Lisa Gardner: An Exclusive Interview at The Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival 2015

Lisa Gardner: An Exclusive Interview at The Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival 2015

Hi Lisa, thanks for speaking with us. What’s been your favourite part of the festival so far and what are you most looking forward to?

I’m enjoying the festival very much, it’s the first time I’ve been back since 2011, it’s amazing to see how much it’s grown. I love the tents outside, it’s been a lot of fun to have the WHSmith tent and the signings now are huge, it’s much nicer to be outside rather than stuck in a room. And it’s been fun to have the publisher tents too, such as Headline doing Crime Files with the passports. They had the Boston Tea Party this morning and Battleshots this afternoon. It definitely gives it a more ‘festival’ air.

Probably my favourite part of Harrogate 2015 has been the chat with Ann Cleeves I had this morning – what an amazing author. Speaking as an American crime novelist, we don’t always get to know our British counterparts as well. I think British readers are incredibly open-minded about reading American authors, but unfortunately America has been more closed off to some of the great British novelists. So it’s always interesting to me to travel to England, to come overseas and meet these amazing novelists that have not had the opportunity to read before, and particularly in the case of Ann Cleeves; to pick up Harbour Street, to fall madly in love with Vera Stanhope. There’s a heroine I wish I had known so much sooner, but now I have a great backlist to read. She was so much fun to talk with, to talk about the process and the ways we’re alike and different.

It really struck me how similar you are!

Yes, we definitely both like small towns and living way in the north. We both write by the seat of our pants, we’re both heavily influenced by our characters and what they say to us and how they themselves begin to shape the story. It’s fun as a novelist to get to talk to other novelists – you know, other people who hear voices in their heads telling them to kill – it’s awesome!

The theme this year is exploring stange places and offering something new about them; taking people to different places through crime fiction. At the panel this morning you mentioned the different way that the police work in more rural communities. How do you feel that brings something new to crime readers?

I think for the longest time crime novels have really captured the experience of the ‘big city cop’ or urban policing – these are police departments that have larger budgets, more manpower, there’s more of a procedural way of doing things. But 12 years ago I moved north of Boston, three hours to Smalltown’s New Hampshire – where the moose and the bears outnumber the people – and policing is very different. I think the fun part of being a writer, and I think particularly for readers, is that different experience in law enforcement and that’s kind of what we’re all about.

The sheriff’s department in New Hampshire are patrolling wide, wide ranges of land. Back-up for them is three hours away, and we’ll tell you to dial 911 or emergency services but you’re thinking it’s 30 minutes before someone comes to you. So you have to be much more self-sufficient for your farmer population or for your police officer. Whatever call-out you end up on, it’s you – it’s you in whatever situation you find yourself in.

The lieutenant who’s helped me with the Wyatt Foster books talked about an incident as a junior officer when he was called out to this situation where a mother is having a domestic incident with her grown son. He gets there, he’s a rookie, he’s all by himself – it quickly becomes apparent it’s actually a drug call; the mother’s a dealer, her own sons have not paid her and want more. So he’s thinking, this is a mild domestic dispute, it turns out it’s more like a drug empire dispute. When he starts to try to talk and try to reason out (because your first line of defense is “let’s use logic”) the first son charges him. He’s standing there like an idiot, he’s not in defensive stance, he’s not anything. So he does the first thing he can think of – he studied martial arts, it was very Hollywood – he kicked the guy in the chest. And then he felt good about himself, because it was very Hollywood… just in time for the mother and the other brother to take him down. Yes, it’s not actually Hollywood, there’s no “cut”! And later – I mean he survived the incident, they wrote them up, he got him arrested – but he was like “I should have tased, I should’ve done this, I should’ve called back up, I should have done that…” but he was like “I was in the moment, and I was kind of like holy moly!”. I just love that opportunity and I like to capture that flavour: what does it mean to patrol the mountains? Where you know if you’re in trouble back up is 30 minutes, if not an hour away – you really are on your own.

