Assessing “Blame” with Jeff Abbott

Jeff Abbott has written 19 novels; contributed short stories to a dozen anthologies; and he’s currently adapting one of his works into a screenplay for a proposed network pilot.  In his latest work, Blame, Abbott’s protagonist has retrograde amnesia following a traumatic event, a backstory that allows for a variation on the current trend of unreliable narrators.  Blame was released on July 18, and this interview appeared in the Houston Chronicle on July 20.

Q: Tell us about your new standalone novel, Blame.Jeff Abbott, Blame, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Center

A: The novel is about Jane Norton, who two years previously—as a senior in high school—was in a car crash.  The boy next door, David, was a passenger in her car, and he was killed.  A suicide note was found at the crash site, and people believe she tried to commit suicide without any regard for her now-deceased passenger. The accident left Jane with retrograde amnesia, and she cannot remember the three previous years of her life. She becomes an outcast in the Austin suburb in which she lives, because people blame her.  And out of nowhere comes a Facebook message: “I know what really happened, and I am going to tell.”  And Jane is determined to find out: Who is this person?  How does this threat relate to David’s death?  So the book is about her trying to solve the central mystery of her life—without having the memories that would normally aid in such a quest.

Q: In a sense, Jane is on the run, like many characters in your novels.  But the parents of David—the boy killed in the crash, are on a metaphorical run from each other.  It’s the fallout that comes from a child’s death.

A: Yes, people say that closure comes, but I am not sure that parents get closure from losing a child. The families, like Jane, need to know what happened, but they have no access to the information they so badly want.

Q: This lack of knowledge, as in most cases, creates rumor and speculation.

A: Yes, we hear a lot about unreliable narrators these days.  We’ve seen it with Paula Hawkins’ Girl on a Train, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Tana French in her novels.  In this novel, the unreliable narrators are those surrounding Jane, the ones she is reliant on to fill in gaps in her amnesia.  So, instead of having a novel with an unreliable narrator at the center, this novel has Jane, who is surrounded by people who are providing information to fit their own emotional needs, biases—conscious or unconscious—or their own agendas.

Q: How much time do you spend researching the topics—such as retrograde amnesia—that you incorporate into your novels?

A: I do enough research to get me started.  Then I’ll make notes to myself as I’m writing the novel.  Those notes will say, “Find out about such and such,” or “Find out about how this works.”  If I just start doing in-depth research, I’ll get too involved and not make progress on the novel.  So I do preliminary research and then delve deeper when I know what I don’t know.  For this book, I had a lawyer friend in Austin who asked his clients for permission for me to look at casefiles.  These were car-crash cases, and they allowed me to see what happened in the crash and the subsequent investigation.  It was helpful for my work on the book.

Q: Blame is set in Lakehaven.  Is that Westlake Hills, the suburb of Austin?

A: Yeah, it’s a well-to-do Austin suburb with a good school system, although I believe that the real Westlake would have been kinder to Jane than Lakehaven was.  But I wanted to use a real locale, and Lakehaven is a darker version of a place that’s actually a nice place to live.  My next novel is also set in Lakehaven.Jeff Abbott, Blame, SHSU, LEAP Center

Q: You’ve written novels in a series (Jordan Poteet Novels, Whit Mosley novels, and Sam Capra novels) and you’ve written standalones, including Blame, but you also write short stories.  What is the appeal of short stories?

A: Short stories can be a break of sorts, but the decision to write them is often a product of chance. Charlaine Harris, a friend of mine, asked me to contribute to an anthology of ghost stories.  That anthology ended up being a best seller pretty much on the strength of her name.  Another friend asked me to write a southern gothic short story.  So I did that.  I did one on vampires, and another on robots.

Q: The robot short story was with Daniel Wilson, of Robopocalypse fame.

