For this issue of The Big Thrill, Bill Lashner and I interviewed each other. It was a particular thrill for me, because Bill is coming off his recent Edgar nomination for Best Novel for The Barkeep. We each have a new novel just out, just a week apart. His book, THE FOUR-NIGHT RUN, features J. D. Scrbacek, a defense attorney who prides himself on the vigorous and nimble defense of even the most reviled clients.
My new novel, TWO FOR THE SHOW, is a twisting and twisted tale told by Chas, a detective who works exclusively—and practically invisibly—for Wallace the Amazing, a Las Vegas mentalist. I was very interested in learning more about Lashner’s gutsy and witty protagonist. Fortunately, Bill seemed equally interested in learning about my characters. Our conversation follows.
William Lashner: So the thing I really admired about your novel is the way Wallace pretty much stayed off stage the whole time, and yet was pulling every string. He hovered over the book like a God, and was really a thrilling character, but we never really saw him in a scene, except for one glimpse he gives to Chas before running away. Was it hard to keep him up there in the stratosphere?
Jonathan Stone: Well, it’s Chas’s book. The whole thing is told through his point of view. And Chas has Wallace up on a pedestal. In fact, the reader only really sees Wallace on stage—just like the rest of the world sees him. I like him set off, separate, apart, a little more godlike than a man, as you say—so I’m glad that worked for you.
WL: It absolutely did. If I could have slipped myself anywhere into the story to peek at what was happening, it would have been in the jungle when he became a sort of shaman.
JS: Yeah, I’d like to see him there too! So let me ask you a little about Scrbacek. One of the running gags of your novel is that every time Scrbacek is asked about his ethnic origin, he gives a different answer. And all his different answers, or most of them, are believable. It’s very funny, but it’s got a deeper point—throughout the book, he’s trying to understand who he really is, what his values are, trying to get back to and rediscover his own real identity and worth. Could you talk a little about that?
WL: Scrbacek is lost, and the book is very much a machine for him to find himself again. Although, I will say, that his smart alecky remarks about his heritage are also just a way for him to quip. I’m never above putting in a joke just because. One of the models for the book was Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, where Marley is forced to confront the ghosts of his past, present, and future to figure out what kind of man he wants to be. Scrbacek goes through that same sort of ordeal, and it isn’t pretty.
JS: It’s interesting that both our books deal with a protagonist discovering or rediscovering their own identities. Chas doesn’t really know his own past either. Of course, it was cleverly manipulated away from him by Wallace. So he’s not as accountable as we have to hold your guy J. D.
WL: Absolutely. J. D. deserved everything he got and Chas did not. I really liked the way you played with identity all through the book. There was a moment when you talked about identity theft as a way to steal everything but identity. Which is true. But then we realize that, bit by bit, that the godlike Wallace did end up stealing Chas’s identity.
JS: Yeah. One of my points about identity is that it’s a lot more fluid than one might think. Especially in the age of online identities—where people concoct identities out of whole cloth. And of course, at the same time Chas is building a bulletproof identity for his boss Wallace, he’s continually erasing his own, to leave no footprint in the world. And the whole thing takes place in a city where identity is very much up for grabs, where people go to get away from themselves, and pretend to be someone different, where people start over—Las Vegas.
WL: Yeah, Vegas. Did you pick Vegas as the setting just so you could write off a trip? I’ve done that, I have to admit. But it was the perfect place for a guy like Chas to disappear, because it seems, in a way, everyone goes to Vegas to disappear.
JS: Hah! No, I picked it for the stage show that is central to the novel, and as you notice, although I’m in Vegas, there’s no gambling. Whereas in THE FOUR NIGHT RUN, there is definitely gambling—the literal kind, and then the huge four-night gamble that Scrbacek is undertaking. I loved the double meaning of the title. He’s on the run for four nights straight, but also, his luck runs for four nights straight cause he manages to stay alive. Can you talk about the whole idea of luck in your book. I mean, the vibe I get, which is very true to life, is that a lot of life just comes down to dumb luck.
WL: We like to tell ourselves that we forge our own destinies, and in a lot of ways we do, but luck plays such a part. There’s a moment when Scrbacek is playing blackjack and everything hits and the luck is running through him and he feels invincible. And then it turns, and the table goes cold, and he can feel that the luck has run out. That’s the way it feels when I’m in Vegas at the table sometimes. The crap table gets hot and I feel like I earned each of those wins. Like I deserved to hit those points. Like it’s more than just dumb stupid luck. And that’s why I inevitably stay too long at the tables.
