Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Harry Dolan Interview!!! (Very Bad Men)

So Harry and I discussed doing this a while back, but I got my questions to him too close to when he left on his book tour (my bad) BUT... since it's NOW, I have now MET Harry--he is very nice--great sense of humor. And it spreads out the reader treat related to Very Bad Men...

So without Further ado... Welcome Harry!

I'm in purple.
Harry's in blue.

You've got a prologue! Cheeky monkey! Wait, I should probably form this as a question. Did anyone try to talk you out of it? I like that you did it, as it allowed us to meet Loogan, your first person narrator, so a person who hasn't read Bad Things Happen isn't surprised after a few chapters from Anthony Lark, our murderer, to come to Loogan's perspective again. I wonder though, if this fell quite naturally, or if you had to wrestle someone, or at least talk them into it?

Too much of me, and just right Harry and Liz Crowe
The truth is just the opposite: I had to be talked into adding the prologue. The original draft of the novel began with what’s now chapter 1 -- with the killer, Anthony Lark, in his hotel room. But that meant there were three chapters of Lark before David Loogan entered into the narrative. My editor/publisher, Amy Einhorn, thought that David needed to be there earlier. She thought that if this were the seventh or eighth book in the series, I could get away with having the protagonist show up in chapter 4, but since it’s only the second book it would be better to open with David. I had to admit that made sense, so I tried my hand at an opening chapter that would establish David as the main character and then transition to Lark. The current prologue was my second or third attempt. It serves to reintroduce both David Loogan and Elizabeth Waishkey (the police detective from the first book), and it reveals something about how they became romantically involved. The first book ended with the implication that they were together, but I thought something more needed to be said.

Much of this book is written from the point of view of Anthony Lark, the killer. Did you find any particular challenges in this—in particular in wrestling with how to keep the twisty ending from being revealed because the killer, by definition, sort of knows what's up? And how much research went into his condition?

Anthony Lark is a very disturbed man who’s obsessed with a decades-old crime -- the Great Lakes Bank robbery. Lark is plagued by headaches, and he has a neurological condition called synesthesia, which causes words to take on color and movement in his mind’s eye. So, for example, when he writes down a list of the bank robbers he intends to kill, their names glow red and seem to breathe on the page. Synesthesia is a real condition that I learned about initially from an article in the New York Times a few years back. I filed it away, thinking it would make an interesting character trait. The term synesthesia covers a variety of conditions in which people experience a sort of confusion of the senses -- so that, for example, a piece of music might be experienced both as a series of sounds and as a series of colors. The particular form of synesthesia that affects Lark is based on a common form in which individual letters or numbers are perceived as having color. As for writing scenes from Lark’s point of view, I found that it came to me rather easily. When you have a character like that who’s not in his right mind, you can take him almost anywhere and have him do interesting and unexpected things. Then if you add in the element of violence, you find all sorts of opportunities for dark humor. So those scenes with Lark were some of the most enjoyable to write. And since those scenes were written in the third person, I was able to decide just how much of Lark’s thinking to reveal, and you learn more about his inner life as the story goes on, all without giving away what’s ultimately going to happen.

Elizabeth Waishkey makes a reappearance, and though she isn't physically present for as much of this book, we learn a little of her backstory. Did you have this all worked out for her when you were writing Bad Things Happen? If so, was it hard not to reveal some of it then?

The plot of Bad Things Happen revolves around a series of murders of people associated with a mystery magazine, Gray Streets -- including the murder of the publisher, Tom Kristoll. David develops a friendship with Tom early in the book, and later becomes tangled up in the murder investigation. Elizabeth is the Ann Arbor detective who conducts the official investigation of the murders, and comes into conflict with David (who at a certain point becomes a suspect). In the new book, Very Bad Men, David and Elizabeth take a trip to Michigan’s upper peninsula -- which, as I reveal, is where she grew up. I didn’t have that particular detail in mind when I wrote the first book, and in fact I’m still working out many of the details of Elizabeth’s past, including her relationship with her ex-husband (the father of her daughter, Sarah).

