By Julie Kramer
Kathleen George takes readers into the dark side of Pittsburgh and human nature.
Her latest thriller, HIDEOUT, begins when two teen brothers flee a fatal hit-and-run. Desperate and afraid, Jack and Ryan Rutter hole up in a summer cabin and create a terrifying hostage situation as they try to stay ahead of the police in this psychological character study of bad boys on the run.
You certainly know how to nail a novel, Kathleen. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly praised HIDEOUT as “a top-notch, emotionally satisfying police procedural.” Yet as a university professor of theater, did you ever consider writing your novels as plays or screenplays?
I was totally thrilled, by the way, with that starred review–didn’t think it would ever happen to me. I’ve been told my novels are already very filmic. I hope that’s true. But I haven’t written screenplays or plays—and here I have to explain something. Even though I teach playwriting and have directed many plays, I am not a playwright. That form works best from people with actor sensibilities. Playwriting is a great form of art, a tough form (I think the toughest) and it requires an extroversion that I simply don’t have. I couldn’t go on stage to save my life and I shy away from the kinds of actions that drive plays. I’m on the directing/writing end of the performing arts. There is interest from time to time in my novels from film people and I would love to hand one over and keep doing what I’m doing, that is, fiction. It feels like that’s the form that’s right for me.
What makes Pittsburgh the perfect setting for a crime series?
Pittsburgh has a lot of “parts.” There are gorgeous views, more bridges than in Venice, many trees and parks and also very poor areas, boarded up buildings, dark, rough streets. Needless to say there are dramas of class and race in the very makeup of the city. And in between the extremes there are ethnic neighborhoods that started out as immigrant strongholds and somehow held onto that identity even when mostly taken over by students looking for affordable housing. The people are extremely colorful. The braying Steelers fans that Tom Hanks made sport of on David Letterman. World famous doctors. The grandchildren of immigrants who have come up in the world and who are mainly friendly and unpretentious. It’s friendly except when a ‘burgher is in a car. All bets are off for sweetness. The driver simply wants to get home.
Your previous book, THE ODDS, received much acclaim, including an Edgar-nod. Was there ever a time you worried about pulling off a sequel?
Well, it helps that I have recurring characters. They seem to have their own lives. I use the same police characters throughout as part of my series—Richard Christie, Artie Dolan, Colleen Greer, John Potocki. Their personal lives progress as the novels do. That totally interests me. But most of the other characters come brand new to each new book. It’s a different story, a different case.
Most police procedurals start with a murder. HIDEOUT begins with an accident. Talk a little about how you decide how to open your stories. Is it a struggle? Or does it come in a flash?
I believe each beginning is a matter of what relationships I intend to explore. I knew I wanted to work on the relationship of the Rutter brothers and to their lives on the borderline of constant danger and addiction. I also knew I wanted to feature Addie Ward (the character I fell in love with as I worked on this). She’s a vital 83 year old with a lot of soul and the ability to try to get to know and understand all kinds of people. That puts her in danger here. I knew that’s where I was headed and the start was dependent on circumstances that would get me there.
How do you cast your villains?
I just wrote an essay about casting as I write. I try to flesh out the villains by letting them have pasts, thoughts, second thoughts, wishes, dreams, etc. I do get “casting” images. I’ve said many times that Gabrielle Byrne and Robert Downey Junior are models for characters in my books. Ryan and Jack are so young I don’t have a long list. I do like the young man in Breaking Bad. Jesse Pinkman. I think of Ryan and Jack as two sides of him. (As for casting Addie, I imagine an American Vanessa Redgrave, whoever that is… )
Evaluate the usefulness of outlining, from your perspective.
It’s great for other people, not for me. I would lose interest. I go to the computer every day not sure what will happen but dying to know. I write as a reader, letting the story unfold with all its warts and surprises. Sometimes I have to throw away pages but it’s worth it to me to explore.
How did you become so adept at police procedure?
I called the police a lot. Then I realized just how much I had absorbed and how much was common sense. I started to get freer about calling my own shots and when I checked with the police on what I had done, I got the nod of approval. I’ve been extremely lucky. The police have been supportive and open with me. Actually the FBI, too, in the early days. My husband loves to tell people that when I tried certain plots on the FBI consultant, he said I had a fine criminal mind.
Have you ever been arrested?
No, thank God. That would be hard on me. I can write tension but I live a very modest life that’s all about good beds and food and reading. I visited the Allegheny County Jail for the next novel in the series, that is next year (SIMPLE) and wow, I dropped my fantasy of committing a crime so that I could go to jail and have all the time in the world to read and write—meals made, all that. When I saw the cell, the mattress, the kidney shaped table, the stool, and the rest of the hard surfaces, when I smelled the smells, I decided that I would have to continue living a too busy life.
You are married to another writer – Hilary Masters – what are the challenges vs. rewards of such a relationship?
Funny you should ask that now. We’ve been saying for years that there is no problem. We’re like a writing colony except there are only two of us. We don’t show anything until it’s done or well on its way. But we understand each other; we know what a murmured half-sentence about a morning changing point of view means; we know a bad day is one with no writing and good day is one with several hours spent on a novel. But now, this summer, with both of us with books coming out, we’ve had several of those gritchy exchanges that contain, “No, what I need now is . . . ” But we’re okay. The books are almost out. And soon it will be back to writing and evenings with the lamps on and books in our laps.
To learn more about Kathleen George, please visit her website.