Revealing Only a Very Small Slice of Yourself: MysteryPeople Q&A with Leah Carroll

Leah Carroll’s true crime memoir Down Citythe story of her mother’s murder, her father’s early death, and her own difficult childhood, came out this past March to much acclaim. Our contributor Matthew reached out to interview Leah in what may be the best and most personal interview we’ve ever had on the blog. Thanks to Matthew and Leah for a beautiful conversation that we have the privilege of sharing with our readers. 

  • Interview conducted by writer and blogger Matthew Turbeville

 

Matthew Turbeville: First off, I want to start off by saying I am a fan.  I was astounded by your book in more ways than one, and the seemingly effortless way you portray your parents’ struggles through life is not only surprising, but inspiring.  Where do you get the inspiration to write such a brilliant memoir? What are your favorite memoirs, works of fiction and nonfiction, movies, television shows, etc?

Leah Carroll: Matthew! I am a fan of yours! Thank you for your kind and generous assessment of the book. My parents were, in a way, inspiration to me. They were both photographers and my father was a voracious reader and cinephile who shared those passions with me. In college I read James Ellroy’s My Dark Places and Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart back to back and they opened a completely new world for me. I had a similar experience reading Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard – I loved this book so much that at one point a mentor had to tell me, “Leah, your book is not going be Boys of My Youth, so stop trying to do that.” Beard has captured the essence of “funny/sad” (surely there is a word for that in French) and her book is…magical.

More recent memoirs that I’ve loved are Lacy Johnson’s The Other Side, Jeannie Vanasco’s forthcoming The Glass Eye, and Sarah Perry’s After the Eclipse.

The two nonfiction books I recommend the most are Brendan Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us and Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Although now that I think about it, I also recommend Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc basically once a day and in the wake of Hurricane Harvey I decided to re-read the excellent Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink.

I love every single book by Megan Abbott. I loved History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund and Eat Only When You’re Hungry by Lindsay Hunter. My favorite contemporary novel is The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

I think I have to stop with books or this list is going to get reaaaaaallly long (although I would be remiss not to mention how excited I am for the Deuce and what an absolute masterpiece OJ: Made in America was. Oh and also every Thirty for Thirty that’s ever been done. And The Knick.)

MT: This book must have been incredibly difficult to write. What was the greatest struggle you’ve had to overcome in putting your own life to words?

LC: The book took me ten years to write. I started in my early twenties and finished in my early thirties. A lot of that time was spent researching but I also produced an earlier draft that was about twice as long as the Down City that exists today. I’m so glad that early draft never saw publication. My mother was thirty when she was murdered. I needed to get to get to that age, to really understand how much of her life was stolen to be in the place where I could tell her story and where I could see her as a woman, independent of me. It was also hard to let go of much of the research. These documents – affidavits, grand jury testimony, war records – they had a real hold over me. I thought there was such poetry in the way they were written, even the way they were formatted on the page. But I realized that, in a vacuum, they wouldn’t have the same effect on a reader. I realized that I needed to tell a story that (hopefully) gave the reader a similar feeling through prose.

MT: I feel I’d be doing an injustice without relating a bit of my own story to you. One of my grandfathers was a “drug lord,” and took numerous lives. He’s someone I’ve always been ashamed of, but examined with empathy and as much understanding as possible. How were you able to write with such compassion and understanding of your characters, even those you didn’t know? Which person was hardest to write about?

LC: Writing about organized crime is so fraught. I wanted to show another side of the story that didn’t fetishize that life but in order to do that I had to show how so many of these men were broken down, uneducated, and really pitiful in so many ways. You can search for that and find hatred within yourself or you can search for that and just try to understand the overwhelming complexity of human life.

And I had anger, not just at the drug dealers and mafia associates who murdered my mother but also the police force and local politicians who saw her life as disposable and treated it accordingly. There is a point at which their ineptitude and negligence became criminal, in my opinion. And I remain angry at the corporations (and the the corporate greed) that eliminated institutions like the Providence Journal – these places were so necessary to men like my father. And so realizing that our ideas of who is “good” and who is “bad” made me rethink a lot of the ways society simplifies so much in order to avoid having difficult conversations. So I had those conversations with myself, or tried to.

It was very hard to write about my grandmother. It was hard to think about her being in any kind of pain because she is the most loving, courageous, strong and kind person I know. I try everyday to be the kind of woman she is.

