Perry, Thomas 1947-
PERRY, Thomas 1947-
PERSONAL: Born August 7, 1947, in Tonawanda, NY; son of Richard (a teacher) and Elizabeth (a teacher) Perry; married second wife, Jo Anne Lee (a writer), August 31, 1980; children: Alix Elizabeth, Isabel Rose. Education: Cornell University, B.A., 1969; University of Rochester, Ph.D., 1974.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Robert Lescher, Lescher & Lescher Ltd., 47 East 19th St., New York, NY 10003.
CAREER: Commercial fisherman, 1974-75; University of California, Santa Barbara, assistant to provost of College of Creative Studies, 1975-80; University of Southern California, assistant coordinator of education program, 1980-84; television writer, 1984-89, principally for Simon & Simon; writer. Military service: U.S. Air National Guard.
MEMBER: International Association of Crime Writers.
AWARDS, HONORS: Edgar Allan Poe Award, Mystery Writers of America, 1983, for The Butcher's Boy; silver medal from Commonwealth Club of California, 1983, for The Butcher's Boy; New York Times notable book citation, 1984, for Metzger's Dog; Gumshoe Award, 2002, for Pursuit.
The Butcher's Boy, Scribner (New York, NY), 1982.
Metzger's Dog, Scribner (New York, NY), 1983.
Big Fish, Scribner (New York, NY), 1985.
Island, Putnam (New York, NY), 1987.
Sleeping Dogs, Random House (New York, NY), 1992.
Death Benefits, Random House (New York, NY), 2001.
Pursuit, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
Dead Aim, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
"jane whitefield" series
Vanishing Act, Random House (New York, NY), 1995. Dance for the Dead, Random House (New York, NY), 1996.
Shadow Woman, Random House (New York, NY), 1997.
The Face-Changers, Random House (New York, NY), 1998.
Blood Money, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.
ADAPTATIONS: Several of Perry's novels have been adapted as audiobooks; the "Jane Whitefield" novels have been optioned by Paramount Studios.
SIDELIGHTS: Known for his sophisticated, humorous crime novels, Thomas Perry is considered especially talented at inviting readers to sympathize with shrewd, unprincipled murderers. Washington Post Book World contributor Lawrence Block described Perry as "a writer of much imagination and considerable skill. He handles action nicely, schemes cleverly and allows his characters to kill without a second thought whenever they find it expedient to do so. All the same one warms to his people." Before becoming a crime writer Perry studied popular novels and concluded that successful authors shared the same objectives: "The best of the popular writers knew what [Charles] Dickens knew: 'Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait,'" wrote Perry in Library Journal. This approach helped Perry establish himself in the popular market, and has enabled him to garner favorable reviews from critics.
Perry made his debut in 1982 with the critically acclaimed detective novel The Butcher's Boy. The book was actually Perry's third; he initially tried writing science fiction and adventure books but felt this detective thriller was the first one good enough to be submitted for publication. Winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best first novel, The Butcher's Boy follows both U.S. Justice Department analyst Elizabeth Waring and the object of her investigation, "the butcher's boy." She is a sharp, young computer analyst; he is a cool, calculating killer named after his mentor. After the butcher's boy receives permanent facial scars from a back-alley skirmish, the Las Vegas Mafia boss who hired him to kill a senator wants the butcher's boy killed, fearing that the hit man's identifiable scars will enable police to track him down, and his boss as well. The butcher's boy is forced to use all of his professional skills and street savvy to dodge both the Justice Department and the Mafia. Critics lauded the book's alternating points of view between Waring and the butcher's boy, asserting that the technique encourages the reader to side with both hero and villain. In addition, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times called the book "clever, knowledgeable, inventive and suspenseful," and Washington Post Book World contributor Jean M. White judged it "a stunning debut" and "a brilliantly-plotted thriller."
The following year Perry published his second novel, Metzger's Dog, a book Block deemed "even better" than Perry's first. The novel follows the exploits of a California gang consisting of Vietnam veteran Chinese Gordon, his girlfriend, and two other friends. In the process of stealing a million dollars' worth of cocaine from a university laboratory, the gang also takes a top-secret government document concerning U.S. involvement in South and Central America. After selling the cocaine back to its original owner, Gordon and his friends decide to sell the document to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for five million dollars. The CIA suspects Soviet agents are involved, so they refuse to pay; instead, they spend thirty-five million dollars pursuing the gang. The action culminates in Los Angeles, where the gang shuts down the city's highway and telephone systems in order to persuade the CIA to pay the ransom for the document. Lehmann-Haupt, in another New York Times review, pointed out that "the C.I.A. is just monstrous enough to keep us rooting for Gordon and his gang," and he concluded that readers "come away from 'Metzger's Dog' having had a thoroughly enjoyable time." Block also enjoyed Metzger's Dog: "Perry's writing is clean and crisp and lively, his California sets vivid, his characters at once wacky and toughminded, his plot a wondrous construction."
Big Fish also begins in Los Angeles but later takes the reader to Mexico, Japan, Belgium, and England. Published in 1985, Big Fish revolves around a husband-and-wife team who put their gunrunning business on hold to help a neighbor, a Hollywood agent, recover his losses from a spoiled cocaine deal. Once he retrieves his money, the agent and a famous film director join the couple in their business. The four characters are soon involved in a chase around the world after a Japanese client who poses a global nuclear threat. Some critics charged that the novel lacks tension and, in the estimation of Dick Lochte in the Los Angeles Times, "is neither good enough nor moral enough." Other reviewers nevertheless lauded the book's humor, fast action, and intelligent dialogue.
Island, Perry's fourth novel, features married thieves Harry and Emma Erskine, who go into hiding in the Caribbean Islands after stealing five hundred thousand dollars. While there Harry decides to create an island-country, complete with banks, resorts, and golf courses, as a sanctuary for people like the Erskines who have a lot of illegitimate money. The idea, which entails filling in a shallow coral reef region with tons of dirt, works until the outside world discovers how much money the island attracts. As word gets out, the United Nations, the CIA, the U.S. State Department, and various bankers get involved in the action. "With the greatest amiability," wrote George V. Higgins in the Chicago Tribune, "Perry makes fun of virtually all the values that teachers said we should hold dear, persuasively demonstrating that: crime pays. . . . resourcefulness is all; and the loyalty of a few good friends who are willing to rise above principle . . . is money in the bank." With its enthralling adventure and sympathetic criminals, Island incorporates the literary techniques that first brought Perry critical acclaim. Like his other novels, Island was favorably received by critics, including Newgate Callendar, who in the New York Times Book Review called the book "a rattling good adventure story" that is "wacky, imaginative, funny, serious and altogether different."
In Sleeping Dogs, Perry resurrects the hit-man protagonist of Butcher's Boy and, in the words of a Kirkus Reviews writer, "sends him on a brawny, bloody vendetta whose rare humor is determinedly dark, even dour." The story begins when the retired killer is forced back into action when a young mafia leader recognizes him. Killings abound as the butcher's boy's protects his own life. "All this gore-giddy mayhem is tethered by rich details of hit-man procedure and by flashbacks of the Butcher's Boy apprentice days," approved a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt lauded the author's "high-pitched energy and gleeful sadism," and further noted in the New York Times that although the book's hero is a killer, "We can identify with him for any number of reasons." An Armchair Detective critic also noted the skill with which Perry "succeeds in making his mass murderer into a sympathetic character," and rated Sleeping Dogs "a tale of driving suspense and pellmell action."
