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Interview: June 9, 2006

June 9, 2006

Daniel Judson, author of the award-winning THE BONE ORCHARD and THE POISONED ROSE, has released THE DARKEST PLACE, his first book in four years. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Judson describes the time he spent living in Southampton, and the impact of its winter landscape on his imagination and unconscious mind. He also discusses the recurring theme of loss in his latest novel, elaborates on his recent career struggles, and reveals how writing from a woman's point of view in an upcoming novel is actually a welcome change from the masculine "Hero's Journey" he's explored in his previous work. You have said that THE DARKEST PLACE is based upon your experience living in the "less photogenic" part of the Hamptons while attending Southampton College. What drew you to write this story and set it there?

Daniel Judson: I wanted to explore the effects of loss, so I set out to design a thriller that was populated with characters who were either motivated by a loss or struggling to recover from it --- loss of a loved one, loss of social standing, loss of self-respect, loss of the will to live a meaningful life --- every kind of loss possible. I had decided early on that every character would have this in common --- the hero and his allies, the villain and his henchman, everyone would be dealing with loss. I figured a story with a theme like that should be set in a very dark place, and there is nowhere darker --- none that I know of, anyway --- than Southampton in the dead of winter. Also, Southampton is surrounded by water --- the Shinnecock Bay and Atlantic Ocean to the south, Peconic Bay to the north, and the Shinnecock Canal to the west. Since the murders that propel the story are deaths by drowning, having water everywhere would just add to the sense of violence closing in on our hero.

BRC: It seems obvious that at least some of the events in THE DARKEST PLACE occurred in some form. Are any of the characters in THE DARKEST PLACE based on anything that happened to you, or do you see yourself more as the omnipresent observer, watching and chronicling what happened to others?

DJ: Kane is me. Or rather, he is who I was when I started this book. Like him, I had two novels published but ran into some bad luck and had trouble writing again. Everything that could fall apart did fall apart, and like him, I had to crawl back to where I had started and begin all over again --- or try to begin all over again. Not a fun time at all.

Clay, too, is who I was then because he is burned out from his job, uncertain if he wants to continue paying the price that comes with being a PI. In my fictional world, this means facing people at their worst or most vulnerable, day in and day out. Like him, I was burned out on writing about violence and murder and mayhem and good people in jeopardy; I wasn't sure if I could do it again, or if I even I wanted to do it again.

And, finally, Miller is me back then as well because he was desperate to prove himself and for a second chance. I had been told that I'd never be published again and simply refused (on a good day) to believe that. I was determined to do whatever it took to get back into print, just like Miller is determined to do whatever it takes to redeem himself.

So basically, these three characters were, at the time I wrote that book, representations of my own ego, superego and id. Kane was my ego/wounded hero, Clay my superego/mentor-figure, Miller my id/foil. The conflicts between the three of them were the conflicts within myself. Of course, the whole point of the book for me is that in the end it took all three characters to solve the crime. With even just one of them out of the picture, the killer would have gotten away.

BRC: The most haunting and enigmatic character for me in THE DARKEST PLACE was the woman we come to know as Colette Auger. Almost anyone who has ever attended a liberal arts college has encountered someone like her. Is there a real-world model for Colette, or is she a combination of several different individuals?

DJ: What a great observation! Really, it pleases me that you got what I was going for with her. Colette is definitely a combination of several different people, some I've actually known, others I've only glimpsed from a safe distance. I'd be very frightened for the world if there was even just one person walking around who was completely, one-hundred percent Colette. In fact, if you notice, she's the only major character in the story not motivated by a loss, and this was done purposely, to elevate her evil just a little bit above all other evil things that go on.

BRC: THE DARKEST PLACE introduces several memorable characters, not all of whom make it to the end of the novel. Do you plan to feature any of them in subsequent novels, as a sequel, or even as a prequel, to THE DARKEST PLACE?

