The Fate of Katherine Carr
by Thomas H. Cook
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
288 pages, 2009
You like puzzling out the solutions to mysteries? Then tackle this one: why isn’t American Thomas H. Cook one of the world’s biggest-selling authors? He’s prolific, with more than two dozen crime and suspense novels to his credit, plus non-fiction books and anthologies he has edited. He won an Edgar Award for his 1996 novel, The Chatham School Affair, and 2005’s devastating Red Leaves was nominated for an Edgar, a Crime Writer’s Association Dagger Award, an Anthony Award, a Barry Award and Sweden’s Martin Beck Award. Cook makes himself accessible to readers on the convention circuit. And four of my all-time favorite mystery-fiction works -- Breakheart Hill (1995), Instruments of the Night (1998), the mesmerizing The Interrogation (2002) and of course The Chatham School Affair -- all dripped from Cook’s pen.
I should add that Cook’s more recent works -- including The Murmur of Stones (2006; retitled for U.S. audiences as The Cloud of Unknowing) and Master of the Delta (2008) -- are required reading for anyone wishing to explore the heights of what the crime-fiction and mystery genre has to offer. And The Fate of Katherine Carr -- released just this summer -- reinforces Cook’s reputation as a master of his art. Of that last book, UK critic Michael Carlson wrote:
So why does Thomas H. Cook’s name remain unfamiliar to many genre enthusiasts? Carlson suggests that it’s because his work “is too idiosyncratic .... Or perhaps the audience isn’t as comfortable with being totally captured by ambiguity as they ought to be.” Alternatively, Cook’s lower profile may be the result of his refusal to stick with a series character; instead, he prefers the fresh-slate novelty of standalones, his books devoid of the comforts of even a consistent regional setting.
During his recent visit to London, following a speaking engagement in France (at the International Festival of the Roman Noir), I took the opportunity to quiz Cook about his never-quite-famous status, his relationship with America’s Deep South, why he stopped writing private-eye fiction, his life in academia, and his interest in true crime.
Ali Karim: You were born in Fort Payne, in northern Alabama, and there’s a haunting quality to your latest novel, The Fate of Katherine Carr. Can I surmise that you are a reader of Southern Gothic literature?
Thomas H. Cook: I’m not a reader of Southern Gothic, per se, unless by that term you mean [William] Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor or Carson McCullers, all of whom I read and admire. For me, Gothic suggests superheated prose and melodramatic, even operatic, drama; and though I don’t always succeed, I try to stay clear of too much of that.
So tell me about your childhood. Were the members of your family big readers?
There were no books in my house. Neither of my parents finished high school and my father barely got out of grammar school. My love of reading came from my teachers, almost all of whom were women, and who, according to Southern custom, stressed the classics of English and American literature, so that I read Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Dickens, Hardy, Conrad and loads of Shakespeare. We also read some Hemingway and Fitzgerald, along with a little Steinbeck.
At what point did you start your own writing? And when did you think you might have a career as an author?
I began my first novel when I was 8 years old. It was, as you might imagine, highly autobiographical. The fact is, I wanted to write long before I’d read much of anything. I never actually considered it possible for me to make a living as a writer, and in fact, I didn’t make a living at it for quite some time.
Whose work influenced your own writing?
I read only what was assigned in school until I got to college and was assigned Light in August, by William Faulkner. That book changed the way I began to think about how a story can unfold. It was just so artful in the way it developed, so that I then read lots and lots of Faulkner. His storytelling was always different and structurally interesting, and I found myself somehow folded within his stories. They just wrapped around me in some way.
Before you took up full-time writing, you spent a good deal of time in academia, both as a student and as a community college teacher in Georgia. What did those experiences bring your writing?
