I’d like to welcome Katherine Webb to the blog today! Katherine is the author of three novels, including the historical mystery,The Unseen, which recently came out in the states. She was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the book, her writing, and even her love for the show “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives”!
Also, HarperCollins was kind enough to offer 2 copies of The Unseen for giveaway to 2 lucky winners, so be sure to check out the details at the end of the post!
Katherine, it says in your bio that you’ve always had a fascination with ruined castles and secrets of the past. Did this fascination lead you to want to be a writer? Have you always wanted to write?
I suppose it’s all linked, yes – when I was little and we went to look around ancient buildings my imagination would always get fired up, thinking of all the lives and events and stories that the place had witnessed… I didn’t know I wanted to be a novelist until I sat down one day after graduation and started to write my first book, but nobody in my family was very surprised. My mum tells me I stared writing stories pretty much as soon as I was able to write, and I remember later on in school being super happy whenever we were set a creative writing exercise…I don’t know why it took me so long to put two and two together!
Your novel, The Unseen, just became available in the states, and has been described as “an atmospheric page turner.” Can you tell us a bit about it?
The Unseen is set primarily in 1911, during a long, hot English summer, and tells a story of ambition, love, deception and desire… A naïve vicar and his wife, living quietly in a country parish, have their lives turned upside down by two new arrivals. First is the new maid, who’s been sent down from London after getting into trouble with the law for her political activism; then comes an enigmatic young spiritualist, who’s determined to cement his name in history by proving the existence of fairies in the meadows near the rectory… These disparate people are thrown together at the rectory, and the tension builds and builds until it ultimately bubbles over into violence…
What kinds of books keep you turning the pages? Any particular favorites (authors or books?)
I read all sorts of books – and for me the current the king of the page-turner has to be George R R Martin – I’m totally hooked on the A Song of Ice and Fire books! I love literary and historical books, mysteries, and any book which really lets you get under the skin of the characters. Some favourites include Rose Tremain, Kate Atkinson, Jim Crace, Sir Terry Pratchett, and Helen Dunmore. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres made me weep buckets, and I didn’t want The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney to ever end. I’ve recently read and loved Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, and Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
What makes you put a book aside in frustration?
Almost nothing – I very rarely give up on a book, even if it takes me twice as long to read as a book normally would, because I can’t quite get on with it. Who can say what it is that makes a book work or not work for you, as a reader? It’s largely an intangible thing, I think, and no book can work for everybody. I’ve read terrible reviews on Amazon of books I’ve thought were completely fantastic. One author I just can’t get on with is Henry James. No idea why not – I enjoy classic literature, but I’ve picked up and abandoned The Wings of the Dove about three times!
Do you have any writing quirks?
Not many – I’m very methodical; I sit down at nine in the morning and try not to get up until I’ve written two thousand words. I type straight into my laptop, but I do have to have my notebook full of scribbled thoughts and ideas open next to me, even if I don’t even glance at it. I feel cut adrift without it!
What are a few things that inspire you the most?
I love the great outdoors, and the changing of the season. I love history – I suppose that’s the thing that inspires me the most. All those secrets and stories, just waiting to be discovered. Also people, and all the many, complicated and mysterious ways in which we interact!
Quick, what’s one thing that makes you laugh out loud?
Things are pretty serious around here at the moment (I’m in the thick of writing my new book), but I can usually count on my cats to give me a laugh – they wrestle and cavort on the lawn outside my window, and one of them usually ends up taking a pratfall off the wall or the garden bench. I love the way they then saunter off, noses in the air, as if salvaging wounded dignity…
I read that you like to cook. What is one of your favorite dishes?
I love cake in all its many forms, so I’m often baking. I make a truly fabulous fruit cake – it was my grandmother’s recipe and it’s called ‘Never Fail Fruit Cake’, for good reason. I also learnt how to make a great risotto while I was living in Venice; I cook a mean curry; and my ultimate comfort food recipe is a thick chicken soup with dumplings…I’m getting hungry now, typing this…
How else do you like to spend your free time?
I go horse riding, and I do volunteer work visiting elderly people in my area. I garden, I do DIY, I try to keep fit (necessary after all the cooking), and I read an awful lot.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about upcoming projects (or anything at all!)?
My next book to come out in the USA will be A Half Forgotten Song, released next year, which is a story about obsessive love, art and betrayal; set in England in the 1930s and the present day. Right now I’m working on a new book set in Bath in the 1820s. It tells the story of a mismatched group of people coming together to solve the mysterious disappearance of a young girl, twelve years earlier. It’s a love story, as well as a historical mystery. It doesn’t have a title yet – I’m waiting for a stroke of genius!
Here’s a random fact – I love ‘Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives’! I’d love to go on a road trip through the USA, eating at all the places Guy goes to on that show, especially the ones serving Mexican food and BBQ. The only trouble is, I’d be the size of a barn by the end of that holiday…
Keep up with Katherine: Facebook
Purchase The Unseen: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound
Old Gold by Jay Stringer
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer/July 24th, 2012
Former cop Eoin Miller is good at finding people. He’s fresh off the tail of a someone that owes a dangerous man money when he sees Mary for the first time, nursing a vodka at the local pub. Drawn to her immediately, he finds out that Mary thinks that someone is trying to kill her. Mary goes home with Eoin, and after a night of, well, sleep (him on the couch downstairs, and her upstairs), he wakes up to find her dead, strangled with his tie, with needle tracks in her arm. There’s no sign of a needle, which just compounds the fact that a stranger has been in his home, and murdered Mary. Instead of going to the police, however, Eoin flees, holing up in a flat owned by the Mann brothers and sets out to find out who killed Mary, because he knows that if he doesn’t, he’ll surely be framed for her murder. Not only that, but Eoin just hates a mystery. It also doesn’t help matters that a good friend from the police force is breathing down his neck to find the missing son of one of the brass. Yep, Eoin Miller has a lot piled on his plate, and the pile is about to get higher.
