Up Close: David Bell
Tackling the Existential Question:
Is This It?
By P. J. Bodnar
When you come to a crossroads in life, do you follow your head or your heart? In David Bell’s latest thriller, LAYOVER, Joshua Fields is given that choice, and for the first time in his life, he follows his heart…and the girl.
The idea for this novel—Bell’s ninth—came from a real life encounter he witnessed in an airport. He saw two people passionately kiss goodbye, and then heard the guy say to the bartender that he’d just met the girl earlier that morning.
Bell says that his novels come from a “conglomeration of different things, including things I see in real life and things that have happened to people I know. All writers have to constantly be on the look-out for new story ideas. Writers are relentless and will use anything to get that book finished.”
Bell, who is an English professor in his other life, took time out of his busy writing and teaching schedule to talk to The Big Thrill about his latest thriller.
With LAYOVER being your ninth novel, how has your writing process changed over the years?
Not in a huge way. I outline more extensively now, and I pay close attention to coming up with a concise, catchy elevator pitch. My lifelong fear of being trapped in an elevator with Steven Spielberg and not knowing how to concisely pitch my book to him has finally caught up to me.
You’ve said that you now write leaner, more fast-paced thrillers. Is that accomplished in the writing or editing process?
All of the above. It starts with that concept and quick elevator pitch. It happens in the outline when I try to get to the action immediately. And then, of course, in the writing and editing process. At every step of the way I have to be asking myself—am I moving this story along as fast as I can?
You’re an associate professor of English, and have your PhD in American Literature. Who are your writing heroes?
Too many to mention, and it changes every day or every week. But I’d like to give a shout-out to the late, great Ed Gorman—an amazing writer and a wonderful human being who deserved to sell many more books than he did. I’ve learned a lot about writing by reading him. And I wouldn’t have a career without his help.
What is the one piece of advice you give students that are pursuing careers in writing?
I’d tell anyone who wants to pursue a career in writing to not expect miracles. It’s a tough, competitive business, and you must do it because you enjoy writing, not because you think you’re going to become rich and famous. Becoming rich and famous happens to a few…but the joy of writing a good story can happen to anyone if they have enough patience and determination.
Several of the characters in LAYOVER are looking to change part of their lives, some better than others. What do you think is the main driver for change in their lives—family, career, or something bigger?
I think it’s something bigger. It’s that large, looming existential question we all face at various points in our lives when we ask ourselves, “Is this it? Is there something more?” And how we respond to those moments tells us the kinds of lives we will have. It may sound big and deep for a thriller, but I think the best thrillers are about real people who are dealing with recognizable problems. We may not all be able to relate to chasing a stranger across the country on an airplane, but we’ve all wondered about the directions of our lives and if we’re on the path we should be on.
Another theme that runs throughout the novel is the idea of the family bond. Why was this an important theme for the book?
I frequently write about families. Let’s face it, we all come from some kind of family, so that’s a pretty universal experience. And we all know that families can be sources of great joy and great frustration. All of the main characters in the book are dealing with family issues—mostly parent-child relationships. The idea of how far someone would go to protect or defend a family member plays a big role. That pretty much sets the whole story in motion.
Joshua chases Morgan after their first meeting. Was he chasing her or running from something else?
A little of both. He’s looking for a change in his life. He feels like he’s stuck in a rut. And then he meets this woman, and they connect, and suddenly he sees a way out of the rut he’s been in. He has no idea what he’s about to get drawn into…
The settings in the book were very different but still similar. The airport, where you could get lost in a crowd, seemed very isolating, but so did the expanse of the open country. Joshua seemed, however, to be more at home in a place that he’d never been. Would you agree?
That’s an interesting take, and I like it. I think it goes back to this guy wanting to be somewhere different and do something different. Sometimes we have to go to those isolating or out of the way places, far from home, to find ourselves. And that’s what Joshua is doing. By running away he finds out who he is and what matters most to him.
You have said that Morgan was your favorite character to write because you didn’t know what she was going to do next. How much of an idea do you have when you first sit down to write?
I always have an outline and pretty good idea of where the characters and the story is going to go. But then I always deviate in ways both large and small. I think of the outline as a road map, but sometimes I have to get off the road and look at the interesting roadside attraction I didn’t expect. Morgan surprised me more than once—and that’s what really makes writing a thriller fun.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I’ll be on tour for LAYOVER. I’ll be at ThrillerFest. And then I’ll be finishing another book about a man who agrees to carry out a somewhat sketchy request for an old friend…and finds himself standing over the body of a murder victim. With the police coming to the door. All sorts of trouble ensues…
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