Alan Drew isn't your typical thriller writer. He directs the creative writing program at Villanova, and his previous novel was described by the author Leila Aboulela as a book that “balances the sweetness of youth and the brooding anxieties of parenthood with a robust understanding of the Muslim-Westerner encounter.” Nonetheless, his new book is a thriller. It's about a serial killer in a small southern California town, and Lee Child has declared it "a home run."
We asked Alan Drew to describe how he wound up writing a thriller. Here's what he had to say:
I never intended to write a thriller. I really didn’t. The serial killer in my novel, Shadow Man, was supposed to be on the periphery of the book, a fearful metaphorical pressure that would serve the greater concerns of character. I was trained at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, after all, where character is king. You don’t write thrillers at The Workshop. It’s written in the Constitution.
But here’s the thing—a very basic thing I should have known—you can’t put a serial killer in a book and not have your small town detective hunt after him. It’s Chekov’s deal: if there’s a gun, it must be fired; or to be even more formulaic: if there’s a time bomb it must be diffused—or explode. 1+1=2. But I was never very good at math.
I’m the very grateful beneficiary of book blurbs by two prominent thriller/mystery writers: Lee Child and William Landay. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, lest I burn bridges, but I do not—or have not in the past—read these kinds of books. My father reads these kinds of books, my father-in-law, my neighbor across the street who takes long business flights. I’m a professor of creative writing, I run the Villanova Literary Festival, so, as these things go, I tend to read “literary” fiction, whatever that means these days—the kind of fiction, I guess, that academics read and deem worthy of teaching. These books tend to focus on heavy social concerns, often have richly layered language, and eschew plot for the concerns of complex characters.
But academia can be a pretentious place, and I’ve always loved good crime stories—Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, Price’s Clockers, French’s In the Woods, and films like Polanski’s Chinatown, Scott’s Blade Runner and Sayles’s Lone Star. What these stories have in common are a moody sense of place, richly-drawn troubled protagonists who are often perplexed by their own emotions, and detectives who are pushed to the edge by their investigations. They also have finely woven plots, driven by investigative complication. Most detective fiction is driven by plot, whereas most literary fiction is driven by character. But these books and movies manage to be rich in both, with narratives propelled by investigative complication that troubles and reveals character.
When I discovered, halfway into the first draft of Shadow Man, that I was writing a sort of thriller, I panicked for a few days. I’d never written such a book before, had never even tried to write one. I wanted to avoid formula, even while I was using it. I wanted to avoid archetypal stereotypes, even while I was playing with them. I wanted heart-pounding action, like that in a Jack Reacher novel, yet I didn’t want my protagonist to be too heroic. I wanted to undermine the image of the macho-American detective, which, to my mind, often celebrates problematic constructed ideas of masculinity. In short, I wanted Benjamin Wade, my detective protagonist, to surprise and complicate the archetype.
So a rule: every plot complication in the novel also had to deepen and reveal character. There could be no empty action—no car chase, no shot revolver, no plot twist—that wasn’t intimately tied to the troubling of character. In Ben’s case, every plot element, every new piece of evidence had to make Ben more emotionally vulnerable. Ben has a secret and secrets are useful in a thriller. We all have secrets; we might tell a spouse or a good friend some of them, but others, the darker ones, the ones we believe reveal something ugly about ourselves, we may take to our graves. The desire to keep a secret hidden is a very basic, visceral human need. The secrets we keep say something about our own morality, about our judgment—of ourselves and others. Secrets say something about our level of shame, and therefore our level of decency. The same is true for Ben in the novel. As Ben investigates a killing in his small southern California town, each new piece of evidence he discovers threatens to expose a secret he’s kept for most of his life, a secret he’s cultivated a life to protect. The better he does his job, the closer he gets to solving the crime, the more vulnerable he becomes. This allows the reader to empathize with Ben since no one wants to feel vulnerable and exposed. This also helps to make him a complex character; the narrative is driven by the choices he makes and those choices—to continue or not to continue the investigation in the threat of his secret being exposed—reveal the kind of person he is or is striving to be.
I’ll always take character over plot. I read not to see what happens next, but to understand why something happens, to understand the motivation behind the choices that make things happen. But in the best stories—the ones that move and excite me—character and plot are inextricably linked, the narrative propelled forward by character choice. As Henry James famously said, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” Will Ben risk himself to finish the investigation and seek justice, and if he does what will be the consequences for him if his secret is made public? The answers to those questions will reveal the kind of man Benjamin Wade is, and perhaps make us think about our own vulnerabilities and, hopefully, our own strength.
-- Alan Drew
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