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.


Women and Consent: An Interview with Bob Kolker about Lost Girls

Matthew Turbeville: Bob, it’s such a great pleasure to talk with you.  Lost Girls is one of my favorite books of all time.  It’s such an amazing true crime book, and one of those rare gems where the male author has such compassion and understanding for the female victims.  For readers’ awareness, the incomparable Megan Abbott once stated it is the best book of this decade, breaking away from other authors who were asked and chose mostly fiction.  Bob, how did you begin investigating or learning about these murders? What intrigued you most, and why were you drawn to these women?

Bob Kolker: I can’t thank you enough, Matthew. I’m blown away by your praise for the book. And Megan’s, too.

I had started paying attention to the Long Island serial killer case at about the same time that many people did: at the end of 2010, when police found four sets of human remains in the bramble alongside a desolate stretch of highway between Jones Beach and Fire Island. The police had been looking for a young woman named Shannan Gilbert, who had gone missing seven months earlier just three miles from where the four bodies were found. It turned out that she and the other four women were escorts who advertised on Craigslist and Backpage. The police kept searching for Shannan, and by the spring, they started turning up more dead bodies and body parts—and yet Shannan was still missing.

The case was exploding, and the media was everywhere, and the local police weren’t saying anything; they even awkwardly were trying to downplay the case, suggesting that no one ought to worry because the victims were just hookers. That seemed more than a little cavalier to me.

When I talked to family members of the women, I was pretty struck by the bizarre situation they all found themselves in. For months and in some cases years, no one—not the police, not the media—had cared that their daughters and sisters were gone. Even something simple like getting a name on the national registry of missing persons was not happening—not for someone that law-enforcement wouldn’t take seriously. Of course, now that these women were in the middle of an open serial-killer case, the world was beating a path to their families’ doors. So these family members were both furious and exhilarated. They still stung from being ignored for so long, and now they hoped for a break in the case, even as they worried that nothing would come of it.

And then came the horrible hangover of seeing their daughters and sisters in the news, constantly referred to as Craigslist prostitutes. The point they made to me really resonated: These women were more than this.

Only after my article came out did I start thinking that the stories of these five families could be a book. Of course I’d hoped that there would be a break in the case (and I still do, five years later), but the story I would tell wouldn’t depend on that. It would be about five women and their families, and how the women’s murders changed those families forever while, affectingly, bringing them all together. It would be about a new, Internet-driven age of escort work, which for all its convenience manages to present its own dangers. It would be about the obsessive nature of crime ­solving in the Internet age, where conspiracy theories are able to metastasize and amateur sleuths can crowd-source data to remarkable effect. And finally, by implicit suggestion, the story would be about the various forces that made these women vulnerable in the first place.

MT:  What about these women makes them “lost”? Is that a label you’re giving these women or a word America uses to describe them? I feel like it’s such an important and complicated word, even in the title.

BK: The title, and the saying, has been used a lot in various contexts. My publisher and I thought there was some risk in using it. But it had the advantage of multiple possible meanings.

We all have, in our minds, stories that can explain how people become escorts, but most of us have only pop culture as a reference point—and there, we see them fully formed, and often mythologized or romanticized. We don’t see how they got there, so we come up with explanations and backstories: drugs, runaways, childhood abuse. We decide they were “lost” long before they were lost. The problem with this explanation is that it robs the women of their own agency. It suggests they were simply helpless—buffeted by the currents of circumstance or class or economic pressure.

But just as there is no single form of poverty, there also is no distinct set of family patterns or life circumstance that leads to the choices these five women made. No set formula or blueprint exists to explain what brought them all to Gilgo Beach. Human trafficking is, of course, a major factor for some, as is addiction and psychological trauma—and each of these causes affects a few of these women to varying degrees. But if there is one similarity they all share, it’s that while some of them were less proud of it than others, none of these women fell off the grid or lived on the streets the way one might imagine. They all remained close to their families. That’s the other way of looking at the title: They were only “lost” insofar as we—the police, the media, the social safety net—elected to lose them by deciding they were not worth paying attention to.

Serial killers know all about this second meaning, of course. Jack the Ripper targeted sex workers for presumably the same reason that the Green River Killer and Joel Rifkin both have gone on the record invoking: These were women they believed no one would ever go looking for. And more often than not, sadly, they’re right.

MT:  Why did you decide to focus mostly on the women’s lives more than the actual murderer? Which victim compelled you most, and who did you feel the strongest bond with?

BK: I’ve said elsewhere that while I certainly want the killer to be caught, I’m not convinced that we aren’t a little over-invested as a society in what makes these killers tick (though I did like Mind Hunter). It was the women that intrigued me more. I hoped that telling their stories would lead to a greater understanding of what made them all so vulnerable to a predator. Their decision to lead the lives they led felt like another unsolved mystery to me. Why take such a risk?

It wasn’t lost on me that all five women came from struggling parts of America, areas that never really got over the big economic downturn in 2008. By telling the story of these families, I could explore those places, too. My models were Calvin Trillin’s Killings, David Simon and Ed Burns’s The Corner, and Adrian Nicole Leblanc’s Random Family—all books where the procedural elements of true crime share the stage with a close look at places and people that readers would never otherwise know about. While the money wasn’t a complete explanation, it was a major clue. All five women grew up in families where, in the social sense, sex work was not seen as a move up, and yet for each of them, the decision felt like an entrepreneurial one: Rather than surrender their financial fate to a minimum-wage job with no benefits and no future, they decided to go into business for themselves. This was only possible because of the Internet; why share your income with a pimp or escort service, or hang out in a dangerous part of town, when you can run your business from home with a smart phone?