A: Yes. We ran into each other at a seminar, and he called me later and said, “I have a whole lot of science fiction authors for a robot apocalypse, and I need a suspense writer.”  I said, “I don’t know anything about robots.  I’m scared of my Roomba.”  But I enjoyed writing it, and the short story I contributed, “Human Intelligence,” ended up being optioned for television by the same company that did Elementary and Justified. Sometimes I say yes to writing these things because I am afraid to take it on, but it’s good for me to try to extend myself, and I have had good luck with opportunities such as those.

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics

 

 

 

 

 

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Michael Connelly Talks Bosch, Haller, and…Ballard

Michael Connelly, The Late Show, Mike YawnMichael Connelly has given us 30 novels in 25 years, and he’s best known for two larger-than-life characters: Harry Bosch, the Los Angeles Police Department detective who inspired the Amazon Prime series “Bosch,” and Mickey Haller, the defense attorney in “The Lincoln Lawyer.”

With these men, Connelly has built two best-selling franchises; they even cross paths occasionally, appearing in the same book.

But Connelly’s latest novel, “The Late Show,” introduces a new protagonist. It’s another Los Angeles detective – and this time it’s a woman. Det. Renée Ballard proves herself a worthy heir to the mantle of Bosch and Haller as a lead character in crime fiction.

It’s a development worth talking about, and Connelly may do just that when the celebrated author visits Houston Thursday to discuss and sign “The Late Show” at Murder By the Book.

Connelly talked to Mike Yawn about some things that might answer a few of your questions about his new book, his new character and his thoughts on the “Bosch” TV series.  The interview was published in the Houston Chronicle on July 20, 2017.

Q: What does the title, “The Late Show,” mean?

A: It’s the midnight shift in the Hollywood Division.  It gets its nickname from the fact that the crazies come out at night in Hollywood.  For my lead character, Renee Ballard, it’s a bit of a come down.  She was a detective on the robbery/homicide division, but as a result of conflict with the wrong people in the department, she has been relegated to the late show. It’s a shift that throws everything at detectives, from simple burglary to murder, and in this novel, she is focused on an assault and a night-club shooting.  She has the qualities to be a great detective, and through her work on these cases, she proves it.

Q: Tell us more about Renee Ballard.

A: My plan is to write about her a lot over the course of the next several years, so I didn’t fill in all the blanks in this novel.  I like to leave more questions than answers about where they come from, what makes them tick, their history, and that’s the case with Renee.  She has her fair share of history, with an unusual family background, and this background is what makes her adult life somewhat solitary, which is perfect for the late show, because you largely work alone.

Q: She seems to have similarities to Harry Bosch.  Can you compare the two?

A: I wouldn’t call her the female Harry Bosch. I think there are more differences, but there are similarities.  As a journalist, I spent a lot of time with detectives, and the ones I gravitated to were the ones who didn’t really view the job as a job—but rather as a calling.  Bosch is more concerned with the mission, and I think Renee is cut along those same lines.  Bosch is relentless.  Renee is fierce.

Q: What’s the difference between fierce and relentless?

A:  Well, I’m not sure there is a big difference, maybe it’s a way of saying they are very similar.  I have always loved writing about the LAPD.  It’s a bureaucracy, a troubled police department with a big mandate, and I loved Harry Bosch in that setting.  But he’s aged out now. I wanted to get back in that world, and that’s why I created Renee.Michael Connelly, The Late Show, Mike Yawn

Q: In the acknowledgements, you note that Ballard is based on Mitzi Roberts.  Tell us about her.

A: Mitzi Roberts has helped me on my books for about 10 years.  She began on the late show and moved to robbery/homicide, so her career track is the reverse of Renee’s.  But I mined her experiences and knowledge to create Renee.

Q: Was there a particular motivation for creating a female lead?

A: As I said, Mitzi has been helping me for a decade, so why not make the character the same gender as the person the character is based on?  Also, last year, I turned 60, and this is my 30th book, so why not do something different?

Q: Was it a challenge to write extensively from a female point of view?

A:  I don’t think so.  There have been strong women in my books.  Yes, it’s only my second female lead, but all I’m doing is writing about someone who is good at her job.  It’s just a matter of concentrating on her field, what makes her good, and to go from there.