Perry introduces a unique new character in his 1995 book, Vanishing Act. Jane Whitefield is a Seneca native from upstate New York who works to help people in danger to "disappear." In Vanishing Act, she first aids a woman who is fleeing her sadistic husband, then becomes involved with an ex-policeman-turned-accountant who is on the run after being framed for embezzlement. "Perry's brisk style lets Jane travel light and carry the heavy stuff in her head," confided Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times. "Tracking the bad guy through the Adirondacks, she proves a relentless hunter who can flush out her quarry with only a bow and arrow." Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times called Vanishing Act "complicated but ultimately gratifying," and drew attention to Perry's accomplishment in creating the Whitefield character. "Despite her remarkable savvy, much of what Jane Whitefield feels depends on her cultural heritage as an Indian. This is by and large not sentimentalized," Lehmann-Haupt added, concluding: "Text and subtext interplay in what turns out to be a challenging and satisfying thriller."
Perry reprises the Whitefield character in Dance for the Dead, described as "an explosive second outing for Jane Whitefield" in Kirkus Reviews. The book, in the critic's estimation, is "truly a treasure," and Perry "peerlessly devious." Pat Dowell in the Washington Post Book World referred to Whitefield as a "new mystery superstar," and reported that Perry had several more novels featuring the character underway. Dowell noted: "Nobody writes a chase better than Perry, and Jane's adventures are all chase, all the time. Nevertheless . . . she seems a trifle too commercially calculated at times—she hits all the right trends, as both a woman sleuth and a mysterioso Native American with uncanny powers and serene wisdom." A Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor was wholehearted in his endorsement of Dance for the Dead. "Jane Whitefield is something quite unique," averred Dick Lochte. Dance for the Dead "concentrates on the chase, with a bountiful assortment of twists and turns, deceptions and diversions. One couldn't ask for a more exciting and exhilarating game of hide and seek."
In Blood Money Whitefield is attempting to put her dangerous past behind her. She has married and settled in a quiet area of upstate New York, hoping to set down some roots. But she is unable to say no to a teenaged girl in trouble who shows up at her door on the run from the Mafia. The girl has been housekeeper and friend to Bernie Lupus, star accountant for the Mob. Bernie fakes his own death when he realizes he is about to be replaced by a computer and probably murdered. The trio sets off on a cross-country trip in an attempt to give away fourteen billion dollars in Mafia money which they have cleverly accessed through Bernie's expertise. The plot is "complex and pleasurably convoluted, quirkily original . . . and never quite convincing," according to Tom De Haven in Entertainment Weekly. However, Library Journal reviewer Ronnie H. Terpening advised that "even readers who find the setup far-fetched will enjoy the fast pace of this entertaining thriller with its resourceful heroine, fascinating characters, convincing development of intrigue, and ever-present menace."
In Death Benefits Perry, "who never met a field he couldn't make breathlessly exciting, turns his hand to the insurance business, with hair-raising results," in the words of a Kirkus Reviews contributor. The story concerns Max Stillman, a security consultant on a high-priced insurance investigation, and his less-experienced assistant, John Walker. Walker is stunned by the sweeping scheme exposed by Stillman, and readers may be equally astounded, as Perry springs "so many surprises that it's impossible to tell from chapter to chapter—sometimes from line to line—what's around the next corner," stated the reviewer. "Perry displays a matchless gift for keeping both his hero and his readers beautifully off-balance." The award-winning novel Pursuit finds criminologist Dan Millikan and investigator Roy Prescott on the case after thirteen people are killed in a Kentucky restaurant by contract killer James Verney. A Publishers Weekly reviewer dubbed the thriller "an elaborate cat-and-mouse game that moves from city to city . . . as the body count continues to rise." Booklist correspondent Carrie Bissey characterized Pursuit as "a compulsive page-turner populated with characters living amid the shades of gray that surround right and wrong."
Perry's noir thriller Dead Aim finds a wealthy, middle-aged man named Robert Mallon a target for homicide after he attempts to save the life of a suicidal woman he meets on a beach. When Mallon's attempt to dissuade Catherine Broward from suicide fails, he begins an investigation of her life that leads him to a remote ranch where visitors are taught lethal self-defense—and perhaps more. A Publishers Weekly critic felt that the novel "again proves a showcase for [Perry's] considerable talents—taut prose, finely crafted scenes, solid research." Kristine Huntley in Booklist found the work "somewhat implausible" but added that readers "might not care once the suspenseful story hits its stride." In Library Journal, Jo Ann Vicarel likewise observed that certain elements of the plot strain credibility. She concluded, however, that in Perry's hands, "the plot becomes totally engrossing and believable. The reader remains gripped in unending suspense."
Perry once told CA: "Although I'm guilty of tending to portray criminals in a sympathetic light, it's certainly not something I set out to do as a philosophical statement about crime. Instead, it has its genesis in a collection of things I believe about storytelling. The first is that a work of fiction is a construction built to stimulate the reader's curiosity as well as his sympathy. The world of criminals is full of opportunities to show surprising motivations, unusual forms of jeopardy, and humorous or uncomfortable situations the reader, unless he's very unfortunate, will not encounter in the course of his own life.
"This leads me to the second—the question of verisimilitude. Novels that deal in physical danger must contain characters the reader can, without undue strain, believe might naturally find themselves standing alone in life-threatening trouble. This is most likely to happen to people who are rebels or outsiders. The adventure novel whose protagonist is an honest librarian or insurance salesman who, while minding his own business, suddenly finds himself hunted by organized crime, foreign intelligence services, and the police, always strains credibility a bit. This is particularly true when, as usually happens in the course of these novels, he outwits them or outfights them.
"The most accurate way of describing what I've done in my . . . novels is that I've tried to find ways of representing the complexity of events. Good people sometimes do bad things in the belief that their actions are necessary, and bad people sometimes do good things for selfish reasons. There is also an epistemological element to crime novels. Any view of the world is an act of interpretation, meaning that we collect information and assign relative weights to pieces of evidence that can appear to be contradictory. My narratives have followed both the fortunes of the criminals and the attempts of the authorities to figure out what is going on inside the boundaries of the novel and how to deal with it. Part of the fun is the disparity between events and the interpretations a reasonable, logical person might give them. Criminals give a writer a chance to introduce confusion and disruption into the little world he's invented, and to test its limits."
Thomas Perry contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
Writing about my own life strikes me as a risky venture. The sensible thing to do would be to let someone else make any summaries and assessments that seem called for after I'm safely dead and a change of circumstance is no longer possible. As Boethius pointed out in the Consolation of Philosophy, the defining quality of fortune's wheel is that it keeps turning. To say that I've had a good life seems to be challenging fate to serve up something awful. But the fact is that my life to the age of fifty-five has presented no serious obstacles, and no minor ones that weren't of my own making. I have spent much of it surrounded by people who have helped me and taught me things.
I was born in Tonawanda, New York, a city of around twenty-two thousand people on the Niagara River between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. What brought the Perrys there was paper. My great-grandfather was a paper maker who brought his family from Middletown, Ohio, to Rising Sun, Maryland, and then to Tonawanda, where he worked as a foreman in the International Paper plant.
