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Interview: June 30, 2006

June 30, 2006

New York Times bestselling author Stephen J. Spignesi spoke with's Carol Fitzgerald and Joe Hartlaub about DIALOGUES, his debut suspense/thriller. In this interview, Spignesi describes his role of writing this book as that of an observing transcriptionist, and discusses the unusual duality present in today's society regarding euthanasia and capital punishment. He also explains how he structured the novel, and names real-life inspirations behind his characters and plot elements. DIALOGUES is a novel-in-conversation, thus the title. However, the text also includes two short stories and a novella written by protagonist Victoria "Tory" Troy at different times in her life. Did you write these pieces especially for DIALOGUES, or are these your own early attempts at fiction? If you wrote them specifically for DIALOGUES, did you write them as you were writing the rest of the book or separately?

Stephen J. Spignesi: "The Baby's Room" and "Skyline Pigeon" were written several years ago, and it was after I had the idea for DIALOGUES that I looked back at them and realized that these two shorter works shared themes that I was now exploring in DIALOGUES. I tell people that even though the bulk of DIALOGUES was written in a white heat over a six-week period, I believe that I had actually been writing the book for many years. Plus, the notion that each of us harbors a very powerful interior life has always intrigued me. Rereading the two shorter works, I also realized that Sarah in "The Baby's Room" and Tory in DIALOGUES shared common cause: the need to "process" trauma through subconscious and unconscious experience. And that was when I knew that Tory had written the two stories.

BRC: The book shows the power of strong dialogue, and how it can convey elements --- such as character profiles --- usually reserved for descriptive text. When you wrote your first draft was it in this "dialogue" format, or did that evolve?

SJS: It was all dialogue from word one. In fact, the opening line, "I've been thinking about suicide lately," came almost as automatic writing. And then it was one of those experiences in which I felt like I was nothing but a transcriptionist. Tory suddenly became absolutely real to me, and I could see her, and the room she was in, and then, looking through her eyes, there was Dr. Bexley. Mozart often spoke of the experience of hearing music fully formed and then simply writing it down. In no way am I comparing myself to Wolfgang, of course, but I completely understand what he was talking about. I heard the "dialogues" that comprise the heart of the book as though I were an observant bystander.

BRC: DIALOGUES is a psychological suspense. Tory Troy is in a mental hospital, often meeting with the doctor charged with determining her competency to stand trial for murder. He is trying to get to the "why" of what she did. When you were creating the story, which came first: Tory, the doctor, or the crime?

SJS: What came first was a CNN story that revealed that three out of four unwanted animals in America are euthanized. This fact floored me, and within a millisecond, the question popped into my head, "How does that work?" Immediately following came the question, "And what would happen if, one day, they just couldn't do it anymore?" Then I saw Tory, and once I was inside her head, I understood what it would be like to "snap" because of the horrors of her job, and I knew precisely how she would lash out when that trauma occurred. So the sequence was idea, Tory, crime, and then Dr. Bexley.

BRC: Your descriptions of the animal shelter in DIALOGUES were extremely realistic. Did you go to animal shelters and witness animal euthanasia yourself, or rely upon the descriptions of animal shelter employees?

SJS: I did not witness any animal euthanasias; in fact, I couldn't even be with my cat, Bennie, when he had to be euthanized due to kidney failure. Today, I can't read the euthanasia sections of my book without becoming extremely emotional and I honestly don't know how I managed to write them without collapsing. Perhaps the clinical process of researching how it's done allowed me to detach while writing the book? I don't know. I can tell you that I have a cousin who is a veterinarian and has a veterinary hospital that needs to, on occasion, euthanize animals. The shelter in the book is a public shelter, but my cousin and his staff gave me a sense of the whole shelter zeitgeist while creating Waterbridge. (The vet in "Skyline Pigeon" is modeled on my cousin.)

BRC: DIALOGUES raises a number of moral and legal issues and subtly deals with theological questions as well. How important was this in the crafting of the story?

