The Hell You Say
Let’s go grill some writers, shall we? Come on, it’ll be fun. I promise.
I love talking to writers, believe it or not. A working writer who realizes that they have a fantastic gig and the rare freedom to be doing something they like is one of the world’s most gracious human beings. I’ve only hit a sour note talking to novelists a couple of times, and generally they tend to be guys that have lived long enough to start believing their own line of… well, you know. Surprisingly, I’ve only been turned down for interviews by three writers, ever. You know who you are, John Grisham, Stephen King and Stephanie Meyer. Your loss, I’m telling you.
It’s been my experience from trying to craft hundreds of interviews and sitting through thousands of author events that the question that most writers tend to confront most often is: “Where do you get your ideas?” To which there’s generally a common answer, usually involving a futile quest to reach the bottom of a bottle of Johnny Walker, or the old standby of staring at a blank page until drops of blood begin to form on one’s forehead. That said, I think there’s a much better question with which to hit the scribes behind really good, inventive books. “What the hell were you thinking, sir?”
I’ve had the pleasure of talking to a great many crafty writers over the past few months, so let us go see what the answer is to that very question, in the case of a few very different books.
Death and Dickens
Let’s start with my stately neighbor, Dan Simmons, who in 2007 delivered the imminently creepy arctic gothic The Terror. This year, he returns with an 800-page behemoth made to crack skulls. Drood -- now on bookstore shelves, mind you -- recounts the last days of Charles Dickens as narrated by his Salieri-like pal Wilkie Collins, the English novelist and author of one of the first acknowledged mystery novels, The Woman In White.
In the telling, Simmons also posits a sinister answer to the long-standing question of what inspired Dickens’s unfinished final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a puzzle that has become something of a running hobby for scholars and scribes alike. Simmons found his own core story in Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Charles Dickens (Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion), which recounts the ghastly railway accident of June 1865 that Dickens later portrayed in his ghost story “The Signal-Man.” The writer was, as Simmons portrays, a changed man afterwards. Five years later -- to the day -- Dickens died, on June 9, 1870.
“Footnotes have launched more than one novel for me,” Simmons says. “Just as with The Terror, I played this game of fictional tennis with the net in place and at full height. That is, all of the public, and most of the private events of Charles Dickens’s life, as portrayed in Drood, are as historically and biographically correct as I could make them.”
To his credit, Simmons introduces some characteristically frightening paranormal elements that make what could have been something of a traditional biography into an edge-of-the-armchair midnight read.
“In both Drood and The Terror, one can remove the fictional ‘reality’ of the supernatural element and end up with essentially the same novel,” Simmons says. “But it’s an understatement to remind one that history always intersects with horror -- we’ve just escaped from the 20th century, for God’s sake -- and the metaphorical forms that horror can take within the warp and woof of history are interesting to explore. Playing this close to the facts, as in the terror, made introducing the supernatural elements and the horrific elements all the more challenging and enjoyable.”
As always, there’s the research. To craft his own version of Drood’s mystery, Simmons immersed himself in books, pamphlets, illustrations, letters, novels and other ephemera contemporary to his subject’s life.
“The Collected Letters can be especially useful, although people lie in their letters just as they do in their memoirs,” Simmons says. “Just reading, in other words, was the most useful approach. Well, that and the usual writerly trick of transporting oneself to that lost age via a writer’s private chronosynclasticinfindibulum machine.”
Accidents Will Happen
A different thriller, from a different past, emerges in No Survivors by Tom Cain, due on bookstore shelves this month. I interviewed this pseudonymous British journalist (whose identity is in fact a poorly-kept secret by this point, but let’s err on the side of discretion) last year upon the publication of The Accident Man, the runaway thriller and UK bestseller that introduced Samuel Carver, a hard-bitten, disillusioned “fixer” of fatal accidents, not least the one that killer Princess of Diana of Wales, at least in Cain’s fictional world.
In The Accident Man, Carver is tortured nearly to the brink of madness, leaving him in a fairly precarious position in the sequel, No Survivors, as Cain explained during our follow-up session.
