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Year End Review: Triggers Down, A Social Writing Project

Sink Hole

Mulholland Books is looking for English and writing students to contribute writing to Triggers Down, a social writing project that will be a testament to writers building off of other writers’ work to create bigger and better stories.

The goal is to create a crime story. Here’s how it works: Mulholland Books will assign interested students specific passages, each student will write a section that branches off of the one before it (except for the first paragraph, of course), and that process will continue until students have composed a cohesive narrative.

Each passage will be posted online until completion, so students can see how the story evolves. And here’s the best part. Mulholland Books will feature the final story on MulhollandBooks.com. We want this project to not only be a testament to appropriation, but also an opportunity for young writers to publish.

How to submit: Write Dominic Viti at dominicviti@gmail.com and tell him you’re interested.

First section by Evan Walker.

Edited by Dominic Viti.

John found the body after he’d had his share of sightseeing the dune. He’d scrambled over it as he had in ‘72, sixteen and obliterated, once he’d yanked himself out of the rear window of the VW Squareback and waded through the black water to the shore.

He gave a satisfied hmph and walked the same way he’d walked that night, alongside the ditch and back to the house he’d grown up in—shallower than he remembered, dried up too. He had sloshed through the front door and the two of them just stared as he spoke. Joy riding again. Imagining the way his mother had turned back to her reading after he’d returned, soaking wet, without the car, he’d meandered back toward the edge of the ditch, and found her.

She was dumped in a pile, her sundress, black shorts and pixie brown hair  damp from the humid air, one hand slung over her side and curled up with rigor mortis except for her pointer finger, outstretched in timid protest.

Second section by Amelia Spriggs.

Edited by Dominic Viti.

John jumped to the other side of the ditch to look at her face and landed heavily, slipping to one aching knee and sending a few small white crabs skittering away. He had seen a lot of dead bodies over the decades, not a few of them young and formerly pretty. But this one pinched his sense of tragedy, niggling the worn callus of his compassion.

There was something familiar about her slim frame, even in its rigid heap. The angular jaw and the set of those large, inert eyes. He crouched down and sat on his haunches for a moment before falling back onto the sand. What felt like the vague pricking of tragedy swiftly turned into the keen piercing of horror. Lena.

Third section by Joe Oslund.

Edited by Dominic Viti.

John stumbled forward in a haze of shock that rang in his skull like the reverberating toll of a church bell, hid behind a shallow hollow of sand, and threw up. He took a few deep breaths before calling Julius, who let the phone ring six times before picking up—a subtle reminder that the old man had more important things to do.

“What is it?” Julius barked.

“They got her,” John croaked. “I mean, somebody got her.”

“Who?” Julius said. “Who got who? Use your words.”

John had no words.

“Is it Lena?” Julius said. “Did something happen to Lena?”

“She’s dead, Dad. Somebody killed her.”

There was silence on the line, and with a soft click, Julius hung up.

Fourth section by Ezra Salkin.

Edited by Dominic Viti.

John lit a cigarette and waited for his bastard father. Lena didn’t deserve this. She wasn’t a drug-addicted whore, a convict, or some train-hopping drifter who thought she had had it bad and had something to prove. John felt like crying, but the many cadavers he encountered throughout his life only made his usual sense of detachment return.

Blank faces played in a slideshow in his mind before he allowed Lena’s dirty face—half shrouded in kelp—to blot out all the others. Decomposition had set in, something he had rarely witnessed. Half hidden under her sundress, something glinted. John nudged it out from under Lena’s other cold hand, the one that wasn’t pointing, her fingers curled in a confused repose, as if undecided whether they should let go or hold on. A locket.

‘You’re different,’ he thought, flicking the half smoked cigarette, flavorless like all things had become despite this “new lease on life” the parole board had promised. He began snubbing the vermeil medallion into the ground with the heel of his sneaker. Disappearing into the wet sand, the locket winked at him with dull amusement.

He guessed it was given to her by her trust fund boyfriend, Michael, whom John had never met but had heard only good things about, though he hadn’t cared to open it so he wasn’t sure. By the time he wondered why he hadn’t, it was buried altogether in a neat pile beside the braided chain that had once held the heart shaped trinket around Lena’s bruised neck.

Snapped at the toggle, it hardly looked strong enough to strangle someone, but the bluish lines that wrapped around her neck in intermingling, jagged patterns told it different. The marks left behind were deep, a cruel mimicry of its supposed function. Her throat appeared to have not been far from bursting. John had seen people murdered with less, but he wasn’t in the Florida State Pen anymore.

