In Deep Water with Paula Hawkins

Before she wrote The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins wrote “women’s fiction” as Amy Silver.  Her sales were mediocre, or worse, so she reverted to her real name, adopted the cloak of crime fiction, and incorporated darker, more complex themes in her work.  The result, The Girl of the Train, was one of the best-selling books of all time.   She now faces the task of following up such a book.  Her latest, Into the Water, has a larger cast, but retains the unreliable narrator and alternating perspectives that so captivated readers (and viewers) of The Girl on the Train.

Paula Hawkins, Into the Water, Mike Yawn, LEAP Cewnter, SHSUQ: Your press material indicates The Girl on the Train sold along the lines of 20 million copies.  Is that accurate?

A: That is the figure, yes.  I’ve seen 18 million, but that was a while back.  It’s a lot.

Q: How has that enhanced your income relative to your work as Amy Silver?

A: Ohhh, it doesn’t even compare.  It’s exponentially different.

Q: How does it feel to make that leap, to go from Amy Silver to the author of, at least by certain measures, the longest-running NY Times bestseller in history?

A: It’s extraordinary.  It’s overwhelming.  It feels slightly unreal.  It is the kind of thing you don’t dare dream about.  I think we all wish for some success, but nobody imagines this kind of success on this kind of scale.  So, yeah, it’s kind of extraordinary and unreal.

Q: Why was The Girl on the Train so successful?  There are weekly bestsellers, but The Girl on the Train was a once-in-twenty-years bestseller.

A: I cannot answer that.  If I knew, I’d repeat it.  I know there are things in the book that I did well, that people found compelling.  I know they were intrigued by my central character, Rachel.  They may not have liked her, but they wanted to know what happened to her.  They found her different, an unusual protagonist, this drunk who couldn’t remember what she did the night before.  But there was an element of luck and timing, and I don’t think people can predict how those things come together.

Q: You mentioned that you knew you did some things well.  What most satisfied you with the execution of the book?http://www.shsu.edu/centers/leap/

A: I think the setting worked well, the plotting.  I think my decision to have us see Rachel every morning and evening as she commutes drew readers in and gave the book rhythm, which people enjoyed and found propulsive. But I think the main character is what most people talk about.

Q: What’s the pressure like in following up The Girl on the Train?

A: I just try to set that aside and to accept the inevitable, and then try to write the best book I can write.  Into the Water is ambitious; it has a large cast of characters, and there is a lot going on.  But if you let the pressure get in your head, you’ll probably end up never writing anything again.

Q: Describe Into the Water.

A: This book is about what happens when you discover that the stories you’ve been telling about your life and family turn out not to be true.  In Into the Water what we have is a woman who returns to her place of childhood, and the reason she’s returning there is that her sister has died under curious circumstances, and she’s trying not only to unravel what happened to her sister in death, but what has been happening their whole lives—the things that divided them.

Q: What is it about unreliable narrators—whether one created by you, Gillian Flynn, or Tana French—that so captivates readers?

A: To some degree all first-person narration is going to be unreliable.  We all obfuscate, we all play down negative things about ourselves, and we all misremember things.  Of course, Rachel in The Girl on the Train was to the extreme side of that, but there is a level of unreliability in the way we all tell our stories.

Q: You incorporated multiple points of view in The Girl on the Train, but you have taken that to another level in this novel. How challenging was it, as a writer, to juggle those multiple points of viewPaula Hawkins, Into the Water, Mike Yawn, LEAP Cewnter, SHSU?

A:  I thought of a smaller number of narrators, but I felt I couldn’t tell the story in the way I wanted to without expanding that cast. It was extremely challenging to write in all those different voices and to convince the reader that it was worth seeing things through the various characters’ eyes.  It’s something I worked on to get right.

Q:  How do you maintain consistent personalities, advance the narrative, and make each character unique?

A: I didn’t necessarily write the characters in the order in which they were introduced.  I would stay in one character’s head longer because I didn’t want to be flipping from one to the other all the time. I had to immerse myself in each character’s story.  That was another reason it was a challenge to write, because I was doing this while doing publicity for The Girl on the Train.

Q: Speaking of getting into the characters’ heads, your books are often described as “psychological thrillers.”  How would you define that?