DJ: The book I'm working on now is a stand-alone novel that features Kay Barton, the cop who helps Miller. I believe in promoting from within. Nearly all the other characters are new, though, so you won't have to have read THE DARKEST PLACE to know what's going on. After working exclusively with the Hero's Journey for a number of books, I really wanted to give the Heroine's Journey a try. I maybe shouldn't say this aloud, but I'm enjoying writing from a woman's third-person point of view. The feminine journey is distinct from the masculine journey, and that challenge, that change, is something I really need right now.

BRC: Gregor in THE DARKEST PLACE seemed to me to be almost the reverse image of Mac MacManus from THE BONE ORCHARD and THE POISONED ROSE. Will we see MacManus again in a future novel?

DJ: Edmond Gregor is most certainly a "shadowy reflection" of Mac. That was exactly what I was going for. But is Gregor simply a mirror image of a preexisting character of mine, or is something else going on there? If you read between the lines, and I mean really read between the lines, you might recognize some significant similarities between those two men. Significant similarities. It might help to know that I chose the name Edmond because it means "wealthy protector" --- Gregor came into some money and used it to fund his PI business. And Gregor is a reference to Gregor Samsa from Kafka's THE METAMORPHOSIS, a novel also about change and loss. But the real reason for the name Edmond is that one of its nicknames is Ned, which is the name everyone who knows Gregor calls him. That three-lettered name is a hint in code to what is really going on. The first person to crack that code gets a free copy of the book on CD!

BRC: Your experience living in the Hamptons obviously has had a profound effect upon your work, if not your life. Was there anything that happened there that you can note as being a turning point for you?

DJ: I was a fairly sheltered kid growing up --- the youngest of five, with lots of cousins and aunts and uncles around, my mother's aunt there to help take care of us. Arriving in Southampton at 17 was my first real separation from my family. I suddenly had to interact with total strangers, and that was a big moment in my life, a defining moment. Because it happened out there, I tend to associate that area with that kind of thing, with separation and self-discovery. If you look at my heroes they are all in some way or another separated from their families, and each one gets thrown rather violently into a journey of self-discovery by strangers or outsiders.

I lived in Southampton until I was about 24, first as a student at the college and then later as an aspiring writer and part of the struggling year-round working class. These are impressionable years, to say the least, so to a significant degree my imagination is linked to the East End because that is where I first tried to apply my craft, first attempted to understand the process of taking what you see around you and putting it down on paper in a way that might move someone. For years after leaving Southampton, whenever I dreamed, I would dream of that place --- its landscape, the people I had met, and the things I had done there. And in my dreams, the landscape was always a winter landscape. Always. In a way, Southampton has become my unconscious mind, or part of it, and probably always will be.

BRC: THE DARKEST PLACE reminded me of another classic of suspense fiction, THE LAST GOOD KISS by James Crumley. Both books are grounded in darkness, despair and potential salvation. The reader can see and almost feel the dark storm clouds that hover over both narratives. Has your work been influenced by Crumley, or another author?

DJ: It's funny, I own that book --- I bought it a few years ago because it was recommended to me by someone I trust very much, and who knows me and my work well. I read the first few pages and had to stop only because it was so close to what I was trying to do that I didn't dare let myself see where Crumley would go with it for fear that I wouldn't need to tell my own story once I had read his. This actually happens to me a lot. I started reading Theresa Schwegel's Edgar-winning first novel, OFFICER DOWN, and loved it but had to stop because her protagonist is a female cop who had a relationship with her partner, and my current novel is about a female ex-cop who had an affair with the chief of police. Schwegel is a dear friend of mine, and her writing is excellent, but I didn't want to be influenced, or worse, have my current novel rendered utterly pointless in my own head by her novel. The first thing I'm going to do when my new book is done is go to Amsterdam for two weeks and read both Schwegel's and Crumley's books.

BRC: What authors do you enjoy reading for pleasure?

