E. A. Aymar, author of the Dead Trilogy, Talks Noir and Sympathy
E. A. Aymar is a noir kind of guy. He hosts D.C.’s “Noir at the Bar” and just finished up hosting the expanded version, “Noir on the Air”, on 11 January, in which nine noted thriller writers read their work on the Global Radio Network. His short story “The Line” appeared this month in Out of the Gutter, a lit mag known for its dark, edgy content. He’s also the Managing Editor of The Thrill Begins, the online resource for beginning and debut thriller writers from the International Thriller Writers Organization. Aymar is best known as the author of the Dead Trilogy, the first two entries of which are I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and You’re as Good as Dead. Fans eagerly awaiting the final installment can get their fix of Aymar’s signature deadpan humor and general take on things in his monthly column “Decisions and Revisions” in the Washington Independent Review of Books. I met Ed through my own participation with the Independent, and asked him to chat with me here about his writing.
JBY: Did you always plan to write Dead as a trilogy, or did that concept develop as you wrote?
EAA: I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was written as a standalone, but I loved the idea of recurring characters. Part of that is because I’ve always admired series writers, but felt that the concept was too constraining; I imagined having to revisit a creative well that had long run dry. But the idea for a trilogy hit me after the first book was completed, and I went with it. I wish it had occurred to me before that time, because the first book is pretty much self-contained. Kind of like how the first Star Wars movie worked on its own, and a sequel wasn’t truly necessary.
I’m sorry. Everything with me is Star Wars right now. That’s how I’m seeing the world. It’s not productive.
So, yeah, in retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have defined these books as part of a trilogy. Part of that comes from a marketing realization – no one reads the second book without reading the first, even though I think You’re As Good As Dead is a much better book than the first. Plus it’s easier to write another book that stays in the same world, but doesn’t have to adhere to the same parameters (for example, the first book was told from one perspective, the second from multiple). I dunno. That’s all after-the-fact stuff I didn’t realize when I was writing the book. I just enjoyed the story.
JBY: How do you keep characters, plot points, timelines, and small details straight across multiple books?
EAA: The good thing about writing thriller is that you can kill off characters and, voila, one less timeline! But, in seriousness, I did find myself going back to book one when writing book two for some things. I’m good at remembering certain details, like the makeup of a house or apartment, but terrible at others. Like ages. I constantly have to remind myself how old Tom and Julie (his daughter) are. It’s annoying. I guess someone has to die.
I think you get so immersed in the world you’re creating, especially when you revisit it on a constant basis, that it becomes intimately familiar. Or, at least, that happens when you’re writing well, and it’s a lovely moment in creation–that point where you look around and everything is sort of bleary.
Of course, my novels are set in the present day, so I have it easy. I would hate the burden that Up the Hill to Home must have placed on you. Determining the accuracy behind historical details seems really hard. I avoid hard work.
JBY: Your protagonist, Tom Starks, is not always a sympathetic character. Was it challenging to find the balance between taking him to the edge (sometimes even taking him over the edge) and keeping him sympathetic enough that the reader is still pulling for him?
EAA: I’m a terrible judge of a reader’s empathy. Sometimes a character does something I agree with, and it’s loathsome, and I don’t realize how much that can bother readers. I read an interview with Phillip Roth, and the interviewer asked if Roth failed to realize how shocking his characters can act. Roth was irritated by the question, but I get it – I think Ellis had the same issue in the feminist backlash to American Psycho.
I wonder, sometimes, if this problem is more prevalent among male writers. I don’t think that men, as writers or readers, are terribly empathetic toward characters, and we rarely form relationships or identify with them. That’s somewhat at the brunt of Rebecca Solnit’s irritation in this essay (http://lithub.com/men-explain-lolita-to-me/), particularly with the character of Lolita. If you accept that male readers are typically less empathetic than their female counterparts, then those men may fail to understand the f—ing horror of what’s happening to Lolita, or realize exactly how terrible Humbert is (that said, I think Nabokov understood).
That’s one approach. But I want to use a specific example for the second. Tom was a prick to Julie in the first book (particularly in one conversation) and, even though that book was partially about his acceptance of fatherhood, it rubbed a lot of readers the wrong way. Not necessarily because of what he said, but because of how it made her feel. Given the chance to rewrite it, I would. Not because Tom said anything false, and certainly nothing worse than what parents have said to their kids, but because it was too rough for readers. I stubbornly feel that conversation is real, and true, but I should have softened it.
Tom and Julie’s difficulties in the second book are more easily and better handled but, then again, the second book is better than the first.
