Interview: August 28, 2013
Gregg Hurwitz is the critically acclaimed, New York Times and internationally bestselling author of 13 thrillers. His most recent, TELL NO LIES, is a stand-alone title featuring Daniel Brasher, who, after receiving a series of anonymous threats meant for others, finds himself and his loved ones unexpectedly on the radar of a relentless serial killer. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Joe Hartlaub, Hurwitz talks about why he’s drawn to complicated characters like Brasher, and the one morally resonant question that served as the jumping-off point for the entire plot. He also discusses what it really means when people talk about “place as character” and how that played out in his choice to set TELL NO LIES in San Francisco --- as well as a few theories as to why the city historically has been the site of so many serial murders.
Bookreporter.com: TELL NO LIES combines the best elements of a mystery and thriller work. In fact, I read it from cover to cover in one night --- something that I am not physically able to do as often as I would like. What can you tell us about the genesis of this story? What inspired it?
Gregg Hurwitz: The genesis for this one was the question of what someone would do if he received a death threat in the mail...intended for someone else. What if you became privy to deadlines that were literally life or death?
BRC: As I was reading, my first thought was that I wished Alfred Hitchcock was still alive to produce the film version. The narrative has a very cinematic feel to it, more so than any of your other books. You have written a number of screenplays. How did that writing influence TELL NO LIES?
GH: Well, novels function very differently from screenplays. You can't write a fleshed-out script as a book and expect readers not to notice. That said, I do draw a huge amount of inspiration from movies, and from Hitchcock in particular. TELL NO LIES is my homage to Vertigo --- not directly in terms of plotting, but in terms of the way the city itself mirrors the psychological suspense.
BRC: The book is set in San Francisco, which plays a strong supporting role. You indicate in your Acknowledgements that you were born there but had not previously used it as a setting for your novels. Is there any particular reason why you haven’t used San Francisco as a narrative backdrop until now? Or, to ask the same question another way, why did you decide to drop the characters and story of TELL NO LIES into San Francisco?
GH: People talk about place as character. And that’s always a little vague. But I think a place serves as a character when you have a story that could only take place there. And I had a scenario flirting with me that dealt with class and race, which function differently in San Francisco than anywhere else. And as this notion evolved, I realized TELL NO LIES was finally the story that would take me home.
BRC: This is my favorite book of yours to date, partly because you take some chances. The opening is relatively quiet, but the suspense builds quietly while a couple of different puzzles --- particularly in Chapter Two --- are introduced. By page 50, all hell has broken loose, and anyone with a pulse will keep reading to find out what happens next. Why did you decide to defy the conventional wisdom and delay the explosions and big opener for a bit?
GH: I thought it was essential for me to ground this tale of the City in real characters --- to find them in their real lives. And then I turn up the temperature on them, one degree at a time, until it becomes (I hope) almost unbearable. It's a different way to lure a reader into turning those pages, but a lot of fun to construct.
BRC: Daniel Brasher is an interesting character, about whom a great number of readers will be interested in reading and learning. Tell us how you came to write him.
GH: His mother, the infamous Evelyn Brasher, asks him, "Just once can't you take the easy way?" I love characters like Daniel --- who could skate through life but choose not to. Daniel has a number of experiences that cause him to switch tracks hard, from managing his family's (giant) financial portfolio to working as a therapist for violent recently paroled offenders. He loves the adrenaline, challenge and suspense of this new job. I suppose he's like me that way --- a bit of an adrenaline junkie.
BRC: I lived in San Francisco in 1973 when there were two sets of killings taking place. One was the work of someone dubbed “The Sunday Stripper” by the media, due to his or her penchant for murdering women and leaving them stripped naked in vacant lots on successive Sundays. Another was the Zebra Murders, a series of racially motivated random killings. The most famous of all, however, was the Zodiac Killer, who was never apprehended. While every area has its share of chilling murders, San Francisco seems to be in a class of its own, which makes the murders in TELL NO LIES all the more believable. Do you have a theory as to why this might be?
GH: It's a city of drifters and runaways. And it's always been something of a sanctuary city, accepting everyone with open arms. When that happens, there's bound to be some trouble. I also have a theory that the labyrinthine nature of the streets themselves mirror the dark recesses of the human psyche, but that would be too pretentious for me to --- oops!
BRC: Let’s pretend that you and I are in San Francisco, and you’re going to take me to your three favorite places that are also featured in your novel. Where would we be going? And why do you favor those places?
GH: The Top of the Mark for the 100 Martini Menu (hi Vertigo!).
Chinatown to disappear into another world.
The St. Francis Hotel, the Grand Dame of Union Square, for its old-school charms.
BRC: On a somewhat related note, you acknowledge the help of several people in serving as guides to the nooks and crannies of the city. How did you go about finding them? What did they think of the project? And do you plan on setting another book in San Francisco anytime soon?
GH: For every book, I need my consultants --- cops and social workers, longtime natives and chefs. I always want to write about the less obvious corners of a place, to give readers the scents and sights they wouldn't ordinarily come across, but that still ring true as belonging to that place.
BRC: It seems as if I am seeing your name mentioned more and more lately in connection with graphic novels and episodic sequential art stories --- popularly known as comic books --- though you’ve been active in that medium for several years. In fact, there are congratulations due for hitting the New York Times list at #2 with David Finch for BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT: CYCLE OF VIOLENCE. Has your work with sequential art changed the way you write textual novels, or vice versa? And how does it affect the way you schedule your writing time?
GH: I've always been a fairly visual writer, and graphic novels require much to be seen rather than spoken. There's a tightness to structure and pace that is always helpful. I wouldn't say it has a direct effect, but the more time spent writing, the more one learns. And one can learn different strategies and techniques from different forms, which can be applied across the boards. As for my writing time --- it feels like it's 24/7 right now!
BRC: You’ve been successful writing in several areas: novels, graphic novels and screenplays. Are there any professional goals left that you hope to attain?
GH: Writing everything better.
BRC: You have reached a development deal with TNT/Sony concerning your Tim Rackley books. What can you tell us about that?
GH: Still steering that one through, but will have more big news on the TV front to announce soon.
BRC: Do you have any more Rackley books planned for the foreseeable future? And which do you prefer writing: books that are part of a series or stand-alone works? Do you find any advantages or disadvantages to writing either?
GH: I love both --- lately it's been a lot of fun playing in the stand-alone sandbox. I can pick a character up and drop him or her off wherever I please with no concern for the future! But I'm getting an itch to write a series again...nothing planned yet, but we'll see.
BRC: It seems as though you must be working on different projects non-stop, but I assume that you still make time to read. What have you read in the past six months that you would care to recommend to our readers?
GH: Peter Temple’s THE BROKEN SHORE. Sweeping and human and lovely and chilling and beautiful.
BRC: What are you working on now, in the areas of novels, graphic novels and scripts? What can we expect to see from you next?
GH: Right now, it's all TELL NO LIES all the time!
More BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT.
A movie I worked on is in the editing stage, and I hope to have more news on it soon.
TV news soon (I hope).
Working away on another novel that is the fastest paced thing I've ever written. Oh --- and it takes place in the jungle. And it's my first female protagonist.