A: I think they concern more the “why done it” than the “who done it.” We’re looking at the process and the motivations.  But, to be honest, I’m not really sure of all the distinctions myself, and I think that all crime novels have some degree of motivation.Paula Hawkins, Into the Water, Mike Yawn, LEAP Cewnter, SHSU, Megan Abbott

Q: Can you tell us some of the authors that you admire?

A: Agatha Christie was my introduction to crime; I read her when I was 12 or 13. Later I was drawn more toward the psychological suspense that is perhaps more on the literary side of things, authors such as Donna Tartt or Tana French or Kate Atkinson.  And that’s more of the writing I strive for.

Q: You’ve previously mentioned your admiration for Megan Abbott, who will be making a joint appearance with you at Lone Star Kingwood.

A: I love her books.  I think she writes spectacularly well, particularly about young women.  I like talking to writers on stage at these kinds of events because we have a slightly different conversation, and at this event, we’ll be talking about Megan’s books as well as mine.  It’s also quite daunting, because she’s a bit of a superstar, but there you go.

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

 

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John Sandford: Professional Writer

John Sandford was a journalist for 25 years, he was a Pulitzer finalist in 1980, and he won the Prize in 1986.  But he’s best known for his “Prey” novels, the first of which was released in 1989.  His latest—his 27th—is “Golden Prey,” and it is largely set in Texas.  This article appeared in the April 30 Houston Chronicle.  Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

Mike Yawn: How long did you work as a reporter?John Sandford, Golden Prey, Lucas Davenport, Books, Prey Series, Mike Yawn

John Sandford: About 25 years.  I began at my college newspaper at the University of Iowa, and then was drafted into the Army, where I went to the Army Journalism School.  I intended to become a lawyer, but I liked journalism so much I just went into newspapers.

MY: You won a Pulitzer in 1986.  What did a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist make in the mid-1980s?

JS: A little more than $60,000 per year, or something like that.

MY: How did you transition from journalism to writing novels?

JS: The plan was to do both journalism and novels.  But after a couple of false starts, I got the concept down, and “Rules of Prey” sold well.  Once I strung a few successes together, I switched to novels more or less full time.

MY:  After “Rules of Prey” succeeded, did someone say, “let’s brand the ‘Prey’ title?”

JS: Yes, exactly. Series books were big then: Tom Clancy, Sue Grafton, and others. But, now, 28 years later, we’re running out of adjectives for the titles!

MY: Lucas Davenport is your protagonist, and he’s a millionaire who works in law enforcement. That’s unusual.

JS: Creating a protagonist is something of an exercise in engineering. I wanted a likeable character, one who could be credibly involved in action of the sort I wanted to write about. It doesn’t make sense to have a teacher as your protagonist in a series about crime.  It’s hard to imagine a series in which you have 20 serial killers for them to catch….

MY: …Well, there are some schools…

JS: Well, that’s true, but it’s more credible to have a private investigator, police, or FBI in an environment with lots of crime.  I also wanted a protagonist who could appeal to men and women readers. Davenport is good looking in a rough way; he likes fashion—a tough guy who also enjoys shopping.  He likes women and pursues them, but not indiscriminately.  The women he likes are smart.  Traditionally, protagonists in crime fiction are a bit rumpled, but Davenport has a bit of Hollywood in him.

MY: Tell us about “Golden Prey,” your latest in the Prey series.

JS: Davenport has taken a new job as a Deputy US Marshal, and he winds up in Texas chasing two guys who have committed a horrific crime: they kill drug dealers, steal cash, and kill a little girl who was a potential witness.  And these bad guys are chased by Davenport and by the drug dealers’ accomplices across Texas, culminating in a showdown in Marfa, TX.

MY: A lot of your books have nasty villains, but two of the characters in this one are particularly villainous.

JS: Court and Soto are the kind of villains who are willing to do anything for a buck.  Soto is the kind of asshole that makes life hard for people.  Court is one of those women ruined by life. Her parents were a mess, now she’s a mess, and she takes revenge on life by hurting people because she’s been so badly hurt.

MY: Despite the villains, there is a lot of humor in the novel, including satire on Marfa and modern art.