Q: Will we see Bosch and Ballard in a future book?

A: I create characters, and I gradually infiltrate them into the larger mosaic of what I do.  I am writing a Bosch book now in which I have planted a seed that could lead to them working together.

Q: What is Mickey Haller doing these days?

A: He plays a significant role in “Two Kinds of Truth,” which will be out later this year.  He’s primarily assisting Bosch on a legal issue, so this will be marketed as a Bosch book, but he plays a role, and he’s definitely a character who has already infiltrated Bosch’s world.

Q: Speaking of Bosch, can you update us on the Amazon series, “Bosch”?

A: The third season is out, and next week we begin filming the fourth.  I’m very much involved and very happy with the what we’ve accomplished.  Titus Welliver, who plays Bosch, is excellent, and I think the series is a good representation of the books.  It’s a different type of story-telling, but I get creative fulfillment from working on both.

Q: Janet Maslin, the book reviewer for the “New York Times,” says that Ballard makes Bosh look like a slouch.  How do you react to that?

A: (chuckles) I see it as an endorsement of Renee, because Bosch isn’t a slouch!  But whatever he is, if she is saying that Renee can take things a step further, I’ll take that as a compliment to the new character.

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

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Riley Sager Writes “Final Girls”

Riley Sager’s Final Girls plays with horror-film conventions, even as it plays honestly by the conventions of the mystery novel.  Although Sager has published previously under a different name, this first “Riley Sager novel” is generating much buzz, led by Stephen King, who described the work as “the first great thriller of 2017.” The result is an entertaining work that should please both film fans (of all genres) and mystery-novel aficionados.

A shorter version of this article was published in the Houston Chronicle on July 9, 2017.

Mike Yawn: Tell us about Final Girls.

Riley Sager: The term “final girls” is film-speak for the last woman standing at the end of the movie.  And the book is about three women—Lisa, Samantha, and Quincy—who survive horror-film style massacres, and the press dubs these three “the Final Girls.”  When one of them, Lisa, is found dead, Samantha shows up on Quincy’s doorstep, and this forces Quincy to confront the past.

Q: Tell us about what inspired the novel.

A: I love horror films, which so often end up with the last girl standing.  All her friends are dead, and she alone lives to tell the tale. Famous examples of this are Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween and Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) in Scream. A few years ago, I was watching Halloween, on Halloween.  I began thinking of the “final girl” and what it must be like for them years later.  How does this event affect your life?  That is what I wanted to explore.Laurie Strode, Jamie Lee Curtis, Riley Sager, Final Girls, Mike Yawn

Q: You mention Scream, which explicitly references horror-genre conventions at the same time that it plays by those conventions.  Your book does that a bit.

A: Definitely.  The final girl is a stereotype in movies, and there are many other “rules” that have developed over the years.  The final girl should be the “good girl,” smart, a virgin, and not a drinker.  Scream plays with those conventions, and I do as well.  What I really wanted to do, though, is to take the concept of the “final girl” and put it in a real-world setting.  If this type of horror-movie massacre happened in real life, how would the public react?  How would the press react? How would the survivors react?  How would their friends and family react?  I wanted to play with the conventions, but I wanted this to be realistic as well.

Q: As you mention, some of the plot elements are inspired by movies.  The setting is a Manhattan apartment.  Was that inspired by a famous horror film?

A: Yes!  It’s set in a beautiful apartment near Central Park on the upper-west side of Manhattan.  It’s a wealthy, homogenized world, which I think contrasts richly with horror, exactly like Rosemary’s Baby.

Q: In fact, the entire book is filled with film allusions of all genres.  It’s not just for horror film-fans.

A: I’m a big fan of movies, new and old.  Quincy and her husband, Jeff, are characters who love films, and they watch film noir, which made me think of Robert Mitchum and Dana Andrews.  I also refer to Leave Her to Heaven, The Lady from Shanghai, Rear Window, Vertigo, and Mary Poppins.  I wanted to include as many references as possible, but also be sure that they complemented the narrative.

