The Memory Game : Chris Mooney speaks to Shots eZine
© Ali Karim
One of the seriously memorable nights at Bouchercon Las Vegas last year was a late night drinking session at a bar called The Peppermill. Grog (Shots Ezine webmaster) and I had been drinking with a group of guys including the legendary (and Edgar nominated) Ken Bruen, writer of the masterpiece The Guards. I spotted Chris Mooney in a haze of cigarette smoke and called him over. You see Ken Bruen and I share much in common, but one particular thing is that we are both big, big fans of this softly spoken guy from New England, Chris Mooney.
Even as my memory fogs by the decaying effect of the beer, I can still recall Mooney telling me about his new book - Remembering Sarah. It interested me but, being a father, also terrified me. I remember when I first read Dennis Lehane’s morally ambiguous masterpiece Gone, Baby, Gone and how that tore at me; but I also remembered how cathartic and exhilarating had been the release in the scene when Patrick Kenzie storms the paedophiles’ lair.
I have a prediction: I believe that thriller writer Chris Mooney’s third novel Remembering Sarah will be a big hit in 2004. How do I know that? First I had the good fortune to read it, and although a marked departure from the violent action thrillers that preceded it - Deviant Ways and World Without End - it has a style and story that convinces me that this is Mooney’s breakthrough novel. In fact I said as much in my review, but interestingly enough a few other guys have been raving about it also. So what do his peers reckon on Mooney’s latest thriller?
“At the core of this gut wrenching thriller is something rare: a thoughtful, poignant examination of parental love and parental folly. Chris Mooney has written his finest novel, and that’s saying something indeed.”
“Remembering Sarah is a moving exploration of remembered loss and undying hope that should catapult its author to the forefront of the new generation of thriller writers.”
“Remembering Sarah is harrowing, gripping, haunting, gut wrenching, beautifully written, and one of the best thrillers - maybe the best - I’ve read this year.”
We have three of my favourite crime/mystery writers, one from Boston, one from Dublin and one from New Jersey acclaiming this third novel from Mooney. What is it with the number three in terms of luck? This book will not need luck as word-of-mouth will propel it to the top of the pile in 2004. And don’t forget where you heard about Remembering Sarah first - it is not a book easily forgotten.
Shots decided to track Chris Mooney down and find out more about this young writer, and how he moved from the action platform of his previous work to write this memorable thriller Remembering Sarah.
Hi Chris welcome to Shots eZine!
Hey, thanks for asking me.
I understand you grew up in Boston, could you tell us what your childhood was like?
I actually grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts, which is about 20 minutes north of Boston. Lynn was a very blue-collar sort of place when I was growing up - people worked really hard, took a lot of pride in their neighbourhood and families. I used to ride my bike all over the place, walk everywhere to play baseball and basketball and not think about, you know, gangs and all of that. The place I grew up is pretty much all gone now, and the things that made it special - the neighbourhood diners and such - have disappeared through gentrification. The city is pretty much faceless.
What novels, among the early books that you read, either influenced you or made you take up the pen?
Stephen King’s The Shining. I remember seeing the movie trailer between some movie on Creature Double Feature - that was a station here in Boston that, on Saturday afternoons and evenings during the 70s and early 80s, showed all the classic horror movies like Godzilla and Creature From the Black Lagoon, and those really cool but really bad black and white space movies from the 50s. So I see this trailer for The Shining and I was immediately hooked. I just had to see it. I begged my father and he said he'd have to see it first. And he did. Him and my mother. Care to guess what they said?
Sorry, but there’s no way in hell you’re seeing that movie?
You got it. I heard it was based on a book, so I asked him if I could read it. My father took me to the library - I must have been nine or ten at the time - and after some wrangling between my father and the librarian, I checked out the book out, took it home and read it from start to finish. When I closed that book, I couldn’t sleep. Part of it was being scared, but the other part, the bigger part, was that I was just so keyed up - it’s that feeling you get when locked up in a really good book and can’t put it down. And that’s when it hit me: I want to write stories. I want to be a writer like this guy Stephen King. I’ve been writing ever since.
