J.I. Baker’s The Empty Glass has become a favorite of mine since I read the paperback version this year. Dealing with a deputy coroner, Ben Fitzgerald, and his involvement in the Marylin Monroe death, the novel is a nightmare of conspiracy, reckless ambitions, and a decaying old Hollywood. Baker was kind enough to take some questions from us about character voice, setting, and the dream world he created.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: The Empty Glass is carried by a strong point of view. How did you build that voice of Ben Fitzgerald?
J. I . BAKER: That voice comes from my very pervasive fears of losing everything, of being totally lost. I’ve been relatively successful, but I always feel that I’m one tiny misstep away from being some crazy alcoholic in a skid-row hotel. Well, that’s a noir trope, isn’t it? Which may be why I’m so attracted to the genre. But I feel it pretty deeply, so it doesn’t take much for me to write from the perspective of some lost soul sitting on a bald mattress in a bad hotel and wondering what the hell happened to his life.
MP: Part of the story deals with parts of Marylin Monroe’s journal. How did you capture a voice that the reader may think he or she knows?
JIB: Well, it’s a risk, for sure, but again, that voice is mine, on some level—the irrational, obsessive, addictive side of my personality. That said, the events in the diary in the novel are based on a lot of research. We know very little for sure about what happened to Marilyn at the end, but I based what I wrote on reliable reports.
MP: You have quite a bombshell reveal at the end. Did you have it in mind before you started writing or did the story lead you into it?
JIB: Actually, the editing led me to it. My initial version was completely different—and, without giving too much away, much more optimistic. And the ending of the screenplay version I just wrote for David Winkler at Winkler Films is a big change from the book. So I guess you could say I had three different endings.
MP: When we talked before, you mentioned that you had an affection for LA crime fiction. What draws you to that city for a backdrop?
JIB: Where do I begin? For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with Los Angeles. I had a map of the city on my bedroom wall when I was a kid and used to recite its street names to get to sleep—maybe because I didn’t like where, or who, I was. Like New York, L.A. is a place where you can reinvent yourself and create a whole new life. That’s an optimistic, very American idea, but in so much L.A. fiction (and fact) you see what happens when the hopes are dashed or—sometimes worse—fulfilled.
5. What is the biggest thing to keep in mind when writing in a particular period?
JIB: Research! But never forget that if you’re constantly showing off the work you’ve done, it will take readers out of the story. Your fictional world is revealed through your characters, and your characters aren’t going to be hyper-aware of the cool period details you’ve dug up. They don’t think about the fact that they’re driving a 1963 Imperial LeBaron that’s cheaper than the pre-1960 Crowns but really prone to rust. They just need to get somewhere. So you have to find a way to introduce period detail and authenticity unobtrusively, as your characters—not you or I—would see it.
MP: What do you want the reader to take away about Marylin Monroe’s death?
JIB: All I want to do is to tell a good story, but it seems pretty clear to me that—however Marilyn died—funny business was involved. I’m not saying she was definitely murdered, but it seems undeniable that, at minimum, powerful people helped suppress information about her relationships. Many readers think that I made up a lot of stuff about her death, but all of it (the time changes, the water glass, the missing tissue samples) is based on fact.
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