Interview with Denise Mina, author of Conviction

Our June Pick Of The Month, Conviction by Denise Mina, appears to be something of a departure for the author. A road trip thriller with Anna, a dumped trophy wife with a secret past, trying to solve the murder that an old acquaintance is suspected of in a podcast, joined by Finn, an anorexic former pop star. The book is both funny an suspenseful with a light poignancy that sneaks up on you. Denise was kind enough to talk about the book and showing another side to herself as an author.
Conviction Cover Image1. While you’re never one to repeat yourself, Conviction, on the surface, reads as a very different kind of thriller for you. How did it come about?
My last book The Long Drop was about the stories we tell about ourselves. This book was to be a companion to that, a book  about the joy of being told stories. Because of that it reads very differently, as a series of story styles and tropes and conventions so I think it feel very different in tone and texture. 

2. Did writing about a protagonist who is keeping a secret while unraveling a secret present any challenge?
Tons! I had an opening chapter that I was very attached to and it set the scene for the big reveal in the middle and my editors said ‘cut it’ but I was a very attached to it! Anyway, I cut it and to my eternal annoyance they were right.

3. Finn becomes such a wonderful sidekick for her, funny yet very human and tragic. How did he come into creation?

When Bowie died I didn’t recognize him from the discussion about him. He was catastrophically thin in Berlin, he was clearly quite broke a lot of his life, he got ripped off. I didn’t see any of those times talked about and I 

4. Podcasts play a huge role in the story. What did you want to explore with that media?
The return to oral story telling is fascinating. Literature has very rigid conventions and I love the rambling way podcasts can challenge that. I’m obsessed with true crime podcasts.

5. I believe this is your first book where the characters travel outside of Glasgow. Did that effect the writing in any way? 

Actually, interestingly a lot of people have said that but a lot of Exile is set in South London and End of the Wasp Season is in Perth and Kent. This is a road book though, the whole point of it is that they’re on the move and their essential selves come out. I found it hard not to over write the scenes because they go everywhere I’ve been on holiday in the last eight years. I felt very relaxed.

6.We know you can use humor, particularly Paddy Meehan series, but this book has the most laugh out loud moments in this book and you use it in several it in several ways. What about this story allowed you to be this funny?
It was such a dark story that it had to be funny. As a reader I can only take so much misery before I think  ‘ Oh honey, Ive got my own problems’ and put a book down.

A TRIP BEHIND THE PINE CURTAIN: AN INTERVIEW WITH REAVIS WORTHAM

Reavis Wortham’s Sonny Hawke is a Texas Ranger in the traditional vein. In his third book, Hawke’s Target, Sonny is on the trail of a vigilante killer who has his sights set on a drug smuggling family in East Texas. It all culminates in one huge shoot out. Reavis will be here July 1st to discuss the book. I was lucky enough catch him before he took off to The Westerner Writers Of America Spur Awards where he is picking up and award for his previous Sonny novel Hawke’s War to take a few questions beforehand.

  1. What made you decide to have Sonny deal with a vigilante?

Hawke's TargetAbout three years ago my wife and I were on a road trip down I-20 to Marfa, Texas, and we kept passing camping trailers and big RVs going both directions. From the time we left our home in Frisco, until we arrived in the Big Bend area, we saw three or four cars pulled over by the highway patrol, likely for traffic violations. As we drove and talked, I realized I’d never seen a recreational vehicle of any type pulled over for a traffic violation.

So like any writer, I started playing What If. What if someone wanted to cross the country campers or RVs for a nefarious reason? The odds are they won’t be stopped. I can attest to that, because we often use our fifth-wheel trailer, and I’ve never talked to another camper who has ever gotten a ticket while towing a trailer. We usually don’t have that happen, because pulling large trailers makes you extra cautious.

I heard on the radio during that same trip about the search for a serial killer, and an individual charged with murder, but got off on a legal technicality. Of course, when we got home and I did a little research, I realized I-20 and I-10 are virtual corridors for drug runners. All that jelled into Hawke’s Target.

