same name.

Tess has written standalone medical and crime thrillers; and her books have been published in 40 countries.  Playing with Fire, a standalone novel, draws its drama from Tess’s passion as an accomplished musician.

Playing with Fire is a beautifully written novel of psychological suspense. It centers on violinist, Julia Ardsnell, who while in Rome, discovers an obscure musical score in an antique music shop. The piece, a waltz, is entitled Incendio. Returning to Boston, Julia discovers the music has a terrifying effect on her young daughter, Lily. Julia is determined to track down the music score’s origins. She travels to Venice where she uncovers a secret dating back to World War II, one involving a powerful family intent on preventing Julia from bringing the truth to light.

 I understand Playing with Fire was born out of a true experience while you were traveling in Italy. Tell us about that.

I was in Venice for my birthday, and had a nightmare. I dreamed I was playing my violin while a baby sat next to me. While I was playing this dark and disturbing music, the baby’s eyes glowed red and she turned into a monster. I woke up questioning what this was about. I knew there was a story there: something about the power of music.

We talk about music soothing the savage beast, but what if it awakens the beast? I walked around Venice and had no idea where the story would go, but kept thinking about it. I wandered into the old Jewish quarter, and saw the memorials to the two-hundred forty six Venetian Jews who were deported during World War II.

And then, the whole story came to me. This had never before happened, that a story so full-blown and complete, came to me in a dream.

 The novel’s descriptions of the waltz, Incendio, are exquisite. Tell us how writing about the waltz developed into your bringing that waltz to life.

The waltz is such a central part of the story. I wondered what kind of music would awaken the beast in a child. As a novelist, I described it fictionally. It was a beautiful waltz: very sad, but it began to change midway through the piece, and became very disturbing.

Because of my background in music, I knew exactly what makes music disturbing. Basically, it’s dissonance. Certain chords strike our ears in a way that makes us uncomfortable. I described those dissonant chords, and remembered something from my own musical education—the concept of the Devil’s chord. It was forbidden in the medieval church because it was so disturbing.

In the process of writing the book, the music must have seeped into my subconscious because I woke up one morning and the waltz’s melody was playing in my head. What’s so strange is both the story and the music came to me in dreams. I composed the music over about six weeks. It’s exactly as described in the book: it starts off sweetly mournful, then grows more disturbing.

I understand the piece will be available for downloading.

Yes, it will be available on iTunes on October twentieth.

I didn’t know, in addition to being a writer, you’re also a composer.

I didn’t know it either. (Laughter). I’m an amateur musician—violin and piano, but I have enough of a background to be able to compose what I heard in my head. I composed a waltz for my son’s wedding. Most of my musical experiences have been with Celtic music, but I’ve studied enough classical and Gypsy music, to understand what would work in that particular genre of music.

 The prose in Playing with Fire is beautiful and has a “literary” quality. How do you feel being labelled a genre writer?

I think how you’re labelled depends on what voice you’re using for your story. For the most part, I am a genre writer. I accept that label because that’s what I write—crime. Crime novels can be literary, but they’re still crime. There’s a large readership for genre fiction. I’m certainly not going to turn up my nose at readers. (Laughter). You know, it doesn’t really matter what the label is. I think all that matters is that you touch people. It’s important that what you write makes a difference to the readers.

 As a physician practicing internal medicine, how did you make the transition to writing novels?

Maternity leave. (More laughter). I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I went to medical school because my parents were very conservative about what their children would do for a living. That’s why so many of us Asian-American kids end up in medical school. So, I became a doctor, but when I went on maternity leave, I went back to writing. By the time I’d sold my first book, I knew that was what I really should be doing.

 Was there a time when you were both practicing medicine and writing successfully?

Yes. I was working part time, for perhaps five hours a day. I’d go home and when my kids were put to bed, I would work at night.

Speaking of nighttime, what, if anything, keeps you awake at night?

The same anxieties most of us have, which are really about the people you care about. I worry about my children, and about my grandchild. The curse of being a writer—or of being a mother—is you always imagine the worst thing that can happen. You’re always thinking of worse-case scenarios.

 What’s the most important lesson you ever learned about writing?

To be accepting of a bad first draft. (More laughter). I think I’ve learned you can’t be perfect. I’ve learned to accept that the first draft of a novel is going to be horrible. I’ve also learned not to edit while working on that first draft. I just let it pour out and keep going forward.

What do you love about the writing life?

I love being able to indulge my curiosity. Many of my stories come about because I want to know more about a particular subject. I get a chance, for a while, to be somebody else. I’ve written about the NASA space program; I spent two years pretending I was an astronaut. I wrote a book about Egyptology and got to explore archaeology. Writing Playing with Fire, I got to explore World War II Italy.

 Do you ever find yourself procrastinating?

All the time. It’s human nature. I write and stick to my schedule because I have a contract. If I didn’t have a book under contract, I would take my time. You know, there are so many distractions for a novelist, especially for those of us who are pulled in many directions by multiple passions. I could spend an entire year doing nothing but learning fiddle tunes.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Yes, with almost every book.

But, Playing with Fire didn’t give me writer’s block.

Because I write crime fiction, I start out with an idea that excites me. But I don’t know where it’s going. Most of the time, I don’t even know who the bad guy is. About half way through the first draft, I have to stop writing because I don’t know what will happen next. I might call it plot block as opposed to writer’s block. My strategy for getting past that point is going for a long walk; or lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling. But, the number one thing that helps is driving the car. I can work out a lot of stuff while I’m behind the wheel, by myself, on a long, boring drive. I guess it has to do with where your brain is when you’re semi-focused on something else. It allows my subconscious to work on the plot issues. It’s almost like being in a dream-state. It’s a very creative place for my imagination to be stirred.

 What advice would you give to writers starting out?

Beyond allowing one’s self to have a bad first draft, and not editing that draft, persistence is the key. A writer can’t give up just because the book keeps getting turned down by agents and publishers. It took me three books to get something sold.

Also, I can’t start a book until I hear a character talking to me; until I hear a voice. I get a feeling for a book by the way that voice sounds. If you get that voice inside your head, it makes the writing so much easier.

And finally, I always say the best books start with the most emotional ideas. So, I wait for what I call the punch in the gut. I wait for that idea that makes me think, ‘What happens next?’ It can happen anywhere at any time. Perhaps, I’ll overhear a conversation that will strike me as being the kernel of a great idea for a novel.

You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?

I know I would ask Cleopatra. She’s a fascinating character in history. We don’t know how much about these legendary people is true, but Cleopatra could purportedly twist men around with her intellect. You know who else I’d invite? Margaret Meade. And then, I’d ask Amelia Earhart. I’m really interested in accomplished and interesting women. (Laughter). The funny thing is I don’t find writers all that interesting. We writers live in such a world of imagination, we’re too busy to go out and do things ourselves. I’m most interested in people who’ve done things. I would also like to have the young King Tut at the dinner. And last, but certainly not least, I’d invite Genghis Khan.

Congratulations on penning Playing with Fire, a standalone novel brimming with emotion, literary description, and psychological suspense.

