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.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: How did you come up with this idea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anthony Horowitz Talks Books

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

Mike Yawn: Tell us about your new book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Yawn: How many novels have you written?

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

Mike Yawn: How many screenplays have you written?

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

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

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

Mike Yawn: Which do you prefer to work on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, a Case Becomes Personal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Do you think it was more just?

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

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

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

Q: What is Ricky Langley doing now?

A: He’s serving a life sentence.

Q: Do you have any contact with him?

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

MY:  What books influenced your writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Steve Hamilton’s Nick Mason Lives On

For almost two decades, Steve Hamilton turned out successful novels for St. Martin’s Press.  He wrote a dozen novels, 11 featuring protagonist Alex McKnight. He built a loyal following while winning two Edgar Awards—awards that honor the best in mystery fiction.  In 2015, however, Hamilton became disenchanted with St. Martin’s publicity campaign (“there wasn’t one,” he says) for his latest book, which featured a new protagonist, Nick Mason.  Eight weeks before the book’s release, Hamilton’s agent, Steve Salerno, bought out the contract and shopped the book to other publishers, reaching a deal with Putnam.  Armed with extensive marketing and strong reviews, the book sold well, prompting Lionsgate to purchase the film rights and paving the way for Exit Strategy, the second installment in the Nick Mason series.

This article was published i the Houston Chronicle on Sunday, May 21.

Steve Hamilton, Nick Mason, Exit Strategy, Books

Q: Exit Strategy is your second Nick Mason novel, and it was a series that was born amidst much conflict with your publisher.

A: I just wasn’t getting the support from St. Martin’s Press.  When I had the chance to get out of my contract, I did, and we had offers from a dozen other publishers within 24 hours.  We went with Putnam that day. They are a really solid house, they do things the right way, they were interested in Nick Mason, and they wanted to bring over my Alex McKnight books, too.  It’s been a night-and-day difference.

Q: The dustup with your publisher brought a lot of publicity, and the Nick Mason book got a lot of good reviews—and a lot of support from authors.  How did the Nick Mason book do relative to the Alex McKnight novels?

A: The Second Life of Nick Mason sold about eight times as many copies as the last Alex McKnight novel.

Q: Tell us about the plot of the second Nick Mason book, Exit Strategy.

A: In the first book, Nick Mason is given the opportunity to get out of a lengthy prison sentence, but there is a price.  He owes his freedom to Darius Cole, a notorious convict, and Cole uses Mason to carry out operations in the free world. In Exit Strategy, Mason is looking for a way out.  His assignments are more brutal and dangerous, and it is becoming harder for him to keep his humanity. So he’s looking for a way out, as are many of the characters in the novel.  Every major character is looking for a way out of their own prison, and there are some big surprises.

Q: What’s the difference between writing about the Upper Peninsula, where you had success writing about Alex McKnight, and writing about Chicago, the setting for the Mason novels?

A: Chicago is a different world, and I wanted it to be a real character, just as the Upper Peninsula is in the McKnight novels.  Chicago is a place of its own, unlike any other city.  It’s beautiful, and there are all these neighborhoods which are distinct from one another.  They are different worlds, and they are balanced across the city.  It felt like the right place for Nick to come back to after getting out of prison.  But instead of returning to Canaryville (a tough Irish community in Chicago), he is placed in a Lincoln Park townhouse. Same city, different world.Steve Hamilton, Books, Nick Mason, Exit Strategy

Q: Your Alex McKnight novels are more contemplative. Mason is more of an action-packed type character.  Do the settings of the books reflect the differences in the novels’ action and characters?

A: That’s a great analogy, because if you’re from Paradise, Michigan, the summer lasts for a couple of weeks, and you have to drive a long way just to find a traffic light.  That’s a lot different than Chicago, which is much more of a dynamic city.

Q: Is there a Nick Mason film in the works?

A: Yes.  Lionsgate is doing it, and Nina Jacobson from the Hunger Games is one of the producers.  Shane Salerno, my agent, is also a producer.

Q: How many Nick Mason books should we expect?

A: I have at least seven books planned for the series.  They are laid out in my head right now, which is unusual for me.  There are so many things this guy can do.  The fact that he has to answer the phone, do what he’s told, and go where he’s told opens a lot of possibilities.  He could go all over the world, and that’s what he’s going to do.

Q: What are you going to do with Alex McKnight?

A: He’s definitely coming back. I have the next book written with him.  And at some point I want to have these two guys in the same book.

Q: Michael Connelly has done that with Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch.

A: That’s right, and with the right book—such as Connelly’s The Crossing—you can make something special happen.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: Don Winslow is great.  Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and Harlan Coben.  All these guys write in this genre, and they do great books that I love reading, because I’m a reader first, just like we all are.  It’s just a blast to be a part of it, to write crime novels, like I have wanted since I was a little kid.

Q: And you are about to head out on a book tour, which will bring you to Houston.  Do you enjoy the day-to-day grind of the book tour?

A: Yes!  I’m going to 12-15 or so cities, and one of them is Houston.  Murder by the Book is such a great store, and I’ve literally visited it to do a signing for every one of my books.  It’s just that good of a book store.  It’s one of the best independent book stores in the country.

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

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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?

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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