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Interview: December 10, 2010

C. E. Lawrence is a performer, playwright, and the author of the pulse-racing thriller SILENT VICTIM, which follows NYPD profiler Lee Campbell as he tries to track down an elusive and cold-blooded killer and stop him before he falls prey to his twisted crimes. In this interview with’s Joe Hartlaub, Lawrence gives the scoop on her second novel, shedding light on how she was able to create such a terrifying and compelling serial killer and why she chose to juxtapose the grimy streets of New York City with the resort towns of south and central New Jersey. She also speculates on the most important psychological development of the 21st century and talks about a few of her forthcoming projects, including her plans for the rest of what promises to be an unforgettable series. SILENT VICTIM is your second novel featuring NYPD profiler Lee Campbell, who is certainly one of the more interesting fictional characters I have encountered this year. He cuts a tragic figure, given that his father abandoned the family and his sister has suddenly disappeared, so loss is a recurring theme both in his life and in the cases to which he is assigned. In SILENT VICTIM, he is confronted with a case dealing with Caleb, a very different kind of serial killer, whose actions ultimately intersect with Campbell’s past. How did you go about creating Caleb? When you began writing the book, did you start with him, end with him, or did he show up somewhere in between?

C. E. Lawrence: Thank you for your kind comments. I guess Caleb showed up somewhere in between. Early on, I wrote an opening description of the first two victims, both of whom were men. I liked it so much that I decided to go about molding a killer who was capable of those crimes.

Since he kills both men and women, I had some work to do --- most serial offenders don’t prey on both genders, and if they do, it’s likely that they’ll target couples (like Son of Sam, for instance, or the Monster of Florence). So I had to find a convincing backstory for Caleb, which evolved as I went along.

BRC: Your supporting characters and their interactions with each other provide some interesting counterpoints to the overall grimness of the proceedings. Everyone has secrets, from the edgy undercurrent between Campbell and his ex-girlfriend --- the wife of Chuck Morton, an NYPD homicide detective and Campbell’s best friend --- to the enigmatic and exotic Detective Elena Krieger, whose impulsiveness gets her in terrible trouble. Will these relationships develop further as the series progresses? And do you have any more intriguing characters waiting in the wings?

CEL: Yes, I hope to expand all of these relationships as I go. Susan Morton is real trouble, and she’ll figure prominently in the next book. Krieger nearly bit the dust in this book, but my editor Michaela Hamilton talked me out of killing her off. I’m glad I kept her alive, because I hope to have some fun with her in the future. I’ve brought a couple of new characters into the picture in the next book, SILENT KILLS.

I want to expand the multi-cultural aspect of the cast as well, so I’m looking to bring in an Asian detective who works the Chinatown beat --- an old friend of Lee’s from John Jay College. I have a Chinese friend I’m going to be leaning on hard for research there, I think --- it’s a challenge to write from another cultural perspective. Also, I love any excuse to hang out at Grand Sichuan, my favorite Chinese restaurant.

BRC: One of the more interesting elements of SILENT VICTIM is the manner in which you compare and contrast two areas that are relatively close together geographically, but are worlds apart from each other in spirit. While most of the murders take place on the gritty streets and in the bars of New York, the trail of clues that Campbell and the NYPD follow leads to the deceptively peaceful resort towns that are sprinkled throughout central and south Jersey. What inspired you to feature these two very different areas as settings in the book?

CEL: A favorite aunt of mine lived in the Delaware Valley, and so I grew up visiting that area. It’s a fascinating part of Jersey, full of history and great beauty, so I decided to have Lee grow up there. I lived in Monclair for about seven years after college, so I know north Jersey quite well, too. I feel a little protective of Jersey --- it really is quite a wonderful state, much maligned, I’m afraid, by comedians and out-of-towners. New York is my home now, so it was a natural choice for the main setting. I find it hard to write about places unless I know them pretty well, and though I’ve traveled a lot, I’ve seen few places richer or more fascinating than this city. The possibilities here feel endless; they really do.

