Simon Toyne left a successful television career as a writer, director, and producer to take a gamble on novel-writing. The risk paid off, resulting in his penning the internationally bestselling Sanctus trilogy. Sanctus, The Key, and The Tower have been translated into dozens of languages.
The Searcher is the first book in what will be his new series featuring Solomon Creed, a man with no memory of his past. In the novel, set in the small Arizona town of Redemption, Solomon must save a lost soul scheduled for burial that morning. While the townspeople of Redemption are gathered at the cemetery, they are interrupted by a thunderous plane crash in the distant desert. A pillar of black smoke blankets the air.
Elsewhere, three men scan the skies, awaiting a plane delivering a package. Seeing fire and smoke from the crash, they realize something has gone wrong. The man who has sent them is ruthless, and will exact a high price if the package is lost.
Solomon must learn the town’s secrets, and the truth behind the death of the man he came to save. Very little is as it seems, as Solomon Creed continues his quest to uncover the mystery of his past.
When you began writing Sanctus, you didn’t know it would be a trilogy; yet with Solomon Creed, you’re planning to write a series. Will you tell us more?
Sanctus was done on speculation. I had no agent or publisher. I was being sensible, I suppose, by writing a standalone novel. I figured if that one didn’t work, no one would be interested in reading a sequel. So, I tried making it self-contained. While working on it, I had all these other ideas I knew wouldn’t fit into the book, so I put them in a separate file.
When the book was sold, my agent and editor said, ‘We don’t like the abrupt ending, and there are too many unanswered questions.’ I described the other ideas I had filed away, and we realized there could be more books deriving from the first one. So the trilogy came about by an organic process.
Having finished the trilogy and looking for the next idea, I knew I enjoyed the twin disciplines of telling a self-contained story, but one with an ongoing trajectory. The reader can read the next book, also self-contained, and encounter the same characters. It’s a longer form of storytelling.
I enjoy working with this longer form of storytelling because of the challenges it presents. Epic stories, especially ‘quest narratives’ like The Iliad and The Odyssey, are brilliant structures for storytelling. The quest lends itself to episodic storytelling.
I grew up watching Western series like Kung Fu, and that’s the idea behind Solomon Creed’s travelling in self-contained stories, but on a quest to discover secrets. I set out to write this novel within those parameters—that is, the first in a series of books in which the protagonist can go anywhere. This one is set in the Arizona desert; the second is set in France.
You anticipated my next question. Solomon Creed reminds me of Jack Shaefer’s Shane, a lone horseman with no past, who rides into town and becomes a savior. Solomon seems to be in the best tradition of the American Western. Is that true?
I love Westerns. They’re a unique creation of American mythology. If you look at the great Westerns, and at Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, they all contain elements in common: a harsh landscape; demons or outlaws trying to stop or kill the protagonist; and there are mythical legends at their core, innate in all cultures. I wanted Solomon to literally walk out of the desert, as did Shane. I love the idea of someone coming out of a brutal landscape and you don’t know where they come from. It all seems so unlikely: Solomon wears no shoes; he’s wearing a tailored jacket in the heat of the Arizona desert.
I love all the mythical elements of the American Western. I also love the big theme of good versus evil pared down to individuals. Shane is a perfect example of that. You’re not sure who or what he is. Is he an angel, a ghost, or perhaps a former gunslinger on the road to redemption?
I also love the American desert and have visited it a number of times.
The name Solomon Creed has some mystical elements. Was that your intention?
I wanted him to be universal and timeless. It’s a name that makes you feel as though you’ve heard it before. In fact, when I came up with the name, I had to Google it to make sure it hadn’t been used before (Laughter). Solomon of course, being the biblical King; and Creed being a strongly-held belief. Yes, I wanted it to have a mythical feel. Even in the first book, I hint at who or what he might be, but the reader can’t be certain.
The Searcher has been described as a ‘high concept’ thriller. What does that term mean?
I’m not sure (Laughter). By definition, all thrillers are high concept. Something only exists if its opposite exists—like good and evil. I suppose it means it has a big theme as opposed to what seems to be in vogue these days: domestic noir and psychological thrillers. I think any thriller is high concept because the author takes a situation—any situation—to its extreme degree. You ramp up the tension and make it as thrilling as possible.
Why is Solomon Creed an albino with gray eyes?
I write visually. I have to imagine what people look like before I can write them. The notion of Simon walking out of the desert and knowing nothing about himself—although he seems to know about everything else—lends itself to his seeing himself as a blank. There’s nothing there.
Extrapolating from that, I wanted to create a blank sheet of a man. He obviously did have a past, but it’s been wiped clean. It just struck me as visually arresting for him to look like a blank sheet. Because he’s so white, he can get easily sunburned; he constantly seeks out shade; and borrows hats to keep out of the sun. But, by the end of the book, his eyes change color. So, as he learns more about himself, he colors himself, so to speak.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
Honesty. It’s a weird thing to say considering I make things up. But, the purpose of fiction is to explore things intellectually and emotionally you wouldn’t necessarily want to encounter yourself. I think people are obsessed with crime books and thrillers because they take readers to the darker side of human nature—vicariously.
I’m always aware as I start writing a book that I’m making things up, but after a while, I feel I’m transcribing something that actually happened. There’s a sense of responsibility to that. I have to assess the characters and their reactions. I write things with a touch of the supernatural, but try to arrive at some realistic context, so it’s not outlandish.
We do believe in magic. To me, Spring is magic, when the ground and vegetation come back to life. Whatever story I’m telling must have truth, must contain honesty. There’s a quote I like, ‘Fiction is truth wrapped up in a beautiful lie.’
What do you love about the writing life?
I love that I can work from home and take my kids to school every day. When I worked in television, I wasn’t in control of my calendar. One of the things that made me try writing novels was I could take time off to be with the kids. That’s the practical side of what I love about the writing life. And of course, it’s creatively very rewarding. I love researching all sorts of weird stuff. I always say, ‘God help me if the FBI came across my Internet search history. It would look pretty damning.’ That’s probably the case for any thriller writer.
The one thing I hate about the writing life is the solitude. I’m a gregarious person and you can’t write novels by committee. As a novelist, I have to lock myself in a room and sink down into myself to dredge up stories.
What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?
The book I’m writing. I’ve never suffered from insomnia. But, when I’m working on a first draft—which is always somewhat daunting in some respects—it keeps me awake at night. I can lie there, thinking about what to write next: the backstory of a character; the motivation of one or another character. When I’m writing a first draft, I wake up at 4:00 in the morning. Instead of lying there for two hours, I just get up and get to work. I find it easier to do when the rest of the house is asleep and the world hasn’t woken up yet. It’s easier for me to access that strange membrane between consciousness and sleep where the creative juices flow. I can write more in those two hours than during the rest of the day when life gets in the way.
What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
The short answer is, just enjoy it. When I was writing Sanctus, I was very nervous about whether it would be good; if I would get an agent; if I’d run out of ideas; all that sort of thing. I loaded so much freight onto the process of writing.
I think ultimately, there’s no point in worrying about those things, because the only thing you can control is making the story a good one. I have this advice for the novice writer: write for yourself. You’ve spent your entire life reading; you know what you like and you know what’s good. You should simply tell the story you would want to read. You shouldn’t worry too much about what happens to it when it’s finished. The writer should try to stay in the moment and enjoy the writing.
It seems ironic. You came from the television world to write novels, and I’ve heard Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way as optioned The Searcher for a television series. Any thoughts about that? And, would you be writing any of the episodes?
