Saturday, November 17, 2012

John Verdon: On Writing and LET THE DEVIL SLEEP

By Mark Young
Author John Verdon’s third novel, LET THE DEVIL SLEEP, is comprised of many interesting elements—a compelling story, a population of vivid characters, and an opaque and dangerous plot whose literary waters only become clearer in the novel’s closing pages. All the earmarks of a fabulous read! For me, however, above all else, is the character of David Gurney and how he developed from the debut novel, THINK OF A NUMBER, navigating his way through SHUT YOUR EYES TIGHT, and finally culminating with LET THE DEVIL SLEEP.

In this third of a series tracking down serial killers, main character David Gurney—a highly decorated, retired NYPD homicide detective—reluctantly agrees to take a young television reporter under his wing as she interviews survivors of the victims targeted by The Good Shepherd, a vicious serial killer. This novel is about two journeys—finding the killer and Gurney finding himself.

We are privileged to have John Verdon share his thoughts and comments about his latest novel, LET THE DEVIL SLEEP, the art of writing, and a little insight into his own life. It has been more than two years since John joined us here on Hook’em & Book’em after launching his debut novel. We welcome him back.

MARK: John, please tell us what you want the readers to know about LET THE DEVIL SLEEP.

JOHN: I couldn’t possibly come up with anything better to tell readers than what Publisher’s Weekly said in their starred review:  "Verdon, who rejuvenated the impossible crime in his 2010 debut, THINK OF A NUMBER, shows there’s much more that can be done with the serial killer plot in his breakneck, knockout third Dave Gurney whodunit .... The tension is palpable on virtually every page of a story that perfectly balances the protagonist’s complex inner life with an elaborately constructed puzzle."

MARK: As I understand, one of the techniques for creating a unique character is showing a person’s often-shallow external desire—one that is often self-serving, goal-minded—conflicting with the character’s internal desire, an internal motivation that is often  more selfless.  How would you identify and describe these conflicting desires within David Gurney throughout all three novels? What might be Gurney’s interpretation of his internal desire be for the greater good?

JOHN: Wow, that’s a big question. But it’s a particularly relevant one, since Gurney is often troubled by a sense of conflict concerning his own motives. I think the best way I can answer you is to quote a brief passage from the new Gurney novel (still untitled) that I’m working on right now:

“The truth was that a complex murder case attracted his attention and curiosity like nothing else on earth. He could make up reasons for it. He could say it was all about justice. About rectifying a terrible imbalance in the scheme of things. About standing up for those who had been struck down. About a quest for truth.
But there were other times he considered it nothing more than a form of high-stakes puzzle-solving, an obsessive drive to fit all the loose pieces together. An intellectual game, a contest of minds and wills. A playing field on which he could excel.

And then there was Madeleine’s dark suggestion: the possibility that he was somehow attracted by the terrible risk itself, that some self-hating part of his psyche kept drawing him blindly into the orbit of death.
His mind rejected that possibility, even as his heart was chilled by it.

But ultimately he had no faith in anything he thought or said about the why of his profession. They were just ideas he had about it, labels he was sometimes comfortable with. Did any of the labels capture the essence of the gravitational pull? He couldn’t say.

The bottom line was this: Rationalize and temporize as he might, he could no more walk away from the challenge of a complex murder case than an alcoholic could walk away from a martini after the first sip.”

MARK: This last summer, you wrote an article about serial killers for Publisher’s Weekly. It appears you have become an expert on these psychopaths since each of your novels is populated by serial killers. How do you go about creating these killers’ state of mind so that their personalities and motivations become a believable part of each story?

JOHN: The subject that actually interests me most is the destructive impact of self-centeredness. Like any human failing, selfishness exists in many forms on a continuous spectrum from peccadillo to true horror; and serial murder, killing people for personal gratification, could be seen as representing one extreme of that spectrum. This is the reason I write about it. The state of mind of the killers in my novels is dominated by the desire for instinctual gratification, warped and intensified to the point where all inhibition and empathy disappear. From a creative point of view it’s a matter of taking basic human desires and ratcheting up the volume until the output becomes severely distorted.
MARK:  I read somewhere that there is often a semiotic relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist where one becomes a reflection of the other—good versus evil. There lurks within the protagonist a choice whether to cross that line, to emulate the antagonist as they both struggle to achieve that final objective. Do you see that in Gurney’s psychic, struggling against that pull to the dark side, that willingness to cross the line in order to achieve the greater good?

JOHN: Gurney has a strong, traditional moral compass. He is honest and truthful. His failings lie more in the area of ignoring the emotional needs and feelings of others and becoming intellectually obsessed with his professional challenges. Although he is certainly no saint, he has perhaps fewer problems with temptation than he has with love itself. He is often more comfortable dealing with people who want to kill him than with people who want his attention and affection.

