Sean Doolittle is an author I’ve been wanting to get into our store for some time. His sense of character and dialogue put him up there with the best. His latest, Lake Country, about a misguided effort of kidnapping for revenge that sets off a series of chaotic events, is a great example of his work. We’re happy to host him along with Megan Abbott this Thursday, August 2nd, 7p. We recently chatted with Sean about craft and character.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the idea for Lake Country come about?
SEAN DOOLITTLE: Ass-backwards for me, this time. Ideas seem to work best for me when they start with characters, but this one started with a situation, which came from a news story I read about creative jail sentences. So I started with that as a nugget for a story. But the story didn’t really find it’s gears until I found the characters, and then it became about something completely different than the original notion. Generally that’s when things start to feel like they’re working properly.
MP: In many ways, Lake Country is about misguided heroics (feel free to disagree, since you wrote it). The closest thing to a hero is Mike, who could have gotten the police involved, and two reporters who are acting more out of ambition. Do you prefer writing a book without “good guys”?
SD: I do tend to write about flawed characters, partly because that seems realistic to me, and partly because flawed characters seem like more fertile ground for drama (or comedy, for that matter). Misguided is an interesting way to think about the protagonists in this book; I do think they’re all a little lost in one way or another. Personally, I feel like Mike and Maya are both trying to do what they think is right, they’re just not always sure what that is or how to accomplish it. And they’re hindered by their own baggage. My favorite bad guys even tend to have gray areas.
Having said all that, in this book I also think I wrote the closest thing to a straight-up villain as I’ve written in a while, and I have to admit, it was kind of fun.
MP: No matter how crazy the situations or characters, you can relate to them. How do you approach writing your characters?
SD: I think the first step is to try and imagine each character as fully as I can as a unique, specific individual (as opposed to a representative of a “type”). For example, Maya Lamb isn’t (at least in my mind) “the burned-out reporter character.” She’s a unique, specific burned-out reporter, if that makes sense.
After that, I just try to be as honest as I can to what I think that person might do or not do in a given situation. Those actions might be predictable, or unpredictable, or smart, or ill-advised, but as long as they’re true to my perception of the character, I feel like I’ve done my job.
MP: Even though the circumstances are tragic, the characters bring a lot of humor to the book, Do you think it’s necessry for a story like this?
SD: It certainly helps me, both as a writer and a reader. I see a lot of humor when I look at the world. Sometimes it’s gallows humor, sometimes it’s a Marx Brothers movie, and sometimes it has to be pointed out to me by a third party, but it’s so often there. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. But it also makes the sad stuff all the more poignant. Somebody said that you can’t have light without darkness, and I think the reverse is true as well.
MP: You strayed from the Nebraska stomping ground you used in your last few books and took the story to Minnessota. What made that state more suitable?
SD: That was largely plot-driven, honestly: lots of woods and remote places to take a kidnapping victim. Plus I do like a nice big dark woods as a setting for a thriller. But I did want to stay generally in the midwest, where I live, so pointing the compass just a bit north seemed to make sense.
MP: You’ll be joining Megan Abbott for a signing and discussion at our store on August 2nd. What should people know about her?
SD: On a personal level, I know Megan just well enough to know what lovely company she is: funny, a skilled conversationalist, smart enough to be intimidating but too thoroughly pleasant for that to be possible. But mostly I know her the way everybody should get to know her: through her books, which truly deserve all the rich praise they receive. Megan is a writer’s writer, but she’s also a reader’s writer. That’s a very, very strong combination.
MysteryPeople welcomes Sean Doolittle and Megan Abbott to BookPeople on Thursday, August 2nd at 7p. We’ll have music courtesy of Jesse Sublett and complimentary refreshments.