I loved the pieces of Michigan political history you wove in (and the new pieces of geography, too). Were those pieces in your head from the beginning, or did you go looking for things that might fit the story you had? (Like do you have a file somewhere of stuff you think would be cool to weave into books?) Did you make a trip to Sault Sainte Marie?

See it?  Sault Sainte Marie is the dot... (A2 is by Detroit)
The story of Very Bad Men has to do with buried secrets, so I decided early on that some of the characters in the book would be politicians -- because politicians need to protect their reputations, and can be harmed if secrets about their past are revealed. I should add that the politicians in the book -- a retiring U.S. senator named John Casterbridge, and his potential successor, a charismatic young candidate named Callie Spencer -- are not based on any actual politicians, from Michigan or anywhere else. Given the choice of politics as a milieu, it was natural to work in some details about Michigan’s political and economic situation, especially the high unemployment rate. As for Sault Sainte Marie, my knowledge of the place is admittedly limited. I’ve taken a couple of trips there, one several years ago and another more recently, as I was writing Very Bad Men. The second trip was intended to refresh my memory of the place, but I still wound up taking some liberties with locations and geography. For example, I needed to set a couple of scenes in a cemetery, and the requirements of the plot dictated that it should have a certain layout (it needed to be surrounded by hills on three sides, for example). I could have spent a lot of time scouting locations to find a real cemetery that fit my needs, but at some point you need to get to work writing the book, so I simply invented the setting I needed and dubbed it Whiteleaf Cemetery. I took similar liberties with other bits of geography, and no one has complained yet, although I suppose someone might eventually.

I'm dying of curiosity. Where on the plotter versus pantser spectrum you fall. You READ like things have been very carefully plotted, but, I know there are people who catch a lot of that in the rewrite. So what's your process?

I find that I have to work from a pretty detailed outline. When I wrote Bad Things Happen, I had all the major plot twists worked out in advance, including the ending, before I wrote a single sentence of the book. With Very Bad Men, I was a bit more relaxed about the outline, in the sense that I started writing without a specific ending in mind. But I still had most of the major plot developments worked out in advance, and I kept working on the outline even as I was writing the book, so that I always knew what was going to happen a few chapters ahead. Of course, no matter how detailed an outline you start out with, you always discover new things along the way. Scenes occur to you that seem like they’d be fun to write, and you work them in, or minor characters end up taking on larger roles.

Your career had a lot of years BEFORE first book release, but it seems to have shot into the stratosphere directly once your first book trajectory was set. I'm curious what you think these days about the changing landscape of publishing. Do you think things might have gone on a different path for you if you'd been a year later?

I left a full-time job as an editor in 1999 with the idea of writing a novel, and my first book was published in 2009, ten years later. So it definitely took me a while to get going. I was very fortunate in that Bad Things Happen was well reviewed and sold reasonably well in hardcover, but it wasn’t until the paperback came out that I came anywhere near a bestseller list. Two factors made that happen: first, Stephen King read the book and gave us a quote to use on the cover (spiced up by a bit foul language to demonstrate his enthusiasm), and second, Borders heavily promoted the book in their stores. And given recent developments at Borders, I can say for certain that things would have gone differently if the book had come out a year later. In a real sense, I owe my career to the fact that Borders managed to hold out as long as it did. As for the future of publishing, I won’t venture any predictions. But I will say that I hope independent bookstores (such as Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, which hosted a signing for Very Bad Men) will be able to fill some of the void left by Borders’ disappearance.

For those of us who fantasize that OUR first book will be a NYT bestseller, how has this book release differed from the last for you?

I’m very happy with the reception that Very Bad Men has gotten, and my publisher has been very supportive. They sent me on a book tour that covered eight cities, even though book tours are becoming rarer these days. I did more radio and print interviews this time than the first time around. But it’s also true that traditional media outlets are devoting less space to book reviews than they have in the past, so even achieving a measure of success with a debut book is no guarantee that subsequent books will get the same kind of coverage. I’m very lucky that my publisher’s publicity people have worked hard to get the new book noticed, and I’ve got no complaints.

Is there a third book in the series in the works? When can we expect it?

