By P. J. Bodnar
When critically-acclaimed investigative journalist Caitlin Bergman is invited back to her alma mater to accept the degree she wasn’t able to complete, she isn’t sure she can—it’s in a place she’s avoided for 20 years.
Realizing she can’t avoid her demons forever, she agrees to go. But while accepting her diploma, she’s drawn into the investigation of a missing student and is forced to face those demons head on.
Author August Norman grew up in central Indiana, but his adopted home has been Los Angeles for the past 20 years. He’s currently working on the follow-up to COME AND GET ME.
Here, he sits down with The Big Thrill to answer a few questions about his heart-pounding debut.
You have written and appeared in movies, television, and stage. Which of these formats do you enjoy the most, and would you rather perform or write for them?
When in doubt, and this goes for most parts of my life, I’d rather be writing, followed by talking about writing, then reading. An actor’s product is market dependent, meaning you can call yourself an actor all you want, but until someone casts you in a project, you’re waiting by the phone for permission to practice your craft, let alone get paid. As a writer, no one can stop you from creating art. They might not buy it, but it’s yours to refine and/or obsess about until finally thrusting it into the world. As far as formats, I love the constraints of TV and film, since you really need to tell your story quickly. But in my experience, long-form fiction’s depth of character exploration and ability to play with the language allows me a far more personal exchange with the reader.
What attracts you to this book’s genre?
COME AND GET ME is a modern crime thriller. I love the ability to simultaneously root for the protagonist and see their inevitable collision with the antagonist from both sides. As a writer, I get to both explore and expose humanity’s inner demons.
What was the biggest challenge this book presented? What about the biggest opportunity?
While the reader sees the antagonist’s point of view throughout the work, I wanted to keep their identity a mystery for as long as possible. Easier in a mystery—thriller audiences love watching the pieces come together. My biggest challenge was making those trains collide without anyone pulling the switch in the middle.
As a debut author, is there any advice you would give to new writers?
Every time I meet a yet-to-be-discovered author, I encourage them to find, make, or buy a group of writers to commiserate with, whether that means joining, or even starting, a local critique group, exploring the various social media forums, or attending a conference. I made plenty of mistakes before meeting other authors, including submitting to agents and publishers too early.
I attended my first conference in 2011 (the Santa Barbara Writers Conference) and have done my best to return every year. Not only was I able to pitch to agents and editors, I met hundreds of other writers, from career authors, poets, and screenwriters to early explorers just looking into scratching the itch. By hearing their work read aloud in critique sessions, getting feedback on my work in progress, and chatting about industry triumphs and failures over cocktails, I made lifelong friends and got a realistic view of writing as a profession—in all its ups, downs, and industry paradigm shifts. Writing is such a solitary action. Finding a tribe of fellow anxiety-filled hopefuls makes every “no” a little easier, and every “yes” a major victory. Also, learn to spell and self-edit. People will discuss story with you all day long, but if you hand them something that hasn’t been through a spell-checker, they’ll be less likely to give you their time.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Without getting too into the subject matter, I wanted to present the strongest person I could think of going through the worst time in their lives. Ultimately, no matter how strong we think we are, we all need each other to survive. This illusion of the solitary hero who suffers trauma in silence is nothing compared to a realistic human who recognizes their weaknesses and strengthens themselves by asking for and accepting the help of others.
Intoxicants play a major role in the novel, both with a positive and negative tone. How do you balance this theme within the novel?
Without litigating the merits of America’s war on drugs, I’ve tried to play with the social scale we use to judge users of controlled substances, legal or not. Despite everything she knows about the drug trade, my protagonist, journalist Caitlin Bergman, turns to pot and alcohol, rather than ask medical professionals for help with trauma. When her investigation into the disappearance of a local student leads directly to the production of marijuana, she never stops to question where the joints she uses to handle her panic attacks come from. Ultimately, that duality catches up to her.
Caitlin confronts the small town’s secrets, which include her own scars. Without giving anything away, as a journalist, has she been chasing her own demons taking down dirty cops?
Yes and no. While she has spent a fair amount of her career dealing with police corruption, her driving anger is based on a hatred of corruption in general. As the daughter of an LAPD officer who ended his career in Internal Affairs, Caitlin goes after people who’d rather protect themselves and their systems than admit mistakes. She loves and respects law enforcement, which makes it all the more disappointing when the system breaks down.
You tackle some serious themes in COME AND GET ME, including sexual assault and rape, drug use, and trauma disorders. How did you research these themes so that you could represent them so well?
My attitude about approaching these subjects, especially sexual assault, was first recognizing that I had no ownership of the material other than empathy. My personal therapist directed me toward books and studies, as well as in-depth discussions on the subject material. Then I went to my family and friends who were brave enough to share their experiences and listened to anything they wanted to say. Finally, I approached a large number of beta readers once I had a draft. Of the 25 friends and family who read various drafts, 20 were women, including those in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. Once I’d secured a publisher, we still took great concern to listen to the reactions of early blurb contributors. While I believe an artist should be the final arbiter of their stories, I’d never assume I had the right to speak someone else’s pain without doing everything possible to honor their experience.
In COME AND GET ME, you take what for many is a time of self-realization and growth (college), and destroy these characters. How does one come back from this?
The problem with trauma is that the brain’s natural response is to try to return to normalcy, which means a lot of people, from assault victims to soldiers returning from war zones, do their best to blend in while suffering in silence. I’m by no means an expert, but everything I’ve learned points to sharing the experiences under the guidance of trained professionals. Still, that takes a support system who understands that some things can’t be laughed off or gotten over easily. In Caitlin’s world, to solve the student’s disappearance, she must learn to trust again, and even harder, accept help. Finally, when she’s ready, she’ll go one step further and help others who’ve faced similar trauma. Will she ever be back to normal? No, but she’ll survive…and kick a bunch of ass on the way.
You are currently working on the next Caitlin Bergman book. How has writing the sophomore novel been compared to the debut?
Beyond the usual hassle of juggling life and work with writing time, completion of the sophomore novel’s main obstacle is the all-important world of marketing the first. I’m not complaining about a dream coming true, but each level of success includes a new level of time suck. That said, I love where Caitlin’s next journey is taking me and her world of characters. Will there be a cult? Yep. Does that mean I’ve had to build a religion? You know it. Will anyone want to follow it? I sure hope not.
Originally from central Indiana, thriller and mystery author August Norman has called Los Angeles home for two decades, writing for and/or appearing in movies, television, stage productions, web series, and even, commercial advertising.
A lover and champion of crime fiction, August is an active member of the Mystery Writers of America and the International Thriller Writers, and regularly attends the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.
To learn more about August, please visit his website.