American author Carsten Stroud is the writer behind such books as Sniper’s Moon, Lizard Skin, Black Water Transit (which was adapted to film), Cobraville, and the New York Times bestseller Close Pursuit. The man with plaudits from the likes of Elmore Leonard continues to up his game with Niceville, the first in a trilogy. It’s a story about a town that’s scary and well…not very nice. Carsten answered a few questions for me ahead of the book’s paperback release.
1. One thing that immediately struck me in the book was the map at the beginning, it really helps the reader to get a good feel of the town. There’s already a Niceville in Florida, what prompted you to create one in the Deep South?
I took the Niceville name from a small town on the Gulf Coast of Florida because Linda (that’s Carsten’s wife) and I spend much of the winter near it, in a town called Destin. Of course there’s no similarity between the Florida town and my own dark imaginings. My version of Niceville is actually based on two separate towns in Georgia USA, a town called Marietta, a few miles northwest of Atlanta, and the far more well-known town of Savannah, on Georgia’s Atlantic Coast. I guess I love The Deep South because it has so much more atmosphere than the rather barren little towns of the Northeastern US. Lots of little wars have filled the place up with ghosts and darkness. So when I got down to creating Niceville, I started with what it might look like. Of course, compared with the map in the book – drawn by Robert Bull – my original version looks like it belongs on some grand-parent’s refrigerator
2. Very quickly a vivid picture is painted of the town’s inhabitants through your descriptions, how much of ‘real life’ did you inject into your characters?
I’ve drawn on my experiences in the army and in law enforcement to flesh out some of the worst people in the book – I’ve met real life versions of almost every one of them during the course of my careers – some of the worst ones were actually kind of interesting, although most thugs and killers are just plain deadly dull. About the supernatural elements, The Deep South is “alive” with the walking dead, not all of them malevolent.
3. The story kicks off with the disappearance of ten-year-old Rainey Teague, what sort of research did you conduct into such a harrowing subject matter?
Research into those sorts of things is usually done by going down deep into one’s limbic system and kicking over sealed crates full of dangerous things. That’s what I did.
4. What would you say are the good and bad points of your Detective Nick Kavanaugh?
He has a certain ‘distance’ he keeps from even his wife and friends. I see this as an inevitable consequence of serving in Special Forces Operations in the kinds of wars we now find ourselves fighting. You check your grace and mercy and compassion at the mission base and the rest is silence. This makes him a good cop and a troubling husband.
5. Some of the great comments you’ve received include, “Terrific Dialogue and a wild story make this a great read,” Elmore Leonard. Master of the “Nerve-jangling thrill ride,” Harlan Coben. How does it make you feel when established big hitters are so complimentary about your work?
I value it highly, especially coming from writers I not only admire deeply but have to spend a great deal of time NOT copying!
6. In Niceville how important do you think the dialogue between each character is in terms of moving the story along emotionally, and at the pace that you set out to achieve?
I’m with Hemingway on dialogue. Good dialogue is the single most important element of any novel. It’s also the hardest one to get right. Very few writers, even the famous ones – the Man Booker people – can write decent dialogue. But if you get it right, keep it balanced, don’t be having more fun on the page than your reader – well it makes the book. Without it, you’re just typing.
7. There’s a simple but striking piece in the book at page 275, 2nd paragraph which ends with, ‘a prudent cowboy never threw away his lucky boots.’ When you create a section like that do you draw inspiration from you past experiences?
When I was in law enforcement, I always wore the same pair of navy-blue cowboy boots on a raid or a hard take-down. And I never got shot more than once. So that’s why Charlie Danziger keeps those boots on.
8. Are you the type of author that writes a detailed outline first and sticks to it before starting your story, or do you have an idea of what you want and just write, improvising along the way?
Detailed outlines for a novel are sort of like battle plans and tactics. They sound great and they ALWAYS fall apart as soon as you actually run into the enemy. I like to have an “arc” for the story – a setting, a few good characters, a believable plot – but once I get writing, if something unexpected happens, I ALWAYS follow it. Usually the change – the sudden shift – takes your story to much more interesting places than you could have thought of on your own.
9. As a seasoned author you’ve written a number of bestselling books, what keeps you going?
Aside from fear and panic, I have no other option. I’m a one-trick-pony, but I do that trick very well.
10. What state do you think the publishing industry is in compared to say, ten years ago?
The way in which thrillers such as Niceville are delivered to the audience will shift heavily into digital, this makes sense and allows publishers to hedge their risk and function more efficiently – responding to market shifts and tumbles. As far as this whole “Everybody Is A Writer” trope, I notice that every writer who actually gets some success in the self-publishing world goes in desperate search of a “Legacy” House and an Agent. And any writer who doesn’t work with an editor – I have one of the very best in Carole Baron at Knopf NYC – is sooner or later going to make an utter fool out of himself. You only get good editors at Legacy Houses like Random House and the rest of the Majors.
11. What are you working on next?
Niceville is a trilogy and I’ve just finished my second book. My third is due January 30th 2013. I’m working on it right now! After that, something new and one hopes even crazier. Wish me luck. I’m going to need it.
Niceville by Carsten Stroud, published by Century, £12.99.