Jeffery Deaver + The Skin Collector (05/09/2014)

Chapel Hill Magazine's The WEEKLY

The Fear Collector

Q&A with Jeffery Deaver

DPM: Hi Jeffery, I’m really excited to talk to you! We’re about to have some really bad weather come through here, so if we get disconnected, I did not hang up on you.

JD: It’s funny you say that. It’s raining here too. I happen to be sitting on the Pacific Ocean in California at the moment. I was out doing a benefit for the Carmel Library Foundation last night, and visiting my sister who lives in Pacific Grove where I set one of my series of books. It’s interesting to hear that we have matching weather, although no tornadoes here. Is that actually predicted in Chapel Hill?

DPM: Yeah, an alert that runs ’til 9pm tonight  just popped up on my phone.

JD: Oh my, I’ve got a house sitter who takes care of my house and dog so I need to check in to see if my dog is … well, he’s probably ok so I don’t have to worry about it.

DPM: My dog is a Beardie mix and he’s not terribly skittish, but he doesn’t much like going out in the rain.

JD: I have a Briard, they look a little like the Beardie with a long coat. He weighs about 120 and I’d say he’s kind of a nerd. [laughing]

DPM: I know you lived for a long time in NYC and it’s interesting that you’re now in Chapel Hill. I grew up here, but moved back here 15 years ago and you can go home again if you temper your expectations.

JD: Oh, where in New York were you?

DPM: East 87th and Second. The old German neighborhood.

JD: I lived in the Village, the upper West Side, and Chelsea. I was in New York for about 20 years.

DPM: Well, you certainly know New York City and you can tell that in your books. I read somewhere that you when you do your research about a place or setting for a book that it’s often somewhere that you have lived or gone to live. I’m wondering if Chapel Hill will ever show up as a setting in a future book?

JD: The trouble is, it’s rather an idyllic place, but I could very likely work it into a book. I did set my book, The Empty Chair, in another part of North Carolina. The official area was sort of near the Great Dismal Swamp, the eastern Albemarle Sound area, Elizabeth City. And there was plenty of stuff going on there, moonshiners and things like that. They get into a lot of crime there, but in the Triangle there isn’t too much, although I used to live in Cary, and in one of my books I used their first name and there were some kind of nefarious pharmaceutical shenanigans going on in the Triangle. But, yeah, I may very well set a book in the Orange County area. You know you don’t have to have encyclopedia knowledge of the area you’re writing about, but you have to get it right, otherwise you’ll hear from readers who say things like “that wasn’t on the west side of the street, it was on the east side of the street” and so on. You have to be pretty careful. But having lived in Chapel Hill now for about 12 years, I feel I’ve got a pretty good handle on it.

DPM: I know! There’s a scene in The Firm at the very end and they are leaving Memphis headed north and, in fact, they are driving south. It makes me crazy every time!

JD: I know. It’s those little things. I call them “Give me a break” moments. They interfere with the reader’s enjoyment and that’s not happening, seriously.

DPM: Are you just back from launching The Skin Collector in the UK or just about to go?

JD: Just about to go. I’ve got another event here in California. I do a lot of speaking engagements pro-book things at literacy councils, libraries, book stores, and schools. Then I come back to North Carolina for two days, taking care of things, then May I’m on the road touring pretty much the whole month. I believe it’s posted on the website, though we’re still ironing out the details.

DPM: So May 13th is the first US date?

JD: Yes, at Flyleaf.

DPM: Cool! I’m really looking forward to that.

JD: Oh, good, you’re going to be there? It’s a lovely bookstore, I’m very pleased.

DPM: I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of CHOP NC (Culinary Historians of the Piedmont), but they meet there the third Wednesday of every month with a speaker and there’s food! It’s a bunch of food writers, food lovers, and people invested in chronicling our culinary contribution to North Carolina. And again, there’s the food.

JD: That’s all worth it! Do you all cook it there?

DPM: No, everybody just brings food. It’s like pot luck. We’ve had people who make their own proscuittos, jams, etc.

JD: That sounds like great fun.

