Conn Iggulden is internationally known for his historical fiction. He’s written the Emperor series about the life of Julius Caesar, and the Conqueror series, based on the lives of Mongol warlords. He’s also written a series of children’s books called The Dangerous Book for Boys.
Now, he’s begun the Wars of the Roses series with the first of three books, Stormbird. This series focuses on the betrayals and machinations behind the story of the two royal families who plunged England into one of the most bloody and brutal periods of British history.
Give us an idea of what the Wars of the Roses was about?
It’s a story describing what took place between 1450 and 1495 and how the Tudors came to the throne of England. It involved the struggle between the Houses of Lancaster and York, with Lancaster on the throne at the beginning and York at the end. Distilling it all down to one element, it was the psychological weakness of one King, Henry VI, that led to the throne of England changing hands.
What has drawn you so magnetically to historical fiction?
Historical fiction, more than any other genre, has power and makes an impact, because it’s based on true stories. My mother was a history teacher. Since, I’m only 43, my father seems ancient. He lived through a great deal of history. I was brought up with stories about real people of courage in antiquity. In my father’s case, they were stories from World War II, which he vividly remembers. The key was that they were true stories. That’s the absolute essence of historical fiction. I know pure fiction can reach extraordinary levels of tension, but historical fiction has tension and conflict already built in. If you’re reading about Julius Caesar as a young man, there’s a moment when you’re struck by the fact that these events really happened. It’s been a joy to be able to tap into the magic of historical fiction.
In a way, I’m quite lucky. Both my parents were quite old when they had me—particularly on my father’s side. His father was born in 1850 and had my father when he was 73 years old. So, in just two generations, I had a sweeping sense of history going very far back. My father told Victorian stories he learned from his father. I was immersed in history from the beginning of my life.
I know you’ve read George R. R. Martin’s cycle of novels, Game of Thrones. What similarities exist between that series of novels and Wars of the Roses: Stormbird?
I started following Julius Caesar, and then, Genghis Khan. They were birth-to-death stories. I read George R.R. Martin’s books which were more like an ensemble piece involving families struggling against each other. That’s the big similarity. The Wars of the Roses covers the House of Lancaster, the House of York and other key players like the Woodville and the Neville families. The series is more of a joint ensemble piece such as Game of Thrones, rather than following a single life from beginning to end.
What kind of research do you do?
It depends on the novel. For Genghis Khan, I had to go to Mongolia. I didn’t know the colors, th
e birds and animals I might come across. I spent time there, developing very unpleasant saddle sores. But The Wars of the Roses was much easier because the first battle took place only five miles from my house. And the British Library was a valuable source. Because it’s English history and I live there, I was able to do the research comfortably, at home. But I worried because the novel takes place in England and everyone would know if there was an historical or descriptive inaccuracy in my writing. I would look like a complete fool if I made such a mistake and it’s extra tension—really, a responsibility—to get the details and facts right.
How long before you actually start writing the novel?
I begin reading for my next subject while I’m in the middle of an ongoing series. It could be a year or 18 months of reading. With any luck, I find a subject. Sometimes it’s difficult. I rejected King Arthur because of the so-called magic involved. I rejected doing one about Al Capone because it would be another novel about an alpha male. I also rejected doing a series about Attila the Hun.
I try to find stories and characters that have impressive moments in history, such as when Julius Caesar met Cleopatra for the first time. I could actually see and understand how this beautiful young woman would affect him, and how the story would work. It might take 18 months before I’m even ready to start writing notes.
You mentioned an alpha male. Your previous novels have focused on powerful men. In Wars of the Roses, a woman plays an integral part in the story. Did that influence your choice of topic?
In some ways, yes, because it was an interesting challenge. It’s partly because while she was married to an English king, Henry V was almost a non-entity. He was something of a passive vacuum, so Margaret of Anjou—who arrived from France to marry him—thrived in Henry’s personality vacuum. She protected her husband, and eventually, protected her son, as well. The story had elements reminiscent of Shakespearian tragedy.
Your novels contain dialogue between people long dead. How do you balance historical accuracy with the wish to tell a compelling story?
When you’re dealing with the 15th century, you’re dealing with Chaucerian English. It wasn’t even as clear as Shakespearian English, which itself can give people reason to pause. When writing dialogue, I try to avoid anything that could be considered modern slang. But, if I use Chaucerian spelling, I will lose the reader. It’s always a compromise between being too modern and overusing the historically appropriate idiom of the time, which would ring false to the modern reader’s ear. But at the same time, I have to tell the story and dialogue is the fastest way to make a scene move. It’s the old show, don’t tell concept. It’s much better than description. But you’re right: in the end, I’m telling a story based on truth.
What is it about historical figures like Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan that makes their stories enduringly compelling?
What these men achieved was extraordinary. Caesar’s father died at a young age. He himself wa
s on the losing side of a civil war. He was captured and held by pirates for ransom. He shouldn’t have been able to achieve such astonishing success. Two thousand years later, the Germans had a leader who they called Kaiser and the Russians had a Czar—both names are based on Caesar’s name. Caesar’s name came to mean king. If you can be so successful your name is synonymous with king, you’ve lived quite a life.
Genghis was illiterate and didn’t write his own history. It was written by his enemies. He was abandoned and left to die at the age of eleven. And despite that, he went on to rule Mongolia. And his grandson, Kublai Khan was emperor of China. It’s a true story of rags to riches. If there’s any one theme to my books it’s the difference one human being can make on the world stage. With enough drive, ambition talent, and hard work, one person can make a huge difference. I think that’s the power of these stories.
Do you have a favorite historical era?
I’m going to say no. I’ve gone from Rome to ancient Mongolia and then the 15th century in England. First, and most important, I look for a story about people. I don’t believe we’ve really evolved in 2,000 years. We’re still very much the same. We might be taller, but we’re just as stupid, warlike, and occasionally, just as wonderful. And that pertains throughout history, in every era.
What has been one of the most surprising things you’ve learned about writing in creating your novels?
There is one crucial thing I’ve learned: it was the difference between being published and not being published. I was not published for longer than I’ve been published. I wasn’t published for twenty years. The surprising thing I learned, and was instrumental in my getting published was this: previously, I didn’t plan books with any efficiency. I loved the creative process so much that I felt constrained if I planned a book. I would just write in a creative haze, as if I was on fire and enjoying every minute of it.
But it was unfocused and my work tended to ramble. In contrast, with the first Julius Caesar books, I planned them in small story arcs which led to the greater arc of the story. I knew the last line of the book before I wrote the first one. Before that, I had never planned a book to that level of detail. The biggest surprise for me was that I had to learn to organize my work, that writing isn’t purely a creative fire. I had to learn that writing is a craft, as well as an art. To be
published, it’s necessary to satisfy an audience, not only my own creative urges.
If you could have dinner with any 5 people, living or dead, who would they be?
