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Author Talk: January 15, 2020

“Amelie and Janet are in love with the same man: Janet's husband. One knows it; the other doesn't. Or does she?” That’s the intriguing setup for J.P. Smith’s eighth novel, IF SHE WERE DEAD, a psychological thriller that, according to Booklist, “compels attention to the final line.” In this interview, Smith talks about unreliable narrators, the art of slowly building suspense that grows until it’s almost unbearable, writing from the perspective of a female protagonist, and why he doesn’t read many thrillers.

Question: Is it fair to say this this novel is a sterling example of how the unreliable narrator can be used to create extreme suspense? Could you mention two or three examples of thrillers you’ve read over the years that set a high bar in this regard?

J.P. Smith: The unreliable narrator has, I think, always been a staple of the thriller genre (as well as literary fiction --- Ford Madox 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’ classic noir, IN A LONELY PLACE, to be 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.

It reminds me of what's now a cliché about serial killers, such as the BTK killer in Kansas. Boy Scout leader, scion of the church, mild-mannered and friendly to his neighbors. And then he ties up women, tortures and murders them. Makes you wonder about half the people you meet every day, doesn't it? The very stuff of fiction, of course.

Q: IF SHE WERE DEAD differs in many ways from your previous thriller, THE DROWNING, though they have one attribute in common: slowly building suspense that grows until it’s almost unbearable. Not every writer who tries can accomplish that. Might you share one of your trade secrets for building suspense?

JPS: 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 (such as “I’ve read a lot of missing child novels, so I know what’s going to happen.” That’s why I didn’t write it that way in THE DROWNING).

THE DROWNING played more or less by the rules, until, of course, I subverted them and gave the title a whole other frame of reference. 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 ever could have anticipated. And yet she’s a bestselling writer, featured in Vogue, drawing huge crowds to her signings and readings.

Q: Your portrait of protagonist Amelie Ferrar growing increasingly unhinged is most persuasive. How did you approach the challenge of writing in the voice of a female character?

JPS: I wrote a female protagonist before, in my fifth novel, BREATHLESS, though that’s a very different kind of book. Unlike 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.

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 get revenge upon someone who is suddenly beyond your reach, forever denied to you. And that’s how I came up with that last scene, which in the context of the story makes sense both psychologically and emotionally, though it’s obviously perverse and criminal.

Writing from Amelie’s point of view was no more difficult than with a male protagonist. For the reader, she 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.

Q: Before you became a professional author, whom in the mystery and thriller fields did you used to read who most influenced the work you now have published?

JPS: I honestly don’t read many thrillers, probably because I really don’t want to be influenced by any of them. And thus, I hope, I don’t write the same kind of novels. But I came to the genre from certain French writers. While living in England in the late ’70s, I was teaching myself French and fell upon the works of Patrick Modiano, who back then was not very well known in America and was 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 genres, 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 René Belletto, not at all known here in America, whose works mix 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 horribly 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.

Especially with my first novel, THE MAN FROM MARSEILLE, I began to add elements of the thriller and mystery genres to my literary novels. With THE DROWNING I went, and will undoubtedly remain for the foreseeable future, full thriller. And, yes, I’m really enjoying it.

Q: Do you ever hit a period in your writing when a book just isn’t working and you have to set it aside, either temporarily or permanently? Or are you the sort of detailed outliner who rarely misses a step?

JPS: For 40 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 20 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, madness and revenge.