  1. I noticed there was more humor in this Sonny book, especially with your bad guys, how do you think that came about?

I’m the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game magazine, and have been writing a syndicated humor column for newspapers across the state for over 31 years, so humor figures into everything I write. My Red River novels are also light-hearted in many ways, and truthfully, I’m kind of a smart-ass. So with that, I allowed myself permission to write what I wanted, and not edit it out like I usually do.

In my opinion, humor helps increase the rich flavor of a novel, if it’s done correctly. It breaks the tension at just the right moment, or adds a spice that’s missing. In times of stress, or sorrow, people often look for a brighter side.

  1. I think this is your first foray into East Texas. What about that area makes it stand out from the rest of the state?

This is the first time I’ve addressed deep East Texas behind the Pine Curtain. I’ve always been fascinated by the Big Thicket, and the folks who live along the Sabine. I’ve read a number of books about how wild it was until it eventually settled, so to speak, in the 1950s. The forest was once so thick and dense, people often got lost and disappeared, never to be found. Others used that heavily wooded country to hide out, before, during, and after the Civil War. Even after 1865, outlaws hid out in those woods, and moonshiners found it the perfect place to make whiskey. Some people who preferred not to be part of our society stepped into the Thicket, and used it as a shield for decades.

The land is a character all its own, and it needed its own story told. It’s still wild in places, and in a sense, unexplored by most authors, Joe R. Lansdale excluded.

  1. One thing about the Sonny Hawke books is the forward momentum of the story telling. How do you keep it moving?

It moves fast, don’t it? All of my Sonny Hawke’s are rocket ships of action. I’ve always been a huge fan of thrillers. It took me a little while to figure out they’re like a runaway train. They move fast. I simply put my characters in dangerous positions, and push them downhill, watching the momentum take hold as the plot moves faster.

Readers might notice that the chapters are a little longer in the first third, or Act 1, of all my novels, then get progressively shorter, moving from the viewpoints of various characters. In the final third, or Act 3, the more abbreviated chapters accelerate the action as the plot advances, pushing us quickly downhill until the climax.

  1. What’s the best thing about winning The Spur award for Hawke’s War?

It’s the satisfaction that I’ve written a novel that the Western Writers of America feel is worthy of such a prestigious award. Many of my favorite authors are Spur Award winners. Long before I started writing novels, I’d look for that designation on any western I picked up. It’s been a goal to join them for decades, and I’m honored that my second novel, Hawke’s War, which is a contemporary western thriller, was selected.

  1. Do you have a new Red River book in the works?

I do! I’m deep into the second act of Laying Bones, which should be out in 2020. It’s set in northeast Texas in the early winter of 1969, and is based on the suspicious accidental death of a cousin back in the early 1950s. That one will be Book 8 in the series.

WAR IS OPPORTUNITY: A REVIEW OF  JAMES ELLROY’S THIS STORM

6-26_ThisStorm.jpgJames Ellroy never does anything half way. He plunges you into the dark American soul to its twilight depths, reader be damned. At times his books can be disorienting, but they are never boring. No modern writer is ambitious as him. He puts all the chips in on his latest, This Storm, both a sequel to Perfidia and the second  book in his second L.A. Quartet. At over 600 pages it is a mammoth story, sprawling on plot, cohesive on theme and character.

Ellroy said that he wanted to get across the idea of war as opportunity and we follow several home front opportunists at the beginning of 1942. Ellroy’s go to demon, Dudley Smith drives most of the entwining plot strands. The police sergeant, his cops, and his women are on lurid quests for a rapist, an old murder case, stolen gold, and fifth columnists in Mexico. All of them driven by ulterior motives or to cover up smuggling drugs or cheap labor.

Two other LAPD members figure prominently. Japanese American forensics expert Hideo Ashida returns under Dudley’s thumb to avoid an internment camp stay. Hillbilly cop Elmer Jackson takes on a larger role than he had in Perfidia, tracking down a case from a discovered decomposed body that  could be tied to an old unsolved arson that killed his brother.

