Philip Kerr obtained a master’s degree in law and philosophy from the University of Birmingham in the UK. He worked as an advertising copywriter for Saatchi and Saatchi before becoming a full-time writer in 1989. He is best known for the Bernie Gunther series of historical thrillers set in Germany during the 1930s, World War II, and the Cold War. He was a finalist for the Edgar Award, the Shamus Award, and winner of the British Crime Writers Association Ellis Peters Award for Best Historical Crime Fiction. He has also written a Young Adult series, Children of the Lamp, under the name P.B. Kerr.
In The Lady From Zagreb, the tenth book in the Gunther series, Bernie—a former homicide detective totally unsympathetic to the Nazi regime—finds himself at the height of the war, forced to run errands for the notorious Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda. Bernie is tasked to convince Darla Dresner, a beautiful young actress living in Switzerland, to return to Germany to star in a propaganda film. But it becomes personal: Bernie falls deeply in love with her.
The mission takes Bernie from Berlin to Zurich, then to Zagreb and the brutal killing fields of Croatia. Events become complicated, and Bernie realizes he’s fallen into a viper’s nest of intrigue and betrayal. The brutal operatives of Allen Dulles and various other nefarious political operatives lie in wait.
In The Lady From Zagreb, and the entire series, you’ve created an extraordinarily likable character in Bernie Gunther. Given his circumstances, this seems difficult to have achieved. How would you describe his personality?
Like me, he’s temperamentally unemployable. He’s good at his job and he’s sort of tolerated by the Nazis. You didn’t have to be a Nazi in order for them to find a use for you. He’s a romantic figure; someone who loves his country but despairs that it’s been high-jacked by a bunch of gangsters. He wonders what he can do about it. He doesn’t always behave heroically. Part of what redeems him is he doesn’t let himself off the hook insofar as guilt is concerned. He has a dark and razor sharp sense of humor, which is how Berliners were depicted in the film Cabaret and by Joel Grey’s character as Master of Ceremonies.
It’s quite mordant, isn’t it?
Yes. It’s in accord with my own sense of humor. It’s quite an English characteristic. We have a cruel sense of humor.
You’ve just encapsulated his personality very well.
I’ve been with Bernie for a long time. I wrote the first book nearly thirty years ago. If you told me then I‘d be promoting him in 2015, I’d be quite surprised.
How has Bernie Gunther evolved over these thirty years?
In the beginning, he was younger and a bit more muscular. He got the girls rather more readily than he does now. He’s older, wiser, and more grizzled. He thinks more about things now, and moves around. In one novel, he goes to South America where he meets some of the war criminals who relocated there after the war ended. He changes, I think, quite radically, over the years. The basic character structure is still there, but so many things happened during the war, and he changed as things progressed.
Your Author’s Notes describe a Swiss plan to forestall an invasion by Hitler, who, as you wrote, was still considering such an invasion as late as 1944. Tell us about that.
The Swiss were surrounded by hostile forces: Italy, the Vichy government in France, and the Nazis. The Swiss realized they would have to step very carefully to avoid being invaded. Hitler knew if he had Switzerland, he could control the mountain passes leading to Italy. He realized the Allies were planning attacks up through the boot of Italy.
The Swiss had a plan to blow up the mountain passes and thus deny the Nazis passage to resupply German troops in Italy. They actually set explosives which were ready to blow up the mountain passes.
The Bernie Gunther novels are suffused with morally hazy issues. Bernie navigates his way through them with aplomb. Will you talk about that?
I don’t really like heroes who always behave heroically. That’s not interesting to me. So, I put Bernie in situations where the choices to be made are difficult ones. For instance, in a previous book, a soldier threatened to reveal the existence of a high-level Wehrmacht plot to assassinate Hitler. Because Bernie could see no alternative to preventing this man from disclosing the plot, he ends up murdering him. The war created its own imperatives. I try imagining what I’d have done in a similar situation. It’s a more interesting question if you take it one step removed: if you had an opportunity to kill someone who would interrupt a plot to kill Hitler, what would you do? It makes Bernie more interesting.
And far more of a complex character, as well.
Yes, there was a big fan of Bernie’s who couldn’t believe Bernie could kill someone in cold blood. I asked him what he would have done if he believed this man was going to spoil a plot to kill Hitler. He had to admit he might have done the same thing.
In an interview about the novel, you revealed quite a surprise about Joseph Goebbels. Tell us about it.
The Nazi leadership was often well-educated. Goebbels had a doctorate from Heidelberg University. When he was a struggling young man, he wanted to be a novelist. He wrote a novel called Michael. Like most young novelists, he was unsuccessful in getting it published, as, by the way, I was with my first few novels. When he became Minister of Propaganda and was in charge of all German publications, of course the novel was published.
You’ve had ten Bernie Gunther novels and other works published. What has surprised you about the writing life?
What has surprised me is how the writing life is changing on a year-by-year basis.
The first surprise to me is that people are not as interested in reading as they once were. We’re witnessing the death of newspapers, and publishing may go the same way.
The writing life has changed dramatically as compared to when I first started. It used to be you published a book every few years. Now, the writer and the author are two different people. The writer stays at home; the author goes on book tours and becomes a raconteur and personality. Increasingly, the latter is required.
Now, it’s not enough to just write a book. You have to become something of a celebrity-promotor of the book. It’s a bit like schizophrenia because the very thing that makes you a novelist—being fond of your own company, staying home and writing—almost disqualifies you from going on the road and being articulate in front of people as you hawk your novels. There’s only one thing worse than doing a book tour, and that’s not being asked to do one. (Laughter).
What do you love about the writing life?
I love sitting at my desk and facing a quiet day with a pen in my hand, and putting myself into a story. It’s kind of weird, isn’t it? I mean, to absent myself from real life, and make up stories is strange, but I started doing this when I was ten years old. It was all I wanted to do. I just think I’ve been incredibly fortunate having pulled it off and not really having to hold down a job.
You mentioned holding a pen. Do you write by hand?
Yes. I write by hand and then transfer the text onto the computer. I like the process of actually having a pen in my hand. Things flow more easily for me that way.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
If I weren’t a writer, I think I might have thrown myself more enthusiastically into advertising. But, it’s difficult to imagine being a diligent copywriter. It would be quite exasperating for me. 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.
You’re having a dinner party. If you could invite five people over for dinner, from any walk of life, living or dead, who would they be?
I’d go for an interesting mix. I’d invite Charles Darwin. I’m struck by his enormous powers of observation. If I could have Martin Luther there, it would be very interesting to see the two of them come up against each other. Edward Gibbons would also be part of the group, and then there would be Isaac Newton. Those three—Newton, Darwin and Gibbons—would be a triumvirate of excellence not just in their specific fields, but as men of letters. It would be fun to have a woman there, too. Very possibly Hedy Lamarr who, apart from having been one of the best-looking women in the world, was the co-inventor of a gyroscopic system for guiding submarine torpedoes. It’s a little-known fact that she had a brilliant mind.