“No Survivors follows on almost immediately from The Accident Man,” Cain says. “In fact, one of the real events that inspired the plot occurred on September 7, 1997, the day after The Accident Man concludes. So Carver is in a very bad way indeed, both physically and mentally. That puts incredible pressure on Alix Petrova, who is trying to care for him and pay his medical bills, which in turn causes her to do things she otherwise might not.”
Here’s one of the tricks about writing a successful novel, though: they always want you to do it again. Note to self: when crafting the end of one’s debut thriller, it’s perhaps not the easiest choice to leave your hero mentally crippled and stranded in a Swiss sanitarium.
“Authors talk a lot about ‘that difficult second novel,’ and now I know why!” Cain laughs. “You’ve poured everything you’ve got into this debut -- stuff that’s been swilling around in your brain for years -- and then someone says, ‘Now, could you do it again, please? And we need it by Christmas.’ So launching this one was a bit of an intimidating prospect. Plus leaving my action hero in a semi-vegetative state created all sorts of unintended technical problems. That said, I think I’m someone who needs to have a sense of crisis and imminent creative disaster just to get me up in the morning. I hope that the result is a book which required an incredible amount of grief and hard work but looks as though it all clicked together perfectly naturally.”
In the telling, Cain weaves together a larger-than-life plot that links together the Kosovo crisis of 1997 and a right-wing Christian conspiracy to start war in the Middle East by setting off a stolen suitcase Nuke at Temple Mount. Along the way, the author has his hero take a near-miss pass at killing a Texas billionaire, take out an asset on a busy French motorway with “exploding nipples” (you heard me right), stealthily assault a villain’s secret headquarters, and ends the whole mess with an airborne denouement that would leave even a jaded thriller writer breathless. Although a ton of research went into his latest, not least excursions into aircraft sabotage, car crashes, and nuclear terrorism, Cain says the story mixes enough fiction into the fact to up the pace.
“There is a point where I forget all the research and let the story tell itself,” he says. “I’m a very big believer in not being tied down by the facts. This is fiction we’re writing, after all, and what matters is that the world we create as writers is believable in itself, not that it can be fact-checked by obsessives with nothing better to do. After all, most MI6 agents do not in any way resemble James Bond, there is no such school as Hogwarts, and Groundhog’s Day only happens once a year. But who cares, if these characters take us away to a better, more interesting world where these stories can be told?”
It takes a little while for Cain to revive Carver from his slumber, but when the brutally efficient operative finally does return to the land of the living, he comes out in force. Despite the fact that Cain doesn’t obsess over Carver’s personality -- for example, there isn’t a file of notes on his character anywhere in Cain’s massive research -- the author finds that his action hero quite often takes on a life all his own.
“The key point about Carver is the contrast between his extreme professional competence and confidence, and his vulnerability and frailty as a human being,” Cain says. “Right from the start of The Accident Man, we know that the work he does extracts a huge psychological toll on him, and that he knows it. His need for redemption gives the women in the books a much more important role than the traditional action-thriller arm-candy. Alix twice saves Carver’s life, reversing the usual male/female polarities, and she begins the process of saving his soul. I think that’s one of the things that makes Carver attractive, particularly to female readers. He doesn’t wimp out when the going gets tough, but he needs Alix to make him complete. Let’s face it, the tough, masculine hero who nevertheless is bereft without a woman’s love is a staple of fiction, from Mr. Darcy forward.”
Music to my ears: the next book is nearly finished, and finds Samuel Carver faced with an enemy forcing him into a stripped-down, bloodier struggle than those he’s faced before.
“It’s a very direct, personal conflict between Carver and a sort of sociopathic alter-ego,” Cain says of the third novel in the burgeoning series. “It’s going to end in a fight that has no gimmicks, no gizmos, just two guys slugging it out until there’s one left standing. All I can do is continue to write from the heart and try to make Carver as emotionally and psychologically true as possible. He’s a hero who comes naturally.”
The Best Man
I can’t tell you how pleased I was to find out that Greg Rucka had a new novel on the way. Like many people, I discovered the author through his ground-breaking graphic novels, not least Whiteout (slated for its big-budget Hollywood adaptation starring Kate Beckinsale in November) and the British spy saga Queen & Country, although the man has worked over nearly every character in the canon. After stints on Wolverine and Wonder Woman, he’s currently wiping the floor with Superman before getting ready to launch a controversial new version of Batwoman for DC Comics, and Whiteout: Night, the conclusion to his Antarctica trilogy created with artist Steve Lieber.
