SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH NICK PETRIE

I have a theory that if you give an awesome book full of adrenaline, excitement and plot twists to someone who usually needs a cup of coffee to get moving in the morning, the book will do the job. Nick Petrie’s new novel, Tear It Down, is one such book.

Tear It Down (A Peter Ash Novel #4) Cover ImageAs the book, the fourth in Petrie’s Peter Ash series, begins, Ash’s girlfriend sends the restless war veteran to Memphis to help a friend, Wanda, with a situation: she’s receiving strange threats. By the time he arrives her home is under attack, bulldozed by a garbage truck.

Meanwhile, a young homeless musician in Memphis, on the run after a jewelry store heist goes sideways, steals, at gunpoint, Ash’s car and Ash finds himself immersed in a second case with Ash trying to help not just Wanda but also this musician, Eli.

Petrie masterfully advances both stories while fleshing out all the characters.

Petrie’s first novel, The Drifter, won the ITW Thriller and Barry Awards, and was nominated for Edgar, Anthony, and Hammett Awards. He won the 2016 Literary Award from the Wisconsin Library Association and was named one of Apple’s 10 Writers to Read in 2017.  Light It Up was named the Best Thriller of 2018 by Apple Books.

His books in the Peter Ash series are The Drifter, Burning Bright, Light It Up, and Tear It Down. A husband and father, he has worked as a carpenter, remodeling contractor, and building inspector.

Petrie agreed to let me interview him via email. This is the result.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this adrenaline rush of a story?

Nick Petrie: For me, stories evolve in strange ways.  Memphis is near the New Madrid Seismic Zone, and I set out to write a natural disaster tale.  I began to research Memphis and its historical conflicts and challenges, and I had a lot of stories to choose from.  I began with Wanda Wyatt because I’d met a photojournalist with post-traumatic stress, and I thought Wanda would provide a new way of looking at the consequences of war.  Then I remembered an article in a building magazine with a photograph of a dump truck that had crashed into a building, which gave me a way to dramatize a certain kind of conflict.  When Eli Bell showed up, he was so sympathetic and compelling that I knew something else entirely was happening, and the earthquake would have to wait for another book.

Scott: Am I right in guessing this is a story where you did some major outlining? It seems you would need it to explain both the plotline about Eli and the others robbing a jewelry store AND the plotline about Peter Ash helping Wanda?

Nick: That was the challenge I set for myself with this book – to write two separate plotlines that would twine around each other, and relate to each other, simultaneously.  Unfortunately, I’m not a big outliner, I tend to write more organically, and at times I really despaired for the structure of this book. (I often think my writing life would be easier if I could outline.  But I seem incapable of it.) I have a big corkboard on the wall of my office, and after I had most of a draft, I marked up a bunch of notecards, one card for each scene, and used the corkboard to arrange and rearrange until it felt right.  Not very scientific, I’m afraid.

Scott: What was it like to get this praise from Lee Child: “Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Petrie’s Peter Ash is the real deal…The writing is terse and tense, full of wisdom and insight, and the plot is irresistible.”  How would you compare Ash with Reacher?

Nick: I am a HUGE fan of Lee’s work, so his praise meant the world to me.  Peter Ash definitely shares some DNA with Jack Reacher – both are rootless ex-military heroes who don’t really fit into the modern world, and who are more interested in solving somebody’s problem than in the niceties of the legal system.  But I think the characters’ differences are far more complex. Where Reacher is a wandering loner by choice, Peter longs for a home, but he literally cannot stay indoors for very long. And where Reacher is a kind of superman, who you feel is almost beyond harm – and this is, I think, one of the core appeals of Jack Reacher – Peter Ash, although physically very capable, is still quite vulnerable, which is, I think, why the series has found so many readers, so quickly.  

Scott: How would you describe Iraq war veteran Peter Ash, as well as the character of Eli?

