By Josie Brown
Most writers live to write, and love to read. For some of us, Jeff Ayers has the perfect gig: he also works in a public library, where he has access to every thriller book to hit the shelves, not to mention research to create heart-pounding plots.
His first book, VOYAGES OF IMAGINATION: THE STAR TREK FICTION COMPANION, took Trek fans’ imaginations to places where no man has gone before. With his new thriller, LONG OVERDUE, readers get an insider’s view of life in a library—where a serial killer just so happens to be on the loose.
Jeff’s answers my questions (which, by the way, had nothing to do with the hypothetical question of a certain author’s guilt over fifteen-year-long overdue book) will certainly make you look over your shoulder the next time you enter your local library…
I’m sorry, but as much as I love your books, this one makes me want to cry! Really? You’re killing off LIBRARIANS? (SOB!) Like, aren’t they some of our favorite people in the world? Explain yourself, sir!
First of all, I love librarians. After all, I’m one myself. My hero, Nicholas Hardy, is a librarian. LONG OVERDUE is actually my way of using the thriller genre to share what really goes on in an urban library. I was tired of people thinking my job was “reading books all day.” I wanted to upend the stereotype of the elderly bun-haired librarian who discovers a dead body in the stacks and show that a library setting could be perfect for a thriller.
What kind of offenses would make you want to–oh, I dunno–KILL a library patron?
Really, 99.9 percent of our patrons are wonderful. Librarians believe in free access and information for everyone, and we welcome people from all walks of life through the doors every day. The majority of them are lovely people, but you do encounter the rare individual who forgot to take their medication or is high on something other than life. If they have a propensity towards hostility, library staff is often a target. And of course, some people are just plain mean. There is nothing more frustrating than watching someone stagger into the lobby, completely drunk, projectile vomit, then scream obscenities and flip you off as they go to lay down on the floor in the children’s area. Then it is your job to ask them to leave. So it’s stressful, but the joy still far outweighs the frustration. Since I read a ton of thrillers, I can’t help but think, of course, of elaborate ways to relieve the stress.
Seattle is renowned as the penultimate book lover’s city. I presume that translates in extra loving for it’s libraries as well? Do great libraries draw great characters in which books are based on? (And by the way, I hail the main library, in downtown, as a work of art. Some day I plan on playing The Big Room there, LOL!)
Libraries are loved in Seattle. Both the Seattle Public system and the King County (separate from Seattle, it furnishes libraries outside the Seattle city limits) system are in the top five libraries in the United States based on circulation. A bond issue over 10 years ago helped renovate or build new branches. The Central building in Downtown Seattle was designed by Rem Koolhaus, and paid for by the bond issue. Money is tight for libraries around the country, but a bond issue last year passed overwhelmingly to help fund the Seattle Public Library for the next seven years. Without it, layoffs and major cutbacks were looming. I am so grateful to live in a city that supports its libraries.
A tightly woven plot, great characters, and realistic dialogue: your book has it all. Did it start with the plot, or the character of your hero, Nicholas Hardy? Walk us through your process.
I was working in the Central Downtown library shortly after it opened and retrieving some materials in an area not accessible to the public. As I was grabbing the item, I had a sudden flash that the movable shelves (they move with a hand crank to maximize book storage in a minimal space) would be a horrible way to die. Soon after that, I ran across an article in a local publication called The Stranger. The headline: “Killer Library: the New Central Library Offers Civic Validation, a Huge Collection of Material, and a Staggering Number of Startling New Ways to Die.” It got my mind spinning. I had an idea that involved SWAT from another story I was working on, and I realized it would be a great fit if I changed the location to the Central Downtown library. Once I had all of the elements in place, Nicholas Hardy popped in my head. He was the perfect person to run through the chaos.
How has your intimate knowledge of libraries affected what you write, and how?
I tried as much as possible to convey the love of my job and contrast that against the frustrations. I know all jobs bring some level of enjoyment and anger depending on the circumstances. Honestly, each day working in a library is an adventure. It’s never the same. You just want the day to end with a smile on your face (“The question I got today was a real stumper.” “I helped someone discover a lost relative.”).
