Interview with Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer has written another great thriller, this one called The Escape Artist. It is about Nola Brown, an army sergeant, who is presumed dead as the book begins in a strange airplane crash that begins the book. But while the government has confirmed her death a mortician, Zig, who knows Nola and feels an obligation to help her figures out that she is alive and on the run,  

The Escape Artist Cover ImageMeltzer has a varied career, not just writing thrillers but also writing books about heroes (Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter, I Am Amelia Earhart and I Am Abraham Lincoln) and writing comic books (including Justice League of America), for which he won the Eisner Award.

Brad agreed to do another email interview about his new book.

Scott Butki: How did this story come together?

Brad Meltzer:  Zig is named to honor a real Zig, but he’s an amalgam of all the amazing morticians I met at Dover. These are men and women who rebuild hands (rather than giving a fake prosthesis), so that a mother can hold her son’s hand one final time…or who spend fourteen straight hours wiring together a fallen soldier’s shattered jaw, then smoothing it over with clay and makeup, just so they could give his parents far more ease than they ever should’ve expected at their son’s funeral. A few of them, like my fictional Zig, will never put in for overtime. Heart. Heart. Heart.

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SB: Can you speak to what you say in the preface about how this book was partly inspired by a USO trip?

BM: Years ago, I went to the Middle East with the USO, then a few months back, I took another trip to entertain our troops. Dover Air Force Base is a place I never thought the government would let me into. The Dover scenes in the book are all based in reality: Dover is home of the mortuary for the US government’s most top-secret and high-profile cases. On 9/11, the victims of the Pentagon attack were brought there. So were the victims of the attack on the USS Cole, the astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia, and the remains of well over fifty thousand soldiers and CIA operatives who fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and every secret location in between. In Delaware of all places, at Dover Air Force Base, is America’s most important funeral home.

In their building, as you see in the book, they make sure our most honorable soldiers are shown the dignity and respect they deserve. In addition, the people there know details about hidden missions that almost no one in the world will ever hear about. Dover is a place full of mysteries…and surprises…and more secrets than you can imagine. As someone who writes thrillers, it was the perfect setting for a mystery.  Plus, in today’s world, we need real heroes. The people here are the real deal. I knew I found my hero.

SB: I’ve heard the last chapter you wrote for The Escape Artist was actually the first chapter. That sounds counterintuitive. Can you explain?

BM: By the time I reach the end of a book, I always have a new view of the beginning. And as I looped around, I saw that opening scene so clearly. It needed the extra punch in the beginning.

SB: Can you tell us about the protagaonist, Nola Brown, and why she is your favorite protagonist? Do you agree with praise that says she could go toe-to-toe with Bob Lee Swagger, Jack Reacher, Lisbeth Salander and others? This is the first of a new series, right?

BM: I appreciate those compliments, but they’re not fair to Jack Reacher, Lisbeth Salander and the others. To me, Nola is Nola. She was born on a specific trip. We were filming the very first episode of our TV show, Lost History and were in the HQ of one of the most obscure jobs in the Army: The Artist in Residence. Since World War I, the Army has assigned one person—an actual artist—who they send out in the field to…paint what couldn’t otherwise be seen. It’s one of the greatest traditions in our military—they call them war artists. They go, they see, and paint, and catalog victories and mistakes, from the dead on D-Day, to the injured at Mogadishu, to the sandbag pilers who were at Hurricane Katrina. In fact, when 9/11 occurred, the Artist in Residence was the only artist let inside the security perimeter. From there, Nola came to life in my head. Imagine an artist/soldier whose real skill was finding the weakness in anything. The Escape Artist started right there. And yes, she’s coming back

SB: What does it mean to you to reach the 20 year mark as a published author?

BM: It means I’m old. And it means I can do one of two things: 1) assume I’m amazing at this and keep doing it…or 2) take a hard look at all I’ve done and try to get better. For this book, that’s what I aimed for: I looked back at which books of mine I liked best. The answers all had one thing in common: amazing characters. So I wouldn’t start this book until I had Nola.

SB: You’ve now done all kinds of different ventures from your thrillers to books about adult heroes for boys and girls do you work on television. How do you keep it all straight and which of those is your favorite to do?

BM: I love them all. The kids books are my soul in book form. But the thrillers are the house I build with my own hands. There’s nothing like building an entire world from scratch.

SB: The quote before the book starts is: “1898, Jon Elbert Wilkie, a friend of Harry Houdini, was put in charge of the United States Secret Service. Wilkie was a fan of Houdini and did his own tricks himself.  It is the only time in history that a magician was in control of the Secret Service.” Can you explain the meaning and/or foreshadowing of that quote?

BM: Let me just say it: I loved that detail. It just haunted me for years. And I also loved when I found out where Harry Houdini donated all his magic books after he died. You’ll see in The Escape Artist. I didn’t make that up.