Nick:  Peter Ash is a Marine Corps veteran with post-traumatic stress that takes the form of claustrophobia, which means he can’t be inside for more than a few minutes.  Although he’s working hard to get better, Peter’s combat skills and wartime experiences have made him ill-suited to the modern world. But like many veterans I’ve met, Peter is driven to be useful.  So he dives back into the world, again and again, even if it means risking everything, to help others.

Eli Bell, on the other hand, is a talented young street musician in serious trouble.  He’s allowed himself to be caught up in a robbery scheme with his friends, but when the robbery goes wrong, Eli finds himself on the wrong side of a local warlord and his paid killers.  Eli is smart and proud and resourceful, and he doesn’t want Peter’s help. But he won’t live long without it.

Scott: How did you develop those two characters?

Nick: This might make me sound more unbalanced than I really am, but characters usually appear first as a kind of voice in my head.  I started writing The Drifter, my first book, because I kept hearing the voice of a cheerful, damaged veteran who needed to remove a big, mean dog from under a porch so he could do some repairs.  The whole story evolved from that basic sense of his character. The way Peter got the dog out from under the porch. His reaction when he found a certain Samsonite suitcase. What he did with the dog afterwards.  How he ended up under that porch in the first place. Everything Peter’s done since that scene has been an extension of that first voice in my head.

I have no idea where Eli Bell came from.  One day I started writing about these four black kids living in an abandoned house.  But I became very involved in their complicated friendship, their hopes and sorrows and dreams and ambitions.  And Eli’s voice was so strong that I just kept writing, not knowing where he would fit in the book, knowing only that he would take me somewhere interesting.  He’s fierce and strong and determined and flawed, with everything stacked against him – a writer could hardly hope for a better character.

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

Nick: Character, absolutely.  I start with a character’s voice, then drop him or her into a difficult situation with no real idea of what he or she will do next.  Usually the voice tells me what happens next. In Light It Up, for example, I knew I wanted to write about Colorado’s newly-legal cannabis industry.  It made sense that Peter would want to help other veterans to protect the pot growers – protecting and helping others is like breathing for Peter. So I sent him to work one day, to see what would happen.  Unfortunately, some hijackers decided they wanted what Peter’s crew was carrying. Things went downhill from there.

Scott: You do a great job explaining what life is like on streets for Eli. Are you hoping readers will come away with some learning about that? What else are you hoping readers will take away from this excellent novel?

Nick: My primary job is always to entertain my readers, to jack up their adrenaline levels and keep them turning those pages.  That means I have to create characters that readers will care about, then give those characters increasingly difficult challenges.  And because my own life is pretty boring, I’m most interested in writing about people who are not like me, whether that’s a black street kid or a combat veteran or a working-class guy who feels abandoned and adrift.  

If my work can drop readers into the lives and minds and hearts of someone who is not like them? That, for me, is success. Because reading a good book is a radical act of empathy. The world could use a little more of that.

Scott: How do you go about researching a story like this?

Nick:  I begin by reading enough to hear that quiet voice in my head and get me itching to begin.  Then I write forward in the story until it’s clear to me that I need to know more. Sometimes research is more reading, sometimes it’s talking with experts, sometimes it’s talking with people who have lived an experience I’m only writing about.  This happens multiple times during the writing of a single book – sometimes multiple times in a single week. Also, I always make at least one visit to the place I’m writing about. Visiting Memphis had a profound effect on this book – creating a vivid setting is really important to me because setting is a kind of bonus character.  I really want readers to have an immersive experience. My favorite books are those that make me forget myself for a while.

Scott: This is the fourth book in your Peter Ash series. Do you want readers to start with the first one or with this one?

Nick: I’ve written them to be read in any order you find them.  But if you’re the kind of reader that likes to start at the beginning – and I’m actually that kind of reader – you might enjoy seeing the evolution of the characters and the kinds of trouble Peter gets into, starting with The Drifter.  

Scott: How far out do you have this series planned?