Mark Rubinstein’s latest novel is The Lovers’ Tango






‘Depraved Heart,’ A Conversation with Patricia Cornwell

Patricia Cornwell is known to millions of readers worldwide. She has won nearlPCORNWELL photo credit PatrickEcclesiney every literary award for popular fiction and has authored 29 New York Times bestsellers. Her novels center primarily on medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, along with her tech-savvy niece Lucy and investigator Pete Marino.

In her newest novel, Depraved Heart, we find Kay Scarpetta working on a highly suspicious death, when an emergency alert sounds on her cell phone. It seems to be coming in on a secure line from her niece, Lucy; and a video link plays a surveillance tape of Lucy taken almost 20 years earlier. Additional video clips follow, along with a strange series of incidents involving Lucy, the suspicious death of a Hollywood mogul’s daughter, the FBI, and the unseen presence of a “depraved heart” behind these mysterious events.

Depraved Heart expands beyond forensic science to technology. In the novel, you bring up the concept of data fiction. What is this?

When you think of things we’re afraid of in today’s world, they’re quite different from what they were twenty years ago. Much of it has to do with technology and terrorism. Years ago, it was more the fear the Ted Bundys of the world might crawl through your window.

The things we fear today have changed. With technology, the Internet and social media—with identity theft wiping out people’s bank accounts and events like that—we don’t necessarily know what’s real or true anymore. Everything’s electronic: these aren’t things you can hold in your hand. We’re not dealing with tangible items. How do we know what’s true? If someone wants to manipulate us, how preventable is it? I coined the term data fiction to describe this phenomenon.

Later in the book, the reader will learn there’s also a type of malware that can produce data fiction. Imagine a virus that can go into computer systems and alter data. Imagine if the DNA data base was corrupted.

Or perhaps one’s bank or brokerage account.

Absolutely. The changes in technology in our world have caused me to dramatically alter what I do in my books. Kay Scarpetta is our contemporary, so she has to worry about cybercrime—not only personally, but its impact on her cases.

Depraved Heart depicts, among other things, an adversarial relationship between the FBI and local law enforcement. Will you talk about that?

It’s been known for a long time—almost to the point of being a cliché—that local police and the feds are like oil and water. Typically, with a big case, the first responders are local police, then the folks from the regional FBI field office show up. They often take over the investigation and the local police don’t much like that. These outsiders don’t walk the streets and don’t know the people in the community.

Local police often complain the FBI is quick to take credit because they’re very PR oriented. They need to be visible and sort of Hollywood to increase their funding in Washington.

 In Depraved Heart, it’s more than adversarial. It’s hostile.

Yes. There’s bad blood between Lucy and one FBI agent. While it’s fiction and may be somewhat exaggerated, there are times I portray  law enforcement people as the bad guys, which can happen in life, too.

 You’re very prolific. Only a short time ago, we talked about your last novel, Flesh and Blood. Do you ever deal with procrastination or writer’s block?

I most certainly do. I like to remind people not to judge me based on what they see on the outside. Prolific and successful people have the same problems others do. I absolutely have days where I’ll find every excuse under the sun not to sit at that desk and write.

Why is that?

Because it scares me. It’s hard. And if the characters are being uncooperative, I just move words around uselessly. At times like that, I wonder who stole my characters? Or, think they’ve gone on vacation.

I don’t feel I control that world. I don’t think you can be creative if you try to control what you’re doing. You have to allow psychological spaces in your mind—ones you don’t even know exist—to let things surface on their own. It’s far easier to do almost anything else than to write.

Sometimes, I have writer’s block where I’m stuck in a scene. When that happens, I need to go back to where the script was working. I’ve probably taken a wrong turn, and some part of my brain is saying ‘You don’t want to go any farther. You’re on the wrong track.’ When I’m at that kind of dead end, I go back, and fix it.

But, writer’s block is a terrible thing—whether you’re a journalist or writing fiction—it’s debilitating and depressing. I always say the genius within us all is the child. That’s where all the good stuff comes from. So, writer’s block may very well be a matter of your little child not being happy. And if the child isn’t happy, he’s not pulling out his crayons. (Laughter).

 What’s the most important lesson you feel you’ve learned about writing?

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned is the power in letting go. You have to learn not to try to control the process of writing. You’ve got to freefall, and adults don’t like to do that. But if you think about how you started writing as a child, you’d get a piece of paper, a pencil or crayon, and you would just start with whatever came into your head. You didn’t plan an outline or do storyboards.

Then, when we become adults, we feel we must control the process. The more you try controlling creativity, the less successful you’re going to be. It doesn’t mean you can’t have structure or logic, but if you overthink, you won’t be creative. Thinking can be dangerous. The worst stuff I write is something I thought out instead of writing what just comes out of me. It’s really more intuitive than anything else.

You have so many interests. What’s a typical day like for you?

 I love scuba diving and flying helicopters, but if I did so every day, I wouldn’t be able to write books. I’ve been dabbling with television and Hollywood, which is fun and takes up some time; and I make sure I exercise every day.

If we’re in the same place, my partner Staci and I almost always have dinner together; and we enjoy watching television.

My favorite kind of day is a quiet one. I get up, go to my desk and write. If it’s a lovely day, I’ll take a break and go for a walk. I don’t listen to anything while walking—I don’t want to get hit by a car—and, I use the silence of the walk to let my mind roam free. In our busy, need-to-be-connected world, you miss out on the pleasure of solitude if you’re constantly looking at your cell phone while walking.

I give myself an hour to think and just be still. Then, I’ll go back and write some more. That’s the essence of a good day for me.

What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?

What keeps me awake or restless while I’m working on a book is, I can never get away from it. I’m lying there and have this anxiety: ‘Oh, I’ve got so much left to do,’ or ‘I’m only on page ten,’ or, ‘Will I ever finish this thing?’ When I’m writing a book, it feels like I’m always living with it. And when I’m finally finished with a novel, I’m instantly starting another one.

 Your first book, Postmortem, is considered the first forensic thriller. I understand you had an interesting experience at your first book signing. Will you tell us about that?

It’s really about not being invited to the dance.

Post Mortem was accepted very tentatively by the publisher.  It had been rejected by almost every other major house. When it was published, there was no marketing budget or publicity plan.  I went to a local bookstore and got to know the owner. He agreed to do a book signing. By, the way, it was a religious bookstore, so it was the completely wrong venue for a forensic thriller. (Laughter).

Well, on the day of the signing, I got there on my lunch hour at the appointed time, and not a single person showed up. One lady came by and held out a tissue. I asked if I could help her and she said, ‘Yes, please put this in the trash for me.’

I said to myself, ‘My future is not looking very bright.’

 What advice would you give to writers starting out?

My advice would be this: You’ll never be good at anything if at first you’re not bad. That pertains to writing or anything else. You must have the courage to fail. Be willing to be really bad (Laughter).

I would also say, ‘Rejection is not a measure of your worth.’ If it were, I’d be worth nothing because I’ve been rejected so many times. I wrote four novels before one was finally published.

 Congratulations on writing Depraved Heart, a gripping novel of forensic science, explosives, pathology, crime, scuba diving, and above all, unrelenting tension and suspense.


Mark Rubinstein’s latest novel is The Lovers’ Tango


‘Pretty Girls,” A Conversation with Karin Slaughter

Karin Slaughter’s first book, Blindsighted, became an international success published in Karin Slaughter Credit Alison Rosa30 languages, and made the Crime Writer’s Association’s Dagger Award shortlist for “Best Thriller Debut” of 2001. More than 30 million copies of her books have been sold in 32 languages. Her Grant County series has been very popular, as has her Will Trent series of novels. She’s also written standalone novels.

