You've published writing textbooks, and taught writing at Harvard and Bentley University. What advice do you have for new writers? What's the most frequent mistake you see them make?
Experienced writers make just as many mistakes as beginning writers—just different mistakes, or the same kinds but with different flags. An example: When young writers don’t have a clue what they’re writing about, their sentence structure and grammar breaks down. When I don’t know what I’m up to, my paragraphs break down: While my sentences are grammatical, I under-describe or over-describe, I hit false emotional notes, and forward movement seems to flow from some hand outside the story, not from the characters themselves.
What complicates matters is that early draft writing is often about discovery. Much of the time, you don’t know what you don’t know until you write it, see it, and revise it. Which means that at some point, both for novice and veteran, the draft will be supremely ugly. In revision the writing somehow snaps into focus. The sentences get clearer and the action, dialogue, and descriptions begin pulling in the same direction.
So the most frequent mistake of young writers? I think not believing in the process. Accepting that an ugly, insubstantial early draft is as good as the draft will ever be. More seasoned writers labor through this same swamp but know they’ll eventually cross it and gain firmer ground.
The protagonist of your novels is Interpol agent Henri Poincaré—grandson of mathematician J.H. Poincaré, the father of chaos theory. You've said that you liked the idea of having his descendant apply the theory on a human, rather than planetary, scale. What type of research did you have to do to write the character? How did you choose Poincaré over other mathematicians and scientists of the age?
I conduct research to understand the broad context of my stories. Only if a character requires a specific skill, a certain tradecraft (can he pick locks?) will I do research when developing characters. In my first novel, ALL CRY CHAOS, I discovered who Henri Poincaré was by watching how he handled himself as storm after storm broke acoss him and the ones he loves. That’s a human exploration, not so much discovered through research as through the reflection and experimentation that are part of the writing process.
By contrast, to understand the larger context in which Henri finds himself, I studied chaos theory for eight months with a mathematician, learning how the tiniest changes can trip systems in nature into chaotic storms. In weather systems, for instance, a minute change of temperature can trigger a hurricane (the so-called Butterfly Effect). Nature is nothing but a series of interdependent, dynamic systems in constant flux around an ever-shifting equilibrium. Hold that thought and jump to the premise of ALL CRY CHAOS: What if this thing we call human society—the whole complex interaction of husband and wife and neighbors and kids and politicians and grocers and fishermen and nations—was an interdependent, dynamic system governed by the same rules that govern the weather or the human endocrine system or the CO2-Oxygen cycle? These dynamic systems in nature are described best by chaos theory. If we humans (that is, all our thoughts and social interactions as well as our bodies) are in nature in the way clouds are in nature, then chaos theory could describe our social world as well. That interests me. That gets me part of the way there in understanding why bad things happen to good people. To work with such a premise for a novel, I needed to do quite a bit of research.
But to watch a man bent over a grave with regrets? No research required, just a heartfelt stepping into his shoes.
As for creating the fictional great-grandson of Jules Henri Poincaré as my protagonist: Jules Henri was the first mathematician credited with describing key principles of chaos theory. I figured who better to negotiate the implications of that theory in human affairs than a descendant?
Your books have a lot of layers (spirituality, mathematics, politics, etc.) in addition to the crime. ALL CRY CHAOS (winner of ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year, a Macavity Award-winner and Anthony and Edgar nominee for Best First Novel) has been called smart, sharp and complex. How do you prepare for such a complex plot?
Complexity for me has less to do with preparation, I’m afraid, than with hard wiring. When I’m tangled in seven plot strands, how I wish I could simplify! Here’s how it typically goes: I’ll start with a premise, a what-if, and as I write other what-ifs attach themselves to the story. An example: In my just-released prequel to ALL CRY CHAOS, THE TENTH WITNESS, I tell the story of how Poincaré becomes an Interpol agent. CHAOS established that he’d been an investigator for thirty years, so I had my target year for the setting: 1978. Why would Henri go to work for the international police?