Nick: The thing I like the best about writing Peter Ash stories is that they can go anywhere and can take on any subject – as long as they involve vivid characters and a fast, exciting story.  I have some ideas about the larger arc of the series, but I try not to have too many preconceived notions. Following the characters seems to work best. The next Peter Ash book is set in Iceland, where Peter goes to find a missing child amid the dramatic landscape and strange characters of this wild and wonderful place.  Unfortunately for Peter, it doesn’t go well.

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS HAMMER

In Scrublands, Australian author Chris Hammer writes about a journalist, Martin, sent to a drought-ravaged town in Australia where the one year anniversary of an event is coming up: A year earlier a priest, minutes before a weekend service, stood on the church steps with a gun and shot several people before being killed himself.

Scrublands Cover ImageMartin finds things are not as it seems as far as the story told about the incident and, while investigating, there are fires, a fatal car accident and he falls in love with a local resident.

The old journalism rule about not becoming part of the story is broken repeatedly. This book has twist after twist including Martin publishing stories that seem accurate at the time, but soon turn out to be otherwise. This is great writing that will keep surprising you.

Hammer was a journalist for more than 30 years before becoming a full-time novelist with the success of Scrublands.  He served as an international correspondent, the chief political correspondent for The Bulletin and a senior political journalist for The Age. His first nonfiction book, The River, was awarded the ACT Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award.

As a lover of good mysteries and a former journalist myself, I recommend this book

Hammer agreed to let me interview him via email.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?

Chris Hammer: I have no idea where large parts of the story came from. For example, mass shootings are rare in Australia – those that do occur are typically domestic murder-suicides. I know of no real-life basis for the homicidal priest Byron Swift, here or in the US.

I was a journalist for 30 years, including extensive stints as a roving foreign correspondent, so those helped inform protagonist Martin Scarsden – for example, I did report from Gaza.  But character-wise he is unlike me.

I travelled through large parts of inland Australia about ten years ago at the height of the ‘Millennial Drought’ – the deepest and most prolonged since European settlement – researching my non-fiction book The River. I visited towns where the river had literally run dry. So the setting for Riversend is based on that.

There was a case some years ago involving Australia’s most infamous serial killer, a man named Ivan Milat. He would pick up hitchhikers, torture and kill them. It’s likely one story line grew from that seed.

There are other bits and pieces that may have origins in real life but much of it has bubbled up from the imagination. Which is good – it encourages me to think I can write more books like this!

Scott: Which came first, the priest and other characters, or the plot?

Chris: The idea of the priest, Martin and Mandy came first. The plot changed and changed again, evolving over time. Entire plot lines and several characters were thrown away and new ones developed. I reckon I discarded more than 200,000 words before settling on the final manuscript.

Scott: The press release for your book states, in part: “The ever-growing popularity of Australian authors like Liane Moriarty, Hannah Kent, and Kate Grenville proves that American readers are hungry for stories about the land down under, a country that feels remarkably familiar while remaining a world away. Interestingly, it turns out that Australia has a wild west, too, and it’s strikingly similar to ours.” Do you think this is the case? Also, are Australians interested in America’s “wild west?

Chris: Australia is a large country, but our population is relatively small. In the past, we have been wholesale importers of culture: movies, tv, books, music, particularly from America and Britain. We still are. So Australians are far more familiar with American culture than vice versa. For example, my dad was a big John Wayne fan and his favourite movie was Shane. So yes, Australians are/were interested in the wild west, as they are with other aspects of American culture.

I’m not sure there is anything particularly wild about the west in either the US or Australia nowadays. Certainly not in the sense they are lawless.

I think Australia does capture the imagination of Americans, who might see it as simultaneously familiar and exotic. I have met Americans who hold an almost nostalgic view of Australia: they see it as a more innocent version of the US, like America used to be. They often warn me: “Don’t do this or that, or you will end up like us.”

Scott: As a former journalist myself, I found myself cheering along journalist Martin Scarsden. Is Martin based on journalists you have known and/or aspects of yourself?

