G. Robert Frazier

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard once said writers should “try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” That’s advice Scott Frank clearly takes to heart in his debut novel, Shaker. Frank captures the underbelly of Los Angeles’ streets to perfection with sharply written prose and biting dialogue. There are no wasted words here, as right from the start things take an unexpected turn and the complications begin to multiply for main character Roy Cooper.

Cooper isn’t the sort of character readers expect or want to spend a lot of time with—he’s a killer on a mission, ruthless and efficient. But in typical Leonard fashion, Frank takes Cooper from unlikable killer to sympathetic loner. Sent to jail as a kid to protect his mother and baby brother, Cooper grows up fast in prison under the tutelage of fellow inmate/mentor Albert Budin, who continues to play an influence in his life long after their release from prison.

Cooper’s on a job to kill a money-skimming accountant in sunny LA when he stumbles into a back-alley mugging by four teenage gangbangers. Though he’s unable to save the victim of the gang’s assault, his efforts instantly garner him media status as a hero. This attention to his deeds works against him, however, as the gang sets out for revenge, a nosy detective suspects Cooper’s not all he appears to be and Cooper’s old mentor, Budin, is sent to clean up his mess.

Best known for his screenplays Little Man Tate, Minority Report, The Interpreter, Marley & Me and The Wolverine, Frank collaborated with Leonard on both Out of Sight and Get Shorty. In Shaker, Frank deftly blends action with flashbacks that allow us to get close to these characters and learn their motivations and flaws. The result is a richly layered crime story that is at times moving, humorous and, more often than not, violently bloody.

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard once said writers should “try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” That’s advice Scott Frank clearly takes to heart in his debut novel, Shaker. Frank captures the underbelly of Los Angeles’ streets to perfection with sharply written prose and biting dialogue. There are no wasted words here, as right from the start things take an unexpected turn and the complications begin to multiply for main character Roy Cooper.

Beneath the suspense-filled action of a homegrown terrorist plot, Nicholas Petrie’s debut novel, The Drifter, follows the compelling story of one former Marine’s struggle to reacclimate himself to civilian life while honoring his commitment to a fallen soldier. That alone is reason to keep reading, but Petrie amps up the stakes in surprising fashion, creating a story that is moving, thrilling and satisfying on every level.

Like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Peter Ash is a loner with an uncompromising sense of honor and duty. A soldier home after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Ash is already battling personal demons in the form of a “white static” that constantly threatens his ability to function. The condition, a byproduct of post-traumatic stress, manifests itself whenever he enters confined spaces, forcing him to eschew the modern conveniences of hearth and home for uneasy nights spent under the stars or in his beat-up pickup truck where the wide windows ease his troubled soul.

Upon learning that one of the men he commanded overseas has committed suicide, a guilt-ridden Ash leaves the relative safety of his new lifestyle to aid the widow the man left behind. In the process of rebuilding the woman’s porch, and his own life, Ash finds his former soldier’s mangy dog standing guard over a suitcase filled with $400,000 in cash and four blocks of C4 explosives. Ash sets off on a trail of discovery, both internally as he learns to cope with his affliction and externally as he attempts to determine the origins of the money and the purpose for the explosives—all while trying to keep the widow and her children safe from the men who actually killed her husband.

Petrie’s meticulous research into the effects of PTSD on the nation’s returning veterans and the internal war many of them still fight as they try to resume their normal life brings an added dimension to his main character, but without being preachy. The result is an intimate story of personal discovery as well as an obsessive pageturner of a book.

Beneath the suspense-filled action of a homegrown terrorist plot, Nicholas Petrie’s debut novel, The Drifter, follows the compelling story of one former Marine’s struggle to reacclimate himself to civilian life while honoring his commitment to a fallen soldier. That alone is reason to keep reading, but Petrie amps up the stakes in surprising fashion, creating a story that is moving, thrilling and satisfying on every level.

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Thomas Mullen has a knack for stepping into someone else’s shoes and telling stories from their unique perspective. It’s that ability that fuels each of his novels, including his latest, Darktown.

Set in 1948, the novel follows Atlanta’s first black police officers when the Jim Crow era of segregation was still in full effect—six years before Brown vs. Board of Education, seven years before the Montgomery bus boycott, and before the first key victories of the civil rights movement. In order to make these black police officers palatable to the white community, they had to operate under a number of Jim Crow restrictions. They could only patrol black neighborhoods. They couldn’t drive squad cars. They couldn’t even set foot in the main police headquarters for fear of being beaten by other white officers, many of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Mullen talked with BookPage during his visit to the 2016 Southern Festival of Books in Nashville.

How were you, as a white person, able to write with authenticity from a black person’s point of view in the novel?
Doing historical fiction forces you out of your comfort zone. It forces you to try to imagine what it would be like to be in this completely foreign environment. You can’t expect to just parachute into another culture and write about it well. It takes work, it takes a deep amount of respect and knowledge. If you don’t have knowledge about something, then your impressions are going to be thin and flat and, by definition, you’re going to write stereotypes.

There were all kinds of divisions between wealthy and poor and middle class and poor, longtime Atlantans and newcomers, educated and non-educated. So, I wanted to make sure my characters felt very three-dimensional and made use of all this diversity.

I was initially a bit wary that this seems to violate some taboos that some people have, to write a character that is a different race than yourself, but I felt that if I took the time and did the research that I could do this well. I think that fiction is all about empathy and seeing the world through other people’s eyes, whether they are a different race, a different gender, or in a different time period. In the science fiction community, it could be a different kind of creature entirely. That’s one of the great things about fiction. How can I as a writer ask my readers to take that empathetic leap if I’m not even doing it?

