A Conversation with Hilary Davidson and Brad Parks

Hilary Davidson’s debut THE DAMAGE DONE (Tor Forge) released in September to rave reviews, including from Crimespree’s Jon Jordan, who called it “one of the best debuts I’ve read in years.” Her short story, “Insatiable” won a 2010 Spinetingler Award. An accomplished travel writer whose work has appeared in numerous national publications, Hilary is also the author of 18 non-fiction books.

Brad Parks’ debut, FACES OF THE GONE (Minotaur Books), became the first book ever to win both the Shamus Award and Nero Award. The next in the series, EYES OF THE INNOCENT, released last week and has been called “as good if not better” in a starred review by Library Journal. A former journalist for The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger and The Washington Post, Brad is now a full-time author.

Hilary and Brad are mutual fans and Twitter buddies; and Hilary has already volunteered to be Brad’s gun moll, should he ever need one. They recently had this discussion. It actually did not happen near a fireplace, but they thought the imagery made for a nice headline. Onward…

HD: When I was reading your first novel, FACES OF THE GONE, one question kept running through my mind: How much do you hate Cory Booker? Don’t get me wrong, as mayor of Newark, he’s done a lot of great work to clean up that city. But how different is Booker’s Newark from what you encountered as a reporter at The Star-Ledger, and do the changes affect how you write about the city in EYES OF THE INNOCENT?

BP: Newark is striving to improve itself, but it isn’t going to turn into Green Acres just because the mayor goes on Oprah. Trust me, the Newark portrayed in my books is very familiar to Cory. He lived in Brick Towers — one of the city’s worst high-rise housing projects — for a decade. And I’m sure he’ll remember one time I visited him there. It was during the 2006 campaign, and there was a rumor out that he wasn’t really living in Newark, that he was crashing at a posh place in Manhattan. So around 10 o’clock one night, I did a bed check. I walked up 20 flights of stairs (the elevator was busted), past piles of human feces (no public bathrooms), and rang his doorbell. No answer. I rang again. No answer. So I left him a note, explaining my errand and saying I would appreciate a phone call as soon as he received the note. Sure enough, at 6:15 the next morning, I got a voice mail. First thing he said: “Did you really have to ring the doorbell twice? I was trying to get some sleep.”

So, yeah, Newark still has a seamy side. But so does any city. You certainly didn’t have a tough time finding that in Manhattan with THE DAMAGE DONE. Drugs. Prostitution. Organized crime. Where did a nice girl like you learn so much about such nasty stuff?

HD: Drugs are part of the book because the main character’s sister is a heroin addict, but she isn’t one herself. What I was writing wasn’t really about drugs per se, but what it’s like to have a relationship with an addict. What do I know about heroin? Nothing, which is why I contacted addiction centers and begged people to talk to me, while trolling websites targeted at users. But trying to maintain a relationship with an addict is a special kind of hell that I do know something about. The sinister elements in the book — most of them, anyway — are there because Lily encounters them as she searches for her sister. The intriguing part, for me, was exploring how far she’d get caught up in them. There’s an Ansel Adams quote I love: “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” I think it applies just as much to a story. I knew enough of what I needed to tell the story from where Lily stands.

You, on the other hand, obviously got a lot of what you needed to tell your story from having been a reporter. You seem to have gotten a wealth of source material from your time as a journalist. Is there anything you miss about it?

BP: Gosh, what don’t I miss it about it? Getting to meet fascinating people. Learning new things every day. Seeing stuff most folks just don’t get to see. One year in a place like Newark gives you enough material for ten books, easy. I feel bad for the writers who have to make stuff up all the time. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I make stuff up, too – and find myself doing it more the longer I’ve been away from the newsroom – but I can always fall back on that trove of experience. That said, the thing I miss most is just the rush. I loved deadline, loved the hum of a big story, loved feeling like I was writing about the thing everyone was talking about.

What about you? As a travel writer, I know you keep your feet in both worlds. What do you find are some of the differences on each side of the fiction/non-fiction aisle?

HD: I made a tradeoff when I got serious about writing fiction. I couldn’t travel much if I was going to write a novel; I needed a steadier schedule. So, I mostly stopped going on trips. Ironically, that didn’t cut down on the number of travel articles I wrote, just the variety and, if I’m being honest, the quality. I’ve been penning piece after piece like “NYC for Kids,” “NYC for Romantics,” “Fashionable NYC,” “A Weekend Away… in NYC.” Plus, I’m still milking trips I took years ago, like one I did to Easter Island. Fortunately the stone statues there don’t age much. The sad part is that I love to travel and I miss it, so what I gave up was the best part of that job. But I am doing what I wanted most, which is scaring people. Er, writing fiction, I mean. That’s what I love so much about short stories — you create a world with a relatively small number of words, and you populate it with whatever monsters you want.

Speaking of stories, I loved the one you had in Beat to a Pulp,Serenity.” Nice and dark. I’m curious about what made you write a short story after writing several novels.

