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Interview: January 17, 2003

January 17, 2003

In this interview with's Ann Bruns, author Thomas Perry discusses his latest stand-alone novel, DEAD AIM, and talks about predatory and violent characters. Perry also discusses his past work as a television writer and speaks candidly about a popular topic: having novels adapted for film.

BRC: Although DEAD AIM contains plenty of fast-paced action, it really is one of your most remarkable character driven novels to date. The two chief characters, Robert Mallon and Michael Parish, represent the opposing extremes of morality. Which did you envision first --- the good Samaritan or the twisted psychopath?

TP: Which did I envision first --- Mallon the good Samaritan or Parish the twisted psychopath? It was Mallon, the Samaritan. As often happens, thought, I started with the character already in a scene. What is now Chapter 2 of the book was the first thing I imagined: Mallon seeing the young girl trying to commit suicide, saving her and contemplating for the first time what made her want to do it. Parish, the evil influence, is really part of the answer to that question.

BRC: You often shed the spotlight on the predatory characters like Roy Prescott of PURSUIT and the unforgettable Edgar-winning BUTCHER'S BOY. DEAD AIM has nearly a dozen such characters including Parish, the supporting staff of the Self-Defense School, and several unsavory students. What intrigues you most about those types of characters?

TP: The characters you refer to as predatory and unsavory are useful. They're the ones who make a novel into a thriller. They're active, and most of the common virtues, the signs of a good person, are not. Reading a novel in which all characters illustrate patience, hard work, chastity, and delayed gratification could be a pretty dull experience. What intrigues me most about these "bad" characters is that they're not like us. Their actions aren't restrained or modified by the possibility of guilt or remorse. They think only of expediency, and so their actions have a certain elegance and decisiveness. They're disruptive and scary, what nightmares are made of. But at the same time, the commonplace statement about them is true: every character is the hero of his own story. Each has a justification for his actions that is convincing to him. It's fun to give these people voices.

BRC: Unlike many thriller writers, you avoid any long analytical rambles on the workings of the perverse psyche. Are you self-editing to keep the prose taut or do you just prefer to leave some things open to speculation?

TP: I guess I just gave you my long analytical ramble. Yes, in my books I do edit myself to keep from becoming the Village Explainer. It's important, I think, for a writer of fiction to maintain an awareness of the pace and shape of the book as he's writing it. That is, he should be making an object, not chattering.

BRC: A common perception seems to be that women are less prone to violence, yet Parish and his staff are somewhat reminiscent of the real life Manson Family whose strongest disciples were also the women. Do you believe Mary, Debbie and Emily would have become just as dangerous without Michael's influence? Was there a subtle power struggle brewing between Michael and Mary?

TP: The women in DEAD AIM: I believe, and try to show in this novel, that men and women are very much affected by people they meet, and are often deflected --- taken on strange detours --- by meeting the wrong person. I think each of these women felt that she needed power, and Parish offered them a basic kind of power and a direct, simple path to obtain it. Yes, there is a subtle change coming in Mary's attitude. Parish is primarily a manipulator. Like other people of his sort, he is always in some danger of having his best protegees see that they don't need him anymore and either leave him or challenge him.

BRC: Robert Mallon is a nonviolent, easy-going guy who is eventually driven to vigilante-style justice to survive. Parish's "special clients" exact their form of justice for very different reasons. Is Mallon's rationale more acceptable than theirs? Isn't there an element of vengeance underlying his actions, as well?

TP: Is Mallon's rationale for killing better than the rationales of Parish's clients? I don't settle that question in any authoritative way (I want him to wonder and the reader to wonder) but I think that it is. Parish's clients begin by killing because their victims "deserve it." This, to Parish, is like a hunter saying he kills because the deer deserves it. Parish kills because he wants to, and he admits it. Eventually, most of his clients come around to that view also, and that process is a form of corruption. Mallon is different. He's in immediate danger, and fights because he has learned that life is precious and worth fighting for.

BRC: Given the public's fascination with martial arts, guns and virtual reality everything these days, the exclusive school in DEAD AIM is a frighteningly plausible scenario. Have you heard of any self-defense retreats offering a similar type of experience? (without the extracurricular classes, of course!)

TP: Yes, I have read of a number of schools, camps, and workshops in various parts of the country offering courses in combat shooting, hand-to-hand fighting, etc. Some cater mainly to police officers and military personnel, but also accept civilians. Others are more tuned to amateurs' self-defense needs. It's a growth industry. Presumably, none of them are like Parish's operation.

BRC: Are you finding it harder to maintain a unique voice in a genre that's become so crowded? Are the expectations of the reading public becoming tougher to satisfy, or do you still write mainly for your own enjoyment?

TP: I don't consciously do anything to maintain a unique voice. I do try not to spend much time reading in the suspense genre. Most of my reading is nonfiction, and a lot of it is utilitarian, to find out about something I want to use in a story.

I still write for my own enjoyment. I do have to earn a living, so I'm conscious of probable reactions from readers, but the most important one is still the awareness that if I'm not enjoying a story, the reader won't either.

BRC: You've stated that your books haven't lent themselves to movie scripts in the past because they revolve around solitary characters and are more thought than action. But wouldn't you find it disturbing if they were bastardized to make them acceptable Hollywood fare?

TP: Contrary to what many writers imply about the process, nobody forces a writer to sell his work to the film industry. When I write a book, I'm making it the best book I can. When producers make a film, their responsibility is to make the best film they can, not necessarily to faithfully reproduce my book. You have very accurately described the difficulty of presenting my books on film: many of my characters are alone most of the time, and when they do talk, what they say is mostly lies. That can make for a pretty confusing film.

BRC: Your bio states you have been a television writer and producer. Which productions were you, or are you now, involved with?

TP: On television: My wife Jo and I used to write television as partners. We were on the staffs of: Simon & Simon at Universal, Sidekicks and The Oldest Rookie at Disney, and Snoops at Viacom. We also wrote episodes on a freelance basis for other shows, including 21 Jump Street at Cannell Productions and Star Trek: the Next Generation at Paramount. We enjoyed that part of our lives, liked the experience and the people we worked with. We stopped taking staff positions after our children were born, and have done no television work in the past few years.

BRC: Aside from Jane Whitefield (who you've promised to revisit at some point) are there any other characters that you've considered bringing back in another novel?

TP: I do hope to bring Jane Whitefield back before too long. I've also thought from time to time of bringing other characters back for one more outing, as I did with the Butcher's Boy in SLEEPING DOGS. But I also have the problem that time is finite, and there are so many new stories to tell.

BRC: You have a website and you're doing a more extensive book tour for DEAD AIM than previous books. Any feedback you'd like to share on the response to this new, higher profile Thomas Perry?

TP: Yes, I have a website ( I started the site at the urging of my editor at Random House, Kate Medina, and with the help of Random House people, Allison Heilborn, and Asaf Shakham (who did the design). I probably never would have attempted it myself. But I've found it to be a good idea, and I've enjoyed hearing from the readers who have found it. And yes, I'm also traveling more, not only to promote DEAD AIM, but also on other public appearances. This is partly because I want to make up for not doing it in the past. For much of my career I had real jobs, which required that I show up for work. I also have discovered that it helps me to hear the reactions and questions of readers, who tell me what works and what doesn't. I'm not sure what the reaction will ultimately be to this new higher-profile Thomas Perry, but so far, people have been kind. I guess people like Parish don't come to book signings.

Thanks for doing the interview, and for the good questions.