An interview with Kim Powers, author of Dig Two Graves

kimpowersPlease welcome Kim Powers to the blog! He kindly agreed to answer a few books about his new book, Dig Two Graves, and more!
Will you tell us a bit about Dig Two Graves and what inspired you to write it?

It’s my first pure suspense novel: about a former Olympic hero, winner of the decathlon, who is now a college classics professor. His young teenage daughter is kidnapped, and he has to perform modern-day versions of the 12 Labors of Hercules to get her back. But the puppet master pulling the strings, behind those bizarre ransom demands, seems to be someone who knows every heartbeat of our hero’s life. So figuring out the kidnapper’s identity is as much a part of the mystery, as getting back his daughter. When the earliest seeds of the book were first planted, I had just seen the Brad Pitt movie Seven, about murders associated with the seven deadly sins. I wanted to play with the idea of a recognizable structure, the 12 labors, but then twist it. (People sort of know that Hercules had to perform 12 labors, but not what they were, in any kind of detail. That’s exactly what I wanted: known, but not overly familiar.)

After two “literary” books, I wanted to write something that was my version of big and commercial. A literary mystery. I loved using the building blocks of the 12 Labors to get me moving through the plot, but I discovered, once I was into it – that the book was really about two things; that singular relationship between a single father, raising a daughter on his own; and also the pull of your past – if you can ever escape it. And how it has a hold on you, whether you know it or not. I’ve always written from story first; I never set out to write about a certain “theme,” but it’s fascinating to me what you uncover once you get into the process.

What kind of research did you do for the book, and what is your writing process like?

In terms of research, I had a vague sense of what the 12 Labors were, but not with any kind of real knowledge or insight. So that was the first thing, to bone up on those. And then I had to learn the ten different events of the decathlon. I wanted to really get the feel of them inside my muscles, so I watched tape after tape of them on You Tube.

Unlike what I assume is the norm for a lot of mystery writers, I don’t do a lot of pre-plotting. I have three or four major turning points in mind; I started writing with screenplays, and that’s pretty necessary. But after that, I was figuring out stuff as I went along, essentially discovering things in the same way the characters did. I love grabbing this detail from my life, and another little morsel from someone else’s, and then stitching a whole, convincing character out of it, with the details and backstories and memories that bring a character alive.

Having had the same unhappy childhood that every “outsider” does, I knew the kind of pain and anger that could propel a “villain” into the kind of revenge that my villain takes. So that didn’t take any extra research at all!

You have a background television and film, but have you always wanted to write a novel?

My last year or two in college, I must have talked about wanting to be a writer. Or even made the bold declaration: “I’m a writer.” Only one problem: I hadn’t written anything! But an early mentor of mine, around the time I was 20, 21, set me on a course: “A writer writes. Period. Now get to it!” My twin brother was a writer, and had always wanted to be one; maybe that’s why I didn’t feel I could or should claim it for my own. One limit per family, you know?

But when I first started writing, it was screenplays. I had done story development for a number of film and TV companies, and as part of that, I started doing a lot of doctoring on our projects. That led to my first original screenplay: a ridiculous thing called “High School Confidential,” about someone going back to his ten year high school reunion and killing everyone who was mean to him. (Hmmm… wonder where that came from?) I went on to write other screenplays, and ultimately one of them, Finding North, got made. A sweet little indie. I thought I was going to be rich and famous after that. Ha! I needed a job, and through a fluke, I fell into a job as a writer at Good Morning America and then 20/20. I’ve now been at ABC News some 19 years. I had no training in journalism at all; I completely learned how to do the job doing the job. (I had gone to graduate school in a field called dramaturgy, which combines theater criticism, and literary management, and working with directors; writing was certainly a major part of what I studied, but not the very specific rules of news journalism. Every bit of writing I’ve ever done though, in the end, has been about how to tell a good story.)