Eoin Miller is a rolling stone, picking up trouble wherever he goes. Seriously, the man has a nose for liars, two rival drug families on his back, and a body following him around. The man is like a Timex. You know, takes a lickin’, etc… Like I said, he can’t stand a mystery, and his need to solve it is even stronger than the lure of the pub, or the increasing lure of his ex-wife, who happens to be a cop on her way up. Luckily, he’s still got an in at the police, even though his Gypsy blood was a constant bane to him while on the force, but motives seem to be increasingly contradictory, and the body count is growing. As he navigates the politics of two powerful families that each want a piece of him, and chases his suspicions and mounting clues, he also has to deal with some powerful demons of his own. Leaving the force and the failure of his marriage have taken a toll, and although his heart is in the right place, his head often isn’t. He’s spent his life as an outsider, and it’s perhaps because of this that so many people just to the left of the law, especially at risk kids, seem to trust him, and this will come in handy. Eoin Miller is my kind of hero, firmly in the grey, but with a heart of, well, gold, and maybe just a tad too much trust to give. I like his vulnerability, though, and his melancholy. It makes things even more heart wrenching when people and situations go south, and boy, do they. There were about a dozen times when I thought I knew where things were going here, and I was wrong just about every time. Eoin may be vulnerable, but you really shouldn’t underestimate him. His sharp mind and brash tendencies carry him through some pretty sticky situations, and the violence he inflicts is never casual, although plenty of casual violence is inflicted on him. There’s a jaw dropper of a twist in this one, and it sneaks up on you, as the best twists do. This is a helluva good book and a helluva debut. I can’t wait for the next one!
Old Gold, the new crime novel by Jay Stringer will be out in about a week, and Jay was kind enough to submit to an
interrogation interview, so please welcome him to the blog!
Jay, you’re brand new book, Old Gold, is coming out in just a few days (on the 24th!!) What made you decide to take the plunge and write a novel?
It was an accident, honest. I remember when I was about eight years old, the teacher asked what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said a Bookmaker. It was a long time before I understood why she laughed at me. Before I could write I used to draw little comics, and I’ve always been a scribbler and a plotter. Anyway. I was a film student, and I had an idea for a film, but I needed the characters voices before I could write it, so I started work on a short story to figure them out. The short story kept going, and eventually I admitted to myself I was writing a novel and got serious about it.
Will you tell us a bit about Old Gold?
Sure. I like to call it ‘social pulp fiction.’ It’s a crime novel set in the Midlands, in England. The region was built on industry, coal mining and manufacturing, and has never quite recovered from all of those things going away. It feels to me like the perfect setting for a modern crime novel. The protagonist, Eoin Miller, is half-Romani, so he has identity issues, and is a gangland detective. If you’ve stolen a stash from a dealer or run off with mob money, it’s Miller who comes and finds you. But then something happens in his own home, and he’s dragged into trying to do the right thing. His only real problem is that he doesn’t know what ‘the right thing’ is.
Do you prefer to write “grey” characters as opposed to morally black and white?
I like to step outside of the whole thing, and just focus on actions and motivations. Saying that, it is fun to play with the reader a little, to mess up the moral compass of the story and challenge the reader to try and straighten things out. There are certain things that I’m a bit fed up of in fiction, like the reluctant hero. There’s a fake premise; the character is set up all moody and amoral, but in the end he’ll be faced with a choice between right and wrong, and he’ll do the right thing and we all know it. But in real life choices never seem to be that clean cut. It seems far more interesting to me to face a character with a bunch of choices that all have bits of right and bits of wrong in them, because the decision he makes will tell us far more.
What do you love most about writing crime fiction?
There are less excuses, less reasons not to get on with writing. I can’t tell myself that I’m “world building” and spend afternoons working out whole political systems and technology. I just get on with writing a story. I’m drawn to reading and writing social fiction, and I think that social fiction leads very comfortably into crime. Writers like Dickens, Steinbeck, O’Casey, Hamilton; they’d all be classed as crime writers if they were working today. Faulkner’s Intruder In The Dust is totally a crime novel. I’m not fit to lick any of those guys pen tips, but they wrote what I like to read and write; real lives, people struggling to make ends meet, in over their heads. As the song goes, “I needed money ‘cause I had none,” that’s crime fiction, and that’s what I love to write.
Regarding violence in crime, or noir, fiction, do you think anything is “off limits”?
For me –and I’m a rookie so I could be way off the mark- it seems that no subject is off limits. In fact, if a subject feels off limits then, as a writer, you owe it to yourself to try and write it. Where the limits come in is the execution of the idea. Chris Rock once said that comedy works when it’s applying pressure upwards. If the joke is pushing up at something or someone, it’s funny, it’s its pushing down on someone it’s tasteless. I think that’s a good guide for dealing with violence as a writer. We have to remember that it happens for a reason, that’s it’s painful and scary, and that it has consequences. If you write a scene with all that in mind, and keep on eye on the status and emotions of the person suffering the violence, then you’ll be fine. I feel like the violence should be the shortest moment in any of my stories; It’s more my job to show what lead up to it and what the consequences are.
