Friday 4 September 2009

MY CHARACTERS ARE FIGHTING INEVITABILITY: An Interview With Thomas H Cook, 'the last of the midlist writers'

Thomas H Cook is a crime writer's crime writer, someone who in the course of 24 novels and a couple of true crime books has visited most of the staples of the genre, but whose reputation, and high-standing among fellow-writers and critics, has been built by a series of unclassifiable suspense novels, written in a superbly gentle prose style, which share a careful, cumulatively-building construction, and a concern with examining the various nuances of loss, and the persistent impact of the past on the present.

Appropriately, then, I met Cook in the old-fashioned bar of an old-fashioned London hotel, where his distinguished white beard contrasted sharply with the black T-shirt acquired at a French crime festival just a few days before. Although he's lived most of his adult life in America's north, New York City and Cape Cod, his speech is still coloured by the graceful tones of the American south, where he grew up, and I half expected to hear him ask the barman for a mint julep. Cook speaks authoritatively and with much enjoyment about his writing; with the beard and accent he reminded me slightly of Shelby Foote, the historian who became the star of Ken Burns' television documentary on the American Civil War, though he lacked Foote's avuncular self-amusing glee. Cook was in London to promote his 24th novel, The Fate Of Katherine Carr, which marks a slight departure for him, in that it suggests elements of the supernatural. When I ask if this were a deliberate decision, he says, 'no, it was simply the story that came to me. In the autumn of my years I've made it a personal campaign to expand crime fiction. I say it can do whatever it wants to do.

'I never really know what my books are going to be about. It would probably be easier to go with a sure-fire formula, but I just can't work that way. But it makes the book harder to market: I may be the last of the 'mid-list' writers—and it's a tougher commercial road because we're not talking fame, which a series can generate. In the old days a writer could survive on the midlist, look at Fitzgerald, while the publisher waited for a best-seller. I'm basically just sustained in America, though I'm tremendously up in France, and Japan, and in Britain now.'

Katherine Carr tells the story of George Gates, formerly a globe-trotting travel writer, who's content to be a jobbing feature-writer on a small-town newspaper after losing his son, who was kidnapped and murdered while he waited for his father to pick him up after school on an especially rainy day. Gates had been caught up in the writer's trade, chasing the end of a sentence, and forgot his promise to the boy. Now he is haunted by his loss. He is jolted out of his zombie-like existence by a retired cop's suggestion he investigate the unsolved disappearance, some twenty years earlier, of Carr, small-press poet and assault victim. The detective produces some of Carr's writings, including a story which seems to detail her own disappearance, and in the course of his work, Gates begins sharing them with a young girl dying of a disease which is aging her far faster than nature intended. It's a multi-layered novel, with stories within stories, and very much about the story-telling process; Gates is actually narrating the whole tale to someone else.

'It was difficult, trying to capture the voice of a New England travel writer,' Cook says, 'but I find I'm paring my writing down as I get older, and I think that helped.' As it happens, Cook is now working on a travel book himself, much like Gates' own, gathering the 'saddest places in the world', including Saipan, whose story Gates mentions, when American soldiers offshore watched as Japanese threw themselves and their children off cliffs, plunging to their deaths rather than enduring the atrocities they were convinced the invaders would visit upon them. For someone named Thomas Cook to essay a travel book takes a certain amount of courage, an idea which draws laughter, and another round of gin and tonics, from Cook.

The sense of stories within stories echoes another of Cook's trademarks, the slow development of his plots. I likened it to watching a black and white photograph develop, and mention that a number of his books actually feature characters who are photographers themselves. 'A photo can be contradictory,' Cook says. 'It shows you a moment, but that moment may be false; in my novel Red Leaves he says it's like Seurat's painting, pixellated, you have to step far enough away to see the image, and that is exactly what time does; forces you to step away to see the image clearly.'