My academic life gave me lots of information that I later used, particularly a knowledge of history. I ended up in the Ph.D. program at Columbia University in New York, studying history. I never studied creative writing, never entered an MFA [Master of Fine Arts] program, or received the slightest instruction in how to write a novel, or anything else but a history monograph. Now, when I see the work of prospective writers, I can usually tell the ones who have been trained to write “academically” and those who are natural storytellers. Usually, though not always, the natural storytellers are far better. The MFA writers often appear to be straining very hard to make a mark in their prose, and because of that, there is an artificial quality to the work, as well as a tendency to impress professors, rather than actual readers. Thus they strive to be clever, when they should strive simply to be authentic.
You wrote your first novel, Blood Innocents, in 1980, when you were still attending graduate school. What was that book’s path to publication?
It was sheer luck. I wrote my first novel while working on my Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia. I had no agent, but I did know a woman who worked in publishing. She was a friend, and I sent her my book. She liked it and sent it to another reader, and eventually the book was published. Nowadays that simply couldn’t happen. Un-agented manuscripts are simply not read.
In the late 1980s you wrote a trilogy featuring Atlanta homicide cop-turned-New York City private eye Frank Clemons: Sacrificial Ground (1988), Flesh and Blood (1989) and Night Secrets (1990). Why did you change direction in your work, abandoning series novels for standalones?
Because I wasn’t any good at writing that kind of novel. Those books were very much in the tradition of the classic detective story, albeit the American detective story. I found that I didn’t like my main character very much after a while. He was sad and boring and I hated spending time with him. He was very close to the line of self-pity, and that is a line that can’t be crossed. When I finished the last of those books, I told my wife that if I ever wrote a book worse that this one, I’d stop. At that point I had to discover the way I, myself, wanted to write mysteries. The answer to that riddle was Mortal Memory , which has no cop, no police investigation, nothing in the way of the usual crime formula. It was a liberating experience, and from there I knew I could, in fact, write crime novels in a way that suited me.
And you’ve become quite prolific since. So why -- despite your having received awards and critical acclaim -- do you remain a secret to many readers?
I truly don’t know the answer to that question, but the experience can be very disheartening, let me tell you. I think many readers just want a fast read. Which is fine. They have that right. But I don’t write fast reads. I think mystery readers in particular are quite demarcated in their reading habits. People who read puzzle mysteries don’t read thrillers, and people who read thrillers don’t read puzzle novels, and so on down thorough several subgenres. I write a combination mystery-mainstream novel, and that is a big problem, I think, in that mainstream readers very often never give mysteries a chance. I fall through a lot of cracks, and so far, despite wonderful reviews over a period of 20 years, I am still one of the best-known unknown writers out there.
Oddly enough, I have absolutely broken through in France and Japan, and seem close to doing it in England. The U.S., however, has not yet fallen under my spell. But I’m still working on it.
It just isn’t fair. I mean, some of my all-time favorite novels have come from your pen. Something’s not right here.
I couldn’t agree more, of course. And I am trying very hard to write the best books of my career at this point in my life. I may not always succeed, but I am always trying to deliver a very strong story, one that delivers in the writing, the story itself, and what lingers once the story has been put down, that strange, haunting aftermath.
Might the problem be that some readers classify you as a “literary writer”?
I am a literary writer in the sense that the writing really matters to me, and I try to do it well. But I am, more than anything, simply a storyteller, and for that reason I try not to abandon the story to my prose. I want each to serve the other, and yes, that makes me literary in that sense. That said, I would never write a novel in which the main character is a cigarette butt floating in a urinal, or a novel about a number, say eight, or a novel about a family so freakishly repellant that I wouldn’t spend dinner with such people, much less the time it takes to read 500 pages.
What is it about the conventions of crime and mystery fiction that attracts you to this dark end of the street?
Namely, it is the sense of people in crisis. That is the heart of all drama, whether the crisis be physical or spiritual or moral. Crime writing takes crisis as the given, and I really like that aspect of the genre.
One theme that striates your work is the deceptive nature of human beings. You’re also interested in how fate and circumstance weave around people, often revealing aspects of their lives that were hidden from view. What draws you so to the machinations of the human condition?