Well, obviously I’m delighted Appian Way has optioned The Searcher because they have such a stellar record of literary adaptations such as Shutter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street. I also think we’re going through a golden age of television right now, where much of the narrative talent that would formerly have worked in the movies is now making intelligent TV drama instead. Novels generally suit the long-form format that television allows. With a movie you have two hours to tell a story; so inevitably a five-hundred page novel gets cut to the bone. In a TV series you get ten one hour segments; and you have time to develop secondary characters and themes which makes for a richer, more novelistic experience. The Searcher has lots of fully-developed characters and lots of storylines. So, I think a TV series will do much better justice to that than a movie could.
As to whether I get to write some of the episodes I would love to, but I already have a full-time job writing the novels. If I could make it work with my schedule, and if Appian wanted me to work on it beyond my current creative producer capacity, I would certainly enjoy the whole ‘coming full circle’ nature of working in television again. We’ll see.
Congratulations on writing The Searcher, a mesmerizing novel with literary, mystical and philosophical overtones, featuring a protagonist bound to become iconic in the annals of thrillerdom.
I’ve had the great fortune of interviewing many acclaimed authors. They always have much to say about the craft of writing. One of the questions I’ve asked often has been What has surprised you about the writing life? Here is what some of those widely read authors said:
Sue Grafton: I’m an introvert. I love that about my life, but it’s part of my job to get out in the marketplace and promote my books. It surprised me to learn it was expected of me; and it surprised me even more that I’ve become quite good at it.
Linwood Barclay: The biggest surprise I think is that becoming an author has afforded me the opportunity to experience humiliation in ways I never knew existed. You think, ‘Wow. I’m a published author, now.’ Then you go to a bookstore event, and absolutely nobody comes. The only thing worse than nobody coming to an event, is if only one person shows up. If nobody comes, you just go to the nearest bar. But if one person is there, you have to talk, and maybe even sign a book, if one manages to get sold.
Sara Paretsky: A big surprise for me is that there’s such good will among crime writers. In the world of the important literary writers, there are always feuds and quarrels, such as the classic one between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Crime writers aren’t viewed as being as important as so-called literary writers; that creates a different and more collegial atmosphere.
Louis Begley: I’m surprised by how steadying writing is for me. Without writing, I would be impossible to live with. If I did not have this occupation, I would be in great trouble. So, I need the writing to maintain equilibrium in my life.
Harlan Coben: What really surprises me is that after a long climb up the ladder, I’ve become a bestselling author, and can still have a normal life, living in the suburbs with my wife and four kids.
Lisa Gardner: What surprises me is that it doesn’t get easier. With thirty books written, you would think I’d feel proficient, but each book is painful in its own way. I’m always just feeling my way to that other side–the completed novel. I feel I’m forever gnashing my teeth and banging my head against a blank computer screen.
David Morrell: What surprises me most of all is how things have changed in the writing world. When I started, there were no book signings. Novelists didn’t go on tour or do publicity. None of the chain bookstores existed. There was a time when ten or fifteen book warehouses existed in each state; they serviced mom-and-pop grocery stores and stationery stores. Those warehouses disappeared. The chain bookstores appeared, and now, most of them are gone. And of course, we now have the e-book revolution. I’ve seen a great deal that’s changed in the writing world.
Jayne Ann Krentz: What surprises me is that today, authors get stuck with so much of the marketing end of publishing. It wasn’t the case when I started out. I think it’s because of the chaos in the industry now. Publishers used to do the marketing. But today, with so much happening online, most writers are forced to do a great deal of their own marketing.
Michael Connelly: What’s surprised me is how storytelling is so important around the world. A character trying to solve a murder and find his place in the world in L.A. can connect with someone in Dublin or Paris. As I’ve had more success, I’ve had more opportunities to travel. It always surprises and fulfills me when someone stands up at a book signing in France and says they’re very worried about Harry Bosch.
Dennis Lehane: What surprises me is that it’s as cool as I had hoped it would be. Even twenty years down the line, it still seems surreal. I mean, there was a time when I was a complete nobody, and in my fantasy life thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody actually wanted me to sign one of my books?’ I still live in that place–where it all seems like a fantasy.
Faye Kellerman: The biggest surprise is that it doesn’t get easier. With most tasks, the more you perform them, the more rote they become. With writing, you can never, ever, sit back and have it come easily. It’s a joy, but it’s a struggle. It always gives me a headache. The more you write, the harder it gets because you’ve used up plots; you’ve used up characters; you’ve used up words.
Ian Rankin: What’s surprised me is that as I get older, writing doesn’t get easier. When I started, I thought this would be like being a car mechanic. Once you’ve stripped enough engines and put them back together, you can do it blindfolded. But for a writer, each book is different. It’s never the same engine. You want to make this one the book. We keep going because none of us has written the perfect book—the distillation of everything you want to say about the world.
Clive Cussler: I would have to say, the only real surprise has been the success. That’s really been quite unexpected. I get up in the morning, get to the office and write until about six o’clock in the evening. Then I share a bottle of wine with my wife. Everything else is the same.
Peter May is a Scottish television screenwriter and novelist. He has received writing awards in Europe and America. The Blackhouse won the U.S. Barry Award Crime Novel of the Year, as well as the CEZAM prix litteraire, the national literature award in France. The Lewis Man trilogy also won a prestigious French literary award.
In 2014, Entry Island won both the Deanston Scottish Crime Novel of the Year, and the UK’s ITV Crime Thriller Best Read of the Year Award.
Peter May is the creator of three major television series and presided over two of the three highest rated series in the UK, before leaving television to concentrate on writing novels.
Entry Island follows detective Sime Mackenzie who is sent from Montreal to investigate a murder on remote Entry Island, 850 miles from the Canadian mainland. He is a troubled man beset by insomnia and regrets about the course his life has taken.
What seemed like an open-and-shut case takes on a strange and disturbing quality when Mackenzie meets the prime suspect: the wife of the dead man. He believes he knows her, even though he’s sure they have never met. But as the novel proceeds, nothing is what it seems.
The book occurs along two different story lines merging seamlessly: one involving Sime’s nocturnal dreams of a 19th Century Scottish past; and the 21st Century mystery occurring on an island off the coast of Canada.
While writing for television, I’m sure it involved mainly dialogue, yet your literary descriptions of settings in Entry Island are remarkable. Will you talk about that?
Television is a visual medium. I was attracted to writing for television because I adore the visual narrative.
As a screenwriter, you’re not actually creating the images; you’re laying the foundation for them. I always write visually—even as a script writer, there was a lot of descriptive material in my screenplays to serve as a guide for the director. There’s always been a sense of the visual in my writing. It was natural, when I moved into writing books full-time, that I took that sense of the visual with me. While I don’t have a director and film crew to create the images for the screen, I try to recreate those places and settings for the readers.
Entry Island merges a historical quest with 21st century police work. What gave you the idea?
I primarily wanted to write about the clearances in Scottish history. It was the main spring for writing the story. Books about that shameful period tend to be historical, factual documents. I wanted to write a drama that would bring to life the brutality of that dreadful period. But, I’m a contemporary crime novelist, and don’t write historical fiction; and I know my publisher would be unhappy with me. So, I endeavored to come up with a way in which I could link a contemporary crime story to the historical fiction I wanted to tell. The challenge here was that the two stories take place 150 years apart. Basically, in order to tell the historical story, I had to weave in a contemporary crime story.
You mentioned the clearances as part of Entry Island. Tell us about what happened during that period.
It was a shameful period in Scottish history, lasting about 100 years. It followed the 1745 defeat of the Jacobites, the supporters of the deposed King James. He had been part of the Stuart lineage, which had come from Scotland, and had assumed the British throne.