DJ: I don't get to read as much as I used to. Nowadays, the last thing I want to do after a long day of writing is sit down and read. And since writing seems to only get more difficult, my long days seem to only get longer. But I love Alison Gaylin's two books, HIDE YOUR EYES (Edgar finalist) and YOU KILL ME, and Karen Olson's first novel, SACRED COWS, winner of the Sara Ann Freed Memorial Award. I think Lori Armstrong and Jeff Shelby are writers to watch. Also, I can't wait to get my hands on Marcus Sakey's debut, THE BLADE ITSELF. As for more established writers, I think Donna Leon is great. Henning Mankell, too. James Lee Burke is the father of us all, so I can't forget him. I'm looking forward to Updike's new novel, though when I read him I find myself trying to write like him, and that's just ridiculous. That guy is amazing, a genius. So maybe that needs to wait for Amsterdam, too.

BRC: THE DARKEST PLACE is the first work you've published since you debuted with THE POISONED ROSE and THE BONE ORCHARD four years ago. What has kept you occupied in the interim?

DJ: I had written a third Mac novel called THE GIN PALACE that I couldn't get published. This, among other things, was the bad luck that put me in the frame of mind to write about loss. I had spent 18 years trying to get published, tending bar at night, writing all day --- 18 long years of that. THE BONE ORCHARD was the first novel of mine to get published but was actually the tenth novel I wrote. (I had a long apprenticeship, a mix of bad literary novels and slightly better crime novels. Eventually I started to get good.) But before THE BONE ORCHARD was even in stores --- months before, in fact --- my first publisher and I parted ways. I was told they didn't like THE POISONED ROSE, the second novel of my two-book deal with them, and though it went on to win the Shamus Award a year later, the damage by then was already done. I'd spent a year working on that third Mac book --- which turned out not to be the third book in a series, but really the final book in a trilogy. No publisher wants the third book in a series when they don't have the first two on their backlist, nevermind the final book in a trilogy. It's a matter of policy, and it makes sense, I guess. So, a year to write that book, and a year and a half for it to get turned down by every publisher in New York, not to mention a few outside of New York as well. A number of editors loved the book and wanted it, but were prevented from buying it by their bosses, or so I was told. At that point, by many accounts, my career was over. I'd lost everything for which I had worked my entire adult life. Thus, THE DARKEST PLACE, which took me another year to write and accounts finally for where I've been since 2002. In fact, I owe the good people at St. Martin's a major debt of gratitude --- not only did they buy THE DARKEST PLACE and give me a second chance, but they let me keep my own name. Conventional wisdom held that I could only be published under a pseudonym.

The good news is that my agent and I recently got the rights for my first two Mac books back. Maybe some day, if all goes well, someone will bring those two novels and the unpublished third Mac novel out maybe as a trilogy, like Philip Kerr's BERLIN NOIR or Paul Auster's NEW YORK TRILOGY. Though THE DARKEST PLACE is most definitely a stand-alone, the Mac trilogy could easily be read as its prequel, since a number of the minor characters from the series play roles in THE DARKEST PLACE.

BRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?

DJ: The new book, featuring Barton, is coming along. I like to think of it as a "geographical sequel" --- mostly new characters, but still about the town and the seemingly never-ending struggle for power and justice that goes on there. I think this allows me the best of both worlds --- to create stand-alone thrillers that are still in some small way part of an ongoing series. In the new book, the theme that unites the characters is "crossing the line" --- some have already crossed the line into criminality and are trying to either get away with what they have done or make up for it; and some, Barton in particular, are faced with the choice of crossing the line for the first time or not. Of course, if she crosses the line she might very well save a life, but once you cross the line can you ever really go back? She's an ex-cop, obviously lingering between two worlds, so there's a threshold theme throughout --- doorways, windows, bridges, and so on, like the water theme that ran throughout THE DARKEST PLACE. The story takes place during three days and nights of rain --- I chose that because it's about personal transformation and Jonah remained in the belly of the whale for three days before emerging transformed. Plus, rain of course symbolizes the washing away of sins. If I can get the damn thing done by the end of the summer, it should be out by this time next year or thereabouts.