It seemed like an eon or two had passed since the last time we'd gone to our favorite bookstore, The Poisoned Pen, for an author event, so Denis and I were very happy to be heading that way to see Thomas Perry, author of one of my favorite series, the Jane Whitefield mysteries. This time he would be talking about his latest book, The Burglar.
Without any further fuss, I'm going to get right down to the interview.
|Thomas Perry & host Barbara Peters|
How many of you are Jane Whitefield readers? [Most of the audience raised their hands.] Oh good! We were doing a podcast that's going to be a little different, and we talked about how the protagonist of The Burglar, Elle Stowell, is a bit like Jane Whitefield and how she is different.
Let's talk about how she's like Jane since Jane is one of my favorite people, and there are eight Jane Whitefield novels now, is that right?
Thomas: I think there are eight.
Barbara: I couldn't count either. Originally it was five and then one or two crept in. Was it the last one where you had an assist from an actual member of the Seneca tribe?
Thomas: Yes, that was A String of Beads. It was a gentleman who was a Canadian lawyer who spent his life dealing with Native American issues. Defending them against infringements of their rights and so on. He wrote to me at one point and he said, "I've been reading your books for twenty years. I've been meaning to write to you about it, but there are some things that I don't think you understand. He proceeded to write a three-page single-spaced letter about the things I didn't understand. [Audience laughter]
I read the letter, and I thought to myself that this was wonderful stuff. These are all things I've never seen anywhere, in anyone's anthropological texts or anywhere else. Lots of tiny little cultural things. So I wrote back to him and said, "This is great. Thanks! If you ever think of anything or if you ever notice anything in one of my books that you know to be wrong, please let me know. You've done me a great favor." Immediately I got a five-page single-spaced letter that had more things. And it was all gold.
Thomas: Oh, absolutely. Fibber McGee's closet... I don't know if any of you remember Fibber McGee's closet? Open the door and tons of things fall out, and there are tons of things you can use in a book.
Barbara: You know, I really miss radio. None of you are probably old enough to remember the old radio drama "Suspense" when there'd be that horrible creaking door. As a little kid, I would lie there in bed and I'd hear that door. You know, your imagination can do so much more for you than actually watching something on the screen.
Thomas: That's true. But to get back to Jane, when you write a series and you like the character, you don't want to write a book that's awful so that every time you walk into a bookstore the rest of your life people will say to you, "I used to love that series, but it's too bad you had to write that last one!" [Audience laughter] So I'm waiting for an idea that's worth anyone else's time. You know. Is it worth your time to read it?
Barbara: You realize you've given me a new mission. In my copious free time, I'm going to start evolving an eight-page single-spaced letter that will prompt you into writing about Jane again.
Anyway, back to my point about Jane and Elle. The ways in which I think they were alike... Jane was always careful to map out the territory she'd be working in. If she was going to make someone disappear, she was always familiar with the landscape. Elle does the same thing, but what is the landscape she's got here?
She has become an expert burglar. She's very good at blending in. She can look like the daughter of some rich Beverly Hills or San Marino family. She runs through the neighborhood wearing a pair of the latest $600 running shoes. She wears t-shirts that say things like "Princeton." She's essentially casing the neighborhood as she jogs. She's looking for anything that gives her the indication that this is the place to break into. Because she's physically small and in great shape, she's really good in getting in through places like doggie doors. Taking the louvers out of the kitchen window.
She also knows that most people who have valuable things they want to hide, hide them in the master suite. And she knows that the things she wants are the valuable things. Things like cameras, jewelry, guns, gold, that she can carry out on a very quick trip.
Barbara: She actually puts it on her body to escape?
Thomas: Yes, she usually wears a fanny pack. She looks just like the other women jogging in the prosperous neighborhoods of LA. She's like Jane in some ways, but she's a criminal.
Elle, even though she's stealing things that are very valuable, is still living at a subsistence level. If you are a burglar, you have to sell this stuff to somebody and the people to whom you sell it are crooks. So they're not going to give you a great deal. If you steal a $200,000 necklace, you're going to get something under $20,000 for it.
They have qualities that I admire in people. I admire self-reliance, cunning, and things like that because they're fun to write about.
Barbara: They are fun to write about. I was actually not referring to her moral character but to her skill set. You've also brought up the next point I was going to make which is Elle's physical skill set. Both of them are athletic and able to do things that the ordinary person may not be able to. In fact, Elle gets into trouble because she infiltrates a house in a way that other people can't.
