With Boston authors Edwin Hill and Scott Von Doriak coming this Saturday, we found a bean town crime tale from Akashic’s Mondays Are Murder site. Here, author Frank Possemato describes the most dramatic moment of a hood’s life in one paragraph.
With Boston authors Edwin Hill and Scott Von Doriak coming this Saturday, we found a bean town crime tale from Akashic’s Mondays Are Murder site. Here, author Frank Possemato describes the most dramatic moment of a hood’s life in one paragraph.
Edwin Hill’s Little Comfort introduces us to Hester Thursby, a librarian who uses her research skills to find missing persons as a side hustle. Her latest job has her dealing with family secrets, false identities, and more than a few gunshots. Mr. Hill , who will be with Scott Von Doviak on September 22nd at 6pm at BookPeople, was kind enough to take some of our questions in advance.
MysteryPeople Scott: How did Little Comfort come about?
Edwin Hill: Do you remember the Clark Rockefeller case? He was that guy who claimed to be a member of the Rockefeller family and married a successful business woman, and then went on the run with his daughter when everything unraveled. And it also turned out he’d murdered people.
I was fascinated by that story, and one day when it was all over the news I sat down and wrote a scene about a guy who’d been impersonating someone (I wasn’t sure who) and needed to leave town. The character’s name was Sam (no last name) and I knew I wanted him to be a sort of Tom Ripley-like antihero. Like Clark Rockefeller, I also knew I wanted him to be someone who could charm his way into any situation. But that’s all I had, and that scene sat on my computer for about two years before I did anything with it. Once I started working in earnest, I added in a foil for Sam, and the protagonist, Hester Thursby, was born. Hester is a librarian at Harvard’s Widener Library who finds missing people as a side gig, and her case in this story is to find Sam. Sam doesn’t want to be found, and things go downhill from there!
MPS: I also have to ask how you came up with your protagonist’s name, Hester Thursby? It is almost from another era.
EH: When I am drafting a novel, it’s really easy for me to get distracted by, well, anything, so I name characters very, very quickly – otherwise I can lose hours “researching” on baby-naming websites. I’ll name characters after friends’ pets or people I know or just random names that come to me in a flash. Some of these names stick, and others I change later on in the drafting process. (For example, I wound up using the name Sam Blaine after my friend’s beagle.)
When I came up with Hester as a character, I didn’t know much about her besides that she was a single woman with a child so the first names that flashed through my mind – and this is so pretentious it makes me want to throw up in my mouth – were Hester, for the woman, and Pearl, for the child. I quickly (and I mean the next day) changed the girl’s name to Chloe, and then changed it again to Kate. I liked the name Hester, though, and it stuck.
When I first started drafting the series, I thought it would be lighter than it wound up being, and I played around with titles based on movies. One of the titles I considered was His Girl Thursby, and Hester’s last name was born. Of course, Little Comfort wound up being much darker than I planned, a psychological thriller rather than a traditional mystery, and the title no longer fit. But, again, I liked the full name of Hester Thursby and decided to keep it! (A few people have asked if Thursby is in homage to Floyd Thursby in The Maltese Falcon. Alas, no. Just a happy coincidence.)
MPS: The book deals with the past’s relationship with the present. What did you want to explore in that idea?
EH: There are three main characters in this novel: Hester, Sam, and Sam’s best friend, Gabe DiPursio. They are each haunted by things that have happened to them in the past, but they all choose to move forward in different ways. (For more on that, see this terrific review on BOLO Books.
Some of the people in this book do really terrible things to other people, but I didn’t want that to be what this book was about. I wanted to be sure to separate the action of the character from the humanity of the character. Every person on earth has something good and worthwhile at their core, or at least that’s what I believe. When I focus in on that good, it makes the contrast of terrible actions and decisions all the more powerful.
MPS: This being a debut, did you draw from any influences?
EH: Sure! Like most writers, I read all the time. One of the influences for this book is Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, but there are other influences as well. When I first wrote that scene I mentioned above, the one with Sam escaping town, I happened to read Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. I was inspired by the way she mixed genres – mystery and literary – and was able to infuse so much humor into the Jackson Brodie series. She also really tore apart the structure of a “mystery” novel and made it something completely unique. I’m inspired by the humanity in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. One novel that I read regularly (maybe because it’s short!) is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. She is such a craftsman, and is able to move through time so effortlessly in that novel. I like to read it to remind myself what’s possible.