DPM: It is, you should join us sometime when you’re in town. It’s all about preserving our history. Which is a segue into another question. I work for the North Carolina Folklife Institute and I was excited when I started reading XO to be reminded that Kathryn Dance is a folklorist and song catcher, in addition to being a kinesiologist. That’s right up my interest alley.

JD: Oh, really? That’s cool. Yeah, I was a folksinger years ago and I wrote the songs for the album that accompanied that book. I didn’t perform them, but I wrote the music. I had always wanted to be a professional musician, though I didn’t have that wealth of talent, but I was part of the Alan Lomax era. That was the music I grew up on and I really respected what Lomax did, so I worked it into XO. At one point I had this plan that Kathryn will take some time off work and go to a location and solve some crimes and get some music.

DPM: Do you play guitar or piano?

JD: I’m a guitarist. I still play occasionally, though at 63 I’ve got some arthritis and some carpal tunnel. I had to move from my steel strings to nylon, but I can’t play for very long. I decided to devote my strength and talent to writing.
DPM: Did you see the movie Songcatcher?

JD: I did not, I had not even heard about it.

DPM: Put that on your Netflix, because I think you’d really enjoy it. It’s loosely based on a true story of a western NC songcatcher.

JD: And it’s called Songcatcher? Great, I’ll put that on my list.

DPM: I just finished reading The Skin Collector last night. As always, you surprised me again and I did not guess what was going to happen which I love in a story. It was a little different reading a promo copy that did not include illustrations and the graphs you always use.

JD: The advanced copies are done quite a bit ahead of time and don’t include those. With The Kill Room, I included some material online, like photographs, and that would have been available right away. Everything waits until the hard cover is printed.

DPM: How can we best talk about The Skin Collector without giving anything away?

JD: There are so many clichés to serial killers and terrorists, and realistically we certainly have them – the Boston bombing of a year ago, we have serial killers that are endemically very low numbers of perpetrators, but they just keep coming back. We’ve seen a lot of that. You can certainly say I look for alternative types of villans, the sort that might not be in traditional crime fiction.

DPM: Exactly! I’m not going to give away anything and will be very careful when I’m transcribing this interview because I hate when people kill the punchline or ending.

JD: I really appreciate that.

DPM: I will say that I found the whole “rule of skin” was so coolly creepy that even as I’m sitting here right now, I’m kind of twitching. I have a tattoo on my ankle and I kept looking down at it thinking ‘ohhhhhhh….. ‘

JD: [laughing] Was it still a little scratchy afterwards? Feeling kind of itchy?

DPM: As so often in your books, I find myself as I’m reading wishing and hoping that certain characters didn’t meet an untimely demise. I really loved the character of TT Gordon, who owns the East Village tattoo parlor. But we are going to be careful here not to give anything away.

JD: TT Gordon’s very compelling and he and Lincoln have a connection. Lincoln doesn’t have a lot of friends and they kind of hit it off. It’s a difficult thing for me to write about, and a difficult thing to say to the audience when I’m doing my presentations, because so many of my fans know that the twists and turns are really the strength of my books, all the books actually, and they don’t want me to give anything away. I was at an event some years ago, the book had just come out that day or a few days before, and there was a character that I had killed off, not a main character, but a very sympathetic character and a woman got up and said “I liked the book, but why did you kill off ….” And the audience reaction was astonishing. There were “boo’s” and a couple of people stood up and glared at her. She really should have thought that one through, because it had just come out. If it had been out for two or three years, it wouldn’t have been quite so bad, but anyway …

DPM: So she didn’t get up and say “Didn’t you ever read Misery by Stephen King?” [laughing]

JD: Right! [laughing]

DPM: When I’m reading one of your novels, I find myself pausing to try to pronounce the scientific words, like chemical names. When you’re writing them, do you pronounce them out loud?