SB: You did a tremendous amount of research about the Dover Air Force Base. What do you want readers to learn and understand about the place?

BM: It’s so easy to see deaths as just numbers in a war. But it never is. When you’re done with The Escape Artist, you’ll never look at a soldier – or a war — the same way again.

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

BM: For twenty years now, all I’ve been doing is telling my own story. Over time, I’ve realized that: 1) my life takes on new hardships and 2) I’m more honest with myself and my readers. So yes, Nola and Zig—and the broken parts of their souls—are a reflection of my own worst moments and fears. Fortunately, their lives are far more devastating than mine. But their paths out of loneliness and sorrow are exactly the same: It’s the story at the center of every life. We all need to love and be loved. It’s the only way Zig and Nola will ever pull off the hardest magic trick of all: coming back to life after a tragedy.

SB: What are you working on next?

BM: We do have the I am Gandhi graphic novel in May. My new Superman story with artist John Cassaday also comes out in May for Action Comics #1000. Then I am Neil Armstrong comes out in September. And as for the new thriller, I can’t shake Zig and Nola. They talk to me every day. So yes, you’ll see them again soon.

Scott has interviewed about 25 authors a year for more than 10 years. You can see an index of the interviews here.

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Laura Lippman: An Interview with One of the Biggest Names in the Industry

Matthew Turbeville: Hi Laura, it’s so nice to have you here with MysteryPeople.  We love your work and are in awe of your newest book, Sunburn.  I know you said it might be your favorite book you’ve written so far—what’s your second favorite, and what’s your least favorite book? Also, what makes these books your favorite or your least favorite?

Laura Lippman: I cringe a little bit thinking about my early work. I think I leaned a little too hard into certain jokes. There’s a recent television show that I’m obsessed with precisely because of that same tendency. (I won’t name it because I know one of the writers on it.) I am who I am. Unlike some other writers I know — Megan Abbott is an obvious example — I wasn’t anywhere close to fully formed when I started publishing, although I was no youngster. But I don’t know how I would have gotten to the books I ended up writing without writing those early books.

My least favorite book is always the book I’m working on, but it’s also my favorite. It’s very much like being a mom.

MT: I’ve loved your books for the longest time.  Can you explain where you got the idea for your first novel, Baltimore Blues, and how it evolved into one of the greatest P.I. series of all time?

LL: I was dating a young lawyer with a horrible boss. One icy November night, my boyfriend was late meeting me and I was worried about him. I called the office — this would have been 8 o’clock or so — and his boss screamed at me. (I found out later my boyfriend was chasing a FedEx truck down the street, trying to make the last delivery of the night.) I later remarked, “One day someone is going to kill your boss and there are going to be so many suspects it will be impossible to solve.”

We began to talk about how this might make a great mystery novel. He saw himself as the lead, the wrongly accused associate, with a female sidekick who helps to prove his innocence. I thought, Well, I’m the writer. I think it should be a story about a young woman who investigates to help her friend.

MT: I know one thing that’s important to you is the rise of women in crime fiction and how important it is that women and other minorities are contributing to this genre.  Who are your favorite women writers—as well as other minorities? How do you suggest we further expand and make room in the genre for other marginalized groups?

LL: I’ve mentioned Megan. My other favorites include Denise Mina, Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, Alison Gaylin, Alafair Burke, Lisa Lutz, Attica Locke, Ivy Pochoda. Boy, that’s a really white list, though. And awfully heterosexual, to the best of my knowledge. Crime fiction really needs to have some different voices.

But then, I think we all have to challenge ourselves to read outside our comfort zones. I like to read about people with whom I identify. But by “identify,” I don’t mean race/sexual orientation/age. I like to read about people who are unsure and looking for answers. Probably one reason I became a crime writer.

MT: You’ve won more awards than I can count.  Do you have a favorite award that you’ve won, one that feels more special to you than the rest? I know you tied with Megan Abbott at one point, which seems like an honor on both of your ends.  What author would you give an award to if you had the chance?

LL: Tying with Megan was pretty great. But I have to say, the first award I won, the Edgar, stands out in my memory. It was so early in my career and it made my novel-writing career feel quite different from my newspaper writing career, where the bosses did not see me as someone who could win the field’s top prize.

MT: I love your matter-of-fact storytelling.  You are very to-the-point and no-nonsense, and your prose is really beautiful in its own way.  No one is writing exactly like you.  Where did you get the influence to write this way? What books were important to you, and remain important, in determining the influence of your writing style?

LL: My prose style is probably the result of reading far too many articles aimed at teenage girls trying to make the most of their assets, beauty and style-wise. My prose is not naturally beautiful. It just isn’t. I read enough poetry to know that I don’t write the kind of words that make readers almost startle from the glory of the images and the sounds. But I try to exploit whatever merits are there. It’s funny, I’m answering these questions after a morning of writing a passage about an older woman who absolutely owns her unconventional looks, who compared herself to Diane Vreeland. I think that’s how I feel about my prose. It’s mine, it has a distinctive style. Possibly one that involves in wearing mostly black accessorized with some very good pieces of Bakelite or Ippolita.

