Shadow Image

 


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Although he is only two novels into a series about Pittsburgh psychologist and memory expert Jim Christensen, author Martin J. Smith is already racking up some impressive plaudits.

James Ellroy (LA Confidential) called Smith's first book, Time Release (1997), "a whipcord thriller full of deftly drawn characters, intrigue, and taut action." Michael Connelly (Trunk Music) says the new Christensen yarn, Shadow Image -- about a political dynasty whose fortunes are endangered when one of its members, an Alzheimer's patient, begins to recover some lost and troubling memories -- "hooks you quickly and yanks you right through to the last page." Publishers Weekly picked Shadow as one of 11 books ideal for summer reading this year, and Time Release is among the paperback originals nominated for a 1998 Anthony Award, one of the most prestigious commendations given out to crime fictionists. (Winners will be announced in October.)

No wonder Smith decided recently to focus the majority of his attention on novel writing. After 15 years as a newspaper reporter in both Pennsylvania and California, and most of the last four years as editor of Orange Coast magazine, a slick monthly serving Southern California's Orange County, 41-year-old Smith was ready for what he calls a "less insane" schedule. He also wanted to spend more time at home in Los Alamitos, California, with his two precocious children, Lanie, age 9, and Parker, 6. "It's a win-win for me," Smith explains, "except for that nagging little income question."

As he begins touring the country to promote Shadow Image and plows through the writing of his third Christensen tale, I talked with Smith about his background, his choice of Pittsburgh as a fictional setting, and his research into the controversial field of memory recovery.

 

J. KINGSTON PIERCE: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, isn't exactly well-worn territory for crime fiction. Did you decide to set your stories there simply because of its novelty in this genre? Or was it because you had known the city well in your younger years?

MARTIN J. SMITH: I do know Pittsburgh very well, having grown up there since age seven and worked there as a newspaper reporter for seven years after college. [He attended Pennsylvania State University]. It's one of those indelible places that I will always carry around in my head, so it was an obvious choice of where to set my first memory-series book, Time Release. But I also think a setting has to be more than just a stage upon which your characters play out their story.

JKP: Do you think you can somehow make the life and style of Pittsburgh integral to your novels, in the same way that Raymond Chandler made Los Angeles an essential element of his works?

MJS: Chandler set an example that any writer would be wise to emulate, but no more so than Louise Erdrich with North Dakota or E. Annie Proulx with Newfoundland. In crime fiction, place has to serve the plot, but that doesn't mean it's any less important. I've always felt that a story's setting should add tone and context and metaphor to the central theme. In my case, the main character is a memory expert who is, by necessity, always dealing with things that happened in the past. I wanted a place whose past is filled with possibilities. Pittsburgh offers that in spades. For example, the city exists because of a dramatic geographic accident -- the confluence of two great rivers to form a third. In Time Release I used the place where those rivers come together -- the Point -- as the place where readers first meet Sonny Corbett, the pivotal character in the book. Similarly, in Shadow Image, I've created a third-generation family which, like the Carnegies, Mellons, Heinzes, and Fricks, derive their wealth and power from one of the city's early industrial barons. Even though the Underhills are entirely fictional, I hear a lot of people say that they're very familiar and real.

JKP: Let's talk about your 15 years as a newspaper reporter. Your bio lists a number of exciting or at least provocative stories you covered -- from the West's notorious Mustang Ranch to pre-revolutionary Manila. Do you miss that sort of excitement? And what is your most interesting or unusual memory from your newspapering years?

MJS: I feel privileged to have made a living for so long as a newspaper reporter. That career took me all over the world, taught me all sorts of survival skills, and forced me to overcome my natural instincts to be an introvert. It also exposed me to people, places, and ways of life I would never have seen before. My favorite moment? Calling my wife, Judy, from the Mustang Ranch bordello in Nevada (where I was working on a story, really) to wish her a happy Valentine's Day.

JKP: Newspaper writing tends to be rather pedestrian and straightforward. Yet there seem to be as many former journalists writing crime fiction nowadays as there are former lawyers. Do you think that a journalism background provides some important lessons to novelists, particularly those interested in writing crime or detective fiction?

MJS: Absolutely. A lot of reporters complain about having to cover city council meetings or school board meetings or stories that seem mundane, but nothing is wasted. While you're covering those stories, you're learning how government works and how people react under pressure; how families deal with tragedy and how unstable people behave. In short, you're learning things that can only enrich your fiction. The most valuable thing I took away from that experience is my ability to quickly locate and mine sources of information, whether it be the latest research on Alzheimer's or a talkative morgue technician.

