Rumor of Evil: An Interview with Bestselling Thriller Author Gary Braver
On the heels of the bestseller Choose Me comes the “unpredictable whodunit” (Publishers Weekly) Rumor of Evil by Gary Braver.
Gary Braver has been touted as one of the best thriller writers in America. His novels have been translated into 17 languages, and three have been optioned for movies, including Elixir by director Ridley Scott. He’s the only author to have three books listed on the top 10 highest customer-rated thrillers on Amazon at the same time.
To learn more about Rumor of Evil by Gary Braver, visit www.garybraver.com.
Podcast Transcript: A Discussion with Gary Braver, Author of Rumor of Evil
Sarah Harrison 0:24
Welcome to Tea Tonic & Toxin, a book club and podcast for anyone who wants to explore the best mysteries and thrillers ever written. I’m your host, Sarah Harrison.
Carolyn Daughters 0:35
And I’m your host Carolyn Daughters. Pour yourself a cup of tea, a gin and tonic, …
Sarah Harrison 0:40
… but not a toxin …
Carolyn Daughters 0:44
And join us on a journey through 19th and 20th century mysteries and thrillers, every one of them a game changer.
Sarah Harrison 0:55
Carolyn, I’m so excited about our episode today.
Carolyn Daughters 0:59
I am as well. This is a really cool one.
Sarah Harrison 1:02
Yeah, it’s a super special feature with Gary Braver.
Carolyn Daughters 1:08
Gary Braver just released a new book, Rumor of Evil.
Sarah Harrison 1:16
Gary, thanks so much for joining us today. Gary is the award-winning, international bestselling author of nine critically acclaimed medical thrillers and mysteries.
Gary’s novels have been celebrated for their high concepts, careful craftsmanship, well-rounded characters, and page turning momentum. Gary’s novel Flashback, which received a starred review and Publishers Weekly, is the only thriller to have won a Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction. In Gary’s previous book, Choose Me, which he co-authored with Tess Gerritsen, was a number one best seller on Kindle and a bestseller in several foreign countries.
Under his own name, Gary Goshgarian, he’s an award-winning professor emeritus of English at Northeastern University, where he taught fiction writing, science fiction, horror fiction, and bestsellers. Gary has also taught fiction writing workshops throughout the United States and Europe and founded the London Writers Workshop.
Gary is the author of six popular college writing textbooks, and he holds a bachelors of science degree in physics from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, an MA in English from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin. Gary lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, with his family. To learn more about Gary and his novels, visit garybraver.com. Gary, welcome. We’re over the top excited to have you.
Gary Braver 3:08
Thank you. It’s nice to be with you.
Carolyn Daughters 3:10
We want to introduce this book and use it as sort of a launching pad for a number of questions about you, about your writing, about your teaching, and in particular about Rumor of Evil, which was released the 10th of October. I’ll read a short summary of this book. Listeners, know we’re not going to spoil anything.
Detectives Kirk Lucien and Mandy Wing are charged with investigating reported suicide of a Cambridge, Massachusetts, woman in her backyard on the anniversary of her young son’s death. After further investigation, the hanging appears staged. Once Kirk and Mandy’s suspicions are confirmed, they make a list of suspects. Clues begin to connect the recent murder to the decades-old mysterious death of a beautiful 16-year-old Romani exchange student who perished when a tree house she was asleep in caught fire. The girl, Vadima Lupescu, had done odd things done odd things among her American peers that had stirred up prejudices and suspicions, leading to her brutal death and cover-up.
As Kirk and Mandy investigate the bizarre rumors — that Vadima had gypsy powers and put curses on those around her — they discover a cauldron of dark secrets. Will they uncover the true cause of this tangled web of depths and horrors before it spirals out of control?
Sarah Harrison 4:57
One of the things that really interested us is that you were researching the Slender Man case prior to writing Rumor of Evil. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Gary Braver 5:20
Sure. I knew that there would be two layers in Rumor of Evil: The ongoing investigation of a woman who was found hanging int the opening scene of the novel and a cold case, which would connect to it from 20 years ago.
As with any crime writer/novelist, I have a file of bizarre, disturbing crimes in real life, just in case I need something to stimulate my imagination. And it was that case of Slender Man from 2014 out of Waukesha, Wisconsin, where two 12 year old girls lured another 12-year-old girlfriend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times. The girl survived, and the two girls who attacked her are still in a psychiatric institution.
