Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert

The vivid jazz scene in ’60s Chicago, an unconventional family and an utterly heart-stealing child.

last night

In early 1960s Chicago, 10-year-old Sophia has no friends her own age. Her society is Jim, a photographer in love with her mother; Rita and Sister Eye, her mother’s former roommates; and, occasionally, her mother, Naomi, a lounge singer aspiring to fame. “Mother’s feelings are the curb I walk, trying to keep my balance… when she notices me, all the times she doesn’t notice me get erased.” Rebecca Rotert’s debut novel, Last Night at the Blue Angel, alternates between Sophia’s perspective and that of a younger Naomi, discovering herself and escaping Kansas.

The city’s colorful ’60s jazz scene is a playground for a woman as beautiful and talented as Naomi, and its architecture provides focus for Jim’s photography (when he’s not focused on Naomi), set against the background of segregation and the Cold War. Sophia is precocious, wise beyond her years and profoundly nervous. She keeps lists: of her mother’s conquests, of the many practicalities she’ll need to reinvent after the bomb is dropped. But routine is disrupted when a man resurfaces from Naomi’s past just as she gets her shot at stardom after 10 years of hope and effort. Her final performance at the once-proud jazz club the Blue Angel holds promise, but will come at immense cost for both mother and daughter.

Rotert, an accomplished singer herself, beautifully evokes the vibrancy of this setting. But her true artistry lies in the complex mother-daughter relationship at the center of this story, and the deeply sympathetic, nuanced, heartbreaking character of Sophia, a child in an adult world on the brink of enormous change.


This review originally ran in the July 8, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 radios.

The Fish in the Forest by Dale Stokes

The thoroughly engrossing story of the salmon and its science.

fish forest

Seven species of salmon inhabit the Pacific in strikingly diverse ecosystems–ocean, river and stream, forest–in California, Alaska, the Bering Sea, Japan, Korea and Russia. Research oceanographer Dale Stokes calls these territories the “Salmon Forest” in The Fish in the Forest, a loving study of the salmon’s place in our world.

Salmon may strike some readers as a potentially dull subject, but in Stokes’s knowledgeable hands, the singular story of this fish is utterly riveting. Pacific salmon are anadromous and semelparous (born in fresh water, they mature in the salty ocean before swimming back up rivers and streams to breed just once and then die shortly thereafter); they possess an internal compass and map, enabling them to navigate over thousands of kilometers to the waterways of their birth; they are temporally aware, following a timetable for their reproduction and death.

Stokes presents a good deal of hard science (such as the complex cellular interchange of ions that allows them to survive in both salt and fresh water), but all of it is easily understandable. He explains why salmon are a keystone species; their feat of bringing rich marine nutrients well inland and at every point on a complex food web; and the interconnectedness of every resident in the Salmon Forest. Doc White’s 70 color photographs are stunning, focusing not only on fish and forest, but also the species of wolf, bear and eagle that interact with the salmon.

Fans of the Pacific Northwest, trees, water and nature, and readers concerned with ecology or science, will find much to enjoy in this gorgeous and illuminating fish tale.


This review originally ran in the July 1, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 alevins.

Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke

Beautifully composed and tragic, James Lee Burke’s 35th novel is a sweeping historical epic of war and the American dream.

stranger

James Lee Burke is famous for a long-running mystery series starring detective Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel; two series centered on Billy Bob and Hackberry Holland; and stand-alone novels and story collections that all evoke the beauty, heartache and social injustice of Louisiana and Texas (among other locales). His 35th book, Wayfaring Stranger, tells a historical and sometimes fantastical story of the birth of Big Oil, the legacy of World War II and the far-reaching influences of Bonnie and Clyde.

In the opening pages, young Weldon Holland fumes at his grandfather, Hackberry, who was a poor parent to Weldon’s mother and is now poised to have her locked away and electroshocked. It’s the early 1930s, and Weldon’s father is gone, looking for work. Four trespassers in a 1932 Chevrolet Confederate challenge Weldon and Grandfather on their ranch, and the confrontation ends with Weldon firing a shot through the back windshield at Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and two of their associates. This interaction casts a long shadow over the rest of Weldon’s life.

