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.
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.
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