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Interview: December 2, 2020

EDDIE’S BOY is the long-awaited fourth entry in Thomas Perry’s Butcher’s Boy series, following his Edgar Award-winning debut novel, THE BUTCHER’S BOY (1982); SLEEPING DOGS (1992); and THE INFORMANT (2011). In this interview, Perry talks to Michael Barson, who has worked in book publicity since 1984, about the unusually long period of time between installments; his thoughts on main character Michael Shaeffer, an ultra-proficient hitman who genuinely adores his loving wife; and the lessons he has learned in his 40 years as a published author. When you wrote THE BUTCHER’S BOY, your Edgar Award-winning first novel, back in 1982, did you envision it as potentially being more than a stand-alone?

Thomas Perry: I've always thought of each first book in a series as a single story that was intended to be complete in itself. A second volume becomes part of the plan only after the first one is finished and hasn't told the whole story.

My problem has always been the universal one. This is my first time through life, so I go into each experience making guesses. I had noticed in my study of literature that few of the novels we all agree to consider great were written as parts of any series, so that seemed to be a clue. I didn't imagine that I would ever write a great novel, but I certainly didn't want to forfeit my minuscule chance by writing about one character over and over. It also seemed presumptuous to assume anybody would like to read a second volume about my first character, so I wrote the first book and moved on.

BRC: Has there ever been another award-winning crime series that has followed its successful debut at intervals of 10, 19 and 9 years? Why such a long time between installments?

TP: I have always tried to avoid writing series. In the case of Butcher's Boy, I suppose I set the series in motion as soon as I made the killer my own age and physical description.

Ten years after the first book, we were 10 years older. I had changed. I would no longer contemplate using a closet shelf to crawl from one balcony to another 10 floors above the street, but I was a bit more wily and a better liar than I had been. I wrote SLEEPING DOGS because I was curious about what he would be like at the same age. 

Nineteen years after that, one of my agents told me she thought TV had changed enough so people might be interested in making a TV series about the character. So I aged him another 10 years and wrote a brief synopsis of a contemporary story about him. When it was finished, I thought it might make a good novel, so I wrote it. I called it THE INFORMANT because the killer and his old nemesis, Elizabeth Waring, each try to use the other as an informant, with mixed results.   

EDDIE’S BOY came from my wife's suggestion that I write a prequel to the series, about the killer's childhood and youth. What I ended up with was a novel in which the Butcher's Boy, in the present at almost our current age, gets through more terrible trouble using methods and strategies that his mentor and guardian Eddie the Butcher taught him during other dangerous times 50 years earlier.

BRC: So while it’s clear you never intended to turn THE BUTCHER’S BOY into a conventional series, did you actually feel with the completion of each of the novels that Michael Schaeffer’s story had now been told? Or did you sense that the door remained open for further adventures?

TP: You’re right that I never intended to write a series, even after there was one. When I finished each book, what I always felt was not that Michael’s story was now complete, but that I had told as much of it as I knew. I would then let him step onto an airplane and fly out of my mind for several years.

So the reason for writing another book about him was always because of the accumulation of things I had learned during the years since his last plane departed. But this process is impractically slow, so I never rely on it happening.

BRC: As an ultra-proficient hitman, Michael can exhibit some of the cold-blooded violence of Donald Westlake’s cold-blooded thief Parker. But he also genuinely adores his loving wife, Meg. Is that a paradox?

TP: The answer will make me sound eccentric, at least, but I'll be honest. All of the characters in my books have two origins. Part of each comes from pieces of people I've known, or at least observed. I think about a character until I can hear him or her talk, and get used to the expressions, the vocabulary, the cadence, the sound of the voice. The second part of a character's origin is me. I think what we're doing when we write a story is taking over and inhabiting each of the characters. It's like what happens when children play. The child becomes the cop or the robber, or both at different times. 

The one place I try never to let a character come from is somebody else's book. I think that the one thing a writer contributes is whatever portion of his work would not have existed if he hadn't invented it.

As for Schaeffer's love for his wife, you're right that it's genuine. Schaeffer is such a complicated mixture by now that we both love my wife and his.  

BRC: As you approach your 40th anniversary as a published author, do you now find more pleasure in writing a series entry or a stand-alone crime novel?

TP: One of the things I've learned in those 40 years is to notice and appreciate the pleasures that come with each kind of book. I still love the excitement of taking out a pen and beginning a new story about all-new people in a new place confronting new problems and feeling new joys. But there's a different kind of good feeling about going back to check on a series character. I find that I begin to miss some of them after a time away. I also find that when I go back to them, I often know things about them that I didn't know when I wrote the last installment because I hadn't lived enough yet.