JKP: Were your years at Orange Coast important in preparing you for a future career as a novelist?

MJS: Not from the writing end of things, but definitely from the marketing end. Magazines like Orange Coast live or die based on rather slippery concepts -- cover design, typography, public perception, newsworthiness, relevance. I developed a real appreciation for the difficult task publishers face in getting their work noticed, and I've used a lot of those lessons to help my books reach a wider audience. When I offer an opinion on cover design or typography, I think my editor listens because she knows I speak from experience. I don't always win those arguments, but I also don't think the opinions of most authors get that same level of attention.

JKP: At what point did you realize that your future was as a novelist, not as an editor? And how hard was it -- both on you and your family -- to make that transition?

MJS: While writing the first two books, I kept an absolutely insane schedule. I was up at 4 a.m. and wrote until 6:30 a.m., then got our kids up and off to school. Then I commuted an hour to the magazine and worked a full day, then came home for dinner, homework, and bed by 10 p.m. I did that four days a week for about three years. Fatigue made the decision to write full time fairly easy, but I also felt I owed my wife and kids more attention than I was able to give them under those conditions. With my wife's encouragement, we decided we could live on less money and be a lot happier. I still approach the novels as a hobby and continue to work as a freelance journalist for Good Housekeeping, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Orange Coast, Fiction Writer, Writer's Digest, and other publications. Nonfiction writing keeps me in the real world, and the real world feeds my fiction.

JKP: Do people ever mistake you for Martin CRUZ Smith?

MJS: Occasionally, and I'm always flattered because his Gorky Park was one of the first suspense-thrillers I ever read and it remains one of my favorites. We were both at the BoucherCon World Mystery Convention in Monterey in October 1997 and I made a point of introducing myself to him. In a way, I wanted to apologize for using my own name and for any confusion it may have created among readers. What I ended up doing was blathering incoherently about how much I admired his work. He probably thinks I'm a stalker.

JKP: When and how did you develop your interest in memory repression and loss, the subjects that occupy so much of Christensen's time in your first two novels?

MJS: Time Release was conceived in 1991-1992, and two things were happening at the time that greatly influenced the story. The first was the tenth anniversary of the infamous Tylenol killings in Chicago, which remains one of the great unsolved mysteries in our culture. The second thing was the rash of repressed-memory prosecutions taking place around the country. The best-known of those was the George Franklin case in Northern California, where Franklin's daughter suddenly remembered her father killing her playmate 20 years after the fact. She took those memories to police, and the DA prosecuted Franklin for the killing. (The conviction was later overturned on appeal.) There were hundreds of similar cases involving so-called repressed memories between 1985 and 1995, and most of them didn't survive appeals. That struck me as very significant. So I combined those two ideas into a story about a cop who feels that the son of the prime suspect in an unsolved product-tampering case is repressing memories that might finally break the case and stop a new rash of killings, if they could only be recovered.

When that book was done, I felt like I'd opened a door into an issue -- how memory is used and abused in criminal justice -- that had a lot more dimensions. So as I began Shadow Image in 1994, I decided to continue Jim Christensen into another story. That was about the time Ronald Reagan publicly disclosed his Alzheimer's Disease. He wrote a letter to the American public, then, BOOM, he disappeared from public life. Why? Because someone who knows a lot of secrets might be very dangerous if they're no longer able to control their memories. They're not dangerous to themselves as much as they are to people in whose interest it is to keep those secrets quiet.

JKP: It seems that even so-called memory experts are still really in the dark about how memories are repressed or distorted. Even your man Christensen seems more full of questions about this topic than he does of answers.

MJS: That's true, and intentional. In Time Release, Christensen is more skeptical about repression than anyone else in the book. Because if any trend in recent years demanded skepticism, it was the sudden legal credibility being given to an unproved psychological phenomenon that many respected scientists regard as hogwash. My own feeling is that memories are incredibly fragile to begin with, even traumatic memories that are etched most deeply into the brain. They're not like mental videotapes of past events; they're more like shifting sand. They're influenced by prejudices and past experiences and the opinions of other people. And those changes begin to happen right away. Any police officer, prosecutor or defense attorney will tell you that. Twenty years after the fact, should we as a society be sending people to prison, or to death row, based solely on something as delicate and unreliable as eyewitness memories? I don't think so. I have no problem convicting people when the corroborating evidence is clear and strong. But look at all of the capital cases overturned in recent years after DNA evidence proved the convicted killer innocent of the crime. The overriding issue, I think, is the incredible weight that juries give to testimony from traumatized victims and eyewitnesses. It's much less reliable than forensics, for example, and yet, as we saw most vividly in the O.J. Simpson case, people are very suspicious of forensics. How do we counterbalance that?