As I learned more about the women, I recognized a certain double edge in each of them—an appetite for risk that made people love them, and also allowed them to feel comfortable making decisions their sisters and friends never would have. And yet they all were different, too. While Shannan seemed so vulnerable to me, Megan’s willpower seemed superhuman. Maureen’s journey—from impetuous naïf to seasoned veteran—was amazing to learn about. Melissa mystified me until I saw just how determined she was not to live the life her mother lived. But I personally found Amber most compelling. Her relationship with her older sister Kim was like nothing I’d ever seen or written about before.

MT:  There is something so unstoppable about the way you write, and the way you describe this long, heart-breaking process of finding a serial killer—and the bodies of his (or her) victims.  Was it difficult to write about these women and their lives?

BK: It’s certainly true that I don’t break away from the story that much to offer long discourses on anything, and for good reason: I’m not so good at that. I really love narrative writing, and I’m more comfortable with that than with, say, writing essays or polemics. From the start, I had a rough structure in mind that I’d hoped would keep the whole thing moving. Part one would tell the stories of all five women, and part two would be about the case. My model there was The Executioner’s Song, which had two very different parts.

I think I was so taken up with the reporting of the whole project that I never thought about what it would mean to focus on these women’s stories for so long. It was only after the book was published that I deflated a little and needed some recovery time. That said, in my magazine career, I’ve spent a lot of time interviewing vulnerable sources—people who have been through many kinds of horrible ordeals—and so I have no pretense that anything I’d personally go through would ever hold a candle to what the people I write about have been through. The people who really deserve the attention are the families of the women, who took a big risk in trusting this story to me. They were very candid and heartfelt, and I can only imagine the leap of faith it took for them to open up the way they did.

MT:  Where do you begin when writing a book like this? How do you find a definite beginning (and, readers, the beginning to this book is jaw-droppingly good, completely brilliant and will undoubtedly drag you into Kolker’s world)?

BK: This is the fun (and horrifying) part of writing a book for the first time. The first section I wrote was a long passage about the history of Oak Beach, the secluded beachfront community where Shannan Gilbert disappeared. I figured that would make a good mysterious prelude. Once the first draft was done, it was clear that whole thing belonged somewhere else. So how would I start the book? My editors, David Hirshey and Barry Harbaugh, suggested something more like a movie trailer: A short scene that would give readers a sense not just of the mystery but of the stakes. That clicked with me. I came up with an action scene of Shannan’s disappearance, plus a quick, carefully crafted rundown of how things only got more bizarre after that.

MT: Do you ever know where exactly to end the book? Do you ever want to end the book, or is it something you anticipate from the beginning of the process of research and investigation?

BK: With a lot of my magazine articles, I’ll be reporting, and somebody will say something, and I’ll sit up suddenly and recognize that it would be a good ending, and that will be that. That happened here, too. I was searching for some sort of grace note that would be at least slightly hopeful, suggesting a certain potential for growth and healing for the people in the book. While I was writing the first draft, I learned about something that happened to Maureen’s sister, and I saved it for the end.

MT:  Could you describe some of the aspects of your research and investigative practices to our readers? What was the most challenging part about investigating these murders? What would you say was the most interesting thing you came across (although please, no spoilers!), or maybe what might have been the most intriguing piece of information you came across in your journey?

BK: I spent a lot of time in the hometowns of each woman, speaking to friends and relatives alike.  I kept coming back to the families in order to demonstrate that I wasn’t just doing a quick take on their lives, but really wanted to take their stories seriously.  I took more time with them than a lot of others, so after a while they opened up in ways that they just never had been given the chance to before. What I hadn’t expected was that I would meet a few old friends of some of the victims who still were engaged in sex work, and that they’d be able to describe in detail how these women lived and worked. I had one particularly tense night in Times Square, where a friend of Melissa’s showed me where she used to work. I won’t say more except that we had a run-in with some people.

MT:  How long did it take you to write this book? And what do you feel is the major difference—other than in obvious ways—between writing fiction and writing nonfiction? Has this changed your viewpoint on crime, especially against women, at all?

BK: I wrote the first draft in a year, and I revised it over the next six months. That tight schedule kept me from going down any reporting rabbit holes, so I’m kind of glad (in retrospect) that I didn’t have more time. One difference between nonfiction and fiction that I think a lot about is that while many novelists sell their books after a complete draft is done, most nonfiction authors (or at least narrative nonfiction authors) sell their books when they’re still very early their reporting. So there’s a certain mystery there: Will the book you end up writing be anything at all like the one you thought you’d write?

MT:  Suppose President Trump were to read this book.  Just suppose.  What would you want him—or anyone in his position—to take away from this specific story? What do you hope people walk away from reading Lost Girls thinking?

