April 3rd MWA Panel, Part 1: Where Do You Get Your (Criminal) Ideas?

Flickr photo by Oliver Quinlan

The NYPL elevators still freak me out, but I’ll keep attending these (although I may write a will before the next one)! As usual, this was ninety minutes of interviews with great mystery novelists, and it was packed with advice. In this first part of the write-up: keystone books and formative moments for each of the three writers, each writer’s path to his/her first book, and why America dumped vampires for zombies. (I’ll post the rest later this week…provided I’m not eaten by zombies first.)

Tuesday night’s Mystery Writers of America panel, “Where Do You Get Your (Criminal) Ideas?,” featured Richie Narvaez (Moderator), Alison Gaylin, Chris Grabenstein, and Jonathan Maberry. (Marco Conelli was scheduled to be on the panel but could not attend.)

Richie: Alison, you’ve mentioned you read Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders as a kid. What was it about this book that gave you an idea and got you going?

Alison: I was in fifth grade, and I thought it was a book about the Beatles. But before long, I was hooked. There was something about crime fiction and true crime that fascinated me—something about lifting up that rock and looking under it, seeing the dark side of human nature. I was reading a lot of Judy Blume at the same time. But my friends were reading fantasy and science fiction, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and were escaping into better worlds. I liked escaping into this one, and finding that maybe it wasn’t so good as it looked.

Chris: I read Helter Skelter, too, along with The Exorcist, and a lot of Mad magazine.

Jonathan: I read comic books in order to learn how to read. (The Philadelphia school system wasn’t doing a great job of teaching me to read). There was a copy of Ed McBain’s Cop Hater (87th Precinct), slipped in with a stack of comic books.

Ed McBain for dialogue and character development, John D. MacDonald for the intellectual side of things, [MacDonald’s character] Travis McGee and Quick Red Fox (Travis McGee, No. 4)—these all did a lot to inform the way I think.

Richie: Jonathan, your grandmother’s stories played a big role in your development, right?

Jonathan: She was a wonderfully creepy old lady. She was old when she had my mother—she was 81 in 1958. She believed in the larger world. She knew all the folklore of Europe; she was from Alsace-Lorraine and had roots in Scotland. When I was ten, she taught me to read tarot cards and tea leaves. So folklore, myth, legends [are key parts of my background]. When I discovered horror, it was by looking for folklore roots.

In 2000, I found notes I’d made [when I was] eleven, and started researching. I pitched Vampire Universe but had to write it under a pen name because all my previous work was on martial arts. That book ended up outselling my martial arts works (collectively) by thirty to one.

I first began to be interested in zombies when I snuck into Midway Theater at ten to see Night of the Living Dead. I went with a friend, who had nightmares after it; I stayed to see it twice.

Richie: Chris, can you tell us about the progress from when you were a kid to your first book?

Chris: I was always good at writing, but I fancied myself as an eighth-grade Art Buchwald. My English teacher was also the head of the football club and the drama club, and when he saw me out on the field, looking miserable, he shouted, “Grabenstein! Get inside! There’s theater practice!”

I moved to New York in 1979. I had my Actors’ Equity card and did improv stuff. I took an aptitude test that J. Walter Thompson [Advertising] ran an ad for that asked, “How would you sell a phone to a Trappist monk who’s taken a vow of silence?” There were 2,000 entries, and people slaved for months over them, but I sent mine in, and got a job. My boss was James Patterson.

Eventually, I got tired of writing about Crystal Lite, Rolaids, and Tucks, and I read Stephen King’s book, On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft, which was the real turning point for me. He talked about how you write 1,000 words a day, every day, and in a month you have 30,000 words, and in five months, you have 50,000, and, if you do that long enough, you wind up with a novel.

When you submit a manuscript, it has to cross someone’s desk, and they have to say, “That’s what we’re looking for this week!” I was lucky that way.

Richie: Alison, what about the trip to your first book?

Alison: It took ten years. I always wanted to write, but was really insecure as a student. I’d had a teacher in high school who said, “I only give As to the students who will become professional writers one day”—so as a result of that teacher, I studied acting instead, and I worked at Theatercrafts Magazine. But it was always my big dream to write fiction.

I always end up killing someone in everything I write.

I got an agent, and rewrote the book; that didn’t sell, and I went and read about 50 to 100 mysteries to see how they worked. Got another agent and sold that novel—Hide Your Eyes (Samantha Leiffer) came out in 2005.

Richie: Let’s talk about zombies, Chris and Jonathan, since they figure in your work. Why are they so popular? Why are we obsessed with zombies?

Jonathan: From a storyteller’s point of view… Vampires have changed a lot. They were romantic; then they became tragic characters. Vampire stories stopped being about people. So there’s not a lot of new territory in vampire fiction. Zombies are different—zombies don’t have a personality, so there’s no need to spend a lot of time developing them as characters.

Zombies represent an immediate, shared, pervasive threat. As a result, people under pressure just crumble away—we get to explore that dynamic. And that’s the definition of drama: characters under crisis.

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has been read as a metaphor for racism. Duane Jones got the part because he was the only good actor who auditioned. (And Romero had been inspired by I Am Legend.) The [zombie] vehicle allows us to tell all sorts of stories—the Cold War, pandemics, a depersonalized society. All of these are metaphors for different things. But zombies are less important than all the other characters in the book.

Richie: Chris, your work deals a lot with monsters and zombies, too.

Chris: My zombie story, “The Smoking Corridor,” started from—and all my ideas start from—”What if?” “What if school lockers were coffins? They sort of look like them!” I started researching the zombie stories of Haiti (my brother does a lot of medical work there) , and, in that tradition, the worst thing is to be a zombie for all eternity—enslaved forever.

Why we write ghost stories, horror stories—it shows what people are made of. We’re always looking for ways to test our characters.

Richie: Alison, where do your ideas come from?

Alison: It depends on the book. It always starts with these “What if?”s. In 2007, I read an article in The New Yorker [sadly, Wired was as close as I could get] about someone who had perfect autobiographical memory, and it struck me, what a tragedy this would be—the inability to forget. Forgetting is one of the greatest survival mechanisms we have. How can you move on, forgive and forget, when you can’t forget?

My character is a private detective; it’s a character-based thing. The plot originated from when I was a little girl at a block party. I left with another little girl, and we both got lost. We were standing outside a home, and some woman came out and scooped up the little girl, and went back inside. And the cops eventually came, and took me home (and I thought I was getting arrested), but it’s always stayed with me—What must have been going through that woman’s mind? What if that other little girl just disappeared?

[Ideas] come from all sorts of different areas, but it mainly starts with “What if?”

In Part 2, tomorrow: that favorite tool of writers, eavesdropping; logic and world-building; and how to structure a mystery novel.

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