He reached into his pocket, pulling the wrinkled letter Lena had left for him at the halfway house. September 4, 1992—Lena’s entreaty for John to meet her at the spot they’d enjoyed so often all those years earlier. A place where they could “clear the air.” She had still wanted him in her life.

John crushed the letter into a ball before igniting it with his lighter. He watched the black writing run from the pink stationary before the whole thing blackened and smoldered into nothing.

That’s when he heard the cancerous wheezing from behind him.

“You son-of-a-bitch,” Julius said.

Fifth section by Vivien Eliasoph.

Edited by Dominic Viti.

“How did you know I was here?” John asked, his voice muffled by the unlit cigarette between lips.

“Never mind that,” Julius said. He blanketed Lena with his camouflage jacket and tossed his keys to his son. “Truck’s at the front of the pier.”

Julius crouched down and swept Lena’s hair behind her ears. Blood trailed across her forehead.

“John, move it, goddamnit!” Julius said.

John ran as fast as he could. He inhaled deeply, his cigarette sticking to the inside of his dry lips. The craving for a deep smoke drove him forward. His calves burned and his breath was heavy in the humid night air. He wiped his dripping nose with his wrist and imagined exactly where on the console of his father’s Ford the cigarette lighter was. His sneakers pressed deep into the sand, passing wasted cigarette butts and empty soda cans, abandoned and forgotten by teenagers.

The truck was caked in mud. The interior was no better. By the time John pulled up, Julius had already made it to the end of the pier, standing by the forest green trashcan with Lena draped over his shoulder. John put the car in park and scooted to the passenger’s seat. He flung the cover off of the cigarette lighter and watched the white paper crack into lava orange. Then, a long drag.

The rearview mirror foregrounded Julius placing Lena in the bed of the truck, wrapping her in blue tarp before climbing into the cab.

“Pass me one,” Julius said. He left the door open and emptied his boots of sand. John was happy to see part of the beach left behind. He reached into his front pocket and dug out a cigarette.

Julius lit and inhaled with the same tired desperation as his son.

Neither spoke. John’s stomach grumbled. He looked at the floor and saw beef jerky and peanut butter crackers. He went with the crackers.

“We’ll have to leave her with George,” Julius said.

John choked on his crackers. “Why in the hell would we go and do that?”

“He’s just as much a part of this as we are.” Continue reading “Year End Review: Triggers Down, A Social Writing Project”

C S I Don’t Think So

GunfightEver since I was a kid, I was fascinated by the capabilities of bullets. My father was a police officer, so we had access to an outdoor shooting range anytime we wanted. We experimented endlessly. My mother freaked out endlessly when she went to look up a phone number and found that our phone books had been shredded in the name of science.

Since then, I’ve continued experimenting with the physical characteristics of bullets in real-world situations. By contrast, bullet manufacturers test bullets by using uniform standards, most commonly in long, rectangular blocks of ballistic gelatin. This is clear Jello basically, but more dense. It’s produced in blocks at a standard density so that results will be consistent and differences in bullets can be measured. Gelatin is used because it’s considered a fairly good proxy for human flesh.

In a standard test, a bullet is fired into one end of the gelatin block. Because the gelatin is almost transparent, it’s possible to see the wound channel the bullet caused, exactly how far the bullet penetrated, if it broke into pieces, and if it deformed. The bullet is dug out of the gelatin and can be microscopically examined. This data provides a baseline of results that can be used not only by bullet manufacturers, but also by doctors and medical examiners who deal with gunshot wounds.

However, it’s not much fun looking at gelatin blocks because they don’t answer many other real-world questions. Will a bullet go through a car door? Can you shoot through walls? Do bullets bounce off windshields?

Much of what we see in movies and TV regarding bullets is fantasy. Though it might seem harmless, depending on these myths in the real world could be fatal. For instance, on a popular TV adventure series, two main characters wanted to penetrate an armed perimeter and decided to do it by driving a car into the protected area. The savvy hero prepared the car by pulling off the door panels and stuffing them with phone books, claiming that this would stop the bullets. Continue reading “C S I Don’t Think So”

Ten Rules for Writing a Sherlock Holmes Novel

It may well be that Sherlock Holmes is the reason why I have spent so much of my life writing crime fiction of my own and if there is one small boast that I occasionally make, it’s that I have probably written more fictional murders than any other writer. Ever. The crime figures can be quickly totted up.

