by Gary Kriss
Meet Sidney Williams.
You probably already know him—or someone like him. Maybe from a Rotary meeting or a cocktail party. Smart. Affable. Good conversationalist. Married, with cats—four of ‘em—cats, not wives. Works in corporate marketing. Spins yarns for kids. Watches mucho movies from Netflix. Barbecues in the backyard on Saturday nights. Has an eye for art.
And a thing for killing and castrating men.
He got into that about 20 years ago. Then he stopped. Now he’s back at it.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Not if you’re a thriller writer.
Oh, yeah—about those men now singing soprano in the Heavenly Choir. Well, don’t think you’re gonn’a find any plot spoiling details here. You want ‘em, then connect to your e-book site of choice, download and read Midnight Eyes (Crossroads Press) Williams’s latest, but not necessarily newest novel.
Well it seems that back in the 1990s Williams wrote this tale about Ty Hood, a sheriff in his native state of Louisiana, and his estranged son Wayland, a behavioral science expert, and how they join forces to catch a deadly serial killer. However, before the novel sold, his agent bolted the business and Williams, who already had a bunch of novels in print, decided not to immediately seek new representation.
“I’d written and published novels,” Williams says. “While I wasn’t a super star, I had achieved personal satisfaction and met personal goals at the time, so I put the book away and looked in other creative directions for a while. Finding an agent and all of that takes a lot of energy. I’ve had friends who’ve urged me to do something with Midnight Eyes for a while, but some recharging had to occur,”
The two battery terminals needed for recharging were Crossroads Press re-issuing his older fiction titles and Goddard College awarding him an MFA in Creative Writing.
“Goddard gave me some new steam to revisit it,” Sid says. “I looked at Midnight Eyes with new technical eyes post-Goddard, spending time on tightening prose. I also took a new look at Wayland’s soul and that of the other characters. It’s a brutal experience for all of the characters, and I tried to focus on the effects of that while telling a good story.”
Unlike some other schools, Williams notes that Goddard is “extremely open minded about genre” and “has a focus on plot, action and excitement that you might not expect in a graduate writing program.” To illustrate, he points out that “one instructor read a draft of my thesis novel and said almost literally: ‘something needs to blow up real good.’ I was trying too hard to write a character story at that point, and it was true, I needed more tension in the culmination.”
But Williams says that Midnight Eyes “happily already had an intense ending,” which he shortened “to increase its intensity.” He also worked on “making sure the events unfolded with as much excitement as possible.”
“It’s really about 90 to 95 percent the original story,” he says. “The plot, the unraveling of who the killer is and the psychology of the killer plus some of the reversals were in place and remain in place.”
Then there was the need to bring the novel up to date with two decades of societal changes. “I did technological updates as well, from communication equipment to TV news equipment, a lot of things that have changed subtly over the last few years,” Williams says, although he would occasionally miss one. “My copy editor asked why a character was drinking a Zima,” he recalls. “I fixed that by giving the guy a Sam Adams.”
Midnight Eyes was a significant novel for Williams, representing a progression from his previous works, including some Young Adult books written as Michael August, which were horror or supernaturally themed-oriented. “I think it was a progression,” he says. “I had dealt with the usual mythic figures or archetypes and wanted a new challenge.”
Not that those works weren’t thrillers, which Williams sees, at their core, as “tales that pits a protagonist against some type of threat and requires overcoming multiple obstacles to achieve a goal—tales told in a way that engages the reader in the quest and builds suspense to the conclusion.”
“I believe many different modifiers can be used in front of the term thriller,” he continues. “Historical, espionage, corporate. Pick one. I believe a supernatural thriller drops the protagonist into a situation or quest involving otherworldly forces. I would, I suppose, say a thriller without a modifier involves villains who are bad but aren’t actually the devil, Dracula or a vicious djinn. Or, in the case of my novel Blood Hunter, flesh-eating swamp creatures.
“I think, in some ways, the serial killer has taken on the role the vampire once filled in the pantheon of villains,” he offers. “In Midnight Eyes I wanted to explore realistic threats and fears in a story that would be exciting for me and for readers. I don’t see it as just a serial killer novel since there are other conflicts and mystery, but Wayland is definitely faced with a formidable foe.”
Those realistic threats and fears owe much to Williams’s previous incarnation as a police beat reporter. “A book emerges, for me anyway,” he explains. “It’s the culmination of a lot of experience, observation, and the intake of information. In some ways Midnight Eyes is a book that emerged from 11 years of newspaper writing, of late-night crime scene visits and other input. It flowed easily when I wrote it because it was time for it to come out.”
Fair enough, but what about the subtle theological sprinklings in the book?
“I also spent time covering religion as a reporter, and I’m from the South where religion is part of the landscape,” Williams says. “The bigger mystery of the universe has always intrigued me. I was fascinated by William Peter Blatty’s Legion and the way he wrestles with questions of divinity and suffering in the world in the context of pursuing a serial killer. Since there’s some contemplation of good and evil in Midnight Eyes, that needed to be touched on in some spiritual way at the end even with Wayland having a scientific and skeptical perspective.”