That story was disturbing. I wanted to know what of the adolescent mindset would lead these two girls to do this. The motives were never clear. They’re always irrational. But the reasons they gave to the police were that they were afraid that an internet cartoon, faceless humanoid, stretched out in a long black suit and white shirt, Slender Man, would kill their families if they didn’t make the sacrifice. And that’s completely bizarre. I mean, these kids believed stuff that is absolutely not in tune with reality. And I was fascinated. But of course, you’re not going to get a clear motive why these kids did this.
So I started researching. One of the scourges of American adolescence is bullying. And I found that there are profiles of both bullies as well as the bullied. The bullying is usually a male or a female who’s an alpha kid who wants to appear superior, smarter than anyone else. It’s someone aggressiveor someone who has a bad temper. Oftentimes they come from broken homes, and they’re getting back at people who have bothered them. And their victims are always somebody who is different. Someone who physically may be overweight or underweight, tall and gangly or have a limp, or their behaviors are kind of odd. They are shy and inward, they dress kind of funny, they have a lisp or an accent, or they’re from a different demographic. Ultimately, they’re the outsiders.
So as a backstory I wanted to have adolescents, a little older than the 12-year- olds from Waukesha. I wanted them to pick on an archetypal outsider. As in what you were summarizing, I made the exchange students a female from a rural pig farm in Slovakia. She’s of Romany extraction, or Roma as it’s sometimes known as, and she arrives with an accent and really odd kind of European braids in her hair. She has funky, uncool clothes. She does some odd things. Like she takes off her shoes once she walks into the house, she stands up when the teacher walks into the room.
There’s a host teenager and other adolescents that she is classmates with at the school she goes to, which is just outside where I live in Lexington, Massachusetts, an affluent community. They think it’s kind of cool. They’re going to American-ize. They take her to the mall, they get her new outfits, and they get rid of those braids. And they give her a cool nickname, Lulu. Things go well.
And then there’s a pizza party where they ask her what she does in her spare time when she’s not slaughtering pigs. She says she reads palms. And so she did a little palm reading. And then she freaks out looking at the palm of one person’s hand and blasts out of the party and disappears.
A few days later, bad things start happening to her friends and family. And that gets the rumors flying, really nasty rumors about Romany. Aren’t they really gypsies, and didn’t gypsies start the black plague centuries ago, and don’t they drink the blood of Christian babies and pray to Satan? Aren’t they really witches in the sky?
All that connects to the terrible fire she dies in one Halloween night in a tree house that is in the backyard of the host family’s home. That’s the backstory. For me, she was the ultimate outsider to have as a victim of the bullies.
Sarah Harrison 10:45
Was that true in the Slender Man case? Was the stabbing related to outsider-ism, or was it too hard to tell?
Gary Braver 10:53
That’s a good question. I think the girl they picked on was a little bit too pretty for them. And she was probably very smart in class and got a lot of attention. So she became the victim. They decided who the victim was. Slender Man didn’t say go get this girl. They picked on someone that they were bothered by.
It’s like conspiracy theories we hear today. You build up all these kind of phony myths about a person, and that justifies your going after them.
Carolyn Daughters 11:25
I was reading up on Slender Man in preparation for this conversation. And some people were calling it a folie a deux, where these two girls were sort of sharing this madness between each other and sort of amping up their madness.
I don’t see that per se in Rumor of Evil, but I do see how when one of these girls in this clique start talking about the outsider Lulu, how they push each other further. They’re at this party, where she talks about slaughtering pigs. They ask, “have you yourself ever slaughtered a pig?” Then it goes a step further where she starts reading palms. These sorts of comments start building upon each other and they elevate the group-think of what is happening.
Gary Braver 12:24
Group-think, mob-think, exactly. There’s no way I wanted to make these kids insane. I mean, insanity, that’s cheating. It’s not a very interesting detective novel. So there’s just got to be method to the alleged madness.
I don’t think bad people get up and look in the morning mirror and say there is the face of evil. There’s always a sweet-smelling reasons why they do the bad things. They were disadvantaged, unlike the privileged kids, they came from lousy home life. They may have been at odds with the law, with society, with other kids, with nature, they may have an impairment of some sort.
