Author of the bestselling Dave Gurney thrillers

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John’s Answers to Some Interesting Questions

What made you decide to become a writer?

For a class assignment at the age of fifteen I wrote a poem that my teacher praised at great length. He told me that writing was something I should keep doing, and his encouragement had a great emotional impact on me. It was the first time in my life I felt that there might be a career for which I was especially suited. When it came time years later to get married and get a job, however, the advertising industry seemed to offer the only route to earning a reasonable living as writer. So I did that for 32 years in New York City. I never went back to poetry, but when I retired from Madison Avenue I did decide to try my hand at writing a crime novel. Think of a Number was the result of that effort.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

My wife and I live on 95 acres on the top of a mountain in a very rural area — not unlike Dave and Madeleine Gurney in Think of a Number — and there are always flowers or shrubs to be planted or pruned, fields to be mowed, trails to be maintained, a garden to be watered and weeded, snow to be plowed, logs to be split, books to be read.

When you begin – do you already know the end?

No. In my own imaginative process, things come to me in bits and pieces. I may think of an intriguing situation — say the numerical baffler in Think of a Number, or the inexplicable footprints in the snow — and that leads me into imagining what sort of larger story that situation could be part of. Imagining that story then starts to bring to life the kind of people who would inhabit that world and do those things, what sort of people they’d come into conflict with, what those people might look and sound like, and so forth. The further I get into that process, the more important the elements of personality become and the more the goals and feelings of the characters start to take over. The characters think, act, collide. The characters determine the ending.

Which crime novel do you wish you’d written?

Reginald Hill’s Arms and the Women. It’s the sort of novel that the term tour de force was invented for. To me, it’s his most complex, elegant, and entertaining book. And his other novels set the bar for those qualities pretty high.

What are you proudest of?

My three children.

Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?

I’d like to discover a way to eat more ice cream without having to buy larger pants.

What makes you angry?

Buying larger pants.

Please give your top three crime writing tips.

First find the voice of a character, then find the words in the voice. Second, put conflict in every scene, even when there’s only one character present. Third, don’t pay too much attention to my other two tips. Who am I to be handing out tips?

Some reviewers have said that your books aren’t typical genre novels. How would you classify them?

Reviewers have described them as nail-biting thrillers, as exciting police procedurals, as poignant examinations of a marriage in trouble. Personally, I see them as the ongoing story of an intense homicide detective whose attachment to what he’s good at creates all the excitement, all the rewards, and most of the problems in his life. Dave Gurney is a genius when it comes to dealing with maniacs and murderers, but not so good when it comes to dealing with his wife and son. He’s a fantastic cop with a tragic sense of his own ineptitude as a human being. I think that sort of central character helps the story become many things to many people.

Your books have gotten a lot of praise and have become international bestsellers. Why do you think they’re so popular?

I can only guess at the answer from what I’ve read in the reviews. What people seem to like best is the combination of an exciting thriller plot with a closely examined relationship between the detective and his wife. Apparently, readers find the stories fast-paced and very entertaining, but they also feel that the characters are emotionally real.

The story lines of your books are quite intricate, and not easy to figure out. How do you come up with such great plots, and how do you juggle the different parts to make sure that everything fits together in the end?

The rough plot ideas appear in my mind, and the characters themselves do most of the development work. I picture the characters, I challenge them, I watch them, I listen to them. Sometimes the characters do things that surprise me. Elements of the story change, evolve. As I watch this happening, I get a feeling for what works, what seems authentic, what engages me. I sit at the keyboard of my computer and describe it all as best I can. At the end, my wife reads it, tells me what’s wrong, and I fix it. I know this process sounds a little crazy, like I’m not actually in charge of it, not making it happen. But that’s the way it seems — like I’m recording things that come to me, rather than actively creating them.

What is a normal writing day for you? Do you have any rituals while writing?

It depends on what stage of development the book is in. The initial stage — roughly the first three or four months — is devoted to a largely subconscious process of one idea or situation leading to another. This is the part of the process over which I have the least control, and it typically consists of images or plot events or bits of dialog popping into my mind seemingly at random, often when I am driving. I carry a stack of index cards with me in the car, and keep pulling over to jot things down as they occur to me. This is the least organized, least predictable stage. It proceeds with no real schedule or discipline. After that, after I’ve managed to fit things together into a roughly coherent plot framework, and after it has become populated with characters whose motives and personalities I understand, then I get into a more organized way of working — writing the actual scenes, fleshing out the notions from my hundreds of index cards, letting the characters expand and come to life. From that stage to the end I normally work each day about three hours starting at dawn, and another three hours or so before I go to bed at night. But even that schedule is driven less by discipline than by simple pleasure. I don’t have to push myself to write; I’m drawn to it. As for rituals connected with my writing, I’m not aware of any — certainly none that are colorful or interesting. Just a lot of coffee drinking.

What do you do to get inspiration?

The embarrassing truth is, I have a deep streak of paranoia. My daughter, who works in the mental health field, calls it “catastrophic thinking”. It’s a curse and a blessing. A curse because I can easily scare the hell out of myself. A blessing because I have no trouble coming up with really disturbing plot possibilities.

Who are your favorite authors, and what are the best crime books you have ever read?

