AS: I’ve always liked the idea of telling a story about recovery, as opposed to just spotlighting a hard drinking PI. I wanted to show the steps and stumbles he takes toward getting better. When we find Pete at the beginning of Blackout, he’s not desperate for a drink – in fact, he seems to be in good standing with AA and living a pretty functional life. But that’s on the surface. He hasn’t really dug back into his past and cleared the wreckage. He’s still haunted, and that’s driven a wedge between him and his friends – like his partner, Kathy Bentley, and other supporting characters. So, to answer your question, I wanted to show that Pete’s journey is an ongoing one – he’ll never be completely fixed. No one is. But this book is a big step for him because he’s given an opportunity to make something right, and that, in turn, might allow him to move on, to not be clouded by this guilt and shame, and to maybe embrace being alive. Unfortunately, he has some obstacles to overcome before that can happen – like a deadly cult with its sights set on Pete for meddling in their affairs.
MP: You’ve mentioned one of my favorite private eye authors, Ross Macdonald, in some of your other interviews. Is there anything from reading his work, you’ve applied to yours?
AS: I love Macdonald, so I’m glad you bring him up. I revisited all the Lew Archer books before writing Blackout. And while it wasn’t intentional research, I felt like a lot of that managed to sneak into the writing of the new book. He was a superb plotter, which, to contrast a bit, wasn’t Chandler’s strong suit. And while Lew Archer is unlike Pete in that he doesn’t really experience major, seismic changes from book to book, when you zoom out on the series, you do notice some things, especially when Macdonald plays with themes like the humanity of evil, the environment, or what have you. Those books helped me drill deep and create more compelling “bad guys.” The best villains don’t think they’re villains at all.And, like I said, the Archer books are so tightly plotted. That aspect is often ignored because Macdonald was such a great wordsmith – you can very easily get lost in his language and descriptions. But the books always move at a good clip. Nothing ever feels wasted or like filler. That must have subconsciously nudged me in that direction with Blackout.
MP: As someone who has friends that have dealt both successfully and unsuccessfully with alcoholism, I thought you portrayed that aspect of Pete in a realistic way. What do you keep in mind about that part of him when you’re writing the books?
AS: I try to be honest. Recovery isn’t a linear process, and it doesn’t stick with everyone. I think a lot of people just assume that once you get into AA or some kind of rehab, you’re okay. It’s silly to type that, but I’ve met people who think it’s like going to a doctor. It’s not. It’s a journey fraught with pitfalls and detours and, for many, relapse. So, I wanted to showcase Pete’s quest to get better with that in mind. Just because he’s not drinking doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about it, or thinking about his past as a drinker. He’s a haunted character, and that applies to many people who deal with addiction. It’s a lifelong struggle.
MP: You’ve more or less stated that your putting Pete to rest at least for a while after the next book. Do you already have other stories or another series character in mind?
AS: I have at least one more Pete novel in me, which I’m starting on now – Miami Midnight. I’m having fun with that and might find myself at the end wanting another Pete. But as I see things now, I think I’ll at least give him a break. I don’t know if I’ll dive into another series just yet, though I do have an idea for a character. The two strongest ideas sound like standalone to me, though, and touch on subjects I haven’t gotten to explore with Pete.
MysteryPeople interviewed author Julia Heaberlin, author of Paper Ghosts. Julia Heaberlin is also the author of the critically acclaimed Black-Eyed Susans, a USA Today and Times (U.K.) bestseller. Her psychological thrillers, including Playing Dead and Lie Still, have been sold in more than fifteen countries. She will be here at BookPeople on Thursday, May 31 at 7pm. This is one you won’t want to miss!
Mystery People: What are you reading these days?
Julia Heaberlin: The Smiling Man by British noir writer Joseph Knox, King Zeno by Nathaniel Rich, How to Talk Like Ted: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds (but people who come to the BookPeople event shouldn’t expect that I have mastered this).
MP: What books did you love as a child?