JS: I liked Marfa, and I like art generally.  I was curious about Marfa and what Donald Judd had done down there.  I am not a fan of Judd’s art, but I thought that if I saw all of his installations at once, I might have a different perspective.  But I didn’t.  I still don’t like Judd’s art; I don’t like Carl Andre’s art. A Whirlpool Washing Machine Factory would have been more interesting.  I’m serious.  The art isn’t good.  In some ways, I think it’s a scam, and I am kind of embarrassed for it and that’s why I was making fun of it.

MY: Yet you liked Marfa.

JS: It’s an interesting town, and it has a couple of nice hotels.  I told my wife that one of the hotels reminds me of New York, because there are all these people dressed in black talking about art.

MY: Texas comes off well in the novel, which isn’t always the case in fiction—or non-fiction.John Sandford, Golden Prey, Lucas Davenport, Books, Prey Series, Mike Yawn

JS: I live in New Mexico now, but if I didn’t, I would probably live in Dallas.  I like the DFW area.  We have friends there.  I like Houston, too.  Books set in Texas are also interesting.  James Lee Burke just wrote a book set in Houston that’s one of the best books he’s ever written.  Texas is an interesting place.  More than any place in the US, it is its own place.

MY: You are a Texas Country music fan and you give Texas singer-songwriter Delbert McClinton a nod in “Golden Prey.”

JS: He’s one of my favorites.  I listen to Texas Country; it’s a mix of story telling and country music.  I like Robert Earl Keen, and there’s another Texas guy, Terry Allen, who is also an artist.  He has a song called, “Bottom of the World,” and it’s a fantastic song.  Steve Earle is up in Nashville, but he’s really a Texas guy. And Townes Van Zandt may have been crazy, but he was a terrific song-writer.  I’m serious about this; I really like Texas music, and it’s one of the reasons I like Texas.

John Sandford, Golden Prey, Lucas Davenport, Books, Prey Series, Mike Yawn

 

 

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Nearly 40 Years on, the “Road to Jonestown” Examines Jim Jones

It’s the massacre that inspired the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid”: In 1978, Jim Jones masterminded the largest mass suicide in modern history.

Jones, a charismatic preacher who taught racial equality and worked for civil rights, started his Christian congregation in Indianapolis in the 1950s. The church, known as Peoples Temple, later moved its headquarters to California, and in the mid-1970s Jones established a compound in Guyana, in South America. Each year the group grew more cultlike and Jones became more paranoid – and in November 1978, when a U.S. congressman came to investigate the Guyana settlement, Jones committed what he considered a “revolutionary act”: He directed his followers to swallow a grape drink laced with cyanide, an act that kill more than 900 people, one-third of them children.Jeff Guinn, Jim Jones, The Road to Jonestown, Mike Yawn

This article was published in the Houston Chronicle on April 30, 2017.

Q: A national reviewer recently described you as a true-crime journalist.  Would you describe yourself that way?

A: I wouldn’t.  I write about eras in US history, and in a couple of instances the iconic individuals I’ve chosen are people who precipitated criminal activity or tragic events.  I’m not looking for those people; I’m writing about people who embody some aspect of American society of a particular era.  And I write about the good and the bad of those eras.  Jim Jones, for example, was a demagogue, but I was shocked to learn about the great things he accomplished.  If he had died at the end of his tenure in Indianapolis, we’d remember him as one of the great heroes of the civil rights movement.

Q: You’ve been critical of Jones, but you’ve also said he “appealed to the best in humanity.” Could you clarify that?

A: Well, as I say, Jones was a demagogue, but unlike other demagogues, he didn’t pit people against others.  He tried to bring people together; he wanted to create a society in which people were treated equally.  People joined for altruistic reasons and that sets the Peoples Temple apart.

Q: Even in Indianapolis, though, he was appealing to people by claiming to cure cancer with his hands and to resurrect the dead.  That’s manipulation; that’s appealing to people’s ignorance and gullibility.

A: Jones had different types of followers.  He didn’t appeal to just one type of person.  There’s a segment of our society, even now, that believes in faith healings and the like.  Jones did what he needed to appeal to those people, and most of the long-term members of Peoples Temple realized that.  It was a recruitment technique.

Q: Is it fair to say he used many methods of totalitarian dictators: incrementally exerting control over people financially, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually, until that control was complete?