His story resumes in 1944 when he ships out for England as a second lieutenant. Weldon sees action in Normandy, particularly Saint-Lô, and the Ardennes; he digs Sergeant Hershel Pine out of a collapsed foxhole in the snow after an attack, and together they rescue a beautiful Spanish Jew named Rosita from an abandoned death camp. The three walk across enemy territory, lose toes to frostbite, fight tuberculosis, and are eventually separated. After the war, Weldon finds and marries Rosita, and Hershel turns up on Grandfather’s Texas ranch.

Together they establish the Dixie Belle Pipeline Company, using Nazi tank technology, Hershel’s welding skills and nose for oil, and Weldon’s family connections to build a minor empire. But the old money in Houston’s exclusive River Oaks neighborhood is offended–by their success and their humble upbringings, and particularly by Rosita’s heritage. And thus enter two of Burke’s favorite subjects: the evil lurking in the everyday, and the hero’s struggle to repress the evil within himself. Hershel’s wife, Linda Gail, creates more conflict: her actions endanger both business and family success, especially when she gets “discovered” and shipped out to Hollywood.

Burke’s fans will recognize his lyrical strengths regarding the themes of social justice and class struggle, violence set to a stunning backdrop of natural beauty and destruction, and a Gulf Coast region that includes historically accurate details to delight Texas and Louisiana natives. He creates strong and convincing characters on the sides of both right and wrong, and through them writes a compelling American history. Weldon investigates his father’s disappearance, Linda Gail’s unfaithfulness, and the evil forces that have targeted the well-being of his and Hershel’s families; but this is not a mystery. In fact, perhaps more than any of Burke’s previous work, Wayfaring Stranger is a tender love story, proving yet again his versatility and skill in creating gorgeous, luscious, painful stories of the American experience.


This review originally ran in the June 26, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pipe joints.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Marja Mills

Following yesterday’s review of The Mockingbird Next Door, here’s Marja Mills: Making Acquaintances.


Marja Mills is a former reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune, where she was part of the staff that won a Pulitzer Prize for a 2001 series about O’Hare airport entitled “Gateway to Gridlock.” The Mockingbird Next Door is her first book.

Mills was born and raised in Madison, Wis. She is a 1985 graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service; a lifelong interest in other cultures led to studies in Paraguay, Spain and Sweden. Mills lives in downtown Chicago and often spends time in Madison and her father’s hometown of Black River Falls, Wis. (pop. 3,500).

marja

Did you have preconceived notions of what Nelle Harper Lee would be like? In what ways did she surprise you?

I didn’t know what to expect. I thought she might be quiet and reserved. Not so. She was gregarious much of the time, and witty. She loved to laugh. When she was telling a story that especially amused her, she’d take her glasses off, tip her head back and just laugh until she could finish what she was saying.

Nelle and her sister Alice–an attorney she calls “Atticus in a Skirt”–loved to get in Nelle’s Buick and explore the back roads. I’d read that the home she shared with Alice when Nelle wasn’t in New York was more modest than one might expect for an attorney and an author of her remarkable and enduring popularity. That was true. They lived simply, didn’t care about material things and had an eclectic group of good friends, from a Methodist minister and a librarian to a hairdresser and a bank president and his wife. Most were retired but still very active.

What about the Southern culture you encountered, in general? Any surprises there?

Being from the Midwest, I was surprised how many words in common usage in Alabama were new to me. Things such as mashing buttons instead of pushing them. Or using a buggy at the Winn Dixie instead of a grocery cart. That was a source of entertainment for the Lees and their friends: watching me learn local expressions. My favorite is an old-fashioned one that Nelle taught me: “journey proud.” It’s the excitement and apprehension before a trip that makes it hard to sleep.