MPS: You’ll be doing an event with us on the 22nd with Scott Von Doviak and another Boston native with a book set there. There is rich tradition of crime writers from your city, Lehane, Parker, George V. Higgins. What makes Boston great for crime fiction?
EH: I think there are a lot of reasons. Boston is a beautiful town filled with iconic landmarks, to start, which always makes for good storytelling. Scott, for example, makes great use of Fenway Park and the Back Bay area of Boston in his novel. Because his novel is set in three distinct time periods, he’s able to pull in many of those sites and neighborhoods, like Dewey Square, that have changed with city. Those details give his novel a fantastic texture.
New England has a varied landscape too, going from urban to rugged very quickly, which is one of the things I use in Little Comfort, where much of the action takes place in rural New Hampshire in the depths of winter.
MPS: What do you think is the biggest misconception of the city?
EH: When I think of Boston in the media, I think of crime (The Town), education (The Paper Chase), and rabid sports fans (Fever Pitch). But like most places, Boston has many sides.
One of the reasons I set Little Comfort in Somerville, was because it shows a different part of the metro area. Somerville (which used to be nicknamed Slumerville) is diverse, with people from all different backgrounds. It’s vibrant, and a very accepting and open community. And like many urban areas in the country, like Austin, Somerville is experiencing a boom, which is creating tensions between older residents and the new people moving in. I hope to explore that in a later book in the series.
At the same time, Somerville also has many of the elements that people think of when they think of Boston. It’s right next to Cambridge, so you still feel the glow of Harvard, but with a bit more grit. Whitey Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang was named for a neighborhood in Somerville. And the Boston Garden and Fenway are each only a T ride away. So maybe there is some truth in those media images!
Tom Seigel has come up with a great concept for his first novel, The Astronaut’s Son. It’s an engaging, fascinating work.
Jonathan Stein is, as the title suggests, the son of an astronaut, an Israeli man who died in 1974 before he was able to fly into space, the apparent victim of heart problems. Now Jonathan is ready to go into space himself with NASA, its first trip to the moon in 30 years, except he’s hearing rumors and stories suggesting his dad was killed to protect NASA secrets, possibly relating to former Nazis who worked for NASA.
And Jonathan thinks the reclusive Neil Armstrong, who Jonathan has been writing to his whole life without ever hearing a response, may know the answers to his many questions. Some of the questions Jonathan is encountering is coming from people who believe the moon landing was fake.
This is an especially impressive debut novel for someone who got an MFA in fiction writing after 20 years as a litigator. Tom served as both deputy chief and chief of the justice department’s Brooklyn Organized Crime Strike Force, prosecuting members and associates of La Cosa Nostra.
He agreed to let me interview him via email.
Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?
Tom Seigel: The Astronaut’s Son was born in tragedy. It was 2003, and Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, had died in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. I was struck, as I’m sure many were, by the fact that both Ramon and Judith Resnik, the first Jewish American in space, suffered the same terrible fate in two separate shuttle accidents. It felt like more than just a sad coincidence or very bad luck. It felt like an atavistic curse: “Let there be no escape.”
Then the notion that “flight” contained elements of both adventure and escape took hold, and I asked myself a question: “If the exodus story can serve as a metaphor for liberation of the oppressed, could the unique, peripatetic story of the Jews serve as a metaphor for the future of humanity in space?” Are we exploring the cosmos as mere intellectual pastime or because we know that another exodus will be needed? As I began to research, I learned about the secret government program (Operation Paperclip) that brought Nazi engineers to the United States after the war to work on rocketry. Many ended up at NASA. The idea of juxtaposing Germans and Jews at NASA captured my imagination, and after more years than I care to admit, my novel is finally ready for launch.
Scott: Which came first, the plot or the characters?