The Jacobites formed an army to try to win back the throne. In 1746, they were massacred by the forces of Edward the Butcher. The Jacobites were largely Gaelic-speaking farmers who fought at the behest of the clan chieftains. After their defeat, the British government outlawed virtually everything having to do with their culture: the wearing of the kilt, playing bagpipes. Gaelic speakers were hunted down throughout Scotland and often slaughtered. Trying to ensure there would never be another rebellion, the government displaced most landowners in Scotland. The new owners decided sheep, not people, were profitable. They cleared the people from the land. For more than 100 years, they loaded tens of thousands of people onto boats with nothing more than the clothes on their backs; and forced them to go to the New World.
It was all in pursuit of profit, and had the blessings of the British government. On a contemporary basis, it would be called ethnic cleansing.
The Lewis trilogy and Entry Island depict men haunted by their pasts or that of their families. What is your view of one’s personal past?
This theme recurs in much of my work: the way the past shapes our present and our future. I think most of us live with some degree of regret about things we did or didn’t do; about things we said, or didn’t say. We’re shaped by these things. I always say we are simply the sum total of our memories. Without our memories, we’re blank sheets.
That theme has always fascinated me.
Sime Mackenzie is a fascinating character. What qualities do you feel make for a good protagonist?
I think each story demands different qualities in a protagonist.
In this story, I needed a troubled and haunted man, not just by his own immediate past, but by his ancestral one, about which to some extent, he’d been in denial.
Each story needs a character to bring it to life. What are the qualities in a character that will demonstrate the points you want to stress in the story? No character is built in isolation. It must be created in the context of the story you’re telling.
Throughout Entry Island, I was fascinated by the psychological insights in the characters’ perceptions of each other.
That’s really just about observing people. I think it’s a quality any good writer should have: the ability to observe, penetrate and record the behavior taking place between human beings.
A psychologist friend always talks about the micro-signs she sees in people, small things that betray their character and demonstrate subtly how they feel about the person with whom they’re interacting.
Writers have to do that, as well. You know, at the end of the day, there’s nothing that can replace experience. I’m getting on a bit in years. I’ve seen, heard, and done a lot, and I think I bring experience into play when writing. Someone said years ago, writers don’t really begin to hit their stride until they’re in their 40s. Before then, you don’t really know or understand what’s going on around you. Only beyond a certain point in life can you interpret these things and use them in your writing.
I like the old Chinese saying, ‘Old ginger is the best.’
What has surprised you about the writing life?
I’ve written all my life, as a screenwriter and a novelist. I worked in television for years and earned good money; but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to write novels. When I gave up television to focus on writing books, I knew it would be difficult to make a living. Very few writers are fortunate enough to make a living.
What’s surprised me most of all is that I’ve survived. (Laughter). I’ve come through the bad times when we walked for two miles to get potatoes at two pennies a pound cheaper. Now, we’re comfortable. That’s a revelation to me.
What do you love most about the writing life?
I love stopping. I love putting down the pen at the end of the day. I have a love-hate relationship with writing. I hate it most of the time, but when I’m actually doing it, I get engrossed and transported by it. I forget the time, and the day passes. Then, I find it very hard to start again the next day.
Do you procrastinate?
No. As a journalist, I learned to work fast and meet deadlines. I work very quickly and with strict, self-imposed deadlines. I spend 2 to 4 months developing and researching a book. Then I write a very detailed synopsis which can be up to 25,000 words long. Armed with that, I write the book. I get up at 6:00 every morning and write 3,000 words a day, and finish the first draft in about 7 weeks.
You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
I would have to have some of my favorite writers there.
I would definitely like to have Ernest Hemingway at my dinner party, if only as a drinking companion. (Laughter). Dorothy Parker would bring some nice acerbic humor to the table. My favorite writer is Graham Greene, a tormented man but known to have been an extremely entertaining companion. I’d love to invite Sean Connery, a fellow Scotsman with whom I’d have a lot in common, especially our sense of humor. And just to keep us all on the straight and narrow, I’d ask the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, to join us. She’s a great fan of my books, and absolutely electrified the last British election campaign. She was described at one point as the most dangerous woman in Britain. She would be an excellent addition to the party.
What would you all be talking about?
I think we’d talk about wine, Spain, Scotland, Scottish independence, and probably just have some good laughs.
Congratulations on penning Entry Island, a riveting literary police procedural with a fascinating and suspenseful plot, a novel exploring how the past, haunts and informs the present.
Hester Young received a Master’s degree in English with a Creative Writing emphasis from the University of Hawaii. Her short stories have been published in various literary magazines. Before becoming a full-time writer, she was a teacher in Arizona and New Hampshire.
The Gates of Evangeline, Hester’s debut novel, introduces Charlotte (Charlie) Cates, a divorced magazine editor struggling to come to terms with the death of her preschool son, Keegan. Still in mourning, Charlie begins dreaming of children in danger. At first, these seem to be no more than the dreams of a bereaved mother, but she soon realizes these night visions involve much more.
Charlotte accepts an assignment to write a true-crime book about a missing child case, unsolved for 30 years: the disappearance of then 3-year old Gabriel Deveau from Evangeline, a plantation-era estate in Chicory, Louisiana. Arriving at Evangeline, Charlotte probes the case and learns the family’s failing matriarch, Hettie Deveau, may have the key to unlocking family secrets about the tragedy. Exploring the mystery, Charlotte begins uncovering long-buried secrets about love, money, betrayal and murder.
The Gates of Evangeline has been described as literary suspense, Southern Gothic, a mystery, a mystical novel, and a romance. How would you classify the novel?
As a writer, I really wouldn’t classify it. I sat down and wrote the story I wanted to tell. I understand for marketing purposes, one needs these classifications, but I let the experts handle that. I enjoy reading many genres, and think some of these influences crept into the novel which may explain why different labels have been applied to it.
You wrote the novel using the first person, present tense. What made you choose this storytelling technique?
In suspense novels, the feeling of things happening in the moment is very helpful in creating a more engaging story. It really sucks the reader into the mystery as it’s unfolding. And, a first person narrative is one I prefer because the reader gets to inhabit the character in a very personal way. It’s what I love to read, and is my favorite way to write.
One could describe the novel as, among other things, an examination of a mother’s grief and the road to recovery. Was there anything in your life that made you focus on this element of a plotline?
The idea of a grieving mother who has dark, premonitory dreams came directly from my grandmother. In 1956, she began having a recurring nightmare about her own four year old son. In the nightmare, she would be looking out the window and see something fall from the floor above. She screamed ‘Bobby.’ In the dream, she would run outside, but see nothing other than a smashed melon on the ground. This dream disturbed her.
One day, in her real life, she left Bobby in the care of her parents, and somehow, a window was left open, and Bobby fell out. The story she told me is that when she got to the hospital, the doctor was describing Bobby’s fatal injury, by saying Bobby’s head had been ‘crushed like a melon.’
Shortly after his death, my grandmother woke up in the middle of the night and saw Bobby standing there. He told her, ‘I’m okay now, Mom. It’s all right.’ She went back to sleep with a feeling of peace.
That story very much influenced my characters and was partly the genesis of the paranormal theme of children visiting Charlie in her dreams.
How old were you when you learned of this?
From the time I was very young, I knew my father’s brother had died this way, but I didn’t hear the story of my grandmother’s dream until I was in my early twenties.
So, hearing the story of the dream affected you deeply?
It stayed in my head, for sure.
I’ve had some odd dreams of my own, but nothing of that caliber. But yes, as family stories go, it’s a pretty dark one, and it stayed with me.
I was close to my grandmother, and the story of the dream had been bubbling in my head for a while before it came out in the form of this novel.