BK: One very valid way to read this book is as a book about class. When I read books like The Unwinding by George Packer or Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, I recognize that a lot of the people in those books are experiencing the same pressures the people in Lost Girls experienced. I’d hope anyone reading Lost Girls would see how it’s another way of telling the story of norms being destroyed, society being unjust to those most vulnerable, and those in power not paying enough attention.

Lost Girls also is obviously about gender and consent, and the long debate within feminism about legalizing sex work—is it self-actualizing or self-negating?—and it’s not that far afield from the discussion we’re all having now about sexual abuse and power. This story is about a killer who has victimized women who tried to gain control over their lives and were thwarted at every turn—not just by the killer but by social forces they were born into.

MT: Do you think there will ever be justice for these young women, all lost too soon? Do you believe there are more bodies yet to be discovered? What do you think the future is for these lost girls?

BK: In the short term, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the Suffolk County police to get much of anywhere. It’s nice that the FBI is finally involved, but they don’t have the resources they used to have for cases like this. But we’ve all read a lot about serial-killer cases that are solved more than a decade later, once some piece of evidence shakes loose or a witness comes forward. I think that’s quite possible here.

MT:  It almost feels like, at the end of the book, there is a sense of hope for the families of the victims.  A sense of moving on. Some family members and friends are accepting the deaths; others are even creating new life and giving birth. How do you feel about the ending of this book? What were you trying to say—if anything—about how people move on, if they move on, and about how the memories of victims do or do not last in the minds of the rest of us?

BK: I did not want to suggest that real satisfying closure exists for any of these families. That wouldn’t have been accurate; it’s just another fairy tale from pop culture, like the murder that’s solved at the end of the one-hour procedural. But everyone’s perspective changes over time, and though the loss of these women will always be an open wound, I’m interested in how the family members processed and viewed their wounds as their own lives inevitably changed. That’s what I was hoping to get at in the final passages of the book.

MT: Lost Girls created a sort of fandom that I’ve never seen before. There are message boards and Facebook groups and so on dedicated to uncovering the killer’s identity.. How does it feel to have had such a powerful impact—to make people aware and also interested in finding the identity of this killer? In finding justice for these young women’s deaths?

BK: I can’t take all the credit! This case had prompted a lot of online activity before Lost Girls was published, and more recently docu-series like A&E’s Killing Season have taken up the case in new and interesting ways. Books, I think, have an interesting role to play in a market that’s more often driven by cable true-crime and prestige docu-series and podcasts. Books end up being source texts that, if you’re lucky, are constantly referred to and drawn from and cited as others take up the reigns and start investigating on their own. I’m really glad this book is playing that role for some people. And I imagine that I’ll be back in the pool, updating Lost Girls when the time is right.

MT: What’s up next to you? How will you follow up such a grand success, a book that has inspired empathy and compassion in so many people? Readers are dying for another book from you.

BK: I’m in the middle of another narrative nonfiction project. This one is more of a family saga and medical mystery about schizophrenia. What’s exciting for me is that, like Lost Girls, it’s a way to be able to tell the story of one family, this time through several generations, and at the same time help readers understand something new.

MT: Bob, thank you for agreeing to talk with MysteryPeople about the book, the women who inspired it, their murders, and the killer who is still at large.  You are truly an inspiration.  Do you have any closing thoughts or remarks regarding this book, crime or true crime books in general, or anything else?

BK: I’m so glad you wanted to talk!  I’ve been as amazed as anyone at how since Lost Girls was published in 2013, Serial and Making a Murderer and The Jinx have all affirmed innovative and unconventional ways of telling stories that move beyond the initial shock of an event and better understand the people and the circumstances and the broader social issues surrounding it. The wealth of true-crime books coming out this year is a testament to the innovation out there. There’s a lot to read now, and that’s exciting.

Stories We Tell Ourselves: An Interview with John Copenhaver about Dodging and Burning

Matthew Turbeville: Wow, John. When Kristopher from BOLO Books first recommended Dodging and Burning to me, I was unsure of what to think. Upon looking further into it, it seemed like the book of my dreams, and it turned out it was.  Can you explain where you got the idea for Dodging and Burning?

John Copenhaver: Years ago, in grad school, I took a class on the invention of photography and its impact on literature. We read Sontag’s On Photography and Barthes’s Camera Lucida, as well as Ellison’s Invisible Man and Chandler’s The Big Sleep. I became fascinated by the relationship between images and the narratives that are used to interpret (or misinterpret) them. So, I thought, why not tell a story about a photograph that continues to be re-interpreted? I’ve always loved crime fiction, and this idea fit the genre really well.

MT:  Dodging and Burning is a novel with a lot of unique styles and methods of storytelling.  Can you elaborate on the way you went about telling this fantastic story, and how you decided to approach the novel in such a broad, unique fashion?

JC: Essentially the book is a series of stories, each deeper and wider (and darker) than the one that proceeded it, all related to the essential bit of evidence—the crime scene photograph of poor murdered Lily. So, there needed to be lots of different modes of storytelling: a photo, journals, memoirs, pulp fiction, oral, even coded information. I love Margaret Atwood’s brilliant use of different modes of writing in The Blind Assassin. Also, D. M. Thomas’s heartbreaking and truly remarkable novel, The White Hotel, unfolds through different modes, the truth becoming clearer with each new kind of writing. I really admire those books, so I was chasing a similar effect in my own novel.

