I win!!! And by I win, I mean, I managed to convince Harry Dolan, NATIONAL BEST SELLING AUTHOR of Bad Things Happen, to answer some interview questions... though honestly, he was awfully nice and agreeable. All I REALLY had to do was agree to not ask him about his love of Broadway Tunes... so I won't... *shifty*
I wanted to START though, with a brief synopsis and review.
The book begins with a somewhat reclusive man named David Loogan who has moved to Ann Arbor (where I live—SQUEEEEEE!) and is doing some work as an editor for a literary journal. The narrative is intentionally a little distant... this man is hard to know. But he gets along with the editor (and the editor's wife... which causes a little trouble)... and then, not too far in... the editor calls David and asks him for some help... to bury a body... The book at this point begins it's string of mysteries... An apparent suicide brings in a police woman, and the investigations begin... but they are never what they seem. There is the early set-up and continuing homage paid to 'the third option'. When you think it is one thing, or the other... it is usually the third option... the one you hadn't thought of. The one you CAN'T think of... And this third option is BRILLIANTLY executed. The surprises come out of nowhere (but can be delightfully spotted in retrospect).
This book is a writer's orgy. The suspects and witnesses are all writers. They all have their theories as to what happened. Some of their own STORIES have been mimicked by the killer... but whose? And why?
I have been reading mysteries almost exclusively since March. This is the best one I've read. I am TOTALLY serious. (and I've read some great ones) You need to read it. You need to make sure your friends read it. It is dark and twisted, but not unduly gory (I mean a little, but not graphically so)... but mostly, it is just masterful storytelling.
Harry Dolan is a fellow Ann Arborite and Firehorse, but I had not met him (still haven't) and the book hadn't made the top of my pile of TBR until my boss told me about 'this book by a guy from Ann Arbor' and my slow brain put together that it was the SAME guy who wrote Bad Things Happen that my Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award friends had been raving about... Second route of connection pushed me to get ahold of it. And then I realized Harry was in fact accessible...
So today I welcome my biggest coup yet... Harry Dolan, for an interview!
[code: regular: my questions. Bold: Harry's answers.]
First of all, thank you, and I’m glad you liked Bad Things Happen. You’re right about the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award: I entered Bad Things Happen in the first ABNA contest, in 2008. Before that, I spent more than a year sending out queries, trying to get an agent interested in the manuscript. I probably sent out at least fifty queries and got a handful of requests for the full manuscript, but no offers of representation. I figured I’d have to rewrite it or try something else. In fact, I rewrote the opening chapter -- which was a good thing, because the original first sentence read something like this: “At nine thirty on a night in October, the man who called himself David Loogan drove into the vast lot of a vast department store that sold groceries and gardening supplies” -- which almost put me to sleep just now as I typed it. The opening line of the final version -- “The shovel has to meet certain requirements” -- was a result of that rewrite.
I wound up finishing in the top three of the ABNA contest, and the resulting exposure got me an agent and eventually a publisher (Amy Einhorn, who has her own imprint at Putnam). After the book was accepted for publication, it underwent fairly extensive editing. For one thing, the manuscript was too long, and I wound up cutting about 45 pages out of 400. Most of the cuts were done line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph, trimming away anything that wasn’t essential. No major scenes were cut from the book, although in one or two cases I replaced dialogue-heavy scenes with a few paragraphs of narrative.
Apart from the cuts, my editor asked me to flesh out a couple of characters, and to rework some things that she thought were implausible. I remember that one of those involved the possibility of tracing cellphone calls. At one point David Loogan is on the run from the police, but he talks on a cellphone several times with the detective who’s trying to find him. My editor said, Why doesn’t the detective just track him through his phone? And I thought, Yeah, why doesn’t she? So I had to do some research on how to triangulate someone’s location from his cellphone signal, and then rework those scenes to make it plausible that they wouldn’t be able to track him. So that gives you an idea of some of the changes I had to make before the book got published.
These ABNA friends are a fabulous support system, if you want to take advantage of it, and have become part of mine. Are you part of a Critique group? (local, online?) Do you have a partner for editing? What kind of support system have you had for writing and editing and has it changed as you've become successful?
The truth is I’ve never been part of any writing group. If I had people critiquing a novel chapter by chapter as I was writing it, I think I would want to go off in a corner somewhere and hide. It’s hard enough just to listen to the voice of my own internal critic. I think the only person who read any part of Bad Things Happen before it was finished was my girlfriend. And things have really changed very little since I’ve been published. In the case of my new book -- the one I’ve just finished writing -- I gave the first hundred pages to my girlfriend and my agent, just to be sure I was on the right track. And no one else saw any of it until it was finished.