MARK: In Robert McGee’s how-to book on writing, Story, he explains that a story is a design in five parts: The Inciting Incident, Progressive Complications, Crisis, Climax, and Resolution. In Let The Devil Sleep, without giving away the Inciting Incident, what are some of the factors leading up to it in this story?

JOHN: At the beginning of Let the Devil Sleep, Gurney is struggling with the physical and emotional damage he suffered at the end of SHUT YOUR EYES TIGHT. He’s depressed and needs to get back in the game. The opportunity to help a young journalist writing about the lasting effects of a ten-year-old serial murder case begins to pull him out of his lethargy. Discovering a few initial oddities about the situation awakens him further. And the deal is sealed when he encounters real peril and mystery. (This echoes part of my answer to your previous question -- the fact that Gurney seems to be drawn more strongly to danger than to his family.)

MARK: As a novelist, I’ve tried to find the best way of developing plot and story structure to help me keep on track throughout the novel. One suggested method calls for a very detailed story structure in which each chapter, each scene, is meticulously outlined before a writer sits down and writes the first draft. On the other extreme, another suggested alternative is to use the free flow, seat-of-your-pants technique in which everything emerges as you work through the story. What have you found works for you?

JOHN: Typically, an idea for a certain kind of crime will come to me -- let’s say the series of shootings of motorists in LET THE DEVIL SLEEP -- and I’ll jot it down on an index card. Then I may think of a number of possible motives for it, and I jot them down. Then I may think of a way into the story -- in this case a journalist writing about the surviving family members ten years after the event, or maybe something else -- and jot all that down on index cards. Then I have to figure out how Gurney might get involved -- and jot the various possibilities on index cards. That kind of free-association see-where-my-mind-leads-me process goes on for three or four months. My little cards fill up with notes about major plot points, key discoveries, red herrings, characters, subplots, descriptions of settings, snippets of dialogue. I generally end up with three or four hundred of these cards, as well as a growing sense of a central story skeleton -- places where all these details might appear in some rational progression. Then I start to see new relationships among the people, new twists in the story line. I lay out all my cards on the dining room table, and organize them roughly into a three-act structure. As soon as I’m convinced I have an exciting, coherent story to tell, I begin the linear writing process. In the course of that process, the characters themselves become more assertive and change some of my original ideas. Maybe I can sum all this up by saying that I have a reasonably detailed plot structure laid out before I start writing a first draft, but then the characters take over and bring it to life in ways that hadn’t occurred to me.

MARK: On your website, you share photos of the area upstate New York where you and David Gurney reside. Very picturesque! Like Gurney, you migrated from New York City to take up life in the country. I presume it was a very stark contrast in life styles. What initially drew you to that area? And—separating expectations from reality—what surprised you the most about this transition?

JOHN: The fact that there were no negative surprises. We had expected to like living here, and we ended up loving it. Even in the small details, there is something pleasantly benign about our mountain surroundings. For example, there are no poisonous snakes in this area, no poison ivy. There’s also no traffic, no noise, a slow pace, endlessly beautiful countryside, pure air, wonderful water, nice people.

MARK: Also on your web site bio, you wrote, “Along the way I also got a commercial pilot’s license, as an alternate route to the horizon, but that’s another story.” Could you elaborate?

JOHN: It’s a long story, but the short version is that flying always fascinated me. And I was equally fascinated by the idea of doing something completely different from my career in advertising. So I took lessons, got a private pilot’s license, then got an instrument rating, then got a commercial license with the notion that I might start a small air-charter business -- at which point I got distracted by another business opportunity and never followed through with the charter plan. But I still have a fond place in my heart for flying.

MARK: Now that you have three, widely entertaining novels under your belt, what does the future hold for John Verdon? Can we expect more Dave Gurney adventures, or are you considering traveling in another direction?

JOHN: The fourth Gurney novel is happily underway. There may be a fifth and even a sixth. My feeling so far is that the mystery-thriller form and the core personality dynamics of the Gurney novels are an adequate framework for anything I would be interested in writing about.

MARK: I enjoyed reading your web page bio about your journey through life. You mentioned that after settling in upper New York you finally lost that need of “wanting to be somewhere else.” What brought this about—your new location or something else?

JOHN: Maybe it’s just a form of contented old age.

MARK: Again, thanks for joining us, John. We look forward to reading whatever and wherever your creative mind takes you in the next novel.
Author John Verdon’s three bestselling novels won international acclaim and have been translated into 20 languages. Leaving the life of a Manhattan advertising executive, he and his wife moved to upstate New York, where he learned to build Shaker-style furniture and earned a commercial pilot’s license before turning his attention to writing. You can find out more about John at his website.