During my early days at GMA, I started working on what would become my first book, without knowing that’s what I was doing. With that first book, a memoir called The History of Swimming, I wasn’t really thinking about an end result. I wrote it because I had to write it, or die. The material was that red-hot. I really was just jotting down ideas and trying to make sense of something personal, really just for myself at first. It was about the troubled life of my twin brother, and a time when he disappeared for three horrible days, and my attempt to find him before I thought he was going to kill himself or be murdered. (Spoiler alert: he died, and in many ways, I think I was writing for him, the book he never got to finish. It took quite a while before I realized – and could own – that I was writing for myself. Before I got over that initial idea that there could only be one writer in the family.)

Bottom line, there’s never been any grand scheme to my life as a writer. One thing flowed into the next. At a certain point, after History of Swimming, I didn’t want to be known as a one-shot writer, with only one personal story to tell, so I wrote a novel called Capote in Kansas. That did fairly well, and then, finally, I could own the fact that I was a writer. And I’ve just kept writing.

What’s one of the first things that you can remember writing?

Strange you should ask this, because I was just thinking about it, out of the blue, the other day!

It was in the third grade; I don’t remember what the assignment was, or what prompted me to write this, but it was a long, very autobiographical paragraph about my mother taking me (and my twin brother) to look at a new apartment in a nearby city, that she planned to move to after leaving our father. None of that really sank in: I just remember the thrill of looking at an apartment – which was a new thing for a little kid who had grown up in a house. The idea of an “apartment” seemed younger and hipper somehow. And I remember the detail of the woman who showed us the apartment drinking a can of beer as she did it, and a beautiful sculpture of purple glass balls that were supposed to be grapes, in the master bedroom that my mother would have. I can’t imagine what my teacher thought reading it; my mother was a fellow teacher, so they knew each other. I showed it to one of my little girlfriends who asked, “Is this true?” I lied and said I had made it up. (That one image has haunted me for so much of my life; it makes an appearance in my next book.)

One other line worth noting: in seventh grade, I had maybe the best English teacher I’ve ever had: Mrs. Huey. She was a taskmaster, a slave driver, or so we thought; but she taught me the underpinnings of everything I’ve used since then that applies to writing or reading. We read a ton of short stories, and completely on my own, I thought up this first sentence for a short story: “The birth was easy, but telling the parents was not.” No clue on earth what would come after that, but I thought I was so darn clever, very influenced by Night Gallery and The Twilight Zone and those creepy anthology series that were the rage on TV back then. Maybe we had been studying irony or something. So that was the second bit of “creative writing” I did – that came from nowhere in my real life! Sometime I should go back and finish the story!

Why suspense? What do you enjoy most about reading, and writing, in the genre?

I think suspense is the basic motor of any good book, whether it’s conventionally a mystery, thriller, or serious literary fiction. It’s the thing that keeps you turning pages: what happens next? Maybe I came to that because I started writing screenplays first, and they have to be so economical: everything has to lead to the next scene. Or maybe it’s that basic human desire to live a fuller life, and get your adrenaline racing: it’s the life you wish you lead, full of adventure and high stakes. I don’t go to the gym, so it’s my way of doing cardio – getting my heart rate up! And I love the intellectual challenge of seeing if I can unravel the mystery first, before the writer gives the solution to me.

I read voraciously as a child – all the Newberry winners, tons of children’s books – but mixed in with those, the first book series I ever read, was Nancy Drew. (Despite how desperately my father wanted me to read the Hardy Boys.) And for better or worse, that has carried over to my adult life. I love reading mysteries. And maybe, since a lot of them are series, it’s that same old thing I found when I read Nancy Drew: spending time with good and familiar friends.

I used to wish I could write a big “literary” book like John Irving, a big, meandering novel, but I just can’t. My books nearly always end around 325 pages. It’s like for every page of a screenplay, around 100 or so pages, a novel is three times bigger. And then I just run out of things to say!

What authors have influenced you the most?