I’d have to bring people back from the dead. If I invited Genghis Khan, he might take a dim view, and go completely berserk at the table. I might have to strap him to a chair. I would love to meet Julius Caesar. Winston Churchill may be an obvious one. He took part in one of the last military charges of the British Empire with his sword over the horse’s ears, thundering towards the enemy. And he also saw a nuclear bomb go off. I don’t know if there’s ever been a life lived so publically that traversed such a span of technologies. Marilyn Monroe would have to be there. I’d be so interested in her life; and I know she liked writers. She occasionally wrote poetry, which is not very well known. I would invite my wife’s grandmother; she was a wonderfully brassy East End woman of Italian roots and she’d belt you if you said something a bit flippant. I really liked her. She was the matriarch of an extended family.
I heard that something very good has happened with The Dangerous Book for Boys.
Bryan Cranston is thinking of developing it as a television series.
When can we expect the next volume of Wars of the Roses series and what will it
It’s called Trinity. It’s been written and will be published July of next year. The battles begin. We discover what happens to some of the major characters in Wars of the Roses.
Are you concerned that the story of the Tudors might have limited appeal outside the UK?
I’ve thought about it, but that wasn’t the case with the story of Genghis Khan. Above all, these are all stories of immense struggle. They’re stories about families, about people in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I’ve gone into history and picked out great stories about real people in conflict. It barely matters in which century or locale they’re set, so long as they deal with inner and actual conflict. It’s the human condition that counts.
Congratulations on writing an exciting historical thriller that brings England’s 15th century to life, as though it’s happening right now.
Michael Connelly’s books have been translated into 36 languages and have won many awards. His best known crime fiction series features LAPD Detective Harry Bosch. His other hugely popular series features criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller. Michael has been a crime reporter, has written the Jack McEvoy series, stand-alone novels, many short stories, as well as non-fiction.
There’s a fascinating story how at age 16 your interest in crime peaked. Tell us about that.
One night, I was driving my beat-up VW home from my job as a dishwasher and was stopped at a traffic signal. I saw a man running with something in his hand. As he passed a hedge, he shoved it into the hedge and kept going. When the light turned green, I made a U-turn, drove over to the hedge and pulled out a shirt wrapped around a gun. I put it back in the hedge. This was before cell phones, of course, so I walked to a gas station and called my father. Very soon, police cars with flashing lights descended on the area. I realized something had happened and flagged down a cop. I told him what I’d found and that I’d seen the guy run down the street and go into a bar. I became a partial witness to what had happened earlier, namely a man had attempted to hijack a car at gunpoint. His gun had gone off and the victim was shot.
The guy looked like a biker: he was big and had an unruly beard. There were a bunch of motorcycles parked in front of the bar. The police entered the place looking for a guy who fit my description. But all the guys in the place were big and had beards. The cops took them all to the police station. I spent most of the night looking at lineups, trying to identify the guy I’d only glimpsed for a few seconds. I was certain he’d gone in that bar and left through the back door. None of the men in the lineups were the one I saw.
The detective questioning me was a rough kind of guy. I could tell he didn’t really believe me and thought I was a scared kid who was afraid of fingering somebody. It was frustrating—not being believed. The experience hooked me on the idea of learning more about detectives. From that night on, I found myself reading crime stories in newspapers. I began reading true crime books looking for that rough kind of detective—like the guy who questioned me.
I had been reading some mysteries my mother read, but she preferred the soft-boiled, cozy ones. So I began reading the hard-boiled stuff, which led me to loving the genre, and thinking I’d someday write this kind of stuff. That’s how it all began.
Tell us about the influence Raymond Chandler played in your writing life.
At first, my interest in crime fiction was contemporary stuff. I avoided old mysteries, an
d never read Raymond Chandler’s novels. His most recent novel at that time was twenty years old, and there was stuff going back forty years. That wasn’t my cup of tea. So, I never read anything by Chandler, even as I was immersing myself in crime fiction.
When I was in college, there were dollar movie nights. I went to see The Long Goodbye, which was based on one of Chandler’s books, but was contemporary and set in Los Angeles in 1973. I loved the movie which motivated me to read the book. As I read it, I realized it was set in the 50s, not the 70s. It was a great book. I read all his novels in about two weeks. I got over this dumb idea of only reading contemporary crime fiction. I not only read Raymond Chandler but read all the crime fiction classics. I was hooked. A light bulb went off and I knew what I wanted to do.
You’ve said that you and Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch share some similarities. What are they?
It depends on which Harry Bosch book you’re reading. I’ve been so lucky to have written about him over a period of twenty years. When I first began with him, I didn’t know if it would be published. So to make it interesting and fun, I wrote about a guy completely opposite of me. He’s a smoker; I’m not. He’s an orphan; I come from a big family. He’s never been lucky in romance; I’ve been married for a long time.
I got lucky and the first book, The Black Echo, got published. I’m the luckiest writer on the planet: it’s twenty years later and I’m still writing about this character. He’s had to evolve, just like anybody would. In the process of his evolution, I started sharing more of myself with him, so he wasn’t that different from me. It turns out he’s left-handed,
just like I am. He has a daughter who’s the same age as mine. It’s not only a sharing of these basic things, but Harry’s come to a world view that I have. Yet, in some ways he’s different from me. He’s a reactionary guy. He’s undaunted and relentless. He’s out there solving murders and carrying a gun. That’s quite different from me. But if he stepped back and looked at the larger world picture, I think we would have a very similar take.
In that first Harry Bosch novel, The Black Echo, Harry is haunted by his Vietnam experience. What made you choose claustrophobia as a feature?
My father was a builder. During my high school years, I worked for him. One summer, I was working with a guy who had just come back from Vietnam and had been a tunnel rat. He wouldn’t talk about the experience, but it sounded really scary to me. There was no Internet back then, but there were some books about tunnel rats. It seemed to connect to my own life. When I was a kid, I had some claustrophobia about things. I slept on the bottom bunk and felt like I was in a coffin. That always bothered me. There was a rite of passage in my neighborhood where kids had to crawl through a storm drain. I had a fear about when my time would come to do it. So, the idea of a tunnel rat played into my life, long before I became a writer.
I moved to Los Angeles and worked at the LA Times. Just as I arrived, a big news story broke about a heist where the robbers used storm water tunnels beneath the city to get inside a bank. They then dug their own tunnel into the vault. As a police reporter, I was getting inside details from the detectives. It struck me that this could be the plotline of a novel. I could connect it to a detective whose past included tunnels. That became the framework for the plot of the first Harry Bosch novel.
What made you name your most famous character Hieronymus?
You draw from stuff you know, and from the past. Realizing I wanted to be a writer, I took lots of English and art history classes in college. I had a humanities professor who was enamored of Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th century painter. His work was very dark stuff and stuck with me.
So fifteen years later, while putting together this book, it seemed an appropriate name because this detective would be treading across terrain similar to those paintings. Bosch’s paintings are about a world gone wrong and the wages of sin. You can ascribe that to a crime scene. And Harry Bosch would decipher crime scenes, the way fifteen years earlier in class, we looked at paintings and tried to read then—understand what they meant. So, his name, Hieronymus, came from that. I have some Hieronymus Bosch prints hanging in my house and office: The Garden of Earthly Delights, and the darkest one, called Hell.