MT: I really loved all the characters, even at their worst.  And the story never stopped twisting and turning.  I suppose my next question is how did you first start composing this novel: through character, through story, or in some other way?

JC: Although I began with the photograph idea, when I actually sat down and started writing it, I focused on character, specifically Bunny Prescott. Then, about a fourth of the way through, I stopped and outlined the entire story. I also discovered a lot through revision. In particular, the final twist came to me. It gave me chills. The novel I’m working on now had a similar moment. I can’t say enough about the importance of revision! (Sorry, the teacher in me is coming out.)

MT:  I usually save the heavy-hitter questions for later on in the interview, but I’m dying to ask: you’ve expressed you’re a feminist, supporting women adamantly, and also that you are extremely pro-gay, and also anti-patriarchy (I guess I’m swooning by this point).  What I’m getting at is, without giving away any spoilers, how do you feel this is reflected in the novel, and what were you trying to say in stating these viewpoints and ideas?

JC: Patriarchy is a system under which everyone suffers, most prominently gay men, trans persons, women, and any person of color. But I also think straight white men suffer too. In a patriarchal culture it’s not just that you’re not permitted to say or do certain things, but that you’re not permitted to feel certain things, which is a sort of culturally reinforced, self-inflicted violence. Straight white men, because of their dominant status in our culture, are perhaps the most limited in this respect. Broadly speaking, this confounding of emotion is where their rage comes from. In my novel, you’ll see that the source of most of the violence comes from straight men, but it can be passed on to women, gay men, etc. A sort of chain reaction.

MT: I know that Dodging and Burning took you a long time to write.  Were there ever moments when you truly felt you were going to give up? What advice do you give new and upcoming writers, people who want to make it “big” like how you are doing—or about to do upon the release of this novel in early 2018?

JC: Yes, this book has been long journey. My advice to less experienced writers is simple: If you truly enjoy writing, if you really need it, you will have no choice but continue to do it. Trust in the urge to write, in that compulsion, and it will see you through. Accept that you will always be growing as a writer and accept the fact that you need your friends, your family, your beta testers, your agents, and your editors to see you through the rough places in your work and in getting your work out into the world.

MT: I’ve compared this novel to Laura Lippman’s later, greatest work. Who are your favorite crime novelists (especially women) and novelists in general who have influenced this completely amazing and unique book?

JC: My favorite crime novelists (in no particular order) are Patricia Highsmith, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, Val McDermid, Tana French, Sarah Waters, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Ross Macdonald. My literary favorites are Margaret Atwood, Iris Murdoch, Truman Capote, Shirley Jackson, Ian McEwan, Vladimir Nabokov, John Fowles, W. Somerset Maugham, and Virginia Woolf … All of whom steal from the crime fiction for inspiration.

MT: I’m trying to avoid giving away any spoilers from Dodging and Burning, because that would be a major disservice to readers. But I do want to ask: how do you view the novel and its ending? Is this a tragedy or a triumph? What do you think crime fiction reflects in general: hope or despair?

JC: We tell ourselves the stories we need to make sense of our world. At times, though, those stories are challenged and disrupted. To move forward, a new story needs to emerge. At the end of Dodging and Burning, the characters uncover what they believe to be a re-interpretation of the past (which is a quality of a lot of crime fiction), but their interpretations differ, because they both need different things to move forward. We can collect as much evidence as we can about the past, but it’s really up to us to decide what story we’re going to tell about it. So, it’s not necessarily tragedy or triumph, but a logical extension of character.

MT:  Returning to your writing habits, can you describe your writing process from day-to-day? Are you a morning or night writer? Middle-of-the-day perhaps? By pen or pencil or computer? How many words or hours per day?

JC: I’m a high school teacher, so I’m a whenever-wherever-I-can-write writer, usually weekends and vacations and snow days. I would love to write every day, but that’s simply not possible given my workload … Always computer. I loathe my handwriting.

MT:  Not that Dodging and Burning needs advertisement, advocacy, or support, as it’s just a frankly amazing novel, but could you pitch to our readers in a sentence or two (or three) why it is absolutely necessary to read this book?

JC: Dodging and Burning isn’t just a historical mystery. It’s a novel about our relationship with the past, a past in which women and gay people were oppressed and marginalized, a past which today feels increasingly present. It’s also a book about storytelling, so it has to have a story full of lots of twist and turns!

MT: While the book is set, in part, decades and decades ago, sometimes it feels like the issues you address haven’t changed much.  How do you reflect upon this?

JC: Back to my earlier comment about patriarchy: Clearly it’s still a big problem. Think about all the sexual assault and harassment perpetrated by men in powerful positions. Yes, we’ve made progress since the 1940s, but we’re far from there.

MT: Continuing on the importance of this book—and it’s a very important book—what do you think the average American, or even President Trump, should take away from Dodging and Burning? There’s obviously a lot I can think of, but I want to hear your central message, the general idea you would want to get into his head.

JC: I hope Dodging and Burning communicates a sense of the struggle that gay men went through at war and on the home front during WWII, and our responsibility to tell their stories, as fragmented as they are, for posterity.

MT: One central theme or issue in Dodging and Burning is the issue America faces with homosexuality and other forms of sexuality.  What do you think is the state of gay literature in America? What do you think Dodging and Burning will do for it? And more importantly, what is the place of the gay man in the crime genre? That seems really important, especially in this book.