MT: Mental illness has always been a cause I’ve fought for and I find it’s prevalent throughout your novel. Struggles with addiction, depression, manic depression, and so on come up time and time again. How have you managed to overcome the struggles you’ve faced with mental illness—your parents’, your husband’s, perhaps even your own—to be the extraordinary success you are today?

LC: My mother tried VERY hard to quit using. My father tried VERY hard to quit drinking. It would be unfair and uncharitable to behave as if addiction is something people choose. My husband and I are very open in our discussions about his sobriety – I can’t understate how valuable that dialogue is to our relationship. What think I find very upsetting is the utter lack of compassion around the current opioid epidemic. Shame and cruelty are not how you root out addiction.  

And I have certainly had my own struggles with depression and anxiety. I feel lucky that one lesson I learned, particularly from my father, was that psychological treatment is necessary, that it is in now way indicative of weakness, and is actually a very powerful way of owning your space in the world.

MT: Your book is frankly heartbreaking but in the best way. It does what the greatest novels do: rips you apart and sews you back together again.  What were your intentions when beginning this memoir?

LC: I wanted to tell people about my Mom and Dad. I know that sounds simplistic but it’s the only real honest answer. To me, they were exceptional, but to the world they were forgettable. Most of us are.  It was very important to me to discuss their flaws because we ALL have flaws and the only way to do a human life justice, I think, is with absolute honesty. I wanted people to know about them, to understand the weight of their humanity. I don’t think of the book as a “tribute” to them. I think of it more as an artifact that will live on. And the book is as much about me as it is about them. It took a very long to time for me to admit that in order to tell their stories, I had to tell it through my experience. I’ve never been able to let them go. I don’t want to. They made me a writer. So the whole thing is their fault, really.

MT: What advice do you give to people who feel they have a story to tell? Their own story, or a story that relates to them? How do you begin approaching the topic of writing about your own life?

LC: Publishing a memoir is … weird. But great! But also you are exposing yourself in a very unusual way. In a memoir you actually revealing only a very small slice of yourself. There is a difference between memoir and autobiography. Nobody would ever want to read my autobiography because I’m wholly unremarkable. But I’ve had a “remarkable” experience that I wanted to tell to get at the heart of a larger truth.  It’s tough sometimes to try to explain this or to just accept the idea that people believe they know everything about you. So one thing I tell people is that they must own their narratives and not let anyone tell them their stories are small. I also encourage everyone who has a story to tell interrogate what that story means. A memoir is not an anecdote.

I also feel very strongly nobody has ownership of a certain story or narrative. If there is something that has resonated with you very strongly, that you keep coming back to, that has shaped you in any way no matter how peripherally you may have been a participant, tell that story. If it matters to you, if you feel compelled to turn into art, to try to explain the hold it has over you, then do that.

MT: How has this history of violence defined you past the boundaries of the book? In what ways are you limited—or, possibly, more open—to new possibilities in life, in love, in art?

LC: I think I have seen the worst in people and I have seen the best in people.

MT: What’s your favorite memory of your father? If you had to choose just one? And do you believe the best memories are crystal clear and perfect, or tainted—imperfect, scarred, but memorable for these reasons?

LC: One of my first memories of my father is from when my mother was still alive and we were all living together so I have to be no older than 3. He had shaved his mustache (the only time I can remember it ever happening!) and when he tried to pick me up I wailed in terror. I remember him trying to comfort me and telling me he’d grow the mustache back.

I believe that I have a very good memory, particularly of my childhood and teenage years. (I think they call this the nostalgia bump). However memory is very slippery things. There are certain moments I recall with absolute clarity, like going to the Vietnam Memorial with my father when I was seventeen. I have a much more difficult time remembering the year immediately after his death.

MT: How did you decide when to begin and where to end your memoir?

LC: I knew the story would begin with the details of my parents’ deaths. I didn’t want to use those as any narrative mechanism for suspense. Figuring out the ending was far more difficult. I relied a lot on the advice of my wonderful editor, Libby Burton who helped me so much with the craft and shape of the book. I’m not sure I could have ever actually ended it without Libby’s guidance.

MT: Another experience we share is a troubled high school career, followed by an interesting path to success—and yes, I think you are an amazing success. What thoughts, images, ideas, etc drove you through these years to get where you are now?