Tom: At least the protagonist came first. I wanted a Jewish entrepreneur (Jonathan Stein) to attempt a return to the moon, and I wanted him to wrestle with the ghosts of his past—his late father, a fictitious Israeli astronaut in the Apollo program, and the ex-Nazis his dad would have encountered. Questions about his father’s untimely death allow us to look back at that time through Jonathan’s eyes. I was not sure when I started writing what he would find, or whether he would make it to the moon. I also wanted Neil Armstrong to be a looming presence in Jonathan’s mind—a reluctant hero, a long-distance father figure and a one-way pen pal. Armstrong’s reclusive behavior and relative inaccessibility created space (no pun intended) for mystery and intrigue. The other characters also took shape before I had the plot finally worked out.
Scott: I realize this is fiction but I have to ask a question I am sure some readers will ask, namely, “Does NASA indeed have a checkered past, any employees who were former Nazis?”
Tom: The short answer is yes. In the 1960s and 1970s, Wernher von Braun was Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, and Kurt Debus was Director of the Kennedy Space Center. Both men were not only Nazi party members but SS officers. And there were others. A few fairly recent nonfiction books detail this shady history of Operation Paperclip. Among them, I would recommend Michael Neufeld’s Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War and Annie Jacobsen’s Operation Paperclip. For years, the government whitewashed the history of its German rocket contingent. Their influence was so great that even today, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center (the official visitor center for Marshall), has a biergarten on Thursdays in the summer referred to as “Stein and Dine.” I have been amazed that more people are not troubled by the honors given to some of these (opportunistic to say the least) men.
Scott: What kind of research did you do and how did that go?
Tom: I read books about Operation Paperclip in general and the more prominent German scientists and engineers who were part of it. I also read about NASA’s history and astronaut training. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time helped me get a grasp of basic concepts in cosmology. The more entertaining research included surfing the Internet for outlandish lunar landing conspiracy theories. And of course, I watched Capricorn One. (Yes, I believe we landed on the moon, and so does Jonathan.)
Scott: I was glad you referenced Richard Feynman, someone I find fascinating. What do you think of him?
Tom: Richard Feynman is an American original, a Nobel laureate in physics with a thick outer borough accent who liked to play the bongos at strip clubs. He had a unique ability to explain physics to the uninitiated, much as Leonard Bernstein explained classical music to children. Feynman was charming, irascible and possessed of an insatiable curiosity. He, along with Neil Armstrong, served on the Rogers Commission, which investigated the Challenger disaster. I actually had something in an earlier draft that was meant as an inside joke about Feynman’s fascination with breaking dry spaghetti, but alas, it was left on the cutting room floor.
Scott: Why did you decide to get an MFA in fiction writing and write this novel?
Tom: I had the proverbial eighty pages in a drawer for years. I pulled them out sporadically and tinkered without much progress. I think the MFA program, in addition to improving my writing, served as source of concrete deadlines. I was also in my forties and ready for a career change.
Scott: How has your past work, including as a litigator, helped you as you made that switch?
Tom: I think being a former prosecutor has been very helpful to me as a writer. Prosecutors are storytellers. They have a cast of characters (witnesses) and have to construct a compelling and credible narrative for a jury. A prosecutor is also always on the lookout for the perilous plot hole. If you have one in your case, you can be sure that a defense lawyer is going to stick a finger in it and make sure the jury sees just how big the reasonable doubt really is. Having an imagining adversary (editor) on my shoulder while writing comes as second nature. Continuity, foundation and authenticity are important elements of any successful prosecution, and they’re pretty good for novels too. A challenge, on the other hand, is the artful use of nuance—great for fiction writing, deadly for a closing argument.
Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Tom: Of course, I want them to be entertained, and while the book has its serious side, I would be delighted if they were to laugh out loud at least once or twice. The Astronaut’s Son is not a traditional whodunit. I won’t spoil the ending, but I hope they come away with meaty questions to chew on—about history, progress, ethics and the future. Small subjects like that.
Scott: What are you working on next?
Tom: As a former mafia prosecutor, more than a few people have suggested I write a book about mobsters. I’m in the middle of writing a second novel that is not about the mob, but it might have a few unconventional wise guys. I think the traditional mob genre, like the mob itself, is mostly played out, but there’s still room for a colorful goodfella or two.