One day while working on the novel, I walked up to one of the maintenance crew and said, “Where would be the best place to release a deadly toxic nerve gas in the building?” He looked at me and said, “Follow me.” The stuff he showed me was priceless. Of course, it made me a little nervous that I was not wearing my work ID when he offered to show me…
Your killer is pure evil (I’m saying by what he does on the page — and not just because he’s torturing one of my favorite group of people, librarians!) Was he fun to write? And what dark little corner of your soul did you pull him from?
The irony is that librarians are his favorite kind of people as well! He is pushed over the brink by the frustrations of dealing with people who abuse the system and get away with it. Sometimes it feels like a good chunk of the day is spent dealing with disruptive patrons who have already been excluded but keep coming back anyway. So my villain’s motives are pure, even if his methods are not.
Tell us the worst library urban legend ever. (I’m guessing you know several…)
Truth is stranger than fiction. I was at the desk, and a woman came up and asked about the novel The Blue and the Gray. It had just aired on television as a two-part miniseries. She wanted to read the book since she missed the ending, and wanted to know who won the war.
Also, this is a direct scan from the online Seattle Yellow Pages:
What is your own greatest personal fear about the future of libraries?
I love books, and would be sad to see physical books become afterthoughts. But I don’t have any great personal fear, so to speak. Will libraries look the same five years from now? Absolutely not. They will need to adapt with the time, anticipate the future, and stay at the forefront of the communities they represent. Some people despise change, but librarians have learned to embrace change and adapt in the ever-increasing world of technology. Libraries play an essential role in helping people access information that goes far beyond books. Providing universal access to information will become increasingly important in resource-limited times.
What novelists are your greatest influences, and why?
Growing up, I was profoundly influenced by Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury. I don’t remember who gave me a copy of The Martian Chronicles, and I read it over and over again just for a particular image or phrase. Soon I was reading everything I could find by him. Rod Serling could convey so much with a single line of dialogue. I found short story collections not only by him, but also other writers of The Twilight Zone. Readers of the short story I wrote with Jon Land that appeared in last year’s LOVE IS MURDER anthology edited by Sandra Brown will immediately see the Twilight Zone influence.
Years ago, I was at San Diego Comic Con promoting my Star Trek book, and had a chance to meet Ray Bradbury. After a 45-minute wait, he came out in a wheelchair but only signed for about 10 minutes due to his failing health. I wanted so much to personally thank him for being one of the influences in my life; he made me want to work in libraries. The person I was standing next to in line knew why I was there, and saw the look on my face. He wrote down an email address and said, “Send your thoughts to this email.” Come to find out, the email belonged to Ray Bradbury’s personal secretary. I wrote him a long letter, and told him how much he meant to me and how he influenced my career in both libraries and writing. He sent me back a couple of signed bookplates and a letter. I will treasure them both forever.
I also have to give a shout out to the thriller author community at large. I’ve been a fan of thrillers for a long time, and thanks to Thrillerfest, have gotten to know and had a chance to personally thank many authors I admire for the way their books have entertained and inspired me.
What’s next up on the horizon for you?
I have a book on the history of Disneyland that is due to my publisher, and I’ve been working on another library thriller that has more of a historical feel. It involves Galileo and his “real” deathbed confession. And of course, I’m keeping my day job at the library. Never a dull moment!
Jeff Ayers is the author of VOYAGES OF IMAGINATION: THE STAR TREK FICTION COMPANION (Pocket Books, 2006). Jeff co-wrote the short story “Last Shot” with Jon Land in the anthology LOVE IS MURDER, edited by Sandra Brown (MIRA, 2012). He freelance reviews for the ASSOCIATED PRESS, LIBRARY JOURNAL, BOOKLIST, and RT BOOKREVIEWS. Jeff has written articles and interviews for various publications including WRITER MAGAZINE, the SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER, and AUTHOR MAGAZINE. He’s on the board of directors for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and is a member of the International Thriller Writers.