What’s next for Philip Kerr?
I’m writing another Young Adult novel and publishing a series of novels about soccer in Europe. I try to do new things. I can’t bear doing the same thing again and again, which is a danger of doing a series. I like setting new challenges for myself.
Congratulations on writing The Lady From Zagreb, a gripping historical thriller taking the reader to another time and place, and it does so with chilling realism.
Louis Begley was born in Poland in 1933. He and his parents survived the Holocaust, and he came to the U.S. at 13 years of age. He attended Harvard College, graduating summa cum laude. He then entered the U.S. Army. In 1959, after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, he became an attorney in a prestigious law firm, where for many years, he headed its international practice.
When he was 58 years old and still practicing law, Wartime Lies, his first novel, was published. Based on his childhood as a Polish Jew who escaped the Nazi death camps, it won the Hemingway/PEN Award in 1991, and the Irish Times Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize. His 1996 novel, About Schmidt was made into a film starring Jack Nicholson.
Louis Begley has written 11 novels, the latest, Killer, Come Hither, features Jack Dana, a Marine infantry officer who was wounded while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has become a writer, with his debut novel skyrocketing to bestselling status. Jack receives news that his beloved uncle Harry, a leading New York attorney with whom he lives, has hanged himself in his Sag Harbor home. His uncle’s secretary dies the next day, after being pushed beneath a subway train by a deranged stranger. Knowing Harry, Jack suspects foul play and recruits help to investigate his uncle’s death. The trail is a sordid one, filled with international intrigue, shady business deals, illegalities, and criminality. Jack is convinced he must take matters into his own hands.
You became a successful attorney, and wrote your first novel, Wartime Lies, in your late 50s. Can you tell us why you waited so long to write fiction?
It took a great deal of time for me to be able to deal with that subject matter, the Holocaust, something I needed to face before I wrote anything else. Why did it happen at that particular time? There’s no single explanation, except my law firm had a sabbatical program for partners. I took a sabbatical of three months and bought a laptop the week before leaving. On the first day, August 1st, 1989, I began writing Wartime Lies. I finished the revisions in Paris by November 30th of that year. So, it was a rapid birth.
I certainly understand why Wartime Lies was an emotional project for you, resonating deeply in your heart and soul. You went on to write ten more novels. Was it a matter of flowering late, or was writing a longtime passion that finally surfaced?
Kafka once said when asked if he had literary interest, ‘I have no literary interest, I’m made of literature.’
I did not have a plan to write novels, but once I started, it came naturally.
So, storytelling is in your DNA?
So it would seem, provided it’s storytelling on paper. I’m terrible telling jokes or stories. (Laughter).
The dedication of Killer, Come Hither is “For Anka, this departure.” In contrast to your earlier literary novels, this page-turner is an intriguing thriller. Why the departure? Well, it was unplanned, as are all my books.
Because of my childhood experiences, I still have a fear of intruders. We have an isolated house in the country. My wife Anka and I love having air rush through the house. We don’t close windows or doors. I’m an insomniac. I often wake up thinking someone is in the room, shining a flashlight. Being the chivalrous type, I jump out of bed, naked as a jaybird, to do what? Defend my wife? How? That’s where the vision ends. I wish I had a Glock under my bed so I could shoot the intruder. But my wife doesn’t want a firearm in the house. So, there’s one strand of something that was working in my mind and eventuated in the novel.
Also, I went to a garden party at Sag Harbor. It was held at a magnificent house which made a striking impression on me. The image of it stuck in my head. So there’s another strand of the novel.
Thirdly, I served in the army. I loved being in the military. I’ve deplored the fact that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being fought by professionals, mostly kids from underprivileged backgrounds. Whereas kids who graduate today from Harvard Law School, are not asked to contribute. So, I had this notion there would be someone like I was, though in much better shape than I am now, who answered the call of duty. And there you have my protagonist, Jack Dana.
These ideas had been brewing in my head for quite a while, and when I finished my previous novel, Memories of a Marriage, I combined them into Killer, Come Hither. I had such a good time writing the novel, I’ve written a sequel.
Your protagonist, Jack Dana, is a writer who says, “Luckily, writing is a magic activity. Once a book is anchored in its placenta, wherever that is located, it remains viable, because all the while, whether he’s conscious of it or not, the story that the writer wants to tell never stops brewing.” Will you talk about that?
That’s been my experience as a writer. I do believe there is a magical quality about writing.
I asked myself if someone like Jack Dana is plausible. Well, I had lunch with a Harvard College friend who brought his grandson along. The young man wanted to be a writer, and to my surprise, this college graduate had just come out of the Marine Corps. He was from a very privileged background, but joined because he heard the call to duty.
So, there was validation of my character, Jack Dana. It seems like magic.
About the placenta being anchored: my writing has a powerful life within me. When I walk somewhere, I carry on a conversation with my characters. Or, I’m thinking about what they’re going to do next. For me, that’s an essential part of being a writer. But, I’m poor company because I’m not really thinking about what’s going on around me. (Laughter).
What personal qualities do you feel are necessary for a novel’s protagonist?
A protagonist must have something that touches the heart of the reader. My dear friend Schmidt is not exactly an Adonis. (Laughter). He’s a churlish fellow, but a very good person. He’s seriously screwed up about all kinds of things. I think the combination of qualities has won him a great many friends. He has vulnerabilities and he suffers. There must be something the reader can relate to—whether the reader loves him, dreads him, or even dislikes him.
Partly, you seem to be saying that among redeeming traits, it helps if a protagonist has some telling flaws.
Definitely. The protagonist must be a real human being.
As a fulltime writer for some years, what has surprised you about the writing life?
I’m surprised by how steadying writing is for me.
I’m given to brooding and worrying. I’m an optimist about daily matters, but I’m terribly pessimistic about larger issues. Without writing, I would be impossible to live with. I’m no longer absorbed in my legal profession, and if I did not have this other occupation, I would be in great trouble. So, I need the writing to maintain equilibrium in my life.
What do you love about the writing life?
Above all, I love the language.
Speaking of language, much like Joseph Conrad, English is not your native tongue. Does that present problems for you in writing?
Yes. I do not have a natural sense of the language. My son, Adam, is also a writer, and has a natural feeling about how something should be said.
I don’t always know. I have to weigh every word.
How many languages do you speak?
I am fluent in French and Polish. I used to speak very good German, but don’t anymore, although I can still read it. I speak Italian, and in an emergency, I can speak Spanish.
You left out English.
When you’re writing, do you sometimes find yourself searching for a word or phrase in a language other than English?
On occasion. I really have to weigh the language I use when writing.
If you could have dinner with any five people from any walk of life, living or dead, who would they be?
Marcel Proust would be the first I would invite. Then, I would invite Henry James. I would love to have Greta Garbo there. (More laughter). I wouldn’t mind having dinner with Dante. And then would come FDR.
Congratulations on penning Killer, Come Hither, a novel described by Booklist as a “stealthy, page-turning thriller with crisp prose and a taut plotline.”