JD: It’s interesting you should mention that. So much of the technical stuff in the book, I minimize it. That’s why I do the charts and graphs so people can skim over it if they want. If they choose to read it, you could probably figure out the twists from reading those charts and graphs carefully, and occasionally people will do that. The reason I just use a brief reference in the narrative where Lincoln might say “we found Methylamine,” I include that in the chart – Methylamine, 5 mg. of sodium, latex product, question mark “where did it come from?” So if readers choose to study those, they can even look them up on the internet if they want, it’s there. But you can also come to the graph of the evidence and jump over it, and you’re still going to enjoy the book. You don’t need to do that. But I wanted to make the story as transparent as I could, and because there are a lot of clues, and not just the chemical substances, the evidence charts have shoe prints and types of fibers and things like that are less technical. But I wanted to hold the hands of the readers, in other words, because if you throw all that out in the narrative, you know, it’s going to be hard to keep it in mind. What was all that evidence we saw back in chapter 3 or 4, or whatever it was? The charts are helpful in that sense. But in response to your question, specifically, after I’ve written a book, I read it out loud … word for word … from the very beginning.

DPM: Do you sit in a room by yourself?

JD: Ah, yeah, yeah … I print it out at this point, it’s very important as I do rewrites. I rewrite the book at least sixty times. The first half 20 to 25, I’ll do on the computer until the draft is pretty polished, then I’ll print out each draft and read it out loud, and do that for each of the 20 drafts, little by little the book is fine-tuned. During one of the latter hard copies, that I’ll read it out loud. I have a ruler with a magnifier on it and I move it from line to line, so I don’t skip ahead.

*NOTE: Twenty minutes into our conversation, hail began hitting the windows so fast and furious that I could barely make out Deaver’s responses.

DPM: Can you hear that hail hitting the windows?

JD: Is that hail?

DPM: That’s hail.

JD: I wondered what that was, I thought you might have been making a racket.

DPM: That’s a little scary. I’m sitting right by a big window.

JD: You might want to move away from those windows.

DPM: I’m more worried about not being able to hear you and missing something good here. Ok, it’s sort of slowing down. Back to the good stuff. So by the time you’re done with it, you really know that book inside and out?

JD: Oh, yeah. Hemingway once said “there are no great writers, there are only great re-writers.” I firmly believe that.

DPM: How did you research this book? Do you come up with the idea, then do a bunch of research to see if the idea is even feasible?

JD: I’ll give you my writing practice. It’s a bit different than most authors. First thing I have to tell you is this is not right. There’s no right way or wrong way to write a book. It’s a very subjective thing. What I’m about to describe works for me, but does not work for many writers. I am an outliner, so I will come up with a concept. And in this book it was fairly simple, though I can’t tell you where it came from, about this killer who leaves messages on his victims via tattoo. I’ve always had an interest in tats and thought that would be a good murder weapon and that was the beginning of the book. And that was all I had for about 6-8 months, did an outline for the book, and did some research at the same time. I did not know much about the art, but it was something I wanted to write about it. I do most of my research on the internet. I do talk to some individuals occasionally. Oddly enough, there was a waitress, a friend of mine, at Sal’s Restaurant on Martin Luther King, I don’t know if you know it, but I go once a week with my assistant, and I asked her a lot about the process. She’s got some tattoos that are quite astonishing. She’s got a scene of Judy Garland from The Wizard of Oz where she’s afraid, I think the woods are talking to her … that is a classic screen shot and looking at her tattoo, it’s as good as a photograph. I mean, it is a true work of art. And I thought “oh, this is fascinating.”

So I did that research, talked to a few people, did a lot of criminal procedure research, but at the same time I’m outlining the book. That’s a full time job. As you know, my books take place over a very short period of time. The shortest time frame is in my book Praying for Sleep (1994), that’s about 8 hours almost real time, and the longest is Garden of Beasts (2004) which takes place over several weeks. That’s a historical story I wrote a few years ago, but most of them take place over two or three days. I need to orchestrate every scene. Like the TV show 24, you can tell that was highly planned out. And I have multiple sub-plots going on at the same time and they have to interweave, I have to make sure the story is very, very carefully structured because structure is a very important part of … I was going to say my novel … but any novel, and is as important as the prose, the style, and the character development. So after a lot of trial and error over the course of that 8 months, I end up with about a 150 page outline. I have every scene in the book, and it has references, each of those scenes has references to my research material so I know where to insert the research. When the outline is done, I know where the book is going to go, so I can then write the entire book in two months. I can write 700 pages of manuscript in two months, because I don’t have writers block. Now, I was blocked at times during the outline. I’d stare at the outline for a week thinking what on earth is going to happen here, but I’d jump ahead, I wouldn’t worry about that, I’d jump ahead and do a scene at the end and that would help me understand what would be in the middle of the book. And then I’d throw out things from the outline, so when the outline said I could write the last scene from the book first, or the first scene last, or middle whenever I want.

