by Allan Folsom
Published by Forge
704 pages, 2004
Before there was Dan Brown and all things DaVinci, there was Allan Folsom. His first novel, The Day After Tomorrow, is one of my all-time favorites, right up there with Marathon Man and The Boys from Brazil. When the term "breakneck" was coined, it was done for Folsom's work. You start a Folsom novel -- The Exile, just published, is his third -- and you give up your life for several hair-raising days. The man's books are just impossible to close, even when you reach the end. They demand thought, but even more impressive, they demand your attention. They take control of your imagination, and you go willingly into the realm of "Wow! What's next?"
In The Exile, a young Los Angeles cop is thrust into an international plot that could alter the course of the world. I don't want to spoil one iota of the book -- but I will say that it's going to the best few days you'll have with about two inches of paper. And when you're done, if you haven't read The Day After Tomorrow, go out and pick it up. Don't worry: It's got nothing to do with the film that stole its title -- instead, it's a tightly woven, highly intelligent adventure that'll keep you up and guessing until, literally, the last four words drive the air from your lungs.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with Allan Folsom recently. I started by asking about his novels' riveting opening scenes.
Tony Buchsbaum: In The Day After Tomorrow, a man sees the man who murdered his father. In Day of Confession, a man is killed by an assassin. In The Exile, two men watch a film of one young boy killing another. Your openings are short, sweet and completely captivating. You simply have to keep reading. How much time do you spend to get that nugget begun?
Allan Folsom: Well, my background before I started writing novels was movies and television. And in those, you have to get the audience instantly. Especially in television, but in movies more and more now. What I've done as a dramatist, and that's what my background is, in movies and television, is -- I try to start the dramatic engine instantly, and what you try to do is get -- not only cerebrally but emotionally -- get the reader and the audience [as well as] the characters involved. And so what I like [to do] is get the emotional locomotive going.
While we're on the subject of film and television, your bio on the book jackets has changed. In the first two books, you were a novelist and screenwriter living in Southern California, and now you're just a bestselling author living in California.
[Laughs] The Exile took me a little over three years to write. Seven days a week for three years. You just don't have the time to do those other things. Maybe some people do, but I don't. The manuscript of The Exile was over 1300 pages. So I don't really sit down to, you know, write that long a book; they have a way of dictating themselves.
It's interesting how all your books are generally the same length. A couple of inches of paper before you're done.
[Laughs] What I've attempted to do here is to set up, at least for a few books, an ongoing character, which is John Barron/Nicholas Marten. These books are so big and complicated, I don't want to have to reinvent the wheel every time I start. And it gives me a starting point. It doesn't mean he has to be the lead character in every story, but in my next book he's going to be a major character. Which is one of the reasons that this [book] took so long.
Something that's always fascinated me in storytelling, especially things that are kind of ongoing, is how your lead character came to be. Conan Doyle was very good at doing that. When I was a boy, I was totally intrigued by how the Lone Ranger came to be the Lone Ranger. And that's sort of what I wanted to do here. So that extensive background for John Barron/Nick Marten -- in future books, if you really want to know why he is where he is and doing what he does, the whole story is laid out. It's not shorthand, it's completely there. So in future books, we have, hopefully, a reluctant hero. A man who has left the world of action and violence and bloodshed and all that stuff, hopefully to design gardens.
I expected The Day After Tomorrow to become a film right away --
So did I!
And when the trailer for the current film with that title was put on the Internet, I was really disappointed when I realized it wasn't yours.
Oh, I spent a good several months answering phone calls and e-mails from everybody saying "What's going on?" And I tried to explain that in America, you can't copyright titles. So they were free to do whatever they wanted to do.
Are there movies in your future? Movies of your books?