Pretty Girls, a standalone novel, focuses on two sisters, Claire and Lydia, who haven’t spoken for more than twenty years. Claire is the glamorous wife of an Atlanta millionaire; Lydia is a single mother dating an ex-con and is struggling financially. Neither has recovered from the disappearance
of their sister, Julia, two decades earlier. When Claire’s husband is murdered, the horror of the past invades both their lives. Is there a connection between these two events separated by more than twenty years? The sisters form a truce and struggle to unearth the secrets that destroyed their family years ago.

Pretty Girls focuses on the psychological devastation experienced by families of crime victims. This seems to be a different area of concentration for you.

Yes, it absolutely is. It was a very conscious departure on my part. For years, I’ve written about Will Trent, a cop; and my other narrators have been either cops or doctors specializing in forensic medicine. I wanted to tell a story revealing the toll crime takes—what crime leaves behind, and how it can tear families apart.

What struck me is how both Claire and Lydia evolved over the course of the story.

I wanted to do that. I made a purposeful choice that the characters you meet in the first few chapters would have some sort of evolution. They would not be the same people they were at the beginning of the book. I think that’s another important aspect of crime— people change because of it. I wanted very much to include that in the arc of the story.

You’re very well known for the Grant County and Will Trent series. How does writing a standalone novel like Pretty Girls differ from penning a novel in a series?

It’s somewhat easier in a series. You have first-hand experience with the characters and know who they are. In a standalone novel, you have to create all the characters from the start. A writer has to do a bit more work, which is very rewarding, but you don’t have to pull any punches. You can have the characters deeply affected by the events in the book, knowing you don’t have to continue with them on their journey after this horrible thing happened. You can take risks with the characters and their development in a standalone novel.

Speaking of horrible things, I’m sure you agree the hallmark of a good story is conflict.

Oh, absolutely. That’s why I love crime novels so much. When I write a crime novel, the conflict is built in.

What thoughts do you have about being labelled a genre writer?

I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about that. I think it’s all literature. As for genres, I write in the bestselling genre in every western country. If that’s the ghetto, then I’m in the top-selling ghetto. (Laughter). Also, I think it’s just interpretation. I know Gillian Flynn was upset that people said Gone Girl wasn’t in the crime/thriller genre. That’s because some people who find themselves reading and enjoying a crime novel, end up saying, ‘I only read literature. I don’t read commercial fiction.’ They give themselves permission to enjoy something like Gone Girl by saying, ‘The book transcends the crime genre and isn’t part of it.’ But, look at Gone with the Wind with a brutal murder; or The Great Gatsby, and its murder; or To Kill a Mockingbird with tense courtroom drama and allegations of rape. Or, for that matter, look at Crime and Punishment.

Crime is really a great way to tell a story. I think a hundred years from now, the novels remembered will be crime novels.

You’ve written fifteen novels and other works. What’s the most important lesson you learned about writing?

I want to be a better writer. I want to learn and grow, to know how to tell stories in a different and more challenging way. I’ve learned it doesn’t get easier each time. It actually gets harder. I always want to make sure the book I’m writing is the best book I can deliver. I’ve learned in each book that I always want to say something new. I’ve grown as a writer, and my characters have evolved. The benchmark of success for me is to be able to feel I’ve accomplished those goals.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

I love puzzles. I always wanted to learn how to make watches. I’d be a watchmaker. People always say something’s just a cog in a machine. But if you understand watches, every single cog is vitally important.

This question isn’t related to writing, but as a baseball fan I have to ask, is it true you’re related to the great right fielder and Hall of Famer, Enos Slaughter?

Yes. He was my grandfather’s brother, so he was my great uncle. My grandfather was a ne’er-do-well and they didn’t get along. In addition to being a terrific athlete, Enos was very smart and equally driven. My grandfather wasn’t, so there was a rift in their relationship. I think there may have been a woman involved in their feud, because with male Slaughters, there’s usually a woman in the picture.

What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?

Not a lot. I’m a really good sleeper, which is great when you travel as much as I do. I do worry about political things. I really worry a great deal about the income inequality gap, and fear it’s not going to be adequately addressed no matter who wins the election. One person can’t do it. There has to be a societal shift for that change to occur. I think we need more people to understand the seriousness of the problem, and to become engaged in solving it. Nothing changes in that regard until something like the Great Depression comes along. Or something like 9/11 happens.

Then people pull together.

Do you ever worry about writing-related issues?

I do. I work out most of what I’m going to write in my head before I sit down and actually write it. If, when I sit down to write, it still doesn’t come, I think it’s not ready to be written. Some people call that writer’s block. I just give myself the excuse to take more naps, watch television, or read. It’s sort of like what happens if you’re looking for your keys. The minute you stop looking is when you find them. So, by doing something else, the plotline or story comes to me.

What advice would you give to writers starting out?

I would say…read. It sounds like a simple thing, but I know so many people who want to be writers who say, ‘I don’t have time to read.’

Reading trains the brain. If it’s a bad book, you learn even more than you do from a good one.

Writers who don’t understand that don’t ever really grow in their craft.

You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?

To begin, I’d invite Flanner O’Connor. Then, I’d have Margaret Mitchell and Truman Capote, two Southern writers. I’d invite Bill and Hillary Clinton because they could get any one of those other guests to talk and be interesting, even if some of them had a little too much to drink or if they were typically shy writers. I’ve met both Clintons. Bill has an amazing mind, and Hillary really has it together. It’s incredibly impressive when you’re a woman and meet another woman who has so much to offer. It may be hard for a man to understand, but I was even more impressed by Hillary than by Bill Clinton.

What’s coming next from Karin Slaughter?

Well, I’ve just finished a book tour promoting Pretty Girls. Soon, it’ll be back to the drawing boards for my next novel.

 Congratulations on writing Pretty Girls, about which Gillian Flynn said, “Karin Slaughter’s eye for detail and truth is unmatched…I’d follow her anywhere.”


‘The Searcher,’ A Conversation with Simon Toyne

Simon Toyne left a successful television career as a writer, director, and producer to takSimon Toynee a gamble on novel-writing. The risk paid off, resulting in his penning the internationally bestselling Sanctus trilogy. Sanctus, The Key, and The Tower have been translated into dozens of languages.

 The Searcher is the first book in what will be his new series featuring Solomon Creed, a man with no memory of his past. In the novel, set in the small Arizona town of Redemption, Solomon must save a lost soul scheduled for burial that morning.  While the townspeople of Redemption are gathered at the cemetery, they are interrupted by a thunderous plane crash in the distant desert. A pillar of black smoke blankets the air.

Elsewhere, three men scan the skies, awaiting a plane delivering a package. Seeing fire and smoke from the crash, they realize something has gone wrong. The man who has sent them is ruthless, and will exact a high price if the package is lost.

Solomon must learn the town’s secrets, and the truth behind the death of the man he came to save. Very little is as it seems, as Solomon Creed continues his quest to uncover the mystery of his past.

