I’d like to welcome Thomas Perry, the best-selling author of twenty-one novels, including POISON FLOWER and THE BUTCHER’S BOY, which won the Edgar Award. METZGER’S DOG, STRIP and THE INFORMANT were all named NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOKS, and VANISHING ACT was named by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association as one of their “100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century.” With a Ph.D. in English and work as a writer/producer in television, Mr. Perry brings a unique background to the writing of his intense, suspenseful stories. Let’s get to the good stuff.
Give us a quick rundown on what THE BOYFRIEND is about.
Summary of THE BOYFRIEND: Jack Till, a retired LAPD homicide detective, now works as a private detective, taking routine cases, mainly because of his love for his 24-year-old daughter, Holly. She has Down syndrome and lives in a house she shares with several friends from the school she attended. Till is trying to build savings to help fund her life after he’s gone. When the parents of a murdered girl about her age want to pay him well to look into the case, he accepts. The police department has given up on the case because the victim had been working as an escort, advertising on-line, when she was shot in her apartment. It could have been a robbery, an argument with a customer, a jealous rival, or almost anything. She was in a risky way of life, and sometimes that ends badly. Till begins to ask questions, and finds that she was one of several young women, all strawberry blondes, murdered in that way in different cities recently. He finds that the world of prostitution has changed in the few years since he retired, and now he must learn to navigate in that unfamiliar world and find the killer. When he does, the man turns out to be something much more deadly than he imagines.
You’ve had a prolific, award-winning career, made on clever story-telling and intriguing characters. Can you give us a little more background on the hero in this story, Jack Till? What is it that made you want to tell a story with this character?
Jack Till is a character I made up for the earlier book, SILENCE. When I was well into writing THE BOYFRIEND, I realized that I had gone astray. I had picked another character who was emotionally hard and chillingly competent to go after this villain. When I read the first parts of the manuscript over, I realized I’d written a story that was ice-cold. I thought about it some more and realized that the kind of hunter I wanted was Jack Till, a man who cares about the victims and can inject some heart into the story. He’s an older guy who’s seen enough to know that people make mistakes they don’t deserve to die for, and who has enough experience to understand what he sees during his investigation. He also has a few relationships with current and former cops in other cities, and can call on them to share information when it’s useful.
As a crime-oriented fiction writer myself, I’m always interested in how other writers in the genre go about the process of developing their stories. Do you start with the kernel of plot or create the main character first? Do you work out your plots before you begin writing or let them play out as you write?
At the beginning I usually know the main character and have a few ideas about a couple of others, and I know in very vague terms what interests me about writing this book. Sometimes it’s a character’s personal dilemma, or a crime, or a single scene that illuminates who this character is. Then, I begin to write.
You have also worked in television. Has this background had an impact or your novel writing?
Writing for television is a good exercise for writing prose fiction. Writing for a camera gives you a clear sense of point-of-view. Where are we seeing this scene from? How much can we see and hear? What does it look like from here? Who else can see it? How much do I want to reveal at this moment? Television also teaches you when a scene is over. Watching a scene that goes on after it should have ended is like watching road kill after it’s been hit. It doesn’t get up again. Probably most important, television teaches the writer how to use criticism to make his work better. He gets lots of it from other writers, producers, directors, actors, and executives.
This is your tenth year of publishing thrillers. What keeps you going? How is it different now, twenty-one books later?
It’s actually my 31st year of publishing thrillers. What keeps me going is what got us all started—compulsion. The only rational reason to write is that you can’t help it. And yes, I’ve had 21 books published, but that number doesn’t count the ones before, when I just wrote for fun.
With so many stories told, do you have a favorite book/character? Why?
I don’t really have permanent favorites, in other people’s work or my own. I often love what I’m writing at that moment, or whatever other person’s work I’m reading or watching at the moment. I tend to remember a book because it’s a great example of a specific accomplishment—say Deon Meyers’s THIRTEEN HOURS because of his artful job of building suspense.
You’ve achieved a certain level of recognition winning an Edgar and Gumshoe award, demonstrating an exceptional quality of writing. What do you think has been most important in helping you achieve this high level?
I’m flattered that you said that, because I care very much about the quality of writing. For over thirty years I’ve been saying to whoever would listen that I believe a writer’s most important job is learning to be a better writer. If he’s not doing that, it doesn’t much matter what else he is doing. Each time you sit down to write, you should try to make that day’s work better than the last. Sometimes it works.
Who are your biggest writing influences and why?
My biggest writing influences are probably the ones that we all share but don’t ever notice or think about—the King James version of the Bible, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, because they gave us the language we use. But I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on William Faulkner, and think of him, along with Joyce, Henry James, and Conrad, as the novelists who matter.
You are working in a bookstore and a customer brings you THE BOYFRIEND. What do you tell them to convince them to buy your story over the dozen other new thriller releases on the shelf?
I guess I don’t tell them to buy mine over the others, but with the others. This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a year or so. I find that whenever a literary award is announced, I have a great interest in knowing which books are nominated, but no interest in which one wins. What we’ve got is a list of five or ten good books, which is more useful than a list of one.
Many aspiring writers out there want to know what makes this all work. What advice would you give to them to maximize their odds of finding success?
The best advice I can give a beginning writer is to concentrate on the quality of his work, and forget the bestseller list until the book is done. What each of us has to contribute is that portion of our work that’s original. The only reason you know about the rest is that it has already been done better by somebody else.
If you could be shelved next to any other author, who would it be and why?
Where to be shelved? Interesting question. I guess where I’m shelved is pretty good. “P” is around the middle of the alphabet, which makes my books easy to run across by accident. And these days, having a presence anywhere in a bookstore puts you in good company. And I wish them all well. Anybody who lures people into a bookstore is our friend.
Thriller writers, I believe, take a certain joy in creating villains. What do you think makes a great villain? Who is your favorite, all-time, literary villain?
What I think makes a great villain is that he’s a realistic rendition of a person in all his complexity and with all of his contradictory impulses, wishes, and ambitions. The best villain tends to be a person you can imagine sitting in an airport near you, complaining about his undeserved bad reputation, all the great things he’s done for people that have been forgotten, and what he was really trying to accomplish. If he’s really good, you’re almost convinced, but not quite. I don’t really have a permanent favorite, but recently I’ve been thinking about Shakespeare’s Richard III, because the real king’s body has just been found under an English parking lot.
If you could go back to that first book and start this whole, crazy journey all over again, what/if would you do different?
If I could go back to that first book and start all over again, I would do everything differently. That would be the only reason to go back—to learn what would have happened.
Thomas Perry is the best-selling author of 21 novels, including POISON FLOWER and Edgar-winner THE BUTCHER’S BOY. METZGER’S DOG, STRIP and THE INFORMANT were all named NY Times notable books, and VANISHING ACT was named by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association as one of their “100 favorite mysteries of the 20th century.”
To learn more about Thomas, please visit his website.