Novel: Think Of A Number
An interview with John Verdon
An interview with John Verdon
By Mark Young
Author John Verdon’s debut novel, Think Of A Number, is a gold mine for mystery readers seeking a novel that captivates one’s imagination. This catch-me-if-you-can plot makes readers guess until the very last pages. Forget about figuring out who-done-it. You will wind up stumped. John’s main character, Dave Gurney, is a retired NYPD homicide detective leaving a police career spattered with successful, media-intensive successes in his wake. Gurney’s illustrious career resulted in the capture of one serial killer after another, each monster falling prey to this detective’s analytical mind
Turning in his badge, Gurney plans to start a new chapter in his life. Similar to the author, Gurney and his spouse moved to upstate New York: a picturesque rural setting, a new beginning, presumably free of crime and violence. However, Gurney finds it hard to let go of the past, ancient issues still haunting him. A call for help from an old acquaintance sends Gurney—almost with a sigh of relief—down a path that challenges him at every turn. A serial killer emerges to toy with each new target, asking … Think Of A Number … before striking again.
Readers will find this novel hard to put down. Verdon manages to wrap each chapter with tension-filled twists, each scene offering a deepening story that delves into the detective’s life as deeply as the killer cuts into his victims. This author’s grasp of language and story promises many more great novels to come.
John joins us today from the Catskills Mountains area of New York, where he relocated with his wife after an advertising career in Manhattan. John held several executive positions in the advertising industry before leaving the big city lights behind for a more idyllic setting.
MARK: John, thanks for joining us today to discuss your new novel, Think Of A Number. I won’t make any bones about it. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel once I could wrestle it away from my wife. She confiscated your novel right after I purchased it, refusing to return it until she finished. How does it feel to have a debut novel out that seems to be attracting a growing readership every day?
JOHN: Well, it’s certainly a happy feeling. At first, the success of the book with reviewers and the favorable comments from readers came as a bit of a shock. Think Of A Number is not only my first novel, it’s the first thing I’ve ever had published. So the remarkable reception—I was just told that it’s now the bestselling novel in Spain—has taken some getting used to.
MARK: Is there anything about your novel that I may have missed in this introduction that readers should know about? Any warnings they need to heed before plunging in?
JOHN: The only “warning” would be that whatever a reader might be expecting, they’ll probably be surprised. As some of the reviewers have pointed out, Think Of A Number is a genre-bender. It’s a police procedural, but it’s also a thriller. It’s full of complex plot twists, but it’s also very character-driven. The Washington Post reviewer said that it combines the toughness of Raymond Chandler with the cerebral puzzle-solving of Agatha Christie. Of course, none of that was planned. When I wrote the book I wasn’t trying to conform it stylistically to any particular model or combination of models. What emerged was something that is not easy to categorize.
MARK: Your plot has more twists and turns than the Winchester Mystery House in California. Without divulging your novel’s brilliantly convoluted strategy, how did you develop this intricate plot?
JOHN: It seems that I always have a few “what if” plot possibilities lurking in the back of my mind. In my own imaginative process, plot devices precede character development—but that’s a matter of sequence, not priority. I may think of an intriguing situation—like the number device in this book, or the inexplicable footprints in the snow—and that leads me into imagining what sort of larger story that situation could be part of. Imagining that story then starts to bring to life the kind of people who would inhabit that world and do those things, what those people might look and sound like, and so forth. The further I get into that process, the more important the elements of character become and the more the goals and feelings of the characters start to take over. The characters themselves begin to drive the twists and details of the plot and the nature of the final resolution. So I’d say that bits and pieces of Think of a Number had been in my mind for years, but not how they would all fit together—nor how they would fit into the lives of “real” characters. That all happened gradually, during the writing.
MARK: The main character—Dave Gurney—comes across as fiercely intelligent and perceptive, words used by a member of your publishing team to describe not only your main character but also yourself. Where does Dave Gurney’s life end and John Verdon’s life begin? A reader cannot miss some similarities between you and your character. For example, both men moving out of the big city to a rural setting and psychological characteristics that seem similar to each other. We have never met, John, but I find it interesting that others see these similarities. How much of John might we find in Dave?
JOHN: We’re both introverted, we both tend to spend more time in our own heads than in conversation with other people, we both prioritize the value of thought over emotion, and we both have plenty of unexamined issues in our lives. Those are substantial similarities, but our differences are just as substantial. Dave has reserves of courage and determination that are way beyond me. He can deal with people and situations that would terrify me. And he chose a career that would have turned me into a basket case in six months.
MARK: Share with us a little about this detective’s background. What is going on inside this man’s head? What motivations are driving him?
JOHN: Dave Gurney has an underlying need for order and predictability. He’s fond of parallel lines, 90-degree angles, and repetitive motifs. As a byproduct of that innate preference he has a huge sensitivity to discrepancy of any kind—to anything that seems to be out of place—along with a deep desire to understand the deeper order of which that discrepancy is part. He craves order or, in its absence, an explanation for the apparent disorder. Ironically, this desire to understand how things fit together keeps drawing him into chaotic situations, which he then pursues obsessively until some form of balance is restored.