When I really became conscious of writing – that it was a thing people did, that they made a choice to do, that books weren’t just there for my pleasure – the first writers I glommed on to in high school were Carson McCullers and John Cheever. I loved Cheever; he had that sophistication I desperately wanted as a little boy from McKinney, Texas. And playwrights were a huge influence on me: Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. I don’t really have favorite writers so much as favorite books. A Wrinkle in Time. Lord of the Flies. Strange loving those flights of fantasy – that kind of extremity – at the same time I loved the suburban every day, WASPY world of Cheever.

But I don’t know if I could say any of them influenced me. There’s no one writer whose style I think I emulate: I just like beautiful, well-polished, but straightforward prose.

What makes a good story? Is there anything that would make you put a book down, unfinished?

The fifth word in that first question: story. It has to have a story, a plot. A question has to be posed, that then gets answered. A plot has to carry things forward. Action. As much as I love great writing, and great characters, they have to be doing something. Beautiful sentences can go a long way, but they don’t necessarily keep you turning pages. Whenever I read something that is described as a “fever dream” of a novel, I put it back on the shelf. My life, and my dreams, are overheated enough. I don’t want to read run-on stream of consciousness. I want it to all add up and point the way to something.

At the same time, if the writing is bad, if it’s just stuff that gets you to turn the page, I can’t invest my time in it. Maybe it’s because I take such care with my own writing, and go through so many drafts, I can’t stand seeing writing that’s just slapped on a page to sell something. If the characters have no inner life, if the writing just becomes a regurgitation of research you’ve done, it’s not worth it. Or a kind of nihilism because it’s chic.

Some readers, and critics, have put Hanya Yanagahari’s masterpiece, A Little Life, in that category. It is so unremittingly bleak, but to me, it shimmers with life. There’s a richness and depth and complexity to the characters I feel like I’ve never seen before, but a darkness to the story that makes you question if you can keep on going. One friend asked me, “Does it get better?” I said “No, but you have to keep going. To the bitter end.” That’s a living, beating heart, between the two covers of a book.

What are you currently reading?

I’m all over the place. Kindle has made it easier (better or worse, I don’t know, but easier) to juggle several books at once. Because I just finished an essay about why college campuses are such great settings for mysteries, and why classics departments in particular are so fertile, I’ve been reading Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, which takes place in a college classics department. Talk about Jamesian sentences!!

And then another book I had started but put aside, that I’ve now gone back to: Tim Johnston’s Descent, a “literary thriller” about the kidnapping of a teenage girl, and the longtime aftermath of it on her family. Published by Algonquin, a publisher I love.

What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I’ve just finished the umpteenth draft of a novel that (right now) is called Rules for Being Dead. I’ve been working on it, off and on, for eight years or so, and have twisted and shaped that same basic story every way it can be twisted, to get it right. It’s a story that makes a beeline straight to my heart, and my childhood: the mystery of my mother’s death, which is something I’ve been chasing for about 50 years now. I think I finally have it right. Wish me luck!

Keep up with Kim: Website

About Dig Two Graves:
In his twenties, Ethan Holt won the decathlon at the Olympics and was jokingly nicknamed “Hercules”; now, in his late thirties, he’s returned to his ivy-covered alma mater to teach, and to raise his young daughter Skip as a single father. After a hushed-up scandal over his Olympics win and the death of his wife in a car accident five years ago, Ethan wants nothing more than to forget his past. Skip is not only the light of Ethan’s life–she is his life. Then, Skip is kidnapped.

A series of bizarre ransom demands start coming in that stretch Ethan’s athletic prowess to its limits, and he realizes with growing horror that they are modern versions of the Twelve Labors of Hercules, demanded in tricky, rhyming clues by someone who seems to have followed every step of Ethan’s career. As images from Ethan’s childhood become an onslaught in his mind, he finally comes face to face, literally, with the secrets of his past and understands who the kidnapper is. Drawn to the arena of their final showdown, the Twelfth Labor–a cemetery where the dog Cerberus guards the gates of Hell–“Hercules” must do final battle with his nemesis one last time, to free his daughter, and solve the mystery of the childhood that has haunted him all his life.

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