Justin Kramon is as unpredictable as he is sweet. In his debut novel, Finny, a tender coming-of-age story, Kramon showed great sensitivity in portraying female characters, particularly the title character, Finny, a fiery young redhead from Baltimore. So why did Kramon decide to make his follow-up novel, The Preservationist, a thriller? Jen Michalski, host of Starts Here! (the new Ivy Bookshop reading series held at Artifact Coffee), interviewed Kramon about the surprising evils that lurk in the hearts of his characters. Look for her new Prologue lit column monthly at Baltimore Fishbowl. And take note: Kramon reads at the Ivy, Tuesday, October 22 at 7 p.m.–visit the store’s website for more information.
Jen Michalski: In both your novels, Finny and now The Preservationist, there’s a strong female protagonist and an equally strong and engaging coming-of-age story. The twist in The Preservationist, however, is the introduction of a serial killer. As someone who I consider one of the most sensitive writers on the planet, where did *that* come from?
Justin Kramon: Thanks for the kind words about the novel. In kindergarten, the teacher once told me I was “sensitive,” and I got very upset. I think I cried, thereby proving her theory. I don’t cry anymore when people call me sensitive, but I do occasionally wet myself.
Before I started writing The Preservationist, I was going through a rough stretch in my enjoyment of books. My mother, whom I was close to, died that year, and shortly after that, I’d sat by the bedside of another relative as she was dying. After that, some of the pleasure dropped out of the experience of reading, for me. I don’t know why that was. But everything felt gray. I was on book tour at the time, and I think I felt some guilt for doing all of these self-promoting events. And they were also a way to avoid or deal with loss, I’m sure.
So one night I was in a hotel by myself in California (that sounds like the start of a better story than the one I’m about to tell), and it was kind of a drab place, and I remember the walls shaking every time a car passed. I think it was close to a highway. I picked up Stephen King’s novel Misery, and became totally absorbed by it, feeling a childlike wonder I hadn’t felt in a long time about a book. I stayed up all night reading. Then, maybe a week later, I picked up Felicia’s Journey by William Trevor, and then some Patricia Highsmith and The Collector by John Fowles and some Henning Mankell. Before I knew it, I was addicted to thrillers. It’s all I read for a year. They presented these great ways of focusing a lens on the dark corners of life, and getting at some interesting psychology, and all of that seemed to fit with my mood at the time.
That’s where the desire to write a thriller came from. I particularly love thrillers that get very psychologically close to a small set of characters, and don’t make moral judgments about them. I like hearing from the “bad guys” as much or more than the “good” ones. I also don’t love spending a huge amount of time in the procedural part of a crime story, so I wanted to formulate a plot that would avoid that, and just stick with the characters and what they were doing and feeling.
JM: It does seem much more character-focused, rather than procedural, much more in the tradition of my favorite, Patricia Highsmith, or Thomas Harris, rather than, say, John Grisham. Since you do linger for long, intimate periods in the characters’ minds, did you do any other research into the psyche of a serial killer? Did you find it difficult or uncomfortable in those dark places, or were you able to find a place of separation? I find, even though my characters live full time in my head, it’s more like I’m watching a movie of them or I have secret surveillance into this alternate world or something.
JK: I’d read a lot about violent people–some real, but many fictional–but didn’t do formal research, in the sense of cataloging serial killers or something. Sometimes research helps fill in certain factual gaps for me, but it usually doesn’t do much to help me with the imaginative leap into someone else’s head. For me, the process of making that leap is always mysterious, and I hope for my characters to be individual and particular and peculiar enough that researching a type wouldn’t be so useful. I guess what I mean is that, even if someone is a serial killer or a deep sea fisherman or whatever, that person is still a unique personality, and for me the challenge is always to access that personality, not to speak for a group that she/he is a part of. So the research helps with the how less than the why.
It’s interesting what you say about imagining characters being like watching a movie. That makes a lot of sense. I feel like, for me, it switches between watching a movie and trying to act in the movie. That also makes it difficult sometimes, for me again, to know what thoughts to cut out, and which are essential to the story. In fact, when writing a book or story, after I’ve filled notebooks with random thoughts and scenes from the different characters’ perspectives, I spend a lot of time figuring out where the story is, how much I can cut and still have a substantial object there, and where the entry points should be. I feel like I should be getting better at this the more I write, but I’m not sure I am.
As far as the difficulty of being in the heads of people who perpetrate violence, for the most part it was probably about as hard as any other character, which for me is very hard. It usually takes me a really long time to find that I’m actually “getting” a character, and then who knows how others will feel about it? Readers might think I completely missed the mark. But for some reason, I felt like I really could lock into the thoughts of the people in this book, and partly that’s why I kept it so focused on the trio of Sam, Marcus, and Julia. I had a lot I wanted to say about them, and I like books that stay small and focused. It was a challenge to write a novel with essentially three characters.
