Meg Gardiner: The Terribleminds Interview

I suspect you already know Meg Gardiner. Or, at least, have read her crimey thrillers starring her lead characters Evan Delaney or Jo Beckett. Hell, while you have a free moment, go read what Stephen King said about her at Entertainment Weekly (“The Secret Gardiner“). In fact, she’s got a new book out in a couple weeks — RANSOM RIVER — that’s a standalone, and it’ll grab you by the short-and-curlies and pull you along for the ride. I had the chance to lock Meg in a room for a few weeks while I subjected her to a battery of psychological tests in the form of “interview questions,” and below are the results of that experiment. Oh, you can find her at MegGardiner.com, or on the Twitters @MegGardiner1.

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.

We were stuck at a traffic light and the kids were squirming. They’d had a long day at school. If we didn’t get home soon, they’d lose it. We were counting down to Battle Royale II: Honda of Mayhem.

The two older kids each held half a book in their hands. That was the spring they discovered The Lord of the Rings, and they’d fought over who got first crack at The Two Towers until they settled it by ripping the book down the middle. The novel would hold them for a few minutes more, but only that.

Then my son, the ten-year-old, looked up and said, “I’ve figured out how I want to die.”

The light turned green but I just sat there. “Really. Okay. Tell me.”

He straightened and faced me with great solemnity. “Riding out to meet the Orcs in battle.”

His eyes were wide and grave. I felt deeply moved, and desperate not to laugh with relief. He meant it. If he had to die, let it be in heroic sacrifice.

And in the back seat, his twelve year old sister snirked. “How stupid would that be? You should die riding back from battle after you’ve killed the Orcs.”

Her duh could be heard in outer space. He spun and told her she was the stupid one and the Orcs would eat her oh yes they would so. And another car honked, and I pulled away from the light, and the argument intensified, Orcs and Mordor and “No, you’re stupider,” until they had to stop to catch their breath.

Which is when their little brother said, “What’s your favorite James Bond gun sound? Is it crishhh, or shuuuk?” We all turned to him. He said, “Mine is Doofkah. Doofkah.”

In my house, stories are a matter of life and death.

Why do you tell stories?

Because holding people’s suspended disbelief in my hands is a beautiful, powerful kick. And when those people gasp, or laugh, or throw my book across the room, I think, Yeah. Thank you. Now tell me a story that makes me feel the same way.

So: how do you suspend someone’s disbelief? Any tricks?

I stand before a mirror in a darkened room and chant, “Chuck Wendig, Chuck Wendig, Chuck Wendig.”

Also:

- Create characters who talk and laugh and ache like people we know in real life.

- Keep the pace up. Readers who are flipping pages to see what happens next do not pause to mull the metaphysical unreality of fiction.

- Don’t commit any howlers. “Queen Elizabeth leaned out the window of the taxi, hoisted the Uzi, and cleared London traffic in her usual way.” Oh, come on. The Queen would never take a taxi.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Put your characters to the frickin’ test, and don’t let them get out of it by any means but their own grit and blood and pain.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

Kill the guy in the wheelchair.

Seriously – an agent who wanted to represent me offered that piece of advice about the heroine’s boyfriend in the Evan Delaney series. Jesse Blackburn is a world class athlete who gets run down and left for dead by a hit-and-run driver. The story is partly about how he and Evan rebuild their lives in the wake of that violent crime. The would-be agent told me: “Nobody wants to hear about people with disabilities, because nobody normal knows anybody with a disability. Kill him off.”

After I pulled my jaw from the floor, I ignored that advice. And the first novel in the series, China Lake, won an Edgar Award.

Bonus round: the second worst piece of writing advice I’ve ever received! It came from a reader who complained: Stop using big words, showoff. She thought I was trying to belittle readers through my vocabulary, and advised: “Tame your writings to a more friendly word selection.” Unfortunately, (1) The novel was about forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett, who performs psychological autopsies for the San Francisco Police Department. Medical, psychiatric and legal terminology is gonna be part of her job. (2) The reader wrote from her work email address. Which was with the federal government.

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

A strong character needs a vivid personality, real presence on the page, and the determination to dig deep when it counts. He or she must find the resources and courage to rise to the challenge the story flings at them – in the face of ridicule, shame, exile, danger, or death.

A strong character: Atticus Finch. Bonus strong character: Ellen Ripley.

On writing a single character (Jo Beckett, Evan Delaney) over the course of many books: how do you sustain those characters and the audience’s interest in them? What is the difficulty — or, maybe, danger — of writing them again and again?

I give characters big personalities, distinctive voices, and families, friends, and lovers they care about. Then I put them in jeopardy and say, “You’re on your own, honey. Let’s see you get out of it this time.”

The risk is that you write series characters into a rut. A crazed killer traps the heroine in an alley yet again? Yawn. Keep it fresh. Mix it up. And have the characters grow from their experiences.

Cuts leave scars. Show them.

Characters should also face actual danger: the risk that their families, friends and lovers might suffer or even die. If you structure a thriller to keep your favorite characters safe, you hobble the story. So stop protecting them, and take the story as far as it should go.

Tell us a little about RANSOM RIVER. Where does it come from? How is it a story that only Meg Gardiner could tell?

Nobody looks forward to jury duty, not even lawyers. I know, because I used to be one. Jury duty makes us feel trapped. So in RANSOM RIVER I wrote about Rory Mackenzie, a juror who is literally trapped. The courtroom is attacked and she finds herself fighting for her life.