Chris: Scrublands is certainly informed by my past as a journalist, although Martin isn’t based on any particular person(s), and certainly not myself. Certainly, much of the journalistic process in the book is familiar to me, as is the way journalists act and the way they view the world and their craft. However, Martin is no exemplar: he is constantly getting stories wrong! This was one of the ideas I had from the start; a protagonist who gets things wrong.

Scott: How has your career of journalism helped you when writing this novel?

Chris: The discipline of writing is there. While some aspiring writers may wait for inspiration and struggle with writer’s block, no journalist can tell their editor that they aren’t feeling inspired and may not file!

I don’t get too attached or sentimental about what I’ve written and I don’t get precious during the editing process. Particularly in television, editing material and parring it back is all part of the process.

For many years I made long-form television reports of around 30 minutes in length. I think this has helped me with pacing and structure and developing through-lines i.e. leading a reader through a story.

Scott:  Do you have any thoughts or questions you hope readers will take away from this book?

Chris: Not really. I hope they enjoy it and that it might fire their imaginations. There is a theme there of inter-generational trauma, but the book is not meant to be didactic.

Scott: Was it hard switching from non-fiction to fiction?

Chris: No, I found it liberating. Now I get paid for making stuff up. How good is that?

Scott: How do you feel about your writing being compared to Jane Harper and James Lee Burke?

Chris: It’s a compliment, of course. I guess it’s natural for debut novelists to be likened to established writers. That said, I certainly haven’t modeled my writing on any other author, at least not consciously. I hadn’t heard of Jane until I’d finished the first draft of Scrublands, but I’m honoured to be compared with her. And grateful. I think the success of The Dry has almost certainly helped other Australian crime writers, myself included, to find publishers and readers in the US and elsewhere.

Scott: Are you hoping this will be the start of a series?

Chris: Yes. I am well into the follow up to Scrublands (which was published July 2018 in Australia). We have a tentative Australian publication date of late 2019 for the next one. It again features Martin and Mandy. And there’s likely to be a third book as well.

Pick Of The Month- In A House Of Lies by Ian Rankin

When Ian Rankin brought back Rebus, the books had a feeling of old home week. The surly DI getting back with former partner Clarke and facing off with her new one, Fox (who Rankin wrote about in two books before Rebus’ return) play on the idea of the history we’ve had with these characters and fondness for them. Even “retired” crime boss Cafferty was a welcome sight. With In A House Of Lies, Rankin takes a slightly different tact with our feelings and knowledge of these people.

In a House of Lies (A Rebus Novel) Cover ImageThe discovery of the remains of a private detective’s body in a rusted V.W. leads back to an old unsolved missing persons case where there were questions of police neglect. The fact that the ankles are handcuffed support the allegations. Clarke catches the case and Fox, with his experience in Complaints (the Scottish version of Internal Affairs), is to assist. Rebus, who worked with the cops on the missing person case becomes involved too. Soon questions arise if it’s for redemption or obfuscation, particularly when we discover Cafferty is involved as well.

This is his twenty-fifth novel with Rebus, and Rankin demonstrates an ease with the characters that comes with time. He realizes how well the readers know them and their idiosyncrasies and plays with that knowledge. He executes it brilliantly in a chapter where Rebus and Cafferty meet up, and he also uses it to keep the reader off center as Clarke’s investigation points to Rebus’ involvement into the private detective’s demise. Rankin makes it feel like we’re learning something we don’t want to know.

Our knowledge of Rebus and his world allows Rankin to delve into ideas about history and friendship in In A House Of Lies. The clash of Rebus old school investigating with Clarke and Fox shows how facts of the past can be rearranged from point of view, particularly in our modern times. The only thing we can put faith in is our friends, but the author has us questioning that as well.

REVIEW: ADRENALINE JUNKIE BY LES EDGERTON

When Les Edgerton asked if I wanted to read his memoir, Adrenaline Junkie, I jumped at the chance. The several times I’ve hung out with Les have always been entertaining, partially due to the stories he has told of his outlaw life. I strapped myself in for several wild rides when I opened the book, but even knowing what a master story teller he is, I didn’t expect the journey he took me on.