A: The key word is “incrementally.”  One of the people I interviewed used the analogy of the frog in the water that is incrementally getting hotter.  The frog stays in, never noticing the change in temperature, until the water’s heat kills it.  It’s tempting to think of Jones as a lunatic from the beginning.  But that’s not the case. He worked bit by bit over the course of time, and his followers ended up isolated, exhausted and poorly nourished, and they succumbed to his

Jeff Guinn, Jim Jones, Mike Yawn, The Road to Jonestown

Jeff Guinn

call for suicide in the end.

Q: You have engaged in participatory journalism in the past, and for this book you visited many of the places Jones lived, including Jonestown.  How does this enhance your research?

A: Had I not gone into that jungle—one of the densest in the world—I wouldn’t have appreciated the full achievement of Jonestown. Jones went into that mess and carved out a farm community that was almost self-sustaining, and it demonstrates his ability to inspire people and to accomplish things.

Q: You also read extensive files and listened to hundreds of hours of tapes for this book.

A: I read 66,000 pages of documents—just from the FBI alone.  I think I was reason the local Quick Copy Owner was able to retire early.  As for the tapes, I probably spent the equivalent of every day for a couple of months just listening and taking notes. At first blush, his speeches are all over the place, but then I realized he purposefully covered diverse topics to provide something to everyone in his diverse audience.  Somewhere in that mess was a message that spoke to each of his congregants.

Q: In the course of your research, you forged a connection with some of the former members of the Peoples Temple.  Can you describe that?

A: The people who were once part of Peoples Temple now call themselves survivors.  Some were members in the US and left the Temple, but some survived the final day in Jonestown.  Tim Carter, for example, was pulled away to make a delivery but was there long enough to see his wife and child die.  Many of the survivors gather annually on November 18—the anniversary of the Jonestown suicides—in Oakland, California.  They have a bond that is incomprehensible to outsiders.  They are a family.  They argue like family members, but they are also there for each other.  I got to know them, and I was astonished by their intelligence and their social commitment.

Q: What challenges do they still face?

A: When you’ve been part of such a tragedy, you can’t completely come to terms with it.  They argue amongst themselves whether Jones was always evil.  They wonder how they let themselves be fooled, how they could have gone along, and they replay endlessly the things that have happened to them, trying to pinpoint moments when they could have done something.  And we can’t understand that fully.  The things they’ve gone through, the way they continue to function, their motivation to try to contribute in a positive way—it staggers me.  These are brave people.

 

 

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

 

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Success with “Fatal” for John Lescroart

Success did not come early for John Lescroart.  It wasn’t until he reached middle age and his seventh novel that Lescroart achieved commercial success in the book world.  Since then, he has written 18 New York Times Bestsellers.  His latest book, “Fatal,” is a standalone likely to continue his success, even as it defies the traditional conventions of the mystery/thriller genre.

Lescroart—who was born in Houston—will make an appearance at Murder by the Book on Wednesday, February 8 at 6:30pm.John Lescroart, Fata, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Center

Mike Yawn: I’ve heard you say you’d use a pen name if you were starting over.

John Lescroart: Yes.

Lescroart is pronounced “Less-Kwah,” the opposite, he notes, of “More-Kwah.”

MY: What would it be?

JL: My mother’s maiden name was Gregory, and I would probably just use John Gregory which, by the way, would put me next to John Grisham on the shelves in bookstores.

MY: That’s a good place to be.

JL: It is.

MY: You’ve had about 10 different jobs, all in different fields.  How has this informed your writing?

JL: I think it gives me a big palette with which to work.  I’m familiar with blue collar and white collar jobs, and that kind of thing is helpful when you are dealing with large slabs of humanity, as I tend to do in my books.

MY: You broke through with “The 13th Juror” at the age of 45.  How common is it for a writer to have his first success at that age?

JL: “The 13th Juror” was my 7th book, and I’d say breaking through like that at 45 is uncommon.  But then, any success story in literature is rare.

MY:  What was it about “The 13th Juror” that made it a breakthrough?

JL: Timing and fortune play a role in people’s lives. Something has to elevate your book to become more visible.  “The 13th Juror” addressed battered-woman syndrome, and it came out in paperback about the same time the OJ Simpson trial began.  This syndrome was on everyone’s lips.  Suddenly my book had visibility; I probably did 140 radio interviews.  People were buying it in big numbers, and it changed my life.

