MysteryPeople Q&A with Lee Thomas
Lee Thomas’ The German is one of those books you can’t shake after you read it. On the surface it deals with a serial killer who stalks Texas Hill Country during World War 2, but the true suspense and horror come from the town’s reaction to that threat. He goes deeper than most authors when dealing with the themes of intolarance. We’re honored to have him join author Robert Greer for a signing and discussion of their work on tonight at 7p. Lee was kind enough to allow me to ask him a few questins before hand.
LEE THOMAS: What I wanted to explore was the pervasiveness of identity-based hatred and the ease with which it is embraced, whether by an individual, a community, or a nation. So I touched on examples of the phenomenon from the ground up, from childhood bullying to mob mentality right on through to the most heinous and familiar example: the Nazi’s campaign of persecution. But I wasn’t interested in doing a flat, predictable morality play on the subject. That’s why the character of “The German” was so important. It would have been easy to use a gentle, likeable, wholly innocent guy as the story’s pivotal character, but by using a strong, even brutish, man with an unsavory past in this role, the reader is forced to look beyond personalities. This added a nice layer of traction to the tale.
MP: You do a balancing act with three points of view. Why did you find that necessary with the book?
LT: I didn’t start with the idea that this would be a novel. I was writing a lot of Young Adult fiction at the time, under the name Thomas Pendleton, and I needed some balance to those projects, something decidedly adult. Once the character of Ernst, “The German,” was in my head, I wrote a series of scenes, including one that became the prologue of the novel, and several others featuring interactions between him and various townspeople. After a while I noticed that there was some thematic depth that could be explored there, but it became clear that Ernst’s point of view alone wouldn’t be sufficient to tell the story. I decided that the character of Ernst’s neighbor, Tim, was the best one to hold the story together. As the book progressed, I experimented until the distinct points of view created the right levels of intimacy between the reader and the three main characters. For instance, I needed the titular character, Ernst, to exude authority and immediacy, so he communicates to the reader through a journal written in the present tense. Plus, I wanted as little between Ernst and the reader as was possible. He needed to speak for himself. This wasn’t true of the Sheriff, who wears his motivations, his strengths, and his weaknesses on his sleeve, so having the reader follow him in the third person was more effective. And there was a practical component of storytelling involved. Though never stated outright, I approached the piece as if Tim were not just writing his sections but compiling the book as a whole, so while he had Ernst’s journal from which to lift passages, he had no choice but to recreate the sections featuring the Sheriff.
MP: How did you go about the difficult task of not only doing one of the voices as a young boy, but one who grew up in a different time period than you did?
LT: I wanted to get the emotional notes right–the joys and fears and naïve philosophies that seem to be deafeningly amplified in young people. The time period merely provided the focus for those joys and those fears. Tim couldn’t crash if front of the television to watch The Walking Dead, but he could get excited about the next installment of The Adventures of the Thin Man or Gang Busters on the radio. He couldn’t imagine becoming a celebrity via social media or American Idol, but he could imagine himself celebrated as a hero for capturing the murderer stalking his town.
MP: Ernst Lang, The German, is such a compelling character. He appears to be completely up front about himself, including his sexuality, yet he carries a mystique. How did you go about constructing him?
LT: The character was inspired by Nazi leader Ernst Röhm, who headed the SA (the Stormtroopers) before Hitler ordered his assassination, along with many other SA leaders on The Night of the Long Knives. I found Röhm fascinating, because he led a street army of millions at Hitler’s side during the Nazi rise to power, and yet he was openly and unapologetically gay, a fact that was accepted for years, until Hitler came to view Röhm as a political threat. From there, I imagined a character with Röhm’s past, who had come to a profound understanding and reassessment of aggression but who retained much of the pride and conviction of a military leader. The character developed quickly once I had this groundwork set, and his voice was so strong his passages poured out.
MP: What kind of research did you do for the period?
LT: Quite a lot, but I enjoyed researching the era immensely, so it didn’t feel much like work. Having a fairly good knowledge of the period and World War II going into the project, I focused a lot of my energies on the popular culture of the time to add details – songs, films, magazines, radio programs – that would bring authenticity to the story. I found as much information about Ernst Röhm as I could, which at the time wasn’t much, but this led me to read a number of works on The Night of the Long Knives and the internal machinations of the Nazi party in the early 1930s. I also read novels and watched movies from the period to get a flavor for dialogue, though I steered away from slang for the most part to keep the book from becoming precious.
MP: Are there any influences you pulled from for the book?
LT:Not pulled from, exactly. The influences are there, no doubt. In format, I was clearly encouraged by the work of Peter Straub, who frequently (and dramatically) switches points of view in his work, moving from first person to third person and back with immense grace. There are definite thematic overlaps with the works of Jack Ketchum–who is flat out brilliant when it comes to portraying human “monsters”–and I cite this in the acknowledgements of the book. And since I was writing about small town Texas, Joe Lansdale’s influence had to be in there someplace, because I’ve been reading and admiring his work for I don’t know how many years. But I didn’t start out thinking, “I’m going to write my version of X,” or anything along those lines.
MysteryPeople welcomes Lee Thomas to BookPeople, along with author Robert Greer, tonight at 7p.