Adrenaline Junkie: A Memoir Cover ImageWe start out with anecdotes from a Huck Finn-style childhood in postwar Texas. Most of it was under the eye of his grandmother, a tough business woman who had as much affect on him as his parents. One of the first heart breaking moments is when his family has to move away from her.

After some time in the Navy that included a tryst with future international sex goddess Brit Eklund, and college, Les fell into a life of crime with very little need for encouragement. Some involved drugs, but most involved theft. Many of these recollections are funny, like robbing a laundromat, knowing a patrol car is out front, and a shoot out during a heist that has an only-in-real-life twist. Les and his cohorts are far from master criminals. They are mainly guys who don’t want to grow up, feeling that luck is in their favor.

Luck finally runs out and Les finds himself in the prison system. He avoids both portraying his incarceration with macho bluster or overselling the horror of the place. He presents it as existing in a society where both routine and adaptation become a daily part of life.

His avoidance of over dramatization is never more apparent than in the chapter he devotes to being raped by a fellow inmate. Just by recalling the the details he remembers and the feelings he had at the time, Les knows this moment is harrowing enough. He perfectly balances the personal and the subjective as we get the feeling that he is still processing the crime after all these years. By avoiding any grand declarations, he neither belittles the violation or other victims of it.

What completely floored me was how the wildest and most adrenaline fueled parts of Les’s life came in the 80’s as hairdresser who put Warren Beatty’s Shampoo character to shame. Learning the trade in prison, Les built a salon and a national name for himself in the business. The money and success bought him a life of sex, drugs, and dangerous romances that almost put him back behind bars. Les allows you  to laugh at many of these harrowing moments and feel happy they didn’t happen to you.

This part of the book, of bouncing between successful businessman and self-destructive hedonist, becomes more vivid since it embodies the theme Les seems to be writing toward. If there is an antagonist in Adrenaline Junkie, it is boredom. Les is often searching for peace then screwing  it up. His goal is to find grace, but the temptation of chaos constantly knocks at the door. It also reflects his life as writer, working to find order within those experiences. We root for Les, like we would a fictional character, for him to finally get it right, mainly because this colorful life  eventually becomes exhausting.

For a memoir to work, the writer must not only have a life worth writing about, but he must know how to examine it. Les Edgerton seems to be as astonished as we are sometimes, with bemused asides at many of its darker moments. He makes no excuses. If he holds himself up as anything, it’s as a survivor, mainly of himself. He gives us no moral to the story of his life, but shows us how he finally found his grace. As a friend, I’m happy he came out the other side. As a reader, I’m glad he lived to tell the tale.

Interview with Nancy Boyarsky on writing in the #metoo era & more

Liar Liar: A Nicole Graves Mystery (Nicole Graves Mysteries) Cover ImageFor her third mystery novel featuring protagonist Nicole Graves, Nancy Boyarsky has written an intriguing thriller that turns what could have been a predictable #metoo movement novel on its head.

In Liar Liar, Nicole is tasked with babysitting a witness who has accused a university’s star quarterback of rape. While the witness, Mary Ellen Barnes, has come off as squeaky clean in public, Graves quickly sees that things are not as they seem.

Soon Mary Ellen goes missing and Nicole, over the objections of her fiancé, gets increasingly in the middle of the case. And then a key figure in the story dies. What follows are twists and more twists.

Boyarsky coauthored Backroom Politics with her husband, journalist Bill Boyarsky, as well as several textbooks by herself on the justice system as well as writing articles of many publications.

She is currently working on her fourth mystery about Nicole in addition to a memoir about growing up in Oakland called Family Recipes for Gastroenteritis.

Scott: Where did this story come from and how did it develop?