 “I think that fiction is all about empathy and seeing the world through other people’s eyes, whether they are a different race, a different gender, or in a different time period. . . . That’s one of the great things about fiction. How can I as a writer ask my readers to take that empathetic leap if I’m not even doing it?”

What was going through your mind as you were reading up on the mistreatment of these officers?
People ask me, were you shocked by what you read? And no, not really. Maybe it’s because I’ve studied the civil rights era and mid-20th century America a lot. It’s disturbing, it’s enraging, it’s definitely sobering and depressing, but I don’t think it should be seen as shocking to anyone. We should be taught enough about this that it doesn’t blow our minds. I thought it was very compelling and there were a lot of possibilities for interesting characters with unique dilemmas that I could bring to life. The civil rights movement is getting further in the rearview mirror, and there are whole generations now that don’t know the stories apart from what they hear on television and what they see in history books. I think that fiction, by dramatizing characters and seeing through their eyes what it was like to go through that, can make certain things pop that don’t quite pop in textbooks.

Did you do any interviews in your research?
The original eight have passed away. I was able to find a few people who started in the ’60s and knew of some of the original eight. They told me that even in the early ’60s it was very dysfunctional in terms of the white cops not working with the black cops. I also found articles written in the ’80s and ’90s catching up with some of the officers. Some of the articles were quite long, and that’s how I read, in their own words, how the white cops would try to run them down, the white cops would make monkey noises, the white cops would drop the N-word in front of them and on the radio. So, a lot of stuff that happens in the book I got from that. I also found a couple of digitized interviews done in the ’80s from a big oral history research project in Atlanta. There were two done with some of the original black cops, so I got to hear their words and stories and the way they spoke and that was helpful.

Was the novel done by the time Ferguson and events like that started to happen?
I sent a draft to my agent around Labor Day 2014 and was tightening and editing stuff in the summer when Michael Brown was killed. At no time did I ever go back and tweak things or alter characters based on what happened. But it was strange to see race and policing land under that national spotlight in a way that hadn’t happened since Rodney King. I can’t say that this book was a response to that summer, but these are issues that have always been percolating under the surface. These will always be relative things to talk about.

You are originally from Rhode Island and spent several years in the Washington, D.C., area, before moving to Atlanta. Do you feel with this book you’ll be embraced as a Southern writer?
I was worried at first that I wouldn’t be embraced. But I’m a writer and where I live doesn’t really matter. My first three books are set in really different places. I didn’t feel like I was pledged to a certain location where my geographic muse was. This is the first of my books actually set in the South that can actually be put with Southern writers or on a regional bookshelf.

You’ve got a sequel in the works?
My editor is editing it right now. It’s set two years later with all the surviving characters in Darktown.

Thomas Mullen has a knack for stepping into someone else’s shoes and telling stories from their unique perspective. It’s that ability that fuels each of his novels, including his latest, Darktown. Mullen talked with BookPage about the first black police officers, writing outside your race and more during his visit to the 2016 Southern Festival of Books in Nashville.

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It’s Private Eye July at BookPage! This month, we’re celebrating the sinister side of fiction with the year’s best mysteries and thrillers. Look for the Private Eye July magnifying glass for a dose of murder, espionage and all those creepy neighbors with even creepier secrets.

Praised by horrormeister Stephen King, Paul Tremblay’s shocking new novel, The Cabin at the End of the World, is an often graphic account of one family’s ordeal when their vacation is shattered in a cult-like home invasion. We asked Tremblay about the book’s origins, its dark path and his inner fears that helped forge the novel.

How does it feel to receive a compliment from a literary horror master like King?
I was a mathematics major in college and about to go off to a graduate program for two years, and Lisa (my wife) gave me The Stand for my 22nd birthday. It would be a cliché to say that book changed my life, but it did. I haven’t stopped reading King since. I became a reader—never mind a writer—because of Stephen King. That Stephen now reads my books and enjoys them is one of the highlights of my career.

Your previous novel, A Head Full of Ghosts, was a Stoker Award winner for best horror novel in 2015. What is it like to follow up a book that’s been so well received? Did it change your writing process at all?
The response to A Head Full of Ghosts has been amazing and thrilling. I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel a little extra pressure trying to follow it up. Some of that OK, what the heck are you going write now? is natural and healthy. Letting it take over and paralyze the process is not healthy.

Aside from worrying if what I’m working on was as good as AHFoG or not, my writing process hasn’t been changed. Cabin is my seventh novel, and while I still have to push through plenty of doubt and anxiety, I’ve earned a little bit of confidence. I’ve been to the finish line with those other novels, so it’s a bit easier to believe I can get there again with the next one.

A few years ago I was in the midst of gnashing my teeth while working on my novel Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. I sent friend/mentor/genius Stewart O’Nan an email telling him I was worried the book wasn’t as good as the last novel and didn’t know how people would react to it, blah blah blah.

He said, “Eh, not everything you’re going to write is going to be great.” I laughed out loud when I read the email, and it was exactly what I needed to here. I still find his pithy quote oddly comforting, reaffirming and inspiring. Maybe I should put it on a T-shirt.

“Most horror stories feature the reveal of a horrible truth (or potential truth) or some terrible event, ambiguous or not. My favorite stories then focus on the aftermath and on what the characters are going to do next. What decisions are they going to make?”

There are some shocking developments in store for each of the characters in Cabin. Did you ever pause midstream during writing those scenes to ask, “Did I just go too far?”
I never thought or asked that question during the writing of Cabin. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a pause when it comes to the use of violence.

