Interview: January 16, 2004
January 16, 2004
In this interview conducted by Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek, Jodi Compton discusses various elements of her debut novel THE 37th HOUR --- including characters, theme and setting. She also talks about her influences as a writer and offers a preview of her second novel featuring Detective Sarah Pribek.
BRC: THE 37th HOUR is much more than a suspense novel. It is also a novel that moves beyond genre classifications by focusing on two people --- Sarah and Shiloh --- who are flawed and damaged in deep and dangerous ways that neither of them suspects. What was your inspiration for the characterizations of, and the relationship between, Sarah and Shiloh?
JC: With Sarah and Shiloh, I wanted to make people believe in a relationship that is really unsentimental and unconventional. Early in the book, Sarah refers to Shiloh as you son of a bitch. Later, in flashbacks, the reader finds that they met through a one-night stand. There's no roses or candlelight in this marriage; it's an alliance between two soldiers. While I was writing it, I sometimes wondered, am I going too far with this? But I really wanted to make people feel the powerful kinship-between-outsiders that bonds them. I knew I'd succeeded when female early readers weighed in with a lot of anxiety over whether Shiloh would survive the events of THE 37TH HOUR to be featured in upcoming novels.
BRC: We love how you structured THE 37th HOUR --- weaving a lot of background in with the present-day storyline. How much of the "back story" elements did you develop prior to writing the present-day storylines --- and how much of the background details just unfolded "on their own" while you wrote the book?
JC: Much of the backstory about the Sarah-Shiloh courtship comes from a novella I wrote about Sarah, which was a police story with elements of the supernatural that had a very grim ending. So those segments are the oldest archaeological layers of the book. The opening segment, the suicidal teenager on the bridge, came rather late, after first-draft readers said they wanted more time to get to know Sarah before launching into the missing-person's story. It was also, by far, the most research-intensive part about how survivable river suicide attempts are and why people survive when they do.
BRC: Why did you choose to set your novel in Minnesota?
JC: There was never any doubt in my mind that Sarah lived in Minneapolis. Plus, I felt that Sarah was a detective in a big, metro police department, and although I'm Californian, Minneapolis is the only major city I've ever lived in. I have lived in some great Californian beach towns, like Santa Cruz and Ventura. Those are places I hope to use someday, places that are bright and tourist-friendly, but you feel a little undercurrent of noir in the way the palm trees shiver in the fog. But Sarah and Genevieve and Shiloh didn't belong there.
BRC: We understand that you have no law enforcement background. Your writing implies otherwise, as you use appropriate phrasing about what life is like "on the job." How did you research THE 37th HOUR and what did you use as a frame of reference?
JC: Some of that is just legerdemain, making readers think they've seen more than they have. I'd never been in the detective division of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department and I didn't have the time and money to make a research trip, so whenever Sarah's at work, she's just at her desk or on the phone or waiting for the elevator. There's really no spatial detail at all.
In general, the on-the-job stuff is drawn from the kinds of sources that anyone has access to: newspaper and magazine stories and cable-channel documentaries. Particularly documentaries. A lot of people don't like Cops because they think it makes entertainment out of the miseries of the poor and unfortunate, and there's some truth to that. But if you want to see the messy, unscripted, sad mundania that the average patrol officer deals with every day, there's nothing else like it. You're not going to see this stuff on a glossy hour-long network drama about police.
BRC: We appreciate your fleshed-out dialogue and descriptions. We felt that your background as a newspaper copy editor may have influenced your "filling in the story." Was this something you did consciously?
JC: Actually, I think I have a really dry, black-coffee style. I don't do a lot of description; I trust readers to know what a tree looks like. That reductiveness may come from copy editing, where you're always paring down, paring down, paring down. I do a lot of dialogue, though, and that might also be due to newspaper work, where quotes are considered to be the lifeblood of the story. Or maybe I was always going to be this kind of writer. I wish I had more fiction from before my work in journalism to compare before-and-after, but I don't.
BRC: Some writers find they share traits with their characters, while other authors feel they completely separate themselves from the characters they create. What would you say about this statement in relationship to your characters?
JC: Sarah's had a difficult life, and I'd never want to be her, yet there is an element of wish fulfillment in her. We all covet the qualities nature or genetics didn't give us, so I gave them to Sarah, including the near-six-foot height I was predicted to attain in childhood. (I fell short at five-eight). I made her physically fearless and quick to act, in contrast to my own caution. But then, Sarah's not really cerebral --- she wasn't good in school and is not terribly articulate, and I like that. It was important to me that Sarah not be a flawless authorial stand-in.
BRC: "Missing" and "being lost" are metaphors for a lot more than Shiloh's disappearance in this book, and this deepens the storyline. There is so much loss in both of their lives. What made you decide to approach this material in this way?
JC: I didn't really decide it; it just happened. There's a lot of darkness in most things I write; I was just born with a love of shadows.
I think readers consider this book to be dark in comparison with others they've read for two reasons. One, a lot of noir is about male characters, not female. Two, often those noir heroes live in L.A., in a studio apartment under a neon sign and drink whiskey neat and so on. A noir about a young female investigator who lives in Minnesota and is married seems to have caught readers off guard, and I'm sort of pleased about that.
BRC: When Sarah looks for Shiloh she seems emotionally detached. She approaches searching for him as she would a case, gathering details and evidence. She methodically plots and plods along to find him. She never outwardly grieves for him, or portrays his loss as something deeply emotional. Why did you handle her character like this? Do you think this emotional detachment is typical for law enforcement officers who have seen so much?
JC: There's an anecdote from the theater that I really like. A young actress was told that one of the greats of British theater, Houseman or Gielgud or someone, was in the audience. So when she got to her tragic scene, she really laid on the waterworks. Afterward, the great actor came backstage and gave her some advice: If you cry less, the audience will cry more.
I take that approach to writing characters' emotions. Sex, too. I think it's better to have sex somewhat veiled than to go the he-touched-this-she-touched-that route.
BRC: Tell us about your writing influences. What drew you to the suspense/thriller format as a novelist?
JC: I really thought I'd be working in horror and fantasy by now; that's definitely my favorite genre. It was kind of a surprise to me that I had this idea for a cop series growing in my imagination. But it all ties together; if the aforementioned love of shadows didn't lead me to writing horror, it did create a crime novel that people seem to consider bleak.
I'd call Thomas Harris a big influence stylistically. If I've been re-reading BLACK SUNDAY or RED DRAGON, I find myself falling into his rhythms when I write, the sentence fragments and verb-tense jumping that he does. But I'm not saying I write as well as him --- frankly, no one does. And I'm sorry to say that Sarah isn't really smart enough to hang with Dr. Lecter. But Lecter would probably really enjoy messing with Sarah's head. She is, as you've pointed out, damaged.
BRC: We understand that you are currently working on a second novel featuring Sarah Pribek. Given the ending of the first novel, in what direction will you be taking Sarah in the future? And when will readers see it?
JC: They'll see it as soon as possible; I'm just putting the finishing touches on it now. It probably won't surprise anyone that Sarah's life isn't a million laughs in the second book. It has a purgatorial feel, with Sarah isolated and under suspicion at work due to things that happened in THE 37th HOUR. She's waiting for the ax to fall, but not sure it ever will. And she's very much alone. Yet during this time, her life begins to intersect with those of a number of strangers, whom she helps and accepts help from.