If you were to ask what has made Sherlock Holmes the most successful and best loved detective of all time, I would argue that it is not in fact the crimes or the mysteries. It seems to me that the appeal of the books has much more to do with character, the friendship of Holmes and Watson, the extraordinary and very rich world they inhabit and the genuine and often under-rated excellence of Conan Doyle’s writing, a touch melodramatic at times but still very much in the tradition of gothic romance. When I was asked to write The House of Silk, I realized that this would be the key. I had to become invisible. I had to find that extraordinary, authentic voice.

So, I set out the ten rules which I would have beside me as I wrote The House of Silk – and here they are. If you’ve read the book, you can judge for yourself how well they were kept and, indeed, if they were worth keeping. Continue reading “Ten Rules for Writing a Sherlock Holmes Novel”

An Interview with Ed Brubaker

This week, our friends at Marvel publish the Classified Edition of Incognito, collecting, with bonus material, the first two volumes of the acclaimed, hard-boiled series Joe Hill describes as “what the albums of the Black Keys are to rock and roll and the pictures of Quentin Tarantino are to film.”

Our celebration of this truly bad-ass bind-up continues with an exclusive interview with writer Ed Brubaker. Check back tomorrow for an excerpt!

The idea of a bad guy disguised in plain sight is something that is universally frightening, is this where the idea of Zack Overkill came from?

I think part of it actually came from trying to figure out what the flipside to my and Sean Phillips’s series SLEEPER would be. That was about a good guy pretending to be a bad guy, so this would be about a bad guy pretending… something. I wasn’t sure yet. I came pretty quickly to the idea of supervillain Witness Protection, which to me, seemed like for some of these guys would be worse than prison.

Megan Abbott said recently that the line from Double Indemnity “I did it for the money and the woman. I didn’t get the money. I didn’t get the woman.” sums up noir. Incognito certainly adheres to this formula, what it is about noir that is attractive to you?

I’m not entirely sure. I guess because all of us, at some time or another, feel like everything could just fall apart. Or feels desperate. And I like stories that play into that. And there’s a certain mythic inevitability to noir stories. You watch all the parts of the story moving, and you know they’re going to end somewhere bad, but you can’t look away. You hold onto some desperate hope that your “hero” will somehow get out alive, if not intact.  I think Double Indemnity is the perfect example of why noir works — at the beginning of the movie (I can’t remember if it’s the same in the book) you already know everything has gone wrong, and yet you just want to see what happens anyway.  So much of film and tv and books and comics these days are about attempts to surprise readers or viewers, and while that can be fun, showing the aftermath first removes that, and allows you to just write from the characters, if that makes any sense.

One of the great things about the INCOGNITO series how well it incorporates the shades of grey between “good” and “evil”—something quite rare in comics even today. Where on the spectrum would you place Zack at the beginning and the close of the story arcs in Incognito: The Classified Edition?

I think at the beginning of the story, he’s a bad guy. An amoral prick at best. It’s a black comedy in some ways, so I played it for humor, but he’s not a guy you’d want to know. His best friend is the office drug addict and thief, after all. I think by the end, he’s been dragged through the wringer to the point where he feels just used by everyone on both sides — the good guys and the bad guys.

You’ve said elsewhere that you’re a big Hammett and Chandler fan—what’s your favorite of each of their novels? Did you draw on these writers or the work of other novelists in writing INCOGNITO?

I think the only conscious influences on INCOGNITO would be old pulp mags – Doc Savage and the Shadow — and Philip Jose Farmer’s A FEAST UNKNOWN.

My favorite Hammett and Chandler — Hammett it’s probably the Continental Op stories, and I love Red Harvest, of course. With Chandler, probably the Long Goodbye, although they’re all good. I even love his letters, which have so much of his dark humor in them.

When we first meet Zack Overkill, he’s powerless—just another office drone fighting boredom. What was it like to write a character with a life so run-of-the-mill, yet capable of such extreme superhuman acts without the restraints placed on him?

A lot of fun, really. I loved making a normal life feel like a trap. And I loved that even after he got his powers back, he still had to go to the office everyday, which made it even worse. I think that’s what makes these stories work, in the long run, is seeing him in his “secret identity” in both lives. Like in Bad Influences, when he has to live in an apartment building and deal with nosy neighbors.

