Crooked River, Valerie Geary’s debut novel, is a coming-of-age-story, a ghost story, and a literary tale of psychological suspense. Told in the alternating voices of 15-year-old Sam and her 10-year-old sister Ollie, the novel opens with them grieving the sudden death of their mother. They move to rural Oregon to live with their eccentric, teepee-dwelling, beekeeper father. When a young woman’s body is discovered in a nearby river, their father becomes the prime suspect and the sisters find themselves in the center of a suspense-filled storm.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I did. I think I wrote my first story in kindergarten. It was about a girl who lost a red balloon and chased after it. I don’t remember how it ended. I started reading fairly young and loved getting lost in the imaginary world of books. When I was in the third grade, a writer came to my school and talked to us. That was the moment I decided it was what I wanted to do, and that resolve remained with me the rest of my childhood, and throughout high school and college. Whenever I tried finding something else to do, it never felt right. It didn’t fit with who I felt I was.
In Crooked River you combine paranormal phenomena with suspense. What are your thoughts about these separate writing genres?
I read a lot of suspense novels. It’s probably my favorite genre. When I was younger, I read more paranormal books. I do think the combination of paranormal and suspense go well together. There’s an element of suspense in paranormal novels because you never know what’s going to happen with the supernatural.
The axiom “Write what you know” seems applicable to you. I understand there are some parallels between the lives of Sam and Ollie, and your own life.
Yes. I have a sister. We’re twenty-two months apart, closer in age than Sam and Ollie are in the novel. When I started writing this book, I drew inspiration from my own relationship with my sister and the things we did as children. There are similarities, but as I wrote about Sam and Ollie, they developed their own personalities. Another important parallel is that I lost my mother when I was nineteen. I was old enough to be able to move forward, yet young enough to feel a significant loss. It was an unexpected death, as is the death of Sam and Ollie’s mother in the book. The decision to include their mother’s death came a bit later on in drafting the novel. I wasn’t sure it was territory I was ready to explore. But I went ahead, and it ended up being a catharsis for me. The process of writing about these sisters and their grief was a way to explore my own grief process.
Before Crooked River, you published short stories in literary journals and magazines. What challenges did you face in going from writing short stories to penning a full-length novel?
Probably, the biggest challenge was that of being more patient with the process. A short story is at most, five-thousand words. It’s compact. You get it done, and can feel proud of what you’ve accomplished. Writing a novel reminds me of the old joke, ‘How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time.’ If you visualize the big picture, a novel can be intimidating. The biggest challenge for me was to push myself and have enough patience to finish the manuscript.
You once said, “I feel the most me when I’m writing, and it’s been like this as far back as I can remember.” Will you talk about that?
I’ve always had trouble expressing myself verbally. I never know if what I’m trying to say is really getting across to other people. Sometimes, the words seem to just fall out of my mouth. I think I have a bit of social anxiety, and I also see the world a bit differently than most people do. When I talk, people may not understand my perspective. But with writing, I’m able to explore different parts of me that I’m not able to share in a one-on-one setting.
In an online guest post, you once described using a stopwatch to time your writing. Will you discuss that?
I started using a stopwatch when I quit my day job to start writing full-time. I struggled with discipline. It was easier to read, or look at e-mail, or think up clever tweets. Setting a timer helped me maintain concentrated periods, focused on my writing. I still use the stopwatch if I’m feeling distracted, or not really wanting to work. I’ll set the timer for an hour. The minute I start writing, I get into it; but it’s the getting started that can be difficult. The timer also reminds me to take breaks, and helps me construct my day without feeling I’m working either too much or too little.
Your writing style has been compared to those of Tana French and Laura McHugh. Any thoughts?
I’m speechless. That’s an honor. Those women write great fiction, books that are both suspenseful and literary.
You’ve said you’re a huge fan of Gillian Flynn and Kate Atkinson. What about their work inspires you?
I like how their books are readable, but challenging. They maintain a delicate balance between being page-turners while also making you think. It’s the combination of their storytelling abilities and the inspirational way they use language.
If you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, from literature or all of history, who would they be?
I’d love to have Margaret Atwood over for dinner. Ever since I read The Handmaid’s Tale in college, I’ve been a big fan. I would love to pick her brain about writing and her career. I’d like to have Jennifer Lawrence, too. She’s been so successful at such a young age, it would be interesting to learn how she processes that. I’d invite Amelia Earhart, and ask her about her life in an era when women mostly stayed home. I would love to have Malala Yousafzei, the Afghan winner of the Novel Peace Prize. Another great guest would be Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who interpreted and guided Lewis and Clark on their expedition.
What’s coming next from Valerie Geary?
I’m writing a new book, but it’s still in the drafting process. It will be another suspense novel with a bit of the supernatural, too.
Congratulations on writing Crooked River, which has been described as a literary thriller and psychological study of the effects of loss.
Patricia Cornwell is the internationally bestselling and award-winning author of 33 books, the most famous and widely read being the 22 novels of the “Kay Scarpetta” series.