You’ve said your “real” job is to write about Bosch. What did you mean by that?
Bosch is my real focus. To keep writing about him, I need to move away from him at times. The Mickey Haller novels really derive from the need to keep Harry Bosch alive. The other books might have varying degrees of success, but my main focus is Harry Bosch. With the movie, The Lincoln Lawyer, the Mickey Haller novels are more successful than the Harry Bosch books, but Mickey was really born out my need to take time off from Harry Bosch.
Mickey Haller is one of the most intriguing characters in contemporary fiction. Is he
based on anyone you know?
Writers take from everywhere. He really comes from three points. One is that years ago, I met a guy—a lawyer—at a baseball game. During the game, we talked about our lives. And, he’s the one who 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.
When it came to doing research about a criminal defense lawyer, I went to a couple of lawyer friends. They allowed me to be a fly on the wall in their lives. So, Mickey Haller came from these three lawyers.
Your fictional universe has Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch interacting. You’ve compared your work to a canvas with the characters floating across it as currents on a painting. Will you elaborate a bit?
I compare them to the Hieronymus Bosch paintings. They’re busy with stuff happening in every quadrant of the painting. It’s not all related, but yet, it is. In a Bosch painting, you can spend an entire day looking at one corner, and look at another corner of the painting the next day. That infused my thinking about the series. Of course, the same character moves through the books, but I wanted a mosaic of interlocking characters; and, if you look hard enough, you find connections between them all.
Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller are half-brothers, and often represent opposing interests. Does this represent the duality of human beings?
I don’t know if I would reach that high in my thinking. I needed to take a break from Harry Bosch and wanted to challenge myself with something different, but within the genre. From page one, Harry Bosch is a good guy trying to solve murders. The reader is on board, riding with him. But, I wanted to write about a character who would have
to earn the reader’s empathy. I chose to write about a defense lawyer because he’s not trying to solve a murder; in fact, he might be defending a murderer. There’s a duality within the criminal justice system. It’s sanctioned by our laws, and a defense lawyer, like Mickey Haller, is required to do what he does.
Having read the Mickey Haller novels, it’s difficult to believe you’re not an attorney. Their verisimilitude is astounding. What kind of research or collaboration do you do?
I have more than just professional relationships with the lawyers I’ve consulted, they’re friends. One was a college roommate. I run my ideas by them, write the book, and then they vet it for me. I have no legal experience so I use this team of lawyers.
Unlike many writers, you listen to music while writing. Tell us about that. Harry Bosch likes jazz and your writing reflects this.
Music helps me get in tune with the character. Like Harry, I listen to instrumental jazz without lyrical intrusion because it’s difficult for me to put words on a computer screen when there are vocals. There’s something improvisational about jazz, and you’re improvising as you’re writing. It all works together for me in some way. It’s a bit magical and hard to put my finger on it.
What has been one of the most surprising things you’ve learned about writing in creating your novels?
Basically, I write the story I would like. I write for an audience of one. What’s surprised me is how storytelling is so important around the world. So, 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. It just connects to your heart that you created this character with this almost universal appeal. It surprised me wh
en it first happened, and it’s stayed a surprise to me.
In the just-released book, Faceoff, you and Dennis Lehane wrote a short story called Red Eye. What was that collaboration like?
It was a long-distance collaboration done with emails. Dennis and I have a twenty year relationship. I love what he does. When we were asked to do this together, I didn’t have any hesitation. I have more than a twenty year investment in the creation of this character, and do I dare to want anyone else to write what Harry is thinking or might say? Dennis was the guy to do it with. I’m very familiar with his work and characters, and there’s a similarity between Bosch and Dennis’s character, Kenzie.
Did you write your own dialogue for Harry?
No. I sent Dennis a plan. Harry would start in Los Angeles and would end up in Boston on a cold case. I figured I’d get Harry to Boston and Dennis would take it from there. So in Boston, Harry is largely Dennis’s doing. I think I sent him seven pages and he sent back thirty. Dennis wrote the parts with Harry speaking and thinking. We emailed it back and forth and fine-tuned it.
If you were to have dinner with any five people, either in literature or history, living or dead, who would they be?
An obvious one would be Raymond Chandler. The other one is easy: my father passed away before I was published and had any success, so I’d like to have a meal with him now. I was very close to a cousin who passed away when we were twelve. I’d like to catch up with her. And maybe I’d like to meet the real Hieronymus Bosch. But, he might throw soup at me for taking his name.
Tell us about the new Harry Bosch novel, The Burning Room, due in November 2014.
Harry’s over sixty now and he’s going to be retired soon. They partner him with a young detective, Lucy Soto, so he might mentor her. The book is primarily about their relationship. I look forward to writing about her again, possibly by herself, without Harry.
Thank you for being such a prolific artist who has provided so much pleasure to millions of people for so many years.
Peter James and Ian Rankin are among the foremost writers in the UK. Internationally acclaimed, their books have been translated into dozens of languages, and are regularly on best-seller lists.
Peter James has written 25 best-sellers. His most famous character is Brighton-based Detective, Roy Grace.
Ian Rankin has written 19 best-selling Inspector John Rebus novels.
Both authors are also involved in other artistic endeavors.
Peter and Ian are being interviewed together since they collaborated on a story in Face Off, a collection of short stories by some of the world’s greatest thriller writers.
Ian, your first John Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses was classified as genre fiction. I und
erstand you thought it was more in the realm of Robert Louis Stevenson’s fiction. Tell us about that and your views of genre fiction.
I was working on a Ph.D. in the Scottish novel, and was interested in Scottish writers of the past, many of whom wrote dark psychological novels. One is Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Edinburg is still a Jekyll and Hyde city, as are most cities. It’s one thing to the tourists and something else entirely if you live there. The darker side is just below the surface.
So, I wrote a book about this darker side of Edinburgh. I thought a cop would be a good way of exploring the city. When the book was published, it went onto the crime fiction shelves. I was surprised; took it off that shelf and put it in the Scottish literature section. The next day, it was back in the crime fiction section. So, I started reading crime fiction. It became clear to me I’d written a crim
e novel by mistake (Group laughter).
I liked the pace and powerful sense of place in crime fiction. I also liked the strong structure—the beginning, middle and end—the crime, the investigation and the resolution. It all made sense to me. I discovered that everything I wanted to say about the world could be said in a crime novel. So, why would I want to write anything else?
Peter, you’ve written 11 Roy Grace books and many others. Tell us about your writing process.
I write one Roy Grace novel a year. I try to fit in other things around that. I actually love writing. I’m never happier than when I’m writing. And, I love research. Roy Grace is based on a real- life homicide detective. My home was burgled 20 years ago and I got friendly with the detective on the case. Through him, I started meeting police off
icers. I found the police world utterly fascinating. I’d been writing supernatural and psychological thrillers at the time. One day, my publisher asked if I’d ever thought of writing a crime novel.