They justify getting back somehow, making up for those deficits and those disappointments in life. In this case here, I tried to have each of the six or seven potential suspects have a convincing to them reason why this girl has to die. That was kind of fun. But sometimes it was work in trying to come up with the reason. You know, in Murder on the Orient Express, they all have one good reason.
Sarah Harrison 13:56
It was interesting to me too, and this is kind of a general question on writing, but how do you get to these different voices and all these different demographics. I mean, you have this group of best girlfriends. How did you try to get the voice? Do you have daughters that age? How did you get in their heads?
Carolyn Daughters 14:21
Let me springboard off that — you have all these different characters who speak, so you have the dialogue of each of them. And then also you have this third-person close narrator, which is the main detective. And then you have another character who tells her story in narrative form. So there are all these incarnations of voice
Gary Braver 14:44
Right. There’s a first-person diary-like form of one of the characters. First person is always very intimate with the reader. The reader gets to know this character and his or her mindset.
What gave me the voices for the kids is the fact that I was a parent, my wife and our parents to two boys who are now adults. And they passed through teenage-hood. And I heard them talk and I heard their girlfriends talk.
Actually, I’ve been teaching college for over 45 years. And freshmen are not that much older than these 16-year-olds. And so I’m hearing teenybopper talk, even though they’re 18 or 20. On some psychic levels, keep in mind some of the vocabulary, the delivery.
It’s like with any writer, you’re constantly writing even though you haven’t got your tape recorder on, you have a 3×5 cards. You’re always filing away interesting ways that people say things or how they dress or how they deport themselves. I think that was part of it. I’m very absorbent of these things, constantly looking for fresh dialogue, a fresh way of people say things. And also the exposure to all the kids I’ve had experience with over these all these years. I think that was why they came to me easily.
Sarah Harrison 16:17
Oh, that’s cool. That’s very cool.
Carolyn Daughters 16:21
Something that I really like in Rumor of Evil is how we learn a lot about these two detectives, they’re newly partnered, which is a nice way for the reader to get to know two different people. It’s not as if they’ve been partners for the last 10 years. They’ve been partners, I think, two weeks. And we get to see who they are, what makes them tick, why they are the way they are. Because they’re, bit by bit, informing the other, just to get to know each other.
They start off maybe a little bit scrappy, and feeling that maybe they’re not the best fit in the world. By the end of the story, we’re thinking, okay, they are very different people, but maybe they’re going to do quite well together as a team. What are your thoughts? I think this is important to you, I think, that it’s the detective, not just the detective work, that’s really important in a story to pull readers in. We need to know about these people.
Gary Braver 17:27
In every detective novel, and, in fact, most any kind of novel in any genre, there are two quests, the outer quest, such as the cops who find the body in the opening scene, and the inner quest, the personal baggage. To endear the reader to the detectives, you have to give them some demons.
For Kirk Lucien, his and Olivia’s daughter died a year and a half ago. She was a hit-and-run victim, and I’m never going to solve that crime. In this series, that’s going to be an open wound. But it sent him in such a deep funk of grief and loss, particularly Kirk, that he could not attend to Olivia’s needs. And so they separated. This is a high statistic. I did some research on that, too. Parents who lose kids, they end up divorced. They just don’t want to be in the same space that reminds them of their loss and their grief. So I had them break up, and I give Kirk the quest to get back to Olivia. “I’m crazy about her. I want to get back to her.” I made her someone who has not dated anyone but Kirk, so she’s been with him for 22-plus years. So she goes out and dates another guy.
Mandy, I made her a woman who is married to a woman, and they have a child. And at the end of Rumor of Evil, she is pregnant by artificial insemination. In the following book, which is already done, she has a child. She’s impulsive, but she’s very smart. She did very well the academy exams. She was assigned to correct to keep her on the rails and not go flying and doing the stuff that’s a little wild. Part of her baggage is not just that she is a female in a heterosexual male profession of police force. But her mother was raped. And she’s a product of that rape. And she never knew her biological father. He died in prison. So she never had a mother who mothered. She joined the force because she wanted to protect women against men who abuse or kill them. So she is set to go after guys who hurt women. And so she’s seems a little impulsive.
In the next book, we learn Kirk was brought up by a loving English teacher constantly correcting his English. And I give Mandy some bad English. She uses double negatives. And he’s constantly correcting, which is a good comic relief in some of these tougher scenes. But I think they work okay together. And the next one is done. And I’m halfway through the third in the series. I’m getting to know them better. And I’m very fond of them.