Jon Land is the prolific author of more than thirty-five books. His thriller novels include the Caitlin Strong series about a fifth-generation Texas Ranger, and the Ben Kamal and Danielle Barnea books about a Palestinian detective and an Israeli chief inspector of police. He has also penned the Blaine McCracken series, standalone novels, and non-fiction. Jon was a screenwriter for the 2005 film Dirty Deeds. He is very active in the International Thriller Writers Organization.
His latest thriller, Black Scorpion: The Tyrant Reborn is the second book featuring the character, Michael Tiranno, a myth-worthy hero created by Fabrizio Boccardi with whom Jon collaborates in this series. Michael (known as the Tyrant) must deal with a newly-surfaced enemy based in Eastern Europe—a powerful organization, Black Scorpion, involved in human trafficking and other crimes on a global scale. The leader, Vladimir Dracu, has set his sights on America as his next target. Black Scorpion has also taken hostage Michael’s lover, Scarlett Swan. Michael has limited time to save Scarlett, Las Vegas, and the entire United States.
After reading Black Scorpion, as with many of your novels, I was reminded of Otto Rank’s, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. Your novels often have a mythic element. Will you talk about that?
I’ve been incredibly influenced by Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. His ideas posit that all stories are basically quests. Literature started with epic poems, Icelandic sagas, and Greek mythology. In many of them, the protagonist must journey very far in the quest to do something heroic. Over the years, that style morphed into commercial fiction, such as the novels by Dickens, Twain, and many others. In the American novel, the physical quest became a metaphysical one. Now, instead of searching for treasure, such as the Golden Fleece or the Holy Grail, it’s about a man in search of himself.
What I’ve done in my books—especially in the Tyrant series—is reaffirm that concept. The novels often involve a protagonist, not only engaged in a great quest to save others, but also in the struggle to save himself by finding himself. More than anything else I’ve ever written, Michael Tiranno, the Tyrant, evolves as a character within this series. He’s nothing like the person we first met in The Seven Sins, the initial book in the series. He’s become an entirely different human being in Black Scorpion.
That transformation is one of the key elements of the mythic quest. When the hero returns home, whether it’s Ulysses or Hercules, he’s not the same man who left years earlier. If the quest has not changed the man, then he’s not a hero, and the quest hasn’t been a fulfilling one. In Black Scorpion, Michael has a medallion, a relic belonging to his family, who were murdered before his eyes when he was a child. Throughout the book, Michael draws strength from the medallion as he rises to the challenge to save Scarlett and ultimately, the world.
In all mythical fiction, great heroes have had to endure something terrible in order to get them to where they emerge as heroic. Hercules was impelled to begin his quest—the twelve labors—by the death of his mortal mother. Moses, Samson, and all great mythological heroes, suffered. The Greeks taught us many things, especially about storytelling: all great stories are tales of quest, and heroism comes with a steep price.
You collaborated with Fabrizio Boccardi, the creator of Michael Tiranno, in writing The Seven Sins; and now, Black Scorpion. Tell us about that.
Yes. While I usually prefer working on my own, there was great benefit in working with Fabrizio. I was reluctant to put the ultimate price Michael Tiranno had to pay for his heroism in the book; however, Fabrizio—who is my writing partner—wanted it in the novel. And, he was right.
In every sense, the novel is much better because it was a collaborative effort between the character’s creator—Fabrizio—and me, the writer who crafted the story about the criminal organization that gives the book its title.
I understand a Hollywood feature film is in development based on the blended adaptation of Black Scorpion and its predecessor, The Seven Sins, both having been licensed to DC Comics for comic books and graphic novels.
Fabrizio Boccardi had a vision about this character, Michael Tiranno. I was asked to develop that character in novel form, starting with The Seven Sins. Fabrizio’s intention was to build a brand around the books. He wanted to follow the Ian Fleming and Batman models by marketing a character in various media. He felt a series of novels would set the template for the brand. It’s been an intense collaborative process.
The challenge we face has been to create a widely-ranging character with a rich, complex past, which makes an adaptation to other media somewhat difficult. It’s hard to tell the Tyrant’s story without resorting to flashbacks so the reader can see why he is the person he is now. If you watch all the James Bond films, there is only one flashback of Bond’s early life. It occurs in Skyfall. The greatest movie thriller series of all time relies entirely on the present plot, with no hint about why he’s the character we see in the present.
In the Tyrant books, we’ve created an epic structure by going back to the past, showing how this man evolved into who he’s become. This poses a challenge for doing a film series. You only get one bite at the apple: if the first film fails, the adventure is over.
Fabrizio is not only a visionary, but has great integrity. He refuses to compromise on the brand by making the character superficial. So, when the movie is made, it will involve the character we created, including how Michael Tiranno has evolved. Both projects—the graphic novel and film—are advancing, but we don’t know when this will all come to fruition.
I’m a big fan of your books. You’ve been writing a novel each year for thirty-five years. What’s your writing day like?
It varies. You know, there are so many other things that go into a writer’s career. Not only do you write, but you must also promote your books. Promotion is time-consuming and multi-faceted. You must build relationships; go to book signings; give talks; and do a hundred other things, which these days include being active on social media, as well as the more traditional activities.
On this collaborative project, things go back and forth between Fabrizio and me, so it takes a year to write, as opposed to my solo efforts which take about six months. When I’m fashioning a first draft of my own novel, I write for about four hours a day; but I write a great deal of material in that time. That first draft takes about two about months. Then, there are twelve weeks of rewriting and polishing. The final month involves going over the copyedited manuscript and the galleys.
What would you be doing if you hadn’t become a writer?
I’d have become a lawyer. I would have loved it. But, I’m not a tough or adversarial person. I believe the best results in dealing with people are based on compromise and communication. But, I would have been good in a courtroom because successful trial lawyers are basically good storytellers. They’re creating a narrative for the jury to counter the other side’s version of the story. I love storytelling, and being an attorney would have allowed me to do what I do best, but in a different way.
But, I fell in love with the process of writing, the creation of stories, and sentence structure. I love using words. And in all honesty, I love seeing my name in print. (Laughter) Let me tell you something: every time I open an envelope from my publisher containing the first copy of a new book, it’s like the first time it ever happened. The books are like my children.
Speaking of children, the reason you get swept up by a book by David Morrell, Stephen King, James Rollins, Steve Berry or any of the other fine writers out there is very clear: reading their books taps the child’s imagination within you. The greatest storytellers write from the child within themselves, and it resonates with the child inside the reader.
I know you’ve mentored many up-and-coming writers, either formally or informally. What advice do you have for beginners?
It’s simple: tell a story. John MacDonald’s definition of a story is ‘stuff happens to people you care about.’ A writer should always ask, ‘Why will the reader care about this person and how can I complicate his dilemma?’ All great storytellers—Stephen King, Harlan Coben, Lisa Gardner, and all the others—have something in common: they confront the protagonist with something he’s never seen before, and the character must deal with the challenge. Part of storytelling is creating a structural framework—a plot—detailing what happens to whom; how it happens; and when it happens. But you also need an emotional core which makes the reader care for and like the character. That’s the essence of good storytelling.