MY: Have you always tried to incorporate a topical social problem in your books?

JL: I think some of my books had that aspect to them.  I try to find a big theme, which I do in the Dismas Hardy books.  Also, I incorporated the courtroom scenes into my novels, and that was when the legal thriller was becoming a hot genre.  John Grisham and Scott Turow led the way.

MY: Most of your books address law, but all of your books are set in San Francisco.  Why is that such a prime setting for fiction?

JL: When I was majoring in English at UC Berkeley, I really enjoyed a tetralogy called “The Alexandria Quartet.” It was set in Alexandria, Egypt before World War II.  It was fascinating, and it gave me the idea that a city could function as a character.  And San Francisco is that way: it’s cosmopolitan on the one hand, and yet small enough that everyone knows everyone.  Even the weather, which is bizarre.  It can go from being beautiful and sunny to foggy and wintry in a day or within the same day.  You can create tremendous scenes.

MY: You’ve also relied heavily on Dismas Hardy, who has appeared in more than 20 novels.

JL: I think Dismas is a pretty good character.  He’s complex, just smart enough.  He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he takes his work seriously.  He’s got a good sense of humor, a knack for makiJohn Lescroart, Fata, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Centerng friends, a guy you want to be friends with.  And he’s faithful to his wife.

MY: Speaking of being faithful, that’s not a claim all the characters in your new book, “Fatal,” can make.

JL: In “Fatal,” I have a character, Beth Tully, who is a homicide detective, and one of her friends engages in a brief marital affair—a kind of purposeful mistake—just to see what it is like.  And it puts into motion a series of unpleasant events.

MY: Tully, your detective, is central to the book but isn’t mentioned on the cover.

JL: You have to take risks in this business, and I think risks are what make it fun, but also a bit terrifying.  I wanted to play with structure a bit, so I introduce her later and more gradually than I otherwise might have, but I believed she could carry the load of the novel, and I think she did.

MY: She’s also the moral conscience in the book, a book in which some of the other characters lose their way.

JL: The theme of the book is fidelity and faithlessness.  Actually, I was going to call the book “Faithless.”  Most of the characters are deeply flawed. It doesn’t serve you well if you have one-dimensional characters.

MY: In addition to the mistakes that individuals make in the novel, there is a city-wide tragedy, and San Francisco falls into a kind of miasma.

JL: This city-wide tragedy wasn’t something I had planned out, but it produces a powerful effect, a powerful change, and it leads to redemption as well.  You have to have dramatic moments in a book, and when I decided to go on this path, I fell in love with it, and I think the readers will too.

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

 

 

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Chris Whipple Discusses “The Gatekeepers”–The President’s Chief of Staff

Chris Whipple has covered the news across most of the world, written for Newsweek, Life, and produced for 60 Minutes.  He’s also a documentary filmmaker, whose work includes “Spymasters: The CIA In the Crosshairs,” in which he interviewed all living CIA Directors.  But his latest project addresses what he calls “the second most important job in government”: the President’s Chief of Staff.  His book, “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency” was released April 4, and he will be in Houston April 19 at Rice University’s Baker Institute.  This interview was published in the Houston Chronicle on April 16.Chris Whipple, The Gatekeeper, Mike Yawn Interview, Houston Chronicle, Books

Mike Yawn: Tell us about your education and your background in the film industry.

Chris Whipple: I was at Yale at the same time as Bill and Hillary Clinton were at Yale Law School.  One of my teaching assistants was their classmate Robert Reich, who was brilliant.  I learned a lot from him then, and 45 years later, he gave me a crash course on Bill Clinton’s Chiefs of Staff.  After college, I worked for Richard Holbrooke, who was the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine; I also worked at Newsweek and Life; and then I was a producer for 60 Minutes and ABC News before going out on my own to make documentaries.  This book grew out of a documentary I did for Discovery with filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet in 2013, in which we interviewed all 20 Chiefs of Staff who were then alive.

Mike Yawn: As you say, you’ve worked as a print journalist and doing documentaries.  What’s the different between cinematic and written narratives?

