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An Interview With Will Lavender, Author of Dominance

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With Dominance, Will Lavender has written a fascinating novel. If you like puzzles you will enjoy this book. If you are a fan of twists you will like this book. If you like both puzzles AND twists then you will probably flip over this book. It will have you guessing until the final page. It’s no wonder that Jeffrey Deaver praised Dominance, with a blurb on its cover, since it has the type of twists and surprises and plot shifts that has garnered Jeffrey Deaver fame, fortune and fans.

The book starts with a clever concept: A night class consisting of nine English majors taught by a professor currently in prison for two murders. The class focuses on an author, Paul Fallows, whose true identity is unknown. Ultimately one of the students, the book’s main protagonist, Alex Shipley, proves that the professor, Richard Aldiss, did not commit the two murders but others are still unsure if she is right and if Aldiss is truly innocent.

Now, 12 years later, one of the members of the class has been murdered and some are wondering if Aldiss is responsible. Shipley asks those students still alive – one has killed himself in the intervening years – to return to the campus where the night class, ostensibly to attend a memorial service but also to see if Aldiss is right, that the real killer is one of those students. Oh and in all three cases the body is decorated with the novels by Fallows.

The book alternates between what happened 12 years before and how Shipley proved Aldiss innocent and now, with the pace moving into overdrive as more members of the class start dying.

I’d say the plot is “to die for,” but that would be too punny.

How did you come up with the idea for this book? I’ve read you wanted to write a book about, well, books, but how did the plot come together?

I wanted to write a book about books, but I also wanted to write a book about (and maybe for) English majors. The students in my first novel, Obedience, were not specialized in any way. I thought it would be interesting to create a narrative where a group of English majors — readers and lovers of literature — use what they know best to solve a series of bizarre, awful crimes.

There were a couple of reasons why I chose this sort of story, the first of which is pretty obvious: as a former English major, I wouldn’t have to do much research. (Ha!) But more importantly, I always want to write novels that aren’t really like anything else that’s out there in the genre. There are very fine novels about books, of course, but many of them are tinged with the Gothic tradition; and there are thrillers that feature college students, but often those students aren’t lit majors. So this book was really my attempt at writing a story that was unique and just a little bit different than what a reader will normally find on the shelves.

Can you describe what “The Procedure” is and where the idea for that part of the book came from?

The Procedure is a mysterious game played by the readers of the famous, reclusive novelist Paul Fallows. It is a role-playing game, a sort of immersive contest of wits that’s like the classic “first line” game on steroids. I got the idea from a radio show I was listening to on NPR one afternoon. The show featured a game that was being played on college campuses called Zombies vs. Humans. It was basically a game of glorified tag where one group of students assumed the role of zombies (make-up and all) and another took on the character of zombie hunters. I thought, “How weird is that?” Then I began to wonder what that game would look like if it were very specialized, very serious, and there were hierarchies and classifications within it. I tinkered with the Procedure for months — maybe years — before I found a way to use it, and while it’s not a strong enough idea to carry a novel, I found it interesting as a different method — aside from the lectures the students get from Dr. Richard Aldiss — for the class to tunnel inside Fallows’s supremely weird books.

How would you describe two of the main characters, the professor/former accused killer Richard Aldiss, and his student Alex Shipley? In what ways are you similar to those two and in what ways you are different? Or put another way if you don’t like that question which character do you most identify with and why?

Aldiss and Alex have a strange bond. Aldiss says early in Dominance that he will kill for her, and I believe him. He is obsessed with her — with her beauty and her bravado but also with her mind. I think he sees some of himself in her, and that is why he chooses her as his “special” student. She’s the class pet, basically, and normally everybody hates the pet — but Alex is a different breed. She’s tough and determined and driven to exonerate a man that she suspects might not be guilty even though he is still a very bad apple. And that’s really what Aldiss is, and it’s why he interested me as a character from the beginning — the reader can assume that Aldiss was innocent (or was he?) of the crimes he was accused of committing but still loathe him when he’s on the page. That’s an interesting place to be for a reader, that sort of middle ground where they want Professor Aldiss to both succeed and be punished, and this is where Alex is, too. She’s torn, and remains torn, right up to the novel’s conclusion.

What’s it like to get such a complimentary blurb from Jeffrey Deaver, who I’m guessing you’re a fan of since he, like you, is known for lots of twists? Deaver’s full blurb reads:

A brilliant concept, brilliantly executed. Dominance soars to the top of the thriller genre by infusing its rapid-fire plot with the mysteries of literature and authorship and offering cutting-edge (so to speak) psychological insights into minds both noble and horrifically demented. You’ll never look at professors, authors or, well, books the same way. Oh and that last page…

It was really a treat. I began reading Deaver in high school, and consider him one of my true literary heroes. However, I have a lot to learn before I am as deft as he is with his plot twists and the way he delivers clues to the reader. So much to learn…

Did you draw from your own experiences as a writer, an English major and/or a teacher when writing this book?

