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Interview: November 6, 2009

November 6, 2009

Craig Larsen's debut novel, MANIA, is a suspense thriller that follows a troubled newspaper photographer who must face his own demons as he tracks the serial killer responsible for his brother's death. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Larsen explains the concept that prompted him to write this novel and elaborates on some of the psychological elements that infuse the story. He also discusses the complex sibling relationship central to the main character's struggles, describes how aspects of the plot were written to challenge readers' fundamental ideas of right and wrong, and shares advice for aspiring writers.

Please note: This interview contains slight spoilers. If you haven't read MANIA yet, you may want to proceed with caution as some plot details are revealed in this interview. MANIA, your debut thriller, is one of the most atmospheric novels I have read this year. Nick Wilder, your protagonist, is a freelance Seattle newspaper photographer. He is good at what he does, but “troubled” does not even begin to describe him. He is almost destitute, plagued by memory lapses and hallucinations, and seemingly destined to be forever in the shadow of his older brother. He seems to function within a constant fever dream. Then he meets the girl of his dreams, and things get worse. He is linked to a serial killer dubbed the Street Butcher, and thought by some to be one and the same with him. What was your inspiration for his story?

Craig Larsen: Challenging question! It seems to have two parts. The first is not altogether articulated, but to some extent you answer the question yourself: How does the dark atmosphere contribute to the novel's plot? Some writers say that the location is another character in the novel. I see it a little more broadly than that. The entire novel is nothing more --- nor less --- than a tapestry, made of words and chunks of language. MANIA is indeed a very dark story. What I am describing is the inner working of an increasingly troubled mind. Internal to the novel, the setting reflects Nick's distress. From my perspective, as a writer, the setting is a tool I am able to use to describe Nick's turmoil.

As for the inspiration, I suppose the creative spark I first had, which I then went on to develop, was to create a situation where first the reader, then Nick himself, couldn't trust his vision of the world. What if you were to come home at night and find that your house smelled slightly of cigarette smoke? You don't smoke. An intruder must have come inside your house. You search the house, no one is there, there is no sign of any entry. Only later, as you are brushing your teeth, do you discover the lingering taste of tobacco in your own mouth. This is the type of chilling recognition I wanted to play with as I set out to write the story.

BRC: There is a troubled, brooding air to Wilder in particular, and MANIA in general, that is extremely impressive. Where does that come from? Is there any of you in Nick Wilder?

CL: You know what is interesting about Nick's dilemma? As the story progresses, Nick begins to recognize that he may indeed be the murderer. As I writer, I suppose I have to face the same questions. Who am I in the book? I cannot choose just to be Nick now, can I? The frightening aspect of writing a book like this is that I have to admit that I am as much Jackson Ferry as I am Nick Wilder. They are both elements of my mind.

BRC: Sara Garland is the girl of Nick Wilder’s --- of any man’s --- dreams. Intelligent, beautiful and supportive (did I mention wealthy?), Garland’s meeting with Wilder in a Starbucks has an almost fairy tale-like quality to it, which leaves the reader wondering through almost the entire book what Garland could possibly see in the marginally employed, hygienically-challenged Wilder. Garland, as a result, is one of the more enigmatic characters in the entire book. How did you conceive her? Is she modeled, at least to some extent, after someone from your past, or your present?

CL: That would be telling! Why does Sara's attractiveness make her less inclined to find Nick attractive? Is attraction a relative force? I don't think so. Nick is an enigmatic, charismatic man. And Sara's beauty may be as much an element of Nick's mania as Seattle's darkness. In other words, to some extent --- as with the darkness of the setting --- Sara's beauty is fundamentally a part of the story's tapestry.

BRC: Seattle Police Detective Adam Stolie was another of MANIA’s more interesting characters. Despite the fact that Wilder somehow fortuitously turns up at the scene of the Street Butcher’s crimes, with evidence pointing to Wilder as the murderer, Stolie proclaims throughout the book his belief in Wilder’s innocence. At what point while writing MANIA did you conceive of the Stolie character?

