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?http://www.shsu.edu/centers/leap/

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

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

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

Q: Describe Into the Water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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John Sandford: Professional Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY: …Well, there are some schools…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY: Yet you liked Marfa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff Guinn

call for suicide in the end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What challenges do they still face?

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

 

 

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

 

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Success with “Fatal” for John Lescroart

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

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

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

John Lescroart: Yes.

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

MY: What would it be?

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

MY: That’s a good place to be.

JL: It is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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