Donald Ray Pollock worked as a laborer and truck driver until he was 50, when he enrolled in the English program at Ohio State University. While there, his debut short story collection Knockemstiff was published. His first novel, The Devil All the Time, was published when he was 57 years old. His work has appeared in various literary journals; and in 2009, he won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. In 2012, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship.
His second novel, The Heavenly Table, follows two interwoven stories. The first concerns the Jewett Brothers—Cane, Cob, and Chimney as they embark on a bank robbing spree from rural Georgia to Meade, Ohio. The other story follows Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler, an Ohio farming couple struggling to survive after Ellsworth is swindled out of their life’s savings.
Eventually, the paths of the Jewett Brothers and the Fiddlers cross as a huge ensemble of characters populate the pages of this sprawling novel.
The Heavenly Table is painted on an enormous canvas with two converging stories and multiple subplots. Did you outline these adventures or did they arise spontaneously?
I am a very messy writer. I began the book with the intention of writing a novel set around Camp Sherman, an army training camp built in 1917 at the edge of Chillicothe, Ohio. However, because my own “creative process” is not governed by anything even close to rational thinking, I eventually ended up with a story centered mainly around three poor sharecropper brothers from Georgia who use a pulp novel about an outlaw named Bloody Bill Bucket as the inspirational guide to change their lives. After I finally had those characters in place, I ditched the others, and then the episodes fell into place spontaneously, as I pushed the book forward.
When I sit at the desk long enough, things will happen, but I shouldn’t waste so much time, especially at my age.
Your writing style has been compared to those of Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, and Cormac McCarthy. Your work has been described as Southern Gothic horror. How would you describe your style?
I’ve been heavily influenced by Southern writers, that’s for sure, especially by the way they deal with place, religion, and poverty; and by their creating quirky characters. Probably the Carver comparison came about because I come from a blue collar background and write about people stuck on the bottom rung of the system. As for ‘horror,’ it’s not the Shirley Jackson/Stephen King supernatural stuff, but rather, I write about the everyday and much, much worse real horror we see or read about in the media: murder, drug addiction, family abuse, insane religious beliefs, etc.
I think ‘Southern Ohio Gothic’ might be a more accurate label, just so people don’t get the wrong idea and figure I write about zombies or vampires. [Laughter].
You once said readers are much better at seeing themes in your work than you are. Will you talk a bit about that?
I don’t have any ‘themes’ in mind while I’m writing; and then after publication, I try not to think any more about the book than I have to. I’m usually filled with doubts about my work, so that’s just an invitation to regret what I might have done better. Also, I figured out a long time ago that I’ll never be a critic, or an intellectual. My brain just can’t seem to make the connections necessary for critical thought. I’m proof that you don’t have to be all that smart to be a writer. [Laughter].
You worked as a laborer and truck driver until you were fifty. You also once said if you had “quit drinking and started writing in my twenties as opposed to mid-forties” many things would have been different. Will you tell us about your path to becoming a highly regarded author?
One thing that’s common about people who’ve had addiction issues is we have a hard time being satisfied. After I got sober, even though I had a good job and was happily married, I still felt something was missing. Then around the time I was forty-five, I watched my father retire from the mil. It made me stop and think about my doing the same thing in another twenty years. I had this sudden urge to try to do something else with what was left of my life.
When I was in my thirties, I’d managed to get a degree in English through a program at the paper mill that paid most of the tuition for employees who wanted to take college courses. Since I’d always loved reading, I figured I’d try to learn to write. After flailing about for five years and publishing five or six short stories, I quit my job at fifty, and enrolled in the MFA program at Ohio State University. It was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made, but I knew by that time I wanted to be a writer.
As far as if I’d started writing earlier, who knows? Perhaps I’d have six or seven books out by now instead of three and reside in Vermont or Montana instead of Ohio; or maybe I’d have flamed out early and ended up living in a homeless shelter somewhere. [More laughter].
Did your experiences as a factory worker and truck driver end up informing your writing?
I think what I got most out of my years working in a factory was a sense of how people talked and developed a feeling for black humor. Some of the men I worked with could joke about anything, the most terrible event, and somehow make it funny; and when you live in a world as messed-up as ours, that’s really not a bad thing to be able to do. Also, when you punch a clock for thirty-two years, you become accustomed to living by a fairly rigorous schedule, which probably makes things easier as far as showing up at the desk every day and trying to write.
The Heavenly Table captures the atmosphere of 1917 Georgia and Ohio. Did you do a great deal of research before writing the novel?
Not really. I’d already read enough history over the years about the first decades of the 20th Century to have an idea of what everyday life was like then. I did read quite a bit about America’s entry into WWI before I decided that wasn’t really my story; but other than looking up a few historical facts about automobiles and the prices of goods, I just used my imagination.
The Heavenly Table and The Devil All the Time concern people trapped in situations where there seems to be no escape. Will you talk about that in regard to storytelling?
Probably because of my own personal troubles when I was younger, I have always had some empathy or understanding for people living sad, terrible, even worthless lives; and I find it a subject worth writing about because it’s really an almost universal feeling.
While my focus is mainly on poor, uneducated people who can’t seem to catch a break or just act stupidly, you can also be beautiful and smart and well-off, and get caught in a situation from which there is no escape: a loveless marriage, a job you hate, or a dream you didn’t pursue. For some people, this feeling might last only a short while, and for others it might last forever, but I’d say most of us experience it at some point in our lives.
I found The Heavenly Table to be remarkably adroit at weaving multiple subplots and backstories into the main narrative. That seems to be part of your storytelling style.
As I’m working on the principal characters and trying to figure out the plot of a story, ideas for other characters and their backstories appear. Some are easily dismissed, but others feel like keepers, and I turn them into subplots. The big problem is how to make all this stuff fit without it appearing forced. I realize this is a simplified version of what really goes down, but it’s the best I can do. I honestly have no idea where this stuff comes from.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
Probably that writing is a job that you have to work at just like any other, and waiting for ‘inspiration’ before you sit down at the desk isn’t going to get you anywhere.
