By James Ziskin
This month, I interview Gregg Hurwitz, the New York Times best-selling author of fourteen thrillers and several comic books. If that’s not enough, he also has written and produced television shows for major networks, and is currently developing his Tim Rackley series for TNT/Sony. His latest thriller, DON’T LOOK BACK, hits bookstores this month.
You write strong, fascinating female characters in all your books. I’m thinking of Cameron Kates, both Evelyn and Cristina Brasher, Janey Overbay… They’re at turns smart, sassy, brave, controlling, and have great conscience and soul. But DON’T LOOK BACK is the first time you’ve put a woman, Eve Hardaway, at the center of one of your thrillers. It’s a fantastically terrorizing story. Why, do you think, are so few thrillers about women?
I do think there’s a perception bias that books about women tend to be more “literary” (whatever that means)—or that within genre, female protagonists appear in mysteries rather than thrillers. But there are more thrillers about women than people tend to be aware of. If we look at contemporary writers alone, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, Laura Lippman, Chelsea Cain, Karin Slaughter, Lisa Unger, Alafair Burke, Meg Gardiner, Megan Abbott and many more write thrillers (or books with strong thriller elements). Connelly and Crais have chosen female protagonists for certain books (and interestingly, for those books closer to the thriller end of the spectrum for their respective bodies of work). And of course, Thomas Harris placed Clarice Starling at the center of one of the benchmark thrillers of all time.
DON’T LOOK BACK demanded a female lead character. I wanted to tell the story of a woman who was a single mother, freshly off a divorce, struggling to find herself and to reestablish her voice in the world. Leaving her son in the care of his beloved nanny for a week, Eve Hardaway finds herself in a small ecolodge way up in the jungles of Oaxaca. On her first day, she strays from the group into the jungle and sees something she’s not supposed to see. Which involves a Very Bad Man. He clues in to the fact that she saw him. And just as he starts to zero in on her and this small band of tourists, a tropical storm blows in. So Eve, single mother and nurse from Calabasas, finds herself being pursued through the jungle in the middle of a storm by a brutal man who can outflank, out-fight, and overpower her. And she realizes that if she ever hopes to get back home and see her son again, she is going to have to find that unbreakable part of herself, outlast, and prevail.
Because she’s completely out of her depth, off familiar ground, and squaring off against a man who is many multiples more powerful and deadly than she is, gender dynamics play significantly throughout. How is this woman going to make herself heard inside a group and in a culture dominated by men? How will she use her smarts and strength to come out of the jungle alive?
You have gone to some extreme lengths to research your books. Some very adventurous stuff. Your heroes are tough guys with training, but they’re not supermen. That makes them believable and sympathetic in the dangerous situations you drop them into. Tell us about your own experiences and the role they play in your research.
Well, I’ve certainly done my fair share of stupid stuff in the name of research. Going undercover into mind-control cults. Flying in stunt planes. Swimming with sharks. Practicing hand-to-hand with martial artists (and getting my ass roundly kicked). Blowing up cars on demolition ranges with Navy SEAL demolition breachers.
For DON’T LOOK BACK I went up into the jungles of Oaxaca. I enjoyed some pretty dangerous runs on a Class IV white-water rafting trip through the mountains. Just before we launched the raft, I got stung on the eyelid by a still-not-identified wasp which made my eye swell up to cartoon proportions. In Mexico, this doesn’t elicit sympathy; it means you get made fun of more. I learned how to make soap and mezcal. I learned how to drink mezcal properly—with orange slices and worm salt. I ate crickets and desiccated caterpillar. I nearly stepped on giant snakes. I walked (carefully) through crocodile lagoons and got close to a few snaggle-toothed monsters. I went horseback riding through the jungle and across beaches. I hiked through ruins. It was a great blend of adventure and manic fun. I wanted the reader to have a front-row seat to the action and in order to do that, I had to experience it myself so I could bring to life the sights, scents, and feelings of that unique part of the world.
All of your heroes face physical danger. They also face spiritual dilemmas. In TELL NO LIES, the use of wealth and influence to save the life of a loved one sparks unforeseen consequences, as well as painful questions of morality and fairness. Can you talk about the physical and moralistic dangers you dream up for your heroes?
