Mind Over Malevolence: Jeffrey Deaver talks about his brilliant fictional detective Lincoln Rhyme and his arch-nemesis the Coffin Dancer
My first and foremost goal is to keep readers turning the pages. Mickey Spillane said that people don't read books to get to the middle; they read to get to the end. And I've tried to embrace that philosophy in my writing. The Coffin Dancer is typical of the thriller I enjoy writing. In it, my hero--a brilliant forensic detective--matches wits with a brilliant hired killer, each one staying just one step ahead of each other (and sometimes the reader too) as the murderer tries to kill two witnesses scheduled to appear before a jury. As always in my books, not everything is what it seems to be, and there are plenty of twists and turns that I hope will surprise even the most discerning reader. Nothing makes me happier than to have a reader come up to me at a signing and say, "Wow. You got me again."
My hero, Lincoln Rhyme, is an interesting character. He's a quadriplegic. Formerly head of NYPD Forensics, he was injured on the job and now can move only his head, neck and left ring finger. The Coffin Dancer is the second book featuring Rhyme; the first was The Bone Collector. I created him as a character for two reasons. First, I was fascinated with the concept of the human mind as independent of our bodies--that even with a destroyed body, our essence remains unchanged. Second (after all, I write thrillers) I liked the idea of a final scene where my hero is utterly helpless, locked in a room with the armed villain and no one is coming to rescue him. He has to escape by his own wits.
That was the concept in The Bone Collector. In the sequel, The Coffin Dancer, which deals in part with commercial aviation, I came up with the idea of my female protagonist--a pilot--on board an airplane that's carrying a bomb that will go off if she descends below a certain altitude. The bomb's outside the airplane; there's no way to defuse it . . . What are she and Lincoln Rhyme going to do? (If you want to find out, you have to read the book . . . ) It's those kind of cliff-hangers that I love; I put as many of them into my books as possible. All of my thrillers take place in very compressed time frames--as short as eight hours, as long as two days--and have interweaving plots and subplots that all come together at the end. One of the best compliments I've ever had is the comment by a radio interviewer, who introduced me as the "king of the ticking-clock novel." I can't say I created the genre, but it's certainly my favorite.
1. What is your writing process?
I spend eight months researching and outlining each novel. At the end of that time I'll have a 100- to 200-page outline of the story, with every plot and subplot twist, every character, every scene laid out. And all the clues seeded through the book. The outlining process -- along with doing research -- is my full-time job during that eight-month period. Then, I sit down and write the book itself quickly. I rewrite the entire book ten to fifteen times completely before another human being sees it, then I show it to my business partner, agent, and editor. Armed with their comments, I'll begin the rewriting process again. In all, I probably rewrite two dozen times before the book goes to press. As Hemingway said, there are no great writers, only great rewriters. (I'd make changes to a book on the printing press if my editor would let me!)
Most of the research I do is through books, publications and the Internet. I do, of course, interview individuals who're knowledgeable about the subjects I'm researching but doing this often results in my gathering too much information. There's nothing wrong with over-researching but there's a problem when you put too much of your research in the book. All the technical details have to further the plot. If not, out they should go. I use about twenty percent of my total research in the finished book. An author of suspense fiction must never digress!
For The Stone Monkey, I did make a lot of visits to the Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco.
2. Who are the major characters in The Stone Monkey?
In The Stone Monkey we have the typical cast of characters in a Lincoln Rhyme novel. First, the good guys: Lincoln Rhyme and his sidekick, Amelia Sachs (though she hates it when I refer to her that way). We also have Fred Dellray, aka the Chameleon, the FBI agent who's an expert at running CIs (confidential informants) and undercover agents. In this book he's taken over running the federal side of the case against the murderous human smuggler the Ghost. Representing the state of New York is Lon Sellitto, homicide detective, and -- assisting Rhyme in the improvised crime lab in his town house -- Mel Cooper, the unassuming forensic scientist, who's a genius in the laboratory.
The bad guys: The Ghost -- the nickname (in Chinese, "Gui") for a man named Kwan Ang (that's last name Kwan) -- is the central villain in the book. He's a snakehead, which is the term used to describe Chinese human smugglers of illegal aliens. The Ghost is a complicated villain. He's a murderer and rapist. But he also was a victim of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s in China. His parents were killed by Mao-incited students and he learned to make his way in the world of organized Chinese crime on his own. Shunning drugs and illegal business activities within the Communist Party and the government itself (which would have gotten him killed), he made huge fortunes smuggling illegal aliens out of China into the U.S., Japan and Australia. This was illegal activity that was not only very profitable but was not particularly discouraged by the Chinese government.