You know, right now I think we're in a time when movies are like the big tentpole: Expensive movies that are basically cartoons or rides in amusement parks. We're not doing those kinds of movies with the exception of maybe the Bourne pictures. We're not getting into that kind of stuff on that kind of level. I think it's either going through a phase or the studio people can't see how it will be made. Now, for instance, with The Exile, the first reaction is: How can we possibly make this into a movie? It's too gigantic. Well, my sense of it [is] you make it into a nice, long, intriguing three-hour movie, you make it a mini-series, or you make it a two-part picture.
Quentin Tarantino seems to be doing well with that.
[Laughs.] Well, they did all right with The Godfather, too, though.
To me, one of the most impressive aspects of your work is how filmic your books are. You can really see what's happening. But you go much further, finding ways to make all five senses tingle.
If you're trying to break into theatrical writing, in movies or television, you're taught early on to make scenes dramatic. You don't want to explain everything. You play it. And so, as a result -- and I've gotten the same response from other people as from you -- is that they're very filmic stories, they're very visual stories. And as a result, you're along for the ride. You're right in the story.
You obviously take the screenwriting approach of starting as late as possible.
Right. And if you also notice, many many of my chapters, one ends and one begins. They're almost film cuts.
Very much so. Especially with the way you use time. The way you list where you are, when you are, down to the moment.
Well, some of that is very important because if you look at The Exile, the whole Los Angeles thing. In manuscript, it was a little over 400 pages, but it took four days. And it's very important to know, especially if you have something like a massive manhunt, you have to know where your protagonist and your villain are at every moment. It's cat and mouse. They're dodging each other.
What I'm trying to do, specifically, is keep the heartbeat going. Because all those minutes mean something. If you have Raymond in the city, trying to get out of there, and you have 9000 policemen looking for him, every moment and what he thinks and what's next -- Not only that, he's trying to get to London.
On top of the aspect of time, the plots of your novels are revealed through very specific actions that force your characters to make choices. And those choices reveal who your characters are far more than who or what they say they are.
You try to take the storyteller out of it. If you go to a good film, and you're absorbed by a good film or a good book, you never see the storyteller there. Hopefully, you're so absorbed by what's going on. You know, so many writers and filmmakers and other artists will just take over and say: Watch what I can do. To me, the minute that starts happening I'm lost. I'm going: Come on. I try really hard to avoid that. You know, author's comment. That's the last thing you want to see.
It's also why I try, as much as I can, to keep the language as simple as I can. I don't ever want someone to stop and say: What does that mean? I don't understand that word. Then I've lost everybody, then you've lost the momentum, then you've lost the emotion. Then the phone rings and your kids come home from school and ... then you're like: Well, I'll pick it up later.
It all seems incredibly planned, and yet all of it's seamless. And it seems almost spontaneous, which I think is one of the great things about the way you write.
That's also the really difficult part of it. Again, I regress to movies and television and especially television. Everything is outlined to the nth degree before you even begin, and everybody agrees on it, and then somebody finally says: Well, go write it. But that has a way of making things very predictable. When you just set everything in motion, knowing where roughly you want to go, and let your characters and the action take them there, then you begin to get the spontaneity of creation and [the] surprises that even surprise the writer. You know, you say: Whoa, where did that come from? That's really interesting. I never thought about that.
But if you try to think it ahead too much, and try to make this gigantic, massive puzzle work, it doesn't. Let me put it this way. If I wrote 1300 pages in final manuscript, it was probably close to 3000 pages that I really wrote. And you find yourself going down a wrong road and you say: Wait a minute, this isn't working. What you have to do is back up to where it was working and then see what the problems are. And that's where you have the spontaneity. But it also takes an awful lot of extra work.
There was a wonderful writer -- it might have been Dashiell Hammett -- who said: I don't know what's around the corner. Why should my characters? That's where the surprise comes, and that's what makes it really fun to do.
But then you find other things. For instance, in The Exile, when Kovalenko picks up Nick Marten in Moscow, we know we're going to get to St. Petersburg and I had to sit and say: Now, how are they going to get to St. Petersburg and when? So I said: Well, the best way is by train, and then I went and got the train schedules, and I found out what time of day the best train would be. And it happens to be at night. So, we're not going to get there until the next morning, and that begins to put everything else into play. Where would Alexander be? Where would Rebecca be? Where would his henchmen be at that time of day? And how do you get from the airport in Moscow to the train station in Moscow? And all those little things that are real make the story real.
