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Interview: February 22, 2008

February 22, 2008

In Will Lavender's debut novel, OBEDIENCE, lines between fiction and reality, and ethics and logic, are crossed when a college professor assigns his students to solve a hypothetical crime that eerily parallels some of their lives.

In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Lavender explains how his experiences in the classroom inspired the plot of this psychological thriller and describes how his writing, in part, was influenced by Paul Auster's CITY OF GLASS. He also shares what he hopes to contribute to the thriller genre and offers words of advice for aspiring authors. The plot of OBEDIENCE centers on a group of college students and a professor who gives them the bizarre assignment of finding a missing girl before the term is over, in order to prevent her from being murdered. The class begins to find parallels between their assignment and a “real world” unsolved case involving a girl who had gone missing several years previously. Was there a similar “real world” incident in the “real world” that inspired you to begin writing this book?

Will Lavender: Purely fiction. I had just read William Queen’s UNDER AND ALONE, his story of infiltrating the Mongols motorcycle gang, and that book became part of my inspiration for the Polly/Deanna story.

BRC: While OBEDIENCE is full of fascinating characters, the setting --- Winchester University in Indiana, and Cale and Bell City, the rural towns nearby --- perfectly complements the surreal events that take place during the six weeks of Professor Williams’s philosophy course with which OBEDIENCE is concerned. What is the real-world model for Winchester University? Was there an event that occurred there that prompted you to write this book?

WL: Winchester is sort of an amalgamation of the colleges I attended. Its closest relative would be Centre College, in Danville, Kentucky. While there was no event that occurred at Centre that prompted me to write OBEDIENCE, much of the geography and landscape of Winchester comes from Centre. 

BRC: While OBEDIENCE ostensibly deals with a disappearance, a great deal of what occurs is generated, directly and indirectly, by the domestic drama carried out between Elizabeth and Dean Orman. Edward Albee notwithstanding, the domestic travails of college faculty members as a propelling element in literature is often ignored. What inspired your use of this particular element in OBEDIENCE?

WL: Very good question, and this was definitely something I was thinking about when I began OBEDIENCE. I was interested primarily in the relationship between Williams and his students, and of course in the relationship between the dean and Elizabeth, who was one of Orman’s students in the past. (And, going beyond that, in the relationship between Dean Orman and Professor Stanley Milgram.) Along those lines, I’m drawn to power plays, in how certain individuals thrive in social settings while others wilt. Crime fiction is scattered with people who are losers in the business world, but who seem to have a magic in the underworld that makes everyone else cling to them.

These kinds of power relationships are also visible in academia, where there is a strange relationship between petty adjuncts and high-powered tenure track professors, and obviously between students and their teachers. I found that my students were really predisposed --- because of the almost erudite and non-realistic setting itself (I mean, who uses the word “context” outside of a classroom?), because many of them were blue collar, because there was a physical divide between us (that being the lectern and table) --- to do anything I asked them to do in class, even if they were completely baffled by my questions. I began to think about what kinds of limits the professor has with his students, or if there are limits at all. I wondered if I could get away with a situation where I invented a murder and had my students “solve” it. Would I have that much power over them? Would they be obedient to the course and to the syllabus in such a way where they would just throw out logic and just go with the assignment? I didn’t end up doing it, of course. The ethical ramifications alone were too much. But I did turn it into a story, and it is the story that makes up the foundation of OBEDIENCE.

BRC: Perhaps the focal character of OBEDIENCE --- at least initially --- is Professor Williams, whose assignment for his philosophy class to find Polly, a hypothetical missing girl, churns up the lives of three of his students. Those of us who have had any sort of background in the liberal arts have encountered Professor Williams at least once. Did you have anyone particular in mind when you started creating the character? And how do you think that professors like this become that way? Are they made, or born?

WL: Williams becomes, by the end of the book, a foil for something larger. But when I first envisioned him I saw a man who was sharp under a soft surface, who was unusual to the point of being interesting. I had professors like that, and I have met people like that in the world, and like anything else I think it’s a personality trait, a result of both nature and nurture. Williams is the sort of person who, even though you worry about his motives, you are drawn to nonetheless. This is Mary’s plight; she wants to please Williams so badly that she begins to do anything he asks her to do, even though she knows her investigation into the situation is getting her into danger. I don’t think Mary wants to believe, until the very end, that Williams has anything to do with Deanna. She protects him quite a bit, and this is of course set up by the almost seductive figure that Williams cuts in the first scene of the novel. 

BRC: OBEDIENCE could have ended in several different ways; while I was reading it, I guessed every way but the correct one. Did you know how the book was going to end when you began writing it? Or is it one of those stories that took its own direction as you were writing?