When you began writing Sanctus, you didn’t know it would be a trilogy; yet with Solomon Creed, you’re planning to write a series. Will you tell us more?

Sanctus was done on speculation. I had no agent or publisher. I was being sensible, I suppose, by writing a standalone novel. I figured if that one didn’t work, no one would be interested in reading a sequel. So, I tried making it self-contained. While working on it, I had all these other ideas I knew wouldn’t fit into the book, so I put them in a separate file.

When the book was sold, my agent and editor said, ‘We don’t like the abrupt ending, and there are too many unanswered questions.’ I described the other ideas I had filed away, and we realized there could be more books deriving from the first one. So the trilogy came about by an organic process.

Having finished the trilogy and looking for the next idea, I knew I enjoyed the twin disciplines of telling a self-contained story, but one with an ongoing trajectory. The reader can read the next book, also self-contained, and encounter the same characters. It’s a longer form of storytelling.

I enjoy working with this longer form of storytelling because of the challenges it presents. Epic stories, especially ‘quest narratives’ like The Iliad and The Odyssey, are brilliant structures for storytelling. The quest lends itself to episodic storytelling.

I grew up watching Western series like Kung Fu, and that’s the idea behind Solomon Creed’s travelling in self-contained stories, but on a quest to discover secrets. I set out to write this novel within those parameters—that is, the first in a series of books in which the protagonist can go anywhere. This one is set in the Arizona desert; the second is set in France.

You anticipated my next question. Solomon Creed reminds me of Jack Shaefer’s Shane, a lone horseman with no past, who rides into town and becomes a savior. Solomon seems to be in the best tradition of the American Western. Is that true?

I love Westerns. They’re a unique creation of American mythology. If you look at the great Westerns, and at Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, they all contain elements in common: a harsh landscape; demons or outlaws trying to stop or kill the protagonist; and there are mythical legends at their core, innate in all cultures. I wanted Solomon to literally walk out of the desert, as did Shane. I love the idea of someone coming out of a brutal landscape and you don’t know where they come from. It all seems so unlikely: Solomon wears no shoes; he’s wearing a tailored jacket in the heat of the Arizona desert.

I love all the mythical elements of the American Western. I also love the big theme of good versus evil pared down to individuals. Shane is a perfect example of that. You’re not sure who or what he is. Is he an angel, a ghost, or perhaps a former gunslinger on the road to redemption?

I also love the American desert and have visited it a number of times.

The name Solomon Creed has some mystical elements. Was that your intention?

I wanted him to be universal and timeless. It’s a name that makes you feel as though you’ve heard it before. In fact, when I came up with the name, I had to Google it to make sure it hadn’t been used before (Laughter). Solomon of course, being the biblical King; and Creed being a strongly-held belief. Yes, I wanted it to have a mythical feel. Even in the first book, I hint at who or what he might be, but the reader can’t be certain.

The Searcher has been described as a ‘high concept’ thriller. What does that term mean?

I’m not sure (Laughter). By definition, all thrillers are high concept. Something only exists if its opposite exists—like good and evil. I suppose it means it has a big theme as opposed to what seems to be in vogue these days: domestic noir and psychological thrillers.  I think any thriller is high concept because the author takes a situation—any situation—to its extreme degree. You ramp up the tension and make it as thrilling as possible.

Why is Solomon Creed an albino with gray eyes?

I write visually. I have to imagine what people look like before I can write them. The notion of Simon walking out of the desert and knowing nothing about himself—although he seems to know about everything else—lends itself to his seeing himself as a blank. There’s nothing there.

Extrapolating from that, I wanted to create a blank sheet of a man. He obviously did have a past, but it’s been wiped clean. It just struck me as visually arresting for him to look like a blank sheet. Because he’s so white, he can get easily sunburned; he constantly seeks out shade; and borrows hats to keep out of the sun. But, by the end of the book, his eyes change color. So, as he learns more about himself, he colors himself, so to speak.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?

Honesty. It’s a weird thing to say considering I make things up. But, the purpose of fiction is to explore things intellectually and emotionally you wouldn’t necessarily want to encounter yourself. I think people are obsessed with crime books and thrillers because they take readers to the darker side of human nature—vicariously.

I’m always aware as I start writing a book that I’m making things up, but after a while, I feel I’m transcribing something that actually happened. There’s a sense of responsibility to that. I have to assess the characters and their reactions. I write things with a touch of the supernatural, but try to arrive at some realistic context, so it’s not outlandish.

We do believe in magic. To me, Spring is magic, when the ground and vegetation come back to life. Whatever story I’m telling must have truth, must contain honesty. There’s a quote I like, ‘Fiction is truth wrapped up in a beautiful lie.’

What do you love about the writing life?

I love that I can work from home and take my kids to school every day. When I worked in television, I wasn’t in control of my calendar. One of the things that made me try writing novels was I could take time off to be with the kids. That’s the practical side of what I love about the writing life. And of course, it’s creatively very rewarding. I love researching all sorts of weird stuff. I always say, ‘God help me if the FBI came across my Internet search history. It would look pretty damning.’ That’s probably the case for any thriller writer.

The one thing I hate about the writing life is the solitude. I’m a gregarious person and you can’t write novels by committee. As a novelist, I have to lock myself in a room and sink down into myself to dredge up stories.

What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?

The book I’m writing. I’ve never suffered from insomnia. But, when I’m working on a first draft—which is always somewhat daunting in some respects—it keeps me awake at night. I can lie there, thinking about what to write next: the backstory of a character; the motivation of one or another character. When I’m writing a first draft, I wake up at 4:00 in the morning. Instead of lying there for two hours, I just get up and get to work. I find it easier to do when the rest of the house is asleep and the world hasn’t woken up yet. It’s easier for me to access that strange membrane between consciousness and sleep where the creative juices flow. I can write more in those two hours than during the rest of the day when life gets in the way.

What advice would you give to writers just starting out?

The short answer is, just enjoy it. When I was writing Sanctus, I was very nervous about whether it would be good; if I would get an agent; if I’d run out of ideas; all that sort of thing. I loaded so much freight onto the process of writing.

I think ultimately, there’s no point in worrying about those things, because the only thing you can control is making the story a good one. I have this advice for the novice writer: write for yourself. You’ve spent your entire life reading; you know what you like and you know what’s good. You should simply tell the story you would want to read. You shouldn’t worry too much about what happens to it when it’s finished. The writer should try to stay in the moment and enjoy the writing.

It seems ironic. You came from the television world to write novels, and I’ve heard Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way as optioned The Searcher for a television series. Any thoughts about that? And, would you be writing any of the episodes?

 Well, obviously I’m delighted Appian Way has optioned The Searcher because they have such a stellar record of literary adaptations such as Shutter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street. I also think we’re going through a golden age of television right now, where much of the narrative talent that would formerly have worked in the movies is now making intelligent TV drama instead. Novels generally suit the long-form format that television allows. With a movie you have two hours to tell a story; so inevitably a five-hundred page novel gets cut to the bone. In a TV series you get ten one hour segments; and you have time to develop secondary characters and themes which makes for a richer, more novelistic experience. The Searcher has lots of fully-developed characters and lots of storylines. So, I think a TV series will do much better justice to that than a movie could.

