WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Barry! Before I begin talking about Livia Lone and maybe a bit about John Rain, I wanted to know about your history in work and life before you became an amazing publishedauthor. Can you tell us a little bit about what your life was like before writing?
Barry Eisler: Mostly I was a writer/philosopher/adventurer trapped in a lawyer’s body…J
Joking aside, in retrospect it can all look planned because my previous experiences tend to manifest themselves in the stories I write, but I was really just bouncing around, not sure of what I wanted to be, what was best in me, where I could make the most meaningful contribution. I spent three years in a covert position in the CIA; then I was a technology lawyer in Silicon Valley and Japan; then I was an executive in a Silicon Valley startup. Some of it was interesting, some less so, but I guess all of it was redeemed to at least some extent by being transformed into fuel for my stories.
But the truth is, I’m still not satisfied I’m really doing what I’m best at and what could make the biggest impact. Before being hounded to death by the U.S. government, Aaron Swartzsaid, “What is the most important thing you could be working on in the world right now? And if you’re not working on that, why aren’t you?” I think about that a lot, and I’m not sure whether for me writing novels is the answer.
MT: So, when you found your way to writing, what was the first thing you wrote? How long was it before you began writing novels and which novel was the novel that got you an agent? Do you have any advice for aspiring authors about this?
BE: I’ve been writing something or other since I was a kid. I used to spend a couple weeks every summer at my grandparents’ house on the Jersey shore. I would bang out short stories about vampires and werewolves on my grandmother’s typewriter. Fortunately, as far as I know those early efforts no longer exits…!
Also when I was a kid, I read a biography of Harry Houdini, and in the book a cop was quoted as saying, “It’s fortunate that Houdini never turned to a life a crime, because if he had he would have been difficult to catch and impossible to hold.” I remember thinking how cool it was that this man knew things people weren’t supposed to know, things that gave him special power. And that notion made a big impression, because since then I’ve amassed an unusual library on topics I like to think of as “forbidden knowledge:” methods of unarmed killing, lock picking, breaking and entry, spy stuff, and other things the government wants only a few select individuals to know. And I spent three years in the CIA, I got pretty into a variety of martial arts…
And then I moved to Tokyo to train in judo—this was when I was 29. I think all the other stuff must have been building up in my mind like dry tinder, waiting for the spark which life in Tokyo came to provide. Because while I was there commuting to work one morning, a vivid image came to me of two men following another man down Dogenzaka street in Shibuya. I still don’t know where the image came from, but I started thinking about it. Who are these men? Why are they following that other guy? Then answers started to come: They’re assassins. They’re going to kill him. But these answers just let to more questions: Why are they going to kill him? What did he do? Who do they work for? It felt like a story, somehow, so I started writing, and that was the birth of John Rain and my first book, A Clean Kill in Tokyo, originally called Rain Fall.That was the one that got me my first agent, and it was about eight years from initial idea to first sale in part because I had a busy day job, and in part because at first I didn’t really know what I was doing, and revised that first manuscript more times than I’ll ever remember, getting better at the craft as I did so.
If there’s any advice to be found in all that, it’s partly about the importance of indulging your passions. I realize in retrospect that what gave birth to that first novel (and the novels that came after) was a lifelong tendency to indulge certain passions of mine: the forbidden knowledge, politics, judo, jazz, and Japan (where I was living when I started writing the first book). Stories don’t get catalyzed by the things that bore you; they quicken instead when you do the things you love. So if you want to write a story, or just avoid writer’s block, I recommend finding a way to do the things that fascinate you, the things you love to do, the things you obsess over and that make the world go away. Those things are like coal being shovelled into the furnace of your imagination, and denying yourself those things is like denying your mind the nutrition it needs to thrive. For more thoughts on how to find the time, discipline, and structure to write a novel (hint: don’t watch television), a TEDx Tokyo talkI once gave is a good resource.
Another lesson is, don’t give up. The first fifty responses I got from agents I contacted were all rejections. Most were form letters, but a few had some helpful suggestions scribbled in the margins. A few had some really bad suggestions, one of which I still remember: “Try third person.” That would have been a disaster for A Clean Kill in Tokyo, leaching the story of the appeal of first-hand access to the mind of a ruthlessly competent but conflicted contract killer. I ignored the bad suggestions, considered the good ones, and did an extensive rewrite.
Eventually, a friend of a friend who worked at a publishing house suggested that I send the manuscript to a few agents with whom she worked, one of whom was Nat Sobel, who became my first agent. Nat saw promise in the early manuscript but knew it wasn’t ready for prime time; he offered suggestions for improvement that were as extensive as they were excellent, and, about two years later, he judged the manuscript ready to go. At that point (this was autumn, 2001), the deals came fast and furious: first Sony’s Village Books in Japan, then Penguin Putnam in the US, then eight foreign offers, all over the course of about two months, all two-book deals. I quit my day job and have been writing full time ever since—a dream come true.
And though things have worked out well, if I could do things over, I would have tried to write more consistently. Spending months or even days away from a manuscript detaches the story from your unconscious. Conversely, working on a story every day lights a fire in your unconscious that becomes self-sustaining, igniting new story points even when you’re not consciously working on the draft. So the on-again, off-again approach drastically inhibits your access to one of your most powerful storytelling assets: your unconscious, what I’ve heard Stephen King call “the boys in the basement.”
I would also have read more how-to books. There are some excellent books on craftout there, and while I believe they’re of secondary importance to actually writing and to learning to read like a writer, they can dramatically accelerate your mastery of craft. Anyone who tells you “but you can’t teach art,” by the way, is being glib. Of course art can’t be taught, but teaching art isn’t the point. The point is: all art is based on craft—that is, on a body of techniques that can be taught to and learned by anyone with talent. Art is an expression of something unique to you and indeed, it can’t be taught. But without craft, there is no art, because all art is based on craft. The truism that “art can’t be taught” is an observation so pointless and irrelevant that I wonder how it continues as a meme. Maybe it makes artists feel more special, as though they’ve been chosen for unique dispensation by the magical writing muse. Maybe it comforts talented non-artists by freeing them of responsibility for their failure to study. Either way, it’s silly and misleading and ought to be retired.
(On the subject of glib pronouncements inexplicably embraced unimpeded by critical thought: Frank Zappa is supposed to have said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I suppose this could be true, if the expressive, descriptive, and overall communication possibilities of dance were identical to those of the written word. Are they?)
Anyway, there’s no substitute for practice, true, but for any skill you’re trying to learn—a martial art, a language, a musical instrument, writing—there’s an optimal balance of practice and theory. In retrospect, I realize I would have learned faster if I’d informed my practice with a little more theory, whether how-to books, writer’s groups, conferences, or whatever.
One thing you shouldn’t conclude from the fact that it was a friend of a friend who put me in touch with the guy who became my first agent is that in this business it’s critical to know someone. That’s a common misapprehension, born of wishful thinking. What matters is writing a great story. The literary agent’s business model involves reviewing everything that comes in, so eventually I would have gotten to Nat, and his judgment would have been the same. Having someone steer me to him speeded things up for me, but that’s about all.
In other words, who you know might get a door opened for you, or get it opened a little sooner than you might have opened it on your own. But what happens on the other side of that door is entirely up to you. Manage your priorities accordingly (translation: Write. The. Book).
Another lesson: the truth of the adage, “Good writing is rewriting. Sometimes people are astonished when they learn the first bookI’d started was also my first published. What they don’t realize is that how much rewriting went into that manuscript—for the amount I learned from it, it might as well have been my fifth manuscript, not, technically, my first. You have to be committed taking the time and expending the effort to develop your mastery of the craft—the practice side of the practice/theory balance I mentioned earlier.
Okay, just a few more thoughts—on what kept me going during the eight years between the first idea for the A Clean Kill in Tokyomanuscript and the first sale of rights for the novel. That can be a long, lonely stretch: no contract, a busy day job, the distractions of everyday life, and no external reason to believe you have the talent or might have the luck to get published.
I think that, in life, there are things you can control and things you can’t (or, to think of the whole thing as a continuum, there are things that are relatively amenable to your influence and things that are relatively unamenable). The things you’re responsible for, and therefore the things that can be the source of legitimate pride or shame, are the ones you can control. If you want to be a writer, the thing you can almost totally control is finishing the book. Finding an agent, getting published…that all takes a certain amount of luck and timing and circumstances (although of course your hard work on what you can control will affect these less controllable factors, too). So my attitude was this: I wanted to be published, but if it didn’t happen, I didn’t want it to be my fault. I wanted to be able to look in the mirror and say, “Okay, you didn’t manage to get published, but you did everything you could to make it happen, you finished the book, so you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of and every reason to feel proud.” That attitude—the fear of one day feeling that if I didn’t make it I might think it was my fault—is what kept me going for many years with no external signs of success. Imagine how it’ll feel if you don’t get published and you know it was your fault—and make sure not to let that happen to you.
MT: Can you tell us about Livia Lone? She has her own series and we learn so much about Livia in the first novel. Would you mind telling us about Livia, why she is who she is, and why being Livia Lone played into the greater part of the novel?
BE: Well, the book jacket provides a pretty nice primer, I think: Refugee. American. Victim. Survivor. Cop. Killer.
When we meet her, Livia is a Seattle PD sex-crimes detective. But as the above primer suggests, she’s much more than just that. Maybe the best way to gain an initial understanding of her character is to recognize that she is fundamentally a sheepdog.
The world, a mentor explains to Livia sometime after she has been rescued from traffickers and is intent on finding her missing sister, is made of three kinds of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Sheep are ordinary people, obviously, while wolves are predators. Sheepdogs, though—soldiers, police, firefighters—while fanged like wolves, possess an instinct not for predation, but rather for protection.
Livia is a born sheepdog. Someone with a deep-seated, hard-wired need to protect—albeit a need tuned by trauma to the level of obsession.
Because what happens to a person who is so wired for protection—not just in general, but in particular for the little sister she adores—when as a child her ability to protect is horrifically ripped away from her?
That sheepdog might start protecting the flock not just by warding off the wolves. But by hunting down the wolves. And killing them.
So on a superficial level, Livia Loneis a story about revenge. But on a deeper, and more important level, the story is about love.
MT: Some of the scenes are brutal and are hard to read, and I imagine hard to write. Would you mind telling us what it was like writing Livia’s history and why it was so important to talk about this sort of history, this sort of life, and how do you think Livia’s past makes her the character we read about today?
BE: From the beginning, I was at least as interested in the forces that shaped Livia in the past as I was about the present-day plot. Happily, those two timeframes, delineated as “Then” and “Now” chapters in the novel, come together, as the past gradually catches up to the present.
Understanding Livia’s past was important to me for several reasons I can articulate. For one, I wanted her to be real. She is capable of extreme behavior—even driven to it—and exceptionally capable tactically. These things are possible, but unlikely, and if I don’t understand the foundation myself, and present it to the reader, then the drive, the capabilities, and the behavior will be just a cartoon. And while there’s nothing wrong with cartoons, I’m more interested in something more realistic.
Presenting Livia’s past was also important to me because technically, she’s a murderer—even a serial killer. And if you don’t understand her past, you won’t be able to sympathize with her actions today.
Livia is a survivor of some of the worst trauma imaginable. I want people to understand not just that the kind of trauma she experiences actually happens, but that someone can survive it—albeit with damage she still struggles to sublimate and overcome.
MT: Were there any novels that inspired Livia Lone or John Rain in their lives or professions? What books do you constantly turn to in your writing both in and outside of the genre, and what are your favorite books in general?
BE: The assassins of Trevanian—Nicholai Hel in Shibumi, and Jonathan Hemlock in The Eiger Sanctionand The Loo Sanction—were definitely an influence for Rain. Both were men of superior intellect, refinement, and (paradoxically) morality. In fact, there’s a line in Shibumiabout Hel as a tiger battling a blob of amoebas, and that theme, which was also present in the corporate-controlled world of the original Rollerball(“It’s not a game a man is supposed to grow strong in, Jonathan, you should appreciate that”), resonates for me.
Books that inspired Livia…definitely the works of child protector and novelist Andrew Vachss, and the jaw-dropping nonfiction Sex Crimes, Then and Now: My Years on the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators, by former sex crimes prosecutor Alice Vachss.
Also, Dave Grossman’s phenomenal On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which is where I first came across the sheep, wolves, sheepdogs concept.
Books that I turn to in my writing…well, sometimes I’ll warm up with something I’ve written previously, to get my head back in that world. And I read a lot of nonfiction. As I like to say, most of my plots are courtesy of the US government, because what’s bad for America is great for thriller writers.
And my favorite books in general…that would be a long answer, so I’ll try to narrow it down by defining “favorite” as the ones I’ve read the most. At the top of that category would be Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, which is both one of the best-told stories I’ve ever come across and an impressive study of human nature, too. And Judy Blume’s Foreveris where I learned to write a good love scene. J
MT: Can you tell our readers (as few spoilers as possible, please!) about what and who Livia Lone and John Rain are in relation to this new book—how they have evolved and if this is the first of your books our readers buy, can you give us just enough clues to figure out how to read the book as a standalone? What essentials must the reader know before diving in?
BE: All my books are designed to function both as series entries and as standalones, so anyone can appreciate The Killer Collectivewith or without having read any of the previous Rain or Livia books.
If I had to compare Rain and Livia…well, they’re both survivors, they’re both killers, they’re both exceptionally methodical. But the differences are probably more significant: Livia was created by trauma, while Rain’s origins lie in an innate attraction to conflict. Livia is motivated by a deep-seated need to protect, while Rain’s motivations are less noble. And Livia is primarily a sheepdog, intent on guarding the sheep, while Rain is much more a wolf, grappling with guilt about having preyed on others.
Rain has been around for a while—he was first published in 2002!—and in some ways he’s changed. He’s less the lone wolf he was at the outset. He has a clan now, which creates complications. He’s older, and grappling with an increasing awareness of his own mortality, and with the increased weight of the life he’s led and what he’s done. He’s been trying to retire—to kill his way out of the killing business—but never quite seems to make it.
And Livia teamed up with Rain’s partner, former Marine sniper Dox, in the previous book, The Night Trade,and that turned into an interesting relationship. So I started wondering…what would happen if Livia, in the course of her Seattle PD sex-crime detective duties, uncovered something so big that she was targeted in an attempted hit? Would she call on Dox for help? Would Dox call on Rain?
And what if Rain had earlier been offered the hit himself…?
Once I started playing around with it, the idea became irresistible. The characters from the Rain and Livia universes are all so different—different motivations, different training, different worldviews, different personalities—that the idea of forcing them together, all their tangled histories, and smoldering romantic entanglements and uncertainties and jealousies and doubts, under the relentless pressure of extremely resourceful adversaries…looking back, it seems almost inevitable! And I sure had a lot of fun doing it.
MT: When reading the book, everything felt smooth and glorious to me. However I read back over the synopsis and thought this is a lot for a new reader to take in. (Readers: I do encourage you to read this book as well of all Barry’s books, I just want him to break down the story for you!) Would you mind breaking down the synopsis while also avoiding spoilers?
BE: Well, it starts like this:
THE LONE WOLVES OF BARRY EISLER’S BESTSELLING NOVELS COME TOGETHER IN A KILLER TEAM!
And I’d add…
When a joint FBI-Seattle Police investigation of an international child pornography ring gets too close to certain powerful people, sex-crimes detective Livia Lone becomes the target of a hit that barely goes awry—a hit that had been offered to John Rain, a retired specialist in “natural causes.”
Suspecting the FBI itself was behind the attack, Livia reaches out to former Marine sniper Dox. Together, they assemble an ad hoc group to identify and neutralize the threat. There’s Rain. Rain’s estranged lover, Mossad agent and honeytrap specialist Delilah. And Black op soldiers Ben Treven and Daniel Larison, along with their former commander, SpecOps legend Colonel Scot “Hort” Horton.
Moving from Japan to Seattle to DC to Paris, the group fights a series of interlocking conspiracies, each edging closer and closer to the highest levels of the US government.
With uncertain loyalties, conflicting agendas, and smoldering romantic entanglements, these operators will have a hard time forming a team. But in a match as uneven as this one, a collective of killers might be even better.
That’s the gist… and no spoilers, either. J
MT: How do you think you’ve improved as a writer with The Killer Collectiveand what makes your writing different as you grow older, write more books, and learn more about writing and the world in general?
BE: First I’d just like to thank you for the flattering assumptions in that question. J
I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether I’ve gotten better and all that, but if I have, I think it probably comes down to experience with the craft and experience with life. Anyone who takes a craft seriously is going to get better with practice—it’s part of what makes a craft rewarding and even, well, a craft. And given that I was 29 when I started my first novel and that I’m 54 now, well, that’s a quarter century of time in the saddle—a pretty long stretch in which to learn, consider, reflect, and hopefully to grow. When dreaming up a story, you can only draw on what you know, and you know more when you’re older than you do when you’re young (at least you do if you’re doing it right). Which means if things go well you should have a richer palette to paint from later in life than earlier on. I feel that’s been the case for me.
MT: Is there a character you identify with more than others? Do you feel you’ve put certain aspects of yourself in John Rain, Livia Lone, or any of the other characters in your books?
BE: Well, writing Dox makes me laugh more than writing any other character (although I was surprised to find that Daniel Larison, my “angel of death” former black-ops badass, was cracking me up in The Killer Collective), and Livia makes me cry more. Which probably means I strongly identify with Dox and Livia, at least in certain ways.
