Interview with Bryan Gilmer former investigative reporter turned crime fiction author.
“Pine Gallows Road is a lonely place – one man driving out there amidst the “big old tobacco fields, nobody in the sagging farmhouses anymore, no other traffic. No one to see or hear… ”
There’s a brooding menace to that opening description from former investigative reporter Bryan Gilmer in his thriller, Record of Wrongs, the follow up to his Kindle best-selling novel, Felonious Jazz. What impressed me about the opening is the economic use of language, description and characterisation. You make writing look easy.
What a compliment; thank you. I wish I could say that I typed the scene onto the screen exactly as you see it in the finished book. The truth is, I edited that scene more than 300 times, so it didn’t come very easily for me!
Tell us a little about how you came to write Record of Wrongs?
I did an investigative reporting project for The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times where I discovered that two women had persuaded a reputable funeral home to conduct a funeral with an empty casket for a man who never existed. There were a priest, a gaggle of mourners, and an obituary in the newspaper. One of the two women believed she had married that man over the telephone, and the other was scamming her. I won’t say too much about how those real events inspired the plot of Record of Wrongs, but there is an empty grave on the cover. I’ve also long thought how undetectable revenge would be if you just waited a long time before exacting it. But who could really stay angry that long, I wondered? When I answered that question, I had my villain Jamey Epps.
You will have seen the very worst of mankind in your former day job.
I don’t know. I found criminals to be stupid, short-sighted, consumed with passion, or entirely irrational far more often than I found them to be evil. You could almost always suss out their flawed internal logic, which I often found unsettling. So I try to write crime fiction that reflects the real crime I discovered as a reporter. Crimes are not coldly random and between strangers. Crimes are personal, passionate, and intimate, and often happen when people allow their animal natures to override their human reason. Each of us has a lot more in common with real criminals than with the exotic serial killers you see in many crime stories, which is terrifying.
How difficult was it for you to go from reporting the facts to becoming a storyteller? What is it about being a journalist that has helped or got in the way of your fiction writing career?
It feels pretty similar to me, but maybe that’s just because I approach writing novels as a journalist. As a novelist and as a reporter, you’re intently observing the world around you for what’s interesting or important. But as a novelist, you have freedom to explore those ideas further. And you get to invent connective tissue and frame things the way you want. You’re looking to get at truth in both types of writing, and you’re also showing society to itself in a sceptical way in both cases. When I wrote my first novel, Kill the Story, I was amazed how much harder it is to tell a book-length story, even when you can make stuff up.
As a former investigative journalist on a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, you and your colleagues reported on and helped shut down dangerous care homes, and in the 2000 presidential election, your team told the world that uncounted overseas ballots would scupper Al Gore’s chances of defeating George W. Bush. How did this experience help (or hinder) marketing your work to agents and publishers?
It probably got me read at a couple places where I would otherwise have been rejected without consideration.
The New American South, as you term it, is as much a character in your thrillers as your main character, J Davis Swaine. Would you like to comment about that?
I’m tired of all these hillbilly, “yes ma’am,” backward portrayals of the South that New York publishers and Hollywood are so in love with. That’s an incomplete picture of the real South I know, which can be as corporate and blandly suburban as anyplace in the U.S. What’s fascinating about the real New South is where that backward history, tradition, and nativism crash into Research Triangle Park, 10 miles from my house here in North Carolina, where a biotech company is growing genetically engineered lungs in pigs for transplant into human beings. I wanted to write the complex South I experience.
This will be the second outing for J Davis Swaine. What makes him so compelling for you as a writer?
Jeff’s a professional investigator, but on the staff of a law firm that handles civil cases. When he works on crime cases, as he has in each of his two books, he’s outside his expertise. It can be fun to read heroes who never flinch or hesitate, but that’s not Jeff. Jeff is shocked by the things he finds. It’s difficult for him to shoot someone or to see a dead body. But he pushes himself to do it, and then wrestles with the aftermath. This, too, was how I knew real police investigators to be through several years of covering them.
Felonious Jazz was about a failed session musician, obsessed about being noticed, who decides that he’ll ‘put down a throbbing beat of crime and destruction.’ Why is music important in your work?
I chose a washed-up musician as the villain because I see how many people identify with their art (I’ll bet you know a great guitarist or talented painter who sells insurance) yet are unable to make it their vocation. The book is mainly my indictment of suburban sprawl, from the point of view of a warped but artistic musician’s mind. I also wanted to see if I could convey music with prose.
When can we expect the next Bryan Gilmer thriller and briefly what it is about.
I’m writing what agents refer to as a “bigger book,” a thriller with more global sweep and much higher (geopolitical) stakes, not a Jeff book. I’m shooting for next spring.
Felonious Jazz and Record of Wrongs is available through:
FJ Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00295R17Y/