Alison Gaylin Defies Genre: If I Die Tonight

Image result for alison gaylin authorAlison Gaylin is one of the many women leading the evolution of the crime fiction genre.  Her prose is precise and glowing, with characters that are alive and, to be cliché (which she never is), “come right off the page.” Less complex but equally as riveting as 2016’s What Remains of Me (still one of my favorite mysteries of all time), If I Die Tonight concerns a hit-and-run, a mysterious young man, and multiple relationships that are only moments away from surfacing as the novel progresses forward.  Gaylin is, once again, at the top of her game in this novel due out in March, 2018. But what makes Alison Gaylin such an amazing writer and why is everyone from Megan Abbott to Laura Lippman singing her praises?

It begins with Gaylin’s plots.  No one plots a novel quite like Alison Gaylin does, and any author or fan will speak up to this fact.  Her novels are so tightly plotted, it’s hard to imagine Gaylin without an outline by her side at any given moment during the writing process.  Yet, when asked about how she goes about plotting out her novels, her process seems more loose and less strict than that of other authors who stick firmly by their pre-written outlines.  Gaylin somehow creates a magic that is bewitching both for the reader and the critic, finding a way to mystify and conjure up a spell that will entrance readers throughout the entirety of the novel, and almost effortlessly so.

Another compelling aspect of Gaylin’s writing is her thoroughly developed characters, all of whom get equal page-time.  There’s Jackie, the mother of Wade and Conner, who’s trying to do her best as a single mother after her husband has left her years prior.   Conner, likewise, is struggling to keep up social appearances while his older brother Wade is somewhat of an outcast, someone who easily becomes suspect when a hit-and-run occurs in the beginning of the novel. Enter the rest of the vivid and vast cast of characters, from the novel’s victim, a high schooler who’s essentially the boy next door, his girlfriend and her friends, along with a pop singer well past her heyday and now desperately clinging to any sort of fame.  Also at the center of this mystery is Pearl, the newbie detective who just wants to have a suitable workplace and also may be running away from a past she cannot escape.

Obviously, there are a million places this novel can go, and Gaylin pushes each of her characters, as well as the plot and the reader, to his or her limits.  Gaylin is not afraid to push the taboo, as seen in What Remains of Me, and here she does so again, proving exactly how dark she can get in an already dark genre.  Those new to Gaylin are well past her breakthrough, what with her Brenda Spector series, and her fantastic standalone novels.  Now it’s simply time for the world to be aware of her genius, which seems as imminent as the ending of her novel: we know something is coming, we may even know what is coming, but when will it hit us exactly, and how?

Try to guess the ending of If I Die Tonight. Try and guess the killer, who is culpable and who is not, and you will find yourself shocked again and again with each turn of the page. In the end, everyone is culpable in one way or another, and no one is left getting off free. This book will warm your heart and rip it out again all in one paragraph, so be forewarned: Gaylin is not for the reader afraid of feeling, afraid of guessing, or afraid of turning into an investigator themselves.

A true master of the genre, each new book by Alison Gaylin is a book to be treasured.  In 2018, a year full of books by masters of the genre like Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, Lori Roy, Alafair Burke, and others, this is truly a book that stands out among the rest.  Give If I Die Tonight a try.  You will not regret it.

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Slivers of Truth: Lori Roy on Writing, Setting, and Success

Image result for lori roy authorMatthew Turbeville: Lori, it is such an immense pleasure to interview you.  Each of your books holds a special place in my heart and deservedly so.  Each of your books is so uniquely and individually different.  How do you develop the concepts behind your novels? How do they come to you? And how do you ensure that not one single book is remotely the same?

Lori Roy: Thank you so much, Matthew. It’s a pleasure to work with you on this interview. I have, thus far, always started my novels with setting. By that, I mean I am first inspired by an interest in a time and place. I’m not entirely sure what makes certain settings capture my attention, however they tend to be somewhat gritty and oppressive, and as such, they actively work against my characters.  I think of setting in terms of the part of the country I choose and the period of time. Both decisions are key to the obstacles my characters will face.   A rural and impoverished setting will pose certain challenges, as in Bent Road and Let Me Die in His Footsteps, and the cultural norms of a certain period of time will also give rise to obstacles, as in Until She Comes Home.