In Flesh and Blood, Kay Scarpetta notices seven shiny pennies, all dated 1981, placed on the wall behind her Cambridge house. She soon learns of a shooting death nearby, where copper fragments are the only evidence left at the crime scene. Scarpetta links the murder to two other deaths in which the victims were killed by a serial sniper. The victims had nothing in common, but seem to have a connection to Scarpetta herself.
You were a technical writer and computer analyst for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia. Your Kay Scarpetta novels are so richly detailed in medical forensics, it’s hard to believe you’re not a physician. How did you learn so much forensic pathology?
People mistakenly call me ‘Dr. Cornwell.’ I was an English major in college. For thirty years, I’ve been a self-educated student of medical forensics, ballistics and all things related. It’s my avocation. I constantly cruise the Internet looking for new information. I have consultants on whom I rely for the latest technologic advances. I also do field research. For Flesh and Blood, I went to Texas firing ranges to test high-tech assault rifles and ammunition, the things you’ll read about in this book. That’s how I continue to learn. While I would not qualify as an expert witness in court—I don’t have the pedigree—there’s nothing to stop me from educating myself.
Did you ever want to become a physician?
No. I’d rather write about a Scarpetta or Lucy or Marino than do what they actually do. I’m a writer first and foremost. Before writing fiction, I was a journalist. My background puts me in a good position to write about and let the world see what these really cool professionals do.
Your Kay Scarpetta novels have influenced TV programs such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and Cold Case Files. Do the television writers ever ask for your advice?
I don’t really want to be a consultant on other people’s shows. However, I’m writing a pilot for a CBS show called Angie Steele. It’s about a woman investigator who went to MIT, but decided to become a cop. So, I’ll be a consultant for that show, but I don’t have an interest in consulting for other shows.
Your writing style has varied in the Scarpetta series—from past to present tense, from first person to omniscient narrator, and you’ve gone back and forth. What brought about those stylistic changes?
I think a writer looks for different ways to explore abilities and skill sets. You always want to evolve, and my goal has always been to get better at writing. I’m constantly exploring different ways to do it. In writing a series, there’s a lot of latitude for experimentation, opportunities to stretch your wings. In 2003, with Blow Fly, I switched to a third person point of view. The fans didn’t like that. They wanted to be inside Scarpetta’s head. I write these books for my readers. So, I switched back to the first person point of view. I’m quite sure I’ll continue writing in the present tense. I’ve always thought of writing as a glass window pane through which the reader enters a new world. I try honing my writing style to be as immediate, physical and tactile as possible, almost like the reader is watching television.
For me, the present tense lends immediacy to the work, makes it almost cinematic. The great challenge for writers is to draw the reader into the novel, as though it’s a movie. When you’re reading, the brain must translate printed words into sights, sounds, smells and taste; whereas you don’t have to do that as much in movies. That form gives you an immediate emotional response. The limbic system is on fire when you’re watching a movie or when you’re at a rock concert. When reading a book, the brain has to do the work of getting the reader to that place. So, I do whatever I think is necessary to help the reader make the transition to those emotional responses. In a sense, you can call me an emotional facilitator (Laughter).
Conflicts between Scarpetta’s associates—in Flesh and Blood, between Marino and Machado—often occur. What’s the reason for this?
Police are people. They get competitive. I often see investigations where detectives don’t collaborate well. You’re dealing with human beings, so this sort of thing happens. The biggest bear trap in police work is having multiple jurisdictions working on a case. It’s not always the seamless collaboration you wish would occur. But that’s true in non-law enforcement workplaces, too—in the academic world, hospitals, law firms—actually, it happens anywhere. It’s like any family: there are rivalries.
What do you think so fascinates readers about forensic work?
I think it’s the same thing that’s so fascinating about archeological excavation. Or, your own discoveries when you find an object like an old arrowhead buried in your backyard. You start recreating the scenario of how that object got there. Why is it here? What happened? Did someone live or die on this very spot? Our human nature demands that we be intensely curious about these mysteries and try piecing together our surroundings so we’re better informed. That’s what forensics is all about.
To me, this goes back to our tribal survival instincts. If you can recreate a situation in your mind about what happened to someone, how that person died, there’s a better chance it won’t happen to you. I think it’s part of the life-force compelling us to look death in the face. We’re the only animal with an understanding that someday we’ll die. I think we all want to make our temporary stay on this planet less mysterious, more knowable. We want to learn what happened here, so we’ll feel less vulnerable about the same thing happening to us. It’s the kind of curiosity that propels us to study monsters.
More than 100 million copies of your books have been sold; they’ve been translated into 36 languages and are available in 120 countries. After all this success, what has surprised you most about writing?