WL: No, the ending came to me as I wrote. I began to see that Williams could not be in this alone. The thing was too elaborate, too large. If not Williams, then whom? I started to think of other suspects and their motives, until it got to the point where the game grew large enough that the villain could not have been one person, but an entire system of people. I decided to blow the hoax up, make it nearly all-encompassing, extend it across geographical regions, and that’s when Elizabeth Orman and her unusual dissertation came into the picture. 

BRC: You have indicated elsewhere that you work at being a daddy during the day and are at work on a second novel at night. Do you try to keep to a strict writing schedule? What is the biggest obstacle to doing so? And did you keep to a similar schedule while writing OBEDIENCE?

WL: I actually wrote much of OBEDIENCE while my two-year-old son was sitting beside me on the couch. When I did write at night, the obstacle was staying awake! And yes --- I think it’s extremely important to keep a schedule. If you want to finish a novel, I think you need to go for at least two hours a day, six days a week, and keep at that until the first draft is done. Otherwise, you get bored; other ideas storm into your mind, ideas for better, different books. To keep them at bay, you pretty much have to work at the book as if it is a job. The good news is that if you keep to this schedule, you can likely finish a novel in three or four months.

BRC: On a related note, what can we look forward to in your next novel? Do you plan to continue writing thrillers? Do you have a desire to venture into any other genres, or perhaps to write a series with ongoing characters?

WL: No, I plan to stay in the same genre. I read thrillers, I enjoy writing them, and I want to see what I can do with the genre as far as pushing the envelope as far as I can possibly push it. I love straightforward genre artists like Michael Connelly and Sue Grafton, but in my fiction I want to see if I can invent different tropes and different kinds of books that will still be considered “thrillers” --- books that thriller readers and mainstream readers both can enjoy.

BRC: OBEDIENCE is in part a homage to CITY OF GLASS by Paul Auster. Mary Butler, one of the primary characters, is reading the book for literature class, and the work exercises a subtle influence upon her throughout. What elements of CITY OF GLASS were important to you with respect to bringing that novel into your own?

WL: Identity. The whole concept of who is who and what is what. It’s often called “cognitive dissonance,” and I know of no other book that perpetuates that theme as well as Auster’s. CITY OF GLASS begins with a wrong number. Quinn is thrown into the game simply because he picked up the telephone. >From that point, everything is skewed, distorted, shot through with puzzling questions. He becomes so obsessed with the puzzle that, by the end, he doesn’t know who he is. His name, his personality, his looks --- all gone. In OBEDIENCE, the question of identity is hopefully clear. Who is Polly, and then, later, who is Deanna? Who is Williams? Orman? Is Brian in on it? Mary wonders. What is Dennis’s motive for talking to her at the party? Why did Summer McCoy show up in the photograph? Everyone is masked, only to be revealed in the last pages.

BRC: While OBEDIENCE is a thriller, I was reminded in places of the early works of John Barth and John Cheever. Did either of those authors, or anyone else, exercise some sort of influence upon your own work?

WL: When I was getting my MFA, I read only literary fiction. I do enjoy Barth and Cheever, as anyone who has ever tried their hand at a short story probably does, but my greatest influence outside of the thriller genre is Stephen Dixon. He is not as well known as the two writers you mention, but I find his work to be stylistically forceful, aggressive to the point of punishing. I highly recommend his novel INTERSTATE, and even though Dixon and I write in completely different ways, I think you’ll be able to see some of the structural and stylistic stuff I used in OBEDIENCE in that novel.

BRC: Your biographical information indicates that you teach literature and writing in Louisville, Kentucky. Can you tell us a bit more about your background --- educational, vocational and otherwise? And while OBEDIENCE is described as your debut novel, have you published before, perhaps under another name?

WL: After receiving my MFA, I taught writing and literature for six years at various colleges here in Louisville, Kentucky and in southern Indiana. I received a BA in English from Centre College, and the aforementioned MFA from Bard. My work has appeared in the journals Chain, Lingo and Conduit --- all small, university publications that I was very proud to be part of. I took a break from fiction writing from 2002 through 2005, because I found that it was extremely difficult to teach and write at the same time. To read stacks of student papers and then try to write fiction? Very difficult to do.

BRC: What caused you to make the jump from teaching writing to writing a novel yourself? What advice would you give to any of our readers who are trying to publish a novel?

WL: Be persistent. Do not give up when rejection comes. Believe in yourself, in your craft, in your creation, and the rest will fall rightfully into place. Also, find a support system, whether on the Web or in real life. Find people who will truly root for you. This makes a difference, as there are a lot of lonely days when you are a writer, times when you will find yourself wondering, “Am I any good?”

BRC: When you were in high school and college, was there a particular instructor or professor who encouraged or inspired you to write?

WL: I was already writing quite a bit by the time I made it to high school. However, there have been literally hundreds of writers who have inspired me, who have given me hope in the written word and in the novel form, writers like Stephen King and Flannery O’Connor and Michael Connelly and Stephen Dixon and on and on.