The settings, both place and time, largely dictate the voice or texture of whatever novel I’m working on. I fumble around until I find the voice I feel fits the work. There is also always a sliver of some universal truth that starts to simmer once I’ve begun a novel. However, I try to avoid focusing on that sliver as I’m writing.  Instead I focus on character and plot and let the sliver of truth work its way to the surface through the story. I spend a couple of years writing a novel and this sliver of truth is what keeps my interest.

As to how I keep my books from being the same…in a way, like many writers, I think I’m always grappling with the same questions. But I do like switching up my setting because I am regularly inspired by my research of a new place. In my most recent novel, The Disappearing (Dutton 7/18), I am writing about the present day for the first time. While this would probably seem easier than writing something set in the past, I’ve found it to be a great challenge.

MT: You’ve won multiple Edgar Awards and you’re a woman.  How does it feel to be one of the leaders in establishing crime fiction as a genre dominated by women writers, which is incredibly important in today’s world?

LR: Having published a few books now, I think paying-it-forward is the most important thing I can do. I was fortunate enough to learn from great teachers in the early days of my career. Each of them took time out of his or her own busy schedule to work with aspiring writers, so I try to do the same. As to the amazing work being published by women today and in years past, I think of myself as a student of their impressive work.

MT:  Who are some of your other influences, especially fellow female writers? What other influences do you have—what inspires you to write on a day-to-day basis?

LR:   I would say the love of writing inspires me on a day-to-day basis, but that wouldn’t be entirely true, because I don’t always love it. I find the first draft of a novel very difficult to write and I impose a schedule on myself to get through this early stage.  Once I have the framework, I find the process much more enjoyable and sitting down to the computer becomes easier. As to influences, my list could go on and on. Flannery O’Connor is certainly at the top of that list, as are Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and John Steinbeck. Mary Lawson is among my contemporary influences, as are Lisa Unger, Megan Abbott, Alafair Burke and Laura Lippman.

MT: I would almost describe your latest book, Let Me Die in His Footsteps, as transgeneric, crossing genres in new and unexpected ways, like the novel does with its hints of magic realism.  What made you decide to incorporate this element of writing—i.e., the girls looking down the wells—into your novel?

LR: This is a great example of the setting influencing my characters. As I researched Kentucky, I came across a good many traditions and superstitions that originated in various parts of the state.  Many of the more magical elements of the book—the know-how, the looking into a well to see the face of an intended, the empty rocking chair that rocks and means someone is going to die—were all rooted in Kentucky superstitions passed down through the years, though I tweaked some to fit my characters and plot. Not only did these elements inform on the way people were thinking at the time, but they also gave rise to obstacles for my characters.  They became the heart of the novel in many ways.

MT: What is your writing schedule like? How do you remain so productive and churn out such breathtaking literature?

LR: I usually try to write first thing in the morning.  If I’m writing a first draft, I can work for about two to three hours per day and I try to generate 1500 during that time. Once I have a first draft and am rewriting, I work the better part of the day. Because I’ve not been successful with outlining, I find I do a great deal of restructuring and editing. This phase will go on a long time.  I take breaks to walk my dogs or go to the gym, but that’s about it. I quit for the day around 5:00.

MT: One thing that strikes me about your writing is your voice.  Whether written in first or third person (which can often feel so personal one forgets it’s not first person), the voice is unique and personal to the character the narrative is following.  How do you establish voice for each book?

LR: Finding the voice for a particular novel is a bit like tuning an instrument or trying to tune a station on an old-fashioned radio. I adjust a little here and little there until I hear the voice come into tune.  I like to read various things from whatever era I’m writing about, or if I’m writing in the present as I did with my upcoming novel and the one I’m working on now, I read about the history of a place.  It all informs on the present and on the characters and slowly that voice comes into tune. I’m also a believer that nouns are of great importance in establishing voice.

MT: You tend to write “period pieces” or “historical narratives,” books set in a different time and place than what we’re used to with crime fiction.  What inspires you to do this and what do you hope to accomplish in doing so?