And even as I write these words, I kind of regret them. Because we live in this rah-rah branding world where being honest about one’s work isn’t always productive. I know writers who go around, humblebragging about how great they are and I see this become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their “brand,” if you will.

MT: You often teach classes, or workshops perhaps, involving new and emerging writers.  What is your favorite method of teaching? I know once you mentioned to me that your process is very visual.  Can you describe that?

LL:  I love doing one-on-one manuscript consultations because it’s like the movie version of psychotherapy. People come to me for a two-hour session and some of them, most of them, leave feeling “cured.” I use colored cards to show them a text-free version of their book and all sorts of insights pop out. Balance of POV, the shape of the story. There’s also an aspect of play to it and I think we should never lose sight that storytelling is fun, it’s something we do when we’re children. I had a very large collection of small stuffed animals from the Steiff Co. when I was a child. (I still have them and I am NOT a hoarder, nor particularly sentimental.) I played elaborate games of make-believe with them. And my sister and I played a version of Barbies that was very much influenced by the soap operas my mother liked.

MT: I know you often reference or base your novels on true crime stories.  This is fascinating to me—you take something so real and make it your own, and bring out the beauty in these stories, even in their most horrifying situations.  If you could tackle one true crime in a novel, what would it be?

LL: It’s not a crime, but I wish I knew the mystery of my mother’s father, who was divorced from my grandmother by the time my mother was a year old. There was this terrible silence around the story. My mother waited until her own mother had died to find him and then she declined to have any relationship with him. She has half sisters she’s never met. I don’t think it’s scandalous in any way, just a young marriage that didn’t work out. But it’s interesting to me that, as a family, we tacitly agreed not to speak of it and not to probe it.

MT: What is your favorite crime novel of all time? Are there any books or authors you think are overrated? Are there authors you find yourself returning to again and again?

LL: Can I claim Lolita as a crime story? I know, it’s a stretch, the kind of stretch that I normally hate, but it does play with a lot of the genre conventions. If not Lolita, then Mildred Pierce, which is barely a crime novel at all, although there are some disreputable accounting practices.

There are a lot of authors I think are overrated. I just don’t read them.

MT: I very rarely find that white authors can write about race in a new and “woke” way.  Yet, with you, you’re able to tackle almost any subject with an objectiveness and understanding that is refreshing and encouraging.  How do you go about investigating your novels, and doing research beforehand? What do you think helps you be so objective and thoughtful? How do you feel about other authors who have tackled issues like race, homophobia, sexism—things outside of themselves? Who does it best, and who would you like to see improve?

LL: I’m not going to claim I’m woke. But there’s this interesting conversation right now, in which some white/binary writers want to say, “How dare you suggest there are any limits on the imagination,” when the only thing anyone is suggesting is that writers are going to get called out for doing it poorly. I spent a few moments today wondering if I should describe a character’s weight, or if I was being a bit of a fat-ist, if the detail added something or simply reinforced certain stereotypes. All that said, it’s not for me to say who does it best, just that I’m thinking about it all the time. Sunburn identifies almost no one’s race — Polly, who has the titular sunburn, is clearly Caucasian — and there are actually three African-American characters hidden in the text. I thought that was kind of cool, but the writer Steph Cha politely challenged me when I mentioned it, said perhaps the way to go is to make sure that all skin colors are described. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m willing to try and willing to fail. But isn’t that the essence of writing? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing across the board?

I am slightly unusual because, growing up in Baltimore, I was often in the minority growing up. That’s a valuable experience. I encourage people to seek it out.

As for research — I do it as I go. I don’t believe in deep dives beforehand. That’s a form of procrastination I can’t afford, personally. I support myself through my writing. If I don’t publish, I don’t get paid. But even if someone paid me a sum that allowed me to work five years on a book, or I had a freak hit that sent so many royalties my way I never had to worry about money again — I don’t think I would change much. I like to get things right. I like to make stuff up. Once I know what I want to make up, it’s easier to get things right. Does that make sense?

MT: If you could suggest one of your books to President Trump, which would it be? Which of your books would America in general learn the most from?

LL: I would give President Trump the magical book from Seven Day Magic by Edward Eager and hope that he gets stuck in it, as Barnaby almost does, staring into a reflection that shows him his every flaw and defect, for an eternity.

I’m not sure I have anything to teach America, but I think my most overtly sociological novel is No Good Deeds, which is based on the all-too-real premise that it would be really easy to have a conspiracy that’s dependent upon killing young black men, because almost no one would notice or care.

MT: What do you think is the most important piece of advice or mantra an author can live by?

LL: Read well.

MT: How do you stay in the mind of one of your best protagonists, Tess, who is the subject of your Tess series? How have you stayed in her mind for so long? Is it like second-nature now?

