Friday, January 3, 2020

The Scoop on author J.P. Smith, a guest blog

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: J.P. Smith made a splash (no pun intended) with his first foray into thrillers, THE DROWNING. Now he's back with a delightfully creepy tale of domestic suspense, IF SHE WERE DEAD. This thriller, which Publisher's Weekly calls "taut and twisted," features an author who may or may not be ready to leave her married lover; his wife, who may or may not want to be friends; and the man in the middle, who may or may not be telling the truth... How does J.P. handle all this? He's going to give you the scoop today.



The Scoop on author J.P. Smith


My Favorite Unreliable Narrators

The unreliable narrator has, I think, always been a staple of the thriller genre (as well as literary fiction—Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier is famous for it). Having a narrator who seems perfectly innocent and relatable while engaging in planning, say, a homicide, is both a great challenge and, if you can carry it off, great fun to write. I think of Dorothy Hughes’s classic noir In a Lonely Place,  much darker than the movie starring Humphrey Bogart. And there are Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels. It’s all about co-opting the reader into becoming comfortable with this character before the more sinister side is revealed. And the notion that Ripley is so matter-of-fact in how he carries out his crimes (including, of course, murder) makes it even more chilling. 






My Secrets for Building Suspense


I really learned how to write thrillers by writing screenplays in that genre. Scripts are highly-structured things, and it’s always vital when writing them that you always wonder what the audience is thinking from one scene to the next, so you’re constantly playing upon their expectations, throwing plot reversals at them and ratcheting up the beats and plot points until, one hopes, the audience holds its breath until the final moments of the last act. It’s about subverting their expectations, because all readers and viewers come in believing that they know how the book or the movie will roll out .



On the surface, If She Were Dead seems first and foremost a novel about obsession and betrayal, but it’s also a book about revenge, about how a novelist, in this case Amelie Ferrar, can allow her imagination to carry her into a far crazier territory than she could have ever anticipated. And yet she’s a best-selling writer, featured in Vogue, drawing huge crowds to her signings and readings. 


Writing an “unhinged” character


I wrote a female protagonist before, in my fifth novel, Breathless, though that’s a very different kind of bookUnlike Jill Bowman in the earlier novel, Amelie has a public face that she feels she must maintain at all times, presenting a person of poise and composure, flush with the success that comes with being a bestselling author. While inside she’s breaking down, losing the thread, moving into a dangerous zone. As with Catherine Deneuve’s character in the film Repulsion, her world begins to shatter into pieces. 



My End Process

I had the ending before I wrote the book. Yes, the tail wagged the dog. It came to me one day: how to reset history and to get revenge upon someone who is suddenly beyond your reach, forever denied to you.



For the reader, Amelie becomes the world of the book. You play by her rules, you follow her path, you watch how her future takes shape, and you let her manipulate you


My most influential authors



I came to the genre from certain French writers. While living in England in the late 70s, and I was teaching myself French, I fell upon the works of Patrick Modiano, who back then was neither very well known in America and a long way from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. 



His works, although they don’t conform in a formal way to the thriller and mystery genre, are really mysteries. The narrator, who stands in for Modiano, is like a detective, looking for clues into his own past, his own enigma, or searching for a missing person. I also discovered RenĂ© Belletto, not at all known here in America, whose works mixes genres—literary, crime, thriller, and even at brief times science fiction. But it’s his thriller writing that comes at the genre from a particularly wry angle—never resorting to the usual tropes of the genre—that intrigued me. 



I came to admire the great Jean-Patrick Manchette, whose thrillers are now much better known here thanks to the translations that have been published. Whether writing about a political kidnapping that goes horrible wrong, or a hit man on the verge of retirement who is brought in from the cold to take on one last job, his books are always worth reading and rereading




The Writing Life



For forty years I’ve written every day. I don’t outline as I would a screenplay. Writing a script is like making a puzzle and then scattering the pieces in a particular way so the audience watches it being constructed on the screen before them. You really do have to know how it’s going to end before you start on the first page. 



A novel is more of a journey. We follow one path, come to a crossroads, follow another path and maybe even find that the story we began writing has taken a new direction. I generally have an idea how it’s going to end, though sometimes I even surprise myself by the detours I take.



As for If She Were Dead, I began it some twenty years ago, completed a draft and set it aside. It was missing something. I had a character I very much liked, but I needed to take her to into a darker realm. I returned to it often, revising and rewriting, until I realized that this was, in fact, a sometimes darkly-comic thriller about obsession and madness and revenge. 



JULIA: What are some of your favorite stories of obsession, madness and revenge, dear readers? Do you like an unreliable 
narrator? And what exactly are the differences between screenplays and novels?