Chris Whipple: They are different media, but alike in the sense that an interview is an interview.  You have to persuade people to be candid, introspective, and to share information.  You construct documentaries around your subject.  The Gatekeepers book is rich with interviews, and I try to tell the chiefs’ story through the prism of their job.  I hope their voice comes through loud and clear and, if it does, that may be a function of my documentary approach.

Mike Yawn: Am I correct that this book includes interviews with all living presidential Chiefs of Staff?

Chris Whipple: Yes.  Some may argue that Jim Jones and Marvin Watson, both of whom worked for LBJ, should be included, but they didn’t have that title; nor did they have quite the same responsibilities.

Mike Yawn: What is a chief of staff’s role?

Chris Whipple: He is many things. He’s the president’s closest confidante, the one the president relies on to turn his agenda into reality.  He’s a liaison to Congress; the guy who tells the president what he doesn’t want to hear.  He should be the president’s honest broker, the person who ensures that every department are heard fairly, every side of the issue presented.  And as Andrew Card once said, “You make sure the President is never hungry, angry, or lonely.”

Mike Yawn: In the book you identify Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, as the first true modern Chief.

Chris Whipple: That’s correct.  He was empowered to run the White House, controlled the information flow to the president, and was responsible for executing his agenda.  That started with Haldeman.

Mike Yawn: Following Haldeman, Ford and Carter were uneasy about putting that much trust in a Chief of Staff. Carter even attempted to run the presidency without a true Chief of Staff.  Does everyone now accept that position as crucial to presidential success?

Chris Whipple: I think it’s less settled than ever.  Right now, you have Bannon, Priebus, and other senior advisors fighting for the attention of the President, and that can lead to disaster.   We’ve seen it before.

Mike Yawn: I’d like to give you some names and have you tell me a brief sentence about them.

Chris Whipple: Okay.

Mike Yawn: Rahm Emmanuel

Chris Whipple: Force of nature, exactly the guy President Obama needed at the beginning.

Mike Yawn: James BakerChris Whipple, The Gatekeeper, Mike Yawn Interview, Houston Chronicle, Books

Chris Whipple: The gold standard, the guy who knew from day one how to be chief of staff.

Mike Yawn: Dick Cheney

Chris Whipple: As chief of staff, he was the antithesis to the Darth Vader character he became as VP.

Mike Yawn: Andrew Card

Chris Whipple: Maybe the most humble and dedicate White House chief ever, who lacked the authority to run the White House as an honest broker.

Mike Yawn: Leon Panetta

Chris Whipple: Along with James Baker, the quintessential chief of staff.

Mike Yawn: Mack McLarty

Chris Whipple: He was so popular he was known as ‘Mack the Nice’—but McLarty was a stranger to Capitol Hill and its bare-knuckled wars, and unable to discipline his best friend Bill Clinton.

Mike Yawn: Don Rumsfeld

Chris Whipple: All throttle, no brake. And no nonsense.

Mike Yawn: Don Regan was not known for his success in the position. Did he confuse being chief of staff with being president?

Chris Whipple: Well, as Nancy Reagan said, “his favorite word in the title was ‘chief,’ not ‘staff.’”  People who are principals (as in executives) in previous jobs tend not to succeed as a chief of staff, because they don’t understand the staff part of the job.

Mike Yawn: Describe the importance of a chief knowing the president’s strengths and weaknesses.

Chris Whipple: No president can have all the attributes necessary to succeed.  It’s the chief’s job to complement the president’s attributes with his own attributes and other staff members’ attributes.

Mike Yawn: How many hours should the chief of staff expect to work?

Chris Whipple: 24/7 and then some. You are never off duty. Dick Cheney believed that the stress caused his first heart attack.  Bill Daley came down with shingles.  The job isn’t for the faint of heart.

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

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Daniel Cole’s “Ragdoll”–A Macabre and Mirthful Mystery

Daniel Cole’s first book isn’t set for release in the United States until April 4, so it’s understandable that he isn’t a household name—yet.  But with the book slated for translation into more than 30 languages and a narrative ready made for the screen (in fact, it was recently picked up by Sid Gentle Films), don’t be surprised if Cole’s name begins popping up in bookstores and households alike.  Described by fellow author Greg Hurwitz as “a gruesome delight,” the novel features detective “Wolf” Fawkes, who discovers a corpse stitched together from the body parts of six different victims.  Cole manages to inject humor into this macabre premise and the result is, indeed, a delight.  Published in the Houston Chronicle, April 9, 2017.
Mike Yawn: You began “Ragdoll” as a screenplay.  When did you finish it in that form?