As to whether I get to write some of the episodes I would love to, but I already have a full-time job writing the novels. If I could make it work with my schedule, and if Appian wanted me to work on it beyond my current creative producer capacity, I would certainly enjoy the whole ‘coming full circle’ nature of working in television again. We’ll see.

Congratulations on writing The Searcher, a mesmerizing novel with literary, mystical and philosophical overtones, featuring a protagonist bound to become iconic in the annals of thrillerdom.

Acclaimed Authors Describe the Biggest Surprises in their Writing Lives

I’ve had the great fortune of interviewing many acclaimed authors. They always Once Upon a Time-2have much to say about the craft of writing. One of the questions I’ve asked often has been What has surprised you about the writing life? Here is what some of those widely read authors said:

Sue Grafton: I’m an introvert. I love that about my life, but it’s part of my job to get out in the marketplace and promote my books. It surprised me to learn it was expected of me; and it surprised me even more that I’ve become quite good at it.

Linwood Barclay: The biggest surprise I think is that becoming an author has afforded me the opportunity to experience humiliation in ways I never knew existed. You think, ‘Wow. I’m a published author, now.’ Then you go to a bookstore event, and absolutely nobody comes. The only thing worse than nobody coming to an event, is if only one person shows up. If nobody comes, you just go to the nearest bar. But if one person is there, you have to talk, and maybe even sign a book, if one manages to get sold.

 Sara Paretsky: A big surprise for me is that there’s such good will among crime writers. In the world of the important literary writers, there are always feuds and quarrels, such as the classic one between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Crime writers aren’t viewed as being as important as so-called literary writers; that creates a different and more collegial atmosphere.

Louis Begley: I’m surprised by how steadying writing is for me. Without writing, I would be impossible to live with. If I did not have this occupation, I would be in great trouble. So, I need the writing to maintain equilibrium in my life.

Harlan Coben: What really surprises me is that after a long climb up the ladder, I’ve become a bestselling author, and can still have a normal life, living in the suburbs with my wife and four kids.

Lisa Gardner: What surprises me is that it doesn’t get easier. With thirty books written, you would think I’d feel proficient, but each book is painful in its own way. I’m always just feeling my way to that other side–the completed novel. I feel I’m forever gnashing my teeth and banging my head against a blank computer screen.

David Morrell: What surprises me most of all is how things have changed in the writing world. When I started, there were no book signings. Novelists didn’t go on tour or do publicity. None of the chain bookstores existed. There was a time when ten or fifteen book warehouses existed in each state; they serviced mom-and-pop grocery stores and stationery stores. Those warehouses disappeared. The chain bookstores appeared, and now, most of them are gone. And of course, we now have the e-book revolution. I’ve seen a great deal that’s changed in the writing world.

Jayne Ann Krentz: What surprises me is that today, authors get stuck with so much of the marketing end of publishing. It wasn’t the case when I started out. I think it’s because of the chaos in the industry now. Publishers used to do the marketing. But today, with so much happening online, most writers are forced to do a great deal of their own marketing.

Michael Connelly: What’s surprised me is how storytelling is so important around the world. A character trying to solve a murder and find his place in the world in L.A. can connect with someone in Dublin or Paris.  As I’ve had more success, I’ve had more opportunities to travel. It always surprises and fulfills me when someone stands up at a book signing in France and says they’re very worried about Harry Bosch.

 Dennis Lehane: What surprises me is that it’s as cool as I had hoped it would be. Even twenty years down the line, it still seems surreal. I mean, there was a time when I was a complete nobody, and in my fantasy life thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody actually wanted me to sign one of my books?’ I still live in that place–where it all seems like a fantasy.

Faye Kellerman: The biggest surprise is that it doesn’t get easier. With most tasks, the more you perform them, the more rote they become. With writing, you can never, ever, sit back and have it come easily. It’s a joy, but it’s a struggle. It always gives me a headache. The more you write, the harder it gets because you’ve used up plots; you’ve used up characters; you’ve used up words.

Ian Rankin: What’s surprised me is that as I get older, writing doesn’t get easier. When I started, I thought this would be like being a car mechanic. Once you’ve stripped enough engines and put them back together, you can do it blindfolded. But for a writer, each book is different. It’s never the same engine. You want to make this one the book. We keep going because none of us has written the perfect book—the distillation of everything you want to say about the world.

Clive Cussler: I would have to say, the only real surprise has been the success. That’s really been quite unexpected. I get up in the morning, get to the office and write until about six o’clock in the evening. Then I share a bottle of wine with my wife. Everything else is the same.

‘Entry Island,’ A Conversation with Peter May

Peter May is a Scottish television screenwriter and novelist. He has received writing Peter May author photo cr Vincent Loisonawards in Europe and America. The Blackhouse won the U.S. Barry Award Crime Novel of the Year, as well as the CEZAM prix litteraire, the national literature award in France. The Lewis Man trilogy also won a prestigious French literary award.

In 2014, Entry Island won both the Deanston Scottish Crime Novel of the Year, and the UK’s ITV Crime Thriller Best Read of the Year Award.

Peter May is the creator of three major television series and presided over two of the three highest rated series in the UK, before leaving television to concentrate on writing novels.

Entry Island follows detective Sime Mackenzie who is sent from Montreal to investigate a murder on remote Entry Island, 850 miles from the Canadian mainland. He is a troubled man beset by insomnia and regrets about the course his life has taken.

What seemed like an open-and-shut case takes on a strange and disturbing quality when Mackenzie meets the prime suspect: the wife of the dead man. He believes he knows her, even though he’s sure they have never met. But as the novel proceeds, nothing is what it seems.

The book occurs along two different story lines merging seamlessly: one involving Sime’s nocturnal dreams of a 19th Century Scottish past; and the 21st Century mystery occurring on an island off the coast of Canada.

While writing for television, I’m sure it involved mainly dialogue, yet your literary descriptions of settings in Entry Island are remarkable. Will you talk about that?

Television is a visual medium. I was attracted to writing for television because I adore the visual narrative.

As a screenwriter, you’re not actually creating the images; you’re laying the foundation for them. I always write visually—even as a script writer, there was a lot of descriptive material in my screenplays to serve as a guide for the director. There’s always been a sense of the visual in my writing. It was natural, when I moved into writing books full-time, that I took that sense of the visual with me. While I don’t have a director and film crew to create the images for the screen, I try to recreate those places and settings for the readers.

 Entry Island merges a historical quest with 21st century police work. What gave you the idea?

I primarily wanted to write about the clearances in Scottish history. It was the main spring for writing the story. Books about that shameful period tend to be historical, factual documents. I wanted to write a drama that would bring to life the brutality of that dreadful period. But, I’m a contemporary crime novelist, and don’t write historical fiction; and I know my publisher would be unhappy with me. So, I endeavored to come up with a way in which I could link a contemporary crime story to the historical fiction I wanted to tell. The challenge here was that the two stories take place 150 years apart. Basically, in order to tell the historical story, I had to weave in a contemporary crime story.

You mentioned the clearances as part of Entry Island. Tell us about what happened during that period.

It was a shameful period in Scottish history, lasting about 100 years. It followed the 1745 defeat of the Jacobites, the supporters of the deposed King James. He had been part of the Stuart lineage, which had come from Scotland, and had assumed the British throne.