LC: I was such a child of the nineties. I think I was really lucky to be a teenager then. I idolized Kathleen Hanna and Courtney Love – these smart, aggressive women who stood out, who were smart and who were difficult. Most of my pop culture icons were strong women and that certainly helped give me the sense that I could achieve something outside of the typical paths of “success”.

I was a monstrous teenager! I’m not sure how anyone put up with me but in retrospect, even as I was failing every class, I had teachers and mentors who encouraged my writing, who gave me books, and who supported me. In the book I write about an experience I had in community college (by the way, I am a proud alum of the Community College of Rhode Island – it saved my life in many ways. The Community College system is something we really need to support – I take every opportunity to make this point) where a teacher recognized my father from an essay I’d written. I wrote about how shocking that was – that this professional man had recognized in my writing something we shared. It was a moment that drove me forward in terms of seeking an education, and doing whatever I could to keep writing.

MT: What’s next for you? Please tell me there’s a novel or memoir in the works.  The world would be a waste without your genius.  

LC: *whispers* I’m working on a novel. Don’t tell. It might take me another ten years.

MT: Thank you, Leah, for sharing your thoughts and insight into these questions.  I look forward to your future work, and just know you’re welcome any time at MysteryPeople.  

You can find copies of Leah Carroll’s Down City on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

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MysteryPeople Review: DOWN CITY by Leah Carroll

Leah Carroll’s Down City is a lyrical and haunting memoir of her mother’s murder by the mafia and her father’s slow death from drinking. Her writing stands alongside James Ellroy’s My Dark Places and Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart in the true crime/memoir canon, and Carroll’s life is a fitting subject for the bare-bones poetry contained within this slim volume. Below, you’ll find a review of Carroll’s memoir from our contributor Matthew Turbeville; he also interviewed Leah, and we’ll be posting the Q&A later on this week. While we mainly focus on fiction here at MysteryPeople, Carroll’s true crime memoir is about as noir (by which we mean bleak and beautiful) as you can get. 

  • Review by author and blogger Matthew Turbeville

9781455563319When overloaded with fiction, devouring fabricated story after story, sometimes we forget that these all-too-real crimes are based on actual truths.  Leah Carroll’s astonishing debut memoir is here to remind us that crime is real, and its effects are powerful and devastating.  In Down City, Carroll writes about her life up to date, beginning with her mother’s murder and concluding with her father’s suicide and her own (relatively) happy ending.

How does one cope with the brutal murder of one’s mother? Further, how does one begin to comprehend one’s father taking his own life? These don’t seem to be the questions that Carroll is asking, but these are questions we are wondering.  Carroll is interested in something much deeper and profound than simply understanding how tragedy affects one’s life.  Her family’s tragedy is not for our viewing pleasure.  She is here, in Down City, to work through her own problems and we are simply along for the ride.

Written in brilliant and simple yet elegant and eloquent prose, Carroll chronicles her life from her time as a child to life as an adult at the closing of the novel.  She explores mental illness, loneliness, loss, and the anxieties of not knowing what is certain in this world with such ease she might have stolen a page or two from Joyce Carol Oates or Joan Didion’s memoirs.  Indeed, Down City is in the same league, a tour de force, a book to be reckoned with on many levels.

Perhaps the most interesting and fulfilling part of the memoir is the way in which Carroll populates her life with characters who are fully fleshed out, including a father who may have problems of his own but still loves Leah. The love is so real, so strong, it’s almost tangible. Her happy ending in the novel’s concluding pages pales in comparison with the bond shared between father and daughter, no matter how destructive and chaotic it may sometimes appear.

Hailed by critics from the New York Times and also Megan Abbott herself, this is not a book you want to skip over, for both true crime and memoir lovers alike.  Deserving of all the praise it has received, Down City is hands down one of the greatest books of the year, a profound examination of grief and love, love that goes on and on and on.

For those who loved (yes, loved) Down City, see memoirs of loss by Joyce Carol Oates (A Widow’s Story) and Joan Didion (Blue Nights, Year of Magical Thinking).  For true crime lovers, perhaps Norman Mailer’s classic The Executioner’s Song, or even in fiction, the story of loss and possible redemption, Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend.