How would you describe Harper Lee as you later came to know her?

My first day living next door in Monroeville, she left a note inviting me to dinner. That touched me. Soon she was calling to have afternoon coffee together, often at McDonald’s.

And of course you can’t know Nelle without knowing her sister Alice. Their lives were entwined and yet quite different, as were their personalities. Miss Alice, as she is known, is 15 years older than Nelle and there was another sister and a brother between them. As I wrote in the book, “even at their ages, it was clear Alice was the steady, responsible older sister, and Nelle Harper the spirited, spontaneous younger one.”

Both gave generously to the Methodist church and various charities. Nelle had been donating large sums, quietly and behind the scenes, for many years. As their Methodist minister friend, Tom Butts, said, she educated many people who had no idea she was their benefactor.

In what ways, if any, do you identify with Harper and Alice Lee?

They got lost in books as children, pulled into another world where you’re not just reading words on the page but living in the story, walking around in it. I was that way, too. Nelle’s eyes would dance, 70 years later, when she talked about being absorbed in the adventures of the Rover Boys.

Aside from many hours spent talking with Nelle and Alice, what research was involved for this book?

Some of the most valuable and enjoyable research I did was around kitchen tables and on porches, interviewing Lee friends and family. There were people I needed to talk to “while they still had their marbles,” as Alice put it. Or “while they’re still above ground,” as Nelle said. These were leisurely interviews but overall there was a sense of urgency, too, that if their stories about the town and the Lees weren’t preserved they would go with them to the grave.

Books were part of the research, too, naturally. I have rows and rows of them at home. Many of the titles were recommended by the Lees, with Alabama history and Southern fiction being two major categories. I enjoyed memoirs by Horton Foote, the playwright who adapted To Kill a Mockingbird for the film, and Wayne Flynt, the Alabama historian.

What was different about the writing process for this book, compared to your past experience as a journalist?

I had the opportunity to really get to know the people and the place I was writing about, to let them reveal themselves over time. That’s a luxury most journalists don’t have. Nelle and Alice did things on their own terms and on their own time. The way this experience unfolded gradually was more compatible with that that. “You let the river run,” was the way Rev. Butts put it.

You allude to the Lees’ approving what went in the book and what didn’t. How much were you asked to hold back?

Not as much as I expected. Much of what they said that was off the record was to spare the feelings of a friend or relative. When I lived next door, we talked about some of the things they especially wanted in the book. They resented Truman Capote’s characterization of their mother, for example. Both sisters described her as a gentle soul. I went over with them stories I wanted to share as well. I was ready to do much more of that but their approach was “use your own judgment.”

Has Nelle or Alice read this book? Any comment from them?

Because of their age and health–neither is able to live at home anymore–I don’t know that they’ll be able to read it but I think they’d enjoy reliving some of the adventures we had together. Age and diminished vision do take their toll. I’ve wondered sometimes how many books each has read in her lifetime. A staggering number; both were avid readers since childhood. Even in her 90s, Alice often had four books going at once. She told me about the time she and Nelle decided they would donate some of their books to the Methodist church.

Nelle set her jaw and tried to keep up her determination to part with some of the books. But then she would have second thoughts and retrieve them from the boxes they were trying to fill. Alice was no better. For all their generosity over the decades, books were hard to give away, even for their church. The evidence of that was the rising tide of books in their house. They had all shapes and sizes of bookcases, crammed where they could find space, and it still wasn’t enough.

In your book you make it clear that the Lees supported this project, but there was some press in 2011 regarding a statement from them indicating the opposite. Can you help us understand these conflicting reports?

I asked Alice Lee about it. Nelle was not living at home; she had a serious stroke in 2007. Alice issued a statement. She said that the first statement had gone out without her knowledge and did not represent her feelings or those of her sister. As far as I know, that put the matter to rest.