Katherine Carr is set in the countryside north of New York, and I suggest to Cook that much of his work might be divided into books set in the North, where characters are often alone, and the South, where they seem more a part of the landscape. The novel which preceded Katharine Carr, 2008's Master Of The Delta, is set in the south, and Cook says 'Well, having grown up in the South, I feel the density of community there, the sense that the family unit actually expands.' I likened it to the difference between Nathaniel Hawthorne versus William Faulkner. 'There is that Faulknerian sense of growing up part of a defeated people; when I was twelve worked in a dairy store, and at the end of each day I'd go to the post office, and when I looked at the flag hanging in front I'd think, “that's not exactly MY flag, it's the flag of my occupiers. So I think southerners are closer to Europeans in the way they sense history can sweep over you.' So does he feel an outsider in the North? 'Not at all. I moved to New York in 1969, which was not necessarily the best time to be a white southerner, but I never felt an iota of hostility. It's the most American of cities; it loves you if you work hard, and even more if you succeed.' And what about when he returns to his native south? 'Well, most of my beliefs don't fit in too well with my relatives, who are mostly more conservative, but the core things, like loyalty and honesty, they remain, and they are family, and would do anything for their families.'

Cook never intended to go into crime writing. 'I think it was because I didn't know what a so-called “crime novel” was. When I started, I had read Poe, but not Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler.' He laughs, saying 'Crime And Punishment was probably the first crime novel I read'. But his first effort, Blood Innocents (1980) was nominated for an Edgar Award for best first novel, and was about cops. Cook explains, 'my first job in New York was on the suicide shift in a motel in Brooklyn, and one night I had to call the police and force open the door to a room where I thought a woman had overdosed—we went in and she's face down on the floor, and there was a two-year old baby in a cot. They revived her, but one of the cops grabbed the baby and as he started out the door he said to me “this is what it's all about”. That went through me like a spear, and that's what I wanted to convey, to write a novel about a person who has a difficult job to do but who manages to maintain his humanity despite that.'

Three more novels followed, including Elena (1986) which he describes as 'a full-scale literary novel', whose narrator is someone who's 'never been able to write'. I mention that his characters are often aspiring writers, or secret writers, and Cook says, 'yes, they're often overwhelmed with feeling, but have no way to express it. It is extreme frustration, like being able to feel every sentiment of music, but not be able to play at all.'

Then Cook tried to develop a series character, in the late eighties writing three novels about the New York detective Frank Clemons; books that grew more depressive as the series continued. 'After the third one, I said to my wife “if I ever write a book worse than this I will stop”. All the joy, the spontaneity of art had gone out of it. It was like doing something by rote, and I said that's not what I want to do. My guy had crossed-over into self-pity, which may have reflected my getting tired of him. A lot of serial writers have that energy, and can keep putting it into their books, but I just couldn't'.

Alongside his next novels, a couple of which (The City When It Rains and Breakheart Hill) featured photographers, Cook also wrote two true-crime books. 'The most difficult thing is to control the pacing, which is harder than in a novel, because you have to include the components, the crime, the investigating, and the bringing to justice—sort of like the Law & Order television show-- but you can't just go chronologically as they don't always have equal weight at any given time. But I was interested because they are stories of people in crisis, and we seem obsessed today with putting these people before the cameras, which shows only the surface.'

Cook's 1996 novel The Chatham School Affair won the Edgar Award for best novel of the year, which should have made his career. 'I suppose it was because readers didn't know quite what to expect next, or from my earlier books,' Cook says. Which is a shame, because although it's a fine book, he's bettered it at least twice, with Places In The Dark (2000) and Red Leaves (2005). Like Chatham School, both are set in the north, and again, I mention Hawthorne. This time Cook responds. 'Places In The Dark is actually very much like Hawthorne, though the Hawthorne of his short stories, very much more focused. I like a novel to work like a short story.' Red Leaves, currently being developed as a screenplay by Alan Parker's son Nathan, who scripted the recent Moon, is a shattering tale which, like Katharine Carr, builds from the parent-child relationship. I wonder if Red Leaves may have been popular in France for the some of the same reasons the French loved Harlan Coben's Tell No One; that it suggests great darkness behind the idyllic image of small-town (or suburban) America. 'Yes, in that sense that our towns are supposed to supply our imaginations with perfection. My characters are fighting inevitability, the sense that life is not designed to live up to our imaginations. Instead, it's incredibly cruel. Thomas Hardy once said that if God existed he should be executed, that's it's cruel when a creature reaches the level of consciousness to ask questions that he can't answer'. Which seemed, after asking that many questions myself, a good point to end the interview.

NOTE: This interview will also appear at

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