LL: Tess and I agree on almost everything, although I think she needs to cultivate impulse control. She is my very satisfactory invisible friend and I am always happy in her company. It helps that we have several shared experiences — newspaper life, motherhood.

MT: I think my favorite book of yours is either Sunburn or After Im Gone.  What inspired After Im Gone? I remember when you announced your idea for Sunburn on social media—I believe you maybe got the idea in the shower? What triggered it?

LL: After I’m Gone was my husband’s idea. He lobbied for years. But I didn’t see my way into it until I flipped it, decided to focus on the women left behind, not the man who left and where he was. For a long time, it was going to center on what happened when the youngest daughter showed up at High Holiday services in a fur she couldn’t possibly afford. Clearly, the book changed a lot.

MT: What advice do you give to new and struggling writers?

LL:  Persevere. It’s hard, I know, in this climate, and it probably seems very easy for me to give such advice. In hindsight, I had a relatively painless passage from unpublished to published. But it never feels easy, I don’t think.

MT: What are you writing next? Our readers are likely dying to know.

LL:  A historical novel, assuming we all agree that 1966 is now in the history books. It’s about a 30-something housewife who leaves her husband, much to everyone’s amazement (including her own) and then decides she wants to be a reporter.

MT: Laura, thank you so much for joining us at MysteryPeople.  It was such an honor and a privilege.  We love your work so much, and especially Sunburn, out February 18.  P.S. I adore you and your work.

LL: Mutual, I’m sure.

Q&A with Alex Berenson

Alex Berenson’s John Wells espionage series often uses the headlines or predicts them for novels dealing with our county’s involvement in the geo-political game. His latest, The Deceivers, has John and his team dealing with a Russian plot to put their man in the White House. Alex will be joining us at 2PM on Saturday, February 10th with fellow thriller writer Don M. Patterson. MysteryPeople’s Scott Butki intercepted him earlier for a one on one interrogation.

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MysteryPeople Scott Butki: How did this story, the latest about John Wells, come about?

Alex Berenson: Over the last few years I’ve grown increasingly interested in false-flag operations, where an intelligence service tries to carry out an attack and blame it on another country or a third-party. False-flags are obviously tricky, but if they succeed they can wreak havoc. In The Deceivers, the false-flag comes with a twist – the Russian spy agency isn’t trying to carry out the attacks itself. It wants to use Americans against the United States in attacks that will look like Muslim terror. And to do so the Russians need some buy-in from semi-witting Americans. I tried to make the Russian scheming plausible, and I hoped I succeeded.

MPSB: This has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel (that’s a compliment), where you took some current issues, like the question of whether the Russians meddled and influenced the election and took it to a larger but, hopefully, fictitious level. What was it like dealing with current events in your plotting?

AB: From The Faithful Spy, I’ve always dealt with current events. I like to say my books are reality-adjacent. In some cases they’ve turned out to be surprisingly prescient – notably The Secret Soldier, which focused on succession in Saudi Arabia – six years before the current crisis.

MPSB: As a fellow former newspaper reporter for, among other publications, The New York Times, i’m curious how your background affected your work as a novelist? Was that background helpful when dealing with current events in this novel?

AB: I do like to make my novels feel as real and authentic as possible, and I think being a reporter drives that impulse. Sometimes I have to remind myself the books are an escape, and Wells occasionally needs to. In general, I research my books thoroughly; over the years I’ve traveled nearly everywhere I’ve written about, including Afghanistan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq. I’ll talk to folks in the intelligence community (though they are more likely to be retired than active employees, given the risks people face if they discuss classified information).

MPSB: Do you miss being a journalist?

AB: Only when I see a really, really good story that I wish I could tell.

MPSB: What was the timing on this book? You definitely captured the anti-Muslim fervor of politicians including President Trump. Was that happening – those speeches -while you were writing the book or did you accurately guess that it’d be happening more often

AB: I started writing the book in the summer of 2016, so Trump’s comments were in the news by then. There are a lot of reasons Trump won the presidency, but one is the attacks in Paris in November 2015 – which propelled him to the top of the Republican polls. The Orlando attack clearly helped him too.

MPSB: As someone who wrote about government intelligence, what do you think of how Trump has famously refused to hear part or all of his intelligence briefings, treated intelligence officers awfully, etc?

AB: Trump isn’t entirely wrong that a lot of intelligence work is throat-clearing and that sometimes leaders just have to go with their gut instincts. But the disdain with which he treats the intelligence community is unconscionable – and bad for US national security.

MPSB: How did you go about researching this book?

AB: As with all my novels, a combination of traveling to the most important locations in the book, a ton of Internet research and reading, and finally talking to people in the intelligence community (though I don’t want to overstate how much they will say).

MPSB: Do you want readers to take away something from this book? If so, what?

AB: I wouldn’t presume to tell my readers what they should take away from my novels.