JC: There are a lot of wonderful books being written by LGBTQ writers. We need to continue to support great organizations like Lambda Literary and join forces with our allies in the publishing industry. Also, LGBTQ writers need to continue to hone their craft and move beyond coming out stories and erotica. There’s nothing wrong with either, but there’s so much more to be written about. We need to look hard at gay culture. We can celebrate it, but we also need to critique it. Speaking from the standpoint of a high school teacher, we need to get serious LGBTQ books into the classrooms, either as shared texts or as independent reading. YA has made some inroads, but adult LGBTQ literature still stands at the fringes. As for the gay man in crime fiction, he has had a place for many years and will continue to have a place: Think of the novels of Greg Herren, Michael Nava, Joseph Hanson, etc. My hope is that those writers and other LGBTQ crime writers will be read by a wide and diverse readership. The readers are out there, but we need to build a bridge to them.

MT: If there was one thing you could change about Dodging and Burning now that it’s being published, what would it be? I know what I would change: I’d have it last forever.  I just couldn’t stop reading it (three times, so far).

JC: I can’t really think about changes at this point. It’s just not a mental space I can access. That ship, my friend, has sailed.

MT: Do you have another book in the works? I know that Dodging and Burning took a while, but I’m hoping that we’ll get a new John Copenhaver novel soon, as the world (and me too) truly needs your writing.  When will we see another book by you, and what might it be about?

JC: I’m polishing up a novel manuscript, set in post-WWII DC, about two teenage girls, one of whom is (perhaps) a budding sociopath. They work together as amateur detectives to unwind the mysterious connection between an assault on their favorite teacher and the brutal murder of a classmate. I like to think of the novel as a femme fatale’s coming of age story: What were Cora Papadakis and Kathie Moffat like as young women? Can we have sympathy of the succubi?

MT: John, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to MysteryPeople.  We are loving your debut novel, and encourage—even more so than usual—readers to go out and buy a copy of this lovely, stunning, and groundbreaking novel (trust me, reader, you won’t regret it).  Thank you so much for giving us some insight into your thought process and also your novel itself.   I look forward to reading Dodging and Burning a fourth and a fifth and, given I have time, a sixth time.

Under Her Skin: The Lisa Unger Interview You’ve Been Waiting For

Lisa Unger is the author of sixteen, soon-to-be seventeen, novels of crime and suspense, including The Red Hunter.  An international best-seller, she is acclaimed by critics and fans alike.  Ms. Unger agreed to sit down with MysteryPeople’s Matthew Turbeville for a candid chat, and we are so excited for the results. 

Matthew Turbeville: Hi Lisa! Welcome to MysteryPeople. We love your writing here.  First, off, I’d like to ask how you got your start in writing.

Lisa Unger: Thank you so much, Matthew! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all your support. I feel like I know you!

Most writers are born and not made. I honestly don’t remember a time before I defined myself that way. But like most writers, I was a reader first.  When I was young, my family moved around a lot. So, often the new kid, often the odd one out, I found a home in books and the written word.

Image result for lisa ungerFor readers, it probably stops there – they’re content to disappear into worlds created by others. But I remember thinking: If somebody else can so completely transport me with their words, I wonder if I can do the same for someone else? How many stories are there in me?

I’ve been writing since childhood – short stories, poetry, plays. Most of my education was devoted to learning and honing my craft, and it was in college when I began my first novel. But, as for most novelists, the road from those early pages to my first published novel is long and twisting.

MT: Who are your favorite mystery writers? What authors do you turn to for inspiration?

LU: Some of the best people writing today are writing crime fiction – I’m sure you agree. My list of beloved authors is so long, I don’t even know where to begin.

Tess Gerritsen, Lisa Gardner, and Karin Slaughter are women I so admire as writers and people.  They get better with every book. It’s inspirational because I, too, strive to be a better writer every day, hoping that each book is better than my last.

Authors that never fail to transport me include Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Gregg Hurwitz, Megan Abbott, Kate Atkinson (I think she has a new one coming out!), Donna Tartt …  More favorites: Alafair Burke (reading her new one now! Love it!), Sara Blaedel, Lisa Lutz, Kate White, Michael Koryta, Michael Connelly … oh! I know I’m leaving people off this list. Let’s call it a work in progress.

MT: All of your novels are so different and so alive.  Where do you get inspiration for each novel?

LU: Thank you, Matthew. That means a lot coming from you, such an avid reader and with such great taste. They are alive. With every story, each character lives and breathes in me. My process is deeply subconscious, so I don’t have as much access to how things work as you might think. But inspiration can come from anywhere – a line of poetry, a news story, even, in one case, a piece of junk mail. If that spark ignites something else going on with me – a question I have about people, some deep-rooted fear, something about my life or myself that I’m processing – then I start to hear a voice. I follow that voice – or sometimes voices – through the narrative.

MT: Do you know the twists and turns you will write from the novel’s very first page, or do they come to you?

LU: I don’t! I have no idea day to day who is going to show up in my manuscript, what they are going to do, and I certainly have no idea how a book is going to end.  I write for the same reason that I read. Because I want to know what’s going to happen to the characters living in my head.