What’s coming next from Jon Land?
Strong Light of Day with Caitlin Strong is next. I had a blast writing this one. In keeping with what I just said, the structural core is there, of course, and there’s an emotional element affecting all the other characters, not just Caitlin. And, all the action in the novel spins off Caitlin’s emotional core.
Congratulations on writing Black Scorpion, a modern-day epic filled with tragic irony, featuring good and evil, and a hero’s arduous journey for justice and self-discovery.
Harlan Coben is known to readers everywhere. His first novel was published when he was twenty-six, and after two stand-alone thrillers, Play Dead in 1990 and Miracle Cure in 1991, he began writing the popular Myron Bolitar series. His 2001 standalone novel, Tell No One, was hugely popular. In 2006, Film director Guillaume Canet made the book into the French thriller, Ne le dis a personne. The movie was the top box office foreign-language film of the year in the U.S.; won the Lumiere (French Golden Globe) for best picture; and was nominated for nine Cesars (French Oscar), winning four awards.
Harlan Coben has gone on to write eleven more standalone novels. His books regularly appear on the New York Times bestseller list, and more than 60 million have been sold internationally. He was the first writer to receive the Edgar, Shamus and Anthony Awards.
His latest thriller-mystery is The Stranger. Adam Price is an attorney married to Corinne. They have two sons and enjoy a wonderful life, living in Cedarfield, New Jersey. One evening, a stranger approaches Adam at an American Legion Hall. He stuns Adam with the revelation his wife faked a pregnancy, and tells him how to confirm this deception. Soon after Adam confronts Corinne with this secret, she disappears, sending him a cryptic text message. As Adam searches for his wife, it becomes apparent he is enmeshed in something far more sinister and all-encompassing than just his wife’s deception. In usual Harlan Coben fashion, the plot has multiple twists and a completely unanticipated ending.
The plot of The Stranger, like your other novels, is quite intricate with many twists. How do you structure them?
When I start to write, I know the beginning and the end, but I don’t know much in between. I’ve often compared it to travelling from my home state of New Jersey to California. I could take Route 80—the most direct route—but chances are I’ll go via the Suez Canal, and stop at Tokyo. But, I always end up in California.
E.L. Doctorow once said, ‘Writing is like driving at night. You can see no farther than your headlights, but you make the journey.’
Sometimes, I’ll outline one or two chapters ahead as I go along, but generally, I don’t outline.
The Stranger, as do many of your novels, involves someone who’s gone missing. I view you as the Master of the Missing Person. What draws you to this scenario?
A missing person could be alive or dead. There’s hope. I love writing about hope. Hope can make your heart soar, or can crush your heart like an egg shell. For me, missing people ratchet up the emotion. Unlike in a murder mystery, there’s more than justice being served in solving the crime; you can have full redemption when the person is found. I love the possibilities disappearances present.
What do you think makes your thrillers so appealing?
I don’t know. It’s something for someone else to say. I aim to make the story gripping and the characters compelling, without wasting any words. I think the key is the emotional layer beyond simply stirring the reader’s pulse; I want to stir the heart. I try to make the reader really care about what happens to the people in the book.
Your thrillers don’t involve the usual protagonists—soldiers, detectives, lawyers, CIA agents, or spies. They’re about ordinary people whose lives change in a few dramatic moments. Will you talk about that?
I enjoy writing about that sort of Hitchcockian ordinary man who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. That situation is more compelling and the reader can relate more readily than if the character is some kind of superhero. I want the reader to be immersed in the protagonist’s world, and not be able to leave it. In The Stranger, I want you to be in Adam’s shoes, to feel what Adam’s feeling and thinking. It helps if he’s the kind of guy who lives down the street, and is less classically heroic. I try to keep the reader up all night, wanting to know what’s going to happen.
Do you feel the most frightening things are those that could actually happen?
Almost all my ideas come from something that happens in my regular life. I then think, ‘What would happen if…?’ For The Stranger, I didn’t make up the Fake-A-Pregnancy website. There are sites that actually sell “bellies” and fake sonograms, along with bogus pregnancy tests. That being the case, my mind says, ‘What would happen if someone found out his wife was never pregnant and just faked it?’ It’s basically the real-life ‘what ifs?’ That’s how all my books start.
You once said reading William Goldman’s novel, Marathon Man, was a life-changing event. Tell us about that.
I was fifteen or sixteen. I hadn’t read many adult novels; mostly, I read the classics and school readings. My father gave me Marathon Man. I found myself racing through it. You could have put a gun to my head, and I wouldn’t have been able to put that book down.
While I didn’t try to become a novelist until years later, I think sub-consciously, there was something inside me that said, ‘What a cool job it would be to be able to make people feel the way I’m feeling right now, reading Marathon Man.’
What has surprised you about the writing life?
It’s been a very interesting climb for me. I didn’t hit it right away. I took all the steps along the way—being published by a small house; then by a slightly larger one; then came a bit of recognition; then a little bit more sales; then more, until the last seven novels have debuted as number one on the New York Times list.
I have a true appreciation of how lucky I am. I think one of the surprises is that as a bestselling author, I can still have a normal life with my wife and four kids, living in the suburbs.
What do you love about the writing life?
I think the short answer would be ‘What don’t I love about it?’ There’s no downside for me. I guess I’d rather not have to do so much travelling; and writing never gets any easier. It always torments you. There’s that insecurity, the feeling I’ll never be able to do it again. Unlike some other jobs, you can never, for a second, just show up. But really, for me, there’s very little downside, and I love what I do. It’s been a dream come true.
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.
If you could have any five people from any walk of life, living or dead, join you at a dinner party, who would they be?
Well, I’d love to have my parents with me. If I chose writers, I’d invite those I’ve known personally, who have passed away: David Foster Wallace, Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, and Ed McBain. They were writers whose work I admired greatly, and whom I personally admired enormously.
Congratulations on writing The Stranger, another suspenseful thriller whose gripping and intricate plot is completely plausible, and chillingly frightening.
After receiving a doctorate in American literature at Pennsylvania State University, in 1970, David Morrell became an English professor at the University of Iowa. In 1972, his debut novel, First Blood was published; and by 1982, was made into the blockbuster movie, Rambo, First Blood, the first in the wildly successful series bearing the iconic Rambo name. David kept writing novels while teaching literature, but eventually devoted himself to full-time writing. He was a finalist for the Edgar and Anthony Awards, received the Macavity and Nero Awards, and is a recipient of the International Thriller Writers Thriller Master Award.
His bestselling New York Times historical novel, Murder as a Fine Art, took readers to 1854 Victorian London. In the novel, the notorious essayist and opium addict Thomas De Quincy was a fictional detective helping the London police solve a series of grisly murders.
