Saturday, May 23, 2009

Thomas H. Cook on The Whims of Fate, The Artistic Imagination, and The Saddest Places on Earth

by Julia Buckley
(photo link here)
I recently interviewed Thomas H. Cook after reading his amazing book, THE FATE OF KATHERINE CARR. Then, over spring break, I read Cook's RED LEAVES and could not forget about it. The story haunted me for days. Such is the power of Cook's writing, and I thought I'd share the interview here at deadly daughters since he has such profound things to say.

Tom, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for my blog

Your new book is called The Fate of Katherine Carr. There seem to be references in the book to the notion of Fate, in the ancient Greek sense. Is mythology an influence in your writing?

Mythology has always been an influence because the figures of myth are so fully representational of various aspects of human life. They are the great generalities, and in that sense they are very efficient in conveying large themes. One only needs to reference Sisyphus, for example, and the question of futility is rendered completely. Using mythological themes and figures also allows the author to demonstrate that he/she is fully aware of the smallness of his/her current contribution in comparison to the greatness of our literary inheritance.

The story revolves around a man’s unspeakable loss: that of his eight-year-old son, murdered years before. Your previous book, Red Leaves, involved the disappearance of an eight-year-old girl. Is the recurring theme of child abduction one to which you want to draw attention, or is it more that this sort of desperate conflict makes for a compelling plot?

I think the loss of a child is one of the most profound experiences of human life. I can think of nothing that could propel an individual or a family into a more heightened state of crisis. For that reason, it creates an intense emotional atmosphere for the characters, one that allows them to move through clouds of grief and recrimination to a self-awareness that would not have been possible for them before the loss.

Your main character, George, is a travel writer, and you yourself are a well-traveled person. So I will ask my perennial blog question: what’s the most beautiful place in the world?

I think the most beautiful place I have ever seen is the valley that sweeps out from the terraces of Assisi for the simple reason that it appeared so dreamy and unreal. There are valleys in Ireland that have the same sense of being the product of fantasy, rather than an actual landscape. But stark places can be beautiful, too, and I love the red desert of Central Australia and the truly frightening aspect of Ayer’s Rock. Currently I am doing a travel book about the saddest places on earth for my British publisher, and these travels have led me to appreciate the “beauty” of prisons, castle ruins, battlefields and cemeteries.

That sounds absolutely wonderful--and what a great idea.

You hold master’s degrees in both history and philosophy. Do you find yourself drawing on the extensive writings of historians and philosophers when you write mysteries?

I draw on that part of my education quite a bit. In MASTER OF THE DELTA I even have a character who has been writing a biography of Lincoln for twenty years. I really enjoy historical research, and had I not taken up writing novels, I’d have tried to write the sort of histories that David McCullough writes. I had already passed my PhD oral examination at Columbia when I wrote my first novel, and so I was well on my way to becoming a historian when I gave it up.

One of the most moving lines in your book, to me, was “there is nothing more heartbreaking than the sound of other people’s children when you have lost your own.” This captures the tone of George’s narration throughout the novel. Is it painful to try to get inside of a character who has suffered so deeply? Is this a necessity for writing a good mystery?

Frankly, I think one of the problems with the current state of mystery writing is that there is not enough focus on characterization of this sort. As a reader, I don’t really care “who dun it” if I don’t care to whom it was done. The problem with writing about the suffering of your characters as movingly as you can, however, is that many readers find that sort of mystery depressing, and therefore prefer simple puzzle mysteries or action thrillers in which characterization takes a back seat to cleverness of plot and breakneck narrative momentum. For that reason I think some mystery writers have to seek an audience that extends beyond the genre and into the mainstream, a tightrope trip down the light fantastic that is by no means easy, and which is usually not very successful.

But like your book about the beauty in sad places, there can be a greal deal of beauty in a person's sadness--often because of the love or loss that creates it. I think you've been quite successful at conveying this with Katherine Carr.

One of the characters in Katherine Carr has progeria, the premature aging disease. The relationship between Alice, the girl afflicted with this disease, and the narrator, George, is a very moving part of the book. Did you have to research the disease, or had you been familiar with it? Was Alice meant to be another example of the whims of Fate?

