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.
Megan Abbott is without a doubt one of my favorite current crime fiction authors. She pushes the boundaries like no other. Her latest, Dare Me, is a noir tale set in a cheerleading squad. We’re all excited to be hosting her here Thursday, August 2nd at 7p with another great author, Sean Doolittle. As you can tell from this Q&A, she’s not only one of the most talented authors out there, she’s also one of the smartest.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: What drew you to the world of cheerleading for a noir story?
MEGAN ABBOTT: I always think the seed for the next book lies in the last one and in The End of Everything there’s a character who’s a serious high school field hockey player. I started watching high school girls play and was so dazzled by their intensity on the field. They looked like warriors to me. That led me to cheerleading, the most dangerous sport for girls. Today’s cheerleaders are deeply competitive and their willingness to take risks fascinated me. To put themselves in bodily danger. I started thinking about it as this perfect terrain to explore female power, friendship, appetites, desire, ambition.
MP: Besides Coach, who you could argue hasn’t completely grown up, adults have a limited appearance and not much dialog. Did you design the book to step out of the cheer squad as little as possible?
MA: Yes. I guess to me they’re absent presences. When you’re a teenager, your world is your peers and when you’re involved in something as deeply as these girls are with their squad I think that only increases. It’s almost as if adults disappear. Also, it began to feel a lot like a war story, or a gangster tale. Their whole world is one another. There is no other world. And that’s a hothouse. It can only create trouble.
MP: It’s obvious you really looked into this world. What is the biggest misconception about cheerleaders?
MA: I think our popular idea of cheerleaders—as mean girls, ditzy blondes, all those kitsch stereotypes—are a way of not looking at the things we’re afraid to reckon with about girls: that they have ambitions and desires. That they may have aggressive impulses and want to take risks. We understand this about boys, but I still think we don’t want to look at this in girls. In particular, these All-American Girls. We want them to be simple, pretty, plastic. And they’re not. I should add, I shared all these misconceptions! But in the end, it doesn’t matter that they’re cheerleaders. For me, it’s a story about girls, female friendships, its dangers. The cult of personality.
MP: When you were on tour for The End of Everything, you mentioned you were more comfortable writing about those girls in their early teens as opposed to the high school girls in Dare Me. What difference do those few years make?
MA: I think life gets so much more complicated. The yearning for experience is so much greater. Your willingness to take risks is greater and the consequences can be greater. It’s much easier for you to bluff your way into situations you cannot handle. There’s a scene in the book, set at a motel, that feels very much like that to me. Those moments from late high school when you realize: I thought I wanted this, but I didn’t know what “this” was. And there’s no going back.
MP: No matter if you go terse or more lyrical, you have a voice a reader can distinguish. How important is style to your writing?
MA: As a reader, I’m a total sucker for style. I think it’s more than embroidery, it’s everything. It’s the thing that transports the reader. That builds the world. It’s why I return, time and again, to stylists: Daniel Woodrell, Reed Farrel Coleman, Tom Franklin, Ace Atkins, Sara Gran.
MP: You’ve shown how malleable noir is. As someone dubbed “the Queenpin Of Noir” what’s your general definition?
MA: I think it’s utterly subjective, but for me, it’s a mood, an overall feel—a sense that the world is a place of hazard because we are, in many ways, slaves to our desires. And sometimes people accuse noir of being depressing or nihilistic. I feel it’s the opposite. I think noir novels show life as brimming over with feeling, hunger, desire. So much so that it hurts. In Dare Me, all the main characters—the girls, the Coach, the two men in the book—want things they just can’t have. And they all act on that longing in different ways, dangerous ways.
MP: On our part of your tour, including a stop at our store, you’ll be with Sean Doolittle. Sean is one of those crime writers who is loved by other writers. Why should the unfamiliar pick up one of his books?
MA: Because he is the real deal. Ask anyone who’s read any of his books. I still remember the moment I first read him (with Rain Dogs), and I can’t wait for Lake Country. There’s an authenticity there, to his characters, the world he creates for them, that is rare, and beautiful.
MysteryPeople welcomes Megan Abbott and Sean Doolittle to BookPeople this Thursday, August 2nd at 7pm. Austin’s own Jesse Sublett will serenade us with a few murder ballads and we’ll enjoy complimentary refreshments.