At the Mercy of Storytellers: MysteryPeople Q&A with Jeff Abbott

Jeff Abbott joins us Tuesday, July 18th, at 7 PM to speak and sign his latest, Blamewhich just so happens to come out the day of the event! Come by the store to be one of the first to get a signed copy. Jeff will be appearing in conversation with fellow Austin-based thriller writer, Meg Gardiner. Before the event, our Meike Alana had a chance to interview Jeff about his latest. 

 

Meike Alana: Your protagonist is Jane, a young woman struggling with amnesia.  You’ve done a marvelous job of depicting the insecurity and angst that any post-adolescent female feels, and here that’s heightened by her inability to remember pivotal moments of her life.  What was your inspiration for the character?

Jeff Abbott: I was basically terrified of writing a 19-year-old female protagonist, but I wanted to write about someone who wasn’t quite a fully formed adult, and who had lost her own memory of those critical high school years where so many young women and men get a sense of who they are and who they want to be. I was hesitant to try this, but some of my fellow authors like Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott encouraged me. Plus, I have two teenaged children, and I think being around them and their wonderful friends gave me some insights into how they think about the world. I think it is all about writing with sensitivity to a character and finding common ground and understanding. No, I don’t know what it’s like to be an amnesiac teenager. I do know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed, or alone, or as if no one understands you or likes you. We’ve all been there. But the specifics of what a person feels at a certain point in their life is of course different. I just tried to use my imagination responsibly and respectfully.

“We’ve seen some brilliant examples in thriller writing recently of unreliable narrators, such as the couple in Gone Girl or Rachel in The Girl on the Train—narrators who may not be entirely honest with the reader, storytellers who have their own secrets to keep. I wanted to twist that idea around with Jane—because an amnesiac is at the mercy of those storytellers around her.”

MA: Jane is struggling with a very specific type of amnesia–only a certain period of time has been erased from memory, and it’s believed the cause was physical trauma related to the car accident in which her neighbor was killed.  Can you tell us a little bit about the research you did to develop her condition?

JA: I read a lot of memoirs and  accounts written by people suffering from amnesia. Some had partial memory loss, some had total. And you know, there is no surgery or physical treatment to deal with this issue. Amnesia patients get sent home, to try and move on with their lives, in houses they may not recognize as homes, with people that are family who they may feel no love towards. No cases of amnesia are exactly the same, and I wanted there to be an open question with Jane: how much of hers is physical, from the accident, and how much might be emotionally repressed memory? In a way, Jane has to solve the mystery of herself. Not only answering the question of what happened that night, but who is she? What kind of person was she in the days, hours, minutes leading up to the car crash? Which leads to your next excellent question….

MA: It was fascinating to think about the fact that someone with amnesia may not even know who she herself is, and Jane questions whether she might have been a “bad” person before the accident.  Ultimately the only clues she has to her own identity are the memories that others provide for her, and if those are incomplete or  tainted (either intentionally or through the other person’s viewpoint) then she can’t really know who she is–and she can’t fully analyze the motivations of those around her.  Can you talk a little bit about how you developed this psychological puzzle?

JA: We’ve seen some brilliant examples in thriller writing recently of unreliable narrators, such as the couple in Gone Girl or Rachel in The Girl on the Train—narrators who may not be entirely honest with the reader, storytellers who have their own secrets to keep. I wanted to twist that idea around with Jane—because an amnesiac is at the mercy of those storytellers around her. Her mother, her friends, her enemies are the ones telling her what her life was like, how she treated them, who she loved and hated, what kind of person she was—and each and every one of them has an agenda, intentionally or subconsciously, and has a viewpoint that may conflict with the unvarnished truth. Even a slight slant on a story told to Jane could deeply affect how she views someone. I think this was the kind of twist that made the book great fun for me to write, and is probably why it is getting compared to Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, or The Woman in Cabin 10. Which I’m very grateful for, and I say that as a reliable narrator.

MA: You are adept at switching back and forth between writing series installments and stand-alones, and you do it incredibly well–all of your books are critically acclaimed and commercially successful.  Do you prefer one over the other?  How does your writing approach differ?