The language in The Gates of Evangeline is quite lyrical. Who are your literary influences?
I can tell you some of the writers I loved reading as a kid, but I have no idea who’s turning up in my own style.
In the fifth grade, my favorite writers were Steven King and Lois Duncan. Then, I moved on to Agatha Christie and Thomas Harris. In college, I read Angela Carter’s works of feminist magical realism. Now, I really enjoy novels by Tana French.
In the novel, you capture Louisiana vernacular beautifully. How did you master it with such authenticity?
I love linguistics and phonology—the study of sound and speech patterns. I have a voice that tends to echo whomever I’m talking with. I took several research trips to Louisiana and hung around Cajun country, listening and talking to people. Louisiana has a wonderfully diverse linguistic mixture.
I also read phonological papers about the features of Cajun dialect.
I understand The Gates of Evangeline is the first in what will be a trilogy. Tell us about that.
When I finished the first book, I realized it worked as a standalone novel, but I also felt Charlie’s gift could lead her to other interesting adventures. My editor was very excited about the idea of a series. The concept behind the trilogy is that each book will take place in a unique geographic setting in the United States, where the location will function like a character. So, the first one has a distinctive setting in Louisiana. The second one is set in the American Southwest and the third will probably be in Hawaii.
Will each one have a premonitory dream or vision leading Charlie on a quest?
Yes. Each one will involve a dream and a child in danger. She’s a journalist, which allows her a great deal of geographic flexibility.
This is your first published novel. Has anything surprised you about the writing life?
What surprises me, and what I’m enjoying while being on a book tour right now, is how much people are willing to open up to me. I hear so many interesting stories at events. People share intimate details of their lives, particularly since this book has elements that are almost like a ghost story. I’ve heard fascinating tales of ghost stories and premonitory dreams.
Congratulations on penning The Gates of Evangeline, a novel described by Reed Farrel Coleman as “a stunning debut novel. A lyrical, haunting, heart-wrenching work of suspense with echoes of du Maurier, Hitchcock, and King.”
Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to interview many acclaimed authors. They answer questions with refreshing candor. Here are some of the most successful writers telling it like it is.
You left your day job to write full-time. What’s surprised you about the writing life?
It’s much easier to lie on the couch and eat potato chips or watch Better Call Saul than sit down and write another paragraph. I’ve had to relearn self-discipline in writing these books. Alex Grecian, talking about The Harvest Man
What would you be doing if you weren’t writing?
I have no other marketable skills. I’m disorganized, forgetful, and easily distracted. I don’t know what I would be doing. Frankly, that’s part of what makes me a writer. Writing is a form of desperation. Most writers aren’t capable of handling a real job in society. This is all we have. So, this is what I do. Harlan Coben, talking about The Stranger
How come most of your novels are filled with moral ambiguity?
The vast majority of what we call morality is simply fear of being caught. Just look at any comment section in articles on the Internet, where people remain anonymous and say whatever they think. Or, watch people when they’re driving their cars. Maybe a small percentage of us with moral fiber will categorically not do certain things, even if we’re not being watched, but with the vast majority, all bets are off. Dennis Lehane, talking about World Gone By
Do you have ‘high literary ambitions’?
Of course, I aspire, but the reality for me as a writer is simple: I’ve always had a grating voice—even as a child—and you can never get away from your own voice. Candace Bushnell, talking about Killing Monica
Your conflictual dialogue is incredible. Were there lots of arguments in your family—shouting at the top of peoples’ lungs?
No. I think that’s the Italians. We Jews just bear grudges until the end of time. (Laughter). My father was very fond of the phrase, ‘Shut up and sit down.’ So there you have it. But I did go into poetry because that’s where the money is. (More laughter). David Mamet, talking about his novella, Three War Stories
How important is character in your writing?
All good stories are character-driven. It’s a question of degree. Human beings are wired to care much more about who than about what. In fact, we won’t care at all about what, unless we first care about who. Barry Eisler, talking about Graveyard of Memories.
What advice do you have for young writers?
Young writers have a serious problem: they don’t know anything. They think they do, but they don’t. Eventually, they will know something because knowing life comes with living it. My basic advice for someone who’s twenty-two years old is to join the army. John Sandford, talking about Field of Prey
Inspector Rebus drinks quite a bit, doesn’t he?
One of my hobbies is drinking beer in the less salubrious bars of Edinburgh. So Rebus drinks in the Oxford bar. It’s just booze and conversation. And of course, I have to go there for research. (Laughter). Ian Rankin, talking about his John Rebus novels
As president of the Mystery Writers of America, what trends do you see in mystery fiction?
Publishing is in freefall. Nobody knows where anything is going. Will e-books transform everything? Will self-publishing be the fate of all writers except for James Patterson and a few others? Sara Paretsky, talking about Brushback
Mickey Haller is one of the most intriguing characters in contemporary fiction. Is he based on anyone you know?
Writers take from everywhere. Years ago, I met a guy—a lawyer—at a baseball game. During the game, we talked about our lives. He told me he worked out of the back seat of his car. I thought that was an intriguing set-up and someday I might write about that. Michael Connelly, talking about The Lincoln Lawyer.
How do you feel if a day goes by and you haven’t written?
Anxious. Very anxious. (Laughter). I feel guilty. I should be home writing. I feel as though I’m shirking. I think this writing addiction is like a dope-driven rush. When it’s going well, it’s a real high. When it’s going badly, it feels like it’s just a job. I try taking Sundays off. I sort of get away with that because I feel like I’m improving myself (More laughter). Don Winslow, talking about The Cartel
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
It would be quite exasperating. I did so many things. I started out as a lawyer. Then I went into advertising, and eventually drifted into journalism. There are all sorts of things I could have been doing, but perhaps like Bernie Gunther, I may be temperamentally unemployable. Phillip Kerr, talking about The Lady from Zagreb
The premise of The Fixer is fascinating. Tell us about it.
While I was writing the book, my father died. I realized all I knew about my father was what I saw in the family. There are aspects of your parents you never know. They had lives before they had kids. The Fixer turned into a story about a son discovering what his father’s life was really about. That’s what I was going through myself. It’s the most personal book I’ve ever written. Joseph Finder, talking about The Fixer
I’m sure you know that Arthur Conan Doyle was sick of Sherlock Holmes and wanted to kill him off. What about Sue Grafton and Kinsey Millhone?
I’ll never get sick of Miss Millhone. She’s largely based on me. Who can get sick of one’s self?
Sue Grafton, talking about her novel X.
Mark Rubinstein’s latest novel is The Lovers’ Tango
Sue Grafton is best known for her alphabet mystery series (A is for Alibi, etc.), with her feisty protagonist Kinsey Millhone. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan said the forthcoming conclusion of the alphabet series “makes me wish there were more than twenty-six letters at her disposal.”
Sue has won nearly every award in the crime-mystery lexicon, and her bestselling novels are published in 28 countries and in 26 languages.
Breaking with the tradition of summing up each novel’s storyline by use of a letter and accompanying word, in Sue’s latest release, X represents the “unknown.” Within its pages are three separate mysteries: an art theft; an elderly couple involved in graft; and a sociopathic serial killer on the loose who is zeroing in on Kinsey as she struggles to unravel and resolve these cases without becoming the next victim of this ruthless killer.
Most obvious first question: this is the twenty-fourth Kinsey Millhone novel, and the first one that doesn’t have a defining alphabetical word in the title. How come?
Originally, I thought X would be for xenophobe, but as I wrote the book, I realized there wasn’t a foreigner to be seen. Wherever possible, I used x-words; but at the end of the book, I couldn’t see any of these x-words encompassing the entire story. I think it’s best if X represents the unknown.