Who are some of your biggest literary influences (or influences in general)?
I learned to read with comic Books and Alan Moore is one of my favorite writers in any field. I was heavily influenced as a teenager by songwriters like Paul Westerberg and Bruce Springsteen, and then by stand-up comedians like Mark Thomas and Stewart Lee. I had a good English teacher at high school who would lend me things to read outside of class, and he got me hooked on Sean O’Casey. From there is was the slippery slope into crime fiction; in the space of about two years as a teenager I saw THE USUAL SUSPECTS, JACKIE BROWN and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, and that lead me to reading James Elroy and Elmore Leonard, then Lawrence Block, and I was in.
Does music help you with your writing? Other than a pen or a keyboard, is there anything you need to have nearby in order to get in the zone?
I’m pretty basic when I’m doing the writing itself. I don’t want anything to distract me. But I use music to get into the mood; I think my influences from film and music mean I’m always thinking of soundtracks and scenes, and the music helps me get in the right mood. I tend not to write by hand much, because my handwriting is messed up and even I often can’t tell what I was saying. I’ve got notebooks full of scribbles that nobody can decipher, so I’ve learned my lesson.
If you had to choose a few songs as a sort of “soundtrack” to Old Gold, what would you pick?
Funny you should ask, I did just that. I prepared a soundtrack based on what the protagonist is listening to during the book, with a few other songs that he would like. Then I changed my mind; the book is set in a vary multicultural area and the supporting cast is quite diverse, so I tweaked the play list to reflect this. There’s something in there now for each of the main characters. (Spotify link- Old Gold Soundtrack)
Do you have a favorite sleuth in film or print?
It would have to be Matt Scudder. He was the detective who gathered moss as he went; each scar, each drink, each case stuck to him. There have been detectives since who have aged in “real time” and who have suffered from all the beatings they took –Ray Banks and James Sallis have both explored that idea brilliantly- but I think Scudder was a key turning point in crime fiction. I’d also give a mention to Jim Rockford. I love that guy, and try and get in references to him in my own books.
It says in your bio that you’re dyslexic and that the printed word is a “second language” to you. Can you tell us about how your dyslexia influenced the writing process?
It’s influenced the way I do everything. It’s basically like being hard-wired to think laterally. I try to avoid saying how I do things differently to non-dyslexics, because I can’t really assume to know how someone else’s brain works. For my own process though, I think its helped me with structure, because I’d learned the basics of narrative and conversation long before I could read and write properly. Looking back, it seems like I lagged behind people my age for along time because it wasn’t sinking in, but once I learned to read and write I overtook people in class because I’d already figured out everything else. They’d spent their early years having spelling and grammar drilled into them, then were expected to read plays and novels and understand the meaning without any training for it. I’d spent years learning narrative and meaning, and then slowly learned to put spelling and grammar on top of that.
I think we sometimes put our priorities in the wrong place. Spelling and grammar are vitally important, sure, but they have to be in aid of understanding and meaning, not in place of it. We create a fetish out of words, when they’re just black ink patterns on a page that we move around. We use these patterns to tap into ideas and associations that we hold in our heads, and so we should work on the ideas first.
Is there anything in particular that inspires you when you write?
I have to marry a character and a story to something that’s really annoying me. That probably sounds a bit vague, but I’ve found that I need all three things to come together for me to really get any good work done. There were news stories that got under my skin for both OLD GOLD and it’s sequel, and Eoin Miller’s opinions on the issues were not always in sync with my own, that gave me the story on both occasions. I think as a fiction writer there’s a part of me that’s a frustrated journalist. It’s probably better that way, if I’d become a journalist maybe I’d have been a frustrated fiction writer and just made stuff up anyway.
What’s one of your favorite lines from a book?
The opening line of Orwell’s 1984. It’s a bit of a cliché to mention it, but it does everything a first line needs to do without showing off. “It was a bright cold day in April, and all the clocks were striking 13.”
What makes you not want to finish a book?
Too many words on a page (which is saying something after some of the essay answers I’ve given you.) Brevity is gold dust. I think large part of storytelling is knowing what not to say, and If a writer is cramming too many words into his sentences I tend to drift away.
When you manage to find some free time, how do you like to spend it?
Working full time as well as a writing doesn’t leave much, so I have to cram a lot in when I get it. I like to read, to watch movies or TV. During the football season I have to put a few hours aside every week to see my team get beat, and I lose more hours than I can afford on youtube.
I don’t suppose you’d like to tell us about that time you were a zoo keeper…? Had to ask!
Sadly it’s probably the least exciting thing I’ve ever done. It was interesting, and I got to spend days handling snakes or feeding Asiatic brown bears, but I never did anything fun like stealing an elephant.
Well then, what’s one of the most exciting things you’ve ever done?
Okay, I admit it, I stole an elephant.
I tried stand-up comedy a couple times when I was younger. Once you know what it’s like to go out and die on stage, the concept of “excitement” changes. The most interesting job was working in bookselling, every day was different, every day was a chance to either inspire someone or be inspired, and I got to meet a lot of my favorite authors.
If someone from the states was to visit you for the first time, where would you take them?
This has happened quite often, I have a lot of friends in the States and they’ll come over and crash on our sofa for a week at a time. I live in Glasgow these days, so most of the time it’s showing them to the museums, or the bars, maybe a trip to Edinburgh. Mostly it’s about showing them the Scottish rain. When I’m showing people around the area I grew up down in England, I’ll show them the stadium where my football team play, or even more bars, or maybe some of the locations from my books. Or canals. Lots of canals.