What’s surprised me most is the very process of creativity. I’ve been fascinated by where ideas come from. I feel when we really open ourselves up to our urges and get our conscious brains out of the way, we’re almost channeling things from areas we don’t begin to understand. It’s both a scary and amazing experience. I’ve been repeatedly surprised how secret parts of my mind are creating something without my conscious knowledge. Hemingway was very aware of this phenomenon. He had an ironclad habit: when he had written a very good sentence and knew where he was going next, he would quit writing and not think about it until he went back to it the next day. He wanted to give his sub-conscious mind enough time to work on the story. That continues to surprise and amaze me: this ability the human mind seems to have. It even goes to the issue of genetic memory. We channel things creatively that really come from someplace that’s part of our genome, our primal heritage.
What do you love most about writing?
I love the way it keeps me company. I find no matter what’s going on in my life, I don’t have to wait on somebody else to fill my time or give me satisfaction. If I have an hour or two, I can sit at my desk, open something I’m working on and be transported to the same world I want to take the readers. I probably developed that ability for a very good reason. As a child, writing was my best friend. If I wrote a poem or an illustrated short story, or described the scenery while I looked out over a valley in North Carolina where I was brought up, it made me feel less by myself.
I think being on this planet is a lonely experience and without imagination, it’s very isolating. For me, writing has been a gift. Creative expression is a great coping mechanism. If you’re sad, scared or lonely, much as I was as a child, writing was my retreat. I played sports and all that, but the thing that healed my soul and touched those parts of me nothing else could, had to come from within myself. If you can reach inside yourself and create something—a painting, a drawing, a book— it can be healing and very life affirming.
Who are the authors you read these days?
I’m an eclectic reader. I read a lot of biographies. I love non-fiction, especially history. In fiction, I enjoy reading Lee Child, Dan Brown, Michael Connelly, and Harlan Coben. It has to be something very engaging; otherwise, my attention will wander.
If you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, from history, politics, or literature, who would they be.
I’d love to have dinner with Dickens. I’d love to have dinner with Agatha Christie. I’d love to have met Lincoln. I’m so sorry I never got to meet Truman Capote. I think In Cold Blood is one of the greatest true crime books ever written. I think dead people might be my specialty (Laughter). And then there’s Harriet Beecher Stowe. She’s supposedly a relative—allegedly, an ultra-removed aunt of mine. It may be part of my genetic heritage, because she and I write basically about the same thing: abuse of power, whether it’s slavery or anything else. I visited her home in Connecticut and can honestly say I felt a kinship, something almost akin to channeling something from her.
What would you be talking about at dinner?
I’d be fascinated about their writing processes. I’d love hearing how they started their days and the things that compelled them to write what they did. I know Dickens was influenced greatly by his childhood—working in a bootblack factory by the age of twelve. It would be fascinating to talk with Agatha Christie. I understand she was incredibly shy and introverted. Becoming a celebrity was difficult for her because she was happiest staying at home and writing. Also, both Dickens and Agatha Christie were heavy into research, so we’d have a great deal in common. If she were writing today, who knows? Miss Marple might have been a medical examiner.
What’s coming next from Patricia Cornwell?
I’ve started the next Scarpetta book. I’m finishing the remake of my Jack the Ripper book. I’m also writing the pilot for the CBS series, Angie Steele. It’s about a woman investigator who has a fraternal twin brother who’s a sociopath, and she’s very worried about having a child because of what her genetic heritage might entail.
Congratulations on penning another Kay Scarpetta novel, Flesh and Blood. It’s certain to keep your fans very happy.
We’re familiar with Shakespeare’s famous lines from Romeo and Juliet in which Juliet says the names of things don’t matter; the important thing is what they are.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
While that’s very true in botany, in fiction, characters’ names may matter a great deal. A name can become a device by which a reader visualizes, hears, and even senses a particular character. The name hopefully becomes the essence of a character as the reader traverses the story’s arc.
Certainly, the name “Hannibal” makes one think of Thomas Harris’ malevolent character in Silence of the Lambs. Similarly, “Stingo” summons William Styron’s callow protagonist from Sophie’s Choice. “Garp” brings to mind the idiosyncratic man from John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Think of other characters in literature: Ahab; Hamlet; Ishmael; Raskolnikov; Scrooge; Achilles; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These names evoke thoughts of compelling characters and their traits.
Novelists, including me, are often asked how they come up with characters’ names. There are many ways.
Many writers choose names readers will easily recall—those that will resonate in the reader’s mind. And, many writers agree the names should have some acoustic quality making them memorable.
Most writers choose dissimilar names for different characters so the reader doesn’t confuse one character for another (as may occur in Russian novels). A writer certainly doesn’t want to force a reader to backtrack through a novel, trying to clarify is speaking or acting.
So, how does a writer go about picking characters’ names?
Some writers go to the telephone book, perusing lists of names appropriate names. Others listen to the names of people they encounter during the course of everyday life, while some may describe a character to friends or relatives and ask for name suggestions.
Harlan Coben sometimes offers to name characters after people who bought his current novel; submit proof of purchase; and thereby become eligible for a character to have the buyer’s name in a subsequent novel. A writer as popular as Coben, garners a cascade of names, and engages readers in his efforts. It’s also a great promotional idea.