CL: A reader wants and sometimes needs a piece of something buoyant and safe to hold onto. I conceived of Stolie as a relatively static character in a fairly fluid world. What makes MANIA fun, though, I think at least, is how the rules keep changing throughout the book.

BRC: On a contrasting note, Lieutenant Dombrowski of the Seattle Police, who is Stolie’s superior, is certain that Wilder is the Street Butcher and would arrest him at any point in the book but for Stolie’s persuasion. This sets up an intriguing conflict with an interesting resolution at the novel’s conclusion. How did you go about developing the relationship between Dombrowski and Stolie while writing MANIA?

CL: Point and counterpoint. Nick needed an ally. The story needed to give him an enemy. Neither is a very deep character on their own. But together they give "the police" some complexity.

BRC: The other significant relationship in Nick Wilder’s life is the one that he shares with Sam, his older brother. Relationships between brothers can be complicated, though few are as intricate as Nick and Sam’s, which is ultimately responsible for a good deal of what occurs in MANIA. Nick feels that Sam is supportive of him, but he also recalls memories --- or are they hallucinations? --- where Sam was anything but a loving brother. One might think that you have issues with your own brother, yet the book contains what appears to be a heartfelt dedication to him. What, or who, inspired your presentation of the relationship between Nick and Sam?

CL: To me, this is the heart of the novel. What I set out to write --- apart from a page- turning, structured novel --- is the story of a younger brother seeking to find his own identity, as he steps from his older brother's shadow. Relationships between brothers can be very complicated, with many different layers and levels of feeling. Love can be tinged with jealousy. Care can mask a desire to dominate. Growing up, my older brother was my best friend. My brother did try to protect me, but there were times when he wasn't himself and wasn't big enough to make sense of certain situations. There were times when I needed to return the favor but was too afraid; times when he should have let me go but ended up wanting to hold me back; times when we both had eyes for the same piece of fruit. On one level, Nick and Sam act out many of these conflicting emotions. As I see the story, Nick indeed must "kill" Sam in order to find his own identity and to find love. In a book, this symbolic struggle becomes a literal one. That is what makes this such a powerful story. There is something primal in the relationship that readers recognize and share.

BRC: Throughout MANIA, Nick is plagued by instances of repressed memory of events that, when they resurface to his conscience, are indistinguishable from hallucinations. As a result, he often is not even sure if he is indeed the Street Butcher. Repressed memory continues to be a controversial topic. Where do you stand on the subject? Is repressed memory real, or is it something else, something more voluntary, more conscious and deliberate?

CL: Well, honestly, I am writing a story, nothing more. I can pick and choose what images to throw the reader's way. As a matter of fact, though, I have known a few people suffering from schizophrenia. And I understand how powerful the mind can be. We think of vision as something concrete. We are "seeing" something real. The truth is, though, that our brains are processing everything we see --- and processing it through a lens of memories and emotions. For example, if we see a mother hit a child, we might imagine her face twisted with anger. When we find out, though, that she was slapping a small container of rat poison out of the child's hand, reacting instinctively to save the kid, we might suddenly see the panic in her expression rather than the malice. Even the most rational mind cannot be objective. And there is no such thing as an entirely rational mind. The more extreme the situation, the more a person's mind may alter "reality" to keep a person safe.

BRC: The heart of MANIA ultimately concerns the hunt for a serial killer. Why do you think people remain so fascinated by serial killers? And what is at the heart of your own interest in serial killers as a subject matter for the book?

CL: I don't actually see this as a "serial killer" book! To answer your question, though, there are fundamentally two different types of murder ---a rational murder, committed to further a specific purpose, and an irrational murder, committed because the killer steps outside the bounds of the Ten Commandments. Both types of murder can make for interesting stories. I think what makes the irrational murder so interesting, though, is that first, it forces us out from our Garden of Eden into a world where we have to redefine morality, and second, it constitutes a breach of what is the most significant Commandment. The reason I find a book like MANIA interesting is that it forces me to answer the question, what is right and what is wrong --- not based on what is legal or what is proscribed. Was Nick justified in killing his brother --- if in fact he did?