Dark Inspiration

Echo Railroad Bridge over Sabine River, north of I-10, Orange, Texas 1031091315BWI can’t think about Edgar Allan Poe without thinking about my life, because he was there in dark spirit, in my room and in my head. He was out there in the shadows of the East Texas pines, roaming along the creeks and the Sabine River, a friendly specter with gothic tales to tell. It was a perfect place for him. East Texas. It’s the part of Texas that is behind the pine curtain, down here in the damp dark. It’s Poe country, hands down.

These thoughts were in my mind as I toured the Harry Ransom Center’s current exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. The Center, at the University of Texas at Austin, is celebrating the bicentennial of Poe’s birth with an exhibition that includes original manuscripts and illustrations. Looking at these artifacts, it occurred to me that Poe reached out from the grave and saved this East Texan from the aluminum chair factory. I know there are those who will say working in an aluminum chair factory is good honest work, and I’m going to agree. But I will say without hesitation and with no concern of insult that it damn sure wasn’t work of my choosing, and that it takes the skill of a trained raccoon and the I.Q. of a can of green beans, minus the label, to get it done.

Like Sisyphus forever rolling his rock uphill, I feared I would spend my time on Earth matching up aluminum runners, or linking chain to be pinned together by hissing and snapping and cutting and crimping machines, which in turn would be forklifted away in shiny piles of bent rods and flexible seats. Something to be sold and brought out on hot days at barbecues, and on hot nights to give mosquito-attacked, beer-drinking drive-in theater patrons a place for their butts to nestle.

Continue reading “Dark Inspiration”

An Interview with Michael Koryta

[This conversation first appeared at MysteryPeople’s blog and is reprinted here with their kind permission]

While The Prophet definitely has your voice, it’s a bit different from your Lincoln Perry series and the five other thrillers you wrote. How did it come about?

The Prophet is a book I’d wanted to write for a long time, actually, and I couldn’t find the right way in. I knew the starting point – a kid who was supposed to get his sister home from school safely and didn’t. She was abducted while walking a short distance home, killed by a guy who was supposed to be in jail and had skipped out on bond. As an adult, the older brother is a bond agent, he’s made his life a mission of atonement for something he can never set right. But I wanted to pair him against another brother who had gone another way. At first I started with a minister. That didn’t take, though, it was too on-the-nose, I think. So it wasn’t until I found the other brother, Kent, as the high school football coach and community hero and who has involved himself with prison outreach programs that I really got the story rolling. I needed that dramatic tension between the two of them.

What I love about the book is that the emotions of Adam and Kent ring true for the violent situations they have to deal with. How difficult was it to deal with such sobering subject matter?

I appreciate hearing that, because it was certainly the goal. I told my editor early, this one has to hurt, it has to cut to the bone, or I didn’t do it right. If people ask me my favorite of my own work I’d probably say The Cypress House, and then I’d say that The Prophet is the best, and the reason would be that I think it does have a higher level of emotional reality and depth. Though you know an author is the worst judge of his own work. It was a damn sad book to write, though, it really was. I remember commenting on that a lot to the people close to me. I’d finish a writing session feeling wrung out and exhausted in a way I never had with a book. It wore on me emotionally and I was surprised by that. My emotional investment with Adam was very deep, and as you can imagine, that made it a painful story most of the time. He’s a pretty wounded guy, he’s very damaged. In this really bizarre way, I kept wishing I could save him, that I could force him to make different choices. Now, of course I could, I’m the writer. But it doesn’t feel like that. It feels as if the characters have free will and you’re narrating a drama that you can’t stop. Continue reading “An Interview with Michael Koryta”

TV Movies and Evil Women

Two of the best suspense novelists working today, one lively conversation–what more could you ask for? Goodreads was kind enough to let us excerpt a portion of Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott’s chat, more of which can be found here. And don’t miss Flynn’s GONE GIRL and Abbott’s DARE ME, both now in bookstores everywhere!

Megan Abbott: A couple years back we realized we both had been strongly influenced by watching, as kids in the 1980s, true-crime TV movies (the Golden Age for these kinds of movies). Do you have a favorite or two?

Gillian Flynn: Oh, sweet, sweet movies of the week. My all-time favorite (as in, I own it and watch it once a year or so) is A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story, a 1992 TV movie starring the sublime Meredith Baxter. It’s based on a real case: Betty Broderick, a wealthy Southern California housewife, began spiraling out of control when her influential lawyer husband left her (after she helped put him through law school and med school). She ultimately shot both her ex and his new wife while they were sleeping. The case is much more nuanced than these basic outlines, but let me say that it intrigues me because it’s about a relationship gone very toxic, escalating animosities, the perils of attaching one’s identity to someone else, and the dangers of righteousness. The movie is legitimately great—Baxter is fascinating. If you want to read about the case, check out Bella Stumbo’s true-crime book, Until the 12th of Never. It’s stunning.

