Latest Title: Presidents' Day
Publisher: Diversion Books
Release Date: February 2017
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." True enough in much of life. But for writers of mystery and suspense fiction, consistency from book to book isn't always foolish, and it certainly doesn't indicate a little mind. Some of the best genre writers produce book after book, all equally good, focusing on the same character in the same setting facing similar challenges. I'm just not one of them.
My new novel, Presidents' Day, is a thriller about a New York financier who, having gobbled up many of the country's largest corporations, sets his sights on the ultimate prize: The White House. (I swear I began writing this book long before you-know-who became a candidate.) My previous book, The Semper Sonnet, was about a long-lost Shakespeare sonnet that may unlock long-buried secrets about Queen Elizabeth I, among other mysteries; the novel moves back and forth between Elizabethan London and the current day. The novel before that one was Closing Costs, a satire about the New York City's frenetic real estate market.
Beginning to see a pattern here? Exactly - there is no pattern. I just can't seem to write the same kind of book twice. For writers of commercial fiction, this can be a serious liability because it makes it tough to build a loyal following of readers. Presidents' Day will appeal most strongly to readers who enjoy political thrillers. The Semper Sonnet attracted readers interested in Tudor England as well as psychological suspense. Closing Costs connected with readers who liked a good laugh at the expense of social-climbing coastal elites.
But all three of these novels, and five earlier books, were written by me. So they must have something in common, other than their author. And they do. I've come to realize that what they all share is the answer a simple question: What if?
"What if" questions inspire a lot of novels, and certainly most mysteries and thrillers. What if the Nazis had won the second world war (Philip Roth's The Plot Against America)? What if robots could feel emotion, and possibly murder (Isaac Asimov's I, Robot.) What if a bunch of strangers are invited to an isolated mansion, where they get bumped off, one by one (Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None)?
The Semper Sonnet, was inspired by this question: "What if Elizabeth I had a secret so shocking it could destroy her reign - and alter her reputation forever?"
Presidents' Day set out to answer this one: "What if you were really, really rich, and you decided to buy your way into the presidency - could you succeed?"
Earlier, I wrote a novel, Losing Isaiah, which became a movie starring Halle Berry and Jessica Lange. I wrote it to answer the question, "What if a woman gave up her child for adoption, and later wanted him back?" Or perhaps I was really interested in a more personal "What if?" question, since my wife and I were expecting our first child: "What if you had to prove you were fit to be a parent before having a baby?"
These kinds of questions, and many others like them, intrigue me, and the ones that gnaw at me most persistently over time tend to end up as books. I think a lot of mystery writers find that they can satisfy their curiosity through the lens of one character. Consider the great P.D. James: her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, investigated cases that allowed her (and her readers) to explore issues ranging from plastic surgery to nuclear energy.
In school, students are urged to "write what you know." Far better advice would be, "Write what you want to know." Use the power of fiction to explore questions that intrigue you, mysteries that seemingly can't be solved, problems that appear to be unsurmountable. I don't know much about politics, which was exactly why I decided to write Presidents' Day. I wanted to understand the system better by stretching the boundaries of plausibility. (Turns out, those boundaries are being stretched pretty tight in reality, but that's the subject of a different article.)
Writing a series of seemingly unconnected novels is not a recipe for commercial success. Readers are drawn to the familiar, particularly readers of suspense fiction. And the really good writers keep things fresh novel after novel: Lee Child with his peerless Jack Reacher novels, for example, or Phillip Kerr with his amazing Bernie Gunther mysteries. But I can't seem to stick to one character or even one genre. There are just too many questions waiting for the kinds of answers that only fiction can provide. PnC