This interview originally ran on June 25, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 25, 2014.


mockingbird

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird spent nearly two years on bestseller lists and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Since then, its impact has been lasting and widespread: Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem and Dill, and Boo Radley are well-known names today, and the novel is still taught (and targeted for removal) in many high schools nationwide. With its themes of racial injustice, gender roles, mental illness, addiction, and class differences–and its remarkable ability to bring humor and compassion to such somber subjects–To Kill a Mockingbird has become an American classic. Its equally famously author, Harper Lee (full name Nelle Harper Lee, Nelle to her friends), is notoriously private. She stopped giving interviews just a few years after the publication of her only novel. Lee’s relationship with Truman Capote has also attracted longstanding interest. The two grew up next-door neighbors, exercising their imaginations and storytelling talents on one another. Lee assisted Capote’s Kansas research project that became In Cold Blood; Capote is rumored to have contributed to Lee’s Mockingbird, but this rumor has always been hotly denied by Lee (and Capote himself never made such a claim).

Over 40 years after the publication of her masterpiece, Nelle Harper Lee continued to quietly reside in the small Alabama town that inspired it, splitting her time between Monroeville, where her elder sister, Alice, still practices law, and New York City. In 2001, a Chicago Tribune reporter named Marja Mills was assigned to seek out an interview. Knowing Lee’s standing policy, Mills nevertheless traveled to Alabama, filed her request and toured the town for a day or two. She dutifully knocked on the door of Alice and Nelle Harper Lee’s home–and was floored when the elder sister opened the door and invited her in.

The development of trust and friendship between Mills and the Lee sisters took time, but even in those first minutes, the relationship was nearly unprecedented. Alice, the more methodical and steady sister, was first to open up. She set up interviews for Mills with the Lees’ friends and acquaintances, calling ahead to let them know it was okay to talk to the journalist, and what was acceptable to share. Nelle was known to those friends as being more mercurial; but eventually she, too, came around to the younger woman, who was cautious and respectful in approaching the famously cagey writer. Remarkably, Mills does not seem to have begun with any special interest in To Kill a Mockingbird or its author; but as a journalist, she was naturally attracted by the story. In the spirit of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Mills then immersed herself in a community that was only just willing to allow her access, and built trust haltingly, but eventually with great success.

Alice was in her 90s, Nelle in her 70s, when the three women become friends. But what could have been a problematic age gap was minimized by Mills’s own chronic health condition, which both helps her identify with the older women, and gives her the dubious gift of leave from full-time work. Eventually, she expressed a tentative interest in moving to Monroeville; the Lees encouraged the idea, and she moved in next door to them. What was by then a close, rich friendship continued to develop: on a daily basis, Mills shared morning coffee with Nelle, drove the countryside, fed the local geese and ducks with the sisters (who kept close tabs on their numbers, and worried over missing goslings), and socialized with the Lees’ close-knit and protective group of friends. This included accompanying Nelle to the Southern society events that made the reticent author nervous.

Alice is the keeper of Lee family lore, with a famously accurate memory. Mills’s research is equally concerned with each of the two sisters, and involves their friends as well. The project that became The Mockingbird Next Door was conceived fairly early in the relationship, and in Mills’s telling, Alice and Nelle are willing supporters; they went over her notes together, marking what was to be included and what was to be redacted. (Readers are left wondering how much fell into the latter category.)

The Mockingbird Next Door offers no big reveals, no shocking secrets about the life of Nelle Harper Lee, except perhaps that she is not a hermit or an incorrigible curmudgeon. Rather, she is a kind, down-to-earth woman, a voracious reader, loyal to her sister and friends–who simply prefers that her life not be such a public performance as was that of her famous former next-door neighbor. Told charmingly in the Lees’ southern drawl and with the affection and closeness that the story reveals, The Mockingbird Next Door is quietly admiring and satisfyingly intimate, and will captivate not only fans of Lee’s great American novel, but fans of real people living modest lives in small-town Alabama, or anywhere.


Rating: 7 cups of coffee.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Mills!