What’s one of the biggest misconceptions that the English or Scottish have about Americans, and vice versa?
There are a couple of things that bug me on both sides. From this side of the big wet thing, it’s annoying when we hear Americans tripping up over the difference between “English,” and “Scottish, never mind understanding that both are “British.” As highlighted in your question, there is a difference between England and Scotland, yet often it seems people over there don’t worry about using all these words interchangeably, or too say that England and Britain are the same thing, or that Scotland is a suburb in the north of England. And that’s before we start bringing Ireland into the conversation.
Going back the other way, I get really annoyed about the condescending attitude Brits will often show toward the United States; it’s not uncommon to hear Americans being dismissed as the but of a cheap joke over here. I hate cheap jokes on principle, because nothing has been done to earn the laugh, but that one annoys me more than most. There’s something culturally about the United States that can bring out a totally undeserved snark over here. I may be biased though, because I’ve been inspired and moved by so much American art, from movies and comics to the great social novelists and songwriters. I’ve been dreaming about moving to New York since I was a boy, so maybe that taints my view!
Is there anything else you’d like to share about upcoming projects or events (or anything at all!)?
The most immediate things are the book, OLD GOLD, and a prequel ebook that’s available for kindle right now called FAITHLESS STREET. I know it can be a gamble trying a new author, and it takes trust to invest your time into reading their book. That’s why I put the prequel out, it’s a chance to sample my writing and see if you like the voice. It’s four short stories, each one giving a glimpse into a different character from the novel. There’s also a fun Easter egg hidden away- one of the stories put a different spin on the events of the novel, I’m leaving that out there to see if anyone picks up on it. Beyond those, there’s a follow up called RUNAWAY TOWN, that’ll be out some time in the winter, and I’ve trying to push myself in different directions with that one.
Keep up with Jay: Website | Twitter
Read my review of Old Gold
Pre-Order Old Gold: Amazon | B&N
About Old Gold:
Half-gypsy detective Eoin Miller finds people for a living — usually people who would do anything to remain hidden. Ironic considering Eoin has done all he can to lose himself in a downward spiral that has cost him his job, his respect, his wife, and anything else that ever mattered. But he’s not inclined to dwell on what he’s given up, and Eoin prefers it that way.
Then he meets Mary, a hard-drinking woman on the run who confides that she’s stolen a valuable item, one that certain people would kill to get back. The two of them seek a temporary — and incomplete — solace in each other’s arms, only for Mary to turn up as a corpse in Eoin’s bed the next morning, him asleep on the sofa.
Recalling his father’s aversion to authority, Eoin runs from the body, but he hates a mystery and is driven to discover the truth behind Mary’s murder, even if it means putting his own life on the line. Before long, Eoin’s tangled up in a ferocious turf war that has him playing his former allies and employers — crime lords, drug dealers, cops, and politicians—against each other.
Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues by Diana Rowland
Publisher: DAW/July 3rd, 2012
Angel Crawford is still working for the St. Edwards Parish Coroners Office and looking over her shoulder, just in case zombie killer Ed should show up again and attempt another decapitation. She has a new appreciation for life, even though, technically, she’s dead. Being needed is a good thing, and Angel is determined to do her job well and not go back to the way she used to be. Her dad seems to be trying hard to put the past behind them as well, and their relationship improves every day. Also, Angel’s relationship with sexy cop slash zombie, Marcus, doesn’t hurt either. When someone holds Angel at gunpoint when she’s dropping off bodies at the morgue, then steals one of them, Angel hopes she isn’t in over her head, and fears that her past might be creeping up on her.
Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues is the second in the series that began with My Life As a White Trash Zombie. In the first book, we see Angel hit a pretty bad place, not only with herself, but with her dad, and strangely enough, becoming a zombie actually made her clean up her act. However, poor Angel can’t seem to get a break. Something about a death at a research lab doesn’t smell quite right to her, and when she voices her suspicions to Marcus, she’s dismissed as acting immaturely. Yeahhh, Angel consistently gets underestimated, and she’s getting pretty sick of it. Also, after meeting Marcus’ uncle, she starts to suspect some sort of mafia connection. The line in these books always skate the edge of hope and darkness, but things do take a pretty scary turn in this one when Angel stumbles into a plot involving using zombies, and we’re not talking about for the betterment of mankind. Angel’s no idiot though, and underestimating her is not in anyone’s best interest. Yes, she still struggles with a lot of the self-esteem issues that have always plagued her, but that’s changing, and the support of her co-workers and her friends has gone a long way to overcoming that, not to mention her improving relationship with her dad. My heart ached for Angel a few times, but she’s a tough girl, and not to be trifled with. And wait ‘til you get a load of her when she’s fully topped off with brains. Super strength is just the beginning! The author has done an amazing job with a character that may have not always been sympathetic (although that’s changed quite a bit), and my stomach only twitches a tiny bit when Angel drinks a brain smoothie now, so I consider that progress. If you haven’t discovered this series, you’re in for a treat. Angel is one of my favorite heroines in urban fantasy right now, and I can’t wait to see what she’s up to next!
Today I have the awesome Megan Abbott on the blog. Her brand new book, Dare Me, is out on the 31st, and it’s pretty awesome (feel free to read my review, I’ll be here when you get back). She was kind enough to take some time out of her insanely busy schedule and answer a few questions for me, so please welcome her to the blog! Also, be sure to check out the giveaway at the bottom of the post!