MT: What is your writing process like? Are you a morning or evening writer? How many hours do you write a day? How many words do you write on average?

LU: My golden creative hours are around 5am to noon, that time and space where my brain is still in that sleepy, dreamlike phase. I don’t always get that time, because I have a daughter who also likes to get up early. So these days, I wake up and write as early as possible, write until my daughter wakes up, eat with her and get her off to school, then back to writing.  I don’t have a daily page or word count.  But recently, I have been working in three-hour blocks with breaks in between for exercise, eating, errands, etc., saving things like answering email or social media posts for the end of the day. I find that allows me to be the most present and creative when I’m at the keyboard (or notebook!).

MT: Out of all your books, which do you feel is your best? Your favorite? What book would you go back and rewrite if you had a chance, if any?

LU:  My singular goal as a writer is to sit down at my keyboard and be better than I was the day before. So I hope that each novel I write is the best I’ve written. And if that’s the case, then my best book is the one I’m writing right now!

But honestly, it’s impossible to choose.  Each book is special to me, each one the pinnacle of my ability at the time of its writing, and each uniquely connected to what was going on in my life as I wrote it.

If given the chance, I would rewrite every single book I’ve ever written!  A book can only get better with each rewrite.

MT: You frequently write about violence against women, as seen specifically in The Red HunterHow do you feel your writing is important in today’s ever-changing and ever-disruptive political climate?

LU: I believe that readers turn to fiction not just to escape life but to understand it better.  Each story is a slice of life. Readers turn to crime fiction, much as writers do, to order the chaos we perceive in the world. In books, there is a definable beginning, middle, and end. Characters take a journey, hopefully changing for the better. There is, of course, violence and crime. But usually, justice of one form or another is served. Not so in the real world – where crimes often go unpunished, and we often feel out of control.

I do write about violence, dark actions, disturbed people. But I peer into those dark places because I’m looking for the light of understanding. Why do people do what they do to each other? What makes one person a hero, another a villain? What makes one person a victim, another an avenger? How do we face the darkest moments of our lives and find a path to love, forgiveness? Is there redemption after wrong-doing?

I know a lot of writers struggle to understand their relevance when truth is often stranger and more disturbing than fiction. It’s the writer’s job to metabolize the world, our stories reflecting our times, in some rare cases even illuminating or creating meaning with our characters and their journeys. In times of political and social chaos, people turn to story to take a break, to understand, and to order a world that is as unpredictable and changeable as at any time in history.

MT: Which of your books do you feel would make the biggest different socially, politically, etc? Which of your books are you dying for readers to read? Is there one that you feel doesn’t get enough attention?

LU: Each of my novels is deeply personal, and I hope that each has an element that readers either empathize with or connect to on a deeper level. There are threads that run through them all – ideas about family relationships, the twisting, changing nature of identity, truth and lies, what makes us who we are. I know from the mail I receive that I’m connecting with some readers on a very personal level – because these are things with which we all wrestle, questions we all want to answer.

I’ve been fortunate that most of my books have found their audience.  But if I had to pick one that I think doesn’t get enough attention it would be Crazy Love You. Because of the title and cover imagery, it may be mistaken by some as more of a romantic tale. Not that there is anything wrong with romance novels! But this book is no romance. It’s a deep dive into obsession, addiction, and a kind of dark attachment that some people confuse for love. I have a special place in my heart for the disturbed main character Ian, and his childhood friend Priss – who is wild, unpredictable and has a dark, dark past.

MT: In the Blood features a major twist that must have taken a lot of research on your end.  How much research do you put into each book? How much time do you spend pre-writing?

LU:  I am always researching something. I’m a non-fiction junkie, constantly taking in information from books, documentaries, podcasts, text books.  In the Blood was inspired by an article I read in New York Times Magazine about childhood psychopathy. And it was shortly after reading it that I started hearing the voice of Lana Granger.  I didn’t know anything about her when I started writing except that she was a liar. And that she was so deeply veiled that she was almost in a cocoon.  That she’d start the book as one thing, and be something totally different by the end.  The twist was, believe it or not, a huge surprise to me, as well.

Research and learning is a big part of my work and my life. So I spend a great deal of time learning about my subject matter. Or, more often, my work is inspired by a non-fiction topic that is already obsessing me. So, the writing process and research are indivisible for me.

But as important as knowledge is empathy.  I approach all my characters with empathy and compassion. I listen to them. I understand them. And they reveal themselves to me. It’s important to get the facts right, especially in a book like In the Blood. But it’s equally important to treat your characters with respect, to understand and reveal the heart of the story, and to know that – no matter what our secondary differences – we are all the same.

MT: You tend to be fairly prolific.  How do you keep a steady output of books going so frequently, and with such high quality? Do you prefer to write fast or take your time?

LU: Honestly, it is harder for me not to write that it is for me to find time to write. If I go a few days without writing, I feel unmoored. I write most days, and I am happiest that way. As a mom, my daughter always comes first. I try to strictly compartmentalize my time. When I’m working, I’m present for the page.  When I’m with my family, I am present for them.  When I’m in that marketing, social media, speaking, touring space I focus my energy there. It’s the fractured moments, where I try to do too many things at once that I feel the most stressed.