JKP: How have you researched this field? Have you hung around with memory experts, picking up on their lingo and their techniques in order to formulate Christensen's professional behavior and theories? Or have you spent more time just reading books about work in this field?

MJS: I did a lot of interviewing and researched the work of memory experts all over the country. I also followed with great interest the rise of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in Philadelphia, which was founded by a group of people who felt they were unjustly accused by relatives whose memories had been manipulated by therapists.

But I also tried to make Christensen more three-dimensional than just a memory expert. He's a single father of two daughters who lost his wife to tragedy. He struggles with life's daily aggravations and his own sense of loss, while at the same time trying to build a healthy relationship with another woman. I think those aspects of his character are just as important as his expertise.

JKP: Do you have a memory expert or two past which you always run your stories, just to check their accuracy or how reasonable their plots are?

MJS: I'll sometimes float a scenario past an expert to make sure it's plausible, but not routinely. There's a real danger of falling in love with your research and losing sight of your mission -- to tell a story in which the suspense rises steadily and dramatically until the climax. If you bog readers down in information, you jeopardize the pace. So I try to slide information into the story in the most entertaining way possible.

JKP: When you were planning Shadow Image, did you sit in with experts trying to treat Alzheimer's patients? If so (and I am assuming it is so), tell me what those sessions involved and how you felt about them?

MJS: I spent several days with an art therapy class at the John Douglas French Center in Southern California. I wanted to see firsthand what an Alzheimer's day-care facility was like, and to spend time with the patients so my Floss Underhill character wouldn't come off as a stereotypical "victim." I also wanted to understand the role of caregivers in families affected by Alzheimer's. Finally, I drew upon the research I did while working on newspaper and magazine stories about an art program called "Memories in the Making," which uses art to help Alzheimer's patients reconnect with lost memories.

JKP: There's a lot of talk about Alzheimer's right now and also a lot of pity for people struck with this memory-stealing ailment. Do you think pity is an appropriate emotion to feel? Or should we be more hopeful than we are about Alzheimer's patients recovering?

MJS: Scientists are slowly unraveling the mysteries of that disease, and their progress in recent years has been dramatic. But for now, it continues to confound our best minds. What most amazes me are the very personal reactions to the book. Nearly everyone begins by describing a loved one who has been diagnosed, which tells me that far more people have been touched by Alzheimer's than statistics will ever show. The impact on an Alzheimer's patient is no greater than on the caregivers who have to watch their loved ones slip away. I think understanding, not pity, is perfectly appropriate.

JKP: In Shadow Image, some of the action occurs in a class where Alzheimer patients are encouraged to paint and, in that way, resurrect what might be missing pieces of their memories. Is this a commonly used technique among such patients? And if so, how helpful has it been to researchers studying the causes and treatments of Alzheimer's?

MJS: It's not a common technique, but what researchers have discovered through projects like "Memories in the Making" is that art enables Alzheimer's patients to reconnect with memories which the patients no longer can articulate. Language is the brain's most highly evolved form of communication. But with a second-stage Alzheimer's patient like Floss Underhill, for example, the brain doesn't reliably process the information she needs in order to carry on a conversation. Alzheimer's has left her brain this weird jumble of disconnected wires and phantom thoughts. It has devastated her short-term memory and she has no context for a lot of her long-term memories. She remembers things, the emotions still exist, but she doesn't know what they mean.

Art, on the other hand, is a much simpler kind of communication. It doesn't rely on short-term learning and memory. It taps directly into motor skills and emotions. Images bubble up randomly and find their way onto the canvas. Sometimes they have deep meaning, sometimes they don't mean anything. But when you understand those images in the context of the patient's life, the messages often are profound.

JKP: Publicity about Shadow Image says that the book was inspired both by Reagan's affliction with Alzheimer's and by the JonBenet Ramsey murder case in Colorado. We've touched on that first inspiration to your plot, but where is the Ramsey connection?

MJS: Stories like the Ramsey case are so troubling because they involve the death of an innocent. Without giving too much away, the plot of Shadow Image revolves around inconsistencies in the details surrounding the death of Floss Underhill's only grandson three years before the story opens. She's trying to make sense of those inconsistencies through her art work, and those images could be very dangerous if properly interpreted.

