By J.N. Duncan
I’d like to welcome J.E. Fishman to ITW this month, to talk about the upcoming release of his exciting new thriller, Primacy. J.E. Fishman is a former Doubleday editor, literary agent and ghostwriter. Primacy, his first novel in national distribution, will be published by Verbitrage in September 2011. When he isn’t writing fiction or blogging, J.E. Fishman works as an entrepreneur. He divides his time between Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and New York City. So, let’s get started.
What is the quick line on what Primacy is about in 25 words or less?
I like the first sentence of the Kirkus review on this: “A voluble primate threatens to bring down the animal-testing industry.” Eleven words.
This is an issue-involved story, focused on some of the ethics/morals in animal testing. Of course, when you put talking primates and thriller in the same sentence, I think Planet of the Apes. So, where did the inspiration for this story come from?
Now that the new “Planet” is No. 1 at the box office, it seems crazy to admit that the connection didn’t cross my mind until the novel was done. Perhaps this is because the original book and movie dealt with an already established ape society already ruling it over humans, whereas in Primacy you have the threat that a very young talking ape poses to the status quo largely because of where it shows up — that is, in an animal-testing lab. The genesis of my book was simply my reflecting on all the efforts to get apes and other non-human species to communicate. I thought it would be ironic if the first ape to mutate for speech showed up in an animal-testing lab, of all places. Then I realized this would threaten a lot of entrenched interests. The technician who makes the discovery, if she has a conscience (as the heroine does), would face a moral dilemma. She keeps her mouth shut and there’s no story to tell. She decides the ape needs to be saved from the knife and you’ve got the first act of a thriller.
On the same line, did you want to write an issue focused story from the start or did it evolve from something else?
The theme lends a certain gravitas, but in my opinion it always has to start with the elements of story: disruption, dramatic tension, moral dilemma, etc.
You have been involved in various aspects of publishing prior to becoming an author. How has this influenced you with regard to your writing?
I was an editor at Doubleday and then an agent who did business with the major houses. The mere volume of stuff that passes over your desk is staggering. And, more than anything else, it reminds you that you can never take the reader’s attention for granted. You have to win it from the first sentence and keep on earning it straight through.
The manner in which you are publishing Primacy is interesting to me. Can you tell us a bit about Verbitrage and how came to be involved in this group?
I founded it because I have this sense that the changes in book publishing really are disruptive of traditional models, to the extent that one can now publish independently at a very high level, perhaps as well as the majors are likely to publish you. If a publisher isn’t willing to risk significant capital on your work in the form of a big advance, then maybe you need to turn the tables and risk your own capital and reap the upside. But there’s always the possibility that you’ll lose your shirt, so to improve the odds you have to do it very professionally. Primacy was edited by Patrick LoBrutto, who’s edited Stephen King, Eric van Lustbader, the Dune novels, and many other things. The cover was designed by Whitney Cookman, arguably one of the best designers in the business, who recently left Random House, where he was an executive v.p. The books are offset printed, not print-on-demand, and they’re distributed to the trade. You’ll find them in independent bookstores and the chains. In addition, Primacy will be on tables and face-outs in 185 Hudson News airport stores this fall. There’s a lot of talent on the street and there are distributors working off new models, but you have to be able to pick and choose. I was fortunate to have the background and connections to do this in what I hope will prove to be a first-class way.
Always have to ask, what are your sources of inspiration as an author? What are your favorite stories? Who are a couple of your favorite authors?
We all hate answering that as much as we love asking it, don’t we? I’ve always read pretty widely, not just thrillers, not just commercial. William Styron is one of my favorite authors, for example, but there are so many others: Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Pat Conroy, Richard Price, James Michener, Irving Stone, etc. Some of these people nobody reads anymore. In the mystery genre, I have great respect for Sue Grafton, Ruth Rendell, Raymond Chandler. I saw the novel The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley on another author’s list some years ago, which led me to read it. That’s just about the most perfectly executed mystery there is, somewhat in the Chandler tradition. Among thriller writers I really admire Michael Crichton when he was at his best, David Morrell, Ken Follett. I know it’s very fashionable to put down Dan Brown, but that guy can tell a story like nobody’s business. My favorite contemporary crime author right now is probably Dennis Lehane. His stuff is really expertly wrought and finely nuanced while still being compelling.
Your main character is a woman. Having written a leading female myself, I’m always curious how male authors feel/handle writing from a female point of view?
It was damn hard and there were times I really regretted the choice. I did some early draft chapters in a writing workshop and some comments from women in that group made me wonder whether I was nuts to take this tack. But the story just wanted it so I stuck with it. Writing about the opposite sex forces a kind of economy on you that can be really instructive, but you have to work your way there. At first it’s kind of self-conscious and I found myself putting too many “womanly” details in there. Most of them got cut when I came to my senses.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading Primacy? Is the issue of animal-testing meant to be merely thought provoking or do you have a particular message you are wanting to get across?
I didn’t start out with a preconceived message, but I sort of wrote myself into one, I guess. Milan Kundera, I like to point out, observed that it’s not necessarily the novelist’s job to provide the right answers but to pose the right questions. That said, if people take away the idea that we should stop doing experiments on primates that would be pretty close to my views. Interestingly, despite the animal hook, I think the message of this novel is one that pervades most thrillers: that the individual has to take precedence over the so-called greater good. When we rely too much on “the system” our humanity suffers.
What is down the road for you as an author? Is Primacy a stand alone or the beginning of a series? Do you have any specific plans for what’s next?
I like high-concept novels that pose moral dilemmas for the main characters. I have two novels in mind after this with one-word titles ending in Y, but it’s not conceived as a trilogy, per se. The next one is Proximity and the one after that is Iniquity. The first is about an ordinary guy whose life is ruined by the machinations of Wall Street. The second is about a nun who gets into some serious trouble due to a past indiscretion. I also have an idea for a police procedural series, but I can’t go into detail on that now. It’s an angle I haven’t seen, but it’s in the very early stages.
What do you hope your story brings to the thriller genre that sets it apart from other thrillers out there now?
I see a lot of thrillers these days that get you to turn the pages but are not about anything in particular, that lack deep themes. I think one of the reasons that Dan Brown’s The Davinci Code broke out is because it introduced certain ideas to people in a way that was entertaining but also got them thinking. Michael Crichton, at times, did this masterfully, as well. Primacy, I hope, has a chance to leave a mark because it’s not just about some woman who’s looking out for her own life. There’s a social issue at stake, one that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to pat answers. So it makes the reader wonder not simply, well, would I be brave enough to face down that bad guy, but, how would I address this problem if put in the same position? And we’re all in that position, because we’re part of society. We just don’t often acknowledge it. So this book is entertainment, but it’s also a challenge. It says, you can’t avert your eyes from this issue any more than you can stop turning the pages.
I would like to thank Mr. Fishman for joining us at ITW today to answer some questions about his upcoming book, and we wish him the best of luck with his upcoming book, Primacy!
J.E. Fishman is author of the mystery novel CADAVER BLUES, which was serialized in 2010 on The Nervous Breakdown, and of the forthcoming thriller PRIMACY. When he isn’t writing fiction or blogging, Fishman–a former Doubleday editor, literary agent, and ghostwriter–works as an entrepreneur. He divides his time between Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and New York City.
To learn more about the author, please visit his website.