David Levien discusses City of The Sun, his first novel to feature private detective Frank Behr.
Given your success with writing screenplays what made you decide to write
Writing novels has always been a passion of mine, and a large part of what I do.
Some stories are best told as movies, some best when they begin as a book and
end up on film. Disappearance accounts, true crime shows, and countless
newspaper articles about this kind of crime have haunted my imagination for many
years, and though I was busy with several film projects, I committed myself to
start writing. The highly plotted aspect of this, and the short sections, often
from different characters' points of view, enabled me to write in bursts, often
on the morning train I take from where I live in Connecticut to my office in
Is one easier than the other?
'Easy' isn't a word I'd use for either novels or scripts. Writing a screenplay
is creating a blueprint for a future work. While the writer needs to take a
reader on an emotional journey in a script, the reader, often in the movie
business, is bringing his own expectation of the film to the table. The
screenwriter often indicates use of music, a sense of editing, and mainly a
visual template for the way the story will be told on film. With a novel the
entire experience has to be created on the page in its finished form. The reader
has to be engaged, kept, taken for the ride and left satisfied. This puts a lot
more pressure on the detail in the writing. On the other hand, the novelist is
able to use interior monologue to get at the characters' inner voices and states
of mind in a way that is not usually possible in screenplays.
How did you come up with the plot for City of the Sun?
As I mentioned before, I'd been following accounts of abductions for perhaps the
past two decades. I also have a stepfather who had a very decorated career in
law enforcement before going on to private investigation. He worked some
kidnappings, and while there were no similar elements to the case in my book,
his accounts further fueled my fascination. The idea of detective Frank Behr,
and then Jamie and the family began to emerge in my mind. It was a dark and
frightening idea for a book, but one I couldn't escape. It became a story I had
How long did it take you to write it?
Once I began writing, the book took over three years to write. I suppose if I
were working on it fulltime, it wouldn't have taken as long, but there were
various periods of three to six months when a film or television project would
be shooting and I couldn't make any progress at all. In the end I think the
passage of time was a positive. The story and characters got to work in my
unconscious during the layoffs, and I was able to bring that to the writing when
I would get started again.
Although a major American city, Indianapolis doesn't leap to mind as a "crime
town." Why did you choose Indianapolis and the Midwest as your setting?
I have lived in Los Angeles and New York for large portions of my life, so I
know both places very well and I'm a big fan of crime stories set there, but
indeed it seems most books and movies in the genre take place in these cities.
New York and L.A. are so large that when crimes like these happen, it is not
completely unusual. For me the true accounts that stand out the most are when
these horrifying events strike in seemingly bucolic settings where children and
their families are more unguarded, and where the expectation is of safety. I
went to school in the Midwest (Michigan), so I felt a connection to that part of
the country. In the end I chose Indianapolis because it's certainly a large
enough city for all manner of crimes to occur, but also for how representative
it is of the Midwest, and America in general.
Frank Behr is a complex character who is sure to join the ranks of Alex
Cross, Easy Rawlins and Harry Bosch in the pantheon of crime fiction heroes. Was
Behr based on someone specific? How did you manage to compile the intricate
detailssuch as weapons, methodologyof an investigative detective?
Thanks, I hope he does. Behr is a fictional creation, though as I mentioned, my
stepfather was a real source of information and inspiration for him. Through my
screenwriting I have also had occasion to deal with other cops, detectives,
weapons specialists, etc., over the years. Details just started to accumulate at
some point and he became very real to me.
Have you written (or been tempted to write) a screenplay for City of the
I'm working on an adaptation now and it's a movie I hope to make at some point
in the near future.
If you could cast the movie version of City of the Sun, whom would you
choose for Frank, Paul and Jamie?
I can't name specific actors, because if the actor who plays Frank Behr doesn't
turn out to be my very first choice, I wouldn't want him or anyone else to know
it. There are a few actors who would be great for the part. Obviously, as
written, Behr is a physically imposing man, and it would be nice for the actor
to be the right physical type, more important though is that he be able to
project a certain sense of gravitas that comes from the mistakes of his past and
the costs of his life.
What are some of your favorite thriller/crime novels? Who are your favorite
I read Chandler when I was younger, and some Hammet. I love many of James
Ellroy's books, George Pellicanos is really great. And Cormac McCarthy, though
not strictly a crime writer, is incredible. No Country For Old Men is one
of hell of a crime book.
While written as a thriller, City of the Sun also has the feel of a quest
or journey story. Was this always your intention or did the character's
decisions motivate the narrative drive?
From conception, this story was always one that began in a safe, understandable
place, but took the characters far away by the end. Indianapolis represents a
core sense of home, and predictability. The idea that there is a wholly
different place, a hellish one, not properly regulated by law and society is
where the characters, particularly Jamie and Paul who are so unprepared for it,
must end up. The journey through the world and life is one that strips away
innocence, and one must either toughen, change and rise to the new reality or
perish. Behr, as Paul's guide in a sense, is actually built for it, and despite
his residence in the first more mundane place, he may actually fit in better in
that other world at this point in his life.
Violence plays a role in City of the Sun, but the majority of harm
inflicted on Frank and Paul is emotional. Did the structure of a novel allow
you to delve deeper into their emotional lives than you might have been able to
in a screenplay?
Violence is elemental in a book like this, but I didn't want it to be gratuitous
on any level. The emotional costs as represented by the physical violence were
much more at the core of the story. It is a rare movie that manages to
communicate this tollsomething about the gunfire, the sound effects, and the
way fight sequences are cut together often dilutes this truth. It's difficult,
as a viewer, not to get seduced by what you're watching. The novel allows more
attention to detail in a way, more 'how' and 'why' behind the actions. The
result is hopefully a fuller understanding of the characters, what they're going
through, and how it affects them.