Of course, the lines are always messy and blurred. Time is the most limited resource, and there is a constant juggling act between those parts of myself.  But I am semi-obsessed with the stories that are going in my head. So, I’m always looking for those nooks and crannies to get something down on paper.

Sometimes, I’m in the zone and those pages are flying. Sometimes I stare at the page. And stare. And stare. I am comfortable in both places. In writing, as in all organic processes, there is an ebb and a flow.  So I never feel rushed, or stressed if something is taking too long. It is what it is.

MT: We’re dying to know what sort of book is next! What book do you have up your sleeve this time, and when will it be released?

LU: My next release, entitled Under My Skin, will release in October 2018. The cover reveal should be coming in the next month or two and I’ll be sharing that on social media, of course! I’m not ready to talk about it yet. But suffice it to say that I’ve been obsessed lately with that hazy space between sleep and wakefulness, between our dream and waking lives, and the twist of the past and the present.  Buckle up!

MT: What do you feel your responsibilities or duties are as one of the leading female voices in crime fiction?

LU: My contract with my readers is to be the best possible writer I can be, and to give each book everything I have creatively, every time. It’s my responsibility to care more about the work than I do about its promotion, to treat my readers and characters with respect, and to be true to the type of story I authentically want to tell. But while I am writing, I never really think about how a novel will be received, what kind of discussions or thoughts it might provoke, what its place might be in the world. It is a personal process, and when I write I am utterly alone with the page and what’s happening there.

MT: Thank you so much for speaking with us here at MysteryPeople.  We always look forward to your new books.  You’re welcome back any time!

LU: You are so welcome!  Thank you for reaching out, for your thoughtful questions, and for being such a champion of crime fiction writers, Matthew!

Steven Saylor on writing about history, crime, & more

Steven Saylor’s Ancient Roman detective, Gordianus The Finder, finally takes on the biggest murder of his time in The Throne Of Caesar. He will be discussing it at BookPeople on February 22nd, but our Scott Butki got in some early questions in concerning writing about history and work in the future.

MysteryPeople Scott Butki: Let’s start by talking about how you came up with this seed of an idea that became this novel. You got the idea at a cocktail party with scholars?

Steven Saylor: I was invited to speak to a group of Classical scholars meeting at Baylor—a long way from Rome!—and a professor named James O’Hara, having heard me bemoan the “impossible challenge” of writing a mystery novel around the Ides of March, said to me, “Make it about…X.” In the Author’s Note to The Throne of Caesar, I fill in the blank, but it would be a spoiler to do so here. The point is, I am so lucky to be linked in and to get insights and feedback from some world-class experts on the ancient world. Sometimes all it takes is a single word, as in this case, to get me over the stumbling block and out of the starting blocks.

MPSB: As someone writing about Ancient Rome did you feel you had to write, at some point, about what you call “the most famous murder case in history”?

SS: Once I realized that my first novel Roman Blood (set in 80 B.C.) would become a series, getting to the assassination of Caesar in 44 B.C. seemed a natural goal. It’s such a huge watershed event, a real before/after moment in world history.

MPSB: If anyone thinks they already know how this story will end—it being so famous after all—what would you tell them?

SS: As in most of my novels, there are two plot lines running parallel and simultaneously—the plot on the surface, and the invisible plot. You know how one will turn out, but hopefully the other will give you a surprise.

MPSB: How did you decide how much of Shakespeare to quote in the book?

SS: There’s only one direct homage to the Bard, when a certain character speaks a line lifted directly from Julius Caesar. I reveal the details of that in Author’s Note. It’s a line that works one way in Shakespeare’s play, and a different way in my version, so it’s loaded with irony, and one of many in-jokes sprinkled throughout the book that may amuse history buffs and Shakespeare lovers.

MPSB: Let’s back up now. Why did you start writing novels about Ancient Rome in the first place?

SS: I give a great amount of credit to the sword-and-sandal movies of my childhood, chief among them Cleopatra, written and directed by the great Joseph Mankiewicz. The tale of Caesar, Antony, and Cleopatra became one of the central myths of my imagination. The assassination scene in that movie is pure cinematic genius, unforgettable. I went on to study Classics and history at UT Austin, and then years later had the idea to turn Cicero’s first murder trial into a crime novel; that became Roman Blood. The book found a readership, and I suddenly had a whole career ahead of me.

MPSB: Why did you decide to write erotic thrillers under a different name, Aaron Travis?

SS: That was back in my slacker twenties, which are a bit of a blur now. Hormones ruled my life, and the erotic was my muse. I’ve kept those works available in e-editions for the discerning connoisseur, but I must warn readers that they are not for the faint of heart.

MPSB: When I last interviewed you you said, “I would like to write another historical epic set in Austin some day, about the early days of the Texas Republic.” Is that still on the radar?

SS: Hmmm, off the radar for now, I would say. I have a current project that’s consuming all my research and storytelling. (More about that below.) But every now and then I find myself musing about Mirabeau Lamar and Sam Houston and their competing visions for the Republic of Texas. I still collect books about that period. You never know.

MPSB: As both a graduate of University of Texas and a part-time Austin resident, what are some of your favorite spots around Austin?