You’re hosting a dinner and you can invite five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
This is one of those questions I tend to overthink, so I’m just going to go with my first inclinations. My grandfather, Ray Pollock, who died in 1959 from a heart attack while working on the railroad when I was five years old. John Keats, my favorite poet. The writer William Gay, whose life story was a big inspiration to me when I was starting out and whom I never got to meet before he passed. Lastly, just for kicks, I’ll throw in Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy because I’m told my grandfather laughed his ass off the one and only time he saw one of their films.
What’s coming next from Donald Ray Pollock?
I am working on a novel set in Ohio in 1959 called “Rainsboro.”
Congratulations on penning The Heavenly Table, a compulsively readable, multi-tiered and picaresque literary novel that stands alone in the current crop of popular fiction.
In Judgment Cometh, the eighth Joe Dillard novel, Joe is hired to defend a man who was driving a pick-up, which when stopped for a traffic violation, was found to have containers with body-parts in the truck’s bed. They are the remains of a judge who had gone missing. As Joe explores the case, he comes to believe his client is not guilty. But then, who is kidnapping and killing judges all over the state of Tennessee? Joe and his friend, Sheriff Leon Bates, follow the case to a dark and life-threatening conclusion.
Judgment Cometh begins with a quote from Thomas Carlyle, ‘Judgment for an evil thing is many times delayed, for some a day or two, some a century or two, but it is sure as life, it is sure as death.’ Tell us your thoughts about that.
I ran across that quote and it struck me as being so appropriate for the beginning of this book. You can commit a terrible act and “get away with it” for some period of time—it might be a day, a year, or a century—but eventually, something will happen to right the universe, to get things back to where they were or should be before you committed this moral transgression.
Talking about moral transgressions, Joe Dillard is a very moral man, isn’t he?
He is, or I should say, he tries to be moral. His definition of morality may be different from some people’s. His morality isn’t based on religion, but on his own conscience. His has an individual morality, an inner code. He tends to look at things as being black or white with very little in between. When he finds himself in a gray area, he feels uncomfortable and may react violently, or even irrationally. When his moral code is violated, he may not always know how best to handle the situation, but he will handle it. He always acts to right a wrong.
When Joe Dillard meets with his new client, David Craig, he doesn’t want any details about the death of Judge Fletcher Bryant, the man whose body parts were found in the bed of David’s pick-up truck. Why is that?
At the outset of the representation, a lawyer wants to be very careful with a defendant. If the defendant admits to a crime and says, “I chopped the victim up and put his body parts in the back of the truck,” that limits the lawyer’s options going forward with the case. If the attorney knows the client has confessed to the murder, and puts him on the stand to testify, if the client lies on the stand, the attorney must abandon the case. The attorney is suborning perjury if he knowingly put a client on the stand and allows him to say he didn’t commit the crime. So, the attorney dances around the issue until he or she gets a sense of the facts and evidence and truly thinks the client did not commit the crime; then, he may ask the client whether or not he did so.
Judgment Cometh initially focuses on the police search of David Craig’s truck and the suspect’s interrogation. Tell us about the legal principles involved.
There are two kinds of searches involved in a case like this one.
One is an inventory search where the police impound a vehicle and go through it, logging everything in the car so the suspect can’t later claim things were stolen. Every police department has a procedure for an inventory search.
But there are limits to such a search. Let’s say there’s a closed container in the vehicle—a suitcase—they can inventory the item. But if they have reason to believe there’s something like contraband or something dangerous in that suitcase, they are permitted by law to open it. It’s a Fourth Amendment issue regarding unreasonable search and seizure. Different states interpret it differently. The police officer must have some reasonable and easily articulated suspicion that something inside the suitcase is going to be evidence of a crime. If there is no such reasonable suspicion, he cannot, by law, just open the suitcase.
In the book, the police officer was a rookie and testified that he opened the container on a hunch.
In a courtroom, a hunch doesn’t cut it. Evidence found under such circumstances comes under the exclusionary rule and is thrown out.
Joe Dillard is getting older and is now working with his son, Jack, and daughter-in-law, Charlie. Where do you see the series going?
I’ll probably put Joe in a less active role, more of a supervisory position. Jack and Charlie will handle most of the action from here on out. Joe will be the legal guru. It will be a way for me to revitalize the series by injecting these young lawyers into the stories.
You’ve written eight Joe Dillard novels. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a series?
The advantages of the Dillard novels are important. For me, writing about Joe is like putting on an old coat. It’s so comfortable knowing the main players, but it becomes a matter of trying to always keep it fresh.
The disadvantage is the level of vigilance I must maintain to ensure the series doesn’t get stale; that can happen if a writer gets lazy. The series is now a little darker than it was in the earlier books, but that’s because I’ve been in a darker place because my wife has been battling breast cancer. Some of my own anger and frustration has bled through into the novels.
In that vein, Scott, it’s clear Joe is going through some of the same difficulties you’ve been facing in your own life. He’s something of a fictional stand-in for you.
Yes, he is. I’ve talked to my wife, Kristy, about this. I asked if she minds my letting the world know she’s got metastatic breast cancer. More than a million and a half people are looking in on our personal lives through the books. Kristy’s thought and mine are the same: if we can help anyone understand and deal better with cancer, it’s worthwhile. It’s difficult and we want women and their families to know they’re not alone in the battle.
It’s also important for readers to see Joe’s wife, Caroline, survive and continue to thrive. She tries living as well as she possibly can. You can’t imagine how many e-mails I get from readers telling me, ‘Don’t you dare let Caroline die.’
Looking at your writing career, has your writing process changed over the years?
Not really. It’s all about discipline and getting into the chair at the same time each day; going to bed at the same time; getting plenty of exercise and staying mentally sharp. I don’t outline my books. I start with a small idea, and keep going. About half way through the book, I decide how I’m going to end the story. I build a foundation and then head for the end.
What, if anything, do you read when you’re busy writing a novel?