I've sometimes said I don't entirely trust author blurbs about other peoples' books, with the one exception of Stephen King (I swear I've said this--I could find it if you want)—he always seems to shoot straight and never compliments unless he means it. How the heck did you get Stephen King to SWEAR in his book blurb for you? (That is like the Holy Grail of book reviews!)--was that a publisher coup, an agent coup, or are you magic?
It was part agent and part magic, I think.
The way blurbs normally work is this: Months before publication, your agent or your publisher sends the manuscript to an author with a cover letter asking if they’ll read it and consider writing a blurb. I’m lucky to have an excellent publisher and an excellent agent, and they were able to get jacket blurbs from some big names: Nelson DeMille, Douglas Preston, James Patterson, and Karin Slaughter.
But that’s not how we got Stephen King.
As far as I know (and I could be wrong about this), Stephen King discovered Bad Things Happen on his own. The book was published in July 2009, and I didn’t hear from him until November. I found out he was reading the book because my agent knows everybody, and she happens to be a friend of Stephen King’s publisher. The story I heard was this: King’s publisher paid him a visit during his book tour for Under the Dome. She dropped in on him in his hotel room and he said something like, “Wait right here, I’ve got to read you something” -- and then he went and got his copy of Bad Things Happen and read her a passage from it. (I don’t know which passage it was; I wish I knew.) His publisher passed this anecdote along to my agent, and my agent (who wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity) said that we’d love to have a blurb if he was willing. About a week later I got an email from the man himself, which began with “Great f---ing book, man” and went on from there.
We used the quote on the paperback edition, and my one regret is that we didn’t put it on the front cover. I’ve actually got a cover design the publisher sent me with the King quote in big red type on the front, but eventually the marketing department decided that some bookstores would be scandalized by the bad language, and they moved it to the back cover.
I have a huge interest in how deeply your book spoke to me as a WRITER. Much of it is set at a literary journal (or among its board and authors), and the authors serve as suspects and investigators. You're clearly an author, but do you have a history with literary journals (publishing stories or editing for one)? And where did the idea come from to have a list of authors as suspects? (It was a bit of brilliance, if you must know, as it allowed you to “write within the writing.”)
I worked on a literary magazine in college (at Colgate University), as both a writer and an editor. The magazine published science fiction and fantasy, and the stories I wrote for it were odd hybrids: they were plotted like mysteries, but set against a sort of swords-and-sorcery background. (It would be hard to find those stories now, and I don’t intend to make it any easier.)
That experience definitely influenced Bad Things Happen, which revolves around a mystery magazine called Gray Streets. That choice of setting led directly to the idea of having mystery writers as suspects, and it opened up a lot of possibilities for playing around with the conventions and clichés of the genre. There’s a whole subgenre of “cat detective” books, for example: stories in which a cat plays a prominent role in solving the mystery, and as a nod to that, I have a character who writes books about a woman who solves mysteries with the help of her golden retriever. I also threw in just about every mystery motif I could think of, from murders staged to look like suicides, to the character who finds himself a suspect in a murder and has to solve it on his own in order to clear his name.
I’ve also supported myself for most of my adult life by working as an editor, so it’s no coincidence that the central character in Bad Things Happen is an editor, and that the book has some things to say about editing, both good and bad. Tom Kristoll, the publisher of Gray Streets, tells David Loogan, “No one sets out to be an editor. It’s something that happens to you, like jaundice or falling down a well.” Another character remarks that “bad editing is a weak motive for murder . . . though in the heat of the moment it can often seem otherwise.”
Like you, I live in Ann Arbor (you may have seen me walking around reading—in fact I walk through David Loogan's neighborhood daily). I loved the familiar setting, and the slow response of the police rang true (unfortunately). Were there any challenges to using a real setting? Did you need permissions for any place names, or have to alter details to avoid offending? Did you worry at all about dating your book by using landmarks or institutions that may not be permanent (the sad demise of the Ann Arbor News, for instance)? Did you spend any time with Ann Arbor police or newspapermen/women?
I took a course several years ago that was offered by the Ann Arbor Police Department. It’s called the Civilian Police Academy, and it met once a week for about fourteen weeks. It taught me some things about how a police department works in a city the size of Ann Arbor. There’s no “crime scene unit,” for instance. Detectives themselves are responsible for collecting fingerprints and other evidence, and for photographing crime scenes. I also learned that the police department had a “tactical crime analyst” who kept a database with details of all the crimes committed in the city, and that led me to create one of the minor characters in Bad Things Happen: Alice Marrowicz.
As for the setting, I used a number of real locations in Ann Arbor, including the Arboretum, Angell Hall on the University of Michigan campus, and a jazz bar called the Firefly Club (which has since closed). But in some cases I modified settings, or altered the details to suit the story, or just made things up. I couldn’t tell you exactly where David Loogan’s rented house is, for example, although I know it’s on the Old West Side of Ann Arbor. I set a couple of crucial scenes in Marshall Park, but I only went there once, years ago, and my recollection of the place is vague. And as for the building that houses Gray Streets, I do have a particular building in mind, but I’ve never actually been inside it, and I’m sure my description of the layout is way off. I’m not sure you could throw a body out of a sixth-floor window in that building -- because I’m not sure if the windows open. But I’m not about to let minor details like that get in the way of a good story.