David Morrell’s latest novel, Inspector of the Dead, is a sequel, featuring De Quincy and his iconoclastic daughter, Emily. When a killer begins targeting London’s elite, Scotland Yard again seeks De Quincy’s help. He approaches solving the crimes with unconventional Kantian logic. De Quincy deciphers clues left by the killer, and concludes chillingly, the next victim will be Queen Victoria, herself. The novel blends historical fact and 1855 London ambience with thriller-laced fiction in a feat of brilliant storytelling.
Inspector of the Dead takes place in 1855 during the Crimean War. What was the significance of that conflict in relation to the novel?
Doing research, I learned the war was handled terribly by the English. There wasn’t enough food for the soldiers. Hygienic facilities were lacking. They wore summer uniforms during the winter. Most of the causalities were due to mismanagement of the war. The indignation among the people was so great, a vote of no-confidence took place, and the government fell. For eight weeks in 1855, there was no English government. The novel is set during that crisis, when someone decides to assassinate Queen Victoria. In reality, there were eight assassination attempts on her. So, historical fact and fiction blend, and the Crimean War crisis sets the tone for the novel.
Thomas De Quincy’s most well-known work was the 1821 memoir, Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Tell us about that.
We must understand a substance called laudanum. It was the only effective pain-killer of the era. It combined alcohol and powdered opium. In the 1850s, you could go to the grocer or paperboy or butcher and purchase it. It was perfectly legal. It had a skull and crossbones label as a warning. So, its deleterious effects were certainly known.
In his twenties, De Quincy developed a toothache, and began taking laudanum. He was overwhelmed by the pleasure it produced. After ten years, he was a full-blown addict. To put it in perspective, most people would be killed by a tablespoon of laudanum; De Quincy’s tolerance allowed him to drink sixteen ounces a day and remain functional. While it sedated most people, for him, it was a stimulant. Under its influence, he was able to write brilliant prose.
When he released Confessions of an English Opium Eater—the first drug addiction memoir—the response was sensational. No one had ever publically acknowledged being overtaken by opium. It made him so famous, for the rest of his life he was known as the Opium Eater. It was one of the most important books of the 1800s. As a corollary, his opium dreams caused him to theorize about the human mind.
On page 163 of Inspector of the Dead, De Quincy says, ‘There’s no such thing as forgetting. The inscriptions on our memories remain forever…’ What’s the significance of this statement?
Because of his opium dreams, De Quincy felt the entire history of civilization marched before him. He also felt the ghosts of his dead sister and wife came to him. He was struck by the complexity of the mind. He said, “We have chasms and secret chambers where alien natures could hide undetected.” He also had a theory about memory. He concluded there was no such thing as forgetting. He argued that the mind is like a palimpsest, a parchment or sheet of paper upon which something is written. Even erasing what was written on it would leave an impression deep within the paper. Erasing and writing once again would leave two impressions on the paper. De Quincy argued that layers of memories exit in our minds. He said ‘Memories are like the stars. They disappear during the day, but at night, they come out in the darkness.’
De Quincy published thousands of papers. He anticipated by seventy years, some of Freud’s theories. Freud knew of De Quincy’s work. Baudelaire translated De Quincy, and Freud read Baudelaire’s translations. Freud probably had ideas about the sub-conscious, and reading De Quincy may have reaffirmed them. So, De Quincy was way ahead of his time in understanding how our minds work.
De Quincy also took a psychological approach to literary criticism, didn’t he?
Yes. He wrote the essay, On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth, now a standard in modern literary analysis of that play. It was the first psychological criticism. The essay concerns a moment in the play when the murder of King Duncan by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is followed by a pregnant silence. Then, there’s a knocking at the castle gate. The knocking ends Act II, Scene 2, and opens Act II, Scene 3. De Quincey wrote that for him, the knocking had a profound effect: “it reflected back upon the murderer a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity….” That essay foreshadows the psychological approach to literary criticism.
You incorporated literary elements of the Victorian novel into Inspector of the Dad. Tell us about that.
I was taught in graduate school to match form with content. In other words, a subject matter often invites a certain way of writing about it. While researching and writing Murder as a Fine Art and Inspector of the Dead, I immersed myself in Victorian novels. It occurred to me it would be fun to write a novel about the 1850s as if it had been published back then. Novels are no longer written that way. The culture and the language were far different from today.
I asked myself how I could bring this virtually alien culture to life for the modern reader. It seemed that by using the intrusive omniscient narrator—basically imitating that element of the Victorian novel—the reader would have an explanation of various cultural and political aspects of the 1850s. Essentially, I was asking the reader to give me a break: since the Victorians did it, let me do it, too. It was an old technique, but in a way, was so liberating for me.
You also mixed in third and first person narratives through Emily’s journal.
There’s a good deal of precedent for that. One of my models was Dickens’s Bleak House with its alternating points of view. My protagonist, Thomas De Quincy, however brilliant, was in fact, a dope addict. I thought readers might have an aversion to such a person. How could I make readers warm to this man who was continually drinking opium? The key was to use his twenty-one year old daughter Emily. I introduced De Quincy through Emily’s point of view, in the first person. This engaging iconoclastic and smart woman introduces her father to the reader. It’s clear she loves him dearly. The reader may very well think, ‘If she loves her father that much, I’m going to give him a break and like him.’ So at four points during the novel, we go back to Emily’s point of view—through her journal—and get reacquainted with her deep affection for Thomas De Quincy.
Using Victorian style in the novel more fully immerses the reader in 1855 London, doesn’t it?
Before writing these two novels, I wrote a note to myself, saying, ‘Try to make readers believe they’re truly in 1855 London. Some of this is accomplished by details I brought to the novel. For instance, how much did a woman’s clothing weigh? Or, how did a doctor back then diagnose mental illness? It was done by measuring bumps on the head—phrenology. I spent years researching London in the 1850s. I even had an 1851 street map of the city. So, the novel’s details of lifestyle at that time, and the Victorian writing style, transport the reader back to London in the 1850s.
You’ve been such a successful novelist. What has surprised you about the writing life?
What comes to mind is how much things have changed in the writing world. This is my forty-third year as a published novelist. When I started in 1972, there were no book signings. Novelists didn’t go on tour or do publicity. There were hardly any bookstores—certainly 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 stationary stores. Those warehouses disappeared. The chain bookstores appeared. And of course, we now have the e-book revolution. That allows many more writers to get out and self-publish. I’ve seen a great deal that’s changed in the writing world. That’s what has surprised me most of all.
One of the things these changes have taught me is to take the long view of the writing life. There are peaks and valleys. I’ve always felt you must be a first-rate version of yourself; not a second-rate version of another author. I also believe it’s foolish to chase the market, because if you do, you’ll always be looking at its backside. I’ve always written what I love to write. Some authors told me not to write historical novels such as Murder as a Fine Art and Inspector of the Dead. It would be a departure from my contemporary American subjects. They felt readers wouldn’t go with me. They wanted more Rambo or more of The Brotherhood of the Rose. But things change, and I didn’t want to keep writing the same kind of novels. I’ve been a published author for more than forty years. The usual publishing life of many authors is fifteen or twenty years. They fall out of favor because they keep writing the same novel, over and over again.
