Terry Shames‘ latest Samuel Craddock mystery, The Last Death Of Jack Harbin, is rich in theme, character and emotion. Terry was kind enough to talk about these elements of the novel witih us
MYSTERYPEOPLE: How different an experience was writing the second book in the series as opposed to the first?
TERRY SHAMES: I almost feel as if the first two books were one big project. As soon as I finished the A Killing at Cotton Hill, I immediately began The Last Death of Jack Harbin. It took me about eight months total to write both books from the beginning of the first to the polished draft of both. I don’t know how or why it happened so fast, but I was happy to go with it.
So the answer I’m going to give you is about book three. I’m having a tiny little nervous breakdown about it. I have several Craddock books in mind, and thought that the one I’m working on now would be the best to move the series forward. I wrote the first draft quickly, but was dissatisfied with it. Right about the time I was beginning to be nervous about it, my editor said he needed it fast…and that’s when I began to panic.
Suppose this third book was a poor shadow of the first two? Before the first book was published, I never needed to worry about anyone’s opinion but my own. Suddenly, I have readers to satisfy. That’s the best dilemma in the world for a writer—but still a dilemma.
I threw myself on the mercy and competence of my writers group, and they assured me that the changes I need to make are cosmetic – Oh sure, it’s only cosmetic to throw out one entire story line? To ditch a couple of characters? To jettison the first two scenes? But their advice only confirmed what I already knew. I’m still nervous but at least I’m not ready to ditch writing and become a plumber.
MP: Your victim is a young disabled vet. What did you want to convey about today’s vets?
TS:Good question about vets. In writing about Jack Harbin’s situation, I hoped to illustrate something that really bothers me these days about how people treat veterans. People are perfectly willing to send young men and women off to fight wars to “keep us safe,” and they are willing to spend trillions of dollars to keep the wars going. But they aren’t willing to spend the money to support these young warriors when they come home damaged physically and/or mentally. I think it’s a disgrace. And the fact that there isn’t a good support system for these young men and women means that they are prey to scams and mistreatment.
MP: Guilt seems to be the big emotion in The Second Death Of Jack Harbin. What did you want to explore about it?
TS: I hadn’t really thought of the book as exploring guilt, but your question made me think about it, and it’s true. Jack’s high school friends, Taylor and Woody, his mother, his friend Walter, and even Samuel himself are haunted by misreading situations in the past and making decisions that they believe were misguided. They believe things could have been different if they had made better decision.
People deal with the guilt in different ways, but everyone is changed by it. For some people it engenders a determination to do better or to make amends, like Woody and Walter. Others are crippled by it, like Jack’s mother. And then there are those who have no capacity to feel guilt. A lack of remorse is at the core of sociopathic behavior. I’m thinking of the dastardly Walter White in the recently concluded Breaking Bad. He feels a whole range of emotions, but guilt is not one of them. Jack’s brother, Curtis, is a little like that, though he doesn’t act it out so dramatically. He could help Jack if he chose to, but it doesn’t occur to him, and he feels no guilt at all about it.
Guilt is a useless emotion unless action follows on its heels. I admire Woody for wanting to find a way to assuage his guilt through action- even if his plan is a sadly impractical…At its most basic use, punishment is a way of letting the guilty atone for their guilt. I wonder if the guilty party in The Last Death of Jack Harbin feels some relief, knowing that there is a way to pay for the crime?
MP: What compels Samuel to always come out of retirement to investigate?
The simple answer is that Samuel feels a sense of responsibility to his community. Because of his reputation, he has always been a fallback when the current chief of police isn’t up to the task. I talked to one of my readers who adored Samuel. She said, “We all need a person who looks out for us.” The larger question is, where does this sense of responsibility come from? In a way, it’s a stance that has a certain amount of hubris—Samuel feels as if he has the strength and ability to make a difference in people’s lives. As I’ve developed Samuel, I’ve noticed similarities between writers and lawmen. Both are observers and in a sense live apart. And both can use their jobs as a way of bringing justice to a situation. The hubris part I’ll leave for others to comment on.
MP: Which supporting character did you have the most fun writing?
TS: It sounds sappy, but I love all my characters—even the killer. Most of my characters are fully developed people in my mind. I know their hopes and dreams, their strengths and shortcomings. So who is most fun to write, the good guys or the not-so-good guys? In this particular book, I have to say I enjoyed writing Walter Dunn. I didn’t have to work to discover his character—he jumped onto the page and told me who he was from the first time he showed up on his motorcycle. I liked him from the beginning and grew to have great respect for him, as I think Samuel does.
MP: As someone who writes about where you used to live, do you have to do anything special to write about Central Texas in Northern California or are your memories that clear?
TS: I read somewhere that James Joyce couldn’t write about Dublin until he moved away. Not that I compare myself to James Joyce, but I think it’s true of some writers that we don’t see a place as clearly until we leave it. I go back to Texas often to visit relatives, so it isn’t as if I’m marooned in California. But what interests me is what happens when I go back to the town that I based Jarrett Creek on. I always have a sense that I’m enveloped by it. I never lived there; my grandparents did. But it always had a hold on my imagination. Now, when I got there, I drive whoever I’m with crazy because all I want to do is walk around. That’s all. I don’t have to go inside anywhere, I don’t have to talk to anyone. I just want to smell the air that seems particular to that place; feel it on my skin; hear the sounds of birds and wind in the trees; see the color of the grass; the architecture of the houses; the composition, smell and look of the soil; the constantly changing color and clouds of the sky. Here’s the funny part: I could never live there. I hate the climate—it’s muggy and hot much of the year. Nevertheless, I carry a little piece of it with me, and I cherish it.
Terry Shames will be in store Monday, Jan 27 at 7PM speaking & signing The Last Death of Jack Harbin. Pre-order signed copies of the book via bookpeople.com.