It’s almost removing another safety net…

Yes, but it also encourages a kind of self-resilience. They refer to a lot of MacGyver policing; that you make do, whatever the situation is, you think of the resources on hand and you make do. And even for major crime scenes, like say they want to do something for drugs; they don’t have the surveillance equipment, they don’t have that kind of budget, so they literally went from town to town and they borrowed this from here and this from there. And they could do it, but you have to think a little more creatively to get the job done. And I think that kind of experience is authentic and it does capture what it’s like to be in law enforcement in that place – it’s interesting. It’s an experience we haven’t explored yet on TV or movies or books.

You’ve returned to Boston for your latest book. Do you think it’s easier to write about a place that you live in, or to write about somewhere in hindsight?

I would argue that it is easier to write about a place coming back to it. All of us, by and large, stop seeing the place in which we live. You know, Boston is an amazing city – I lived there for years – but when I was living there, did I really note that really neat street, did I really note this one completely ethnic interesting neighbourhood, this incredible church? We almost, by definition, don’t see our own home – it becomes just the familiar, so there’s something to be said about the need to start capturing the details for fiction, and really reflecting on the character – to have that distance of having left. But having said that, I always go back into Boston to look at what would become the scenes or the neighbourhoods for the next novel, because if you’re too far away – well you didn’t notice it while you were there so you’re certainly not going to remember it now! But that combination of having been there once, so you know more than you think – it’s in your subconscious – but you’ve had to leave to truly appreciate it and now you’re going to come back and truly focus on it.

Do you base your characters on real-life people? Earlier on your panel you said DD was named after your neighbour, but how much of the characteristics were based on a real person as well?

I will steal names from real-life people; Detective DD Warren is named after my neighbour, when I didn’t know she was going to be a serious character. I don’t know I would have done that – my characters have the tendency to be a little bit the anti-heroes. So with DD Warren she’s brash, she’s aggressive, she’s sassy, she’s a workaholic detective who’s proud of the fact she’s a workaholic detective. I think most of us would feel a little more self-conscious about that. But I think it makes it fun to read. She’s a character who says all the things we were raised much too polite to say, does the things we would never have the courage to do, and that makes her exciting.

At the same time, if you’re going to craft a character I think there’s something to be said for larger than life, but if you don’t ground them with some kind of vulnerabilities or weaknesses or issues that you and I can relate to, then they’re caricatures, they’re not characters. So I think DD on the job is kind of just fun; she’s the workaholic maybe we all wish we had the courage and a little bit the narcissism to be. But DD on the homefront is a character we recognise more from ourselves. She’s actively worried is she a good wife? Is she a good mom? I mean, ironically enough, all the things that make her great at her job are all the things that don’t make her so good at domestic life. And young DD would tell you “I don’t care”, but as the series has progressed, she does. She knows her husband is the best thing that happened to her, she knows her kid – who was an accident – is the best thing that ever happened to her, and she knows she’s not the best wife. Her husband’s a really great husband, but she’s not the best wife! And she wants to be better, she just worries about the fact that maybe she just isn’t.

And I think that vulnerability, that’s the stuff we all relate to – worrying about are we good enough for the people who love us? Are we loving enough for the people who love us? And characters have to be that mix, and have some kind of superhero traits because that’s fun, it’s escapism – it’s reading, but there have to be some things we can relate to or, again, they’re caricatures, not characters.

You mentioned earlier that you put a poll out on Facebook asking your fans what they would like to see happen next, what characters they’d like you to bring back. So you’re almost collaborating with your fans? How does that process works for you?