There’s the old standby: naming characters after relatives, friends and acquaintances. I do this frequently with secondary characters. I’ve occasionally named a major character after someone I know—using the person’s full name. In one instance, I thought a physician-friend’s name was perfect for a villain’s, and used it—but only after conferring with my doctor friend, who not only understood, but agreed and wholeheartedly endorsed my using his name.
In some novels, I’ve made mention of a friend in setting up a protagonist’s background or back-story. One psychiatrist friend telephoned me after reading the novel. He was delighted to learn that in his novelistic iteration, he was not only a shrink, but owned a Blimpie franchise in Westchester County, New York. We laughed together about his fictional investment and managerial acumen.
But by whichever method a writer selects a name, it must fit and become emblematic of that character. Reading or even mentioning the character’s name should bring to mind an entire set of personality traits; a certain look; sound; and feeling tone. The name should evoke a strong image in the reader’s mind, and have an audacious ring of authenticity.
After all, no writer wants a rose to evoke the scent of a chrysanthemum. Or far worse, the smell of a stinkweed.
Michael Connelly is the award-winning bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Harry Bosch dedetective series and the Mickey Haller novels.
His latest Harry Bosch novel, The Burning Room, has Bosch setting his sights on a cold case that began a decade earlier when the victim was shot. With the victim having just died, the act is now considered murder, even though the case is ten years old. Bosch has been assigned a new partner, rookie detective Lucia Soto; and with retirement just around the corner, Harry does his best to teach Lucia the ropes of detective work and solve this ten year old case.
Harry Bosch is nearing the end of his career. Is this the last novel in which we will see him?
No. I think developments in the The Burning Room give me some opportunities to take Harry in a new direction.
Will we now also be following Lucia Soto’s career?
I really like her and will bring her back. I always ask myself if I’ve said all I want to about a character, and with Lucy, the answer is ‘No.’ There’s unfinished business with her. She and Harry connect with each other as dedicated detectives. That was one aspect I really liked about her.
Bosch is a police procedural television series produced by Amazon Studios and scheduled for release in 2015. How did this project happen?
Harry’s had a checkered history when it comes to Hollywood. Early on, there was interest in him. I sold the rights for a film in the 1990s. It was a long-term deal. Even though nothing came of it, I don’t regret it because it was Hollywood money that permitted me to become a full-time writer. It allowed me to focus on Bosch’s character in the books, which is a big part of why I’m still able to write about him. It was something of a deal with the devil, but I would do it again.
Years went by, and I finally got the rights back. By that time, I’d written many books about Harry Bosch. It seemed clear that if I went back to Hollywood, the best way to tell the story would be in a television series. You know, in Hollywood, word leaks out and Amazon came calling. A partnership was formed. From my standpoint, it was easy and painless. I wasn’t drifting around Hollywood, trying to sell Harry Bosch. It all kind of fell in my lap.
Beyond the connection to book-selling, Amazon wanted me involved in the TV series. That’s quite unusual in Hollywood. Normally, they take a book and say, ‘Be a good little fella and run along. We’ll take care of this.’ But Amazon wanted my involvement to help nurture the visual recreation of the character with whom I’d spent twenty years of my life. The prospect of participating was very attractive to me and it was a no-brainer. The first season of Bosch will be ten episodes which can be streamed on television. It will premier in February of 2015. It’ll be a binger’s delight, filled with Harry Bosch.
What’s your involvement in the television series?
I co-wrote the pilot with the show-runner. In television, the show-runner is the creative boss. I don’t have experience with television, so we wanted to get someone who did and whose creative mind-set was similar to mine. We went to Eric Overmyer who’d worked on The Wire and Treme, and who’s worked on other shows I’ve loved. So, he’s the boss—the show-runner. I’m his lieutenant. He runs stuff by me to get my take, and make sure we’re on point with Harry Bosch’s stories.
Harry Bosch is played very effectively by Titus Welliver. I don’t recall elaborate physical descriptions of Harry in the novels. How do you feel about this physical representation of Bosch?
First of all, you’re right. There are nineteen Harry Bosh books and someone told me if you add up the descriptions of Harry from all of them, it would come to less than three pages. He’s very elliptically described over the two decades during which the novels occur. I did that by intention. I write the way I read. I like to imagine and build characters in my head. I trust the readers to build their own visual images. To me, that’s part of the wonder of reading.
But, with television, we have to apply flesh and blood to the character. I’m glad I had a say in the decision about depicting Harry on the screen. I’d seen Titus Welliver in a few shows and felt he had some inner demons in his portrayals, as does Harry Bosch. That’s a key trait for Harry. The few physical descriptions of Harry in the books are mere window dressing. The real challenge is for an actor to portray a guy with the inner demons of Harry Bosch. In Titus, I saw the ability to do that. After all the auditions, we decided to go with Titus, and I’m very happy with him. We’re six episodes into the filming of the first season, and Titus really owns that part.
