Guest Post: James Ziskin on historical novels and names

Thanks to James Ziskin for putting together this post about his crime novels, set in the early 1960s, and how that time period impacts what he does. He’ll be here Monday, February 5th, at 7pm with Terry Shames and Laura Oles to discuss his book, Cast the First Stone

I write the Ellie Stone mysteries, a series of traditional-cum-noir crime novels set in the early 1960s. Ellie is a mid-twenties reporter for an upstate New York daily. A self-described “modern girl,” she works twice as hard as any man at the paper, gets half the credit, and all the wolfish leers.

My books are sometimes categorized as historical. The time period is near past, which presents both advantages and challenges when it comes to creating a believable fictional world. The sixties were not so long ago, and the world isn’t all that different, at least not when compared to a hundred or two hundred years earlier. But the things that have changed have done so in sometimes drastic, sometimes subtle ways. Before considering names, let’s look at a few of the obvious differences.

Cars. On the left is Ellie’s 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer and, on the right, its descendant, the 2018 Dodge Lancer.

Ziskin cars

Well, they both have four tires, and they’re both red. Of course, two-toned paint jobs and chrome were all the rage in the fifties. But under the hood and inside the brains of the cars, they might as well be a biplane and a jumbo jet for all they have in common. By the way, Ellie’s car—same colors even—was featured in a Dodge commercial just a couple of years ago. Have a look. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1JeNv0FoPXo

Telephones. The old black rotary phones have gone the way of the dinosaur. Today’s phones are powerful computers, great for doing research or enjoying entertainment.

Ziskin telephone

Fashion. Ellie might have dressed something like this. Today, these ladies look like a mashup of air hostesses, Don Draper’s secretaries, and the Stepford PTA.

Ziskin women (1)

And what would Ellie have been listening to on the AM radio in her car? Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry” topped the charts for three weeks in the summer of 1960. Tastes change. If you don’t think so, listen to this song.

Ziskin song

Sports. Heisman trophy winners Joe Bellino, 1960, and Baker Mayfield, 2017.

Ziskin sports

And then there’s this…

Ziskin hair

But wait a minute. Wasn’t this supposed to be about names?

I was just getting to that.

Take girls’ and boys’ names. There weren’t many Justins, Aidans, or Graysons running around in Ellie Stone’s 1960. You were more likely to find Davids, Michaels, and Jameses. Hmm. What do you know? James. And I was born in 1960… For girls, names were pretty tame back then. Mary, Susan, and Linda were the top three in America. And when Ellie was born in 1937, the most popular were Mary, Barbara, and Patricia. Not one of those three names cracks the top hundred in 2017. And that’s on a list that includes “Luna” at number forty-eight! Last year, neoclassical and old-time names Sophia, Olivia, and Emma topped the list. And, surprise of surprises, neither Sophia nor Olivia made the top hundred in 1937. Emma barely squeezed in under the wire at number eighty-nine.

For Cast the First Stone, I dropped Ellie into 1962 Hollywood. She’s sent to California by her editor to interview a local boy who’s landed the second male lead in a beach picture. First, to avoid lawsuits and hate mail, I decided to avoid using real Hollywood stars in my book—at least none who appear as characters. Of course people mention the odd actor or actress in the course of the story, but no actual celebrities appear in the book. Well, one does, but just for one line, and I’m not telling who it is. (Here’s a useful, hint, though. Dead people cant sue for defamation.) Second, to achieve maximum believability, I wanted to avoid inventing fictional megastars. It’s difficult—but not impossible—to win the reader’s buy-in. Cal Granite, Bart Steele, or Dirk Bogarde just aren’t believable as names. Well, okay, Dirk Bogarde was a real actor, but I almost had you, didn’t I?

So how to create believable names for the period? I lowered my sights. Instead of A-listers, I populated Cast the First Stone with end-of the-dugout directors, no-name producers, and C-list actors. The same is true for the title of the fictional film at stake in the book, Twistin’ on the Beach. It’s 1962, people were doing the twist again (like we did last summer), and teenage beach pictures were just entering their golden age. If there weren’t at least two or three films with that name that year, there should have been.