Sarah Harrison 20:42
That’s cool. I know Rumor of Evil was described in part as a police procedural as a sub genre. For those folks who are new to our book club and podcast, that form hasn’t been developed yet. We’re reading Perry Mason’s The Case of the Velvet Claws now, and I thought it was going to be a courtroom drama, but then they never got into court. So we haven’t got to police procedurals yet in the development of the mystery.
I was wondering — you had so many details in there about police work. How did you get all of that? Did you have to follow police around? Do you know a lot of police?
Gary Braver 21:27
Yeah, a couple of things. Northeastern University has a very active criminal justice department. And cops love to talk shop, particularly if it’s going to be in a book that doesn’t involve them. I did consult a few police. And also online as to the kind of quasi-legal stuff, you can find out that you need a warrant for someone’s cell phone. And do you not have to produce a warrant to get somebody’s cell phone.
This information was not available to police procedural novels 30 years ago. You had to corner, a cop or a lawyer or go find something in the archives. Both having Google, the best assistant we’ve ever had, as well as real-life cops, and so I got some information there.
Sarah Harrison 22:26
That’s cool. Very nteresting.
Gary Braver 22:30
Some of the interesting stuff you get from police that’s not so much used in Rumor of Evil but in a couple of other novels that have had homicide detectives.
I remember talking to one guy who was a homicide detective in a nearby town here about how you see some of the worst stuff this side of war zones. It must make you sick with cynicism about the human race. And I said, “How do you not go home and braid a noose?” How do you sit your family at night and have a meal? He said every six months, we just have counseling with a psychiatrist because there is a paramilitary quality about police.
Blue talks to blue or these psychiatrists, who are the third-person neutral. There’s a lot of bottled up stuff in there. And the incidence of police suicides and police attempted suicides is very high. Soldiers coming back from the war for the same reasons.
Sarah Harrison 23:48
It’s so interesting how you can get into all of these different, various heads and do it convincingly.
Gary Braver 24:01
Carolyn Daughters 24:02
From a police procedural standpoint, in what ways do Google and security cameras and cell phones complicate the storytelling. Because today we have so much information and so much data. It has changed the way, I think, mysteries are now written.
Gary Braver 24:21
Absolutely. When you’re writing these kinds of things, I mean, there are no secrets on the internet anymore. You can find anything you want about anybody. In the old days, if you were being pursued by somebody, you had to find a telephone booth. Today, you can trace where people are with their phones. So that is good detection in a sense, aided by electronics, the digital world.
It’s sometimes a bit of a challenge. What if you want to keep some things secret? What we’re doing now is buying throwaway cell phones. You just make one call and you ditch it. But it is a challenge. So in my older books, I had a guy trying to make telephone calls. He didn’t have a cell phone, it was pre-cell phone days. And he’s driving all over town looking for a box or a restaurant. He had to drop a few quarters.
It does make for a different kinds of challenges. But also, cops can find stuff very fast. But you don’t want to have them find all the interesting stuff, the important stuff, early on in the book. You have to space things out, or it’s a very short novel.
Carolyn Daughters 25:48
Right. In Rumor of Evil, we don’t know, right out of the gate that there’s a connection between this modern-day crime and this past crime. It takes some time and police work and introspection. The detective has to go off and think, okay, is this possible? Is this really happening, and so forth? I think it’s, as you say, more interesting to have that information unravel steadily throughout the book, instead of giving us this bulk of information on page seven.
Gary Braver 26:27
Sarah Harrison 26:29
Thinking about how you interwove the two stories, I read something you said about the difference between a thriller and a mystery. A mystery is trying to solve a puzzle, but a thriller is driven by dread.
To me reading Rumor of Evil, it feels like you interwove both of those together. As I’m reading the story from the past, I have this sense of dread in my stomach, and it’s very hard to read because of the dread. And I’m a baby. Then the mystery, the puzzle solving, I get really into it. Was that intentional? Or tell me about the way you split that up.
Gary Braver 27:10
Yeah, it’s intentional. In many ways, these are hybrid novels. In the earlier books, I always had a murder mystery with a thriller wrapped around it, a whodunit. And then once you find out, there’s an oh my God moment. I hope it doesn’t happen to my loved ones. There is that dread factor.
