I really enjoyed The Poison Artist, so I’m thrilled that Jonathan answered a few of my questions about the book, and more!
Will you tell us about The Poison Artist and what inspired you to write it?
The Poison Artist tells the story of Caleb Maddox, a brilliant San Francisco toxicologist brought low by a breakup with his girlfriend. Out drinking after a fight, he meets and becomes obsessed with a mysterious woman in House of Shields, a downtown speakeasy. In his quest to track her down, he becomes entangled in a serial murder investigation. Men are disappearing from upscale bars—including one from House of Shields, the night Caleb met Emmeline—and the city’s medical examiner enlists Caleb to study the chemical traces on the victims’ remains. The search for the killer soon entwines with Caleb’s hunt for Emmeline, and the closer he gets to each, the more dangerous his world becomes.
The first time I tried writing this book, I had no idea what I was doing. I was twenty-two years old, and a student at the New College of California. I was living in San Francisco, up in the avenues north of Golden Gate Park. I was depressed all the time back then, and would take long, moody walks at night to try to think of stories. I didn’t own a beret or a trench coat, but I probably should have.
I had the idea for The Poison Artist while on an all-night walk from Golden Gate Park to Sausalito. It was just something about looking back at the city from the center of the Golden Gate Bridge, and seeing the hills and the lights come in and out of the fog. San Francisco is so dark, and cold, and yet it sparkles with beauty. I wanted to tell a story like that. I wrote twenty or thirty pages before I quit, knowing that I was out of my depth. I didn’t know a single thing about police work, or toxicology, or drownings. Adult relationships were a complete mystery. Worse still, I didn’t have a clue how to start researching what I didn’t know. So I gave up, but the idea stayed with me.
In 2012, I went back to San Francisco for a business trip, and spent a week in the Palace Hotel. I had just finished writing a novel called Close Reach, which had been a lot of fun, but I wanted to try something more complex. I remembered my unfinished story, and after a couple of nights of thinking about it, I started writing. The second time around, I had more confidence. I was married, so I knew more about relationships. I still didn’t know anything about police or autopsies, but as a lawyer, I knew how to pick up the phone and set up lunches. I researched as I wrote, and had a great time, finishing the first draft in three months.
What makes Dr. Caleb Maddox a compelling character?
Caleb is a brilliant scientist, but a flawed man. He’s given so much to the world, and overcome a great deal in order to do that. And he was a fun character to write because he has an eye for the littlest details—the kind of man who notices a fingernail scratch in the veneer of a painting, or the way a candle flame draws toward his girlfriend’s mouth when she breathes in. Because the entire book is written from his point of view, it gave the narrative a richness of language that would not have been justified if I’d told the same story from another character’s eyes.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
The most interesting thing I did was talk my way into the Honolulu Medical Examiner’s Office. It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever done while on a lunch break at my day job. The staff knew I was an attorney, so setting up was hard. But as soon as they understood I was coming as a novelist—that I wasn’t trying to set them up for some kind of lawsuit—they were incredibly generous with their time. Just being inside an autopsy room was invaluable. It isn’t like C.S.I. on television. There are drains in the floor, and cockroaches coming in and out of the drains. They don’t use high-tech tools; they open bodies with stuff they buy at Home Depot, like pruning shears.
Beyond that, I did a lot of on-the-ground research in San Francisco. When I couldn’t visit a place myself, I’d send my sister on reconnaissance missions. My favorite was when I sent her to case the security systems at the Legion of Honor. She went in and got a museum map, but instead of looking at paintings, she went around and marked the locations of all the CCTV cameras, fire doors, and guard stations.
Not everything I researched made it into the book, but having the background was invaluable.
What is your writing process like?
Weekends are always productive for me, but when I’ve got a novel underway, I try to write every day. I’ve always enjoyed writing in bars and restaurants. They’re perfect locations for writing. It’s impolite to get up and wander around, so you’re stuck in your seat; if you need something, someone will bring it to you; you’re paying to be there, so you’ve got that much more incentive to have something to show for it. Usually on Saturdays and Sundays, I’ll get up early and take myself out to a “literary breakfast.”
I wrote much of The Poison Artist in a series of nice, beachfront restaurants in Waikiki, where I lived at the time. There was always a very comforting contrast between my physical location and where I was in my head.
You have a background in law, but have you always wanted to write? Will you tell us more about that progression?
I started writing stories before I could spell, so as far as I know, I’ve always wanted to write fiction. In high school, I went to a boarding school in Michigan called Interlochen Arts Academy. It is probably the only high school in the United States that offers a full time creative writing major. Afterward, I got an undergraduate degree with a focus in creative writing. When I came out of college, of course I was unemployable, so I did what a lot of humanities majors do: I moved to Asia and taught English for a while. I still wanted to write, but I wanted to have a career in the meantime, so after three years in Taiwan, I came back to attend law school at Tulane. Once I was settled into a full time job as a lawyer in Honolulu, and was comfortable enough to relax a little, I started writing novels again.
What’s one of the first things you can remember writing?
It was an illustrated book about a dog and a snake who were friends. I think it was called Dog & Snak [sic]. I was probably four, and it was done mostly in crayon.
You’ve been shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Award, so you’re no stranger to writing scary things, but what’s something that truly scares you?
My wife and I enjoy doing things in boats. Sometimes we go pretty far out into the ocean. It’s amazing how quickly you can go from civilization to wilderness when the ocean is involved. Think about it—you can get eaten by a wild animal within sight of New York City. When you’re thirty miles out, anything can happen. Often, before we take a trip to Molokai (our nearest neighbor island) I’ll wake up with a cold sweat, thinking about something that could happen out there. My book Close Reach was an outgrowth of that fear.
What do you like to see in a good story? Is there anything that will make you put a book down, unfinished?
I have extremely broad tastes in fiction. As long as there’s good writing and the characters come alive on the page, I’ll read just about anything. I don’t believe in genres; I just believe in stories. But I’m also very picky. I open a lot of books and don’t make it past the first page because something isn’t working.
What are you currently reading?
I just gave a reading at Books Inc., in San Francisco, and as a gift, the store manager let me take a novel. I picked up The Twenty-Seventh City, by Jonathan Franzen.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?
The Poison Artist is the first book in a trilogy of San Francisco thrillers. The next two novels are called The Dark Room and The Night Market. Each book stands alone, but they are all painted in the same noir palette. One character appears in all three books, but I won’t spoil anything by saying which one. The Dark Room comes out in January of 2017, and The Night Market will follow a year after.
About The Poison Artist:
Dr. Caleb Maddox is a San Francisco toxicologist studying the chemical effects of pain. After a bruising breakup with his girlfriend, he’s out drinking whiskey when a hauntingly seductive woman appears by his side. Emmeline whispers to Caleb over absinthe, gets his blood on her fingers and then brushes his ear with her lips as she says goodbye. He must find her.
As his search begins, Caleb becomes entangled in a serial-murder investigation. The police have been fishing men from the bay, and the postmortems are inconclusive. One of the victims vanished from the bar the night Caleb met Emmeline. When questioned, Caleb can’t offer any information, nor does he tell them he’s been secretly helping the city’s medical examiner, an old friend, study the chemical evidence on the victims’ remains. The search for the killer soon entwines with Caleb’s hunt for Emmeline, and the closer he gets to each, the more dangerous his world becomes.
From the first pages up to the haunting, unforgettable denouement, The Poison Artist is a gripping thriller about obsession and damage, about a man unmoored by an unspeakable past and an irresistible woman who offers the ultimate escape.