JKP: Are all of your inspirations for fiction drawn from current news reports? Is that timeliness most attractive to you, or is it meant to boost sales? Certainly by tying Time Release in with the 10th anniversary of the Tylenol killings you must have generated interest where it might not have otherwise existed.

MJS: I was conceiving Time Release in 1992 at the time of the 10th anniversary of the Tylenol killings, but the book wasn't actually published until 1997, five years later. Considering the long lead time on a book, it's nearly impossible to tie the story into something in the news. But what novelists can do is listen for relevant stories with timeless appeal. Who isn't frightened by the possibility of instant, random death from a supermarket shelf? You can only hope you've struck a resonant chord when the time comes to generate interest in the finished book.

JKP: You're now writing crime fiction. But do you also read a lot of work in this genre?

MJS: I try to read and learn from specific crime authors who do particular things well.

JKP: So you must have favorite authors in this field.

MJS: There are so many good ones I hate to exclude anyone, but I'll name a few from whom I've learned specific lessons. I admire James Ellroy for the sheer power of his writing. I know we write in the same language, but reading him is like reading English on steroids. Thomas Harris does psychological suspense better than most. Mary Higgins Clark is great at pacing. No one can touch Elmore Leonard for dialogue. And I love the depth of Michael Connelly's characters. I still consider myself a student of the genre, and I try to learn from the best.

JKP: If you could have written any other novel in this genre, which would it have been?

MJS: Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard, for its language, characters, and wonderful good humor.

JKP: Who is your ideal reader?

MJS: Smart people who buy books in bulk.

JKP: What do you think are the chief strengths and weaknesses of your books? In what areas do you think you need the most development as a novelist?

MJS: I think I'm pretty good at developing stories that first entertain, and then illuminate. Crime novels that never flirt with life's Big Questions don't interest me much. In the same way, novels that are overly preachy and obsess about the Big Questions don't interest me much. The trick is finding the right balance between drama and social significance, and I think my books do a pretty good job striking that balance. I'm also told I write three-dimensional characters, which I take as a great compliment.

I struggle constantly with plotting, which probably seems odd for someone who writes fairly complex plots in a plot-intensive genre. But while writing is a natural process for me, plotting isn't. It's work, and it doesn't get any easier. My goal is to become invisible; I want to write books that flow so effortlessly for the reader that they don't seem plotted at all.

JKP: How carefully do you map out your plots before you finally begin the process of writing? I remember a few years ago hearing Robert B. Parker tell how he constructs his plots. He said that he used to plan them out in detail, but eventually realized that knowing so much in advance stole away some of the enjoyment of writing, made him feel that he was mechanically filling in the blanks between essential turning points in the story. And so he tried to work out fewer details up front, just started writing with a vague outline and made more things up as he went along. Could you work in that manner?

MJS: I break the task of writing a novel down into two phases: the "thinking it up" phase, and the "writing it down" phase. In the "thinking it up" phase, I usually write a synopsis of the story that runs between 50 and 60 double-spaced pages and begins with the opening scene and ends with the closing scene. With Time Release, for example, that phase lasted more than two years. By contrast, the "writing it down" phase took only eight months. That's no accident. By the time I'm ready to write the book, I've worked all the bugs out of the plot and I'm just trying to bring that story and characters to life. That's the easy part to me. My synopses now are slightly less detailed than with the first books, but only because I'm more confident in my ability to fill in the blanks.

JKP: What things did you learn from writing Time Release that helped you in writing your second novel?

MJS: I learned to assign general roles in my story before building specific characters. For example, when I first imagined Time Release, the main character was Grady Downing, an edgy and untrustworthy cop who was trying to convince a skeptical psychologist to help him retrieve supposedly repressed memories from the son of a murder suspect. Downing is a very dark character, and I like him a lot. But it took me a long time to realize that he's not the type of lead you want in a genre that demands heroes, even if they're flawed. For most of the book, Downing isn't heroic at all. He's scary. So I moved him into a secondary role, where he could be who he was, then moved Jim Christensen, the sympathetic psychologist, into the lead. Bingo! I'd had the right characters all along, but in the wrong roles. So now I make a list of generic characters as I begin a book, then give them names and personalities once I understand what role they need to play.

