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.
As 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.
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.