I wouldn’t say I deliberately put any of myself in my characters—it’s not as conscious as that. When I get an idea for a character, what I try to do instead is imagine who this person is—what were her formative experiences, what does she think she wants, what does she really want, what is she afraid of, how does she look at the world, what makes her tick. In doing that, of course the raw material is derived from things I recognize in myself, but what I try to do is take that raw material, distill it out, culture it in the medium of this new character, and see how it grows. I think that’s the right approach generally: as Robert McKee says in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, the inquiry isn’t about you, and it’s not about the character, it’s more what would you do if you were the character.
In practical terms, that means there aren’t any characteristics of my characters I don’t recognize in myself (I think that would be impossible, unless there are things about myself I can’t or don’t want to consciously recognize that are bleeding through layers of repression and manifesting themselves in my characters…which now that we’re talking about it, is an interesting idea and I’m going to think more about it). But the way those characteristics manifests is different. I can be cynical at times, for example, but overall I think my nature is optimistic (perhaps foolishly so, but we’re all victims of ourselves). Rain’s cynicism, on the other hand, is much more central to who he is—a driving force, and something he has to grapple with far more than I do mine.
MT: The Killer Collectivefeels more epic in scope, in thrills, mysteries, characters, everything. Can you talk about what has led to your writing The Killer Collectiveand if this isn’t your favorite of your own books, what is?
BE: Thanks for that. The book feels epic to me, too, in part because the cast of characters is the biggest I’ve ever worked with, and in part because of what all those characters have gone through and what’s led them to this story.
Is this one my favorite? Right now it feels that way, but that could be a recency effect. I do think it’s probably the most nonstop story I’ve written—not just the action, but the emotions, too. Managing all these characters, all their differences and distrusts, with one tenuous romance in progress and another one being resuscitated from near-death, all while determined, capable enemies are launching formidable attacks, was technically challenging. Plus the milieus are so different—Livia is a police detective, Rain and the others are assassins and spies. So the initial chapters moved back and forth from a police procedural feel to a spy thriller feel, with those disparate worlds merging as the story progressed. Which was challenging, but I think (if I may say so) it all came in beautifully balanced on the page, with everyone getting key solo moments, one-on-one moments, and, of course, team moments, because, after all, this is a killer collective.
MT: Going back to writing in general, what book was the hardest book you’ve ever written? Which book or books gave you the most trouble? Regarding Livia Loneand The Killer Collective, what do you feel was or were the hardest parts you have to deal with when writing your most recent novel?
BE: Livia Lonewas hardest because of what I had to put her through in depicting her past. Graveyard of Memorieswas hardest because I had to recreate 1972 Tokyo, which involved a fair amount of research. The Killer Collectivewas hardest because the canvas was so broad.
I guess writing books is just hard…? J
MT: Can you talk a little about your writing process? What is it like to be an author like yourself? Are you’re a morning, noon, afternoon, evening writer? How many words do you write a day? Where do you write?
BE: I’m always happy to talk about my process, but like to note upfront that whatever works for me is only something that by definition can work for someone, and not something that will necessarily work for anyone else. I love that Bruce Lee quote: “Research your own experience. Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.”
So what works for me…I follow a lot of news on geopolitics, the media, and government skullduggery. Not the establishment stuff—that just tells you what you’ve already been indoctrinated with, and the world doesn’t need any additional regurgitation of conventional (and failed) wisdom. I’m talking about Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!, for example, or Marcy Wheeler at Emptywheel, who covers political stuff with almost psychic insights. Throw a few invented characters into Wheeler’s articles and I swear you’d have a dozen terrifying thrillers.
And I think a lot about what I read, and sometimes write about it, too, on my blog The Heart of the Matter. From all that I get plot ideas, many of them direct from the U.S. government—like the mass domestic surveillance program at the heart of my novelThe God’s Eye View.
But the plot ideas would be worthless if I weren’t processing everything I read about through a human-nature filter. Plot is one thing, but without that human nature element, I don’t think you’d get a story.
And then I take walks and ask myself questions about the who, the where, the what, the why…I dictate the answers, and write them up, and the answers lead to more questions…and at some point, an opening scene comes to me, and I’ll start writing. And then it’s iterative: I write, then I walk and think, and then I write some more, and as the story progresses, the ratio of thinking to writing gradually shifts from almost all thinking and almost no writing to the reverse of that, so that by the time I’m writing the last quarter of the book or so I’m on fire and putting in long stretches of writing—3000, 4000, once even 8000 words in a day. That stretch of unimpeded running toward the end is a beautiful high, and a lot of effort, a lot of foundation building, precedes it.
And when I write the words “The End,” which is usually in the wee hours of the morning, I try to do something special to mark the moment. Open a certain whisky, drive out to an overlook and watch the sunrise, take a long walk through nocturnal Tokyo, just feeling alive and so satisfied to be done.
Until the edits come in, anyway. JBut that part is easy by comparison.
MT: A lot of both young and aspiring writers as well as some accomplished writers ask me about ending. For The Killer Collective,was it hard to write an ending? Has a book and its ending ever had you stumped? What would you suggest to any writer struggling with an ending now?
BE: For some aspects of the craft, I feel like I can give useful advice because I’m conscious of what I’m doing. But for others, less so, and writing a satisfying ending is one of the “less so” categories. For me, it’s mostly instinct, and explaining it would be like trying to explain how to make a punchline funny. All I can say is probably 95% of it is how well you did the setup, because without a proper setup, the best-delivered punchline in the world will still fall flat. But with a great setup, a great punchline is almost hard notto deliver.
So yeah, maybe that is reasonably good advice, albeit somewhat Yoda-like. It’s like dialogue: usually when dialogue is falling flat, the problem isn’t in the dialogue, it’s in the characters, as in the writer doesn’t know them, doesn’t feel them, well enough. And if the ending isn’t there, it might be because what preceded it wasn’t quite right, meaning you have to fix something more fundamental than you might like.
It’s like if the walls of the house you’re building keep collapsing, the problem might be not in the walls, but in the foundation. But that’s a hard thing to acknowledge, because it entails a lot of rebuilding.
MT: Do you think you will keep writing about these characters, or will you eventually end the series and write about other people? Do you think even if you write a standalone or something else, all of the people in your writing universe will still be there in one form or another?
BE: I’ve never been good at predicting these things—I actually thought at the time that my first Rain book was a standalone!—so I won’t even try. I’ll just say I’ll keep writing whatever comes to me, existing characters and new ones, and hopefully the stories will keep on delighting me and others.
MT: The country is currently in a sort of turmoil, and I love asking my favorite authors this question. If you were to give the whole of America one of your books, what would you give to these people and why? What about another author’s book or books, and what would be the reason behind this?
BE: Oh, that’s a hard one! Well, I’m fond of my essay, The Ass is a Poor Receptacle for the Head: Why Democrats Suck at Communication and How They Could Improve. But even if any top Democrats decided to read that one, it’s a safe bet they lack the motivation or capacity to absorb any of its lessons. So I guess making a gift of it might be a bit of a waste.
That said, I’ve never seen a Democrat with a better instinct for communication than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She would get the essay. But she’s also the least in need of it!
Another author’s books…that’s another hard one. I think the ones that have been most personally valuable to me would include Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People, which is incredibly insightful about human nature and describes a disarmingly beautiful approach to engaging with others. Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman, completely changed my understanding of media. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Fouris, sadly, full of insights into the worst aspects of human nature and was stunningly prescient—proving, as though any further proof were required, that if you understand human nature, you can predict events exceptionally accurately. And a recent one that tapped into all kinds of things I’ve been thinking about, connecting, correcting, and expanding them, is Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright.
MT: Do you think you’ve written the novel you’ve always wanted to read but never found yet, or do you think that novel is still coming and in the works? Speaking of next works, can you tell us what your next book will be after The Killer Collective?
BE: I’ll let Rain answer that, from A Lonely Resurrection:
I took a long, meandering route, moving mostly on foot, watching as the city gradually grew dark around me. There’s something so alive about Tokyo at night, something so imbued with possibilities. Certainly the daytime, with its zigzagging schools of pedestrians and thundering trains and hustle and noise and traffic, is the more upbeat of the city’s melodies. But the city also seems burdened by the quotidian clamor, and almost relieved, every evening, to be able to ease into the twilight and set aside the weight of the day. Night strips away the superfluity and the distractions. You move through Tokyo at night and you feel you’re on the verge of that thing you’ve always longed for. At night, you can hear the city breathe.
I feel that way about writing books. Each one is beautiful—a little mystery solved, a deep-seated emotional itch scratched. But it doesn’t solve anything. You feel you’re on the verge, but you never quite get there.
But I also find something lovely and satisfying in that. Maybe it’s mono no aware—the sadness of being human.
The book I’m working on now is a Livia Lone standalone.
MT: There are so many things you can take away from a novel—fun and entertainment, ideas for works of your own, some sort of new understanding of the world around us, learning more about ourselves and the people we know, etc. What is the one thing you want readers to take away from your novels when they’re done?
BE: I certainly hope they’ve been entertained, and invested in the characters to the point of laughing and crying and being deeply moved. And if they reflect a bit on what it feels like, what it means, to be on “this crazy ride of life,” as Dox might put it, that would make me happy, too.
And if some of them were to read the bibliography, and learn that the government programs and all the other skullduggery I write about isn’t fiction at all, well that’s what the bibliography is there for. So hopefully, the books will educate as well as entertain.
MT: This may like a cheesy question, but I actually love asking it and the various questions I get. What do you think the writer’s most important job is?
BE: Stephen King says the writer’s job is to tell the truth. I like to say things my own way, but I can’t really improve on that.
MT: The Killer Collectiveis a big, wonderful book, so exciting, nail-biting (I mean quite literally), and so amazing to walk away from, even if you walk away wanting more. The book solidifies your standing beside the greatest suspense and thriller writers in the world, and it means so much to me to be able to interview you, to talk about your book and writing. For all of our readers, I really hope you will purchase a copy of this astounding book, The Killer Collective, If you’re not convinced by me, look at Amazon and Audible and see how fast it’s moving up the list of preorders. As for Barry, thank you for the answers to my questions, and please leave any thoughts or comments below.
BE: Thanks for the very kind words, Matthew, for the thought-provoking questions, and for enjoying the books!
Matthew Turbeville: If it means anything, when typing up my questions I tried to change my front to New York Times Bestselling Author instead of Times New Roman. Amy, how does it feel to be the most coveted new author in all of crime fiction—someone compared to Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Tana French—the greats. What do you feel is the biggest leap and struggle between switching from groundbreaking debut to blockbuster follow-up? (Plus a book about Tori Amos in between!)
Amy Gentry:If anyone considers me in the company of any of those three authors, I’m insanely honored! They’re three of my favorites, and in many ways, my role models.
Moving from the first to the second book is always a challenge. You spend years crafting your debut, because it has to be absolutely perfect before you can sell it. And since you don’t know whether anyone will ever read it, it’s written one hundred percent for you. My second novel LAST WOMAN STANDING was written under contract, which means I had to figure it out a lot faster--none of the long detours and rambling pre-writing sessions and trying out three different settings that I did for Good as Gone. I was also pregnant when I wrote LAST WOMAN STANDING, desperate to finish before the baby. I had a timeline all written out, but in my panic I wound writing a completely bizarre alternate ending, and still not finishing it. I remember sitting in the hospital with the pitocin drip going, emailing my agent on my phone. It was all very bizarre. I had finished the ending with a newborn crying in the next room. Obviously there was an extension involved. . .! My editors at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt were extremely patient and helpful through it all. But it certainly wasn’t the leisurely part-time writing experience of Good as Gone. The Tori Amos book, which had been under contract since before I had a literary agent, was a further wrinkle. Anyone working on two books at once will tell you that no matter how hard you try, both rounds of edits always end up hitting your in-box the same day.
MT: When you first published Good As Gone, people were obsessed. We met because I was obsessed and wouldn’t stop tagging you on Facebook (I still don’t but we don’t want the authorities to know that!)—what inspired this novel? You were famous, if I remember correctly, from being the brilliant debut author who didn’t meanto write crime fiction. Can you explain to us how that happened to?
AG: I didn’t read a whole lot of crime fiction--or at least, I didn’t think of myself as reading it, although I had read Lippman, Megan Abbott, Ruth Rendell, Barbara Vine, Chandler, Hammett, and the great Patricia Highsmith. But somehow, even though I had read many of them in grad school, I didn’t think of myself as knowing a lot about them. I always wanted to write like Henry James--not in his style, obviously, but stories of incredibly twisted people messing with each other’s heads, and trying to be good people and failing miserably. That’s what I thought I was writing with Good as Gone--a twisted family melodrama wherein the mother suspects her daughter is an impostor, and we have to figure out which one of these two women is seriously screwed up. (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say: both of them!)
Anyway, there was a kidnapped girl sitting right in the middle of the book. I felt like kind of a dummy when I realized it was obviously a thriller. Once I began thinking of it that way, the whole thing fell into place. And I looked at my bookshelf and suddenly it made sense that I owned twenty-three books by Patricia Highsmith. Almost all the stories I want to tell involve psychological suspense, even if they don’t have dead bodies in them. And lots of them have dead bodies!
MT: Attica Locke semi-recently said that all fiction is crime fiction. Do you agree with that? What do you feel is the single greatest crime committed inGood As Gone? That may be a really loaded question/answer so feel free to elaborate on that. But also the concept of the kidnapped girl and returned woman—sure, I’m sure it’s been done before, but you made it feel so new. How did you decide to approach the issue and how did you come about your completely unique approach?
AG: I agree completely that all fiction is crime fiction. Henry James is crime fiction, but instead of murdering each other quickly, they murder each other slowly, over hundreds and hundreds of pages. In Good as Gone, everyone (except possibly Jane, the little sister) has committed crimes of desperation by the end of the novel. The kidnapping is the biggest crime depicted in the novel, but the book is far more concerned with the longer-lasting violence of retraumatization, the way our harmful ways of thinking about sexual violence victimize the same vulnerable people over and over again. That’s why the structure of the book includes a backward chronology, diving into the past of the woman who calls herself Julie. Trauma rearranges time, it rearranges identity. The whole family has reordered themselves around it, and that, too, is a kind of violence.
MT: Before you stumbled upon crime fiction, who were your favorite authors? Now that you have found what I hope you feel is your true calling (I love your books so much I couldn’t live without them!) who are your favorite crime writers?
AG: Before my life of crime, I went through phases with James, Highsmith, Dostoevsky, Shirley Jackson, James Baldwin, Muriel Spark, Kate Atkinson, Kelly Link, Tessa Hadley, Jennifer Egan, and various others. In terms of crime novelists, the three writers you listed above--Abbott, Lippman, French!--are a holy trinity for me. Every new French book that comes out, I have to take several days off to celebrate. I’m also a huge fan of Sara Gran, whom I discovered relatively recently. I love short books that leave you completely gobsmacked and hers are so short but they feel like universes unto themselves.
MT: Megan Abbott loves your new book, and so do a whole lot of other people. Last Girl Standing is part Strangers on a Train, part Single White Female, part Steph Cha (I love her so much). My first question is an obvious one: why in this time period, with Trump, a wall, anti-Semitism, do you make your protagonist half Hispanic, half Jewish? I’m sure there are multiple layers of why the protagonist is who she is, and I’d love to hear about them.
AG: Yeah that’s a big question. One big thing is that I got called out on the Alex Mercado character from my first book, the P.I. character, not having a bigger role. Someone I quite respect said that he was one of the best, most likable characters in the book (agreed!) and wished he could have had a bigger role, suggested that it was disappointing that this Latino character didn’t turn out to be central to the story. I have often thought about using Mercado in future books, but I knew I would be writing female protagonists for the foreseeable future, and that question of whether they always had to be white, even though I live in Texas and my books were set in Texas where whiteness is far from the norm, nagged at me. Once I realized it was a book about a stand-up comic from Amarillo, I just felt that her character made sense as a non-Spanish-speaking Latina with a mixed ethnic identity, who struggles with feeling that she doesn’t fit in with either the mainstream comedy scene (read: white dudes) or the Latinx comedy scene in Austin--because she does’t speak Spanish and she’s not a dude. Dana is always stuck between two places (Austin/L.A.), two ways of seeing the world, two ways of coping with trauma. It’s a very binaristic book in that way. And it made sense that she would be biracial. Moreover, to talk about how women are marginalized in comedy in 2018 without some look, however compromised by my own subject position as a white woman, at the marginalization of non-white women in those fields--that just didn’t make sense to me.
As for how our current political climate factors into that--it’s hard for me to put into words, so I’ll quote Tori Amos: “Girl, you have to know these days which side you’re on.” It’s very much a book about choosing sides, even when that’s impossible.
MT: What book or books, and what movies, what TV shows inspired this book? One movie that comes to me is Heathers, except Christian Slater is a beautiful woman.
AG: Ha! That’s a point of reference I wouldn’t have thought of at the time but it’s very good. Of course LAST WOMAN STANDING is a straight-up, unabashed Patricia Highsmith rip-off--ahem I mean homage, with the doppelganger character from Strangers on a Trainappearing out of nowhere to represent and express all the repressed fury of the protagonist. But we saw what happened when I tried to do a Henry James homage, so no doubt my Highsmith homage turned out similarly warped.
