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Interview: March 11, 2005

March 11, 2005's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight Team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek) interviewed Jodi Compton, author of SYMPATHY BETWEEN HUMANS. Compton explains how she developed some of the storylines and characters in her second novel, the similarities and differences between her and Sarah Pribek --- her main protagonist --- and the direction in which this series is headed. SYMPATHY BETWEEN HUMANS picks up where THE 37TH HOUR, your debut novel of last year, left off. The new book spins Sarah Pribek in a new direction without major roles on these pages for Shiloh and Genevieve, the supporting characters in THE 37TH HOUR, though their absence haunts the book. What made you choose to set aside the supporting characters that we had come to know?

Jodi Compton: I very much liked the idea of setting Sarah adrift in this lonely atmosphere where she's waiting for the other shoe to drop in the Royce Stewart case and she doesn't have a close friend to lean on. That, in turn, causes her life to intersect with those of strangers she really has little reason to get personally involved with --- Cicero Ruiz and the Hennessy family, first and foremost, but also minor characters like Roz, the K-9 handler she drinks with. I liked the ensemble cast of strangers that fill out this book and all the mutual need in it.

BRC: Cisco Ruiz is an interesting character. The idea of a former physician, clandestinely practicing medicine out of a housing project, drives much of the novel. What was your inspiration for his character?

JC: I wish I had a better answer, but no one really inspired him; he just evolved in my imagination. When I had a first draft of SYMPATHY and re-read what I had, though, I remember thinking, "Whatever else people say about this character, they can't say, 'Oh, the sexy impoverished paraplegic unlicensed physician operating out of a housing project, that's been done to death.' " I think he's my favorite of the characters I've created so far.

BRC: With the Hennessy family, especially the children, you created a distinctive group of characters. They tug at Sarah in many ways and make her ponder her own childlessness. What was your impetus for layering them into the story?

JC: The Hennessy storyline is based on an idea I had for a young adult novel years ago (and partly from an old German fairy tale, which I'll explain later). The YA story was the same in many aspects to what you read in SYMPATHY, but there was no cop in it, just the kids struggling to cope with their father's illness and their runaway brother's suspiciously timed return. It was supposed to be told from the point of view of the Liam character, the young would-be writer. In SYMPATHY, I would have liked to develop the Hennessy kids further, but there were three storylines in the book, and it was getting pretty long, so I cut some material for space.

BRC: Is there a story behind your choice of Marlinchen's name?

JC: Yes, and this is where we come to the fairy tale part. The story incorporates elements of an old German tale called "The Juniper Tree." To explain the parallels, I'd have to give away too much, but there's a boy who's maltreated, to say the least, and a loving, guilt-ridden sister named Marlinchen (the name is a diminutive of the German "Marline"). I changed the juniper tree to a magnolia tree after I saw one in Minnetonka and said exactly what Sarah does: "I thought they wouldn't grow this far north."

BRC: Sarah selectively handles justice in this book, looking one way on Ruiz and another on the Hennessy children. What kind of a statement were you making about Sarah with this?

JC: That she's human, and flawed. I don't think any reader would have been happy with a Sarah who went to Ruiz's apartment one time, got the evidence she needed, and went downstairs and called her lieutenant to say, "I found the unlicensed doctor; let's make an arrest." Sarah realizes that Cicero is trying to help people; she also realizes how easily his fragile life could be smashed. And there's a strong personal attraction, too. That makes for a lot of indecision.

BRC: At the same time Sarah talks about how adults become Authority to children. They will accept an adult's presence and cede to it. Was this something that Sarah needed to experience --- people depending upon her with an almost blind trust?

JC: Maybe. Sarah isn't used to being an authority. She's very accustomed to not having anyone to take care of her; this dates back to her mother's early death and her father's absences and her older brother's abuse. And then Shiloh and Genevieve both abandoned her, in different ways. So she's used to having to look out for herself. But at the same time, she didn't have younger siblings growing up, and she's never had a child. So having these young people look to her as an authority figure, that was something very new to her.

