Interview with Thomas Perry, author of Silence
Q: With Silence, you deliver yet another fast-paced, sophisticated, complex thriller. Where did it all begin? Was there a character or a scene that first captured your curiosity and led you to develop this story?
A: Usually with any book I write, Ive been able to recall the image or the voice that was in my mind when the story began. This time, its a little more difficult to pin down. Part of the reason I wrote Silence is to explore a theme. For about twenty-five years Ive been examining questions of identity. In the Jane Whitefield series, Jane provides new identities for people who are in trouble and then teaches them to live as new people in new places. In my first book, The Butchers Boy, the title character is a man whose real name is unknown to other people. Part of that book involves studying him and discovering how he came to be a person whose original identity had been swallowed by a murderous reputation and an ominous nickname. In my last book, Nightlife, a young woman who is dissatisfied with the role in life that chance has given her decides to be someone else, someone glamorous whose life is full of excitement. She keeps trying and failing to reinvent herself as a new person.
In Silence, I raise the stakes a little. I bring together a number of disparate characters who behave in shocking and unpredictable ways, and gradually see each of them as understandable if you know enough about them memories, origins, personalities, aspirations, hopes and, especially secrets.
Q: The hired guns in Silence, Paul and Sylvie Turner, are a deadly but mesmerizing couple. Being avid, elegant dancers, they have a unique physical presence in all of their scenes. What spurred you to make these murderers so light on their feet?
A: The reasons for Paul and Sylvie are also complex. For quite a few years, Ive been amused by watching ballroom dance competitions the contests for purists, not the ones with celebrities. The dancers seemed to be so strange and alien that I couldnt take my eyes off them. I recognized that the dances were actually highly stylized renditions of certain aspects of male-female relationships longing, jealousy, rejection, anger, joy, harmony, submission a good way to show them instead of talking about them. Writers are always looking for ways to say more in fewer words.
Q: You like writing the bad guys, dont you? The Turners are ruthless, yet in your hands, they evoke reader sympathy. What special challenges did you face in crafting characters who are partners in life as well as partners in killing?
A: I suppose the killer couple comes from a part of my own life. My wife and I met when we were both working at the College of Creative Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Then we moved to Los Angeles and both of us worked at USC. We left USC to spend several years as a writer/producer team on the staffs of several prime-time network television series. Paul and Sylvies discussions are tame compared to what is said when two married writers work on the same script at the same computer. After a few seasons of working together, we have few secrets or unexamined aspects of our relationship. There are also some thresholds that get crossed when each partner has to depend completely on the other a few times. Its probably why weve had such a long, happy marriage. We dont dance, by the way. We read and write.
Q: Opposing the Turners is Jack Till, a retired cop turned PI. From word one, Till is so natural in his role that some readers might wonder if you are a retired cop yourself. Do you have any tricks for getting to know your characters? Are they ever inspired by people you know or have read about?
A: This brings to mind something the great short-story writer Grace Paley wrote in her memoir Just as I Thought. She says you should never write about a person you know and understand at the outset because your prose will be dead. The characters that work best in fiction are the ones the author has to come to know while hes writing. That way the reader shares that experience of learning. Ive spent time talking to police officers, retired FBI agents, and others over the years, and Ive read quite a bit on these topics. But Ive never been in law enforcement. Im one of those writers who is just a writer, not somebody whos retired from doing something serious and writes about it now.
Q: Subterfuge and plot twists make your novels favorites with readers. In Silence, you keep those twists coming until the very end a surprise development that will leave readers guessing happily. Not wanting to create a "spoiler," I will ask only: Do you know how it works out?
A: When I start a book, I know a bit about the first chapter, and I usually know who will be standing at the end although Ive even changed my mind about that. I dont work from an outline or make more decisions ahead of time than I have to. Having written for television, I know how to work out stories in advance, but for me it kills the pleasure of discovery and learning. As for the end of Silence, I think theres a trajectory established that leads in a particular direction and gives us a sense of the future.
Q: One of your many jobs was as a weapons mechanic. Did you have any sense at the time that you were collecting expertise for future stories? What other life experiences have proved surprisingly useful for your thrillers?
A: "Weapons Mechanic" was my air force specialty, not a civilian job. The reason that experience appeared on a book jacket was because of a book I wrote twenty years or so ago. In that book, Big Fish, a pair of gun runners are duped into unknowingly smuggling components of a nuclear weapon into the country. I tried to be vague in descriptions of the way such items might be made. My editor felt I should be more specific, and in the discussions I mentioned that I had worked with nuclear weapons at one time and didnt feel I could say more than I had in the first draft. So this specialty went into my biography.
As for other experiences that have proven useful, I cant think of any that havent. Things we do often end up being useful in unrecognizable ways. At one time I was a commercial fisherman, working as the tender in an abalone-diving operation. Ive never written about that experience overtly, but it taught me things that ended up in novels. Ive also spent time working in a couple of large bureaucracies. All of them are similar thats the way we modern Americans tend to organize ourselves. But I think the small personal experiences are the ones that transfer most easily from life into fiction: what it feels like to stand in the rain, or to drive when were having trouble staying awake, or what its like to lose somebody. Thats the sort of detail that makes fiction feel real, because everybody recognizes that it is real.
Q: Who do you like to read? Have years of plotting your own complicated intrigues made it any easier to predict the endings of suspense novels by other writers?
A: As a rule, I dont like to read very much in the genre I write in. Many years ago I had the experience of writing a sentence I liked. I read it over and asked myself what I liked about it, where it had come from. I realized that I had begun to write in the style of an author whose book I had just read. Writers are mimics. We hear people talk and then pick up the cadence, the accent, and the habits of mind of the person were listening to. We write what that person would say next. Originality is one of the few things that novelists have to offer. So I spend a lot of time reading nonfiction some for research, some for pleasure and much less time reading the work of my colleagues. I have a few favorites I read when I get a chance, though: Joe Gores a friend of mine, a fine writer, and a former private detective Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Carl Hiaasen, and Robert B. Parker come to mind. And now and then someone directs my attention to something new thats a pleasant surprise.
Q: Whats next? Are you itching to write another Jane Whitefield mystery, or do you have another original cast up your sleeve?
A: Whats next is a novel with new characters called Fidelity, which will be published by Harcourt next year (Spring 2008). There isnt a release date for it yet, but Ive been told to expect the copy edited manuscript in the near future. Ive also begun working on the return of Jane Whitefield. If it turns out to be any good, it will probably be the next book after Fidelity. If its not, it will take its place as one of our "priceless family treasures" and be stored in a closet until the end of time.
Copyright © 2007 Harcourt
Questions written by Deborah Halverson