A writer once told me that the most interesting people (writers or characters in novels) are the ones with some personal trauma that splintered their youth. Did you have any trauma or incident that perhaps helped mould you in some way? And if so would you be prepared to share that incident with us?
I agree that the most interesting people and characters are those with some sort of traumatic event that shaped their lives - it’s certainly true in my writing, and it's one of the reasons why I'm drawn to books like Mystic River. But as for some specific event or incident from childhood, sorry, I don’t have anything. My childhood was pretty normal. My parents were married and are still married. I went the Catholic school route - I went to an all-male Catholic high school, if you can believe it. Catholicism had a big hand in shaping me as a writer. I’m fascinated by the way religion - any religion, but in my case, Catholicism - has both the power to heal and to destroy. The perfect example of that is what happened here in Boston, Massachusetts, with the sex abuse scandal that Cardinal Law kept hidden for years.
Can you tell us what, and/or who, influenced you in your writing?
Stephen King was really the first, and he’s still a big influence. After that came Thomas Harris. I read Silence of the Lambs while I was in high school and that just blew me away - not just the story, which was brilliant, but with his writing, how he could say so much with so few words. Pat Conroy has been a big influence, I think, and as for the crime field, there’s James Lee Burke - the way he writes just breaks my heart - and Dennis Lehane, who I think is amazing and just keeps getting better and better. Dennis was actually a big influence with Remembering Sarah. I had the good fortune to meet him around the time Mystic River came out, and we went to dinner and I told him how I wanted to do a book that didn’t involve guns or explosives, I was tired of that. So when he asked me about my next book, I told him about the first part of Remembering Sarah - the part where the father, Mike Sullivan, lets his daughter go up the hill with her friend - and Dennis said to me, “That’s it, that’s the one you’ve got to write.” I was scared to death, too, because I didn’t think I could pull it off.
Have you been an advocate of the crime/mystery/thriller genre?
Absolutely. I love a well-written thriller. There aren’t a lot of good ones out there, though, so when you find one that you love, that’s a rare thing, and your job is to get the word out. To be honest, I’m not terribly well read in the crime field - whatever fits in that label. I mean, I’ve read everything by Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard, Patricia Cornwell, Thomas Harris; but there are a lot of really great writers out there that I haven’t even discovered. I started reading George Pelecanos something like two years ago. I read Hell to Pay and was like, “Where have they been hiding this guy? And why haven’t I heard of him?” Now I buy everything he writes. And then there are other mystery writers I've just discovered - Peter Robinson and Val McDermid, and there’s an up and coming guy named Larry Brooks who wrote a really good book called Darkness Bound.
What were your early experiences as a writer like? Have you always written?
I’ve written going back as far as I can remember. I received encouragement along the way, some of it good, the majority of it not so good. I had a professor in college tell me that I’d never be a writer and to basically give it up. I had friends tell me to quit daydreaming. But I learned early on to go after what you want. I used Stephen King as a role model - still do, to this day. He wrote four books before Carrie, all of which were rejected. And he stuck to it. That’s what you need, that ability to stick to it.
What is it about Boston that brings out the thriller writer in authors such as Dennis Lehane, Robert Parker et al?
The place is just so steeped in history, it makes for an interesting locale. And the people here come from all different walks of life. Interesting people, interesting setting, and for me, I just love it here. I didn’t know it was possible to actually fall in love with a city, but that’s how I feel about Boston - the architecture, the people, all of it.
What is your experiences vis-à-vis submission of manuscripts in terms of rejection / approval?
The first draft I wrote of Deviant Ways was called Deeper Into Black. My agent told me it had some problems - she hated the title, for one, so we changed it to The Sandman’s Dance. We sent the book around, and people liked it but didn’t love it - said there were some problems with it, fine, whatever. So it was making the round and an opportunity came up to work with an independent editor, this guy named Richard Marek. He’s probably the top guy when it comes to thrillers - he discovered Robert Ludlum and edited one of my all-time favourite books, The Silence of the Lambs. So I gave Dick a copy of Deeper Into Black to him to read over the weekend. He called me Monday morning and said he loved Malcolm Fletcher, but as for the rest of the story, I had to scrap it and start over from page one.