Nancy: The plot of Liar Liar involves a rape trial that becomes a murder trial. The idea came to me long before #Metoo got rolling. I started thinking about it three or four years ago when a close friend of mine, who’s a private detective, told me about a rape case at a local college. She’d been hired by the college to interview everyone who had knowledge of the incident and write a report without drawing any conclusions. Normally, her cases are confidential, but someone leaked the report online, and Esquire ran an article about it. It involved two very drunk 19-year-olds, and the fallout from their encounter was pretty interesting. It got me thinking about how difficult it is to determine who’s the responsible party in a “she said, he said” situation.

Of course, I had to change all of the circumstances, since I wouldn’t have had a murder mystery without a dead body. In the real-life case, the parties seemed to be traumatized but no one died. I also changed the locale, setting the college in Malibu rather than in urban L.A.

Scott: How did you create and develop the protagonist, Nicole Graves, for this series?

Nancy: When I wrote the first book, The Swap, I wanted to create a main character who was smart, likeable, curious and doggedly persistent. I’ve read too many books featuring detectives who are emotionally damaged; it almost seems a requirement for this type of character. I wanted my heroine to be a normal, reasonably well-adjusted person. As I went through innumerable rewrites of The Swap, Nicole emerged.

Scott: How would you describe her?

Nancy: As I said, she’s smart, likeable, and doggedly persistent. She’s curious about the people she meets and wants to know everything about them, which is probably one of the traits made her become an investigator. She’s also petite and sweetly pretty with dimples. This bothers her. She feels that some people don’t take her seriously because of her looks. But sometimes it’s an advantage to people have underestimate you.

Most importantly, Nicole is a risk taker, and wants to make sure justice is served. She can’t bear standing by and watching when she knows someone has unjustly been accused of a crime or when the guilty party gets away, leaving an innocent person to take the blame. Oh, and she’s also a romantic. She’s has fallen in and out of love a few times during these stories.

Scott: In what ways are you like her? In what ways are you different from her?

Nancy: Well, I’m certainly not as brave as she is, and I wouldn’t call myself a risk taker. On the other hand, I do share her curiosity about people—what makes them tick, their secrets, their hopes and dreams. I share her desire to see justice done. I’m also petite and (while I don’t have dimples) have a benign appearance that sometimes makes people underestimate me.

Scott: I bet you thought about the #Metoo movement while writing this book in which a character accuses a well known person of rape. What are some thoughts you have about the movement?

Nancy: I’m a big supporter of #Metoo, and it was a lucky coincidence that Liar Liar was published as this movement was snowballing. I don’t know any woman who hasn’t been harassed or sexually victimized at some point in her life. I can remember being a teenager walking down the street and getting cat calls from, for example, construction workers. This was embarrassing and upsetting. But so many much worse things happen to women on a daily basis. It’s good that women are able to come forward and confront abusers about what they’ve done. On the other hand, we have to be careful not to get carried away. For example, there was the woman who anonymously denounced the stand-up comic Aziz Ansari for what many would call a bad date. I thought that was going too far.

In Liar Liar, the story the victim tells is not really what happened. She has been sexually victimized and exploited, just not in the way she says. And the man who’s wrongly accused isn’t completely innocent. But cases like this rarely happen. I believe the vast majority of victims are telling the truth. According to the National Institute of Justice, most rapes, attempted rapes, and other sexual assaults are never reported. Why not? The institute referred to a study that gave a number of reasons: self blame, shame, fear of the perpetrator, fear of not being believed, and lack of trust in the justice system.

Scott: So this is the third in your series — should readers start with the first book or is it okay to start with this one?

Nancy: You don’t have to start with the first one at all. Each book stands on its own. If anything happens that refers back to an event in one of the earlier books, I give a brief explanation.

I wrote the first book, The Swap, as a stand-alone; I had no intention of basing a series on Nicole Graves. When it was done, I’d left a lot hanging in the air. By this time, Nicole seemed almost real to me. I started wondering what would happen to her next. As I thought about it, my second book, The Bequest, began to take shape.

Scott: I understand at one point you were the associate editor of Los Angeles Lawyer magazine. Did that help with writing about lawyers in this book?

