Where and what did you study?
I have a Bachelor’s in Journalism degree from University of Missouri and a law degree from Fordham. I studied journalism, primarily feature writing, not hard news or broadcast journalism.
You were also a folk musician for awhile. Do you still perform or write songs?
I do not perform any longer, that was back a number of years. But for my book, XO, about the stalker of a young country-western singer, a Taylor Swift type. For that book I wrote an album of country-western songs, many of which contain clues as to what’s going on in the book. Not only are the lyrics reproduced in the book, but I formed a company with the producer of the album, in Nashville, and we actually cut the album. I did not perform, I’ve not performed for years, and the songs were performed by a woman singer, as if she were the lead character in the novel. That was something I paid for myself, and one song is available for free, so I can give it out to my fans and friends. That was a fun project.
Where do you live and why?
I live in North Carolina, and also outside of Washington, DC. I tend not to say exactly where, because who hasn’t had stalking issues, when you write sick and twisted books like mine. North Carolina is because my partner and I raise and breed dogs, and she and I…how should I put it? Did you ever see the movie Best in Show? Well, I’m the Eugene Levy character, with two left feet. We love dogs and have been involved with this for a long time. Down here we have a lot more space and it’s really an idyllic community. I had lived in Manhattan and the DC area, and we wanted something a little more pastoral, not being spring chickens anymore. Then we keep a place outside of DC because we have a lot of friends up there, and because I travel so much, all over the world, that I practically live at Dulles Airport.
I’m quite dog-obsessed myself. What kind of dog do you breed?
They’re called briards. It’s a French herding dog, with a big shaggy coat. They look like a double-wide Afghan Hound.
It sounds like the opposite of my dog. He’s a very rare breed, a Peruvian Hairless.
If you could, send me some pictures after the interview, I’d love to see them.
You’ve written some very good essays—I particularly like those on Edgar Allan Poe (published in In the Shadow of the Master: Classic Tales by Edgar Allan Poe). Poe was the first writer I loved when I was younger, devouring all of his stories. I think I have him to thank for my prose leaning toward the gothic (which some might read as over-written). How did Poe influence your own writing?
If you’re familiar with my books, you’ll know that I write in a very pedestrian style. I think that Nathaniel Hawthorne said that a writer’s words should dissolve into pure thought. They shouldn’t be self-conscious. You should never look at a sentence and think to yourself, Oh it’s very well crafted, most lyrical. I don’t know exactly what he means but it sounds great. Poe was someone who, in all humility, I tried to emulate stylistically. I write in a very functional, almost journalistic approach. I started reading Poe, as you did, at a very young age. I read practically everything. And he inspired me to try to stretch my style. He was a poet as well, and my essay discusses the musicality of his poem, “The Bells,” because I knew everyone else would write about his gothic short stories. I was so impressed with his ability to blend together very dark and gothic and twisty stories. And yet, he brought this sense of lyricism to it, which is what I continually strive to do, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. The combination of form and substance that he handled so well was my main attraction to him.
Describe your morning routine.
First of all I write everywhere: on the road, in cars, in airplanes. Usually at least 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. My routine…this is why there have been no successful movies about the lives of writers. Aside from stepping outside the routine of writing, it’s pretty routine. I wake up early, 630, feed my dogs, make some coffee, go into the office, and work until…I usually take no lunch break (today I’m taking my assistant out to lunch). Then work until 6 or 7, then knock off and make dinner with my partner and maybe see some friends. I wish I could say that there was zip-lining involved, or that I’d go out to the gun range. I’ve certainly done those things occasionally, but basically it’s just a question of “butt in the chair time.”
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your fiction plots ahead of time, or just let it flow?
Now here we’re going to have to step out of the question a little bit, and I think this may answer a number of your questions all at once. I don’t sit down with a blank computer screen and simply start to write. Invariably, for the last 20 or so novels, I’ve spent exactly eight months outlining and researching the book, and that’s about eight hours a day, six days a week. In that eight months I will have produced an outline of about 150 pages, single space, half margins, because I write notes in the blank part of the margin about what research material should be inserted at that part of the book. I will start out with nothing more that a very basic outline on day one. For the new book, XO, all I started with was this: “country-western singer, attractive, sends email to fan, he misinterprets it and begins to stalk her.” That was it. And then, over the course of 8 months, I will have come up with an entire schematic for the book that includes where every character is introduced, where every character leaves the story, because if you introduce anyone more than a walk-on, you have to let the reader know where this person went, what happened to them. I know where every clue is seeded into the book. I usually have three concurrent sub-plots running along with the main plot, and they all, in some way, relate. Because my books take place over a relatively short time period, I need to choreograph everything. The classic example is like the TV show 24. You had a lot of things going on, so you had to be sure that all of the action was consistent, and that revelations occurred at the appropriate time. The book is very carefully paced because, if you have for instance, two very exciting set pieces (murder, car chases), too close together then the second one is diminished. It’s like a symphony, you want to intersperse the adagio moments with the andante moments. Only by outlining can I do that. I feel very strongly that thrillers, or any piece of fiction, is about structure as much as prose.