MARK: Is the novel’s inciting incident when the first victim is murdered?
JOHN: The first murder may be the point at which Gurney is irrevocably committed to the process, but I think the “inciting incident” would be the presentation of the initial think-of-a-number note with its seemingly impossible feat of mind-reading—since that is the incident that entraps the victim and, in a sense, Gurney himself.
MARK: Characterization and plot seem equally important to this story. Dave Gurney’s character and the nature of the mystery seem to bind together seamlessly. The job—finding the killer—becomes Gurney’s crusade as his character struggles internally and externally on this journey. What mechanics did you use to get this novel off the ground? Did you plot the story as Gurney’s character emerged, or did Gurney exist in your mind before the plot materialized?
JOHN: In my answer to your earlier question about plot development I said most of what I would say here. All that I would add is that detective stories are really two stories: the story of the crime and the story of the detective unearthing the crime’s true nature. Both of these stories grew and intertwined in the way I described above. They started as plot ideas, which were then incorporated into, and finally taken over by, the dynamics of character and motive.
MARK: Your novel-writing career seems to have gained traction over night. When did you start this novel? When did you finish? How long have you pursued this writing career?
JOHN: I’ve enjoyed writing ever since high school. But when I graduated from college and got married I found that the advertising industry offered the best way for me to actually make a living as a writer, and I did that for over 30 years in New York City. Every few years I would write a short story, send it to The New Yorker, get a rejection slip, and stick it in a drawer. After I retired from advertising and my wife and I moved to rural upstate New York I started spending a lot of time reading mystery novels—especially the major British authors like Reginald Hill and Peter Robinson. Then, about four years ago, I decided to see if I could write one myself. I worked on it for about two and a half years—on and off, which makes it hard to say how much time I put into it—and the result of the effort was Think Of A Number.
MARK: How did you locate your agent? In addition to your great writing skills, it appears your agent became instrumental in marketing this novel quickly. Tell us the story between the time you finished the manuscript and signing a contract with Random House. Is it a blur?
JOHN: I finished it in late January of 2009. I went to one of the big literary agent databases that lets you make selections based on various criteria. I chose agents who were interested in mysteries, thrillers, or police procedurals; and I ended up with a list of 54 agents to whom I sent a one-page query letter. Two asked for the manuscript, two asked for the first few chapters, thirty wrote to say they had no interest, and twenty never replied. The first one who asked for the manuscript, Molly Friedrich—one of the most respected agents in the industry—called me a couple of days after she received it and told me she loved it. The next week or two are, as you say, a bit of a blur; but the book was sold very soon to Random House. And everything since then has been amazing—the great blurbs from top thriller writers, the bidding wars for foreign rights, one wonderful thing after another. The book is currently scheduled for publication in twenty-one languages—including Russian and Chinese.
MARK: Every writer seems to have their own writing schedule, their own rhythmic method of creating story. Is your writing structured? So many hours per day writing? Use a word count to determine when to stop? Just write until you drop?
JOHN: My work habits may look like the product of discipline, but they really aren’t. I like to work very early in the morning for about three hours, and then again late at night for about two hours. It’s a pretty regular pattern, but it’s really just driven by what I feel like doing. I enjoy the work, and I seem to be particularly drawn to it at those times.
MARK: I can think of at least one author who rose from the advertising industry to become a very prolific novelist. Did time in that industry lend support to your current literary success? What paths in your writing journey brought you to this point in your career?
JOHN: It may be that experience in writing ads is helpful in a couple of ways. It focuses the writer on the discipline of communication rather than on simple expression—on what a particular audience is actually hearing you say rather than on what you think you’re saying. It also gets you comfortable with the editing process—especially the importance of eliminating unnecessary words. In advertising you’re usually trying to maximize the strength of the message within the confines of very limited time or space, and I suppose that might unconsciously train one to be more precise or vivid. One also gets accustomed to deadlines.
MARK: What advice would you offer aspiring novelists based upon what you have learned thus far?
JOHN: Be true to your own voice. Let your characters be true to theirs. Put conflict in every scene, even when there is only one character present. And don’t pay a lot of attention to my advice. So far I’ve only had one novel published, so what do I know?
MARK: What can John Verdon fans hope to see coming out in the near future? What writing project are you currently undertaking?
JOHN: I’ve just finished writing the second Dave Gurney novel, which is scheduled for publication in the summer of 2011, and I’ll soon be starting work on a third. Readers have expressed interest in seeing the relationship between Dave and his wife developed further, and seeing more examples of how Dave’s particular way of thinking solves the most difficult crimes—while at the same time it threatens his marriage. Dave has a lot more to learn about himself, his priorities, and his limitations.
MARK: You must have a very hectic schedule right know. To complicate matters, I imagine fans will be seeking more current information about what is going on in your writing career over the coming years. They will be looking for information about book signings, speaking engagements and alerts about the next John Verdon/Dave Gurney novel coming out. How can these fans plug into this information?
JOHN: I hope to have a John Verdon website up and running in the not-too-distant future.
Readers can go to the Crown Publishing Company’s for more information about John Verdon and his debut novel.