When I’m writing, I don’t read anything other than research. If I were to read Dennis Lehane when I’m writing, I’d start writing like he does. That goes for any other author. If I read them while I’m actively writing, I’ll find myself subconsciously mimicking them. While I’m writing, I don’t read. In between novels, I read voraciously.
Speaking of voracious reading, which authors do you enjoy reading?
Dennis Lehane is one. I love reading Mike Royko’s columns. I read Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. As for reading genre fiction, I love John Grisham’s novels as well as all kinds of thrillers.
What’s coming next from Scott Pratt?
I contracted to write a trilogy for Thomas & Mercer. It’s called Justice Burning. It’s something of a Breaking Bad lawyer novel where something bad happens to an attorney who then goes off the deep end.
Congratulations on writing Judgment Cometh, another gripping novel putting you in the company of John Grisham, Steve Martini, John Lescroart, and Scott Turow.
In Killer Look, the 18th novel featuring Alex Cooper, Linda takes the reader into the rarified and glamorous world of high fashion. But high fashion means ultra-high stakes. When murder rocks New York City’s Fashion Week, Alex, along with Detectives Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace, strives to expose the culprit lurking among the media, strutting supermodels and celebrity attendees. It’s a beauty-driven, tension-filled game involving the ruthless denizens of billion dollar empires with far-flung tentacles in Paris, Milan, and London.
As usual, this Alex Cooper novel, like its predecessors, explores an iconic New York City feature or landmark. In Killer Look, you focus on the New York fashion scene. Tell us a little about it.
I’m known for doing research such as when I explore an institution or some aspect of New York City, but this was so different because I’d never known the high-end fashion world or its fiercely competitive business component. This novel isn’t based on a specific building or landmark, but rather it takes place in a special section of the city. Actually, there’s very little left of the one square mile of the garment district. Many of the businesses have been outsourced, so I didn’t have many physical structures in which to set the story. I ended up using other places connected to the fashion industry, such as the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Those are two of the places where glamorous fashion shows take place.
Nowadays, fashion shows are attempts by the companies to outdo each other. Some take place on the Chelsea piers, others opt for museums or some quirky venue. It’s more freewheeling now, so I was able to create my own timetable and use my own locations for this fictional fashion world.
I was struck by the cutthroat nature of the fashion industry as depicted in the novel.
I did a great deal of research about it. I always looked at the glamor end of the fashion industry, but it’s become far more cutthroat, especially with the global aspect of the industry. It’s such rich material for a crime novelist to explore and was a perfect setting for the novel.
In Killer Look, Alex is suffering the aftereffects of events from the previous novel, Devil’s Bridge. Tell us about that.
In Devil’s Bridge, Alex was kidnapped. That book begins through Alex’s eyes but after 50 pages, Mike Chapman takes over as the protagonist. Alex has spent her career prosecuting criminals who committed sexual and domestic violence, and that involved her being sensitive to victims’ recoveries. However, in Killer Look, Alex herself is recovering from having been a victim, so the reader can see that Alex, who’s been very strong throughout the first seventeen books, has been profoundly impacted by an experience similar to those of victims with whom she dealt in the earlier books. I wanted readers to see how vulnerable Alex was after her traumatic experience in Devil’s Bridge. I wanted her to be much more than some kind of unidimensional “super-woman.”
In Killer Look, a fascinating method of either murder or suicide is described. Tell us about that.
I’m smiling because if you’re writing crime novels, you always struggle with how best to kill someone. [Laughter] I’ve used many of the traditional methods, and I’m always looking for something different. A great friend, Fern Mallis, the head of Fashion Designers of America was my guide through the fashion world.
As for homicide methods, I have a friend who’s now retired from the NYPD, but who was a young lieutenant when I was a prosecutor. He’s the smartest cop I’ve ever known. He helped me with police procedures in Devil’s Bridge. For Killer Look, Jimmy told me about a method of assisted suicide using a plastic bag filled with helium or other inert gases such as nitrogen, argon or methane. It’s a popular method in various states where assisted suicide is permitted because it’s painless and fast. It in a disturbing development, it could also be used in a homicide if it’s staged correctly.
After eighteen novels, has your writing process changed?
For the first few books, I began writing in longhand. I had a romantic notion to write with a pen and pad while I was sitting and looking out at the ocean. When I began using a computer, the process changed dramatically.
My actual writing process has evolved over time. I’ve learned how much of an outline to do, and I discovered that mornings are my best time of day to write. On certain writing days, my friends know not to telephone me before four o’clock in the afternoon because I’m busy writing.
Do you ever re-read your earlier novels? If so, how do they strike you now?
They strike me, quite honestly, as unpolished compared to what I write now. Final Jeopardy was my first novel and I love it the way a parent loves a first child. But I would so love to be able to go back and polish it up a bit. While writing the first five novels in the series, I was still a prosecutor. Writing back then was part-time, and took place between five and seven in the morning, or on weekends. In some ways, the fact that I was writing in my spare time is reflected in the earlier books.
I also learned things by reading many books, especially those by David Baldacci—for instance, ending every chapter on a suspenseful note, a cliffhanger. Now, in my own books, I try to end each chapter with a level of tension to propel the reader on to the next one.
Do you have a favorite among your novels?
I always think it’s the one I’m writing at the moment. [Laughter] I think that’s because I’m always excited about the novel I’m writing. The new baby is always the favorite.
If you could experience re-reading any one book as though you were reading it for the first time, which one would it be?
Wow! That’s a great question. For me, it would be Anna Karenina. I love the drama and tragedy of the storytelling. I first read it in high school, again in college, and two more times in my adult life. That’s the one I’d love to return to.
What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?
A good book. [Laughter] I end almost every evening reading a good book.
What’s coming next from Linda Fairstein?
Two things. Killer Look has a dramatic ending and I already know the opening of the next Alex Cooper book.
The other new development is this: as a kid, I grew up reading Nancy Drew books. My homage to Nancy Drew is a series I’ve begun writing for middle-grade children. The first book, Into the Lion’s Den is coming out in November. The sleuth is a twelve-year-old girl named Devlin Quick, whose mother is New York City’s first woman police commissioner, which gives Devlin access to various police resources.
