Friday, September 13, 2013

Which Came First? On Prequels

HANK:  When Len Rosen is famous, really really famous, and he will be, I'm gonna be so thrilled to say I knew him when.... 
Len Rosen is amazing. A brilliant writer, a brilliant storyteller, thoughtful and careful and passionate and...I had the joy of reading his first novel, ALL CRY CHAOS, when I was on the Edgar judging committee. From moment one, it was brilliant. I will say brilliant again. 
He made a brave decision, in that book, to have a main character who is 60 years old, and to have his family go through hell. What do you do for a sequel? That's what Len talks about today as his new book, the Tenth Witness, hits the bookstores. 
Reds, one of the great things about this blog is that we are able to introduce you to authors whose path you might not have crossed. 
Len Rosen.  I bet you will be seeing his name in lights--what's the literary equivalent?--very soon. 

On Writing a Prequel
by Len Rosen
I pretty much cemented the necessity of writing a prequel when I set my first novel at the end of my main character’s active career as an Interpol agent.  Henri Poincaré is 60 years old when I leave him in All Cry Chaos.  While he discovers a good deal that redeems him in that novel, the cost of his discovery is dear: real trauma to the ones he loves.  I left the Poincarés recuperating at the end of All Cry Chaos; and I could not imagine subjecting Henri or Claire, his wife, to more trials in his retirement—at least while Claire is alive.
So the follow-on novel, if it were to concern Poincaré, would need to be a prequel.  I faced two questions immediately: (1) when would I set the story and (2) what moved Henri to become an Interpol agent at the age of 28?  I had forced this timing on myself by making the Henri of Chaos a senior investigator with 30 years of experience.  I set that novel in 2010 or thereabouts.  The math forced me to set The Tenth Witness in 1978, give or take.
Who and what was Henri in that year?  I wanted this story to be his first case, before he became an Interpol agent.  What, I wondered, would move him to choose a career with the international police?  I needed also to show a character in formation, someone whom readers would recognize as a younger Henri.  The veteran investigator of Chaos is methodical, thorough, ethical (sometimes to a fault), decent, and relentless.  All this I would need to show emerging in the younger man, and I would do it in his voice, an intimate first person.
I decided to make Henri a mechanical engineer in The Tenth Witness: a problem solver, aware of large systems and intricate parts, skillful with cause-and-effect thinking, and practical.  But Henri also needed to be a soulful, conscience-driven man who would track a problem to its source however dangerous the stakes.  In these dangerous places, he would need to confront real evil.  That’s what would impel him to give up a safe and prosperous life in engineering.
I could imagine some characters choosing international police work for the love of adventure.  But Poincaré, I knew, would be driven for reasons of conscience.  My target year 1978 was just 30 years after the second world war.  The timing was perfect: Henri would engage with prosperous, unreconstructed Nazis.  They would harbor secrets from the past and secrets from the present.  As a kind of dreaded bonus, this choice would force me to dive deep into my own fears; for as a child in the fifties and early sixties, I woke with nightmares of swastikas and jackboots.  In the Third Reich, Henri and I would face an evil larger than them all.
He would fall in love with a woman his same age, Liesel Kraus, whose father made steel for the Third Reich.  I saw her clearly: smart, capable, athletic, attractive, wealthy.  They both fall hard.  I make no secret in the opening pages that Claire is Poincaré’s wife (30 years later), so we know from the outset that the affair is doomed.  But why?  What does Henri discover?  And how does that discovery drive a wedge between his affection and his conscience? 
Add it all together and a story emerged.  Witness is not a Holocaust story per se, but a story about the legacy of evil.   As a writer, I want to force difficult choices on my characters.  In weighing whether or not to leave engineering for Interpol, Henri must clarify what is important to him.  Here’s how he puts it toward the end of the novel.  (Viktor Schmidt is closely allied with the Kraus family.)
Still in my twenties, I had trained for a profession that brought technical answers to difficult problems. When rivers needed spanning and foundations needed shoring, I was your man. Give me a dive platform to build and anchor over a treasure ship, and I could do it. Viktor Schmidt was a different sort of problem. For him I had no answers, yet the world needed answers.
As a prequel, The Tenth Witness placed both forward and backward demands on me as a writer: backward in the sense that the first novel constrained me to a certain timing and set of emerging character traits for my protagonist; and forward in the sense that every fiction moves forward: in showing the arc of characters faced with obstacles, changing in convincing and (let’s hope) memorable ways.
Thus far, critics are loving The Tenth Witness.  I hope you will, too.  You can read the opening chapters here. 
HANK: And we'll give a copy of ALL CRY CHAOS to one lucky commenter--Len says he had nightmares about Nazis as a kid. Do you remember any of your childhood bad dreams? Or good ones?
Leonard Rosen lives and works in the Boston area.  He has contributed radio commentaries to Boston’s NPR station, written best-selling books on writing, and taught writing at Harvard University.  