You can find copies of Down City on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

Tense and Tightly Coiled: MysteryPeople Q&A with Attica Locke

Attica Locke’s latest crime novel, Bluebird, Bluebirdis a timely narrative of justice, murder and taking a stand. African-American Texas Ranger Darren Matthews, suspended after helping a friend hold off white supremacists, is thinking of leaving the Rangers and joining his uncle to practice civil rights law. His marriage is on the rocks, his superiors won’t let him bring race into the equation when tracking the criminal activities of the Aryan Brotherhood, and he’s getting sick and tired of East Texas.

When Darren drives through a small Texas town and stops at a small cafe that functions as a safe haven for African-American travelers, he learns of two suspicious murders committed within a week of each other. Neither is the subject of a proper investigation, and Darren knows that without his intervention, consequences for the town’s black community loom large. As Darren looks into the murder of a prosperous black lawyer from Chicago and a local hard-living white waitress, he faces opposition from the small-town sheriff, the Aryan Brotherhood, and a cheerfully corrupt good ol’ boy. 

Bluebird, Bluebird is our Pick of the Month for September. Attica Locke was kind enough to answer some questions about the book, its context, and her crime-writing career. 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Molly Odintz: Bluebird, Bluebird is your fourth crime novel, and you’ve spent time writing for a TV show that, while not a crime series, has some crime elements and is certainly all about power. You’ve written a straight-up mystery, a political thriller, a legal thriller, and a rural thriller – what draws you to the genre, and what subgenre do you want to tackle next?

Attica Locke: I’ve always been drawn to mystery stories, probably since I read The Westing Game as a kid. I’m drawn to intrigue and and am curious about people who lie. I’m drawn to the (heavily paraphrased here) Flannery O’Connor quote about violence: when we’re confronted with it; it reduces us to our most essential selves.

MO: Darren Matthews, as a black Texas Ranger, is torn between his community and his profession. The Texas Rangers are dedicated to fighting the Aryan Brotherhood as a drug-smuggling operation, yet refuse to address hate crimes as a reason to target the white supremacist gang. Darren is placed on administrative leave after helping an old friend protect his granddaughter from a racist attack, in a state that fully embraces the right to shoot trespassers. What did you want to explore about the constraints and ambiguities faced by minorities in law enforcement?

AL: I definitely wanted to reclaim the idea of “Stand Your Ground” from the awfulness of the Trayvon Martin or the Jordan Davis murders. There is another aspect of stand your ground which is about black (Texans, in this case) saying this is my state too (my country too), and I’m going to stand up for right to live peacefully and safely in it. I also wanted to portray a black man with a badge who wants to protect black life in Texas.

MO: Your Jay Porter novels contrast sharply with The Cutting Season, set on a plantation in Louisiana, and Bluebird, Bluebird, set in rural East Texas. What draws you to writing about the complex machinery of the city, and what inspires you about the frozen-in-time backwoods?

AL: I’m from Houston, so truth is, I’m a city girl at heart. But all of my people are from rural towns along Highway 59 in East Texas, so the rural is in my blood too. It’s fun to write both.

MO: I am so happy you returned to writing crime fiction, but I’ve also enjoyed the show Empire and your work on it. How does writing television compare to writing a novel?

AL: They could not be more different. One is done by committee, essentially – and by that, I don’t just mean the other writers on the show, but also the actors and set designer and director of photography and the editor. Through every stage of the process, the storytelling is being tweaked – either by a performance or a lighting choice, etc. It’s fun to be a part of it. It feels like playing. And I do like the social aspects of it. But it’s also lovely to be alone in your own story and following your own story compass. I’m one of those gregarious introverts. I like people. But I also really like being alone.

MO: To piggyback off that last question, Bluebird, Bluebird felt more cinematic than the previous volumes I’ve read from you, especially the shootout at the cafe. How did you bring that cinematic urgency to your latest, while exploring power politics as much as in previous volumes?

AL: I used to be a screenwriter before I was a novelist, so I’ve kind of always had the ability to write visually. It may be that a few years on Empire reminded me of the pleasures of writing visually. Or it’s just that I set out to want this book to feel tense and tightly coiled. So I tried to find urgency in lots of places.

MO: Although I found all the characters compelling, the tough cafe owner was my favorite. That cafe felt so real. What was your inspiration for the diner and its complex owner?

AL: There was a cafe called Geneva’s in Lufkin, Texas, when my mother was growing up in the 50s. Also, my great-grandmother had a cafe in Corrigan, Texas. These were both places that mainly catered to black folks during the Jim Crow years. And I guess the idea of women running their own businesses, just kind of stuck with me. Geneva’s strength, particularly the way she never gives in to a bully like Wally, comes from my grandmother.