In Cabin the cast is so small and the violence is up close and personal, so my pause was about making sure to take the proper amount of time to figure out how the violence was to be portrayed and how it affected the characters. I did not want those scenes to simply be about titillation or shock, although there’s no denying there are elements of both whenever violence is used in entertainment/art. I hope those scenes are super disturbing in Cabin, and I hope I’m successful in treating the experiences of both the victim and perpetrator(s) of the violent act with authenticity. There are great and terrible consequences to any act of violence, and they reverberate beyond the act itself. The survivors and witnesses are fundamentally changed by what they experienced. There’s no going back for anyone after the horror and transgression of violence.

This story is powerful both emotionally and viscerally. How do you balance the two for the benefit of the reader?
Thank you! I think if you treat all of your characters, even the odious ones, with empathy (not sympathy; there’s a difference), the reader will be willing to follow you into dark places. When you use empathy as a base—the want to understand a character, why she does what she does, says what she says—I think it’s easier to build trust with the reader, particularly in a horror/suspense story. That’s not to say bad things won’t happen or there won’t be surprises, but the reader’s emotional investment is rewarded because that investment was grounded in empathy.

Most horror stories feature the reveal of a horrible truth (or potential truth) or some terrible event, ambiguous or not. My favorite stories then focus on the aftermath and on what the characters are going to do next. What decisions are they going to make? How are they going to live through this? And by proxy, we readers ask, how are we going to live through this?

There are great and terrible consequences to any act of violence, and they reverberate beyond the act itself.”

Where did the genesis for this novel come from? Is there some inner fear that you have that you’ve incorporated here?
I was on a plane scribbling in one of my notebooks, looking for a new novel/story idea, and I looked down to find I’d randomly drawn a cabin. (An artist I am not, by the way.) I looked at the cabin and drew a few stick figures (again, not an artist) outside the cabin, and I got to thinking about the home-invasion subgenre of horror. It’s a subgenre that I really don’t enjoy all that much. There are some books/films that I like (Wait Until Dark, Ils (Them), Hush), but generally, too many of those stories are mean-spirited, cynical and at times sadistic. With all that in mind, I was excited by the challenge of writing a home-invasion story that I would want to read. So why not a home-invasion-maybe-the-apocalypse-is-happening-too story? Very early in the process, the book became an allegory for our current socio-political predicament, which was another hook for me.

Home-invasion stories scare me for sure, but I think one of my biggest metaphysical fears is represented in the novel, but I can’t really talk about it with spoiling the whole thing. Sorry!

Many writers believe they are their own harshest critic. Is that the case with you as well, and if so, what do you do to silence that inner critic?
I’m harsh on myself. But let’s be honest, I’m not as harsh as the online one-star critic who says, “This book is boring and stupid and smells like poo.” The smell part is the most hurtful.

As much as a pain in the butt as he is, I don’t want to totally silence my inner critic. Generally he’s helpful. When the inner critic’s voice gets too loud, I promise him I’ll deal with him and his concerns, but later, and not until after I write my 500 new words for the day.

What are you working on next?
I just finished a draft of my short story collection Growing Things and Other Stories. It’s due to be published summer 2019. The collection features a few stories that have connections to my novels, including one story that features adult Merry from A Head Full of Ghosts after her tell-all book was published. I’m working on a short screenplay for a secret project, and I need to get off my duff and start the next novel. That, and working on helping my kid visit and apply to colleges. Send help.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Cabin at the End of the World.

Praised by horrormeister Stephen King, Paul Tremblay’s shocking new novel, The Cabin at the End of the World, is an often graphic account of one family’s ordeal when their vacation is shattered in a cult-like home invasion. We asked Tremblay about the book’s origins, its dark path and his inner fears that helped forge the novel.

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In the new novel from Lou Berney, two people fleeing from their previous lives—a man running from a hitman after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and a mom escaping a bad husband—meet on Route 66. We spoke with Berney about November Road, memories of Route 66 and JFK.

You mention in the foreword how your mother traveled Route 66 from Oklahoma to California and shared those memories with you. Have you been able to make that trek yourself? How did it compare to her stories?
I’ve driven from Oklahoma to California (and back again) many times. My mother’s stories about her travels are still so vivid in my mind, it’s always as if I’m seeing the landscape through her eyes: the lonely Texas/New Mexico border where her family’s car broke down (they had to spend the night in the car); the Painted Desert, which my mother always said was a great disappointment since the colors were far less bold than the billboard advertisements; the wreck by the side of the road they came upon once, two shattered cars in the desert, some little girl’s doll peeking out from the wreckage. Every time I drive that route, I feel especially close to my mother.

Why did you choose to set this story against the backdrop of Kennedy’s assassination? How much research did you undertake?
My family was Catholic, and both of my parents had been deeply shaken by the Kennedy assassination. Every summer my father, mother and I drove down from Oklahoma City to Arlington to see a Texas Rangers baseball game. Every summer my father would detour through Dallas and follow the route that the president’s motorcade had taken.

I did a lot—a lot—of research about the assassination. And then—wisely, I hope—I left most of it out of my novel. I wanted the focus of November Road to be on the characters, their journeys. The assassination plays an important role, both thematically and in plot terms, but that’s not what the novel is really about. It’s about two people who are on the run from the past, toward the future.

Author Ivy Pochoda describes November Road as a novel that defies categorization—as part love story, part gangster story, part cross-country adventure. How would you describe it?
I love Ivy’s description of November Road. I didn’t set out to write a novel with so many different elements, but I know I’m drawn—as reader and writer—to stories that have a lot going on, a lot of layers, a lot of characters colliding with each other. I used to worry that was a weakness of mine, as a writer, but now I just kind of embrace it. There’s a quote, I think it’s from Don Quixote, I love: It’s better to lose by a card too many than a card too few.