Nancy: One of things I always had to offer employers was my ability to translate legalize and legislative language into plain, simple terms that the average reader could understand. So, I guess my experience with L.A. Lawyer helped me out there. I did the same kind of work at ARCO, where I was director of communications for political affairs for many years, mostly writing about legislative proposals that affected the oil industry. But my main resource for the workings of the justice system in Liar Liar was my brother-in-law, Jeff Boyarsky, who is a newly retired criminal-defense attorney. I was always asking him questions about what would happen before and during the trials in the book.

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

Nancy: I hope they’ll be entertained and that the book will take them out of their world for a while. It would also be good if the book could enlighten them a bit about the legal process and what participants in such trials go through.

Scott: How did you research this book?

Nancy: For quick facts, for example how a particular gun would behave in Nicole’s hands, I used Google. The internet makes this kind of research very easy. In the dark ages before the web, I was a freelance writer. To get information, I had to make a lot of phone calls, spend time in libraries, become an expert at using The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature and looking at newspaper microfilms. Yikes! That was a lot of work.

For Nicole’s adventures, I have two main experts I rely on—my lawyer brother-in-law and my friend who’s a private detective. They answer questions as I go along and read the manuscript when it’s done.

Scott: How far out have you planned this series?

Nancy: Not at all. I’m just finishing up Book 4, The Ransom, which is due at my publishers on January 10th and will be released next September. I’m thinking that book 5 should take Nicole to Europe. Maybe London again, which was the setting of The Swap.  I know the city pretty well from our visits there. Or maybe Italy or France. I don’t even plan the book I’m working on advance. I just develop it as I go along. While preoccupied with that, it’s impossible to think about what will be in the next book.

 

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH ALAFAIR BURKE

You Don't Own Me (An Under Suspicion Novel) Cover ImageMary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke have joined forces again for a new book in their Under Suspicion series, You Don’t Own Me.

Longtime mystery writer Clark has joined with younger writer Burke in this series about television producer Laurie Moron who has a television show to solve murders.

With this latest book, Laurie Moran is trying to solve a celebrity doctor’s murder while a mysterious person stalks her. The doctor’s wife, Kendra, is the one under suspicion and acting strangely. The show is her chance to explain herself… and hopefully find the real killer, if it’s not her.

I previously interviewed both writers for The Cinderella Murder, the first in the series. This time I was lucky enough to be able to interview Alafair, who was written some excellent novels on her own.

Scott Butki: How did the story for You Don’t Own Me come together? Was it an idea you had or Mary had?

Alafair Burke: We came up with every aspect of this book together.  We talked through various character and plot ideas we had been playing with individually and wove them together into a single story.

Scott: How would you describe the character, Kendra, who is initially seen as possibly being responsible for the death of her husband?

Alafair: I think Kendra Bell is one of the strongest characters that Mary and I have created together.  She put aside her own promising medical career to be a wife to her successful husband, Martin, and a mother to their two children, only to have her seemingly perfect marriage unravel and then to become the leading suspect in Martin’s murder.  She’s sympathetic and likable in many ways, but flawed enough that she might just be guilty. Without giving away the “who done it,” I’ll say that I think most readers will come away thinking she’s more complicated than first meets the eye.

Scott: How do you and Mary divide up the work on the series you are writing together? Do you write alternating chapters or one has big ideas and the other figures out the smaller details?

Alafair: Neither one of us outlines our own solo books, so we have to change things up when we work together.  What really helps is that we both find plot through character. We talk through every single character — who are they, what’s their backstory, what are their biggest fears and secrets, what’s their journey during the book?  The characters lead us to the plot. Only when we think we have it all do we begin writing, and we start with a synopsis that contains every element of the book. That’s a document we pass back and forth until we basically know the book.  One of us then sketches out a first draft, which we pass back and forth to flesh out. That’s the best I can do to explain the process, but we work together seamlessly at this point. I still have to pinch myself sometimes!