That’s my long answer: And you, Megan? Your favorite, legitimately good, and your favorite guilty pleasure TV movie?

MA: Oh, what a great question! I think A Friend to Die For AKA Death of a Cheerleader with Kellie Martin and (yes) Tori Spelling would be right up there. It’s actually a very meaty tale (based on a true crime) and speaks volumes about the pressures of being a teenage girl. Second only to Small Sacrifices with Farrah Fawcett, which I haven’t seen in many years but terrified me for years (“Hungry Like the Wolf” never sounded the same thereafter…)

Gillian, what was that one with Hillary Swank we both had watched?

GF: Dying to Belong! Hilary Swank’s friend joins a sorority, is hazed by the evil queen bee (Scrubs’s Sarah Chalke) and mysteriously falls to her death from a clock tower. Hilary investigates. I remember girls writing mean things on freshmen pledges with magic marker (am I making this up?) and also Hilary Swank and Mark-Paul Gosselaar riding a lot of bikes to the tune of Sophie B. Hawkins’ “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” This is starting to sound like a fever dream.

MA: Oh gosh, that’s totally right. They markered all over their body parts, telling them where they were too flabby. I never forgot that. If it’s a fever dream, it’s one that returns, like malaria!

GF: Megan, speaking of the evil girls do to each other, it reminds me of that fantastic line in DARE ME, “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”

Did that line come to you as you were writing, or was that a guiding theme early on of DARE ME?

MA: It came to me as I was writing, though originally it was buried later in the book. It kept sticking in my head, so I knew I had to move it forward.

I wonder with you about the notion of the “Cool Girl,” which is one of the most memorable passages in Gone Girl. (It begins: ““Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping…” and is quoted in full here.

Was that an early idea? When I read it, I nearly gasped it was so perfect, so incisive.

GF: I actually had a lot of trouble getting Amy’s voice and nailing her down. In the final version, she writes quizzes for women’s magazines for a living, but originally I had her as a columnist. So to figure her out more, I wrote a lot of her columns in her voice—just as an exercise. But that one I liked so much I couldn’t bear to get rid of it, so I worked it into the book.

Reader Question:: It seems like the “evil” female keeps cropping up this summer. Before I read Gone Girl, I happened upon Serena by Ron Rash. Now that’s an evil anti-hero(ine). I keep hearing selfish women in my music as well. Could this be a manifestation of frustrated feminists, not satisfied with women’s true roles?

Serena is a beautiful, haunting novel, isn’t it? Fear any woman who has a pet eagle.

I like to write about evil women because I think truly frightening women are under-represented in literature. Not campy villainesses but truly dangerous, evil-minded women. For me, I suppose it is in a way a feminist statement: I get weary of the idea that women are naturally good and nurturing. I think women struggle with evil as mightily as men do. I don’t want that struggle to be dismissed. I want credit for it!

MA: Evil is such a subjective word. I admit I never really think of any of my characters (or yours) as “evil.” One of the things I find so compelling about good crime fiction is it shows the complexities behind people behaving badly. That actions may be destructive or even cruel but as the book unfolds the picture gets more complicated. What do you think?

Like this conversation? Read it in its entirety on Goodreads.com.

Writing Through Horror

Post-Katrina New Orleans: The Empty ChurchWe hear a lot of debate about the impact of pop culture on society. Do violent video games provoke killers? Does visceral fiction desensitize an audience in dangerous ways? Wait for the first correlation between the wildly popular FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and sexual assault – it’s coming, I promise you. I’ve engaged in the debate at times, and never considered it from a reversed perspective: how does criminal stigma impact pop culture?

Then came Jerry Sandusky.

I spent 2011 with high school football coaches, following the Bloomington High School North Cougars through a season as research for my novel THE PROPHET. It’s a story about brothers, torn apart by crime, estranged by vehemently different opinions on how to cope with the loss, and then forced back together by another, fresh horror. One of the brothers, Kent Austin, is a high school coach who is active in prison ministry. I live in Bloomington, Indiana and St. Petersburg, Florida, regions where Tony Dungy is a revered figure. For as much success as Dungy had on the field, leading the Colts to a Super Bowl championship and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a conference title game, he was equally well-known for his work off the field, specifically in prison ministry. The concept interested me, the dual roles but particularly the notion of a football coach conducting prison outreach. How would a sociopath react to him, I wondered, and with that in mind I set off to write a crime novel featuring a high school coach and his bail bondsman brother.