Your hero, Frank Guidry, isn’t exactly a good guy. How did you tackle making him a person that readers could ultimately root for?
Frank Guidry is definitely not a good guy. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be likable and engaging and complicated, so I worked hard to make him all that. Most importantly, though, I needed to make him capable of change. I didn’t know until I wrote his last chapter if Frank actually would change, but I really wanted him to—and so I hope that meant that readers would want that, too.

How did writing November Road compare to writing your previous novels? Was it easier or more difficult? In what way?
November Road was tough to write. I made so many false starts and wrong turns you wouldn’t believe it. Originally, for example, the entire novel was going to be set in Charlotte’s small Oklahoma hometown, which turned out to be a disaster. And originally Frank Guidry wasn’t even a character. Basically, from initial proposal to final draft, I ended up changing the main character, the setting, the plot and the theme. That’s all. But the good thing about writing a novel, and having a patient editor, is that you can go back and fix your mistakes.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
My big wish is that readers finish the book feeling both entertained and moved. I can’t say if I succeeded or not, but I wanted to write a book that was both hard to put down and hard to forget.

November Road is a book about discovery, about what’s important and about being the person you were meant to be. What did you discover about yourself in writing it?
I really like that description of what November Road is about. And I think a similar thing happened to me while I was writing it. I started trusting myself more, doubting less, and letting the characters take the story where they wanted to take it. Like I said earlier, the process was a lot bouncier than I’d anticipated. But it was also liberating in a way I’d never experienced before.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of November Road.

In the new novel from Lou Berney, two people fleeing from their previous lives—a man running from a hitman after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and a mom escaping a bad husband—meet on Route 66. We spoke with Berney about November Road, memories of Route 66 and JFK.

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A seemingly random encounter in the woods of Northern Georgia between a defense attorney Ama Chaplin and a serial killer quickly explodes into terror in Casey Dunn’s Silence on Cold River. Ama once successfully defended the killer in court, even though she knew he was guilty. Did fate play a hand in bringing the pair together again? And how will fate play a role in how their lives go forward? The questions nag at the minds of each character and will nag at readers as well. We put some of the questions to Dunn to help us sort things out.

You previously wrote a trilogy of fantasy/romance titles (The Hightower trilogy, published under the name Jadie Jones,) but with Silence on Cold River you’ve switched gears into a mystery/thriller. What made you decide to change genres? What was the greatest challenge for you in moving to the thriller genre?
When I first began work on the Hightower trilogy, I was also a new mom, and the world, seemingly overnight, had become a more dangerous place. I felt compelled to create a kind of enemy that did not actually exist—a “big bad” that there was no reason to genuinely fear. In looking back, I was not yet ready to confront how much of a danger one person can be to another, how much of a threat a perfect stranger could be to my new little family. Then, as edits on the final book in the trilogy drew to a close, I realized that the most depraved, horrifying characteristics of my otherworldly villains weren’t supernatural at all, but utterly human, and the curiosity to create and face down a monster of a human began to grow. In writing thrillers, I am forcing my characters to face some of my biggest fears.

The two biggest differences that I noticed in switching between the genres are pacing and world building. In a fantasy story, a writer has to create a world (or aspects of it) that a reader has never considered before, then fill it with fantastical creatures that are still relatable and believable. World building is a fundamental cornerstone of any fantasy tale, because without it, the entire proverbial castle crumbles. Thrillers are often set in a world a reader understands enough of almost immediately or with very little help, and the story is built instead on the goal of a killer and the efforts of everyone else to survive it and/or stop it from coming to fruition. Pacing is the foundation of a thriller, and it is critical that it is done well.

In coming from a fantasy background, this shift in focus was my greatest challenge. There is no room for thick and heavy descriptions or physical world building beyond what is immediately and vividly sensory when you have a victim in the hands of a dangerous person and the clock is ticking. Is the water warm, cold, clear, dirty . . . ? Who cares when you have a hook through your cheek, and someone somewhere has suddenly began tugging on the other end of the line?

Who are some thriller writers you admire? What is it about their writing that appeals to you and did you try to emulate them in any way with Silence? How do you think you did?
What I admire most in a book in any genre is voice. While action is imperative in a thriller, the voice delivering every blow to the reader’s internal ear is equally important. The voice is what makes me care, and when the voice and the pacing are spot on, the result is a breathtaking ride from start to finish. Thriller writers who have done this to me include Gillian Flynn, A.J. Finn, Paula Hawkins, Gytha Lodge, Wiley Cash and Felicity McLean. Since voice is the primary make-or-break deal for me in the books I read, I tried to keep that goal present in mind in every scene, and it is also how I decided which chapters would be presented from a first-person perspective and which came more naturally and effectively in a third-person perspective. It is not for me to judge in terms of how well I think I did, but I can tell you that I tried my guts out, and I learned a lot along the way.

You were born and raised in Atlanta, but now live on a horse farm in Southern Oregon. What is it about Atlanta that drew you back to setting Silence there, rather than closer to home in Oregon?
I spent most of my life in Georgia and began writing Silence on Cold River soon after moving to Oregon. The small town we moved to is close-knit, and even though this rugged valley felt like home from early on, I felt like the outsider that I was in many ways. What people care about is different in a rural agricultural community than in a big city like Atlanta. The landscape, the weather (it rained for 100 consecutive days our first winter,) the hardships, the goals, the shopping, the culture, the history, the lingo, the politics, you name it. So, to write something that dove deeply into the psyches of all the characters who were experiencing things entirely foreign to me, I needed to build their world somewhere familiar, a place I understood from basement to roof. Now, four years after moving away, returning to the noise and crowds (and traffic) of Atlanta is a shocking experience. The newest work-in-progress in my queue is tentatively set in southern Oregon.