In X, the serial killer is identified early on. Will you discuss that device in contrast to the reader not knowing the killer’s identity, which seems to occur far more frequently in mysteries?
Technically, there are two kinds of mysteries: one is called open and the other is called closed. In a closed mystery, the reader is in the same position as the detective, sorting through clues and interviews, trying to arrive at the identity of the culprit. In an open mystery, the identity is a given. The reader knows early on who the culprit is; and the question becomes, how is the sleuth going to nail him? A good example of an open mystery is the old Columbo TV series.
You once stated the last novel in the series will be Z is for Zero. What does that mean?
I used to say, ‘Z is for Zero, and then I’ll use numbers.’ But Janet Evonovich started using numbers, which she’ll greatly regret because you can never get to the end of numbers. I’m limiting my run to twenty-six novels. I’m now trying to catch my breath so I can gear up and write the last two. It takes me two years per book. So we’ve got four years to go before I sign off.
When you say ‘sign off,’ do you mean you will no longer be writing mysteries?
I’ll no longer be writing them with alphabet titles. Miss Millhone dominates my life. It’s both a curse and a blessing. We’ll see what she comes up with. I know I’m not going to be allowed to write about anybody else. She’s a very jealous mistress. If I continue with the series, I think I’ll do standalones. I may at some point get bored or burned out, and stop.
I’m sure you know that Arthur Conan Doyle was sick of Sherlock Holmes and wanted to kill him off.
I’ll never get sick of Miss Millhone. She’s largely based on me. Who can get sick of one’s self?
Much like Kinsey Millhone, you’re known for having paved your own independent career path: writing screenplays, TV movies, and of course, novels. Will you talk about that?
I got to Hollywood because of two novels I had published early on in my career. One was sold to Hollywood. I worked there for fifteen years. Toward the end, I became very unhappy. I cannot write by committee. I felt it was undermining my autonomy and authority as a writer. I knew I’d better get back to solo writing before I was ruined. To get back to writing alone, I decided to do a mystery because my father had published mysteries back in the forties.
It just turned out to be what I was born to do. A is for Alibi was the first mystery I ever wrote. Reaching publication was a miracle in itself. At the time, I had no notion there would be other novels thereafter. I was very fortunate to have been picked up by a great editor, Marian Wood, at Henry Holt & Company. She had never before edited a mystery novel, so it was a fresh turn for both of us.
What has surprised you most about the writing life?
I’m an introvert. I love that about my life, but it’s part of my job to get out in the marketplace and promote my books. It surprised me to learn it was expected of me; and it surprised me even more that I’ve become quite good at it.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
I’ve learned to operate out of shadow. The term is part of Jungian psychology involving the juxtaposition of shadow and ego.
Shadow is the unconscious—our wants, our needs, our intuition. It’s the melting pot of all our venom and it’s the dark part of our natures. In that stew of petty jealousies and homicidal urges lie all the creative energies.
I reached a point in writing J is for Judgement, where I drifted into ego. I got too worried about whether the critics or my editor would approve. And, it shut me down. So, I spent some time learning to get out of my own way. The problem is I lose sight of that lesson whenever I start a new book. I have to go back with each new novel to relearn the technique of writing from the soul—from shadow. It’s also the equivalent of learning to write from the right side of the brain as opposed to the left; the right is the creative part, while the left is the bean-counter.
Another thing I’ve learned is I can write really bad sentences. (Laughter). When I first write them, I think they’re wonderful. But when I go back the next day, I’m appalled. Writing is really all about buffing and polishing what you’ve written. Actually, writing is re-writing. That’s been an important lesson for me.
What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?
Toward the end of a book, when I am totally engaged, I will wake in the night. It’s like I’m having a visit from shadow. I can hear lines of dialogue. I get up and go to the bathroom with a flashlight and write them down. I’ll get back in bed, and the next thing I know, shadow says, ‘Wait. I have another really good suggestion.’
There’s something exhilarating about that process—about operating from that place. That voice in the night gives me cogent bits of information, like breadcrumbs in a forest. It keeps me on track.
Has that experience ever changed the trajectory of a story?
It has caused me to dump stories. There were a couple of books where I had a few hundred pages written, or maybe fifteen-thousand words done, and shadow would say, ‘I don’t like this.’ I always argue with shadow, but she always wins. The hardest thing to do is dump a book; but if it’s not working, there’s no point in wasting time on it.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I suffer from writer’s block every single day.
I used to fear and fight it. Now, I consider it shadow giving me the message that I’m off track. So, instead of complaining, I listen very carefully and start backtracking in the manuscript’s narrative to figure out where I went astray. I think writer’s block is a gift. It’s dreadful when you’re in the midst of. You just think you’re going to die. But, as a rule, you don’t. The answer is always there—somewhere within the manuscript—and you must have the patience to pursue it.
As an eminently successful writer, what advice would you give to writers starting out?
I would say learning to write well takes years. In this day and age where there is so much instant gratification, people sit down to write thinking it will be smooth, easy, and effective. Generally, we speak fairly well and tend to think writing isn’t that hard. People surmise, ‘I’ll just write what I would say.’ But the truth is what happens on the page is very different from what happens in the brain. The translation process is very tricky, and it doesn’t come easily. Some writers starting out get discouraged and are impatient. They can fall victim to unscrupulous people who will take their money with promises to edit the manuscript and get it published. I don’t believe in short-cuts. Novice writers must accept it will be a struggle. They need patience, and must be willing to persevere.
You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people from any walk of life, living or dead. Who would they be?
I’d invite Mark Twain. Then, Nora Ephron, a heroine of mine. I adore Anthony Trollope and would want him, too. I’d be very tempted to put H.L. Menken on the list. And, I’d love to invite Raymond Chandler.
All are writers. What would you be talking about?
I hope we would be talking about our suffering as writers, sharing our misery, and giving each other a little comfort. (Laughter).
Congratulations on writing another Kinsey Millhone novel, the 24th in a series about which The Wall Street Journal said, “Millhone’s complexity is mirrored by the novels that document her cases: books that nestle comfortably within the mystery genre even as they push and prod its contours.”
Over the last few years, I’ve been writing fiction. For decades, I’ve been a psychiatrist. As a novelist, I now write with a reader’s sensibility, and read with a writer’s eye. I’m struck by the degree to which fiction and psychology share certain crucial elements.
Human functioning can be conceptualized as involving thinking, feeling, and behavior. These three elements are the very pillars of being.
Fiction taps into these foundations of existence by using the written word to evoke mental images, which in turn, beget thoughts and feelings. A novelist creates a world for the reader to enter, and to which the reader relates. This is the essence of storytelling.
If the connection is a positive one, the reader is drawn into the tale. The reader must relate to the story’s protagonist for the read to be enjoyable. It’s somewhat akin to meeting a person for the first time. If there’s chemistry, a relationship begins.
To fall under the novelist’s “spell”, the reader must experience and relate to how the protagonist thinks, feels, and behaves. Without that connection, there’s little motivation to continue the relationship. The book is cast aside.
The element of plot is important. But, if the character’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors are vapid, the plot is nothing more than a linear series of events with little meaning.
So, the first questions a writer must answer are: who is this character, and why should a reader care about what befalls the person? To put it bluntly, character counts. It’s nearly everything. Essentially, the psychology of fiction is the psychology of life. The reader must care about the character for the novel to strike a responsive chord. The goal is to immerse the reader into the commonality of life experience, establishing oneness with the protagonist’s thoughts, feelings, and situation.
