AUTHOR INTERVIEW by Bruce Crain
How did you come to write this book?
After eleven years in Chicago as a criminal defense attorney, the winters and the misery brokering started to get to me. I decided that the best way to change my life in the shortest time was to move to a warmer location and write fiction. I was clueless, thinking I’d write a novel and do some self-analysis in the process, sell it, and have another career. California seemed like the perfect place to me.
When you came to California did you immediately write a novel?
I was so inspired by the beauty of San Francisco and the creative people I was meeting that in the first eight months I wrote a black comedy novel called Raise Your Other Right Hand about a lawyer who falls for a mafia boss's daughter. I thought it was great; but since nobody wanted to publish it, three years later I was working on a second novel, had gone through my savings and, although I'd almost fooled myself into thinking that I wouldn’t return to lawyering until I’d sold a book, practicality took over and I got my California license. I didn't have the stomach for criminal law anymore and wanted to continue writing, so I learned business litigation and transactions at a downtown SF law firm. Now I take on cases that interest me, balancing my time between helping people and maintaining the emotional energy to keep writing. And that's how Prisoners of Truth was completed. More than eight years working whenever I could in between building a new career.
Why is this book characterized as literary suspense?
This book has a complicated structure in that the action shifts back and forth in time from the present to two defining years out of the characters' past. Tell us a little bit about that.
I wrote a legal story with plot twists because that's something I know from my experience trying cases and writing briefs. I've also learned something about personalities and behavior from counseling people. And I love creating characters who simply go through everyday existence. I find myself drawn more to novels that don't have much going on except getting into the characters' heads and watching them grow and change over the arc of the story. That's not the way suspense novels are formed. Prisoners of Truth is my attempt to marry those two genres. By casting the narrator as a writer who also falls into the center of the mystery, I could get away with more fully exploring the characters' emotional depth, while I kept the story moving along. So the plot tension--experiencing a life-altering event with a sibling and facing tough moral choices with a lover--was the way that I was able to get deeper into faith, loyalty, love, hate, betrayal, and the other emotional circumstances that we go through in real life.
I thought it important that the central characters, Ollie and Lucien, each tell the story from their own point of view on the way to discovering whether Lucien is guilty or innocent, and whether they finally emerge as good or evil people. When the book explores Ollie and Luciens' college experience together, it shifts tenses and points of view, arriving at the most turbulent and transformational year in both of their young lives. In order to show Ollie coming of age as a writer over the course of the section I was compelled to write it directly through his eyes, separate and distinct from the first person narrator who guides us through the unfolding bribery plot and his evolving relationship with Alex in the present. Similarly, when the story returns to another important year from their past, it's told from Lucien's point of view demonstrating his evolution as a lawyer and how he may have gone wrong along the way.
Why did you choose the good, evil, and truth theme that runs throughout the book?
I'm used to seeing people living through their worst situations, confronting some significant moral and legal challenge in their life. But we don't always know the difference between right and wrong when it comes to the bigger issues like whether the human race will manage to survive on this planet. And having observed human behavior for a long while, often without resolution, I was compelled to discuss some of these larger issues in the book.
Obviously, you must identify with either or both of the main characters?
The basis of the story is that we are two sides of the same coin, on more than one level, and Ollie has always struggled with the fact that no matter how much he followed the rules and was honest in his life he never seemed to get anywhere. Ollie was an itinerant journalist with nothing to show for all his years of plodding, having never taken the opportunity when it came. He looked up to Lucien because things came easy to Lucien; Lucien always knew exactly what to do. What Ollie failed to realize, though, is that Lucien didn't always rely on his moral compass, so it was much easier for Lucien to make choices that suited him rather than sacrifices whenever doing the right thing wasn't best for him. If we have moral backbone, aren't we supposed to do the right thing despite ourselves? . . . Anyway, it was difficult for Ollie to watch his old friend get ahead. Yet he got caught up seeing, and envying, Lucien's fame and glory. That's how Ollie forgot to notice that his hero might actually be morally bankrupt.
There's a section in the book at the University of Wisconsin during the 60s. Weren't you there at the time?
I was in Madison during the late Sixties, and Ollie's transformation is a highly idealized version of my own experience. I came into college from a Chicago public high school bent on joining a fraternity. In those days, although I'd chosen the fraternity I wanted to join primarily through my love for sports, I ended up living with some talented, amazing individuals. It was like Animal House for two years. Then the `Dow Demonstrations' took place and things turned upside down like events in the book. Suddenly, everyone was getting high and protesting, and the idea of fraternity was passé. You had to choose sides because your life was on the line. So it was a lot easier to be an activist in those days. Anyway, the choice seemed immediate to me.
Which writers have influenced you the most?
Not surprisingly, I suppose, the Jewish American superheroes: Bellow, Salinger, Roth and Heller; and then, of course, Fitzgerald and Hemmingway. I think most men probably read them. I also love Richard Ford, Richard Russo and Michael Chabon. They're terrific. Don Delillo, he's a madman. He's among the best of them all. I can't image how he does it. Chabon and Ford, they're beautiful poets with the language, but their structure is more recognizable to me. When it comes to Don Delillo-- and Saul Bellow is the same way-- things come out of their characters' mouths that are just so brilliant and perfect in that moment. They are artists creating a scene. Those are the male writers I really look up to.
I’ll have to talk about the females another time.