Oh yes. I was disappointed, but at the same time, I understood, on some level, that what he was saying was right. The whole thing was a great learning experience. You write a book and pass it in, and your editor will say "Thanks, and now let’s talk about the next one." So that's how I approached it. I wrote one book and was now being asked to write another, so I rolled up my sleeves and went to work on the second book.
So tell us how your debut, Deviant Ways, came about?
Dick said something about how I wasn’t facing my own fears - that basically the book he read was a cheat, and that if I really wanted to be a writer - a good writer - then I’d have to dig in and confront my own fears. So that's what I did. I came up with that first scene of Larry Roth being tied up and blindfolded and knew someone was in the room with him but didn’t know what was going on, and after that, the book just sort of took off from there. A year later, we approached Pocket Books, and they loved it. I've been there ever since and I couldn't be happier.
Did it worry you that Richard Montanari had a book called Deviant Ways also dealing with serial killing out about the same time?
I think his book was called Deviant Way - at least the hardcover was - but I didn’t find out about it until much later, after my book was published. When I found out, I wasn’t worried about it since titles aren’t copyright. That’s a good thing, since it’d be hard as hell to come up with one that hasn’t been used before.
Were you fearful of the reaction to some of the more visceral elements?
There were a few scenes that bothered me, yeah, but I had to keep them there in service to the story - especially when Jack Casey has to do some, ah, rather unsettling things that happen in his past. The scenes were important to the story. Without them, I don't think the book would have worked - at least the way I wanted it to.
What did your editor/agent advise regarding some of the violence?
Nobody said anything, honest to God. But when I finished World Without End, I kind of had enough of it. Writing about violence is boring in a lot of ways. I wanted to stick mainly to the psychological - which, if you take away some of the more violent scenes in Deviant Ways, that's what you really have, a solid psychological thriller. That's what I'm good at, I think, and that's the area I want to keep exploring. Plus, those are the things that readers take away from your story, not the violence.
Do you plot extensively, or do you let the muse take you where it may?
When I start a book, I always know, in general terms, how it’s going to open and how I want it to end. I have a sense of some stuff that may or may not happen along the way. Generally, I start with the opening and just go. For me, it’s about the journey. There are all these surprises that happen along the way. For example, in Remembering Sarah, I knew all about Mike's mother. I knew that she was going to pack up and leave him, and I knew her reasons for doing it had to do with Mike’s father, Lou Sullivan, this guy who was a really violent but successful thief. In the first draft, Lou didn't exist at all. He froze to death in a snowstorm. Then Lou somehow came to life and crept his way into the book, and then kept growing and growing to the point where I was, like, “Wow, this guy’s a real force.” He became this dangerous and powerful character, and people were really drawn to him. That’s what you want as a writer - what they call these “happy accidents." That's what makes all the hard work fun and rewarding.
Do you have a set time for writing or do you work when you can?
I write every morning and late into the afternoon and evening. I’m like Stephen King in that I write every day. I have to, otherwise I’ll lose that momentum and voice - whatever that “thing” is that drives creativity, I need to do it every day, seven days a week.
Then we had another action thriller World Without End - why was its original title, Covert Actions, changed?
My editor didn’t like the title. It was too generic, so she asked me to change it, and I did. And I didn’t have a problem with it since I wasn’t in love with the title either. Titles are very hard. World Without End just sort of came to me, and when I forwarded it, they liked it, and that was that.
What attracts you to the spy/techno thriller, and tell me a little about your research into the chase for Angel Eyes and the world of secret weapons featured in World Without End.
I saw a show on the Discovery Channel called "The Weapons of Tomorrow" or something like that, and one of the weapons featured was this military combat suit that used optical camouflage technology. You put it on and basically, you become invisible. Invisibility and flying are those sort of superhero powers that everyone fantasizes about having at one time or another, and here it was a program saying how they've developed the technology for invisibility. And then I got to thinking, "How far would someone go to get that combat suit?" Because, let's face it, once you're wearing that suit and invisible, you're God. And the story just took off from there.