The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Fans of classic noir will be entranced by this spare, hard-boiled novel of suspense translated from the French.

mad and bad

Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad was originally published in French (Ô Dingos, Ô Châteaux!) in 1972. Donald Nicholson-Smith’s 2013 translation is the first into English, and is introduced here by American crime writer James Sallis.

Michel Hartog is an architect, made fabulously wealthy by the sudden death of his brother and sister-in-law. Along with their riches, he has inherited the responsibility of caring for their spoiled and difficult son, Peter, age “six or seven.” Michel has a reputation for employing the damaged, crippled and ill, so it is in character that he would use his wealth to have a shockingly beautiful young woman released from an insane asylum to look after his nephew. Julie Ballanger is rightfully suspicious of her new patron; the eccentric Michel immediately supplies her with alcohol, which she had learned to avoid in her former home, and it mixes poorly with her tranquilizers and antidepressants.

A killer named Thompson and three semi-competent thugs have been hired to execute Julie and Peter, but an ulcer is eating Thompson from the inside out, and his is a race against time. After Julie and Peter are kidnapped from a public park by Thompson’s men, the madwoman and her young charge manage to escape and race for a labyrinthine estate in the mountains that Julie saw in a picture Michel carries. She hopes to find her employer and safety there, but in fact finds neither. The reader wonders if Thompson will get to Julie and Peter before his stomach gets to him; meanwhile, the remote mountain fortress holds an unexpected surprise.

Manchette’s plot is straightforward, and his characters’ motives are fairly simple, if profoundly disquieting: to kill, to survive, to inflict pain or to avoid it. The bulk of the story is devoted to character sketches and explorations of those simple, disturbing motivations. The dialogue is spare, almost dreamlike, and Manchette’s settings tend toward the cinematic. Special attention is paid to architectural features; bare white walls, opulent yet sterile, are the perfect backdrop for blood splatters. Shots are fired, large tables are turned, fires are set and cars are driven into crowds. The Mad and the Bad is odd and gruesome, but maintains a twisted sense of humor throughout.

Nicholson-Smith’s translation is unadorned, a perfect match for Manchette’s style, which is sparse and tersely written but with an artistic eye for detail. Julie and Peter flee, Thompson pursues them doubled over in agony, and the reader is well satisfied by the end of the suspense.


This review originally ran in the June 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 croissants.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow

A fondly affectionate portrait of a Tawny Owl, tempered by wry wit and British reserve.

owl

Military historian Martin Windrow (Our Friends Beneath the Sands) never considered himself an animal lover. But to aid his recuperation after a skydiving accident, Windrow allowed his brother to acquire for him an unusual pet. Wellington, a Little Owl (“this is a species, not a description”), was more than he had bargained for, and too much for his London flat; when Wellington escaped, Windrow found himself shamefacedly relieved. Convinced to try a different species, he made a second attempt with a Tawny Owl hatchling he named Mumble, and they became fast friends.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar is in large part a loving memoir of a dearly departed and singular companion. Windrow also shares his research into the biology, history, folklore and usual habits of the Tawny Owl and its strigine relations. He repeatedly stresses the amateur nature of these studies, but nonetheless imparts wisdom and praise for this corner of the animal kingdom, as well as for his friend of 15 years.

Mumble is an endearing juvenile, a feisty adolescent, and initially tolerant of visitors, but eventually too prickly to admit her master’s friends. Windrow moves out of London and into the country to allow her greater freedom, and watches her personality and customs change as she ages, molts and nests. It has taken nearly 20 years after Mumble’s demise for him to reopen the tender subject of her life, drawing on diary entries that recorded her vocalizations, eating habits, grooming and quirks. Fans of loving memoirs about pets, accessible science writing and dry humor will be charmed by Windrow’s love letter to Mumble.


This review originally ran in the June 13, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 HHS (hoot and head shots).

