Brian Freeman is a renowned US thriller writer. Working in marketing before beginning to write full-time, he has now written five novels in a popular series, with Spilled Blood being his second standalone.
Are you a bookgeek?
I’ve always been a book lover as far back as I can remember. My grandmother was the big mystery fan in the family; she’d always tell me, “I’m reading this great new book. It’s got lots of bodies in it!” So I guess I’ve carried on the tradition since then. It’s not as easy reading voraciously when you’re a writer, though. After you’ve spent all day writing suspense, curling up with someone else’s mystery novel feels suspiciously like work!
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given (and do you follow it)?
The best advice is: Never give up. I think it was James Michener who said you shouldn’t even try to get published until you’ve written about a million words. In other words, you can’t rush your life and your craft. I actually wrote five novels in my life before I ever even started my breakthrough book, Immoral. But I figured after all those books, I had to be getting close to a million words! Michener was my hero, too, because he didn’t publish his first book until he was in his forties. As I finished Immoral, forty was looming large ahead of me, and I wondered if I would ever make it. There were a lot of days when it would have been easier to quit, but the challenge for the writer every day is never to give up on your stories. That’s true for aspiring writers and experienced writers alike.
Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?
Every author who successfully takes a concept from that first kernel of an idea in his or her mind to a finished book on the bookstore shelf inspires me. I know exactly what it takes now for that book to make its way into the hands of readers. It’s a daunting challenge, never more so than in the current market. Authors who believe in themselves enough to keep going and see their way through the creative and business challenges of this industry should be inspiring to everyone.
Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?
I write about characters and themes that interest me. When I think about the audience, it’s not really in the context of the story I tell. It’s in how I tell it. I’m trying to structure a book so that the reader has to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next – and so that the tragedy of the characters lingers in the reader’s mind for days after finishing the book. That’s the writer’s challenge, but you can usually only master that challenge if you’re passionate about the stories you tell – if they resonate and matter to you personally. Trying to write what you think an audience wants to read rarely works.
Where do you write, and why?
Most people probably think of writers holed away in a little cabin somewhere, in perfect silence and solitude, with deer wandering past the window. I wish! I’m actually holed up in an office at my house the size of a shoebox, with cats sleeping on my notes and my wife calling to me that the plumbing’s not working. You make do with what you have!
Tell us the book you most wish you had written.
There are lots of books I love, but I can’t think of one I wish I’d written. Each book is absolutely a product of that author’s experiences and imagination. You can’t really even think about a book belonging to someone else.
You’re a believer in characters with shades of moral gray. With that in mind, does Kirk Watson have any redeeming qualities?
Kirk is certainly one of my more evil characters on the scale of human experience. On the other hand, he rescued his little brother from a terribly abusive father. He did it in a horrifying way, but in the end, there was something moral about that choice. Because he saved his brother, his brother was also able to save someone else at the end of the book. So choices have a way of rippling through in consequences we can’t anticipate.
You’ve said before that you’re not an urban author. Why do you think crime fiction is so heavily weighted towards big cities?
I guess, to paraphrase Willie Sutton, that’s where the crime is. If you’re writing about burglaries, gangs, street violence, riots, prison breaks, terrorism – and so many of the other crimes that drives our genre – you’ll probably find more of them in places like New York, Los Angeles, or London than you will on the rural back roads. I also think we tend to have an idyllic vision of country life that doesn’t allow for crime. For me, I see the lights glowing in a rural farm house, and I wonder what’s really going on behind those closed doors. It’s usually not what we imagine.
Given the bleak and barren rural setting, would it be fair to say there’s a whiff of John Steinbeck about Spilled Blood?
Steinbeck made heroes out of ordinary people. I try to do the same thing. I don’t like to write about super-heroes or super-villains. I want drama that arises out of the emotions, secrets, and sexuality of real, flawed, human characters. We both may use the bleak rural settings as a backdrop, but if there’s one thing that really unites us, it’s our belief in the dignity – and tragedy – of everyday life.
Is there ever a practical solution to the type of inter-town tribal feud that takes place in the book?
I wish there was. I think the real problem is that, in no time at all, the origins of the feud get lost, and all that remains is an ongoing, implacable hatred. You see that in most feuds, whether it’s between towns, religions, or countries. There is no winner or loser anymore; there is just the war itself.
In Spilled Blood, a facility working on GM crops is seen as the villain by the locals. Where do you stand on this type of science?
As in every other technological advance, there are trade-offs, whether they are economic, cultural, or environmental. Progress doesn’t simply move in a straight line forward. This kind of science holds the potential to combat hunger on a global scale; on the other hand, it may pose risks we have yet to begin to understand. If there’s one lesson in my book, it’s that science is still in the hands of arrogant human beings, with all of their petty weaknesses, whose ability to do things often outstrips their ability to manage or understand what they’ve really done.
Additional questions by Mike Stafford