It’s been quite a few weeks since I published the first part of my interview with Judith Deborah, the author whose debut novel A Falling Knife has garnered well-deserved rave reviews – it’s a terrific read! As was the case last time, I was somewhat tardy in sending her my questions and unfortunately caught her in the middle of a very busy time; still, she answered every question in-depth and her answers are wonderful and very enlightening. As I did with part 1 of this interview, I have published the questions and answers that make up the interview, unabridged.
With apologies for making you wait so long for this, the second part of the interview, let me waste no more time. Here it is: part 2 of my interview with Judith!
Q. Your book A Falling Knife has various different threads that all connect as the story unfolds. Did this book present itself to you in scenes which you eventually linked together, or did you devise the scenes once you had decided the plot (or possibly a combination of both)?
A. Very much a combination. There were scenes I had in mind long before I had a clear sense of the complete story, but ultimately I found I had to put together an outline to get the book to work.
Quite a few of the most important elements in the story didn’t clarify in my mind until well into the writing. As they emerged, I had to stop, re-block the story, and make sure everything still made sense. The logic and chronology of the story were particularly critical since it’s a mystery; you just don’t have the latitude to play fast and loose with either element in this genre. I had to keep checking and rechecking that there weren’t any plot holes and that the various storylines all fitted together in time.
I started writing the book with little more than a minimal sketch of the story — a vague listing of what was going to happen to whom and why — but the story quickly got rather complicated, and I tied myself in knots several times over. Also, I started writing the book before the global financial correction that began in 2008. When I got going, there was still a roaring bull market in the US with one can-you-top-this buyout taking place after another. The original story revolved around an invented version of one of those massive buyouts. Then the bottom dropped out of the US market, everything changed completely, and my storyline was instantly dated. It happened several times that a storyline I had constructed was upended by events.
In the end, to preserve my sanity and increase the likelihood that the book would ever get written, I shifted away from the nitty-gritty of the buyout and focused more on the personal stories and the ways they interlinked. It took me a long time to figure out that this was a good idea, and I ended up throwing a ton of writing (including whole characters) out the window. The final story is so different from the original version as to be scarcely related.
I learned two things from all this: that it’s unwise for me to tether a story too closely to events in recent memory, and that I’m the kind of writer who has to hammer out at least the scaffolding of a story before sitting down to write scenes. Every time I try to just wing it and write without any sure idea where I’m going, I end up either paralyzed by writers’ block or writing myself into a corner and then chucking the work. The outline I ended up constructing for A Falling Knife was never formal — it was always more of a long scribbled list, and I tinkered with it all the time — but it gave me some guidance and relieved me of a degree of writerly anxiety. It was far more satisfactory to sit down in the morning and know what I was supposed to accomplish by the end of the writing session than it was to just sit there waiting for inspiration.
Q. There are some scenes in the book which expose certain characters’ sometimes very raw and painful emotions. I find those scenes gentle, yet uncompromising. Do you find such scenes difficult to write and how do you approach them?
A. I really like writing scenes like that, in part for the vaguely disreputable reason that I enjoy trying to generate an emotional response in the reader. I like writing scenes of characters facing down their demons alone, but also very much like excavating the subtexts of emotion that underlie conversations that are calm and quiet on the surface — figuring out ways to convey emotion obliquely rather than head-on. In the book, during some of the most emotionally raw conversations, nobody raises his or her voice, and in some cases the subject under discussion is something entirely beside the point.
Writing (obliquely or otherwise) about whatever it is that turns a character inside out can be a particularly rich and satisfying vein to work when the character I’m writing about is not particularly cuddly. In Scott Nickerson’s case, he’s a remote, rather austere personality (not toward everyone, but toward most people). In writing him, I wanted to get across why he is the way he is, and to get the reader to care about him despite his remoteness. The detective, too, is an emotionally guarded character. With him, I wanted the connections he feels to other characters in the story — some of which surprise him — to function as clues both to his nature and to the solution of the mystery. For every character, I wanted to convey their emotional states as directly as possible — to convey the sharpness of the pain they feel — but to do so in a way that was respectful, rather than gratuitous or lurid.
As far as method is concerned, I usually start these intense scenes with sensory images in mind (rather than, say, snippets of dialogue). Imagining a visual as it appears in the mind of a character, or a memory of the way something smelled or sounded once to him or her, helps me get inside them and (if they happen to be in company) to put words in their mouths that sound credible.
Q. I have no head for numbers and no knowledge, really, of the financial world, yet I found myself quite able to follow the plot points specific to these issues. Since you move in financial circles as part of your work, was it a challenge for you to write at a level where readers with little to no knowledge of financial trading would be able to keep up?
A. I made a deliberate decision early on that I was not going to simplify the finance talk but would just trust the reader to keep up. It would have sapped that side of the story of all its juice to drain out the language. I was hoping the reader would be charmed by the vocabulary and syntactical rhythms of the industry — as I was, when I came into it as a complete outsider — and would ride the financial plot points like the crest of a wave. (The same pretty much applies to the science and math in the story.) You’re right; it was a bit of a balancing act to keep the dialogue and the storyline authentic and still keep it interesting for readers with no connection to the finance world. I cut a lot, did my best to keep what remained true to the characters, and trusted readers to connect the dots.
Several nice financial double entendres presented themselves in the writing of the book, by the way. One is the title, which has a Wall Street meaning (“never try to catch a falling knife” = don’t buy a stock that’s in free fall) as well as an obvious genre-specific meaning, and which was the original germ of the story. Another is the phrase “red herring,” which is well known to mystery readers but has a completely different meaning inside the finance world. It made me very happy to use that phrase in its financial context within the confines of a mystery.