Scott Von Doviak’s Charlesgate Confidential is a one-of-a-kind read, with three storylines of different periods in Boston’s Charlesgate building that affect one another. Von Doviak binds them together with a liberal use of the city’s history and lore. Scott will beat BookPeople along with Edwin Hill (Little Comfort) Saturday September 22nd at 6pm to discuss and sign their books. He was kind enough to take some questions from us earlier.
MysteryPeople Scott: Charlesgate Confidential is a very unique book. How did the idea for it form?
Scott Von Doviak: Several ideas came together. I’d been wanting to write about the Charlesgate building in Boston for some time, both because of its fascinating history and because I’d actually lived there in the ‘80s when it was an Emerson College residence hall. I wanted to come up with a story that could encompass several different eras in the building’s history, but I also wanted to write a crime novel rather than a ghost story (which would have been the obvious way to go, given the building’s haunted reputation). Incorporating a fictionalized version of the Gardner Museum heist solved some problems, especially once I decided to move the heist back in time from 1990 to 1946. I really liked the idea of telling the story in a nonlinear way, by rotating through these time periods, sort of like solving a Rubik’s Cube twist by twist. At first you wouldn’t see any connection between the stories aside from the building, but as you go along, all the pieces slide into place.
MPS: How did you handle juggling the three time periods?
SVD: I didn’t have a spreadsheet or a True Detective wall with note cards and string or anything like that. It was all pretty intuitive. It was more fun that way because I would leave myself a little cliffhanger at the end of a 1946 chapter and then I’d move on to 1986 and 2014, which would give me time to think about what should happen next back in the ’40s. The way the time lines dovetail was kind of tricky, because I had to time all the revelations just right and make sure I didn’t give certain things away too early. So there was some trial and error involved, but that made it exciting for me.
MPS: Was there any Boston history or lore you wanted to get in there but couldn’t?
SVD: I considered some other things, notably the Coconut Grove fire in 1942, but in the end I felt like I had enough for this story. I flirted with incorporating the Red Sox 2004 World Series run, but that would have felt like overkill. There’s certainly plenty to explore, though. I don’t know that I’ll ever write a sequel, since this novel is very self-contained, but one idea would be to explore some different eras in the Charlesgate’s history, which stretches back as far as 1891. I’d need a good story to pull it together, though.
MPS: So many great crime novelists come from Boston like Robert B. Parker, George V Higgins, and Dennis Lehane. What makes the town such a hotbed for crime fiction talent?
SVD: Well, the city does have a noir-ish quality, particularly in the fall when the temperatures drop and the nights get longer. There are plenty of famous crimes and criminals—the Brinks Job, the Boston Strangler, Whitey Bulger. But I attribute most of it to Higgins. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the ultimate Boston crime novel (and movie), and along with his follow-ups Cogan’s Trade and The Digger’s Game, really set the template for Boston as a crime town teeming with colorful characters. Higgins was a huge influence on Charlesgate Confidential, particularly the way in which story and character emerge from dialogue in his books.
MPS: What is the biggest misconception about the city?
SVD: Well, first of all, not everyone has that accent! I think our pop culture has become over saturated with one particular slice of Boston. You’d think everyone who lives there is either a criminal or an obnoxious sports fan, and sure, there are plenty of those. The friends I still have there are nothing like that, though. They’re artists and professionals and they don’t sound like Casey Affleck in that SNL Dunkin’ Donuts sketch. I confess, though, I do love the accent (maybe because I don’t live there anymore) and I’ll have a hard time not lapsing into a bad version of it during my reading.
MPS: What are you working on now?
SVD: I have a few things in various states of completion, and I’m not sure exactly what comes next. I definitely want to stay in the genre, and one thing I’m working on would be a series of books set in Austin that would sort of chart all the changes that have been going on here through the lens of crime fiction. I don’t know whether that’s my next project, though—a lot depends on how things go with Charlesgate Confidential. Meanwhile, you can still find me at The Onion’s AV Club writing about your favorite (or maybe not so favorite) TV shows.
Austin attorney Manning Wolfe has brought her considerable legal expertise to the crime fiction genre, and the result is a smart, fast-paced thriller series featuring Texas Lady Lawyer Merit Bridges.