LR: While doing research for Until She Comes Home, I stumbled across an essay written as an introduction to a cookbook published in 1954. It spoke of mothers struggling to raise children as extended families moved farther and farther away, and of mothers being bombarded by news from the radio and television and newspaper, and of no longer having the friendly butcher to rely on but instead a large, generic grocer, and of having more technology in the home that was meant to make life easier but instead meant more and more was expected of them. I read this passage to a group of friends who were sitting nearby as I was doing my reading, all of them mothers too, and they nodded their heads. Yes, isn’t that true, they all said, and were shocked to hear I was reading about the obstacles facing mothers from 1954. I understood in that moment why I’m compelled to often write about the past.  While much has changed over the years, much has not. Writing about the past can illustrate that the struggles of long ago aren’t so different than the struggles today and that we’re not above repeating the same mistakes.

MT: Was it always your dream to become a writer? If not, how did you get into writing?

LR: When I was very young, I dreamed of being a writer but got no further than designing the cover art for a novel I never wrote. In college, I studied accounting and I worked as a tax accountant for many years.  When I decided to stay home with my children, I began to study writing. I worked for ten years before I sold Bent Road, my first novel.

MT: In today’s challenging political climate, what do you expect your stories and characters—especially your incredible women characters—to say? What do you want people to take away from them?

LR: I would reflect back on my answer regarding why I write about the past. On one hand, I find myself writing about people with a powerful and innate need to belong. On the other hand, I write about those willing to cast aside the weaker among us for the sake of money, power or reputation. I’ve seen these themes rise up in all my work and though they’ve tended to rise up in plots that take place many years ago, we continue to see people desperate for a sense of belonging and those who would cast them aside in our headlines every day.

As to my expectations for what my stories and characters will say to the world…I had to think about the answer to this question for quite a while. In the end, I decided I have no expectations.  I work very hard to write authentic, warm-to-the-touch characters who are struggling to reach a goal. I give them something to want and something to need and then place obstacles in their path.  As they struggle to find their way, they are forced to make choices and those choices inform on what types of people they are.  What are they willing to do in order to succeed? What will they not do? By taking this approach, I find my stories end up with much to say, but I don’t set out with any expectations.

MT: What has been your most challenging book to write to date? What book has been your favorite to write? How difficult was it to break into the writing industry?

LR: I’ll start with my favorite book to write. That was certainly Bent Road. I say that because I wrote my first novel with no thought of publishing it. I wrote for the love of it. I didn’t think about how it might be received or if it would be reviewed or if people would like it.  My most difficult book to write has been The Disappearing. I found it difficult for a few reasons.  It is my first book set in present day, and as such, I had a harder time tuning in the voice. It’s also a novel inspired by actual events surrounding the closing of a boys’ reform school that operated in north Florida for over 100 years. Though the novel doesn’t take place at the school and instead takes place in the years immediately after its closing, it was important to me that I remained respectful to the people who suffered there as children.

As to breaking into the writing industry, I wasn’t nearly as savvy as many aspiring writers are today. I thought very little about the publishing industry when I was writing what would become my debut novel.  Instead I was fortunate enough to study with great teachers and in doing so, I met other writers who have become great friends.  We worked together in writing groups over the internet, encouraged each other and challenged each other’s work. All these things were important in helping me break into the industry because they helped me write a novel that captured the attention of an agent and then an editor.

MT: What are you working on now? What can we expect in your next novel?

LR: The Disappearing is my next novel and it will hit shelves in July, 2018. Here is a brief synopsis of what to expect.

When Lane Fielding fled north Florida after high school for the anonymity of New York City, she never thought she’d return. But twenty years later, this time leaving behind her cheating husband, that’s exactly what she and her two daughters have done. Now Lane is tending bar, living under her parents’ roof on the historic Fielding Plantation, and planning how to escape the crimes of her father–crimes that date back to his role as the director of a local boys’ reform school. A role that some claim turned sinister.

Things take a turn when just six months after moving back to Florida, Lane’s older daughter disappears. Lane initially fears a serial killer–like the one who traumatized north Florida in the 1970s–has again set his sights on her small town. Ten days earlier, a Florida State student disappeared, and ever since, everyone has been keeping a close eye on the town’s girls. But when Lane’s younger daughter admits to having made an odd new friend, Lane must consider that her older daughter’s disappearance is payback for her father’s crimes. Or perhaps for her own.

With reporters descending on the town, chaos reaching a fever pitch, and events taking increasingly surreal and sinister turns, Lane is faced with too many enemies and too little time to bring her daughter safely home.