Megan, you’re the author of 7 books, of which your newest, Dare Me, is out at the end of this month! You’ve also written for numerous publications. Have you always wanted to be a writer? What’s one of the first things you remember writing?
No, I still have trouble calling myself a writer, even after all those books! I was always a compulsive reader, but it wasn’t until the end of grad school, working on my dissertation on hardboiled fiction and film noir, that I started writing fiction regularly—started the story that became my first novel, Die a Little Growing up idolizing novelists, it felt presumptuous, even ridiculous, to ever think I could be one myself.
Will you tell us a bit about Dare Me?
It’s the final result of an obsessive descent into the world of high school cheerleading. About two years ago, I started becoming fascinated with how cheer has transformed since I was a teenager. Today, these girls perform death defying stunts and seem to embrace the risk. They’re proud of their wounds, like boxers, even marines. Sort of a Fight Club for teenage girls. So I began writing about story about a power struggle among a squad of cheerleaders under the sway of a charismatic coach. Trouble ensues.
What do you love most about writing crime fiction and suspense?
I think it speaks to all the primal things in us—all the most essential urges and drives. Desire, greed, anger, temptation, revenge. So it always feels urgent, real, authentic. People often dismiss crime fiction as escapist, but to me it’s precisely the opposite. It sends us to the most dangerous places in ourselves. The only escapist element is we can close the book at the end. But the feelings linger. And that’s powerful.
Do you have any particular writing quirks?
Oh goodness, hundreds of them! But I would never admit to any of them.
What are some of your favorite authors or novels?
I end up reading really widely—from my crime fiction heroes (Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, James Ellroy, Dorothy B. Hughes) to gothic (Brontës, DuMaurier) and southern gothic, to my special love of mid-century American literature (Faulkner, Fitzgerald). And I love true crime.
What makes you put a book aside in frustration?
What a great question. I think it’s when I feel the author is talking down to the reader. Doesn’t respect the reader. I’m pretty forgiving and finish almost every book I start, but that really drives me to distraction.
What’s one of your favorite lines from a book?
“Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apples,” Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg Ohio.
You won the Edgar award for Best Paperback Original for Queenpin in 2008. How did you celebrate?
The fact that I can’t quite remember is probably the answer!
When you manage to find free time between writing and teaching, how do you like to spend it?
Movies. Luckily, New York City is a movielover’s paradise. My favorite way to spend an afternoon is to tuck myself into a seat at Film Forum and watch an old movie with a pal.
What one piece of advice would you offer to struggling writers?
Read constantly. And write the book you’d love to read.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about upcoming projects or events?
I’m about to hit the road for Dare Me’s book tour, and my goal is to find a hidden oddity (an unusual historic site, a great dive bar, an obscure local food item not to be missed) in every town. So if anyone lives in or around Boston, Austin, Houston, Phoenix, LA, San Diego, Seattle or Oxford, MS, please pass your tips along!
Keep up with Megan: Website | Twitter | Facebook
Pre-order Dare Me: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound
I featured Megan in a post for Criminal Element recently, and you can read that here.
Ben H. Winters is the author of more than 5 novels, including his newest book, The Last Policeman. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions, and I also have a copy of the book up for grabs, so be sure to check out the giveaway details at the bottom of the post!
Please welcome Ben to the blog!
Ben, your mashup, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is wildly popular as is Android Karenina, and your YA novel The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, was nominated for an Edgar Award! And I certainly can’t forget the terrifying Bedbugs, and also a few Worst-Case Scenario books! What made you decide to dive into the apocalypse (or pre-apocalypse) with your newest novel, The Last Policeman?
Thank you so much! I loved writing those “mash-up” novels so much. Studying the original novels in order to parody them effectively was like going to graduate school. I can think of no better way to study novel writing than by outlining Anna Karenina chapter by chapter, and charting the arc of every character. And then I got to add all the death lizards from outer space.
The Last Policeman is definitely a more grounded affair. I love detective novels, especially detective novels that offer some level of comment or reflection beyond the simple whodunit. In the book, an asteroid is on the way that will soon destroy all life on Earth, and my hero is nevertheless staying at his work, trying to solve a murder, committed to justice even though the world will soon be consumed by fire. I guess this is my way of asking: why do people make the choices they make? In the book, time is short, but when you get right down to it, time is short for all of us, so why does anyone do the right thing? Why does anyone remain righteous and loyal —to their job, to their partner, to their country?
So, you know, there are some big ideas floating around, but it’s all wrapped up in a good-old-fashioned murder mystery. From a storytelling level, you want to present your protagonist with obstacles, and, as it turns out, the impending end of days presents a LOT of obstacles.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yup. When I was in fourth grade I wrote a series of very short stories featuring a hapless pig named Piggy Wiggy who always died at the end in some comical way.
Did you do some research into apocalypse scenarios in preparation for writing The Last Policeman?
I did a lot of research, yes, although most of it was about more mundane topics, like how cell phones work, and how the Federal Reserve regulates saving behavior in consumers. Because after I established my specific scenario about a dinosaur-killer-size asteroid, and made sure it was—although wildly unlikely—at least conceivably possible, my interest was much more in how our existing society would be upended by the approaching calamity.
I read a book recently that painted a rather gruesome picture of society in the event of a known coming apocalypse. Do you believe that we’d see man succumbing to baser instincts, or do you have a more optimistic view?