A similar principle applies for the Ann Arbor News, which went out of business last year. In my novels, it still exists: I know I mentioned it at least once in the book I just finished writing. It’s a useful thing to have around when the police want to publish a sketch of a suspect in the paper. I suppose I could explain that the News was replaced by a website called AnnArbor.com, which publishes a print edition twice a week. But it’s much easier to refer to the Ann Arbor News. Most readers won’t be from Ann Arbor anyway, so they won’t know it’s gone.
I've been writing a cozy mystery, so have spent a great deal of time this spring and summer reading mysteries to master the rules, and yours was my favorite one, I think because every time I would think I had a good guess, some other piece would layer itself in and totally throw me again. Would you mind sharing a little about your plotting process? Do you outline tightly? Do the underlying sub-plots occur to you as part of the overall plot, or were they layered in later to add to the tension?
When I wrote Bad Things Happen, I had the major plot twists worked out in advance -- especially the series of twists that come toward the end of the book. If I hadn’t known how the book would end, I wouldn’t have known how to begin writing it. But that outline was very broad and general, and the details got filled in day by day. And a lot of the characters took on larger roles as the book went on. The detective in the story, Elizabeth Waishkey, was always meant to be an important character, but her role expanded as the writing went on, and her relationship with David Loogan became a centerpiece of the book. I also gave her a daughter, Sarah, who turned out to be an important character as well. That wasn’t planned from the beginning.
In the case of the new book that I’ve just finished, I didn’t know the ending when I started. What I had were several more or less developed characters and a back story having to do with an old crime -- a bank robbery that occurred several years before the story opens. I had an idea for an opening sequence, and some general ideas about where the story might go, and about what sort of twists might occur. But I started writing the novel without an overall outline, and I found that to be a scary way to proceed. I found that I could only go so far without working out some kind of roadmap, so I developed an outline as I went along, always planning a few chapters ahead. It seem to work out all right, and I’m happy with the outcome.
And finally, this was amazing for ANY book, but phenomenal for a debut novel. Was it really your first, or just your first to sell? And do you have some others lined up that you are preparing to publish (or in process with)? Care to share your hook so we can keep our eyes peeled?
Bad Things Happen is my first published novel, but it’s actually the second novel I wrote. The first one grew out of a story I wrote in college, in a creative writing course I took with the novelist Frederick Busch, who taught in the English department at Colgate. He liked what I’d done and encouraged me to keep writing, but I got sidetracked for a long time. After college and grad school, I spent about eight years editing an academic journal. I left my full-time job in 1999 and decided to finally try my hand at a novel.
That first one took me almost three years to write. It ended up being over 800 pages long. It was hard to categorize: part crime novel, part romance, part coming-of-age story. It was set in a fictionalized version of the town where I grew up, and the central character was a philosophy student. (My major in college was philosophy, and that should tell you something about the novel.)
When I tried to find an agent for that book, I had a number of near misses. Several agents praised the writing but told me the book was simply too long and that it tried to be too many things. So it’s still unpublished. But it makes a cameo appearance in Bad Things Happen, where part of the plot hinges on a character who has written a big, unruly manuscript called Liars, Thieves, and Innocent Men -- a book that everyone tells him is too long to be published. In Bad Things Happen, I give a summary of the plot of that manuscript, and it’s a fairly accurate summary of my first novel.
As for what I’m working on now, I’ve mentioned the new novel that I’ve just completed. It’s called Very Bad Men, and it features David Loogan and Elizabeth Waishkey from Bad Things Happen. It differs from Bad Things Happen in that the reader knows the identity of the killer from the outset: he’s a troubled man named Anthony Lark, who’s obsessed with a political candidate named Callie Spencer. He’s drawn up a list of men who, in his mind, represent a threat to her, and one by one he’s killing the men on that list. Conveniently, two of them live in Ann Arbor, and David and Elizabeth get tangled up in the investigation. The mystery has more to do with why Lark is doing what he’s doing, although there are other significant mysteries in the book as well. But that’s about all I should say. If you want to know more, you’ll have to wait for the book to be published, which should happen in the summer of 2011.
I adore that you paid homage to your unpublished novel in Bad Things Happen! And knowing how the book is referred to, I also appreciate that it is very tongue in cheek of you (a bonus) I wish you a ton of luck with Very Bad Men! Thank you so much for being willing to be interviewed! I appreciate it and my readers appreciate it!
And there we have it, my friends... the Tart's first 'Celebrity Interview' (he's fabulous, isn't he?)