The characters in Chris Pavone’s thrillers often find themselves trying to bury the past in an effort to begin anew. In his latest novel, Two Nights in Lisbon, Ariel Price thinks she has successfully left her old life behind. But after she wakes up in their Lisbon hotel room to find that her husband has vanished without a trace, she is confronted with all the secrets he was apparently keeping from her. We talked with Pavone about this ongoing theme, his approach to creating characters and his transformation from book editor to novelist.
What was the initial inspiration for this novel, and why did you choose Lisbon as the setting?
A few years ago my family spent a handful of nights in Lisbon, in a sun-flooded suite facing a charming square, an absolutely beautiful place to start the day, and I thought: This is almost too perfect, something horrible should happen here. I love novels that seem at first like one type of story, then turn out to be something very different, and I developed a vision of this perfect-looking hotel room as the launching pad for characters who seem extremely lucky but aren’t; for a story that looks romantic then isn’t (but then ultimately is); for a narrative that looks like it’s about a missing man but is about something else entirely.
The plot of the book began to develop when the “Access Hollywood” tape revealed that Donald Trump seemed to have committed sexual assault regularly, as a sort of hobby. To me this wasn’t a question of politics. I simply could not understand what it was about these sex crimes that made it so easy for people to excuse them as so-called locker room talk, to dismiss them as partisan attacks. I despaired about what was so broken with our society, and what could be done about it.
Anyone who reads one of your books knows that you keep chiseling away at your characters over the course of the story. Two Nights in Lisbon’s Ariel is particularly surprising. Did any of her secrets come as a shock to you?
I needed to know all of Ariel’s skeletons from the get-go, because her secrets are the underlying framework of the whole story, and their reveals needed to be organized in a way that supported everything else without being coy or blatantly withholding. I think one of the greatest challenges of writing suspense fiction is to withhold in a way that’s not too obvious. If you’re flagrant, it erodes the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief and makes the whole thing feel contrived and the ultimate revelations unearned.
Ariel often thinks about status signifiers and the way she’s perceived by others. Do you think we worry too much about how people perceive us?
I’m definitely not qualified to be prescriptive about how all of humanity should behave. But I do wish we could somehow reconsider how we value one another. We heap tremendous rewards on dubious achievements, not to mention things that aren’t achievements at all; being young, rich and beautiful is the opposite of an achievement, it’s just luck. It’s probably unavoidable for most people to envy good fortune, but should we admire it?
Our culture increasingly celebrates fame for its own sake, completely divorced from any talent or skill or contribution to anything, while at the same time encouraging women to pursue careers in being beautiful, creating a dangerous dynamic of objectification and self-objectification that to me looks both exhausting and terrifying. Just walking down the street, getting a coffee, browsing in a bookstore—you’re always about to be ogled, accosted, propositioned. And that’s not the worst of it. Not by a long shot.
If you scratch beneath the ticking clock thriller plot of Lisbon, these are some of the themes you’ll find. But you can also just tear through the pages to see what the hell happens. This isn’t homework.
At one point in the novel, Ariel says she and John don’t participate in social media because it’s ruining the world. Do you share her opinion?
I think social media has made it way too easy—irresistible, for some people—to lie with impunity, to fabricate alternate realities, eroding the very idea of truth. One of the things that seems most broken about America now is that we all exist in hermetically sealed echo chambers, driven largely by social-media feedback loops that reinforce opinions we already have and keep out any evidence to the contrary. A lot of us now refuse to leave our comfort zones altogether, and there are fewer and fewer shared cultural touchstones, less and less agreement on the fundamental facts of the world.
I think every time someone posts a picture of themselves in a fake private jet, they’re contributing to this insidious erosion of truth, one that’s just as dangerous as a disinformation campaign by a hostile foreign power. We’re losing the capacity to distinguish between truth and lies and, even worse, the ability to care.
I don’t participate in social media very assiduously. I’m there mainly for videos of dogs, for photos of my friends’ adorable children and to keep in touch with people. I’m pretty sure that I won’t end up on my deathbed wishing I’d been more self-promotional on Instagram.
As a former book editor, do you find yourself editing your own drafts? What advice do you have for writers who struggle to prioritize production over perfection?
I edit constantly. I edit every day while I’m writing a first draft; that’s how I start the writing day. After I eventually type “the end,” I spend more time editing and revising subsequent drafts than I did writing the first.
I don’t accept the idea that writers should prioritize production over perfection. The world doesn’t need more novels. I think what readers truly want are better novels. Or at least that’s what I want—not more choices but better choices. This isn’t journalism, and there’s no clock on it. The crucial thing is to write a great novel, not just to write a novel.
People like to throw around the advice that while you can edit a bad page, you can’t edit a blank page. Maybe so. But that philosophy only works if you do the necessary editing of the bad pages. It’s very hard to kill your darlings, especially for writers who don’t have a lot of experience with rigorous, ruthless editing.
With five books under your belt, would you say that your transition from editor to writer is complete, or are you still learning things? What’s something you wish you’d realized earlier on?
I’ve now been a full-time writer for a decade and a half, and it still feels largely new to me. I’ve accepted that imposter syndrome might be permanent. It seems so unlikely that I’m allowed to earn my living by sitting around and writing made-up stories; sometimes it seems impossible that anyone could be this lucky.
I wished I’d realized earlier how much revising I’d do, on everything. For my first couple of books, all this work felt sometimes like failure. Why do I have to keep fixing this goddamned manuscript? I thought I was doing something wrong, and I hoped that next time I’d nail the novel on the first draft, or even second. But revisions are apparently a big part of how I work. I can’t see what’s missing from a manuscript and which aspects could be much better until I get to the end and look back. I no longer think of this as a problem that I need to fix; it’s the way this process works for me, and it’s a luxury that I’m thankful to indulge.
Ariel says she wants to be a person without fear. What are you afraid of, and have you conquered those fears?
A novel is a very personal piece of creativity. It’s your voice, your worldview, your whole personality on the page, and publication is opening up that personality not only to reasonable professional criticism but also to deeply personal and sometimes irrational attacks, even the vitriolic hatred of strangers. (Thanks again, social media!) It’s a little bit like going to a giant party filled with everyone you’ve ever met, then having those people write reviews of you to be posted on the internet for everyone to see.
I used to be afraid of being hated, as both a real person in the real world and also as a writer of made-up stories. But I’ve accepted that there are many people out there with whom I disagree about nearly everything, so it makes sense that I’ll disagree with their judgment of my book, too, not to mention their judgment of me. I still don’t enjoy being hated, and I hope I never do. But I’m not afraid of it anymore.
What’s the next step in the evolution of Chris Pavone? Where do you go from here?
My twins are about to graduate from high school and go off to college, ending this long stage when parenting has been the organizing principle of my life. This makes me both ecstatic and morose, every single day. I have no idea where I go from here.
Picture of Chris Pavone © Sam McIntosh.