SJS: The moral, legal and spiritual issues were critical to me while writing the book. There are references to real-world lethal injection executions in the book, including the first execution in my home state of Connecticut in forty years, and I deliberately wanted people to see a parallel between a society that executes for crimes, but refuses to allow euthanasia for compassion, and the animal situation in America where we not only euthanize for compassion, but also for societal "convenience," for lack of a better word. Tory gives a very impassioned speech at one point about this duality. For many people, the idea of compassionate euthanasia --- as practiced in some foreign countries --- is abominable, and I'm not endorsing it for the U.S. But what I would like people to think about is the idea that, sometimes, death is better. Tory thinks that very thought early on in the novel and struggles throughout the book trying to reconcile what she does with how she feels. She knows that what she does is, in the end, better for the animals. But it is still absolutely intolerable to her soul. Thus, her lashing out and the crimes she apparently commits. I recently completed writing a novel called THE LAVA DOME that looks at Oregon's assisted suicide law, and that tackles many of the same themes as in DIALOGUES. So, yes, the exploration of the issues you cite were very important to me.

BRC: It's my impression that there are a lot of people like Tory Troy. She put me in the mind of at least three people I currently know and I could probably think of three more if pressed. Is Tory Troy someone you know in the real world, or is she a combination of different personalities?

SJS: There is a lot of me in Tory, as well as a few other people I know who I "tapped" for specific quirks and mannerisms. I actually personally relate more to Dr. Bexley, though, and in a strange way, was somehow able to relate to Tory through Dr. Bexley as I was writing his dialogue. Those two characters became vividly real to me, and I was able to become each one without allowing the fact that I was writing both characters' parts to influence the reactions of the characters. And I hope that makes at least a semblance of sense. A really good analogy would be playing chess against yourself. It takes a specific state of mind to be able to make a move as White and not think about how Black will move --- even though you're also playing Black. I was able to do that with Tory and Dr. Bexley and, for Tory, I drew on others I've known for certain tropes and reactions. Dr. Bexley was more complete at the outset, however. From his very first dialogue with Tory, I knew him inside and out. Tory often surprised me.

BRC: A number of your nonfiction books are about music and in the opening pages we learn that Tory listens to her pink iPod. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, who and what do you listen to?

SJS: I do listen to music while I write and it can only be classical, and only instrumental. Voices annoy and distract me. Contemporary music destroys my concentration. I lean heavily toward Baroque stuff (Albinoni, Bach, Vivaldi, etc.) but also on occasion like solo piano works --- Keith Jarrett playing Shostakovich's 24 Preludes & Fugues is a favorite I listen to over and over. (If you recall, in the book Tory receives the 2-CD Jarrett set as a gift.) When doing research, though, anything goes, and I tend to lean more toward Women Who Rock for that kind of work: Tori Amos, Paula Cole (another fave of Tory's), Sheryl Crow, Kate Bush, and others.

BRC: You have written books dealing with the work of Stephen King. Besides King, what other authors, in any genre, have influenced your fiction and nonfiction work?

SJS: When I was younger, I read a lot of Dickens and seem to be able to turn on a "Dickensian" literary voice when I need to (as I'm doing now for a novel in progress set in Victorian England called CRYSTAL PALACE). T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost have always inspired me to find the absolutely perfect image, whether in prose or poetry. King has taught me how to strive for pace in my fiction. I've often said that when King is "on," the reader is pulled through the book, almost as though the words themselves were secondary to the reading experience. It becomes almost organic. I aspire to such "page-turning" appeal. I love Twain for his attitude, and Emily Dickinson for her seeming fragility, yet rock-solid realism when it comes to inner states and emotions. I like Norman Mailer's nonfiction, and Tom Wolfe's; I like Bob Woodward's stuff, plus the writings of contemporary historians like Richard Brookhiser, David McCullough, and James McPherson. I like some horror and science fiction --- Bradbury, Heinlein, Matheson. I love Tolkien. And believe it or not, I adore Woody Allen's writing --- and I'm referring to his books, not his screenplays (although I'm also a fan of his movies). His essay collections (WITHOUT FEATHERS, GETTING EVEN, SIDE EFFECTS) are brilliantly funny.