Now I needed actors for my film. No big names, remember. So I came up with boy-next-door types appropriate for the era. And white-bread white last names. Tony Eberle, Bobby Renfro, Bo Hanson. The female lead in the movie is Carol Haven, though she never makes an appearance in the book.

There’s also the question of using real places whenever possible, and fictional ones where convenient. From the outset of this series, I chose to fictionalize the town where Ellie lives and works. New Holland, New York, cannot be found on any map except the one in my upcoming A Stone’s Throw (June 5, 2018). Making up a small city is no big deal, and it frees me from researching every last detail about a real place. But once Ellie lands in Los Angeles in Cast the First Stone, real locations are necessary to create the impression of that great city. I chose to use the actual Paramount Studios as the site where Twistin’ on the Beach was being filmed. The instant name recognition helps create realism. Everyone’s heard of Paramount, so I didn’t have to labor unnecessarily to convince readers. The Godfather took a different route, probably to avoid potential lawsuits, using a fictionalized studio—Woltz International Pictures—for the famous horse-head-in-the-bed sequence. (Oh, come on. It’s not a spoiler after forty-five years.) As great as that film is, the name of the studio strikes me as less than compelling. We know it’s not real, and no magic is conjured by seeing its name or its unimpressive gate.

I used the same tactic in my upcoming A Stone’s Throw (June 5, 2018). Where possible, I used real names—e.g. Saratoga Race Course—but brought the characters down to a manageable level of fame. Thoroughbreds, jockeys, owners, and gamblers are all fictional, except for a few real horses, mentioned here and there, and Willie Shoemaker making a cameo appearance. Those recognizable names make the time period feel more authentic to the reader. The fictional characters do their job, too, entertaining us with their exploits, while never breaking the spell with their unfamiliar “household names.”

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Guest Post: V.P. Chandler reviews Lone Star Lawless

From the piney woods of East Texas to the dry landscape of West Texas, the Austin Mystery Writers and friends anthology Lone Star Lawless: 14 Texas Tales of Crime has it covered. The anthology takes us across the state with various law breaking. You can meet many of the contributors February 4th at 5pm when they come to BookPeople for a reading! 

The Lone Star Lawless project was headed by the exuberant Austin Mystery Writers member Gale Albright. Albright describes the anthology perfectly in her introduction, writing, “The stories in this volume cover motel hell, medical menace, mortuary mayhem, sharp knives, kidnapping, theft, murder, assault by food, dangerous exercise, fickle fingers, and bad attitudes.” Not to mention a retelling of the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, full of crime and a Texas twist. Now who could pass up that?

“One More Time” by V.P. Chandler, is set at the end of the Wild West era. A girl is kidnapped from a small West Texas town and the town wants the aging Texas Ranger, Ephram Babcock, to retrieve the girl before she’s taken across the border to Mexico. Babcock reluctantly agrees. As he pursues the duo across the plains, he’s haunted by a decision he made in his youth. The memory and regret become stronger as he gets closer to his quarry. It’s a race to the border, a race to save the girl, but can he run from his past?

“Wild Horses” by Alexandra Burt is the story of Brad, who is running from trouble and his temper. Once a man has served time, he has only so many options available. He takes a job at a convenience store when things take a dark turn. Will Brad stay mum or will he find a way to break free?

“The Life of the Party” by Mark Pryor is a story filled with tongue-in–cheek mortician’s humor. The reader sees the world through the eyes of mortician Andrew Banks as he prepares for a party. As the story proceeds, the tension builds in the same vein as Edgar Allan Poe or Alfred Hitchcock stories. The reader will be compelled to see the story to the end!

“Archangel Towers” by Gale Albright begins with a woman receiving a frantic phone call from her grandmother who is in the hospital. The grandmother makes crazy, nightmarish allegations about the staff and is adamant that they happened. Is the grandmother getting dementia? What is a granddaughter to do?

“Baggage Claim, Part 1: The Devil’s Luggage” was penned by Janice Hamrick. The memory of a college prank never left Tyler Fenton. Even though he failed at the prank, he always remembered the thrill of it. Itching to try it one more time, he goes to the Austin-Bergstrom airport to steal an unclaimed bag. But it isn’t a small bag that grabs his attention, it’s a large trunk. Unfortunately for him, he’s not the only one who wants that trunk.