JBY: In both books, you use the classic novels that Tom teaches as a parallel to the themes you’re developing. How did you choose which classics to use? Were they favorites of yours in school?
EAA: I’d only read The Count of Monte Cristo just before I started I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, mainly because I wanted to study the elements of a classic revenge story. And Monte Cristo was so enjoyable that I ended up incorporating it into my own book, and having Tom’s class echo my own thoughts as I studied Dumas’s work.
I really liked doing that for the first book, and I wanted to do it again in the second (I love giving shout outs to things that inspire me, which is why I also mentioned the musicians Sara Jones and Abby Mott in the first book). I had a lot of influential books to choose from, but I felt that For Whom the Bell Tolls fit the theme of You’re As Good As Dead in several ways, some overt, some subtle. And I just loved Hemingway’s book. I know he falls in and out of favor and style, but that book was so powerful it literally changed the way I saw the world. The ending lines felt like the end of some great orchestral piece, sudden and dominant and reverberating.
If someone reads my book, and then decides to read Hemingway or Dumas, or listen to Sara Jones or Abby Mott, then I’m happy.
JBY: You are a funny, open, laid-back guy—or at least you pretend really well!—but you write about some pretty dark stuff. Where does that come from?
EAA: That’s nice of you to say. My wife doesn’t think I’m funny, but she’s seen my shtick for a long time and is pretty tired of it. I get that. It’d be awful to live with me.
Anyway, I once dated this woman who had been horribly abused–sexually, physically–by an ex-boyfriend. She’d never really healed, and part of that was because she didn’t have anyone to talk to. The people she did open up to (a hard thing in itself) told her that the brutality was too much to listen to. She even told me about this one guy she’d been dating, a hopeful poet, and the guy once interrupted one of her stories and said, “I’m sorry, I just can’t listen to this. It’s too hard.”
Part of me understands that. I heard all her stories, about the rapes and burns and torture this woman underwent, and I get how hard it is to listen to this stuff.
But when you’re a writer, it’s your duty. You have to look deep into the terrible things men and women (mostly men) do. You can’t risk being artificial. That’s not to say you need to walk down those dark alleys, but you have to know what’s happening in them if you’re going to portray them truthfully.
JBY: How do you fill out the details and backstory of your characters to understand what they would do in a given situation? Did Tom ever surprise you with something that he did? (I can think of a scene in a basement in You’re as Good as Dead that was pretty surprising.)
EAA: Oh, thanks! I really like that scene and wanted it to hit right. I’m glad it had a good effect on you.
That particular scene did surprise me. It’s weird when that happens, because even if you don’t exactly know what’s going to happen, the scene is somewhere inside of you. And it occurs to you, and you know it’s right, but it’s one of those things you write that continues to surprise you long after its written. That’s rare.
My main characters don’t always have that effect on me. I think it’s because they’re close to me–emotionally–and they sort of echo me. It’s actually the other characters (Diane in the first book, Switch in the second) who really surprise me. I feel more freedom with them. And in some ways, those characters outshine Tom. Readers liked Tom, to an extent, but he’s a pretty typical guy (aside from the killing). Diane and Switch are more unique, I think.
JBY: Like so many other authors these days, this is not your full-time job. How do you fit your writing in with everything else?
EAA: I’m wildly fortunate in a couple of ways. My day job doesn’t stray outside of 9-5 hours. So I don’t have to bring work home, go in early, work on weekends, etc. And I have a supportive spouse. I waited a long time to get married, and even longer to have a kid. And I did both with the explicit understanding that I need time to write every day. My wife is really terrific about that, and that’s huge. I dated women before her who were less understanding. To be fair to them, it’s not easy. I mean, if you’re dating an Olympic athlete, then you understand that they need time to train, and they’ll have to hoard that time selfishly. When you’re dating some guy who wants to write a novel, then it’s less obvious that they need the same amount of time.
It’s hard for people to consider something that you’re not doing professionally as anything less than a hobby. But if you do it enough, then you don’t need to convince them. They see it’s part of you.
JBY: When can we expect the finale to the Dead trilogy? Any teasers you’d care to share?
EAA: I’m actually putting off the end of the trilogy to work on something else. And I hope to announce that something else soon. (JBY note: Ed shared some of the subject matter he’s been working on in his latest Independent column, Tough Research.)
JBY: Finally, what is the question that you wish someone would ask you but they never do? You get to answer it now.
EAA: Ha! Good question. But I don’t really have a question I’ve always wanted. I guess probably something like, “How do you feel now that you’ve won the lottery, and you’re famous, and you can live anywhere in the world?”
Unfortunately for Ed, it doesn’t look like anyone’s asking him that question again this week.