I continue to be moved by the capacity of people to learn from their mistakes, and by their heartfelt attempt to help others learn from those same mistakes. Because of that, I like writing novels in which the actions occur in the far past, and are now being reflected upon. That structure allows for characters both to carry out and to reflect upon their actions.
In your novels, you look into the psychological aspects of evil. My father is a retired psychiatrist, and he often warned me that about 10 percent of humans have sociopathic/psychopathic tendencies, to lesser or greater degrees. What is it about the evil that lurks within many of us that interests you?
Evil at the level of the psychopathic doesn’t actually interest me at all. Following the actions of such a person is like trailing a shark through the open sea, watching as it mindlessly devours whatever crosses its path. The greater evil is not the one we do, but the one that is inflicted upon us as humans beings -- chief of which is the incapacity to be fully informed within any given circumstance, so that we may intend one result and inflict a quite different one.
You write about complex characters and the moral dilemmas they face; and all of your players are flawed to varying degrees. Does this give you a parallaxed viewpoint on life?
No, it gives me what the great Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called “the Tragic Sense of Life.” He wrote a great book by that title, and I think having a tragic sense of life allows for a certain level of understanding and forgiveness. Auden once wrote of people “too unhappy to be kind.” Such people certainly exist. The larger number, however, is composed of people who are simply too ill-informed to know what they should do. Much of crime is committed by people who were born into a kind of bar brawl. They don’t know how it started, this brawl, nor how to get out of it, so they just swing and swing and swing.
Tell us about your relationship with U.S. editor, bookseller and crime-fiction champion Otto Penzler.
Otto is my best friend in the world. I was the best man at his wedding. We have dinner at least once a week when I am in New York, and I have to say, that were it not for Otto, I probably would no longer be published in the United States. When I was dumped by my last publisher, it was Otto who came to the rescue with his new imprimatur. Within two years, I was right back to where I’d been before I was dumped, which I count as a publishing miracle. I think the true nature of this friendship is contained in the few lines I wrote when I dedicated The Interrogation to him:
Though we talk of all Time smothers,
And all that Age affrights,
Yet with joy in one another,
Laugh through these New York nights.
Wasn’t it also Penzler who hooked you up with that influential British publisher, Quercus?
And, my goodness, has Quercus been a great supporter of my work, both fiction and non-fiction.
It was Quercus that published Red Leaves in the UK. That was a masterwork. You had my eyes watering by the end, as the story’s climax circles a tragedy. Should I conclude from that work that you’re a melancholic person?
Not at all a melancholic person. As a matter of fact, I sometimes smile.
What are you like as a person? What are you like to live with, especially when you are writing your dark novels?
My wife would slap me silly if I used my writing to justify one sock left on the bedroom floor. She would simply have none of that nonsense. My guess it that should she come across it, she would give “the artistic temperament” a swift kick in the ass.
You are obviously interested in true crime, having written Early Graves (1990) and Blood Echoes (1992), and edited the Best American Writing Series with Otto Penzler. But are you a big reader of true crime?
I love true-crime writing, and Otto and I actually edit a series of the Best American Crime Reporting, published annually in the U.S. There is no better writing than fine true-crime writing. When it is done right, it tells a fantastic story in a moving way. And no matter how weird ... ALL OF IT IS TRUE! What can be better than that?
Do you get depressed when reading about some of the awful things we humans are capable of?
I am currently writing a travel memoir about the saddest places on earth [the entry gate at Auschwitz, Anne Frank’s room in Amsterdam, Eva Perón's tomb in Buenos Aires, etc.], and I am not depressed by it, nor do I expect the book to be depressing. In fact, I am determined that it be moving and uplifting.
In The Interrogation, you offered some of the darkest imagery I’ve ever read, while piecing together what happened to a family and how they managed loss. What attracts you to the darkest family secrets?
Because family is a form of critical mass. There are no more intense relationships on earth, and so they are perfect for the exploration of people in all kinds of crises.
One of the things you do especially well in your books -- better than the work of anyone else I read -- is create and describe locations. Many of your stories pivot specifically on their locations. So how important is setting in your work?