MT: What advice can you give to new and aspiring writers? What about young women who are looking to make their way to the top just as you have done?

LR: I would refer back to what was most important in helping me break into the writing industry.  My best advice to aspiring writers, men or women, is to work on your craft and write the best book you can.  Nothing else will matter until you’ve done that.  Work in a writers’ group and challenge yourself to help your fellow writers become better, stronger writers.  In working to become a better editor of others’ work, you’ll also become a better editor of your own work.  You’ll learn the rules of the craft and why the rules are rules.  All these things will help you advance your work, and I believe this has to be the first step.

MT: Lori, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you.  It was such a delight being able to pick your brain.  I wish you nothing but luck in the rest of your career, and I can’t wait to read your next book!

LR: Thanks to you, Matthew. I greatly appreciate the time you’ve spent with my work and with the thought you put into your questions.

 

Hard Word Book Club goes to Yuma Prison with Elmore Leonard

For November, The Hard Word Book Club discusses a book by one of the
greats at a transitional moment in his career. Elmore Leonard’s Forty
Lashes Less One was the last western he did before starting crime
fiction. Containing many elements in those future books and taking
place in less than wide open spaces, this can be viewed as him taking
steps forward.

The two protagonists are Chiricahua Apache Raymond San Carlos and
Harold Jackson, a black former soldier, sentenced to life in Yuma
Prison. To put Jackson in his place, the king of the cons, Frank
Shelby, tricks him into a fight with with San Carlos. Raymond and
Harold bond when tossed into the hole and become the pet
rehabilitation project for a the new warden, who is also a minister.
When the inmates need to be moved to a new prison, Shelby plans a
breakout and Raymond and Harold plot revenge.

Forty Lashes Less One is funny, tough, and very unique. It provides
much to talk about with how the characters view race and religion. It
is also provides great examples to talk about crossing genres and
Elmore Leonard. We will be having our discussion on Wednesday, November
29th, 7PM on BookPeople’s third floor. The books are 10% off to those
planning to attend.

Interview with James Dennis from Miles Arceneaux

Interview with James Dennis from Miles Arceneaux

The team that that makes us the pseudonym of Miles Arceneaux, James Dennis, John T. Davis, and Brent Douglas, are back with another novel following the Sweeterwater family on the Texas Gulf Coast, Hidden Sea. Here they go back to the character that started it all with Charlie Sweetwater after his nephew who has been shanghaied on a fishing boat, encountering Mexican narcos and sea faring pirates. All three will be joining David Hansard on the 17th. We pulled James aside to talk about the novel.

MysteryPeople Scott: This is the first book in the series to take place in the present. Did that affect the writing in any way?

James Dennis: I don’t think it necessarily had an impact on the writing. This book was pretty research intensive, because it takes place in so many different locations along the Mexican coast and Cuba. And even though it takes place only a couple of years ago, the echoes of the past (both the historical past and the Sweetwater family history) can be heard pretty loudly. I suppose we subscribe to the wonderful line from Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

MPS: Lot of the book is seen through the eyes of Augie, Charlie Sweetwater’s nephew. What did that character bring to the series?

JD: I think we were very conscious of the sense of telling a family’s saga, the way different generations approach a given situation. The question of what we inherit from our family and what we chose to discard is really quite fascinating. Augie is young, a bit naïve, and a bit reckless. In many ways, he reminds me of Charlie and Johnny Sweetwater as young men. That’s in contrast to his father, Raul, who has adopted a much more cautious and careful approach to life. So, in some sense, Augie offers us an assurance that the legacy of the Sweetwater family (a family whose motto is “hold my beer and watch this'”) will live on.

MPS: The setting is primarily at sea on boats. Did the constricted space create any narrative challenges?

JD: I don’t think so. Large sections of the earlier books also took place at sea. But it did lend itself to the sense of Augie’s confinement, and in a larger sense, the confinement associated with the scourge of human trafficking. There’s a sense in which Augie’s feeling of being trapped speaks to the repressive conditions of all those who are caught up in the web of the human slave trade.

MPS: What was it like writing a Charlie who was much older than when you introduced him in Thin Slice of Life?