There does seem to be an incredible amount of detail that you have to know, and it seems like you must plan it endlessly for years -- and then writing is almost the easy part.
[Laughs.] No, once it gets going, I put myself totally in the character's position, and it becomes almost like giant billiards game. It's not only who knew what, when, where, it's: I know it, what am I gonna do about it? Or: How does one character's decisions influence what happens in the plot and in the story, and what do the other characters do to react to it?
I tend to see you putting the key -- the core -- in the center of a mindmap and then elaborating outward, seeing what you can make make sense.
I have a good friend who lives in Amsterdam. She's American, but she's been living in Holland for many years. She's totally given up e-mail, so I just get blind letters like the old days. Anyway, she came up with a great one after the second book. She said: You've done another brain burner.
Hopefully they're not that much work for the reader. They're a brain burner for me, but hopefully they're just seamless to the reader, and you get to go on this great adventure. And I think these stories are more adventure stories than they are genre thrillers.
You seem to be drawn to extreme fish-out-of-water stories.
Well, they're also very human dramas. You know, I'm riding a bus or I'm on a plane or I'm walking down the street. You never know who's sitting next to you.
You get that feeling when Raymond is on the buses going to Santa Monica, doing all the stuff you do when you're afraid people are watching you on the bus. It does seem that you're really sitting there, and you can feel those rivulets of sweat going down your back.
[Laughs.] And the clock is ticking. And he knows the plane is going to leave at a certain time. And he has to get through customs, and he has to be able to fake everything. And is everything going to work for him? But he also has the Baroness' teaching and her coaching. "You are better than any of this. You've just got to figure out a way to do it. You're not in harm's way. You've just got to be better than they are."
It's almost as if the Baroness is talking to you: Figure out how to get him out of the country!
I'm one of those people who recommend The Day After Tomorrow on a fairly constant basis, and I've bought more copies to give away than I can say. When I do this, I always tell people that the last four words change everything in the book. Was that the core? Did you start there, with that in the box and then work backward?
Well, yeah, actually I did. That's a very good way of putting it. I hadn't thought of it that way. But yes. The reason I wrote the book in the first place, in choosing to bring Nazism up like I did, is because I really felt we can't reemphasize what happened enough. And too much time had passed from World War II that the memories were fading, and all you hear are old concentration camp stories, unless you're talking to Jewish families who had people lost and are still anguished over it. It just fades from the public mind. I wanted to write a contemporary story that wouldn't allow it to fade.
It was very much like The Boys from Brazil in terms of its head.
But again, The Boys from Brazil was written [when]? Thirty years ago.
Back when I was a kid and my friends were reading Stephen King, I was reading William Goldman and Ira Levin and Frank DeFelitta. You know, thrillers for thinkers. That's what's so fun about your books. I can be my age and still have those. It's great.
[Laughs.] I appreciate your saying that, because that's really my audience. The thinking man's entertainment, as opposed to mindless entertainment.
What writers have inspired you along the way?
Oh, goodness. Well, I can sort of look at my 5000 books on my bookcase and tell you. I think, you know, certainly, Dashiell Hammett if you want to go back into that era. Anybody who takes the time to read The Maltese Falcon as opposed to looking at the movie, you'll see a terribly well-constructed story that's just as tight as you can get. But Conan Doyle and strangely enough, because he's such a great adventure writer, Louis L'Amour. I think I read everything he wrote, you know, and I came upon him much later.
What's next? What are you working on now?
I'm working on the next book, and I have a whole stack of notes here. Nicholas Marten is in the thick of things again. | September 2004
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. He writes advertising for a large marketing firm and is building a small book publishing company in Lawrenceville, NJ, where he lives with his wife and sons.