The Hitchcockian Wonder of “The Woman in the Window”

The press materials for “The Woman in the Window,” the debut novel by AJ Finn, describe the work as “Hitchcockian.”  It’s an apposite description for a novel that is smart, suspenseful, and cinematic.  Appropriately, the novel has already been purchased by Fox 2000, with Scott Rudin (“No Country for Old Man,” “Lady Bird”) slated to produce. Finn recently discussed his new book with us, as well as his literary and cinematic influences.

Q:  Tell us about your first novel, “The Woman in the Window.AJ Finn, The Woman in the Window, Mike Yawn Interview

A: The novel is sort of a “Rear Window” for the twenty-first century.  An agoraphobic woman, who was once a respected psychologist, believes she witnesses a crime in the neighboring house, but she cannot convince anyone to believe her and, being agoraphobic, she cannot get out to investigate the matter.  As things progress, she begins to doubt her own sanity, but is the danger real or is it imagined?

Q: You mention “Rear Window,” and there are many allusions to classic film and fiction.  Can you describe the influence that classical-era mysteries have had on you?

A: As a teen, I grew up near an art-house cinema and every weekend the owners hosted Hitchcock marathons, classic movie nights, film-noir retrospectives, and the like.  I spent a lot of time at those.  I love old films, because they are produced, written, acted, and directed with such care and craft, as opposed to many of today’s motion pictures, which hurdle forward without care or craft.  I specifically like Hitchcock for his style, urgency, and wit.

Q: Your novel also seems inspired by the golden age of detective fiction.

A: There might be a criminal twist in my family’s DNA, because everyone to whom I am related loves a good detective story.  I grew up in a house filled with books by P.D. James, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Josephine Tey.  As a teenager, I discovered the novels of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell, works we now categorize as “psychological suspense.”  As a graduate student at Oxford, I focused on Patricia Highsmith, Graham Greene, and Henry James—whose novel “The Turn of the Screw” was a pioneering work in the field of psychological suspense.

Q: Apart from these golden-age influences, your novel is very modern.

A: I’ve spent many years working in the publishing industry, working on books by J. K. Rowling, Patricia Cornwell, Val McDermid, Karin Slaughter, and Sarah Paretsky.  In that capacity, I had the vague notion that I would one day write my own novel.  I began thinking about it more seriously in 2012, when Gillian Flynn published “Gone Girl.”  That was a game changer for the industry, ushering in many more psychological suspense novels.  As I noted, this terrain was staked out by Highsmith and Rendell some 60 years ago, and it’s seen a resurgence with Flynn, Kate Atkinson, and Tana French, authors who create three-dimensional characters.

Q: Speaking of that, how do you go about creating a protagonist who is beset by psychological problems, while also making the character someone with whom readers can identify?

A: First, I treat the protagonist realistically.  I endowed Anna with relatable habits and hobbies.  She likes to play chess; a lot of people like to play chess.  She spends a lot of time on the internet.  She enjoys a glass—or seven—of red wine.  I tried to create a person.  That was one technique.  Second, I tried to spend time in the first part of the book acclimating the reader to her daily routine.  The beginning of the book is suspenseful, but then I take some time adjusting the reader to what a day as an agoraphobic person might be like.  Then, when that routine is disrupted, I hope it is that much more shocking and jarring to the reader—as it is to the protagonist.

Q: This novel has created an unusually impressive buzz in the industry.

A: Yes.  From what we can determine, we think it is the most widely-acquired debut novel of all time.

Q: Did your years in the publishing industry help you identify—and, in turn, create—elements that make up a best-selling commodity?

A: I think that experience is an advantage.  As I wrote, I would ask myself, “Does this word or phrase work?”  “Is the book progressing fast enough?”  I knew that the market was ripe for this type of a novel, one involving psychological suspense.  But you have to have a story, and I wasn’t going to publish a novel until I felt comfortable with the narrative.  I have what I think is a substantive book that readers of literature can enjoy for its style and depth, but as an editor and a reader, I also know that big blocks of text and long chapters can be daunting. So I divided the narrative into short chapters, which I hope will help the readers maintain some momentum.  In the end, I think it was a happy confluence of my instinct as a writer and my expertise as a publisher.