Q: In the book, you switch from the first person in the present day, to third person when you incorporate flashbacks.  Why was it important to approach it in that manner?

A: I wanted to differentiate between Quincy’s version of events and the real-life version of events.  Quincy isn’t entirely trustworthy, and her memory is spotty.  Quincy’s present-day narration brings a sense of urgency, but the third-person flashbacks to Pine Cottage provide a documentary feel.

Q: Although the novel was inspired by horror films, it’s actually a mystery novel, which has its own conventions.  How did you play by the rules of the mystery while still providing an end-of-the-novel

Riley Sager, Final Girls, Mike Yawn

twist?

A: A lot of domestic suspense books, live or die on “the twist.”  I knew I needed to deliver a doozy.  And I hope I delivered more than one, because that was my intention.  And I did that while trying to make the characters as real and relatable as possible.

Q: Your book has blurbs by famous writers.  How do those come about?

A: People think that that is all arranged by the publishers, or it’s some sort of system of traded favors.  In my experience, that’s not the way it happens.  In this case, Stephen King received a copy, read it, and liked it enough to tell the world about it.  I didn’t even know he knew about the book.  It’s particularly nice for me, because I’ve been reading his work since I was 13, so to know my book gave him some pleasure is really amazing.  I’m gratified by the reception, but I’m still the same writer, living in the same place, wearing grubby jeans, and living the same life.

Q: Did you have anything to do with the cover?

A: Nothing, but it’s great!  They gave it to me for approval and asked, “What do you think?”  I said, “Ummmmm, I think it’s awesome.”  There are lot of bad covers out there, and I was lucky to get a good one!

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

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Q&A: Meg Gardiner’s new thriller was inspired by the Zodiac Killer

The Zodiac Killer, who terrified the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s, has inspired numerous television shows, movies, and even songs.  He is also the inspiration for Meg Gardiner’s latest novel, Unsub, which incorporates thriller conventions, true-crime elements, and literary allusions to produce a suspenseful page-turner.  This article was published in the Houston Chronicle on June 25, 2017.

MY: Tell us about your new book, Unsub.Meg Gardiner, Unsub, Mike Yawn, Zodiac Killer

MG: It’s a psychological thriller about a young cop, Caitlin Hendrix, who hunts an infamous serial killer, known as “the Prophet.”  The Prophet was active in the 1990s, apparently inspired by the Zodiac Killer, and has returned recently.  Hendrix gets drawn into this, and it’s difficult for her because her father was the lead detective on the original case.  He couldn’t solve it, and it destroyed him emotionally and tore his family apart.  He discourages Caitlin from getting drawn into it, but she cannot resist.  It’s a riveting psychological thriller, and I want people to come away feeling chilled and exhilarated and learn something about the way these cases drill their way into the minds and hearts of, not just the cops and victims, but the entire public.  I’m from California.  I grew up there, and I remember this terrifying case that never quite went away.

Q: As you mention, the book is in some ways inspired by the Zodiac, who captured the public’s attention for the past five decades.  Why do you think he has proved so durably fascinating?

A: The Zodiac is the ultimate “unsub,” or unknown subject,” which is where the title of the book comes from.  He contacted newspapers, the police, radio shows; he put himself out there as an almost terrifying celebrity.  I first learned about him as a child by seeing a rendering in the newspaper of a man with a gun wearing what looked like a black executioner’s hood with the zodiac symbol drawn on the front.  For me and others, it became a mystery that turned into a myth.

Q: I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, but is it fair to say that the book was also inspired by other works of literature?

A: The story dives into the religious and literary, the way that poetry, puzzles, and psychology all resonate, even across centuries and millennia.  I don’t want to give away too much, but the killer’s driven to carry out a distorted view of justice.  Why does the great literature or poetry alluded to in the book continue to resonate?  Because great literature always does.  It understands the human heart, our deepest fears, longings, hatreds, and loves.

Q: Were you tempted to call the book “The Prophet”?

