Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
We’re giving away three hardcover copies of Meg Gardiner’s just-released thriller, The Liar’s Lullaby. To enter the drawing, leave a comment and include an e-mail address where you can be contacted.
Meg Gardiner, a lawyer and teacher in a previous life, is now the Edgar Award-winning author of the Evan Delaney series and the Jo Beckett series. A Californian living in England, she was published in Europe for years but couldn’t interest a U.S. publisher – until Stephen King, whom she had never met, happened to pick up one of her books on a trip. Today she talks about the improbable turn in her career, as well as her new book and her approach to writing thrillers.
Q. Tell us about The Liar’s Lullaby.
A. It’s the third thriller featuring forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett. When a singer dies gruesomely during her entrance at a stadium rock concert, the San Francisco police ask Jo to perform a psychological autopsy. But the investigation turns Jo’s life upside down, because singer Tasia McFarland was the ex-wife of the President of the United States.
Tasia is a country-pop singer whose rocky life has been laced with addictions, breakdowns, erratic behavior, and broken relationships. Most notorious is her failed marriage to Robert McFarland, the former army officer who now occupies the White House. But Tasia’s on a comeback tour. In the opener for her spectacular stage show, she slides down a zip line as helicopters fly overhead. And the stunt goes disastrously wrong. The helicopters crash, the crowd stampedes, and Tasia plummets to the field, dead—from a gunshot wound.
Video can’t prove that the shot came from Tasia’s own Colt .45 and the ballistics report comes up empty. So the authorities call on Jo Beckett to do a psychological autopsy and clean up the potential political disaster. But as Jo sifts through the facts, she finds only more questions. Was Tasia’s gun loaded? Did she kill herself in one last cry for attention? Were her politically-charged lyrics the rantings of a paranoid woman losing her grip? Or warnings from a woman afraid and in danger? The media hounds Jo and the White House pressures her to shut down the investigation. Conspiracy theories ignite and right wing fanatics arm for a confrontation with the government. Jo finds herself racing to extinguish the conspiracy rumor mill before it incites a level of violence that reaches America’s highest corridors of power.
Q. Why did you make your protagonist, Jo, a forensic psychiatrist? What was it about this profession that appealed to you, and what can you do with this character that you might not be able to do if she were a lawyer or a detective?
A. Jo calls herself a deadshrinker. She analyzes the dead for the police. She’s the last resort in baffling cases. When the cops and the medical examiner can’t determine the manner of a victim’s death, they turn to Jo to perform a psychological autopsy and figure out whether it was accident, suicide, or murder.
Jo looks at victims’ emotional, moral, and psychological lives to figure out why they died. She digs beneath the clinical what and how of the police lab, into the messy, mysterious, and spooky realm of the mind. And that’s what fascinated me about her job.
CSI is great, but I wanted to go beyond it. In the real world, crime lab technology is not an infallible truth-o-meter. Physical evidence is not in fact bulletproof. Real life is murkier—and more fascinating. That’s what Jo explores. She goes beyond DNA sequencing and gas chromatography to uncover why a victim has died. And she can come at cases from fresh, atypical angles.
Q. How did you educate yourself about the work of forensic psychiatrists? Did you speak with any pros in the field?
A. I read. A lot. And I talked with real forensic psychiatrists about their jobs. It’s fascinating, difficult, and important work. I’m also lucky to have a sister who’s an MD trained in both neurology and psychiatry. She’s wonderful—and patient—about explaining medical and psychiatric issues, recommending books, and reading my first drafts to correct everything I goof up.
Q. Your career has taken an unusual course – you were published first in Britain, weren’t you, although your books are set in the U.S.? Would you tell us about your road to publication and how your career has evolved?
A. Writing is my third career, after law and teaching. I wrote my first novel when I moved to the U.K. after my husband took a job in London. But I’m a Californian, so I set the story in my hometown, Santa Barbara.
My agent presumed that an American woman who wrote novels set in the USA would generate interest from U.S. publishers. He sent the manuscript to U.K. publishers as well, but told me not to hold my breath. However, China Lake was bought almost immediately by a British publisher, followed by French and Dutch publishers—while American publishers said: No, thanks.
American publishers then turned down the sequel, Mission Canyon. They didn’t want to pick up a series mid-stream. This continued for five books. I couldn’t complain, because after all, the Evan Delaney novels were published everywhere in the English-speaking world besides the USA, and in a dozen foreign languages to boot. But I was frustrated that my books weren’t available at home. And my relatives were starting to think I had invented this whole “published writer” thing.
Then, through serendipity, Stephen King picked up China Lake to read on a flight to the U.K. He liked it, read the rest of the Evan Delaney series, and learned that I had no American publisher. He wrote an article on his website, urging readers to find my books. And then, in a spectacular burst of support for another writer, he wrote a column about my novels in Entertainment Weekly. Forty-eight hours later, fourteen American publishers had contacted me about publishing my work. Dutton bought my entire backlist plus the Jo Beckett series, which I was developing at the time.
Since then, Dutton and its fellow Penguin imprint, NAL, have published all my novels. American publication has given me a tremendous boost in visibility. My books have hit the bestseller lists in a number of countries, and are now published in, I think, 19 languages. The Dirty Secrets Club was a USA Today summer reading pick, was chosen by Amazon as one of its Top Ten Thrillers of 2008, and won the RT Reviewers Choice Award for Best Procedural novel of the year. And to my surprise and delight, in 2009 China Lake won the Edgar for Best Paperback Original. That was a thrill, validation, just a stunning honor. So: Thank you, MWA, and Dutton, and NAL, and Mr. King.