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Appeal of Nordic Noir: Q & A with Ragnar Jonasson

While Ragnar Jonasson has been in a best-selling author in Nordic countries for almost a decade, his works weren’t published in the United States until January of this year, when Minotaur Books released “Snowblind.”  The book’s success—as well as the general popularity of “Nordic Noir”—has prompted the publisher to release a second Jonasson book, Nightblind, a continuation of what the author calls his “DarMike Yawn, Ragnar Jonasson, Authork Iceland” series.  Jonasson spoke with us about the appeal of the Nordic Noir genre, his series’ protagonist, and his approach to the writing process.


Q: “Nightblind” has been a hit overseas, but it makes its North American debut this week.  Tell us about the book.

A: This novel is part of my Dark Iceland series, but I try to write each novel so that it can stand alone, permitting first-time readers to enjoy them.  “Nightblind” features Ari Thor, a young, recently-graduated policeman who moves to a town, Siglufjörður, that is isolated and mostly uneventful.  Thor establishes himself in this town, and he has a new boss who, in the first chapter of “Nightblind,” is shot.  Thor has to investigate, and it becomes one of the highest profile cases in Iceland.

Q: Any time a police officer is shot, it’s going to be news, but this is particularly true in Iceland.

A: Yes, no police officer has ever been killed in the line of duty in Iceland.  Conversely, in the entire history of Iceland, the police have only fatally shot a suspect one time.

Q: Although the novel addresses a fatal shooting, it also focuses on domestic violence.

A: Iceland doesn’t have many murders—maybe two to three per year—so I didn’t want that necessarily to be the focus of my novel.  But domestic violence happens everywhere, and it is often unreported, and it is the focus of this book.

Q: Does the isolation of Siglufjörður make it a challenge to come up with new ideas, new crimes for the protagonist to grapple with?

A: That is a challenge.  Siglufjörður is a town that I love very much, because my family has had a long presence there.  My grandfather wrote a series of books on the town’s history, so I am sort of following in his tradition.  But it’s a small town, and you don’t want to fall prey to the Jessica Fletcher syndrome, where every person in Cabot Cove (the setting of Murder She Wrote) was killed during the many seasons of that series.  In some ways my books follow in the golden-age tradition of the detective story, kind of like Agatha Christie, whom I was influenced by.  But I am also writing a Nordic Noir type book, and those are realistic.  To address that, I’ve moved the action away somewhat from Siglufjörður.  In the next three books that are due, the crimes take place in the northern parts of Iceland.

Q: You mention Nordic Noir, and you’ve also mentioned the low crime rate in Iceland. What explains the international appeal of crime stories in a setting where relatively few crimes actually take place?

A: I think it’s the contrast implicit in your question.  The Scandinavian countries have an image of peace, and it’s true, as with the case of Iceland, because there isn’t a lot of crime.  The contrast of seeing a violent act disrupt this harmony is interesting.  The appeal also comes from the authors working in this field for a much longer time than I have been. There is a decades-long tradition created by some great names, and it is good to stand on their shoulders and be a part of it.Mike Yawn, Ragnar Jonasson, Author, Night-Blind

Q: Apart from the appeal of Nordic Noir, your protagonist, Ari Thor, also has a following.  What is the challenge of making a character appealing, but also sufficiently complex to be interesting?

A: When I began writing about Thor, I didn’t know it would be a series.  I made him a few years younger than I, so that I could understand his experiences.  His backstory involves losing both parents at a young age, growing up lonely and without a support net.  He searches for God in seminary, but he gives up on that.  He then turns to philosophy, which is another way of him trying to understand the world. And then he becomes a policeman.  As I write more about him, I get to know him better, and I see new sides of him.  He has grown.  He has become more mature but his failings also become more obvious.

Q: In “Nightblind,” and in the other novels of yours that I have read, I sense that the characters interest you more than the investigative process.

A: I like to explore the characters as flawed individuals.  We are all flawed, and we want to understand why people do what they do.  For me, the interesting thing about crime fiction is the psychology of the people I am writing about, much more so than the police investigation.  I try to keep the books moving, but I try to do that by understanding people’s psychology; their motivations; their relations, which are sometimes strained; and these factors together create tension, which I hope will be appealing to the reader.

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


Leave a comment

Filed under Books

James Reston Discusses Vietnam and Art

The “Washington Post” once called James Reston a “Renaissance Man,” a recognition of his special capacity for writing about his diverse interests.  He has enjoyed a five-decade career as a journalist: writing for newspapers, magazines, creating an award-winning radio documentary, writing plays, and publishing books.  His latest book, “A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory, And the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial,” looks at the nation’s attempts to memorialize the war, while also asking, “Who has the authority to make an official interpretation of a contested history?” 