A: Ahh, coming up with a title.  You haven’t seen the walls of my office!  I wanted the book to remain mysterious and not sound overtly religious.  This book is about the unsub and also the cop who is hunting the unsub.

Q: You mention religion, and religious themes—or, if you prefer, themes of good and evil—occur throughout the novel.  Do you incorporate symbols to reinforce the novel’s themes as you go along, or do you add them later?

MG: One of my former writing teachers, Ron Hansen, says, “writing a novel is a ramshackle process.”  You can’t do it all at once.  But an outline can guide the author, and once you start down a road, new ideas come to help you enrich it.  When you are writing a psychological thriller, you want the noMeg Gardiner, Unsub, Zodiac Killer, Books, Mike Yawnvel to work on many levels, and I think imagery and symbols can add to the overall effect.

Q: The symbol for Mercury appears on the cover of the novel. Tell us about Mercury.

A: It’s thousands of years old, and I think it looks pretty scary.  But it is rich with mythological and astrological meanings.  Caitlyn tries to learn the meaning of this symbol.  Does it signify the devil?  Does it suggest the Prophet is the messenger of the gods? Or is it something else entirely?

Q: After writing a novel every year or so, it’s been three years since your last novel.  What explains the gap?

A: I lived in England for many years, and my husband’s job was transferred to the United States.  We moved to Austin, which was a big change in my life, and I was also ready to make a change in what I was writing.  So I took the time to develop this new series about a cop hunting a killer of the sort who had haunted my dreams since I was a child.

Q: You say “series.” Is there more to come from Caitlin Hendrix?

A: Yes, I am working on the sequel to Unsub. I love series, and I love standalones.  You bring something different to each, but writing about a cop who is hunting these killers lends itself to a series.

Meg Gardiner, Humphrey Bogart, Murder by the Book, Unsub, Zodiac Killer, SHSU, Mike Yawn

Q: Unsub is set in California, where you grew up.  You now live in Austin.  Any plans for a Texas setting in one of your novels?

A: You bet.  In fact, I am working on the Unsub sequel now, and I just edited a scene where the protagonist can look out the window and see the UT Tower.

Q: With the enduring mystery surrounding the Zodiac and a series of novels in the works, it sounds like it could make for a good television drama.

A: Yes, Unsub was bought by CBS TV for development as a television series.  I’m a novelist, but it’s a cherry on a sundae if the novel finds its way onto television.  Either way, I’m very excited about this novel and the prospects for more to come.

 

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

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“More of Me” has Sci-Fi Twist and a Spoonful of Horror

Before writing her first novel, Kathryn Evans co-managed a strawberry farm with her husband, fenced competitively, and dabbled in poetry.  She still does those things, but she is also an award-winning author, now that her first book, “More of Me,” has won two major awards and put up impressive sales numbers in England.  The book is set for release June 13 in the United States, where its themes of identity, change, and anxiety is likely to appeal to a cross-section of readers, particularly young adults.

This interview was published in the Houston Chronicle on June 11, 2017.

Q: This is your first book, and it has been a hit in England and other countries.  Describe it for the readers in the United States.More of Me, Kathryn Evans

A: It’s a contemporary novel with a sci-fi twist, and a spoonful of horror.  It’s about a young girl, Teva, who doesn’t grow up like normal people.  She replicates once a year and previous versions of herself still exist, but they are at home, hidden from the public.  The world only sees the current version of Teva, and she knows that if she doesn’t stop the replication process, she will be supplanted by the new Teva, and that means being shut away at home, losing her friends, and her boyfriend.  At its heart, the book is about identity, about growing up.

Q: How did you come up with this idea?

A: My daughter went to University, and I was missing her.  I began looking at photographs of her when she was little, when she was three, six, and 12, and I was thinking how I mourned a little for these previous versions of her.  And I thought of myself growing up.  I had an unhappy childhood, and I thought of previous versions of myself.  I knew they were me, but I also felt sorry for them in a kind of disjointed way.  From there, it was a tiny step to ask, “What if?”  What if those previous versions of me or my daughter actually existed?

