by Julie Kramer
Thomas Perry, whose debut The Butcher’s Boy landed him an Edgar, is now reaping starred reviews from both Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus for The Informant, his latest thriller featuring the same unsettling protagonist much later in life.
Now the butcher’s boy – retired from his days as a professional killer – finds his peace threatened when a Mafia hit team finally catches up with him. Must he become a government informant to save himself? Behind the violence lies a thoughtful debate on life and death, good and evil.
Publisher’s Weekly: “Perry offers a compelling, rapid-fire plot, credible Mafia and FBI secondary characters, an indictment of self-serving officialdom, and the old soul-shattering moral dilemma: what is truth?”
Kirkus: “Beneath the sky-high body count, the twisty plot is powered by Perry’s relentless focus on the question of where the next threat is coming from and how to survive it.”
More than 25 years ago you wrote The Butcher’s Boy. Ten years later you wrote Sleeping Dogs. Now The Informant. Explain the timing.
The killer was exactly my age, and I was curious about what the two main characters would be like ten years later, so I wrote a sequel in which he was 40. Like me, he didn’t feel up to crawling along a board between two hotel balconies far above the street anymore, but he was a bit more controlled, cunning, and premeditated. When I finished that book I figured at that point that I was finished with the story. Then, about a year and a half ago, I changed movie and television agencies. A bright agent was interested in trying to sell a TV series based on The Butcher’s Boy and Sleeping Dogs. Obviously television had also changed since I worked in it twenty years ago. She asked me what the two main characters would be doing now. I thought about it, and decided that the question was interesting enough to deserve some thought. The answer was The Informant.
Why did you wait so long?
I would have to say I waited so long because I never intended to write this book. I love to write new stories, so most of my books are stand-alones. And I’m old enough now to realize that I won’t live long enough to get them all told. But now and then I feel curiosity about a favorite character, or I realize I’ve learned something new about him, so I go back to write it down. In this case, it was a question that I had no answer for, so I sat down to write the book and find out.
How do you research lowlifes like the ones you write about?
It’s a more complicated question than it seems. I’d say a misspent youth and a lot of reading is probably the simplest answer. Through accident, I’ve spent time with some very tough people without being one myself. But I find I can see things from their point of view. In this book I write about a group of men from fictitious Mafia families and their hangers-on and crews, and about a man who used to work for them. I grew up between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, a place where there has always been a large Mafia presence. It was called “The Arm.” While I was growing up, a war was being fought by two factions. It was the conflict which was finally settled in the conference at the farm in Apalachin, New York, where the state police caught the Citizen of the Year of Buffalo running away through a field wearing an expensive suit. But during this war, two boys I knew found a badly mutilated body in a wooded area where we played. Another local man was shot coming out of his house one morning. After a few of these events, I guess the Mafia was set in my mind as a convenient set of villains. When I actually began to write about these people, I did lots of reading to sort out the events that had occurred when I was a kid, and to learn about things that had happened elsewhere. Before I wrote The Informant, I did some more reading to bring my knowledge of the activities of the families up to date.
Is there a risk in making a protagonist unpleasant?
Yes. There’s a risk in making any decision in constructing a story, and in choosing any word to put on the page. People like to identify with, or at least sympathize with, the protagonist, so it’s risky to make him bad. But a bigger risk would be not telling the truth. In this book I’m writing about a narrow, enclosed world populated by professional criminals, very tough and violent men. They’re scary, and what they do is unpleasant. My protagonist is as violent as anybody, but he’s been dragged back to the United States after twenty years of living in England invisibly. Everything he does is in self-defense, so a reader can be persuaded to give him a chance. The reader wants to understand him. In a way, the other main character, Elizabeth Waring, who started in The Butcher’s Boy as a 22-year-old data analyst but is now the highest ranking civil servant in the Justice Department Organized Crime Division, directs the reader’s attention to the interesting things about this killer who has come out of retirement. As she studies him and learns about him, so do we.
Your novels consistently garner acclaim. As an author, do you feel pressure each time a book is released?
That is one of the advantages to being around for a very long time. I’ve learned to feel the pressure while I’m still doing the writing and can still improve the quality of the book, and to stop feeling it when the book is out. Once the book is printed, nothing I do will help it in any way. The best thing I can do at that point is listen to find out what mistakes or failings it has, and try to learn for the next book.
Tell us a little about your writing process.
I try to begin a new book while I’m still revising the last book. I begin with a main character or two, and I think about them enough so I can imagine them speaking. I also know roughly what situation they’re confronting, and sometimes who is going to be standing at the end. I begin to tell the story as I imagine it unfolding. I never outline anything unless I come to a point where I suspect I might have lost my way. Then I only outline the next few events so whatever minor divergence has occurred doesn’t become a headlong rush off a cliff. If you outline everything before you begin to write, you find yourself making decisions too early in the process. You will spend a year writing whatever you thought of during the couple of days of outlining. Meanwhile you close your story to all the great ideas, observations, and factual information you come across during the next 363 days.
Having written 20 books, you’re a publishing pro. What do you think the biggest challenges are for the business?
I think the biggest challenges to anyone in the business are the same as always–producing the very best book that you can, regardless of external circumstances. The only part the writer can control is the quality of the writing. Our most important task is always to learn to be better writers, to make each day’s work better than the last. The recent upheavals in the industry are probably no worse than the ones in the past. I’ve seen the rise and fall of the mass-market paperback, its replacement by the relatively smaller sales but larger price of the trade paperback, the primacy and decline of the book clubs, the rise of the audio book. Kindle and its rivals are just the next phase. What is always the biggest problem is trying to survive and learn to do better work in a world that often lavishly rewards the worst work. This is not new. There are letters between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville complaining about the amateurish novels that were selling in large numbers while their work was barely selling at all. The solution is always the same: ignore what anyone else is doing, write the best books you can, and hope people enjoy them enough to buy them.
For more information about Thomas Perry, please visit his website.