|The Writing Thing|
Years ago, when The Last Family was in just about every bookstore in America, and on most paperback racks, and I was temporarily newsworthy because I wrote it, a teacher asked one of my sons what I was really like. He told her I was like his friends’ fathers, only a lot more boring. A lot of the people were curious about me and they invariably wanted to know--if I was "normal"--how I could write the terrible things that my evil characters do--like killing an innocent cub scout. Since, I’ve discovered that the authors who write the most horrific violence are often the very kindest of human beings you could meet. Not that I am one of the kindest of human beings––just an observation I feel I am qualified to make, since I know a large number of other mystery authors.
Writing is storytelling, so there is no mystery as to why so many well-known authors grew up in the South, a region with a rich oral tradition. I grew up listening to adults who entertained each other with elaborate tales from their childhoods, of hunting, of daily events from their lives. The Mississippi of my childhood was a place of contradiction, of traditions, strong feelings, complex social relationships, of legends, and of stark contrasts between the haves and didn't haves. It is a land of rolling hills, oceanic cotton fields, swamps and woodland. It is the mother of my imagination, the cradle of my dreams.
My Aunt Lucille Harrison entertained my brothers, my sister and myself with elaborate stories she made up out of whole cloth. My mother was a history professor who authored a book on the circuit-riding preachers with the early Methodist Church in Mississippi. My father, who passed away October 07, was an entertaining storyteller with a sharp brain and a keen sense of humor. I guess I come to storytelling naturally.
As a child I made up stories to entertain friends and family, as well as myself. I wrote short stories and poems in high school. In my junior year I wrote a column for the high school newspaper, which was actually a page published by the local newspaper, The Bolivar Commercial. My first article generated so much controversy that I was forced to submit my columns to the principal before the newspaper got them. Although I have pursued careers in photography, graphic arts, advertising copy writing, and photo-journalism, I never stopped dabbling with fiction writing the way an amateur musician will pick up a guitar when he feels like it and plays for his own amusement, or to amuse friends and relatives. Like any amateur, I was thinking I might someday get that break and be invited to perform with a major group. If I hadn't lucked into writing emergency advertising copy one afternoon for an art director I was producing photographs for, I might never have discovered that I could make a living with words alone. Once I discovered that, it was a relatively short jump to writing fiction full time for a major publisher.
One thing that I hear quite often from other authors is an early feeling of being an outsider, and that feeling of not quite belonging makes people keen observers of the world and those around them. I am by nature a shy person, reflective and content to observe the lives of others. I know insecurity is something most adolescents go through, but even with dear friends and loving family around me, I did and still often feel like a stranger in my own life––a sojourner in a foreign land. I think it helps me write because being a fish out of water is something I understand. Also I think I am paranoid enough to write about people who actually have something to be paranoid about. I am amazed at authors who promote themselves with vigor, but I always feel odd telling people how shit-kicking wonderful my latest book is. Growing up I was taught that bragging was unbecoming, and common, and that anything could be accomplished when it didn’t matter who got the credit. If asked I will promote my book or speak to audiences large and small on writing, but if you see me and I’m promoting my book without prompting, I’m very likely Bourbon heavy. I can promote other people’s books or other products, but I have a block of sorts about doing the same for myself.
My father, was a fearless and very liberal minister in Mississippi during the Civil Rights struggle, and his beliefs made him a lightning rod for criticism. On one occasion, when I was seven or eight, an intoxicated man, whom I like to imagine was a Klansman, assailed me in a neighborhood store, calling my father, Rev. "Red" Miller. Often during periods of tension the parsonage phone rang in the wee hours and the caller would threaten to kill my father or our family. I fully expected for my family to be burned out of our home at any time, so I knew what fear felt like. In addition, our family moved every six years or so and I was constantly having to readjust to new geography and people.
Now, looking back, I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in an apartheid society where oppression was formally legislated, and change came at a terrible cost. I was fortunate in that I was there long enough to see real changes take place. I saw a battle not just between good and evil, (were it just that simple) but the old and the new. I was there when voter registration drives took place. I stood on my front stairs and watched a torchlight parade when James Merideth registered at Ole Miss. Like a fly on the wall, I stood and listened to conversations of segregationists scattered around the Starkville courthouse, to conversations of people who desired to end the deeply rooted unfair and unjust rules our society had lived by for two hundred years. I was a student when the public schools were desegregated. I was in the first integrated graduating class at Cleveland High School. For a long time my own feelings about mother Mississippi were schizophrenic in that I both loved and I hated her--was embarrassed by her and proud of her at the same time.
At present Susie and I live on eight acres and I have a studio that the previous owners used as a feed storage shed, which still smells of sweet feed for cows once kept in the pasture. I have my desk in front of a huge window so I can look out at our produce garden and see into the woods behind. As I write this there are wild turkeys wandering by and my dogs are not pleased to have the uninvited company.
My process is that I write on a laptop. I focus my eyes on the keyboard when I type using my left trigger finger and my right middle finger because I taught myself that way. I tried dictating once, but I can’t think and talk into a machine any more than I can dance in public without being thoroughly intoxicated.
I grew up in southern towns, and since college I’ve lived in large cities, like New Orleans, Miami, Nashville, Manhattan, and Philadelphia, but my wife and I much prefer life where people know their neighbors. I live in the country outside Gold Hill, NC. If I want, I can drive into the heart of Charlotte in a half an hour, to the mountains in an hour and a half, or to the beach in two and a half hours. My two eldest sons live in Concord. I see my grandchildren every weekend, because my sons bring their families out every Sunday for lunch and an afternoon visit. At the present we have four dogs, and forty-five chickens to keep us company (and busy) throughout the week. I enjoy the solitude and quiet surroundings and I like the fact that, although I love seeing my friends and family, that people have to plan to visit, and very few people ever just drop in.