Speaking of finance language, I had a great time writing the character of Cal Buckholtz, who is a trader and characteristically profane. It was a lot of fun getting inside that head.
Q. One of the plot points of your book addresses a widely debated issue: the interlacing and often overlapping interests of the financial markets and the pharmaceutical industry. Is this an issue close to your heart, or was it simply part of the story you wanted to tell?
A. Hmm. I wouldn’t say the issue itself is particularly close to my heart. I do have a soft spot, however, for mathematicians and scientists, who are quite foreign to me and who interest me because of that foreignness in a deep, almost anthropological way. (I’m a committed anthropologist: I married a mathematician.) I feel a great fondness for the world of finance, too (how’s that for an unfashionable sentiment?) since my time within it introduced me to such entertaining people. I was glad to figure out a way to represent these three worlds — arenas that are all important to me for different reasons — in story form.
Q. I found myself very invested in Scott’s character and found that he truly jumped off the page for me, he felt real; Evan grew on me as the book progressed. To me it felt similar to the way you immediately click with some people, yet take longer to connect with others. What approach do you take to constructing a character and to what extent do you borrow characteristics, traits, habits, personalities, from people you know?
A. It’s easier for me to tell you what I don’t do in this regard than what I do do. I don’t do any of those elaborate and often-recommended questionnaires about characters (what’s his earliest memory? what’s his favorite food? who was his first love? what is he most afraid of? etc), which strike me, to be honest, as a waste of time. I think I grasp the principle behind this method — that your advance knowledge of the character will provide some kind of authenticity once you finally start writing about him or her — but on the few occasions I’ve tried it, it hasn’t worked out that way at all. All it amounted to for me was pointless busywork, which is the opposite of writing; it’s an extended throat-clearing exercise that produces (at least in my case) reams of ersatz, arbitrary character details that will be largely forgotten once actual writing gets underway and the characters start developing organically. I’ll go so far as to say that for many writers this is an insidious exercise, because it encourages the writer to feel virtuous — look how much work I did today! — while completely failing to advance the book.
I’ve read writing manuals by extremely successful writers who swear by this technique, so obviously my experience doesn’t apply to everyone. But to my way of thinking, you figure out characters by writing them, not by writing about them.
As for what I do do: Nobody in the book is modeled directly on anyone in my orbit. For me, the starting points for characters are vocal patterns and names.
By vocal patterns I mean the character’s active vocabulary and the rhythms of his or her speech. Once I get the characters talking, either to each other or inside their own heads, I can see them much more clearly, and the other elements you mentioned begin to emerge. I find that the words a person uses — the words that spring to his mind and that he assumes his interlocutor will understand, and the rhythm that emerges when he strings them together — can unlock a character much more effectively than deciding arbitrarily that he has green eyes, loves Canadian bacon, and can’t commit. I had the advantage in A Falling Knife that I was writing primarily about New Yorkers — a population I grew up with and which has a distinctive way of speaking. The rhythm of Yiddish-inflected New York speech is very familiar to me.
Character names are also extremely important, and I can’t quite explain why. I had trouble with the names of two of the main characters until well into the writing, and didn’t really get their characters right until I got their names right. In some cases, names were so clearly right from the start — and the accompanying voices were so distinctive and clear in my mind — that the characters were relatively easy to write. (Solly Pinsk and Cal Buckholtz come to mind.) When the name is right, it’s linked in my mind with a vivid physicality.
It’s interesting that you say you connected more readily with Scott Nickerson, despite his somewhat forbidding personality, than with the detective, Evan Adair. I wonder if that has something to do with a choice I made right at the beginning: that in contrast to my treatment of the other characters, I was never going to describe Evan physically. There are one or two oblique references — Evan scratches a salt-and-pepper growth of stubble at one point, and there’s a suggestion that he’s on the tall side — but I deliberately said nothing about the color of his hair, how much hair he has, how he wears it, what clothes he chooses, eye color, skin tone, how he’s aged, or anything. It was an experiment; I was curious to see whether readers would construct those visuals for themselves. What it might have accomplished instead was to keep readers at more of a distance from Evan than I had intended. I’ll have to think about this some more.
Q. I like the level of detail in the pharmacogenomic and forensic analyses as well as the related descriptions and explanations. Did that require a lot of research, and did you do it all in preparation, or was some of it done ad hoc as you made progress in the story? Did you ever find yourself getting distracted or carried away by your research into this field (this tends to happen to me a lot)?
A. There was a lot of research involved, but I didn’t do it ahead of time. After I was well into the book, I went to New York and spent some time talking to street cops and detectives, and had an extensive back-and-forth over email with a doctor at the New York medical examiner’s office to get all the forensics straight. I also worked closely throughout the writing of the book with a scientist friend in England who helped me construct the science side of the story so it was both internally logical and authentic in terms of detail. On the finance side, I read a stack of memoirs and other non-fiction titles by people inside the industry, and also talked to people. All this was going on while I was writing, not before I started (otherwise I doubt I would ever have written the book at all).
I love research and almost always have to force myself to stop. There’s always something else that can be checked, some other element to learn about that might serve the story. After a certain point I have to go cold turkey or I’ll keep researching forever.
And thus ends the second and last part of the interview. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed conducting it. It was a pleasure going through the interviewing process with Judith and I appreciate her commitment and dedication in taking the time and showing me such insight into her writing process.