The Jacobites formed an army to try to win back the throne. In 1746, they were massacred by the forces of Edward the Butcher. The Jacobites were largely Gaelic-speaking farmers who fought at the behest of the clan chieftains. After their defeat, the British government outlawed virtually everything having to do with their culture: the wearing of the kilt, playing bagpipes. Gaelic speakers were hunted down throughout Scotland and often slaughtered. Trying to ensure there would never be another rebellion, the government displaced most landowners in Scotland. The new owners decided sheep, not people, were profitable. They cleared the people from the land. For more than 100 years, they loaded tens of thousands of people onto boats with nothing more than the clothes on their backs; and forced them to go to the New World.

It was all in pursuit of profit, and had the blessings of the British government. On a contemporary basis, it would be called ethnic cleansing.

 The Lewis trilogy and Entry Island depict men haunted by their pasts or that of their families. What is your view of one’s personal past?

This theme recurs in much of my work: the way the past shapes our present and our future. I think most of us live with some degree of regret about things we did or didn’t do; about things we said, or didn’t say. We’re shaped by these things. I always say we are simply the sum total of our memories. Without our memories, we’re blank sheets.

That theme has always fascinated me.

 Sime Mackenzie is a fascinating character. What qualities do you feel make for a good protagonist?

I think each story demands different qualities in a protagonist.

In this story, I needed a troubled and haunted man, not just by his own immediate past, but by his ancestral one, about which to some extent, he’d been in denial.

Each story needs a character to bring it to life. What are the qualities in a character that will demonstrate the points you want to stress in the story? No character is built in isolation. It must be created in the context of the story you’re telling.

 Throughout Entry Island, I was fascinated by the psychological insights in the characters’ perceptions of each other.

That’s really just about observing people. I think it’s a quality any good writer should have: the ability to observe, penetrate and record the behavior taking place between human beings.

A psychologist friend always talks about the micro-signs she sees in people, small things that betray their character and demonstrate subtly how they feel about the person with whom they’re interacting.

Writers have to do that, as well. You know, at the end of the day, there’s nothing that can replace experience. I’m getting on a bit in years. I’ve seen, heard, and done a lot, and I think I bring experience into play when writing. Someone said years ago, writers don’t really begin to hit their stride until they’re in their 40s. Before then, you don’t really know or understand what’s going on around you. Only beyond a certain point in life can you interpret these things and use them in your writing.

I like the old Chinese saying, ‘Old ginger is the best.’

 What has surprised you about the writing life?

I’ve written all my life, as a screenwriter and a novelist. I worked in television for years and earned good money; but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to write novels. When I gave up television to focus on writing books, I knew it would be difficult to make a living. Very few writers are fortunate enough to make a living.

What’s surprised me most of all is that I’ve survived. (Laughter). I’ve come through the bad times when we walked for two miles to get potatoes at two pennies a pound cheaper. Now, we’re comfortable. That’s a revelation to me.

 What do you love most about the writing life?

I love stopping. I love putting down the pen at the end of the day.  I have a love-hate relationship with writing. I hate it most of the time, but when I’m actually doing it, I get engrossed and transported by it. I forget the time, and the day passes. Then, I find it very hard to start again the next day.

Do you procrastinate?

No. As a journalist, I learned to work fast and meet deadlines. I work very quickly and with strict, self-imposed deadlines. I spend 2 to 4 months developing and researching a book. Then I write a very detailed synopsis which can be up to 25,000 words long. Armed with that, I write the book. I get up at 6:00 every morning and write 3,000 words a day, and finish the first draft in about 7 weeks.

 You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?

I would have to have some of my favorite writers there.

I would definitely like to have Ernest Hemingway at my dinner party, if only as a drinking companion. (Laughter). Dorothy Parker would bring some nice acerbic humor to the table. My favorite writer is Graham Greene, a tormented man but known to have been an extremely entertaining companion. I’d love to invite Sean Connery, a fellow Scotsman with whom I’d have a lot in common, especially our sense of humor. And just to keep us all on the straight and narrow, I’d ask the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, to join us. She’s a great fan of my books, and absolutely electrified the last British election campaign. She was described at one point as the most dangerous woman in Britain. She would be an excellent addition to the party.

What would you all be talking about?

I think we’d talk about wine, Spain, Scotland, Scottish independence, and probably just have some good laughs.

 Congratulations on penning Entry Island, a riveting literary police procedural with a fascinating and suspenseful plot, a novel exploring how the past, haunts and informs the present.






‘The Gates of Evangeline,’ A Conversation with Hester Young

Hester Young received a Master’s degree in English with a Creative Writing emphasis from the University of Hawaii. Her short stories have been published in various literary magazines. Before becoming a full-time writer, she was a teacher in Arizona and New Hampshire.
Hester Young (c) Francine Daveta Photography

The Gates of Evangeline, Hester’s debut novel, introduces Charlotte (Charlie) Cates, a divorced magazine editor struggling to come to terms with the death of her preschool son, Keegan. Still in mourning, Charlie begins dreaming of children in danger. At first, these seem to be no more than the dreams of a bereaved mother, but she soon realizes these night visions involve much more.

Charlotte accepts an assignment to write a true-crime book about a missing child case, unsolved for 30 years: the disappearance of then 3-year old Gabriel Deveau from Evangeline, a plantation-era estate in Chicory, Louisiana. Arriving at Evangeline, Charlotte probes the case and learns the family’s failing matriarch, Hettie Deveau, may have the key to unlocking family secrets about the tragedy. Exploring the mystery, Charlotte begins uncovering long-buried secrets about love, money, betrayal and murder.

The Gates of Evangeline has been described as literary suspense, Southern Gothic, a mystery, a mystical novel, and a romance. How would you classify the novel?

As a writer, I really wouldn’t classify it. I sat down and wrote the story I wanted to tell. I understand for marketing purposes, one needs these classifications, but I let the experts handle that. I enjoy reading many genres, and think some of these influences crept into the novel which may explain why different labels have been applied to it.

You wrote the novel using the first person, present tense. What made you choose this storytelling technique?

In suspense novels, the feeling of things happening in the moment is very helpful in creating a more engaging story. It really sucks the reader into the mystery as it’s unfolding. And, a first person narrative is one I prefer because the reader gets to inhabit the character in a very personal way. It’s what I love to read, and is my favorite way to write.

One could describe the novel as, among other things, an examination of a mother’s grief and the road to recovery. Was there anything in your life that made you focus on this element of a plotline?

The idea of a grieving mother who has dark, premonitory dreams came directly from my grandmother. In 1956, she began having a recurring nightmare about her own four year old son. In the nightmare, she would be looking out the window and see something fall from the floor above. She screamed ‘Bobby.’ In the dream, she would run outside, but see nothing other than a smashed melon on the ground.  This dream disturbed her.

One day, in her real life, she left Bobby in the care of her parents, and somehow, a window was left open, and Bobby fell out. The story she told me is that when she got to the hospital, the doctor was describing Bobby’s fatal injury, by saying Bobby’s head had been ‘crushed like a melon.’

Shortly after his death, my grandmother woke up in the middle of the night and saw Bobby standing there. He told her, ‘I’m okay now, Mom. It’s all right.’ She went back to sleep with a feeling of peace.