I’m a fan of the game but I didn’t play, and I certainly didn’t think I would be able to write about a coach without spending some time in the trenches. It was rewarding on levels I never expected. I learned from the coaches, became friends with them, saw the great work they were doing that carried over into the lives of their student athletes. This was the reality I had seen with my own eyes. Then came word of a different reality, in a place called Happy Valley. Continue reading “Writing Through Horror”

Hard to Shake Off: In Conversation with Mischa Hiller

We kick off our week-long celebration of the publication of Mischa Hiller’s SHAKE OFF, a Publishers Weekly Pick of the Week and the book Kirkus has called “superb…an entertainingly complex, quick-moving psychological thriller,” with an interview with Mischa Hiller and his Mulholland Books editor Wes Miller.

Check back later in the week for tricks of the trade from Mischa’s novel and much more–and don’t miss today’s Goodreads Espionage Panel with Mischa and fellow espionage writers Charles Cumming, Joseph Kanon, and more! (Questions welcome!)

Wes Miller: Let me start by saying SHAKE OFF was one of those novels I just knew we needed for the Mulholland Books list as soon as I started reading it. The degree to which you bring readers into Michel’s world—a world in which almost anything is either a weapon or a tool, in which everyone Michel meets may be trying to lead him astray—is just astounding.

One of the things I’ve noticed about SHAKE OFF, rereading that evocative first chapter, is how absolutely chock-full of seemingly genuine tradecraft the opening section is. Had you done deep research into the tricks of the espionage trade in writing SHAKE OFF? Were there books or individuals (whether you can tell us about them or not) that were particularly useful in crafting such an air of authenticity? And did you always know you’d start the novel with what is practically a how-to on the art of subterfuge, or was this something that came later as you were figuring out how to introduce Michel’s world to readers?

Mischa Hiller: Well, let me start off by saying how proud I am to be published by Mulholland, whose list includes some great writers. To answer your question: yes, I did a lot of research, but was also lucky to have access to someone who had gone through this kind of training. There are books you can buy that detail surveillance and counter-surveillance but it’s the little insights that make it real, like trainee surveillance officers using dead letter drops to get their paychecks.

I felt the training was an integral part of the book in the sense that it is part of what makes Michel and explains his paranoia. A lot of spy books imply that this sort of constant subterfuge can be lived with easily, without any effect. My premise was that actually the whole idea of living a lie is quite damaging.

I should add here that it’s not just the tradecraft that’s written with such command in SHAKE OFF—it’s the sense of alienation with which Michel views his surroundings. It’s something I personally responded to in an unexpected way. You and I have never actually discussed this before, but we are both mixed race—you’re half Palestinian, half British, and I’m of Chinese, German, and Irish descent. I’m not sure if your heritage was something I knew about you when I started reading SHAKE OFF, and Michel himself is not biracial, but at least to me, the way Michel describes his sense of not quite belonging to his surroundings (something I know I’ve at times struggled with) was extremely well-taken and quite emotionally accurate.

Was cultural alienation something you’d known you wanted to write about, or a theme that grew naturally out of the genre as seen through your own particular cultural perspective? (Did you begin wanting to write a spy novel, or by wanting to write about a Christian orphan from the Sabra refugee camps?)

That’s an interesting question. This idea of belonging and identity is something that interests me, no doubt, and I recently wrote an essay on what it means to me to be of mixed race, and the challenges this poses (in terms of belonging and acceptance) and the advantages it can provide, especially as a writer, in terms of being able to look at things ‘from the side’, as it were. I mentioned in a previous blog post about how I drew on my own feelings when imparting the alienation Michel felt in the book, and of his being a fish out of water. One could say that this was a theme I wanted to explore to some extent, and indeed the outcome of the book is his way of addressing this loss of identity. As for wanting to write a spy novel or a book about someone from the camp I think both came to me simultaneously. What would happen, I thought, if an orphan was groomed for espionage and placed in an alien environment? Also, I did think, how great it would be to have a Palestinian protagonist in a thriller.