“Baggage Claim, Part 2: Carry On Only” by Laura Oles also involves stealing a bag from the Austin-Bergstrom airport. But this story quite different from Part 1. Stealing bags from the airport is only one of the many things that Max does to supplement his income, and he’s quite adept at it. But when he gets the bag home, he and his friend Belk make a discovery. Then comes the anonymous phone call, “I saw what you did.”

“The Texas Star Motel” by Terry Shames follows the tale of an abused wife, Mona, as she’s made her recent escape from her husband. She’s shaken and has his gun, but needs to stay out of sight to complete her escape. Then she hears through the hotel’s old and thin walls a woman being beaten in the room next door. Should she intervene or lay low?

“Point Blank, Texas” by Larry Sweazy is another tale about an old Texas Ranger. This story is set in 1934. Ex-Ranger Sonny Burton has lost his arm in a shootout with Bonny and Clyde and he’s ready to retire after decades of service. Then Jonesy, the local sheriff shows up and tells Burton that his long-time nemesis, Billy Bunson, has not only escaped from prison, he has kidnapped the warden’s pregnant wife. They turn to Sonny for help since he knows Bunson better than anyone else. As Sonny investigates, he gets the nagging feeling that not everyone is telling the truth.

“The Widow Black” by Kaye George is set in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Marjorie lost her first husband due to an accident. Then the handsome and smooth Victor moves to town and starts schmoozing Marjorie and she feels young and sexy again. As things heat up, not everything seems to be as perfect as she thought they’d be.

“The Sandbox” by George Wier takes place around College Station. Jimmy Cook is a young real estate agent who works for the slimy Ray Milberger. One day Jimmy sees first hand how Ray has cheated his way to success. Jimmy takes a stand and Ray says Jimmy is ready for a new business venture. “You have a bright (future), kid, if you stick with me. You have to know where your bread is buttered…” As the story progresses the tension builds. Is Ray really going to include Jimmy in a business deal or does he have something else in mind as they head to a secluded area of the woods?

“Texas Toast: The Case of the Errant Loafer” by Manning Wolfe features Dr. and Mrs. Edward Littman, who are avid cyclists. As they cycle with their pack through downtown Austin, Dr. Littman is hit by a bakery van. The driver of the van, Zach Glover, swears he didn’t veer out of his lane. Kim Wan Thibodeaux, also known as the Asian Cajun, is the defense attorney for the Glover. Who is telling the truth? This story is a courtroom drama that would make Perry Mason proud.

“When Cheese Is Love”, by Kathy Waller. Love heats up between the timid librarian, Tabitha Baynes and the suave chef, Gonzalo. Tabitha has been on a stringent diet and worked hard obtain and maintain her svelte figure, but his food is so excellent! And no woman can say no to Gonzalo. At the launch of his new menu, showcasing Tabitha’s favorite foods, Gonzalo declares his love for Tabitha. Finally! What could go wrong?

“The Bird”, by Scott Montgomery is the gritty story of Jimmy Davis and Frog Lee. Frog is always getting in trouble and now is no exception. He slept with the wife of bad guy, Slick Jim (You’ve got to be stupid to sleep with the wife of someone named Slick Jim) and now Frog has a $200,000 bounty on his head. Fortunately Davis knows exactly where to find him. Frog is in Austin because he’s with Davis’ sister, Stacy. Now if only Frog and Stacy would get smart, Davis may be able to save their lives and collect the 200 grand.

“Little Red” by Gale Albright ends the anthology with a bang with Albright’s Texas rendition of Little Red Riding Hood. Complete with crazy East Texas lingo and a voodoo hairdresser named Verna Lee, “Little Red” is a quick and inventive romp that’s sure to make you laugh out loud.

And now for a bit of a personal note. We would be remiss if we didn’t also mention the editor, Ramona DeFelice Long, who has worked her magic on the book. We are grateful for her enthusiasm and her attention to detail. This anthology has a special place in our hearts because Gale Albright passed away before its completion. She infused life, humor, and drive to our group. We aren’t the same without her. So it is dedicated to her and the online proceeds will go toward the Port Aransas library that was heavily damaged in Hurricane Harvey.