One of the most notable aspects of Silence is how the chapters alternate between your characters. How difficult was it to stay true to each character’s individual mindset, yet blend the overall story so seamlessly together?
In the early stages, I stumbled around through the first draft of the first act, trying to figure out where in the world I was taking the main plot. Then, while writing a conversation between Ama and Michael, a new secondary character appeared from out of nowhere (I hadn’t planned much about the story, but I really hadn’t planned on her) and I realized this story was about to take a hairpin turn. I scrapped everything I had written after the first chapter and started again, focusing on each character’s story as its own stand-alone narrative, moving forward by two or three scenes in one character’s perspective at a time. This way, I could forecast where they were going and what they were up against next, and I could develop their voice more clearly the longer I stayed inside their head. As I uncovered points of intersection with other characters, I would make notes for the other characters’ chapters, past and present, and edit/draft accordingly. Once I had everyone’s stories mostly mapped out, I placed the first page of each chapter on my bedroom floor, and then rearranged them one hundred million times. Once I had an order that felt natural, I tightened timelines and used small details or pieces of symmetry to feed one chapter into the next.

Silence on Cold River was written one scene at a time on whatever piece of paper I had on hand that day . . .”

I imagine that with a story of this scope and complexity, you must have used a detailed outline or whiteboard to keep everything straight. Did that leave any room for writing on the fly?
If it gives you any idea just how much planning and outlining and organization went into Silence, I read this question out loud to my husband as we stood in the kitchen of our century-old farm house after spending all day tilling ground and sowing seeds for a large vegetable garden. We were covered in dirt and dried sweat, skin pink from an afternoon in the sun. He was pouring a glass of water when I read it to him. He set down the glass, rested both hands on the lip of our big white sink, looked at me out of his peripheral and burst out laughing. An hour later, gathered around the dining room table, I read the same question to my mother. She glanced from me to my husband to my father, who both stared back with wide eyes, lips pressed firmly together. Then she threw her head back and cackled. Paused, drew a breath, tried to look at me and laughed until she cried.

I am, hands down, one of the least organized people I have ever met. From start to finish, Silence on Cold River was written one scene at a time on whatever piece of paper I had on hand that day, which I would transfer to a Word document on my ancient laptop once all my kids were in bed for the night. I had neither a detailed outline nor a whiteboard, but I wish that I had. For months, my purse, my truck, my desk and the kitchen counter were littered with fragments and notes as I brainstormed single conversations or snapshot moments. And I had no solid plan for how Silence was going to end. I had a rough idea for what I thought I wanted to happen (especially to Michael), but when my characters arrived at that penultimate moment on the bank of Cold River, I realized my original inclination was not how it would organically play out. So, I let the chips fall, and I am grateful that I went that route instead.

That giant garden, by the way, is not planted in rows. Or labeled. We’ll all be surprised.

Typically, a first-person narrative is reserved for the protagonist of the story. Readers most want to identify with and sympathize with the protagonist, who in this case is Ama. But in Silence, you’ve written the antagonist, Michael, in first person. Why did you make that choice? Did that make writing this story more challenging?
The opening scene is what inspired the entire story—a teenage boy standing in a courtroom, waiting for the jury foreman to announce a verdict for a serious, yet unspecified, charge, followed by his genuine surprise upon learning that he’s gotten away with what he’s done. While the rest of the story changed multiple times during rewrites and edits, the first chapter remained untouched.

There is a fine line between unfolding an antagonist internally in such a way that adds to the story, and glorifying the villain. Knowing that I would be asking the reader to experience the development of a serial killer through a first-person perspective absolutely made his chapters harder to write. Michael believes in fate, that every moment in his life has led him here, and the only way to walk that path with him was to see it through his eyes. A villain rarely sees themselves as a “bad guy,” and Michael believes himself to be a hero on his own redemption journey. That’s not to say I agree with him, but this perspective gives the reader a full, unflinching picture of what Ama and his other victims are up against. In thrillers, sometimes what the killer is able to pull off seems impossible. By walking with Michael, a reader can see how he has remained hidden all these years, why he sees proof that fate is on his side and why he was found not guilty all those years ago. There is a moment early on where Ama says to Michael, “Tell me your story,” and it is, unbeknownst to him, one of her first successful efforts to regain an inch of control.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Silence on Cold River.

Michael believes much of what transpires in his life can be attributed to fate. Do you share any of these beliefs with him? Or is fate just what we make it?
When I began touring for the Hightower trilogy, I discovered a new, paralyzing phobia of flying, certain I was testing fate each time I stepped on a plane. I had not flown in years, and I could not abide by the idea of my children facing the teeth and claws of this world without me to protect them should the flight go down. Then one day, as I shopped at a consignment store for something to wear to a signing in Oklahoma, I confided my fears to a woman who worked there. She sat down with me, looked me square in the eyes, and said, “Our days are numbered, and only the Lord knows when your last day has come. Getting on the plane, not getting on the plane, it isn’t going to change when your number comes. But for what it’s worth, I have a feeling you’ll be just fine.”

Some people may consider her advice morbid or trite or over-the-top or too reminiscent of Final Destination, but I found a strange sense of comfort in it. That is not to say I believe fate will save me from myself if I throw all caution to the wind. It is our responsibility to determine which risks are worth the cost, and to remember that it often isn’t a cost we pay ourselves, but rather a potential debt we would pass on to those who rely on us if the cards don’t fall in our favor.