Congratulations on writing Killer Look, a truly suspenseful novel rich in atmosphere and revealing the underbelly beneath the glitz and glamor of the New York and international fashion industry. It’s a fine example of why Nelson DeMille called you ‘One of the best crime fiction writers in America today.’
I’ve had the opportunity to interview some of the most acclaimed authors on the planet. I enjoy asking them questions often tailored to their unique writing styles or fictional characters. There are some questions that apply almost universally to writers. One of my favorites is:
Here are excerpted responses from very successful and prolific authors.
Don Winslow: If I procrastinate or don’t write, I feel guilty. (Laughter). I should be home writing. I feel as though I’m shirking…it’s a strange kind of dysphoria. I try take Sundays off. I sort of get away with that because I feel like I’m improving myself (More laughter). ~ Talking about The Cartel
Patricia Cornwell: I most certainly procrastinate. I absolutely have days where I’ll find every excuse under the sun not to sit at that desk and write. The reason is: writing scares me. It’s hard. And if the characters are being uncooperative, I just move words around uselessly. At times like that, I wonder who stole my characters. Or, I think they’ve gone on vacation. Talking about Depraved Heart
Linwood Barclay: 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. ~ Talking about Broken Promise
Linda Fairstein: 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. ~ Talking about Devil’s Bridge
Jon Land: Everyone procrastinates to some extent. But creative procrastination is a positive thing. Some of my best ideas have come when I wasn’t sitting at the computer. I might be at the gym; or watching a movie; but these connect-the-dot moments arise from creative procrastination. ~ Taking about Strong Light of Day
Tess Gerritsen: I procrastinate all the time. It’s human nature. I write and stick to my schedule because I have a contract. If I didn’t have a book under contract, I would take my time. You know, there are so many distractions for a novelist, especially for those of us who are pulled in many directions by multiple passions. I could spend an entire year doing nothing but learning fiddle tunes. ~ Talking about Playing with Fire
Barry Eisler: Procrastination is a continuous struggle. I have a good rationalization for it: I’m obsessed with political issues. There’s so much good commentary and discussion on the matters that interest me: politics, the rule of law, the media, government transparency, civil rights, and other issues. I read and blog about them. It takes a lot of time away from what would otherwise be my day-job—writing fiction. So, my rationalization for procrastinating is built in. My novels are so driven by real world events, I tell myself I’m really doing research. (Laughter). Talking about The God’s Eye View
Robert Crais: Yes, I procrastinate. The reality is—especially on a bad day, but really, on all days—writing is a job like any other. Only, you’re your own boss, and the boss, meaning you, must keep you the chair, focused and committed to getting the task accomplished. You have to consistently force yourself to keep writing. Talking about The Promise
Lisa Gardner: If I procrastinate, I get anxious and I feel I may not meet my deadline. I’m a very structured writer. I draft a novel in about six months. Then, I re-write. If I get behind schedule, my husband and daughter will tell you I’m not fun to live with. (Laughter). ~ Talking about Find Her
Alafair Burke: If procrastination were a competitive sport, I would get lots of medals. (Laughter). I try to keep enough structure in my life so I don’t miss deadlines. My idea of goofing off is going on Facebook to look at friends’ pictures. (Laughter). It helps that I still have a job as an attorney. I have a schedule and am forced to be mindful of time. Sometimes, I just have to compel myself write the next book. ~ Talking about The Ex
Reed Farrel Coleman: Procrastination is against my religion. (Laughter). Even as an undisciplined kid, I never procrastinated. I was always the first kid in class to give a speech when no one wanted to do it. I always felt waiting caused me more anxiety than doing something I didn’t want to do. I’m still that way. ~ Talking about Where it Hurts
Allison Gaylin: Procrastination can absolutely be a problem. (Laughter). That’s especially true with social media. I can fall into a hole on Facebook or looking at news stories online. I have to discipline myself. ~ Talking about What Remains of Me
Ace Atkins, while working as a crime reporter for the Tampa Tribune, earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his coverage of a cold case from the 1950s. At age 27, his first novel, Crossroad Blues, was published and be became a full-time novelist at age 30.
The Innocents is the sixth installment of his critically acclaimed Quinn Colson series. After a stint in Afghanistan where he trained local police, Quinn returns to his hometown of Jericho, Mississippi. Along a country road, an eighteen-year-old former high school cheerleader is found engulfed in flames; and there’s no shortage of suspects in her murder. Working with Lillie Virgil, the first woman sheriff in the state, Quinn and others sort through a web of intrigue and secrets, trying to bring justice to the town of Jericho.
One of the striking things about The Innocents and the other books in the series is how the town of Jericho almost becomes a character. Will you talk about setting?
I’m always struck by how many novels today focus on international intrigue and involve white-knight superheroes. While I enjoy reading them, I try to write a different kind of novel. I write about ordinary people living in a small town such as Jericho, Mississippi. I love capturing the atmosphere of Southern life with its unique ambience and everything that goes on—the good, the bad and the unexpected.
I also think one of the advantages of a series is the author can elaborate on the setting and the characters with each successive novel. I can expand and dig deeper with each novel. Six books into the series, Quinn Colson has become a more complex character, and Jericho’s corrupt underbelly has been more vividly exposed.
You anticipated my next question. In the Quinn Colson novels, is Jericho a microcosm of the larger world?
Yes, absolutely it is. You don’t have to be in Paris, London or New York, and you don’t have to write international thrillers to experience corruption, intrigue, brutality, and criminality. It’s as much a part of life in a small town as anywhere else.
So, as you said, the fictional town of Jericho is a microcosm of the larger world. And a protagonist like Quinn Colson has all the flaws and warts you would expect to find in people anywhere: he’s had a problematic off-again-on-again relationship with a married woman; has issues with work; and must sort out complicated relationships with his father and sister.
The Innocents, as are all your other Quinn Colson novels, is peppered with authentic dialogue. Tell us how you approach writing dialogue.