Interview with Meg Gardiner

Into The Black Nowhere is the second book in the Meg Gardiner’s Unsub series featuring Caitlin Hendrix. Now a newly minted FBI agent, Caitlin and her team are sent to Texas to face off with a charming serial killer. Meg will be at BookPeople in conversation with Mark Pryor tomorrow, January 30th, at 7pm. She was kind enough to answer some of our questions in advance.

MysteryPeople Scott: How did the title come about?

Meg Gardiner: The novel is a psychological thriller. Its heroine, FBI agent Caitlin Hendrix, journeys into frightening and unexplored territory as she pursues a devious, charismatic killer. I wanted the title to reflect that—to pull readers along as Caitlin tracks the killer and, eventually, as the case forces her to look deep into herself.  

MPS: You’ve loosely based this killer on Ted Bundy. What drew you to him as a template?

MG: Bundy was a singular monster—a killer in All-American guise. Clean cut, an aspiring lawyer, beneath the “mask of sanity,” he was a voracious murderer. His immaculate camouflage made him fascinating. And dangerous.

MPS: This is the first time you’ve used Texas extensively as a backdrop. Did anything about your new home state come into cleared view when writing about it?

MG: The contrast between the vast size of the state and the intimacy of its small towns. The glorious, never-ending sunsets. The true, wondrous bounty of Austin’s tacos.

MPS: You did several stand alone books before Unsub. How does it feel returning to a series character?

MG: I love it. Every time I finish writing a novel, I hate saying goodbye the the characters. When I can come back to one—like Caitlin—it feels like meeting up with a close friend. And it’s exciting to continue exploring Caitlin’s mission and her world. She’s young, driven, dedicated, and still has a lot to learn. I want to take her on that trip.

MPS: Is there a different way of approaching a character like Caitlin who you plan to have in a series of books?

MG: A stand alone novel is often about a hero facing the singular defining event of his or her life. That’s why an every-man caught up by forces beyond his control can make a terrific standalone protagonist. But a series heroine needs a reason to return. She needs a story that will carry her through multiple novels. And skills to do the job. She must have a strong identity that will stay true to its core, while being able to grow—without morphing into a completely different person. Series characters need secrets, and a future, and unfinished business. Because you want readers coming back to find out what happens next.

MPS: You will be doing an event with us on January 30th with Mark Pryor. Would Caitlin find his psychopath Dominic a challenge?

MG: Caitlin would find Dominic a dangerous challenge. He’s smart, cunning, and brilliantly disguised as a straight-shooting prosecutor. He’s ruthless, and he loves to win. Caitlin would have to throw everything at him. It would be close. He’d scare her. But she’s a deadly adversary. She’d scare him, too.

 

All Too Real: The Power of Voice and Sisterhood in Julie Buntin’s Marlena

Marlena by Julie Buntin made my top ten list for 2017 and with good reason.  Marlena, Buntin’s debut novel, is anything but a beginner’s work.  It is filled with wisdom, finely crafted, and utterly heartbreaking in the best of ways.  This is a book I have read countless times, one of those books I turn to for comfort and solace even if sometimes they hold exactly the opposite of this.  Buntin’s novel is a miracle and a masterwork, and the reasons behind this are both incredibly obvious and entirely elusive.

The novel revolves around a woman named Cat, who now lives and works in New York City, but once lived in a podunk town in Michigan where she was forced to struggle to get along with a dysfunctional mother and a less than satisfactory life.  Eventually—well, almost immediately—Cat meets Marlena, and a beautiful but terrifying friendship begins.  It is known from the beginning that Marlena will die.  It is known from the beginning that her death will be tragic, and that it will haunt Cat for the rest of her life.  It is known from the beginning that this is not a happy story, and perhaps these are the reasons I consider it a genuinely real crime novel: the fact that this book is filled with the inevitable darkness that envelops us all, the ways our mistakes come back to haunt us, and of course, you know, there’s crime in the novel.  So, there’s that.