Maybe an attack on a courthouse is an attorney’s unconscious fear. It’s not off the radar – when I was a kid, gunmen stormed the Marin County courthouse and four people died in a shootout, including a judge. RANSOM RIVER let me unleash that dread as a story of suspense, and bring readers along for the ride.

In the novel, the courthouse attack is only the beginning of Rory’s nightmare. The police accuse her of working with the gunmen. She discovers that the attack is connected to an old case that was never solved. And getting to the bottom of it might destroy her.

RANSOM RIVER offers the audience a new protagonist: Rory Mackenzie. What does Rory bring to the table that your other characters don’t? For you as a writer and for the audience.

This story had to be told from the viewpoint of the woman at the center of the storm. It’s about her and her family. It’s about her childhood friend and ex-lover, the former cop who still loves her. And it’s about a sunny Southern California town with secrets just waiting to be dug out of the dark. It didn’t fit with either Jo Beckett or Evan Delaney. Rory had to bring an entire world to the table.

Creating it was a challenge. And I hope readers will feel that it’s real, and familiar, and scary – and that they’ll be in Rory’s corner. She has a pitch black sense of humor. She’s guarded but inherently trustworthy – stray dogs follow her home, knowing she’ll adopt them. She’s been knocked down, but she’s determined to get back up. She’s stronger than she knows.

Can we expect to see Rory again?

The novel is written as a stand alone, but Rory’s story could definitely continue.

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

The Stand.

Here’s how a friend described it, back when I’d never heard of the young writer named Stephen King: A plague kills 99% of the people in the world… and then the really bad stuff start to happen. Oh, my, yes.

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

Soar – it sounds smooth on the tongue, and if you’re going to fly, you might as well rocket above it all, whooping and performing barrel rolls. Favorite curse word: motherfucker. In a world where lesser curse words have become as ubiquitous as sprinkles on cupcakes and just as innocuous, this one still packs a punch. I take it out only on special occasions – I use it once in every novel, and only once.

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

Virgin margarita from Palo Alto Sol, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Palo Alto, California. Recipe: I’m guessing margarita mix, ice, and salt on the rim. This drink is so potent that it doesn’t need alcohol. It has given me amazing visions, even without the tequila. And I don’t mean I saw the Virgin on a tortilla – I saw Mark Zuckerberg at the next table, noshing on a burrito. Dude.

However, I have just read that Palo Alto Sol catered Zuckerberg’s recent wedding. So I guess my vision wasn’t due to la margarita after all. Now for unexpected apparitions I rely on strong coffee. All day long. How else do you think I come up with the crazy stuff in my novels?

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the war against the robots?

I can short circuit anything without even trying. As proof, I refer you to the 2006 Laptop Logic Board Coffee Spill, and the 2010 Pepsi Keyboard Massacre. Bonus: Because I rely on coffee all day long, when the robots attack I will be primed for retaliation, perching on my desk with catlike readiness, mug in hand.

What do you enjoy about writing thrillers? Will you ever try your hand at another genre?

Thrillers throw characters in the soup. They demand that characters dig deep and fight back – or die trying. I love writing stories in which people have to do that.

Other genres? Adventure, comedy, dystopian sagas set during the savage reign of the marmots. The possibilities are endless.

15 comments

  • This is greatness. Her quality answers and sharp wit have made me want to give money and buy her books so I can hear her voice again.
    And her advice regarding the handicapped character? I’ve felt it. During my very first pitch to an agent, as I described my fantasy with a brown-skinned male protagonist, she stopped me and said, “Oh you’ll have to change that. Make him white, or a girl. Black boys don’t read.”

  • Meg’s wit is flawless, and her care with her characters and plotting are flawless, as well. That’s what makes her such an enjoyable read. She gets to the gist of character and plot, and pulls us along for the ride. Love the line, “the queen would never take a taxi”! Quintessential Meg.

  • Is it any wonder I quit being a fed? I was truly in the wrong crowd.

    I appreciate her honesty about agents and changing characteristics of the people in our stories. I haven’t had an agent say anything like that to me, but beta readers have. They aren’t my beta readers any more.

    I’m looking forward to reading RANSOM RIVER.

  • Ellie Ann – we have to tell the truth and show the world the way it is.

    James Clark – my favorite gun sound is the slide being racked, click-CLICK.

    Chuck – you can unlock the door now.

  • Great interview. It’s fantastic to see there are other coffee-addled proponents of crime and thriller writing in Northern California. Come to think of it, there are quite a few of us here. That’s probably a sign of something. Probably the coming marmot-apocalypse.

  • “Queen Elizabeth leaned out the window of the taxi, hoisted the Uzi, and cleared London traffic in her usual way.” Oh, come on. The Queen would never take a taxi.

    First, this is only a howler in the hilarious sense. I would totally watch that movie. And the Queen would absolutely take a taxi. She would take it by yanking the driver out of his seat and stomping his throat in the road.

    Please let me know as soon as someone has written this story/novel/screenplay.

  • Brilliant interview. Loved the questions and the answers. Very inspirational and giggle inducing. Great mixture. Now I have to ask myself why I haven’t read your thrillers? So many books too little time. I’m hunting down the cheapest one for kindle and join to taste of the thrills. :P

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds