Between the Pages Past
By Susan McBride

Interview with Thomas Perry
Review of Pursuit

Telling Tales
An Interview with Thomas Perry
By Susan McBride
February 2002

I was lucky enough to have met Thomas Perry at a convention last November when he sat on a panel I moderated called "Women Who Kick Butt: Creating Tough Female Protagonists." Hey, it might sound crazy, but it was truly the perfect showcase for the man who'd written five books featuring Jane Whitefield, definitely a woman who can take care of herself. (And how.) The first in the series, Vanishing Act, made the list of 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century selected by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. Dance for the Dead, Shadow Women, The Face-Changers and Blood Money complete the Jane Whitefield backlist. But before Jane came along, Perry had already made a name for himself in crime fiction, authoring the Edgar Award-winning thriller, The Butcher's Boy, and the New York Times Notable Book, Metzger's Dog.

Hardly one to sit on his laurels-or his hands-Perry had two new books released in 2001: in January, the best-selling Death Benefits, a stand-alone novel that dealt with high stakes insurance fraud, followed at the end of the year by Pursuit, another stand-alone that delves into the lives of people with criminal minds.

Susan McBride: The plot of PURSUIT revolves around a killer who's hunted by a man who uses whatever means necessary to track down bad guys for cash. How'd that come about?

Thomas Perry: The idea for Pursuit kind of crept up on me. I sat down one morning and began writing the section of the book in which the eleven-year-old psychotic-in-training James Varney plots the murder of his aunt and her dog. The image of him stalking her in the big old house while she has no idea that such a thing is happening intrigued me. Children (particularly unloved children) are often almost invisible, because nobody is really paying close attention to what they're doing. I knew I wanted to do something with those scenes, but it took a few days before I knew what I would do.

SM: How did you invent Prescott, who seems a combination between a bounty hunter, a Boy Scout and a vigilante for hire?

TP: The character Prescott came second. He was designed to be the most effective possible nemesis to Varney (essentially, the answer to the question, "What sort of man would you send after Varney if you believed it was absolutely crucial that he be hunted down?"). He knows everything that Varney knows-and most of the rest of us don't want to know-he's nearly as ruthless as Varney is, he's older and more experienced, and he is capable of making shrewd predictions about what Varney is likely to be thinking. He is also a kind of moral challenge to Millikan, the ex-cop and forensics professor who calls him in. Millikan is aware that the reason Prescott is so good at this is that he has more in common with Varney than either of them has with the rest of us. We're all delighted to have the Varneys of the world disappear, but are we justified in being willing to hire the Prescotts to accomplish that?

SM: You have a great knack for humanizing your evil characters as well as your good guys. Is there a part of you that wants to understand what makes people tick, good or bad?

TP: Thanks for the compliment. Yes, I think there is a part of every writer that wants to know what makes people (protagonists and antagonists) tick. That's probably the most fun part of the game. I also think writing realistic fiction requires that we view good guys and bad guys in fairly complicated ways. Sometimes the best fiction pits two people who each have different ideas of what is good or fair or desirable against each other. Other times, a book requires us to arrange characters' actions on our own scale of values: this act is very admirable, this one is less so, and this one is evil. In crime fiction, the story is often an attempt to answer a question. We know of a bad act (a murder, in my books), think of the perpetrator, and wonder, "What in the world could this person possibly have been thinking when he did that?"

SM: When you write a stand-alone, do you miss the familiarity of a series?

TP: Yes, when I write a stand-alone novel, I do miss the familiarity of a series. Writing a series of books about one character (like Jane Whitefield) is a comfortable, leisurely feeling. It's always a return to friendly territory. There's also the fact that when you write stand-alone novels, if there's anything about a character that you can't fit into the structure of that one book (usually because it slows down the plot and destroys suspense), you will never be able to say it.

SM: Speaking of, what's in store for Jane after five books?

TP: What's in store for Jane Whitefield? I don't know. I have a vague intention to go back to Jane and pick up her story at a later point, when I know something new about her that I haven't already said. The problems with series are tricky. One is the comfort I mentioned above. I think a writer's main responsibility is trying to learn how to be a better writer, and I suspect that comfort probably doesn't help me get better. I have to ask, "How much will writing a sixth Jane Whitefield novel teach me about writing? How much will a reader of the first five get from reading a sixth?" At the point when the answer to both questions is "Enough," then I'll probably do it.

