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Interview: February 20, 2004

February 20, 2004

In this interview with's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek) Reed Arvin, author of THE LAST GOODBYE, talks about the major themes in his latest book, his decision to write novels after a successful career in the music business and a humorous --- yet slightly embarrassing --- incident that occurred while he was doing research for his next thriller.

BRC: THE LAST GOODBYE is one of the more haunting novels we've read, especially the closing paragraphs. Weeks after finishing THE LAST GOODBYE, we still are thinking about the questions that Jack Hammond asks himself at the end. Did you begin writing THE LAST GOODBYE with those questions in mind? And if so, was there a particular situation or incident that inspired them?

RA: First of all, I'm truly grateful for readers who plug in on the level of your question. I do care very much about telling stories that are both entertaining and somehow aspire to something more, and I'm always thrilled to get questions that show that there are people who have the radar to pick that up.

The truth is, I don't write with particular philosophical questions in mind. But I think about these questions a lot, and it just naturally bubbles up in the writing. When I finish the story, I want to know what it means, just like the readers. Since I don't plan plots out in advance, I'm a reader myself, in a way. So I wonder what it all means, and I hope that there's something true in it.

BRC: In addition to being a novel of suspense, THE LAST GOODBYE is very much a love story about a man who loves the wrong woman for all of the right reasons. The theme of disparate worlds colliding is one that you briefly explored in THE WILL and delve more deeply into with THE LAST GOODBYE. Will this, perhaps, be a recurring theme in your work?

RA: I like that phrase --- "disparate worlds colliding." But lately we're all feeling that the whole world is shifting under our feet, aren't we? There's drama in that, and Jack, as everyman, is simply expressing what we all feel. How do we find our footing in this world that seems to change shapes before our eyes? As far as love affairs go, I can't imagine writing a book without one. It's simply too much fun to explore that side of life. And Jack and Michelle are definitely "disparate worlds colliding."

BRC: THE LAST GOODBYE is not a "typical thriller." It's a mix of the legal, medical and scientific thriller genres. Was this balance something you set out to do?

RA: I think I end up not writing typical legal thrillers because I'm not a lawyer. My characters don't spend much time in courtrooms, for example. But I use a lawyer because that profession is a great entry point into human drama. Once I'm inside the situation, I don't usually like to see things reach their conclusion with a big courtroom scene. THE WILL does that to some extent, but it's still not a true procedural. The scientific content came about for this reason: I was determined to find a crime that was elegant, undetectable and actually possible. I worked with some brilliant research scientists --- every page of the book was vetted for accuracy and plausibility --- and so far, no one has been able to figure the scam out in advance. But readers are smart and always accumulating knowledge from other books, so sooner or later someone will probably see it in advance. In the meantime, it's a heck of a challenge.

BRC: You demonstrate a very savvy, very intimate knowledge of Atlanta in THE LAST GOODBYE. Atlanta in many ways best epitomizes the combination, and collision, of what are referred to as the "Old South" and "New South." Did you take residence there for an extended period of time? And was there any particular reason for you to set THE LAST GOODBYE there?

RA: I spent a lot of time researching Atlanta, because I wanted to get it right. There are a few areas I was hesitant to go to alone, and for that, I enlisted the help of a friend who is more familiar with the ins and outs. I picked Atlanta because of what you say --- it's the epicenter of the New South, and especially for affluent blacks. It was the perfect setting for a black power couple like Michelle and Charles Ralston.

BRC: Your novel, THE WILL, was set (primarily) in a rural area while THE LAST GOODBYE takes place in Atlanta, that most cosmopolitan of cities. You also maintain a residence for at least part of the year in Nashville, a city that combines both the country and the city. Do you have any plans to set a novel in Nashville?

RA: I do --- in fact, the book I'm writing is set in Nashville. It's an interesting place. There's a unique blend of family values, religion and the entertainment industry.

BRC: Jack's friendship and professional relationship with Sammy Liston seems to be one that could be explored further. Is there a chance we'll see Liston in a future title as a main character?

RA: Wow. I honestly had never thought of that. Gets my wheels turning. But if you are asking if we will see Jack and his friends again, I think so. I like Jack enough to want to see what he faces next and how he handles it.

BRC: You have an extensive background in the music business as a performer and a producer. What led you to writing novels? Do you have any immediate plans to do anything further with music in the future?

RA: Writing feels very similar to playing music, with one major difference: writing is always solitary, while music is often a group activity. In making records, you hire musicians who are strong where you are weak. It's like casting a film; you assemble talent who can do wonderful things. But writing is a chance to come to terms with one's silence, and that is a powerful thing. To sit and look at the blank page --- that's asking a different question. I love both. As far as doing more music, I consult with record companies from time to time. But when I think about making records, I feel like I'm looking backwards at my life. When I think about writing, I'm looking forward. So that tells me where to go.