I think many people will succumb to their baser instincts, but of course many people already succumb to their baser instincts on a fairly regular basis. So yeah, there would be some murdering and wildness and all kinds of substance abuse, but I think we’d be surprised to see how deeply rooted our societal and civilizing imperatives are, how strong are the walls that mankind has built up to separate himself from the animals. In amongst the fear and anxiety and crime there would be massive amounts of cooperation, a lot of generosity and group planning, and of course a lot of religious sentiment and religiously motivated behavior.
If you could only take one book with you into the bomb shelter, which one would it be?
Wow. That’s the most terrifying thing of all, isn’t it, the idea of a new underground existence, without even a nice local library to keep one stimulated. The apocalypse is going to be so boring. I suppose realistically I ought to take some sort of survival guide, about how to make potable water and hunt and those sorts of things. But for pure pleasure I’ll go with one of those fat anthologies of Sherlock Holmes.
What are you reading now?
Walter Miller, “A Canticle for Leibowitz”. Patricia Highsmith “Ripley’s Game”. And Robert Caro’s series on LBJ. I’m on chapter 2 or so of the third book, “Master of the Senate.”
Favorite line from a book?
I’m going to go totally nerdy on this one, and quote “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman”: I reverence truth as much as any body; and when it has slipped us, if a man will but take me by the hand, and go quietly and search for it, as for a thing we have both lost, and can neither of us do well without,–I’ll go to the world’s end with him. The beauty is that it’s a nice-sounding quote that in context is hilarious; the whole book is full of crazy made-up BS.
When you manage to find some free time, how do you like to spend it?
I like to spend time with my kids! Does that count as free time? Basically, as this point, when I’m not writing, or doing family things, I’m
I read somewhere that you were in a punk band in high school. Care to dish?
That is a true fact. The band was called Corm, and I was the bass player and the lyricist. We actually did very well for a bunch of kids; we released a couple of records and toured around a bit. John Davis, our guitar player and guiding light, has remained in music. These days he leads a terrific pop band in Washington D.C. called Title Tracks.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about upcoming projects or events?
I’m working on the sequel to The Last Policeman—if all goes as planned this is going to be a trilogy. Folks should check out TheLastPoliceman.com/wwyd . We’re publishing a whole series of essays by interesting people, about the end of the world—“What Would You Do?”
Keep up with Ben: Website | Goodreads | Twitter
Read my review of The Last Policeman
What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway?Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.
The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. The economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job—but not Hank Palace. He’s investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week—except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares.
The first in a trilogy, The Last Policeman offers a mystery set on the brink of an apocalypse. As Palace’s investigation plays out under the shadow of 2011GV1, we’re confronted by hard questions way beyond “whodunit.” What basis does civilization rest upon? What is life worth? What would any of us do, what would we really do, if our days were numbered?
In six months, earth is going to be hit with an asteroid, estimated to destroy over half of the population of Earth, and Detective Hank Palace thinks he’s probably the only cop left that cares anything about solving cases. Concord, New Hampshire has come to be called “Hanger Town” in reference to the overwhelming suicide of choice of its citizens. When he’s called to the scene of a man that has supposedly hung himself in a McDonald’s bathroom, something just doesn’t look right, and Hank Palace is determined to get to the bottom of it. They’re still not sure where the asteroid will land, but justice must still be served, right?
End of the world scenarios in fiction aren’t hard to come by recently, but out of all of them, the asteroid/meteor/large thing falling out of the sky is one that fascinates me more than others. I imagine getting the news that in a year, or maybe six months, something big is gonna hit, and I’m in the blast zone. Would I go on with life as usual, or would I throw caution to the wind and live out the rest of the days like there’s no tomorrow (which may or may not be true)? Hank Palace is one of the ones who decide to go on as usual, doing his job, and doing it to the best of his ability. All Hank ever wanted to be is a cop, and he pursues this case with a single minded doggedness that is almost unheard of in these strange new times of self-indulgence and wild abandon. He does his job in spite of the quiet snickers and not so subtle ribbing from his colleagues, as things begin to crumble around him. The story is told by Hank, and we follow him as he navigates the trail of the victim, a quiet, socially awkward insurance man. As Hank puts together the clues, following strict procedure, he stumbles onto something much more than a mere hanging, and the body count begins to rise.
The Last Policeman is much more than a police procedural or a pre-apocalyptic scenario. It’s a study of a man determined to do the right thing as society crumbles and hope begins to crumble with it. Hank reminded me a bit of Marge Gunderson, the indomitable police chief in Fargo, and as the case unfolds, so does Hank, and so do the little ins and outs of Concord and its inhabitants. Things in this book are so subtle and understated that the bits of violence can be jarring, even though the violence is never over the top. I think Hank was as surprised about it as I was, yet he perseveres with dignity, and even a bit of off kilter grace. I suspect part of what drives Hank in his investigation is that he sees a bit of himself in the victim, and following through is really the only choice he has. Ben Winters’ writing is nuanced, lovely, sometimes poignant, and a pure pleasure to read. I hope that The Last Policeman gets the attention that it deserves, because it’s a hell of a book and about as close to perfect as it gets for me. I hear that it will be a trilogy, and I can’t wait for the next one!
Addy Hanlon has always been Beth Cassidy’s best friend and trusted lieutenant. Beth calls the shots and Addy carries them out, a long-established order of things that has brought them to the pinnacle of their high-school careers. Now they’re seniors who rule the intensely competitive cheer squad, feared and followed by the other girls — until the young new coach arrives.