My favorite authors are a pretty diverse group. Conan Doyle heads the list, and his wonderful Hound of the Baskervilles is my favorite mystery story. I love Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald for their intricate plots, over-the-top descriptions, and wonderful evocations of Southern California. I find Reginald Hill’s elegance, intelligence, and wit delightful.

Will we see Gurney return in future novels?

Absolutely. Despite the epiphanies he experiences in Think of a Number, Shut Your Eyes Tight, and Let the Devil Sleep, Dave has a lot more to learn about himself, about his wife and son, and about the nature of the glue that attaches him to his profession. Like all of us, Dave acts on the basis of what he believes is true, and through the consequences of his actions he discovers the limitations of those beliefs and hopefully arrives at a new perception of who he is and what’s important. That’s a process that can be repeated through the cycles of a character’s growth.

Who would be your dream cast of movie actors for an adaptation of your story?

That’s the one question I won’t answer right now. Our film agent is currently having discussions with a major Hollywood producer and, in my opinion, the perfect star actor to play Dave Gurney. More info to come soon.

What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?

Although it’s not exactly a novel in the traditional sense, I’d have to say it would be Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

How difficult is it to make up such intricate stories?

My plots create the impression of great complexity, but I get so involved in the process, and I enjoy it so much, I don’t think of it as “difficult”. That’s a term I associate with less pleasant efforts.

How did you gather information about the way police departments work?

Some of it I absorbed from the many police-procedural novels I’ve read over the years. I also picked up a couple of the textbooks used in police academies to teach investigative methodology. I’ve also gotten some advice from one of my sons, who happens to be a police sergeant.

Madeleine is a fascinating character and probably responsible for at least some of her husband's success. Will we be discovering more about this smart and spiritual woman in your future novels.

Yes. She will be the soul of the series, however many books it finally includes. 

Madeleine not only participates in Dave's home life, she also helps him solve the crimes he deals with. Why this kind of female protagonist ? Was it to break away from the classic "macho" thriller cliches?

First, I like strong, intelligent women. Second, I wanted to give Dave a dimension of vulnerability, make him something less than totally self-contained. I wanted to present him as a person who needs another person in his life. He may be a bit of a genius at unravelling certain kinds of criminal mysteries, but his wife is in many ways smarter than he is — more perceptive, more intuitive. This kind of balance — the tension it creates and the rewards it offers — is more interesting to me than the relationships often portrayed in detective novels.

Why do you think readers like crime novels so much?

The process of living and growing is about discovery — moving from our original view of something, through a process of conflict and enlightenment, to a clearer view, separating truth from illusion. Good mystery stories are about life. They’re about us.

Like Dave, you also changed your life – from the world of advertising, surrounded by people, to the world of writing alone. Weren't you afraid of the change?

The transition was not as jarring as it might seem. I spent most of my years in advertising on the creative side of the business, primarily as a copywriter. Also, I am a natural introvert — happy and comfortable working alone. So, when my wife and I retired from the city to 95 mountaintop acres without another house anywhere in sight — I wasn’t the least bit afraid. It’s the kind of place we’ve both wanted to live ever since we were children. We love the woods and meadows. We love solitude.

What is the main difference between the two worlds?

In advertising you are generally operating on someone else’s schedule, searching for the best ways of achieving someone’s else’s goals, trying to communicate effectively with someone else’s audience. What I am doing now seems by comparison a great luxury. I get to speak in my own voice, create characters I find interesting, let my writing find its own audience.

One of your novels deals with the issue of abused children who become abusers themselves. Why that subject?

I chose sexual abuse as a vivid device to illustrate the pain and emotional chaos that arises out of the self-centered manipulation of others. I am not focussing on the clinical aspects. I am interested primarily in the presence of evil, how it hides itself, how it manifests itself, and how it may be confronted by a well-meaning rational mind.

What does your wife think of comparisons with Madeleine?

She frequently tries make it clear to people we know that she is not Madeleine. And she sometimes suggests that I should soften some edgy comment of Madeleine’s — perhaps because she wouldn’t want people to think that she herself would say something like that. I see in my wife many of Madeleine’s strengths — her honesty, intelligence and connection with the present moment — but my wife is also warm and funny, more so than the character in the book.

Being a retired ad man, do you make suggestions for the promotion of your books?

Only when I am specifically asked to do so. I spent over thirty years in the advertising business, and I am quite content to remain retired.

What have you learned from your success?

For me, the most gratifying discovery is that there is an enthusiastic audience for mystery-thrillers that take complicated relationship issues seriously. The fact is, this is the only kind of book I would be interested in writing. What engages me most thoroughly in the writing process is the interaction of complex characters. Often I feel that I am not so much “creating” them, but rather that I am watching them, listening to them, and taking notes. They seem to have lives, ambitions, and fears of their own — which I get to observe and describe. For me, that’s where the deepest pleasure of this profession resides.

Is your wife involved in the world of literature?

She reads constantly, loves books, loves discussing books. She taught English literature for thirty years.

Why do we believe what we believe? It’s a question you seem to be interested in.

We believe what we want to believe. From all the evidence, we pick the pieces that support the conclusions we want to reach — conclusions that make us right and our enemies wrong, that inflate our egos, that confirm our prejudices, that help us to continue doing whatever we want to do. Our beliefs are based on our desires, but they appear to us to be based on facts. Sometimes, in my bleaker moods, I think it is the strength of our belief systems that reveals more than anything else how fearful and full of wishful thinking we really are.