In the late nineteenth century the big source of timber was the upper Midwest. Logs were brought by ship on Lake Erie to the Niagara and as far as Tonawanda, unloaded and milled, and then loaded again to be shipped on the Erie Canal to Albany, then New York City and beyond. During the peak of the industry, from around 1880 to 1900, the two little cities of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda together constituted the busiest lumber port in the world. I have seen old photographs of lumber piled so high for a mile or two along the wharfs that it was difficult to see the river. By the time I was born, in 1947, the docks were long gone, the only remnants some derelict pilings near the shore, and the most visible reminders of the lumber business were a few big houses that were products of the old prosperity. My grandfather grew up to work for the Beaver Board Company, which went bankrupt in the 1920s, and later for the Buffalo Bolt Company. My father was an only child.
My mother's parents were German-speaking immigrants who arrived around 1910 from Transylvania, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. My grandfather's father, I was told, had been a Hussar who wanted his son to have a more peaceful sort of life, and apprenticed him to a cabinetmaker, then encouraged him to emigrate. My grandmother had been in training to become a teacher, but at the age of sixteen she decided to come alone to America. She ended up in Buffalo, where she met my grandfather. They married, bought land to begin a farm on the outskirts of North Tonawanda, and raised eleven children there. My grandfather also worked as a skilled cabinetmaker and carver at various North Tonawanda businesses, including the Alan Herschel Carousel Company, the Wurlitzer Company, and the Richardson Boat Company.
My parents, Richard and Elizabeth Perry, were public school teachers. My mother put aside her career for the birth of my brother Richard in 1942. My sister Ann was born in 1945, and I was born in 1947. My mother returned to teaching when I reached eight or nine. Our house was a wonderful place to grow up, because it was filled with love, thought, and conversation. Teachers were not wealthy, but the rest of the community was not wealthy either, so we seemed to me to be fairly prosperous. Because my parents were well educated and highly respectable people who were active in community affairs and charitable causes, our status seemed to me to be relatively high. They were trustees and elders of the Presbyterian Church. My mother was the founder of the PTA's of several schools in Tonawanda before she returned to teaching, at first part-time, tutoring children with severe illnesses, then for about fifteen years as an English teacher in the city of North Tonawanda. My father taught at least three generations of children in the city of Tonawanda before he retired as superintendent of schools. He was later elected to the Board of Education. My parents were always devoted to each other and to us.
My brother Dick was five years older than I was, and, like my father, was a champion swimmer. For a time he held the New York State high school record for the 100-yard breaststroke. He went to Harvard, then to Syracuse University for his Ph.D., and has been an anthropology professor and department chairman at St. Lawrence University for over thirty years. He has four children and two grandchildren. My sister Ann went to my parents' alma mater, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and became a teacher. She has three children and three grandchildren.
The Tonawanda where we grew up in the 1950s is almost unrecognizable as a real place now. At that time Tonawanda was, in the attitudes, customs, and practices of daily life, probably closer to 1900 than it was to 2003. Children were given a great deal of freedom and mobility. I swam the half-mile across the Niagara at the age of eight, which was a bit earlier than some children, but later than others. Swimming the river was the customary test of when a child was ready to be trusted to take a boat out on the river without an adult. My friends and I spent summer days playing baseball or out on the river in boats. We walked where we pleased in daylight, and when we trekked across the town after dark, no adult seemed especially concerned.
My first paying job was to fill in for a friend on his Tonawanda News delivery route at the age of about eleven. I worked with him for a couple of weeks so I would know the route and his customers would recognize me when it came time to collect, and then completed the route alone while he and his family were away. I found gainful employment far less liberating and enjoyable than I had expected: even the dogs seemed bigger and meaner when I met them alone. I fulfilled my commitment, then abandoned my plan of taking a paper route of my own.
My first summer job did not come until age sixteen. I worked as the helper of a Pepsi Cola distributor who was a friend's uncle. He would drive a Pepsi truck all over the area to restaurants, grocery stores, and bars. Then he and I would both jump down from the truck, take the cases of glass bottles of Pepsi out, carry them inside, retrieve the cases of empty bottles from storerooms and cellars, and load them on the truck. It was hard work, but he was a pleasant companion and the exercise was good for me. After a few weeks of it, the summer job I had been hoping for, working for the New York State Parks Commission at Beaver Island State Park, opened up. There I was assigned to various chores that ranged from picking up trash on the beach and picnic areas with a spiked stick and cleaning restrooms, to mowing greens on the nine-hole golf course and helping to clear land to add the back nine holes to the course.
I had good friends during my school years, some of whom I still see at infrequent intervals. I was not the most popular of the popular—which in that time and place would have required a secure position on the football team, exceptional good looks, and possibly other qualities I didn't possess—but I was generally well regarded for being a cheerful and affable companion. In the spring I was a quarter-miler on the track team, but by no means the fastest, so I ran junior varsity. In the fall I was left halfback on the varsity soccer team, where my only two athletic assets—endurance and premeditation—were of more use. I earned a letter sweater, which is preserved in a plastic bag in a drawer in my house in California today. The soccer team was important to me because it was one of the few things I did that attracted the attention of girls. In high school I had the usual number of heartbreaking and thrilling experiences with girls, and came away with a heightened interest and curiosity.
I worked hard at my studies, which often put me in small honors classes away from my friends, but my friends were tolerant, and seemed to treat my academic behavior as a minor quirk, a quality neither good nor bad, and anyway uncontrollable, like height or eye color. In the few times when the subject came up in conversation, it was attributed to the fact that my parents were teachers: of course they would expect me to do well in school, so I had to do well in school.
At the time I would have denied that assertion, because my parents never made a rule about it, but in retrospect I would have to say that my friends were correct. My parents, through their own behavior, made it clear to me that education was the greatest gift that our society offered. Both of them had worked exhausting and lowpaying jobs during the Great Depression to get through college, where they met. Our house was lined with bookshelves, and there were also stacks of library books in various convenient spots. I was given to understand that the people who had written those books had each made a great contribution to the world: what was contained between those covers was our civilization. It was classical and biblical culture, history, the sciences, and the arts.
Many years later, after I had begun to earn a living as a professional writer, the choice seemed to me to be a brave and reckless rebellion against the kind of safe, steady, respectable life my parents led. Precisely the opposite was true. They were the ones who convinced me that the best thing I could do with my time was to write books, and the ones who made sacrifices to give me the education to do it. Nobody was more thrilled than they were when my first novel was published, and nobody has followed my work more closely and eagerly since. In casting off the program of behavior that seemed to lead inevitably from kindergarten through college to predictable jobs to retirement and death, I didn't immediately realize that one step built into the program was—and had always been—for me to outgrow the program and invent my own career and place in the world.
In 1965 I graduated from high school and went to Cornell University. In some ways, it was a big change. I had grown up in a small, provincial town where I not only knew most people, but also knew who their parents and grandparents and cousins were. Suddenly I was in a different sort of place, where people were all strangers and all interesting. I remember sitting in Willard Straight Hall, the student union, the first week, and having a conversation with a student who was from Tibet. In another way, Cornell was not a change at all. I had always hoped to attend a great university, and worked hard to get there.
I began to prepare myself for some sort of scholarly life. On admission I was granted twelve units of advanced placement credit and placed in an accelerated section of freshman English. For a time I played with the idea of being a psychology major, because I had formed the impression that psychology must be the best way to understand human behavior. But after I had enrolled in a course, I saw that psychology was cruder and more full of speculation and theory than I had hoped. I wanted definitive answers, and apparently they weren't yet available, so I concluded that psychology was not ready for me. I decided to study what seemed to come most easily, which was English. I applied to be admitted to the honors English program and was accepted.