I take a sense of place to be very important to any fully realized novel. A fast-paced thriller can do without it, as can a literary novel in which the only real landscape is inside the mind of the protagonist. But a textured story needs a setting, a world in which the characters live and breath and fail to find some sort of meaning. Try to imagine [Joseph Conrad’s] Heart of Darkness without that river, and you will get some sense of how vital place is to a well-rounded novel.
British critic Michael Carlson often splits your fiction into two main strands -- “Southern Gothic” and “Northern Gothic.” He divides your novels between those sets in America’s Deep South and the set in the small towns of New England. How did those two strands of your fiction come about? Can it be credited to your being a Southern gentleman living in the North?
Well, I have lived extensively in both places, and all my family still lives in the South, so I return there quite often. The South allows for a certain blossoming of language that doesn’t quite work for the North, so when I feel the urge to eloquence, rather than precision, I tend to move south of the Mason-Dixon [Line]. But the chill of New England is also great for writing more sparely, for giving passages a wintriness that is stark and clear-eyed, and which cannot be charmed by flowery rhetoric. Each setting serves a different need in me as a writer, and it’s probably when I let these two wash together that I get things wrong.
Many times I am completely surprised by the twists that appear and unravel during your narratives, making the reading a spontaneous experience, like listening to a campfire tale unfold by an unreliable narrator.
Funny, but I never think of my narrators as unreliable. They are simply storytellers who are attempting to tell their stories in ways that will hold the interest of their listeners. Because of that, they use the art of storytelling as a kind of character within the tale itself, so that you hear that voice as you read. I very often read aloud as a way of making sure of the book’s actual sound. As to plotting, I rarely know what’s going to happen in a book, so that you may be sure that if you are surprised by an ending, I was just as surprised when it came to me.
I see that you get about to conferences and conventions worldwide. Do you have any funny anecdotes you can share about your travels as an author?
I was once in the green room, about to go on a television program. There was another man there, with white hair and a very soft voice. He asked if I were a writer. I said that I was. He asked me if I were on tour. I said that I was. He said that he was a writer, too, but just “local,” so no tour or anything like that. I felt sorry for him, and asked if I might have a look at his book. He reached into a crumpled paper bag and pulled out a copy of his book. It was called The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize. OK, I felt like an idiot, and justly so.
Your current work-in-progress is called The Last Talk with Lola Faye and is due out in 2010. Can you tell us a little about what to expect?
It is a book that takes place during the course of a single conversation, and it was quite a challenge. A writer on tour is approached during a signing by the woman who was the “other woman” in his murdered father’s life. From there the story progresses to places I won’t betray, save to say that nothing is as it seems.
How hard is it to write books, and nowadays also have to do more and more of the promotional work required in modern publishing? Somehow I can’t see you getting on Twitter to talk about your work, though I see you are already on Facebook.
Facebook is all I do, and I like it very much. No one has ever given me the notion that having my own Web site is of any service. In fact, most writers tell me they have seen no real result from all that effort. I do love going to Bouchercon, however, and to the Edgars, and I love tours and bookstore appearances and readings at the library. I really enjoy the foreign travel, as well, and I just got back from France before arriving in England, and before that Australia. I think literary conferences of this sort are the real bang-for-your-buck in publishing, and I would go to any place that footed the bill. I truly enjoy it.
What about your own reading? What books of special merit have passed over your reading table recently?
I read a lot of non-fiction and a lot of mainstream fiction. I am currently reading a memoir about the French Resistance, but more than anything at the moment, I am studying French, which is a good way for people in their dotage to keep their minds sharp. | September 2009
Ali Karim is an industrial chemist, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. In addition to his being a regular contributor to January Magazine and The Rap Sheet, he’s also the assistant editor of Shots, and writes for Deadly Pleasures, Crime Spree and Mystery Readers International magazines. In a rare pocket of spare time, Karim recently launched his own blog, Existentialist Man.