The engine pulling this along really is problem solving, putting together clues and logic. But of course, there’s so much that’s hidden, because it’s 19 years ago in the backstory and how is that connected? The dread is not so much what’s going to happen to the two protagonists, not in Rumor of Evil. But in the next novel, the dread gets close to home with Kirk and Olivia. There are other people out there from the past whose lives maybe in danger. That’s all I’ll say.
Carolyn Daughters 28:18
Rumor of Evil is filled with literary references, which I love. You probably loved it as well, Sarah. Can you talk a little bit about the Wallace Stevens poem, “The Snowman,” and this idea of having a heart and mind of snow?
Gary Braver 28:34
Yeah, that’s the Wallace Stevens “The Snowman.” It is a very difficult poem to understand. But you have to have a winter mind to do something like that. You have to have an icy mind to not feel for the person. It’s really a kind of a frozen lack of empathy or an empathy that is frozen, essentially total heartlessness.
And always, in some verbal form or another, when police look at a dead body they must have that feeling. Who could do this kind of thing? You see this in the news, I see this every day with what’s going on in Ukraine. How could Putin be such a snowman, how can he do this and justify it? That is the is the broader message from the Wallace Stevens poem.
Sarah Harrison 29:37
Along those lines, we talked about how it can be tough for police, the way it feels like being a soldier and you may need to seek therapy. There’s so much baggage. Does any of that rub off on you as a writer as you’re trying to research some sort of grotesque killing or get into some somebody’s psychology?
Gary Braver 30:00
Yeah, it is disturbing on some level, but in a sense I’m looking for stuff that I can imagine from. That I can warm up with good people in it and still maintain a kind of a sense of balance that there’s good as well as evil. But it’s almost always about justice prevailing at the end.
You have to you have to compartmentalize the horrors of what you may be researching.That’s what I did in this case here. Thankfully, that that little 12-year-old girl in the Slender Man case survived. And those two girls, I mean, their lives are ruined, their family’s lives are ruined. I mean, the hopes and dreams of their parents, and their parents. I’m a parent. You have all these wonderful hopes, and something like this just shatters all that.
Sarah Harrison 31:03
That was another theme you are dealing with Rumor of Evil on multiple levels was the death of a child. That’s difficult to read. How did you get into that and pull that in?
Gary Braver 31:19
Thankfully, my wife and I did not have that personal experience. But we know of people who had, and some of the marriages fell apart. I did research on that too, just looking up the consequences and the success rate or lack thereof, of mending their marriage. It’s quite low. And there’s always a bizarre fingerpointing, blame.
In Rumor of Evil, Kirk was going to meet his daughter, Megan, on a bike path, and he got caught in traffic, et cetera, et cetera. She decided to cross the street without him, and that is thrown in his face after a while. You’re constantly looking for that magical reason why this happened. You should have been there. That kind of thing. And even though it’s irrational, it’s human nature.
That was also kind of disturbing stuff to do research on, too. Getting transcripts of parents who broke up and are sobbing. Grief creates a kind of a claustrophobia. So breaking up opens the window a little bit. And they go separate ways.
Carolyn Daughters 32:40
That idea of wanting somebody to be accountable or responsible and wanting to point the finger, we see that throughout Rumor of Evil. This Slovakian girl, Lulu, is in this tree house. And there’s a kerosene lantern up there. “Why did you let her have a kerosene lantern?”
But we also hear stories of Kirk and his former partner, who I think had been shot. His daughter had been the victim of a hit and run. In all these incidences, somebody could potentially be responsible. As human beings, we want someone to be the one who’s like I did it. We want accountability. And I think that’s a very human thing, but I noticed that as a thread throughout Rumor of Evil.
Gary Braver 33:33
Yeah, that’s absolutely right. Yeah, there. We want a big simple answer for something that’s not big and simple. And it would be nice to pin the blame on somebody. We’re always looking for that, but it’s elusive in many ways.
Carolyn Daughters 33:49
Kirk’s marriage is key to this story. It’s key to who he is. He talks about what keeps him from breaking apart essentially, and in part his marriage to his wife, Olivia. And he calls them this composite. And then their child is probably part of that composite, and then the composite starts breaking up. There’s the idea of the instability there and how you try to live through that. Kirk’s day-to-day life feels pretty tenuous to me in the early pages of Rumor of Evil in particular.
