Dana Haynes - 11/17/11

Portland author Dana Haynes stopped by Murder by the Book to discuss himself and his new book, Breaking Point, the follow-up to the successful Crashers.

The downside of becoming better known and in demand by the media is that one's name isn't always spelled right. Dana Haynes has morphed into "Dana Hayes" in Connecticut and the dreaded "Donna Hines" in Italy. It turns out he is all for getting his name out there, no matter what the form.

Speaking of the Italian language release of his book, when Haynes first received a copy, he didn't realize what it was and thought he had suffered a stroke because he couldn't read the words. He has since become relaxed enough to enjoy the Italian trailer for his book, despite being a little disconcerted by the Italian villain's maniacal laugh sounding strangely like Kermit the Frog's.

It's easy to be entertained by Haynes' easy-going demeanor and self-deprecating humor. In fact, he jumped up and unabashedly re-created the "happy dance" he did when he heard his publisher wanted two further books about Daria Gibron, his Lisbeth Salander-like character in his series. But humor is not what his books are about.

Both Crashers and Breaking Point are stories about the laborious and detailed forensic work done by National Transportation Safety Board crash teams – "CSI" for airplanes. Haynes' background as a journalist gave him the discipline to do the required research to factually represent what goes on at an airplane crash site investigation. He takes great pains to point out, however, that real crash investigations go on for months, even years, whereas his stories are resolved within days.

Humor does manage to sneak in sometimes as a way to segue between the complicated technical scenes, the crazy killer scenes, and the human interplay. Tommy Tomzak especially is a good old Texas boy with a wry sense of the absurd.

Haynes acknowledges that creating the huge number of protagonists and antagonists in his books was a "dumb way to write." He says, "No one would have done it intentionally," but that's what these over-the-top disaster books needed. There are many people with their own little area of expertise who comprise a real-life crash team, and Haynes' fictional team mirrors that. The characters' names and curricula vitae written on butcher block paper taped to kitchen cabinets helps keep things straight, especially when viewed with a morning cup of coffee.

One of his more fascinating characters is Kiki Duvall. She has an acute sense of hearing and an uncanny intuition when things don't sound right. For instance, she notices nuances in accents and speech patterns that escape the rest of us, and can tell where someone is from, à la Henry Higgins. Haynes refers to Jonathan Harr's "The Crash Detectives," a 1996 The New Yorker article, the inspiration for Haynes' books. In the article, Harr mentions an investigator who could determine amazing details of a crash by listening to ticking sounds on a recording. Duvall is modeled after that investigator.

In an interesting aside, Haynes says that he has read of examiners being able to determine what was showing on the flight deck monitors at the time of the crash by what the break pattern is on the light bulbs. Hot bulbs break differently than cold bulbs. That's an example of the material yet to be mined for his future books. Not that Haynes has trouble writing. His years as a journalist taught him how to write copiously under pressure. As any reporter knows, there's "no writer's block, just unemployment."

Of course, Haynes vets his books before they're published, but there is inevitable scrutiny by people who know about crashes – and some who think they know about crashes. The kind of plane that crashes inBreaking Point is a figment of Haynes' imagination. Nevertheless, one reader insisted that Haynes did not depict the plane accurately. "But I invented the damn thing," he says, shaking his head. He acknowledges that he does use literary license in some cases – not the least of which is the aforementioned foreshortening of the investigative timeframe.

Haynes was published by Bantam when he was 21-year-old, along with literary contemporaries Sue Grafton and Robert Crais. Unlike Grafton and Crais, he was dropped after a run of three books. A lengthy dryspell followed, although Haynes wrote the entire time. He got his hopes up when a publisher showed interest in an older rendition of Crashers, that book about terrorists in New York and a plane crash. His timing was awful, however, as this was shortly before 9/11. Obscurity followed again. After knowing the ups and downs of being an author, Haynes is enjoying each minute now. He works at tweeting, blogging, and whatever else his publisher wants. "If they wanted me to do sock puppets, I'd do it," he says.