Q: What prompted you to write this book?

A: The genesis of this project was twofold: I’m a veteran myself, and one of my friends is on the Wall, so I’ve always been interested in the Memorial and the impact it has on veterans.  Second, I have a cabin in the mountains of Virginia, and the sculptor Frederick Hart lived nearby.  I spent a lot of time with him, and we spoke about the controversy over the Memorial.  There was a five-year battle over this Memorial, and it’s kind of a miracle that it was ever built.

Q: Tell us about the competition that took place to select a design.

A: At the time, it was the largest competition in the history of the US or Europe.  There were 1,421 submissions.  It was important that it be handled professionally and fairly.  Paul Spreiregen served as the professional advisor for the competition, and he was very proud of the professional approach taken.  The competition called for entries that were nonpolitical—that is, that they not address the pros or the cons of the War itself—and that the submissions be anonymous.  And that’s part of the interest: out of the blue comes a submission from this 21-year old Yale undergraduate, Maya Lin.  It’s amazing.

Q: The competition also required that the entries include the names of the dead.

James Reston, Mike Yawn, Maya Lin, A Rift in the Earth, Vietnam War Memorial

James Reston, Author of “A Rift in the Earth”

A: Yes, that’s correct.  I think that’s a misunderstanding among the public.  Many think this was a brilliant stroke by Maya Lin.  But it was actually a requirement of the competition.

Q: In researching the book, you went through all 1,421 designs.  Those designs run the gamut of taste and skill.

A: I loved going through those designs!  It was an amazing fusion of creativity.  The artistic challenge was daunting.  What is the artist’s process to imagine a design appropriate for a lost war?  Some were brilliant and others, as you suggest, were goofy.  The publisher allowed me to have photographs of 16 of the designs, and I chose the designs that reflect the entire spectrum of designs, from unfortunate to brilliant to intriguing.

Q: Maya Lin’s submission was not visually impressive, at least not in my mind.  But, as you note, it was the description of her design that was so compelling.

A: Yes.  Her visuals are a bit high schoolish, but the language of the submission soars, and I think that’s what worked.  The design had an aesthetic of simplicity, and when she was announced as the winner, the professionals came in to make this work.

Q: Many people have seen the Wall in person or in photos, but will you explain the concept of the wall’s design for the readers?

A: It was described as a chevron created from black granite, the latter being important for its reflective properties.  It was designed to be below ground, which she believed to be appropriate for a lost war.  The names are listed chronologically, with the height of the wall corresponding to the number of casualties over time.

Q: It was a different type of DC monument, and it challenged our concept of what a monument or memorial should be.

A: Yes, and that added to the controversy surrounding the design.  A group of veterans was very effective in their attacks, referring to it as a “Gash of Shame.”  And this group almost undermined the project.  Ultimately, it was agreed that statuary by Frederick Hart would be added and set somewhat apart from the wall. This clash between visions and styles of art was a fascinating aspect of the story.  It’s not just a question of what to memorialize the war with, but also, whether you can put two absolutely inconsistent and contrary forms of art together in a shotgun marriage.

Q: Today, the Wall dominates this section of the mall, but as you mention, it is married with Frederick Hart’s “Three Soldiers” sculpture, which is set apart from the wall.  Does this “shotgun marriage,” as you cJames Reston, Mike Yawn, Maya Lin, A Rift in the Earth, Vietnam War Memorialall it, work?

A:  This clash between artistic worlds very much interested me.  I think it’s a little odd, but it works okay. I think the presence of the statues has diminished in importance over time.  When I have visited, the crowd around the statues is small compared to the thousands at the Wall.  Do I think it is an affront to the Wall? No, I don’t think so.  At this point, I think the discussion has kind of devolved into an esoteric discussion between refined people in the art world.

Q: You make a distinction in your book between pure art and public art.  What is that distinction, and why does it matter here?

A: With public art, the public is involved, taxpayer money is involved, and public spaces are involved.  It’s perfectly appropriate for the public to have a voice in that process, and that the political process be involved.  In pure art, the artist can do anything that’s in his or her imagination.  People either like it or they don’t, and that’s okay.  That’s what art is.