NOTE: I’ve wanted to tell this story to Jeffery Deaver for years, which is why I kept imagining that I’d run into him in the grocery store.

DPM: When I was in Greece on the island of Santorini in 2001, I had a run-in with a batch of devious mussels that laid me low at my hotel for a full day and a half. I had just enough energy to read and stare out over the caldera from my cliff-hanging room. I had finished the book I had taken with me and I remembered seeing a book shelf full of books in the hotel lobby. I went up to borrow a book, and almost all the books were Greek, or French, or Spanish, or some language I could neither speak nor read. But there was a Canadian copy of The Coffin Dancer.

JD: What a fun story. Thank you so much for telling me that.

DPM: I don’t know why I hadn’t read that one before, but was so glad that I hadn’t. Before I gave it back to them, I wrote on the inside cover the story of how I had picked up the book, wrote where I was from and asked everyone to leave the book there along with a little note. I would love to know where that book ended up.

JD: Well, Deborah, what I think you have to do is take another vacation there and take a look for yourself. [laughing]

DPM: Since you love to cook so much is there any chance that we’ll see more “Selected Recipes” like in The Kill Room?

JD: [laughing] Yeah, it’s very likely. I was mentioning to a group earlier, that I have a plan for a book that’s primarily cuisine oriented. It’s not a mystery, actually. There may be some mystery elements to it, but it’s more of a historical book. But I’m pretty busy, I usually do two books a year, and haven’t really been able to focus on that, but it occurred to me that the adage a writer has to write about what he or she knows about – that’s true, that doesn’t mean you can’t research something or learn about it, but it’s something that’s been integral to my life forever since I was little – cooking and food. My grandmother really taught me how to cook. It’s not like she taught me, but I would stand at her side in the kitchen and lick the cake batter off the Mix Master beaters. I would watch what she did and she would cook everything from scratch. So I had that knowledge, and it was second nature to me. When I wrote The Kill Room, I didn’t have to do a lot of research. I wanted a villain who was a cook, not a professional chef, but a cook. That had nothing really to do with his crimes, but he was an informed character. I had great fun doing that. One time I was in Milan in the kitchen of Master Chef Judge Carlo Cracco and he pronounced me “yes, you are a good chef.” I kinda wanted to be great. [laughing] He’s like the Anthony Bourdain of Italy. He’s an amazing chef, I think he has two Michelin stars, so for him to say I was a good chef, I was very pleased by that.

DPM: Did you ever see Who’s Killing The Great Chefs of Europe?

JD: I did not. I wish I had seen it, but I did not.

DPM: You might still be able to get it. The last time I saw it was maybe 10 years ago. It was one of my favorite mystery movies. I grew up reading mysteries. Nancy Drew. The Hardy Boys, Agatha Christie. Somewhere I read a piece where you were talking about the lack of young adult writers during the time when we were growing up.

JD: Yeah, I read Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, John D. McDonald. Raymond Chandler was a little advanced for me. Those were all simple stories. The James Bond books, of course, I read and loved. Len Deighton. John LeCarre, when I was a bit older. His books are a bit more complex and a little darker. He’s one of my favorite writers, an absolute powerhouse, but he can be very cynical and dark sometimes. But there was Nancy Drew and Dorothy Sayers. I loved those a lot.

DPM: I crowd-sourced some questions on social media. Ready for them?

JD: Excellent. Yes.

DPM: Most of the people who share my love of Lincoln Rhyme now only see him portrayed by Denzel Washington when they are reading. What are your thoughts on that?