In her latest, Green Fees, Wolfe spins a story of lies and treachery that reflects the perfect blend of humor and chills. Austin is terrorized by a serial killer named The Enforcer who continues to elude law enforcement, but Merit is distracted when her predilection for younger men leads her to become involved with the much-younger golf pro Mark Green. When Mark accepts help to pursue his PGA dreams, he becomes indebted to the wrong person—Russian loan shark Browno Zars—and comes to Merit for help. She uses every legal trick she can think of to loosen Zars’ grip on Green, not realizing that her actions have brought her to the attention of The Enforcer. As she’s captured and held against her will, facing certain torture and death, Merit has to dig deep within to confront pure evil.
The award-winning Wolfe strikes all the right notes with this series. Merit is surrounded by complex, relatable characters–like Betty, Merit’s colloquialism-spouting, Ann Richards-hairdo sporting office manager. Merit is mostly serious (she has an illustrious legal career and is a devoted mother to her dyslexic son Ace), but she also knows when to let her hair down and just go after that young man while sipping on some fine red wine. There’s a satisfying variety of characters that operate on all points of the spectrum spanning right and wrong. And as a bonus for those of us here in Austin, Wolfe’s deep love for the city shows in her meticulous and glowing descriptions of our town’s scenery.
Some authors I interview, including one I’m questioning later this month, write a novel after a career with no connections to the publishing world.
That’s not the case with Paula Munier, who has written advice columns for other writers, worked as a literary agent and had other jobs related to publishing before writing this new novel, the start of a series. Paula, also a former journalist, also wrote or co-wrote more than dozen books.
As befits an author in the industry, even the story on how this book came to be is a good yarn, as you can read in the interview.
Paula was kind enough to let me interview her about this engrossing, engaging new book, A Borrowing of Bones, about soldier Mercy Carr. Mercy lives with Elvis, a bomb-sniffing dog who belonged to her fiancé, Martinez. Martinez got killed and Mercy got shot while serving overseas. Martinez’s last words to Mercy were “Take care of my partner.”
As the book begins, Mercy and Elvis are in Vermont on a hike when they come across human bones and an abandoned baby. They work with a game warden, Troy Warner, and his search-and-rescue Newfoundland, Suzie Bear, as this discovery takes them in unexpected places.
Scott Butki: How did this story come together?
Paula Munier: I was writing a book for Writer’s Digest Books called The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings. And I needed a first chapter of a novel that I could use for exercises over the course of the book. While I was using a lot of short opening snippets from celebrated works, I couldn’t use one of those for this. So I needed to write one of my own. I had just been to Leo Maloney’s fundraiser for Mission K9 Rescue, a wonderful organization that rescues bomb sniffing dogs from bad situations. Many of these working dogs are not Army dogs, but are rather procured through defense contractors, and when they come home they are often abandoned in shelters.
Meeting all of these dogs and their dog handlers was wonderful. I’m grateful to Leo—a fabulous thriller writer, by the way—for allowing me to meet these great dogs and their handlers. Soldiers and bomb sniffing dogs, as well as law enforcement and their working dogs. I feel in love with the dogs and the handlers, and so when I had to write this sample chapter, I figured I’d write about these dogs and handlers. Never dreaming that this sample chapter would become the first chapter of the first book in my new mystery series.
Scott: Which came first for you, the characters or the plot?
Paula: First came the dogs. I based Elvis, the sniffer dog, on a Belgian Malinois that I met at the fundraiser. I based Susie Bear, the search-and-rescue dog, on Bear, the sweet Newfoundland Retriever mix we rescued a couple of years ago. I also wanted to write about a veteran, having grown up in the military and having enormous respect for our military men and women. And I wanted to write about a game warden and the forest in Vermont, because I love game wardens and I love Vermont. At the time I had no intention of making this opening into a novel, so I just made up anything I wanted.
Scott: Was the plan, when writing this, always for it to be the start of a new series or did that thought come later?
Paula: As I’ve explained, there was no thought of a book, much less a series, at the beginning. That said, my agent read The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings in manuscript and said, “Boy, I like that chapter, you should keep on writing that.” Once she said that, I knew I had two great series characters in Mercy Carr, the female veteran, and Elvis, the Belgian Malinois sniffer dog. So I dreamed big.