Professor Walter Slatoff, who had been my freshman English instructor, agreed to be my academic advisor. He had also been the writing instructor of a number of promising young writers-to-be, including Thomas Pynchon. With his help I constructed a program of study that I still believe to have been just about what I needed. I took all of the required honors seminars in English and American literature, as well as upper-division courses in the fields and periods not included. I took ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and modern history, English history, American history. I took a few more psychology courses, zoology, French language, and world literature courses, several anthropology courses. There was still room for some explorations in fields such as the art history of Asia. I took no creative writing courses, but I did receive some valuable criticism from Professor Slatoff. After reading some poems that I had published in Cornell literary magazines and some short stories I had written in class, he told me that I would harm nobody if I continued to write prose fiction, but I had absolutely no talent for poetry, and should not write any more of it.
I joined Zeta Psi fraternity and lived in the house at 660 Stewart Avenue for three years in the usual undergraduate male circumstances of genteel squalor. When my parents visited for the first time, my mother's sharp classroom-teacher eyes took in everything. She disapproved of the sticky foyer floor where beer had been spilled during the party the night before, but approved of the brothers, whom she recognized as people of intelligence and character, who were going to be good for me. They were. Fraternities have been much maligned, and many of them have deserved it. But those years were a valuable time for me, when I took a step beyond self-reliance and began to develop a sense of responsibility to others.
In the summer after my freshman year I was eighteen, so I was legally able to work in a factory for the first time. During the summers from then on, I worked at National Grinding Wheel Company, helping to make large industrial grinding wheels, some of them four feet in diameter. It was heavy, hot work, and the air was full of abrasive grit, but the pay was the sort of money that men raised families on, and not the sort that kids picked up after school. I saved as much as I could, and it helped to defray some of my living expenses at Cornell.
My senior honors essay was called "Escape from Realism: The Novels of John Barth." I had an admiration for Barth, whose work I had discovered in the early 1960s. I considered him to be the most interesting of the group of novelists engaged in a revolt against the extremely realistic American fiction of the first half of the twentieth century. I followed Barth's work from the fairly mainstream early books, The End of the Road and Lost in the Funhouse, through the notexactly historical, comic, eighteenth-century epic the Sot-Weed Factor—my favorite—to the fantastic mythic allegory of Giles Goat-Boy. I remember going to Professor William Sale, a very senior faculty member who was the instructor of my American novel seminar, and asking his advice. Did he think that Barth was a good choice for a senior honors essay? After all, Barth was very popular at the time, but he might not last. Professor Sale studied me for a moment, then said in his Southern drawl, "Then again, Mr. Perry, you may not last either." I took that to mean the subject was approved.
I knew that Barth was a professor of English at the University of Buffalo in those years, so I got up my nerve and called him on the telephone next time I was home. He declined an interview—he had enough students of his own—but he generously answered a couple of my most burning questions, which made my paper much more lively and compelling. I'm still a little bit surprised at myself for intruding on him, but his patient, unassuming voice probably helped me to learn how a writer ought to behave.
During college I also made my first attempt to write a full-length novel. It began with an undergraduate at Cornell (much like me) falling asleep in Uris Library (again, much like me). He awoke to find that the library doors were locked for the night and the staff had gone home. He wandered about in the dimly lighted building, exploring. He met a beautiful girl who—being locked in herself—had nothing better to do than enter into a passionate love affair with him. The rest of the book was devoted to his gradual discovery that the girl was fickle and unfaithful. The tone of the book was self-pitying and the writing unremarkable, but it was a start, a book-length piece of prose fiction that had, if not much complexity, a single-mindedness that could pass for coherence.
Near the end of my undergraduate years, I applied to graduate schools in English literature. For lack of a more original idea, I wanted to earn a Ph.D. and teach English in universities. I was accepted by a few, and chose the University of Rochester. I knew that it was a small English department, and included several professors I had heard of: the Victorian scholar George Ford, the poet Anthony Hecht, the critic Norman O. Brown. Rochester also offered me an National Defense Education Act (NDEA) fellowship, which paid my tuition and provided me with a small stipend to live on.
Graduate school was the first academic experience I recall in which I was not sure I could make it through. The work was time-consuming, demanding, and competitive, and at times the satisfaction of learning did not seem to be reward enough. I was depressed and lonely much of the time during the first year, 1969-70.
That was a condition I shared with a number of other graduate students, including one named Barbara, whom I dated. The loneliness was probably what caused us to make the drastic mistake of getting married. The wedding was in March, 1970.
That year was also the height of the Vietnam war, and the draft. That year Congress instituted a lottery, in which young men were called to service when their birthdays were chosen. My draft board, Local Board 88, served an area with a declining population, so my number, 136, came up almost immediately. I was called in for a physical and reclassified I-A. I knew that if I was drafted into the army, I would be gone at least two years, my fellowship would be given to someone else, and my chance of going to graduate school would be lost.
But a friend of mine had heard that a local Air National Guard unit was about to return from Vietnam, and so there would probably be openings. Although the unit seemed likely to return to Vietnam at some point, I knew that if I served only six months of active duty immediately, I would be able to get the University of Rochester to give me a leave of absence and let me retain my fellowship until I got back. I applied and was enlisted in the unit. During spring break, while I was on my honeymoon, I was called to report for basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
After basic training I was sent to Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, Colorado, for technical school, where I was trained to be a weapons mechanic. Then I was sent back to my home unit at Niagara Falls Air Force Base for a couple of months of active duty on-the-job training. My leave of absence from the University was to end at the beginning of fall semester, so I enrolled in night seminars that semester. I was on the flight line in Niagara Falls at seven each morning, loaded fighter planes with munitions all day, then drove the seventy miles to Rochester and changed my clothes to be in class at seven in the evening. I composed my papers while I drove back on the thruway for the next day on the flight line. After that I served four years inactive duty there and two years in Van Nuys, California, without facing anything worse than bad weather on a flight line.
The marriage did not turn out nearly so well. I think we both were determined not to be the first ones in our families to be divorced, and believed that it must be possible to make a marriage work by sheer determination, so we persisted. Even seven years later, after the marriage had clearly failed and we had separated, we stubbornly and foolishly put off officially divorcing for about three more years.
After the Air Force, I returned to full-time graduate study. Rochester had a great faculty in English, and the trouble I had gone to in order to return there was probably worth it. One of the people who had a lasting positive influence on my thinking about books was Professor William Rueckert. His discussions always began with devising methods of "finding a way into" the book, a process which involved asking ourselves the most basic questions we could think of about it: what first struck us about the book? What was the author trying to accomplish, why did the author choose this vocabulary, why this structure? Professor Rueckert taught me to undo the unintentional conditioning that I, like most graduate students, had received to ignore or even deny the obvious in order to hunt for arcane qualities, because finding minutia had always brought us praise. He was in the habit of referring to intellectual activity as "the life of the mind." I still find that term to be apt, because it reflects the fact that writers, critics, and teachers are all engaged in aspects of the same activity, and are often only different parts of a day in the life of one person. When Rueckert spoke of the life of the mind, he made the words carry the excitement that they deserve.
He was the director of my dissertation. It was called "Knowing in the Novels of William Faulkner." It was a study of Faulkner's epistemology—the ways of knowing, coming to know, telling, or discovery presented in Faulkner's novels. It was a good way "into the books," as Professor Ruekert might have said. It was also a useful way of beginning a life as a writer, because it allowed me to consider Faulkner's techniques of storytelling at the same time as I examined his philosophical concerns. His novels can be seen as demonstrations of his beliefs about the way the human mind works: memory, ability to learn, capacity for error, shock, amazement, and understanding. At the time when I completed this dissertation I still envisioned a full career as a scholar and teacher in universities, and had in mind moving next to a study of Joseph Conrad.