MT: I’m assuming this novel was written at least a year of two ago—while when hatred was high, it wasn’t nearly as public and unashamed as it is now. Hatred is everywhere, and it seems you pick this racial and sexual hatred and bring it to the forefront. So, I’m wondering if you think of writers (including yourself) as sort of foreseers, people who can predict social climates, how things will be by the time they finish and publish their novels. It really feels like you’re a blind woman warning everyone about an upcoming war—which reminds me, Madeline Miller needs to write more too.
AG: The hatred you’re talking about--I think it’s very pragmatic. If you stay in your place, they will love you. When you don’t accept your position, the love turns to hatred instantly. A lot of women are writing about rage right now because we have all collectively decided not to accept this version of reality. But rage doesn’t feel good. Rage is a beautiful, terrible, righteous infection. It’s a last-resort response to an undeniable truth. The question is, how can we harness it without getting eaten alive by it? In this book I am trying like hell to answer that question, and I can’t. I just can’t. The answer for me, and I think for a lot of writers, was to channel the rage into writing a book. Not very helpful, but if what you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So I don’t think we’re seers--I think we just have the ability to get things into words that everyone else is thinking and, more importantly, feeling. Activists are out there yelling at people in restaurants. That’s probably more useful work than novel-writing.
MT: You are an English PhD, you review books, etc, so it seems obvious you would become a novelist eventually. Would you mind explaining your own adventure into writing novels, and would you ever write a story collection, crime or no (I would buy it!).
AG: I have written novels since I was a little kid, though I never finished one until senior year of college. After that, I thought I would become a novelist right away. I almost finished one, but I abandoned it at the critical two-thirds point. (That last act is still the hardest to write!) I was broke and I had to move back home. My mistake was in thinking that because I couldn’t figure out how to write a novel immediately while waiting tables in a strange new city, I needed to abandon it entirely for ten years. I went to grad school and started reviewing books because I did not know that being an author was actually a real profession where you could make money, and these other things seemed like more practical avenues for my talents. (They weren’t!) It was only when I had failed miserably at everything else, and was contemplating every passing whim for a possible profession--cake-decorating was on the list--that I started writing Good as Gone. I read all these corny self-help creativity books like The Artist’s Wayand The War of Art. And my husband, who was making payments on my student loans at the time, kind of talked me into it. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for many things, but chief among them, he hooked me up with the woman who started my writing group. And that writing group is how the novel got written.
I have written only a handful of short stories in my life, and none of them are very good. I’d like to develop the skill someday, but I have a lot of novels to get through first.
MT: So, there are only so many things about Texas I love: you, Larry McMurtry, Jeff Abbott, this one vegan eatery called Bok Choy located in the hellmouth aka San Antonio, my wonderful and very favorite friend Melissa (please meet her during your tour in Houston!), Beyoncce and Solange and Tina, and there are a few more but I’m mostly forgetting. It’s one reason why I wonder why Dana, the protagonist of Last Woman Standing, would return home. The comedy scene is smaller, it seems, so maybe she has a chance. And maybe she gets a chance. I’m trying to be spoiler free but would you mind filling us in on just as much as you’d like readers to know on your delicious all-you-can-eat-butffet follow-up novel Last Woman Stnading?
AG: I love Texas, although it has been somewhat trying to live here as an adult woman who wants to have reproductive freedom. Growing up in Houston, I always thought I would get as far as I could, and I lived in Portland and Chicago and each time wound up coming back here. Austin, as Dana says in my book, is the Velvet Coffin. So incredibly comfortable. But there’s something about Texas, too, that’s very friendly and very open. It’s not just Austin that’s weird; Texas, too, is a very weird place. But I digress.
The reason Dana comes back to Austin is the same reason I came back to Austin twice: she feels she’s failed. Something happened to her in L.A., and it scared and shamed her, and she came home with her tail between her legs. Austin was home base. I’ve known so many performers who did stints in New York, L.A., and Chicago, and then came back home when the money ran out or the winter got too cold. Performing is such an intense career. You actually use your body to make your art. And you start feeling used up. Dana likes Austin a lot less than I do--she’s in a very challenging corner of it, in the stand-up world. But even the stand-up scene here is friendlier than in a lot of places. In a small pond, there’s a lot more collaboration. People don’t feel as threatened by eachother. And one of the things that’s happened in LAST WOMAN STANDING is that Dana left Austin right when the scene blew up, so it actually got bigger and more threatening while she was in L.A. She comes back, and it’s too competitive to feel comfortable, but still not a place where you can find creative jobs that pay. That’s a story I know all too well from performer friends.
MT: In college, my best friend Melanie said once that when she gets rich or marries rich she would like to form a vigilante squad of people who kill rapists. In a way, in the novel’s beginning, Last Woman Standingis somewhat about revenge against men, things that start small but escalate quickly. I don’t want to make you angry (I get angry when I think about this subject) so I won’t ask you what you think men who abuse women in any way should have to suffer through, but I will ask is if you agree with anything Dana and her new friend do?
AG: It’s one hundred percent wish fulfillment. I have revenge fantasies all the time. How can you not? If you’re sure--and, based on personal experience as well as volunteer work with survivors, I am sure--that nothing will happen to these people, that there will be no consequences for their crimes, how can you not want to get revenge? In writing the book I wasn’t interested in what the men deserved so much as what the women deserved. I felt that Dana and Amanda deserved their rage, their horror at what had happened to them. They deserved to have it acknowledged, that what happened to them was wrong. They deserved for there to be consequences.
MT: So as you know, and as I will tell our readers, I was blind from a botched surgery two months under a year since I had it and received my copy of Last Girl Standing. It performs miracles, people. I can see now! But other than that, it’s an amazing novel. Beyond amazing. What were your fears when writing a sophomore novel? And—I would like to stress this—this is not Good As Gone 2. This novel is something completely new and innovative, the voice as noir as Patricia Cornwell and as compelling as Megan Abbott. The dynamics of the relationships are reminders of Laura Lippman and the surprises and twists are as well executed as Alison Gaylin. But really, it’s all Amy Gentry. So how did you make such a unique sophomore novel?
AG: I cannot take credit for making a blind man see, but I’m so glad it helped in any way! In terms of writing a unique sophomore novel--time pressure had a lot to do with it. That sounds blasé, but actually it’s kind of a blessing to be forced to pick your first good idea and run with it. To work on this faster time-scale--and remember I was writing a nonfiction book at the same time, and by the way I actually I drafted a completely different novel, too, that I wanted to get out of my head but that wasn’t suitable for this contract--I had to summon everything I had learned in Good as Goneand boil it down to its essence. I scrapped fancy structures and alternative POVs and just concentrated on telling the story that scared me most--the story of a woman who lets go and becomes pure rage.
The one thing that helped me, structurally, was to develop the theme of doubles and doppelgangers throughout the book--not just Dana/Amanda, but also Dana and Betty, her stage alter-ego. There are a bunch more doubles throughout the book, but I would get into spoiler territory very quickly if I went there. That theme of mirroring made me want to use a 4-act structure, which is basically the same as a 3-act structure but it has a really strong central hinge that divides the book neatly in two. Once I figured that out, the book got easier to shape. It’s very much about passing through the looking-glass, seeing what life is like on the other side, once you’ve accepted that you live in a much darker world than you wanted to admit.
MT: I have to say, I’m so relieved that you, one of my favorite authors, did not succumb to the sophomore slump. Still, it’s hard to compare your two novels—they’re so different in every way possible. An interesting question that I’ve been juggling about in my mind (I’m not a good juggler) is how Megan Abbott, and many others, have become the leading writers and readers of crime fiction. What does it mean that women are now in control of the most violent, most destructive, but also most nuanced and interesting genre in literature?
AG: I think (and I bet Sarah Weinman would back me up on this) that they always have been. Big props to Gillian Flynn for reminding the world, with Gone Girl, that the domestic has always been the pulsing heart of noir. Go back and watch The Reckless Moment, directed by Max Ophuls in 1949. Watch Joan Bennett hide that body so that she can preserve the fiction of happy domesticity in a post-WWII world that just doesn’t make sense. God it’s so good! We’re in a world that doesn’t make sense right now, and we’re being told to pretend everything is normal and it just fucking isn’t. I think women have never had the luxury of ignoring the ugly truths that connect the personal to the political, and in this moment, our insights and our rage are very useful.
MT: There’s this idea of repressed memory, of forgiveness but by the end of the novel you’re not sure who you’re forgiving. It’s like the perpetrator—of many crimes against many different women—is wearing a mask. In the same way, Dana wears a mask when she takes on a role completely outside of herself while wearing a wig, a sexy blonde psychopath. Can you talk about the wig, the character she portrays, and without too many spoilers what this means?
AG: Many early readers have told me that Betty, the “sexy blonde psychopath” that Dana turns into when she puts this very trashy wig on, is their favorite character. (All I have to say is, you’re all very twisted.) Masks are very paradoxical, because they hide your face of course, but they also uncover or free forbidden parts of you. Think of all the trolling and abuse that came to the surface when people got to use avatars online. It’s not always evil, of course--theater people know that putting on a mustache or a costume of any kind can suddenly put you into a role in a way you could never quite be otherwise. Betty comes along at a time when Dana’s comedy feels very stale and rote to her, and unleashes this whole different side of herself she’s been repressing. Amanda starts that action going, of course, but it’s the Betty wig that tips the scales.
True story: the idea for using a wig came from one of my fellow waitresses at a long-ago restaurant job. She was very into vintage, which is already kind of a costume. One day she came to work with a haircut she didn’t like. To cover it, she wore a wig for about six weeks while it grew out. During those six weeks she developed a whole alternate personality named “Denise.” Denise was a nasty, bitchy waitress, and I enjoyed her thoroughly. But eventually my friend was really grateful to retire Denise. She thought she might have a hard time coming back to herself if she kept Denise in the picture much longer. Denise was just too much fun, and she was taking over. How could a novelist not file that away for later?
MT: What’s the best book you have read in a long time? On a similar note, and piggybacking on the Toni Morrison quote, do you feel you have written the book you’ve always wanted to read but have never been able to find? If not, can you give us a glimpse into what book that might be and when, if you decide to, you might be writing it?
AG: The Witch Elm by Tana French and Claire deWitt and the Bohemian Highwayby Sara Gran are two books that made me gasp--and cry--and feel really jealous. When I read both of them, I thought, “No fair! I didn’t know you could do that!” And although I talk about Highsmith all the time, I really wanted the tone of LAST WOMAN STANDING to be more like a Muriel Spark book--witty and nasty and weird. I don’t think I have succeeded, but I’ll keep trying. An excellent book is often a distortion of the author’s intentions rather than its perfect fulfillment. I hold onto that.
MT: Amy, I am so lucky to know you and have you as a friend. I know our readers are so glad to hear from you and get to peek directly inside your mind. You’re a genius. You know that. Feel free to leave any thoughts or anything below, and know how very much we love you and your work, and you’re welcome at Writers Tell All anytime. Thank you again, and I look forward to being haunted and thrilled by your next novel.
AG: I certainly do notknow that I’m a genius! But I feel lucky to have you telling me that I am. You’re so wonderfully supportive to the community, Matthew, and we’re all lucky to have you. Thanks for everything you do.
Jessica Barry on FREEFALL, an endless thrillride involving mothers and daughters who never quite have "the perfect life," but fight like hell to get there
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Jessica! I am very thrilled to talk with you. Freefallis a remarkable novel that somehow mixes James Patterson’s short, heart-thumping chapters with the grace of Jeff Abbott and sometimes the ever brilliant and impeccable Alison Gaylin. Before I really dig in here, what brought you to writing? How long did it take to write this novel and were you ever stumped by it? From what I have read this is your first novel (correct me if I’m wrong) and it’s really one of the most remarkable first novels for a suspense/mystery writer. What was it like writing from two (and sometimes three) points of view?
Jessica Barry: First of all, thank you so much for all your kind words about Freefall!
While Freefallis my first thriller, it isn’t my first novel – I’ve written a few women’s fiction novels under a different name. Writing this was a very different kettle of fish, though. I was stumped many, many times during the process – my poor agent read so many drafts she deserves a medal, and her response to most of them was: more plot, please. It took about two years from starting the first draft to finishing the last (I think it was the ninth) draft, and the learning curve throughout was steep. Writing from several points of view was challenging at times (particularly figuring out who knows what and making sure the timelines synch) but I really enjoyed switching between Maggie’s voice and Allison’s throughout the novel – it wouldn’t have been as satisfying a process had it been from a single POV.
MT: I can’t stress how much I love this novel and the characters. Both first person voices of the two primary female narrators are so spectacularly done. It’s rare to find a book with told from different first person POVs, and yet this novel does so effortlessly. What do you think the trick is to writing POVs like this, and my other question would be how did you decide to give the characters such complicated backstories, instead of what lesser authors might do—a simpler backstory to help push the suspense forward?
JB: Thank you! I think the main trick to writing first person is to get their voice in your head. For Freefall, Maggie’s voice came to me almost immediately – I’m originally from Massachusetts so grew up surrounded by tough, flinty New England women. Allison’s voice developed more gradually, as did her backstory – it felt at times like I had to pull it out of her!
I think that we all in our own way have complicated backstories, or at least view our own past in a way that isn’t necessarily linear, and I wanted to capture that here. Allison’s age also played a part in that decision – she’s in her early thirties, but her life is very much shaped by the decisions she made in her twenties, and that’s a time that many of us (myself definitely included) make mistakes or choose paths we later regret.
MT: You pull off so many “tricks” here, with stories that really entertain whether suspense driven or not, and you manage to balance suspense, story, plot, character, and so on without seeming to bat an eye. This had to have been a lot of work, and if it isn’t you must be a genius. Do you mind telling us how you managed to balance so many different elements of writing with this?
JB: Oh lord, it was so much work. The initial idea for the book was about a woman surviving a plane crash and wandering through the wilderness. That was pretty much it! The other elements took a long time to develop, and many, many drafts. The first few drafts were pretty low on plot – they mainly focused on the emotional struggles of the two main characters. I feel like at the end of each draft, I would figure out another element of the plot, or another twist, which meant I would need to go back and dig everything out again and rearrange. So it was definitely a long process!
MT: I’ve read that you work in publishing. Why did you choose to write a suspense/thriller novel, and who are the author who inspired you, and continue to inspire you? What book do you return to upon being stumped? If you have to pick any author, and maybe a thriller author as well, who do you feel has shaped you into he writer you’ve become today?
JB: I work as a translation rights agent at a literary agency in London, which means I have the pleasure of selling authors’ work to publishers around the world for translation.
I didn’t deliberately set out to write a thriller – I just had an idea and became obsessed with it. That said, I’ve always loved a good thriller. I think Dennis Lehane is a genius – I always go back to his books if I need to be reminded about what good dialogue looks like. I love Tana French’s ability to build atmosphere and character, and Laura Lippman’s novels are always great for complicated, intriguing female characters and clever plotting.
MT: Was there ever a time where you felt you might give up on FREEFALL? I know a lot of authors have different novels bouncing around their heads—were you ever tempted by other ideas? What kept pulling you back to the story?
JB: I threatened to throw my laptop out of the window more times than I’d care to remember when writing Freefall, not because I’d had a better idea but because I doubted that I could make the idea I had work the way I wanted. It was the idea itself that kept pulling me back to it. Ann Patchett has this great line in This is the Story of a Happy Marriageabout how, when a writer develops a story, it becomes this beautiful, perfect butterfly in her mind, and that pulling the story out of her head and putting onto the page involves slowly bludgeoning that butterfly to death. That’s what both made me want to give up and pushed me to keep going: the hope that maybe I could save some small part of the butterfly during the process.
MT: You don’t necessarily state it upfront, but this novel deals with so many current topics (and, really, topics that have been plaguing humanity for generations even if people have turned a blind eye). There are issues with emotional, mental, and physical abusive inside a relationship, there is corporate crime and the people who commit it, There are the people who believe that they can start over in all kinds of ways. And then there’s the idea that you can always return home (disagreeing here with Thomas Wolfe). What are the big themes and ideas behind this noel that kept you motivated, and what ideas do you really want to stress to this country?
JB: I’ve been obsessed with corporate malfeasance in the pharmaceutical industry since OxyContin opened the door for the current opioid epidemic, so I was definitely keen to explore the way in which companies that are theoretically meant to make us better can actually do a huge amount of harm.
But the main issues I wanted to explore are a little more broad. The first is complexity of mother/daughter relationships, particularly as that relationship evolves in the transition from childhood to adulthood. When we’re little, we think we know everything about our parents, and they know everything about us. The process of growing up is in some sense unlearning and relearning that relationship. That ties in with going home, too: I grew up in a small town and spent a lot of my adolescence dreaming about getting out into the big wide world. But spending a few years in the big wide world can sometimes make us look back on where we grew up in a different light.
I was also really keen to dig into the pressures placed upon women and how that influences the way we shape ourselves to fit the world we live in. Allison constructs a series of identities for herself based on who she needs to please: her parents, her peers, her creditors, and her fiancé. I know her version of this can be extreme, but it was a process I could relate to, particularly when I was in my twenties. Society expects women to be many things: ambitious-but-not-too-ambitious, thin-but-not-too-thin, ideally pliable, always beautiful. I wanted to explore some of the ramifications of these expectations, and also what happens when all of those expectations are stripped away from someone and they’re left only with their raw core.