You can find out more about J.P. Smith, his novels, and his other writing at his web site. You can friend him on Facebook, talk books with him on Goodreads, and follow him on Twitter as @JPSmith8. If She Were Dead will be published by Poisoned Pen Press/ Sourcebooks on January 7, 2020.

52 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Congratulations on your new book . . . “If She Were Dead” sounds like an exciting story.

    As for stories of obsession, “Misery” [Stephen King] immediately comes to mind; there’s an unreliable narrator [of which I am only a sometimes fan] in “The Girl on the Train” [Paula Hopkins] . . . .

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Misery is always the first one I think of, too!

      Delete
    2. I have to agree, Misery was my first thought, too.

      Delete
  3. congratulations on your new release! I'm so leery of unreliable narrators that when a "suspense" book is written in first person, I automatically assume she's not at all who she says she is.
    Michael Connelly, The Poet

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I cannot believe I haven’t read that! So many people talk about it!

      Delete
    2. Michael Connelly's The Poet is a truly remarkable book. Make time to read it. I think he has great characters and plots, this book rises to the top.

      Delete
  4. Congratulations on the new book!

    Stories of obsession yes, MISERY comes immediately to mind.

    Unreliable narrators? Gotta admit I'm not a fan - but that may be because they've saturated the market for so long. The very first unreliable narrator I ever read in the THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD didn't bother me so much. Maybe it's because today's unreliable narrators are almost invariably women with drinking/emotional problems and I'm just beyond that trend as a reader.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. from J.P.:Many thanks for your congrats, Liz! But this is not a novel narrated in the first-person. And though alcohol is consumed, Amelie is hardly a binge drinker. I assure you that this is not another Girl on the Train!

      Delete
  5. I love stories about obsession—and The Drowning was terrific! Cannot wait to read this new one . JP—how do you handle motivation? To make the character’s passion seem logical?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. From JP: Great question, Hank. I think the way to do it is to start at a level place. I show Amelie having her eyes examined, preparing for an interview and a reading from her latest novel. So far, so good. But the cracks are beginning to show. She’s turned 40 and has been in an affair with a married man for two years. She’s frustrated that they can’t move on. And then we slowly watch as her world begins to crumble around her, as all the while she maintains her public persona: single mother, successful writer.

      Delete
  6. J.P. is fighting the Google glitch and having trouble commenting—he’s going to send me his replies and I will post. So keep those comments and questions coming!

    ReplyDelete
  7. And let me say, too, I think all narrators are unreliable—especially first person. Because no matter what, they are telling us THEIR story. Think about Scarlett O’Hara or Scout Finch—they’re telling us about their world through their eyes, not through absolute reality. That’s what makes a good story!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Excellent point, Hank. I've never thought of it that way.

      Delete
    2. I agree absolutely. I always say my protagonist Russ Van Alstyne is an unreliable narrator of his own life, particularly in the early books, because what he believes and how things are are two different things.

      Delete
  8. Replies
    1. Yay! Victory over the dreaded Google Monster!

      Delete
  9. Oh, gosh - I vividly remember seeing REPULSION... and wishing ever after that I could UN-see it. Terrifying. And I agree with Hank - all narrators are unreliable. Each one is, as the cliche goes, the hero of their own story. But the unreliable narrator who deliberately lies to the reader is in a different category. It's super hard to pull off without having the reader feel you cheated. Like walking a tightrope. JP, I'm interested in how you manage to pull it off.

    ReplyDelete
  10. @brianas_best_readsJanuary 3, 2020 at 9:42 AM

    Congrats on the new book! I read it last week and absolutely loved it! Readers are in for a wild ride!

    @brianas_best_reads

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thank you so much, Briana! Hallie, my protagonist isn’t a liar and she’s not even the narrator. What is unreliable is the world she’s created for herself.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Much trickier to pull off and much more interesting!

      Delete
    2. So interesting! And cannot wait to read this..it is right on my nightstand!

      Delete
  12. Okay, now that you said that this is not another Girl On A train I am excited! That book certainly put me off anything with Girl in the title, of which there were so many for a while. I thought the way you compared writing a screenplay and writing a novel was very interesting. Looking forward to reading this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, Judi, I'm with you there. It's not the author's fault - once a certain style book sells as MUCH as Girl on a Train/ Gone Girl, everyone wants to try to catch a bit of the magic; thus, sound-alike titles and look-alike covers.

      Delete
  13. Obsession makes me think of Moby Dick and of the Clint Eastwood movie, The Beguiled. And of course Scarlet was obsessed with Ashley Wilkes. And wasn't Bette Davis obsessed with Henry Fonda in Jezebel? I'm having trouble with the narrator portion of this--bad memory! But I would say Hank's Murder List would fill the bill. Tales of revenge? The Count of Monte Cristo!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. How about the movie Fatal Attraction?