I work with my fans and it’s give and take. This far in advance it was easy for me because I do have three series. I started out my career writing about FBI profilers, then I kind of settled into more city crimes, domestic for detective DD Warren and then I ended up with a Massachusetts state trooper Tessa Leoni, who’s been in several books. If I think of something first and I already have an idea and a vision, well then that’s what the next book’s going to be. But in this case I was wrapping up a project and I hadn’t really gotten to what the next book would be. I became curious because so many people approached me at book signings and on book tours and would come up and say “when are you going to write the profiles again?” and it just made me wonder; are these the only people I’m hearing from or is it really fans who wanna hear from them again? So I’m like “you know what, that’s what social media’s for!” – let’s actually ask the readers what it is that they want, because now I’m genuinely curious, because I couldn’t believe how much this winter it just seemed everywhere I went people said “when are you writing about the profilers?”.

So we did this survey on Facebook, the response was very strong, and it was amazing, 5 to 1 people were like “we want the profilers”. Now I can’t swear that every book will be written this way but I’m so much in advance, I haven’t really thought about the next book. So okay fair enough, let’s put a stake in the ground – the next book will be a profiler book. I have to go back and re-read my own novels now – it’s been a while, I need to come up to speed! But I do appreciate that. I think if you’re an author, you always respect your readers. And it’s a great thing to write a story, but you’re not an author unless you have people to read the story with you!

So if your fans were saying “we’d like to see more of this or less of that” would you change the direction of your story based on fan reactions?

Well I’ve always had somewhat fan reactions, because Pierce Quincy the FBI profiler in question was in my very first book and wasn’t meant to be a series character. But I got all this mail “we really like this guy, we’d like to hear more!” so I’m like “oh!” – I was still working on the second book, I’d barely started it – I’m like okay I’ll do that. Likewise, detective DD Warren started out as a walk-on part in a sniper book, and again overwhelming response, my own editor was like “this is the character, everyone loves this character, why don’t you think about a book with this character” and she’s been in five or six, seven books now. Tessa Leoni the same, she was meant to be one character, one book, her and her daughter and their story, but by the end of it – again – reader mail “how are they doing? I think of Tess all the time, I’m so worried about her daughter Sophie” and at certain points now I’m like well now I’m worried about Tess…

So I think there is that interactive element, it’s always there, at least for me, which is maybe also then why my career looks kind of crazy. There’s Profiler books, there’s DD books, there’s Tessa Leoni books, there’s kind of books all over the place, but I think I’m flattered. If you’re an author, characters feel like your children, so the fact that my readers consume these novels and feel so strongly as well – “I’m protective, I’m worried, I want to know they’re ok, I want to hear where they are in their lives” – you know, as the proud mother I’m flattered by that.

You told us a little bit about the Body Farm during your panel. Have you had any really crazy experiences when researching?

Well, The Body Farm was definitely one of the most intense things I did. It’s also called Death’s Acre, and it’s the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, it’s an acre of land where human cadavers, remains, are basically staged to help us determine time of death. Up until the 1950’s, if you found skeletonised remains, the best law enforcement could do was come up with the time of death within like five years. Obviously, if you try to go forward with a criminal case, what are you supposed to do? Go to suspects and say “where were you from 1945 to 1951?” I mean it was almost by definition you couldn’t move forward, you couldn’t do a case. So Doctor Bill Bask took that to heart, and the only way he could think of coming up with time of death was actually take human remains, stick them in the ground, see how long it took. Except then the question became: what if they’re a shallow grave? What if they’re a deep grave? What if they’re in a casket? What if they’re not? What if they’re above ground? What if they’re in water? What if they’re in a tree? What if they’re cold? What if they’re not cold? What if they’re hot? What if… And that’s basically what they do now at the Body Farm – all sorts of scenarios. Every now and again very unique remains are found by the police and they will actually come to the Body Farm and they will stage the conditions and see if again they can determine how long it took for the body to decomp to get time of death.

So when I had the invitation to go and visit the Body Farm, someone who likes to research, fascinated by forensics, I mean this is hallowed ground, this is some of the most ground-breaking forensics that’s ever been done. On the other hand, I will be the first to tell you, I’m a mom, I spend most of my life sitting in front of a computer typing – I don’t actually go out on high-speed chases, you know I’m not a police officer – so I was very worried if I would be okay. But the atmosphere there was actually amazing, it was very much treated as research as hallowed ground, very respectful. People donated remains purely for science, there’s nothing exploitative, or gross or crass, it was very much respectful, appreciative, and I did go in the Fall when the smell was down.