Gary Braver 34:41
He goes home to an empty house and yearns for the old days. The next book is Heat of the Moment. We don’t have a publication date yet on that. One of the bugaboos about writing a series is you have to keep on coming up more baggage in each one.
So the next one is, do we have another child? Olivia is 42, is nature against me there? Will we forget about Megan? This becomes a back and forth. I won’t give it away because it hasn’t yet been published. But that becomes a huge issue. I want to keep these two people together, because I think they work well with each other. But they will always will have some differences, which hopefully you can make some interesting kind of baggage down the line.
Sarah Harrison 35:45
I felt like there was a lot in Rumor of Evil I could personally identify with. And then you just brought up another thing. I had my second child at 41. I’m like, Oh, I know exactly what that is like.
Gary Braver 35:56
you have a child the 41?
Sarah Harrison 35:59
Yeah, I had my son at 39, and my daughter at 41.
Gary Braver 36:05
You look about 27.
Sarah Harrison 36:07
Gary, you’re my best friend now. Thank you. But I can definitely relate to those conversations and those feelings around that.
You had me thinking back to high school. We had a couple of German exchange students, who we were friends with and had a great time. Nothing bad happened there. There was a lot in Rumor of Evil that I felt like I could identify with, and I love that you’re bringing up that you’re already making this into a series, which is cool.
I had read it as part of your work in writing instruction, that you were saying, making something into a series is a great sales technique. Why a series?
Gary Braver 36:59
Publishers want series. Focusing on a particular detective, male or female. The Perry Masons by Erle Stanley Gardner. You can’t see it over my shoulder, but there’s a photograph behind me of my first office mate at Northeastern, Robert B. Parker. From the Spencer novels, Jesse Stone. His Spencer became enormously popular, 50 books, I think.
It’s a trophy for a publisher to have a mystery writer who readers want to spend time with. Poirot or Lew Archer, or some of the others of my contemporaries. That’s what it was, it was a contract, would you please turn Rumor of Evil into a series. Yeah, sure, I can do that. It’s a challenge and a curse. The good part is that you get the same small cast of characters that you can recycle and do new things with them. The other is, you get might get bored with them.
Sarah Harrison 38:31
You can see how three-dimensional your detectives are. In some of the older mysteries that we’ve been reading, there are a bunch Sherlock Holmes novels or Hercule Poirot novels, but they don’t have a very compelling backstory, if any at all, in most of the books. They’re kind of clever, and they come in and do their thing, but you don’t find out much about where they came from.
Gary Braver 39:01
I find it interesting that Sherlock Holmes took cocaine or some kind of drug. I want to read more about that.
Carolyn Daughters 39:11
It was a fin de siecle sort of thing that was going on there, where he’s jaded and then finds ways to get engaged in the world again, and that’s one of them. Detection, of course, is another. And other violin playing and so forth.
There are so many ways writers can approach creating a set of characters for a series. Did you get to know everything you could possibly know about these characters out of the gate? Or did you learn certain things about them and continue to learn more and more as you go?
Gary Braver 39:53
That brings up the question of technique. When I first started writing, I would outline, and I will give a character profile of each character. Early on I had like 90 single-spaced pages of an outline, and I was like, come on, Gary, three of those and you’ve got a book. About a third of the way through, I would detour in a different direction that had nothing to do with the outline.
What I do now is get plot point bullets and define something of an arc. Then I come up with good guys and bad guys and try to imagine motives of each, why a person would kill another person. Hopefully I come up with some really interesting motives, something they want to cover up in their own lives. And then I just jump in. It was a dark and stormy night.
In each chapter, I bullet the surprises and developments of that particular chapter. I fulfill some things that I pre-thought. Then as I go down the line, hopefully, I have the confidence that the next chapter will follow. I sometimes write, “flesh out” or “more” in big red letters, “develop this.” But I know there’s a gap there that I’ve got to fill. But I know that these are the motivating factors, and I’ve just got to protract them so they make some kind of sense.
Carolyn Daughters 42:04
You have a main character, Kirk, and a secondary character, Mandy. These characters are going to be in a series. With each book, they start somewhere, and then we want them to change in some way over the story. And how do you see these two characters having changed or evolved by the end of Rumor of Evil.