MPSB: Should people read your John Wells books in order or can they start with this one, the 14th in the series?

AB: The 12th! He’s not that old yet. I write each new book knowing that some readers will be new to the series, so anyone who happens to pick this one up first will be fine.  That said, I tell readers who have read one of the books and feel committed to the series that they should go back to The Faithful Spy and read the rest in order – the books do build on each other, so reading them that way will give them the best idea of how John became who he is.

MPSB: What is a question you wish people would ask you? Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.

AB: What’s harder, journalism or fiction? Fiction, I think, because as a journalist you can always just return to the facts – as a novelist you have to look within yourself.

Interview with Terry Shames

Terry Shames will be with us twice in February. On the 4th she will be one of several authors involved with the discussion and signing of the anthology Lone Star Lawless and on the 5th you will find her, Laura Oles, and James Ziskin, discussing the thriller and their latest books. Terry’s is A Reckoning In The Back Country that has her hero Samuel Craddock looking into a murdered doctor’s dark double life that includes the crime of dog fighting. We caught up early with Terry to ask her a few questions.

MysteryPeople Scott: You spin several plates with this mystery, was there anything in particular you wanted to explore?

Terry Shames: This book just grew and grew. I once attended a talk by Joan Didion, who said that when you are writing a book, you should put everything you know into it. She said not to be afraid that there won’t be something left over for another book—there always will be. So I didn’t hold back anything in the this book.

The original idea of “Reckoning” came about because I wanted to kill a doctor who injured me in a botched surgery. I had to kill him on the page, so I wouldn’t have to go to jail for doing it in real life. I tried to imagine a terrible death for him—and I think I succeeded. That’s where dog fighting comes in.  The idea of doing a book that involved the awful issue of fighting had been nudging me for a couple of years. Combining the two seemed natural. So that’s two of the plates I juggled in the book. Another was the continuing life of characters in the community. A few of the characters that show up have been in almost every book, but never had an important place. We learn more, for example, about Harley Lundsford, who in most of the books makes a case for toting a gun. I wanted to take a closer at him, and he surprised me.

MPS: Since Back Country deals with dog fighting, you risk that unwritten rule of alienating a reader by harming an animal. Did you have any trepidation?

TS: I absolutely worried about it. As I said, the idea of doing a book that included dog fighting as a theme had been in the back of my mind. After all, it is part of life in many country areas. To ignore it is to be dishonest through omission. I put if off not only because of the “unwritten rule,” but because it seemed like a horrible thing to research. Writing it was very hard. At first, I left out a description of the dog fighting itself altogether, knowing I was being a coward. But my stalwart writer’s group would not allow it. So I set the description in Samuel’s past, a way of lessening the grim reality, since it was observed through the lens of a young boy; and also as a way of illustrating more about Samuel’s upbringing. I decided another way of dealing with the grim nature of it was to give Samuel a puppy as a counterbalance.

MPS: Did writing a four-legged supporting character cause any challenges?

TS: Since I have dogs, and know puppies, the actual puppy part was not hard. But I kept “forgetting” about the puppy and had to go back and make allowances for him when Samuel was going about his business. There’s a funny story about that. When I was editing, I thought there were too many details about the care and concern for the puppy, so I took some out. I got a scolding note from my copyeditor at SSB, telling me that Samuel couldn’t leave the puppy in the car alone. That happened to be a passage I had removed, thinking it was too much fussiness. Apparently not! I had to put it back in.

MPS: You having two women vying for Samuel. What made you think this was the right time to have romance reenter his life?

TS: This is an awful thing to say, and some readers may get mad at me, but I grew not to like Ellen very much. About a year ago, Dru Ann Love invited me to write a piece in her “Day In The Life” blog, in which writers imagine a day in the life of one of their characters. I wrote about Ellen Forester, and discovered that Ellen had a secret. I kept wondering what it might be. When I started writing this book, I realized that the story line with Ellen had grown stale and it was time to shake it up. So I started looking at her secret, and….well, I hope readers enjoy the shake-up!

MPS: What is Sam’s greatest strength as an investigator?

TS: That’s a hard one. I can talk about his strengths as a person:  He’s persistent, honorable, open-minded, has a good sense of humor, and isn’t afraid to admit that he doesn’t know something. That latter may be his greatest strength as an investigator. The old adage that there are no stupid questions works well for investigators—not just of crime, but of science, journalistic endeavors, and history. If you are afraid of asking a question because it might make you look stupid, you’re likely to miss important points. Samuel sometimes prods people to tell him something that everyone assumes he knows, and they are annoyed by what they take to be his naivete. But he has a method to his “stupid” questions, a method that often works to get to the truth.

MPS: You also have a short story in the anthology Lone Star Lawless. What can you tell us about your tale?

