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

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

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

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

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

Q: Tell us about the characters and premise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Are you doing a book tour?

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

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

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

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

Author Daniel Cole

Q: What do they tell you in media training?

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY: What is the “Brain Defense”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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