Frankly, I thought there were far too many good crime writers, like Ian Rankin, who had the market cornered. I also thought that an English crime novelist had to follow in the footsteps of Agatha Christie by writing cozy mysteries. But, American writers like early James Patterson, Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly and others, broke that mold. I realized one could write a page-turning police thriller without resorting to that quaint English structure.
Ian, between 1987 and 2014 you’ve written 19 Inspector Rebus novels; and The Beat Goes on, a book of short stories. You’ve also written a stage play, literary criticism, and have made recordings. How do you find the time to do all this, and what’s your writing routine?
It helps if you’re a workaholicand have no other interests in life. (Group laughter). As a writer, your antennae are always twitching. So, anything in your life provides material for your next story. You want to rush back to your office and begin writing.
People say ‘That’s a prodigious output,’ but I’m kind of lazy about writing. I’ll do almost anything else. I’ll alphabetize my CDs, read the paper, or do the crosswords—anything to put it off. But when I actually start, I write quickly. The first draft usually takes about 40 days. I might be mulling it over subconsciously for weeks or months, but the writing itself goes quickly. Then, there are many drafts before it sees the light of day. A book a year isn’t so great an output. We genre
writers laugh at these literary novelists who take ten years to write a novel. No, it took them nine years of sitting around moping, and then one year to write the book. (Laughter).
If you become successful, you spend ninety percent of your time not writing; your time is consumed by tours and interviews. Sometimes, I yearn for the days when I was a student and could spend all day writing, every day. But then, nobody was interested. I was writing for the sheer fun of it. It was the excitement of writing a sentence that had never been written before. Just like Peter, when I write, it’s the most exciting thing in the world because I’m doing something that’s never been done. There are twenty-six letters, and you try to pen a sentence that’s never been written before. I think that’s phenomenal.
Peter: That’s such an important point Ian made about writing a sentence that’s never been written before. I think the worst thing is a cliché. I’ll agonize over words. If a cloud is scuttling across the sky, I want a new way of describing it—one that hasn’t been done thousands of times. We know there are only so many plots in all of literature—I think there are eight—it’s really how you write that makes the difference.
Do any of your hobbies or pursuits infiltrate your novels? I ask because, Peter, in your first Roy Grace Novel, Dead Simple, there’s an electrifying car chase.
As a writer, everything you do and everyone you meet become fodder for your writing. I’m a petrol head, which my publisher hates. I’ve always loved cars and race a 1965 BMW. In my next book, there’s going to be a vivid description of a car rolling over because I had a racetrack accident last year. I rolled over at ninety miles an hour. And, I’m very interested in the police world. Probably half my social life is with police officers at all levels, from the chief constable of Sussex on down.
You’re also a food critic for a Sussex magazine.
Yes, I travel constantly and eat out quite a bit. The great thing about the publishing world is that on tours, and when dining out with your publisher, you’re exposed to fine drink and food. So, it gets into my novels.
In the first Roy Grace Novel, Dead Simple, Roy’s wife, Sandy has been missing for years. No one knows why or how it happened. Does she show up in subsequent books?
If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you. (Group laughter).
Ian, do your pursuits seep into the Rebus novels?
I’m a frustrated rock star. I’d much rather have been a rock star than an author. When I invented
Rebus, I decided he would be a fan of rock music. He listens to all the bands I do, and goes to the concerts I attend. As a result, rock musicians have become great fans of the books. I get emails from Pete Townshend of The Who or members of RDM. Van Morrison contacted me, knowing I’m a fan since Rebus is one. So, I’ve gotten close to being a rock star by being an author. In a sense, I live vicariously through Rebus.
My other hobby—or habit—is drinking beer in the less salubrious bars of Edinburgh. So, Rebus drinks in the Oxford bar where there’s no food or music. It’s just booze and conversation.
Rebus drinks quite a bit, doesn’t he?
He does. And of course, I have to go there for research. (Group laughter). So, I end up drinking quite a bit there, as well. None of it is tax-deductible, by the way.(More laughter).
Peter, in addition to your prolific novel writing, you’ve also been involved in 26 movies, either as a writer or producer, including 2005’s The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes. How did filmdom evolve for you?
I came out of film school in 1970 and the movie industry was down the toilet. You couldn’t get a jo
b in television. I got a job as a go-for on a children’s TV show. One day, the producer was in a panic because the writer was sick. He asked me to write that day’s show. I was twenty-three and I began writing. I then met Bob Clark, a young film director, who was working on a low-budget film. My wealthy uncle in Canada backed the film and it did really well. So, I kind of fell into the film business.
Of those films with which you’ve been involved, which is your proudest achievement?
The Merchant of Venice. In 2005, when the Roy Grace novels took off, I had to make a decision about my direction. It was a no-brainer. Because when you’re making a film, you’re dealing with many different egos: three or four producers; the director; the production people; the photographer; the actors, even the distributor. I don’t know how Ian feels about the two film adaptations of the Rebus novels.
Ian: The Rebus books were adapted for television years ago. The actor playing Rebus, John Hannah, was perhaps a bit too young and too soft-looking. Fans didn’t feel he was up to it. Another actor took over and the fans were happier. But, the TV company decided to reduce the films by one hour per book. That translated to 45 minutes when you included advertising. Basically, they threw away the story. It was very frustrating. So, I got the rights back.
In the book of short stories, Face Off, Rebus and Grace work together on a crime tha
t’s decades old. How did you collaborate on In the Nick of Time?
Peter: When I was asked with whom I’d most like to write a story, it was Ian Rankin. I always loved his writing. We met up in Scotland and Ian came up with the story’s idea.
The irony of it reminded me of an O Henry story.
Ian: Yes, it’s something of a morality tale, isn’t it?The problem we had was that Scotland and the south of England are different jurisdictions. How would these cops work together? I thought if we could get a case from the past—a cold case—there was a possibility. Actually, Peter did most of the writing. Of course we had some differences here and there: things like, ‘I don’t think Rebus would say that.’
Peter: It was quite strange to write a scene for John Rebus. I wondered if I should be doing this. But, it was virtually seamless once we got started.
Ian: I’ve spoken with other authors involved in Face Off. Some had difficulty making their characters mesh, because they’re from very different fictional worlds. But for us it was fairly easy. When we go to conventions such as ThrillerFest, we end up at a bar and say, ‘Our characters should get together in a book.’ But in the cold light of day, you think that’s insane.
Will there be a collaborative novel featuring Roy Grace and John Rebus?
Ian: I haven’t thought of it. But this short story has introduced our characters to each other’s world—Edinburgh and Brighton.
And criminals often flee to other jurisdictions.
Peter: Right. They don’t keep office hours, and they don’t obey borders. So this could be the seed of something very good.