Buntin is a master at writing.  Her prose is lyrical, and there have been several sentences I have read again and again (having read the book maybe six times now easily since its publication last year) where I have said, aloud, to myself or my partner, “I wish I had written that. I wish I could write that. Write like this.” It’s true. I wish I could write as effortlessly, as flawlessly, as Julie Buntin. There is no doubt this novel was years in the making, but it feels as effortless as a quickly jotted down diary entry (that has been meticulously planned, scrutinized and understood again and again to perfection).  The perfection of the prose is not off-putting or unfortunate in any way.  Instead, it feels like a woman trapped in a past that is imperfect, telling her story in the most brilliant way possible.

How many stories have we read about young women and their friendships gone wrong? Megan Abbott has a novel coming out this year (and Abbott has praised Marlena, if that’s not a reason to purchase it alone) about a friendship turned upside down by a crime.  There are, of course, numerous—maybe innumerable—other novels, including other books coming out this year.  But Marlena stands out to me in a way similar, but different, than Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand.  It is a divine examination of a friendship gone wrong, a love lost—not necessarily a romantic love, not necessarily I say again, but something more profound.  An instant in one’s life that has changed this woman forever, and that she can never get back, and never be unchanged by.

Similarly, I cannot be unchanged now that I have read Julie Buntin’s beautiful book.  Cat’s voice is as alive as the voice in my head.  Buntin’s first novel more than delivers: she excels, she succeeds, she is the Superman of debut novelists.  I do not regret a single time I’ve read Marlena again and again.  The most beautiful part of the novel is how genuine and authentic the novel feels, like this is a true story—and who knows, there may be lots of truth to it.  No, I take this back—any book this real, this alive, leaping from the pages, has to be based on some experience Buntin or any other remarkable writer has felt in his or her life: we are lucky to have Buntin to express this truth for us.

Interview with Robert Crais

Robert Crais has been publishing great mystery-thrillers for more 30 years and with his new book, The Wanted, he’s as good as ever. He consistently has mixed well-developed characters in books with good plots with excellent plot twists.

I last interviewed Crais here for MysteryPeople for a book, The Promise, where he mixed his usual protagonist, the always cool private investigator Elvis Cole and his partner Joe Pike with some new characters in a prior book and it gelled nicely.

For The Wanted it’s back to the usual set up of Cole and Pike fighting some bad guys and some good folks who have made, let’s say, bad life choices.

As the book starts a single mother hires Elvis Cole to help with her troubled son who for inexplicable reasons suddenly has lots of cash and she’s worried he’s dealing drugs. A little investigation and Cole realizes that the son and two of his friends are responsible for some high-end burglary. Gradually it becomes clear that a pair of fascinating, disturbing bad guys are on the tail of the burglary threesome. Will Cole be able to find the three and save them before they are harmed by pair? You’ll have to read to find that out.

Crais was nice enough to let me to interview him by email.

Scott Butki: Thanks for the interview. How did you come up with the story for the latest novel featuring my favorite detective duo, Pike and Cole?

Robert Crais: Lots of crime in Los Angeles these days – burglaries and home invasions are on the rise, and many of these crimes are perpetrated by teenagers and young adults.

Elvis Cole is attracted to cases where he believes he can make a real difference, and the idea of helping a single mom find out the truth of what’s going on with her son and save him is right up his alley.

SB:  I always like how you do dialogue and humor in your books. Do you think your early work writing for TV shows including “Hill Street Blues” helped you write dialogue and humor? What are other ways your TV writing help you as a novelist?

RC:  I’m just a funny guy. TV writing helped me block out a scene, visualize the action, write authentic dialogue.  It helped me to shape a story.  It helped me to see how much more I could do as a novelist.

SB:  Having written for TV – including “Miami Vice” and Cagney and Lacey, Quincy, and Baretta – I assume you pay attention to current TV shows.  What are some of your favorites and why?

RC: My taste in TV shows is all over the board. Loved “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” love “Game of Thrones” (duh!), “Stranger Things,” thought “Handmaid’s Tale” was incredible.

SB: The book deals with loyalty, unconditional love and what it means to be a parent. Is there something you hope readers take away from the story?

RC: I hope readers are entertained and connect with the characters.  Most parents have experienced the feeling of unconditional love. In this story a mother is forced to imagine the worst case scenario.  If her son has committed a terrible crime, will she still love him?  How much can a parent forgive?  