That story very much influenced my characters and was partly the genesis of the paranormal theme of children visiting Charlie in her dreams.

How old were you when you learned of this?

From the time I was very young, I knew my father’s brother had died this way, but I didn’t hear the story of my grandmother’s dream until I was in my early twenties.

So, hearing the story of the dream affected you deeply?

It stayed in my head, for sure.

I’ve had some odd dreams of my own, but nothing of that caliber. But yes, as family stories go, it’s a pretty dark one, and it stayed with me.

I was close to my grandmother, and the story of the dream had been bubbling in my head for a while before it came out in the form of this novel.

The language in The Gates of Evangeline is quite lyrical. Who are your literary influences?

I can tell you some of the writers I loved reading as a kid, but I have no idea who’s turning up in my own style.

In the fifth grade, my favorite writers were Steven King and Lois Duncan. Then, I moved on to Agatha Christie and Thomas Harris. In college, I read Angela Carter’s works of feminist magical realism. Now, I really enjoy novels by Tana French.

In the novel, you capture Louisiana vernacular beautifully. How did you master it with such authenticity?

I love linguistics and phonology—the study of sound and speech patterns. I have a voice that tends to echo whomever I’m talking with.  I took several research trips to Louisiana and hung around Cajun country, listening and talking to people. Louisiana has a wonderfully diverse linguistic mixture.

I also read phonological papers about the features of Cajun dialect.

I understand The Gates of Evangeline is the first in what will be a trilogy. Tell us about that.

When I finished the first book, I realized it worked as a standalone novel, but I also felt Charlie’s gift could lead her to other interesting adventures. My editor was very excited about the idea of a series. The concept behind the trilogy is that each book will take place in a unique geographic setting in the United States, where the location will function like a character. So, the first one has a distinctive setting in Louisiana. The second one is set in the American Southwest and the third will probably be in Hawaii.

Will each one have a premonitory dream or vision leading Charlie on a quest?

Yes. Each one will involve a dream and a child in danger. She’s a journalist, which allows her a great deal of geographic flexibility.

This is your first published novel. Has anything surprised you about the writing life?

What surprises me, and what I’m enjoying while being on a book tour right now, is how much people are willing to open up to me. I hear so many interesting stories at events. People share intimate details of their lives, particularly since this book has elements that are almost like a ghost story. I’ve heard fascinating tales of ghost stories and premonitory dreams.

Congratulations on penning The Gates of Evangeline, a novel described by Reed Farrel Coleman as “a stunning debut novel. A lyrical, haunting, heart-wrenching work of suspense with echoes of du Maurier, Hitchcock, and King.”



Acclaimed Authors Tell It Like It Is

Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to interview many acclaimed authors. They aOnce Upon A Timenswer questions with refreshing candor. Here are some of the most successful writers telling it like it is.

You left your day job to write full-time. What’s surprised you about the writing life?

It’s much easier to lie on the couch and eat potato chips or watch Better Call Saul than sit down and write another paragraph. I’ve had to relearn self-discipline in writing these books. Alex Grecian, talking about The Harvest Man

What would you be doing if you weren’t writing?

I have no other marketable skills. I’m disorganized, forgetful, and easily distracted. I don’t know what I would be doing. Frankly, that’s part of what makes me a writer. Writing is a form of desperation. Most writers aren’t capable of handling a real job in society. This is all we have. So, this is what I do. Harlan Coben, talking about The Stranger

How come most of your novels are filled with moral ambiguity?

The vast majority of what we call morality is simply fear of being caught. Just look at any comment section in articles on the Internet, where people remain anonymous and say whatever they think. Or, watch people when they’re driving their cars. Maybe a small percentage of us with moral fiber will categorically not do certain things, even if we’re not being watched, but with the vast majority, all bets are off. Dennis Lehane, talking about World Gone By

Do you have ‘high literary ambitions’?

Of course, I aspire, but the reality for me as a writer is simple: I’ve always had a grating voice—even as a child—and you can never get away from your own voice. Candace Bushnell, talking about Killing Monica

Your conflictual dialogue is incredible. Were there lots of arguments in your family—shouting at the top of peoples’ lungs?

No. I think that’s the Italians. We Jews just bear grudges until the end of time. (Laughter). My father was very fond of the phrase, ‘Shut up and sit down.’ So there you have it. But I did go into poetry because that’s where the money is. (More laughter). David Mamet, talking about his novella, Three War Stories

How important is character in your writing?

All good stories are character-driven. It’s a question of degree. Human beings are wired to care much more about who than about what. In fact, we won’t care at all about what, unless we first care about who. Barry Eisler, talking about Graveyard of Memories.

What advice do you have for young writers?

Young writers have a serious problem: they don’t know anything. They think they do, but they don’t. Eventually, they will know something because knowing life comes with living it. My basic advice for someone who’s twenty-two years old is to join the army. John Sandford, talking about Field of Prey

Inspector Rebus drinks quite a bit, doesn’t he?

One of my hobbies is drinking beer in the less salubrious bars of Edinburgh. So Rebus drinks in the Oxford bar. It’s just booze and conversation. And of course, I have to go there for research. (Laughter). Ian Rankin, talking about his John Rebus novels

As president of the Mystery Writers of America, what trends do you see in mystery fiction?

Publishing is in freefall. Nobody knows where anything is going. Will e-books transform everything? Will self-publishing be the fate of all writers except for James Patterson and a few others? Sara Paretsky, talking about Brushback

Mickey Haller is one of the most intriguing characters in contemporary fiction. Is he based on anyone you know?

Writers take from everywhere. Years ago, I met a guy—a lawyer—at a baseball game. During the game, we talked about our lives. He told me he worked out of the back seat of his car. I thought that was an intriguing set-up and someday I might write about that. Michael Connelly, talking about The Lincoln Lawyer.

How do you feel if a day goes by and you haven’t written?

Anxious. Very anxious. (Laughter). I feel guilty. I should be home writing. I feel as though I’m shirking. I think this writing addiction is like a dope-driven rush. When it’s going well, it’s a real high. When it’s going badly, it feels like it’s just a job. I try taking Sundays off. I sort of get away with that because I feel like I’m improving myself (More laughter). Don Winslow, talking about The Cartel

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

It would be quite exasperating. I did so many things. I started out as a lawyer. Then I went into advertising, and eventually drifted into journalism. There are all sorts of things I could have been doing, but perhaps like Bernie Gunther, I may be temperamentally unemployable. Phillip Kerr, talking about The Lady from Zagreb

The premise of The Fixer is fascinating. Tell us about it.

While I was writing the book, my father died. I realized all I knew about my father was what I saw in the family. There are aspects of your parents you never know. They had lives before they had kids. The Fixer turned into a story about a son discovering what his father’s life was really about. That’s what I was going through myself. It’s the most personal book I’ve ever written. Joseph Finder, talking about The Fixer

I’m sure you know that Arthur Conan Doyle was sick of Sherlock Holmes and wanted to kill him off. What about Sue Grafton and Kinsey Millhone?

I’ll never get sick of Miss Millhone. She’s largely based on me. Who can get sick of one’s self?

Sue Grafton, talking about her novel X.