Q. How has your life changed now that you’re a mystery star in the U.S.? Are you spending more time here than before?
A. Star—ooh, I’m printing that out, so that the next time my kids demand to know when dinner will be ready, I can wave it at them. I’m excited that my books are now published in America and yes, I’m spending a lot more time in the U.S. But that’s okay—I may currently reside in London, but I’m a Californian, and I’m happy that when I attend Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, ThrillerFest, or walk into American bookstores, I can find my novels. Even better, all this travel means I get to see my mom more often. And I get to meet American readers, writers, and booksellers, which is wonderful. A few weeks ago in Portland, Oregon, I signed books at the Public Library Association national conference for three hours solid. That ain’t bad.
Q. You describe yourself as an “escaped” lawyer. I know several attorneys-turned-writers who say they’re “recovering” lawyers. This always make me curious – why were you eager to get out of the legal profession after going to school for so many years to get into it? Was the reality of law practice different from your expectations?
A. I always knew I wanted to write, but thought: I don’t want to live in a dump and be an unemployed novelist. I’d rather have a profession that will serve me all my life, and pay the bills, and allow me to write in my spare time. My grandfather was a lawyer who enjoyed a long, satisfying career, so I followed his path. And I love the law.
But after working in commercial litigation I realized I didn’t want to argue for a living. And litigation is both stressful and time consuming—you work intense hours. I didn’t want to burn the candle at both ends and the middle while I had little kids. So I jumped ship. I went and taught legal research and writing at the University of California, which was a blast.
Q. Your family seems to be full of musicians. Are you also musical? Did the popular music world feel like a natural one for you to explore in The Liar’s Lullaby?
A. I love musicians. Guitar players especially. I dig them so much, I married one. And the popular music world can be fascinating, exciting, and over the top, all at once. The Liar’s Lullaby is about fame, personality, and excess. But it’s equally about music as a singer’s core, obsession, and bliss—Tasia McFarland composes and sings as if holding back the songs would cause her to self-combust.
The book is also about celebrity and politics colliding in an explosive mess that threatens to scorch everybody involved, including Jo.
I am not a musician. In high school I was a mime, and there was a good reason for that.
Q. Your books are marketed as thrillers. How would you define the difference between a mystery and a thriller? What makes your novels thrillers?
A. In a mystery, the object is to solve a whodunit. The plot focuses on a detective’s efforts to interview suspects, sort clues, and solve the puzzle. Revealing the murderer’s identity is the climax of the story.
Thrillers play on a broader field, and they race across it. They might feature a murder mystery. But they might not. What they should always feature is pace, high stakes, and characters facing the worst crises of their lives. In thrillers, people face severe pressure and increasing threats—people including the protagonist, her friends, family, community, and perhaps her nation. Thrillers need to frighten, get pulses pounding, and keep people from putting down the book.
Q. You have one scene in The Liar’s Lullaby that involves a highrise building, dangling cables, and... Well, I won’t say more and spoil it for readers. How do you come up with scenarios like that? If you want an action scene that’s exciting and different, do you brainstorm with friends, read about weird accidents, or just turn your imagination loose and follow it wherever it goes?
A. Weird accidents… thanks, that’s a great idea. Let me note that down.
To write action scenes, you have to know what’s already been done—so you can purge those ideas from your writing. Cop in a fast car chases hit men; gunfire ensues. That had better be Bullitt, because if you’re writing that scene today it’s a retread, minus Steve McQueen and the Mustang. If readers have read or seen it a hundred times already, it’s a cliché. They know how it ends. It won’t thrill. And there goes your thriller.
So what do I do? I turn ideas inside out. Upset expectations. And back my characters into tight corners, literally or metaphorically. Then I think: Yeah, let’s see you get out of this one. Go ahead, drive over those spikes and get SEVERE TIRE DAMAGE. Then fight off the villain. Yep, that guy, the one toting a twelve-gauge shotgun—and fight him off using only a can of house paint. And when the good guys try, I throw crazed animals at them, or a 757 at takeoff velocity.
Sad to say, I also observe everyday situations and wonder how they could go horribly awry.
Q. Although your books are thrillers and, to use a cliché, action-packed, you also have quieter emotional scenes. Which is more difficult for you to write? Do you believe a thriller must have both?
A. “Must” is tricky. I definitely need to write both. Neither is more difficult; they just present different challenges. When writing action an author has to consider blocking (that is, moving the characters around physically), freshness, authenticity, and clarity. When writing quieter emotional scenes, you have to consider honesty, revelation, authenticity, and clarity. Actually, the two types of scenes are not so different. Getting the right emotional tone, illuminating the moment, revealing character through the choices people make, is vital for both.
Thrillers cannot thrive on action alone. That’s like turning up the volume on death metal and leaving it at maximum while a guitarist shreds nonstop. Authors have to give readers a breather. If you don’t, they become numb, and the action loses its impact, no matter how loud the screaming or how big the explosions.
Q. Is any subject matter off-limits to you – are there some things you would refuse to write about even if your publisher wanted you to?
A. Child abuse or molestation. I find it too upsetting. And I don’t want to spend a year of my life writing about something that would drag me, and readers, down. For what purpose? Entertainment? I don’t think so.
Q. In parting, what advice do you have for aspiring crime fiction writers?
A. Read. Learn about the genre. Learn what works, and what doesn’t. Read widely, read the classics, learn the clichés, avoid them, read what’s out there this year to see what’s grabbing readers – not to copy them or jump on a bandwagon, but so you get a sense of the modern crime novel and thriller. Then, if it’s your passion, go for it.
Above all, be honest. On the page you can break the laws of physics, but you must tell the emotional and moral truth.
Visit Meg’s website for more information and to hear the title song for The Liar’s Lullaby. Leave a comment below and include an e-mail address if you want to enter the drawing for a free copy of Meg’s new novel.