SS: My Austin is all about swimming, running, Tex-Mex and BBQ—working up an appetite at Barton Springs, Deep Eddy, Hippie Hollow, the trail around Lady Bird Lake, and the Barton Creek Greenbelt (but not all in the same day!) and then eating at Maudie’s, Green Mesquite, Chuy’s, or The Iron Works. For culture, I love the Blanton Museum; I’m eager to see Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin” structure. And I still drop in on the occasional lecture on the UT campus.

MPSB: What would readers be most surprised to learn about you?

SS: I’ve been with the same guy for well over forty years now, since Rick and I were both at UT back in 1976. Now we’re legally hitched. Such long marriages are not so common these days. I’m very lucky to have had so much emotional continuity in my life. I’ve also had the same editor and agent since forever. I’m very loyal, I suppose.

MPSB: What are you working on next?

SS: My next novel will be the third volume in my family saga series, to follow Roma and Empire. It’s a big chunk of history, taking the family from the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius and his no-good playboy son Commodus (notorious from the movie Gladiator, though my version will be very different) all the way to Constantine the Great, who made Christianity the state religion. Along the way we meet the sun-worshipping, drag-queen emperor, Elagabalus. His reign was quite short, I’m afraid, but he made quite an impression.

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.

Interview With Don M. Patterson

Don M. Patterson’s Sierra Blanca ended up on my list of favorite Texas crime novels and thrillers of 2017. It features CIA operative Hank Copeland teaming up with a handful of  Lone Star lawmen to take down a Russian plot involving drug cartels on the border in 1984. Its swift storytelling, action-packed plot, and fun characters made it one of last years’ most entertaining reads. Don will be joining us on February 10th with Alex Berenson but was kind enough to answer come questions for us earlier.

MysteryPeople Scott: Sierra Blanca is one of those rare pieces of entertainment that is fresh yet a throwback to earlier books and movies. How did it come about?

Don Patterson: Sierra Blanca began with the idea of creating a spy character that is as Texan (specifically West Texan) as James Bond is British; and that became Hank Copeland.  Once I started playing around with story ideas for a West Texan spy, doing a Western, or neo-Western, was a natural conclusion.  Westerns – the spaghetti variety in particular – and espionage have always been favorite genres of mine, so I set out to create a story that took the recognizable tropes from each and co-mingled them into something new: a Spy-Western.

MPS: You have classic buddy dynamic with Hank Copeland and Sheriff Clearwater. How did you approach that relationship?

DM: The Howard Hawk classic film Rio Bravo was a major influence on Sierra Blanca and I looked at Copeland as Dean Martin to Clearwater’s John Wayne.  Copeland’s lackadaisical attitude to his job provides a foil to Clearwater’s tough lawman demeanor.  But I think what really makes the dynamic work is that I didn’t write Copeland as the driver of the story’s action, but rather the facilitator for other characters to act.  The real heroes of the story are Texas Ranger Burgos and Sheriff Clearwater; Copeland is mostly along for the ride and to hopefully make you laugh.

MPS: Besides the necessary place for the plot, what did the Texas-Mexico border offer to the story?

DM: For me, the golden era of spy stories is unquestionably the Cold War.  I looked for a way to bring the Cold War to West Texas in a somewhat plausible way, and proximity to Mexico and Latin America provided that in.  Latin America in the late 70s and early 80s threatened to become the next major theater in the proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union.  That tension bleeding up to the Mexico-Texas border became a major plot driver.

Growing up in West Texas, I always held a romanticized view of El Paso & Juarez as an international community rife with intrigue, like the Casablanca of the southwest.  So you have this historic metroplex straddling an international border, a perfect setting for a spy story.  And surrounding the cities are beautiful mountains, a sun soaked desert, and the hard-scrabble stretches of the Transpecos region; the perfect setting for a Western.  I’d argue no region could be a better host for a Cold War Western.

MPS: This book felt like one of the best seventies or eighties action films never made. Were you influenced by movies as much as books?

DM: Absolutely, probably more so.  For the spy elements, I was naturally influenced by both the film and literary versions of James Bond – I used Ian Flemings’ books as a style guide as I was writing.  But the Western elements were mostly inspired by film (and some Cormac McCarthy).  As I’ve said, Rio Bravo in particular was a major influence, as was John Carpenter’s modern take on that movie: Assault on Precinct 13.  I wanted the feel of a gritty Sam Peckinpah Western or a grind-house B-action flick packaged as a modern pulp.  Even the cover art was inspired by the title cards of old movies.      

MPS: One reason for that cinematic feel is you write kinetic action passages that the reader can always follow. Is there anything you keep in mind when writing those parts?

DM: Physics, human anatomy, and logic mostly.  People,cars, and things should react realistically when acted upon and the motion should be described in a way that makes sense and is unambiguous.  I viewed my role as the play-by-play announcer calling a game the listener couldn’t see; it’s good to use some flourish, but it has to be clear who’s rounding which bases.  

MPS: Was there anything you had to keep in mind when setting the book in the eighties?

DM: I did more research than one might think is necessary for a short, action novella.  I wanted there to be accuracy in the types of cars law enforcement used in 1984, the weapons and gadgets in use, the politics and cultural touchstones of the time, and even inconsequential things like what was on TV in the summer of ’84.  I found that the 1980s, or any pre-cell phone era, actually helps a great deal with story telling.  Think about how many classic plots would be ruined if the characters had access to a cellphone or the internet.