Did you always want to be a writer? What did you do before you became a full time
Ian: As a youngster, I was fascinated by stories. I wrote poetry, short stories, and graduated to novels. I wasn’t successful until I was in my 40s. I had a lot of day jobs. I was a swineherd in France; I worked in a French vineyard; I was a tax man and a music journalist. I did anything that would pay me and let me write in my spare time.
Peter: From the age of seven, I knew I wanted to write, make films and race cars. I lacked confidence as a child. I never thought I’d write something anyone would want to read. When I was 15, I did win the school poetry prize, which gave me a little confidence. I wrote three novels in my teens that luckily never got published, and never will be. When I was at film school, there was this very posh girl I wanted to take out. I saw an advertisement for a cleaning job, so I took it to have some money to take her out.
Ian: How did the date go with the girl?
Peter: It was a disaster. (Group laughter).
Ian, you’ve written The Beat Goes On and a stage play this year. Peter, in November, yo
ur new Roy Grace novel, Want You Dead comes out. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about writing over these years?
Ian: One thing that’s saddened me as I get older is that 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 each book to be better than the one before it. 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. If we ever wrote that book, we could stop.
Peter: The big surprise for me is that people want to read what I’ve written. It amazes me. The big joy for me is that writing is the least ageist of any career. There are writers at the top of the best-seller list in their 70s, 80s and 90s. I would totally agree with Ian that it actually gets harder because you have to raise the bar as you go along. The nice surprise is that I get a little more confident with the passing of time. Yet, when I sit down for that first page of the first chapter I think, ‘I got away with it last time, and they’ll find me out with this one.’
Do you feel you’re an imposter? (Group laughter)
Ian: I think all people in the creative arts feel that way. Actors say the same thing: ‘I can’t believe
I’m getting paid for this. Eventually, I’ll be found out.’
If you could invite any 5 guests for dinner, either writers or figures from history, dead
or alive, who would they be?
Peter: I’d like to have Oscar Wilde, Ted Bundy (lots of laughter), The BTK serial killer, and Dennis Rader, the Wichita serial killer. (More laughter). Albert Einstein would be fun, and going back in time, it would be Aristotle. I think they’d talk about dramatic construction. (Yet more laughter).
Ian: I would love to have Robert Louis Stevenson. Bob Dylan would be another guest, but he might be grumpy. So maybe it would be Keith Richards, instead. Also, someone like Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday would be fun. I would also love to have the Scottish philosopher, David Hume. And finally, Mary Queen of Scotts because she’d have lots of stories about murders and intrigue. You know, we well-balanced crime fiction writers channel our dark stuff into our books. But, don’t interview romantic novelists. (More laughter).
Thank you for being multi-talented artists whose creativity has provided countless hours of enjoyment to so many people.
As a writer and reader, I have more than a passing interest in book reviews. While some writers say they don’t pay attention to reviews, that level of insouciance escapes me. I think it’s a natural human tendency to be more than curious about what readers think of your work—good, bad, or in-between. I can barely imagine a writer who doesn’t read reviews.
I’m not talking about reviews from trade publications such as Library Journal, Booklist Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus. They could be the subject of an entirely different piece. Rather, when asking the question “To Review or Not to Review” I’m referring to the millions of reviews posted by readers on internet sites such as Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, Shelfari and others. These can be brief, telegraphic, one or two sentence entries, or long disquisitions about a book and its merits or shortcomings.
Yes, everyone without exception is entitled to an opinion about a book. But what about posting a review on an internet site? I think certain questions about such reviews are relevant.
I’ve seen reviews in which the reviewer states, “I couldn’t get past the first few pages and put it down.” He or she then gave the book a 1-star rating. Is this fair? Absolutely not.
It raises another question: should a reader have read the entire book before penning a review? I think the only fair answer is: Yes. To write a review of any book after having read only a few pages—or even half the book—is absurd. And it’s colossally unfair to the writer as well as to the reader of the review. I think if someone cannot or does not finish a book, it is incumbent upon the reader not to review that book.
Another question comes to mind: should a person write a review if the book is not the reviewer’s preferred genre? I think the answer is a qualified Yes. This is so, if at the outset of the critique, the reviewer states the book is not his or her favored genre. By establishing, “This is not my usual genre…” the review is set in context, giving the reader an idea of potential preference-bias, helping the reader evaluate the review’s validity.
Should your review be a means by which you demonstrate snarky, scathing wit or sarcasm? In other words, is your review a put-down, stand-up routine? Is it a vitriolic screed? If so, you should not review the book.
Did the book tap into a deep, emotionally charged issue in your life? Did it hit so close to home you cannot view it objectively or without rancor? If so, you should not pen a review.
If a friend has written a book and asks for a review, but you honestly can’t say anything good about it, what should you do? This is tricky, but the best answer may be: tell your friend the book is not a genre you enjoy, and you cannot render a fair review. But be prepared to possibly bruise a friendship. Note to fellow authors: we must be sensitive about putting our friends and colleagues in such a position.
If you decide to review a book, remember, we’re not back in high school. It’s not a book report. You don’t have to summarize the plot. It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out essay. An effective review should focus on the quality of the writing, pacing, characters, the author’s ability to draw you in, and the nature of your reading experience.
And remember, no spoilers.
Ingrid Thoft’s acclaimed debut novel, Loyalty, introduced mystery lovers to her protagonist, Fina Ludlow. Fina is a top-notch investigator for her family’s law firm whose senior partner is Fina’s father, Carl Ludlow.
Ingrid’s just-released novel, Identity, involves thorny legal and psychological issues raised by a single mother, Renata Sanchez, who was impregnated by artificial insemination. Though she signed an agreement to keep the donor’s identity secret, she is convinced that making her child’s father part of her child’s life is best for her daughter. Fina’s task is to uncover the identity of the sperm donor. Complications ensue—the biggest being the donor-father is murdered only hours after his identity is made public. The case turns into a homicide investigation and Fina must find out not only who murdered the father, but why he was killed.
Identity is a classic whodunit. After working as an education and entertainment writer, what made you become interested in writing mysteries?
I love to read mysteries. I was always interested in writing fiction, but when you’re 22 years old, it’s difficult to decide you’re going to have a career as a novelist. I pursued writing in other areas, but always wanted to write fiction. I’m a strong believer in writing what you want to read, and I love mysteries and thrillers. So, that led me down this path.
You entered the certificate program in Private Investigation at the University of Washington. Tell us what you learned and why it’s important for your writing.
I wrote an amateur sleuth series before, and it didn’t sell. I decided to go in a different direction: I would have a professional investigator as my protagonist. The amateur investigator was quite limiting. I call it the “Cab
ot Cove Syndrome” because it reminded me of Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote, where a new body is discovered in a small town every week. It didn’t make much sense given the town’s population. I decided to have a big city, professional investigator in my series.
