Make sure you've got a few hours to kill the moment you pick up The Terror of Living. Urban Waite's debut novel is smart, breathlessly paced, and over-the-top in the best possible way.
Set in the Pacific Northwest, the story follows Phil Hunt, an ex-con who's turned his life around, except for a bit of drug smuggling on the side, meant to supplement his income and pay for his and his wife's small farm. But a routine delivery goes bad, and Hunt finds himself on the run again, from both a sheriff trying to overcome his own past and a hit man named Grady — one of the most brutal, real, and haunting villains you will ever encounter.
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Megan Zabel: We're really excited about your book.
Urban Waite: I'm really excited that you're excited! I'm very happy and very grateful.
Waite: I was reading a bunch of really interesting books at the time, and I was feeling a little bit desperate in my own life. I ended up getting this fellowship to go to the Vermont Studio Center for a month, and, at the same time, just happenstance, I got a grant from a society in Boston. Really what I asked was, "Can you give me enough money to pay my mortgage so I can go do something like this?" I was writing a lot of short stories and having a great time doing that, but, as every writer knows, they don't pay so well. I needed some sort of income.
Megan: What were the books you were reading at the time?
Waite: I was reading John Casey's Spartina. I really love that book. And then, of course, Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. I've always enjoyed that book, and I was really excited about the movie, because they didn't change much at all. They took it line for line. Dog Soldiers was another one that I really liked. And Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory. Definitely favorites.
Megan: It seems inevitable that your book is going to be compared to No Country for Old Men. Is that something that you were cognizant of when writing Terror?
Waite: I tried to distance myself from it, but I think it's great if I'm compared with that book. I really do. I really like Cormac McCarthy though I think it might show too much in my writing. I didn't set out to do a book like this, but I was fascinated by the use of different parties' views in No Country; there's the sort of cartel figure, the lone boy, the sheriff, and the killer. I like how they all prey on each other and sort of go spinning off into who knows where.
Megan: So you'd say that writing this book was a departure for you?
Waite: It was a big departure for me. But looking back now, I can see some of the violence in the short stories. The short stories were definitely quieter stories, focused around this Mexican American family living around Long Beach, California. They were mainly about a family coming apart, and they were all connected. But some of the other stories were a little bit more violent, like a conquistador story that I really like. I love short stories. As soon as I finish the revision of this book I'm working on now, I'm hoping to go back and write a few more.
Megan: So how did you end up writing a book like Terror?
Waite: I fell into it. Honestly, I thought I would write something more literary, more like the short stories that I was writing. And then I just had this idea. I wanted to write something about the Northwest, and I wanted to write something about characters that interested me. Andcharacters that interest me are characters at the end of their rope, who are struggling. I asked myself, "What am I really identifying with? What's the most powerful message that I can bring that I feel in touch with?" And this is what came out.
Megan: I read Terror a couple months ago, but I still think a lot about the character Grady. I feel like he's been burned into my brain. [Laughter] Where did this guy come from?
Waite: That's a good question. [Laughter] He kind of scares me. I don't know where he came from. It worries me that something like that came out of my mind. Because, personally, I think characters are a side of the author; that's their originating point. But he scares me. I was talking to somebody recently about this, about how he's kind of a sympathetic character in a very strange way. And that's what's most disturbing about him. He goes about things in a crazy way, but it all seems very rational to me, the way he does it and the way he controls the situation.
Megan: I think what was most unsettling to me was that nothing seemed to stop him. I kept reassuring myself that, in real life, the police would be smarter; there would be some way to get this guy. He's still traumatizing me. [Laughter]
Waite: I feel like people get away with way too much in this world, and I think that's coming out in Grady. I'd like to think that a force like that could be stopped, but, at the same time, I'm not sure it could. I think eventually it would come to an end, but not before a lot of damage was done.
Megan: Could you talk about your writing process?
Waite: Sure. When I was living in Boston, and I was getting my MFA, I worked at a restaurant. What was great about it was that I had tons of time to myself when everybody else was at work, so there was very little temptation to be like, "Hey, let's go get a beer" or something. I would wake up and read for an hour or two and just get in the feel of things and listen to the cadence of the writer in my head. Then I'd sit down with my own ideas and try to get something out, writing for at least two or three hours. And by that time, I'd probably have to go to work.
I stayed true to that process when I went to Vermont. There's a picture of me standing under some bank sign that says it's minus-26 degrees. It's by far the coldest I've ever been. But in an environment like that, where you don't want to go outside, and you're there to get some work done, it was ideal for getting pages and pages of this manuscript done.