What do you love about the writing life?
It’s an opportunity for me to exercise my imagination. My childhood was not a good one. My father died in the Second World War. For a time, my mother had to place me in an orphanage. She remarried a man who didn’t like children. They fought a great deal. I spent a lot of time beneath my bed, hearing them fighting, fearful, and telling myself stories in the dark. Of course, I was always the hero.
When I grew up, I discovered this need to tell stories. I got to do it, and even earn a living. It’s a wonderful opportunity to benefit from my daydreams in a culture that doesn’t value daydreaming. I think our best ideas come to us when we give ourselves permission to go into that kind of trance. I love the opportunity to let messages rise up from my psyche.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
When I was young, I wanted to be in the music business. I wanted to be like Nelson Riddle, the famous orchestrator. As a teenager, I had music lessons and absorbed a great deal about harmony, musical theory, counterpoint, and orchestration. But something happened at age seventeen: I lost interest in music and realized my passion was in telling stories. I sometimes think the musical training in structure was helpful in terms of writing novels.
Congratulations on writing Inspector of the Dead, a riveting historical novel and compelling thriller, immersing the reader in the geography, culture, and police work of 1855 London.
Dennis Lehane is known to millions of readers. His novels Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone, and Shutter Island became blockbuster movies, with the most recent film being The Drop, which is based on his short story, Animal Rescue.
A Drink Before the War won the Shamus Award. Mystic River won both the Anthony and the Barry Awards for Best Novel, and the Massachusetts Award in Fiction. Live by Night won the Edgar Award for Best Novel, and the Florida Book Award Gold Medal for Fiction.
World Gone By continues the saga of Joe Coughlin, who made his debut in The Given Day, and returned in Live by Night. It’s now the height of World War II. Having lost his wife in a hail of gunfire ten years earlier, Joe is consigliore to the Bartolo crime family in Tampa. He lives peacefully with his son, Tomas, and moves easily among the various underworld figures of the time. Joe finds out someone has mysteriously placed a contract on his life. Trying to learn more, Joe goes on a chilling journey through the black, white, and Cuban underworlds where he crosses paths with the Lansky-Luciano mob, Tampa’s social elite; and also with the mob-backed Cuban government of Fulgencio Batista.
You once said you knew with the publication of A Drink Before the War, you would be labelled a genre writer. You said, “And there’s no way out of that, so let’s just go all the way. And I’m so glad I did. It’s been the greatest accident of my life.” Will you talk about that?
I don’t know if it’s still true of me, now, but it was certainly true when I came out of graduate school in 1993. The genre was very much ghettoized. Sometimes it was for good reasons; in some cases it was unfair. What I and others were rebelling against was the notion that literary fiction was literature. It was its own ghettoized genre, or should have been, according to that kind of thinking. I was growing very tired of what a writer once referred to as ‘stories about the vaguely dissatisfied in Connecticut.’ At the time, it was dominating literary fiction. I became enamored of writing about what Cormack McCarthy called ‘fiction of mortal events.’ That’s why I drifted into crime fiction. I think crime fiction has social value, and I was very interested in writing about social issues such as race, class—you know, the haves and have-nots in American society. It seemed like a natural fit with the crime novel.
Now, twenty years later, while we may not have knocked the genre gate down, we’ve stormed it. Some lines of distinction between so-called literature and crime fiction have become a bit blurred. Now, some crime fiction is allowed into the club. (Laughter).
Tell us about the Irish-American storytelling culture in which you grew up.
My parents came from Ireland and moved to a section of Boston where they were surrounded by their siblings and in-laws. We grew up with all our uncles and aunts nearby. They gathered every Friday and Saturday at one or another’s house. They would sit around and just tell stories. My brother and I began noticing every six or seven weeks, the same story would come back into the rotation. But, it was tweaked. We began to understand—whether consciously or not—a good story wasn’t necessarily concerned with facts. It was concerned with a basic truth. As an adult, I realize what my parents, uncles and aunts were doing by telling these stories again and again—all about the old country. They were trying to make sense of the diaspora; to make sense of having left the place they loved.
Do you think they romanticized the old country?
Oh, of course. When I went to Ireland, I expected to step back into the 1930s. You know, nobody got divorced; no one ever said a cuss word; and everything was just perfect. That image was calcified in my home in Boston. But in Ireland, time had moved on. They were living their lives.
When I was in graduate school, my mentor would describe storytelling as ‘the lie that tells the truth.’
Many of your novels, including World Gone By, are filled with moral ambiguity. Tell us about that.
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.
I don’t know too many really bad people; and I don’t know too many saints. I think most people fall in-between. And, that’s what I write about. Bad people don’t wake up each morning thinking ‘I’m a bad person.” They think, ‘I’m a good person in my heart, even if I have to do some bad things.’ That’s true of bankers, and it’s true of stockbrokers who short stock. And that’s true of gangsters, who short people (Laughter).
In 2001, Mystic River was your first novel outside the Kenzie-Gennaro series. It wasn’t until 2010, when you brought the duo back in Moonlight Mile. Did you get pressure from fans to return to that series?
I didn’t really get pressure; I got wishes. Fans continue to show up at nearly every signing and want to know if Patrick and Angela will ever come back. My answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ I haven’t retired them. They’ve sort of taken these longer and longer vacations from me.
It seems to me you’ve taken a more expansive path in the last few years. Is that a fair statement?
Yes. I would say that path began after Mystic River. For the first time in my life, I became aware of other people’s expectation about what I would do next. I didn’t respond well to that pressure. It wasn’t why I got into writing in the first place. So, I made a conscious choice to zig when everyone thought I would zag. That’s when I wrote Shutter Island. Writing that book was really fun. I was able to do what I’d wanted to do for a very long time, which was to write about the Boston police strike. I’ve stayed on that independent path, despite knowing I’ve lost some fans along the way, but that’s okay.
So, Mystic River changed your writing life?
Yes. It changed the perception of me as a writer—almost overnight. Suddenly, I was viewed as a literary writer. Until that point, people thought, ‘He produces really well-written genre novels.’ That was my label. So, after Mystic River, I was suddenly writing literature. A lot of debates began after that. It was a strange and wonderful place to be.
So, you’re right, it led me to decide to follow a more idiosyncratic path.
I saw the film Mystic River and then read the novel. As fine as the film was, the book was even more powerful. Did the film have an impact on your writing life?
No. I don’t ever, ever, ever think of films when I write. To me, writing a book is a very intimate conversation I’m having with an imagined reader. It’s not a film script. A film script is just a blueprint—like an architectural diagram.
You once said, ‘Character is action. It’s the oldest law of writing. It goes back to Aristotle. Plot is just a vehicle in which your characters act.’ Will you amplify that?