BRC: I was intrigued by the Celtic symbol of the Green Man, which was present throughout SILENT VICTIM and indirectly led to the solution of the string of murders. I particularly enjoyed the irony of it, given that the Green Man is associated with spring and summer --- times of life, of renewal --- yet it symbolized something quite different in the book. Why did you pick the Green Man as a recurring element?

CEL: I came across it during my Fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland. I visited the famed Rosslyn Chapel, which was about two miles away. You could go by the bike trail or through the glen, which was trickier, because it meant fording the River Esk, and it was winter when I was there. I decided not to wade across after I heard one of the grizzled Scottish caretakers talking about “the time one o’ the writers slid down the cliff an’ broke her leg…had to get a winch to drag her out.” Ouch. I took the bike path.

Rosslyn Chapel has over 100 sculptures of the Green Man --- the most of any medieval chapel in Europe. They struck me at the time as creepy, and still do --- a kind of nightmarish vision of fertility, of Nature running out of control. And to some extent, that’s what a serial murderer is: someone whose dark urges have spun out of control.

BRC: Since I’m not a resident of New York, I’m unfamiliar with the Spuyten Duyvil (“Whirlpool of the Devil”) area of the Bronx that figures so prominently in the murders that are committed in SILENT VICTIM. What is it about the area that attracted you to such an extent that you used it as setting for your novel?

CEL: I just love places --- the weirder the better. I’ve always loved the fact that Spuyten Duyvil is this wonderful whirlpool of currents at the top of Manhattan; I’ve passed by it so many times on my way up the Hudson. And I love that it still has its Dutch name --- it’s thrilling for me to come across remnants of this island’s long and turbulent history. And the Columbia University boathouse really is perched right there on the northern tip of Manhattan --- a wonderful setting!

BRC: One of the most intriguing elements of SILENT VICTIM is the anonymous individual who harasses Campbell about his missing sister. Where is this going? Have you written the final revelation of the caller? If so, when will you share it with your readers?

CEL: I have to be quite honest and tell you that I haven’t written it yet. But my readers will be the first to know, I promise! Another favorite aunt of mine, to whom I have dedicated SILENT VICTIM, has declared that if I don’t solve it in the next book, “I can forget about her as a fan.” So I guess I’m on notice…

BRC: The concept of repressed memory plays an important role in the main plot. Based on your education and research in the field of psychology, is repressed memory legitimate, a fraud or somewhere in between?

CEL: Repressed memory is a complicated and controversial phenomenon, and there haven’t been enough studies to conclusively determine its existence or criteria. Certainly the brain is capable of some amazing mental gymnastics under extreme trauma, including the rare (but real) dissociative or “split” personality. Repressed (or recovered) memory has been used illegitimately by defendants in criminal trials to make false claims or excuse criminal actions, which has only hurt its credibility.

And, as you probably know, expert witnesses can disagree completely on the witness stand as to the truth of these claims! Memory is a tricky concept in any context --- under the right conditions, people can have “memories” of anything from past lives to alien abductions. Well-meaning therapists can inadvertently “guide” their patients toward having certain experiences, without ever being consciously aware of it. But I think there are enough studies indicating that repressed memory is likely real, at least in some cases.

BRC: It is almost impossible to tell a story about a serial murderer without having a psychologist in it, given that the primary question people ask when confronted with such a story is why someone would do such a thing. A psychologist provides the answer, or at least attempts to do so. In your opinion, what is the most important psychological tool that has been developed in the past decade to help answer this intriguing and perplexing question?

CEL: We owe so much to the original members of the FBI’s famed BSU (Behavior Science Unit) –-- men like John Douglas, Robert Ressler, Gregg McCrary and others. They were real pioneers in what was then an uncharted area of criminology. I think the four categories of serial offenders that Richard Walter has developed are extremely useful. Michael Capuzzo writes about them eloquently in his excellent book, THE MURDER ROOM: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases, his history of the Vicdoq Society, of which Richard Walter was one of the three co-founders.