His just published The Tenth Witness (Sept. 2013) is a prequel to All Cry Chaos, a much-praised award winner in both the literary and mystery/thriller categories. 

 Both feature Interpol agent Henri Poincaré, “a protagonist,” wrote one critic, “who reads like a literary figure in a thriller.”  Learn more at his web site.  


  1. I’ve not read your Henri Poincaré stories yet, but now that I’ve read your thoughts about creating Henri’s prequel, I am compelled to add them to my ever-growing to-be-read stack. [No bad childhood dreams to share, though] . . . .

  2. Leonard, I should've taken your class.

    I wasn't born until after World War II, but I had plenty of nightmares related to it. The images of the war were everywhere. Even little children had easy access to photos of the horror of the death camps and soldiers in the field. My father never stopped talking about death and his experiences on the way to Russia.

    I'm not sure if other children heard the same kinds of stories from their parents. Their stories sounded more like they came out of the movies—full of heroes. I had nightmares about freezing cold and dead bodies. I was terrified of Hitler—that he would come and get me. One night I dreamed that he came to our house. My parents were serving him coffee and talking. I hid under a chair, but he saw me and pulled me up onto his lap. I have never forgotten the feeling of horror.

  3. This sounds fascinating. I saw you, Len, at Hank's launch party the other night and thought, I've seen that guy before. ;^) Hope you'll be at Crime Bake!

    My childhood nightmares often stemmed from the Poe and Holmes I read with my mother's blessing, even though she wouldn't allow me to watch TV shows like Twilight Zone (because it gave me nightmares). I think, for writers, a vivid imagination is pretty much a requirement.

  4. Hey, Len - Another fan here! Looking forward to reading this.

  5. Hi Len. If these ladies are your fans, but then you must be something special. I will certainly be seeing out your books for that reason and for the intriguing comments about creating a prequel.

  6. This sounds totally fascinating, Hank. I can see why you found it top Edgar material! I don't have dream recalls - but I have real life remembrances - of that time when we were at war with the Nazis. I lived on the shores of Chesapeake Bay - daily my little brother and I would go out on the beach to look for - and find - stuff that had washed up from Nazi submarines - weapons, foodstuffs, bits and pieces of both armor and human remains. To us it was a game, but ghastly. We knew it was horrible - but were too young to understand... Around town, Norfolk, we would see truckloads of young, blond men - mere boys - tied together - being driven to the lockups on the Naval Bases - they were all over the place - it was so ubiquitous we thought it was part of normal life in the USA. What it all meant, we were too young to know. To this day, I have gut-wrenching hatred of anything Nazi. Thelma Straw

  7. WElcome Len, this is so interesting!

    Did you know you were making a problem/challenge for yourself when you wrote the first book?

  8. Thank you for the introduction to a new author! I'm young enough to not have had any personal experience with that era. My nightmares were about things like spiders and bridges that disappeared into the water and multitudes of snakes in the grass (though I was never actually afraid of snakes - go figure) and being chased by bears through town, into my house, up the stairs into the attic. They didn't run, just slowly ambled after me. With nightmares that had no basis in reality, it was easy to let go of them when I woke up. Well, except the spider dreams. Spiders give me the willies.

  9. Hi, Len. I'm so glad JRW introduced us (me) to your work. It sounds fascinating. To be honest, Henri had me hooked as soon as you described him - I can relate to 60 year olds quite well, thank you - and I wanted to read all about him. So much so that I didn't want to read anything about the prequel -YET. Both books are prominently on my TBR list.

    Bridges. Bridges scared me as a child and still give me the jitters. I remember dreams of driving over half finished bridges and flying into the water. I'm getting nervous as I type this. I used to work in Hyannis and had to drive over one of the canal bridges twice a day for 10 years. I stayed as close to the middle of the road as I could and never looked over the side. I got better with time but I never enjoyed it.