Think about the tsunami of some years ago. In that disaster, 250,000 people lost their lives within the span of a few hours. While we were horrified by the magnitude of the event, most of us went about our day, as usual. But, if one person who died had been a loved one, our reactions would have been profoundly different.
Caring about someone counts. Very deeply.
While all people are different, in some respects, we share the same cognitive and emotional repertoires. We all can feel horror, fear, lust, humor, anger, guilt, love, hate, and every other emotional variant. And when we pick up a novel, we want to experience the mental and emotional lives of the characters, living vicariously through them.
Think of today’s bestsellers, those that remain at the top of the charts for many weeks or months. They all have thought-provoking characters who rivet us. In Gone Girl, Nick and Amy Dunne capture us with their marital difficulties and myopically self-serving distortions. The Goldfinch focuses on Theo Decker, a troubled youngster struggling with the loss of his mother, dealing with a remote father, and trying to find his way through a duplicitous world. Whether it’s All the Light We Cannot See, or The Nightingale, each story plumbs the pillars of existence: how and why the characters think, feel, and behave as they do.
This is true for all fiction, whether it’s literary, romance, sci-fi, thrillers, mysteries, or any other genre. Whether you’re reading Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes and rooting for Bill Hodges; Don Winslow’s The Cartel, worrying about Art Keller; a Harry Bosch novel by Michael Connelly; David Morrell’s stunning Victorian novel, Inspector of the Dead, where Thomas De Quincey works Sherlockian magic; Jon Land’s Strong Darkness, featuring Caitlin Strong; or any Linda Fairstein novel with Alex Cooper—the protagonist’s character is crucial. It marries the reader to the novel. And, that connection can linger long after the book has been read.
Psychology is everything in life, and in fiction.
For more than 20 years, Linda Fairstein was a prosecutor and Chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. She’s considered America’s foremost legal expert on sexual assault and domestic violence.
When she turned her talents and impressive background to writing novels, Linda created Prosecutor Alex Cooper, and her team of attorneys and police officers, including Detective Mike Cooper. Their exploits in 16 previous novels have made Linda’s books international bestsellers, translated into more than a dozen languages.
Devil’s Bridge, the 17th in the Alex Cooper series, finds Alex facing a grueling day in court, prosecuting a rapist who is also involved in human trafficking. Amidst threats coming from various quarters, in a terrifying twist, Alex suddenly disappears. Mike Chapman takes the lead to find her, in a frantic race against time, compounded by the human capacity for evil.
As in all your other novels, Devils Bridge seamlessly includes fascinating details about a New York City landmark. In this book, the George Washington Bridge is a key location. Tell us a bit about that structure.
It opened in 1931, spanning the Hudson River at the narrowest point of that part of the river. George Washington used that projection, Jeffrey’s Hook, to try blocking the British from going up the Hudson.
I grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, and the George Washington Bridge was my gateway to the rest of the world. In the 1950s, the lower level was built and was called ‘Martha.’ It was fascinating to watch the construction. It’s one of the most majestic bridges ever built. More vehicular traffic crosses that bridge than any other in the world.
Will it be a spoiler if I ask you about the change in the relationship between Alex and Mike?
I don’t think so. There have been sixteen books of emotional foreplay between them. Terminal City ended with them declaring they were going to a new place together. I must say that over the years, I’ve had more fan-reader questions about their relationship than about anything else. ‘When are you going to get them together?’ is invariably one of the first questions I’m asked at signings. The readers have waited a long time to see this, although only three years have passed in the characters’ lives. So, Alex and Mike are trying to work out the tension in their relationship; and just as that happens, she disappears.
In a unique turn of events for an Alex Cooper novel, page 71 of Devil’s Bridge begins with a first-person narration through Mike Chapman’s point of view. From then on, Devil’s Bridge has a completely different voice. Tell us about that.
I’ve wanted to do this for so long. Alex and Mike have been professional partners who became friends in the very first book of the series. I never plotted a romance for them. Of course, I never dreamed I’d have a series go on this long. Then, readers began demanding that something happen between them. At nearly every signing over the last ten years, people have asked, ‘Do you want to write anything else?’ I’ve long felt I’d like to write a book from Mike’s point of view. I want to see how he works a case; explore what he loves about Alex; and what keeps him at a distance from her. Last year, when Terminal City made its debut at Barnes & Noble, my editor Ben Sevier was there and invited me to go to lunch the next day. Over lunch he asked, ‘Why don’t you give it a try? You keep saying you want to do it. Can you?’ I told him, ‘I’ve lived in Mike’s head for sixteen books. I know him as well as I know Alex. I’d love to try it.’ Once Ben gave me the green-light, it became our secret. I didn’t tell my agent. I just set out to write it.
I think telling the story through Mike’s perspective makes it a more muscular one. I channeled him instead of Alex, who is so like me professionally, yet personally, is very different. I thought it would be good to get out of her head and see Alex through Mike’s eyes. I think Mike will bring more men to my series; women seem to really like him and ask about him.
It was very different and great fun to write from his prospective.
I felt through Mike’s point of view, Devil’s Bridge took on a gritty, police procedural tone. Was that difficult for you?
That’s a great question. Police procedurals are my favorite genre. When I created this series, it was a prosecutorial procedural, since Alex has the job I once did. Devil’s Bridge was meant to be as close to a police procedural as possible, with Mike working the case on an unofficial basis.
So, in effect, Devils’ Bridge became for you a literary and romantic excursion.
Yes, it did. (Laughter). I was staying in the series, but writing a different kind of book. That was a literary excursion for me. And for the reader, we get into Mike’s head; see what he’s thinking; and understand how and why the relationship with Alex changed. You know, when I wrote the first book in the series, my editor told me, ‘Mike is the only person who calls Alex, ‘Coop’ in the book.’ I didn’t realize it until it was pointed out to me.
Well, Mike was probably attracted to Alex and had to keep his distance by calling her ‘Coop.’
(Laughter). See, my unconscious mind was working overtime, even back then.
The courtroom tension in Devil’s Bridge is palpable, as it is in many Alex Cooper novels. What about the courtroom makes it such a great setting for drama?
Alex deals with the darkest and most depraved acts of human nature. The uncertainty of a trial’s outcome makes it dramatic. You can prep witnesses for hours, but if you neglect to ask one question, the entire narrative can be thrown off. My own mistakes as a young prosecutor taught me if you leave the door open even an inch, a witness can kick it wide open. Anything can happen. A great adversary can cross-examine your witness, and undo the entire narrative of a case.
You mentioned an adversary. Of course, our system is an adversarial one which seems ready-made for conflict.
Absolutely. Conflict is the heart and soul of drama, which is why the courtroom is such a good venue for stories.
After 17 novels in the Alexandra Cooper series, you probably have many thoughts about the advantages and difficulties of writing a long-running series. Will you talk about them?
You want to keep a series fresh and interesting, so readers will anticipate the next book. You must create interesting characters, because readers become attached to those they like. The series must evolve in other ways, beyond characterization. The protagonist—in this case, Alex—must learn something from her work. This particular novel will probably shake readers up a bit because you get to see things from Mike’s perspective—from another angle. It’s a fresh twist that allows readers to see the characters in a whole new light. That’s part of how I moved the series onto new terrain.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
I’ve learned writing requires intense discipline. My job as a prosecutor was overwhelming, since people’s lives were at stake. It kept me up at night. I thought, in a somewhat cavalier way, that anything would require less discipline than the law. Writing requires an entirely different kind of discipline. The writing life means you go into a room; close the door; friends and family stay out; and you create a new world. You must stay at it for long hours. It’s solitary work, and I can’t imagine doing it if you don’t love being in words and telling stories.