When that’s all done, with the outline in front of me…I should say that there are a lot of false starts. I’ve worked for a month on an outline and realized, no, this isn’t going to be a book, it doesn’t make sense beyond the opening. So I throw it out. That’s one of the main reasons I outline. You, as a fellow writer, have probably also, as I have, sat down at my blank computer screen, written 100 pages of prose that was pretty good, but only then realized that the book wasn’t going to go anywhere. Why not do that work up front? Do the outline first to determine what’s a sustainable story.
So the outline’s done, all the research, and when I sit down with that, I can write 150,000 words in two months. That’s easy, because I know where it’s going to go. I don’t feel that there’s any such thing as “writer’s block.” I think there can be “idea block.” If you know what you want to write, bang, out it can come pretty quickly.
Then I spend another two months or so rewriting it.
It’s the great writers’ debate, to outline or to not outline. I’m not saying my way will work for everyone, but when I teach seminars in writing, I always say that it’s up to you, but you’ve gotta do the work at some point. You have to structure a story for the most intense emotional impact you can, as that’s what books are all about. If you can sit down with a blank screen and go right through it and create an intricate plot, god bless you. I just don’t work that way.
And then, too, if you’re writing a Saul Bellow type novel, character-driven, where plot takes second place to characterization and internal dialogue, then that’s something totally different. But for a plot-based thriller, I think we need to do the structure up front.
How did you develop your series protagonists, Lincoln Rhyme and Kathryn Dance? Do you chart them out ahead of time, their storylines over more than one book?
I’m a writer who is very beholden to the readers. I get to write fiction for a living. It doesn’t get any better than that. And I am very conscious of my responsibility to give the readers what they want. My books are a little challenging, only in the sense that you have to follow the story closely to keep up with the twists and turns. I always like to have at least two big twists at the end of the book. I’m always aware of the question of what my readers want. Is this going to be fun for them? Is this something that my readers will look forward to buying, to sitting on the train, taking them out of their quotidian lives, to make the airplane trip go faster, to spend a rainy day curled up on the couch, enjoying what I wrote. So if I create a new character, I always have in the back of my mind, could this be a series if people love the character and, if so, would there be a sustainable story for this character?
Here’s an example of what I mean. I wrote a book some years ago, The Devil’s Teardrop, which was about a handwriting analyst. Retired FBI handwriting expert. The crime he was called back to work on involved a horrendous series of murders, the only way to figure out who the perpetrator was, how to stop him, was a single hand-written document. This was sort of the height of handwriting analysis thrillers. I couldn’t trump that. That was about as much as I could do with that. So I wrote it, intentionally, as a standalone, in between the Lincoln Rhyme books. I knew that it was a compelling story, but I knew right there that it couldn’t be a series. There was just no way it could sustain that. Lifetime just did a film version of it that was pretty well done.
Generally if I get very good feedback on a character from my readers, I’ll bring them back. That’s what I did with Kathryn Dance. I introduced her as a secondary character in The Cold Moon, a Lincoln Rhyme novel, with the intention that, if the fan response was good, I’d break her out into her own series. The response was good, people were interested in seeing her again.
It’s impressive to me how much you are willing to cater to your readership. I’m interested to learn how you come to know of the reader responses? Is it through direct contact with individual readers, or if book sales reach a certain threshold?
It’s both. I tend not to read reviews of my books—who doesn’t want a better review than a worse one?
I never read any of mine, so I understand.
Well, take a truly gifted critic, critic as professional reader and thinker, like John Updike or Anthony Lane. These are people who bring a great deal of background to their work. I don’t think Updike ever reviewed anything, whether it’s architecture or painting or books or film, unless he had steeped himself in that particular artist’s body of work, and the work of competing artists. And he never said “this was good or this was bad.” He’d say, “this stands up to the artist’s other work, or it falls short in this regard or that.” That takes a lot of work, that’s serious journalism. I like that. But I see, particularly on the internet, a lot of these blogging critics who are self-appointed, they may or may not work for a publication, and they’ll just write, you know, something witty, but it’s more about their own writing than what they’re writing about. Anyway that’s my diatribe against some, not all, critics.
But if not critics, you do listen to your fans?