In the pilot, I noticed flashbacks implying that as a kid, Harry was beaten and abused. I don’t recall that from the novels.
The novels don’t hit it on the head as much as the pilot does, but they do contain references to Harry’s growing up in foster homes. It can be inferred that there was physical abuse in his childhood. In writing on the page, you can be a bit elliptical; but on TV, you can’t dance around stuff. You either show it or you don’t. We decided to show it in the series.
In the shift from page to screen, were there any important changes made to Harry Bosch and his world?
Yes. Basically, the novels provide a twenty year palate from which to choose. In the books, Harry ages in real time. If we’re lucky and have a successful show, we might have a five or six year run. We have more information in the books than we need. We’re picking and choosing what we want for the series. For example, the books begin in 1992 with Harry being forty-two years old. In The Burning Room, he’s sixty-four. He has a seventeen year old daughter in the book. In the show, Harry’s forty-eight, and has a thirteen year old daughter. We move in time for what we need. The first season of the series hits heavily on two books and touches lightly on a third book. To develop the best first season possible, we take a bit from here and there in the novels. And we can create new stuff with our cadre of writers. So, we’re not going to have a rigorous adaptation of the books. We’re using the novel City of Bones as the mainstay for the first season. That story is the ninth or tenth in the Bosch series, so we’re not conforming to the order in which the novels were written. We chose the story for the first season that we thought best showed what Harry Bosch is all about, what draws out his inner demons.
Will Harry age in real time, assuming the series continues for six years?
Yes, he will, because Titus will age (Laughter). But, it’s a smaller microcosm. My books are always set in the year they’re published, even in the month they’re published. Every subsequent novel involves Harry one year later. With television, it might not be that linear. In fact, we incorporated some later books into this first season in order to transition right into season two and hit the ground running.
I understand you’re participating in writing the TV series. As a seasoned novelist, how does co-writing screenplays differ from writing novels?
It’s hugely different on at least two levels. The first is what you lose when you go from writing novels to writing for television. In the books, Harry’s a very internal guy. One reason he’s been around for twenty years is that people like the way he thinks. In a television depiction, you can’t go inside his head as you can with a novel. Everything on TV is about what he says and does, which is how a viewer determines whether or not he’s likable. I think Harry has a kind of “Everyman’s” sensibility with which people connect. In the books, it comes out in his thinking process; but with television, it’s really all about what he says and does. That’s a big transition for me.
The other aspect is for twenty-five years, I’ve been in a room by myself, writing these books. Of course, I get edited when I turn a book in, but for the year during which I’m writing, it’s me against the machine. For the television series, I’m in a room with writers, and all four walls are covered with 3×5 cards showing every scene from each episode. It’s very much committee work until everything’s nailed down and plotted out. Then, different scripts are assigned to various writers who go off and work on those episodes. It’s very different from the way I write. I don’t even use an outline. Now, I can go into a room and see every act and each beat of a scene, an episode, or the entire season right there on the wall. By the time I go off to write a script on my own, I pretty much know everything.
How are you adapting to this sea change in circumstances?
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But for me, it’s been a real breath of fresh air. I feel that after twenty-five years in a room by myself, I’m now writing differently. I’m having a great time with it. I think it’s going to carry through in my writing future books.
In the pilot episode, Harry seems to be a more edgy guy than in the novels. Was that done as a concession to today’s TV audience?
In writing a book, you have to connect quickly with your readers. You also have to instill a momentum in your story. In TV, you have to hit the ground running because there’s so much else going on. You’re right, in the TV series, Harry’s edgier than in the books. This was our choice. We chose a story we knew would have Harry connecting with a case at the very beginning of the series. When a homicide detective gets involved with a case that resonates with his own past—that taps into his inner demons— he’s going to be more on edge because he really wants to find who did this.
Dumb question. In The Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller is driven around in a 1986 Lincoln Town car. In the pilot episode of Bosch, Harry drives around in an old model Cadillac. Does this reflect your preferences in cars?
No, but I do like the idea of wisdom coming from experience and age. In the opening scene of the pilot, Bosch is sitting in an undercover car—that old Cadillac. I didn’t choose the vehicle, a props person did. But I’ll take your question further and say that Harry would never drive a sports car. He’d drive an old, reliable machine.
How do you now apportion your writing time while working on a novel and television series?
I don’t know if it’s going to work, we’ll have to see. The production company knows my priority is writing books. When we went into pre-production, I wasn’t around a lot, and was able to finish The Burning Room. When we started production, I was totally dedicated to the series. We’ll finish the last episode of the season before Thanksgiving; and after that, I’ll be starting my next book. So, I’m hoping things won’t interfere with each other.
So will the next book be a Harry Bosch or Mickey Haller novel?
Right now, I believe it will be both. The story will have Bosh, Haller, and Lucia Soto in it. But as I said before, I don’t outline. Right now, I have an idea for the novel, but won’t begin writing until December, so who knows what will come of it? Things change, and I might get hit by the lightening of another idea and just go with that.