I think dialogue is the engine driving a novel. It propels the story and bespeaks character. A novel’s characters are made real by their dialogue more than by anything else. I’ve always felt dialogue is not just what people say to each other; it’s what they do to each other with words. I love walking around and jotting down little bits of dialogue I overhear, whether it’s at the general store, standing in a supermarket line, or sitting in a restaurant.
Without trying to eavesdrop, I hear the most amazing bits and pieces of conversation, some of which I can fit in a novel.
A short while ago, while walking around, I heard a man and woman talking. From their conversation and the tones of their voices, it was clear they knew each other very well. She gave him a gentle punch on the shoulder and said, ‘How dare you sleep with another woman.’ He laughed and said, ‘What can you expect? I was in jail for a month.’ [Laughter]
By listening to conversations taking place anywhere, a writer can find a treasure trove of dialogue that might wind up in a novel.
The Born Losers, a motorcycle gang, plays a significant role in The Innocents. Is any of this based on your observations of real-life people?
Some of what I try to capture in my writing is the way the South was back in the Seventies—motorcycle gangs, overt prejudice, and things like that. And I’ve always loved films like Easy Rider and I’ve done research on motorcycle gangs; but most of what appears in the Quinn Colson books is a product of my imagination.
Quinn’s relationship with his father, Jason, is interesting. Tell us about that.
In the previous Quinn Colson novel, I decided to bring Jason Colson back. He was something of a ghost in Quinn’s life, having been largely absent when Quinn was growing up—Jason was a Hollywood stuntman living the fast life.
When I reintroduced Jason, I wasn’t really sure what to do with him. I didn’t have him sketched out as well as I’d have liked. I gave the script to a psychologist friend who made a very perceptive observation: he felt that as a Hollywood stuntman, Jason Colson had a risk-taking personality and that trait would permeate his lifestyle. So, Jason is a risk-taker, and gets immersed in various high-stakes ventures. True to form, in The Innocents, Jason wants to get involved in a huge land deal.
Because of Jason Colson’s absence all those years, he and Quinn don’t have a close relationship. In fact, it’s quite strained, as are many father-son relationships in real life.
As a successful novelist, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
The most important thing is to work, work, work.
I work on my books every day except when I’m on vacation. To be a professional novelist means you want to improve with each project, and there’s no substitute for always working and trying to write better prose.
I’ve been doing this for almost twenty years, and it’s a constant struggle to keep at it and grow as a writer.
What do you love most about the writing life?
Sometimes I love it and sometimes I hate it [Laughter].
I do love the freedom the writing life allows, but as a professional writer, I’ve got to make deadlines. I have to deliver a manuscript on time and it has to be good, sharp, and right. My editors expect a solid book, not a rough draft. So, while I love being my own boss, and having independence, the writing life also confers responsibilities.
What’s coming next from Ace Atkins?
I’m working on my twentieth novel. It’s going to be my sixth Spenser novel. I’m overwhelmed by how accepting readers have been of my taking over the series after Robert B. Parker’s passing. Writing those books has been very satisfying.
Congratulations on penning The Innocents, another compelling and atmospheric Quinn Colson novel in a series about which John Sandford said, ‘With terrific, inflected characters and a dark, subtle sense of place and history, these are exceptional novels.’
Patrick Flanery earned a B.F.A. in film at NYU and worked in the film industry before moving to the U.K, where he completed a doctorate in Twentieth-Century English Literature at Oxford. He has written for the Washington Post and the Times Literary Supplement, and is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Reading. I Am No One is his third novel.
I Am No One features Jeremy O’Keefe, a divorced, middle-aged history and film lecturer at NYU, who has returned from the U.K. after spending a decade teaching at Oxford. He had left New York, his crumbling marriage, and young daughter after not receiving tenure at Columbia. Now back in the city, he begins to receive a series of mysterious packages, each one containing seemingly incontrovertible evidence that every aspect of his digital life over the last ten years has been the subject of intense surveillance. At the same time, he repeatedly encounters a strange young man who appears to know exactly where Jeremy is going or has just been.
And who’s that darkly clothed figure Jeremy sees on so many nights peering at his apartment windows?
What is going on …. and why?
The reader is drawn into Jeremy’s world of possible paranoia and delusion; or is it one of a frightening level of all-encompassing surveillance?
On one level, I Am No One deals with the issue of surveillance, either by the state or by rogue players. Will you talk about that?
When I started writing the book, I didn’t set out to write a novel about surveillance. I was thinking about a moment I’d experienced in New York City. I was staying with a friend who was living in Silver Towers. I was on the street and looked up at her bedroom window. I waved to her, but she didn’t see me. I told her I’d seen her and it was the first time she’d been aware she was living a half-public life in her own apartment. That made me think of crafting a story about different kinds of intrusions into one’s private life. It made me want to explore the kind of characters who would be at the nexus of that experience. That led to a broader story about surveillance. It became a book about different kinds of watching and the experience of being watched—both on a personal level and in a larger, more abstract governmental way.
You can probably discuss this extensively: Is I Am No One a political thriller, a cautionary warning, an existential meditation of self and the world, or a combination of all three?
I think it can certainly be read with all three of those categories in mind. In some ways, the novel is trying to engage the possibility of each of those genres. The book is conscious of its status as something involving complexity. There are moments when Jeremy wonders what kind of novel he’s in. Is he in a thriller, a drama? It’s also a novel about how we live our lives these days and how we think about ourselves. People interested in a political thriller will find something identifiable for themselves. However, it’s not a novel that plays by the rules of commercial thrillers.
All your novels deal, at least partly, with contemporary political and social issues. Will you talk about that?
[Laughter] I grew up in a household where the political was a key component of everyday life. My father was a newspaper reporter and my mother was a school teacher and also worked for a non-profit organization. They were both involved in anti-war movements in the late 1960s in Chicago. I grew up with that legacy. With that background, I had great difficulty navigating my way through the world without thinking about the ways in which the political affects everyday interactions. When I sit down to write a book, the political is always influencing my creative impulses. I think my books tend to be very broad and complicate realism, while still telling stories about the world we live in.