There were only a couple scenes/descriptions of violence that I found very difficult to deal with while writing, and I won’t say what they are, for fear of spoiling things. But I felt they were essential for the book. For the most part, I found the psychology of all the characters fascinating, and the violence was only a part of it, sometimes a very small part, actually, at least from their points of view. But part of the fun, I hope, is how that small thing gets larger and larger in the book, until it takes over. It gives the book its story and its arc.
JM: In Finny, Finny’s father dies very early in the novel, and in the Preservationist, Julia, the main female protagonist, is dealing with some heavy familial losses of her own. At the risk of reading too much into what I know of you as a friend, these are very raw areas for you as well. Do you find writing cathartic in that sense or do you prefer it as more of an escapist distraction?
JK: There’s a great Woody Allen quote, when an interviewer asked him in a press conference if his ideas about death had changed at all over the many years he’s been making films, and Woody Allen said, “I remain strongly opposed to it.” There are things that just seem tough to wrap your mind around, and for me, writing is a way to approach these things, again and again. Loss is one of these things. They’re never solved. But something in the act of bringing them to light feels like a relief. I wouldn’t say it’s an escape, because escape implies avoidance. I’d say it’s a refocusing. I’d say it’s a comfortable distance, and something about getting life clearly in your sights makes it perhaps a little less frightening for a moment. Or maybe, like you said, it fills some cathartic need. It’s very hard to get at exactly what art does, but I think that feeling of expansiveness and calm is something a lot of artists look for.
JM: I must admit, when I was reading Julia’s parts, I very much kept imagining you! Not that you want to be a woman, but I feel like she definitely channeled your humor and your outlook on life.
JK: I guess that’s one of the pitfalls of having writer friends. It happens to me all the time that, when I know a writer, I end up picturing the person behind the book. But like you said, it could be a good thing, too, if a character can distill some point of view the writer has that feels muddled or incoherent in real life. I often feel muddled and incoherent. And also possibly like a woman.
JM: What was the hardest part of writing The Preservationist?
JK: Actually, finding the exact right story was very difficult with this one. And by “right,” I mean a story that provided suspense and intrigue, and that started close enough to the end that readers wouldn’t have to spend dozens or hundreds of pages reading background about the characters to get to the main action. I wanted this book to start right at the beginning of the story, when Julia meets Sam. I wanted the book to start in action, not in exposition. I had to find a way to do all the back-story through the scenes of action in the novel, so that the reader never felt like she was reading back story. I wanted it to always be moving forward and building. This was different from Finny, which made the background into part of the story, and maybe started in a more leisurely way, more nineteenth-century.
JM: What themes do you want people to take away from your work?
JK: I hope it won’t seem disingenuous when I say that I truly don’t think about theme when I’m writing. When I used to teach fiction writing at a school in New York, they always wanted me to do a week on how to incorporate themes in stories, and I never could do it. I don’t know how writers think about that. It’s too hard for me. I really only try to think about story, character, and language. The themes just seem to emerge, either from the characters or, more likely, from something I’m going through or thinking about at the time. Books are such a complicated knot of author and character and plot. Later, it’s sometimes easy to see themes, and I have ideas about what the themes of The Preservationist are, but I’d rather not share them with readers, mostly because I don’t want to intrude on their visions of the book. And I don’t think my answer is any better than a reader’s. Theme, to me, is something that’s discovered rather than made.
JM: I don’t want to nudge you on the theme, but tell me more about the title. I feel like it could be interpreted in more ways than one.
JK: It actually took me a long time to figure out the title for this book. I wanted something simple but big, kind of like the title of your book, The Tide King, has that mysterious, epic feeling to it. I knew I wanted Sam featured in the title, since I feel like his psychology is the distinctive thing about the book, one of the things that’s perhaps different about this book than some other titles in the genre. Sam’s life philosophy is based on preserving the past, including his youth, his feelings, and the people he’s lost. The painfulness of change–and the way that change rejects the past–is fundamental to him. So all of his collecting and cataloging becomes this way that he deals with the burden and sadness of memory. It’s like he wants to block out some basic truth about the world, to do something so religiously that he doesn’t have to think about what scares him most.
I hope, like you said, that the title takes on different meanings as the book moves forward. I guess it could be applied to all the characters. And there’s an irony in it, too, since all of the action moves toward destruction rather than preservation. So the title doesn’t have a meaning to me, so much as it stakes out some territory for the book, some areas it will explore. Maybe, to that extent, it’s a theme. (You caught me.)
JM: What are you working on now?
JK: I’m working on a very strange thriller. I would love to say more, but it’s really just too early to commit to anything, except the strangeness.
Don’t forget: Justin Kramon will be reading and signing copies of The Preservationist on Tuesday, October 22, 2013 at The Ivy Bookshop at 7 pm. For information, visit the Ivy Bookshop’s website.