An acquaintance recently sent me a copy of an anthology of articles in epistemology. One of the essays included a long passage from my novel Metzger's Dog, to demonstrate the variety of ways of knowing I had used. I suspect that the emphasis on knowing that the writer detected in my work may have been a product of the thinking I did about the subject so many years ago. It also pleased me to learn that the author of the article had read my work with enough attention to notice.
I received my Ph.D. in English in June, 1974. Jobs for prospective assistant professors of English were scarce that year, and my academic record was not so impressive that I was in much demand. I applied for jobs at a couple of hundred universities, and was offered interviews only at schools in towns where I was not eager to live, and where my wife refused to live. I decided that it was best to put off the notion of teaching for the present.
We drove to Santa Barbara, California, and visited my wife's sister. Her husband was an abalone diver who worked from his twenty-five-foot boat, and he needed a boat tender, so I signed on. He and I would go out on the Pacific to seldom-visited spots off the Channel Islands. I would tie the boat to a bundle of surface strands of the kelp beds. He would go under wearing a mask and wet suit, air hose and regulator, to gather abalone in a net bag. I handled the boat, kept the air compressor running and the air hose untangled, pulled up the abalone, and kept them washed down with sea water so they would stay alive.
Working as a commercial fisherman allowed me to do and see things that I never would have in any other way. When the diver was down, the tender standing on the deck was utterly alone. I could almost never see any human being, and most often could see no signs in any direction that there had ever been such a thing as another human being. For hours, my only contact with the diver was holding the air hose, waiting for the tug that would tell me to pay out more hose, or the three hard tugs that would tell me to haul the diver and his load of abalone up. We would stay on the ocean for as long as it took to get a full load of red abalone, or until the ones we had needed to be brought in before they died and became inedible. Often we would be out for three or four days, and my legs were so used to the boat rolling on the Pacific swells that I had difficulty walking on land. We would pull up to the dock at the harbor and load the abalone into wooden boxes to be winched up into the truck of the seafood wholesaler.
The ocean was beautiful and frightening and comforting by turns. I frequently saw sharks, dolphins, and whales, occasionally coming close to the boat to investigate. Once a young sea lion came out of the water to sun himself on the aft deck of the boat. On a trip back to the harbor at night we went through a school of yellowfin tuna that was miles long, the two-foot fish surging away to the sides of our bow just ahead of us as we came, each one glowing green as it churned up bioluminescent plankton in the water.
After a season of fishing I felt that it was time to return to universities, and that if I didn't return to the academic life while my degree was fresh it was likely I never would. In the summer of 1975 I took a job as assistant to the provost of the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Provost Marvin Mudrick was an English professor and noted critic who had founded the College in 1968 to serve a particular kind of student. The purpose was to educate the small proportion of undergraduate students who were ready to pursue advanced and independent work at an early age. Majors were offered in studio art, biology, chemistry, literature, mathematics, music theory and composition, and physics. My job was to handle the day-to-day administration of the college. I stayed for five years.
I learned a great deal from working at the College, simply because there was so much that had to be done. Marvin Mudrick had invented the institution and, as he put it, ran it out of his back pocket. He also taught a full course load in the English department of the College of Letters and Science. He would park behind the Creative Studies complex each morning around ten or eleven, and come through to see me on the way to his office in the English department's building. Then he would advise students, teach his classes, and come through each afternoon on the way home. During these brief meetings I would tell him what was going on in the college, what decisions I had made about it, and seek his advice or approval for things that required it. After a time in the job I also began to teach one literature course per quarter, which usually met early in the morning, before the office business became too busy.
It was a fascinating place. The instructors were distinguished people chosen by Marvin Mudrick with the advice of the faculty in their fields. The typical student was the sort of person who knows from early childhood what he wants to do with his life, and begins working at it immediately. Any graduating class would include some of the brightest people I have ever met anywhere. The whole college population tended to remain around 150 to 200, but among them have been some of the country's best physicists, mathematicians, artists, and scholars.
One of the parts of my job that I found most entertaining was to have one of these students come into my office with some strange and surprising request, generally something he needed for an experiment or a work of art. I would stretch my imagination for a way to help him get it. Trying to keep the college responsive to such students was a constant challenge. Administering a small college that was part of a medium-sized university, which, in turn, was part of a huge university system, made my life an unending series of lessons. Many of them were about making a bureaucracy work, but most were about people, and they remain important to my life and thought.
The most crucial event of my years at the College was meeting Jo Anne Lee. It happened my first week on the job in 1975. She was a graduate student who was teaching a poetry seminar in the College of Creative Studies. At the time we were both already married, but I could not help being instantly taken with her. During the next few years, as both of our marriages soured, we socialized as couples, neither of us ever hinting to the other that we felt a romantic interest.
It was not until fall, 1979, after I had been separated from my wife for nearly three years, and Jo and her husband let it be known that they were getting a divorce, that I spoke up. In August, 1980, as soon as our divorces were final, we were married by a judge on a private estate in Santa Barbara.
This essay seems to be punctuated by stories about people who taught me something, or moments when my life took a turn, so I have to spend some time on this one. Jo has probably been the greatest single influence on my writing. At about the time when we came together I made other changes in my life which weren't visible to others. For five years I had been consumed by the minutia of administering the College of Creative Studies and the effort of making an academic career.
But suddenly those things did not seem so important anymore. As I looked back on the years I spent at the job, I found that I had difficulty remembering what I had been so busy doing.
I recognized that memory was not a bad test. As I reviewed my life up to that point, the parts I remembered clearly had little to do with the jobs I had held. It seemed insane to keep bestowing such importance on them. I decided that the center of gravity of my life had to be shifted away from careers to the parts of life that I would experience vividly enough to at least be able to remember afterward. One of them was writing.
I had continued to write almost daily from the time when I was in high school. I wrote stories, journals, reflections, several experimental longer works, a couple of novels. Now I began to see writing less as a secret vice and more as a legitimate activity. Jo and I freed each other to invest less of ourselves in courting the favorable opinions of others and more in attempting the things we needed to do. She encouraged me to write, and tried to protect my time to do it. Since 1979 she has always been the first reader and critic of anything I write. I have always tried to do the same for her.
A few months after the wedding we moved to Los Angeles, where I had gotten an administrative job at the University of Southern California. Jo spent her days working on her doctoral dissertation, much of the time in the rare book collection of the William Andrews Clark Library in central Los Angeles. At U.S. C., my title was assistant coordinator of the General Education Program. I oversaw the system of faculty committees that established and maintained the breadth requirements for undergraduates in several schools and colleges. I also examined the syllabi, reading lists, tests, and paper topics of the various courses approved for General Education credit to ensure that they continued to meet the standards established by the faculty committees. The work had a peculiar combination of mind-stunning boredom and tension, but I found that by then I had achieved a certain sense of proportion and equanimity. There was also a certain pleasure in talking to faculty members in a wide variety of disciplines, and using the opportunity to learn what I could.