Q: When did you realize that this is the perfect prism through which to look at the teenage years, a way to capture the angst about identity and change?

A: It was deliberate.  Teenagers have difficulties growing up; my daughter certainly did.  Indeed, she had mental health issues and many of her friends have gone through challenging aspects of adolescence. Growing up, I read Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” and the idea of using a big image to deal with a difficult topic was something I wanted to do.  I have had many people contact me—including transgendered people –and say, “It was like I was reading about myself.”  It’s incredibly touching.

Q: Is it a coincidence that your book is about identity, at a time when that is a hot-button issue in today’s world?

A: I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I have my head up, I read a lot, I am on social media, and I talk to a lot of people. If we’re not addressing modern issues when we write, we’re kind of failing, especially when writing for young adults.

Q: How did you capture the language and behavior of teenagers?

A: I have a daughter and a son.  My daughter is 22 now, and my son is 16, so I have always had a house full of teenagers. I also have a background in the theater, so there were many acting techniques I could draw on.  It’s about observing and being connected to the people you are writing about, and I think it worked.

Q: Teenagers can be dramatic.  How do you capture that without being insensitive?

A: I read it with my own “alarm bells.” I’m aware of my readership, and I think about how people will feel when they read it, and I have a brilliant editor!  Also, playing characters is something that comes naturally to me. I go for walks with my dog, and we role play.  He’s not great at it, but he’s a great listener.

Q: “More of Me” was your first novel, and you had time to develop the idea and the book.  You are now in the process of writing a second book.  Is it more difficult to develop ideas, now that the deadline pressures have intensified?More of Me, Kathryn Evans

A: That’s a good question, and I think there is something to it.  “More of Me” has done very well in the UK, and it has been nominated for quite a few awards.  And my agent was keen on me getting my next book done quickly.  I rushed it.  Fortunately, my agent sat down with me, provided some directions, and I then had time to reflect.  I thought I was writing a book about family, but I was actually writing about grief, and I needed space and time to reach that conclusion.  Now I think this new book will be what I wanted it to be.

Q: Do you feel pressure to match the success of “More of Me”?

A: I said that to my editor, and she said: “Oh, no.  It doesn’t have to be as good as ‘More of Me.’  This one has to be better.”

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics.

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Anthony Horowitz Talks Books

Anthony Horowitz is prolific and versatile.  He writes screen and teleplays (Foyle’s War is one of more than a dozen television series for which he has written), young-adult fiction, adult fiction, and he contracted with the Arthur Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming estates to continue the Sherlock Holmes and James Bond series.  His latest book, “Magpie Murders: A Novel,” is a clever whodunit evoking classic murder mysteries.  “Magpie Murder” is released in the United States on June 6.  This interview was published in the Houston Chronicle on 6-4-2017.Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders: A Novel, Mike Yawn, Books, Mysteries

Mike Yawn: Tell us about your new book.

Anthony Horowitz: “Magpie Murders” is a classic, golden age murder mystery that involves a book within a book.  The “inner book” has no ending because the author of the book is murdered.  Therefore, his editor—in the 21st century—investigates his murder to find out who did it in the book.  It’s difficult to describe, but I think the main thing is that it is two books for the price of one.  And no one has been able to guess the ending—either of the endings!

Mike Yawn: It may not have been solved, but I am guessing you are pleased that you do abide by the conventions of the mystery genre.

Anthony Horowitz: The book can be solved, the clues are there as to why the writer was murdered, but no one has managed to spot it.  It makes me smile.  I have my hobbies: I love illusions, I love magic, I love tricks.  I love things that make people smile, and that’s what I was trying to do in the “Magpie Murders.”  From the reactions I have gotten, it seems to have worked.

Mike Yawn: Was constructing a narrative involving a book within a book more complex than a straightforward novel??

Anthony Horowitz: It’s probably the most complex book I’ve ever begun.  I worked out all the different connections to the book within the book, and I had to examine all the characters in one world to ensure they had counterparts in the other world.  But at the same time, the book could not read complex.  It was as if it was a very elaborate scaffolding for a simple building.