I entered a program at the University of Washington to learn about investigation. It was a terrific program taught by a defense attorney, a civil investigator, and a criminal investigator. It gave me a solid background in the investigation process. It also provided an opportunity for me to decide which rules Fina Ludlow would break in the novels. It was a great experience because we had expert guests in accident reconstruction, computer crime, a lab technician, and other people involved in crime investigations. For me, one of the great things about being a writer is having the opportunity to investigate areas you would never otherwise know anything about. I recently attended a presentation at a gun range. I’ve been to the county morgue, and have talked with detectives in the Seattle Police Department. It’s been great fun and helps me bring authenticity to my writing.
Referring to your first Fina Ludlow novel, Loyalty, Entertainment Weekly said, “Kinsey Milhone, you’ve got competition.” Do you intend to keep this series going?
I plan to for the time being. I’m daunted when I hear that Robert Parker wrote 73 Spenser books. I can’t imagine being able to come up with so many stories and keep it fresh. But for the time being, I’ll certainly keep going with it. I love the character and feel there’s the chance to keep her growing and evolving. The moment I get bored is when the readers will get bored.
Have you encountered any difficulties writing a series?
Writing Identity was interesting because I had to keep in mind readers who had read Loyalty, and those who had not. It’s a tricky balancing act because you don’t want to bore people who’ve been on board from the beginning, but you don’t want new readers to feel clueless. That was challenging and it was great to have a group of readers to call on—along with my editor—to give me feedback. I also had to make sure that Fina wasn’t getting stale or static and that she made some changes.
Identity deals with artificial insemination (AI) and personal identity, issues which have risen to the fore of late. There was even a movie, “The Kids Are All Right.” Any thoughts about that?
What first caught my attention about the issue of AI was an article about some men who, through AI, had fathered scores of kids. It struck me as mind-boggling because it could create many family issues. Other countries have limited the number of children men can father through AI. America hasn’t set those limits.
I like issues that are porous, meaning there are many different areas to explore. I thought the concept of artificial insemination fit in nicely at a time when we’re all discussing the nature of the family unit. There’s room for different opinions and debate. I want clarity to prevail in my own life, but not in my books. Gray zones are good in novels. We’re now coming upon a generation of young people who were fathered through AI, and they’re starting to decide what they want to know about their lineage.
Identity has plenty of crackling dialogue. Your first Fina Ludlow novel, Loyal
ty, was recently optioned by a Hollywood studio for a television series. Did
you have a film in mind when you wrote either novel?
No, that wasn’t on my mind. I love movies and watch TV. I wanted simply to create a good experience for readers. I know when a novel is optioned, it can become unrecognizable if it’s made into a movie. So, it doesn’t make any sense to write something with the notion that it could become a movie or television show. It’s not going to
end up looking anything like what you created.
Which actor do you see playing Fina?
I can’t say because I think it’s really great that each reader comes up with an idea of the character. If it becomes a television show, the creative team will have its own idea. But, I think it’s great for the reader to be given a certain amount of information by the author; then it’s the reader’s role to experience and take ownership of the character. I don’t want to impose my idea on others. I’d rather they come up with their own conceptions of Fina. There’s nothing as fertile as a reader’s imagination and I don’t want to step on that.
Who in mystery and thriller genres do you enjoy reading?
I love reading Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, Sarah Paretsky, Laura Lippman, Ace Atkins who’s taken on the Spenser series, Harlan Coben, Patricia Cornwell, Linda Fairstein, Michael Connelly, Peter James, Jo Nesbo, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson and the recent J.K. Rowling mystery.
Which writers were your earliest influences?
I come from a family of readers. We were read to and read a great deal on our own. I loved the Nancy Drew series. Part of what was so exciting was finishing one and going to the bookstore or library to get the next one. I loved The Phantom Tollbooth as a child. As an early teen, I enjoyed school reading. I recall reading Shakespeare, Edith Wharton. I loved Ethan Frome but I also remember reading and enjoying Danielle Steel. Growing up in a book-loving household left me with pretty eclectic tastes.
What’s next for Ingrid Thoft?
I’m just about ready to send the manuscript for book three in the Fina Ludlow mystery series to my editor. I think a long nap is next. (laughter). After that, I’ll try finding something new. I’ll read the paper and watch news stories to see if anything really catches my eye.
Congratulations on writing Identity, the second in what is sure to be a very popular series about a young woman investigator who’s not afraid to get her hands dirty.
International best-selling author Alison Gaylin received an Edgar nomination for her first book, Hide Your Eyes. Her Shamus Award-winning novel, And She Was, received a nomination for the Thriller and Anthony awards.
In the Brenna Spector series, Stay with Me is the third novel, preceded by And She Was and Into the Dark.
Stay with Me involves Brenna Spector, a private investigator who has “Hyperthymestic Syndrome,” a condition in which she recalls each moment of every day since an event of 30 years earlier. The story thrums with suspense, and rewards the reader with a surprising yet plausible conclusion.
I’ve read many novels involving amnesia. This is the first I’ve encountered about remembering too much.
I came across Hyperthymestic Syndrome in a 2007 article in The New Yorker. The condition was first named in 2006. When I conceived of it for a novel, some people thought it would be the perfect thing for an investigator to have; but I thought it would be horrible. I couldn’t imagine anything worse. To me, our greatest survival mechanism is the ability to forget things. So for me, it wasn’t so much the ability to remember things, but rather, the inability to forget that makes Brenna a haunted character. Actually, Brenna’s memory is a lot better than mine, so it makes it very challenging a
nd difficult to write her well.
Stay With Me features Brenna Spector who specializes in tracking down missing persons. As a thriller/suspense writer, what makes this situation so intriguing?
With missing persons as opposed to investigating a murder, there’s always that sense of hope, which is almost more heartbreaking. There’s so much opportunity for drama and emotion when writing about a missing person. There’s fear mixed with hope. The psychology of the event is so dreadful. When someone has gone missing, there’s an inability to forget, and there’s no closure. The situation lends itself so well to storytelling.
You’ve written stand-alone novels and a series. How would you compare them in terms of technique and structure?
With a series, you can’t wrap everything up. In some ways, it’s more difficult than writing a stand-alone novel, especially when a reader doesn’t realize it’s a series. I sometimes get letters complaining the plot wasn’t
all tied up. On the other hand, there’s the luxury in a series of getting to know your characters. You don’t have to reveal everything at once. I find that with each book, I get to know my characters better. It’s like having a friend.
Stand-alones are very satisfying as well. Anything can happen in a stand-alone novel. You can kill off all your characters. I like surprising readers, and it’s easier to do in a stand-alone novel.
Are there any structural problems associated with writing a series?
Yes, it can be difficult getting the pacing of the story right in a series. With this series of three books, I had a plot arc going throughout the three books, in addition to an arc in each one. So, a series can be a bit more complicated from that perspective. It can be difficult to keep the pacing through all three novels. In each book, I have two mysteries occurring simultaneously. It can be a pretty complicated structure.
Not every series is like that. If your protagonist is a detective, a different case can take place in each novel. Of course, the character grows with each book, but each case is different and some of the overall structural problems don’t arise. For me, writing this three-book series was a challenge and a great deal of fun.