In my spare time, as always, I wrote. I was thirty-three years old and had never considered myself "a writer," or admitted to anyone but my wife Jo and my closest friends that I wrote fiction. But in 1980 I finished the first book-length manuscript I'd written that I sensed might be of interest to people who weren't relatives. It was called The Butcher's Boy. It had begun primarily as an exercise in subjectivity and multiple points of view. The story is about a professional killer who suddenly finds that his employers, organized crime bosses, have decided he is a liability. His response is to go on a violent rampage across the country, murdering high-ranking members of various crime families and trying to play on the families' mutual suspicion to cause confusion so he can escape. We follow not only the killer, but also members of the law enforcement community, who learn of each of the violent events a day or two after they've happened and form plausible, but wrong, theories about what is going on in the underworld. Only one, a Justice Department employee named Elizabeth Waring, ever forms an accurate theory, and she is ignored by her bosses.
I had no clear idea of how to submit a book for publication, but once again I got lucky. I happened to see an article in a magazine. It was the second of a pair of articles by a journalist about how difficult it was to have anything published. For his first article, I gathered, he had typed out one hundred pages of a novel which had won a number of big literary prizes the previous year—I believe it was Jerzy Kosinski's Painted Bird—and submitted it to publishers under another name. None of them recognized it, and none of them felt that it was good enough for publication. After his article appeared in the magazine, apparently readers had written letters complaining that his experiment had been unfair: he had not gone about getting the editors' attention in a professional way.
He repeated the process. For his second article, he scrupulously followed the correct procedure. He started by trying to get a literary agent. He obtained a list of reputable agents from the Authors' Guild. He wrote each one a letter of inquiry, to which he attached a one-page summary of the work. If an agent expressed an interest in reading his hundred-page sample, he sent it. Once again, nobody recognized the work, and nobody thought it might be worthy of publication.
I knew that this article was intended to convince me that it was virtually impossible to get a work of fiction published, but instead, it told me exactly how to go about it. I followed his procedure, beginning at the top of the alphabetical list. The first agent who read my manuscript and liked it was the late Lurton Blassingame. He sold the book to Suzanne Kirk at Charles Scribner's Sons. It was published in 1982, and won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America in 1983.
I should take a moment to say a bit more about this experience. I was phenomenally lucky to have all of this happen. The sudden change in my life required the help of two strangers. One was the agent Lurton Blassingame, who was elderly at the time and retired shortly after giving me a career. The other is Susanne Kirk, the editor at Scribner's who recognized that the manuscript had promise. In 2000, the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association compiled a list of books they called their One Hundred Favorite Mysteries of the Century. I think at least a quarter of the books on that list had been edited by Suzanne Kirk. She probably has discovered more mystery writers than anyone alive.
If the strongest force in human life is luck, the second is persistence. I was thirty-four when the book was published, and had been writing for over twenty years. At that moment I became a professional writer, which was what I had always secretly wanted to be, but had never entertained much hope of becoming. It happened some time after I had already grown comfortable with the idea that I would never see publication, but would always write for my own amusement. I wrote for fun, and I had a lot of fun, so I had learned to consider myself well rewarded. I have sometimes wondered whether the timing was only a coincidence, or whether perhaps relinquishing the distracting notion of outside recognition was necessary before I could learn to write. It's possible that I had to reach the point where I stopped thinking about being a writer, and concentrated completely on writing. We learn to write by practice, not by publication.
I continued in my job at U.S.C., and kept writing in my spare time. My wife Jo finished her dissertation, received her Ph.D., taught at Ventura College, and then took a job at U.S.C. also, running and teaching in an honors general education program. Once again, she and I worked in the same building. I was already at work on my second book, which was to be a thriller called The Lord's Show. It was about a corrupt and ambitious television evangelist who used religious bigotry and blackmail to make a run for the U.S. presidency. When it was finished, the people at Scribner's found the idea unthinkable, and therefore, unpublishable. I was disappointed, but I did what I would have done if the book had been a success: I sat down and began to write another.
My second second book was a comic thriller called Metzger's Dog. I built much of it around a character I had developed for The Lord's Show. It was the easiest writing experience I had for many years. I wrote a page or two each night when I came home from work until the story was finished. Jo typed the pages for me, and then I sent it to New York. It was published essentially as it was written, and was a big critical success, selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
This established a pattern that has lasted. I seem to write a book that is difficult or even proves impossible, and then one that goes easily and smoothly. I have always believed that the most important task a writer has is to try to become a better writer. This ambition requires a few rules. The most obvious is that he should never write the same book twice. He should never be afraid to pursue a new idea, no matter how inconvenient or unpleasant it will be if the idea turns out to be a failure. The failures do come, and so do books that are simply hard, exhausting work. But they are often followed by books that come to me almost as quickly and easily as I can write them down. I think—or console myself by thinking—that the difficult books may be when the learning is taking place, and they are the price a writer has to pay to reach the next stage of development.
In publishing The Butcher's Boy and Metzger's Dog, I met some other people important in my life and career. The first was Robert Wunsch. He began life as a Hollywood literary agent, then became a television network executive, studio executive, and movie producer. When I met him in 1982 he was returning to the business of representing screenwriters, founding his own agency for the first time. I became one of his first clients, and he immediately sold movie options on my first two books. Because there were many people in the studios who knew him to be a brilliant and honorable man, his business grew and thrived. In 1983, after Metzger's Dog came out, I complained to him that I wasn't satisfied with the New York literary agent with whom I had worked after Mr. Blasssingame's retirement. He said he would introduce me to someone he knew.
A day later I received an introductory call from the agent Robert Lescher, a longtime New York literary agent who had at one time been the youngest president of a major publishing house, and now had a long list of extremely distinguished clients. In the twenty years since then I have relied upon these two men to give me literary and business advice, sell my work, and be my friends. Bob Lescher is still my agent, and when Bob Wunsch retired from the agency business, he did not retire from the role of friend and advisor. I learned early always to try to ally myself with people who were better than I was, and I have never had cause to regret it.
A few months later, I was in my office at U.S.C., meeting with two professors about a course, when the telephone rang. It was a man named Jim Korris, who identified himself as a vice president at Universal Television. He had read Metzger's Dog, and liked the dialogue. He wondered whether I would be interested in writing scripts. I thanked him but said no: I knew nothing about scripts, and had never even seen one. He asked me to think about it, and he would call me the next day.
I performed my substitute for thinking: I went down the hall to Jo's office and said, "What do you think?" She answered, "Go talk to him. You might find that you like it. And if you get into trouble on a script, I'll help you." She had at least seen a script, and knew something about television. Her father, Charles Lee, had been a comedy writer for Bob Hope for about thirty years.
Bob Wunsch offered to go with me to see Jim Korris, and we found him encouraging and reassuring, so I said I'd be willing to try. A few days later he sent me to see Richard Chapman, producer of a prime-time television show called Simon & Simon, which was a detective series with a comic mood. I pitched some stories to the staff, was given the assignment of turning one of them into a one-hour script, did get into trouble, and did accept Jo's help. We had worked together in a couple of situations already, and we found writing television scripts together to be a pleasure. We accepted other assignments, and our work was well received.
Jo and I continued to work at U.S.C. through July, 1984. It was the year of the Los Angeles Olympics, and U.S.C. was going to be one of the locations. As always, protecting the athletes was a concern of the authorities. Our building overlooked a couple of practice fields and an entrance to the campus, so the police wanted to evacuate our floor and use our offices, presumably for surveillance or sniper posts. It seemed to us that a phase of our lives was coming to a natural end. When we cleaned out our belongings to make way for the police, we announced that we would not be coming back.