JD: First thing I have to say, and a lot of people don’t understand this, is that books and movies are two entirely separate phenomenon. I have never had any desire to make a film. Well, I can’t actually say that. When I was young in this business, I wrote a number of scripts that were uniformly rejected, and I thought to myself I don’t really want to go into the business of writing and then not have it pay off. Now when you write a novel, when you have a contract or a publisher, it will be published. It may not be exactly the way you finished it. The editor may change something, but it’s guaranteed to be published. The movies are very, very different. There are films now with well-known actors that are just sitting on shelves that for various reasons will never see the light of day. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of thousands of scripts that have been bought and paid for and are never even going to be filmed. And I thought, well, I don’t want to do that. My attitude about films is that for me, I love watching films, but they are like paid advertising. I thought The Bone Collector was a serviceable thriller. The casting was different, and this is not anything politically incorrect, in the book Lincoln Rhyme is white and Denzel Washington is African-American, but that’s not a surprise to anyone. [laughing] And it really doesn’t make a big difference at all … I should say his interpretation of the character was spot on, as they say in England. He nailed the format and also the resolution that my Lincoln Rhyme had. After all, he is Denzel Washington and he’s acting with Angelina Jolie. I was in the theater watching them saying lines that I had actually written in the book and that was one of the biggest thrills of my life, I have to say that.

DPM: I also like to read Michael Connelly and I’m not all that excited about Harry Bosch becoming a living, breathing character, because I want him to remain who I imagine him to be.

JD: One of the reasons I write novels and short stories is that I believe based on my own experience that written fiction is the most amazing and enduring and thrilling form of creative experience. I was a huge Breaking Bad fan. I think it may be the best thing I’ve ever seen on television. And it was just so well done on every level and at the end of the day, a novel that I’ve had to participate in by reading, I mean something written by another author .. at the end of the day, because I have brought something to it that was not passive, it was active … it was my own imagination and my own interpretation of the words and the images and so forth, it stays with me more. And it moves you more. I love TV shows. I love both the original and the remake of House of Cards.

DPM: Oh, gosh, me too!

JD: I think Homeland is superb. But ultimately, I think it’s books that move us the most, and if you ask any of the young people about Harry Potter … these people read a 600 page book in one or two days … and how they were so moved by J.K. Rowling’s writing. The movies are good. You can’t deny the special effects and the actors and actresses did a great job, but ultimately I think it’s the book that really moves us. But I can enjoy them both on their own turf.

DPM: I think Harry Potter is this generations Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

JD: I was a big Lord of the Rings fan. I think I read the first Harry Potter. I didn’t dislike it, but I wasn’t that engaged. I‘ve been told that you really needed to keep reading because in the second book, the story really took off. But I also work 6 days a week, maybe 8 – 10 – 12 hours a day on my own books and I have very little time, unfortunately, for reading for pleasure now.

DPM: That was another crowd-sourced question. Do you have time to read on your own?

JD: I read a great deal, but it’s all Famous Toxins of the World or Blood Spatter Analysis {laughing}. I do the research and I have a huge library of forensic and police material that I have to bone up on every time I return to a book that I’m writing. You know, after a few years the eyes aren’t what they used to be. The back isn’t what it used to be. Then, you know, at midnight after having written since 8 in the morning, you pull that book off your bedside table and read one paragraph and the next thing you know it’s 7 in the morning.

DPM: We’re the same age, so know exactly what you’re talking about.

DPM: Is there was anything you secretly wish someone would ask you that you have never been asked?

JD: The first thought that comes to mind is that I’ve been writing now for 35 years, 35 novels and about 70 short stories and I tour about 4 months out a year … you can probably see where this going. I’m not sure I haven’t been asked everything that could be asked. Though this does bring up an interesting point, Deborah, and my philosophy of writing. The question was “is there anything I would have wanted to have been asked.” And that would sort of suggest something about me that I would like to bring out to the public, in fact, I would be happy to be completely invisible. What’s important to me is the reader. I don’t have any patience for authors who will say “well, I don’t care about the readers, it’s their job to understand my book. The readers, they may not want to read my book, but that’s not my fault, that’s their fault, because they don’t put the time or energy into it.” I think that’s ridiculous. I get paid to make up things for a living. And how good is that? It doesn’t get any better than that. I have an obligation to my readers to make sure they have fun, that they can understand the books, that I don’t offend them, that I don’t do excessive violence, that I don’t hurt children or animals. I stay away from sexual violence in my books. It’s a completely legitimate topic to write about, I just choose not to.