 Mark Rubinstein’s latest novel is The Lovers’ Tango

“X,” A Conversation with Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton is best known for her alphabet mystery series (A is for Alibi, etc.), with her feisty protagonist Kinsey Millhone. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan said the forthcoming conclusion of the alphabet series “makes me wish there were more than twenty-six letters at her disposal.”Sue Grafton (c) Laurie Roberts Porter

Sue has won nearly every award in the crime-mystery lexicon, and her bestselling novels are published in 28 countries and in 26 languages.

Breaking with the tradition of summing up each novel’s storyline by use of a letter and accompanying word, in Sue’s latest release, X represents the “unknown.” Within its pages are three separate mysteries: an art theft; an elderly couple involved in graft; and a sociopathic serial killer on the loose who is zeroing in on Kinsey as she struggles to unravel and resolve these cases without becoming the next victim of this ruthless killer.

Most obvious first question: this is the twenty-fourth Kinsey Millhone novel, and the first one that doesn’t have a defining alphabetical word in the title. How come?

Originally, I thought X would be for xenophobe, but as I wrote the book, I realized there wasn’t a foreigner to be seen. Wherever possible, I used x-words; but at the end of the book, I couldn’t see any of these x-words encompassing the entire story. I think it’s best if X represents the unknown.

In X, the serial killer is identified early on. Will you discuss that device in contrast to the reader not knowing the killer’s identity, which seems to occur far more frequently in mysteries?

Technically, there are two kinds of mysteries: one is called open and the other is called closed. In a closed mystery, the reader is in the same position as the detective, sorting through clues and interviews, trying to arrive at the identity of the culprit. In an open mystery, the identity is a given. The reader knows early on who the culprit is; and the question becomes, how is the sleuth going to nail him? A good example of an open mystery is the old Columbo TV series.

You once stated the last novel in the series will be Z is for Zero. What does that mean?

I used to say, ‘Z is for Zero, and then I’ll use numbers.’ But Janet Evonovich started using numbers, which she’ll greatly regret because you can never get to the end of numbers. I’m limiting my run to twenty-six novels. I’m now trying to catch my breath so I can gear up and write the last two. It takes me two years per book. So we’ve got four years to go before I sign off.

When you say ‘sign off,’ do you mean you will no longer be writing mysteries?

I’ll no longer be writing them with alphabet titles. Miss Millhone dominates my life. It’s both a curse and a blessing. We’ll see what she comes up with. I know I’m not going to be allowed to write about anybody else. She’s a very jealous mistress. If I continue with the series, I think I’ll do standalones. I may at some point get bored or burned out, and stop.

I’m sure you know that Arthur Conan Doyle was sick of Sherlock Holmes and wanted to kill him off.

I’ll never get sick of Miss Millhone. She’s largely based on me. Who can get sick of one’s self?

Much like Kinsey Millhone, you’re known for having paved your own independent career path: writing screenplays, TV movies, and of course, novels. Will you talk about that?

I got to Hollywood because of two novels I had published early on in my career. One was sold to Hollywood. I worked there for fifteen years. Toward the end, I became very unhappy. I cannot write by committee. I felt it was undermining my autonomy and authority as a writer. I knew I’d better get back to solo writing before I was ruined. To get back to writing alone, I decided to do a mystery because my father had published mysteries back in the forties.

It just turned out to be what I was born to do. A is for Alibi was the first mystery I ever wrote. Reaching publication was a miracle in itself. At the time, I had no notion there would be other novels thereafter. I was very fortunate to have been picked up by a great editor, Marian Wood, at Henry Holt & Company. She had never before edited a mystery novel, so it was a fresh turn for both of us.

What has surprised you most about the writing life?

I’m an introvert. I love that about my life, but it’s part of my job to get out in the marketplace and promote my books. It surprised me to learn it was expected of me; and it surprised me even more that I’ve become quite good at it.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?

I’ve learned to operate out of shadow. The term is part of Jungian psychology involving the juxtaposition of shadow and ego.

Shadow is the unconscious—our wants, our needs, our intuition. It’s the melting pot of all our venom and it’s the dark part of our natures. In that stew of petty jealousies and homicidal urges lie all the creative energies.

I reached a point in writing J is for Judgement, where I drifted into ego. I got too worried about whether the critics or my editor would approve. And, it shut me down. So, I spent some time learning to get out of my own way. The problem is I lose sight of that lesson whenever I start a new book. I have to go back with each new novel to relearn the technique of writing from the soul—from shadow. It’s also the equivalent of learning to write from the right side of the brain as opposed to the left; the right is the creative part, while the left is the bean-counter.

Another thing I’ve learned is I can write really bad sentences. (Laughter). When I first write them, I think they’re wonderful. But when I go back the next day, I’m appalled. Writing is really all about buffing and polishing what you’ve written. Actually, writing is re-writing. That’s been an important lesson for me.

What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?

Coffee. (Laughter).

Toward the end of a book, when I am totally engaged, I will wake in the night. It’s like I’m having a visit from shadow. I can hear lines of dialogue. I get up and go to the bathroom with a flashlight and write them down. I’ll get back in bed, and the next thing I know, shadow says, ‘Wait. I have another really good suggestion.’

There’s something exhilarating about that process—about operating from that place. That voice in the night gives me cogent bits of information, like breadcrumbs in a forest. It keeps me on track.

Has that experience ever changed the trajectory of a story?

It has caused me to dump stories. There were a couple of books where I had a few hundred pages written, or maybe fifteen-thousand words done, and shadow would say, ‘I don’t like this.’ I always argue with shadow, but she always wins. The hardest thing to do is dump a book; but if it’s not working, there’s no point in wasting time on it.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I suffer from writer’s block every single day.

I used to fear and fight it. Now, I consider it shadow giving me the message that I’m off track. So, instead of complaining, I listen very carefully and start backtracking in the manuscript’s narrative to figure out where I went astray. I think writer’s block is a gift. It’s dreadful when you’re in the midst of. You just think you’re going to die. But, as a rule, you don’t.  The answer is always there—somewhere within the manuscript—and you must have the patience to pursue it.

As an eminently successful writer, what advice would you give to writers starting out?

I would say learning to write well takes years. In this day and age where there is so much instant gratification, people sit down to write thinking it will be smooth, easy, and effective. Generally, we speak fairly well and tend to think writing isn’t that hard. People surmise, ‘I’ll just write what I would say.’ But the truth is what happens on the page is very different from what happens in the brain. The translation process is very tricky, and it doesn’t come easily. Some writers starting out get discouraged and are impatient. They can fall victim to unscrupulous people who will take their money with promises to edit the manuscript and get it published. I don’t believe in short-cuts. Novice writers must accept it will be a struggle. They need patience, and must be willing to persevere.

You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people from any walk of life, living or dead. Who would they be?

I’d invite Mark Twain. Then, Nora Ephron, a heroine of mine. I adore Anthony Trollope and would want him, too. I’d be very tempted to put H.L. Menken on the list. And, I’d love to invite Raymond Chandler.

All are writers. What would you be talking about?

I hope we would be talking about our suffering as writers, sharing our misery, and giving each other a little comfort.  (Laughter).

 Congratulations on writing another Kinsey Millhone novel, the 24th in a series about which The Wall Street Journal said, “Millhone’s complexity is mirrored by the novels that document her cases: books that nestle comfortably within the mystery genre even as they push and prod its contours.”