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 Manhattan.
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 to tell.
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 Sun?
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 thriller/crime writers?
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.
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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