You were a musician for quite some time, yes?
I made my living as a studio musician and record producer for nearly twenty years before I started writing. I played with Amy Grant for several years, and had a chance to see the world touring with her and other artists.
My musical voyages have taken me to some very strange places. I was once in a reggae band in which the drummer's name -- I mean the one on his driver's license, not his nickname -- was Turnip Greens. First name Turnip, last name Greens. I've been in salsa bands, and I once played in a Latin band in the garage of a Ford dealership in Guadalajara. Another time, I played for some drug dealers in Colombia. I didn't know they were drug dealers until afterwards, when they tried to pay the band with cocaine. Believe me, the music business was everything I had heard about and more. Eventually I became a producer, which at least meant I got to stay home for a change. Academically, I have two degrees in music.
Do you feel that background helped with your new career as a novelist?
For me, studying music was actually better preparation for writing than studying writing. Some things you have to learn by coming at them sideways. Also, music -- learning it, playing it -- taught me to respect hard work. More than anything, it was teaching me the love of rhythm and melody. A sentence that sings is just as beautiful as a good melodic line. And, yes, my travels as a musician showed me many sides of this world, experiences which I draw from for my novels.
Your main characters in The Last Goodbye are involved in the areas of law, big business, genetic research, drug therapies, and even computer hacking. Why these areas?
These are some of the arenas today where ethics are being played out in our society. There's nothing as interesting to me as the great debate going on right now about how people decide right and wrong. We have the great religious traditions, which used to inform our moral choices. But society is currently undergoing an experiment in little gods, where everyone gets to decide what's right and wrong for themselves. It's having some explosive results, obviously. And just as it does in our real lives, that drama plays out in the book. There are people who wield enormous power in the story, and they're thoroughly modern in their worldview. They're like Jeffrey Skillings or Ron Lay, I suppose. They're making up their morals as they go, and they're taking a lot of people along for the ride.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
For the genetic technology, I consulted with the head of mass spectrometry at Vanderbilt University. He's a brilliant, colorful character who is worth a book on his own. And I had no idea these guys made the kind of money they do. They actually get up to a half of any patent they discover, so they can make millions. My guy made multiples of what the football coach made, and I doubt one person in a thousand has any idea.
Lest we think this is all about serious stuff, there is a powerful romance in The Last Goodbye.
Jack, the main character in The Last Goodbye, ends up in a very unlikely romance for him. He's a small town Alabama boy, now a hard luck Atlanta lawyer, who falls hard for a glamorous opera singer. She's the wife of a biotech firm's CEO, an upstanding citizen but unscrupulous businessman who Jack suspects is involved in the murder of a friend. They meet as he investigates the case, and some sparks fly.
They are from very different worlds, but I wanted to create this pairing in order to turn some clichés upside down. She is black, sophisticated, speaks several languages, and is rich. Jack is white, barely paying his bills, and something of a hick. But he's also a guy with a ton of street smarts who is determined to get to the bottom of what is killing people in the inner city of Atlanta, and it ends up she might be involved in some way.
And music works its way in after all, doesn't it?
Jack went off to college, but is always fighting that small town stereotype. Still, you can't take the country out of the boy. His take on opera is pretty hilarious, actually. He's moved by the music on occasion, but he'd rather be listening to Waylon Jennings. When he falls for an opera singer, it's a pretty massive clash of cultures, but they are both looking for something from each other.
Friendship plays a big role in the book, and in your life?
Friendship is huge to me, as is loyalty. People run through our lives these days, and friendships tend to last only a season. But I'm the kind of guy who likes to dig in with a few people and stay loyal. Jack is like that. He will go to the mat for his friends, and they repay the favor.
There was a lot going on in your life just before you wrote The Last Goodbye, wasn't there?
You could say that. You know how psychologists say there are five main stresses in life? Hopefully you stretch these over years, because they're psychologically tectonic. The five are: divorce, moving from a long-held residence, change of career, a life-threatening illness, and the death of a family member. In a 90 day period, I experienced 4 out of 5. I got cancer, got divorced, put my house on the market, and decided to become a full time writer. The missing one was the death of a family member, but my father did have a heart attack just before this time, which, thankfully, he recovered from. We were still on edge about his health, naturally. It's as near as five out of five as makes any odds.
How did you survive?
I remember telling a psychologist what had happened to me and watching her eyes just get wider and wider as I went on. At one point she just looked at me and asked the same question you did. That was a big moment for me. I thought, "I've just blown a psychologist's mind. A lot of crap really has happened to me."
I survived through my faith, the prayers of many, and the sheer catharsis of writing. Just to be able to sit down and spin a story was like oxygen. And it gave me great material. My experience with cancer, for example, taught me that drugs can be a mixed blessing. They can save your life, and they can also kill you. That's what happens in The Last Goodbye. Some guys in a clinical trial end up dying, and Jack, the main character, is determined to find out why.
So as hard as all that was, it was more than just a dark time for you.
I don't want to be glib about it. It was incredibly hard, and in some ways, it still is. But The Last Goodbye isn't a dark book. Jack has a very arch sense of humor, and he doesn't mind pointing out the ironies of life. He's an old-fashioned guy in a modern world, and I like him for that. He's somebody I would want to have as a friend, no question. Hopefully readers will feel the same way.
When it comes to handling a crisis, I learned a big lesson from my mother. She's blind, and has accomplished an astonishing amount in her life. She went to law school blind -- as a woman, in the forties, mind you -- got in the Harvard Book of Outstanding Lawyers in America, and ultimately became the first blind woman judge in American history. She taught me that life is for living, not whining. You get up. You do the work. You rock on, and anything else is just crying in your beer. She doesn't use the phrase 'rock on', though. She would say something like, and I'm not kidding, 'Get your gumption up.'
Is that the source of Jack's mantra? "Strip it down, let it go."
That phrase means different things at different times. But yes, it means to let what's wrong go and get on
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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