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

A detective novel by the horror master in which a mass murderer torments a retired cop who fights back.

mr. mercedes

Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes opens in a present-day depressed Midwestern metropolis, where retired detective Bill Hodges is haunted by the one who got away. It has been several years now, but he can still see the job fair, the long lines of unemployed people who’d waited overnight in the cold, the ghostly gray Mercedes accelerating through the crowd, the gristle and gore dripping from its fender as it drove off. Hodges is considering suicide when he receives a letter from someone claiming to be the Mercedes Killer.

Hodges is reinvigorated by a second chance at solving the cold case, with a few unlikely allies. The neighbor kid who mows Hodges’s lawn contributes computer skills and a surprisingly strong sounding board for new theories. The sister of the car’s original owner is both a delightful foil to the former cop’s depression and a potential love interest. Her niece brings the challenge of dealing with mental illness, but also a steely resolve, to this dubious crime-fighting team. While tracking Hodges’s efforts, Mr. Mercedes simultaneously follows the Mercedes Killer himself. He’s a loner who works two jobs, lives with his mother and attracts no attention, but harbors creepy inclinations worthy of Stephen King.

King’s fans will recognize his talents with suspense, finely drawn Americana and the horror of pure evil lurking in the everyday. His characters are as true-to-life and likeable as ever. As the improbable heroes and the Mercedes Killer rush toward a crashing finish, Mr. Mercedes is proof yet again that King can still terrify his readers without invoking the supernatural.


This review originally ran in the June 3, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 ice creams.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

An eccentrically fun family vacation, with far more style and spunk than your average beach read.

straub

The Vacationers by Emma Straub (Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures) is peopled by charming, funny, expertly portrayed characters who feel very real and yet slightly fantastical.

The Post family is headed from Manhattan to Mallorca for a two-week vacation, ostensibly to celebrate: Franny and Jim are approaching their 35th anniversary, and their daughter, Sylvia, has just graduated from high school. Joining them will be their son, Bobby, with his girlfriend, Carmen, and Franny’s BFF Charles and his husband, Lawrence. However, Jim has recently left his decades-long career at Gallant magazine amidst shame and scandal, and his transgressions at work have followed him home. Sylvia’s big goal of the summer is to lose her virginity before starting college in the fall. Charles and Lawrence’s is to adopt a baby–a plan they haven’t yet shared with the Posts. Bobby and Carmen are on uneven ground; they have a secret to break to his parents, and it doesn’t help that the Posts have never liked Carmen. More secrets and scandals, new and old, will come to light under the Spanish sun.

Straub’s greatest strengths are her endearingly quirky protagonists and a plot with more twists than a European mountain road, but her secondary characters are also cleverly wrought. The Posts’ absent hostess, Gemma, is Charles’s second-best friend; Franny tries not to let that annoy her. Sylvia’s local Spanish tutor, Joan (“pronounced Joe-ahhhn”), is a delectable temptation for both Sylvia and Franny, but it’s a retired tennis pro who really turns Franny’s head. Luckily, a motorcycle-riding pediatrician becomes Jim’s ally in trying to re-win his wife’s heart. Despite the considerable dysfunction of this family, this tale about them has a surprisingly happy ending.


This review originally ran in the May 30, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 olives.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Terry Hayes

Following Wednesday’s review of I Am Pilgrim, here’s Terry Hayes: On Breadth of Scope.


Terry Hayes was born in Brighton, England, migrated to Australia as a child, was based in New York as foreign correspondent at 21, and produced a current affairs radio program before moving to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter. He has written numerous screenplays and mini-series, and has received two international Emmy nominations. His credits have included Payback with Mel Gibson, From Hell with Johnny Depp and Vertical Limit with Chris O’Donnell. I Am Pilgrim is his first novel. He lives in Switzerland with his wife, Kristen, and their four children.

photo: Kristen Hayes

photo: Kristen Hayes

I Am Pilgrim travels through many complex spheres in numerous countries. How much research was required for this book? How did you go about it, and did you enjoy that part of the creative process?