I’ll give you an example. Last year I wrote a book, The October List, which went backwards, so you open with chapter 36. It was more work per page than anything I’ve written, even though it was a much shorter book, because it was clearly a variation on my typical story. It had a surprise beginning, not a surprise ending, and because it goes back in time to chapter 1 where we reveal that everything you’ve been reading up ‘til now is completely different than what we thought. I spent so much time rewriting over and over and over again to make sure that the readers, who I knew would be challenged by the book, nonetheless, would be able to understand it and figure out what was going on. And, by and large, people said once we got into the first 30 or 40 pages then they had a handle on the characters and what was going on and how I was playing the game. And they loved it

The Daily Standard called it “a work of genius.” There were other reviewers who were less kind. I think somebody said “let’s hope he doesn’t do it again.” [laughing] But my intent in doing that was to give my readers something they had not seen before, because that’s the important job we authors have – to make the storytelling new and fresh, and to also make sure they understand it, that it was fun and an enjoyable experience, and they didn’t have to work too hard. I feel like I should be asking my readers “is there anything you want me to ask you?” That’s probably a question I would absolutely love to ask my readers.

DPM: That’s a nice response. I like that.

DPM: Forgive me for not remembering, but there was one Lincoln Rhyme book where there was discussion of an operation so he could walk again. Personally speaking, I’m kind of opposed to that. I didn’t want him to change. I guess that’s my way of saying that we readers get invested in our characters.

JD: That actually is a theme in The Kill Room, and the subject has come up off and on. Now he has a very severe disability. Of course, quadraplegia is largely permanent, there are some things that can be done to enumerate the condition, and it’s a very, very devastating disability. But the point of Lincoln Rhyme was, I wanted a crime solver, a protagonist who was, in a way, an updated Sherlock Holmes. Holmes, of course, was mobile and occasionally pulled out a gun, and every now and then fought the bad guy. The Sherlock Holmes in the Conan Doyle books was nothing like Robert Downey Jr. in the movies. My idea was to create a hero who was clear of mind, because we are our minds before we are anything else. Who doesn’t have something about their physical body that they’re not happy with or have some limitation? So I thought well, I’ll write this book that became The Bone Collector, and then I thought, well, this is an interesting character. And then I went on to write something else. But it turned out that Rhyme became extremely popular. I mean, astonishingly popular. Lincoln had fan clubs around the world. And people wanted him. It was very heartening for me, and that’s because as I mentioned a moment ago, I write for the readers, so I said well, okay, I’ll write Lincoln Rhyme as long as people want him.

I understand that I’m a good plotter. I write very well integrated, fast moving plots, and people like that, I know. But there are other writers that do that, so ultimately I think that readers love a character – or hate a character – that they love to hate. Hannibal Lector is a truly despicable human being, and yet we are in love with him. We like him almost as much as Clarice Starling, the other hero from Silence of the Lambs. So that was an important lesson to me that certain characters cannot be an add-on, they have to be a reason to read the book in itself whatever they do. Lincoln is popular. Kathryn Dance is somewhat less popular than Rhyme. She’s a more conventional heroine, and the books are set out here in California. She has quite a following too, and I put her into the psychological crime solver, Lincoln is a forensic science crime solver. Kathryn is a technological crime solver, because there are many types of crimes that don’t hang on forensic evidence. A good analogy on TV would be Criminal Minds or CSI. I also really like writing women protagonists. I really enjoy that. I like stepping into these different roles and cultures and different genders. But she’s extremely popular and some people don’t like Lincoln. They don’t like the fact that he cannot improve.

DPM: I can’t even imagine someone NOT liking Lincoln Rhyme. I love Kathryn Dance too. One of my best friends is a neurolinguist who rarely reads fiction, but I handed her a copy of The Cold Moon, the first Kathryn Dance novel, and she really enjoyed it.

JD: I did a lot of neurolinguistics research for Kathryn Dance. It’s such a fascinating topic and I have to pull some out, it’s a bit arcane. I have to be careful sometimes, just because I’m interested in a subject doesn’t mean that it’s important to the plot or character development.

DPM: Well, this has been fun. I really appreciate your time.

JD: It’s been a delight talking to you and I’m looking forward to seeing you at Flyleaf. I’m also going to be at Quail Ridge the next night. Take care, Deborah.

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