JA: Thank you for the kind words. I really enjoy writing both. My writing approach doesn’t differ between them: a book is a book. I don’t prefer writing either—it all comes down to what is the idea that I want to write, and is that idea best executed in a standalone novel or as part of a series. I tend to get ideas for standalones while I’m writing series books, and vice versa, so I think writing one helps fuel writing the other.

“I think what I wanted to reflect is that Jane is a kid in an atmosphere where success is expected and nurtured and is a huge focus, and she came from that background, and when the book opens she’s homeless and eating off a friend’s meal plan at his college. A disaster like Jane’s is deeply frightening to people who would like to imagine they are immune to fate. I wanted to look at the fear of having built a comfortable life then looking at what happens when it all can be taken away in a second.”

MA: Blame is set in the fictional Lakehaven, an affluent suburb just outside Austin.  You live in an affluent suburb of Austin.  Can you talk about the similarities and differences between the two?

JA: There is some geographical similarity of the hills and cliffs with West Lake Hills, the academic rigor of the school system with Westlake High or Lake Travis High (and the community’s laser like focus on the school system), the comfortable suburban lifestyle in both. I think what I wanted to reflect is that Jane is a kid in an atmosphere where success is expected and nurtured and is a huge focus, and she came from that background, and when the book opens she’s homeless and eating off a friend’s meal plan at his college. A disaster like Jane’s is deeply frightening to people who would like to imagine they are immune to fate. I wanted to look at the fear of having built a comfortable life then looking at what happens when it all can be taken away in a second. I do think people in West Lake Hills or Lakeway would have been kinder to Jane and her family in the aftermath of the accident, rather than the less kind citizens of the fictional Lakehaven we meet, who make her a scapegoat. People hated Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter because. . .she could have been them, and no one wants to be reminded of that. By the way, my next novel is also partly set in Lakehaven, so we’re returning.

MA: Can you describe your writing process?  Plotter or pantser?  Solitary or in coffee shop/library?  Silence or background noise?

JA: I tend to be a plotter, just because I do have to write an outline of the book for my publisher, and I like to have an idea of where I’m headed. That said, I don’t treat the outline as cast in stone, and I often get better ideas as I write, so the outline is a living thing. What often drives change is when I start writing a particular character and she or he asserts themselves more strongly than I thought they would. So that can often tighten the plot, or I realize I don’t need extra characters and give more work to those who assert themselves as stars. I write a lot at home, while listening to music: film soundtracks such as The Fountain or The Hours, or classical—I like Bach, Mahler, Mozart, most of the French composers. I also like listening to Edith Piaf, Kate Bush, Brian Eno, Sigur Ros, and Philip Glass, they’re very good for writing music.

MA: Read anything lately that you would recommend?

JA: Yes! This is my favorite part of any interview. Recently I’ve loved Meg Gardiner’s Unsub, an absolutely brilliant thriller, and I got to interview her during her signing at BookPeople. I just read Joe Ide’s two IQ novels about Isaiah Quintabe, who is a modern day Sherlock Holmes in a economically depressed part of Los Angeles and thought they were really smart and clever books. The first one, IQ, was an Edgar nominee for best first novel and the second one, Righteous, will be out this fall. Right now I’m halfway through Paula Hawkins’ new psychological thriller Into The Water, which is very ambitious and well-crafted and I’ll be curious to see how it all comes together. And I’m rereading Philip Pullman’s modern translation of the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, for research, and it’s brilliant.

MA: Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

JA: I’ve been writing a television series adaptation of my novel Panic for producer Harvey Weinstein—I’ve just finished writing the pilot episode, and I’ll need to do some rewriting on that and we’ll see where it goes and if we can place the series at a network. Writing for TV is very different than writing a novel, but I really enjoyed the process. I am also finishing up my next standalone thriller, which is about a young woman investigating her mother’s disappearance and discovering two other women with similar names have also vanished.

Blame comes out Tuesday, July 18th! Pre-order a copy now. Jeff Abbott joins us here at BookPeople to launch his latest thriller on the day of the release – come by the store Tuesday, July 18th, at 7 PM, and be one of the first to get a signed copy! Jeff will be appearing in conversation with fellow Austin-based thriller writer Meg Gardiner. 

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