Hilary Davidson: The Terribleminds Interview

Today, we’re publishing three — count ‘em, three! — interviews here at Jolly Olde Terribleminds. On first pass, I don’t like to crowd up with interviews, and I thought, mmm, maybe I’ll spread these out. But here’s the thing: these interviews talk to three writers who each share a kind of intellectual space. All three are cracking short story writers, all three come out of crime writing, all three have killer novels (two of them published, one on submission), and to boot, all three know each other. So, my thought is, let’s let these interviews feed into one another. Right? Right.

Now it’s time to check out one wicked weaver of tales — Hilary Davidson, whose novel THE DAMAGE DONE was one of my hands-down favorites of 2010. She’s an incredible writer and knows how to really ratchet up the mystery and suspense like few others do. The next in the series — appropriately, THE NEXT ONE TO FALL — is out now, so go find it. Check out her website (hilarydavidson.com) and go follow her on Twitter (@hilarydavidson).

When you’re done here, check out the other two interviews:

Chris Holm

Dan O’Shea

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

The guard who led me into the detention area was in a jovial mood. “So, did you enjoy your trip to Spain?” he asked.

I nodded, but my mouth was too dry to let out anything but a hesitant, “Sure.”

“That’s good.” He unlocked a door and walked me into a room that, in all the times I’d flown through New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, I’d never seen before. It had a low ceiling and felt dirty, but the overhead lights were too dim for me to be certain of what was shadow and what was grime. There were rows of gray plastic chairs in the center and three uniformed officers seated behind desks on one side. The bodies in the chairs looked as if they were acting out the five stages of grief. Some had their heads swiveling around, clearly in denial about where they were. An angry man in front of me had his fists balled up and banging against his thighs. “This is a mistake,” a woman said to a guard, clearly bargaining. The most common posture, though, was one denoting depression: people slouched in chairs, some bent over with their heads in their hands. The only example of acceptance was a sleeping baby whose mother was still in denial.

“Sit here,” the guard said to me, indicating a space between two men.

“But I…” I don’t belong here, I wanted to scream. Detention was a place for drug mules and criminals and suspected terrorists. Whatever I’d done, I didn’t belong here.

“Sit down. Right there.” His jovial tone was gone. “Don’t get up until you’re called.”

I took the seat.

“Don’t worry,” whispered the man to my left. I glanced at him. He was South Asian and in the low light, his eyeballs looked yellowed like old paper. His hands were folded together in a gesture that seemed almost prayerful.

“There is nothing to worry about, you see. I am not worried,” the man went on, his voice soft. “They do not wish to let me into their country because they think I have leprosy. But, you see, I have been cured.”

Why do you tell stories?

All my life, I’ve had a game of “What If?” going on in my head. I’m curious about people and about where they’ve been. When I can’t find out the truth, my brain will fill in the blanks with stories. Then I’ve got these characters spiraling around my head, and they start to take on a life of their own. When I was a kid, I think this was called daydreaming, but now it’s my job.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice.

Overdescribing things — people, places, physical action, emotions — just slows your story down. You need to describe those things well enough so that readers can picture what you’re talking about in their own minds, but you don’t need to spell out every detail for them. In fact, it’s often better to leave certain details unsaid and let the reader fill them in for themselves. Telling me that a man is five-foot-ten and has black hair and olive skin and green eyes is just a collection of details; you could go on and on, describing what he’s wearing and I’m not going to know anything about him, really. Choose the details you share carefully. Telling me that a character’s eyes are flicking over the room, avoiding the person who’s talking to him, tells me something about that character.

The Damage Done, which is a great novel, has this creepily elegant Hitchcockian vibe to it — how does The Next One To Fall compare in terms of tone, character, and subject matter?

Thanks for the kind words about The Damage Done! Even though their settings are very different, the books have a lot in common. Both are, at heart, about searches for missing women. In The Damage Done, Lily Moore is hunting for her sister, Claudia, so she’s personally invested in the outcome. In The Next One to Fall, the woman who dies at the beginning of the book is a stranger to Lily, but there are things about her that remind Lily of Claudia. When Lily finds out that the dead woman is actually just the latest in a string of dead and missing women who were involved with a wealthy man named Len Wolven, part of her desire to get justice for them is tied to the fact that she feels her sister never got the justice she deserved.

The cast of characters is different in The Next One to Fall — the book is set in Peru, and it brings back Lily and her best friend, Jesse, but not the others (well, there might be a little but of Bruxton… but just a little). But the characters are every bit as multifaceted and murky as the ones in The Damage Done.

You’ll definitely feel the Hitchcockian vibe in the new book, possibly even more strongly than in the first one. I wanted to acknowledge, on the page, one of my biggest influences, so there’s a scene in The Next One to Fall that I hope pays homage to Mr. Hitchcock. I can’t tell you what it is without being all spoilery, but you will know it when you see it.

What’s the trick to writing a good follow-up — whether a sequel or “next book in a series?”