SM: Your books are all so obviously well researched. What do you do to prepare to write a new novel?

TP: My research for books varies, depending on the topic. When I was doing the Jane Whitefield books, I would be doing research on the history and culture of the Senecas all the time. I also keep myself up to date on current developments in areas that I use constantly in books, like firearms and other ways of doing violence, or domestic travel. But I don't usually do anything to prepare for a book. I sit down and begin writing. When I run into something I want to know more about, I take it as a signal that my reader will also want to know more about it, and I begin to do some research.

SM: I know you held a wide variety of jobs before your career as a best-selling novelist. Did those experiences make you a better storyteller? Did they help you find your voice?

TP: Yes, I did have a lot of jobs over the years. And yes, they do help. When a novelist has a professional familiarity with some field, or knows some subject very well, it gives his work unexpected twists, and generally enriches the fictional world he's describing. Having a variety of jobs also helps build an ear for dialogue. Good dialogue should sound the way people sound, and it should carry their attitudes and habitual ways of thinking. The only way I know to develop that sense is to listen to real ones talk. Now that I don't go off to a job anymore, I find that whenever I'm out, I'm the world's biggest eavesdropper. I shamelessly listen to people on the street, in restaurants, in airports, in stores.

SM: What's your favorite part about writing? Least favorite?

TP: My favorite part about writing is that I can make a living with nothing more than a pen and a piece of paper. My least favorite part is that I have to make a living with nothing more than a pen and a piece of paper.

SM: What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten (about writing or life in general)?

TP: What's the best piece of advice anyone ever gave me? Wow. I'm not sure. I suppose it was probably my parents' advice to try to do what I wanted with my life, regardless of how unlikely success seemed.

SM: What types of books do you read for pleasure?

TP: All of them. I know that's a smart-ass answer, but it's true. I've always been cursed with at least a mild reluctance to do anything that felt like drudgery, but blessed with a healthy curiosity. Most of the books I read are non-fiction, about things that strike me as interesting at the moment. Even the reading I do for research is selected mainly for its pleasure potential. I try to stay away from books in the same genre that I write in, but occasionally succumb and read particular favorites, such as Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, or Joe Gores. Usually, when I'm determined to read something for pleasure, I steal something from my wife's stack of books, which always looks to me to be better than the stack I've selected.

SM: What are you working on now? Anything you can discuss?

TP: I don't like to talk about what I'm doing very specifically, because once I've told a story, going back and writing it feels like doing the work twice. It's another stand-alone novel. It has some strong female characters, including villains, so I hope it will appeal to the readers who miss the female characters in the Jane Whitefield series. But I hope it's a bit different from anything else I've done.

SM: Any final words to your readers?

TP: Actually, they're your readers. If they're still paying attention after I've said so much, I hope that some of them will also get around to reading something of mine.

SM: Did I mention what a nice guy Tom Perry is???


PURSUIT by Thomas Perry
Random House
ISBN: 0-679-45306-7 - Hardcover

Reviewed by Susan McBride, MyShelf.Com
Buy a Copy

PURSUIT by Thomas Perry is about just that: the hunt for a killer by a man called Prescott who some believe is little better than a killer himself. The story starts off with a bang: thirteen bodies are found in a small restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky. Men, women and children, all shot to death. The local police bring in Daniel Millikan, a former cop and current criminology professor who gives them his take on the murder scene. His idea that this wasn't done by a gun-happy lunatic goes against what the Louisville P.D. believe. But Millikan notes that the crime scene is too perfectly set-up to be anything but a contract killing. But what contract killer would murder a dozen people in addition to his hit?

That's where Roy Prescott comes in. He's a combination of bounty hunter, Boy Scout and vigilante. He's hired to find out who placed the hit and who carried it out. From that point forward, Perry's novel follows the trails of both Prescott as he hunts down the shooter and the killer himself. Not only does Perry delve into the mind of a man who wants to see justice done, no matter what's involved, he takes us into the head of a lonely child who would grow up to murder for a living.

The characterizations are nicely done and, perhaps, my favorite part of PURSUIT. Perry has concocted a well-researched thriller that focuses more on people than stunts, which is something to be commended in this day and age.

2002 Past Columns - Dennis Collins

2002 Past Columns - Susan McBride

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