BRC: While many readers are not opera fans, you did a solid, unpatronizing job of explaining this sometimes arcane art. Were you an opera fan prior to beginning THE LAST GOODBYE? Do you have a favorite work?

RA: Your compliment is music to my ears, not to wear out the metaphor. But I know that people who love opera can be very protective of it. The truth is, opera is a mystery to me. Obviously, it's beautiful when it wants to be, and that's enough for me. Anything beautiful is good news in the world. But I'm sort of middle-brow about it: I like the great arias, and the rest of it less so. Sing the song, that's my philosophy. Jack feels the same way, I think: he's probably a little too nuts and bolts to take the complete opera journey, but he's capable of being moved by a great performance.

BRC: Racial and financial status are both major themes in THE LAST GOODBYE. We see these issues raised in the personal and private lives of Jack, Michelle, Charles Ralston and others. Why did you choose to explore these issues the way you did?

RA: As a musician, I've spent a lot of time around black people, very rich people and sometimes both at once. Music is like sports: if you can play, you get in the clubhouse, period. I think that background demystifies both race and wealth for me. Jack is a great expositor of this plain-spoken point of view. He doesn't have time for political correctness. He just takes people as they come, one at a time. I like that. If race problems are ever going to be solved, I doubt it will be because of a class in cultural sensitivity.

As far as wealth goes, money is merely a concentrator. If you're happy and wise already, becoming wealthy can make life enjoyable without knocking you too far off balance. If you're already listing to the side, however, having money can crush you. I will say this: my experience with the music business has taught me that there is a thing more dangerous than money, and that's sycophancy. Having nobody in your life who says "no" is a very dangerous thing. There are very few who can resist always being right.

BRC: Are there any authors who have had a particular influence on you?

RA: I fell in love with great writing about ten minutes after getting out of my last English class in college. For a while, I mostly read classic writers whose work had passed the test of time. You know the names --- the standard biggies. One of the first contemporary writers I read was Le Carre, who opened a new world to me. Nick Hornby, for his unassuming anti-style. A Hornby book is like a living room conversation, and his books probably influenced my decision to write THE LAST GOODBYE in first person. Mark Danielewsky's book HOUSE OF LEAVES actually made me gasp. I simply wasn't aware that what he did was possible in a book. But we all have our gifts, and the thing to do is to use them.

BRC: Can you tell us a little about your first novel, THE WILL, for readers who may not yet have found a copy of the book?

RA: THE WILL plays with one of my favorite themes: the cost of keeping a secret. Think of your most intimate secret --- you obviously know why you don't want it to come out. But what we don't think about as much is the cost of keeping it private. Some secrets actually corrode from the inside, so that the price of keeping them becomes greater than releasing them. That's the nexus of THE WILL.

The richest man in a small town dies unexpectedly, but instead of leaving his wealth and power to his son, he leaves it to an emotionally disturbed man who lives like a bum in a park. He and another woman from his past are carrying around a very corrosive secret. If the disturbed man becomes well enough to be lucid, he will tell what he knows. So the forces who want things to remain secret try to use the woman to keep him crazy.

One problem: the man, in his deranged way, truly loves the woman. So she's slowly ground up in this situation: she can't hurt the man who loves her, but she's terrified of the truth being revealed. She starts to crack, and that's when the heavyweights show up to make sure things go a certain way.

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

RA: I'm currently hard at work on another thriller and I'm probably more excited about it than anything I've written before. I want every book to reach further, even though I run the risk of missing the mark. This one is the story of a prosecutor in Nashville who discovers that he has sent the wrong person to death for a murder and robbery. I've spent months doing research on this, like I did on THE LAST GOODBYE.

Something pretty hilarious happened on this one --- I was at Brushy Mountain Prison, which is a famous penitentiary in east Tennessee. It's very imposing, and the main building is actually built like a castle, out of native stone. Since it's nearly half a mile from the front gates to the castle, I asked if I could drive up rather than park outside and walk. I got approval and slowly drove through this deadly quiet place, up a gravel road, and parked in sight of armed guard towers and the sheer face of the castle. At which point, the horn on my car turned itself on, and would not turn off. No kidding. Full on, horn lock. It's a very loud horn anyway, but in this setting, it was indescribable. Guards came out with looks on their faces that were highly communicative of the fact that this was not acceptable. Finally --- after an agonizing five minutes or so --- a guard got it disconnected. If anyone can tell me what kind of omen this was, I'd be delighted to know. But believe me, until you've been the focus of that kind of highly armed attention, you haven't lived.