Daniel Cole: Five or six years ago.  It was one of many screenplays I submitted, only to have them rejected.  But “Ragdoll” is the one I liked the most, and I spent time developing it into a novel.

Q: How did you persist during those years of writing when nothing was accepted?

A: It was tough.  If “Ragdoll” had also been rejected as a novel, I’m not sure I would have hung in there.  But I loved the characters and premise, and I stuck with it as a novel.

Q: Tell us about the characters and premise.

A: The main character, Detective William “Wolf” Fawkes, gets a call to a crime scene.  When Fawkes arrives, he finds a “body,” but it’s a body composed of different parts of six different victims, stitched together to make a whole, which the press nickname the “Ragdoll.”  The media then receive a list of six more names, along with the dates on which those victims will die.  So the police have two objectives: to solve the murders of the first six victims, and to prevent the targeted victims from being murdered by this twisted but ingenious serial killer.Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle Books, Daniel Cole, Authors, Mysteries, Ragdoll

Q: Why do you think novel was accepted when the screenplay was rejected?

A: I think my writing improved.  In looking at my old screenplays, I can see that they got better as I wrote more.  At the time, you think you’ve written something really good, and then you look back at it later, and think, “Gosh, that’s a bit cringe-worthy.”  But I think I also added some complexity, details, and humor that made the novel better.

Q:  How did you get the news that the book was accepted?

A: I got an excited call from my agent.  To be honest, for me, it was more relief than anything.  After six years of rejection, I started wondering if I was deluding myself.

Q: And I guess the positive reviews have taken you beyond relief into excitement?

A: I’m quite naïve, and I didn’t know how the whole publishing world works.  But I stay clear of reviews, if I can.  The good ones don’t sink in, they just bounce off of me, and I take the bad ones to heart, so it’s not very healthy for me.  But the publishers let me know how it’s going, and it’s been wonderful.  I wrote the book for me, filled with dark humor and weird things.  I wasn’t really aiming for it to be a commercial hit, so I was just happy it was published, and then to get a really positive response has been amazing.

Q: You worked in emergency management while writing.  Did that inform your writing?

A: Yes, some of my medical knowledge came in handy for the gory parts of “Ragdoll.”  But I also think the attitude of people who work in the midst of tragedy, their world-weary outlook and sarcastic humor is something that I used to set the tone.

Q: I was surprised by the humor in a book with such a macabre storyline.

A: The humor is important to me.  I get bored easily, so I need something every couple of pages that makes me smile.  And I think it helps the readers, too, who may not want a book that is just doom-and-gloom.  The humor lightens it.

Q: You wrote this while working full-time.  When did you write?

A:  I stayed up writing all night when I was in the mood.  I’d turn up to work the next day a bit of a zombie, but able to function.  It’s quite an exhausting way of doing things, and I wouldn’t recommend that other writers emulate my writing schedule, because it’s not healthy or good.

Q: When do you write now that you are a full-time writer?

A: The same.  I’ve tried to write from 8 to 5, but I find that just rubbish comes out if I try to force it.  So I wait until I am in the mood and then I write obsessively for a few weeks. I’ll start growing a beard and looking a bit homeless and keep going at it.

Q: Are you doing a book tour?

A: My publicist has all sorts of strange stuff planned for me.  I’m booked more or less for the next few months with radio shows and public-speaking things that I’m still trying to get my head around.  It’s something I’ve tried to avoid in the past, and I didn’t fully realize it was part of being a writer.

Q: As a person who likes to write obsessively for weeks and look homeless, how do you think you’ll do with the kind of city-a-day schedule?

A:  I wish I knew.  The publisher gave me some media training at last, which was much needed because I tend to just babble when I am nervous (laughs).

Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle Books, Daniel Cole, Authors, Mysteries, Ragdoll

Author Daniel Cole

Q: What do they tell you in media training?

A: It basically came down to telling me to stop babbling, to think about my answers, really obvious stuff.  They filmed me speaking so I would see myself on camera, which is really horrible to start off with (laughs).  But it helps, and I’ll be a pro by next year…or that’s what they keep telling me.