Do you worry about someone reading Stay with Me before reading the first two novels in the series?
A little bit (laughter). But hopefully, that person will want a prequel. I try to make each book stand on its own, but I think it works better if you read the other two first. A writer must balance the structure of each book so it stands alone and also fits into the overreaching arc of the series.
Where do get your ideas for novels?
I read newspapers and magazines. I find the Crime section of the Huffington Post a rich sourc
e for generating ideas.
Do you have a specific technique for constructing a suspense/thriller?
I used to outline, but I don’t anymore. I sort of go by that famous quote by Doctorow who said it’s like driving a car at night and seeing only as far ahead as the headlights show. I outline maybe three chapters ahead. Eventually, I know where I’m going. I find that once I get there, I do a lot of rewriting and revising. It’s hard to get the pacing right in the first draft. But knowing I can rewrite, lets me be freer. I keep all the pages I’ve cut in a file. For And She Was, I had a cut-file of 250 pages.
Stay with Me describes extensive use of hi-tech devices and situations—smart phones, texting, emails, and chat rooms. How do you see technology impacting suspense/thriller novels?
When these technologies first came out, people thought they would ruin suspense novels. “You’ll be able to find people easily,” is what I heard very often. But it actually heightens suspense. I love the feeling of paranoia that modern-day technology can create. But, you can still get lost: there are dead zones; burner phones; and phones dying out. If someone can find a way around all that technology, it can make that person all the more intriguing, clever and threatening. I think technology adds a great deal to modern suspense novels.
Stay With Me has multiple threads or plotlines. How do you keep them under control so they don’t overwhelm the reader?
I do a lot of that through cutting scenes. In many books where I have multiple points of view, I can fall in love with my secondary characters. In going back over the manuscript, I find myself cutting down those parts so they don’t overwhelm or confuse the reader. It’s really all about killing your darlings. Some of my favorite writings end up being cut because they don’t add to the plot or pacing. So, I stick that into another file, and maybe someday, I’ll turn it into a short story.
Do you have a background in writing for television or films?
I don’t, but my husband does.
Do you and he brainstorm?
He’s wonderful at helping me with structure. I always try to bounce ideas off him. Years ago, I wrote more violent novels than I do now, and I used to ask him questions about those kinds of scenes. When he wrote screenplays, he bounced ideas off me and we went back and forth with each other.
Why are your novels now less violent than those of years ago?
The things that are more frightening to me now are not as outwardly violent. When I wrote serial killer novels, that subject matter seemed so very frightening. But as I’ve gotten older, other things have more ominous impact: a loved one having a secret; someone not being the person you thought they were; or feeling you didn’t do enough to help someone you love. Feelings of guilt, grief and loss—the things we all go through in life. The scariest things are those that can really happen. It’s more psychological suspense than what I used to write.
Which authors, in any genre, do you enjoy reading?
I love reading about true crime. In Cold Blood has always been a favorite along with The Executioner’s Song. Recently, there was People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry. I read suspense and mystery fiction, as well as literary fiction like Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my all-time favorite novels.
What’s coming next from Alison Gaylin?
A stand-alone novel called What Remains of Me. It goes back and forth between 1980 and 2010. It’s about a 17 year old girl who spends 25 years in prison for murder. Five years after she’s released, she’s a suspect in another brutal crime.
Testifying in court can be a trying experience for an expert witness, whether you’re a forensic pathologist, engineer or psychiatrist.
Early in my career, I was asked by a defense attorney to evaluate a plaintiff in a lawsuit. He was a 30 year old man, who, while walking across the lobby of an office building, slipped on a freshly waxed floor and fractured an ankle. The physical injury was indisputable and was caused by the accident. I was certain the plaintiff would be claiming a consequential depression as being causally-related to the fall.
To prepare for the examination, in addition to reading the medical records, I also reviewed legal documents, including the Bill of Particulars—a document that among other things, alleges various injuries deriving from the incident in litigation. Surprisingly, there was nothing about depression or lost wages. Rather, to my astonishment, the document claimed that John B had developed schizophrenia as a direct result of having sustained a fracture to the ankle.
This assertion by the plaintiff’s attorney was being made despite its medical implausibility, and in the face of the medical records indicating John B. had been maintained on anti-psychotic medication for 5 years before the accident, and hadn’t worked in three years. His last job had been as a messenger.
When I saw John B in forensic consultation, he was sweating profusely; was disheveled; and spoke rapidly. At times, his words made little sense. In addition, a paranoid coloration permeated his thinking and verbalizations. He was indeed quite disturbed.
I submitted a detailed report of my findings and opinion. The report concluded that indeed the fractured ankle had caused pain and distress for John, and may have temporarily caused his condition to have worsened; but could not be considered causative in his severe and very likely, lifelong condition.
When I testified in court, I explained to the jury that schizophrenia is a chronic disorder, with periods during which it will wax and wane; has a biogenetic basis; persists throughout life; and John would have presented as he did had the accident never occurred. His disorder was not caused by his having sustained a fractured ankle.
On cross examination, the plaintiff’s attorney
was belligerent, loud, abrasive, and tried to undermine my testimony by pointing out I’d only been in court three times previously. He then produced an obscure journal of social psychology and asked me if it was authoritative. I was familiar enough with courtroom procedure to know an attorney could read to the jury from such a document, only if the expert on the stand deemed it “authoritative.”
“I’ve never heard of the journal,” I said.
“Could it be authoritative?” he asked.
“What does authoritative mean?”
“That you would rely on it, Doctor.”
“No, I wouldn’t rely on a journal to make decisions about a patient.”
“Would you rely on a journal for scientifically valid information?\
“No I wouldn’t.”
“Would you rely on any journal?”
“No, I would not.”.
“Then, what do you rely on to make a diagnosis?”
I rely on my training, education and on my experience with patients.”
He grew increasingly frustrated and pulled out another obscure journal—this time, a pamphlet.
The same line of questions and answers ensued.
Finally, I said, “Nothing is authoritative since nothing is etched in stone. Science proceeds every day with new findings and research. What was dogma one day is refuted the next.”
“So you rely on nothing…” the attorney said, growing red in the face.
“I already testified about what I rely on,” I replied.
“So you think it’s impossible that my client’s fractured ankle caused his schizophrenia?”
“How can you know that?”
“Claiming a fractured ankle causes schizophrenia is like saying a broken wrist causes diabetes.”
Seething with frustration, and seeing the jury’s obviously positive reaction to my common-sense and medically sound testimony, the plaintiff’s attorney turned to the judge and muttered, “I have no further questions, Your Honor.”
Linda Fairstein needs no introduction. For more than two decades, this former prosecutor was Chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. She tried many “ripped from the headlines” cases and is considered America’s foremost legal expert on sexual assault and domestic violence.