Fans, yes, fans I listen to and take very, very seriously. People like Lincoln [Rhyme, Deaver’s best-known protagonist] more than Kathryn, but I’ve had enough fan mail about Kathryn, ever-increasing now that there are several books out, because people enjoy following a character’s body of work. I take my fan’s comments to heart, while book sales are also a big part of it. I’m a manufacturer of a product, and there’s nothing wrong with following your sales and providing more of what sells well.
You’ve got 29 novels out now, if I’ve counted correctly. If someone is new to your work, which one should they start with?
Well, that’s a good question, Noah. I would say… One thing about my novels, over the last 20 or so, they are extremely consistent. You’re going to get a fast-paced novel, with deadlines every few chapters. They take place over a short amount of time. There is some esoteric and, I hope, interesting hook to each one. Things like, in The Cold Moon, the story really has to do with time, so watch-making and the construction of clocks plays a role. The Burning Wire was about the power grid. Sleeping Doll was about cults. They all have that theme or hook. Then there are big surprise endings. Not only internal reversals, but usually three big surprises, plot twists. If I had to choose one, I’d probably pick a recent Lincoln Rhyme novel, let’s make it The Cold Moon, since that would introduce a reader to Kathryn [Dance] as well. And I would also have to say, my favorite of those that I’ve written, Garden of Beasts. That was an anomaly in that it’s a historical thriller, set in Berlin in 1936. I was very pleased with that one.
Author-to-author advice: what has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful thriller that urges you to read on?
Mickey Spillane said, “People don’t read books to get to the middle.” It’s our job to grab them on the first page. I insist, in my books and in books I read, for the first page of the book (I mean, I’ll give you a couple of lines to get there), I’ll need some emotional hook. It doesn’t have to be violent necessarily. It simply has to raise, in the reader’s mind, a question of, What is this about? Something could go wrong here, emotionally, physically. Something is at stake. I’ve got to figure out what. There has to be a question raised, and very early. And that question has to be answered, relatively soon, because there’s an element of satisfaction that readers require. You can’t sustain a huge question throughout the entire story. Then that question will be replaced by other questions, continually, so that on almost every page, the reader has a question he or she wants answered, and they must read on to learn the answer. The reader has to ask him, What’s going to happen next?
I love the concept behind No Rest for the Dead. A bunch of authors got together to write sections of a novel, creating a “serial,” each picking up where the previous left off and then leaving off to pass the baton to the next novelist. How did it work in practice?
I’ve done that three times now, actually. No Rest for the Dead was done through Andrew Gully of The Strand magazine. He had asked us to do it. That was a different experience from the two serial novels that I created as a fund-raiser for the International Thriller Writers [an association of published thriller authors]. Those were The Chopin Manuscript and The Copper Bracelet, a sequel to it. In those I came up with the idea and wrote the first chapter, with the understanding that I would also get to write the last chapter, after it went out, we cast it upon the waters to the other artists. Then I did have to do some editing—I’m obsessed with twists and turns and surprises. I wanted that control, and I’m also sort of a control freak. Andrew’s project was a lot easier. He had a rough idea for the story, and then would just ask us to write chapters sort of in the vein of where the plot was going. I did ask him if I could have two chapters, and he was kind of enough to allow me that. When I read what he had sent me, I thought I’m not going to tinker with anyone else’s writing, of course, but I thought we could change things up just a bit at the end to get a better surprise. It’s great fun to do, that was no work at all.
Great idea, it sounds like the dream assignment for a high-level writing class.
Yeah, it is exactly that. And it can expose readers to authors they might not have otherwise read. It can be kind of daunting, and expensive, to pick up an author who you’ve never read and don’t know if you’ll like. But here you could get a taste of many styles, and see if the writer has a particularly violent streak in their writing, if they’re particularly lyrical… I like to think that other authors were somehow picked up by readers who might not have known them.
Do you have any superstitions?
Oh gosh, no. I’m like Lincoln Rhyme in that sense. He’s a scientist—I’m not, I didn’t get those kinds of brains, but I am very rational. I’m neither religious nor superstitious.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
Oh, I don’t mind that one at all. The first thing that came to mind was that it should be something about me, but it’s not going to be seen by a lot of people. I mean, what kind of airplay is this going to get? I guess just, “Writer.” I just like that. That’s all I need.
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
In this day of YouTube I don’t think there are too many surprises left… Yeah, I guess, had things gone in a different direction in life, I would absolutely love to own a restaurant. To be the head chef. I’ve always wanted to do that, and I just made up a few recipes for a cookbook that is a benefit fund-raising project for a morgue. All I’ll say is that my recipes involve normal food, but they all have a bone theme to them [one of Deaver’s best-selling novels, made into a film, is The Bone Collector]. Do with that what you will.