TS: I am not really a short story writer. I mean that the form doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m in awe of those writers who gravitate to the short form. They seem to know what is important to move a story along without getting cluttered with details. My natural impulse is to write all the details of character, setting and plot, and to embrace sub-plots. Someone pointed out that the short has to hinge on a single idea, which helped me learn how to keep it trim.

I started “Lone Star Motel” a few years ago, knowing it would be a short story. The story came to me after I talked with someone whom I suspected was being abused psychologically, and maybe physically as well. She was a woman with few options and I imagined what it would be like for her to try to escape her situation. After I wrote the first scene, I let it sit while I went on to other writing. But it never entirely left me. I kept thinking about it periodically. When I was invited to submit a story for Lone Star Lawless it seemed like the perfect opportunity to develop the idea. I ended up liking the story, and I hope readers do, too. This is an anthology with some great stories in it!

Scott Butki’s interview with James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke remains a master of his game, one of the best writers out there. Some of the deserved praise – including getting the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America – is for his writing style, some for how he digs deep with plots and fleshes out his unique characters.

While I have interviewed Burke here for his book featuring protagonist Texas Sheriff Hackberry Holland I, and many Burke fans, prefer his books about Dave Robicheaux. These books are set in the towns and wetlands of Louisiana.

The new book, Robicheaux, as it name implies, features Dave, and while Dave has often faced major obstacles before in this book they seem to come from everywhere and every direction. Burke often writes about Dave going to AA meetings and struggling to not drink, but in this book the struggle is worse as he not only gets drunk but can’t remember what he’s done while drunk.

Meanwhile, Dave is mourning the loss of his wife, Molly, in a car accident. So when Dave encounters the man who caused the car crash…. And when that man is himself murdered… the big question becomes: Did Dave do it? And since Dave was drunk at the time the answer is not entirely clear.

Burke agreed graciously to let me interview by email. Oh, one other note he talks in the book, and in the interview about the Jefferson Davis 8, which you can read more about here.

The book has this author’s note:

“The literary antecedents of this novel lie in two earlier works of mine. The unsolved murders in Jefferson Davis Parish formed the backdrop for the Dave Robicheaux novel titled The Glass Rainbow… These homicides are often referred to in the media as the Jeff Davis Eight.

The bombing of the Indian village in Latin America happened in 1956. I wrote about this incident in the short story titled “The Wild Wide of Life,” published in the winter issue of The Southern Review in 2017.”

With that let’s get to the interview. Thanks to my minister, Rev. Meg Barnhouse, for helping develop some of these questions.

Scott Butki: I am so glad you brought Dave back but boy did you give him some stuff to work on in this novel. Why did you decide to have Dave encounter, and try to investigate the murder of, the man who killed his wife in a car crash?

James Lee Burke: My wife was in a similar accident in New Iberia and almost died.

SB: I’ve always admired how you write about the struggle so many face with alcoholism and using AA. Why did you decide to have Dave fall off the wagon in this book?

JLB: I don’t plan the books. I think they already exist in the unconscious.

SB: In this book Dave seems a haunted man, partly due to what I asked about in the earlier questions. What did you hope to accomplish by putting him through all of this?

JLB: Mortality is not an elective study.

SB: I am happy you brought back some of Dave’s friends in this book. Why did you decide to do so?

JLB: They’re among the most interesting and brave people I have ever known.

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

JLB: To fear an embryonic dictatorship and the divisiveness and racial hatred and self-doubt a dictator can inculcate in an electorate that loses faith in the Republic.

SB: When Dave imagines a just world what does that look like?

JLB: The egalitarian world that Jesus spoke of.

SB: What do you think might have worked in Dave to form his desire to be a hero, to throw himself into the ugliest mess and try to make it right?

JLB: Dave is the Chaucerian good knight. He’s a man of conscience and honor and is not capable of being otherwise.

SB: A friend, Meg, asked me to pass on this comment: “I love Dave as a wounded hero.  I love his violence and how it lives along with his spirituality. I love the descriptions of the weather and the land. I think most of us identify with him as we struggle to be good people while dragging along concrete blocks of illness injury addiction or other complications and difficulties.” Do you get a lot of feedback like that?  

JLB: Yes, I have. I don’t think a writer could receive a better compliment.

SB: In past interviews you have told me you tend to draw from older sources, like the Bible and Greek mythology rather than contemporary ones. Why is that?

JLB: I subscribe to Jung’s notion of inherited memory. I think the great stories are always within each of us. My father once said that both science and art are simply the incremental discovery of what already exists.

SB: One thing many fans of yours, including me, love is your use of language. Was your writing always like that or was there a time when you wrote closer to the traditional mysteries with lots of short sentences with the focus on plot instead of description and language?

JLB: I read the Hardy Boys when I was kid, and Mickey Spillane in high school, but neither had any influence on me. The great influences were John Dos Passos. James T. Farrell, Gerard Manley Hopkins, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, and Robert Penn Warren.