Remembering Sarah is a real departure in terms of subject matter and style but I believe it was a story that pre-dates your two earlier thrillers? Would you care to tell us about it?
Funny you should mention that. Remembering Sarah was the first book I wanted to write - I knew how it started, I knew the characters’ names, how it would end, all of it. But given the book’s emotional scope, I knew at the time that I didn’t have the talent to pull it off the way I wanted to. That, along with the fact that I had this character Malcolm Fletcher sort of drawing me into his circle, I went ahead and wrote what became Deviant Ways. I'm glad I waited, because I'm really happy with the way Remembering Sarah turned out. I learned a lot writing that one, and the early response on it has been real encouraging.
I really enjoyed Remembering Sarah, but, being a father myself, it was a hard read at times. But I also noticed that Dennis Lehane, Harlan Coben and John Connolly have heaped praise on the book. How tough was it to write?
There’s no way to write a story about a missing child without it being emotionally draining on both you and the reader. It was hard to put myself in Mike Sullivan's shoes every day for almost two years, and there were certainly times when I felt like walking away from it. A lot of my energy went into making sure the book wasn't exploitative in any way but an honest account of how this father who made a big mistake goes about his life trying to find a way to redeem himself. That's the tough part of the book because, as a parent myself, we've all been in that place where you turn your head for just a second and your child falls down and almost splits their head open on the edge of a glass coffee table or something. The other tough part is dealing with this idea of hope - how long do you hang on to hope? When do you give it up and can you give it up? Because the second Mike gives up hope, his daughter's gone. That’s what I think makes the book interesting and, at the same time, makes it tough to read. You connect with Mike because he’s real, he’s like a guy you know or a close friend, and he made some of the same mistakes you’ve probably made as a parent. He’s a good guy and you’re just on his side from day one, rooting for him.
Has Remembering Sarah got a UK release date?
It’s still being shopped around the UK, so, no, it doesn’t have a release date. I’m hoping someone will pick it up.
Can you tell us about your characters and where do you think they came from? And do you choose your characters or do they choose you?
The character I'm constantly asked about is Malcolm Fletcher from Deviant Ways, so I'll use him as an example. Where did he come from? I don’t know. He’s been bouncing around my head since high school. I just knew he had these unsettling eyes - he suffers from an ocular disease in which he has no eye colour, so it basically just looks like this big, black dime - and I knew he was extremely smart and clever. Some people have said there’s a supernatural or superman element to him, okay, that’s probably true in the same way there’s a supernatural or superman element to Hannibal Lecter. Fletcher’s definitely a larger than life character, and I think people are drawn to those characters - to Hannibal Lecter, to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and Lehane's Bubba Rogowski. When they’re around, you never know what’s going to happen, and that’s the excitement of it. Generally, though, for me the characters just kind of appear out of nowhere. I knew with Remembering Sarah that the guy was going to be a contractor, and I wanted to give him sort of an everyman name, so I named him Mike Sullivan. Everybody knows someone named Sullivan.
In today’s highly competitive world of publishing, what are your thoughts on how a new(-ish) author can establish him/herself on our crowded bookshelves?
What it comes down to - what it always comes down to - is this: Can you tell me a good story? Can you make me pick up your book and then not want to put it down? And, to the larger extent, can you do it year after year? That's the key, I think, writing a book year after year.
Some people amongst our intelligentsia do not consider genre fiction to be “literary” enough, when compared to ‘general fiction’. Would you care to comment?
That’s a great question and one that has, at least for me, rubbed me the wrong way for a long time. At the University of New Hampshire, where I went to college, you weren’t allowed to talk about Stephen King in class. My advisor was this guy named Tom Williams who helped Stephen King get started - King dedicated Nightmares and Dreamscapes to him. But I was told not to bring up King’s name in any writing class because he considered by the faculty to be a hack - which is bullshit. Read Misery. Read The Green Mile and The Dead Zone and The Shining and tell me the guy’s not brilliant. The attitude is that anyone who is successful at writing is not a serious writer. If Stephen King decided to write about, say, people working on farms in Maine instead of bogeymen, then they’d teach him in every college across the country.
