Author of a recent Thriller of the Week award, Louis Kirby joins us this time. His thriller Shadow of Eden has garnered many well deserved rave reviews. He is working on his next book which promises to include a deep
Seeley James: Your thriller Shadow of Eden has one of the most exciting beginnings of the year. How did that come about?
Louis Kirby: Actually, I was inspired by Jaws. When the movie came out, people suddenly became very afraid to get into the water. Flying is another such place where we all have some degree of unspoken anxiety. I wanted to tap into that primal fear of helplessness when flying and things suddenly go wrong. So I put a crazed pilot in the cockpit to start the reader thinking about what could possibly have happened to make him go off the deep end? Could it really happen?
SJ: Did you have an objective in mind when you wrote Shadow of Eden?
LK: Testing drugs in human beings, which I did for over a decade, is a delicate dance that usually goes along without serious incident — until it doesn’t. And I’ve been there when things do go wrong. I realized it was a strong motivator to want to put a story out there.
SJ: The thriller genre ranges from theoretical political scenarios to urban fantasy, from realistic to out-there. How and where do you draw the line to keep it realistic?
LK: I did two years of research before I put pen to paper. I had experts in various fields read my manuscript to ensure I got the details right. The main disease is actual, and it is one of the scariest things out there. Yet, I do not make it the story, it must serve the tale, which itself must relate to real humans, their concerns and experiences while also taking them somewhere they’ve not been before.
I also keep in mind that the science and research can be reliable and interesting but if you want the fiction to feel real, then you can’t take it to such extremes that would tax the credulity of the reader. I want the reader to close the last page thinking, “that could really happen!”
LK: I start with an overall premise. In Shadow’s case, it was a blockbuster weight loss drug that had a latent fatal side effect. From there I create the setting in which my characters will play their roles. I got to pick who would get the disease in order to raise the stakes and to illustrate the real potential problems of introducing potentially dangerous drugs into society.
I spend a lot of time with the players in my novels. I have to know them intimately. They have to inhabit the scenes and bring them alive. This includes my villains. Without strikingly great villains, I have no story. Once I have alignment with the character and the main plot, then I piece together more specific key plot points.
The plot, obviously, gets a lot of attention but for my genre. Shadow incorporated a number of political and religious themes including the limits of presidential power, our national obsession with physical perfection, and an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances and forced to defend his family and his country.
SJ: When you write a new scene in a fresh location, how do you set the stage?
LK: I tend to jump right in. I’ll let the reader use their intelligence to piece location and time from the information that I work into the first several paragraphs. The reader is smart and wants to use their brain. They do not want to wade through scene-placing trivia, “Hi Joe. Great bar here in downtown Milwaukee…”.
SJ: How do you like to convey a character’s interior thoughts/feelings about a situation?
LK: A good writer will use a number of means to do so, preferably thorough dialogue or action rather than stating it right out: Jonny felt pissed or Susan hated her mother for grounding her. You show them how Johnny starts tapping his foot or Susan’s lips thinned out and she abruptly stood up to leave.
More subtle emotions and inner thoughts also require a variety of mechanisms. Say our heroine is taking a walk. She’ll have some thoughts and then step across a curb with dirty water in the gutter. She’ll feel the bite of the cold wind on her neck and feel the key to her boyfriend’s condo lingering in her warm pocketed hand. Other times, I’ll drop in a thought, at a logical time, and return to it later as appropriate to continue the train.
SJ: How do you construct dialogue and how do you determine when dialogue fits best?
LK: I do a lot with dialogue, and the attending activities. First, most people, when taking to each other, do not speak in complete, grammatically sentences. They toss in dialect, jargon, acronyms, colloquialisms and such, not to mention the umms, huhs and yeah’s, the particles of speech that make up much of what passes for conversation in real life. I’ll often read a passage out loud as a reality test. If it sounds fake, it will read fake.
Also, don’t lecture the reader through dialogue. It’s okay to convey information through dialogue, but don’t have one doctor tell another doctor, “Unfortunately, it’s a breech presentation, you know, where the baby is coming out feet first.” Ouch.
I’d also note that you have a real knack for dialogue, Seeley. It’s fast, on point, conveys information and emotions, and reveals conflict and brilliant deductions by the protagonists. I’m a fan.
Q: What do you expect from a professional content editor (not copyeditor/proofreader)?
LK: I used two in Shadow and will use them in my next book. I want them to tell me when I have made some important plotting or stylistic miscalculations. We get so enamoured with our story or characters that we can’t see how the narrative really goes off the rails.
In my original Shadow manuscript, I had a fabulous side story in China. It was about the CNN crew that had broadcast the Hong Kong massacre and how they were escaping through China trying to get to Taiwan. My content editor told me to pull it out because: It pulls the reader from the main story and the protagonist of the book. It was a nice distraction but it was not essential to the story. So, after I had suffered through my 7 stages, I pulled it. And it’s better for the excision. (It still hurts a bit, though…)
Q: What are your pet peeves or clichés in other mystery/thrillers?
Two things come to mind. The first is that everything is a government conspiracy funded by nameless billionaires with designs on controlling the universe or destroying it.
The second is the superstar hero who is expert in martial arts, flying strange aircraft, handling every conceivable weapon, master of disguise, and can dodge bullets from a spitting Uzi with nary a scratch and best of all, even his own government is hunting him down because he has allegedly turned bad.
SJ: What part of writing a story do you find the most difficult task?
LK: Trying to do something entirely new. Most thrillers boil down to someone has something and someone wants to steal it or destroy it. To make it new, you have to either up the ante, create compelling characters, or create a realistic world that is unlike any the reader has experienced before. And that’s hard but you owe it to your readers who have chosen to invest their time and money with you.
Q: Who are your favourite thriller authors?
LK: Crichton taught me that science could make for a great thriller. Dan Brown taught me to jump in with the tension from page one. James Patterson taught me the virtue of brief chapters, in late, out early. Tom Clancy is a master of the Machiavellian techno-thriller but also taught me that books can become too long.
I started reading self-published authors because they have avoided formulaic writing, their prose is more immediate and honest and they are less afraid of breaking stereotypes.
SJ: What book have you read recently that blew you away?
LK: Actually it is a non-fiction book I’m reading as my background for my next novel. It’s The Sumerians by Samuel Noah Kramer. In his introduction, he states that the very existence of the entire Sumerian civilization was completely unsuspected until 125 years ago when the first excavations in Mesopotamia took place. For over 2000 years, the entire culture had been forgotten, yet they created agriculture, writing, pottery and cities. Amazing.
Many thanks, Dr. Kirby!