Mickey Haller is my favorite fictional character. Is another Mickey Haller novel coming?
I think what you connect with is that Mickey’s more of an outsider. Harry carries a badge and represents the State, but Mickey’s outside that rarified coterie. In some respects, he’s almost an outcast, and that can make him very likable. Recently, I’ve found myself more fascinated by Mickey’s stories, and I want to get back to him.
I don’t know how long I’m going to keep writing, but I see my writing life as orbiting around Harry. There’s still a great deal more I can say about him. When I look back at the nineteen Bosch books, at about every sixth one, a curve ball comes that resuscitates and sustains the series. I think that happened with The Burning Room. So, I’m excited about the possibilities for Harry Bosch’s next decade.
Congratulations on another Harry Bosch novel, The Burning Room, and a television series that’s sure to be a streaming blockbuster and binger’s delight.
Thrillers are often viewed as “lesser” literature than other genres. But is this a fair assessment?
Have you considered that Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare were thriller writers? Let’s step back for a moment and define a thriller.
A thriller is a novel involving a threat to the life or well-being of the protagonist, the community, or even the world. Catastrophe will occur if the protagonist doesn’t act decisively, and if necessary, with violence. There’s a crushing urgency in a thriller—the clock is ticking—and the stakes are high. Reading a thriller may be described as a “heart-pounding” experience.
A thriller is not a mystery. The two genres are often lumped together to the detriment of both.
A mystery involves a puzzle crying out to be solved. The protagonist must solve the mystery of who committed a murder or some other heinous act. Rarely is the hero’s life in danger, though that may occasionally occur. A mystery’s pace may be slow, even languorous, but eventually, the puzzle will be solved.
The bestseller list is often dominated by thrillers. Many have been successfully adapted to the screen. Think of Gone Girl, The Day of the Jackal, Reacher, The Bourne Identity, The Hunger Games, The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club, Silence of the Lambs, and many others. The ease with which thrillers become movies and embed themselves in our culture, may help explain why they’re often viewed as “lesser” works by the literary establishment. After all, how can something so wildly popular have literary merit?
Would we apply the popularity criterion to the world’s most esteemed authors?
Keeping in mind the definition of thrillers, we see that Shakespeare, Homer and Virgil penned them. The plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were unrelenting thrillers. Their works brimmed with danger, fear, and blood-letting. Included in the ranks of thriller writers would be Robert Louis Stevenson, Victor Hugo, Miguel de Cervantes, James Fenimore Cooper, Earnest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Dumas, Defoe, Melville, Hawthorne, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Tolstoy, Vonnegut and many others. Many of their novels have been adapted to film. For centuries, their writings have been immensely popular, suspenseful and
pulse-pounding forays into every aspect of human nature, including fear, paranoia, violence, guilt, and retribution.
In short, these literary masters often wrote thrillers.
They say write what you know, but I prefer to write what I love. And they always say, write the kind of book you would love to read. So, I write crime-thriller fiction.
But as a psychiatrist and novelist, I think there’s more than that when it comes to crime thriller fiction.
While the range of human emotions and experiences can be tapped in any genre, there’s something about crime novels—something elemental about villains and victims—that makes them so compelling.
Partly, I think crime novels are so popular and gripping because they describe events that could actually occur. They describe experiences that could happen to any of us. The chance of being transported to another planet, or of having some paranormal experience is quite remote. Sci-fi and dystopian novels truck in pure fantasy, which is fine, but these events don’t seem to be within the realm of possibility (at least for now).
However, you could very well be the victim if some thug’s violent intentions, or become the target of extortion, or death threats. Any of us could unwittingly run afoul of the law, or become embroiled in some criminal enterprise while unaware aware of the snake pit into which we’ve fallen. These events can actually happen. One look at a newspaper or the evening news makes that very clear.
In other words, crime novels tap into the prospect of the possible which makes them so compelling and frightening. These things could actually occur.
But more than fear or the possibility of evil drives the popularity of these novels.
Greed, lust, avarice, revenge, cowardice, nobility—all run rampant in crime and thriller novels. Yet, it’s vicarious, so the tension, anxiety, and outright fear occur to someone else—not to us. We can live it through a character’s experiences, not our own. That makes it tolerable—even enjoyable. We can pull back from the tension or horror anytime we want.
Of course, there’s the page-turning, heart-racing element of suspense. Will this brilliant and bold bad guy (who we admire, despite his crimes) really get away, or be brought to justice? (Think of The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth). Will this flawed detective or FBI agent prevail, despite his or her shortcomings? Will a thriller novel’s protagonist survive the horrendous experiences described in the book?
Many characters in thriller fiction are larger-than-life. (Think of Jack Reacher in any Lee Child novel). If they’re well-developed, they draw the reader inexorably into their spheres. The reader is “there” amidst the danger, pulse-pounding exploits, or the nerve-racking chase to a rocket-driven conclusion.
