Latest Title: Two Days Gone
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Release Date: January 10, 2017
Credit: Maddison Hodge
It’s never easy for me to recall the genesis of anything I’ve written. The entire process of first receiving an idea out of the ether, then watching it grow and blossom into some strange, remarkable beast, has always struck me as more than a little mystical. I like it that way. I can be a bit obsessive about locking the doors, for example, but I prefer to keep the machinery of the writing process enveloped in a cerulean fog.
Another reason why my recollection of beginnings is adumbrated is because I typically carry four or five story ideas in my head at the same time, and am continually adding to each of them until one demands that I sit down and actually start writing. That can happen months or even years after I first conceive a story.
Fortunately, modern technology allows me to peek into my hard drive and see that my original treatment for Two Days Gone, then called D, was written in 2006, and includes the first three chapters exactly as they now appear in the published book. This suggests that I began thinking about the novel much earlier. (At least ten years before publication!)
What I do recall about that time—other than the facts that my wife and I had separated the previous summer, and that I was living alone in a small trailer so as to stay close to my two sons, one a sophomore in college and the other a sophomore in high school—is that I was then teaching at Edinboro University in the wind-blasted northwest corner of Pennsylvania. My hour-long commute at seven a.m. took me north on I-79 three days a week, and across or alongside Lake Wilhelm in several places, which, at that hour in the fall, was either shrouded in fog or ablaze with the orange light of morning. In one place I could see a wide flat expanse of water to the far horizon; in another place a weed-choked bog; in another what appeared to be a primeval sunken forest, with only the naked spears of broken tree trunks thrusting above the dark water. On all sides the lake lay surrounded by thick, shadowy forest. And on one of those commutes, I looked out upon this scene and thought, “What a great place for a murder!”
On another commute, I envisioned Thomas Huston, a literature professor, leaning over the bridge and dropping a knife into a lake.
One another commute, I saw Sergeant Ryan DeMarco and a dozen state troopers and other officers preparing to enter those woods in search of Huston.
On non-teaching days, I drove and walked the narrow dirt roads running throughout the forest. I studied the little towns in the outlying area. I imagined Huston’s journey through those woods, and watched and listened carefully in hopes of discerning where he was going. For a while even he didn’t know. When he did, I did. DeMarco, however, was on his own.
And so the story grew. I wrote the treatment. I wrote a beat sheet. Huston fed me bits of his novel-in-progress, also called D, while I walked or drove, while I sat in my office at Edinboro, and nearly every time I went hiking or rode my motorcycle over the next several springs and summers. I watched DeMarco interview Huston’s colleagues. I heard his memories. I felt both men’s pain.
And that’s where the novel came from.
I never would have written it, of course, had I not written my first literary mystery a good twenty years earlier. At the time I was a respected writer of literary fiction. My first book, the story/novella collection The Luckiest Man in the World, had been awarded the 1984 Drue Heinz Literature Prize by none other than the estimable Joyce Carol Oates, and was followed by a couple of well-reviewed literary novels. I was, however, smart enough to realize that great reviews were not going to pay the bills. I had to broaden my audience.
I had always been what I called a comprehensive narrativist, rejecting the Minimalist’s view that plot is to be eschewed in a serious novel. So I asked myself this question: “What popular plot-driven genre might also accommodate my love for rich, evocative language, theme, deep characterization, and possibly some playfulness with structure and/or voice?” The answer (since I was already an aficionado of Raymond Chandler’s inventive descriptions and jaded tone, Hemingway’s subtext and immaculate prose, and John Fante’s soulful and sensuous sentences) was easy: the mystery.
So I wrote a literary mystery called An Occasional Hell, and sent it off to my agent. A few days later he called to tell me that the novel was too well written to be sold as a mystery, and too heavily plotted to be sold as a literary novel. I said, “It’s a literary mystery.” He said, “There’s no such thing.” I said, “That’s why I wrote it.” He said, “Sorry. Can’t sell it.”
I was devastated for a day and a half, then sent the novel off to a small independent publisher. The book was accepted, sold, got me a paperback deal, a couple of foreign sales, and a film rights sale. I talked the producer into letting me write the screenplay, and the movie was eventually produced. The film remains an embarrassment to this day, thanks to the Neanderthalian “tweaking” done by individuals who deserve to sink unnamed into the tar pit of oblivion, but the total money earned from those sales filled my previously meager coffers for quite a while. So why complain?
Hence, Two Days Gone. A literary mystery. Or whatever you want to call it. PnC