SB: Why did you decide to dedicate your book to Otto Penzler? 

RC: Otto has been a friend, fan and supporter of mine since my first book, The Monkey’s Raincoat.  In a way, all my books are dedicated to him.

SB: I enjoyed, if that’s the right word, your terrible pair of dangerous, perverse guys, Harvey and Stemms. How did you come up with those characters?

Villains need to be as fascinating and as formidable as your hero. I wanted to create “bad guys” that had real personalities, who were many-sided, and who were also interesting.  These guys, like Elvis and Joe, have history together, have shared a lot of adventures.

 

Thanks to Robert Crais for answering our questions. His new book, The Wantedis on our shelves now!

Top of Her Game: Alafair Burke’s The Wife

There comes a time in every prolific author’s career when one has to ask “Is there any way for this author to get better? To improve upon their most recent work? To actually write something better than this?” For some writers, they go downhill after their peak—other authors only rise, never reaching that peak exactly (see wonderful examples like Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, Alex Marwood, and Megan Abbott).  The question now is: has Alafair Burke reached her peak? I sincerely doubt it—a writer of her talent can most likely reach unimaginable heights—yet it is incredibly hard to fathom Burke improving upon her most recent masterpiece, The Wife.

Burke kicks off the year in the grandest fashion, with a book that will compel you to the very end, even without a murder in its very beginning.  From the moment the book begins, we know that Burke’s protagonist has committed perhaps the ultimate betrayal—that against herself, lying for her husband’s defense. I have read this book countless times, as I tend to do before beginning a review, and it never ceases to amaze me—the language is fluid and nearly flawless, drawing the reader in.  The narrator, while incredibly deluded and not necessarily the picture-perfect definition of a feminist, is incredibly relatable.  The book speaks to the issues of our times, many of them dealing with women, rape, infidelity, and the permanence of love.

From the very beginning of the novel, I was roped in.  The reader is startled by the way Burke can transform the most mundane scenes into something extraordinary, ripping out incredible portions of her character’s psyches in ways you would never expect.  I was floored again and again as revelation after revelation was revealed, chapter after chapter.  The book is such a quick read that, when finished, I felt compelled to start it over immediately, unsure if I had finished the novel or just begun.

This is not to say the novel is without a conclusion.  Boy, does it have a conclusion.  Alafair Burke is a master at revealing tiny little secrets that are actually big explosions, unraveling and unraveling her characters and plot until, once untangled, the reader is finally able to uncover the truth.  You think you know the truth from the beginning, and then you might change your mind in the middle, and then be completely floored by the end of the book by the smallest, slightest turn of the story: this is how The Wife works.  And I’m not afraid to call it a new masterpiece of the crime genre.

This past award season, Alafair Burke was nominated for the Edgar for The Ex, which works as a sort of companion novel to The Wife.  They feature similar characters, they are placed in similar settings, but these novels are completely different (and equally brilliant).  Here’s the only issue: this is the year of the female crime writer.  So while I would say that Alafair Burke has the Edgar in the bag, with masterpieces like Laura Lippman’s Sunburn and Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand being released soon, it’s hard to tell which author will come out on top.  What’s amazing about the crime community is: no one cares.  Each of these authors are improving daily, each new book proving that the preceding novel was only a precursor to something much more amazing and fantastic than the book that came before.  And Alafair Burke proves this beyond a doubt.  From the very beginning, you are hooked.  From the very beginning, you are roped in.  And it’s all Alafair’s fault.

Burke’s newest novel is mind-blowing, spine-tinglingly good and awe-inspiring in ways that very few authors can aspire to be.  Pick up this book and find yourself lost in it.  Pick up this book and hours later, wonder where you have been, and how you got there.  This is the magic that Alafair Burke works in The Wife, which may very well be the Book of the Year.