Think of the power of Vito Corleone in The Godfather, or the tenaciousness of Harry Bosch in Michael Connelly’s novels. Consider the stealth and patience of Barry Eisler’s John Rain, a master assassin; or the characters in virtually any novel written by the Dickens of Detroit, Elmore Leonard. How about the cunning brilliance of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter? (He’s even in Wikipedia).
John Rain and Hannibal Lecter raise another point about crime fiction. Some villains are portrayed so richly, are so complex, and are so brilliant and out of the ordinary, they fascinate us. Who among us isn’t mesmerized by the exploits of Vito Corleone, or his son, Michael? Who can resist admiring John Rain—master assassin—for his skills, cunning, and despite his profession, his ethics? How many of us would admit—however secretly—admiring the incredible skill and tenacity of The Jackal in Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal? What is the psychology of our fascination with these characters? Is it because they can and will do things we wouldn’t dare do ourselves? Are their exploits those which we only dare fantasize about? Do we play out our own evil fantasies vicariously, by reading about them? It’s safe to do in the comfort of an armchair.
Whether the characters are heroes or villains, we love some, hate others, and even fear some of them. The most memorable have become American icons. Think of Vito Corleone, in The Godfather. Or Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.
Maybe it all boils down to basics — the good versus evil dichotomy of human existence. There’s good and evil in each of us—maybe more evil than we care to admit to ourselves.
I just love crime thriller novels. I love reading them and writing them.
WHICH HERO AND VILLAIN DO YOU FIND MOST MEMORABLE? Tell us bycommenting on the blog or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a a copy of MAD DOG JUSTICE! (U.S. entrants only, please.)
Coming November 3rd, “Return to Sandara” When two brothers, Luke, two years out of college, and Gabe, entering his last year of college, go to Spain’s Costa Brava for the summer, they anticipate sun, surf and women. They have no idea of what awaits them. The world is a dangerous and unpredictable place.
Felix Francis is the son of the late Dick Francis, who was the bestselling author of more than 40 mystery novels. Felix studied physics and electronics at London University and taught advanced level physics for 17 years. Over a number of years, Felix assisted Dick with both the research and writing of his novels. Mary Francis, Dick’s wife, did much of the editing, until her death in 2000, when Felix took over. Dick Francis drew on Felix’s experience as a physicist, and on his prowess as an international marksman.
By 2005, Felix assumed a greater role and co-authored four novels with his father. Following Dick Francis’s death in 2010, Felix wrote four novels set in the world of horseracing. His latest, Damage, involves undercover investigator Jeff Hinkley, who must solve the mystery of who is trying to topple the entire world of horseracing.
You’ve gone from physics to fiction. How did you make this seemingly incongruous transition?
I really wanted to be a pilot but had hip trouble and couldn’t fly for the RAF. So, I went into teaching as a stopgap measure until I found what I wanted to do with my life. I loved it and spent seventeen years teaching physics. I was he
ad of a science department at a school in the UK. My parents had moved to America and were living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I went on vacation to visit them with my wife and young son. My mother asked me if I would help my father prepare his taxes. I then spent the next five years of my vacations going there and helping my father with his tax preparations. I did more and more looking after both my father’s and mother’s affairs.
It became very difficult because of my teaching and other obligations, and I told my father so. He simply asked if I would give up my day job and work for him full-time. I said, ‘You don’t pay me for what I do’ and he replied, ‘I’ll pay you twice what you’re getting now.’ I thought about it for two seconds and gave up my teaching career to work for my parents on a full-time basis. I also gave up working with an expedition company leading expeditions around the world. I never regretted my choices for a second.
I worked for my parents doing everything from changing light bulbs to investment management. My mother died in 2000 and my father retired. I continued looking after him, and he wasn’t in the best of health for the last five years of his life. In 2005, my father’s literary agent invited me to lunch. He said, ‘We have a problem. No one is reading the backlist of Dick’s books.’ They weren’t available in bookshops. Of course, nowadays, with Kindle, you can buy backlisted books again, but back then, you couldn’t buy any backlisted Dick Francis books.
The agent said, ‘We need a new Dick Francis novel.’ I told him, ‘You’re not going to get one because my mother and father used to work on them together.’ My mother had died, and my father was ninety-five years old. The agent wanted my permission to recruit a crime writer to pen another Dick Francis book.
I heard myself saying to him, ‘Before you ask anyone else to write one, I would like to have a go at it.’ He d
idn’t roll his eyes and ask why I thought an ex-physics teacher could write a Dick Francis novel. Instead, he said, ‘Okay, I’ll give you two months to write two chapters.’ So I wrote two chapters, sent them in and he said two things to me: first, ‘You’d better speak to your father’ and secondly, ‘You’d better go on and finish this book.’
I went to my father who initially wasn’t terribly excited, but when he read the two chapters of Under Orders, he became enthusiastic. The novel came out as a Dick Francis novel in 2006. It was only designed to get people to read the backlisted books, but it shot to the bestseller lists in the UK and America.
