By Tim O’Mara
ENCRYTPING MAYA (Down & Out Books) by Lawrence Kelter is the story of two academically exceptional kids who set out to change the world and a world that fought back every step of the way. Maya and Josh, two kids as different as black and white, collide in the heat of a North Carolina summer.
Decades later, Maya and Josh have realized their intellectual potentials teaching and researching genetic engineering at Harvard. Diseases long ignored and vastly underestimated by the World Health Organization now threaten a global pandemic. In their hour of greatest need, the government and private sector turn to Maya and Josh for a solution to the planet’s impending crisis.
As Maya and Josh work to stem the tide of imminent global disaster, they are beset upon by forces that seem to defy explanation—a shadowy figure drifts in and out of their lives over the course of decades causing irreparable damage, and the powers who once turned to them for help now seem to be conspiring against them making Josh’s life a living hell. The weight of the world rests on his shoulders; is he still the altruistic youth who set out to change the world or has he become someone very different, and will the results of his work be those everyone expects?
Kelter is such a New York guy in my eyes—especially as seen through his My Cousin Vinny books (also by Down & Out Books). I asked him to talk about his recent move to North Carolina and if that affected the setting and telling of ENCRYPTING MAYA. What’s the importance of setting in his novels? Has the move affected his approach to writing at all?
“Me, a New York guy?” Larry said, emailing in a New York accent. “Takes one to know one, I guess. I grew up in Brooklyn and lived the bulk of my life in towns located across Long Island. I grew up in a culturally diverse section of Brooklyn where there were guys and gals who were Vinnys and Lisas. I suppose that’s why the film resonated with me so much and why I took such delight in writing BACK TO BROOKLYN, the literary sequel to My Cousin Vinny. By the way, the next book in the series, Wing and a Prayer, is due to hit the shelves this coming March.
“As you mentioned, a big chunk of ENCRYPTING MAYA takes place in North Carolina, in rural towns like Maxton and Lumberton. I wanted these passages to have the look and feel of a rural Southern town. I’m a New Yorker, was and always have been. Now, there’s nothing unusual about a novelist writing a story set somewhere other than where he or she lives, and ENCRYPTING MAYA would’ve been no different except that my wife and I didn’t move to North Carolina until January 2019 and weren’t even entertaining the idea of moving until the fall of 2018, well after the North Carolina chapters had already been written.”
Kelter clearly did a lot of research for this novel. I asked him to talk a bit about the pros and cons of research. How much is too much? When do you know when to stop? (It can be seductive, as we all know.) Does he avoid “facts” if they get in the way of the story he wants to tell?
“ENCRYPTING MAYA is a heavily researched book,” Larry agreed. “Fiction is only worthwhile when the story and details are believable. Becoming an ‘expert’ on pandemic diseases, genetic engineering, and CRISPR technology was a big challenge. I did most of the leg work, so to speak, sitting on my butt, researching on the internet and communicating through email with experts in the scientific field, honest-to-God brilliant minds who were kind enough to indulge a layperson like me.
“As writers, we all know that layering in a certain amount of truth, or fact, builds richness into the story. The challenge in this book was to build in enough factual material to captivate the reader without boring them with too much medical gobbledygook. At its heart, this is not a story about science but a story about morality and social conscience disguised in a medical thriller. It’s the story of two brilliant people who wanted to make the world a better place but whose intentions were derailed along the way.
“Now, about this avoiding the facts question . . . the answer is, somewhat. I avoid them if they’re going to disrupt the flow. However, the tidbits I might avoid are mostly minor omissions and not anything that would affect the main storylines.”
Larry switches between time periods in the book. I wondered how that affects the suspense aspect. Does he have any role models for this type of storytelling?
“ENCRYPTING MAYA does bounce back and forth in time a bit. I tried to keep those jumps to a minimum and spread them out as far as practical. I’ve had enough feedback on the story to believe that the suspense has not been negatively impacted. I’ve never been one to stick to a single perspective. Much like Nelson DeMille, I’ve always used alternating first- and third-person perspectives in my books. I believe it makes for more interesting storytelling.
“Speaking of DeMille,” Kelter continued, “I’m a big fan of his and find his characters bold and his dialogue honest with just the right amount of punch. Early in my writing career, he reviewed my work and put pencil to paper to assist in the editing of my first published novel. I remember writing him a letter after reading The Gold Coast. The opening scene takes place at Hick’s Nursery on Long Island where his protagonist, John Sutter, meets Mafioso don Frank Bellarosa. It’s where my wife and I took our kids every Halloween. I wrote, ‘I can’t take my kids to Hick’s without looking over my shoulder for Bellarosa.’ We’ve been in touch ever since.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t doff my hat to H. G. Wells, who gave us that brilliant piece of science fiction entitled The Time Machine. Much like Wells’ story, ENCRYPTING MAYA has an underlying theme. For Wells, it was class conflict and in my story, it’s racial prejudice.”
A good segue, I thought. Race—and racism—is an issue in ENCRYPTING MAYA. I asked Kelter to talk a bit about how that influenced this story.
“As I mentioned, I grew up in a culturally and racially diverse neighborhood. I lived in the same four-story walkup apartment until I was 25 years old. My friends ran the gamut as far as backgrounds go. I played schoolyard sports like handball, stickball, and basketball. By the way, our playground was just down the block from the original Gold’s Horseradish factory on McDonald Avenue. Whenever they started to cook the beets, our game came to an abrupt end. For those who don’t know, cooking horseradish beets is about as pleasant as inhaling tear gas.
“In ENCRYPTING MAYA, we meet two youths who grew up in a South that was both warm and giving but could also be racially intolerant. As formidable adults, they devote their lives to the betterment of mankind, but the poison that is prejudice creeps into their lives and alters their destinies forever.”
Finally, I asked Kelter if he could put together a dream panel for ThrillerFest—persons living or dead—who would be on the panel, why, and what would the topic be?
“Okay, let’s keep it tight. How about Elmore Leonard for his cut-to-the bone writing style, Nelson DeMille for his kickass characters, Michael Crichton for his vivid imagination, Agatha Christie because . . . I mean come on, and James Patterson for his storytelling genius.
“The topic would be Let’s Write A Book You’d Want To Read Over And Over Again For The Rest Of Your Life.”
Lawrence Kelter never expected to be a writer. In fact, he was voted the student least likely to step foot in a library. Well, times change, and he has now authored several novels, including the internationally bestselling Stephanie Chalice and Chloe Mather Thriller Series. Early in his writing career, he received support from literary icon Nelson DeMille, who was gracious enough to put pencil to paper to assist in the editing of the first book, and felt strongly enough about the finished product to say, “Lawrence Kelter is an exciting new novelist, who reminds me of an early Robert Ludlum.” He lived in the Metro New York area most of his life, but now resides in North Carolina, and relies primarily on familiar locales for story settings. He does his best to make each novel quickly paced and crammed full of twists, turns, and laughs.
To learn more about the author and his work, please visit his website.