I think a book is a journey by which a main character, or several characters, ultimately reach a reckoning with themselves. The plot is just the car driving them down the road on that journey. I don’t need a spectacular car. I just need one that’s serviceable. I’m not a car guy. With the exception of Shutter Island, I never wrote an original plot. All I do is make the plot serviceable, like the car. I work really hard on a plot, because you need to work hardest at the things that don’t come naturally. I don’t work hard at dialogue. It just flows. I barely rewrite it. Plot takes up the majority of my worry when I write a book because it’s the last thing I consider.
What has surprised you about the writing life?
That it’s as cool as I hoped it would be. (Laughter). You know, one of my favorite movies is Broadcast News. One scene describes my own life. There’s an interchange where William Hurt says to Albert Brooks, ‘What do you do when your reality exceeds your dreams?’ Albert Brooks say, ‘Keep it to yourself.’
That’s where I find myself. I go on book tours; I’m interviewed by people; and it gets put in newspapers. Even twenty years down the line, it still seems surreal to me. Surreal in a wonderful way. You know, last night at a book signing, someone asked me if I’d sign a paperback. I said, ‘Of course.’ And he said, ‘Some authors don’t sign them.’ I said, ‘What the hell did they get into writing for?’ I mean, there was a time when you were a complete nobody, and in your fantasy life you 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.
The thing is: I get paid to make shit up. I’d be doing it for free. I walk around thinking, ‘These lunatics actually pay me to do this.’ If a planeload of money was dumped on me, I’d continue doing what I do.
I was going to ask what you love about the writing life, but you’ve already answered that.
They pay me to make shit up and I can keep my own hours. (Laughter).
If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?
Everybody has some fantasy about this kind of thing. I’m thinking I would be a carpenter. There’s no reason for me to think that since I’ve never shown I can do anything with my hands. But I feel that’s what I’d like to do if I wasn’t writing.
You would certainly see the results of your labor.
Yes. I need to see the results of anything I do, whether it’s a book or a cabinet.
If you could have five people to a dinner party, from any walk of life, living or dead, who would they be?
First, I’d have Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’d also invite FDR and Bill Murray. And then…Keith Richards. I would also like to have dinner with Joan of Arc.
What would you be talking about?
With that group? What a party it would be. There would be no problem with conversation.
Congratulations on writing World Gone By, described by Kirkus as “a multilayered, morally ambiguous novel of family, blood and betrayal.” And I agree completely with that assessment.
Owen Laukkanen’s debut novel, The Professionals, received high praise and was nominated for many honors, including the International Thriller Writers’ Award, the Anthony, the Barry, and the New Voices Awards. He graduated from the University of British Columbia’s creative writing program, and before turning to fiction, spent three years reporting on the world of professional poker.
The Stolen Ones is the fourth novel in the series featuring Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere, partners in the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension-FBI Joint Task Force. The novel begins with Irina and Catalina, two Romanian sisters, who are kidnapped and brought to the U.S. in shipping containers, along with other young women, to be sold as sex slaves. Soon, Stevens and Windermere are on the trail of a massive international kidnapping and prostitution ring. The story takes them over much of the country as they struggle to track down the most ruthless criminals they’ve ever encountered.
How did you develop an interest in writing?
My parents stocked our house with books. Basically, ‘Wanted’ posters of us were in the local library. We would take out twenty books at a time and never return them. (Laughter) My mother and father instilled in me a love of reading. I read voraciously at a young age. In my teens, writing seemed a natural progression. I found myself wanting to evoke with my own writing, the same feelings I had from reading. I remember reading Cannery Row by John Steinbeck which had passages about fishing boats going out to sea. I come from a fishing background, and the novel struck a deep chord within me. I wanted to emulate that kind of creativity.
As a youngster, which authors did you enjoy reading?
I read just about anything as a kid. I read a lot of Gordon Korman, a Canadian-American writer of children’s books and YA novels. As a teen, I went into an enormous Dean Koontz phase. His books were violent, sexy, and were not what my parents would have approved of my reading. (Laughter) I tore through his entire catalogue. But I enjoyed many different genres. If you put any book in my hand or within arm’s reach, I’d read it. I read a good deal of John Steinbeck, and R.L. Stine, as well. I was pretty eclectic.
How did you get a job covering high-stakes poker tournaments?
I graduated with a Bachelor in Fine Arts degree, and had minimal job prospects. I was looking for a summer job and interviewed for one as a technical writer. I applied for one driving a car for an escort agency, but they didn’t call me back. (Laughter). Finally, I took a job on the night shift in a department store warehouse. Then, I saw an ad saying I could spend six weeks in Las Vegas writing about the World Series of Poker. I knew nothing about poker, but knew I’d like to be in Vegas for six weeks instead of working in a warehouse. I sent them two short stories I’d written, and lo and behold, they hired me. At the end of the summer, they hired me and a colleague on a full-time basis to travel all over the world, make our own schedule, and gave us a blank check to cover any poker tournament we decided to attend.
I understand you encountered situations in those tournaments that led to your writing crime fiction. Is that true?
I didn’t want to write casino mysteries. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed that way. But, when you’re in the company of people willing to plunk down ten-thousand dollars each to play poker, you’re bound to meet some crazy characters. Much of the depravity I encountered inspired me to write about the crime world. My time covering these tournaments coincided with the burnished image being portrayed on television. But behind that image, were these fascinating gamblers and sordid criminals who were polishing their acts to look like TV stars. When I got the job, I was a twenty-three year old kid who’d led a somewhat sheltered life. The exposure to this other side of life was truly an education for me as a budding crime writer.
The Stolen Ones is an expansive novel. Is there a method by which you constructed it, as well as your other thrillers?
My method is to start with a crime or an idea—in this case, sex trafficking—and let the book evolve from there. Some people might call it allowing the characters to take you where they want to go. That may be a forgiving way of saying I write pretty impulsively. As I was writing The Stolen Ones, I just let the story unfold, knowing in the end, there’d be a lot of cleaning up for me to do. I’m very much a ‘write by the seat of my pants’ sort of guy. I’m not a plotter.
The Stolen Ones is your fourth published novel in the series. What about the writing life has surprised you?
When you’re an aspiring writer, you imagine things will be wonderful if you can reach the point of being published. You fantasize it will be a watershed moment—which it is, in its way—but what’s surprised me is I’ve had to learn to disengage my feelings of self-worth from how the novels are received; or from the fact that a novel has been published. I imagined with the publication of a book, my life would change in some amazing way. When you’re writing a series, it’s almost like working for a newspaper: you can write a good feature one day, but the next day, you have another feature to write. I’ve had to learn to relax and enjoy the moment, and not focus on the next book in the series. Also, I never thought writing would be as challenging as it is. I’ve gone through periods of self-doubt I never expected to experience.
On a very positive note, I’ve learned that crime writers are among the most welcoming and generous people around. Certainly, one of the happiest surprises about getting into this business has been meeting so many wonderful friends and making contact with people who’ve been willing to champion my books. There’s a real pleasure in this sense of community, because writing is such an isolating activity.