MO: Darren’s uncles and their vastly different advice fascinated me – one uncle, a former Ranger, represents the voice of working within the system, and the ultimate image of Texas tough, while his other uncle, a career lawyer, constantly urges Darren to fight the good fight from outside the governmental system. Can you tell us a bit more about the paths Darren’s uncles represent, and Darren’s choice to drop out of law school to become a Texas Ranger?

AL: Well, they’re identical twins, so they quite literally represent a fracture in the black psyche. Do we follow the rules (i.e. put your hands in the air when the cops says to)? Or do we not bother because we’re going to get shot anyway? That’s a macabre example, but it suggests the ways in which black folks are never quite sure if it’s safe for us to follow the rules. And the two uncles represent that philosophical question. I know there are a lot of officers of color who consider protecting all life as a part of their duty. Just as I know a lot of black folks who say they will never trust a cop.

MO: Darren’s separation from his wife, and his grief over their potentially permanent parting, mirrors the grief felt by the murdered Chicago lawyer’s wife. Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration for their relationships with their spouses, and their bond with each other?

AL: No inspiration per se, just as I was writing I could see the parallels between Darren being a Ranger (literally a man on the range) and having a wife who wants him to stay put, and Randie whose marriage was the opposite. It truly just came out in the writing.

MO: You’ve so far written exclusively male protagonists for your crime novels – what draws you to the male voice?

AL: Don’t forget my sweet Caren in The Cutting Season. But, yes, it’s true, I’ve mostly written male protagonists. Jay is a sketch of my dad and even still, he’s a part of my psyche; and of course Pleasantville continues with him. With Bluebird, Bluebird, I made a choice to choose race over gender to tell this story. There are so few female Rangers that the story would have taken on a different tone, held different responsibilities. Maybe I’ve got a lot of work to do on intersectionality, but I consider myself black first and a woman second. No right or wrong to it, it’s just my truth. It was easier for me to say what I wanted about race and law enforcement without layering on the gender politics of being one of only like four female Rangers. And black. But that also sounds like a hell of a book. So maybe that’s coming.

MO: I loved your latest, but I would also love to see another Jay Porter novel; maybe even Jay Porter in LA, given your time spent there (although I read in your interview with Rachel Howzell Hall that you are wary of writing a story set in LA) Will Jay Porter ever return?

AL: I hope so. But I’m waiting for a story that demands Jay be in it. I’m waiting for him to tap me on the shoulder.

MO: The Rangers are an ambivalent force in the novel – instead of the straightforward racism expressed by Lark’s small town sheriff, the Texas Rangers refuse to acknowledge race at all, thus perpetuating racism in ways more subtle but just as persistent as any generation before. Darren must manipulate his superiors down to the local sheriff to get any law enforcement to do what he wants – did you set out to explore supposedly “colorblind” law enforcement and its limitations, or did that simply follow naturally from your initial plot idea?

AL: Anything “colorblind” is a problem. One, it’s impossible. And two, it’s offensive. People shouldn’t have to lop off parts of their identity to be accepted, or to do their jobs. But I should be clear that though I based my portrayal of the Rangers on research and talking to at least one Ranger, this is my interpretation of what it means to be a Ranger. Their desire to take down the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas on drug charges (not race) is a tactic. But I think in any law enforcement unit or in the military there is an emphasis on unity and sameness. Part of me understand the need for that. But a larger part of me feels for the black or Latino man or woman trying to navigate the culture when they clearly aren’t the same as everyone else.

You can find copies of Bluebird, Bluebird on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Review: THE DARKEST SECRET by Alex Marwood

  •  Review by Author and Blogger Matthew Turbeville

9780143110514Years ago, I came across a quote from Laura Lippman’s interview in her By the Book.  She was talking about Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, a book which she said dealt spectacularly with the death of an infant.  This topic, while not necessarily rare, is rarely done well, and this comes back to me when I think of Alex Marwood’s undeniably spectacular novel The Darkest Secret.

Perhaps a year late in acknowledging this novel’s genius, but understanding that it stands side by side with Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me, Alison Gaylin’s What Remains of Me, Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake, and Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger (all published last year), this is a phenomenal book that deserves—no, better yet, commands your attention.  It is all encompassing, enveloping, consuming, and somehow redemptive despite Ms. Marwood’s dark writing style.