Scott: How do you divide up your work on your own novels versus these done on collaboration? For example, I’ve heard of writers listening to different music for one series versus another?  Do you avoid work on your own books when working with Mary?

Alafair: No, I don’t have any of those kinds of rituals.  Maybe it’s an old habit from lawyering, but I can work on multiple projects at once, though I certainly prefer to be doing the deep work on one while editing or tweaking another.  But the work needs to get done, and that’s the priority.

Scott: How did you and Mary go about researching this book?

Alfair: Most of it takes place in downtown Manhattan, which is my neighborhood, so I like to say that all the hours I spend walking around constitute research.  I don’t love actual research, so fortunately, this book didn’t require much. I think Mary and I are both in the habit of writing from what we know.

Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from this story and others in your series?

Alafair: I got hooked on crime fiction through long-running series characters, especially strong female characters like Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton), VI Warshawski (Sara Paretsky), Sharon McCone (Marcia Muller), Kat Colorado (Karen Kajewski), and Irene Kelly.  I’d like to think that Laurie Moran could hang with that crowd. She’s also surrounded by a rich supporting cast, both at home and work. A good series book is like a visit from an old friend, and I hope readers feel that way about Laurie and her gang.

Scott: Last time I talked to you, in December 2014, you were really into Serial. What crime-related programming are you currently into?

Alafair: I have been cyberstalking a few actual cases myself, but am not deeply into any true-crime programming right now.  I am counting down the days, though, for a podcast Michael Connelly is creating called Murder Book. It’s starting in January.

And though it’s not true crime, I just binged the hell out of Ozark and am about to start (finally) Killing Eve.

Scott: Looking back, was the jump from prosecutor to criminal law professor and novelist a big change or more of a natural progression?

The Better Sister: A Novel Cover ImageAlafair: It all felt normal to me, but I’m sort of a weirdo.  I’ve been both a professor and a novelist for fifteen years. It’s hard to imagine not doing both.

Scott: How long do you see this collaboration going?

Alafair: As long as readers will have us!

Scott: What are you working on next?

Alafair: My book, The Better Sister, will be out on April 16, and I’m working on the screenplay for The Wife.

 

REVIEW OF FOREVER AND A DAY BY ANTHONY HOROWITZ

Forever and a Day: A James Bond Novel Cover ImageIn Forever and a Day, Anthony Horowitz takes on the iconic spy James Bond for a second time. He goes further back to his first mission as 007. While new to having a license to kill, he proves to be lethal from the start.

When the previous 007 is murdered, Bond is recruited into the program. His predecessor noticed something odd about the drug smuggling in Marseilles — it had become almost non-existent. MI6 sends Bond out to find out what the agent learned about this dip in crime that got him killed. When asked what number he’d like to have with his double 0, he chooses seven to let them know they keep coming.

Marseilles proves to be a hive of dangerous scoundrels. After a brief altercation at the previous 00’s villa, Bond befriends Reade Griffith, an amiable CIA agent who shows him around the port city. He soon realizes the person he must find is Sixtine, a sultry freelance spy master with a tragic past, and a certain way she likes her martini. It all leads to a plot of international scale where few can be trusted.

Horowitz captures the flavor of the early Bond books. He replicates the cool tone and matter of fact attitude Bond carries, even in killing. He realizes that even though he may be new to the Double 0 circle, he would be a capable agent. Most of the missteps he makes are in his emotions.

The book also perfectly weaves Bond history into world history. We get Bond’s first meeting with M and a charming one with Moneypenny. Horowitz also plays with expectations of the the cannon, such as his choice of gun. He  uses the cold war backdrop of the fifties to perfect effect, having it play into the villain’s plan and the perfect twist of a last chapter.

Forever and a Day is a treat for Bond fans, particularly those who dug the Ian Fleming books. It is both dry and punchy as the spy’s favorite drink. This kind of mission may be new to the freshly minted 007, but it provides the kind of familiar entertainment his fans have loved for decades.