And by I win, I mean Harry Dolan agreed to do an interview with me for the release of The Last Dead Girl, his third book, which releases Thursday!!! Both Harry's other books have been best sellers (deservingly so) and you know what? This is my favorite of the three!!! It's really fantastic! I am working up a better review, but FOR NOW, I am just going to let you watch me talk to the Fabulous Harry Dolan--hows's THAT!?
1) This book is a prequel, rather than a sequel (earlier even, than David changing his name). What made you decide to head into David's past instead of going forward?
The idea for this book evolved over time. It began with the story of the victim, Jana Fletcher, an idealistic young law student who’s involved in an Innocence Project—she’s working to exonerate someone she believes has been imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. And her involvement in this project leads to her death. Originally, I intended to set the story in Ann Arbor, and Jana was going to be an intern at Gray Streets magazine; I thought that would be how David would get drawn into the story. I tried to work out the plot along those lines, and it wasn’t working. I wanted to introduce another character, a fellow student who would be Jana’s lover and would be driven to uncover the truth about her death. But then there were too many characters and things got too complicated. And I realized that if I set the story in David’s past, then he could be the one who was romantically involved with Jana. And then everything became much simpler.
2) This book showed a David who was more candid than he is in later books—he is more open with the reader about his thoughts and emotions. Was that a conscious decision? And if so, what was your decision process there? (It made sense to me, but I want to see if I am following your thinking or making stuff up.)
I think you’re right that he’s more open in this book, but that wasn’t a conscious decision on my part. It probably has to do with the nature of the story. In my first novel, Bad Things Happen, part of the mystery revolved around David’s identity: What sort of person was he? Where did he come from? So in that book I didn’t always reveal what he was thinking and feeling. And the book was written entirely in the third person, which lends itself to the keeping of secrets. The Last Dead Girl, on the other hand, is mostly written in the first person, and David is much more emotionally invested in the victim than he has been in my previous novels. So that’s probably why I wound up revealing more of his thoughts and emotions, even though that’s not something I deliberately set out to do.
3) And as a follow up—do you plan to give readers a bit more about how David changes to become a much more cautious man that he is in your earlier books? And if it ISN'T going to be in the books, could you maybe share what you see as the impetus for the change?
I think the change is probably a natural result of age and experience. In The Last Dead Girl, David is twenty-six years old; in Bad Things Happen and Very Bad Men, he’s in his late thirties. If David is more cautious and more guarded in the chronologically later books (and I think he is), it’s because he’s learned to be that way. You could think of The Last Dead Girl as the story of the first really bad thing that happened to David: his first serious encounter with violence and loss and grief. And I think that definitely shaped his character.
4) You are also in a new (old?) location. Rome, New York. I know you did your education in rural New York. Is this the city? Is this a place you know as well as Ann Arbor? And did you go to visit, or did you rely on memory? Any challenges to writing about a location that isn't your current home town (compared to the two books set in the one that is)?
I grew up in Rome, New York, and I still have family there, so I visit at least once a year. It’s a small city located in the central part of the state. It used to be the home of an Air Force base, but the base shut down in the 1990s and the population has declined since then. The version of Rome in the novel is slightly fictionalized: it’s a bit bigger and more prosperous. And the real Rome doesn’t have a university with a law school, so I invented one for the sake of the story. But apart from that, I use a lot of real street names and locations. Much of the action is set on the back roads on the western edge of the city, not far from where I grew up. We lived in a house on a rural highway, near an old section of the Erie Canal. I used to go for walks alongside the canal, so I couldn’t resist setting a scene there. It’s a perfect place for a murder: isolated, remote, and if you need to dispose of a body, the water’s right there.
5) You have a couple really rotten people and a couple murders (including some overlap, obviously), but I felt like you did a really fantastic job in making us 'get them'. I didn't always sympathize, but I could at least understand how THEY saw it. Did you use any tricks or rules or make a plan to ensuring your antagonistic characters were three dimensional and that their actions had a certain historic sense?
Villains are always tricky to write, because you want them to come across as real people, not just as devices to move the plot along. I try to keep that in mind. As I’ve mentioned, most of the scenes in The Last Dead Girl are written in the first person, but there are also scenes scattered throughout in the third person—scenes that reveal the thoughts and actions of the main villain in the book, whose identity is disguised until the end. (I refer to him only as “K.”) I’ve used this first-person/third-person structure in my last two books, and I find it’s useful for revealing the killer’s motives. In this book there are several scenes near the beginning that pair K with a young woman named Jolene. Jolene is just someone who stumbles across K as he’s staking out one of his intended victims, but I found that K seemed to come alive when he encountered her. They’re together only briefly but they have an interesting rapport, and I think that goes a long way toward humanizing him.
6) I'm wondering if there are any details in this book that come from a real life experience worthy of a story. What brings up the question is the incredible detail and quirk to the landlady, Mrs. Lanik—the food, the drink, the sour temperament but brief shots of kindness. She just seemed like someone you may have known or at least drawn from someone. If not, though, any other people or events inspired from real experiences will do...
Sometimes you get lucky and a character shows up fully formed. Agnes Lanik was one of those. She’s a woman in her seventies, Jana’s landlady who lives right next door. She’s originally from Czechoslovakia, so she speaks with an accent and cooks food from the old country and drinks Becherovka, a bitter liqueur which is supposed to taste like a cross between cinnamon and mouthwash. She’s not really modeled after any real person, though some of the food she cooks is based on personal experience. I’m thinking especially of holubky, which are cabbage rolls stuffed with ground beef and rice and covered with tomato sauce. I had an aunt who used to make those—though she was Polish and called them galumpkis.
7) And finally, what are you working on now? Same MC? If so, early, or later? Maybe give us just a little teaser!
I’m working on a new book now, and all I can tell you is that it’s a stand-alone novel with a new main character. It’s liberating to step away from David Loogan temporarily—and also a bit scary. But I fully expect to come back to him in the future, and to catch up with Elizabeth Waishkey and her daughter Sarah as well.
Thank you so much, Harry! You've been fantastic! And for anyone even a little local to Ann Arbor, Harry is doing a reading/signing at Nicola's on West Stadium Thursday night! If you have a chance to be there, you won't be sorry! (and you'll see ME, besides!)