Absolutely. I think there is a feeling of being held under a sway when you take a literature class. It’s unique maybe to all academic disciplines, because you have both the text and the professor interpreting that text, these two layers of the mystery being peeled away at once. I remember discovering Faulkner in a college classroom at Centre College. I’d never read Faulkner before then. I was 19 years old. I remember thinking, “My Lord, this is like a totally new language.” Thus I had to have the professor interpret a lot of it, and the prof took on this ultimate power within the room. We would read a section and then immediately look to our teacher to tell us how it was supposed to be read. Soon, of course, the student learns the language and is able to follow the text on his own. But there is a period of starting-out, an initiation if you will, where the professor is so important as to how things like meaning and context are understood. I’m not sure there is another discipline quite like that, and it’s very interesting. In Dominance, of course, the professor begins to use his power to take the class in a peculiar direction, and the students begin to follow the trail where it leads. I see something like that as undeniably possible in the environment of a college classroom.

What have been the high and low points in your writing career? Does this positive New York Times review of your new book make the list as a high point?

There have been quite a few high points. I’ve been reviewed by the Times twice, reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, been blurbed by great writers I admire, I’ve made the New York Times bestseller list, I’ve seen my first novel published in many different countries.

To nail down just one high point is tough, but one of the things I always talk about is the time I got to meet one of my heroes, Robert McCammon, at a book fair in Bowling Green, KY. I take my early reading very seriously; it was the greatest time of my life as a reader. In my teens I discovered McCammon, who in the ’80s and early ’90s was tremendously successful. He was a true gentleman, and I wanted to express to him what a profound influence he had on my writing. I would love to meet some of my other heroes–Dean Koontz, Dan Simmons, Clive Barker, Kathe Koja, and of course Stephen King–and maybe I will get to do that one day.

I understand your third book will, like the first two, involve puzzles. Are you concerned about getting pigeonholed as doing puzzle books or is that more a badge of honors? I’m guessing you like puzzles yourself, both creating them and solving them, right?

Puzzles themselves are secondary to the reason I use them, which is this: I want the reader to be involved in the fact-finding. I want the characters and the reader to almost become muddled in the process of reading, create this situation where the reader is confused/rattled/paranoid. I want to basically create a sense of gamesmanship in my books. The best way to do this is have the reader be involved in the game itself, and so I use these puzzles — some simple, some complex — that I hope will pull the reader in to the emotional subtext of the book. If I can get the reader actively involved, then he/she has to work — and that is a good place to be with a book, because if you work then you are likely not to forget the reading experience.

Was it planned to have your first two novels take place in a University setting or did that just work out that way? Does that setting make it easier to have these puzzles where the characters are constrained being within the same confined space? Will that also be the case with the third book?

With Obedience, my first novel, I simply wrote what I knew. I was a college professor at the time, I knew how college classes moved, I knew what most college students want and how they operate. So I used that and created this strange missing persons story. That’s basically what Obedience was, my take on a missing persons tale, and I came back to the college setting of course with Dominance. There are two reasons why the campus setting interests me. First, I like academic thrillers. I like characters who are professors or students, characters who aren’t afraid to look into the history of a situation so as to maybe decode it. Second, I like the way campuses (or small towns for that matter) hem everything in. The suspects are there, easily accessible for the hero/heroine to find. This is very Agatha Christie-esque, and of course Dominance takes this idea one step further and becomes a locked room mystery. But generally I like the idea that a campus constrains the writer to one place and doesn’t allow you to go crazy with your list of suspects–and I need all the constraining I can get!

You talk in this piece about how you came to draw as inspiration not one but two books: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs. What do you think Christie and Harris would make of the resulting book? Would Christie prefer the more cerebal parts and Harris the more action-oriented parts perhaps those featuring Aldiss, who DOES sort of remind me of Hannibal Lecter?

Great question. I would hope both writers would see Dominance as an homage rather than a blatant rip-off of their creations, but one never knows. I will say this: I read Silence of the Lambs for the first time as I was beginning Dominance. I’d seen the movie but had never read the novel. The novel is a true masterpiece, one of the books in our genre that can stand up to the finest works of 20th century literature. A truly tranformative work. I used some of Harris’s tropes, including of course the dynamic between the heroine and the villain, but if I can even remotely touch the brilliance of his book then I am in very good company.

Why do you think you (and you’re not the first to think this) used to look down on the crime genres? If you haven’t already you should check out Patrick Anderson’s book ((I interviewed him here about societal’s gradual acceptance of the crime nor genre. Put another way, what will it take for programs like the one you used to belong to to believe that Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman and others are, as you say, worthy of praise and reading?

I looked down on the genre because I knew nothing about it. We disparage what we’re unfamiliar with. I think there is a sense in many MFA programs that if something sells, if it has a wide appeal, then it somehow must be wrong. I’ve come to find that I love certain books and writers who do have this appeal, and with some of these people there is a reason why they became popular in the first place. As for the programs ever adopting crime writers, it’s already happening in some programs — I read recently of a college that was giving an MFA in crime fiction. So it’s slowly happening. But for the most part, books are labeled either “literary” or “other,” and the two schools often swim in different streams. I wish it weren’t so, but I think for the most part the writers who turn their nose up at genre fiction haven’t read too much of it to begin with.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.