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

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

Cognitive Disorders, Thrillers, and Wendy Walker

Wendy Walker’s career as a family attorney has served her well in the thriller-writing business.  Her first best-selling book, “All is Not Forgotten,” addressed memory repression, memory retrieval, and the possibilities for manipulating both.  Her latest, “Emma in the Night,” tackles narcissism.  With back-to-back novels addressing psychology and personality, Walker is carving out a niche “around real and identifiable pathological disorders”—a niche that should find fertile ground in the thriller world.  Walker will be in Houston on Thursday to discuss and sign her new book.  We talked to her about “Emma in the Night” and the psychology of personality disorders. The interview was published in the Houston Chronicle on August 13, 2017.

Q: Tell us about “Emma in the Night”

A: The book is about two teenage sisters who disappear one night from an affluent home.  Three years later, only one of the teenagers returns, and she has a story about where the sisters have been.  Her name is Cass, and we hear the story from her, but the narrative is also advanced by Dr. Abby Winter, an FBI Forensic Psychologist. She worked the case when the girls originally went missing, and it has haunted her.  Dr. Winter is an expert in Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is a main theme in the book.  It has a twist ending, it’s dark, but there is redemption in the novel, and I hope that readers will be drawn to the characters.

Q: In your novel, the sisters—Cass and Emma—have a mother with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  Tell us about this disorder.

A: It’s one of a spectrum of personality disorders, which includes histrionic personality disorder, anti-social personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and so on.  Many people in the field believe these disorders are created during early childhood in the way the brain is wired.  With Narcissistic Personality Disorder, it’s not someone with a huge ego and confidence.  It’s actually someone with a completely fractured ego, who has constructed a personality that protects them.  They create a false ego that is almost impenetrable.  They choose and cultivate people who will support it and reflect back to them what they need to see: that they are perfect, better than others, entitled to more things, and other attributes that I go into in the book.  I carefully constructed the mother to fit within the actual illness.Wendy Walker, Emma in the Night, All is not Forgotten, Mike Yawn

Q: In your first book, “All is Not Forgotten,” you addressed the science of memories and recall, including repressed memories.  This novel tackles Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  What prompted you to write about the psychology of memory and personality?

A: I think I’m carving a niche in the thriller market around real and identifiable pathological disorders that I think are fascinating.  I didn’t set out to create it, but I came across an article on memory science, and it was interesting to me.  Around the same time, I was undergoing training as a Guardian Ad Litem, and that involved studying personality disorders.  I incorporated some of that into “All is Not Forgotten,” and I got great feedback from the publisher and readers.  They were captivated by these real-world issues, so I incorporated the Narcissistic Personality Disorder into “Emma in the Night.”

Q:  You mention that you’ve had some training on these issues, but you are not a psychologist.  What research do you do to explore these disorders in such detail?

A: I don’t have a degree in psychology, but my training as an attorney gave me basic knowledge to be aware of these disorders.  It’s enough to know how they might work in a plot.  As I am preparing to write the book, I consult with an expert really understands the disorders, and then I incorporate them fully into the novel.

Q: Unreliable narrators have been the trend of late—including your last two novels.  As an attorney, you are often faced with unreliable narrators.  How do you distinguish fact from fiction in the legal world?

A:  In the legal world, it’s about perception and interpretation rather than people setting out to provide information that is factually untrue.  TWendy Walker, Emma in the Night, All is not Forgotten, Mike Yawnhere are two sides to every story—especially in family law—and it is fascinating when you look at the motions filed in court.  The same facts are presented so differently!  But people tend to psychologically and emotionally reconstruct events in a manner that allows them to deal with their intensely personal involvement in those events.  It’s a coping mechanism of sorts.  I’m sure I’ve come across people in the legal world—and in the larger world—who have actively lied without any sense of remorse.  But that is much less common than people who simply change the tone of the story.

Q: “All is Not Forgotten” is being developed as a film.  Do you have similar hopes for “Emma in the Night”?

A: Of course! I have a wonderful film agent, and I think the book will provide incredible roles for three talented actresses.  I hope the twist-ending, the complexity of the characters, and the topic of narcissism will appeal to Hollywood.

Q: Do you find it ironic that Hollywood might do a film that addresses Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

A: (laughs) The thing about narcissists is that they don’t know they are narcissists!

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

“Killer Harvest” and Paul Cleave

Paul Cleave, Killer Harvest, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Center

New Zealand Author Paul Cleave

Paul Cleave is a relative newcomer to United States’ audiences.  Although his first book was published in 2006 and sold half-a-million copies, his books were not marketed in US markets until 2010.  But with 10 novels now translated into almost 20 languages, Cleave has found a world-wide market for his work.  His novels are regarded as thrillers, but the thrills are often punctuated by dark humor.  In his latest novel, “Killer Harvest,” he adds a dash of science fiction, exploring the consequences of a transplant gone wrong.