Instead, we accepted an offer to work at Universal Studios as coproducers on the writing staff of Simon & Simon. We remained there for two seasons, then were invited by the producers Richard Chapman and Bill Dial to work for them at Disney Studios. We were made producers on the staff of a show called Sidekicks, then supervising producers of a show called The Oldest Rookie. Then we worked for Viacom on a series called Snoops. By then it was the end of 1989. As that show was being cancelled in December, 1989, our first daughter was born, and life changed again.
We named her Alix, after Alex Londres, an old friend who had died the previous year, with the middle name Elizabeth, after my mother. Jo announced that she was going to be a full-time stay-at-home mother. Being television writer/producers was an engaging, time-consuming activity. It had been a pleasure, but it seemed to me that going off to work in television without Jo would change the experience. Working together had brought us closer than most couples ever get, but working alone would simply be a job. I decided I would stay home too and write books, and we would do a bit of freelance television writing together when the opportunity came up. In 1992, our second daughter, Isabel Rose, was born.
Writing for television taught me more than I can repeat here. Contrary to legend, we found most people in television to be well educated, intelligent, and generous. They were willing to take the time and effort to teach us how to do it. But the work teaches its own lessons. Writing for actors is instructive. It's a wonderful test of dialogue to see if it can be said aloud by a living human being.
Writing for a camera gives a writer a firm sense of points of view. Who is seeing this scene? What can he see from here, and exactly how does it look? How can we convey for a viewer what is going on, without having a narrator to explain or interpret it? Television forces the writer to develop a sense of pace. Watching your own work being acted out teaches you to detect when a scene is over. There are few feelings as distressing as watching a scene you have written that goes on and on after it should have ended.
Television is also a wonderful school for learning various kinds of self-discipline. One is the ability to work quickly and reliably. On the day when a television series goes into production, about eighty highly compensated men and women begin to draw salaries, standing sets are built in sound stages, locations are rented, costumes made or bought, and air dates are scheduled. The idea that episodes will not be filmed, edited, and ready to air each week is unthinkable. Before they are filmed, they must be conceived, pitched to producers and executives, written and rewritten. These are deadlines that are hard and unchangeable: if they are not met, then careers, not just jobs, end.
Television writers work as members of a staff. The writer must learn, not just to tolerate criticism, but to give it—everyone's livelihood depends on the quality
of everyone else's script—and to make use of it. This requires a conscious taming of the ego, a willingness to forego defenses and excuses and listen closely to advice. This ability is of enormous help to a novelist. It allows him to transform the comments of editors into valuable suggestions, and the words of critics and reviewers and readers into lessons he can incorporate to improve his next work. A writer's ego is what will kill him, so he has to try to kill it first. A wise writer will learn to be attentive to criticism and highly suspicious of praise. Negative criticism goads us to work harder to make the next work better. Praise can make a writer behave like a dog that knows one trick and does it over and over to keep receiving the praise.
After Jo and I stopped accepting staff jobs in television, we still did some freelance work. We wrote three scripts for 21 Jump Street at Cannell Productions, one for Star Trek: The Next Generation at Paramount, and a couple for less memorable series.
During the television years I wrote the novels Big Fish, Island, and Sleeping Dogs in my spare time at night and on weekends. My next project was an instructive failure. I began a novel about the destruction caused by a series of earthquakes in Los Angeles. It was to be the definitive California earthquake novel. I obtained the state of California's earthquake contingency plan so I knew what was likely to happen to the roads, bridges, major buildings, pipelines, and neighborhoods. I read the latest books by seismologists about the locations, frequency, and energy of possible quakes, and set to work. I planted a diverse cast of characters all over Southern California, and followed them as their lives were revealed, tested, and changed in shocking ways by the natural disaster and the chaos and anarchy that followed. When the manuscript had grown to 865 pages with no end in sight, I began to suspect that something was wrong. I passed it to the readers I trusted: my wife, Jo; my literary agent, Bob Lescher; our L.A. agent, Bob Wunsch. I waited. One by one they revealed the truth. The book was so dull that none of them could finish it.
I didn't finish it either. I put the manuscript in a closet and considered what I should turn to next. It seemed to me that I had gotten lost in the complexity of Los Angeles without being able to make anything coherent of it. I decided that it might be time to write about the place where I was born and grew up, the western end of New York State. I began to think and read about the place, and to try to understand it by moving backward in time. I tried making notes on my own ancestors, but that took me back only a hundred years. The slice of land bordered by Lake Ontario and Lake Erie has been inhabited since the last ice age, and possibly before the ice receded. The most interesting things that had happened there had probably occurred before the first Europeans arrived.
I had other intentions at the same time. To aid in my attempt to learn to be a better writer, I had decided my next book should have a female protagonist. It seemed to me that no novelist can be very good without writing well about the other half of the population. If I found that I wasn't able to write convincingly about a woman, then I had better learn as soon as possible, and I would use this book to teach myself. I was also playing with an idea about a profession for my heroine. I was fascinated with the idea of a provider of false identities. I was aware that millions of people in this country, for one reason or another, use names, histories, or credentials that aren't theirs. When there is such a large demand, there will be a supplier.
One day all of these elements came together in my mind and I invented the character Jane Whitefield, and began to write Vanishing Act. Jane is a Seneca Indian.
Because her profession requires that she not be visually identifiable as a Native American—a member of a relatively small group who would be fairly easy for a pursuer to trace—she is the product of a mixed marriage, has lighter skin than most Senecas, and blue eyes. The six Iroquois nations still live pretty much where they always did in New York State, and fit comfortably into the mix of people, so they are not always recognizable. When I lived in the area, I knew a few people who were members of the Seneca, Mohawk, or Tuscarora nations who had light skin or hair, so Jane's appearance seemed in keeping with reality.
Jane sees the land of western New York as we see it, modern buildings on a network of streets, with the land in between mostly fenced and planted. But she also sees it as it has been, a remnant of the immense forest that ran from the Atlantic to the Mississippi and from James Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. She knows that the roads of the present are merely paved-over portions of the great trails of the Iroquois through the forest. She knows that big events—alliances and treaties, pitched battles, and epidemics—happened on still-identifiable spots in New York State. She also sees the land as it is in the stories and myths of her family's culture. The myths of the Iroquois are tied to specific addresses. Heno the Thunderer doesn't live in some remote part of the sky. He has his residence in a cave behind the cascade of Niagara Falls. You can drive to the place where the Senecas came into being on a great hill: it's at the foot of Seneca Lake near Naples, New York.
Jane calls herself a "guide." People who believe they are about to be murdered come to her for help. She takes them in, transports them to distant places where nobody knows them, provides them with new identities, and teaches them to live as new people. It is a profession she invented for herself, but it has certain echoes of cultural attitudes and historical practices of the Senecas. From before the first contact with Europeans, they were always taking in large numbers of strangers—captives, refugees from distant wars, fugitives—and adopting them. They would give them whole new identities, including new names, sets of relatives, and responsibilities.
After I had finished Vanishing Act, I felt I was not finished with the character, so I wrote Dance for the Dead, then Shadow Woman, The Face-Changers, and Blood Money. Each book appeared a year after the last, and they present five years in Jane's life.
Although I had always been reluctant to write a series of books about the same character, I believe that writing these five novels was good for me. It helped me to think and write more deeply and in a more concentrated way about one human being and set of circumstances than I had before. The series introduced my work to a larger audience than any of my earlier works. The books particularly appealed to women, who welcomed a strong, self-reliant, and capable female character. I like to believe that the five-year exercise of thinking about Jane and her concerns has helped me to make later female characters a bit more like real women.