      Delete
    2. I thought of that. For some reason I thought stalker instead of obsession.

      Delete
    3. Oh, Beguiled. I HATE that movie. The real one, not the remake. Which I won't even imagine. I can't even think about it. :-) Ahh.

      Delete
    4. ANd oh, thank you! Wait til you read THE FIRST TO LIE. :-)

      Delete
    5. BEGUILED is a movie that has NOT aged very well.

      Delete
    6. Definitely didn't age well at all. I'm not sure I got all the way through it. My son did and he hated it.

      Delete
    7. Yes! Moby Dick is a story about obsession!

      Delete
  14. Very excited to read your latest. JP. I love obsession stories, because don't we all get obsessed at one point or another? What? Just me? LOL.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We're just glad your obsession seems to be writing novels, Jenn :-)

      Delete
    2. If someone's a stalker, I think, then someone's obsessed! I'm sure there are lots of women and men who receive a barrage of emails from an admirer (co-worker, friend, whatever) who is completely clueless as to your intentions; being that you're not interested. That's the kind of obsession that could sit quietly in the internet, or could blossom into something more dangerous.

      Delete
  15. J. P. Smith, Congratulations on your new book! It sounds intriguing.
    I have never thought about narrators being unreliable but now, that will color everything I read, especially when the story is told in first person. Because, although I've always known that stories are told from a particular point of view, just as history is recorded by the victors, it never occurred to me that I haven't been trusting the storyteller.
    Obsession is a theme that can be approached from either side of the story. The obsessive killer or the detective, obsessed with solving the crime. Revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo is a perfect example, Pat D.
    What a thought-provoking blog today.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No one's mentioned the first novel I think of about obsession: Scott Spencer's ENDLESS LOVE. Not the movie version, which pretties it up (literally) with a gauzy Brooke Shields. The book takes us inside the head of a teen who becomes a violent stalker. Very creepy and amazingly well-written.

      Delete
    2. Right? Besides Scarlett and Scout as I said, Nick Carraway, right? Tom Sawyer. ANd yes, especially in first person--it's ALL about them, and that's why they are so fun to read (and write) because we are trained to think a character is telling the TRUTH. When it's only ever--and only can be-- THEIR truth.

      Delete
    3. Thank you so much, Judy. I think that a first-person narration can be more effective for an unreliable narrator. As I mentioned in the piece that introduced the forum, there are two titles which are truly effective, Ford's The Good Soldier, about a romantic triangle, and Dorothy B. Hughes's In a Lonely Place, which is also one of the great noirs of American literature. What's unreliable in my book is Amelie's perception of her own reality. As a novelist, she wants her life to follow a certain pattern. But it's life, and what she can't see that has become unreliable. The rug is being pulled out from under her. And she, the clever bestselling novelist, just can't grasp it until, well, it may be too late!

      Delete
    4. I think I would also mention Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, both about women who are totally subsumed by their obsession for a man who is not their husband.

      Delete
  16. What a fascinating thought that all narrators are essentially unreliable. One more layer of the onion to peel back when I read!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Kait, if you go to see the new movie of LITTLE WOMEN, they sort of play with this idea toward the end. I highly recommend the movie to everyone.

      Delete
    2. Yes, I think of it all the time--the character is not lying, simply living in their own truly-perceived reality.

      Delete
    3. Absolutely looking forward to
      seeing this.

      Delete
  17. Back in my early days of reading, the dinosaur age, I would have answered that I wouldn't care for an unreliable narrator. Thankfully, I have grown in my reading and love and unreliable narrator now. I love the twists to the plots that come with them. One of my favorite books with an unreliable narrator is Clare Mackintosh's I Let You Go. The twist created by the unreliable narrator in this book gobsmacked me with glee. As for obsession, well, I have to agree that Stephen King's Misery is what first comes to mind for me, too.

    J.P., I'm intrigued by your new book and will be adding it to my TBR list for 2020.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I Let You Go--the BEST. I GASPED! Absolutely. And then went back to see how she did it.

      Misery. Well, confession. I have never read it. Too upsetting.

      Love you, dear Kathy!

      Delete
  18. Thank you, Kathy. Hope you enjoy it, twists and all!

    ReplyDelete
  19. JP Smith, welcome to Jungle Reds. I grew up watching many French films because they had English subtitles, light years before the advent of movie theaters with Rear Window Captions. And congratulations on your books!

    Diana

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Bibliophile! Great to hear from you!

      Delete