In the novel, once in the U.S., the Ghost's main mission throughout the story is to find and murder two illegal families who are witnesses to his snakehead activities. He has an underworld of Chinese-American characters assisting him, including three Uighurs (pronounced "Wee-ghurs"), who are people from the Chinese-occupied western provinces of Asia -- separatists who are only too happy to have been hired to kill national Han Chinese (the majority race in China). Then there's John Sung, a practitioner of Chinese medicine, with whom Amelia Sachs forms a complicated -- and troubling -- relationship.
A Deaver book would not be complete without several mysterious figures whose pasts ultimately figure prominently in the story. In The Stone Monkey, these characters include Alan Coe, who works for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and Sonny Li, who has come from the province of Fuzhou in China in the company of the Ghost for reasons that he keeps to himself. This quirky man is at the same time appealing, frustrating and dark.
The victims in the book -- the two illegal immigrant Chinese families whom the Ghost is trying to kill -- bring their own dynamics to the story. Sam Chang is a dissident who is caught between his belief in traditional Chinese culture and his love of Western values, democracy and freedom. Wu Qichen, on the other hand, is an immigrant who cares little for values; he has come to this country solely for the economic opportunity it represents. The decisions these men have made to hire the Ghost to bring them to America has shocking consequences for all the members of their families.
3. How did you come up with the idea for the book/the subject matter?
I'm often asked where the ideas for my books come from. To answer that I have to describe what I think is my responsibility as a thriller writer: To give my readers the most exciting roller coaster ride of a suspense story I can possibly think of.
This means that, rather than looking through newspapers or magazines for inspiration, I spend much of my time during the early stages of a book sitting in a dark room and trying to think up a story line that will fit the typical Deaver novel: one that features strong (though possibly flawed) heroes, sick and twisted bad guys, deadlines every few chapters, a short time frame for the entire story (eight to forty-eight hours or so), lots of surprising plot twists and turns and plenty of cliffhangers.
In other words, the question I ask is: What's going to give readers the most enjoyable experience they can have from the book I'm about to write? After all, they pay hard-earned money; we writers have a responsibility to give them something they really want in exchange for that.
Accordingly, I don't write topical or issue-oriented books. But, at the same time, I like to use "hooks," specific milieus that I hope readers will find interesting and will be appropriate to my stories. For some years I've been vaguely aware of ruthless Chinese gangsters known as "snakeheads" who smuggle illegal aliens into the country. I took human trafficking as my theme for the next Lincoln Rhyme/Amelia Sachs book and structured one of my typical twisty stories around that subject.
I spent a great deal of time learning about both Chinese-American culture and about life in the People's Republic, which, though it's undergoing significant changes, is still firmly rooted in a complicated mix of ancient outlooks and hardline Communist thinking. When I wrote from the points of view of Chinese characters -- both good and bad -- I tried to present their thoughts as authentically as possible, not as a reflection of Westerners' perceptions, as we've seen in so many clichéd films and novels about crime in Asian culture.
4. What about the next Lincoln Rhyme movie?
I've finished the outline for the next Lincoln Rhyme book (to be published in 2003). Usually I alternate, a Lincoln Rhyme one year, a stand-alone the next. But the idea for the next Rhyme book was so exciting that I gave in to temptation and started working on it before The Stone Monkey was finished.
I'm hesitant to say much about it except that it too is set in New York City and features the standard cast of characters. I will say, regarding the villain, that he is deliciously evil and has mastered some very unusual techniques to get through anyone's defenses in order to kill them or destroy their lives. Once you read this book, you will probably never talk to strangers again. I'll go out on a limb here and say that I'm confident this book has a twist near the end that very few people will be able to figure out.
5. Were any storylines cut from The Stone Monkey? Would you consider posting these on the website?
I don't cut scenes from my books. I don't mean this in a pretentious way. It's just that I determine the complete course of the book when doing the outline -- so the book that I write is exactly the story I want to tell. I will say that in the outlining process I will certainly adjust the story. For instance in The Stone Monkey, I originally envisioned another character -- a spy from the Republic of China, Taiwan (not the People's Republic of China, which is mainland China). This would have added an interesting twist but I felt that in the end that subplot would diffuse the suspense I was trying to create and so I cut it out. Advice to beginning writers: Less is more!
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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