Sympathy for the Devil: an interview with Mark Pryor

A couple years ago, Mark Pryor took a break from his true blue series hero, Hugo Marston, to crawl into the the dark mind of an Austin prosecutor, musician, and sociopath named Dominic in the acclaimed Hollow Man. He has recently released a follow up, Dominic, with our anti-hero tying up his loose ends. Mark will be joining Meg Gardiner (Into The Black Nowhere) for a discussion of writing fictional psychopaths on January 30th. Mark was kind enough to talk to us early about dealing with his dark creation.
Pryor-Photo-by-Alia-Michelle-Photography3476-33MysteryPeople Scott: Was there anything in particular that drew you back to Dominic?
Mark Pryor: Several things. First, I’m (still) kind of obsessed with psychopaths, and Dominic was and is my way to explore their mentality. So I wasn’t done with the subject matter, and he’s my way in. Second, I kind of missed him. Weird, I know, but he was SO much fun to write that I wanted to do it again. I wanted to know what he could pull off again. I wanted to let the dark side reign and write him again. I think, too, he’s such a change from my Hugo Marston series that writing Dominic gives me a good balance, so in a way it’s healthy creatively for me to write about such a total bastard once in a while.
MPS: This time you split perspectives, which you had never done to this degree in a book. Did that prove as a challenge?
9781633883659MP: Actually, yes. You’re right in that I’ve not done this much before but as I thought about how to tell this story, I knew it was necessary. Put simply, if anyone who read Hollow Man read another book entirely from Dominic’s perspective, they wouldn’t believe a word he was saying. They’d be crazy to! So, I knew I had to corroborate events through other, more reliable, characters. It turned out to be fun, especially overlapping Dominic with the sycophantic Brian, getting two very different takes on one interaction.
MPS: One of the main reasons the book is so unsettling is that the reader feels they are in collusion with Dominic. Did you sometimes feel that way in the writing?
MP: Yes, and I think that’s vital. I mean, in practical terms I’m the one devising his evil schemes but even though it’s all fictional, and even though I could do anything I want, I really do sometimes feel like he takes the lead and does his nasty deed, with me as his note-taker. That may sound weird but it’s how I feel sometimes! I would say, too, that it’s a lot of work for me to get into the head of a psychopath, to abandon the emotion and the feelings, so I myself get that unsettled feeling and it makes sense that the reader would pick up on that.
MPS: How do you write a character with little or no empathy?
MP: Carefully. The biggest factor for me is accuracy. I’ve seen too many movies or shows, books too, where the character is given dabs of empathy here and there and I don’t think that’s realistic. Similarly, over the two books the one thing I wanted to avoid is giving him a character arc, because he’s not capable of it. Obviously, I’ve done a good amount of research to know what he would or would not feel as a psychopath, so there’s a crafty element to creating him, but as I say, I really want him to seem genuine. Genuinely horribly, that is.
MPS: What did you find as a key for writing a suspense novel like this?
MP: This novel and the previous one are much more carefully constructed than my Hugo Marston novels. By that I mean that I am more devious about planting clues and misdirecting the reader. I think the reason for that is knowing where the suspense comes from — the reader is going to be pretty sure that Dominic will achieve his objective(s), the question is how does he get there? Precisely how ruthless is he going to be? And, who will be casualties along the way? These aren’t straight forward mysteries where you can proceed from clue to clue like stepping stones, you have to look under the rocks (and find the snake!).
MPS: Since you are both a prosecutor and an Englishman living in Austin, what is the best way you have found to convince people you are not Dominic?

MP: You know, just between us, I’ve been surprised by how many people give me that side-eye and ask if I’m a psychopath. These are people I’ve known for years, and if you’ve known me for years I think it’s pretty obvious I’m not. So I laugh it off, and tell the story of how I took the psychopath test (yes, there is such a thing) at home, with my wife. Bottom line, the test is 20 questions, and you score 0, 1, or 2 for each. Anything over 30 and you’re a psychopath. I scored 7. Yes, seven. So low I was actually disappointed! I mean, as a prosecutor and crime writer you’d think I’d have something of a callous edge to me, but it turns out I’m a big softy.
The interesting thing to me is that if I’d written a character who was English, a prosecutor, and who had really been the one who killed John Lennon, no one would be asking, “Hey, did you really kill John Lennon?” All in all, I’ll take it as a compliment that I wrote a convincing psychopath, which is satisfying enough to stop me murdering whoever asks that question. Oh, wait, I didn’t mean that…

We hope you’ll join us January 30th at 7pm as Mark Pryor and Meg Gardiner discuss their new books!