Most of my research has been more sedate. I’ve gotten to do some fun things, some defensive driving which is enough to know you don’t want to be in a car with me on a high speed chase. I’ve played around with various fire arm simulations, shooting guns in real life, although I don’t love that, I’m not great with the noise. And there’s a thing with the writers’ police academy and real police officers do this which is an actual simulation. So it’s like an entire wall, it’s life-sized, and you’re the police officer, and you have a laser-sided gun, and you’re getting feedback from that. So some character will meet you on the video screen and say “there’s been reports of a shooting in a mall, we’re evacuating now, please go forward”, and it follows you as you try to shoot. You will come to a suspect, maybe a guy who’s acting irrationally, you will try to reason with him and then he blows you up. And then you’re dead. I learnt from the police simulator that all of the research I’ve done into law enforcement and all the time I’ve spent with law enforcement, I would make a poor police officer – I’d die like 9 out of 10 times. I don’t think I successfully rescued anyone, and I died a lot. Like in the first scenario you didn’t react fast enough you were blown up, so the second scenario you’ve got in your head ‘I need to be faster’ and of course that’s what gets you killed. And it was cool to talk to the guys afterwards because they were like that’s actually what they’re trying to teach law enforcement – it is human nature to try to learn, to take an experience from one situation and learn from it for the next. But tactical situations are almost the reverse – you cannot respond in this situation to what you did wrong in that situation because they’re totally unique. And, in fact, trying to treat this situation like that situation is most likely what will get you killed – and I did; hence 9 out of 10 times I’d die.

So you have to come to each one with a fresh mind?

You have to be reacting only to what you see there. I have so much respect for it. It’s very easy to sit and write, but actually the few opportunities to play cop – I mean I will be the first to tell you that I’d make a lousy cop, I don’t have the processing speed to take in only those inputs. If you’re a writer you want to stop, you want to analyse, think, consider, and it is all much faster than that!

You know the number one thing we had to do in these modules – and these are things you never read about in books – is traffic stops. That is the single most important thing for any law enforcement officer is routine traffic. Hands down, that is the number one way a cop is killed. I mean just here in England you had the road rage incident, the man who was stabbed the 79-year-old. Any time you are approaching a stranger in a vehicle, you don’t know what you’re getting. And it was interesting to do it in a simulator, because, again, you’re conscious of whatever you got wrong the first time. You forgot to look in the back so a guy in the back killed us, now I’m looking at the back so a guy from the side killed us, okay so now we’re looking at the back, we’re looking at the side, and the driver kills us! But that is the number one dangerous thing, and it’s the routine stuff that we don’t capture well enough in fiction, because we’re always looking for the extraordinary.

Thanks very much for catching up with us Lisa! Just to finish our conversation, could you tell us a little about what you’re working on at the moment?

So Crash and Burn is my latest thriller. It takes place in the mountains of New Hampshire. And it features Nicky Frank. The opening of the book is her going sailing over a ravine, a terrible accident, she’s receiving her third concussion in six months, she’s absolutely frantic to save her little girl Vero – Vero has gone missing, the police must help her find Vero. There’s this massive search launched, her husband shows up and is like ‘there’s no Vero, there’s never been a Vero.’ Nicky Frank has literally just taken one too many hits to the head. Except the more he talks, the more Nicky is convinced her husband is lying. That becomes the story of Crash and Burn. What is going on with this family? Is there a little girl? Is there not? Is the husband the great love of her life, as he insists, or is he the worst thing that ever happened to her? Is Nicky Frank on the right path to find her little girl? Or is she just kinda crazy? And to find out more you have to read Crash and Burn!