This is the first part of a two-part interview.
If two weeks ago you told me I’d be reading — and loving — a book about a blind psychic who solves crimes because she can touch someone dead and “see” the last 18 seconds of his or her life, I’d have laughed. Even when holding the book when I received it in the mail I was unsure if I was going to read it. The concept just rubbed me wrong. I decided to give it the ol’ Butki 100-page test: If I get 100 pages into a book and have no interest in what happens next with the plot or the character than I move on to the next book. There are too many good books to be read to waste time on bad ones.
But this one grabbed my attention for a variety of reasons and I devoured it like chocolate and green tea, with pleasure and speed.
It was a bit surreal to read it because I worked for more than five years at the Herald-Mail in Hagerstown, Maryland, which the author mentions a few times in the first 25 pages. One of my beats was the city of Hagerstown and another was Washington County, which he also writes about.
So I asked him about that in the first part of our two-part interview…
Now, as a state cop how much work did you do with this region you're writing about, of Western Maryland? But you live near there, correct?
George Shuman: Scott, actually I was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, moved to Washington, D.C. when I was nineteen years old (1971), and became a Metropolitan D.C. policeman for twenty plus years, everything from narcotics detective to Lieutenant, Internal Affairs. I know that there is a great German pub in Hagerstown and an outlet mall, and I known absolutely nothing else about it except that I used to pass it with regularity between D.C. and home. Sorry.
What made you decide to write a novel?
I loved to read for as long as I can remember, never the classics, but things like Ludlum, Forsyth, Greene, Le Carre. These were my early books. I know I showed up to take a creative writing course at American University in D.C. in the early 1970s but didn’t return after the first class. I always enjoyed words, and I did a lot of the writing my fellow policemen disliked when I was on the job; in fact, I became the unofficial report-writing training officer for some time. My first memory of writing fiction was in the eighties when I made a couple of attempts at a novel about a serial killer in Appalachia. I completed that novel in 1991, about the time I was getting ready to retire, and it was well received in Manhattan. I got an agent who put a big price tag on it, but ultimately it didn’t sell (though I knew I was doing something right). My second novel didn’t impress my agent, but many years later with some rewrites it sold to a VP of Simon and Schuster under the title 18 Seconds.
How did you research this book? Did you work with psychics and/or blind people to get details correct?
I spent a great deal of time trying to make Sherry Moore a believable character. It really mattered to me that she was plausible and that has been the greatest compliment I receive from fans about Sherry Moore. She is doing something that people agree sounds scientifically feasible. So much of my research went into the terminology for her conditions, being cerebrally blind and having retrograde amnesia, all real stuff… and of course I read everything I could about human memory and settled on the premise she was capturing human RAM.
I particularly like that Sherry Moore’s gifts are based on science vs. the paranormal – understanding, however, that the world, having no other name for such a condition, will continue, for the time being, to call her a psychic. I continue to read about the blind to improve my work; in fact, I get fan mail from the blind who are teaching me what is out there in the way of technology in a blind person’s world. I’m not a believer in psychics, I’ve never worked with one and I can’t imagine myself looking up psychics in the yellow pages if I was in a slump over clues.
But that’s just me and you can’t argue their appeal. I grew up on stories of fortune tellers at traveling carnivals, and although I’m not a TV watcher, I understand there’s popularity in psychic-solved crime shows. Cool ideas, but if a psychic ever showed up to offer me clues, I’d want something more than just “I sense the victim was afraid, or I see a medium-sized, light-colored car.” I’ll want the make, model and tag number.
A day before your publicist contacted me about reviewing your book I read the review of it in The Washington Post. I'd just recently interviewed the reviewer himself — Patrick Anderson — for his new book about thrillers. I asked if he had any questions he wanted me to pass on and all he asked was two things I was going to ask anyway, namely are you planning a full series on this main character of a blind psychic? Where did this character come from?
First, I have to emphasize that 18 Seconds was never written with a second book in mind. I think that is obvious from the little amount of copy in it that I devoted to Sherry Moore. But I have to tell you, if you read my fan mail, you’d find that Sherry Moore is a real, living human being in many people's minds and I mean people from all over the world. I don’t know about a “full series” but whatever she is reaching in people, I feel compelled to explore it just a little longer, do better if I can, but there are so many other things I want to write. Sherry Moore will not be my career.
Sherry Moore came about because I needed to bridge a 27-year gap between crimes committed in the 1970s and crimes present day. I originally intended my protagonist to be the “burned out” retired police chief who could remember those old crimes from his rookie days, but the premise was so tired, I began to explore the idea of a psychic and not just any psychic. It had to be one that even I could believe in. Hence Sherry Moore.
Anderson noted it seems a bit unusual for a former police officer to feature a blind psychic. Why? Let me put it this way – if you were investigating a case and was told a blind psychic could help close it would you believe it?
Absolutely not. I never knew a Sherry Moore of any description. You know I think I’m not your average cop-turned-writer. I really am all about the fictional aspect of writing, I like pulling stuff out of thin air, I like dropping made up people into mostly made up places to see what they will do. This really isn’t historical, not a word of what I write.
How did your police background help you write these novels?
If my experience in Washington gave me anything, it was a policeman’s voice, knowledge of the appropriate emotions, the sounds and smells of crime, the ability to anticipate what should happen next, and the awareness that true evil exists.
Did you do much creative writing before retiring or was it something more recent?
I signed up for a creative writing course in 1974, I believe, still in my rookie years. I only showed up once. The professor told us to write an essay about the trash container in the room; this was after a day of kicking doors and wrestling with heroin addicts. I never returned to the classroom. So my interest in writing goes back at least that far. I remember starting novels midway through my career, starting them and putting them down in frustration when I hit a forty-page wall.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that I finished my first novel, which was actually well received in New York and landed me an agent who gave it a big price tag, although ultimately it was not published. I’m still holding that one.
The second part of this interview will come in about one week's time.