For me it often starts with a moral misstep—however slight—for my protagonist, which opens the door to unforeseen consequences. We all have taken shortcuts in our lives—the tiny lie, the bad move, the wrong choice when our conscience tells us otherwise. And my books often deal with what can happen as a result. Not a simplistic morality play, because my characters don’t get what they deserve. But they get what they elicit. It’s a small distinction but an important one.
You’ve written about U.S. marshals, Navy SEALs, former soldiers, but also about common people thrust into uncommon situations. Forgotten or unknown actions from the past come back to haunt your characters in terrifying ways. There’s an element of Greek tragedy to it. You write heart-pounding, suspenseful scenes, and you never let up. So what scares Gregg Hurwitz?
Spiders that skitter across the pillow when I’m reading (it only happened once, but still). And sock puppets.
Tim Rackley recurs (four novels) but most of your thrillers are stand-alones. Do you find it challenging to recreate everything and everyone each time you write a novel?
Yes. It’s hard dropping into a new voice and a new world for every book. Plus living in the character, pulling on a new mask and peering at the world through those eyeholes. But it’s an excuse for a lot of fresh research and that can be a blast. And there’s an advantage: you can pick up a character wherever you want and leave her off wherever you want. There’s no planning beyond the front and back covers.
You paint vivid portraits of cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco in particular. One chapter in TELL NO LIES is dedicated entirely to the description of San Francisco. Nothing to advance the story, as such, just a tour of the city. It reminded me in a way of how Melville interspersed descriptions of nautical and whaling technologies into MOBY DICK. Tell us about how you write your cities into your books.
People talk a lot about place as character and I think I finally figured out what that means. I believe a place is a character in a book when that story could take place nowhere else. For instance, I’ve written a number of books set in Los Angeles, but in only a few of those is LA actually a character. TELL NO LIES had to take place in San Francisco because of the unique way that race and class work there. The story never could have worked in Los Angeles or Boston or London. I will say that I always aim to advance the story with every chapter. So that even if there’s no plot development, the mood that I’m evoking in my descriptions of particular elements of a city are providing a backdrop for the story. If I’m describing gritty urban streets, that might be to throw light on my character’s frame of mind at that moment. The SF rant (as I think of it) was intended to show Daniel Brasher’s dislocation from the city he grew up in and thought he knew—which in turn illuminates his dislocation from everything he knew. His moral framework has just been shattered and he has no bearings anymore, the ground shifting beneath his feet, and so his city seems alien and forbidding.
You’ve got formidable academic chops. From Harvard to Trinity College, you studied Shakespeare, among other subjects, and contributed to scholarly journals. In THE SURVIVOR, you take your hero, Nate, all the way to the bottom. He’s a kind of modern-day Job. Do you draw upon literature for allegory and symbolism in your books?
I do but I don’t lean on it too heavily or else the story can start to feel like a fill-in-the-blank adventure. I did study literature and much of what I understand about story and character is embedded in my cells, so I do think that informs what I do when I sit down at the keyboard. If allusions sneak in, they have to do so organically.
And how, if at all, have Shakespearian tragedies shaped your own writing?
In essential and complex ways. I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post that explicates my view of this, called Shakespeare: Thriller Writer, which says what I’d like to say better than I could recount. So I’d like to link to it here: Shakespeare: Thriller Writer.
Writers often talk about building brands for themselves. You’re making something of an industry for yourself. You’ve written a wide range of fiction: best-selling thrillers, comic books, dramas, comedies, and noirs. Then there are the television shows and film scripts. What’s next for Gregg Hurwitz?
I am going to write my first new series character since I created Tim Rackley in 2002.
Gregg Hurwitz is the I bestselling author of 13 thrillers, most recently, TELL NO LIES . His novels have been shortlisted for numerous literary awards, graced top ten lists, and have been translated into 22 languages. He is also a New York Times Bestselling comic book writer, having penned stories for Marvel (WOLVERINE, PUNISHER) and DC (BATMAN, PENGUIN). Additionally, he’s written screenplays for or sold spec scripts to many of the major studios, and written, developed, and produced television for various networks. He recently announced that he will be developing his Tim Rackley books for TNT/Sony. Gregg resides in Los Angeles.
To learn more about Gregg, please visit his website.