Thomas: It's fun to think about what a burglar sees when he's looking at a house. We look at a house and we see doors and windows and how pretty the paint job is; they're looking for ways in.
Barbara: Are you doing this all in your imagination, or are you, too, going out in Rancho Santa Fe or San Marino and casing the neighborhoods?
Thomas: Have you seen my new watch?
Barbara: I can just see Tom out there saying it was just research when the cops catch him! [Audience laughter]
It's the same problem Barry Eisler had when he wrote the first John Rain book. I don't know if any of you remember Barry or that book, but he wrote the perfect assassin. He had zero relationships. He lived an entirely solo life in Tokyo. And Gregg Hurwitz who will be here with Orphan X. When you get to book two, you gather people as you move along. Actually, Gregg's been very good because when he's here with book four, he's managed to get all those people out of the way and he has homed in on a single mission: assassinating the U.S. president.
Thomas: Where'd he get that idea?
Barbara: I'm making no further statement. I'm just sayin' he did find an interesting way to hone away all the baggage that Orphan X may have been accumulating and focus on the mission. You're almost forced to do that if you want a real solo agent.
Thomas: I think that's true. What I was trying to do with Elle is to show that she has the type of life that she does because she doesn't have these relationships and what she needs to solve in her life. But yes, if you're going to write some sort of superhero, you're going to have to cut these relationships, or you're going to have to just use people. One or the other.
Thomas: You're in a business that depends upon you looking like a college student. Your credentials as a jogger in a place like Los Angeles is that you run really hard and fast, and there are a limited number of years in which you can carry that off and make it look convincing.
Barbara: You don't think she could take up dog walking or something?
Thomas: She could. That's what I do. But essentially, when you're living as a criminal, you're living on borrowed time. Eventually, the odds are going to catch up with you. Or you're going to have what happens to her which is you break into a house and there are three dead bodies in the room you've gone into to rob. Who left them there? Why is that camera on the other side of the room still running? Something bad's going to happen.
Barbara: So this is your Real Housewives of Beverly Hills moment, isn't it? [Laughter] But if you're going to write a crime novel about a burglar, there's always going to be a time when the burglar finds themselves in a place where their profession prevents them from dealing with a greater crime, right?
Do you remember Larry Block when he wrote Bernie Rhodenbarr? Bernie breaks in. There's a body on the floor. What does Bernie do? Can he call the cops? Not really because he just broke in. Same thing with Tim Hallinan and Junior Bender. I think it's a really neat dilemma when you have someone who's breaking the law on a softer crime and they bang right into a big crime and they're morally impelled to do something about it, but how do they go about doing that? Although in Elle's case, it may just be self-preservation because she doesn't seem to have a particularly high moral plane.
Barbara: And that is something that has come up many times in real life.
Thomas: There are all sorts of things you have to think about if you're going to be some sort of criminal. Those are fun things to play with.
Barbara: This is why you write books, right? You're really a criminal, but you're too chicken to go out there and do it. [Audience laughter] I don't want to say chicken; that's unfair!
Thomas: Well, my needs are few and therefore I don't need to do it. But one of the reasons why I write books is that there are certain qualities humans have that I find despicable, but there are other ones that I think are just so inspiring! And one of them is physical courage. There are a lot of people throughout the history of the world who have done things that are just astounding. They make superheroes look like jokes. You wait for a moment where you can write about something that actually makes you feel good to be human. Meanwhile, you play around with lesser issues. Things like competence. There's a lot to be said for competence. You may be writing about a burglar, but how well does she do her job? How does she get in...
Thomas: The world is given to you as a writer. It's out there. Everybody owns it. Everybody that you meet, everybody that... when you're in an airplane and you overhear the people in the seats in front of you talking, their stories are free. They're given to you.
Barbara: So you eavesdrop?
Thomas: Of course. I'm a terrible eavesdropper!
It gives me change. It gives me a chance to think about the problems of somebody else. I often think that what you're doing as a writer is what we used to do when we were kids. We get to be somebody else for an hour or two. I got to be a young, twenty-four-year-old burglar. I think what we're doing is playing. Whatever we learned as children by playing those roles is graduate work when you write stories.
Barbara: So this is your version of cosplay at Comic-Con?
Thomas: Yeah, I guess! It took a while to admit that.
Barbara: So what's happening with the old man? [The Butcher's Boy and film options]
After a brief Q&A period, we adjourned to the signing line. For any of you who want to hear more from Thomas Perry, I invite you to listen to the podcast he did with Barbara Peters.
It was wonderful being back at The Poisoned Pen. I'd been in serious withdrawal!