This debut novel never lets the reader off the edge of the seat—the mark of a great story. When college student Joe Talbert decides to interview a convicted rapist and murderer for a class assignment, he finds himself thrust into a web of lies and deceit that put his and other lives in grave danger. Talbert’s anguished relationship with an alcoholic mother and his deep tenderness for an autistic younger brother make him a sympathetic and fully formed protagonist. Eskens manages to weave intricacies of the justice and prison systems into the story while maintaining a tight grip on the pace and tension.
Eskens is a practicing criminal defense attorney with an undergraduate degree in journalism and a J.D. from Hamline University School of Law. He has participated in the Minnesota State University M.F.A. program as well as classes and seminars at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.
He took time from his busy practice and current writing project to speak with THE BIG THRILL.
Tell us how long you’ve been writing and what inspired you to write this first novel.
I began writing immediately after graduating from law school. Although I was a first-class legal writer, that didn’t translate into good fiction, so I started reading books like THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell and ON BECOMING A NOVELIST by John Gardner. When books were no longer enough, I began attending classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and the Iowa Summer Writers Festival. That eventually led to me enrolling in the MFA program at Minnesota State University.
During all of that time, I had a manuscript that I was developing—my learning manuscript. In 2011, I believed that I was ready to write a manuscript that I would send into the world for publication, so I put my learning manuscript away and began outlining THE LIFE WE BURY. Within a year I had a first draft completed. Then it took another year of revising and seeking an agent. And now it’s getting published and the long period of gestation is coming to an end.
THE LIFE WE BURY deals ultimately with the questions of justice and redemption. You’ve practiced criminal law for twenty years. How has your work defined justice for you?
People’s opinion of justice can become relative when they get into trouble. I have a scene in THE LIFE WE BURY where an attorney tells Joe about how the DWI guy will say “at least I’m not a thief” and the thief will place himself a rung above the wife beater, who is a better person than the burglar, and so on. No one wants to see themselves as bad so they find a way to rationalize it. In reality, most people live somewhere between good and evil, so justice can rarely be purely black and white.
How do you hope your readers will see justice?
I want my readers to see that justice and the law are not always synonymous. I want my characters to be guided by what is right even if that means going against the law. It’s kind of like the ending of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD when Atticus knows that the law requires him to do one thing, but justice requires that he not follow the law.
Your book depicts many disturbing social issues of our day–child abuse, alcoholism, rape, the justice and prison systems, and yet this is not a dark story. Is there a message you want readers to grasp?
People are deeper than they appear. Everyone has a past, and most people carry at least one secret so dark that they can’t even utter it aloud. In THE LIFE WE BURY, I bring those secrets to the surface. The catharsis can’t happen, however, until the characters have taken a journey together, which allows a bond of trust to grow between them.
Are the names of the characters in your novel important?
Some of the names are important. I started calling the protagonist “Joe” because I wanted the hero to be an “average Joe” who finds himself thrust into an extraordinary situation. The name stuck. Most names, however, come to me because of the personal connotation that I attach to the name or the way the name sounds on the page.
What about the title?
The title is a metaphor for how many of the characters are attempting to leave some part of themselves behind. They live under the false hope that they can bury those parts of their lives and move on. But, as they come to find out, some things can’t be buried.
What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing the book to life?
The biggest challenge was blending the two main plot lines together. I outlined two separate plots, one involving the mystery of Carl Iverson’s past and the second being the relationship between Joe and his autistic brother, Jeremy. Each plot needed to be strong enough to stand on its own and yet work together in a single seamless story.
Do you ever experience writer’s block, and, if so, how do you push through it?
Because I outline extensively, I rarely have writer’s block. I have a trail to follow every time I sit down to write. If I have trouble transitioning into a new plot point, I’ll read from my stack of favorite authors and I’ll normally come across a word or phrase or technique that gets my own juices flowing.
Which authors have been the greatest influences for you?
Dennis Lehane and Harper Lee.
Did you enjoy reading as a child?
I don’t recall reading books as a child. I know I did, but I was always a slow reader and preferred to daydream my own stories. My very first report card in first grade informed my parents that I daydreamed too much. That theme repeated itself throughout grade school. However, I believe that my daydreaming was the starting point of my later desire to be a writer. I was creating characters and plots in my head, and now, I simply put those characters and plots on paper.
Can you name a book you just couldn’t finish?
In high school, I was assigned to read A Canticle for Leibowitz. I guess I’m not a science fiction kind of guy.
What keeps you awake at night?
What is the worst job you’ve ever done?
I don’t know if it was the worst job, but the oddest job I ever had was when I delivered balloons. When I was in college at the University of Iowa, I had a job where I’d dress up as a clown and deliver balloon bouquets. I would sing happy birthday or whatever they asked me to sing. I often found myself delivering to sororities and even girls who knew me had no idea that I was the guy in the clown makeup. That job came to an abrupt end on Valentine’s Day when my boss wanted me to dress up as cupid (just a diaper).
What single thing would improve the quality of your life?
The ability to give up my day job. Don’t get me wrong, I love being a criminal defense attorney, but writing is my passion. As this is my debut novel, I will have to patiently wait for sales to catch up with my hopes and dreams.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
There’s a line in THE LIFE WE BURY where Carl contemplates that life here on Earth is possibly the closest he’ll ever get to heaven—kind of a “stop and smell the roses” moment. As I move down the backside of the arc of my life, I find joy in those small moments (another motif from the novel).
What would your super power be?
Flying…but with my luck, I’d immediately develop a fear of heights.
What book would we be surprised to find on your nightstand?
THE BELL JAR, by Sylvia Plath. I originally had the notion of writing literary novels. Along that vein, I developed a penchant for writers like Plath. At the same time, my experience as a criminal attorney gave me the background for writing mysteries and thrillers. That’s about the time that I stumbled onto MYSTIC RIVER, by Dennis Lehane and realized that I could do both.
You’re having a dinner party. What three authors would you invite?
Harper Lee, Dennis Lehane and hmmm…this is tough. If I’m allowed to resurrect someone, Earnest Hemingway.
What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
It’s an equation I have taped to my computer. I’m not sure where I found it, but it reads:
What does the character want?
What is the obstacle in their way?
Greater want + greater obstacle = greater conflict
Conflict = suspense
I evaluate every character in every scene with his equation, usually adding more conflict and tension as I go.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Give time and attention to setting the scene. I imagine a novel like a float trip down a river (If you’ve never floated down a river, go do that first.) There are times when you’ll be overwhelmed with the sensory experience, the beauty of the foliage, the scent of the river water, the sounds of birds in the trees or fish jumping to catch a dragonfly. Other times, the danger and excitement of the rapids will send the blood pounding through your chest and the scenery is just a blur.
Don’t give short shrift to either part of the experience. Make the transition and descriptive scenes of your novel every bit as enjoyable to read as the action. Don’t view setting the scene as something you have to do in order to simply get to the next plot point. Too many young authors, especially in genre fiction, focus their energy and talent on the plot and forget how enjoyable setting the scene can be.
Tell us about your next project.
My sophomore novel is drawn from supporting characters in THE LIFE WE BURY and is already in the hands of my publisher. It is slated to launch next fall. I am currently writing the first draft of a third novel with those same characters. If all goes well, that will be out in the fall of 2016.
Allen Eskens (Cleveland, MN) has been a criminal defense attorney for twenty years. He honed his creative writing skills through the MFA program at Minnesota State University as well as classes at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. He is a member of the Twin Cities Sisters in Crime. He is currently working on a follow-up novel to THE LIFE WE BURY.
To learn more about Allen, please visit his website.
Photography credit: Daniel Dinsmore