Points of View: Q & A with Alison Gaylin

 Alison Gaylin is one of our favorites, and she was kind enough to answer some questions from our contributor, Matthew Turbeville. Below is their conversation about her writing. 

Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Alison! It’s so nice to get to talk.  I’ve wanted to pick your brain ever since a friend turned me on to What Remains of Me.  How did you get the idea for If I Die Tonight?

Alison Gaylin: Hi Matthew! Wonderful to talk to you as well! A couple of years ago, there was a hit and run incident in my area involving two boys from rival high schools. My daughter was younger than them, and what fascinated me was the way the story took on a life of its own among that younger crowd – how many false details were being spread about the incident that seemed to become “truer and truer” the more often they were repeated. So that was where the germ of the idea came from. I wanted to write something set in my area, and I had all these ideas for characters (Pearl, I’d come up with a long time ago, but she was a character in search of a story) so I used the idea of a hit-and-run in a small fictional town and took it from there.

MT: How do you manage such a large and varied cast of characters? It seems like it would be hard to keep up with so many personalities as a writer.

AG: Yes, there are a lot of characters (I always wind up doing that!) But to me, it’s not the amount of characters but the amount of points of view that pose the challenge. I decided I was going to tell the story from four distinct points of view: Pearl, Connor, Jackie and Amy (with one more POV toward the end.) Each character has a number of other characters within her/his particular world (with many overlapping). Since these points of view were all so different in my mind, it wasn’t that hard to keep track.

MT: Did you know the ending to If I Die Tonight before you began writing the novel?

AG: I knew what everyone’s secret was, and what really happened on the night in question. But I didn’t know how it would wind up playing out and how all those secrets would all be revealed until late in my first draft.

MT: What is your writing process like?

AG: I tend to write a lot late at night, and then make it coherent in the morning. And since I have a family and a day job (I work three days a week at a magazine) I’ve learned to write wherever and whenever I can. A lot of What Remains of Me was written on buses and trains. I still get a little carsick reading certain pages.

MT: Were there any characters you were particularly attached to? Any characters you didn’t like?

AG: I was probably most attached to Pearl. I had the idea for her backstory a long time ago, so she’d been in my mind the longest. But I also really enjoyed writing Jackie because, as the mother of an only daughter, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be raising boys. I liked writing all the characters, though. Finding that shred of humanity in an otherwise “unlikeable” character is really rewarding.

MT: You’ve approached many taboo areas in your writing: incest, rape, pedophilia, etc.  Is it hard for you to write about these topics?

AG: I think it’s harder on my editor than it is on me! I tend to write about things that make me scared or angry, and I think it all comes down to betrayal. No matter how taboo or shocking the turn of events, I’m really just writing about betrayal over and over again.

MT: What books inspire you to write the way you do? Who are, in specific, your favorite female writers today?

AG: Oh, I have so many of them, many of whom have also become great friends. Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott write wonderfully complicated, fascinating characters. Alafair Burke and Lisa Lutz write such compellingly paced stories that I can’t pick up one of their books unless I can afford to lose an entire day to reading. Also Alex Marwood, Katia Lief (now writing as Karen Ellis) Wendy Corsi Staub, Lori Roy… honestly I have too many favorite female writers to name!

MT: How do you write so prolifically? Where do you find the time to write so frequently and with such ease and grace? As a fellow writer, I can’t help but be a little jealous.

AG: That’s so nice of you to say. But honestly, the only way I can finish anything is to realize that the first draft is going to be the absolute worst piece of trash anyone has ever written. The good news is, trash or not, it will be finished, and when something is finished, you can always improve it. I should have said this in the writing process question, but really, my writing process is 80 percent heavy rewriting.

MT: Your last book, What Remains of Me, was up for numerous awards.  How does it feel to know that fans and critics alike adore your work? Do you feel the need to cater to a certain audience?

AG: I was thrilled that What Remains of Me got so much love! But I think my only concern as a writer is to write the best book I can. If I Die Tonight takes place as far from Hollywood as you can get, and though it’s told from multiple points of view, it has a pretty straightforward timeline (unlike What Remains of Me, which goes back and forth). I like trying something a little different with each book. It makes it less boring for me (and hopefully for readers too!)

MT: What Remains of Me and If I Die Tonight are so very different.  How do you jump not necessarily between genres, but between totally different books with such ease? Your whole bibliography seems so vast and completely different.

AG:  I think that, while the settings and characters of my books do tend to be completely different, it’s harder for me to let go of themes. The idea of an outcast teen being made into a boogeyman plays out in both books (Kelly by the press, Wade by his peers on social media). Also, the idea of how the powerful (wealthy) use the powerless, how callous human beings can be to each other and how we never really know those closest to us are prevalent themes in both books. (You can definitely find those themes in the Brenna Spector books, too!)

MT: What advice do you give to new and emerging writers? How did you break into the business?

