MysteryPeople Q&A with Meg Gardiner

Meg Gardiner has put her mark on the thriller genre with her characters Evan Delany and Jo Beckett. In her latest, The Shadow Tracer, she introduces us to Sarah Keller, a skip tracer, who is in hiding herself with a girl she has taken to protect from one messed up family. Meg will be at BookPeople to sign and discuss The shadow Tracer at 7PM on tonight, June 26th. She is a great lady with a wonderful sense of humor which can be seen in our recent Q&A.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the idea for The Shadow Tracer come about?

MEG GARDINER: I’m a lawyer who cares about civil liberties, and a mom whose kids’ social lives thrive online. I started thinking about privacy, and how technology enables corporations and governments to keep tabs on us. Also, I had signed up for the UK’s IRIS recognition system, which allows you to skip the passport line at Heathrow airport. My husband was horrified. “You did what? MI5 is probably watching you through the TV right now.” I laughed. Then I read about the vast facility the NSA is building in Utah to store their bajillion-terabytes of information. And I wondered: in today’s hyper-connected world, how do you keep yourself from becoming a fly under glass?

So I thought: What if you needed, absolutely, to run and hide? Could you do it? What if you needed to run… with a little kid? What if the people chasing you had money, resources, and determination? What if they were criminals, and the FBI? From there, the story of Sarah Keller going on the run to protect her daughter Zoe came to life.

I say all this patriotically, in the name of PRISM!

No, don’t write that down.

MP: In the early chapters you get a good sense of how a skip tracer works. What kind of research do you do for your characters’ professions?

MG: I read copiously. Books, articles, interviews – whatever I can get my hands on. And whenever possible I meet people who do the jobs my characters do. That’s the best way to learn what it’s like to be a skip tracer, or a search-and-rescue expert, or a forensic psychiatrist. For the scene in The Shadow Tracer where Sarah Keller serves a subpoena, I talked to my brother, who owns an attorney support service like the one Sarah works for. It was amazing to hear his tales of tracking down sneaks and fraudsters, and to realize how gutsy he has to be to confront them. Of course, my baby brother is now 6’3″.

And I realized how difficult it is to stay under the radar when I ordered a book online, about skip tracing. A dialogue box popped up: “Share that you purchased How To Disappear with all your social networks?”

MP: Sarah is trying to protect a child she has raised from her own biological family. What did you want to explore about motherhood and family in this book?

MG: Sarah has raised five-year-old Zoe virtually since birth. The little girl was handed to Sarah by her dying sister, and Sarah swore to protect Zoe no matter what. The book explores how that promise has become the central purpose of Sarah’s life. She has become a skip tracer to learn how to disappear, because she fears the day that the people who murdered her sister come back for Zoe. At first, Zoe was an unexpected detour in Sarah’s life. But she has become the daughter of Sarah’s heart.

Sarah’s promise to her dying sister is put to the test when the bad guys show up again. Risking herself for Zoe is a choice. When it’s life or death, what will she do?

As for questions about motherhood and family, my son recently texted me: “I just realized that pretty much all your protagonists have kids that aren’t quite theirs. Do we need to have a conversation?”

I assured him that we didn’t… but that I needed to tell him about his evil twin who lives in the attic.

MP: You have a lot of fun with the locations in the book, particularly Roswell, New Mexico. How do you make a setting be more than just a backdrop?

MG: When I was a kid I spent every summer in Roswell. My grandparents lived there. I loved the austere desert landscape. I loved New Mexico — White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns and the Bottomless Lakes and the town of Lincoln, birthplace of Billy the Kid. It was bright and wild and exciting. Now, of course, Roswell has a reputation as UFOville. Which I am not supposed to talk about, okay? Just sayin’.

The southwest is a challenging landscape I have great affection for —  from Oklahoma, where Sarah’s flight begins, through Texas and into New Mexico. I tried to bring my childhood memories to life, and then to add hit men, U.S. Marshals, and car chases.

MP: The action passages in the book are relentless. How do you approach those parts from a craft standpoint?

MG: In a novel, action scenes need to be extremely clear and visual, and even more emotionally powerful than they are on a screen. Readers don’t experience the visceral sensory impact that viewers get from watching action sequences in a movie theater, so I have to make up for it by delivering other kinds of punches. If a chase scene is going to excite readers (not just keep them from becoming bored, but excite them) it has to avoid every cliche and twist that they’ve seen or read before. I have to imagine all the action scenes I’ve seen — or written — and turn them inside out to surprise readers.

Bullitt is iconic. Try to duplicate it, and you’ll just write a cheesy, predictable knock-off.

One other point: explicit violence doesn’t raise the fear factor. What does increase fear and tension is a threat that remains partially veiled in mystery. Readers’ imaginations will create terrors more frightening than I can portray. The theater of the mind is more powerful than a bucket of blood.

MP: As somebody who has two series characters, what does a stand alone do for you as a writer?

MG: Writing stand alones frees me to tell stories that range beyond my series, and to write about characters who, in a series novel, would be secondary. Sarah Keller had to be at the center of The Shadow Tracer. The book is about her world and her life. If the story wasn’t hers, it would have lacked heart and guts. I want readers riding along with her as she makes her desperate run and tries to spirit Zoe to safety.


MysteryPeople welcomes Meg Gardiner to BookPeople tonight, Thursday, July 27 at 7PM, to speak about and sign The Shadow Tracer. If you can’t make it, you can pre-order a signed copy of the book through the store’s website.

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