Ellroy also brings his female characters up to the forefront. Joan Conville, who played a part in The Underworld USA trilogy is a young Navy nurse forced to work with Ashida to avoid manslaughter charges from a drunk driving accident. Kay Lake, from The Black Dahlia, proves to be both enemy and ally to her. Even Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia herself, also makes an appearance.

Everyone is scheming, murdering, backstabbing, and forming alliances for profit, survival, and politics. Sex and desire also fit in. Many get caught up in their sins, even Orson Welles, but few are innocent.

Ellroy embraces the dark heart of his characters. He pulls us in through the heady seduction of their sins. They are addicts to their behavior. He takes it up a notch in this quartet to the turn on of fascism, something were fighting abroad, while many embrace at the home front. It is exemplified in Dudley Smith who has taken up a swastika embossed gold bayonet as a favored weapon.

This Storm is not for the timid, for both its violence and vision. Its staccato  style burns through those 600 pages, outracing the reader at times. You don’t fully grasp the novel until days after reading. Ellroy takes us on a freewheeling rip through Hell brought to you by The Greatest Generation. Buckle up and trust no one.

DAVID C TAYLOR  WRITES ABOUT NEW YORK’S MAD BOMBER AND EARLY CRIMINAL PROFILING

David C Taylor’s Michael Cassidy series is a favorite of ours, dealing with a vivid New York of the fifties. Recently, for crime reads he wrote of this true account of a pipe bomber who terrorized the city both pre and post World War Two and how one of the first attempts at criminal profiling brought him down.

https://crimereads.com/how-a-disgruntled-workers-pipe-bombs-led-to-the-birth-of-criminal-profiling/

INTERVIEW WITH KELSEY RAY DIMBERG

Kelsey Ray Dimberg’s, Girl In The Rearview Mirror has all the earmarks to be the next big thriller, a damaged heroine who has her own secrets, a dark plot involving both family and politics that borders on politics, and an ending that leaves the reader with much to think about and get book clubs talking. It also is just damn well written. Kelsey was kind enough to take a few questions from us before she starts her way toward the big time.

Girl in the Rearview Mirror: A Novel Cover ImageThe story for Girl In The Rear View Mirror is an interesting mix of psychological, domestic, and political thriller. How did it come about?

My plot began with a riff on the quintessential noir opener, a girl coming to an investigator with a problem. What if, I thought, a child came to her nanny? She’s following me, I heard a little girl whisper. The nanny, Finn Hunt, doesn’t believe her—and is very mistaken. So the domestic element was the seed of the story.

I knew I wanted the mystery to center on a prominent family, and a nanny as narrator worked perfectly: an outsider with intimate access. Initially, Finn was a cynical observer, more like Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, but after a couple drafts, I realized that insulated her from the fallout. I shaved away her distance until she naively believes she’s part of the family. Her closeness makes it difficult for her to see the Martins clearly, or to tell when they’re lying to her. For much of the book, she’s unsure what’s going on, and at times wonders if it’s all in her head, which led to the more psychological thriller tones.

The Martin family patriarch is a US Senator, so there are political elements to the plot, but they’re very tied to the domestic side. I’m fascinated with the pressure and scrutiny a political campaign must exert on those tangential to the candidate. I also wanted to explore the way politicians use their families as branding tools. Think of a politician flanked by clean-cut children at a rally, or beside his supportive spouse after a scandal. What happens if the family becomes a liability rather than an asset?

What kind of challenge did a character who was both keeping her own secrets as she was unraveling other people’s create for you?

As a reader, it’s a pet peeve of mine when a narrator is obviously lying or withholding information about a crucial plot element. So although Finn is hiding her past, she’s doing so because of her own shame and guilt, not just to toy with the reader. Her own past mistakes and subsequent reinvention make her relationship to the Martins fraught—she’s always aware that she’s misled them to some degree, and that the price of honesty might be expulsion from their world. Her choice to take that risk and deliberately defy their warnings to keep out of their business was, for me, one of the core character-defining moments for Finn.

This being a debut novel, did you pull from any influences?