JKP: It seems to me that a chief weakness of crime novels -- not just today, but throughout their history -- is that they rely too often on frequent murders to advance their plots. It's a cliché. Murders are rarely committed so conveniently or calculatedly in the real world. And one criticism I would have of your books is that you do the same thing. In order to give Jim Christensen a motivation for further pursuing a line of investigation or to give him a clue that something in his case is going wrong, you simply kill off somebody else. Isn't that too easy and conventional a thing to do?

MJS: I try to keep body counts low in my books; I kill only when absolutely necessary. But one reason it happens so often in this genre is the need to create a palpable threat to the hero. The character needs to be in jeopardy, and the stakes need to rise as the plot goes along. Would a character risk his or her life just because the bank sent him an overdraft notice? Probably not. In Shadow Image, what drives Christensen into the Underhill family's web is the suspicious death of art therapist Maura Pearson. Anything less and I think readers rightly would have wondered why he was meddling in the Underhills' affairs. Later, he witnesses a killing that confirms all his suspicions. In both books, he finds himself in a whirlpool that's sucking him and the people he loves down, down, down. Without those obviously high stakes, Christensen could stop at any time. But that's a pretty dull story.

JKP: Is it possible to write in this genre without the easy expedient of murder?

MJS: Yes. For example, Andrew Klavan did it in True Crime: The Novel. Only one person dies, as I recall, and that's the result of a coincidental car accident that simply sets the main character in motion. But even in that book, death was the prime mover. The story involves a man on death row who had been convicted of shooting a store clerk. The protagonist, a deeply flawed newspaper reporter, attempts an 11th-hour investigation to prove the convict innocent and save him from the executioner. It was masterfully done, but it's important to remember that the escalating suspense was already guaranteed by the plot's ticking clock.

JKP: How important is it, anyway, that fiction hew to some sense of reality?

MJS: For me it's very important, but remember that my first love is nonfiction. So I'm naturally inclined toward reality. In my writing groups, I always preface my critiques by explaining my particular orientation to the world. But I realize that most people aren't like that.

JKP: In what sort of writing groups do you participate? Are these groups you lead or in which you are student? How have those fellow students assisted you in your evolution as a novelist?

MJS: I'm in two different groups, and I'm not sure either group has a leader. One group is made up of the people with whom I took my very first short fiction class at the University of California, Irvine, in 1988. We stopped paying tuition 10 years ago, but we still meet once a month. That group includes school teachers, a retired aerospace worker, a publishing executive, a playwright -- a very diverse group of mostly nonprofessional writers. But they're wonderful readers. The other group is mostly former journalists with whom I've worked in the past. The feedback I get from each group is invaluable, as well as the mentoring I get from my agent, Susan Ginsburg. When I turn in a book, I feel that it has been well-vetted by readers whose opinions I trust and respect.

JKP: One of the most interesting elements of your books is the relationship between Christensen and his ambitious live-in lover, Brenna Kennedy. Have you given thought to building the tension between them? You almost did it in Shadow Image, pitting Christensen -- who believed there was a crime involved in the murder of a political spouse -- against Brenna, who was working for that same political family. But then you suddenly let her realize that her defense of that family was misguided. Can we expect greater fireworks between this pair in the future?

MJS: I left their relationship somewhat unresolved at the end of Shadow Image for just that reason. This book tested them both. Jim suddenly saw a side of Brenna that seemed unforgivably selfish, and he forced Brenna to confront that in herself. If she hadn't done so, she would have been unredeemable and readers could fairly question Christensen's judgment for staying with her. In the final chapter, I wanted to show them licking their wounds, but both having grown through the experience.

JKP: Does the relationship between Christensen and Brenna somehow parallel your relationship with your own wife? In both cases, you have young children and have recently moved into a new house. Is your wife also known for her ambition, or are you patterning Brenna on somebody else you know?

MJS: I am married to a very ambitious woman who is vastly more talented and educated than me. But Brenna is much more political and unreadable than my wife, Judy, who is annoyingly honest and incapable of fakery.

JKP: You wrote Shadow Image as if you have a real interest in politics, especially Pennsylvania politics. Do you?

MJS: I covered Western Pennsylvania politics for several years as a reporter for The Pittsburgh Press, and for a time my wife worked in one of the most politicized public offices in the city. So I was plumbed directly into that scene for a while, and it's now leaking into my fiction.

JKP: For what Pittsburgh office did your wife work?