Her 15 previous Alexandra Cooper novels are international bestsellers and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Her 16th is Terminal City, a suspense potboiler, once again featuring prosecutor Alex Cooper and her team who are in a frenzied quest to track down a serial killer who may be a mass murderer and terrorist.
Terminal City takes place in and around Grand Central Terminal. As in many of your novels, the story reveals fascinating things about a great New York City landmark. Tell us some of the hidden secrets of Grand Central Terminal.
I’ve always been intrigued by Grand Central Terminal, having grown up in Mount Vernon, a suburb of the city. It was my gateway to New York, coming in as a kid with my mother to go to the theater or shopping. As a child, the colossal size of it captured me; and as I grew older, its majestic appearance astounded me. In writing this novel, the opportunity to have private tours and get behind the scenes of the terminal was a thrilling experience.
I toured the terminal with an architect from the firm that did the magnificent restoration. The blueprints showed entire sub-basements, some going down 10 stories into the earth, and secure rooms upstairs, that don’t appear on the original blueprints. That’s because there was a concern for security when the terminal was designed a century ago. Presidents and dignitaries came to the terminal and were escorted directly to their hotels via underground passages.
The need for security became even more apparent during World War II, when Hitler realized he could paralyze U.S. troop movements on the eastern seacoast, if he could destroy the basement area of Grand Central Terminal where
all east coast trains were controlled.
The hidden places within the terminal are very exciting to see. Though the book is named Terminal City, I wasn’t aware that when the terminal was designed, the plan was to have an underground city within Manhattan, so a traveler could disembark from a train and walk underground to a hotel room in the Waldorf, or the Yale Club. The terminal was built to encompass an entire underground city of many acres. This was a complete surprise to me and became a device to use in plotting bad things in the novel.
What about the mole people?
I always believed the mole people were little more than an urban myth. I was shocked to discover there really is an underground colony of people, most with severe mental illnesses. The ancient tunnel structure has corroded over time. Much of the material of the tunnel walls has decayed over the 100 years, and there are “apartments” carved into the walls. The residents call them “condos.” Homeless people can enter through sewer gratings and obscure entranceways no one knows about. These people have their own mayor and regulations. Many of them use sprinkler pipes for water and electrical wire to screw in light bulbs. It’s not only true of Grand Central Terminal, but others as well. There’s a network of tunnels connecting from Penn Station to the Hudson River. So, there really is an underground New York.
This is wonderfully described in the context of the novel. It was like an incredible tour through this landmark. Do you do this with each novel?
I began doing it in the second book, Likely to Die. It was set in Bellevue Hospital. My office handled a case
in which a young doctor was killed in her office, while working late at night. The killer was a homeless man living on the hospital roof. He slept during the day, and at night, went to the laundry area, would find a white lab coat, put it on and walk the hallways, completely unchallenged. He got food from discarded trays. On the night of the attack, he sexually assaulted the doctor, and then killed her.
I used the hospital as a metaphor for the city. In those pre-9/11 days, there was no security at all. There were thousands of patients, medical and nursing staffs, florist deliveries, linen and food deliveries and thousands of people going in and out, all of whom could be potential suspects. As part of my own self-branding, I decided it would be interesting for readers to come away from my novels having learned something in addition to having been entertained. So, I’ll take the reader behind the scenes of a New York City landmark, while balancing the interesting things about the place, with the novel’s pacing.
You may be the quintessential embodiment of the adage, “Write about what you know.” Am I correct in assuming many cases in your novels are based on ones you’ve actually tried?
I’ve never used a case I’ve tried in a novel, but I draw heavily on those cases for motives, character traits, and other aspects of the books. I love taking bits and pieces from actual cases and seeing if they fit into the novel’s narrative arc. Part of what occurs in Terminal City is taken from the profiles of the Boston Marathon killers. I clip crime stories from everywhere across the country. I have notebooks filled with these crime stories—enough to choke a whale. I love taking a kernel out of a crime story and doing that “What if?” thing.
One of the most dramatic scenes in Terminal City takes place between Alex and a defense attorney during an arraignment. The colloquy was electrifying. Are you most comfortable writing courtroom scenes?
I think I’m most at home writing dialogue. As an English literature major in college, I was comfortable writing descriptions and atmosphere, but I was far more comfortable with dialogue, especially when I sat down with Alex Cooper. I just channel myself right there into the courtroom setting. It simply flows. I put myself in her head; her words are my words. I just love court routine and I can put myself there in a heartbeat. I can read something in a newspaper—like the recent cannibal cop case—and then create the dialogue to reflect the way I would handle the case.
Do you ever refer to actual courtroom transcripts when writing certain scenes?
I’ve never done that. I might someday—from cases back when I was a 32 year old prosecutor. But you know, I’ll probably end up saying to myself, “I write it better now than it actually was taken from reality.” I’d rather make it up. You know fiction can be better than real life.
There’s a great deal of sexual tension between Alex Cooper and Detective Mike Chapman. It’s been going on for 10 years. Have you planned where their relationship is going?
Yes. I’ve been thinking about it and it will be something very interesting. I can tell you that 15 books into the series, the issue that’s of number one importance to my readers is: what’s going to happen between Alex and Mike Chapman? (laughter) At any book signing—whether six people or six hundred are there—that’s one of the first questions asked.
Who are the legal scholars or judges you admire most?
I follow the Supreme Court closely. I personally look up to people like Stephen Breyer. One of my favorites is Sonia Sotomayor with whom I worked in the Manhattan DA’s office. I look at her with special pride. I wish I could write like Oliver Wendell Holmes (laugher). There are so many judges on the Supreme Court, Criminal Term, in New York City, who shaped my career as a young lawyer. Judges Irving Lang and George Roberts, along with others, come to mind. Now, many of my former colleagues in the DA’s office are people I admire greatly: Ann Donnelly and Mark Dwyer who are sitting judges. I always read the New York Law Journal, in part, looking for criminal motives and new ideas for novels, and also hoping to find the elegance of language with which some judges write. It’s just wonderful when you co
me across beautifully crafted opinions.
In your spare time, what do you enjoy reading?
I always have books in hand. I usually read non-fiction and fiction at the same time. I read crime fiction and thrillers—and did even before I began writing fiction. I love the genre, but also want to see what my friends and my competition are up to. (laughter). I love good thrillers and suspense novels: Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Lisa Scottoline, Lisa Gardner, Robert Crais, and lots of others. I was an English lit major in college, so I intend to read all of Anthony Trollope before I die. Now that I’m travelling on tour, I’ll be reading a great deal of crime fiction. I can’t read it when I’m at home writing because I’m afraid I’m going to subconsciously steal dialogue or be influenced by another writer’s style.
What’s next for Linda Fairstein?
I’ve got the location for the next one. It’s a landmark not nearly as well-known as Grand Central Terminal. Th
ere’s going to be a very dramatic turn of events for Alex. You’ll have to wait to see what happens.
Congratulations on your sixteenth Alex Cooper suspense novel, and thank you for casting a fascinating spotlight on a great New York City landmark, while telling a compelling story.