I go the twenty steps to work every day. Some days I just sit and think about whatever story I’m working on, the characters, their motivations, what they are thinking or doing in a specific chapter and how to best tell the story. Some days I type all day. On other days I work around the yard or on some project involving tools and let my mind work out plots or choreography problems without forcing myself to think about it. Being able to construct a world, to populate it with characters that I imagine into being and living with them for weeks at a time is the pleasure of writing. When I am in the zone, and everything is coming together, it's a high beyond what any drug offers.
I am not one of those authors who can just sit and write and have it all work out in the end, just knowing when the book is done because the characters stop doing what they do and all of the loose ends are tied up in neat bows. I used to write like people play jazz. I'd create characters and sort of turn them loose on a page and chase after them, recording what they did, where they went and the situations they found themselves in. The result was that the stories went all over the place. The trouble was that I wasn't thinking hard enough before I wrote. I had to learn to discipline myself. I learned that outlining forces me to think about the story I am going to write and see it clearly. Otherwise I can lose track of the story and take the characters off on tangents that don't work or dead-end. This translates to multiple drafts and rewrites and my editors tearing their hair out. You can use a handgun as a hammer. Writing a thriller is like assembling a semi-automatic handgun. Unless the parts are put together in the right order, the gun is just an expensive hammer or paperweight.
I think the first author who's work hit me between the eyes with a two-by-four was Truman Capote with his masterpiece, In Cold Blood. Here was a small man with an absurdly feminine voice who cut a wide swath through the landscape of giants--shouldering aside my previous favorites. I remember when I was reading In Cold Blood, I was mesmerized, as if struck by a lightning bolt. I was in Kansas, riding through the long night with the killers, accompanying them into the Clutter's farmhouse, with the killers fleeing from the reality of what they had done. I was standing beside the investigation chasing the murderers; the nickel/dime con artist Richard Eugene Hickock and the pathetic cripple Perry Edward Smith whose dreams of fame were pathetic and somehow endearing at the same time. And then to find out that it was Perry, the sympathetic one, who did the actual killing... a real life twist worthy of a Jeffery Deaver novel. I remember thinking how wonderful it would be if I could do the same thing to other people that Capote's book had done to me. I wanted to make an impact on people I would never know, and who would never know me except through my words.
I write primarily for people who read for entertainment, escape, and excitement. I want my books to be as accessible to as many people as possible. I love knowing that there are people who see my books as reality-escape vehicles. I want people to become so involved in a story, so deeply that their own problems and worries fall away as they get involved with the problems my characters have. My books are centered around evil people who do terrible and destructive things until good and ordinary people do extraordinary things required of them to stop them. I want my characters, both good and bad, to be people that readers want to spend time with, and characters they want to visit with again. I strive to raise heart rates and make people check to make sure their doors are locked. And, most of all, I want my readers to feel satisfied when they finish the book and set it down.
It was eight long years after The Last Family was first published before Inside Out was on sales racks and bookstore tables. Writing the first three Massey novels, Inside Out, Upside Down and Side By Side, didn't take me all of eight years. I spent those years working on developing the character, Winter Massey, and on getting to know him, and to write the first three Massey novels. The concept of bringing the first three books out in mass paperback, seemed to the publisher like the best way to give the fans of The Last Family, who had waited years for my next thriller, a treat and re-establish my work. Thanks entirely to the efforts of a great publishing team at Bantam, headed by my editor, Kate Miciak and Nita Taublib, people were able to find and read three of my novels in rapid order. Inside Out, Upside Down, and Side By Side received great reviews. Upside Down was nominated for International Thriller Writer’s Thriller Award for best PBO. Inside Out was nominated for a Barry Award. And I can tell you that being nominated by your peers means as much as winning any award––well just about as much.
I followed the first three Winter Massey books with Too Far Gone, a novel built around Special Agent Alexa Keen, an FBI abduction specialist, who first appeared in Side By Side. I set that book in New Orleans and the action took place as Katrina roared toward the city. Alexa was a great character, a woman of mixed parentage, who had been an outsider in her own world, the Mississippi Delta, but found true friendship, which went a long way toward healing her, and helping her make the right choices later in her life. It was, perhaps, my way of trying to reconcile the social complexities of Mississippi that I felt and and her children were affected by racism.
After Too Far Gone I wrote Smoke & Mirrors, whose original title was Through & Through. The novel’s name was changed due to a marketing decision. [Often a book is written under a working title, but occasionally that title is taken before the book is published, or someone at the publishing house thinks another title will be better suited.] To this day I get e-mails from readers who are looking for Through & Through. That is mostly my fault for not updating my web site.
The Last Day, was written as a standalone thriller because I will likely never write about them again. The idea for that book came to me when I encountered a young girl of indeterminable age on a flight from Las Vegas to Phoenix en route to the first Thrillerfest. If you read the book you will meet the character who sat beside me because that experience was written in as a key chapter. The girl, whose real name I never knew, became my Alice Palmer, a pivotal character in the novel. You never know when some event in life, like a missed flight––a real pisser at the time––might bear literary fruit or inspiration, when cooked for a few weeks, become a story line.
I am presently writing another novel whose title I am not going to make public until it has been scheduled for publication. Until then, I am going to be doing what I always do: living my life surrounded by people I care about, caring for our animals, and writing the best stories I can imagine for my readers.