Monday, September 08, 2014

@ The Poisoned Pen with Gregg Hurwitz!

When Denis and I drove over to The Poisoned Pen Wednesday evening, one of the topics of conversation was the fact that we wouldn't be going there next week. It's definitely going to feel strange. Labor Day didn't feel right to me because I hadn't gone to see Louise Penny, but I was there in spirit while I sat in the pool and read her marvelous The Long Way Home. (The pool is a good place to cry; you're all wet anyway.) That's also where I read another wonderful book, Don't Look Back, written by Wednesday's author, Gregg Hurwitz.

When we arrived, we met Karen, one of the few Poisoned Pen staffers that we hadn't seen before, and while Denis went to sit in the back, I bought the three books I was after (Reavis Z. Wortham's Burrows and The Right Side of Wrong, and Steven F. Havill's Privileged to Kill), and then I joined him. Trouble is, my eyes began wandering instead of staying on the pages of the book I was reading, and I spied a book on the back wall that looked interesting. I toddled over to check it out, found out it was something I'd seen and rejected before... but the book underneath it sure looked like it was calling my name. When I read the synopsis of Glendon Swarthout's The Homesman, I went back up to the cash register to make my second purchase in less than five minutes. (I started reading The Homesman a couple of days later, and I now know why it called my name. Wow!) 

"A list of all the dumb... stuff I've done in my life!"

L to R: Karen Shaver, Gregg Hurwitz

Gregg had already made some library appearances that day, but he didn't give any indication that he was all talked out. As he listened to Karen rattle off a list of his accomplishments from book awards to pole vaulting to completing a Navy SEAL program to writing comics and screenplays to swimming with sharks in the Galápagos Islands, Gregg sat there silently. When Karen finished, he looked at us and said, "Yes, a list of all the dumbshit stuff I've done in my life!" In a heartbeat, we moved from a touch of awe and even a little envy all the way to laughter.

Gregg then began reading from a few sheets of paper he'd brought with him. Since-- in my experience-- he's the first author who's done that, it really made me wonder how the rest of the evening was going to unfold.

Hurwitz's friend introduced him to Oaxaca, Mexico, and Gregg was determined to experience everything he possibly could so he could bring the jungle to life in Don't Look Back. He saw sweeper ants, sampled mescal, and suffered a wasp sting on his eyelid that became swollen out of all proportion to the rest of his head. All that and much more occurred during his trip.

Also figuring into his frame of mind was the fact that his wife had undergone brain surgery, which had the threat of possible short term memory loss. Her last MRI result had been an "Unremarkable Brain"-- an all-clear-- which is "the only time that's a flattering description of anyone's brain." All this made Hurwitz think of the past, the present, and the future in a much different way.  

This book-- Don't Look Back-- features Hurwitz's first female protagonist, and it's dedicated to his wife. He then proceeded to give us a synopsis of the book. Quoting from the dust jacket: "In Don't Look Back, Eve Hardaway, newly single mother of one, is on a trip she’s long dreamed of—a rafting and hiking tour through the jungles and mountains of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. Eve wanders off the trail, to a house in the distance with a menacing man in the yard beyond it, throwing machetes at a human-shaped target. Disturbed by the sight, Eve moves quickly and quietly back to her group, taking care to avoid being seen. As she creeps along, she finds a broken digital camera, marked with the name Teresa Hamilton. Later that night, in a rarely used tourist cabin, she finds a discarded prescription bottle—also with the name Teresa Hamilton. From the camera’s memory card, Eve discovers Teresa Hamilton took a photo of that same menacing looking man in the woods. Teresa Hamilton has since disappeared.

"Now the man in the woods is after whoever was snooping around his house. With a violent past and deadly mission, he will do anything to avoid being discovered.  A major storm wipes out the roads and all communication with the outside world. Now the tour group is trapped in the jungle with a dangerous predator with a secret to protect. With her only resource her determination to live, Eve must fight a dangerous foe and survive against incredible odds—if she's to make it back home alive

Gregg Hurwitz
Gregg also read an excerpt from the book, and since I'd already read it, I watched him instead. This man who's seemingly done a little bit of everything has also taught, and he prefers to stand behind a podium. The Poisoned Pen doesn't have one, so instead he sat behind the tall glass-topped table, notes in hand, bottle of water in front of him. The strongest impression I got was his self-assurance. In fact he was so self-assured he verged upon being abrupt. I didn't find it off-putting; if I'd done this all day, I'd probably give off the very same vibes. It did make me wonder how the free-and-easy question-and-answer session would go however! I soon had an answer.

"I never had to get a real job."

Once Gregg finished reading from those pages and began answering questions and talking about his writing, the evening came to life.

One of the questions that guides him through his writing is "What's the worst thing that can happen in this moment?" and after reading Don't Look Back, I can testify that this query has served him well. 

Right now Hurwitz is working on the adaptation of his four Tim Rackley novels for TNT. Having already written screenplays, he's familiar with the process. He asked us if any of us had watched HBO's "True Detective," and was disappointed when we hadn't. He loves the format. Of course that made me come home and look up the program....

Karen mentioned that some of his characters are physically challenged in some way. The Survivor has a main character who suffers from PTSD and is slowly dying from ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease). Don't Look Back has a character who has cerebral palsy. In the case of The Survivor, Hurwitz said, he needed to have a character with valid reasons for considering suicide.