    Thanks for sharing Henri with us.

  10. Hi Len! I love that you started with a character at the end of his career in the first book, but what a problem you did set for yourself. And where do you think you'll go after The Tenth Witness?

  11. Two people dreamed about bridges..that is FASCINATING! Really, don't you think? I wonder if it;s a childhood-into-adulthood thing?

    I am in a PLANE, over Montana according to the flight tracker. I'm sorry, but that is COOL.

  12. Thelma Straw..I am...overwhelmed by that vision. What did you find?

  13. I'm grateful for your comments. Here's to HankPR, whose name I now expect to see on opening the dictionary to "generous."

    The intensity of childhood dreams is astonishing, isn't it? Mine stemmed, I think, from the fact that in the early 1960s no one was talking about the signature, evil event of the century, just fifteen years past. Not at our family table, not at public or religious school.

    And yet the photos, and my good friend's father--a sweet and gentle man who survived the war--were very real. Survivor stories and inquiries into the the behavior of complicit companies (sad to say Ford and GM among them) wouldn't begin until the late 60s and 70s.

    This silence worked on me as a child. I took my fears to bed and filled in gaps. Most horrifying in my nightmares were the snarling dogs that SS guards used to patrol the camps. I put two of them in the novel. (Albert and Hermann--a little heavy handed, I admit--but I couldn't resist.)

    Lucy, when I wrote All Cry Chaos, I had no thought of how Poincare got his start at Interpol. So, yes, writing the prequel was a puzzle.

    Deb, as for current direction I'm at work on another novel, not a Poincare. This one concerns a magician (a performer) who has lost his sense of wonder, which he can inspire in everyone but himself. How sad! (Not to worry. He finds it again, and therein lies the tale.) I'll be getting back to Poincare, though; he's too real for me now to give him up.

    For those who live in or near Boston, pls join me for the book launch of The Tenth Witness: Brookline Booksmith, Tuesday, October 8, 7 pm. I would love to meet you.

    Thelma--whew: totally chilling recollection. I know the Chesapeake and associate it only with good things: steamed crabs, rockfish, and sailing. Human remains?

    Long live Jungle Red! You and Hank (first among equals) are amazing.


  14. I'm just finally settled and able to post a response after a long, tough day. Len, I plan to look for your books. It's been a long time since I read about an Interpol agent.

    During the Cuban Missile crisis I was in eighth grade. We talked about it at the dinner table, teachers talked about it at school, and I was a newspaper addict, constantly reading the latest news on it. I had nightmares about war. In the most vivid one, we were expecting a nuclear attack at a particular time. My family was sitting at the dinner table, silent, and watching the clock. The hour and minute hands began to melt, and it was impossible to know what time it was.

  15. OH, DebRo--we are truly sisters! I didn't have the melting clock dream..whoa..but I was terrified of the CUban MIssile crisis. I will confess to you that at age 14, I sobbed to my mother that we were all gonna die and I would never be old enough to wear lipstick!

    I have had clock dreams, many of them ,as an adult.

  16. Whew! What a day! Sorry I'm late to the party.

    Len, your books sound fascinating. I'll have to get them and read them, as will my husband, who's a Holocaust scholar.

    Well, there's always the recurring nightmare of needing to pee and finding public bathrooms without doors or where nothing works or where they're many open cubicles without doors and mixed gender, etc., etc.

    But the real nightmares stem from childhood molestation and rape. Fortunately, those have grown much fewer and less vivid through the years, except for waking with the sense that I can't breathe--which I know comes from the memory of a large adult on top of my small child-self making breathing almost impossible.

  17. I love prequels! When you fall in love with a character and his world, it's fabulous for the reader to indulge in the life of a character around his tale. It brings a richness to the story. What a difficult challenge you had, Len, with creating a prequel that balanced a long span of time. My prequel story collection features characters of my novel, A HUMAN ELEMENT, and its forthcoming sequel. And what fun I had creating snippets of their life before their stories began in the novels.

    It's also fascinating how your nightmares as a child fueled some of your story. I had serial nightmares myself, of falling through snow to lava below and of a man with a machete chasing me who wanted to decapitate me. Not fun!

    Good luck with The Tenth Witness!