The Darkest Secret deals with multiple viewpoints of the death of a young child named Coco, a twin who goes missing years before the novel begins.  Her half-sister, Mila (short for Camilla), is coping with the death of her and Coco’s father.  When the funeral procession begins, so do the secrets begin to unravel, and in such astonishing and suspenseful fashion that Ms. Marwood will have you glued to the edge of your seat until the very last page.

“Why, oh why, did Coco go missing?”

As a fan of Ms. Marwood’s previous work, I have to admit that she has outdone herself with The Darkest Secret.  Harkening back to terminology Laura Lippman used to describe her books After I’m Gone and Wilde Lake, this is a “quieter” book by Ms. Marwood.  There are less serial killers and cliffhangers grabbing you by the neck and holding on tightly, more subtle character development and quiet unraveling of secrets—both involving murder and the human heart.

Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of Alex Marwood’s third novel is her ability to occupy the minds and beings of several different characters.  After all, there are fourteen adults in attendance when Coco goes missing, and innumerable people at the funeral for Coco and Mila’s father.  Mila’s reckoning with the truth of the disappearance will keep you reading—and well up into the night wondering about your own life and choices.  

The thrill in The Darkest Seccret does not come with discovering what happened to Coco, but rather why it happened, and the reasoning people kept this secret for years.  What’s most remarkable to me is that on my second read, I found myself even more entranced with Alex Marwood’s writing style and characters.  It is without a doubt that Marwood becomes more and more talented with each book she writes, her biting humor and melancholy characters conspiring to create the absolutely perfect concoction of crime and mystery that brings many readers to why they love crime novels in the first place—not what happened, but why it happened.  

Why, oh, why, did Coco go missing?

If you loved The Darkest Secret, you might want to check out The Cry by Helen Fitzgerald and Every Secret Thing by Laura Lippman.

You can find copies of The Darkest Secret on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Q&A with Jane Robins

– Interview and Introduction by MysteryPeople Contributor Scott Butki

With White Bodies, Jane Robins has written an intricate story about two sisters and one sister’s boyfriend, full of suspense and plot twists. Fans of Girl On a Train and Gillian Flynn’s novels will definitely want to check out this book. Intense and dark at points, White Bodies makes the reader wonder if they are getting the full story from a credible perspective. To say more would be to spoil and that I won’t do.

When I received an advanced copy I was intrigued and arranged for an interview before even reading the book, a risky request. I enjoyed the book even more than I expected – White Bodies  is quite the tour de force. Part of my initial interest stems from Robins’ diverse writing background. Robins began her career as a journalist with the Economist, the BBC and The Independent. She has written three non-fiction books but this is her first published novel.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with the idea for White Bodies?

Jane Robins: I have written two historical true crime books, and I found that the part of the work I liked best was digging deep to get under the skin of both the victims and the perpetrators in murder cases. I wanted a new challenge and, based on my past work, decided to write a murder story that was driven by in-depth character portrayals. Then, one day I was watching the classic movie Strangers on a Train with my teenage son, and I thought – ooo!… I could do something with the idea of swapping murders… give it some new twists and turns, and make it my own. That’s how it began.

SB: Which came first, the plot or the characters?

JR: Once I had the idea for the concept of the novel, I started to think about characters. I knew that I wanted to write something with two main female characters – one of whom is becoming increasingly obsessed with the other. I started with the concept that the narrator is more introverted and less sure of herself than the object of her obsession – and that’s how I started constructing the character of Callie. Then I worked on the plot and the characters pretty much simultaneously.

SB: Marketing compared your book to The Girl on the Train and Gillian Flynn books. Do you view your book as being in that vein?

JR: I certainly wanted to write a psychological thriller – meaning that the reader has to become immersed in the psychology of the main characters – and to be in a sort of game with the writer, trying to work out which characters can be trusted, who’s up to what, and what’s going to happen next. From the writer’s point of view – I think it’s my job to drop clues for the reader – but also to ensure that the twists are not predictable. I have to win the game, for the reader’s sake, otherwise the novel will have failed! In that sense, I do see myself in the same world as these books. I’m a massive fan of Gillian Flynn’s work, in particular. Her writing is inspirational.

SB: One of your themes is obsession. What are you trying to tell readers about the topic?