Michael’s devotion to the idea of fate is a showcase of what happens when any belief system is taken to the extreme and personal responsibility becomes meaningless. I think we are each a combination of what we are made of and what happens to us along the way. We will go through things in our lifetimes that can fundamentally change the way we value ourselves, our goals and/or the world around us. I believe that we are here on purpose and for a purpose, and it is the desire of our souls to figure out what that something is. Maybe that purpose is a moment, and maybe it is a lifetime. The ripple effect of a single action is something that mystifies me. It is possible that our personalities or patterns require us to face the same trials, conflict or decisions over and over until we learn whatever lesson it is that life has been trying to make us see, which may feel a little bit like fate. I am stubborn to a fault and tend to dig in all the more when I have something to push against, as if the reward will be greater if I had to suffer or work harder to reach it. But I have learned time and time again that sometimes those closed doors or speedbumps or rejections are the universe (or whatever you want to call it) trying to save us from ourselves or from accepting the comfort of a familiar devil, rather than staying open just a little longer to whatever might be coming right over the horizon.

“My father and his siblings all have an incredible talent for music. . . . Music was our peacemaker.”

Michael also obsesses over music quite a bit in this novel. What music moves you? Do you listen to music while you are writing?
My father’s side of the family is what most would refer to as “musical.” My grandmother was a singer and a pianist, even playing for an audience only a few weeks before dying of lung and spinal cancer. My father and his siblings all have an incredible talent for music. When I was a child, holiday dinners tended toward tension when those siblings and their mother gathered around the table, but by the end of the meal, they would all invariably drift toward the piano in the corner of the room, and for an hour or so they could all get along. Music was our peacemaker.

To flip that on its head and have music serve as both the wound and the weapon allowed me to explore this obsession of Michael’s from an emotional place. I still love music, and my preferences are all over the map, although live music from a single instrument will always give me pause (and goosebumps). I will turn on the stereo and crank up the volume when I cook, clean, drive, paint, you name it. But I cannot write a single word if music is on. Music is tied to memories for me, and my brain will jump aboard a familiar song or a good beat and sail away.

Unlike your first books, which were part of a trilogy, Silence is a self-contained story. Will we see any of the characters again? What’s next for you?
It was both satisfying and a little scary to write my first stand-alone story. I knew I had multiple storylines to wrap up in a way that felt honest and natural—doors opening and closing at the same time for multiple characters. I learned a lot about Detective Martin over the course of writing Silence, and he began to understand himself and his past in a different way, too. I am not ready to be done with Martin. He has access to a closet full of cold case files and a childhood in Alaska that I would love to explore. As for the others, I guess I’ll have to see where the next stories take me.

Right now, I am working on a thriller that opens 25 years in the past on a frigid night in rural Tennessee, and am also making notes on scrap pieces of paper about a fatal accident on a winding road in southern Oregon that is a cover-up for much, much more. I should probably invest in that whiteboard. I am going to need it.


Author photo by Stephanie Schlund.

Casey Dunn meditates on fate and the importance of perspective in her debut thriller, Silence on Cold River.

Interview by

John Fram, author of The Bright Lands, shares his fresh and frightening take on the small-town thriller and describes what it feels like to be compared to Stephen King.

What was the inspiration for the story? Where did the idea come from and what compelled you to see it through to the end?
All my life, I’ve wanted to read a suspense novel that featured a queer hero and dealt frankly with all the pressures and pleasures of the queer experience. One morning, over coffee, I realized that after spending years away from Texas, I would still be terrified to return to my hometown, even if something desperate were to arise and my family needed my help. I began to wonder what sort of chaos my queer hero could cause in just such a situation, especially if he came to suspect his hometown was hiding something from him.

The last author I interviewed laughed when I asked if she used a whiteboard to organize her plot. So I’ll just ask, what is your writing process and what did you learn that might help you next time?
The moment I started living in this book’s world, I found so much material—and so many characters—that I went more than a little overboard with the planning and the notes. This might be shocking, but apparently it’s not a great idea to write a rough outline that’s as long as a novel itself. Even after slicing out reams and reams of material, I still submitted a manuscript to my agent that needed to be cut down by another third. It was a humbling experience, but not an entirely unpleasant one. There’s nothing quite so thrilling as throwing 20 pages of decent material in the trash in the hope that five better ones will grow in their place. It takes faith, and maybe a streak of masochism.

“I think we’re all suckers for nostalgia.”

What is it about small-town America and football that is so eminently relatable to readers?
Oh, man, how long do you have? One of the greatest pleasures I take from a novel is the feeling of losing myself in a world where everyone is getting into each other’s secrets, making each other breakfast, robbing each other blind. On a purely technical level, small towns also give us a setting that’s easy for the reader to hold in her head, so to speak.

As for football, there’s something nice about a conflict in which we know exactly who to root for. Beyond that, I think we’re all suckers for nostalgia. Who doesn’t have some latent scent memory of bleacher steel, thunder, dry grass? We all love to suspend ourselves in the past again. What better way to do that than in a novel where everyone seems like someone you once knew?

Some early critics have likened the novel to those by Stephen King. Who are your influences, what did you learn from them and if you had to compare your writing to someone’s, who would that be?
The comparisons to Mr. King are more than mildly daunting. I think he casts a long shadow over all of us, though I didn’t actually have the courage to read him until I was in my late teens (when he, of course, rocked my world). When I was younger, my two idols were the British crime wizard Ruth Rendell and the almighty Alice Munro, who can teach us more about time and irony than anyone in English. Also, what little gay boy in the sticks doesn’t identify with Munro’s moody country girls, all eager to discard their childhoods?