Scott: I take it, considering you also wrote about dogs in Fixing Freddie and other books, that you’re a dog person. What do you think is the best way to have dogs be characters in books?
Paula: There are so many ways to write about dogs. In novels, dogs can be part of the family, dogs can be part of the plot, dogs can even be the protagonist. In a book like The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, the dog is the point of view character. In Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series, Chet is also the point of view character, the sidekick and smarter half of the private investigation team, supposedly headed by Bernie.
There are all kinds of dogs and all kinds of dog books, and I tend to love them all.
Scott: How did you go about researching this book?
Paula: I started with Mission K9 Rescue, and working dogs and their handlers. I talked to lots of people in Vermont, and of course I went to Vermont, which is one of my favorite places to go anyway. I talked to dog trainers and game wardens and security experts and explosive experts, and both active and retired military and former law enforcement. I met the dogs and I met their handlers, and I met with the people who work with these dogs and train them as well. Bear and I did our obedience training with a fabulous trainer who also trains dogs for search and rescue as well as law enforcement.
I also read anything and everything I could about working dogs and dog handlers, from Roger Guay and Kate Flora’s A Good Man With a Dog (a memoir about Roger’s time as a game warden in Maine and the dogs he trained to help him do his work) to Sergeant Rex, which is a true story about an amazing sniffer dog.
Scott: Where did the idea come from to have the book published on 9/11?
Paula: That was the publisher’s idea. I had nothing to do with that. That said, one of the things I wanted to do in writing the book was to honor all working dogs and their handlers. And the book is dedicated to them, as well as to my father, to whom I attribute my love of dogs.
These dogs and their handlers do military and law enforcement work, but they also are often first responders, doing search-and-rescue and recovery. Good work and in honoring this work, I hope to honor all such efforts, from 9/11 and beyond.
Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from this book? Did you want them to learn that animals can have PTSD?
Paula: First, I wanted to tell a good story. But I also wanted people to understand the length working dogs and their handlers go to in the name of keeping the rest of us safe and secure. I do think it comes as a surprise to many that animals involved in this dangerous work may suffer from PTSD. I think it’s good to know. When they retire, they need patience and care and love in safe forever homes.
Scott: How has your prior work in journalism, literary and publishing fields, helped you in writing this book and getting it published? Can you talk about some of your jobs in those fields?
Paula: I started off as a reporter a million years ago, and went on to write and edit for magazines and newspapers. I got my first job in book publishing as a managing editor on the production side, and then went on to a career in acquisitions. Acquisitions editors are those editors who acquire projects for publishing houses. Over the course of that time, I did a lot of writing and editing and acquiring and developing book projects, etc. I loved every minute of it. Eventually my own agent, Gina Panettieri, founder of Talcott Notch Literary Services, asked me to join her agency. Being an agent was something I’d never considered doing. But I have to say, it’s my favorite job of all.
All of my experience as a writer and an editor and a publishing executive really help me an agent and an author, if only because I understand everyone’s perspective at the table. I think the most important things I learned along the way were the elements of storytelling and the nuts and bolts of publishing. And I suppose it taught me patience if nothing else, because I learned firsthand how protracted the process can be—that is, going from word one to books in stores.
I also learned through working for Disney and WGBH and other media companies that there are lots of ways to tell a story. When I first started out as a writer and a reporter, I thought of writing really as wordplay, not as drama. I had to study how to dramatize scenes, and learn to tell stories in scenes. Which has been of course essential for me as a novelist.
I’d advise anyone who wants to become a writer to explore all avenues and all formats until they find their sweet spot. It took me way too long to figure out that dogs are my sweet spot, although the signs were there all along.
Scott: What’s it like getting early praise from such masters as Lee Child and Lisa Gardner?
Paula: I have been blessed certainly and honored by Lee Child and Lisa Gardner and lots of other fabulous writers who have supported my work early on: not just Lee Child and Lisa Gardner, but also Hallie Ephron, Hank Phillippi Ryan, William Martin, Jane Cleland, Spencer Quinn (aka Peter Abrahams), Larry Kay, among others.