JR: I guess I’m fascinated by the way that we are all capable of misunderstanding each other and misinterpreting events – especially when we fear that somebody will hurt us in some way. It happens all the time – people checking out their lovers for signs of rejection, employees worrying that their boss doesn’t appreciate them… And obsession is a sort of madness, making you hyper-sensitive to signals of all sorts, and prone to drawing to extreme conclusions, then doubting your own judgement. Most of us have probably experienced this at some time – and it felt authentic to me to have the theme of obsession running through the novel. Also, that heightened state in Callie helps towards creating a suitably creepy atmosphere.

SB: Why did you make the switch to fiction?

JR: I’ve come to realise that I become extremely restless if I’ve been doing the same job for a few years with no new challenges – and I just love to learn new skills! As a journalist I changed my job several times – I was a news reporter, then a foreign correspondent, then a media policy adviser, then a radio programme editor, briefly a tv reporter, then a political correspondent, then a media editor. I often took a massive cut in salary to try out a new thing – and never stuck around long enough to move up the greasy pole or have a pension! As an author, it’s the same. After three history books, I was up for learning something new.

SB: How has your past work as a journalist helped or hindered you when writing White Bodies?

JR: On the helping side – being a journalist for decades has made writing second nature to me. There’s a great moment in one of my favourite movies, Broadcast News where a reporter is phoning-in commentary for an anchor man (magnificently played by William Hurt) to read out on air. The reporter, watching Hurt on tv, says to himself I say it here. It comes out there. (or something very similar).

Writing’s like that for me.  I think it – It appears on the screen. My fingers just naturally type my thoughts. So that’s good – especially for just getting a first draft written.

Also, I’m pretty good at setting my own deadlines – because I need deadlines. And I’m addicted to editing. I edit the whole time – as I go along. Also, I believe in structure, structure, structure. I think that’s thanks to journalism.

On the hindering side – I’ve had to unlearn journalistic style. I used to regard most adjectives and practically all adverbs as the devil. Now, I’m chilled out about them. And, as a journalist, you tell your story up front – as clearly as you can. As an author – all you want up front is a good hook, some great characters, a clear sense of atmosphere, and a couple of reasons to entice the reader to turn the page. It’s very different.

SB: What do you want readers to take away from this story?

JR: I hope they get that lovely sense of satisfaction that you have when a novel has really drawn you in, and kept you engaged. And I hope my readers love my characters as much as I do. Tilda, Callie, Felix and Liam have stayed in my head long after I’ve finished writing; they’ve become kind of real to me.

SB: Are you a fan of Hitchcock? I noticed Strangers On A Train was mentioned early in the novel.

JR: I love the intense atmosphere of Hitchcock movies – he really was the Master of Suspense. When I’m writing, I think in scenes rather than chapters; I see the scene in my head and try to transfer it to the page. With White Bodies, I wanted it to be the sort of novel that Hitchcock would have turned into a film!

SB: What did I (and other interviewers) not ask that you wish folks asked? Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.

JR: I’m often asked about where and how I write but am very rarely asked about where I do my thinking. For me, thinking is equally important as writing and I do it best where I am very peaceful. For example, walking in the park or swimming in a London lake, or being by the sea in Cornwall, in Southwest England.

You can find copies of White Bodies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

 

Shotgun Blast from the Past: CLEAN BREAK by Lionel White

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9781944520199Lionel White is one of those classic hard-boiled authors more people should know about. He was the master of the caper. Well-planned heists, robberies, and kidnappings and the place of fate (or more often human emotion) that unravels the best-laid plans were his specialty. His novel Clean Break is a prime example.

Clean Break concerns the planning, execution, and aftermath of a race track robbery of close to two million dollars. Almost every perpetrator is a “normal citizen” acting as an inside man. Aside from the fresh-from-prison master mind, Johnny Clay, they only know their particular part of the job. One of the men’s wives is seeing a hood on the side, and the two of them hatch a plan to rob the robbers.

The heist is the major character. The planning and execution is shown down to the detail. White uses an innovative technique in rewinding time to follow each participant in their part of the job. Critics often give credit for clarity to Stanley Kubrick in his film adaptation, The Killing, yet White’s clean and lean style allows him to tell a complex tale without the reader without ever being lost. The execution is so sharp, the inevitable unraveling hits you in the gut.