Mike Yawn: The book is written somewhat in the vein of Agatha Christie.Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders: A Novel, Mike Yawn, Books, Mysteries

Anthony Horowitz: She was the great Queen of Crime, and the book has many nods to her techniques and to the world of fiction she created.  In “Magpie Murders,” I acknowledge her influence, and it’s no coincidence that one of the key characters, Alan Conway, shares her initials, so she is there in spirit.  But it’s not a continuation of her, nor is it a pastiche as in the Holmes or Bond novels that I have written.

Mike Yawn: Speaking of these, your books featuring Bond (“Trigger Mortis”) and Holmes (“House of Silk”) were actually authorized by the Fleming and Doyle estates.

Anthony Horowitz: Yes, when I was growing up, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes were probably the two greatest influences on me.  The stories stayed with me and when the Holmes and Flemings’ estates asked me to write books using their characters, it was irresistible.  It was irresistible because it was an invitation to “live with” great heroes of mine.  But as much as I admire Doyle and Fleming, and as much as I endeavored to raise my game and be as good of a writer as them, I have my own voice, too.  I do original books and the continuation novels with equal pleasure.  My writing makes me happy.

Mike Yawn: Are you doing any other books featuring Holmes or Bond?

Anthony Horowitz: The Fleming estate was very happy with “Trigger Mortis,” and they have asked me to do another.  I am in the research stage now.

Mike Yawn: How many novels have you written?

Anthony Horowitz: I’m not even sure myself anymore.  But I think I am up to 47.

Mike Yawn: How many screenplays have you written?

Anthony Horowitz: (Laughs, then begins counting up episodes).  I’d say between 50-60.

Mike Yawn: What’s the difference between writing novels and screenplays?

Anthony Horowitz: There are separate techniques, but they do have similarities.  They are both narrative driven, and they seek to create suspense.  But television is more collaborative, with set designers, costume designers, the director, and so forth.

Mike Yawn: Which do you prefer to work on?

Anthony Horowitz: I love all the writing I do, but books to me seem to have a greater value, particularly since I write so many books for young people.  I have had a small but maybe benign influence on their life through books.

Mike Yawn: Your books for young people include the popular Alex Rider and Diamond Brothers’ novels.  Is it difficult for writers of young-adult fiction to maintain an audience?  That is, does your audience grow up and leave you?

Anthony Horowitz: Children do grow up and they leave their children’s books behind them.  But I meet many people in their 20s and 30s who read me as a child, and they tell me how much those books meant to them. And there is always a new audience, if you write classic children’s stories.

Mike Yawn: Rumor has it that you occasionally model characters in your novels—usually villains—after people you have met and do not care for.  Is that true?

Anthony Horowitz: True!  The headmaster of my school was Mr. Ellis, who appeared in an episode of “Foyle’s War” as a Nazi-sympathizing, fascist, wife-murderer who himself got killed in the final reel.  Now, you might think of this as a petty revenge, but if you are a long-distance writer like I am, sitting in a room by myself for ten hours a day, polishing off your enemies in your novels makes you smile.

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

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For Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, a Case Becomes Personal

As a young law-school intern, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich left the august halls of Harvard for Louisiana, where she was assigned to a firm specializing in defending clients facing the death penalty.  One of the firm’s clients was Ricky Langley, a pedophile, who was charged with murdering a six-year old.  It’s a case that changed Marzano-Lesnevich’s life, altering her career path, consuming much of her young professional life, and prompting her to reexamine her own childhood.  The case, along with her childhood, serve as the raw material for her first book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir.Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzno-Lesnevich, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Center

This Q & A was published in the Houston Chronicle on 5-25-2017.

Q: How did you become interested in the Ricky Langley case?

A: I went to law school knowing I wanted to fight the death penalty, and I took an internship my first year of law school with a death penalty law firm in New Orleans.  Shortly after I arrived, I was shown a confession tape of a man, Ricky Langley, who molested and murdered a six-year old boy.  And as I watched the tape, I felt time collapse around me.  I grew up being sexually molested, and this case created a conflict for me.  I didn’t work on the Langley case, but when I returned to law school and even later, the case still haunted me.