MT: I’ve read that you work in publishing and are writing under a pseudonym. Can you tell us how this came to be? One of my oldest mentors, Julianna Baggott (another JB) writes under many pseudonyms, several on her own and then some with other people. What do you think is the appeal of writing under a pseudonym for most people, and what was the appeal of working under a pseudonym for you?
JB: The decision to use a pseudonym came from the switch in the genre in which I was writing. I published the women’s fiction novels under my own name, so it made sense to come up with a new pen name to mark the switch to thrillers for Freefall. Having written under both my own name and a pseudonym, I have to say I really enjoy the pseudonym! Writing is such an intensely personal process and having it published under a different name gives me a little extra layer of separation that I’m finding helpful.
MT: The twists keep coming in this book, although they never feel gimmicky or out of place. So many books simply stick in a twist for shock value, but you rarely do this. What do you think is the importance of having some really great twists, and more importantly what is essential for making these plot twists not feel like a trick of the hat but instead undeniably ultimate to the story?
JB: I guess I tried to make sure that everything that happens to the characters feels plausible. I love a good twist but only if it’s grounded in some semblance of reality – it can be really frustrating to be invested in a book and have the ending come completely out of left field. There’s always a level of suspended disbelief involved but I think you can only test those limits to a certain extent!
MT: Another mentor of mine, poet and novelist Jillian Weise, told me never to give the audience what they want. What are your thoughts on this and what are your approaches toward writing and how you write for or against readers’ wishes. Who do you feel the need to please? Your readers, your peers, yourself?
JB: I try to write books that readers will enjoy reading: that’s my primary goal. There’s always an amount of withholding an author has to do, particularly when writing suspense, but I think it’s a fine line between teasing out information and driving readers insane with a lack of it. Basically, I want to build a story that will keep them interested and entertained and keep them guessing until the end – without baffling them into submission!
MT: There’s the quote many people have attributed to Toni Morrison, although I’ve read variations on the quote in so many different places. She said something the along the lines of having to write the book you’ve always wanted to read but have never been able to find. Do you think you did this with FREEFALL or do you think this book is still to come? Would you describe or hint as to what this book may be like?
JB: Well, I’ve always wanted to write a book that featured strong female characters who were capable of saving themselves and weren’t reliant on a man to do the saving. Hopefully I’ve done that with Freefall!
MT: I don’t want to spoil too much, but the book definitely has a certain GONE GIRL vibe to me—although, to be honest, it’s completely different, which is a good thing. I love that the book doesn’t start off with “Allison had an absolutely perfect life,” etc, and that it doesn’t focus solely on the domestic thriller genre, which is so hot on the market right now. How did you decide not to take this route, instead giving both of the protagonists’ rocky pasts and how they fear for the future? What was so important for you to set yourself out from every other thriller writer out there?
JB: I think this ties in with my answer above. It was really important to me to write a book in which women weren’t portrayed as victims or unreliable narrators. Of course, there are lots of incredible books that use unreliable female narrators – GONE GIRL being one of them – but I wanted my female characters to be heroines in the traditional sense: clear-eyed and capable of saving the day. A lot of male-led thrillers feature arcs of redemption for their main characters, and I wanted to do the same for Maggie and Allison.
MT: You’ve gotten some really great blurbs from some really important writers recently. I do have to say, while I have been disappointed in so many writers’ recent books, yours is stunning. How do you feel that fame and acclaim has changed your life as opposed to the way it’s changed other novelists? Do you already have another novel in the works (and may we hear a bit about it, if so?).
JB: I still have a full-time job and am currently waiting for a load of laundry to finish in the washing machine, so my life hasn’t changed all that much so far! I’m super grateful for all of the support I’ve had from other writers and from my publishers and know that I’m extremely lucky to be in this position. I’m sort of expecting to wake up tomorrow and for everyone to shout JUST KIDDING in my face.
I’m currently about two-thirds of the way through a new novel. It’s about two women who are driving through the middle of the night across the desert for reasons that aren’t immediately clear, and who become the target of a seemingly-random road rage incident. Things escalate from there…!
MT: What are three really important habits you would choose to help future struggling writers with their writing and goals in the future? What do you think is the most important thing for an aspiring novelist to get to the place you are now, and the place so many other authors have worked hard to reach?
JB: The most important thing for any aspiring writer to do is to sit down in front of a computer (or notebook, or typewriter) and write. It’s also the most difficult. Even now, I spent so much time avoiding the act of writing. It’s often hard and tedious and unsatisfying and crazy-making. You will want to throw your laptop out of the window many, many times. But the only way to write anything – and the only way to get better at it – is to sit down and do it.
The second is to have faith in your ideas. If an idea comes to you and you feel like it’s a good one, hold on to it. Let it wander around in your head for a while and see where it goes. Write notes. When you feel the idea is ready, sit down and write and try not to be too discouraged by your initial attempts. It will get better.
The third is to keep at it. The first draft is usually junk. The second isn’t much better. There will be moments when you won’t want to look at the manuscript ever again, which are the moments you should stand up from your desk and take a shower or go for a run and then when you’re feeling less despairing, you should sit down again and try again (but don’t wait too long).
MT: I don’t want to go into specific to avoid spoilers, but there seems to be a switch in roles between a husband and wife characters. I won’t go into detail but I will ask—how do you approach gender as opposed to sex in this novel? It seems like you are offering the idea that gender roles are outdated, but I’d love to hear your spin on things.
JB: I’ve never been a huge believer in gender roles. The idea that women are meant to do x and men are meant to do y seems frankly insane to me. That sort of binary dynamic in a relationship feels toxic these days, and this is something we see play out in the novel.
MT: I really loved reading your book, Jessica. It was beyond phenomenal and I’m so excited to promote your book. To all of our readers, I highly suggest you pick up a copy of FREEFALL by Jessica Barry as soon as possible. Jessica, thank you so much and feel free to leave any remarks, thoughts, or questions below. I look forward to reading what you come out with next!
JB: Thank you so much! And thank you for asking such interesting, insightful questions – it’s been a real pleasure!
Henry James to James M. Cain: Vicki Hendricks Talks Noir and Crime Fiction, Obsession, Writing, and More
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Vicki! It’s really great to get to interview you. You are such an important writer in the crime world, and I can’t believe I get the chance to pick your brain. Normally I start off easy with writers, opening with a fairly simple question, but from our brief correspondence as well as reading your novels, it’s apparent to me that starting off easy isn’t something you might want or need. You have been described by various authors, as well as bloggers and writers on websites, as one of the key luminaries in neo-noir. Most people believe that you—and perhaps solely you—are responsible for reinvigorating the genre. What do you think of this? Do you mind elaborating on your history with writing and your subsequent success?
Vicki Hendricks: I’m flattered that you think of Miami Purity as starting neo-noir. I’m not sure I can take credit, or if I was just in the first round to hit the publishers in the mid-90’s. Women’s noir has a long and delicious history, but since the death of Patricia Highsmith, true, there was a lull. Though, I didn’t know that at the time. I wrote Miami Purityin admiration of James M. Cain, as my thesis for a Master’s in Creative Writing at Florida International University. When the novel was published, I thought noirwas a fancy term for crime that my editor chose, in order to differentiate my content from mystery and detective. I always enjoyed crime movies, but I hadn’t read more than a bite of Jim Thompson, unless you include Harry Crews’s The Gypsy’s Curse, one of my favorite novels. The Postman Always Rings Twicewas recommended for me to read during the writing program, and I became enthralled with James M. Cain a year or two before I started Miami Purity. I have no history of writing before that, except for a few local magazine articles on lobstering, manatees, and food, and my thesis on Henry James for a Master’s in English. I wrote short stories in the F.I.U. writing program, but Miami Puritywas my first published fiction and my most successful, by far, if you consider success to be fame and fortune. Suddenly, I was a crime writer. I don’t believe it’s my best writing, but it got the most publicity, and that’s what counts for that definition of success.
MT: Throughout your life, whether through life experiences, the histories of family or friends, the media you’ve read and consumed in other ways too, what things have shaped you into the writer you are? People have described your writing as being both masculine and feminine at the same time, and similarly men and women both tend to really love your writing. What do you think of this?
VH: I doubt what I’m going to tell you really had anything to do with my writing, but when I was in high school, a horrendous murder took place in the house behind ours. The Bricca murder has never been solved. The parents and a two-year-old daughter were found stabbed multiple times, three days after they were killed. We, the neighbors, were all watching The Bridge Over the River Quaion TV for the first time that Sunday night when it occurred, and nobody heard anything. My mother woke me up Tuesday in the dark, for school, with the words, “The Briccas were murdered.” Their two dogs were in the house with the bodies all that time. The police searched a drain between our house and theirs for a weapon, but found nothing. I had cut through between that house and the one next to it numerous times to visit my friend, while they were in there. My friends and I used the murder as a reason to get a dog, and I never really thought about the effect on me otherwise. We got Schmeizer, a German shepard who was eventually volunteered for the Navy because he wouldn’t let the milkman or the mailman deliver to our end of the street.
Also, when I was seventeen, soon after my father had died, my mother used to wake me up in the middle of the night holding a loaded luger. We would search the house and then circle around the car in the garage in case a burglar was ducking down. Maybe that set me up to write suspense. I hadn’t connected anything like that until this moment.
Regarding subject matter, I hate research and there was no internet available when I started writing in the late 80s, so I stuck to things I knew, mainly adventure sports and sex. Since my books are mostly about sex and obsession, that kind of research is always easy to come by—or imagine. It’s circular, I think—interests and writing. Each stimulates the other. Writing gives living a purpose; it’s an excuse to travel to strange places, get to know weird people, and do unusual stuff. Writing allows you to write it off on your income tax, if you make money. What else can you do with all the details and theories you spend your life gathering? Now that I’m a senior citizen (Ack! Jeez.) I’m lucky to have the wild old days to draw from.
MT: What is your favorite book out of all the novels you’ve written? Why is this book your favorite, and what do you think it says about you as a writer and what do you expect readers to take away from it?
VH: Voluntary Madnessis my favorite of the noir novels. I want my readers to take away pleasure from my books. I’m sure when I was writing VM, I had some ideas that seemed worthwhile, maybe some questions to ponder, but I can’t remember, and I hate looking back at my writing. I have been told that I tend to focus thematically on control, or lack of control, but I never noticed that myself. VMhas a lot of strange characters drawn from real live Key Westers, eccentrics and bohemians, and I guess I wanted readers to get know these people and enjoy them the way I did.
MT: What do you think it means when articles say that you are a unique combination of masculine and feminine? Do you view noir—classic noir or neo-noir—as being a strictly masculine genre? Do you think it is limiting to women writers because of this description?
VH: I’ve always felt both masculine and feminine, not physically—although in my youth, I was muscular without trying, and in those days it was embarrassing—but in my thinking. Reading, I always identified with the male narrators and dreamed of adventure. I wanted to stow away on a freighter and get shipwrecked. It’s true, that my fiction has been considered “masculine” in the past. I’m not sure what that is, or if it is still true in the rapidly changing world of gender, but I can only think that in the 90s, I used strong language and did not shy away from subjects that could be considered indelicate. Also, my characters don’t think much about fashion or make up, but tend toward activities that attract more men than women, in general, or used to. My first reviewer questioned whether I was a man writing under a woman’s name, and a reviewer for Iguana Lovesaid that my main character—and tied me in as well—had the mind of a gay male because women don’t objectify men; only a man would do that. I think that’s absolutely crazy, and he was probably an old guy. Doesn’t everybody objectify people at times?
Patricia Highsmith was around when the label noirwas first defined, as well as many other women in her time period, so masculinity has little to do with it. Check out Sarah Weinman’s collection, Women Crime Writers of the 40s and 50sfor eight great noir novels. And lately noir has bloomed again with women writing noir that contains mystery. I’m not a fan of police and detective novels in general, but I love these stand-alone novels where the layering of dark atmosphere and complex characterization is much more interesting than whodunnit or a surprise ending. I recently finished Tana French’s The Witch Elm and I skipped reading most of the solution. I don’t care about those details. I love the atmosphere and exploration of family relationships leading back into the past. For most of the book, I wasn’t even sure the crime would be solved (except I knew it wouldn’t have been published without that) but I didn’t care because it was wholly delicious. I particularly like the de-emphasis of crime-solving I find in women’s novels, allowing the drama of relationships, the layering of subtext. And suspense, yes! the slow train-wreck. I eat that stuff up.
MT: What is your approach to writing? Are you a morning writer, an afternoon writer, an evening writer, or a nighttime writer? Do you write a certain number of pages or words a day, or do you tend to work for a number of hours a day instead?
VH: This will be bad news for anybody needing a good example. My approach has changed since I retired from teaching. At my most productive, I got up at 4:30 am, after grading essays until midnight, and wrote like crazy until 6 a.m., when I left for step aerobics class and then went on to teach for the day. Weekends I could get some sleep and spend the day writing—until I started skydiving and that was the end of my productive years. Now that I’m retired, I write whenever I get to it. Daily is the goal, but I don’t always get to it, and I stop writing for months at a stretch. I generally get started in late afternoon because: I have no idea! I’m usually going strong when it’s time to walk the dog and have dinner. But I love it when I look at the clock and think, wow, I’ve put in three hours! Then I feel good and make a salad because I’m starving. I can’t tell at that point whether I’ve written something I can use or plopped down pure shit, so time spent is my only measure of worth.
MT: What is your editing process like? How many times do you go through a book trying to make it perfect? Your books are often shorter, compact, tiny but with a strong punch. Are you the type of writer who tends to underwrite or overwrite?
VH: I rewrite and rewrite on the sentence level as well as the structuring level during the first draft and 7 or 8 drafts after that. I never sell a book in advance because I don’t do series, so I finish one and send it to an agent, and then I finish it again, and again, until the agent sells it, and then I rewrite for the editor. Even after the book is in print, if I have a reading, I edit live and hope nobody notices. I believe that every time you rewrite a novel, you are a better writer at the end, so then if you start over, you’ll have a better book, ad infinitum. Not a practical belief to follow, but I try.
I was told in a creative writing class that I tend to underwrite and it might be easier to write more and then cut, if necessary. However, I’m always afraid I’ll go on too long and bore someone. Obviously, I don’t worry about that in interviews.
MT: While researching for this interview, I read your books and they are absolutely fascinating, if not somewhat jarring with how intense and straight-forward they are. Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott have both cited you as influences. What were the risks and actions you took in order to pave the way for authors like Laura and Megan? Was there ever any backlash or conflict with either male writers, the media, reviewers, etc?
VH: I think I was a very minor influence, at most, and Megan and Laura didn’t need any paving for their paths. They’re both sweet and humble. I think my publisher was hoping for conflict and backlash in order to propel sales, but I never had any. Without the internet, it wasn’t so easy to cause a stir. A few places felt my novels were inappropriate for their library because of sexual content, and I got a couple letters to that effect. (People wrote letters in those days.) I never felt I was taking risks, except that my mother would see what I was writing and have a fit. Eventually, she did, and we both lived through it. On Miami PurityI got all wonderful reviews, or else those were the only ones forwarded to me. In later years, some bad ones turned up. My writing seems to inspire high emotions in one direction or the other, no middle ground.
MT: What is your favorite part about writing a new novel? How do you begin a novel, and where does the idea come from? How does it develop—slowly over time or suddenly all at once?
VH: I love starting a novel. There’s so much excitement in writing that first page when a character pops into your head, and everything is open. Creativity can go wild. The idea, for me, develops from one sentence to the next. Sometimes, I add a gesture to break up the dialogue and it tells me where to go after that. I think this sort of thing is what people mean when they say their characters take over the story. Of course, the farther you get, even on the first page, the more you lock yourself into a voice, a time, an inevitable ending. The page will change many times, but you don’t realize that immediately, and writing is actually fun! Then the next day or even later that day, you look at it and say, Shit! this has to go and that has to change, and you find yourself gnawing on the words that sounded perfect just a short time ago. It only gets worse after that, especially when you have to start gathering everything together in the middle in order to make it end. It would feel so good just to keep expanding, but that leads to disaster. I’m reminded of that early series Lost that I somehow became hooked into. Those guys had a wonderful time expanding the possibilities to infinity, and it just got worse and worse because you realized it could never be resolved. It just dribbled away.
I’m inspired by people mostly for novels. Someone I meet, or hear about, demonstrates unusual tendencies or desires. In search of information about my newly acquired iguana, I met a woman who was obsessed with her deceased iguana, which gave me a voice for Iguana Love. In addition, there was the warning in the iguana pet guide: “An iguana will never return your love.” That reality became the backbone of the novel.
I tend to work well by studying the tip of the iceberg and imagining the rest. For short stories, it might be an event that stimulates my imagination.I’m always trying to be original, so when I hear of something bizarre, I want to work with it, figure out possible motives, take the mystery out of life, or at least, provide a theory. For example, I heard on the news that a rapist in Miami was targeting paralyzed women, assaulting them orally. One victim woke up during the act. Many people would rather not delve into that, I’m sure, because of the disgusting nature of the crime, but I started scratching my head and conjecturing something more complex than the motive of easy prey. Around that time, I was asked for a noir cat story for a collection, and I thought, jeez, can I do it? Put those 2 elements into a story together? A fanciful cat story about rape . . . oxymoronic and sure to get me into trouble. It took me over a year, but “The Good Cat” eventually came out of it. So far, I haven’t been in any trouble.