Long before he broke into comics, though, Rucka wrote a well-received, brutally elegant series of novels about a bodyguard named Atticus Kodiak. Starting with his 1996 debut Keeper, Rucka crafted his own unique take on the private eye novel and was able to sustain Kodiak as an action hero for three more stand-alone novels before turning a new page in the 2001 thriller Critical Space. That book tore Kodiak loose from the remains of his life in New York City and sent the international fugitive into a collision course with an assassin named Drama, later to emerge as Kodiak’s lover Alena Cizkova, with whom he carries out a malevolent mission of revenge in the 2007 novel Patriot Acts.
I caught up with Rucka on the eve of the publication of the next Atticus Kodiak novel, Walking Dead, due out from Bantam in April. Three years after the close of Patriot Acts his heroes Kodiak and Cizkova, the reformed assassins, are in a very different place both psychically and physically, as their creator explains.
“Atticus Kodiak is kind of a confused guy by this point,” Rucka says. “The reason he’s named Atticus is because he’s the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. But then his world changed, which opened up a whole new vein of storytelling. He went from being a professional protector to being a professional killer. He acquired the skills, if not the requisite damage that would lead most people to this job description. But at the beginning of Walking Dead, he’s tried to put that behind him. He’s wrapped himself up in an isolated world, which he shares with the woman who trained him, Alena Cizkova. They’re living a common-law marriage in the Republic of Georgia. They have a dog. He seems resigned to live there for the rest of his life, but it’s an incomplete place because he’s never reconciled the man he was with the man he’s become. His personal journey now is very much about him making a peace between those two states.”
Because of the clean break Kodiak has made with the Western world, the new book also makes a good jumping-on point for new readers, and a propulsive thriller in its own right. The not-so-happy couple’s domestic bliss is interrupted when a neighbor’s teenaged daughter is kidnapped, a plot inspired by Rucka’s research into the gruesome business of people trafficking.
“It’s a very dark ride,” Rucka says. “When people kidnap a fourteen-year-old girl, it’s not going to go well. The character and the situations that he finds himself in are fictitious but the world being described is absolutely true. It’s a globe-trotter because the problem is a global one. We’re seeing the end result of the post-collapse of the Soviet Union, where the economics of crime drive everything. It’s depressing that the only global harmony we get among disparate ethnic, cultural and religious groups is when they’re abusing other people and working to make a buck off of it. I don’t like what that says about the human condition.”
For all the grim mechanics of the people trade, Rucka never slows the pace to let Kodiak ponder events at a slow burn. The story starts in Georgia but also hops to Turkey, Dubai, the Ukraine and Amsterdam before resolving itself back in the United States, where Atticus finds some familiar faces waiting for him.
“This one is a really lean book,” Rucka admits. “I was aware that there was a difference in the prose as I was writing it. First-person narrative is always an exercise in character. It could be that Atticus’s voice has consequently changed because he’s an older guy now so that he is less inclined to waste time in the telling. Not that I think my prose before was particularly lugubrious, but the subject requires not lingering. The rule was: get in, get out, keep it clean, and keep it moving. You have this young woman in jeopardy. The more time Atticus wastes, the more she is going to suffer.”
In the end, there’s something for everyone in Walking Dead. New readers will discover a well of a character with a history that’s worth digging up, while Rucka promises that longtime readers will have earned the finale heading their way.
“I try to make all the books accessible but this one requires the least prior knowledge coming in cold while at the same time, it certainly fits in the series and builds upon the last few books,” Rucka says. “In many ways, Walking Dead acts as a conclusion for the ongoing storylines but the inciting event means you don’t need a lot of prior knowledge to roll with it. For those who have followed the series, this is ‘an’ ending. It may not be ‘the’ ending but I think it’s an appropriate end. I hope it’s satisfying.”Clayton Moore has plenty more questions that need answers. He hones his interrogatory techniques at claywriting.blogspot.com.