Jodi Compton Answers Questions About Her First Book, The 37th Hour
The 37th Hour is much more than a suspense novel. It is also a novel that
moves beyond genre classifications by focusing on two people ---Sarah and
Shiloh --- who are flawed and damaged in deep and dangerous ways that
neither of them suspects. What was your inspiration for the
characterizations of, and the relationship between, Sarah and Shiloh?
With Sarah and Shiloh, I wanted to make people believe in a relationship
that is really unsentimental and unconventional. Early in the book, Sarah
refers to Shiloh as 'you son of a bitch.' Later, in flashbacks, the
reader finds that they met through a one-night stand. There's no roses or
candlelight in this marriage; it's an alliance between two soldiers. While
I was writing it, I sometimes wondered, 'I am going too far with this?'
But I really wanted to make people feel the powerful
kinship-between-outsiders that bonds them. I knew I'd succeeded when
female early readers weighed in with a lot of anxiety over whether Shiloh
would survive the events of The 37th Hour to be featured in upcoming novels.
We love how you structured The 37th Hour -- weaving a lot of background
in with the present-day storyline. How much of the "back story"
elements did you develop prior to writing the present-day storylines--- and
how much of the background details just unfolded "on their own"
while you wrote the book?
Much of the backstory about the Sarah-Shiloh courtship comes from a novella
I wrote about Sarah, which was a police story with elements of the
supernatural that had a very grim ending. So those segments are the oldest
archaeological layers of the book. The opening segment, the suicidal
teenager on the bridge, came rather late, after first-draft readers said
they wanted more time to get to know Sarah before launching into the
missing-persons story. It was also, by far, the most research-intensive part
about how survivable river suicide attempts are and why people survive
when they do.
Why did you choose to set your novel in Minnesota?
There was never any doubt in my mind that Sarah lived in Minneapolis. Plus,
I felt that Sarah was a detective in a big, metro police department, and
although I'm Californian, Minneapolis is the only major city I've ever
lived in. I have lived in some great Californian beach towns, like Santa
Cruz and Ventura. Those are places I hope to use someday, places that are
bright and tourist-friendly, but you feel a little undercurrent of noir in
the way the palm trees shiver in the fog. But Sarah and Genevieve and Shiloh
didn't belong there.
We understand that you have no law enforcement background. Your writing
implies otherwise, as you use appropriate phrasing about what life is like
"on the job." How did you research The 37th Hour and what did you
use as a frame of reference?
Some of that is just legerdemain, making readers think they've seen more
than they have. I'd never been in the detective division of the Hennepin
County Sheriff's Department and I didn't have the time and money to
make a research trip so whenever Sarah's at work, she's just 'at
her desk' or 'on the phone' or 'waiting for the elevator'.
There's really no spatial detail at all.
In general, the 'on the job' stuff is drawn from the kinds of sources
that anyone has access to: newspaper and magazine stories and cable-channel
documentaries. Particularly documentaries. A lot of people don't like "COPS" because they think it makes entertainment out of the miseries of
the poor and unfortunate, and there's some truth to that, but if you want
to see the messy, unscripted, sad mundania that the average patrol officer
deals with every day, there's nothing else like it. You're not going to
see this stuff on a glossy hourlong network drama about police.
We appreciate your fleshed-out dialogue and descriptions. We felt that
your background as a newspaper copy editor may have influenced your
"filling in the story." Was this something you did consciously?
Actually, I think I have a really dry, black-coffee style. I don't do a
lot of description; I trust readers to know what a tree looks like. That
reductiveness may come from copy editing, where you're always paring down,
paring down, paring down. I do a lot of dialogue, though, and that might
also be due to newspaper work, where quotes are considered to be the
lifeblood of the story. Or maybe I was always going to be this kind of
writer. I wish I had more fiction from before my work in journalism to
compare before-and-after, but I don't.
Some writers find they share traits with their characters, while other
authors feel they completely separate themselves from the characters they
create. What would you say about this statement in relationship to your
Sarah's had a difficult life, and I'd never want to be her, yet there is
an element of wish-fulfillment in her. We all covet the qualities nature or
genetics didn't give us, so I gave them to Sarah, including the
near-six-foot height I was predicted to attain in childhood. (I fell short
at five-eight). I made her physically fearless and quick to act, in contrast
to my own caution. But then, Sarah's not really cerebral, she wasn't
good in school, she's not terribly articulate, and I like that. It was
important to me that Sarah not be a flawless authorial stand-in.
"Missing" and "being lost" are metaphors for a lot
more than Shiloh's disappearance in this book, and this deepens the
storyline. There is so much loss in both of their lives. What made you
decide to approach this material in this way?
I didn't really decide it; it just happened. There's a lot of darkness
in most things I write; I was just born with a love of shadows.
I think readers consider this book to be dark in comparison with others
they've read for two reasons. One, a lot of noir is about male characters,
not female. Two, often those noir heroes live in L.A. , in a studio
apartment under a neon sign and drink whiskey neat and so on. A noir about a
young female investigator who lives in Minnesota and is married seems to
have caught readers off guard, and I'm sort of pleased about that.
When Sarah looks for Shiloh she seems emotionally detached. She
approaches searching for him as she would a case, gathering details and
evidence. She methodically plots and plods along to find him. She never
outwardly grieves for him, or portrays his loss as something deeply
emotional. Why did you handle her character like this? Do you think this
emotional detachment is typical for law enforcement officers who have seen
There's an anecdote from the theater that I really like. A young actress
was told that one of the greats of British theater, Houseman or Gielgud or
someone, was in the audience. So when she got to her tragic scene, she
really laid on the waterworks. Afterward, the great actor came backstage and
gave her some advice: If you cry less, the audience will cry more.
I take that approach to writing characters' emotions. Sex, too. I think
it's better to have sex somewhat veiled than to go the
Tell us about your writing influences. What drew you to the
suspense/thriller format as a novelist?
I really thought I'd be working in horror and fantasy by now; that's
definitely my favorite genre. It was kind of a surprise to me that I had
this idea for a cop series growing in my imagination. But it all ties
together if the aforementioned love of shadows didn't lead me to
writing horror, it did create a crime novel that people seem to consider
I'd call Thomas Harris a big influence stylistically. If I've been
re-reading Black Sunday or Red Dragon, I find myself falling
into his rhythms when I write, the sentence fragments and verb-tense jumping
that he does. But I'm not saying I write as well as him -- frankly, no one
does. And I'm sorry to say that Sarah isn't really smart enough to hang
with Dr. Lecter. But Lecter would probably really enjoy messing with
Sarah's head. She is, as you've pointed out, damaged.
We understand that you are currently working on a second novel featuring
Sarah Pribek. Given the ending of the first novel, in what direction will
you be taking Sarah in the future? And when will readers see it?
They'll see it as soon as possible; I'm just putting the finishing
touches on it now. It probably won't surprise anyone that Sarah's life
isn't a million laughs in the second book. It has a purgatorial feel, with
Sarah isolated and under suspicion at work due to things that happened in
The 37th Hour. She's waiting for the ax to fall, but not sure it ever
will. And she's very much alone. Yet during this time, her life begins to
intersect with those of a number of strangers, whom she helps and accepts
Copyright Random House 2004