Around the time I started writing the novel, I became very interested in film noir. I was living in San Francisco, and went to Noir Fest at the classic Castro Theater, mainly to see the old theater, which was ornate and beautiful, and even had an old school organ player before the show. I can’t remember what the movie was, but I was surprised by how much I genuinely enjoyed it. I started to watch more noir. The strong, shadowy visuals, intense plot, and simmering mood captivated me. So I set out to write a noir novel, mostly for fun, as a break from the traditional literary stories I was writing in grad school. Of course, the noir turned out to be the story I actually wanted to write.

Some major influences: the movies Chinatown, The Big Sleep, and Out of the Past; and books by Raymond Chandler, Sebastian Japrisot, Megan Abbott, Tana French, and Elizabeth Brundage.

Much of the mood is created from small physical actions. What do you enjoy as a writer about using the micro moments?

One of my favorite elements of any book or movie is what I’d call texture: the details of setting and atmosphere, gesture and tone, and even costume.

When possible, I like to draw out the relationship between characters by using this texture, as opposed to stating outright how they feel. Gestures and tone of voice and silence can suggest so much about the dynamic between characters—and can make that meaning unstable, open to interpretation. So much of the story turns on how Finn relates to the Martin family, to her boyfriend (the Senator’s aide), and other characters—I wanted the reader to see how Finn might feel about a situation, but also be able to interpret it differently than her.

It struck for being a moody thriller, much of the book is played out in bright daylight. How do you think the brightness played into the book?

For me, the brightness plays multiple roles. On a basic level, it’s true to life: summers in Arizona are brutally hot; it feels as though your skin is baking if you’re out in the middle of the day. The sun is relentless and almost hostile. I wanted that intensity to enhance the slower burn of Finn’s uncertainty and tension, especially in the first half of the book. The brightness is also paradoxical: the light is actually blinding, which mimics Finn’s own inability to see the Martins for what they are, because she’s so close to them. Through the second half, I imagined Finn having a constant searing headache, and squinting into the light as she drives, and the surreal mirages of water on the highway mirroring her own uncertainty. Is this real? Am I imagining things?

The major reveal is a gut punch. How developed was it before you started the actual writing of the book?

I didn’t consciously plan for that moment, but it did come out in the very first draft. When I wrote it, I immediately felt that it revealed a deeper menace than I’d planned for, yet it felt (sadly) right. (Warning, mild spoiler ahead.) The Senator, who is part of the reveal, was a very peripheral character in that original draft, so in revision I made him more active in the plot—hence the reelection campaign and Finn’s boyfriend working with the Senator. That moment also made me realize I wanted to dig deeper into the mythology of this powerful family, and the pressures and privileges that control their actions throughout the book, including at the reveal.

SCOTT BUTKI INTERVIEWS MEGAN MIRANDA

I jumped at the chance to interview Megan Miranda, as I’ve heard lots of positive buzz about her best-selling novel All The Missing Girls, which The New York Times Book Review described as “Hitchockian,” and The Perfect Stranger.
The Last House Guest Cover ImageI predict her new book, The Last House Guest, will also land on the best-seller list and have positive buzz.

Her new book is set in Littleport, Maine, which is a town where some, including strong protagonist Avery Greer, live all year round while other wealthy folks, including Sadie Loman and her family, visit only on the summer. Sadie and Avery have a fierce, long friendship.

As the book begins Sadie has been found dead and the police are ruling it a suicide, but Avery can’t shake the feeling people in the community, including Sadie’s family, blame her for the death.

Scott Butki: How did this story come together?

Megan Miranda: I had the characters and the premise from pretty early on, but their story, and how it could best be told, developed over the course of several drafts. When I started The Last House Guest, I knew I wanted to set it in a town where there would be this contrast of insiders (the characters who live in the town year-round) and outsiders (those who visit each summer). Avery and Sadie grew from this idea. But as I worked through earlier drafts, I realized that Avery embodied both sides of that equation—she is someone who grew up as an insider, but now feels like an outsider to her own town.

The friendship between Avery and Sadie—and all that happened because of it—became the heart of the story. Which then gave rise to the structure: At the start of the story, Avery can’t seem to accept or move past Sadie’s death a year earlier. And she keeps circling back to that pivotal night with each new discovery, looking for the things she might’ve missed the first time around.