Walter’s classifications are a useful refinement to the organized/disorganized dichotomy the original profilers came up with. (Though most offenders are probably some combination of the two, the classification is still useful, I think.) There have been other important advances, such as geographical profiling --- there’s actually a geographical offender profile software program now!

BRC: Almost all writers have been influenced --- either in their career, style or both --- by other writers. Which authors have influenced you?

CEL: What a loaded question. We could be here all day. I’m not going to mention other current thriller writers, not because I don’t admire them --- I do, very much --- but because I’m terrified I’ll leave someone out by mistake.

My heroes include Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann and Fyodor Dostoyevsky --- they all know quite a lot about the darkness of the human soul. Also Kate Chopin (such a brave writer!), P.D. James and Donna Tartt. I loved THE SECRET HISTORY --- what a great premise! It’s not a whodunit, but a whydunit! But my reading is all over the map. When I was 14, I read A DEATH IN THE FAMILY by James Agee and The Lord of the Rings. My sister and I named our puppies after Tolkien’s characters. I read THE SUN ALSO RISES three times, THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN eight times and THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER 11 times. I had a lot more time for reading when I was a kid…Vickie Baum’s GRAND HOTEL still stands as one of the great novels of all time, in my opinion.

I have a soft spot for the writers I think of as the American gothics –-- Hawthorne, Melville and Poe. Bartleby, the Scrivener still blows me away. I love the Russians; they’re so soulful. Besides Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, I adore Chekhov and Pushkin, and Gogol and Lermontov, who died young in a duel (so romantic) and only wrote one novel.

I double-majored in German at Duke, so I read Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll and Bertolt Brecht in German –-- love those guys! (I cheated with Goethe; I read “Faust” in the English translation. Don’t tell anyone.) Böll is so ironic and witty --- I read most of his major novels. And I went through a huge Brecht phase; when I was 19, I was in a production of “The Threepenny Opera” at Williamstown Theatre, starring Raul Julia and Austin Pendleton. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

The Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt is fantastic --- he wrote a brilliant and dark detective novella called The Judge and His Hangman, which I also read in German. The protagonist, Inspector Barlach, is dying of cancer and has to find out who murdered his best policeman. It’s an amazing story, and it has stayed with me all these years. He was also a playwright, and his “Der Besuch der alten Dame” (usually translated as “The Visit”) is one of the darkest things I’ve ever read. He’s fearless.

Since we’re talking playwrights, I have to throw in the Man himself, though I admire him more as a poet than a playwright. “The Merry Wives of Windsor” should never see the light of day. But who can not be influenced by him? Other playwrights I totally admire are Wilde, Mamet, Stoppard, Frayn and Kushner. I couldn’t have written my physics play, “Strings,” if I hadn’t seen Frayn’s “Copenhagen.”And there are a lot of other fine playwrights making names for themselves right now. Just last week I saw three really excellent new plays.

As for other poets, I love the English romantics, but my favorite dead poets are T.S. Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke and W.B. Yeats. Edna St. Vincent Millay is good, too, and my favorite living poet is Mary Oliver.

These days I read tons of nonfiction, and I just love Sebastian Junger, Bill Bryson and Atul Gawande, among so many others. Told you we’d be here all day.

BRC: You are a suspense writer, as well as an actor and a playwright. What do you like about working in these mediums? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of working in each?

CEL: I think theatre training has helped me to see into people who are different from me --- at least, I hope so. When you’re an actor, you have to wait for other people to tell you when you’re allowed to work, whereas you can always write. That’s much better for control freaks like me.

I did a lot of comedy improv for a living, which is like the perfect love child of writing and acting. A lot of my improv buddies are writers --- Chris Grabenstein, for instance. We met doing comedy improv in a basement theatre on Bond Street many years ago, and I still remember how funny he was on stage --- some of his characters seemed right out of Dr. Seuss. We all like creating the story as we go.