Gary Braver 42:35
Being sadder and wiser. At the end, they’re sad from the horrors of what they were investigating in their quest. And they’re wiser about themselves, they have made concessions. At the end of this particular book, Rumor of Evil, she will be with child, and she’s going to give birth by the next book. That is a fulfillment for her. She found the people who did the bad things to Lulu, so that has some satisfaction. And she’s wiser and sadder for that, and yet she’s got to be rewarded with a baby.
You want the books to end in almost an archetypal way. You’ve cleared the dark stuff away and set up a relatively new order, a new beginning, at the end. And so that’s almost Shakespearean, it goes back to ancient Greek comedies. You ended up having a meal at the end to celebrate, and good things have finally happened. We’re all back home now. We’ve lost somebody, and we’re limping, but good things have been restored for a brief moment. And that’s the difference. Literature has to make sense.
Sarah Harrison 44:10
That brings me to some questions about transitions in your life. It sounds like maybe your prior books focused on medical thrillers, whereas you’re kind of moving more into police detective work in Rumor of Evil. Can you talk about that transition a little bit?
Gary Braver 44:32
Sure. Well, you have a degree in physics.
Sarah Harrison 44:35
Yes. I want to talk about that, too.
Gary Braver 44:38
Same here, and I applaud you for it, because I have never regretted having that degree even though the second year in college I decided that I can do much better with words than I could with subatomic particles. Teaching at Northeastern University, you have all these different departments, chemistry and biology and pre-med. And I knew what my ignorance was, but I knew how to ask questions and get from A to B and make me sound like I knew what I was talking about.
That science aspect I used way back in a book called Rough Beast. That book came out under Goshgarian. A couple towns away from where I live, there was a company that was dumping carcinogens into the water, and it turned the whole town into a carcinogenic swamp. And it was made to a famous movie with the John Travolta civil action. I was interested in that. So I decided to have an all-American family have the water go bad, and it affects a child. It causes the endocrine system to go wild. I turned that into a novel, and it did quite well. The publisher back then said, give us more of the same. The book was called Rough Beast, so a Rougher Beast? They said high concept, something that has a broad appeal to the fantasies and fears of the readership. We’re trying to sell books. Use your science background.
I taught science fiction for 40 years, and the staple in each course was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is “watch out what you wish for.” That became my kind of mantra. The science got me into inventing an elixir having an anti-aging drug, which is a fantasy of every human being on the planet.
I had been to New Guinea on a diving expedition. And our host there was this one generation out of the Stone Age. I got him a Harvard tee shirt, he was wearing a watch, and he brought us into his village. His uncle was the village shaman, who had the experience of 60,000 years of rainforest medicine. I imagined a plant that is highly rare that would keep you alive indefinitely.
That started the scientific stuff and then I went through looking for high concepts, and the next one, Gray Matter, boosting the intelligence of children who were seemed slow or were slow. Because every parent wants their kid to be a brilliant genius and grow up to be happy. And then my aunt was bumping down the staircase with with Alzheimer’s disease, and I wrote a book about a potential cure called Flashback. So it was all these books that were standalones with really demanding science. Because I never took a biology course in my life, so I had to do all this research. But the ability to query experts you helped out.
And then the first cop novel I did, Gray Matter, about boosting intelligence of children. I shied away from making that a theory because cop stuff I’m not familiar with. You have to keep talking to those who do it. That just seemed like too much work at this time. Eventually, I faded into Rumor of Evil.
And when Tess Gerritsen and I did Choose Me, I became quite successful, and my publisher asked, why don’t you write a series. I said, that’s interesting. And so he said, make sure you have a very strong female character in it. That was told to me way back many years ago. All my novels have strong female characters. I’m married to a very strong female character. She wouldn’t let me get away with anything less.
But I do have science stuff in the books, too, in the one that’s coming up next. I’d like rounding in stuff that I can do research on. Because books should entertain as well as educate. Thrillers and mysteries are about secrets, about how the FBI works, what autopsies are like, how CIA deals with the Russians. You’re learning in these theories ,and so having a little scientific stuff pulls the curtain back. It might be entertaining as well as education.
Sarah Harrison 50:31
I want to dig a little bit deeper as a fellow fellow physics background person, and I liked what you said about words. I’ve always considered myself more verbal than mathematical. But there you go. I’ve still got a bachelor’s in physics. How did that transition work?