BRC: One of the secondary plot elements of MANIA concerns the issue of homeless street people. If you had unlimited power, what would you do? Or is this one of those problems that simply cannot be resolved?

CL: Again, the compelling aspect of homelessness is that it forces us to ask fundamental questions. If you have no home at all and find yourself starving on the street, what prevents you from taking what you need from someone else? The law? And to some extent --- in an allegorical way --- we are all homeless. So turn the question around. If you are clinging to some small vestige of a home, what is to prevent another man in the street from wresting it away from you? MANIA plays upon this primal fear we all have.

BRC: Your childhood was a bit different from the norm, but very interesting, given that you spent a significant portion of it in Ghana in West Africa. Was it difficult to find English language books there? What about books in general? Were bookstores and libraries easily accessible, practically non-existent, or somewhere in between?

CL: At the time, Ghana had just gained its independence from Britain. Its school system was British, and the official language was English. I received a very strict British education. In fact, even though I skipped kindergarten and went into first grade when my family first arrived in Ghana, when I returned to the U.S. a couple of years later, I skipped another grade again. I ended up graduating from school when I was 16.

In Ghana, my mother read stories to us every night. We didn't have TV, and one of my earliest memories is lying next to my mother in bed and listening to her read from THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER and HUCKLEBERRY FINN and even Ghanaian authors. Myself, I lived and breathed the Tintin stories. Looking back, I think they were a huge influence on me.

BRC: You have mentioned elsewhere that the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had a particular influence upon you. What elements of the Holmes tales do you find to be interesting? And what other books and/or authors have influenced your work?

CL: I suppose what interested me as a child about the stories was how structured they were. Doyle always supplied the clues, but you would have to be impossibly smart or lucky to figure out the mysteries. As I grew older, what interested me was Sherlock himself. In the end, his brilliance is his weakness.

BRC: As 2009 draws to a close, what were your five favorite books of any genre that you read this year?

CL: I enjoyed Tana French's IN THE WOODS, Stieg Larsson's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, Stephen King's SALEM'S LOT, Audrey Niffenegger's THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE, and I reread Harlan Coben's TELL NO ONE. But to tell the truth, when I am writing --- which I have been quite steadily this last year --- I find it counterproductive to read. I like to keep my own "voice" clear in my mind.

BRC: What sort of writing schedule do you have? Do you follow it consistently, or is it an occasional work in progress? Do you have any trouble with writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?

CL: I try to write consistently, though I do tend to take a bit of time off after finishing a novel. Basically, I wake up early, write for a few hours, run, take care of whatever business I have to take care of, then write again in the evening as long as I have the energy to keep going. So far, knock on wood, no writer's block.

BRC: Looking at your own career, what advice would you give to prospective authors? Is there any particular thing you did concerning your career that you now regret? Conversely, is there anything in particular that you are happy you did?

CL: I think I should wait to answer this question, until I have a platform worthy enough to stand on. What I will relate to you is this. About three years ago, it occurred to me to sit down and to write a book that other people would want to read for entertainment. I had spent my life writing, but always self-indulgent books, or books I wanted to write for whatever reason, not necessarily to be read. Ha! --- I probably do share some of Nick's mania! Once I really made up my mind to craft an entertaining, compelling book, though, I didn't stop until I achieved the vision. So what I would say to anyone out there who wants to get published is simply that, if you really want to do it, you will find a way. It takes determination and it takes follow-through. Develop a thick skin. Have faith. And then sit down and actually do it.

BRC: What are you working on now? Do you have any long-range plans to write a series, or are you planning to concentrate on stand-alone novels?

CL: I have finished my second book for Kensington, and I am working now on a third. I don't think I will write a series. I see each set of characters as a whole. They are playing out something complete in each novel. Carrying them into another one doesn't feel right to me. But having said that, I can definitely see the beauty of creating characters with the depth to continue from one story to the next.

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