AG: Be persistent, but don’t be inflexible. And read! If an agent or publisher gives you constructive criticism, use it. Rewrite. I had an agent for my first book, and she sent it around to a bunch of publishers, most of whom said they liked the characters but not the plot. I took it back, read around 100 crime fiction books, and over the course of about five years rewrote the book from page one. I then sent it out again, got a new agent, and sold the book. (It was called Hide Your Eyes, and it was nominated for an Edgar for Best First Novel.)

MT: Do you have a favorite work of yours? What book are you most proud of?

AG: I think I’m always proudest of the most recently published book, and most horrified by the work-in-progress.

 

NOT SUCH A TOUGH GUY PRIVATE EYE : INTERVIEW WITH MATT COYLE

Matt Coyle brings that classic trope of the tarnished knight/errant private eye to his Rick Cahill series. In the latest book Blood Truth, things get even more emotional than usual when an old flame hires him to follow her possibly cheating husband and he discovers an envelope full of cash and a safe deposit key in his father’s safe. One leads to the murder case that ruined his father, the other to a body in a car trunk. Before Matt joins us for a panel discussion on December 7th with Con Lehane and David Eric Tomlinson, he took some questions from us about the new book and the emotional journey of his hero.

41rq-ux6bul-_ux250_MysteryPeople Scott: What made this the book for Rick to go into his father’s past?

Matt Coyle: I’m not a great planner, so I can’t say this was always going to be the book that solved the mystery of Rick’s father. However, his father’s fall from grace has been a continuing thread, one of the dark clouds hanging Rick’s head since the first book Yesterday’s Echo. I go by my gut a lot and the father story felt right here. The writing and the emotion of Blood Truth was made all the more poignant when my father died suddenly three months before I began writing it. I’d already settled on the story before my he passed, but obviously, his passing made the book more personal than all the other books I’d written.

MPS: What does Moira provide for him other than a partner?

9781608092871MC: Moira is a PI like Rick, except better at it. I introduced her in the second book, Night Tremors. She was in a few scenes and in the next book, Dark Fissures, she had a very small part. I needed her for an early scene in Blood Truth and then she was supposed to go away. But she didn’t. She forced her way into the story and gave the book much more depth and meaning than it would otherwise have had.

Moira gives Rick balance. She looks at all sides while Rick may only see three. In Blood Truth, she is really the conscience of the book. But, her most important contribution to Rick is her friendship. Rick has an ex-girlfriend and an ex-partner, but he had no real friends until Moira showed up. She tries to keep Rick in line and gets angry with him, but she never fails him.

MPS: You really tap into that classic mood of a private eye novel. Who would you consider major influences in the genre?

MC: For me it all starts with Raymond Chandler. I read him as a kid. Of course, I loved the writing and the language, but what first grabbed me was Philip Marlowe. He lived by his own code. He did what he knew to be the right thing even when it pitted him against the police or more powerful entities. I’m a big fan of Ross Macdonald, too. Through Lew Archer, he examined all levels of society just by following clues. Contemporary private eye influences are Robert Crais and Walter Mosley.   

MPS: Besides familiarity, what makes La Jolla a strong setting for the series?

MC: In the first draft of what became my first book, I fictionalized La Jolla. My brother-in-law read it and told me people like reading about real places, so I went with the real town and just fictionalized the police force and a couple other things. Best advice I ever received. La Jolla is a little slice of coastal paradise and is known as a vacation destination around the world. Thus, it attracts a wide variety of people and a lot of wealth. But even wealthy people have problems. They just have money to try to cover them up. When I’m writing about La Jolla, I sometimes think of the opening scene from the movie Blue Velvet with the wide swath of a perfectly manicured lawn…and the dark beetles churning underground. Sometimes paradise is only skin deep.

MPS: The book moves along through many well crafted reveals and reversals that all have a natural feel. How much do you plan out a novel?

MC: Thank you. As mentioned above, I’m not much of a planner. I don’t outline. I start with character and try to find the right catalyst that will move the plot forward and also reveal character. I try to find a case that will force Rick to become emotionally invested. The story really builds around that. I try not to force the plot and let the reveals and plot twists flow up from my subconscious. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I try to let the story come to me instead of chasing it. Sometimes an idea will bubble up in a sentence and I’ll drop it in a scene and I don’t really know what it means. Sometimes it can lead to a whole new angle on the story and other times it’s nothing. I call that dropping anchors. Sometimes, I have to go back and pull up the anchors, but, more often, they stay and improve the story and lead me to the deeper meaning. I know, weird.

MPS: This book I felt Rick came to terms with a lot of the things he was dealing with in the previous books. Do you have a new direction planned for him?

MC: I wish I could tell you I have his whole character arc planned out, but I don’t. He will be carrying a little less baggage than before, but he’s not going to all of a sudden have his life together. Plus, in book five, the one I’m writing now, he’ll have to deal with something that flares up in Blood Truth. However, I do see his relationship with Moira growing and the potential for happiness somewhere down that dark lonely road.