At times I Am No One uses long, elegant sentences with digressions, but they never lose the reader, and always return to where they began. Who are your literary influences?
There are a great many. [Laughter] For this book, I was thinking about a few writers in particular. I’ve been trying to read Proust in French, having read the first two volumes in English. His circumambulatory style influenced my prose. The Spanish writer Javier Marias is also an influence. And then there’s someone like Nabokov. I was reading Lolita before I began working on this book.
I also wanted prose that would speak to the style of the character, Jeremy.
Yes, professorial and intellectual.
Even a bit pedantic.
Yes, somewhat self-important but still quite likable in his own way. [Laughter] Which leads to the next question. At times, Jeremy O’Keefe seemed the proverbial unreliable narrator, but was he merely unwilling to look at himself more deeply?
I think that’s a really interesting way of thinking about him. He’s not trying to mislead the reader as often occurs with unreliable narrators. What makes him unreliable is his inability to see his own self in the world and his not being able to see the ways in which he’s failed, both professionally and personally. I agree with you: his unreliability derives from his failure at introspection.
That leads me to another question. The novel seems to be partly metafiction in the sense that Jeremy is very aware of writing a chronicle about his experience.
The books I most enjoy reading are those that are conscious of their status as books. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy reading books where metafiction isn’t in play. But I find the playful self-consciousness of a book very satisfying. So, I write the kind of books I would like to read. I’m interested in the way metafiction can take political energy and do something concrete with it.
You’ve studied both film and literature, and you’re a novelist. Talk about storytelling in film as compared to the novel.
The storytelling tools I learned at NYU’s film school were important in ways I could never have foreseen. Film chiefly taught me to build a kind of visual sensibility. Even when I’m thinking about the world within the confines of prose fiction, I’m always thinking about the visual setting.
I’m currently trying to write a screenplay. It’s a completely different kind of creative work. You have to resist those impulses to describe setting or describe a character’s interior thoughts and feelings. In film, you have to find ways to focus only on action and dialogue, yet convey the depth you can portray in a novel. It’s challenging.
Film forces the writer to conform to the proverbial axiom of ‘show, don’t tell,’ doesn’t it?
Absolutely. You have to show everything, right up front. It has to be done by showing action, setting and dialogue.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
First, the process of reading is never finished. You must read whatever is published in your genre and must read and re-read your own work in progress. I learned to appreciate how the process of reading and re-reading one’s own work helps clarify issues of both plot and style.
You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five guests, living or dead, real or fictional, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
[Laughter] I’d like to invite Stanley Kubrick. Then, I’d have Ruth Bader Ginsburg there. A fascinating guest would be William Faulkner. I’d also invite the late Bill Cunningham, along with Elena Ferrante because I really enjoy her work.
Congratulations on writing I Am No One, a superbly-written and elegant novel exploring multiple themes involving political surveillance, human nature, consciousness, relations between people, and the role of culture in forming a person’s identity.
Larry Watson received his BA and MA from the University of North Dakota and his PhD in creative writing at the University of Utah. His fiction, published in many foreign editions, has received multiple prizes and awards. His short stories and poems have appeared in various journals. He taught at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point for twenty-five years before joining the faculty at Marquette University in 2003 as a visiting professor.
As Good as Gone, his 10th novel, is set in the 1960s. It features an entire family, but especially focuses on Calvin Sidey, an aging cowboy living in a trailer outside Gladstone, Montana. Calvin has had no real communication with his family or with anyone else, for many years. He’s asked by his son Bill to look after Bill’s own two kids, 17-year-old Ann and 11-year-old Will, while Bill takes his wife to Missoula for surgery. Calvin agrees to babysit, but must confront the reality that his Old West ways of settling scores, issuing ultimatums, and teetering on the edge of violence are no longer acceptable.
Calvin Sidey in As Good as Gone is something of a mythic American cowboy—perhaps a Clint Eastwood type— transported to 1963. Tell us your thoughts about this kind of iconic figure.
Maybe you’re casting the movie, already. [Laughter]
I had a mythic western hero in mind as I was working on the novel, but I also wanted to undercut that myth even as I was writing it. In a conversation with his grandson Will, Calvin tries to destroy that myth by disabusing the boy of some of his notions about who and what a cowboy is.
I also had my own grandfather in mind; he was a cowboy in Montana, but was completely unlike Calvin Sidey. He was a gentle, kind man and would have chuckled at the notion of his being an iconic American figure. He thought the best part of his life was when he gave up the cowboy life and became a homesteader.
As Good as Gone is as much a family saga as anything else, isn’t it?
Yes, I very much think of it as a generational family novel. I tried building parallels into the characters. Besides exploring Calvin’s experiences, we have episodes of Bill Sidey as a boy; some of Will’s; others of Bill’s wife Margery as a teen-ager; and Calvin’s granddaughter Ann’s. I wanted to describe the struggles of a family showing how the different generations are reflected in those challenges.
As Good As Gone is populated by a diverse cast of characters, each with a distinct voice. What thoughts do you have about character and voice?
I don’t much analyze it. I just hope if I have a sure enough sense of the character, his or her personality will emerge in the writing. One of the problems I had in the early drafts was with the internal perceptions of Calvin Sidey. I didn’t yet have his voice. I’m not quite sure what happened, but I finally felt I knew him well enough to offer his take on the world. Maybe I just got older. [Laughter].
Speaking of character in As Good as Gone, you beautifully capture the thoughts and feelings of an eleven-year-old boy. Tell us about that.
I may be older and mature, but I can still feel an eleven-year-old boy inside me. Maybe it takes remembering an event from my own life, but I can certainly go back to the experiences and mindset of an eleven-year-old.
I was impressed by how well As Good as Gone describes the small elements of everyday life—the feel of sun on one’s neck, the taste of river water, the smell of mildewed sheets. Tell us about that.
You’ve mentioned different sensory experiences. I do remind myself as I’m writing to include not just visual perceptions, but auditory, olfactory and skin sensations. I think of those things as the kinds of details that help shore up the reader’s belief in what’s happening, and it helps readers experience for themselves whatever is going on. I want them to identify with the experience.
