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:
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.