He went on to mention violence in his books and how subjective our perceptions of it are. In one scene that Hurwitz wrote, all the character does is drop a ball-peen hammer on the table and say, "Joints." He had several readers complain about the violence and brutality of that scene. It's amazing what the human brain adds when reading, isn't it?

When Karen mentioned a certain book, the author cringed. Hurwitz's first book, The Tower, was written when he was nineteen. "I was published early, and that was good because I never had to get a real job," he said. "But now I have these things hanging around that I thought were neato when I was nineteen-- but I can see now that they're far from it. Being published early afforded me a couple of years where I didn't have to pay bills. Now I can write from 9 to 5.

Gregg Hurwitz
"I'm a natural extrovert, and at first it was hard to adjust to typing alone in a room," Hurwitz said. "I enjoy touring. I try to go to as many libraries as I can, and I love talking to people about books. I really enjoy collaboration. But those adjustments back to sitting alone in a room writing? They're tough."

Hurwitz has had several of his books and screenplays optioned for movies and television. He's also done adaptations of Stephen King's work. When asked about any films that might be made and the stars who might be in them, Hurwitz shrugged it off. It matters very little to him. He brought up the furor over short Tom Cruise starring as Lee Child's six foot six Jack Reacher. Hurwitz emailed Child when he heard about the deal. "I told him 'This kicks ass'," the author said. "Lee will always have the books. Books and films are entirely different mediums. It's like a baseball player trying to play basketball. Both sports require the use of different sets of muscles. You have to adjust. You have to acclimate." 

Color me weird, but this woman completely understood that sports analogy and used it with success the next evening when watching a television adaptation of Louise Penny's Still Life. I shoved all thought of the book out of my mind and watched the film on its own merits-- and enjoyed it. Thank you, Gregg!

"The new one is something special."

After having written a book per year for the last decade, Gregg's next book should appear in December of 2016-- and it may very well be the start of a new series. "The length of time between books means the new one is something special," Gregg promised us.  

When asked if it had been difficult to write from a female's point of view, the author told us that he'd had the easiest time with Don't Look Back's Eve Hardaway of all his characters. He wanted a character who could be completely physically outmatched, one who-- if she wanted to survive-- would have to rely upon her wits to defeat the enemy.

Then came the question about how on earth he manages to travel, write, tour, work on screenplays, television and film, and have time to be with his family. Good question, eh? Hurwitz told us that he likes being so busy because it gives him a "shorter whining window."  Looking at us, he added, "I have great time management skills, but if I lost my iPhone, I'd only get to 10% of my appointments. I'm totally tool reliant."

On his writing process: "Do No Harm was my first competent rough draft. Now when I write, I find that I have to cut very little. I'm usually adding small things-- like perfect conversational zingers in revenge for remarks made by those snotty people you meet at dinner parties that you had no response to at the time."

Available Now!
Continuing on with talk of his writing, Hurwitz said for that his first Tim Rackley book, "I wrote a 78-page outline that listed every single thing that was going to happen in the book. It was so fucking boring writing it because I knew everything! Now I use a streamlined, rolling outline."

Out of all the things he enjoys doing, what would he choose if he could do only one? Without hesitation, Hurwitz replied, "Novels."

He's been asked by several fans to write a book with Shep as the main character. "They don't realize that the reason why Shep is so good is because he's a supporting character."

The evening wrapped up with a person in the audience asking him about the authors that he loves to read. "Megan Abbott is spectacular," Gregg said. Other authors on his recommendation list? Jesse Kellerman, Robert Crais, and Dennis Lehane.

As usual, Denis (who does most of his reading via audiobooks with some eBooks thrown in) sat, listened, and looked up Hurwitz's books on his phone, deciding which one he wanted to read first. Although the evening had begun a bit formally with Hurwitz reading from something he'd prepared in advance, the atmosphere absolutely blossomed once the informal portion had begun. I liked Gregg's humor and his enthusiasm for books and writing and people who love to read. I also liked the fact that he gave me new ways to look at old things. 

Yes indeed, it was another illuminating, entertaining evening at The Poisoned Pen. May there be many more!


  1. Cathy - I like his wit! As always, it's fun to read about your PP adventures :-)

  2. What a great recap of your visit with Gregg. The first book of his that I read was Trust No One and I want to go back and read the previous ones.

    1. The first book of his that I read was Don't Look Back, and I'm definitely thinking about going back to read the earlier ones!

  3. Really good that you had such a good time, and that Gregg Hurwitz is so entertaining and interesting -- and witty. Always good in a writer.

    I may read Don't Look Back. I always like strong women protagonists who survive by out-thinking a villain. I'm not crazy about the violence level though.

    I have read two other books by Hurwitz, and the violence wasn't too much to take. But I was riveted to my post and the books until I was finished.

    And, too bad you have to miss a few evenings at PP. It's also good to know that Louise Penny's The Long Way Home is that good.

    1. It does me good to miss a week here and there at The Poisoned Pen. Makes me appreciate the store and everyone in it that much more!

  4. Not to mention the snacks!

    1. Actually, I seldom partake. Denis is the one who really appreciates the snacks! LOL


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