JS: Speaking of luck, I’ve got to ask you—there’s a character in your book, a casino owner of these extremely Atlantic City–ish casinos, and he’s pretty shady, though his name is very glitzy and shiny, James E. Diamond—and Bill, you began this book way before Donald Trump was even seriously running, much less the Republican nominee for president. I mean, talk about luck. Or prescience, at least. I know you had some kind of Trumpian figure in mind, but did you ever think your work would be so timely?
WL: It did turn out pretty interesting, the whole Trump thing happening after the book was written. But if you’ve followed the history of gambling on the boardwalk, he’s been a huge part of it, so some of his influence is bound to be part of the story. I did like naming his casinos for him, though. I think I did a better job than he did. Taj Majal indeed.
I wanted to ask you about how you inhabited Chas so well when his life is so different than yours. You’re working in advertising, which is very much a collaborative business, writing your novels on a train back and forth from an active business life and active family life, but somehow you were able to really get into the life of a guy who spends every hour alone behind the computer getting close to no one at all. Was that hard for you?
JS: I think he’s an alter ego in a way. It’s true, I’m a pretty social, community-involved, tennis and golf and family kind of guy. But as you know, we fiction writers get to go to another side of ourselves, and through Chas, I could give free vent to the idea of loneliness, and isolation, and melancholy. Luckily for fiction writers, we get to emerge and rejoin the world. But our poor characters have to stay forever right where we leave them.
WL: So I’m going to ask a technical question because I was very jealous of much of what was in the book. I really struggle to pop in the killer twist. That’s one of the hardest things I find in writing a novel. I’m always worried that the twist I throw in is just not interesting enough. But I have to say, the twists in TWO FOR THE SHOW just kept coming, mind-blowing twists that make so much sense and propel the story forward in really interesting ways. Is there a technique you use? Do they come up in the writing or are they planned well ahead of time?
JS: Totally unplanned. They happen as I write. And part of my “brand” is the big twist. But sometimes the big twist or twists can be a distraction for readers. Especially if they’re very invested in the characters. If readers love your characters, sometimes they’re just not all that interested in the big twist. I’ve had readers say to me, “Oh, I was so involved with Elaine, why’d you throw in that big twist?” And Bill, your characters, from J. D. to some of the ancillary characters, are very riveting. Really hold you. So in my humble opinion, you just don’t need those twists. Your work is character driven, in the best way.
WL: Thank you for that, but I will say the right twist at the right time just snaps everything in focus.
JS: Hey it’s been great to chat like this—and the highest compliment of all, I guess, is that I’m heading off to read the The Barkeep next.
WL: Thanks. Both The Barkeep and your really excellent Moving Day were part of the Kindle First program and both did really well. It was nice to build up the readership.
JS: Yeah, maybe the best thing about that program is how many new readers it brings you—and how directly you hear from them through reader reviews. It’s really a nice connection with readers.
WL: Agreed. Thanks for talking. This was fun. We should do it again.
JS: Well, you and I seem to be pretty much on pace with our next books, so maybe we will be able to do it again. Take care.
Jonathan Stone writes his books on the commuter train between his home in Connecticut and his advertising job in midtown Manhattan, where he has honed his writing skills by creating smart and classic campaigns for high-level brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, and Mitsubishi. Stone’s first mystery-thriller series, the Julian Palmer books, won critical acclaim and was hailed as “stunning” and “risk-taking” in starred reviews by Publishers Weekly. He earned glowing praise for his novel The Cold Truth from the New York Times, who called it “bone-chilling.” He is also the recipient of a Claymore Award for best unpublished crime novel and a graduate of Yale University, where he was a Scholar of the House in fiction writing. He is also the author of The Teller, Moving Day, The Heat of Lies, Breakthrough, and Parting Shot.
To learn more about Jonathan, please visit his website.
William Lashner is the New York Times bestselling author of Guaranteed Heroes, The Barkeep, and The Accounting, as well as the Victor Carl legal thrillers, which have been translated into more than a dozen languages and sold across the globe. The Barkeep, nominated for an Edgar Award, was an Amazon and Digital Book World #1 bestseller. Before retiring from law to write full-time, Lashner was a prosecutor with the Department of Justice in Washington, DC. He is a graduate of the New York University School of Law as well as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives outside Philadelphia with his wife and three children.
To learn more about William, please visit his website.