JH: Harriet the Spy, who has been my Facebook icon for years, head down, scribbling her little reports; Anne of Green Gables because I wanted to BE Anne with an E; Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which inspired my dream to write gothic thrillers; From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (I still want to sleep in a museum on the sly and survive off of coins I pick up in a fountain); Little House in the Big Woods, because my mother read it to me with my head in her lap. And an adaptation of the play The Miracle Worker, maybe from Scholastic. I learned the sign language alphabet from the back cover, which I’ve never forgotten.
MP: What’s the hardest thing about writing?
JH: Creating a great ending that lives up to yours and readers’ expectations. A disappointing ending ruins the whole book.
MP: What’s the best thing about writing?
JH: The euphoria of putting together a really good sentence. On a personal, how-it-affects-my-real-life level, it has been meeting people through my research, which I was reminded of while doing an interview for my next book (after Paper Ghosts!), which includes a girl with only one eye.
I was talking to a beautiful teen-ager who has a prosthetic eye so perfect no one knows it but her best friends. I asked her mother, who sat with us, to describe her daughter, as I sat there with my pen and journal. She didn’t hesitate. These words spilled out in this order, like she was reciting a poem.
This is why I research. It’s a gift to myself. People never fail to remind me how beautiful the world is.
MP: What’s your favorite word?
JH: Out loud, anything with a– in it. Kicka–. A–hat. That’s a–. On paper, the word “fate.” Or “dark.” I like simple, four-letter words with power.
MP: What’s a sentence you’ve loved and remembered from a book?
JH: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God.”— A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving.
MP:Do you have any weird writing habits?
JH: I’m unable to survive a deadline without Whataburger Dr Peppers.
MP: Who are your literary influences?
JH: Alive: John Irving, Jess Walter, Tana French, Thomas Harris. Dead: Emily Dickinson, Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, Patricia Highsmith.
MP: What’s your favorite place to write?
JH: In my mind, oceanfront to the sound of waves; in reality, at my kitchen table with the washing machine as background (and the dog snoring).
MP: What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
JH: Photographer. You will see my love of photography’s haunting power in Paper Ghosts.
William Boyle has worked his way into becoming one of crime fiction’s talents. I learned about him through both Ace Atkins and Megan Abbott. Tom Franklin is also a vocal fan. In both his short story collection, Death Have No Mercy, and debut novel Gravesend, he chronicles the battered souls of working class East Coast in a way that hits the heart without being maudlin. His second novel, The Lonely Witness, proves he is taking his skills further.
His main character, Amy, appeared in Gravesend as a lover to the female lead Alyssandra. Here, she has put down her party girl ways behind her, delivering communion for the shut-ins of her Brooklyn neighborhood, living in a basement apartment of a lonely older man who would be like to be her surrogate father. The existence of quiet or possible penance is rocked when one of the elderly women she visits worries about a friend’s son, Vinny, who came into her house and rummaged through her things, looking for something to steal.
Amy follows Vinny one night, only to witness him get stabbed. Instead of going to the police, she picks up the dropped murder weapon and looks into the murder herself. Soon, she feels like she is being stalked by the killer. Between the danger she has placed herself in and the return of both Alyssandra and a father she thought was dead, Amy is compelled to return to her old ways.
Boyle subtly taps into noir’s sense of despair and desperation. His Brooklyn shows the neighborhood which gentrification has either ignored or pushed aside. Anybody over thirty speaks of the old ways and listens to old music, even if it was before their time. Everyone is in search of a life whether in the promise of a future or knowing comfort of the past, and crime seems to be the only way out. Most of the reveals in the book aren’t earth shattering, they are small, precise, and painfully human.
The journey Boyle takes Amy through may be small in geography, but he makes the possible falls from the sidewalk to the gutter bottomless. His people commit desperate acts they don’t fully understand to escape their community of decay. What makes William Boyle’s work ring with such a strong and true voice is that he realizes for many daily life is a struggle. His writing prays for them.
Kristin Lepionka got our attention with her debut novel, The Last Place You Look in 2017. Her next case with Ohio PI Roxane Weary, What You Want To See, will be out next month, on May 1st. To get a glimpse of her talent, check out this piece of flash fiction about tattoos and revenge published in Shotgun Honey.