So I personally loved it when King got the National Book Awards’ lifetime achievement. I heard that and was like, “It’s about time.” And then you have the Harold Blooms of the world come out and tell you why you’re an idiot for wasting your time reading such nonsense. I think Bloom and others like him love the exclusivity. They are the arbiters of good taste and good writing. It’s intellectual snobbery, and it’s no more different than going to a country club and getting a look that says, “Sorry, but we don't accept your kind here.” A perfect example of that attitude is Jonathan Franzen. Guy takes something like ten years to write The Corrections and then Oprah wants to introduce to her audience what she feels is this brilliant book. Every writer wants an audience, the bigger, the better. Doesn’t matter if you write romance, sci-fi, mystery, or high brow literature on the scale of Thomas Pynchon - you want an audience. And Franzen’s attitude was, Well, I’m not sure I want to be associated with the Oprah brand. Now I’m willing to give Franzen the benefit of the doubt and say he might have suffered from some sort of head trauma before making that statement, but my guess is that he felt that Oprah’s audience wasn't smart enough to figure out the secret meaning of life in his book. But I'll bet you Franzen didn’t have a problem cashing those royalty checks.
Which books impressed you in 2003? And why?
I thought Shutter Island was about as brilliant as it gets - great plot, and the writing was just spectacular. There are some scenes in there, the way they’re written - to this day, now a year later, they’re still with me. I loved Bad Men by John Connolly - great story, and, as always in John’s book, his prose has this sweeping real lyrical quality that reminds me of James Lee Burke. Loved Soul Circus by George Pelecanos. I read a non-fiction book called A Million Little Pieces by James Frey that was amazing. Same for Pat Conroy's My Losing Season.
As for this year, I just read Joseph Finder’s Paranoia and I thought that was a great, fun read. And I admired Walter Mosley’s The Man in My Basement.
What do you see as future trends in the crime/mystery/thriller genre?
I think the trend is just to tell good stories that rely on good characters. You have certain writers in the field who are setting the bar really high - Dennis Lehane comes to mind, as does George Pelecanos and Michael Connelly. Connelly’s another guy who's just great. I love the subtlety of his writing. He makes it all look so easy.
What is your take on the way violence is portrayed within the genre? Do you see the crime/mystery genre becoming darker?
How a writer handles violence is always a personal call. But you have to handle it. My French editor told me that the key is to acknowledge that it's there and not to shy away from it. As for the crime genre becoming darker, I don't know. I'm probably the wrong person to ask. I've been told by a number of people that Mystic River is a dark story, which always surprises me. To me, it's just this big street opera mixed with some really funny moments.
We noticed you have no website which is unusual in today’s internet-savvy world. Have you any plans to have a web-presence?
Actually, I do have a website: chrismooneybooks.com. I expect to have it completed sometime in April, when Remembering Sarah is released here in the States, but you can log onto it now and email me.
I noticed that you were active at Bouchercon in 2003 in Vegas. Can you tell us about the whole Vegas experience and do you go to many conventions?
Bouchercon 2003 was my first convention. John Connolly suggested I take the plunge, so I did, and, honestly, I had a blast. I got to spend time with guys like John and Harlan Coben. Mainly, though, you do those sort of things for the fans, and there’s always a rush when you get to shake hands or talk with somebody who plunked down money and read your book. It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world. I’ll be touring this year with John Connolly, and you can expect to see me at Bouchercon in Toronto.
What are you working on currently?
A book called The Missing. What I can tell you so far is that it involves three girls who witness a crime and then one of the girls ends up disappearing. Flash forward almost twenty-five years later and one of the girls, Darby McCormick, the main character, is working as a crime scene investigator for the Boston Crime Lab when she’s called out to a crime scene involving bones found in the woods. I’ll be putting up a chunk of it on my website soon so people can get an early look.
Thank you for your time and good luck with Remembering Sarah.
Thanks for the questions, and thanks for all the people who’ve been supporting me, especially Shots Readers.
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