JD: In one sense, character development is what we look for in every novel, but when you write a series, you have an opportunity to have that character mature (or not) over time. In Charlie, we get a chance to see what remains of his reckless youth, and what he’s decided to let go of. It was actually a lot of fun watching him struggle with some of the issues we will all have to face. And the answers Charlie comes up with don’t necessarily have much in common with the choices that we, individually, have made. But that’s fiction: Charlie has taken on a life of his own, and it’s been a great ride watching it.

MPS: There is a major reveal near the end of the book. Was that planned books ahead or when you started this one?

JD: I suspect the people who know us well would chuckle at that idea. I’m not sure we’re capable of that sort of forethought or methodical planning. It’s true, however, that “that particular story line” was intentionally left unresolved, and I think each of us at various times in the novels that followed Thin Slice of Life has wondered what might happen and played out various alternatives. It wasn’t until this book, however, that we could realistically revisit that story line, and we had to play with several alternatives until we found a way to resolve it.

MPS: What makes the Sweetwater family worth coming back to as writers?

JD: There are probably a lot of different answers to this question. The Sweetwater family has offered us a vehicle to address some of the historical events along the coast that we have found interesting through the years. They’ve also given us a chance to write about some of the characters we’ve known (and wish we had known) in that area. They have given us a chance to laugh, and make each other laugh, and to explore the complex dynamics of a larger-than-life family. Mostly, though, they’ve offered us a place and a way to tell some stories about the people and events we care about. For that, we’ll always be grateful.

 

3 Picks for November

This month we have the return of two unconventional series heroes and a return of a crime novel that will hopefully get more attention now that it is back in print.

Murder In The Manuscript Room by Con Lehane

This follow up to Murder At The 42nd Street Library has crime fiction curator Raymond Ambler and his comrades involved in two murders that may be connected one of new coworker and the other of a labor boss that a childhood friend of Ray’s has been serving time for. Ross delivers a streamlined plot and sense of melancholy that echoes Ross MacDonald.

Never Say No To A Killer by Clifton Adams

Stark House reprints this crime paperback masterpiece of a con who breaks out of prison with the help of a benefactor to do a job. When the only person to meet him is his patron’s wife trouble naturally awaits. Adams packs all the twists, sudden violence, sultry women, and cynicism you’d expect in a moody fifties noir and then some.

Fool’s River by Timothy Hallinan

The latest Poke Rafferty novel has the trouble prone travel writer looking for the missing father of his daughter’s boyfriend. Knowing the man enjoyed Thailand’s sex trade, Poke fears the man was taken for his money and has little time before his life follows. Hallinan gives us another provocative look at the city balanced with a very human feel for family.

Q&A With David Hansard about How the Dark Gets In

Dark History And Rodent Relations: A Discussion With David Hansard About How The Dark Gets In

How The Dark Gets In is the second novel featuring Porter Hall. This time the New Yorker with a western background goes back to his roots and the dark secrets of the past when a friend goes missing in Austin. David Hansard will be joining the three authors who make up Miles Arceneaux on November 18th at 6PM to sign and discuss their work, but we put David in a dimly lit room to interrogate him early.

MysteryPeople Scott: I thought this book had one of the best starts. How did you come to using a mouse to reintroduce Porter?

David Hansard: As the story opens Porter believes he’s going to die alone in the windowless, basement room of a New York police station and end up buried in an unmarked grave in Potter’s Field. When a mouse touches his fingers, he feels a kinship and some small comfort knowing there’s another creature in the same predicament. The initial scene, which is set in September, is a flash-forward from the bulk of the story that takes place in June in Texas. I start with it because it’s the point at which the stakes are highest for Porter. His peril creates tension and raises questions that—I hope—hover over the entire story.

Since the setup involves “kidnap by cop” and illegal incarceration, I spent a lot of effort trying to make those seem feasible. After all, how realistic is it that actual law enforcement officers would take someone off the street and illegally lock them up in a police station? A couple of months after I wrote the scene stranger-than-fiction reality conveniently intervened. It turned out our local El Paso County, Colorado sheriff had been doing that exact thing to his political enemies and others he wanted to shake down.

MPS: What made you want to dive into Porter Hall’s past with the second book?