Each book needs to stand on its own, even if it is a sequel. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “Well, I already explained X is the first book, so I don’t need to do it again.” Wrong. Not only do you need to explain X, you need to do it in such a way that you’re not boring the hell out of people who read the previous book. Also, your main characters have the same emotional pressure points they had in the first book, but you need to explore them in different ways. In The Next One to Fall, it was an obvious thing to make Lily sympathetic to the victims, to link them to her sister. But Lily also comes across the sister of one of the victims, who is hunting for her missing sister in Peru. Instead of becoming allies, Lily can’t stand this woman; part of the reason is that this woman acts in a reckless way that is not at all dissimilar from Lily acts in The Damage Done. Lily sees part of herself in the woman, and she doesn’t like it one bit. It’s not a role-reversal, but it explores Lily’s character in a different way.

If there’s a trick, it’s not spoiling the plot of the earlier book. People who pick up The Next One to Fall are going to know one very important thing about how The Damage Done ends, but there’s no information about who is guilty of what. If anything, there’s a tease. At one point in the new book, Lily says, “Two of the guilty were dead. One was in a mental institution. Others who should have been behind bars were walking around free.” But she doesn’t tell you anything else. I didn’t want to spoil the story for anyone who discovers the second book first and then goes back to read the first.

How are your two Lily Moore novels stories only Hilary Davidson could’ve written?

Even though Lily is very much her own person, we have a lot in common. Things, places, and issues that fascinate me also fascinate her, though she sometimes ends up owning them and forcing me to do more work (her knowledge of old movies has forced me to watch a lot of them). My family jokes that Lily is my friend from another universe. We can’t interact directly, but I know her so well. In that universe, Lily may well start writing fiction about a character she will call “Hilary Davidson.” I wouldn’t put it past her.

You broke into writing with a series of impactful noir short stories. What’s the art of writing a killer short story?

You’ve got to be completely ruthless with a short story. The room you get in a novel to build and explore and wander doesn’t exist in a short story. Plenty of people will give a novel a chance even if it doesn’t grab them at first. But a short story? Forget it. It’s the difference between karate and krav maga. With karate, you have an extended match with the elegance of ballet and some exhilarating moments. In krav maga, your fight will last eight seconds and someone will probably lose an eye.

Just what the fuck is “noir,” anyway?

“What is noir?” is a question over which writers get into fistfights at conferences. Well, that’s not quite true — it’s more like they’ll yell at each other online about it a lot.

My take: noir is black. It’s the heart of darkness. It’s a world without redemption.

Noir is where dreams go to die terrible deaths.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Noir is what you are left with when you can no longer turn your gaze away from that abyss.

What’s great about being a writer, and conversely, what sucks about it?

I love writing, even when it’s hard. I love editing my own work, and watching a story take shape. Meeting other writers is a huge plus, as is meeting readers. I love going to conferences like Bouchercon and Thrillerfest and Bloody Words. Writing nonfiction has let me travel the world, which is something I’m incredibly grateful for.

The downside: It’s a tough business to break into, and even after you break in, you have to watch some very talented people hit their heads against walls endlessly, trying to break in, too. People in publishing can be very negative. You’re forced to read endless articles about “The End of Books.”

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

I have trouble picking a favorite anything, but the word hellion immediately came to mind. Since I’m obviously in a hellish frame of mind, I’m going with hell for favorite curse word. I love that you can talk about hell and it’s not a curse word, but the minute you say, “Holy hell!” it becomes one.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

I love sparkling wine: champagne, cava and prosecco are all divine.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding is a book that made a huge impression on me. I read it for the first time when I was 12. It’s about a group of schoolboys who are evacuated from England during a war, and they end up stranded on an uninhabited island with no adults. The oldest children in the story are 12. The story is so powerful because you’re reading about this microcosm of humanity that goes off the rails, and starts to destroy itself. The fact that Golding is writing about children rather than adults only makes it a better story — it highlights the darker impulses of humanity.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable zombie war?

I have combat skills. My parents started me in karate lessons when I was eight, and I fell in love with martial arts. I’ve also studied krav maga, the martial art of the Israeli army, which is brutal.

You’ve committed crimes against humanity. They caught you. You get one last meal.

Ah, hell. I’d want dinner from Bistango, my favorite restaurant in New York. I have celiac disease, and they make perfect gluten-free meals: warm bread with garlic-infused oil, roasted Portobello mushroom in balsamic reduction, chicken fusilli with sun-dried tomatoes, red velvet cake with the world’s creamiest frosting. Plenty of champagne. Note to Bistango: please make sure there’s a file in the cake.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

My second novel, THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, came out on Valentine’s Day; it’s a thriller set in Peru. It’s also a sequel to THE DAMAGE DONE, though you don’t need to read the first book to follow it. I just sent the third book in the series to my publisher, Forge; it will come out in the spring of 2013. My next big project is a standalone novel, also for Forge, which will be published in 2014. I also write short fiction. I just sold a novella about a twisted love triangle in Paris to Ellery Queen, and I’ve got a story coming out in the second Beat to a Pulp anthology.

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