MJS: She worked for various politicians with Irish surnames who occupied the Office of City Controller. How the Irish ended up with that particular office, I don't know. But one of the curious things about Pittsburgh is the persistent racial and ethnic stratification. There's a scene in Time Release in which I have Grady Downing walking among the tombstones at a picturesque cemetery on Mount Washington, which overlooks the city. As he walks, he realizes that, in death as in life, Pittsburghers tend to stick with their own kind. It's a holdover from the early steel days, when immigrant workers were ghettoized into their own communities -- the Poles on Polish Hill, the Africans in Homewood, and so forth. In fact, I've seen documents used by steel mill foreman to categorize workers and potential workers using the crudest of ethnic and racial stereotypes.

JKP: Are Pennsylvania politics really so intriguing as you make them sound?

MJS: I can't say what things are like now, but when I left Pittsburgh for California in the mid-1980s, it was like a swamp. All sorts of interesting creatures were breeding there, from gun-toting ward heelers to true visionaries who helped lead the region out of its devastating post-industrial depression. I once wrote a newspaper story about this amazing bridge that the city built over a small creek. It looked like an interstate highway bridge, with massive steel beams and top-grade concrete and guardrails. No one could figure out why they built this expensive bridge, because a) there was nothing on the other side of the creek except a single house and a vacant lot, and b) the small wooden bridge it replaced had served perfectly well for decades until it got knocked down by a dump truck in the middle of the night. Turns out, the city council president's brother had leased the vacant lot to store his dump trucks and was worried that the old bridge wouldn't support the weight of their frequent crossings. They worked something out. But even as the city was experiencing its remarkable renaissance, that kind of stuff still went on, thanks to an ample supply of old hack politicians and a political structure that tolerated it.

JKP: Your new novel is all about deception in high political circles. This reinforces a sad but current American distrust of politicians. Do really believe that politicians are so dishonest that one of them might struggle, as several do in this book, to cover up the passion-killing of a child?

MJS: Do I think all wealthy politicians are capable of the kind of Underhillian deception you see in Shadow Image? Of course not. But for a family like the Underhills, which has so much invested in its good name and reputation, I can certainly imagine them going to great lengths to keep their dirtiest secret from slipping out. Think of the frantic behind-the-scenes machinations that took place after a certain senior senator's car ran off a Massachusetts bridge in the late 1960s. And that was just a drunken-driving accident involving the death of an apparently consenting young woman. How far might an influential family like that go to keep a secret as unforgivable as a child killing? I think that's a pretty intriguing question.

JKP: You are busy writing a third Christensen novel. Can you tell me anything about its plot?

MJS: Generally, that story goes directly at the issue of memory manipulation by police. When new DNA evidence clears Brenna's most notorious client, who was convicted of brutalizing a woman seven years earlier, Christensen helps unravel the fairly twisted tale of how and why her memories of the attack became so vivid, certain and, ultimately, wrong.

JKP: Do you always have several novels in mind to write? How do you choose which one to begin with when you want to write all of them at once?

MJS: My years as a reporter and editor taught me how to focus on the task at hand. So I let ideas percolate constantly, hoping the best ideas will bubble to the top. I'm always clipping news stories, filing them, watching things develop. Once I commit to an idea and the plot starts to flow, though, I usually follow it through to the end.

JKP: Have you yet considered writing books featuring main characters other than Christensen?

MJS: I've got several books in mind that involve some of the characters we've already met in the early books. Despite his character flaws, many people told me Grady Downing was the most memorable character in Time Release. Sonny Corbett, the troubled son of the product-tampering suspect, is a possibility as well. In Shadow Image, I fell in love with Carrie Haygood, the chief investigator for Pittsburgh's Child Death Review Team. I just liked those people and would love to write books featuring them as the main characters. I also have a lot of ideas that go in a completely different direction. I'm letting them all percolate and trying to focus on one book at a time.

JKP: Are you surprised that your work is being received so enthusiastically? Does it frighten you that you are so popular already? Does it put pressure on you to do better as a novelist than you think you can just now?

MJS: The critical success has been very gratifying. As I said before, I still consider myself a student of this genre, and certainly a novice at telling novel-length stories. I hope to see a lot of growth in my writing and story ideas over the arc of my career. At the same time, I'm proud of these early books and thrilled that other people have enjoyed them. But I still can't get used to the idea that brilliant writers like James Ellroy and Michael Connelly have actually read and enjoyed my books. Right now I'm much more comfortable being their fan than their contemporary.

 

J. KINGSTON PIERCE is crime fiction editor of January Magazine and the author of several nonfiction books, including America's Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (KQED Books, 1997).

 

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