MT: What about Florida do you feel screams “noir”? There is obviously a lot of rough elements about Florida, from the crime rate in various cities to the nature and also just the general population. I lived in Tallahassee for a while and from what I understand, it’s considered one of the tamer cities in the state. What makes Florida such a great setting for your novels?
VH: I guess my last example screams noir more than anything else I can think of. The rough elements, the drug deals, the murders, the police work, none of these really interest me because they’re common everywhere. I’m not sure if Florida is special for noir or dark writers just congregate in sunny places. I’m not sure you were told correctly about Tallahassee. Where I live now, an hour east of Orlando, it’s tame, unless you fear snakes, armadillos, bears, raccoons, and coyotes, but there’s no problem finding human nature at its lowest anywhere you go. You can’t move away from yourself, I noted, when I first met some Florida transplants, but there are millions of people trying to leave themselves behind. These are the folks who inspire me.
MT: Would your novels be any different in this decade, or in this year? How would you change the books if at all, and why would you change them if you did?
VH: I would rewrite every one of them to make them better. I haven’t had the luxury of time until I retired from teaching, and now, I don’t know where my time goes, as we all say. I know I spend too much of it on door service for cats! Is anyone ever happy with his or her final product? But maybe I would just mess the books up, at least in some ways. I certainly don’t have the ambition or energy for all that work. I look back and marvel at how I ever wrote those novels and stories while teaching five classes and grading compositions, and skydiving and scuba diving, sailing and adventuring . . . I can’t complain, can I?
MT: I love how blunt and upfront and unashamed the women in your novels are often presented as being. This seems like such an amazing and compelling reason to read your books—especially considering most aren’t considered recent publications, but foundation for all the noir to come. How do you feel the crime genre is shaping out—especially for women—when you changed things publishing these straight forward novels years ago, and now the genre is filled with seemingly perfect women in domestic thrillers, characters so different from the ones you created?
VH: Women’s crime, which is really everybody’s crime, is wonderful these days. I love what’s in between the murder and violence, and that’s what women do best, fill in all the subtleties of personality and motive. My straightforward style leaves out much of what I enjoy. Like I said, I’m always in a hurry, but luckily people like you read my short books and have allowed me to continue getting them published. If I can ever get the next one finished, I hope that’s still true. But I have to say that my writing career far surpassed my dreams years ago.
MT: What are the novels that most shaped your work? When you look back on your career so far, what novels or authors or, really, anyone or anything was most important in affecting how you viewed the world and how you shaped the worlds within your novels?
VH: I read all of James M. Cain, Harry Crews, and Charles Bukowski, so I suspect they were my major influences. What a world they shaped inside my head, right? Of course, I read Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and it has always been one of my all-time favorite crime novels, but I don’t know if I was influenced by her. I didn’t learn about other women crime writers until after I became one myself. I had no idea I was going to do that, or I would have definitely read more in the genre. I caught up late in my writing career.
MT: What do you think is important about noir in general to the world we live in today? What do you think is important about your noir and your novels in to the world today?
VH: I’m sorry to say that I can’t think of any reason why noir is important, but you can probably convince me if you have reasons.
MT: Is there another Vicki Hendricks masterpiece coming our way? We can all hope and wish—if you can give us any hope, would you mind telling us if you have another book in the works and, if so, would you mind hinting at what it might be about?
VH: Considering my lack of discipline lately, it might be so far in the future that I don’t want to set up expectations. I have about half of a rough draft, and I think it might be horror blended with science fiction, mingled with sex.
MT: Vicki, thank you so much for taking the time to answer some of my questions and let me pick your brain. It’s been so wonderful to correspond with you and get to know you, and also so amazing to read your fiction and revisit it time and time again. I normally make this offer for any author, but I feel it’s especially important to you, for I know you likely have so much to say in general—would you mind leaving us with any thoughts, suggestions, remarks, conclusions, or questions? And thank you so much again.
VH: Just recently, a woman pointed to my head and said, “I wouldn’t want to live in there.” But I’m sure she was kidding.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Rosalie. I really loved you book Who is Vera Kelly, and not just because I read it following a week-long binge of all of The Americans. I am curious about where the original idea came from, what sparked your interest in this subject and time period, and why you think it’s so timely today?
Rosalie Knecht: Thank you, and I hope your psyche hasn't been completely destroyed by that show. I started with the idea that I wanted to write a spy novel, and the Cold War heyday of the genre appealed to me. I think there's a feeling of freedom that you get from creating a little distance from the present moment, which allows things to unfold in a less self-conscious way. On some level I was inspired by the fact that my maternal grandfather, whom I never met because he died in an accident in 1961, worked for the CIA.
MT: How long did it take you to write your first draft of Vera Kelly? What continued to draw you back to it, despite all of the writer’s efforts—all of our efforts—to avoid the idea of fear or failing? I know myself I have avoided revisions plenty of times just because I was afraid the revised work would, in turn, be rejected.
RK: I honestly can't recall how long the first draft took, because drafts always have blurry boundaries for me, but I can tell you that I started the novel in February 2012 (because I always put the month and year at the top of the document when I open it, a practice I recommend, because you will forget otherwise) and sold it to Tin House in June 2017. That makes it lightning fast compared to my previous book, Relief Map, which I started in November 2007 and sold, also to Tin House, in December 2014.
I think everybody's afraid both of rejection and of putting immense effort into something that other people may never see. The only way to maintain the motivation to continue, I think, is to feel that the process is the reward. The actual experience of writing the book is the only guaranteed return. You have to be having a good time.
Also, there's another way to look at the rejection part. Our lives are riddled with rejection, but as I said to a friend once when I was having a hard time in some basic ways-- romantically, financially, professionally-- the thing about writing is that it can't break up with you or evict you or fire you. You can't get kicked out of it. It's yours for as long as you want it.
MT: What are the books, the movies, the stories, the television shows, anything really that inspired you to write Vera Kelly? Were there any books or authors in particular your returned to for renewed interest, either because of frustration with writing and being in between drafts, or to motivate you to keep writing?
MT: Did you ever have any problems finding a publishing house for Who is Very Kelly, and if you’re being entirely honest, what aspect of the book made it hardest to be published and what about the book finally convinced publishers, in your mind, to produce it for the world to read?
RK: I published WIVK with the same publisher as my first book, so it wasn't hard to find a publisher per se, but it was hard to find that publisher for my first book! And I can imagine that if I didn't already have a relationship with a publisher, and if Tin House wasn't such a profoundly cool place, that the book would have been a pretty hard sell. It is, after all, a novel about a spy that's paced like a literary novel and focused on relationships, all of which I thought would baffle and irritate people. But I couldn't help it, that was the book I wrote.
MT: How much research did you do before writing the book? I’ve heard different arguments on research from very different writers—those who want to research as much as possible before writing, and those who believe you research essential things as you go, and fact check later. What was the researching experience for Vera Kelly like for you?
RK: I got a subscription to the New York Times so I could have access to their digital archive, and I read about the coup in books and online, and I read some spy novels and went back to some Argentine novels I had read in college to be reminded of how things feel and smell, little things. Compared to Peron years and the Dirty War of the 1970s, there is little research readily available about what happened in 1966, so I had to dig and mostly focused on a few key details. A reader from Argentina recently wrote to me with some anachronisms and mistakes in the book, which was amazing to see, although tragically too late to fix them! I completely whiffed the exchange rate, for example, which wasn't how I depicted it until 1970.
I've heard from other writers that research can be a black hole you fall into, since everything is so fascinating if you dig a little. You can spend forever on it and end up avoiding writing your actual book. But on the other hand, you don't want to represent a time and place that isn't yours and do so in a sloppy way. I've been relieved that, details aside, the Argentine readers I've heard from have said that the Buenos Aires in the book felt familiar to them. Even if I did feature a color television in it, and Argentina had no color TV broadcast until the 1978 World Cup. Well, now I know.
MT: In your mind, what is the answer to the novel’s question, Who is Vera Kelly?—in whatever way you choose to respond to it?
RK: She's a person who wants to be left alone.
MT: Do you view Who is Vera Kellyas a largely crime novel? If not, and I know this is so limiting for such a strong and incredibly complicated book, how would you define it in terms of genre? Who were the people you wanted to target when writing the novel? I know a lot of authors, including myself, want to target “everyone” upon initially beginning and finishing a novel, but eventually who did you or your editor or agent or publisher or who have you want you to limit the audience down to?
RK: I didn't really have an audience in mind, and although I was calling it a spy novel, I knew it wasn't paced or constructed like a traditional spy novel. I think you just have to do what you're doing and hope an audience finds it. I just wanted to write something that I would like to read.
MT: Did you know how you wanted to end the novel from the very beginning? Would you mind going into some detail about your writing process and how novels and stories and ideas take form for you on the page?
RK: Oh my God, not at all. I never do. I usually start with one element-- in this case, the idea of spies; in my last book, it was the setting. I can usually only think about fifty pages ahead. At some point the ending falls into place, but I generally don't know how I'm going to get there until I actually write the pages.
MT: Rosalie, I do have to ask for the rest of our staff as well as those readers who have loved Who is Vera Kelly—what’s next for you? Do you have another novel as a work-in-progress? We’re all very hopeful get more from you soon.
RK: I'm hoping for a Vera Kelly trilogy. I have somethings I want her to sort out. I'm working on the second one now.
MT: Rosalie, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about your writing and about Who is Very Kelly. This was a phenomenal book that I will continue to recommend to any and every one. Do you have any thoughts, suggestions, comments, or questions you’d like to leave us with? Feel free to say anything—and, again, thank you Rosalie!
RK: Just-- thanks for reading!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Aimee. I have been such a big fan for so long. My first experience with your luck was reading Girl with the Flammable Skirt, a book I love so much but have to keep buying year after year, since many friends have “borrow” my copies pretty permanently. I wanted to discuss—before getting into detail about specific works—what your writing process is like. How many hours do you spend a day or week writing? Do you have word limits or goals? Do you write in a linear fashion or jump around a lot? Tell us how writing works for you!
Aimee Bender: Hi, Matthew! Thank you. I love hearing that about the borrowed books.
I’ve long been a big believer about time limits for writing—can point you to some pieces re that if you’d like, as I think about it all the time: http://www.oprah.com/spirit/writing-every-day-writers-rules-aimee-bender
These days I do 1.5 hours in the morn, and one hour in the evening on Mondays. The stricter the better. Jumping around, once in that strict time structure, is just fine.
MT: I really love your stories, and I’ve also really loved your novels. Your most recent novel was The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. It’s such a unique and innovative concept. Can you start by explaining how you came up with the idea for the book? Also, while I don’t necessarily believe in giving all books labels, what would you categorize Lemon Cakeas being—both age levels and genre-wise?
AB: Let’s see. I think of Lemon Cake as adult fiction, literary, with some magic in it, but I’m fine with however others think of it. It won an Alex Award, which was unexpected and nice to get, which meant it was approved for readers 12 and up, and that was good, too—I’m happy when teenagers read it and find a home in it. But I also love it when they read it with their mom or dad and then the adult gets in there too.
The idea for the book is harder to track—one route was a friend of mine that always refers to feelings as something to ‘digest’; another piece was a composer who asked me to write on the seven vices, including gluttony, which led to a character that sounded a bit like Rose, and mostly just the daily wandering around on the computer until something starts to have some motion in it.
MT: Sometimes, I feel like you’re honestly at your best writing from a first person POV. How do you establish the voice of each character, and how do you make the novel so intimate and candid as you do? Every book and story feels like you’re opening the door for a new universe and allowing readers in.
AB: So glad to hear it! I love first person. I love reading it, love writing it. I find third very tricky, which is why I lean toward the fairy tale third person which has quite a bit of distance in it. Voice tends to just arrive, but there are many voices that fizzle, so it’s more about trying a lot and failing at a lot before arriving at something that works.
MT: When you were younger, what were your favorite books? What have been your favorite books in recent years, and what books do you feel have had the greatest impact on your literary career? Are there any modern authors—story writers or novelists or otherwise—who have had great impacts on your writing?
AB: I read a lot when I was little, and I’m a mom now and revisiting some of my favorites has been wonderful: William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, and E.B. White’s Stuart Little, where the prose is just crystal clear, and soon Julie Andrews’ The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, which has the best ice cream machine ever. I recently read my children Ozma of Oz (Baum) and was amazed and a little embarrassed to see how much those books have leaked their way into my writing. There are many current books thrilling me—there’s an abundance of riches these days. I just finished and learned so much from the Rachel Cusk trilogy. Adored the voice in Sour Heart, Jenny Zhang’s collection. I reread Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping during the election ramp up and it was the only thing I found soothing: the careful articulation of daily activities as a way to get into worlds beneath the world. Soon to read Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, and he is a usual favorite of mine. So weird and resonant.
MT: When was your first publication? How old were you, and is this a publication that is collected in one of your collections or is it something that you have steered away from? I know many authors tend to—not necessarily feel ashamed—but perhaps turn from their earliest work as it is extremely raw and unrefined. What do you feel is most important for potential future writers when dealing with publication?
AB: Oh, I have to say I do feel annoyed when writers diss their earlier work. It still counts. And it usually met some readers. I just think we don’t really need to be critics of ourselves so publicly that way—it’s not our job. My very first pub was a tiny magazine in San Diego that took a story as an undergraduate, but it had one issue and never did anything again. The first “real” one was “The Threepenny Review,” a Berkeley literary journal as encouraged by a teacher, the wonderful Jane Vandenburgh, and I was shocked and amazed to get that thing in print. And then I thought it would be easy after that, which it was not! It was a story called “Dreaming in Polish” that was in Flammable Skirt but does feel different than many of the other stories in that book. It came from an earlier era, where I was thinking more while writing. Now I try to think as little as possible.
MT: I’ve been witnessing the literary culture grow and change over the years. Do you feel that women and other marginalized people are finally taking a strong stance in the scene, or do you think full representation still has a long way to go for most marginalized people?
AB: I do see a change. A really important change in that representation is at the forefront of so many literary discussions now. There’s always a ways to go, but I think it’s on people’s minds and the amount of good material out there to find and to teach is stunning and very exciting.
MT: What is the highest praise you feel you’ve received for a work of fiction? Are there any negative remarks that you’ve been really hurt by—or even inspired by, hopefully pushing you forward in an effective way, even as an act of defiance?
AB: Fun to think of. Highest praise—I think when someone returns to a book, and when I feel it really got under their skin and lives with them, becomes part of them. I don’t want to feel like the work gets read and then is over. I want it to linger, and for someone to be moved and impacted, even if it’s unclear why or how. Early on, I felt really vulnerable to all reviews and would sit and deconstruct them with a couple key friends which helped. Now it’s a little easier, though still nerve-wracking, of course. I still want someone to catch the ball I threw.
MT: You haven’t released a book in several years. Of course, there are authors that release books every 1-2 years, and some authors—for example, Donna Tartt—who only release books every ten years or more. What is your next book going to be like, and how do you feel it will be different from previous works?
AB: I’m working away on a novel, and it has short chapters in a way that is a bit new for me, and a kind of distilled quality, I think, but it also circles around some similar themes because I have my treasure chest of preoccupations which does not seem to change!
MT: What’s the most astonishing reaction you’ve had by a fan? I’m assuming you have quite a dedicated fan-base, simply looking at my own friends and how quick they are to say “We never borrowed that book!” or “I’ll try and find it.” (Side note: Got both these responses from one friend, and when at her house and in her bedroom one day, saw it lying plainly on a shelf as if she’s in the middle of reading it—I decided to let it slide. I could get another copy. She needed this book.)
AB: (love hearing this btw!)
MT: Given today’s political climate, what is the one book or collection or story you’d recommend Americans and other humans to read? What would you recommend to our president—if possible, both one of your own works, and a work by someone else you highly value or covet?
AB: I lean toward poems as resources for us all—and the news cycle is so intense and so wearing that to spend some time with something small and intense and beautiful and made with such care seems helpful. I’ve been reading Terrance Hayes’ new book, and Wislawa Szymborska. But that same impulse is also bringing me back to Marilynne Robinson, for similar reasons. Anti-impulsiveness. True consideration of human experience, loss, beauty.
MT: What genres do you prefer not to go near? What are books you don’t care for, or simply cannot stand? What books have you found yourself surprisingly drawn to, and what book would readers find strangest to discover influenced your own work?
AB: There isn’t one! Because it’s all about voice and language and I’ll read anything at all if told in a way that feels fresh and interesting.
MT: What is the hardest book or story you’ve ever had to write? I remember Annie Proulx stating it took her twice or so as long to write “Brokeback Mountain” as an actual full-length novel? Have you ever completely given up on a work?
AB: Yes—I gave up on a novel about a teenage boy who was acting out left and right and the voice had some merits but the narrative drive was really, really not working. One story in The Color Master, called “Faces” was pillaged from that novel.
MT: Finally, what advice do you give in general—based on things we’ve discussed, or otherwise—to promising new writers, up-and-comers, etc, on how to tackle writing, and the best ways to go about finding their own voice and their own style of writing?