BRC: One of the more interesting and indirectly pivotal characters in SYMPATHY BETWEEN HUMANS appears on only a few pages --- Kenny Olson, the mine security officer and part-time jailer who was influential in Sarah Pribek's career choice of law enforcement. Will Olson's role be expanded in future books?

JC: You liked Kenny? It's always interesting to me which characters resonate with readers. Although Kenny was pivotal in Sarah's choice to become a cop, I never thought anyone would single him out as a potential recurring character. Probably the most notable thing about him is that he's the series' first Olson, which is unrealistic when you're writing about Minnesota. In the Minneapolis white pages there's something like seven pages of Olsons. At any rate, I think Kenny is probably happily retired and fishing on the pit lakes.

BRC: Talk to us about the book's title. When you wrote Ruiz's line where he talks about this, did you know that was the title, or did you have the title before you started the book?

JC: I knew it was the title, even before I knew it was going to be Ruiz's metaphor for sex. I liked it because the word "sympathy" has broad implications. It can mean "compassion," but it can also mean "likeness of feeling, similarity." Sarah finds a lot of that in unexpected places in this book. She finds common ground with Cicero Ruiz, who's on the other side of the law, and also grudgingly admits she has cop traits in common with Gray Diaz, the DA's investigator who thinks she killed Royce Stewart. About him, she thinks, "Under other circumstances, we might have been friends."

BRC: SYMPATHY BETWEEN HUMANS is one of those rare novels that slices easily into and out of genres: part mystery, part suspense, part police procedural. Does this reflect your own reading interests?

JC: This is a terrible thing for a writer to say, but my interests lately lie in not reading much at all. Writing satisfies the fiction itch, and I watch a lot of movies, but I just threw out nearly all my novels. You buy books, shelve them and read them, and what do you get in return? Bad eyesight. Plus, when you move they take forever to pack and weigh a ton.

BRC: Is there a lot of Jodi Compton in Sarah Pribek?

JC: Initially, I conceived Sarah as considerably different from me. She's a risk-taker and physically fearless while I'm very cautious on the verge of cowardice. She takes her coffee black; I pour in an appalling amount of cream. And so on. But the thing is, it's hard to write at length and in the first person about someone without having your personality start to bleed through, like an original color through a new coat of paint. For example, I felt strongly from early on that Sarah, former high school point guard turned cop, would enjoy the structure and the team aspects of police work. But the Sarah who developed on the page was much more of a lone wolf, and she's always in situations that force her to work by herself. And that's me, I guess, because writing is solitary work, and I never played team sports in school … I just didn't have those kinds of experiences to draw on.

BRC: When you are writing, do you make detailed "dossiers" for each character before you begin a novel, or do you flesh out these characters as you write? Has a character ever "taken off" in his or her own direction and surprised you?

JC: I do flesh out characters a great deal, but usually it's in my head over a period of months (or sometimes years). I've never had a character in either of my two books surprise me, because by the time I'm ready to write I know what's going to happen, so the characters are like a cast who's rehearsed a play a hundred times --- everyone knows their marks and their lines. I have some unpublished writing, some of it with recurring, evolving characters, and sometimes these surprise me. Often this has to do with sexuality --- sometimes characters surprise you with their sexual orientation or which other characters they have a good chemistry with.

BRC: In our last interview you were a debut novelist; now you have two published books under your belt. What parts of the writing/publishing process have changed for you since THE 37TH HOUR came out? What advice would you give to a writer whose debut work is soon to be published?

JC: It would vary, depending on the person. Everyone's situation is so different.

BRC: Do you have a set number of Sarah Pribek novels in mind, or do you see this as an open-ended series?

JC: I'm still working that out. I do see her story as having an arc … in terms of the backstory I've laid out for her in both, we're actually moving backward in her life. In THE 37TH HOUR Sarah tells the reader about meeting Shiloh as a rookie; in SYMPATHY she tells about how she decided to become a cop. So we're headed back into her adolescence and childhood, which is going to be some of the darkest material. In a way, I'm not looking forward to it.

BRC: What can you tell us about your current work(s) in progress? When can readers expect your next book to be published?

JC: The third book is giving me considerably more difficulty than the first two, so I don't have a publication date I can give readers. I hope Sarah is well-liked enough by now that people will stand by.