He’d have to encounter something very bad, persuasively bad, that had the power to alter his life’s course. What was the very worst he could confront in 1978? Lots of candidates, including the genocidal regime of Pol Pot. I opted for the Third Reich. The timing was wrong, of course, but what if Henri fell in love with the daughter of a Nazi? Lots of potentially interesting conflict there. She loves her parents but abhors what her father did. How can she condemn her father and love him at the same time? She lies to herself about that—and she lies to Henri. But Henri would be a shallow blockhead, unworthy of our interest, if he blamed this woman for her father’s sins. She didn’t choose her parents. So another what-if bubbled up: what if I gave her, or her family, current sins somehow related to the sins of the father, sins to which she would be complicit if she accepted her family’s privileged financial and social positions? And what if these sins were of such a nature that they got the attention of Interpol? Henri could fall in love with this woman and, at some point, be forced to choose between justice and affection. To which does he owe the greater allegiance? Will he get the girl? What if Interpol thinks he’s complicit in the family’s crimes? What if the family was somehow anointing Henri, bringing him into the organization? What would he do, faced with the prospect of becoming seriously wealthy? Would his code of decency be tested? And what if he had some highly personal reason to explore the family’s past? Henri’s not Jewish, but perhaps he has a dear family friend who survived the labor camps. Might the stories of that man and the woman’s family cross?
So you see the what-ifs piling up, bumping into each other. I can’t help myself. The brief answer after a long explanation is that I don’t set out to write a complex story. My interest in my characters leads the way. The complexity just happens.
Though set all over Europe, your books have been primarily in The Netherlands, do you have a lot of experience with the area? What prompted you to chose the region as the primary location for your work?
I wish I had a good answer for you. The obvious one is that I’ve spent more time in Amseterdam than I have in other European cities. I must have an affinity for the place. Perhaps it’s Amsterdam’s history of tolerance. You have, at once, old Europe (often old, intolerant Europe) leavened by a culture that welcomed the dispossessed. (Sentimentality alert: through the Dutch East India Company, the people who gave us Rembrandt and religious tolerance also dispossessed others of their wealth and freedom, so I’m not naïve about Dutch history.) Amsterdam is a beautiful city, and I enjoy my visits. But I’m exploring new locales: my current novel (more below) is set entirely in the US, in New England. There’s not a single reference to the Dutch.
Tell us a little about your upcoming THE TENTH WITNESS and what's coming next for you.
As discussed above, WITNESS is my prequel to ALL CRY CHAOS. It opens with Poincaré as a mechanical engineer on assignment for Lloyd’s of London, which wants to salvage gold from a 200-year old wrecked frigate. He’s a hard worker; and on a rare holiday, he meets an heiress to a steel fortune. The founder of that fortune was a Nazi, and there’s trouble in store. But she wasn’t the Nazi, and Henri (rightly) won’t blame the daughter for the sins of the father. The trouble unfolds bit by bit as Henri is brought into the family and learns more than he should. Folks can read the first four chapters here.
Coming next: I’m at work on a novel about a magician who’s lost—and regains—his sense of enchantment with the world. Magic fascinates me, particularly that moment in a good show when a trick leaves us speechless. Did that bowling ball really drop out of a thin pad of paper? Did that stick really turn into a snake? How? In the seconds before the analytical mind kicks in, any explanation is possible. We see this wonder, especially, in the eyes of children for whom magic is, or may be, a real operating principle in the world. Our older, more analytic minds consider the trick and we think: it’s a clever and skillful misdirection! But for a millisecond we, too, may be amazed and open to an alternate explanation. Perhaps the magician actually did bend the laws of physics. Why not? People in the pre-scientific age believed magicians held such power. People today accept the agency of God in our lives—more than a billion people believe in the incarnation and the resurrection. So perhaps that levitating table really was a miracle—a hand from another realm reaching into ours. It could be at the magic show that God is entering history again after a two-thousand year hiatus.
After a long career, my magician finds himself in a sorry state, able to amaze everyone but himself. I’m interested to know what he’s going to do about his problem. To prepare, I’m reading up on magic and studying with a Boston-based magician. Better still, I’m attending lots of magic shows. It’s a blast!
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QUICKIES WITH LEONARD:
Writing ambience: A junked-up office, open books and articles strewn about, floor barely visible. Quiet.
To outline or not to outline: Daily formula: outline enough to trick myself into thinking I can start, then abandon the outline once I'm under way..
Book(s) he wishes he could read again for the first time: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee (altogether wasted on me as a high school student).
What he's reading now: GLITZ by Elmore Leonard and THE SPELL OF THE SENSUOUS by David Abram.
Book or eReader? Agnostic.
Favorite online resource: The crowd-sourced Wikis—though I verify facts important to my stories; YouTube; Google images and maps.
His most effective promotional tool: When all other strategies fail, write a good book.
What he wishes he'd known when he started: Write to write, not to be famous.
Favorite independent bookstore: My local, Brookline (MA) Booksmith—a survivor. Flourishing, in fact.
If he could meet one of his characters: Would have to be Henri Poincaré.
If he could invite four people (living or dead) to a dinner party: My mother and father as a young man and young woman just prior to their dating. Moses Maimonides. Thomas Edison. And squeeze in a fifth: Genghis Kahn.