Cool and commanding, an emissary from the adult world just beyond their reach, Coach Colette French draws Addy and the other cheerleaders into her life. Only Beth,unsettled by the new regime, remains outside Coach’s golden circle, waging a subtle but vicious campaign to regain her position as “top girl” — both with the team and with Addy herself.
Then a suicide focuses a police investigation on Coach and her squad. After the first wave of shock and grief, Addy tries to uncover the truth behind the death — and learns that the boundary between loyalty and love can be dangerous terrain.
I was never a cheerleader in high school. In fact, I was never really part of any clique. But as far as I knew, all of our cheerleaders were smart, talented girls that worked hard at just about everything they did, and yeah, in a lot of ways, probably ruled the school. Either way, I don’t remember them being like the girls in Dare Me, although knowing them that well would have required much more familiarity. Let’s just say I hope they weren’t anything like these girls. Tall, beautiful Addy is a cheerleader, along with her best friend Beth Cassidy, and they absolutely rule the school. Tearing down teachers, tormenting coaches and fellow classmates is all in a day’s work for these girls, until Coach French comes along. Until now, the squad was soft and undisciplined. No more butt shaking and hip thrusting for these girls, no sir. Coach French is gonna whip them into shape, you’d better believe it. Colette French is tiny, commanding, and beautiful, and Addy’s fascination with her is evident from the start. Soon, Coach French invites the girls over to her perfect house, which contains her perfect daughter, and doting husband. Things aren’t quite as perfect as they seem at Casa French though, and that soon becomes evident, when an explosive event introduces the first cracks in the fragile veneer built around Coach French and her girls.
Ohhhh, Megan Abbott. How dare you suck me into this diabolical narrative about cheerleaders and their mean, brittle little hearts, causing loss of sleep and possibly heart palpitations! Dare Me is, at first blush, Addy’s story. After all, she’s the one telling it, and for a while, at least, she keeps the reader at arm’s length. We learn quite a bit about Beth, the little Napolean, with her narrowed eyes, casual cruelty, and fondness for games of the psychological sort. We think we get to know Coach, but of course, things are never quite as they seem. There’s a quiet desperation about Addy, and she’s always been Beth’s lieutenant and, seemingly, at her beck and call. Beth is presented (very effectively) as a bitchy, bored, innately cruel teenager with a chip on her shoulder, and she’s pretty easy to hate. Her calculation is startling and hurting others seems like sport, so the author’s ability to slowly morph her into a tragic figure (and she is), is pretty impressive. There’s a mystery here, to be sure, but Dare Me is, at its core, a study of the bonds of friendship, obsessive love, and the lengths some will go to in order to hold onto that love and possess a person fully. Dare Me is described as a sort of Fight Club for cheerleaders, and it is. These girls wear their physical bruises like badges, with their “cherried smiles and spray-tanned legs”, and drive their bodies to exhaustion and beyond, striving for constant perfection, admiration, and of course, acceptance. When the final revelations come, about Beth, Addy, Coach French, and the death that wraps them so tightly together, you’ll be a bit exhausted, but in the best way, in the way only a good mystery can do. And Megan Abbott is good, folks. Her staccato, spitfire prose grabs you from page one and doesn’t let go until the very last page. I dare you not to finish it in one sitting. Highly recommended.
I’d like to welcome Kylie Griffin back to the blog! Kylie is the author of Vengeance Born, and the brand new Alliance Forged. Today, I’m giving the blog over to Kylie, and she’s going tell us all about the half-man, half-demon hero, Varian, from Alliance Forged! Also, she’s generously offering a copy of Alliance Forged to one lucky winner, so be sure to check out the giveaway details below the post!
MAN OR DEMON? GIFT OR CURSE?
-by Kylie Griffin
One of the things I love when I’m reading or following a series are the little extra’s shared by author’s about the characters from their books. Whether it’s information shared in an interview or guest blog or even as snippets posted on their websites. It’s like the Special Features in the menu on movie DVD where you can learn more about the making of it, or listen to the actors share insights about the character they play.
When Kristin extended an invitation to revisit My Bookish Ways, I jumped at the chance of a guest blog post with this sort of theme *rubbing hands together in glee*.
Today you get to learn more about Varian, the half-demon half human hero from ALLIANCE FORGED, Bk#2 in the Light Blade series (Berkley Sensation).
Race: Na’Chi (half demon, half human hybrid)
Background: Varian was one of the first Na’Chi children, other than Annika, saved by human slave Hesia. The elderly healer discovered him scavenging for food in a pile of rubbish outside the Gannec fortress. Unable to save her own half-blood children from being taken from her and killed by the Na’Reish, Hesia has been rescuing Na’Chi babies and children like Varian for many years.
After a failed attempt to live among the human slaves and Na’Reish in the fortress, Varian and the other Na’Chi resorted to hiding and living in the forest surrounding the fortress. With their eyes changing color with their changing emotions it’s easy for a human slave or Na’Reish demon to identify them and the discovery and death of one of their own led to this decision. Living outside they fine tuned their scouting and ambush techniques and managed to remain hidden.
Varian became leader of the rag-tag bunch of Na’Chi youngsters at 15 years of age. With Hesia’s guidance and influence, he kept them safe.
When Annika and Kalan escaped the Gannec fortress (in VENGEANCE BORN), Varian followed them and led the Na’Chi into human territory, in the hope of bringing Hesia’s dream to fruition – to establish an alliance with the humans and find a new home.