 I’ve given much thought to genre and subgenre in the years I’ve spent working exclusively with suspense fiction since the launch of Mulholland Books. I’ve heard it said that it’s often those moments outside of those expected from the conventions of the form that affect you the most strongly.  (Michael Connelly and Mark Billingham touched on this in their conversation on the MulhollandBooks.com earlier this summer—the “looking out the window” moments from Connelly’s Bosch novels being some of Billingham’s favorites—and there’s a TED talk with JJ Abrams where he mentions subgenre in discussing the unspoken reasons a film like Jaws becomes part of the cultural lexicon.)

SHAKE OFF does this better than most in the slow introduction of Helen, Michel’s flatmate, into Michel’s otherwise almost hermetically sealed life—their budding romance is the reason that suddenly this nail-biter of paranoia, dead drops, and clandestine missions becomes an almost lyrically-written love story as well. Many, many writers struggle with the idea of sub-genre and romance in particular—do you have any tips to share with any colleagues who might be reading? What would you (humbly) say about writing Helen and Michel’s story makes their relationship seem more genuine than most? And are Helen and Michel based on any people in particular or serve as amalgamates of people you’ve known?

I am pleased, as reviews and readers have suggested, that I have managed to escape the confines of the genre. To me this is the greatest compliment I can be paid as a writer. Genre can be limiting (both in terms of writing and what people will read), so if, as a writer, you can fuse more than one genre, or transcend the genre you are ostensibly writing in, without pretension or creating a horrible mess, then you may be onto something. You can appreciate this effect better in great films, as you mentioned; they are about something greater than the plot, which is often incidental.

For me, SHAKE OFF could easily be about Michel and Helen’s relationship, with some spying and politics that get in the way, rather than the other way round, and my only advice would be to give as much thought and weight to one aspect of a book as you do another. Unfortunately a lot of books, and films, bolt something on (usually the ‘love interest’) rather than weave it in, but it is obvious and therefore unsatisfying.

Michel and Helen are not based on particular people but there are aspects in each that I have observed in others and myself.

Your earlier novel SABRA ZOO focused on the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982 in Beirut, Lebanon.  SHAKE OFF is also Michel Khoury is a survivor of the Sabra massacre, an event that haunts him throughout the novel.  I believe you were living in Beirut at the time of the Sabra and Shatila massacre—what was it like, being in Sabra then? How would you describe living in cities torn apart by sectarian violence to Americans, whose almost sole point of reference would have to be the events of 9/11?

It is difficult to explain what it is like to people who haven’t experienced it, which I guess is why some of us write books about it. I suppose, therefore, people could do worse than read SABRA ZOO to get a feel for what it was like in Lebanon at that time.  But there are other fine books that deal with conflicts in a serious and sensitive fashion. A couple of years ago, after SABRA ZOO was published, I read HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche which is set against the Nigeria-Biafra war of which I was completely ignorant. It is a powerful book that I felt had effectively tackled the Nigerian Civil War in a way that I had aspired to do with SABRA ZOO for the Lebanon Civil War.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a crucial part of the drama of SHAKE OFF. While in a less astute writer’s hands, treatment of the conflict might have seemed more didactic and overtly polemical, because of the work you’ve done in crafting Michel as such a seemingly real and empathetic character, the Palestinian perspective (and the Israelis’ as well, through Michel’s reading and education) comes through in remarkably nuanced fashion. For me, those sections of SHAKE OFF that address the conflict head-on reminded me in a way of some of Dave Eggers’ later work—another testament to SHAKE OFF’s complexity.

Given that you’ve done such great work in depicting the nuances of the conflict—to such a degree that you’ve made even this self-professed Apathetic American feel deeply for the plight of Michel and those like him—what is your view of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  Fully realizing what an impossible question this is, what do you think it would take for a solution to be reached—and would there ever be one that will satisfy both ends of the negotiations?

Well, I am pleased that it has had this effect, and I’ve had emails from people expressing similar sentiments. Fiction is a great way to give narratives that are rarely heard an airing, and I thought Eggers did that brilliantly with ZEITOUN.

This is probably not the forum to propose a detailed solution to the Israel-Palestine problem, but I would start with the naïve and basic premise that everyone living there should have equal rights.

 The PLO is still active and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still unresolved. Given this, why did you decide set SHAKE OFF in 1989 before the end of the Cold War instead of the modern day? Other than the later historical landmarks that would influence parts of the story (the Madrid conference of 1991, the Oslo Accords, etc), would you say that this novel could at least in spirit be set in modern times?