As I told Lee Child, I’m going to have his review of A Borrowing of Bones – “a compelling mix of hard edges and easy charm” — engraved on my tombstone. Or maybe tattooed somewhere.
Scott: What are you working on next?
Paula: I’m at work on Book Two in the Mercy and Elvis series right now, which everyone says is the hardest book you’ll ever write. Let’s hope I get through it.
Thank you so much for inviting me to chat about A Borrowing of Bones. It’s been lovely!
Reed Farrel Coleman has put his own literary stamp on Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone. In the latest, Colorblind, he has the Paradise police chief in AA and encountering a new character who will change his life, all while dealing with a case that puts him up against a hate group when his black officer is accused of shooting the leader’s unarmed son. Reed will be at BookPeople September 16th at 5PM. We got to him ahead of time to talk about the book and the new paces he is putting Jesse through.
MysteryPeople Scott: In Colorblind you tackle the issue of race relations. Did you have a certain approach or aspect in looking at it?
Reed Farrel Coleman: The amazing thing here is that I turned this manuscript in a full month before Charlottesville. And for me, I’m not really tackling an issue. I don’t write message books and readers can take from the book what they will. My intent is always how the issue approaches the protagonist—in this case, Jesse Stone—not how the protagonist approaches the issue. I was also harkening back to the very first Jesse Stone novel, Night Passage, written by Bob Parker in the late ‘90s. I suggest readers go back to that book and see the connection between it and the new one.
MPS: Is there anything you have to keep in mind as a writer when your dealing with events that mirror what is in the news?
RFC: As per my first answer, I turned the book in a month before Charlottesville, so I wasn’t actually writing a “ripped from the headlines” book. But I did realize that this was a sensitive issue and that as deplorable as Jesse finds racism, his job is to first uphold the law and to protect the citizens of Paradise. And if that means allowing public demonstrations by groups he doesn’t agree with, he does it. I put Jesse in a very difficult spot. That’s the whole point, putting one’s characters in difficult and/or dangerous situations and letting them deal. The big challenge here was to bring some level of humanity to the “bad” guys. If all characters are is evil, then they are boring to write and boring to read.
MPS: The big change in this book is that Jesse is in AA. How was it writing him on the wagon?
RFC: Writing Jesse as drunk was easy, but it was getting played out in the same way that Jesse’s constant on again off again relationship to his ex-wife Jenn was getting stale. The series needed a shift. What makes this book different is that unlike other “dry” periods in Jesse’s life, he has made his desire to stop drinking official, for lack of a better term. He is committed to it and when Jesse Stone commits to something, he hangs in there. For Jesse this is now a lifetime thing and his struggle is no longer with drinking, but with not drinking. We’ll see how that goes.
MPS: Jesse is also dealing with a young man who comes into town as well as the case and his drinking. What do you enjoy about having your protagonists having so much to deal with in a story?
RFC: Life is pretty complicated for all of us. We’re never dealing with just one thing. My dad had a form of bone cancer from the time I was four years old, but that wasn’t the only thing in his life he had to manage. He had his job, his family, he still loved sports. Why should we let our protagonists have it easy by dealing with just one thing? What’s fun for me is watching Jesse juggle all the new stuff in his life with the old stuff and the crimes at hand.
MPS: I was happy to see Suitcase come more into his own. I think that’s the one character in the series that can easily be mishandled and you have always given him three dimensions as well as growth. Do you have to approach him in a certain way?
RFC: I approach Suit the way I approach all my characters. Anyone who has ever heard me speak or teach a class on writing has heard me say, “There is no such thing as a minor character.” I never think of my characters as cartoon-ish. For me, they all have full internal lives and that’s how I think of them when I write them. It’s easy to love Suit, the big guy, the earnest guy with the big heart who is kind of goofy and envious. But he was always so much more than that for me as a reader and I wanted him to become more realized in my Jesse books. He is brave and loving and I wanted to show that. I think I’ve accomplished with him what I set out to do.
MPS: You often have more than one iron in the fire. Is there anything we need to look out for?
RFC: Well, yes, I’m writing the prequel novel to film director Michael Mann’s magnum opus crime drama Heat. It should be out sometime in 2019. Also other big projects ahead about which I am very excited, but about which I cannot speak.