Scott:  Which comes first for you, the characters or the plot?

Megan: The characters always come first, though they tend to develop alongside the plot. They work in tandem, with plot roadblocks forming character, and character choices informing the story direction. But the characters are always the element I’m most interested in following—both as a reader and a writer. I think this is why I’m not much of an outliner before I start—I need to get to know the characters first, and write my way in to their story.

Scott Butki: Should readers new to you start with this book or one of your earlier ones?

Megan: They can definitely start with this one! Each of the books stands alone, with a new set of characters, and a new setting. They can be read in any order.

Scott: How are you reacting to the popularity of your books?

Writing a book can feel very solitary—but these characters live inside your head for so long, and finishing their story, getting it to where you hope it will be, always means so much. To see it then resonate with others has been such a wonderful experience. I’ve been so grateful that people who have enjoyed these stories have helped spread the word about them.

Scott: Can you talk about the relationship between Sadie Loman, from a wealthy family that visits a vacation town every summer, and Avery Greer, a townie dealing with the grief after her parents die.

Megan: When Avery and Sadie meet as teens, they each find something in the other that fills a void in their lives. Avery had spent the time before meeting Sadie feeling adrift and alone, unable to escape the way others in town see her. And Sadie has a complicated relationship with her own family, never quite living up to expectations. Both of them are able to become someone else through the other’s perspective. But just as with the town itself, their friendship looks different when viewed from the outside versus the inside.

Scott: Why did you decide to begin the book with Sadie’s death?

Megan: There were two reasons I wanted to start the book here. The first went to story: Starting with the end-of-season party from the year earlier introduced each character with their alibi—when and how they were accounted for on the night of Sadie’s death—which is key to unraveling the mystery that follows.

The second reason went to character: For Avery, this is the pivotal event that shatters her world. And this is the night she keeps coming back to in more detail throughout the book as she gains understanding.

Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Megan: One theme I keep coming back to—in All the Missing Girls, The Perfect Stranger, and The Last House Guest—is this focus on identity, tied tightly to experiences in the past. How people are viewed, and how they view themselves. The one common thing I find at the heart of each main character, despite everything that happens throughout their story, is a sense of resiliency.

Scott: What have you figured out for this, your tenth book, you wish you knew when writing your first?

I wish there was something universal I’ve taken away from the writing process, but the thing I’ve learned the most is that every single book is different. Sometimes the structure and story come together right away. Sometimes they don’t. I guess the one change in my process is that I panic less when a draft doesn’t work at first. I’ve come to accept and appreciate that trial and error is part of my process, and to trust that I’ll get there in the end.

Scott: How did you go about researching this book?

Miranda: When I was writing the first draft, I asked my family if anyone wanted to take a trip up to Maine with me. Which is how I ended up spending a summer vacation in a minivan with my parents, my husband, and my 2 kids. We drove up and down the coast, stopping at so many beautiful towns along the way. We also spent several days in Bar Harbor, which is where we used to spend a week each summer when I was growing up. It made me think a lot about perspective, and how that can shift over time. I had last been there as a teenager, and was now visiting with my own children, hiking the same trails, visiting the same places. I wanted Littleport to feel like a character in and of itself, and a place that can have two different perspectives, both as an insider and an outsider.                     

Scott: The last question is my bonus question: What is a question you wish you would get asked in interviews but never are. Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.

Miranda:  Why are you drawn to small town settings?

I love the dynamic that a small town provides, where characters know everything about one another—or think they do. For me, a small town feels like a living, breathing character. Something that might shift and twist, just as the story does.

PODCAST WITH DAVID C TAYLOR AND JOAN MORAN

A few weeks ago David C. Taylor author of the Michael Cassidy series and Joan Moran, who made a crime fiction debut with The Accidental Cuban, came to BookPeople and talked with crime fiction coordinator Scott Montgomery about their books and use of settings. Taylor’s latest, Night Watch, takes place in fifties New York like his other two, and Joan’s starts in Obama ere Cuba. For those who missed it, here is the discussion—