After five volumes, it seemed to be time to turn my attention to other projects. Writing a series is a very comfortable enterprise. Readers like to read the later adventures of a character they've come to know, so there's a strong temptation to keep giving them what they want. But it seems to me that being comfortable is not the way to improve. The important question must always be, which project is the one most likely to make me a better writer? A sixth novel about Jane Whitefield seemed to me not to be the answer. I do hope that at some point I will get to write another novel about Jane Whitefield, but I would like to do it when I have learned something new about her that's worthy of a reader's attention. I left her at the end of Blood Money living happily with her husband the doctor in Amherst, New York, but secretly keeping her cache of false driver's licenses and credit cards current.
The first book I wrote after the series was called Death Benefits. It is a coming-of-age novel about a young San Francisco executive trainee named John Walker. Just as Walker is getting used to his first job at the McLaren Insurance Company, beginning to feel confident that he knows what is expected of him, he comes into the office one morning and finds Max Stillman. Stillman is a gruff veteran detective hired by the company to look into a case of life insurance fraud, and he has determined that Walker is the one who is going to assist him. He drags Walker into a dangerous and difficult investigation which reveals that what seems to be merely a stolen death benefit is a part of a much larger scheme that includes a series of murders. In the process Walker learns life-changing lessons about himself and the world.
Next I wrote Pursuit, in which a professional killer named Varney is pursued by an avenger named Roy Prescott. Prescott is a specialist hired by families of victims of unsolved murders to find the killers that the police can't. Prescott is not especially interested in capturing the killer and bringing him into a police station. What he's interested in is creating a situation where he and the killer will be alone and can finish their competition uninterrupted. For both men, the pursuit becomes a contest to see who is the best. The notion behind the book is a character study of the two men, who are in some ways the same, but in others absolutely different, each one practically born for his present role. The two play out their duel at the highest level of competence, guile, ruthlessness, and cunning that I was able to manage.
In my next book, Dead Aim, a middle-aged man named Robert Mallon, who has retired young and lives a solitary life in Santa Barbara, is out for his daily walk on the beach when he sees a young woman step into the ocean and disappear. He swims out to where she went under, pulls her to shore and revives her, only to discover that she is in despair: she had been trying to commit suicide. Mallon spends the next few hours getting to know her and trying to convince her that life is good and that she must choose to live. When she says she's hungry, he drives to a restaurant to buy a take-out dinner, but returns to find that she is gone. Two days later he learns that she walked to her car and used a gun she had hidden there to kill herself.
Mallon becomes obsessed with finding out why she felt that she had to die. He hires an old friend named Lydia Marks who has become a private detective, and the two begin an investigation of the life and death of the young woman, Catherine Broward.
This book was an attempt to see the novel of suspense in different and unfamiliar ways. One thing it's about is the value of human life. I have always tried to portray violence realistically: it is frightening and ugly, and I try to represent it that way. The major antagonist in this novel is a man named Michael Parish, who offers instruction in self-defense at his complex in the Los Padres National Forest, but makes much of his money by promoting its opposite. He offers wealthy clients the chance to hunt the victims of their choice for the thrill of it. In describing the deaths of each of his victims, but especially in the murder of Lydia Marks, I wanted to make the reader feel both the callous easiness of the crime and its real immensity—to understand that all murder victims are somebody's old friend, a person who helped somebody when he needed it, a person who might have been a lover.
At the center of the book is Robert Mallon, who is not at all like the protagonists of novels of suspense. He is a man who, at the start, has already begun to let himself die. Since his divorce he has retired from his work, stopped having serious relationships with women, gone to live in a city where he doesn't belong and isn't a member of the community. Trying in vain to keep the young Catherine Broward from sentencing herself to death reminds him of how precious life is, but it takes having to fight desperately for his own survival to revive in him the will to immerse himself in life again.
Since that book appeared a few months ago I have been finishing the first draft of another book, which if published would be my fourteenth. I continue to believe that at the moment the best way for me to learn more about writing is to keep trying new and challenging stories about aspects of human life that I have not explored in the same ways before.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Armchair Detective, spring, 1994, pp. 143-144.
Book, January, 2001, Randy Michael Signor, review of Death Benefits, p. 79.
Booklist, March 1, 1992, p. 1163; January 1, 1998, review of Shadow Woman (audio version), p. 835; April 15, 1998, Bill Ott, review of The Face-Changers, p. 1392; September 1, 1999, Bill Ott, review of Blood Money, p. 8; October 15, 2000, Connie Fletcher, review of Death Benefits, p. 424; December 1, 2001, Carrie Bissey, review of Pursuit, p. 633; October 1, 2002, Kristine Huntley, review of Dead Aim, p. 275.
Chicago Tribune, January 17, 1988; May 22, 1992, section 5, p. 3.
Entertainment Weekly, April 12, 1996, p. 62; January 7, 2000, Tom De Haven, review of Blood Money, p. 60.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1992, p. 211; February 1, 1996, p. 167; April 15, 1998, review of The Face-Changers, p. 520; November 1, 1999, review of Blood Money, p. 1669; November 15, 2000, review of Death Benefits, p. 1567.
Kliatt, September, 1998, review of Vanishing Act, p. 6.
Library Journal, February 1, 1982; April 15, 1992, p. 122; May 15, 1998, Jo Ann Vicarel, review of The Face-Changers, p. 116; August, 1998, Juleigh Muirhead Clark, review of The Face-Changers (audio version), p. 153; October 1, 1999, Ronnie H. Terpening, review of Blood Money, p. 136; October 1, 2002, Jo Ann Vicarel, review of Dead Aim, p. 129.
Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1985.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 21, 1996, p. 4.
New York Times, May 3, 1982; September 27, 1983; May 7, 1992, p. C20; January 23, 1995, p. C16.
New York Times Book Review, August 22, 1982; April 10, 1988; May 24, 1992, p. 25; February 5, 1995, p. 30; May 5, 1996, p. 29; July 5, 1998, review of The Face-Changers, p. 16; January 9, 2000, Marilyn Stasio, review of Blood Money; January 28, 2001, Marilyn Stasio, review of Death Benefits, p. 16; December 23, 2001, Marilyn Stasio, review of Pursuit, p. 13.
People, January 14, 2002, review of Pursuit, p. 39.
Playboy, February, 1995, p. 28.
Publishers Weekly, March 2, 1992, p. 50; April 13, 1998, review of The Face-Changers, p. 48; October 18, 1999, review of Blood Money, p. 69; October 23, 2000, "What's Your Motive?" p. 43; November 6, 2000, review of Death Benefits, p. 69; December 3, 2001, review of Pursuit, p. 42; September 23, 2002, review of Dead Aim, p. 46.
Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1998, review of Shadow Woman, p. 21.
Washington Post Book World, April 20, 1992, p. 1; July 18, 1982; September 18, 1983; June 16, 1985; January 15, 1995, p. 6; June 30, 1996, p. 6; July 12, 1998, review of The Face-Changers, p. 8.
http://Indentity Theory.com,http://www.identitytheory.com/ (May 12, 2003), interview with Perry.
Mystery Ink Online,http://www.mysteryinkonline.com/ (May 12, 2003), interview with Perry and reviews of his books.
Romantic Times,http://www.romantictimes.com/ (January 21, 2001), Laurie Davie, review of Blood Money.