Besides personal experience, Williams, a self-described “extreme eclectic” who likes “many, many things,” also draws from other writers. “I learned plotting from reading Ross MacDonald,” he says. “I like the grim romance of Raymond Chandler. I like Dean Koontz and how he spins genre elements into larger novels. I admire the emotional friction Joseph Finder builds into his stories. I was reminded recently how much I enjoyed John D. MacDonald as a younger man. I love Ray Bradbury for the imagination and the poetry of what he does in works like Something Wicked This Way Comes. I love Raymond Carver for the way he can stick a knife through you in a story that’s seemingly about nothing. ‘Chef’s House’ is a fabulous snapshot of despair, and I need to learn more from his prose. I wish I could carve out more time to read, like eight hours a day.”
But that would be time taken away from writing literary thrillers, which Williams is currently concentrating on for future novels.
“I think a literary thriller places a little more weight on the character arc,” Williams says. “Someone else might have a different definition. As early as John D. MacDonald’s The Crossroads, I think we see some of that happening. It’s the story of a family in business and their lives and foibles. A crime is part of the mix, and its impact ripples through their lives. Is it 100 percent a literary novel? Maybe not, but it has leanings in that direction. Audrey Nifnegger’s more recent Her Fearful Symmetry is ultimately bone chilling, but it’s also about several complex sets of relationships and how they intertwine.”
That’s consistent with how Williams views the change in thrillers over the years, into works that “have become more character driven and emotionally complex.”
“We’re not just looking at a protagonist who fills a generic place in a story so that a lot of things can blow up in front of him or her,” he notes. “Often we see heroes who have emotional ties to the core of the story or are involved in ways that are surprising even to them. Since life is a little erratic, the ends don’t all tie up as nicely any more. You can see the elements of that in numerous books, even some in the Bond novels. His wife’s death begins an arc through the later books in that series.”
Seeds of this show in Midnight Eyes. Williams says he worked to build a puzzle within the thriller framework with twists, so plot is important,” but also “to make Wayland Hood’s personal journey an important part as well.”
And journeys have been on Williams’s mind recently, having just finished serving as part of a weeklong ITW Thriller Round Table discussion on John Gardner’s suggestion that all stories boil down to either someone went on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Williams says both elements are present in Midnight Eyes.
“As a behavioral science expert, Wayland’s the intellectual gunslinger who rides in,” he explains. “He’s FBI-trained with unique abilities and intuition plus connections with four killers he helped catch. He’s been away from his Louisiana hometown for many years and is estranged from his father. He enters his father’s department and starts to develop theories that clash with his father’s detectives. He’s very much an outsider, and he’s forced to make some tough choices and even break with some of his own ideals in the life-or-death struggle at the end.”
But Williams goes further, saying that Gardner’s observation also holds true for writers. Stressing that he doesn’t want to be “pretentious about writing,” Williams offers a Faulkner’s perception that “An artist is a creature driven by demons.”
“There’s something in the ‘driven’ part of that statement,” he explains. “I think writers have an unrelenting inner need to create, to tell stories. Stories have to be about something, so I believe writers become observers naturally from that need, and that often finds them one step back from the rest of things, quietly looking on. I would also agree that a story is a journey, or maybe a puzzle. It can begin with a simple idea or a first line or a character that forms a question that has to be answered. A lot of pieces from a writer’s makeup and imagination go into finding those answers, and I think that drives a narrative, and that themes emerge, based on the writer’s observation of the world. In the best cases, an entertaining story and something also meaningful comes together.”
Like he did with Midnight Eyes, Williams says he may turn to another work from his past for his first foray into the literary thriller. In this case, it would be Haint Blue, his thesis novel, named, he explains, for “the color you paint porch ceilings in the South the keep ghosts away.”
“It’s about a man thrown into the midst of a Southern family’s secrets and decline, and I believe when I have it to the point I’m ready to send it out it will be literary,” he says. “But I also want to make sure it’s an interesting and exciting work. Solving a central mystery has an impact on the hero: he encounters a fantastic or ghostly presence. The story reveals much about the central set of characters and has an explosive conclusion.”
And what about Wayland Hood, the key character in Midnight Eyes? Has he emerged from oblivion only to fade back there?
“I could spend more time with Wayland and his skills and abilities could certainly be employed in different ways,” Williams says. “The right adversary or the right circumstance might put him back to work. I could see him either being forced to pursue a new serial killer that required his skills and intuition or a drastic threat domestically or internationally that might require his abilities. Time will tell.”
Then Williams makes the pronouncement that has sustained thriller writers over the years, providing inspiration and, at certain times, even money: “The world is full of scary people.”
For more information, please visit Sidney’s website.