Gary Braver 50:57
I had two uncles, one was a metallurgist, one was a chemist. And I was brought up in Hartford, Connecticut, only 75 miles away from Worcester. And I got a scholarship to go to Worcester Polytechnic Institute. I wanted to be a nuclear physicist. I read science fiction by the pound as a kid. I wanted to make rockets to take me to the stars.
In sophomore year, I was editor of just about everything on campus, and I started humor magazine. I really enjoyed writing, and I did not enjoy advanced thermodynamics and the electronics. There are kids I went to school with who came from the Bronx High School of Science, take apart an alarm clock and make an atom smasher.
I started taking courses at Clark University down the road and Harvard University and other places to something equivalent to a degree in English because I knew I wanted to write fiction. And I knew the only way to learn how to write fiction was to learn how to read. And the only way to learn how to read was to get a PhD in English and teach other people’s books. Because you plumb the depths of a book if you can teach it.
I had some of the novels I taught over the years wired. I knew everything about them. And I told my writing students over the years to find an author or authors you want to grow up to write like and look at their books the way a carpenter looks at a house. Look at the angles, look how they get in and out of scenes, look at how in a 10-inch patch of dialogue you’re able to distinguish two different characters, their voices, how they look, how they express themselves.
Notice that in the architecture of the book, you have an action scene followed by reflection scenes. The reflection scene really fleshes out the character, the action scene is just chasing the the villain. Notice how each chapter ends on a a cliffhanger. Imagine your reader, It’s four o’clock in the morning, oh damn, I gotta keep reading, I’m turning the pages. Really study how these books are written, don’t just read for book plot. That’s what I hope I pass on to my writing students.
Sarah Harrison 53:36
We actually went in like the perfect direction. I was asking about the transition out of physics. But my last question was going to pertain to you what you were saying about reading authors that you want to be like. We are a book club podcast, so I wanted to ask you who are the authors in the mystery-thriller genre and maybe what have been the most influential books on you?
Gary Braver 54:00
Bob Parker for dialogue. He wrote the best dialogue of anyone ever know. Hemingway crossed with Dashiell Hammett, but with sensitivity. Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, my old co-author, Tess Gerritsen, and also people who are not in the genre of mystery thriller, Louise Erdrich wrote a phenomenal book called The Roundhouse, which I absolutely love. She’s brilliant. British author Ian McEwan wrote a terrific novel called The Children Act. The characterization, the language, the attention to detail.
The way they develop a narrative thrust. The engineering of the syntax of their sentences. Start off with a noun and a verb and all the predicate is back there. Don’t start off with long participial phrases or adverbial phrases, that slow stuff down. All these little tricks. Don’t use the passive voice.
I am very gratified when a reviewer says, “This was well crafted, I really liked the language.” That goes right to my heart as an English teacher. When people say, you really fooled me on the mystery, that’s gratifying, too. But if you go online and look at some of the reviews or some of the books, “oh, I guess it in the third chapter who the bad guy.” People want that puzzle-solving quality, too, but also readers want nicely written stuff. I hope.
Sarah Harrison 56:04
Awesome. Well, thank you so much. It has been a delightful conversation.
Gary Braver 56:08
Thank you. I’m delighted you read Rumor of Evil, I’m don’t always get that in an interview.
Carolyn Daughters 56:15
So in this series, we won’t ever find out who killed Kirk’s daughter?
Gary Braver 56:26
I don’t think so. I wanted to make that an open wound. I want that, that loss to be there. That humanizes him. I’m gonna have scenes where they look at pictures of the old days, and they’ve got a new baby, which makes a little bit easier. I don’t think I’ll get that person.
Carolyn Daughters 56:54
I was just curious if that was gonna be something that would come up in a later book. Thank you for being such a lovely guest. The book is Rumor of Evil, which is a great read. I read it literally in two days. It’s a page turner, and we highly recommend it.
Sarah Harrison 57:20
It’s out October 10. And Gary, did you tell me it’s an Amazon selection for October?
Gary Braver 57:26
It was selected just a few days ago by the Amazon editors as one of the best mysteries being released in October, which is, as you know, it’s a really a hot month.
Carolyn Daughters 57:42
Gary Braver 57:44
Thank you, Carolyn.
Sarah Harrison 57:46
Thanks so much, and listeners, until next time, be sure to stay mysterious.
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