Definitely. I’ve signed a contract for at least two more books in the series, so you’ll be hearing more about David Loogan and Elizabeth Waishkey. I’m working on the third one now, and it involves the murder of an intern at Gray Streets magazine. It’s scheduled to come out in the summer of 2013.

Thank you so much, Harry!  You were fabulous!!!


gae polisner said...

great stuff, despite no mention of my book. I think Dolan is getting tres close to the whole wunderkind thing. Amazing to watch and see. Couldn't happen to a more deserving guy. Now, where's my copy of VBM?!? :)

Old Kitty said...

Thanks for the intro and interview to Mr Dolan! It's an amazing book - very very intriguing and I learnt a new unpronouncable disease too!! Yay!! Good luck Mr Dolan!! Thanks gorgeous Tart for being a most NAKED interviewer! Take care

Hart Johnson said...

Gae-it's encouraging, isn't it? Though you aren't doing such a slouchy job yourself. I can't believe you don't have your copy!!!

Jenny-teehee--yeah, diseases are better if you have to practice saying them... it totally works in the story, too.

GigglesandGuns said...

Love learning about an author that is new to me. Two more books for the TBR list.

Harry Dolan said...

Hart, why would you leave out all that stuff I said about Gae's book THE PULL OF GRAVITY? Also, I wanted to be in purple. Other than that, I thought the interview was brilliant. :)

Hart Johnson said...

Mary- definitely good ones to add to your TBR list!

Harry-Sorry--you just rambled for so LONG about PoG... teehee And thank YOU!

ViolaNut said...

I really do have to get around to these, don't I? (Side note 1: I'm mildly synesthetic but I don't think of it as a disease, it's just kinda fun to have A major be yellow while G is navy blue, for example. Side note 2: I made our store order in a couple of copies of Pull of Gravity; I suppose I have to sell them now. ;-) )

Helen Ginger said...

Thank you Hart. Great questions and very interesting answers. This sounds like a great series. I'm going to look for the books.

Johanna Garth said...

Great Q & A to both Hart and Harry!

Harry, I love getting a sneak peak at your writing process and look forward to reading the book that Hart raves and raves and raves and raves about!

Hart Johnson said...

Leanne-YES, you need to read them. And I think the colors with music thing is very cool.

Thank you, Helen! You won't be sorry!

Johanna-Thank you! --I love seeing Harry's process, too.

Ciara said...

Thanks for introducing me to a new author, Hart.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Hey, Harry!
Detailed outliner here. And my publisher had me add a prologue to my first book for a little backstory combined with action.

Hart Johnson said...

Ciara-You're very welcome!

Alex-HA! That bodes well! Everybody wants to be more like Harry!

L.G.Smith said...

It does sort of chap my hide that all the agents and editors say "no prologue" and then every time I open a successfully published novel there is a prologue. Okay, maybe I exaggerate a tad, but it does seem like there are a lot of books out there with prologues in them, which I tend to like just fine.

Terrific interview. Congrats on the great series of books.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great interview and this series sounds fantastic! Downloading a copy of book one...

Cheeseboy said...

interesting that it took him 10 years to get his first book published. Gives hope to a lot of people.

Anonymous said...

I saw a special on Synesthesia and it was fascinating. I thinkit was on Discovery Chanel. What a great concept to weave into your character.

And I've visited the Locks in Sault Sainte Marie as I'm originally from Michigan, specifically the lower half..

Hart Johnson said...

LG, I know, right? I really love a prologue--I feel like it build anticipation from the start, but what do I know?

Elizabeth, excellent!

Abe-the authors I know who have really hit home runs HAVE worked this long--and I know several of them. I think impatience can make us bunt.

Stephen, I don't think I knew you were from Michigan--I think it's pretty up there--quaint, but I love that huge lake and the locks seem a little otherworldly.

Harry Dolan said...

If "prologue" is a dirty word, I figure you can always think of it as an unnumbered first chapter. :)

Incidentally, the link between violence and synesthesia in the character of Anthony Lark is entirely fanciful. There's no such connection in reality.

If you're interested, you can find out more about synesthesia here:

Ms Carter again said...

Sad that I have to wait until 2013 for the new book. I truly enjoyed the first two.