A few years ago, I discovered Kate Atkinson and found, in her wry English observations, the courage to write in the voice my family used to tell stories at the table. Atkinson treats her characters in a way that’s imminently Texan: She regards them with compassion, brutal honesty and a bleak, gut-busting humor. So, these days, if I had to be anybody, I’d like to be the gay son that she and Stephen King never had.

There’s an obvious theme in the book about the pressures and expectations others put on a person, especially a star athlete like Dylan. His brother, Joel, is a gay man and faces his own prejudices. What compelled you to write about those pressures, and what lessons do you hope readers might take away from this novel?
I think subconsciously I understood that these two pressures aren’t all that different, though it took me until well into the writing process to articulate it. I’m not saying that the star athlete suffers as badly as the closeted kid next door, but both can suffer incredible pain if they fail to fulfill the need their hometown has for them. Once I had that epiphany, I realized I could expand the novel to encompass all manner of “other” people who are held to impossible standards or pushed out by society: women, people of color, the poor. I wanted to make the reader feel, if only for a few pages, how terrifying it is to be different in a place that doesn’t accept you. Ideally, that reader would feel empowered to kick down a few walls wherever they live. Otherwise, they’ll at least know why the weirdos like us won’t go away without a fight.

All of the characters depicted in The Bright Lands are richly layered and authentic. Did you draw from people you know in real life to help flesh out those characters, or are they more of an amalgamation of people you’ve met?
Like a lot of authors, I’ve always felt that I can turn a little invisible when I’m around people I want to know more about. Ever since I was little, I’ve blended into the edges of rooms and grocery lanes to eavesdrop on housewives, employees and schoolmates and gather up every odd turn of phrase or token of their inner life they might drop. It’s a valuable skill. After a few years, I realized I’d seen enough people to start stitching together a few of my own.

How much of yourself do you see in your characters? Did any of them reveal any truths about you that you hadn’t thought about until you saw it on the written page?
There’s a line about midway through the book that came to me only a few weeks before the book went out on submission. To paraphrase myself, it says that shame and fear, while one can lead to the other, can never be felt at the same time. I had worked a long, long time on the scene where that line appears, and when the words finally came together, I realized that it was maybe the only thing I’d learned in the first 25 years of my life.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Bright Lands.

For the first 200 pages, your book reads like a crime novel. We have a disappearance followed by the discovery of a body. But the further you get, the supernatural aspects become more prevalent. How difficult was it to balance those genres?
In its original form, this book was . . . I guess you’d say secular: no ghosts, no whispering voices, no shared nightmares. But I saw, in looking over that draft, that the text was so filled with strange, occult imagery—a deep hole, impossibly dark, kept creeping into all my metaphors—that I just sort of gave myself over to it during the rewrites. Introducing elements of the supernatural into a book with a carefully constructed mystery at its heart posed some incredibly satisfying technical challenges (to make sure the reader never felt cheated or done over) while also allowing me to heighten the drama for all of my characters. Yes, there are some strange powers at work in Bentley, but they’re simply enabling our culprits’ bad behavior. The darkness, in short, is already there inside them.

What do you hope a novel like The Bright Lands can do for readers in a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is gripping the world?
This might sound ridiculous, but I’ve found horror novels and thrillers to be weirdly homeopathic during this massive existential threat. I think this panic is driving home to the entire (straight, white) population something that queers and people of color and women have been saying for years: The world isn’t safe, and the people in charge are not looking out for you. Where can we find a better mirror to that reality than in a brutal piece of suspense?

What’s next for you?
If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to keep telling stories like The Bright Lands: character-driven supernatural thrillers whose monsters allow us to examine the sorts of scary truths we’d rather not acknowledge.


Author photo © Luke Fontana.


Something terrible lurks behind the facade of a small Texas town in John Fram’s thrilling debut.
Interview by

Paul Vidich’s spy thrillers have snaked through the history of the Cold War, beginning with his debut, An Honorable Man, which was set in 1950s Washington, D.C. His fourth novel, The Mercenary, opens in 1980s Moscow as a KGB agent attempts to defect to the United States. Former CIA officer Alex Garin has been sent to Moscow to make contact with and extract the agent. Here Vidich discusses the compelling humanity of spies and why the Cold War continues to fascinate readers.

First, congratulations on your new book, which is one of the most anticipated thrillers of 2021. Does it live up to the hype in your mind, or do you think the best Paul Vidich book is yet to come?
I think every writer suffers from the useful delusion that the book they are in the midst of writing is their best, which protects their fragile ego from the depressing prospect that their best work is behind them. This is what I know: Every book is hard work. I try new things with every novel in order to challenge myself and to surprise the reader. I play with point of view, with time, with narrative structure. So while every book is a spy novel, I experiment with new ways of engaging the reader. A bad novel for me would be the one where I got lazy.

It is an honor to be on a few of these lists, and hopefully they will bring attention to the novel, but my hope for any of my books is that a reader is taken in by the story. That’s all that matters.

Your novels have drawn favorable comparisons to authors like Joseph Conrad and John le Carré. How does that make you feel, and how do you live up to that sort of expectation?
I am a great admirer of Joseph Conrad and John le Carré, so comparisons to them are humbling. But it is dangerous to be lulled into believing comparisons to great dead writers because there is no way that you can live up to the comparisons, not just because they’re better, but because in death they are elevated to an unimpeachable status.

"Today, the enemy is stateless and violence seemingly random, which I believe makes us nostalgic for the measurable dangers of the Cold War."