What do you love about the writing life?
I love all of it. I can’t not write. If I go for a couple of days without writing, I feel antsy and ornery. I’ve been very lucky as a young writer to have such a supportive publishing team. I also enjoy engaging with people who love books, reading, and writing. As much as I need time by myself to write, I love meeting people at library talks and bookstores. There’s a great deal of freedom in the writing life, and a lot of opportunity that’s not granted in most other professions.
If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?
I think I’d be fishing for a living. My grandfather was a boat builder and commercial fisherman. I paid my way through the university working on my uncle’s fishing boats in the Pacific Ocean. My dad recently bought a lobster boat on the Atlantic side of Canada. I’ve fished all over. My summers spent fishing were some of the happiest times of my life. As a complementary job for a writer, it’s wonderful. It’s precisely the opposite of what a writer does. There’s fresh air, manual labor, and lots of time to think through murder plots.
Congratulations on penning The Stolen Ones, a relentlessly terrifying novel that ratchets up the suspense, and raised my pulse rate.
Dennis Palumbo is a thriller writer and psychotherapist in private practice. He’s the author of the non-fiction book, Writing from the Inside Out and a collection of mystery stories, From Crime to Crime. He has also been writing the Daniel Rinaldi mystery series. He was formerly a Hollywood screenwriter, whose credits include the film My Favorite Year, which was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Screenplay. He was a staff writer for the TV series Welcome Back, Kotter. Currently, he blogs for the Huffington Post and has a column, Hollywood on the Couch, for Psychology Today.
His mystery-thriller series concerns Dr. Daniel Rinaldi, a psychologist and trauma expert, who consults with the Pittsburg Police. His specialty is treating victims of violent crime who suffer from the traumatic after-effects of those experiences. Rinaldi suffered such a trauma when his wife was killed during a mugging. Though he too was shot, he lived, but struggled with survivor’s guilt long afterwards. Now, his mission is to help others deal with their trauma symptoms, but in the process, he manages to get heavily involved in police investigations, often to the consternation of his police colleagues.
In Phantom Limb, the fourth book in the series, Dr. Rinaldi consults with a prospective patient, a woman he last saw thirty years ago in Playboy. Lisa Campbell, ex-starlet and current trophy wife of elderly tycoon Charles Harland, plans to kill herself at 7 o’clock that evening. Daniel has only fifty minutes, the length of their session, to talk her out of it. Soon after Lisa leaves his office, she’s kidnapped. As a psychologist who may have heard critical information, he’s ethically bound not to share what they discussed. So, Rinaldi must navigate tricky waters to help the police locate Lisa. Rinaldi find himself amid a tangled web of kidnapping, murder, sexual deviance, and family secrets.
It seems in some respects, Daniel Rinaldi bears a resemblance to you. True?
He does, in the sense we’re both born and raised in Pittsburgh. We both went to Pitt. We’re both Italian-Americans and the big similarity other than we’re both psychologists, is we straddle the Pittsburgh of old and new. When I went to college, the city was loaded with steel mills. They’re all gone now. Industrial Pittsburgh has been replaced by a high-tech, sophisticated city. Daniel and I are very aware of that change, from a formerly dingy city, with its skies filled with smoke and ash, and coal barges going up and down the Allegheny River, to what it is now: a city with gleaming skyscrapers and clean air.
Daniel is also some things I’m not: he’s a former amateur boxer; he’s brave and resourceful, which I’m not (Laughter). The things he gets involved with would have me running in the other direction. Kirkus Reviews called him ‘Jack Reacher with a psychology degree.’ (More laughter).
As a psychotherapist yourself, how much of your training do you bring to the Daniel Rinaldi novels?
I’ve been a licensed therapist for almost twenty-eight years. For three-and-half years, I worked in a psychiatric hospital with schizophrenics. Earlier in my career, I spent five years in training on trauma theory with the nation’s leading trauma expert, Dr. Robert Stolorow. That’s one of the reasons I made Daniel a trauma expert. In most thriller novels, the effects of trauma on crime victims are never dealt with. In the Daniel Rinaldi series, these effects are very important. That’s part of what my training as a psychologist brings to the writing.
The Daniel Rinaldi novels are written from the first-person perspective. What are the advantages of this style?
For me, the advantage is we get to be inside Daniel’s head and thoughts. From that perspective, we really hear his voice. Rather than hearing a removed, third-person authorial voice, we get to stay within Daniel himself; we’re inside his head. So, not only will he say something to another character, but he’ll also think something to himself, something to which the reader is privy. We get a solid sense of who he is. I also like that by using the first person, the reader only knows what Daniel knows. Often, in thrillers, the reader knows what the bad guy is thinking. So, from a first person perspective, it’s a bit more difficult to build suspense, but I’m able to do it. I construct the story so enough dread is foreshadowed to make the reader worry for Daniel.
You’ve been outspoken about the thriller-mystery genre being a venerable one. Will you talk about that?
Many people question the literary quality of crime thrillers. I think crime novels, from Sherlock Holmes on, have done what Tom Wolfe said, ‘The purpose of a novel is to show the details of an era’s status, to demonstrate its culture.’
If you want a picture of Victorian London, read any Sherlock Holmes novel. It’s revelatory. I don’t think there’s a better dissection of modern marriage than what’s depicted in Gone Girl. Whether it’s Camus’s The Stranger, or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, they delineate the era in which they were written. And, they’re crime-mystery novels. There’s tremendous literary value in these works.
There’s a tendency to think of literature, and crime novels as inhabiting two separate spheres, as being in different categories. The best crime novels are indeed literature. I don’t think there are better writers than Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, or for that matter, Dostoyevsky, Twain, Hugo, or Dickens. To one or another extent, they all wrote novels about crime. When it comes to writing, there’s good writing, mediocre writing and bad writing. That’s it.
What has surprised you about the writing life?
What’s most surprising to me is that success in writing is much more about craft than talent. It’s really a matter of hard work and diligence. It’s not sitting around, drinking absinthe, and waiting for inspiration. It’s hard work. You sit down every day at the typewriter or keyboard, and do the work. And hopefully, thirty-five years later, you have something to show for it.
What do you love about the writing life?
I’ve been a writer since I was twenty-two. The thing I love most is the creation of a completely different world in a novel. Screenwriting is a collaborative process; things get rewritten by various people; they’re then interpreted and changed by directors and actors. If, in the end, there’s any resemblance to what you initially wrote, it’s a small miracle. But in my Daniel Rinaldi novels, I get into his head and construct his world. I love that. I love creating a whole new world.
What advice would you give novice writers?
My advice is very simple: don’t follow trends; don’t try to copy other people’s success; keep giving the readers you, until you is what they want.
Congratulations on writing Phantom Limb, the fourth in the Daniel Rinaldi mystery-thriller series. Publishers Weekly called it “twisty,” “satisfying,” and said it “ends on a cliffhanger.” I found it to be a riveting novel.