AB: There’s the writer who is you, and the writer you are pretending to be, and in my mind, finding out the writer who is you is a better route, will lead more clearly to voice. I ask my classes to write on a subject about which they know a lot, a kind of expertise. But not necessarily a proud expertise. What do they really know about? Barbecuing, celebrity dating profiles, their mother’s rules (which is essentially why Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” is so great), etc, and from that, see what shows up. Nothing shallow will remain shallow if pored over with care.
MT: Thank you so much for talking to me, Aimee. It’s been a pleasure—and fantasy, honestly of mine, ever since I was younger. I am really looking forward to whatever work you do next, and am constantly on the lookout for new writing of yours. If you have any other thoughts, commentary, suggestions, or wisdom, please let us know!
AB: Thank you so much!
"[Flavia] is whispering to me even as we speak": An Interview with the Brilliant, Incomparable Alan Bradley
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Alan! It’s so nice to get to talk with you about your wonderful series of
novels revolving around your character Flavia de Luce. First, I wanted to ask, what came first
for you? The ideas of the books or the characters like Flavia? It’s always interesting to see the
author mould the story around a character, or create a character who fits into the story.
Alan Bradley: The idea of writing a mystery came first, although in the end, I never did complete the book I was planning. Flavia sauntered onto the page and hijacked my story lock, stock and plot. She brought the characters and settings with her. I didn’t have a chance.
MT: Flavia is such a brilliant, alive character. I have a lot of friends who are big fans. She’s
Nancy Drew but for adults, so much dark humour and general darkness it’s like entering a new
world when you write about her. How hard is it to get into Flavia’s mind when you are writing?
AB: It’s not hard at all. Flavia is always there, champing at the bit, just waiting for me to sit down at the keyboard so that she can occupy my hands and make herself heard.
MT: Flavia is such a specific girl. She starts off a young girl who wants to study Chemistry and
ends up studying the murders of dead people—solving their deaths, these crimes, with these
incredible skills. How did you decide who Flavia is, as well as her voice, and decide upon how to
really make Flavia a person herself. How do you decide about these brilliantly unique murders?
and do you think Flavia grows throughout the series?
AB: I can take no credit for Flavia. She appeared on the page – “jumped out of the inkpot” as they say – fully formed. I sometimes think that she might have been waiting centuries for someone with a suitably quirky mind. With each book, I have settled upon the unique theme (obsessive stamp collecting, curious religions, gypsy caravans, etc: something which will grip my interest long enough to write a book.) Turned loose within these frameworks, Flavia seems perfectly at home, and goes whizzing off in all directions. I had to learn touch-typing to keep up! And thanks to my beloved wife, who taught me.
MT: Before Flavia and success, how long did it take you to get a book published, and how long
before you felt you were successful, which has different meaning to different people?
AB: Although I had collaborated on an earlier book (Ms. Holmes of Baker Street) my first published book was The Shoebox Bible, a memoir of my mother. I don’t remember having any particular problem getting it published. I emailed the manuscript to an agent and received a blank contract the next morning. It was sold very quickly, with several publishers bidding for the rights. The first Flavia book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Piewon the Debut Dagger Award from the CWA (Crime Writers’ Association) in the UK. It was only when I flew from Canada to London to accept the award at a black-tie event in Park Lane and found that the book – and the subsequent series - had been sold in three countries on two continents (and later, thirty-eight!) that I began to realize how widespread was the readers’ love for Flavia de Luce. The most oft-occurring word in my mail and email is “love”, for which I am eternally grateful.
MT: What was the toughest book to write, and why was it a struggle? Was there ever a Flavia
book you nearly gave up on, or did you fight through no matter what?
AB: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was likely the toughest, because I hadn’t written a mystery before. I vividly remember my forefinger hovering above the ‘send’ button of the final draft – then stopping to change a word, a phrase…and then another…and another…and another. It was long after midnight before I got up the gumption finally to send it on its way. The book was written in the wake of a tragic forest fire, which we survived, but not unscathed. Several of the other books were written under trying circumstances, and only now do I begin to realize what a balm they were at the time to the soul. I hope this passion comes through to the reader.
MT: What was your favourite mystery? Who are your favourite characters? We certainly come
AB: My own personal favourite mystery is Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors. Exquisite! If I may indulge in one long answer, consider the following:
“The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo--tan tin din dan bam bim bo bom--tan dan tin bam din bo bim bom--every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again. Out over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping counties went the music of the bells--little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them. Up and down went the shadows of the ringers upon the walls, up and down went the scarlet sallies flickering roofwards and floorwards, and up and down, hunting in their courses, went the bells of Fenchurch St. Paul.”
It simply doesn’t get any better than that.
Of the Flavia mysteries, they are all my favourites, but for different reasons: the restoration memories, beliefs, friendships, mentors, and near-forgotten joys.
MT: What do you think is so important about writing mysteries and, for an adult audience, what
about Flavia being a child and solving mysteries do you think resonates with them?
AB: Everyone has been a child, and everyone can identify with the trials and tribulations of being a child. I firmly believe that all of us retain shards of childhood within us, some more and some less than others. Flavia appeals to whatever remnants of youthful idealism, of enthusiasm, of truth and justice lingers in our core. It is this which has kept me going till eighty.
MT: Can you talk about the journey Flavia has taken throughout her life in these books? Which
books or parts of books do you think showed her most, and where do you think Flavia was most
AB: Flavia gradually reveals herself only gradually, book by book. In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which is set in the summer of 1950, she is almost eleven. Ten books later, in The Golden Tresses of the Dead, she is a couple of years older, and there is a detectible difference in her outlook. As an avaricious learner, she has taken on board a frightening amount of practical and philosophical knowledge. It worries me sometimes that the adults around her don’t realize how truly dangerous she might well be.
MT: What do you think makes Flavia so interesting to fans? She’s a blooming chemist, a
detective, a young girl—and how did you make the part of her being so young work so well in
the books? Other people might discredit a novel based on the age of the character.
AB: I’ve heard that criticism, and all I can say is “Barn-liquorice!”Anyone who underestimates the intelligence of an eleven-year-old girl is living with their eyes and ears glued shut. Some of the most brilliant individuals I’ve ever met have been eleven-year-old girls. Any girl of that age – or boy, for that matter - possesses naturally all the attributes required of a great detective: intelligence, keenness, curiosity, acute senses, and the great advantage of being completely invisible to adults – if she or he wishes: and Flavia does.
MT: Looking back on the series so far, what was your favourite book to write? Did you always
have the mysteries and the books mapped out or do you think on them and write as it come to
you? Either way, you do it fast—sometimes, you put out a book a year!
AB: As above, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was the most consuming, partly because of the amount of research required and partly because I was a mystery neophyte. I knew about halfway through that there was a much longer story in progress: that I could not possibly squeeze it all into one book. At first, I thought there would be three volumes…then six…then ten. I’ve just completed the tenth, and Flavia still wakes me up in the middle of the night with strange snippets and intriguing insights.
MT: What is the greatest writing advice—editing, revising, writing—that you’ve ever received
and how do you think it changed the way you write? Would you mind sharing it with our
AB: These elements are all equally important. I revise constantly as I write: a word here, a paragraph there, mostly the recasting of sentences to make them more graceful; to force them to flow more gracefully. Over the years, I’ve received many bits of writing advice from professionals, but the one which sticks forever in my mind was given me by the Governor General’s Award-winning poet, Anne Szumigalski, who once told me: “Just because it happened doesn’t mean you have to put it in.” Over the years, she saved me more grief than I knew. Bless you, Anne!
MT: Do you think you’ll have a set number of books for the series? How many mysteries will
Flavia solve before the series is over? And do you think the ending will be big and epic?
AB: I don’t think that Flavia or I will ever run out of ideas. She’s whispering to me even as we speak. Like life, I don’t think we can never know the ending. The great thing is not to worry about it and enjoy what we have and what we have done.
MT: The Grave’s a Fine and Private Placeis the most recent Flavia book. Do you mind
telling us about this book, and after almost ten Flavia books, how you feel you writing has
changed, Flavia has changed, and maybe even your life has changed?
: The tenth book, The Golden Tresses of the Dead, will be published in January. Having now written nearly a million words of the series, I’m beginning to feel I’m getting the hang of it. My wife, whose opinion I treasure, tells me that I’m a better writer than I was ten years ago. “Gee, thanks!” I think, but I know she means it honestly. My life has certainly changed since I sat down to write that first book: it couldn’t be more different. The main difference? The lovely people I’ve met.
MT: Can you tease us with what your next book will be about? Where will we find Flavia next?
AB: The Golden Tresses of the Dead (January, 2019) brings us (at last!) to sister Feely’s wedding day. As expected, there’s much ado in the village of Bishop’s Lacey as a corpse – or at least parts of one – turn up at the wedding feast. Before you can say “Pass me the poison”, Flavia and Dogger are on the case.
MT: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with us, Alan. It was more than a pleasure, and we
at Writer Tell All as well as a lot of our readers are big fans. Please do let us know if you have
any thoughts or lingering comments you’d like to get out! Thank you again!
AB: Thanks, Matthew, for the opportunity to talk about Flavia. She is quite chuffed to think that she’s going to be mentioned on Writers Tell All. Our best regards to readers near and far.
Gwenda Bond is a Superhero Feminist Writing Powerhouse, and the Perfect Writer for Adults to Admire and Young People to Look Up To
Preface to one of my favorite interviews: I'm not really sure how I came across Gwenda Bond, a writer who is a powerhouse, a superstar in her own write, able to write for any generation but also treating them as intelligent as they are, and never writing down or up to them. I do know that I am, so far (I still consider this fairly early in her career--as I hope we get much more of her work) a very big fan of her Lois Lane series. In the trilogy, she does this strange and miraculous thing of both including and removing Lois from the superhero universe she is a part of and making Lois Lane a mystery-solving superhero of her own, outside of Clark Kent. One great thing about the series is how Gwenda is so talented and able o take all the major feminist aspects of Lois and magnify them, then couple this feminism with modern day America, with issues girls are facing, with their language and their technology and never once hesitating or compromising the need for perfect, refined storytelling that seems to come so natural to Gwenda. I think it's incredibly important to follow Gwenda's career--she's one of the most diverse writers I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. And do read everything by her, including her upcoming official Stranger Things novel--the idea of a genius like Gwenda contributing to such a major and magnificent world like that of Stranger Thing's is an amazing thing unto itself. I'm very excited for all the books Gwenda has to come, and I hope you are too.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Gwenda, it is such an honor to get to talk with you, one of the trail blazing leading ladies of young adult literature, and about one of my favorite young adult series, your Lois Lane trilogy (so far). The books—other than having stunning characters—are remarkable with or without their ties to the Superman comic franchise, and while Lois’s relationship with Clark is certainly one of the central points of the series, it’s certainly not the beginning or ending of her story. Would you mind tell us how this series came into being, and how it worked out that you were able to virtually reinvent the legacy of Clark Kent, the man only crippled by Kryptonite (although in many pages of the books it feels like his love for Lois could weaken him as well)? How did you find yourself setting out on the path to write young Lois’s story?
Gwenda Bond: Thank you so much for your kind words about the series! Like many things about my career, the answer is that’s it’s still somewhat of a mystery to me. I’d published a couple of novels that had gotten some attention and been generally well-recieved, but which did not set the world on fire. Somehow the right person at DC Comics’ parent company Warner Brothers and the publisher Capstone decided I was a good choice to write a new series about a teen Lois Lane and approached my agent to see if I’d be interested. That it came together kind of randomly is funny, because I always say -- only half-kidding -- that the Lois books were something I’d been training to write my whole life. I got a journalism degree partially because of my childhood love of the character (and also because I thought that’s how writers made money ;) ). My day job of 17 years, which I still had when I got the gig, was working with reporters as a government public information officer, and of course I’d done some freelance journalism myself. And obviously I’m a huge comic book nerd who has always been Team Superman.
So my only question when I was approached was whether I’d have freedom on the project. The last thing I wanted to do was get the opportunity to give Lois Lane an origin story and have it be terrible for reasons outside of my control. I was told yes and everyone was very much true to that.
MT: Before digging into Lois Lane—the Lois Lane and the Lois Lane of the future you’ve created—what is your writing process like? Do you have a certain number of words or page counts a day? What is an average day like with you and your job writing the great American young adult novel?
GB: Ha! Flatterer! My process tends to change a little bit book by book, and working on something like Lois Lane or the Stranger Things book that’s my next project is different than working on one of my original ideas -- a little bit. For one of those “intellectual property” or IP projects, obviously I don’t own the characters or idea and there’s a third-party in the mix. The main way that changes things is two-fold. The first is that it works much better for everyone if you can all get on the same page up front, which means a detailed outline is absolutely key. And it’s also key for the second reason: these kind of projects tend to have a much quicker turnaround than what we usually think of as normal in publishing, which can be slow. So you’ll typically have less time for deadlines, and the book will also go through production faster and come out quicker. I actually really like all these parts of doing IP, and I only say yes to things that I will be as invested in as anything else I might write.
I wish I could bring the efficiency of my IP process over to my original work, but that tends to be much messier. I outline, but not in anywhere like the same detail and there’s a lot more trial and error. But in terms of the everyday mechanics once I start writing a book, they’re not so different -- I’m trying to hit a certain goal most days. I will tend to write in the mornings or the afternoons, a specific time that shifts for every book. I try not to work at night unless it’s absolutely necessary, because it can be really easy to work round the clock when you live in your office and that’s not healthy for you or the work. I also might take off a week just to read when I’m not actively writing something. But in general I’m happier when I have a book in progress, so I almost always do.
MT: The most boring question of all, but I hope it’ll help any of our readers who want to be the Gwenda Bonds of the future: what is editing like for you? Can you describe your editing process to us? How essential is it in writing any of your books?
GB: So. Essential. Drafting is my least favorite part of the process. If I’m any good as a writer, it’s all down to my strength as a reviser. I love revision. I love working with an editor who sees where I’ve fallen short and helps me get where I wanted to go or didn’t even know I wanted to go. It’s the part of the writing process I look forward to most. When I’m drafting, I’m just trying to get a thing that can be fixed. The fixing is the fun part.
For me, revision is all about clarity. Being able to step back enough to see exactly how to reshape something to make it work better. In a mechical way, I tend to take an edit letter, avoid the ms. for a couple of days after reading it, then dive in and work my way through in a very linear fashion. I did something new with Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds (which is an adult book, not a YA actually -- though I’m sure teens will read it) that I think may become part of my revision process, because it was so helpful. I took the art off one office wall and got colored index cards for various POVs and double-sided wall-safe sticky things and then I made a heading for each chapter and gave every scene an index card where I spelled out the major action, any changes that needed to happen, if it was an added scene, etc., and which also allowed me to see the distribution of scenes in various characters’ POVs. Then I put a sticker on each card as I finished revising it. It was great to be able to see the whole book, but also to see my progress as I progressed toward the end.
MT: In this book, you represent Lois as a sort of feminist icon. You see her relationship with Clark Kent, starting as an online romance that everyone in Lois’s life seems to respect because they know Lois is smart and competent and able to make grown up decisions for herself. How did you decide who Lois was—no matter what age, but especially as a sixteen-year-old—in order to write these books?
GB: This is such a good question! I did a lot of thinking up front about just that, who Lois is, what makes her, well, her. What parts of her core self have to be there or it’s either not a Lois Lane story or a bad Lois Lane story. Lois and I have some similarities in personality, which I definitely think helped me get a handle on her. But a lot of it came from her voice -- once I could hear that voice, she was there. This is how it usually works for my characters.
I always joke that Lois is a gift to write because you could put her in a room and she’d create a story. She is a plot-machine. Because she’s a character who is never going to be finished, she’s not going to sit still or do what she’s expected to do or what she’s told. She’s going to do what she thinks is right, always. And, to me, the biggest key to understanding Lois is understanding the difference between what she’s like outwardly and what she’s like inside. Lois is vulnerable, she second-guesses herself, and has worries and anxieties just like anyone… But she shows them to almost no one. Except Clark.
MT: What were the biggest hindrances to writing this series, especially considering it’s a reinvention of a decades old comic book story with innumerable film and tv adaptations? Were there ever times when you found that the history of Superman and Clark Kent as well as his relationship with Lois Lane were interfering with your own artistic integrity? In an even more direct question, did you ever feel that however Lois had been limited in the past would affect how you presented her to young adults in the novel?
GB: I definitely feel there have been bad Lois Lane stories. Sometimes whole decades of them! For anyone interested in the character’s history, I highly recommend Tim Hanley’s excellent book Investigating Lois Lane (and all Tim’s books are wonderful).
I approached this as a fan, and so part of my job was to tell the kind of story that would delight me as a fan of these characters. I was very lucky in that I was presented with a barebones concept (Lois as a teen, working for a younger Perry White) that I had the freedom to flesh out. Warner Brothers and Capstone were on board from the beginning with my vision for the books and I can’t think of anything I wanted to do that I wasn’t allowed to do, honestly. In the few cases where they had issues with minor things, I feel like the solutions ended up making for stronger stories.
It’s always nerve-wracking when you’re working with characters that people have a strong emotional attachment to already, knowing that if you get it wrong or if people don’t like what you do, you will hear about it. But at the end of the day, you can’t write with those voices in your head. You have to tell the story your way and hope for the best. That said, I am extremely grateful to the long-time fans of these characters who became the fiercest supporters of these books. It means so much to have people who care about them feel you’ve added something important to the history of characters that have been around so long and carry so much cultural weight. These books were an absolute honor to get to write.