I had no experience with progeria and so I had to research the disease before writing about Alice. When I began the book, there was no Alice. But George needed to be working on another profile as he investigated the fate of Katherine Carr, and Alice simply forced herself into the book. She is certainly an example of the iron-grip of fate, the play of accident in life, and of life’s essential injustice. I did not want to make her a saintly figure, however, but rather, a girl who is primarily propelled by an innate intelligence that allows her to see things both analytically and intuitively, a combination that, in a single human being, creates a very fruitful partnership between the powers of concentration and those of imagination.

You won an Edgar award in 1996 and have been nominated for several more. Does winning prestigious awards make writing the next novel more daunting? Or are you able to forget your reputation while you craft a mystery?

Edgar wins and nominations really don’t have anything to do with writing. One likes to hope that they are the fruit of good writing, but beyond that, I don’t see that they have any influence.

Your works have been translated into fifteen languages. Do you have a favorite cover? Did any of your titles become mangled in translation?

I can read Spanish well enough to know that a couple of my Spanish translations have been really good. I don’t read any of the other languages into which my novels have been translated. I have really liked some of the British covers, as well as the Danish and the Japanese. I am often struck by the very different idea of the novel that different covers present, and with that, the sheer variety of artistic imagination.

Because of your history and philosophy expertise, I must ask this question: have you ever wished you could meet a historical figure (or figures)? If so, who?

I would like to have been the third guy on that walk Melville took with Hawthorne, though if they were like most writers, they probably only talked about advances, printings, and the dismal state of the publishing business.

Seriously, in terms of historical figures, I think it would be interesting to speak with some of the world’s great scientists. I would love to explore that kind of creative thinking and discovery.

You were born in Fort Payne, Alabama, which bills itself in its literature as “The Official Sock Capital of the World.” Did you ever have a part in the sock-making industry?

No, I never worked in the sock mills. When I was a boy, I worked as a stock clerk and floor-sweeper and window washer for a dry goods store. Sadly, the sock mills have mostly closed in Fort Payne, the latest and most disastrous closing only a few weeks ago, with a huge layoff of workers. I was told that all the factory equipment was disassembled and moved to China, which is a grim commentary, in my view, on what is happening in our country.

You have also written true crime novels. (Early Graves and Blood Echoes). Do you find these difficult to write and research? Are they more disturbing to write than the story of a fictional crime?

I find non-fiction of any kind much easier than writing novels. You are, of course, restricted to the facts, but at the same time you are freed from the very different rigors of the imagination. I don’t find one more disturbing than the other, though it is always more haunting to revisit a real crime, where people actually suffered. I also find crime scene photos truly haunting.

What are your favorite leisure activities?

I like to read, listen to music and go to the theater. I rarely go to movies because people talk and text-message continually, and I find this very distracting. I rely on Netflix for movies now, and by that means, I can actually focus on what I’m seeing. I am also an amateur cook, and I enjoy whipping up meals.

You are just finishing a new book. Do you go straight from one book to another, or do you allow yourself small vacations from writing?

I go straight from one to the other. I sent the next book (THE LAST TALK WITH LOLA FAYE) in to my editor this morning, and I will start the new novel – no title yet – later this afternoon. I have already been thinking about it for weeks..

That is impressive! Speaking of vacations, do you have a favorite retreat?

My wife and I have a house on Cape Cod, where we spend most of our time, and which is my favorite retreat. We also have an apartment in New York City, however, and I like going there, too. I traveled to Fiji and Hong Kong last year, as well as several other places, but like most people, I’ve taken quite a hit in terms of savings, and so I don’t expect to be traveling nearly as much this year. I will got to Hiroshima, however, for the “saddest places’ book.

Tom, thank you so much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking answers, and for writing such a great book. I look forward to reading Lola Faye!


Sandra Parshall said...

What a marvelous interview. I'm so envious, Julia, that you had the opportunity to interview my favorite writer.

Julia Buckley said...

I can see why he's your favorite, Sandra. I only discovered his books this year, but I love them.

Sandra Parshall said...

Julia, my favorites among his books are Breakheart Hill and Mortal Memory. If you haven't read them -- well, you must. Master of the Delta has recently worked its way onto the favorites list too. I confess that I wrote The Heat of the Moon when I was heavily under the influence of Tom Cook's novels.

Julia Buckley said...

I am writing them down. :)

D. P. Lyle, MD said...

Thomas Cook is one of my favorite authors. His Red Leaves, which was nominated for an Edgar Award, is one of the best books I've ever read--and as you say, disturbing, lingering, and thought provoking.

Great interview.

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