You write a book a year. How do you handle the nearly universal tendency of writers to procrastinate?
I’m a world class procrastinator. I can find things to do that boggle the mind. The hardest point in the process of writing a book is the beginning—the first hundred pages. There are so many diversions. I become more attached to the work about a quarter of the way in. Then I really get into it and it’s a race to the finish for the last three-quarters.
While writing Devil’s Bridge, I had a particularly delightful problem with procrastination.
I was widowed in 2011, and last September, eloped with a man I met on my first day of law school. In a weird parallel, turning a friendship like Alex’s and Mike’s into a romance was scary, because if it didn’t work, they would each lose their best friend. Devil’s Bridge is dedicated to my best friend, who is now my husband.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
I’m still a lawyer, so I do pro bono work on projects that interest me. I’ve helped the NBA with some domestic violence issues and I could always continue working for victims of violence.
I’ve also started a second series. As a kid, I loved Nancy Drew mysteries. In a way, they introduced me to both my careers. I’ve always wanted to write a series inspired by those novels. So, before I begin my next Alex Cooper book, I’ve started a novel geared for middle-school kids. My character’s name is Devlin Quick. She’s a New York kid with lots of attitude, whose mother is the first female NYC Police Commissioner.
I’m hoping the Devlin Quick books will become an updated version of the series that both entertained and influenced me years ago.
What advice would you give writers just starting out?
You have to love writing. And then, you must read to see how stories are told. It doesn’t matter what genre you choose to write, you should read both literary and genre fiction. I go back and read Trollope, Dickens, George Eliot; and then I read my competition: Connelly, Coben, Scottoline, and others. I read them all, just to be in words and to immerse myself in great storytelling. It lifts me up to the challenge of telling stories.
And of course, you must write every day, whether it’s two paragraphs, or a journal, or a log of books you’ve read. Just write.
Congratulations on writing Devil’s Bridge, another riveting Alex Cooper novel, justifying Lee Child having called you “The queen of intelligent suspense.”
Linwood Barclay’s thrillers have been international bestsellers. Trust Your Eyes, an intriguing novel with a unique premise, has been optioned for film. The Associated Press said, “Linwood Barclay has established himself alongside the masters of suburban fiction.”
In just-released Broken Promise, unemployed journalist David Harwood, grieving his wife’s untimely death, moves with his young son back to his parents’ home in Promise Falls, New York. One morning, David visits his cousin Marla, who has been acting strangely since having lost her baby during childbirth a year ago. Shockingly, David discovers Marla holding a 10 month-old baby boy who Marla says is her son. David begins investigating the child’s true identity; nothing is really as it seems, and Marla’s mysterious child is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Quoting from the opening lines of Broken Promise: “A couple of hours before all hell broke loose, I was in bed, awake since five, pondering the circumstances that had returned me, at the age of forty-one, to my childhood home.” You once talked about the importance of a “hook” in a thriller. Tell us about that.
The last thing I’ll ever do is write a novel that opens with a long-winded description of scenery. I want to get the reader interested, right away. In this day and age, with people’s limited attention spans and distractibility, you have less time than ever to grab someone’s attention. You need to get people hooked. You can do it with an opening line or the situation in the book—the ‘What if’ element that will make someone read on.
Broken Promise has intriguing twists, as do all your novels. Talk about the role of twists in thrillers.
I love to constantly pull the rug out from under the reader, and also, from under the book’s characters. I’ll often get to the end of a chapter and ask myself what the most logical thing to happen next would be. And that’s what I won’t do. I’ll do something different, even if it’s not a huge twist, just a small surprise here and there throughout the book. I think it’s a way to maintain interest—by throwing the reader off balance. One of the appealing aspects of reading crime fiction and thrillers is thinking you know what’s going to happen next, only to find out you’re wrong. It’s a more satisfying book if the reader is surprised by the plot twists; and it’s a great way for me to have fun with readers in the thriller format.
I understand Broken Promise is the first of a series set in Promise Falls.
It’s the first of three books. There are some unresolved issues in Broken Promise. They’re not completely sorted out by the end. There are two more novels coming. The backstory will play out in book two and explode in book three. The other two books are already written. When I had the idea of writing this trilogy, I worried that when I got to book three, I might have a really great idea that I’d missed in book one, which would already be in the stores. So, I wrote them back-to-back in fifteen months to maintain the linear flow of the trilogy.
Many writers find themselves dealing with the tendency to procrastinate. That doesn’t seem to be a problem for you.
I’m virtually the opposite. I’ve never been a procrastinator. Once I’m working on a project, I just want to get it finished. I find if I take too long writing a novel, I lose my sense of continuity and the flow suffers. I prefer to get immersed in it and keep going until it’s done. If I write continuously, with no significant breaks, it becomes almost a seamless story. Here, I did it with three books, which I wrote in a relatively short period of time.
From 1981 to 2008 you were a journalist with the Toronto Star. How did this impact your writing life?
I started in journalism in 1977 and got to the Star in 1981. I was an editor and columnist. Newspapers have shaped how I write in ways that tie into your previous question. I have a huge appreciation for deadlines and getting work done. For me, writing is not a romantic thing; you know, some people wait for the ‘muse’ to strike. To me it’s a job, one I want to do because I love it. But, it’s still a job. When I sit down in the morning, I plan to get two-thousand words written that day. That’s the plan. With newspaper work, there was never the luxury of calling the editor and saying, ‘I’m just not feeling it today. The muse hasn’t struck.’ (Laughter). I think newspaper work trained me to get the work accomplished. Also, it impacted how I write. I’m not a flowery, descriptive writer. I don’t try to impress people. I want to tell them the story.
What has surprised you about the writing life?
The biggest surprise I think is that becoming an author has afforded me the opportunity to experience humiliation in ways I did not know existed. (Laughter).
Care to elaborate?
Sure. You think, ‘Wow. I’m a published author, now.’ Then you go to a bookstore event, and absolutely nobody comes. The only thing worse than nobody coming to an event, is if only one person shows up. If nobody comes, you just go to the nearest bar. But if one person is there, you have to talk, and maybe even sign a book, if one manages to get sold.
When I first started writing, I went to a chain bookstore. My book was on the shelf with a card sticking out, saying it was recommended by Jay, a store employee. So, I go to the counter and see a guy wearing the nametag, “Jay.”
I said, ‘Thanks so much for having read my book and recommending it. Would you like me to sign a copy?’ He looks a little baffled, but says, ‘Sure.’ So we walk over to the shelf where I point to my book with the card sticking out beneath it. He says, ‘Oh, somebody moved it.’ And he slides the card over beneath the book next to mine: it was Dave Barry in Cyberspace. This was my welcome to the ‘glamorous’ world of being an author.
Another time, I went to a huge bookstore in Toronto for a book-signing. The manager said, ‘Have a cup of coffee on us,’ and signaled the barista at the in-house Starbucks. At the counter, I ordered a coffee, and decided to have a cookie. The barista looked at me and said, ‘I know I can give you a coffee, but I don’t know if the cookie’s free.” I laughed and said I’d pay for it.
The other big surprise is that I’m doing okay at this. I never dreamed I’d be doing as well as I am.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
The biggest lesson is that I still have things to learn. I think I make some kind of mistake in every book I write, whether it’s a problem with structure, point of view, or whatever. I think to myself, ‘I won’t do that again.’ I learn from that mistake and write the next book, and don’t make that mistake, but I make a different one. I find no matter how many books I write, it’s always a learning experience.
What advice would you give to beginning writers?