MT: I know I’m not the first person to bring this up with the Lois Lane books—I’ve read reviews, there are people comparing the series to another favorite of mine--Veronica Mars—but how did you decide to set out and make Lois a feminist icon, especially for a new generation of impression of young people, young women and men alike, who needed this somewhat mythical figure to be humanized but also grounded in a very strong moral stance? While it can be argued about the morality of Lois’s actions at some points in the novel, do you feel that you wanted to set her as an example for her young readers—your young readers—in an effort to try and, perhaps, rewrite history, as much as many people may frown upon that today? Do you think there’s something important in correcting the views and issues minorities like women of all color, sexuality, etc, face today when facing issues of women in media in the past?
GB: Lois is a feminist icon. She’s one of the best known pop culture characters in history, not just as “Superman’s girlfriend” but for her job. That’s very rare. So, I absolutely wanted to preserve that and amplify it. I tried to load in as many references to exceptional women -- and especially female reporters -- as I could. When a teen tweets that they got the Nellie Bly google doodle because they read my book, I’m so happy (especially because she was one of the original inspirations for Lois’s character). And so on. At the same time, I’m a huge romance fan and a fan of the Lois and Clark relationship as a relationship of equals (the swooniest variety of romance). But I also wanted Lois’s relationships with her new friends, especially Maddy, to be important.
Anytime you’re writing a 16-year-old (or, for that matter, someone much older), they’re going to make mistakes. They’re going to be figuring out their moral compasses and what is okay and what’s not. Lois would never claim to be perfect, but she will figure out a way to get the job done and protect people.
Comics are a living part of pop culture history. Our images of these characters and how they’re portrayed will always reflect our cultural times, whether intentionally or unintentionally. To me, there’s always a way to preserve what’s important about the characters, what makes them who they are, while moving the depictions forward to reflect the world around us and how it has changed. It’s important that we keep adding components and telling new stories in these universes. I can’t think of anything better to do with stories about heroes than righting wrongs.
MT: One of the most enchanting aspects of you young adult writing—and do not take this the wrong way, I mean this in the best way—but it’s often hard to tell if you are writing an adult novel for young adults or a young adult novel for adult. How do you feel your actual writing style plays a part in benefiting all sort of marginalized youths, and how do you think it will continue to benefit these youths from generation to generation by not writing down “on their level” but understanding, in a way you seem to do, that you can write a young adult book without having to explain every other word, phrase, or character action, like I’ve read in so many less capable hands?
GB: Well, thank you. I really feel we’re in a golden age of YA and have been for more than a decade now. So I personally feel like I could list authors I think are excellent at this for days. ;) Teenagers can see through bullshit. They aren’t only reading YA and they have many and varied interests and complicated things going on in their lives. I would never talk down to a reader, no matter their age. When I’m writing, I’m thinking about the story -- that does mean sometimes thinking about how to make sure scenes land a certain way with the reader, provoke a certain reaction… But usually if I’m doing something that I like in a scene, I can be fairly confident it will also work for the reader or a certain subset of readers. I just tell the story and I load into it the things that interest me, and I hope will also interest readers.
And I am not afraid of using references in stories, because many of the things I love most I came to through looking it up after a writer referenced it in a story whether it’s TV or movies or books. In the age of streaming, everything lives forever. I feel like art is a conversation and it serves no one to pretend you’ll make it timeless by cutting your story off from that. (YMMV.) And now having written YA, middle grade (with my husband), and for adults (Stranger Things), I can say that the story dictates any difference in approach for me, not the audience.
MT: What did you think was the importance of introducing all of these characters as young adults, sort of as a prequel to the comics, especially when you’re introducing characters as iconic as Lois Lane, and on an ironic level in the sense that she has no idea how important these people will be in her future, Clark Kent and Lex Luther? More importantly, what do you think is the importance of having Lois believe so strongly in her future as a writer and journalist, and why do you think it is important for Lois to have such a strong—if not protective—support system?
GB: Part of the fun of writing these books for me is just what you say -- the reader knows things that the characters don’t about what’s ahead for them. You can use that to create tension and expectation, which I hope I did. There’s a playfulness to that element that feels like it fits with the way I see the Superman mythos, more light-filled, a place with banter and goodness.
It’s kind of astonishing to think about the fact that Lois has been around since Action Comics #1, just like Superman and Clark, and yet we really never had an origin story for her. Sure, we know a little about her backstory and there are a couple of stories where she and Clark meet as young people. But we tend to meet Lois as an adult woman who’s already a Pulitzer Prize-winner. The character of Lois still has so much room left to explore, even after 80 years. That does seem to reflect the ways in which male characters and their stories have traditionally been valued more than those of women. This is why it’s particularly rewarding to get to be a part of the work so many people are doing trying to correct that and not just for women’s stories, but for all the stories that have been underrepresented. I want everyone to be able to see themselves in these stories, and I want every young girl with a story to tell to know who Lois Lane is. Because Lois is a hero we can all be -- the kind of person who uses her talents and skills for the good of others, who doesn’t have superpowers, but who has a commitment to justice. And, written well, Clark Kent and Superman are the opposite of toxic masculinity, modeling respect for women and other people as strength.
MT: You carefully navigate the waters of how Lois wades into the areas of danger the novels present and how she gets herself out and save rthe day—and how she must sometimes be saved. I think that some feminists, myself including, want to believe women are able to fight and complete every mission entirely on their own, but I think what you’ve done often enough in the book, which is so important for young people to understand today, is walk a dialectic between Lois wanting to venture out and find the truth on her own and her need for companionship and help every now and then. After all, no man is an island, right? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
GB: One of the things that makes me angriest is when people call Lois a damsel in distress or act as if that’s all there is to the character. Sure, Superman has to save Lois sometimes. Guess what? Superman also has to save the world sometimes! But because of sexism it’s only an issue when it’s Lois, and ignores the fact that usually the reason she needs saving is because she’s a hero without any powers. Lois gets in trouble because of her commitment to helping other people, to getting the truth, to fighing for what’s right. If I were in trouble, I’d 100 percent trust Lois to help me out of it. Needing help is not the same as helplessness. We do all need people, and learning to be okay with that is an important skill. That’s definitely something I wanted to explore with Lois.
I also wanted to reflect on the ways in which Lois shapes Clark’s idea of what a hero is. He’s learning from her already about what it means to be Superman, what to do with the powers that he has.
MT: Would you ever consider writing an adult version of the Lois Lane books—I have no idea if you have ever written an adult book before, or if you would consider writing an adult book, but I would love to see, I don’t know, jumping twenty years into the future how Lois Lane is with and without Clark Kent, her love interest and partner, and who she becomes after you have reimagined her as a young adult heroine. Do you think you’d ever write a book like this, a bridge between young adult and adult, a way to show how Lois Lane is still an independent, career-and-moral-driven woman who won’t stop at any costs?
GB: I just wrote my first book for adults, Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds, and I already have an idea for another one. I like to write all the things. And I’d love to write these characters again in any incarnation. Actually, I did have an idea of a scene of the first time Lois and Clark are in a newsroom together as adults in my mind from before I even started the first book in this trilogy. I know exactly what I’d do with them there.
MT: Do you think there will ever be another Lois Lane novel in the future? Do you already have one in the works? As far as work-in-progress events go, you’ve got a pretty big one coming up—I don’t know if you want to share any information on that with our fans, but I’m sure they’d love hearing about your future work in general!
GB: For now, I’m afraid the Lois Lane series is a trilogy. I’m glad I was able to end at a place that felt right for an ending. But you never know! I also know precisely what the plot of a book four would be, whether as a novel or a graphic novel format.
Next up is the Stranger Things book, which will be out in February, and you can look forward to a whole new friend squad I got to create for Eleven’s mom Terry in it. And I’m hard at work on an unannounced YA that I’m having entirely too much fun with.
MT: Thank you so much for joining us, Gwenda. It was such a pleasure interviewing you and getting to know more about your writing, Lois, and yourself. Please feel free to stop by Writers Tell All at any time in the future. We love you and your work here. And please feel free to leave us with any commons or thoughts! Until next time, Gwenda.
GB: Thank you so much for this interview, Matthew. I appreciate your support and enthusiasm so much, and I can’t wait until I’m interviewing you about your own novels someday!
Jeff Abbott's Biggest Competition is Himself, and He's Blown Us Out of the Water with THE THREE BETHS--DON'T MISS OUT
Matthew Turbeville: Hey Jeff! I am so excited to talk to you on Writers Tell All, as you are one of my many mentors, writing friends, and someone who has helped me whenever you could. I was especially looking forward to The Three Beths, which extended my expectations. You’ve had a very rough year for anyone, and still managed to produce a book despite that. Do you mind discussing what it’s like to throw yourself into work and really produce a great work of fiction on a very narrow time schedule?
Jeff Abbott: Thanks for having me as a guest and for the very kind words.
I took more time than usual for a book, given that our house burned down and dealing with the aftermath and the rebuild is like having another full time job. So. . .I don’t know that I did this in a narrow time frame. I think I did throw myself into it as much as I could, because writing the book was an escape from dealing with the headaches of the fire. And frankly, this is my job, and I had to keep doing it regardless of there being a fire. I’m grateful that my editor and my publisher were so understanding, since I took more time than usual and the publication date had to be moved back a few months.
MT: Where did your idea for The Three Bethscome from, and would you mind talking about what it’s been like writing more everyday thrillers about women characters, especially starting with your last novel Blame,which was also welcomed with amazing acclaim from your peers and critics alike? What made you decide to go outside yourself and write about these women characters, and do you have a favorite?
JA: Well, first, the idea for The Three Bethscame from a couple of different places. I thought about those missing persons cases you sometimes hear about where the police are convinced that a loved one or a relative had a hand in the disappearance, but they can prove nothing. So the accused, and the rest of the family, has to go on with their lives. What would it be like to be living inside that family, to be loyal to a missing parent and yet to also be loyal to the parent who is accused of murder? What goes on behind those walls? And then the other idea came from doing a search on social media once for an old friend, and seeing exactly how many hits I got just typing in her very common first name. . .it struck me that if I wanted to find a number of Beths, or Jeffs, or Michelles, that was easy to do. And then, because I write crime fiction, I wondered what kind of crime or deceit might involve people with the same name. Sometimes my ideas are like Lego blocks that snap together into a bigger something or shape. . .that was where the two driving thoughts of the book came from. I get the idea, and then I start fleshing it out by asking myself a lot of questions of the who, why, what variety.
Re writing female characters, I don’t know that I am going outside myself. I write them as human beings. For years in writing the Sam Capra series, the character of Mila Court got such a huge response from my readers, so I felt like I could try to write a female protagonist, and there were female colleagues in the crime fiction world who encouraged me. And as writers we’re supposed to use our imaginations, our experiences, our empathy. I don’t think I have a favorite. I think Jane in Blameand Mariah in The Three Bethsare two of my strongest characters. They are damaged but brave and persistent and determined, which is what I try to be as well.
MT: This novel, The Three Beths, really feels like a natural and effortless evolution (which usually means it required a lot of effort on your part). Do you mind elaborating on how you feel your writing and actual process and methods of producing a book have changed in the past few years? What was it like publishing your very first novel compared to now?
JA: I have never used one exact process. Sometimes I think of the main character first; sometimes I think of the plot first. I try not to be overly regimented about how I start. Sometimes I outline, sometimes I just start writing a few scenes. I do think that as time has gone on I take more time to plan and plot now than I did in the past. I spend more time thinking. And when I’m in the last hundred pages, I tend to re-outline the whole book, to make sure that I’m paying off expectation, wrapping up subplots, bringing the protagonist to face their greatest threat. It helps me to finish the book with more confidence.
My first novel was published in 1994 and the business has changed so much I’m not sure a comparison to know is useful. I will say it remains as much a thrill to see my book on the shelf now as it did all those years ago. I think it is a challenge not just to get published but to stay published.
MT: The escalation of the plot of The Three Bethsfeels both rapid and casual, building and building to the epic climax in a way that feels very natural for the reader. We don’t jump from everyday domestic thriller to something outrageous with The Three Beths. It all feels so planned out and very calculated in the best way. What was it like—the journey to The Three Beths—and how much of the novel’s ending did you have planned out before you actually began writing?
JA: I really believe writing is rewriting. And this was a book that went through a lot of rewrites. I finished a draft of it right after the house burned and was very pleased with myself that I had done that in the midst of disaster but then I read through it and it wasn’t working for me. It didn’t feel like my best work. So I merged characters, slashed subplots, tightened my focus on Mariah and her father Craig, and then the book started to take on a stronger shape and drive. I pared down tremendously. So if it feels calculated in a good way, it came from a place of panic and fear that I had to get the book under control. The thought that I could fail on a big scale was a huge motivator.
Re the ending, I thought a lot about it before I wrote it or even committed to it, and how these characters reach that moment of twisted fate, and I finally embraced it. I won’t say more than that.
MT: You told me some of our mutual favorite female writers encouraged you to write from the point-of-view of a female protagonist, or rather two female protagonists inBlame. What was the conception of The Three Bethslike and did you have any women cheering you on in particular here?
JA: Well, I think I answered how the book was conceived before, but as to writing a female protagonist, it was something I discussed briefly with some other writers, mostly women, but also men, and they all gave me a vote of confidence that I could handle it. Writers such as Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, JT Ellison, Meg Gardiner, and Megan Abbott, were all encouraging when I would express concern or doubt. That was more at the beginning of the process; I was fine once I really started writing.
MT: While we’re talking about great female writers, who are your favorites in and out of the genre—the authors who really move you and change the way you think about writing? What are some books you turn to again and again if you get stuck, or need some inspiration?
JA: Well, all the amazing writers just listed above. I also enjoy Alafair Burke, Lisa Scottoline, Laura Benedict, Karin Slaughter, Kate Atkinson, J. K. Rowling, Celeste Ng, N. K. Jemisin, Margaret Atwood, Lori Roy, Terry Shames, Ursula Le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle, Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Ruth Rendell, Helen MacInnes…and I’m sure I’m forgetting several more. I think at different points they’ve all inspired me.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing The Three Beths? There are a lot of characters you juggle around, and you do it well but when I imagine taking on such a broad cast of characters, all of them hiding their secrets and with their unsaid motives—I can’t imagine trying to do what you did with this book. What would you say was the hardest part of writing this book, and what is the hardest part of writing any book?
JA: The rewrite I alluded to earlier was the hardest part. I was savage in the cutting and reordering and rewriting. Asking myself on every page, does this scene work? How can I make it stronger? How can I make the story tighter? How can I make this character more compelling? How can I build more suspense? How can I avoid making this confusing to the reader? I wondered if I would have a book left at certain points. And I hate throwing away scenes, but you have to. You must. That’s also for me the hardest part of writing any book. Ideas are easy, the execution is hard.
MT: What do you think are the key aspects of suspense and mystery to keep a plot going? What are your own little secrets, if you don’t mind sharing? What do you feel is the most important piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten—from another writer, a mentor, a friend, etc?
JA: Well, the key aspect is emotional involvement. No one will turn the pages if they don’t care about the characters. So even with a character like Mariah, who is damaged and difficult and a reader could turn away from her. . .she wants her mom. She wants her family back. She wants to be loved and understood. So every reader can hopefully relate to that. And beyond that empathy, you have to put the characters in a dire situation that threatens what they want most from their lives. As far as secrets, I only have one. . .I often finish a day’s writing in the middle of a sentence. For me, it’s easier to get started again the next say if I finish that sentence and then write the next one. As far as good advice, an artist friend—who makes his living as a painter—once told me to be prolific. I think he is right. I’m happy when I’m producing work.
MT: What is your next book like? Do you already have a work in progress, and would you mind hinting at what it might be about with our readers? You are pretty good about putting out books often and prolifically, and you never settle for less than the best quality. What do you think is the best motto or piece of advice you can take or give when writing so constantly, so regularly?
JA: The next book I’m writing is another suburban suspense novel set in Lakehaven, same as Blameand The Three Beths. It’s a drama about a family starting to come apart at the seams after a member of the family discovers a body. I don’t want to say more than that. I also really need to start on the next Sam Capra project, as I’m asked about it regularly by readers. I don’t know if I have special advice about be prolific. I mean, this is my job. I do it on a very regular basis, as we all do our jobs. If I don’t have an idea, I look at my mortgage payment or my son’s college tuition and boom, an idea! Boom, I feel like writing. I’m not very precious about the writing part of this work. You have to sit down and type the words and fix the words and make them stronger.
MT: Jeff, I am so excited to see what comes next for you. As an avid reader of your books, I’m excited to see how you’re never afraid of change and trying new things. I am more than excited to see where writing takes you from here on out. Feel free to leave us with any comments or suggestions, and know that you’re always welcome here at Writers Tell All.
JA: Thank you Matthew, for your interest in my work and for your kind encouragement and support.
"I Just Don't Know Anything Else": The Brilliant David Joy on Writing Crime Literature--Where Place and People Are So Important
David Joy's novel THE LINE THAT HELD US is just the latest in a series of novels by the author that test the boundaries of the genre, reinventing some of the genre and reinvigorating other tired areas of the genre that feel tired and used up in other hands. Joy's track record is nearly spotless and every one of his novels feels like a great event, a book to build upon the history of his home and his own personal history chapter by chapter. We are thrilled to feature an interview with the remarkable and endlessly talented David Joy. The photos here are provided by Ashley T. Evans (Joy's photo) and Putnam (the novel cover).