DH: With any reasonably complex character there is a personal history that has made them who they are. We all know Chandler’s dictum that “the knight” should have no past and no future, at least not ones the reader knows, and should not exist outside his mission. That works for Phillip Marlow. It wouldn’t work for Porter Hall, who, unlike Marlow, is reluctant amateur PI. The events of his own life draw him into his adventures and misadventures. One of Porter’s defining attributes is infection with the “white knight” syndrome, his compulsion to rescue “damsels in distress.” The irony, which is not lost on him, is that the surest way for a damsel to end up in distress is by spending time with him. It’s the inciting event in One Minute Gone and repeats more than once in How the Dark Gets In. Being a “rescuer” is his nature, but it’s a trait that has also been exacerbated by the loss of his older sister when he was ten.

MPS: Family plays an important part in various ways through the story. What did you want to explore with it?

DH: Porter feels responsible for the death of his sister at the hands of a drunk driver more than thirty years ago because he created the situation that caused it. Only by returning to that period of his life can her death, and the way it has shaped and still controls him, be understood. That event underlies the dysfunction that destroyed his family and was responsible for, in his mind, the premature deaths of both of his parents. It has left him with guilt and loneliness he will never escape.

MPS: The story takes place across the the U.S. from New York to Austin and Porter’s Wyoming family home. Did that present more of a challenge or something less confining?

DH: How the Dark Gets In is a personal odyssey for Porter, spatially and temporally, from his present life in New York City to his life as a younger man in Texas and finally to his Wyoming childhood. Not only are these times and places not distinct to him, they are a continuum, an echo chamber in which events long past and those of the present overlap, concur, and talk over each other. The places, disparate as they are, mirror and mingle among themselves. What’s the Faulkner quote? “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” And where did I see it? Oh, right. On the back cover of the book.

MPS: Porter Hall is such a distinctive, yet fitting name for your character. How did you come up with it?

DH: After my mother read the first chapter of One Minute Gone, she said, “I can’t believe your main character is named Porter Hall. Did you realize my mother’s maiden name was Porter and your other grandmother’s maiden name was Hall?” Really, Mom? That truly is an amazing coincidence.

MPS: What has made him the ideal character for you to run with?

DH: I am in awe of writers like Martin Cruz Smith who have the imagination and intelligence to visit a place for a few days—Moscow, in Cruz’s case—and then create a rich, compelling, and viable narrative peopled with engaging and believable characters. Unfortunately, I’m neither smart enough nor creative enough to do that so I lean on a character who shares major portions of my own backstory and has similar tastes and interests. Porter and I even wear the same size boots. That’s s very convenient when we travel together because we can trade off footwear. And, by a really weird coincidence, his name happens to be the same as two of the surnames in my family tree.

Interview with Nelson DeMille

An Interview With Nelson DeMille About His New Book, The Cuban Affair

With his new novel, The Cuban Affair, Nelson Demille has written a new stand-alone novel with a new character, Daniel “Mac” MacCormick, a former Army combat veteran who is now a charter boat captain

As the title suggests this new novel is about a trip to Cuba. MacCormick is hired to help people get to Cuba to find $60 million hidden there.

Nelson, who has also written under the pen names, Jack Cannon, Kurt Ladner, Ellen Kay and Brad Matthews, has written a number of series along with some stand-alone books

Nelson agreed to let me interview him via email. The final two questions in the interview are from Barry Lancet, who I recently interviewed here

Scott: Why did you decide to write a standalone, one with a new main character? Is it related to being with a new publisher?

Nelson: I had two reasons for writing a standalone with a new character.  The first was to give my readers a break from John Corey, and the second was to give me a break from John Corey.  I like John – he pays the bills – but I didn’t want us to get tired of each other.  Also, my new publisher, Simon & Schuster, wanted to start fresh, and I agreed.  Corey may be coming back, but not for my book after The Cuban Affair.

Scott: When you do a standalone versus a series book, do you risk losing those who preferred earlier series and protagonist?

Nelson: Good question.  In most cases, when a bestselling author deviates from his bestselling protagonist there is a drop-off in sales.  Readers start to link the author with the series character, especially if the author hasn’t done much else.  In my case, though, I began my career with successful standalones and I hope that readers who’ve read those standalones will trust me to give them a great read.

Scott: Can you talk about how you did research for this book, including with the Yale Educational Trip?