Megan: Did you know from the start of this book where it was going?
Waite: No. I really had no idea. I think if I can come up with the first 50 pages, that's probably good enough for me. Then I want to see where it goes. At some point, hopefully, you get a character like Grady, and they start controlling the plot line and controlling where things go, and it's a complete surprise. It makes it so much better when you're writing something and you don't know where you're going. It's exciting to get there.
Megan: You mentioned that you think people get away with a lot. When you were growing up in Seattle, was crime something you thought about a lot?
Waite: Yeah, in a way. I'd heard lots of stories about what was going on with the drug world. It fascinated me, so I kept my ears open. A friend of mine knew somebody who was in the Monroe Correctional Facility and wasn't getting released soon, but kept trying to go through the process of getting release paperwork started. So I'd listen to these stories and I definitely would sympathize with these people.One of the major ideas of Terror is that it's not cut-and-dried. There's no good and evil; you're not one or the other.
Megan: I really appreciate that the morality is muddled.
Waite: Yeah, I mean, if you looked at it in the headlines, it's good or evil. But if you know the people and you're close to them, I think it would be an awful lot harder to choose.
Megan: How did you do your research for this book?
Waite: When I'm writing, I like to just get it out, maybe two or three hours at a time, break for lunch, and come back for another two or three hours. Then I'll go back and ask, "Well, is this true? Am I stretching this?" So then I'm looking up specs for boats, and I'm at medical websites trying to figure out how much a human stomach can carry. [Laughter] I can actually talk to my wife quite a bit, because she's pretty knowledgeable about medicine and medical texts. And then when I finish, I'll read it over a hundred times so I can go back and really try to make sure I'm doing justice to the facts.
Megan: It seems like a given that somebody is going to want to make a movie out of The Terror of Living.
Waite: We'll see. [Laughter] It would be nice...
Megan: Nothing in the works yet?
Waite: No, nothing in the works yet. I mean, every day is brand new and surprising... Like, I'm talking to somebody from Powell's about my book!
Waite: But every day is this brand new experience. I was actually just talking to my editor at Little Brown, Judy Clain. She's really great, but she's like, "So when's the next book coming in?" I was like, "I don't know." I thought that writers would go off to a cabin and write their manuscript and only come in to get supplies from town. I'm supposed to be marketing stuff? It's something I'm having a great time with, but, at the same time, wow, I really didn't factor this in at all.
Megan: Stephen King just endorsed your book.
Waite: Yeah, that was a huge surprise. I woke up one morning — and everybody was ahead of me. The book sold really widely in Europe, and, of course, New York's three hours ahead of us out here on the West Coast. So I woke up and I sat down at the computer, and I guess the quote had come in at some time during the night. There are five or six different editors from the publishing houses, and they were sending me these emails saying, "Can't believe this quote. This is such exciting news." It was such great timing, and I'm really, really grateful to him. I hope my editor passed on my message of thanks. He gets hundreds of thousands of books a year looking for a quote, and he picked my book out of the huge stack.
Megan: That's awesome.
Waite: Yeah. It was welcome news.
Megan: So you're working on a second novel. Are we going to see any of the same characters?
Waite: No, but it's not totally different. When I sold the book to Little Brown, my agent asked me, "Well, do you have any other ideas for another book?" And of course I did. Most of those ideas center around the drug industry — what's going on, where it's heading. You're probably getting the idea that I'm obsessed with this character of Grady and with just how crazy and messed up some things are. It takes place in New Mexico in the early 1990s. The main character definitely wants out. He's done with it; he's lost too much already. With books like this, something has to happen, and he's thrown into it. So far it's been fun sort of following him around through all his misfortunes. It sounds terrible, but it makes for exciting stories.
Megan: Do you watch Breaking Bad?
Waite: Yeah, I do. And actually I thought that I would get a lot from that, but it's a completely different kind of character.
Megan: A metamorphosis in the other direction.
Waite: Yeah. But I love that show, because the idea is very similar to ideas that I love working with, which is the guy who's doing it because he has to, because he wants to save his family. I'm just at the end of the second season. It's like a character-change overload! I'm getting a little worried.
Megan: Oh, just wait. [Laughter]
Waite: [Laughter] That's what everyone says. I'm really excited about it.
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Megan Zabel works in marketing for Powell's. She can switch out a bike tube in six minutes, but unfortunately can't whistle or perform a legitimate cartwheel. You can follow her often misguided adventures on Tumblr.
Books mentioned in this post