It echoes the advice Stephen King gives: you must keep reading— a lot. The second one is, if you’re a writer, you’re doing it because you don’t know how not to do it. You can’t stop. The third piece of advice is you just have to keep at it. I wrote three novels in my late teens and early twenties; thank God they weren’t published, but I was trying. I wrote novels until I was about twenty-seven, and then got so busy at the Star, I gave it up, but eventually came back to it. The real takeaway is: read a lot, write and write even more, and just keep at it.
You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who are they?
The first one would be my dad, who died when I was sixteen. I would also invite my wife and two kids so they could meet my father. I would be the caterer.
Congratulations on writing Broken Promise, another novel destined to fit Lisa Gardner’s description as “One of the best thrillers of the year—where nothing and no one is all that they seem.”
Sara Paretsky is the award-winning author of the V. I. Warshawski detective novels. In 1982, when Sara wrote Indemnity Only, she revolutionized the mystery novel by creating a hard-boiled woman investigator.
Growing up in rural Kansas, Sara came to Chicago in 1966 to do community service work in the neighborhood where Martin Luther King was organizing. Sara felt that summer changed her life; and after finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of Kansas, she returned to make Chicago her home.
She received a PhD in American History and an MBA from the University of Chicago.
Sara shares her heroine’s passion for social justice. In 1986, she founded Sisters in Crime to support women mystery writers. She established a foundation to support women in the arts, letters, and sciences; and has endowed scholarships at the University of Kansas, as well as mentoring students in Chicago’s inner city schools. She serves on various advisory boards for literacy, and for supporting the mentally-ill homeless.
Having received many literary awards, her novels have been translated into nearly 30 languages.
In Brushback, V.I. is visited by an old flame, Frank Guzzo, whose mother, Stella, served 25 years in prison after being convicted of bludgeoning her daughter to death. Stella loathed the entire Warshawski family, especially V.I.’s mother, Gabriella. Feeling sympathy for Frank, V.I. agrees to ask around in an effort to possibly exonerate Stella. Her efforts land her in a scorpion’s den of duplicitous Illinois politics, and V.I.’s primary question soon becomes whether she will live to find the answers.
In reading Brushback, I was struck by your vivid descriptions of Chicago. Your integration of character with environment has been compared to that of Hammett and Chandler. Will you talk about setting in your novels?
Chicago is the city where I came of age. The summer of 1966 was probably the most intense experience of my life. I got very involved in the neighborhood and the city. Even though it was a violent summer, I always think of it as the summer of hope, passion, and the summer when I grew up. I think that’s why Chicago plays such a big role in my books. For me, it’s an emotionally important place.
Chicago is like a set of small towns and neighborhoods. When I worked with kids who had never been downtown, they weren’t terribly impressed by the big buildings or Christmas lights when we took them there. The details they saw through children’s eyes were drunks passed out on rooftops, or wildlife running along the elevated train tracks. I learned from them that what makes a scene come alive is close-up detail, and that’s found its way into my books.
How has V.I. evolved in Brushback as compared to Indemnity Only, the first novel in the series?
When I wrote Indemnity Only, there weren’t women, either in real life or in fiction, doing what V.I. was doing. The year it was published, 1982, was the first year women could serve in Chicago’s regular police force instead of merely being matrons at detention centers. So, V.I. had a chip on her shoulder and was much more in-your-face than she is now. V.I. had to prove her worth, but now, she’s dealing with other problems. She and I are both older, more mature; and I guess, more worried about things. I’m a self-taught writer and don’t think out what a protagonist should or shouldn’t be doing. V.I. tends to reflect more of my own emotional life at the specific time I’m writing.
As you pen more novels about her, how do you find different issues to challenge V.I.? I know my books are described as issue-driven, but they don’t come to me that way. They unfold for me as stories. Brushback started when I met someone in charge of arranging tours for Chicago Cubs fans. He told me about the underbelly of Wrigley Field. That sparked the idea for Brushback. I had to build a story, and it evolved out of V.I.’s old neighborhood. Even though I’m not a native of Chicago, stories from the old neighborhoods grip me. I get letters from people from these neighborhoods, and they often drive my thinking about the stories.
You’ve been noted for writing crime novels with a feminist perspective. Will you tell us about that?
I grew up in Kansas, a very conservative state. My parents were old-fashioned in their views about what girls should aspire to. I have four brothers, and it was a struggle for me to have the same opportunities life provided them by birth. These issues mattered very much to me personally. When I began writing crime fiction for publication, I was part of the first generation of women to do so, and had to deal with a certain amount of resentment. Sue Grafton and I were writing hardboiled books in what had been a masculine genre. That personal history has always shaped how I see the world, and it goaded me into starting Sisters in Crime.
As president of the Mystery Writers of America, what, if any trends do you see now in mystery fiction?
Publishing is in freefall. Nobody knows where anything is going. Will e-books transform everything? Will self-publishing be the fate of all writers except for James Patterson and a few others? The big casualty in this brave new world has been the loss of opportunity for African American, gay and lesbian writers; and to a lesser extent, for women writers. Back in 2000, there were probably twenty-five black writers published by the big houses. Today, there are three or four. We’re trying to develop ways to bring all writers to the attention of readers.
With nineteen V.I. Warshawski books, do you have a favorite?
Hardball is right up there. It deals with torture done by the Chicago police, which went on in real life for about twenty years. I think in some ways, it’s my strongest novel because it drew on my personal history.
My favorite is the one published last year, Critical Mass. Everything about it was so very personal for me. It’s about a scientist whose life was derailed by the Nazis in a way similar to how my family’s world was upended. Actually, they were all murdered. The only people in my family to survive were my grandparents, who came to America before war broke out.
What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?
Way too many things do that. (Laughter). I worry my career’s disintegrating. I worry whether people will buy my books, or if I still know how to write a book. I have to start a new book, since I’m under contract. It just never gets easier. In fact, it gets harder as you go along.
Ruby Rich, who used to review for the Village Voice, said, ‘Writing is a form of auto-sadomasochism—first you tie yourself to the bed, and then you beat yourself up.’
While Brushback has gotten some great pre-publication reviews, I think, ‘Oh no. I can’t do it again. They’ll hate the new one.’
What has surprised you about the writing life?
That there’s such good will among crime writers. There’s really a great deal of mutual support. In the world of the important literary writers, there are always feuds and endless quarrels, such as the classic one between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Crime writers fly below the radar. We’re not viewed as being as important as so-called literary writers; that creates a different and more collegial atmosphere. It’s been a surprise to me, and I feel very happy to be where I am.
You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
I’d invite P.D. James. I didn’t know her well, but she was one of the wittiest, liveliest people I’ve ever encountered. Politics notwithstanding, our core values were very much alike. She once took me to the Atheneum Club in London. She was the first woman to be admitted as a member. We had such a great time making all the old stodgy members go, ‘tut-tut.’ Another person I’d invite would be the historian Daniel Boorstin, who was appointed Librarian of Congress. To please my husband, I’d include Galileo, his favorite scientist. I’d invite another beloved crime writer who died last year, Dorothy Salisbury Davis. I was with her when she was dying. She was born Catholic and said, “I know which saint I want to greet me when I cross the river—St. Teresa of Avila. I want her because if God could put up with her rebellious spirit, he could put up with me.’ And I’d include Teresa of Avila along with Dorothy. And, I’d include Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest tennis competitors of all time.
Congratulations on writing Brushback, another novel by an author about whom The New York Times’s Marilyn Stasio said, ‘There are plenty of women among the ranks of genre authors, but not many like Sara Paretsky, whose intellectually lively mysteries featuring her gutsy Chicago private eye, V.I. Warshawski, are fired by political causes and feminist social issues.’