Image result for nelson demille

Nelson: I do a lot of research for all my books, which is why I don’t write a book a year.  I tend to do most of my research as I’m writing because you don’t know what you need to know until you need to know it.  My preliminary research on The Cuban Affair consisted of reading the Lonely Planet guide to Cuba.  Then I went to Cuba in October 2015 and took notes and pictures and spoke to Cubans.  Research almost always gives me ideas for the plot and storyline and even ideas about the characters.  The truth that you discover is always stranger and more interesting than anything you can imagine.

Scott: Were you planning a book involving Cuba when you made that trip?

Nelson: If the IRS is asking, then yes, this was a tax deductible research trip, not a vacation.  Actually, I was thinking about a book set in Cuba and, coincidentally, I received a travel brochure from Yale in the mail, and I took this as a sign that Cuba should be the topic for my next book.

Scott: What do you think of the changes Trump is making to reverse some of the changes made under Obama?

Nelson: I will stick my neck out and say that Trump was right to reverse some of the easing of travel restrictions that Obama made.  Obama, I believe, did the right thing in easing the restrictions that he could without Congressional approval, but he didn’t get much in return from the Castro regime in regard to human rights for the Cuban people.  This is a complex issue, and somewhere between the hardliners and the people who want to normalize relations is a fine line that has to be walked carefully and slowly.  Ultimately, the Cuban people have to solve their own problems.  They, more than Americans, have the most to gain – and the most to lose.

Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Nelson: I hope the reader comes away with an understanding of the long and complex historical connections between Cuba and America.  As it stands now, our relations with Cuba are a Cold War legacy, and a sort of time-warp that needs to come into the 21st Century.  Generals are often accused of fighting the last war, but diplomats have even longer historical memories that impede their future thinking.

Barry/Scott: You have a new lead character for The Cuban Affair, which is great, but speaking of great characters, are you ever going to bring back Sam “Haul Ass” Hollis from The Charm School, and can we expect a fourth outing from Paul Brenner?

Nelson: Interesting question.  My writing career has spanned almost 40 years and some of my past characters are starting to age a bit.  Colonel Sam Hollis would be pushing 70 by now and Paul Brenner may be a bit older.  Both characters were unique to their time periods and might now be irrelevant or too old for a new adventure set in the present.  John Corey too is getting on in years.  Chronology is always a problem for a writer who creates a series character.  Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, for instance, was about 103 years old when he (and she) died in 1976, according to the New York Times.  But…it’s possible to bring these guys back in a period piece, or maybe a prequel.

Barry/Scott: Your writing school spans 39 years and counting.  You’ve bucked the industry standard of a book a year, kept up the quality of your work, and seem to be going as strong as ever.  What writing or other practices have allowed you to sustain your career?

Nelson: I like this question.  Yes, I refuse to pump out a book a year like crap through a goose.  A good book takes a long time to write.  Up to about the 1980s, most novelists published a book every two or three years, and often longer than that.  What changed was that the publishing industry realized that a book a year could be profitable, and a lot of bestselling authors were willing to accommodate that for their own bottom line. Manuscripts used to be logistically difficult to produce on manual and even electric typewriters with carbon paper or photostatted copies, not to mention white out fluid, cut and paste, and having to retype entire pages and chapters.  Research, too, took a long time.  The computer and word processing changed all that and sped up the process of producing a clean manuscript and doing the research instantly online.  None of that improved the quality of the writing, or the thought and imagination required to tell a good story.  In fact, technology may have had the opposite effect.  Spell check is great, but if the words are wrong, it doesn’t matter if they’re spelled right.

I write the first two or three drafts of my manuscripts in long hand with a #1 pencil on legal pads.  This slows the process and allows me to think as I write.  Then I do two or three drafts on the computer.  Also, I still do most of my research by traveling, doing interviews, and wading through books.  Too many writers are hooked on Wikipedia and it shows.  With books, you have serendipitous discoveries that you won’t get in a Wiki article.

I try to balance my life and writing, and I try to live some of the life experiences that I write about.  If you’re locked in a writing room all day trying to churn out a book a year you can’t observe the human condition and you start to lose touch with the evolving language and the rapidly-changing social and political conditions that should inform contemporary fiction.

Bottom line, it takes me 16-20 months to produce a completed manuscript.  Each book, I hope, is as polished and as good as it can be for me and for the reader.

What I never want to see from an editor (or a reader) is that, perhaps apocryphal, note “Your novel is both good and original; unfortunately, what is good is not original, and what is original is not good.”