The short answer is: an enormous amount of research. When I started I had no idea just how challenging it would be–which was probably just as well, otherwise I might not have even started. I did have a couple of advantages. With the exception of Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, I had either lived in, or visited for extended periods, all of the countries where the plot takes place. The race against time criss-crosses continents, and ranges from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Damascus in Syria, from Santorini in the Greek islands to a Bulgarian border post. My own wanderings lessened the research load and, I hope, allowed me to bring the novelist’s eye for detail to those locales. The second advantage I had was that I had once been a journalist and foreign correspondent, so I am accustomed to efficient and focused research and interviews. I approached the material as if I was a journalist on assignment–I admitted to myself I had a lot to learn. The one thing that I found the most difficult was the science. The plot involves a lot of biological detail, and I wanted that to be as accurate as possible. When I was at high school, several of my science teachers told me that I was very lucky I was good at English and history! Still, I have an enormous curiosity and am happy to read and interview widely, so I eventually managed to wrestle that part of the subject to the ground.

In a practical sense, it would not have been possible without the Internet. Such a vast array of information, so readily accessible, I believe is changing the nature of writing, especially of something like an international spy thriller. You can find out exactly how public beheadings are conducted in Saudi Arabia, how much a gene sequencing machine costs on eBay, or many of the latest tradecraft habits of covert intelligence agents operating in hostile territory. It gives an enormous grounding to the rest of the research. I did enjoy it, most of the time. I am lucky to have an overwhelming curiosity and a pretty good memory, so the research, whether it was about the Islamic faith or the design of a Roman coliseum called the “Theatre of Death,” was really a great experience. Of course, I worried that I had made a mistake–which I am sure I probably have–but I reminded myself that the book was not a documentary. It was, beyond everything else, a work of fiction.

You have created an extraordinarily intricate plot, with lots of characters and lots of detail. Can you tell us a little about the note-taking, outlining or whatever method you used to keep everything straight?

This is the type of book I have always loved–big, epic stories that you can really lose yourself in. The ones that affect you in a very emotional way and also, hopefully, teach you something on the journey. That was the sort of novel I tried to write. Part of that ambition was to interweave a major plot with a number of subplots and somehow try to make it all “of one piece.” Basically, how I did it was to keep telling myself the story. Or, better still, telling it to my wife on long car rides! I think, by the end, she was glad to hear the last of Pilgrim. Of course, you have to have some major stepping stones, or turning points, along the way. The biggest of these was the ending. Whether it is a screenplay, a piece of journalism, or the novel–I have always had to know how it was going to finish. So, once I had an idea of the character and an ending, I could start to embellish it. “Okay,” I would ask myself. “Where do we meet him?” “Why is he there?” “What does he want, what is his objective?” On and on and on. Slowly, the blanks would start to get filled in, and in order to do that, you have to have Pilgrim–or whatever his real name is–interact with other people. It’s funny, but you don’t forget a good run of events in the story, or ideas of how to do it. Bad ideas don’t last a single sleep. Time after time, I would start at the beginning again and tell myself (or my long-suffering wife) the story. When the detail became too much, I started to make notes and, naturally, I had to do that while I was researching the more difficult sections of the story–the things like the biology of viruses or the exact methods used in waterboarding. As the story grew, I started to use what people in movies call “beat-sheets”–one-line notes detailing each “beat” of the story, each significant development of the plot or important moment for a character. Toward the end, the problem became finding the exact research note I knew I had made months earlier. “I know I wrote that down somewhere….”

In the past, you have written in a number of formats, including screenplays, television and journalism. How was writing this novel familiar, and in what ways was it new and challenging?

