Thomas H. Cook is one of a handful of contemporary writers who fill me with awe. When I heard he was coming to the store I was absolutely ecstatic, because he’s one of the really great authors around now in any genre. As part of the attendant publicity, I conducted the following e-mail interview with him, which will appear soon in several places – but lucky RADIOFREEUBU readers can savor it now!
The first thing that always draws me into the "web" of your novels is your prose, which is remarkably rich and musical. Do you spend a lot of time polishing it, or does it just come out that way and need only minor adjustments?
I spend a great deal of time on the actual writing. I am a great fan of the "passage," a paragraph or description that is exactly right. I also love a well-turned phrase, and really enjoy coming across such things in the books I read. I grew up reading both Hemingway and Faulkner, and although each was quite different from the other, I found that I loved them both, Hemingway for his precision and Faulkner for his song. When a phrase seems right, I rejoice, but I also really have to avoid being purple, because Faulkner could surely colorize the page, and when I’m not careful, I do, too. I really do have to watch it, but even so, I lose it sometimes, then go back and cringe.
Are there any prose stylists you model yourself after? I always see some echoes of Faulkner in your sentences.
I hadn’t read this question before answering the one before it, so you’re certainly right, there are those shades of Faulkner. The older I get the more I try to rein them in, however, and with RED LEAVES, I tried to be pretty spare. But dead writers die hard, and once someone’s in your brain, as Faulkner is in mine, it’s hard to keep him out.
As far as modern writers, I am a fan of Ian McEwan, Alice McDermott, Alice Munro, Barry Unsworth and Robert Stone, though I can’t say I try to model my writing on theirs.
But in my opinion, you’re more than just a stylist, you’re the total package. Most of your books have a plot twist at the end that is both logical and unexpected. Do you plan out the ending and the very plot twists from the very beginning?
I never use an outline, never do a treatment, and never know how my books are going to end until the ending comes. This is very nerve-wracking for a crime novelist, since ambiguity cannot be my theme. Main stream writers can get by without some fixed resolution, but crime writers really can’t, and it is this part of crime writing, the rigid need for a "surprise" that drives me crazy, and which I wish I didn’t have to do. Most mystery endings require this "surprise" and it very often falls on its face. I wish we could move mystery readers beyond this requirement, somehow, because I’m sure they are very often disappointed by endings. General readers never require a ‘surprise’ from their mainstream writers, and I think these writers can work more freely because of that. For me as a reader, the book is still primarily about the story, and a good story does not need a surprise ending or some cheesy kind of "resolution."
Setting is another important ingredient in your work. What draws you to New England and the South?
I have lived for long periods in both areas, as well as in New York. I currently live on Cape Cod and in NYC, so these areas are the ones that quite naturally present themselves as settings. In addition, I often write about people in small towns, and those settings are plentiful in the South and New England. I’d love to write a novel set in Europe, but it would have to be about a guy from the South or New York or New England currently traveling in Europe. Otherwise, it just wouldn’t fly.
You’ve also written a couple of true crime books and had protagonists who were true crime writers. Did the experience influence your vision of evil and would you ever consider writing another?
I would love to write non-fiction again, though not necessarily true crime. That said, writing those two true-crime books loaded me up with material for my fiction, and even provided a few set pieces in Evidence of Blood. I have been contracted to write a very strange travel book, however, one which will probably take two or three years to write, but which I am enjoying very much at the moment.
If I were going to predict which crime writer was going to collaborate with Larry King on a comic thriller, you are not the first person who would come to mind. How did this come about and what was the experience like?
The publisher, I think it was, had the original idea of Larry writing a mystery. This was quite a while ago, and so I can’t be sure of the details, but this strikes me as the case. The publisher contacted a friend of mine who recommended me for the job. I had always wanted to write a comic novel, because my stuff is so dark, and it can really get depressing sometimes, but the fact is, no one had actually planned for it to be a comic novel, at least not at the beginning. Anyway, Larry and I met for lunch in Washington and got along very well. He’s a very smart guy, and as you would expect, a pretty good guy at conversation. We hit it off, and decided to do the book. A few weeks later 19 barbarians drove two planes into the World Trade Center, and after that Larry and I decided to write a Valentine to New York City, and that’s how Moon Over Manhattan was born.
After your three book series with Frank Clemons, you’ve always written stand alone books. In not writing a series and your strong tragic sense you’re in opposition to a few of the prevailing currents in mystery. Do you ever feel isolated or have pressure to write a more conventional series?
I tried to write a series, but got bored, and so stopped doing it. Part of writing for me is the pleasure of creating new characters in new settings. Series writing just wasn’t for me. Have I suffered as a result, at least in terms of fame and money? Yep, I probably have. But the last book in that series was so bad that I’ve come to face the fact that had I written a series it wouldn’t have been very good, so the bucks and celebrity would probably have slipped from my fingers anyway.
Do you read a lot of crime fiction? Do you have any favorites in the field and can you recommend any newer writers to our customers?
I read a great deal of non-fiction and a good deal of mainstreams fiction, but I also read crime novels, though listing my favorite authors in print would entail slighting others so I think I’ll play that one close to the vest. I will say that my favorite crime novel of recent years was A CRIME IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD by Suzanne Berne.
Are you working on another novel now? Can you give us a sneak preview?
The new novel is called THE FATE OF KATHERINE CARR. It is about a man who is increasingly drawn into a story written by a woman who vanished twenty years before. The book takes place in a small New England town in the present, and centers around George Gates, a former travel writer who specialized in writing about places where people disappeared, sometimes individuals, like Judge Crater, sometimes whole societies, like the Lost Colony. Since the murder of his eight year old son, Gates has written stories about the sunny side of things for the town paper — flower festivals and profiles of local celebrities. Enter Arlo MacBride, a retired missing persons detective who is also the subject of one of Gates’ profiles. MacBride recalls the case of Katherine Carr, a woman who vanished twenty years before, leaving nothing behind but a few poems and a "weird story." It is this story Gates reads to Alice, a child dying of progeria, and about whom he is also writing a profile for the paper. The reading of this story spurs Gates and Alice to inquire into its missing author’s brief life and dire fate, an exploration that leads each of them to discoveries of their own about life and death, mystery and resolution.