What do you think you’ve been able to do in your writing that is unique to the literary spy genre?
My novels are character driven, and while they are plotted and the plots may be complex, the novels explore the difficult moral choices that men and women in the spy business make. Spies operate at the limits of civilized behavior, almost as outsiders, and their work requires them to betray acquaintances, suborn friends and sometimes murder adversaries, and inevitably these highly educated men and women bring some of that darkness into themselves. I am fascinated by that world. I explore themes of honor, trust, truth, betrayal and revenge in my characters, all with a dose of light-hearted fun.

What is your research process like?
Before sitting down to write a novel, I usually do six months of research to become comfortable with the novel’s elements: setting, characters, dialogue, theme and the historical context. Setting is not just scenery or nice descriptive passages, although an illustrator’s eye for a place is part of it. It’s about mood. It’s about the things that draw a character to a place, establish the novel’s atmosphere and provide the yearnings, fears, attractions and possibilities that are available to characters who find themselves at a unique moment in a particular place.

For The Mercenary, I read several autobiographies of high-ranking KGB officers who successfully defected to the West. They are gripping real-life stories of spies that paint a graphic picture of the paranoia, incompetence, intrigues and sheer nastiness of the KGB. I was able to understand the hopes and fears of men who were caught in the Soviet system, and once I inhabited their world, I created Viktor Petrov, a KGB Lieutenant Colonel who wanted out.

I usually visit the city where the novel is set, doing something akin to location scouting. I want to see where the action happened, the routes my characters take from their hotel, where my characters live and what they see when they walk down the street. I also look at old photographs, read newspapers from the time, and along the way I develop dossiers for my characters so I know what type of scotch they drink, or if they drink at all, their faith, speech patterns, the books they read. I try to have in my mind all the little details that make up a whole person. This research then goes into a chapter-by-chapter outline of the novel. Then, I begin to write.

The character George Mueller appears in all four of your novels so far, albeit in varying degrees. He is not the main emphasis of this book but sort of gets the ball rolling. Do you see him as the glue that holds your novels together? Where do you see this character going in your future works?
Jennifer Egan’s brilliant A Visit From the Goon Squad was marketed as novel, but it’s really a series of interlocking short stories in which the main character in one story becomes a minor character in another, and from chapter to chapter the cast of characters changes. The book is more complex and, in my view, more groundbreaking, because of the way she chose to tell it.

Mueller is a major character in two of my novels and a smaller character in the other two. He connects the novels, but because his role is reduced in two of them, I can enlarge my canvas with other characters and themes. I am not writing Mueller’s story. I am writing about men in the CIA in the Cold War. Mueller appears in my next novel, which is set in Berlin in 1989.

Do you find any similarities between yourself and your characters? What traits do you or they share, good or bad?
I was not a spy. I did not work at the CIA. None of my characters are my silhouette. Very little of my life is directly reflected in the book; however, we all see the world through the lens of our own experience. I was a senior executive at Time Warner, and I know how a bureaucracy like the CIA works—men and women with ambition, who game the politics of the organization, who betray colleagues when needed to advance themselves. These things I know, and I use them in my novels.

I place my characters in circumstances that test decency, honor, trust or friendship, often where there is tension between national security and personal integrity, and I see what choices the characters make. I am often surprised by their humanity. I suppose, in a way, that is one thing I share with my characters. The humanity. Humans suffer, they torture each other, but they can know hope on the far side of revenge.

What is it about the Cold War era that still appeals to readers? What is the key to keeping this type of story and this period fresh?
The Cold War gave rise to the golden age of the literary spy novel. Novels by le Carré, Greene, Kanon, McCarry and others put a human face on the Cold War by focusing on the psychological burdens of its characters. Doubt and paranoia bred in a culture of secrecy characterize these novels, as does the sophisticated amorality of the men at the top of the intelligence bureaucracies. The novels explore the strain that covert work places on family, friends and faith—themes that resonate today long after the end of the Cold War.

And there is another thing at work. We were able to measure things in the Cold War — borders, hope, annihilation. Today, the enemy is stateless and violence seemingly random, which I believe makes us nostalgic for the measurable dangers of the Cold War. The resurgence of Cold War fiction coincides with the enormous popularity of current Cold War movies, notably Bridge of Spies, and television series like “The Americans.” Readers can look to the literary spy novel to glide beneath the noise of headlines and see a complex world through the knowing eyes of empathetic characters. The age of surveillance in which we live makes the genre feel contemporary.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Mercenary.

Have you considered writing a book set in our contemporary era? Or is it too soon to go there?
I am researching a novel about the CIA and the war on terror that is set a few years after the World Trade Center attack.

Do you have any aspirations or desires to tell stories outside of this genre? What’s next for you?
John le Carré stayed in the spy genre most of his career, taking a brief detour after A Spy Who Came in from the Cold to write The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971), a pretentious romantic story about a ménage à trois and his biggest flop. He returned to the spy novel after that and stayed with it for the rest of his career.

He discovered in the spy novel a laboratory in which he could lay bare the intricacies of human nature. He once said in an interview: “A spy story is not just a spy story. It can be a love story, a story about engagement and escape, about the search for institutional integrity.” But because it was a spy story, he culled a much larger readership than if he had written about a suburban English housewife. He found that the constraints of genre gave him greater freedom to explore the things he wanted to say. I like to think I am doing the same thing.

My next novel, The Matchmaker, is set in Berlin in 1989 in the months that bookend the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Author photo © Bekka Palmer

Paul Vidich discusses the compelling humanity of spies and why he thinks the Cold War continues to fascinate readers.

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