Well, it is all story-telling. Whether it is a feature article for a newspaper or a screenplay for an action movie, you are always trying to take the reader–or viewer–through a sequence of steps, or events, which are believable and arresting. There is always that struggle to find the right word, the memorable phrase, the clearest way of expressing something. So those things were extremely familiar. The major difference is that in writing movies or long-form TV, the script is part of a manufacturing process–it is a step along the way to creating the finished episode or movie. In a novel, it is the finished article. So the pressure on crafting the words and paragraphs is that much greater. Sometimes a little paralysing! The other major difference is that in movies or TV you can’t tell the audience what a character is thinking–you have to rely on the actor to try and convey that. Of course, in a novel those internal thought processes are easily conveyed, so it is much easier to explain why a character follows a certain course of action. After years of writing for the screen, I found that completely liberating. I loved having the ability to say in the novel “He thought such and such… so he did this and this.” Because you can’t do those internal thoughts in a screenplay, I always think writing a movie is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back: it’s a real skill, but it sure makes things hard.

Pilgrim, like many of fiction’s most compelling heroes, struggles with his own past and demons. If anything he becomes more human, and less perfect, as the novel develops. Did he develop this way for you, too?

Yes, he sure did. I think it’s a little like life itself–the more you get to know somebody, the more you learn about their flaws and the wounds they carry. It doesn’t mean you like them any less; to the contrary, you often end up admiring them even more. So it was with Pilgrim. Most of us, I think, are damaged in some way, but Pilgrim–as you point out, like so many heroes in fiction–is more damaged than most. On one level, the novel is about him confronting and dealing with those issues and demons from his past–a different sort of pilgrimage, I guess. Despite his failings, despite his flaws, he never gives in. He knows that he has to endure an enormous amount of anguish and pain, but he finds the courage and resolve to see his mission through to the end. The fact that he is prepared, if necessary, to sacrifice himself in the pursuit of something far more important than himself makes him a true hero, in my mind. There seems to be a prevalent view, especially in movies, that heroes should have some sort of super-powers. I don’t agree. I think it is the very human things, faults and failings included, that make a true hero. Especially if he or she can overcome them and show us what great courage and commitment really mean.

And then there’s your antihero, the Saracen, who is Pilgrim’s genius-counterpart but approaching total evil. Do you think of them as two sides of the same coin?

They have so many things in common–especially an anguished childhood–that I certainly see them like that. If this were Star Wars, I would say one turned to the dark side, the other to the light. Although born on completely opposite sides of the earth, they both experienced the death of a parent in horrific circumstances, they are both extremely intelligent, have undertaken medical degrees, and are loners, complete outsiders in the world. They both go on a great journey, a pilgrimage, where the fate of people and nations hangs in the balance. At one stage Pilgrim describes his adversary as a “ghost”–spectral, hidden and barely glimpsed–but Pilgrim could just as easily be describing himself. These two men, who have spent all their lives living in the shadows–one hell-bent on cataclysmic revenge, the other a covert intelligence agent–move ever closer to each other. When they finally step out of the shadows and meet in a place called the Theatre of Death, their battle relies more on intelligence than it does on weapons. It is an epic struggle between two men trying to outsmart each other. In order to do that, they have to know an enormous amount about each other. I have always thought that, because of his own background and experiences, Pilgrim understands his adversary better than any man on earth.

What do you have in mind next? Avoiding spoilers, of course: is there room for a sequel here?

Well, in my fevered mind, Pilgrim was always the first part of a trilogy. On the last page of the last novel we discover what his real name is, and I don’t think it is giving away too much to say that he walks up the front steps of a house and we know that he has found safe harbor at last. As you can probably tell, I have the next two books outlined–which I had to do in order to set up a lot of things in the first novel that I would pay off in the later volumes. However, as I was not certain if I Am Pilgrim would meet with any success, I did not want to launch into writing the second volume if nobody had read the first! Therefore I am in the midst of writing a book tentatively called The Year of the Locust, which is another thriller, partly set in the intelligence world. It also involves “just over the horizon” science and pits a man and his wife against seemingly impossible odds. I like the story very much and, as much as is possible while wrestling with words every day, I am really enjoying it. I hope, when it is finished, other people will feel the same!


This interview originally ran on May 27, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

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