Your prose is spare yet powerful, and reminiscent of Hemingway’s. Who are your literary heroes?
You just named one: Hemingway. I’m re-reading Hemingway over the summer because I’m teaching a course in fiction. Hemingway was one of the first good writers I discovered on my own; that is to say, I wasn’t assigned a Hemingway novel. I recognized how good he was. His short stories inspired me and made me want to try writing.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
It’s not a complicated one: it’s just to do it. For me, that means writing every day. I’m a slow writer. A two-hundred-word day is a good one for me. I’ve always taught so I have to allot my time between teaching and writing. The habit of writing every day is essential.
You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five guests, living or dead, real or fictional, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
First, I’d have my wife there. I enjoy talking with her, and if you depended on me to keep the conversation going, you’d all be in trouble. I’d really like to invite Philip Roth and Alice Munro. I think so highly of them. Both of them have stopped writing, and I’d want to hear what they would have to say about not writing. I’d also invite John Updike whose work I admire. In contrast to Roth and Munro, he was in the hospital at the end of his life writing poems about getting chemotherapy. He never stopped. And lastly, I’d want my father there. All my novels were published after he died. I never had the chance to ask him, ‘Hey, Dad, did I get this right?’ I wish I’d have asked him more questions and had him talk more about his own experiences.
What’s coming next from Larry Watson?
I’m not sure. I’ve finished a couple of drafts, but I’m not certain about what to do with them.
Congratulations on penning As Good as Gone, a suspenseful and evocative novel with stunning prose, painting strongly drawn characters facing daunting emotional, social and family conflicts.
John Hart, a bestselling author, is the only writer ever to win the Edgar Award for consecutive novels. He’s also won the Barry Award, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award, and the North Carolina Award for Literature, among others.
Redemption Road features Elizabeth Black, a North Carolina detective accused of murdering two kidnappers and rapists after their bodies are discovered riddled by 18 bullet holes.
The novel also focuses on Adrian Wall, a former police officer who was convicted of murder and imprisoned for 13 years, during which time he was tortured relentlessly.
The reason for the torture is one of the backbones of this dual narrative novel.
In the past, Elizabeth’s and Adrian’s paths had crossed, and they meet once again to deal with a web of corruption, abuse and evil conspiring against their coming to terms with their own demons.
Your last novel, Iron House, was published five years ago. What caused so long an interval between that novel and Redemption Road?
Having written four novels, with each one having done better than the preceding ones, I came to believe I knew what I was doing. That turned out to be a rookie’s mistake. As soon as I started taking the writing process for granted, or putting faith in some kind of ‘divine inspiration,’ I was in trouble. Of course, now I’m speaking with the clear view of hindsight.
With the first four books, I knew exactly who my main characters were. I knew their weaknesses and their strengths. And those books worked because in addition to the plot, I had created real, fully-fleshed-out characters. When I began writing book five, I lacked that awareness.
So, when I started to write my fifth book, I just had the idea for a story…I envisioned it to be a modern retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo. There would be a good man wrongfully imprisoned, and an exploration of what he does after his release.
Three hundred pages later, I had the meat of a novel, but the protagonist was like those of a hundred thrillers I’d read before. He was predictable and the story didn’t resonate.
My publisher was very patient and decided to wait for me to produce the right book. It turned out Liz, who had been a bit player in the first attempt, now became a main player in Redemption Road. Once I had her character, it took another two years to complete the novel.
I’ve read all your novels. Redemption Road is the first written largely from the perspective of a woman. Was it a difficult challenge for you to write from this point of view?
I was worried when writing from a woman’s perspective that the character would ring false. I don’t think that happened with Liz. The reason seems clear to me: what makes us human is universal—the core emotions of fear, love, hate, and rage; the need for security and understanding. They’re the same whether one is a man or a woman. I focused on those elements, not on personal things like fashion or makeup. I kept it to the core of meaningful things.
Redemption Road describes police corruption and prison abuse. Does your earlier work as a criminal defense attorney inform your writing about these issues?
I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of corruption and abuse, but I have seen the jaded callousness that comes from institutional indifference. In a real sense, the people who cycle through the justice system become something less that human in the eyes of the people running the system—including administrative people, as well as guards. Even as a visitor to a prison, you feel yourself being dehumanized and turned into part of an indifferent machine. Once you go to prison, everything is beyond your control.
My background gave me that baseline of understanding from which to extrapolate some of Adrian’s experiences as a prisoner.
Your writing is very lyrical. Is it accurate to characterize your prose as Southern literary?
Actually, I’m woefully under-read. I’m always flattered to be called into the canon of Southern writers, and anything I could say about that would probably be grounded on air. I do think Southern literature is about love of place, a sense of history, and embracing the difficult parts of the human experience.
For a long time, the South was a vanquished nation. We have darkness and pride in our history. The South’s history is largely agrarian and there’s a strong tie to the land. Many people have had family farms for generations. As for the language itself, I love the late Pat Conroy’s writing. I don’t pretend to rise to his level, but I think language matters very much to storytelling. If in a reader I can create an emotional response that goes beyond enjoying pure story, then I’ve accomplished adding richness to the reading experience.
What do you love about the writing life?
I believe being a novelist is the ultimate expression of personal freedom. I have no boss; no calendar; I can live wherever I want; write what I want; and with sufficient readership, the relationship with the publisher becomes a partnership. I love living a writer’s life—being able to make a living through pure imagination and not have someone telling me what to do.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
The most important lesson about the writing life is you must hold onto the world.
I spend my time in virtual isolation. I no longer have colleagues or people with whom I talk at the water cooler. It’s just me and silence. For a writer, it’s very important to hold onto friendships and activities, to stay grounded in the real world.
As for the most important lesson I’ve learned about writing, it’s this: you must be brutally hard on yourself. You have to keep at the writing until it’s right. It’s very seductive to say to one’s self, ‘This is good enough.’ But, you can almost always make a manuscript better. There’s a balance between wanting a novel to be completed and a willingness to go back again and again. As Dennis Lehane said, ‘The first draft is spaghetti on the wall.’ The real work is in the rewriting.