This article was published in the Houston Chronicle on August 6, 2017.

Q: Which do you hear more often: “That was the darkest book I’ve ever read” or “That was a lot funnier than I expected”?

A: That’s tough, actually.  People say, “I laughed so hard, but then I felt bad about laughing!”  That’s mostly what I hear, but then you go somewhere like France, and you ask, “Did you find it funny?”  And they say, “No, it’s just dark.”  It’s really awkward.

Q: Tell us about “Killer Harvest.”

A: I like to explore the theme of justice, and this book is about that.  It’s about a boy who has been blind for 15 years, but who gains the ability to see after undergoing a transplant.  It isolates him at a time when he is also dealing with the death of his father.  He was going to a school for the blind, but now he can see.  His classmates no longer associate with him.  He goes to a new school, but people think he’s a freak, one of the first to undergo this new kind of transplant.  He’s caught between these two worlds, and while he is dealing with these issues, he begins to learn that his father, who was a police officer, did some rather dodgy things.  And then I throw a serial killer into the mix.

Q: This novel has a science-fiction element to it.  Did you worry about readers’ suspension of disbelief?

A: Yes.  When I began it, I thought it might be a young-adult novel.  But as I began writing, I realized I wasn’t going down that road.  The novel starts down the road of science fiction, but I wanted to make the novel more emotional, more character-driven, more about the people, and more about justice. I wanted to put readers in the shoes of this young character, who feels lost in the world in which he is seeing for the first time.

Q: Did you do research on formerly blind people who gained the ability to see?

A: Not a lot.  I discussed it with people, but for me, it was mostly a matter of reflecting on it.  When we dream, we can use imagery of what we’ve seen, but when you are blind and you’ve never seen anything in your life, what are you picturing?  I also skated over the transplant, because that technology doesn’t exist.  But there are aspects that are accurate.  For example, I am blind in one eye, so in a way I am writing what I know.Paul Cleave, Killer Harvest, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Center

Q: Some of the characters’ names in the novel seem to be significant.  Did you choose with a historical or cultural significance?

A: Not really.  I often use a random name generator.  Or, I will use names from posters in my room.  Sometimes you choose a name, and you know that it’s just not right, so you treat it as a placeholder.

Q: One of the names in the book is Boris, and I thought of Boris Karloff, particularly in the context of this novel.

A: Ah, yes, one of the posters in my room is for the movie “Frankenstein.” I looked up from my desk and looked at it, and I was like, “Yeah, Boris, that’s it!” That seemed to fit, but for the most part, I use a generator, and I try to have names that can be shortened.  This allows certain characters to call others by nicknames and allows for different levels of intimacy.

Q: Is there a fully honest police officer in any of your novels?

A: There was.  The book “The Cleaner” features Carl Schroeder, who is pure and at the top of his game in that novel.  But in later books, I threw as much as I could at Schroeder, and he broke.  He was a purely honest officer, and I took that from him.  More recently, I’ve introduced Officer Kent, and she is purely honest, and I am going to keep her that way.

Q: You don’t like to outline and, instead, you let the characters kind of roam.  What are the pros and cons of that method?

A: In “On Writing,” Stephen King said that if he doesn’t know where a book will go, then the reader won’t either, and I think that is probably the biggest advantage.  The disadvantage is you can get halfway through writing the novel and not know how to wrap it up!  I have to put it aside, find where it went wrong, and pick it up from there and take it down a different path.  But I’ve had books where I was 90 percent through, and I didn’t know who the villain was.

Q: Audio books have become a big part of the market, and that can be tricky.  You need a narrator who is a New Zealander, but someone who can be fully understood by the rest of the English-speaking world.

A: I am glad you can understand me, because we (New Zealanders) all sound like we were born on a farm.  I know how bad the New Zealand accent is.  When I listened to the demo tapes for the audio books, I was cringing.  It was awful.  They were all Americans or British voice actors trying to do a New Zealand accent, and they all sounded like Crocodile Dundee.  So I called my publisher and said, “Can’t you just find a British voice actor who sounds British?”  And that’s what we did.

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Books

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






Leave a comment

Filed under Books

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Books

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


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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Books

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

“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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Books