Matthew Turbeville:David, I have been a big fan of your work ever since the publication of your novel, Where All Light Tends to Go. You have a gift for language and story, matched with a certain rawness and intensity that reminds me of Daniel Woodrell combined with Christa Faust, except closer to home. I’m from South Carolina and, obviously, am familiar with the settings of your books. The first question I’d like to ask you is how do you come to decide to write a novel? Where does the idea of a novel come from for you? Are you more character or plot oriented in early stages? Could you describe this process?
David Joy:I think most of the time story for me begins with an image, or maybe a fragment of an idea. Typically that image or idea contains at least one character and when it first arrives I have absolutely no idea who they are so really that’s the first question. Who are they? How did they get there? Why are they there? Where are they going? That’s probably the longest part of the process for me is just getting to know those characters intimately, to the point that I know damn near everything about them. Sometimes I might live with a character in the back of my head for years. Right now I’m in the middle of a novel and there’s another character that will probably wind up being the focus of the next book and he’s constantly tumbling around in the back of my skull, just sort of evolving into whatever he’s going to become. I always make this same tired joke, but it’s the truth, and it’s that even if one of my characters doesn’t go to Waffle House in the book, I know how they would’ve ordered their hashbrowns. You get to know them in that way and then it’s just a matter of dropping them into situation. You can drop them into anything and you know how they’re going to react, you know what they’re going to say. Novels develop that way for me. I’ve never plotted anything going in. I tend to drop them into a situation and follow blindly until they take me to the heart of the story.
MT:What about Appalachia and the South in general makes it such a great and compelling setting for crime and noir novels?
DJ:I don’t know that I think Appalachia or the South is better cut out for crime and noir than other settings, or at least I’ll say that there’s incredible crime and noir being written all over the place. But I do think there’s a certain mystique about rural settings. Part of that is just the abundance of empty land. There are a lot of places to hide a body. I think about the county where I live and right this minute there are places in Jackson County that you could call 911 and it might take an hour for a deputy to get to your house. When you live in a place like that it sort of develops its own capacity for order. A lot of folks think of it as lawlessness, but it’s the opposite of lawlessness. It’s law and order driven by self-preservation and necessity. The other thing about crime here is that it’s rarely a random act of violence. Someone gets shot and it’s familial. It’s their cousin. It’s their brother. When crime happens in this place, you know the person who did it. You went to school with him. You go to church with his aunt. The degrees of separation that exist in places like cities, that doesn’t happen here. Everything is just closer and more personal. I think those realities can be really advantageous on the page.
MT:Your novels, while sizzling and electric, are also compact and demanding the reader to pay attention to every single detail. In many ways, you’re able to fit much more story and character than writers who author novels twice your length. How do you construct such elaborate and bone-chilling stories while fitting them into such small spaces?
DJ:I love novels that are really contained. A lot of the writers I admire most are just really good at that. I think about someone like Daniel Woodrell and what he was able to do with Tomato Redor The Death Of Sweet Mister. There’s so much happening in those books and yet you can devour them in a single sitting. Jim Harrison was maybe the master of that, take a novel like Farmer, or distill it farther and think about all those novellas. He owned that form. We’re talking about stories that are sometimes only 30,000, maybe 40,000 words, and yet you never leave the table feeling hungry. It’s like cooking stock. You start with the bones and cook them down for hours, and when the bones are out of the pot you reduce the stock by half. That’s the way I want a novel to work. I want it to be rich. I don’t have any interest in leaving all of that extra water in the pot.
MT:What was it like, being a Southern writer authoring books about Appalachia and trying to get into the publishing industry? How long did it take you to secure an agent and later publisher? Do you think the area you write about as well as the strong voices of your character helped encourage agents to take on your novels or is your story more complicated than that?
DJ:I don’t think I experienced any set backs or hurdles as a result of being where I was from. The hope is that the work stands for itself and I think that’s what got me where I am is the work. I do think some of the things that may have been harder for me boil down to the fact that I didn’t come out of any sort of MFA program. That’s not to say looking back I would’ve wanted to, but that is to say that those writers tend to have a much better understanding of how publishing works in general. They leave those programs with a lot of knowledge about the industry and a lot of connections that I just didn’t have. Truth be told, I just sent a letter to an agent and she happened to fall in love with the story. Before I sold a book I’d never traveled anywhere. I’d never really left North Carolina. I’d certainly never been on an airplane. I remember when I was in New York City for the second time—I think it was for a tour Putnam did with me, M.O. Walsh, Ace Atkins, and CJ Box—but I can just remember staring out of the window of that high rise hotel room looking out over that city and I just started crying. I was overcome with emotion. And what it boiled down to was the simple fact that all I did to get there was to write a letter. I wrote a letter and sent it from the mountains where I live to a woman in New York City who I’d never met and my world changed forever.
MT:Your novels are so original and so wholly themselves, not echoing back to any author in particular, other than perhaps Daniel Woodrell, who seems to write about similar characters in a very different setting. Who were your greatest influences both growing up and now writing as an adult? What books shaped the way you see the world and write the most?
DJ: Early on it was the typical suspects for someone like me—Faulkner, O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown, William Gay, Daniel Woodrell. Those were the first novels I really fell in love with and it’s because those writers were writing about places I knew and the people I loved. It’s pivotal that you fall in love with a single book for you to become a lifelong reader. What seems to happen is that the one book leads you to a second and the second to a third and before long you’re snatching everything off of every shelf that you can find. My tastes have evolved and broadened. I’m still interested in telling the same kinds of stories, but the stories I enjoy reading are different. I read a lot more poetry than I do fiction. I love Maurice Manning and Rebecca Gayle Howell and Ray McManus and Frank X Walker. My favorite book of poetry I’ve read this year was Kevin Young’s collection Brown. Some of my favorite things I’ve read this year were manuscripts. I read a new story collection called Sway by a Kentucky writer named Sheldon Lee Compton. A few years ago he had that brilliant collection The Same Terrible Storm. I also read a debut novel manuscript by a writer I love named Leigh Ann Henion. The novel’s called Behold That Vanishing Graceand it’s this sort of Edward Abbey meets Barbara Kingsolver eco-thriller. She’s one of the most talented voices in Appalachia, in America for that matter. I loved this book of nonfiction called The Man Who Quit Moneyby Mark Sundeen. I usually mix up the nonfiction with the novels. I read John Branch’s The Last Cowboys, and that’s an incredible story. I also loved Michael Finkel’s The Stranger In The Woods, just the pacing he was able to create in a book of nonfiction. I think it’s been a really great year for the novel. There’ve been a lot of books I enjoyed: Steph Post’s Walk In The Fire, Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, Taylor Brown’s Gods Of Howl Mountain, Robert Gipe’s Weedeater, Leesa Cross-Smith’s Whiskey & Ribbons, Thomas Pierce’s The Afterlives, Silas House’s Southernmost. I think my two favorite novels I’ve read this year are Richard Powers’ The Overstoryand Tommy Orange’s There There.The Overstory is almost biblical in scope. From those opening lines of, “First there was nothing. Then there was everything,” to just the sort of layered storytelling. That book’s a tremendous accomplishment. Then Orange’s book came out of nowhere. It’s one of the richest debut novels I’ve read in a long, long time. I reread that novel as soon as I finished. I think that book is damn near perfect. Right now I’m reading a new novel by Gabino Iglesias called Coyote Songs, and that son of a bitch is just getting better and better! I’m also rereading a book by Rick Bass called The Deer Pasture, which is obviously wonderful because everything he’s ever written has been wonderful, but ultimately it boils down to the fact that it’s deer season and I’d rather be up a tree than sitting here behind a computer.
MT:I’ve always viewed you as a fairly successful author—so many people I know, novelists and not, not only read your books but relish them. A David Joy publication is something of an event. Did you feel with the success of Where All Light Tends to Gothat you were a success? Which of your books to date is your favorite, and would you mind elaborating on why?
DJ:I think what you or I would consider success and what the publishing industry considers success might be pretty different, but that said I’ve been very fortunate to have the readership I’ve had. At the end of the day that boils down to all the hard work of my publisher. I’ve got an editor I’d follow into a burning building. I’ve got an incredible publicist who consistently gets my work placed in the right hands. I’ve got an entire marketing team that’s always working their ass off to think of new ways to push a book. I’ve just been very fortunate to work with the people I’ve worked with. I still don’t know that I’ve ever felt successful. Maybe I just don’t know what that looks like. I’d love if I hit some sort of big list or if I took one of the larger prizes or something like that, but if that happened I still don’t know that I’d be able to say, yep, I’ve made it. I don’t spend much time thinking about any of that. I focus on the work. I just want to tell a good story. As far as my personal favorite, it’s The Weight Of This World, and that’s definitely the book that has sold the least. I just really like the language in that novel. It’s rich. I also know what I was trying to do with it and I think it was ambitious. I admire that. I don’t want to write simple books. That said, the book is incredibly dark and maybe that’s why it didn’t do as well. I think it takes a brave reader to engage with and embrace that type of story. Most people aren’t willing to take those sorts of risks. Most people are scared of being uncomfortable.
MT:What continues to drive you to write? Your home? Your family? The people—friends and acquaintances and otherwise—you know? Or something bigger, greater—possibly hard to define in just a few sentences? What pushes you through first drafts and second drafts and revisions, and have you ever almost given up on a novel?
DJ: I’ve always been rooted to story. I grew up in an oral storytelling tradition where adults expected children to be seen but not heard. That sounds strange to some people, maybe, but what it taught you as a child was the value of listening. I grew up listening to uncles and aunts and grandparents and church elders tell stories. I grew up hearing oration and learning to recognize that moment when a story turns. My grandmother remains the greatest influence and greatest storyteller I’ve ever known. So I think I just grew up believing in the importance of story and the power of story. That’s the same thing that pushes me today. I absolutely wholeheartedly believe in literature as a vehicle for social change. George Saunders had that beautiful idea that prose when it’s done well has the ability to serve as empathy’s training wheels. I love that thought and I believe that idea to my bones. That’s what I love about reading books, it’s that ability to walk in someone else’s shoes for a little while. More than anything else, that’s what I’m striving for.
MT:I’m very rarely a fan of male writers, both for personal and aesthetic reasons, but yet you and Daniel Woodrell and a handful of other spectacularly gifted male writers have caught my attention and held it through many years. Even though I often prefer female writers, I’ve never read any writer other than you who has caught the South I know so well in such an accurate and particularly truthful light. Why do you think your portrayal of this region of the country comes across as so true and honest?
DJ:Quite simply, I just don’t know anything else. I’ve spent my entire life in North Carolina. I’ve spent half of it here in the mountains. People always tell young writers that old cliché of write what you know and I don’t know that I think that’s a necessity. There are piles of writers writing about things they didn’t know. There are piles of writers who write to know. I’m just someone who has always found everything I needed right here in this one place. It’s that Eudora Welty idea of one place understood helps us understand all places better. It’s what James Joyce meant when they asked him why he always wrote about Dublin and he told them, if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. I think every story I ever want to tell can be told right here with the people and place I know. I don’t feel limited by that in any way. As far as the honesty, I’m just incapable of anything else. I think my give-a-fuck is broken.
MT:Your most recent book, the recently published The Line That Held Us, at once carries the beauty of poetry and the brutality of crime. What drew you to this premise and what was your favorite part about writing this book? Similarly, what the hardest or most grating part of writing or finishing this novel?
DJ:That balance, I think, comes from studying writers like Cormac McCarthy and William Gay. I think both of them were capable of making incredible acts of violence palatable through language. You’d read these horrifying scenes, something like that moment in Gay’s short story “The Paper-Hanger” where the child’s body is in the freezer, and the language would just be so astonishingly beautiful and poetic that you’d find yourself relishing moments that would otherwise turn your stomach. I love that sort of balance. With The Line That Held Us, my favorite thing about that book was just developing the character of Dwayne Brewer. I wanted to write a really memorable antagonist, someone like Lester Ballard in McCarthy’s Child Of Godor Granville Sutter in Gay’s Twilightor The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” It was incredibly satisfying to bring that character to life and to paint him in such a way that people fell in love with someone they’d normally despise. There was so much opportunity for ambiguity with Dwayne, so much space to paint the walls gray.
MT:In the South, or in crime fiction in general, what would you like to see more of? What sort of people would you like to see more represented by crime writers like these people, or characters similar to these people written by existing crime writers? And are there any genres, tropes, or plotlines in crime fiction you feel tired of and are ready to see writers move on from?
DJ: I think what I want is a stage inclusive of more voices. I want the microphone to be handed to people who have historically been silenced. I want to hear the stories of marginalized people. And as bad as things seem some time, I think we’re getting to a place where that’s happening more often. I think we’re at a really interesting time in literature. People are paying attention to voices and stories that weren’t getting that same recognition even ten years ago. That’s comforting. Now obviously we’re not where we need to be and there is still an incredible amount of work to be done, but I do find solace in the direction we’re headed. As far as tropes, I’m tired of people, identity, class, and region being written as tropes. Appalachia is not a trope. The rural, working poor are not tropes. Homosexuality is not a trope. Misogyny is not a trope. Racism is not a trope. And yet we continue to allow people in privileged places to use them as such. So what I’m sick of are people who don’t know a goddamn thing about any of it capitalizing off of the current relevancy. I’m sick of the publishing industry rewarding people who don’t know a fucking thing about what they’re writing about, and I’m sick of readers gobbling that shit up at the trough. I’m sick of people being disingenuous.
MT:What are the keys to creating tension and dread in a novel, which you have done so masterfully for a while now? What do you think are the most important rules and guidelines up-and-coming crime writers should know and stick to? Do you have any advice for aspiring crime writers?
DJ: I don’t like the idea of rules. I think there are things that you can notice a writer doing, or a group of writers doing, that makes something work, but then there will be another writer doing something so differently and they’re accomplishing the same thing. I think a lot of young writers or people who are just aspiring to write look for answers to variables as if there’s some sort of equation. As if, once I know the answers for a, b, c, and dI can plug those into a2+b(c)/d=ewhere e represents a good book. The truth is that it just doesn’t work like that. What works for me might not work for someone else at all. I say this because I spent a lot of time when I was younger trying to emulate what writers I admired were doing believing that if I just did that then I could write the book. What eventually happened was that I started to notice that there were things I did that maybe other people didn’t do, couldn’t do, and that there were certain things that helped me work. Once I was able to recognize that and focus on that and trust in that, the work has been a lot easier. There are no universal rules for creating meaningful art. The only common thread that ties every single artist I’ve ever known together is an unrelenting compulsion to create.
MT:What do you think is the biggest misconception about Appalachia and the people who live there? If you have addressed this issue in your work, what have you done or if you could what would you do to correct this issue through the course of a novel?
DJ:I don’t think that I could narrow the misconceptions down to anything singular, because there are just so, so many. That said, I think people continue to talk about this place as if it’s just some small town you can hop in a car and drive through. “Oh, I’ve been to Appalachia,” they’ll say. The truth is that we’re talking about a region that stretches across 13 states, 420 counties, covering some 205,000 square miles. That’s 40,000 square miles bigger than the entire state of California. So imagine trying to narrow California down to any sort of singular image. You can’t. You just can’t. And that’s what people don’t get about this place. They keep wanting to present the region as this narrow image because I guess it’s easier. Maybe because it reinforces the narrative they want to hear. I don’t know. What I do know is that this place is incredibly complex and diverse, and none of that is being shown by bullshit books like Hillbilly Elegy, which seems to be the only thing anyone has read from this place in the past decade. If you want to know what this place is like, if you want to have any sort of understanding about this region as a whole, read broadly. Read Wendell Berry and Maurice Manning and Frank X Walker and Crystal Wilkinson and Rebecca Gayle Howell and Ricardo Nazario y Colon. Read Silas House, Ron Rash, Lee Smith, Denton Loving, Darnell Arnoult, Robert Gipe, Ron Houchin, Pam Duncan, Elizabeth Catte. Read Charles Dodd White and Mark Powell and Jane Hicks and Karen Salyer McElmurray and Gurney Norman and Leigh Ann Henion and Sheldon Lee Compton. Read all of that and you might start to have some sort of grasp of the complexities of this place. Read all of that and if you want more names I’ll be happy to lengthen the list.
MT:David, I think I’ve taken up enough of your time and energy, and I really appreciate you taking the time to engage in this interview with me. I am, of course, interested to know what your current work in progress is like, if there is one. I’m sure our readers are dying to know. As for anything else, feel free to close with any questions, comments, suggestions, or thoughts you feel necessary before ending the interview—and thank you again so much.
DJ:I’m currently finishing up a novel titled When These Mountains Burn. I don’t know when that book will release, but I’d guess sometime in 2020. The novel is the story of these two lives—one an old-time Appalachian father whose son dies of an overdose, and the other a 30s something heroin addict—that run unknowingly parallel. Eventually those lives twist together and get tied into a knot. I think largely it’s a book about a shifting culture, the extinction of old mountain ways. The story is set during the 2016 wildfires because that time just felt so volatile. There was the election on the television, the sky was yellow with smoke, the world was literally burning down outside our windows. I just remember it felt like the end of something. That’s probably not a very good elevator pitch for folks wanting plot synopsis, but that’s what I’m working on and I’m awfully proud of what it’s shaping into.