You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, real or fictional, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
I’d invite Leonardo DaVinci, arguably the most amazing man who ever lived. I’d also invite Admiral Horatio Nelson because I love that period in naval history. I’d ask Hans Solo to join us along with J.R.R. Tolkien, the writer I admire for his gift of pure storytelling; and I’d invite my wife, because if I didn’t, she’d never forgive me [Laughter].
Congratulations on writing Redemption Road, an explosive and riveting novel written so lyrically, it must be described as literature.
Camille Perri was a books editor for Cosmopolitan and Esquire magazines and has also been a reference librarian. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from NYU and a Master of Library Science degree from Queens College. She wrote the first draft of The Assistants while working as the Assistant to the Editor in Chief of Esquire.
The Assistants features Tina Fontana, a 30 year old executive assistant to the billionaire CEO of Titan Corporation. She’s great at her job, but after 6 years of making restaurant and plane reservations, the glamor has faded, while her student debt has not.
While she’s always played by the rules, a technical error in her boss’s expense account presents Tina with the chance to pay off her student loan with money that would be pocket-change for her boss. Without intending it, Tina finds herself at the forefront of an embezzlement scheme, leading to questions about income inequality as well as to unanticipated dangers causing her to refashion her life.
Tina Fontana is a fascinating character. Tell us about her.
At the start of the novel, Tina is in a rut, both in her career and life in general. She’s thirty years old, grew up in a working class family, and has always played by the rules. She’s not in a position of upward mobility. She’s the assistant to a billionaire, which sets up a situation requiring her to make an ethical decision. She’s presented with an opportunity to pay off her student debt because of a technical error involving the Titan Corporation. As the novel progresses, she becomes much less passive and comes into her own.
She struck me as being quite insecure, socially and sexually.
Yes, that’s accurate. I wanted her to be someone with whom many women would empathize. She’s the narrator of the story and the reader is privy to her inner thoughts and feelings. Tina is vulnerable and insecure, which is the way many people—especially women—can feel. It’s sort of the imposter syndrome, something like ‘fake it til you make it.’ She puts up a strong front by being sarcastic and using humor, but Tina has an inner vulnerability which I wanted the reader to see.
One innocent mistake leads to complications, doesn’t it?
Yes. Tina has a student loan debt she’s been trying to pay off her entire adult life. She does her boss’s expense accounts, and inadvertently receives a reimbursement check from the corporation. It’s almost the exact amount of her debt. She’s conflicted about what to do. It’s the equivalent of going to an ATM, and it spits out a bunch of extra money. You don’t count it, but take it home. At home, you realize you have thousands of extra dollars. What would you do? It’s a dilemma. That’s the conundrum facing Tina. If she uses the money to pay off her debt, she’ll have a new lease on life; but of course, stealing is wrong. Tina’s a good person who would never voluntarily steal.
You’ve been an assistant to some high-powered people. How much of your own experience informs The Assistants?
I wrote The Assistants while I was the Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief of Esquire. My experience was very different from Tina’s. In the novel, her boss is a billionaire. However, anyone who’s been an assistant to a powerful person can relate to her situation. So, I was very aware of the power disparity and other elements inherent in the boss-assistant relationship.
All the assistants in the novel are women. What about that?
That was an intentional decision. I think a majority of assistants are still women. Of course men who are assistants would encounter many of the same situations a woman in that position does, but I really wanted to speak to the female experience because it demonstrates sharply both gender inequality and power issues. I intended the novel to be read predominantly by women, though a number of men have enjoyed it. Issues relating to disparity of power affect both men and women, and I’m very encouraged men have liked to book.
The issue of income inequality has been in the news. The Assistants addresses this issue as well as that of women in the workplace. Tell us a bit more.
I wanted to explore these themes without being didactic. Someone really interested in dissecting these problems can pick up a non-fiction book; that was not my intention in writing the novel.
First and foremost, I wanted to write a fun and fast-paced read. But I wanted a social consciousness to be present in the guts of this novel. Income inequality is now a very big issue, and we’re seeing it in this year’s election cycle. I think the skyrocketing cost of a college education has placed it in the sphere of being a luxury-priced necessity. People in their twenties and thirties can’t get ahead financially the way their parents did.
Reading The Assistants, I couldn’t help but think of the 1988 movie Working Girl with Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver. Any thoughts about your novel becoming a movie?
I’d love to see that happen. I have a movie agent, and there’s interest in making the book into a film.
I loved those movies from the eighties, movies like Working Girl, Nine to Five, Outrageous Fortune, The Heat, Bridesmaids, Pitch Perfect, and others. One of my favorite things is to first read a novel and then see the movie. I enjoy picturing the characters and then later, seeing them on the screen, comparing how they’re different.
Who do you see playing Tina Fontana?
[Laughter] I can’t say. As a creator of these characters I have a strong mental image of them, but I don’t want to put impose my thoughts because other people’s mental images are just as valid as mine. I would say the actor should simply be someone who could take that journey of starting out a bit beaten down but has some humor and a bit of spunk. She should be able to grow into someone stronger. I’d like to see the role played by someone who has comedic chops.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a published novelist.
It was a long, long road. As a kid, I wrote stories. I liked spending time scribbling in my notebooks. I grew up as a library kid, and spent a lot of time there. I worked as a librarian. Books and writing have always been a huge part of my life, and it was always my dream to be a writer. I was relentless in this pursuit. I have loads of unpublished books in the garbage can; and so many stories have been rejected. But I kept going no matter what. Even if The Assistants hadn’t been published, I would still be writing tomorrow morning.
What’s coming next from Camille Perri?
I’m working on the early stages of my next book. It’s going to have a lot more sex than this one. And will be a romantic comedy with a sexy edge to it.
Congratulations on writing The Assistants, a workplace comedy with serious themes, and one about which Publishers Weekly said, ‘If the characters from HBO’s Girls were capable of larceny and blackmail, they could be the main characters of Perri’s sharp first novel.’