Photo credit: Thomas Engstrom
I am in love with a woman who doesn’t exist. Her name is Jane Hawk, and she is caught up in a story that roared at me like a hurricane. Jane is as tough as it gets, smart, tender, courageous, relentless, a 27-year-old FBI agent gone rogue. She’s a character in a novel I’ve written, and I am mystified as to where she came from. Usually I know what sparked an idea for a novel and the lead character thereof. In fact:
Thank you, Paul Simon, and hello to Art Garfunkel. Thank you, Lassie; good dog. Thank you, People
magazine; in fact, thank you twice. Thank you Werner Karl Heisenberg; you were my kind of physicist. Thank you, Mel Gibson; please don’t hit me.
Story ideas spring to mind when you least expect them. Some years ago, I was driving my wife’s SUV, coming home from a film studio, in a homicidal mood, as one usually is after enduring a creative development meeting regarding a film. (An aside: a more accurate name for such a meeting would be “cliché development.”) My wife had Simon and Garfunkel music on her CD deck, and as I listened to the song “Patterns,” I heard a line that intrigued me: My life is made of patterns that can scarcely be controlled.
In minutes, I had the essence of Life Expectancy
, a story about Jimmy Tock, on whose life, at birth, a pattern is imposed that he can’t control and can only hope to survive.
Lassie treated me even better than did Paul Simon. (Aside: that is called a “labored segue,” a less-than-ideal way to connect the previous paragraph to the current one.) I like old black-and-white movies for the complexity of light and shadow that is lost in color films. I was watching Lassie Come Home
and thinking about how most kids fantasize that they can communicate with a dog as directly as with a human friend. Suddenly I had the idea for a story about two escapees from a lab where experiments in enhanced-intelligence were underway: one a golden retriever with a human-level IQ and the other a hideous creation designed to be a military killing machine. This led to Watchers
, which has now had 106 editions worldwide and has sold about 12 million copies, my bestselling title ever.
magazine, which has referenced Lassie in several articles (labored segue), published an article about children with xeroderma pigmentosum, a condition that forced them to live in the shadows, lest exposure to light should shorten their lives with terrible cancers. I hadn’t even finished the article before the character Christopher Snow came to mind, a 20-year-old surfer with xeroderma pigmentosum, who lived by night and became the lead of Fear Nothing
and Seize the Night
had previously provided me with an idea for a novel when it published an article about me, following the release of Watchers
. In that piece, with all the best intentions, they had labeled me with some term that made me cringe — I believe it actually was “Mr. Murder” — as a way of conveying that I wrote thrillers. It took me years to get around to writing the novel, Mr. Murder
, but on first reading the article, I thought of a story in which People
labeled the lead — Martin Stillwater — “Mr. Murder” because of his mystery novels, with the consequence that a sociopath (who is a double for Marty) sees the article, decides that Marty has stolen his life, and sets out to kill him and take his place.
I steeled myself, put on my Kevlar suit and my helmet, opened her door, and looked in — whereupon she impatiently waved me away. “No interruptions! I’ve got to know what happens next.”
Speaking of taking someone’s place, I could never have taken the place of Werner Karl Heisenberg (labored segue; hereafter “LS”). He was a great physicist and one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, but I don't have the math skills of a trout. However, I have long enjoyed reading books about science, and after poring through many on the subject of quantum mechanics, I had the idea that much of what quantum theory tells us about the workings of the physical world is true also of human relationships. So I wrote From the Corner of His Eye
, one of the best-reviewed books of mine and one that is not nearly as dry as its source of inspiration might suggest.
If Werner Karl Heisenberg had tried his hand at directing and acting in motion pictures, he would not likely have been as successful as Mel Gibson (LS). In the film Ransom
, Mr. Gibson plays a millionaire whose child is kidnapped. It’s a gripping thriller — but it made me wonder what would happen if the wife of an ordinary guy was kidnapped, a guy with maybe $11,000 in the bank, and if the kidnappers demanded two million as a ransom. Why would they think he could get the money? How would he react? Could an apparently absurd demand turn out to be something that he could, in fact, meet? I wrote The Husband
, which topped the bestseller list for a few weeks.
nor The Husband
included a character named Jane Hawk, the aforementioned lead of my new novel, The Silent Corner
(LS). I began the book knowing only that it was about an FBI agent on leave, then gone rogue; that she was determined to prove her husband hadn’t taken his own life; that she would discover some kind of conspiracy involving a breakthrough in a technology already with us (à la Michael Crichton
), a breakthrough so terrifying that it put all our freedoms at risk; and that she would become the most-wanted fugitive in America, forced to go off the grid to an extent that no one ever does, just to stay alive and foil her enemies.
In the interest of maintaining a swift pace and an air of mystery, I decided to introduce the character not in any usual way, but instead, in the early pages, to present her and convey her circumstances in a series of short scenes, in each of which the story is quickly advanced and something more is learned about her — at the same time that other mysteries regarding her are introduced and her peril increases. But here’s the strangest thing: none of those details was calculated by me beforehand; as each scene evolved, Jane took actions and made choices that surprised me, that grew out of the narrative in ways I hadn’t anticipated. By page 27 (of the finished book), she had become so real and so fascinating to me that I felt less like her creator than like her confidant.
At dinner, I frequently said to Gerda, my wife, “Jane did the most amazing thing today; she really stunned me.” By the time The Silent Corner
was finished and I gave it to Gerda to read, I expected that she might have grown so tired of hearing about Jane that she would fail to be captured by the story. As always before, Gerda sat in her home office with the manuscript and started reading at 8:00 in the morning. Usually, after a few hours, she steps into my office to tell me what she thinks of it so far, and she’s brutally — if tenderly — honest. This time, when she had not made an appearance by 3:00, I was worried that she didn’t know how to break it to me that the book was a disaster. I steeled myself, put on my Kevlar suit and my helmet, opened her door, and looked in — whereupon she impatiently waved me away. “No interruptions! I’ve got
to know what happens next.” Oh. Okay. I closed the door. Took off the Kevlar. Stood grinning and pumping my fist in the air for, oh, half an hour.
My editor said, “I really love
the way Jane talks to the bad guys, her use of psychology, her wit.” A bookseller said, “I adore Jane’s attitude.” Jane Hawk has considerable physical skills — great marksmanship, hand-to-hand combat ability — but it is her attitude
, the force of her personality, and her unpredictability that have fascinated me as I have never quite been fascinated by a character before.
I have written two more books featuring Jane and have started a fourth, and I find her more interesting than ever. I have the feeling that I will be following Jane Hawk for many years. Such a character is a great gift seldom bestowed on a writer. And in this case I have no one to thank for her, neither Paul Simon nor Mel Gibson, nor People
magazine, nor Werner Karl Heisenberg, nor Lassie, and certainly not Art Garfunkel, though he does have the voice of an angel.
÷ ÷ ÷
, the author of many number-one New York Times
bestsellers, lives in Southern California with his wife, Gerda, their golden retriever, Elsa, and the enduring spirits of their goldens, Trixie and Anna. The Silent Corner
is his most recent book.