Q: Did this case become a test case of your death penalty views?

A: Yes, I believed that if I truly opposed the death penalty, then I should be able to defend child molesters, and it wasn’t that simple.  The case unlocked complex questions: what do we do with the past? How do we construct stories in the legal system?

Q: What answers to these complex questions did you find?

A: People don’t leave their lives behind them when they sit on juries, and I didn’t leave my past behind me when I engaged this case.  I read more than 30,000 pages of court records, and these records shed light on my understanding of the case, but also on my understanding of my past.  The people involved in this case saw it through the lenses of their own past: the jury foreman, the lead defense attorney, the judge, and I believe even the victim’s mother.  We think of the law as a truth-seeking mechanism, but it’s more of a truth-making mechanism.  It makes a story and it calls that story truth.

Q: Does anyone know this case better than you do?Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzno-Lesnevich, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Center

A: I’ve wondered! I’m sure the lawyers do; they were devoted.  But I do feel as though I am carrying this case with me.

Q: Is it that sense of “carrying the case with you” that prompted you to weave your story with that of the Langley case?

A: The stories, at least in my own mind, were intertwined, and I realized it’s a crucial part of the story.  The people involved in the case looked at the crime through the lens of their own lives, and as I studied the case more, I realized I was doing the same.  I wanted to lay that out there, so that readers can see the lens I examined the case through—and perhaps they will examine the case through the lens of their own lives.

Q: As you mention in the book, looking at the case through the lens of your life involves re-examining unpleasant memories, including that of being molested by your grandfather.

A: Yes, and these experiences made it impossible for me to approach the case as an abstract idea. My ideals—of being against the death penalty, for example—couldn’t serve as a complete barrier against what had been done to me.  Empathizing with Langley meant re-examining the actions of my grandfather, and it wasn’t so simple. It forced me to see a fuller picture of people.

Q: In the book, you suggest that the jury was also able to see a fuller picture, even when the law asked jurors to simply choose a side.

A: Yes, and I thought the jury’s approach was more honest to the actual complexity of the situation.

Q: Do you think it was more just?

A: That’s a complicated word in a case like this, but I’ll say a tentative yes.

Q: Part of seeing a “fuller picture” is looking at Langley’s childhood.

A: The circumstances of his birth are striking.  His mother was in a car crash before he was conceived and he was conceived while she was in that full body cast.  He grew in her womb for months while she was constrained in that body cast, and he was exposed to all sorts of drugs and x-rays in utero.  It was a traumatic way to enter the world.

Q: What is Ricky Langley doing now?

A: He’s serving a life sentence.

Q: Do you have any contact with him?

A: I do not, other than the time I write about in the book.

MY:  What books influenced your writing?

AL: I am sure it is abundantly clear that In Cold Blood was important. For a while I described this book as “In Cold Blood if Capote had been honest about his personal stake in the story.” The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, was an important influence.  A departure from those, but also influential was Full Body Burden, by Kristen Iversen, which is about growing up in the shadows of a nuclear plant. Iversen’s book incorporates her research and Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzno-Lesnevich, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Centerher life, which was illuminating.

Q: You’ve spent a lot of time on this case and, by extension, this book.  As a first-time author, how are you approaching the book tour?

A: I am excited.  I am looking forward to getting out there and getting people’s reactions.  Writing and research are solitary endeavors, so I am thrilled to bring the book out to the world.

Q: And how does your family feel about you bringing this book—and the personal stories in it—out to the world?

A: It’s complicated.  They’re proud of me, but it’s difficult because it’s a real story, and it’s our family.  I’m fortunate to have their understanding, and I think it took a lot of hard work and thinking through things to get to that point.

Q: Have your experiences with the book changed your view on the death penalty?

A: I am still very opposed to it.  In some ways that is because I want the law to be better than I am, better than my intense emotional reactions.

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

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