BP: It was mostly just a scheduling thing in December, to be honest. I had just finished up the fourth installment in the Carter Ross series. I was about to launch into promoting EYES OF THE INNOCENT, an effort that includes a 28-stop book tour. I didn’t want to start a new novel, knowing it was going to be interrupted. So I had this window of time and I thought it’d be fun to try some short fiction. It was. I enjoyed experimenting: trying out characters who would probably never work for a full-length novel; knowing I didn’t have to worry about making a mistake that would come back to haunt me 30,000 words later; writing stuff that is, yeah, a little darker than happy-go-lucky Carter Ross. With a little luck, you might see the fruits of my December in an anthology and/or magazine sometime soon.

What about you? I know you got your first book contract based on your marvelous short fiction, like this piece, “Fetish“, but is it something you’ll keep doing or is that chapter over for you?

HD: You are kind to describe my short fiction as marvelous. I think creepy is the usual adjective. I love writing short stories and can’t imagine giving them up. I need them as an outlet, because I have some dark characters and scenarios living in my head, and they aren’t things that I’d necessarily put in a book. It’s not that some of them wouldn’t work in a novel, but there is a limit to how much time I want to spend inside the head of a sadistic killer. At least right now, anyway. But I like getting inside the minds of characters who do awful things and figuring out how they do them — how they live with themselves, I mean. What are the stories they tell themselves to justify what they do? I think everyone, no matter how horrible, finds a way to explain their own behavior to themselves. Not everyone I write about is evil — I have a story coming out in Ellery Queen about a woman who aspires to be a trophy wife, and she’s more amoral than cruel. She was inspired by a newspaper article about women who actually do want to be trophy wives. Reading that, part of my brain screams “What the hell is wrong with you people?” But another part of me wants to look at those people more closely and see what makes them tick. I’m making that sound pseudo-scientific when, really, I’m just nosy.

Speaking of what makes people tick… I just saw the terrific interview Jen Forbus did with you in Crimespree. It has photos of you touring San Francisco with your Shamus Award for FACES OF THE GONE. I get the sense that you’re enjoying the whole ride with publishing. That’s not just because of your awards — oh, I haven’t forgotten your Nero, too — but I feel like a writer who’s writing book after book and is going to 28 places to talk about his latest is genuinely in love with what he’s doing.

BP: Am I that transparent? Yeah, I’m having a blast. Mostly, I feel like I’m on the lam, living this dream life as a crime fiction writer. And with every new contract I sign and book I publish, that’s one more year at large, one more year when I don’t have to get a real job and act responsibly. Plus, I like people. Whether it’s an audience of one or one hundred – and, trust me, most of those 28 events will be closer to the former – I enjoy meeting readers and talking about what I do. Then again, I suspect I’m not exactly alone in that, Ms. I-visited-eight-states-and-two-countries-on-my-book-tour, am I?

HD: Getting out and meeting people is my reward for all the lonely days I sit at my computer and talk to my imaginary friends. But “two countries” makes my book tour sound more exotic than it was. Remember, I’m from Canada, so I was hono(u)r-bound to go up there and party. Everywhere I went on tour, I got to meet people who are passionate about books. It’s what I love about conferences like Bouchercon and ThrillerFest, too.

So, what’s the dark side of writing for you? You called Carter Ross happy-go-lucky earlier, and while that’s true, he’s also coming up against crime and poverty and neglect — grim issues that you saw up close when you were working in Newark. Since you’re drawing on some of your own experiences, are there ever parts of the story that are difficult to write?

BP: There were definitely times as a reporter when I was just emotionally wiped out by the things I saw: People living in buildings with no heat in their apartments and raw sewage in the basement, senior citizen housing where you could hear rats running around in the ceiling panels at all hours of the day and night, children being raised in deplorable poverty. If that kind of stuff doesn’t get to you, you probably don’t have a soul. But, frankly, compared to the visceral experience of actually being in those kind of places, imagining it while I write fiction about it just doesn’t compare. Certainly, my clothes don’t get as dirty. Why, do you struggle with that sometimes?

HD: I feel terrible admitting this, but I enjoy writing about bad things and the twisted side of human nature. A family member, who will remain nameless, read my first short story, “Anniversary,” and has since refused to read anything else I’ve published. He still talks about it, and he’ll say things like, “Achilles tendon! Horrible! How could you do that to her?” It’s funny, because I don’t know how he gets through the news if he’s that upset by story. That said, I found it hard to write about addicts in THE DAMAGE DONE. I was on that emotional rollercoaster with Lily. You know that people don’t really change, yet there’s this hopeful part of you that thinks things might magically be different this time. It puts you through the wringer in real life, and it wasn’t easy to write about. Even when a person manages to overcome one addiction, there’s still an addictive personality at work that can lead to obsessions with other things.

Speaking of obsessions, you wrote a great piece about your daily word count. I’m obsessed with mine, and I have the same daily minimum you do, 1,000 words. But unlike you, I don’t have two small children trying to distract me from work. I’m in awe of people with young kids who still find time to write. Have you mastered some work/life balance trick the rest of the world needs to know about, or is this where the mythical Brad Parks Interns come in?

BP: The interns just wear me out more. Surely, you heard about our recent toga party. Really, I rely on Coke Zero. If it turns out the stuff kills you, I won’t make it to 40. ‘Til then? Write on…

Continue the conversation with Brad Parks and Hilary Davidson on Twitter.