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

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“The Brain Defense” by Kevin Davis (Q&A)

Kevin Davis has worked as a journalist for decades, covering crime stories for newspapers and working as a writer for the American Bar Association Journal.  His latest book covers “The Brain Defense”—the idea that a criminal’s wrongful action may be a product of a faulty brain, thus mitigating the criminal’s responsibility.  Such defenses have increased by a factor of three in the past decade, and Davis’s “The Brain Defense” explores the science and the law behind this trend.  The Brain Defense, Mike Yawn, Kevin DavisThis article was published in The Houston Chronicle on March 5, 2017.

MY: As a non-attorney and non-scientist, what did you do to understand this intersection between law and criminal behavior?

KD: That was my greatest challenge, but I’ve been covering crime stories for decades, watching trials, interviewing lawyers, so I have some background in this area.  And like a good journalist, I dive into my topic, do the research, and rely on my natural curiosity to answer questions as I go.

MY: What is the “Brain Defense”?

KD: It’s when defense attorneys bring neural psychology into courtrooms in an attempt to excuse or diminish their client’s responsibility.  It’s different than your basic insanity defense, bringing more neural science into the courtroom.  It’s a way of explaining criminal behavior through a better understanding of the brain.

MY: The poster boy for that is Herbert Weinstein.  Tell us about his case.

KD: Weinstein is mentioned in dozens of medical and law journals on this topic.  Here’s a guy who is 65, a family man, never committed an act of violence in his life.  He was praised for being kind, gentle, and giving.  So when he got into an argument with his wife, killed her, and then threw her from the 12th story of his Manhattan apartment window, it drew attention.   His attorney ordered a brain scan, which showed an orange-sized cyst in the frontal lobe—the area of the brain that affects judgment, decision making, and executive functions.  And in this case—for the first time ever—a brain scan was used in court to help determine guilt or innocence.

MY: Although Weinstein was 65, one of the areas that is being investigated is childhood adverse experiences, whether they be stress, abuse, or brain trauma.

KD: The idea is that the developing brain is susceptible to trauma and that stresses inhibit proper development of neural networks.  Studies show that young people are already prone to impulsive behavior that is heavily influenced by peer presence, so it is an area particularly ripe for additional study.  But researchers have documented the fact that many of the adults they have worked with share a common experience of a trauma, extensive stress, or abuse from childhood.  The child psychologist Bruce Perry describes some of these children as being “incubated in terror,” and I think that’s both chilling and accurate.

MY: One group potentially affected by early brain trauma is child athletes.  We hear a lot about athletes committing crimes.  Is that a media thing, or is there some science to it?

KD: This is difficult to sort through.  It’s documented that many football players have suffered concussive brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  The difficulty is proving cause and effect.  Athletes, by nature, are probably more aggressive than the average person.  They are also more likely to have head trauma.  At this point, I don’t think we can definitively point to the head trauma as the causal link.  It’s a gray area, but as we see, many lawyers are picking up this idea and bringing it to the courtroom.

MY: In the book, you explore the philosophical aspects of this defense.  Are people whose brains are impaired responsible?

KD: I am not opposed to using the idea of a brain defense as a mitigating factor in the sentencing stage. The most important things to me in sentencing decisions are looking at the entirety of a person’s life and determining whether there are mitigating or aggravating circumstances.  We have two obligations.  The first is to protect society from violent people.  We also have an obligation to offer understanding and compassion to people in the criminal justice system.  I don’t think those ideas are mutually exclusive, and I think that’s where neuroscience may prove really helpful.

MY: You live in Chicago, which had almost 800 murders this past year.  Is there anything that can be done about that?

KD: I try not to be cynical; it breaks my heart.  I live here.  A couple of years ago, when my son was in kindergarten, he was walking home with his mother.  Right in front of school, he found a loaded revolver.  He said, “Mom, look, a gun!”  And that just crystallized for me how endemic the culture of violence is in this city.  There are some wonderful people here trying hard to make things happen, but it’s going to require more than a law-enforcement response.  When children are raised in this environment, it’s adding to their stress levels and, if it’s severe enough, it’s truly like being “incubated in terror.”

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

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