The next thing I knew, I was writing another book, and then another, and Damage is the latest one. So, I’ve been a full-time writer for the last nine years. When my father was alive, we’d discuss the plots. He’d give me pointers and direction, and the books had both our names on the covers. Crossfire, which has both our names on the cover, was less than half-finished when he died.
Of course, I miss him in very many ways, and one of those ways is that I don’t have him to discuss plots with today. If it hadn’t been for that lunch with the agent, I’d never have thought about writing. And now, it seems like the most natural thing in the world.
You once said, ‘The production of a Dick Francis novel has always been a mixture of inspiration, perspiration and teamwork.’ Tell us about that.
My mother and father used to refer to it as the family business. My mother said it was a cottage industry without the cottage. All the Dick Francis books have been a family effort. That includes my own. My father wrote a book about a ph
ysics teacher—Twice Shy—and that was me. He wrote another about someone running a racehorse transport business, and that was my brother. In Gamble, I used my cousin’s son, a financial advisor, to do my research. My brother was involved in horseracing, and he’s the first one to read an early draft of a new novel.
My father had the ideas for the novels. My mother was a great believer in the rhythm of sentences. She did all the editing. She was very important in working on the flow of the novels. I’ve always believed that good literature should flow like cream off a spoon. It shouldn’t get stuck in your throat like barbed wire. Family teamwork was very important in all the books.
There are scenes in Damage where your background in physics and technical matters is quite evident. How much research is involved in your writing?
I do quite a lot of research. Even though it’s fiction, you’ve got to have your facts straight. I talk to friends and tap their expertise whenever I can. In Damage, a great deal of information about how undercover operations work was gleaned from a friend of mine, a former policeman. He read the completed manuscript and checked for any police procedural mistakes. I use the Internet frequently. I do as much as I can to mold the story into an interesting tale. I don’t try to teach my readers anything; and you don’t need to know a thing about horseracing to enjoy them, but by reading one of the novels, a reader might learn something about the sport.
Tell us how you plot a mystery story.
If I knew that, I’d do it. (Laughter). I write in the first person, which means, by definition, the book contains a continuous timeline. The story is seen through the experiences of a single character, in this book, Jeff Hinkley. The traditional detective/murder mystery is usually a third person narrative. You know, you get twelve people in a house. Someone gets murdered and the police arrive. I can’t do it through the eyes of the investigator because he can’t be there before the murder. I write in the first person because it’s what my father did and it’s what the readers expect.
As for plotting the story, I have only a conception of how the book will begin when I start writing. I do know my main character will prevail in the end. But I don’t know who’s going to be the bad guy. I don’t even know where or when he’s going to appear. I don’t plot out the entire book. I begin the novel because I have a good idea for a start. I set up the mystery. Then, I begin thinking about how I’m going to solve it. People sometimes say, ‘Oh, I knew who did it from the moment he arrived on the scene.’ I don’t see how that’s possible, because it’s more than I knew when I introduced the character while writing the manuscript. When I begin a book, I start by creating characters and setting out their story lines. The second half of the book involves bringing the characters together and tying things up so the mystery is resolved.
So it really is for you, as well as for the reader, a process of discovery.
Completely. Absolutely. There will be things in a novel that I hadn’t even thought about when I began writing it. It really boils down to setting up the beginning of the novel in which my character realizes there’s something he’s going to have to investigate.
Jeff Hinkley is an interesting character in Damages. Will he be the protagonist of another novel?
Yes, he will be. I haven’t had a recurring character before this. My publishers have said how much they really like him and want me to use him again.
What, if anything, has surprised you about writing?
The most surprising thing is that I discovered I can do it. Equally surprising is that I’m able to put a considerable amount of emotion into the writing, and in my characters. Writing in the first person makes it easier to include emotion. I’m not afraid to say that when I write certain passages, they make me cry. If they don’t make me cry, how could I expect them to make anyone else cry? Emotion is so important in a novel because above all, you want the reader to feel something for or about the character. I’ve discovered the ability to make both readers and myself cry.
What do you love most about being an author?
I love having finished the book. (Laughter). I love when it’s published and people read it. I don’t write for myself. I write because I want people to read the book. I really enjoy when I’m more than half way through a novel and things are going well. But there’s nothing better than people coming up to me and saying how much they loved the book. I have the best job in the world, but I have bad days—lots of them. I go through terrible self-doubt as to whether the book is any good. I love when I can send it off and feel confident about the book’s worth.
I just love those moments when I suddenly have an idea, or where the problem in the mystery opens up to me. It can come to me by asking myself questions. I can even ask the wrong question which may lead me to the right answer. In fact, that can happen quite frequently—the wrong question opening a door, leading to the solution to the mystery. I just love that kind of moment in the creative process. It’s one of those Eureka moments. And I love it.
Congratulations on writing Damage, a beautifully plotted and engaging mystery novel set in the fascinating world of horseracing.