Skills: All Na’Chi possess Na’Reish strength and heightened senses. As a Na’Chi scout Varian is able to tap into his Na’Reish half in a heartbeat and during battle becomes as strong and fast as a full-blooded Na’Reish. Some call this ability a Gift from the Lady (the deity humans and some Na’Chi believe in).
For Varian, having such a Gift is a double-edged sword – it helps him protect his people but the kicker is the risk he takes every time he goes into battle. Letting his Na’Reish side loose leaves him open to battle-rush, an insatiable hunger to take a life, the thrill of the kill. That addiction could one day overwhelm him and turn him into a mindless beast who is unable to tell friend from foe. And having spent most of his life honing and using his Gift, he’s finding it harder and harder to control that side of him.
Varian shares a close friendship with Lisella, one of the Na’Chi females who sees past his scar and fearsome reputation.
During a fight with a Na’Reish demon, Varian ended up with a scar on his right cheek, from eye to jaw line.
He considers Zaune, one of the younger Na’Chi scouts, one of his friends as the youth reminds him of himself at a younger age.
Because they use their abilities more frequently than other Na’Chi, a scout (like Varian) is twice as more likely to succumb to their darker half.
He prefers the company of the Na’Chi children as they accept him for who he is.
He professes no faith in the Lady as he believes She abandoned the Na’Chi to their suffering at the hands of the Na’Reish.
The beads in his hair signify certain events in his life.
Varian’s greatest fear is succumbing to battle rush and being unable to control the beast inside him.
Does he lose control? Yes.
Does he hurt anyone? Yes! (and I’m not referring to the Na’Reish demons he disposes of either)
More importantly, does he manage to conquer the beast? Well, that’s something you’re just going to have to find out for yourself when you read ALLIANCE FORGED!
How fortuitous I have a copy to giveaway so someone can discover Varian’s fate! But first I want you to step into my world, imagine you’re a Na’Chi or a human who’s been blessed by the Lady and given a Gift (some sort of special ability – good or bad or ambiguous). Would it be superhuman strength or speed like the Na’Chi scouts? Or maybe the power to heal or kill with a touch like Annika from VENGEANCE BORN (Bk#1)? Or could it be the ability to sense soul-pain like the young healer apprentice, Rissa?
What Gift would you choose?
**GIVEAWAY IS NOW OVER AND WINNER HAS BEEN NOTIFIED**
A Chinese National working for an American-owned construction company is grabbed off the streets of Shanghai in broad daylight. His one-man security detail goes missing as well.
Rutherford Risk is a firm specializing in extraction: the negotiation for, and the recovery of hostages. Private investigation is illegal in today’s China. Operating within her borders will be difficult at best.
The security company recruits two unique outsiders to do their bidding. Grace Chu is a forensic accountant hired to follow the money; John Knox is a civilian with unparalleled training in both combat and culture. Grace’s top-notch American education and Chinese military service make her an unassuming, but effective, operative, while Knox’s take-no-prisoners attitude brings them perilously close to harm. Following the money leads to more complex – and dangerous – consequences than either anticipated. Who is actually behind the kidnapping? And more important, can Knox and Grace locate the two hostages ahead of the deadline?
Ridley Pearson was given the chance to spend a year in Shanghai with his family, and his experience with, and appreciation for, China and its people is evident in The Risk Agent, the first book in a new series. When a Chinese citizen, Lu Hao, is kidnapped, along with his American security detail, Clete Danner, John Knox is called in to help by Rutherford Risk. At first, he’s dubious and hesitant to take the job, but has a disabled brother, Tommy, that needs constant care and attention, and the money from this job is much needed. They have a good import/export business running, but cash is always scarce, so he takes the job, but with reservations. Rutherford Risk has been hired by the American Construction firm that Lu Hao worked for in order to facilitate the ransom drop or an extraction of the captives. John has had experience with this kind of thing, and his plans lean heavily toward extraction. Also, for John, it’s personal, since Clete Danner is a close friend. He’s soon paired up with Grace Chu, a forensic accountant with ties to the kidnapped Chinese national, and an agenda of her own, and the game is afoot.
Speaking of agendas, there are a ton of folks that have agendas in The Risk Agent, including officers with the People’s Armed Police and possibly the CIA. Grace Chu is not only savvy with her mind, but with her fists, and proves an invaluable asset to John Knox. Foreigners don’t get behind the scenes easily in China, so her expertise is absolutely necessary to their mission. Lu Hao’s job for the construction company was paying out bribes to facilitate the building of luxury properties, so unsavory types are a plenty, and big money is involved. It took a bit of time for things to get going for me, but once they did, it was like a runaway train…in China. Time is of the essence to ensure the captives’ survival, but of course, this isn’t just a simple kidnapping, and navigating the ins and outs of rampant bribery, corporate espionage, and the Chinese underworld makes for a pretty fun ride. It’s hard not to like John Knox, but I especially liked Grace Chu. She’s like the proverbial onion: lots and lots of layers; it was fun getting to know her, and she shows infinite patience in showing partner Knox (a waiguoren, or foreigner) the intricacies of Chinese culture. There were a couple of clunky bits in the narrative in the form of some slightly awkward (but not detailed) love scenes, and some repetition of some lines, however, I read an uncorrected proof, so these things might have been fixed in the final draft. Either way, I quite enjoy a cinema-ready thriller every now and then, with lots of twists, turns, double crosses, and action, and this one more than fit the bill. Also, I’ve long been fascinated with China, and bustling, dynamic Shanghai is an undeniably exciting locale for a thriller. It will be fun to see where he takes Knox and Grace next!