I love playwriting because that’s where I started --- writing sketches as a kid, and making my cousins and siblings act in them. I bribed them with pastel mints --- those little, colored, pillow-shaped candies. My productions always involved mints in some way or another. And bed sheets. The curtain was always a flannel bed sheet thrown over a clothesline. My parents were great --- they loved everything we did. If only all audiences could be like them…

Playwriting allows you to do things with language that no other medium does. It’s all about the spoken word, and you can use heightened speech, but you have to be careful because it still has to go through the mouths of actors. As an actor, I know what a clunky line of dialogue feels like --- it’s hard to make it work.

Theatre is exciting because it’s a collaborative process. As a playwright, it’s a humbling experience to see what really fine actors can do with your material. When I wrote “Strings,” which is essentially about quantum physics, I don’t think I believed any actor would really want to learn complicated lines about quarks and M-theory. But to my delight, I was lucky enough to work with a magnificently gifted cast that included Keir Dullea, Mia Dillon and Warren Kelley. Not only were they willing to do the lines, they also gave me wonderful feedback during rehearsal to improve what I already had. I rewrote the script until three days before opening. It was exhausting, challenging and utterly thrilling.

What I like about writing books is that they’re just the opposite --- I have total control! Mwahaha…of course, I always do whatever my editor tells me to do, so even there, control is illusory (sigh).

BRC: On a related note, if you weren’t writing or acting, what do you see yourself doing for a living?

CEL: Playing piano and singing in a dive bar. Seriously, I love music --- writing, singing, playing --- as much as anything in the world, and I’d love to have more time for that. I’m working up a cocktail piano repertoire, so if you know of anyone who needs someone to play for a party, give them my number. I do all the standards, with a little Bach thrown in for good measure.

BRC: One of the most important strengths for a writer to possess is the ability to get a schedule and stick to it. What is your schedule like? Have you modified it since you started your writing career? If so, how?

CEL: I do my best work in the evening; I’m a night owl. I guess that’s always been true. At the castle, I had to creep around late at night so as not to disturb the poets, bless them, who were up with the birds…though I can write during the day if I’m on deadline! In fact, I can write on the subway if I have to.

BRC: What have you read in the last six months that you would recommend to our readers?

CEL: I just finished THE MURDER ROOM: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases, by Michael Capuzzo. Talk about a page-turner! I could hardly put it down. I’m almost done with THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi, a compelling account of a real-life Italian serial killer. Before that I read COD: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky, and SHUTTER ISLAND by Dennis Lehane. (My editor told me I had to read the book before seeing the movie, and I always do what she tells me.)

BRC: What are you working on now? Will we see another Lee Campbell novel from you in the near future? And do you have plans for another series, or perhaps a stand-alone novel?

CEL: I just finished the third book in the Lee Campbell series, SILENT KILLS, as well as a short story, “Silent Justice,” to submit for an upcoming MWA anthology. If I can come up for air, I might try a stand-alone, though these days everyone is looking for a series. I’ve written three musicals: “Sherlock Holmes” (an original Sherlock Holmes musical), “Treason” (about Benedict Arnold), and the third is an adaptation of THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES by Nathaniel Hawthorne. They've all had multiple readings and workshops, but so far no full productions. I think the Sherlock Holmes musical in particular is very commercial; there's such a built-in audience for it. I'm a little surprised no one has snapped it up yet; it's a lot less expensive to produce than Spiderman.

The next project I work on will probably be my musical about a real-life 19th-century murder in New York. The working title is “31 Bond Street.” Jack Finney wrote about it in FORGOTTEN NEWS: The Crime of the Century and Other Lost Stories. (It’s the crime referred to in the title.) Ellen Horan has recently written a highly praised novelization of the event, also called 31 BOND STREET --- which is amazing to me, since I started the musical five years ago!

There was also a non-musical play with the same title a few years ago, which was performed in Brooklyn. I never got to see it, but I am astonished that all three of us chose the same title, completely separately. It’s like the monkeys on separate islands who all learned how to crack coconuts simultaneously, without ever being in contact with each other. Spooky! But then, I love spooky. Maybe my next project will be a ghost story…move over, Stephen King. Kidding --- you’re the man.

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