Yes, it could be set now, but that was such a fascinating time – a year that culminated in the fall of the Berlin wall – with the PLO still being supported by the Soviet Union and its allies within the context of the Cold War. Also, the spying game was a lot more interesting then because it was still people-driven rather than technology driven. Intelligence officers today spend more time in front of a screen than talking to agents. A contemporary book would therefore look different, but there is certainly still plenty of political intrigue to mine.

Mischa Hiller is a winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the Best First Book category for South Asia and Europe. Raised in London, Beirut, and Dar El Salaam, he lives in Cambridge, England. Visit him at www.mischahiller.com.

Wes Miller is a Mulholland Books editor who has been at the imprint since the launch of its first list. You can find more of his MulhollandBooks.com posts here.

SHAKE OFF, which has been praised by Charles Cumming as “a spy thriller of the highest class” and by David Morrell as “smart and tense and real enough to be scary,” is now available in bookstores everywhere.

An Interview with Michael Koryta

Today we celebrate the publication of Michael Koryta’s THE PROPHET with Michael’s interview with Dean Koontz, which originally appeared on Amazon.com.

DEAN: Your new novel, THE PROPHET, is a crime novel, a suspense novel, but also a good novel about brothers and family relationships. I know you a little, and I’m 99% sure that you weren’t cloned, that you have a family, but I don’t know about siblings. You write so well about brotherly relationships that I wonder – do you have any? And football – playing it, coaching it – serves both as a background and as a solid metaphor for the value of traditions. Did you play football in school? Have you coached any?

MICHAEL: I was a natural athlete. Played every sport, and the responses from my coaches were unanimous and emphatic. Whether it was a basketball or football or baseball bat or golf club in my hands, they’d say, “Son, I think you should be a writer.” It’s good to have consensus. So, no, never played football beyond pick-up games, I bruise too easily and lack fundamental coordination, but I was hopefully able to bring some authenticity to the book due to the tremendous level of help and access I received from Scott Bless, Tyler Abel, and the rest of the Bloomington High School North coaching staff. I spent a full year with them in coaching meetings, practice fields, and on the sidelines, and it was tremendous and fascinating. The bad news for them is I’m hooked now and currently drawing up plays. If they’ll just give me a chance…As for brothers, I have none. Just friends who feel like brothers to me, in the good ways and the infuriating. And I have a sister who brings only the positive side.

DEAN: You quickly built a reputation for crime/suspense, and then went for a touch of the supernatural in SO COLD THE RIVER, THE CYPRESS HOUSE, and THE RIDGE. Did your agent freak out? Many years ago, when I first began ricocheting from genre to genre, I received more than a few heartfelt lectures about how I was destroying my career. Now THE PROPHET has no supernatural edge. What is it with you, pal? Easily bored? Creatively restless? Enjoy walking a cliff’s edge? Multiple personality?

MICHAEL: Dean, please stop answering the questions before I can. Yes, yes, yes, and, certainly, yes to those last four. As for the genre ricocheting, I had a supportive agent. I lost a publisher, but that’ll happen, and somehow I fell into the hands of Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown, who I think is one of the all-time-great editors. Can’t say enough about the team over there. They’ve indulged my flights of fancy and I know it isn’t easy and I’ve heard plenty of lectures from other parties about the career suicide I’m cheerfully carrying out, but I’ll always say the same thing here: you’ve got to tell the story that wants to be told. That’s the joy of it, the privilege of it, and, I’d argue, the responsibility of it. To write the best story you can. That won’t always fit the same tidy box. And to try and do so seems far too close to actual
work. I’m not cut out for actual work.

DEAN: When researching THE RIDGE, you became interested in big-cat rescue – lions, tigers, nothing as safe as your common tabby. Now you participate in rescues. In a way, your fiction entered your life and became part of it. The same has happened to me with Canine Companions for Independence and other things that I wrote about and subsequently became involved with. Tell us why big-cat rescue so appeals to you. And are there other examples of research/writing changing your life?

MICHAEL: The experience of working with the Exotic Feline Rescue Center is one of the truly special things in my life, I couldn’t imagine not having those cats and those people in my life at this point. It’s an amazing mission and deserving of support and, as you did with Canine Companions, I simply fell in love. I’d drop anything to go on a big-cat rescue, and will continue to do so as long as they’ll have me. Research is forever changing my life and bringing new interests and new people into it, and that’s one of the great privileges of this craft, the chance to visit so many different worlds. Continue reading “An Interview with Michael Koryta”