John Verdon’s third Dave Gurney thriller, LET THE DEVIL SLEEP, will be released this month. He answered a few questions about his new book, writing and his lifestyle. The retired adman moved to the Catskill Mountains to write. To date, his books have been translated into more than twenty languages. He’s happy with his decision to leave New York.
THE NEW YORK TIMES said, “Verdon is masterly at keeping Gurney a step ahead of the reader.”
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY said, “Verdon, who rejuvenated the impossible crime in his 2010 debut, THINK OF A NUMBER, show there much more that can be done with the serial killer plot in his breakneck, knockout third Dave Gurney whodunit.”
This is what John has to say about it all:
John, give us an elevator pitch for LET THE DEVIL SLEEP.
In LET THE DEVIL SLEEP, Dave Gurney reexamines a notorious serial murder case — one whose motives have been enshrined as law-enforcement dogma — and discovers that everyone has it wrong. The deeper Gurney probes, the more enemies he makes, the darker the truth begins to look, and the closer he gets to his own destruction — at the hands of the coldest killer he’s ever faced. Within a classic thriller plot, the book examines why we believe the things we believe and how we create disasters by our willingness to believe lies.
Were you able to take anything away from your time spent in the advertising field and work it into your fiction?
There are lots of meetings in the advertising business, with lots of conflicting agendas — lots of smart people trying to persuade other smart people to see things their way. I think from participating in so many of those situations over the years I learned something about group dynamics, and sometimes now, when I’m writing a scene that involves a number of characters with clashing objectives, it helps me to picture myself back in those ad agency conference rooms.
Do you think you’ve found your Muse in the Catskill Mountains?
Apparently I have. I suspect the muse has come with the shift in lifestyle, the free time and freedom of mind created by retirement from a consuming career, and the serene beauty of the area where we live.
Is there anything you miss about New York?
No. Nothing at all. I was born and raised in New York, worked for thirty years in New York, and have no regrets about leaving New York. We’ve been in the mountains for eleven years now and have never been tempted to go back.
Did you know you’d write a series when you began?
No. I wasn’t sure I could write even one book. Or that it would ever be published. I was just hoping that I could finish it and that my wife would like it. She did. Then, at her urging, I wrote a bunch of query letters to agents. At first the responses were overwhelmingly “not interested”. Then one agent, Molly Friedrich, asked to see the manuscript. After that, things happened very quickly. She sold the North American rights to Random House and foreign language rights to 25 other publishers around the world. Very exciting. In fact, I was astonished. When Molly asked if I might want to write some more stories about Dave Gurney, naturally I said yes.
How did you come up with your character Dave Gurney? Is he someone you know?
That character was originally created as a counterpoint to Mark Mellery in THINK OF A NUMBER. In that novel Mellery was in a state of emotional turmoil — mainly driven by fear. I wanted the detective he would seek help from to have a completely different mindset — driven by curiosity, logic, cool determination. So I built the core of Gurney’s personality around those elements. As the character grew, he turned out to share my own introversion and obsessiveness.
How much research do you need to do since Dave Gurney is a homicide detective and you background is advertising?
I think I absorbed a lot of information from my voracious reading of detective novels. And reading a couple of criminal investigation textbooks helped to root all that fictional stuff in solid procedural detail. It also helped me to visit the forensic lab and the state police academy in Albany. And, as a final backup, I can always run questions past my police sergeant son.
What is your writing schedule vs. your research schedule like?
During the first few months of working on a book, I have no schedule. I put half a dozen index cards and two pens (in case one should run out of ink — I told you I was obsessive) in my shirt pocket every morning, and by the end of the day, they’re full of notes. The notes might be ideas for scenes, plot points, character quirks, dialog snippets, thematic issues — whatever occurs to me. Useful things pop into my head unpredictably, often when I’m driving. I pull over and jot them down. The cards go into a large manila envelope. When I have three or four hundred of them I start organizing them into a three-act dramatic structure. Once I have a solid outline with enough specifics in place to feel confident that I have the makings of a compelling novel, I start the actual writing process. I aim for three pages a day — two early in the morning, one late at night. Midday is generally not a productive writing time for me. When it comes to research, I have no schedule. I do whatever research I need to do as questions occur to me or as the scene that I’m writing demands it.
Is it true that Hollywood is interested in a TV series based on your character?
Yes. I hope to be able to reveal the details in the not-too-distant future.
Hollywood has a reputation of screwing up good books when they try to fit everything into an hour TV show or two-hour movie. Any fears about that?
No big fears. The people we’re talking to seem thoroughly committed to reproducing the subtle character detail and the deliberate pacing of the novels. In fact, it is that thoughtful rhythm that the principal actor in our discussions is most attracted to.
What are the chances that Hollywood will replace the Catskill Mountains?
So far, my feeling is that they very much want to reproduce the books as authentically as a different medium permits. Might the Catskills become the Adirondacks? Or another rural environment? Who knows? That’s not an issue for me.
On your website you have a section “Why I Write Thrillers.” Why did you decide to include it?
Although our chosen genre has a large audience, it tends to have a restricted image. It is often categorized in a place apart from “serious” fiction — placed on a lower rung of the intellectual ladder. My own belief, however, is that the basic mystery-thriller structure is as capable of incorporating serious themes and serious relationship issues as any other form of fiction. I wanted to take advantage of my website to make that point.
Do you like that fact that your storylines have been called intricate? And what does that mean to you? Is it intentional?
It’s intentional to the extent that I want my stories to mirror some of life’s elusiveness, some of the difficulty we face in trying to achieve a realistic view of ourselves and our relationships. And I want smart people to feel challenged. I always take “intricate” as a compliment.
On your website you mention that mystery novels mirror the complexity of relationships. Do you use a lot of reality in your stories?
The details of my murder plots are not everyday occurrences — so, in that sense, they don’t mirror statistical reality. If they did, they’d mostly involve drug addicts shooting each other. The reality I strive for is emotional. The action may be bizarre, but I want the motive to be real. And I particularly want the texture of the detective’s daily life (inner and outer) to be real. For example, many readers seem to recognize pieces of their own lives in the complicated relationship between Dave and Madeleine. I feel good about that.
Will your next book be a continuation of your Dave Gurney series?
Yes. I’m well into the index-card phase of the fourth book, and occasionally I jot down an idea or two for the fifth. So Gurney will be around for a while.
Is there a book tour planned for LET THE DEVIL SLEEP?
I recently returned from a week of promotional activities in Spain, and we’ll see where it goes from there. I seem to be doing a great deal by email and phone.
John Verdon is a former Madison Avenue ad executive whose first two novels, THINK OF A NUMBER (2010) and SHUT YOUR EYES TIGHT (2011), were international bestsellers, translated into 26 languages. John lives with his wife in the mountains of upstate New York.