That’s not to say the characters aren’t indelible – Johnny Clay is a stick-up man with ambition. This is his first big-time score, a factor that creates suspense by keeping us in the shadows as to if he can pull it off. Other than his attachment to contacts in the underworld and his honor-among-thieves morality, he makes Stark’s Parker look like Mr. Personality and probably sizes everyone he meets as a partner or a victim. Even the “normal citizens,” including a cop with mafia connections and a degenerate gambler-turned-track-bartender, are morally compromised. Clay says they all have a little larceny in them. Not only did White not bother to make his criminals sympathetic, he offered very little to understand them. He knows you don’t read heist novels for heroes.

i was happy to discover that publisher Stark House has recently brought Clean Break back into print. Clean Break is available in an omnibus edition with White’s novel The Snatcher that also includes a great introduction by crime fiction writer and historian Rick Ollerman. The Snatcher is a kidnapping story with such a detailed crime, a French desperado was able to use the plot to execute a successful kidnapping of his own. Both show White’s expertise in criminal operations. It makes you wonder if Lionel White did something on the side to supplement his writing income.

You can find copies of Clean Break/The Snatcher on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Glen Erik Hamilton

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Every Day Above GroundGlen Erik Hamilton’s latest novel to feature Afghan vet and “retired” heistman Van Shaw, has Shaw pulled back into one last score, but soon learns the gold bars he was to steal were bait for a trap. With military trained killers after him, Van must find out who set this up and if he’s the intended victim. Mr. Hamilton was kind enough to take a few questions about the book.

MysteryPeople Scott: This was the first time we’ve seen Van fully commit to a heist. What made you decide to have him commit to his old life with less life-or-death circumstances in the balance?

Glen Erik Hamilton: Although Van and his partner are technically committing burglary (along with a scattering of other light felonies), Van has convinced himself that it’s not harmful. The building is abandoned, and the safe they are cracking is thought to be long forgotten, its owner having died in prison. Van’s friend Hollis uses the analogy of a penny on the sidewalk – does it really belong to anyone? Combine that morally gray area with the fact that Van will lose his home unless he finds a way to pay the taxes and other money owed, and for him, it’s a one-time bending of his rules. How many of us wouldn’t make the same choice?

MPS: This book has shoot outs, car chases, and an underground fight match. Did you set out to make a more visceral, action-oriented book?

GEH: Not initially, but I’m glad it got there! Most of that action comes from Van being caught between two equally ruthless factions. Neither group – whether high-end enforcers or street-level thugs – is likely to balk at violence. Having set up that situation for Van, I enjoyed having him scramble and scrap just to keep from getting crushed. The best defense is a good offense.

MPS: In your latest, you introduce the character of Cyndra, a young daughter of Van’s partner. What did you want to do with a character who is a mirror of Van’s youth?

GEH: Van certainly sees echoes of his own past in Cyndra. They have both been in the foster system, and both have had parental figures in prison. Cyndra, if anything, has had it harder than Van did. Despite that, she’s a different generation, and her experience isn’t his. She’s not being raised as a criminal, as he was. So he cautions himself not to over-identify with this kid who shows up, or assume that she can deal with tougher situations than a thirteen-year-old should have to handle. That said, she’s a tough kid, and he admires her guts.

MPS: A subplot of Van’s childhood has been woven through all the books. What do you believe that adds to the books?

GEH: Besides the fun of writing them – I really enjoy creating short vignettes showing Van as a kid – I think those interstitial chapters give both me and the reader a deeper understanding of Van’s motivations. He’s not the most introspective adult, especially in his communication with those close to him. Seeing him as a vulnerable and brash boy of twelve helps us understand him. I include myself in that, because a lot of writing happens subconsciously. Those scenes in the past help me decipher the theme I may have been unaware of when writing the larger story in its first draft.

MPS: As a writer, what makes Van Shaw a character worth coming back to?

GEH: He’s a curious cat. On the surface, he’s a tough, highly experienced former soldier capable of handling any crisis. But his upbringing gives him a very flexible view of right and wrong, and a suspicious eye toward the law’s ability to protect and serve. Add the fact that subconsciously (there’s that word again) Van never expected to live as long as he has. Emotionally speaking, he’s behind the curve. He’s got a lot of growth ahead of him. From what readers have told me, they love all the action and the thrills and the mystery, but it’s the character relationships that keep them coming back. They want to know what’s next for Van and the people in his life. So do I.

You can find copies of Glen Erik Hamilton’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.