Giles Blunt was new to me when I read his novel, By The Time You Read This, but it’s so good I’m going to start reading all of his novels, no small feat if you know how much I already read. He's earned his credentials. He wrote for Law & Order, Night Heat and Street Legal before writing novels full-time. This is his fourth book focusing on main character Detective John Cardinal. The works of Blunt, a Canadian writer, have been compared to those of Ian Rankin.
How long have you been writing fiction?
My first attempt was when I was 8 years old, heavily influenced by Enid Blyton. I only got to page two, if I remember rightly, before I ran into plot problems. It’s still on the shelf. I wrote short stories in college, and my first novel at 24, which was heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett. It was followed by a twelve-year period of readjustment while I wrote screenplays and TV scripts, mostly for no money whatsoever.
What was your goal with this book? Did you succeed?
I wanted to write a thriller that deals with the real emotions of the crimes involved: murder and child molestation. I hope I succeeded, but you can never be sure. I do get some lovely letters from people about it — people whose lives have been touched by depression or suicide — and that’s very gratifying.
How did this particular story develop? By that I mean some authors have the characters come first, some the plot – what came first on this book?
All I knew at the start was that John Cardinal’s wife was going to die in chapter one. Because of the manner of her death and her history of hospitalization for manic-depression, it would be natural for everyone to assume it’s suicide — especially as they find a suicide note in her handwriting. Cardinal himself believes it’s suicide, until he starts receiving vicious “sympathy” cards in the mail. The characters developed out of the need for him to investigate on his own. I had a clear idea of the major ones before I embarked on a draft. I got a little way into it and realized it needed another investigation—it was just too heavy to stay with Cardinal’s grief on every page—so I got Lise Delorme involved on the trail of a child pornographer.
That sent me back into outline mode. The character for the girl came at that stage; I knew pretty much what she would be like: she’s eighteen years old, horribly depressed, and trying to work out why, with a very able psychiatrist. The character for the perpetrator emerged in the actual writing. That’s usually how it is with me: the major characters are in mind before I begin, and the smaller ones take shape as I’m writing.
If you give them too much detail up front you may put yourself in a bind later on. A lot of how-to books tell you to make up as much detail about your characters ahead of time but I think that’s silly. If you decide your character is a forty-seven year old, divorced, gay sociologist who collects stamps and plays the didgeridoo you will almost certainly find it makes no sense for him to do what he does in the story. Whereas if you let what he does partly dictate the characteristics you give him you’ll end up with a better fit. Doing character bios up front may help when you’re first starting out as a way of getting your imagination fired up, but you can’t be ruled by it.
Just out of curiousity have you read the novel Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst? I was searching my memory for a reference point for describing this book to others and that book came to mind. While in many ways a completely different type of book, both share one important element: Both start with an apparent suicide by the protagonist’s wife and the husband searching for answers as to why and what really happened.
I haven’t read that book, but I’m quite sure there are a lot of books that begin this way. It almost put me off writing the book. But I was pretty sure I had a unique story to tell, so I didn’t care if the precipitating incident had been used.
Without giving anything crucial away how would you characterize the bad guy in your book – evil, damaged soul or somewhere in between?
Sometimes people use the word evil to imply a being that is either sub- or superhuman, and I don’t believe there are any human beings that qualify: not Hitler, not Jeffrey Dahmer, not George Bush. If you mean evil in the sense of really, really bad, yes he’s definitely evil. He’s also a damaged soul for sure. Readers get to know quite a bit about his background, and while it doesn’t excuse his behavior or even explain it fully, it certainly makes it coherent, even if repellent.
What’s it like to have a person – via your writing – in your head while you are writing?
I didn’t have trouble with this villain that way. What gave me more trouble was having to write Cardinal’s grief. To do that convincingly I had to imagine my own wife’s sudden death/possible murder and that was painful to do. In fact I was quite glad to write the parts about the villain because they took me away from the grief aspect. Also the girl’s depression was fairly close to the bone and so more difficult to sit with.
What kind of research did you do regarding manic depressives and suicide? What most surprised you about what you learned?
I researched medications and then didn’t use any of the research. I’ve known three different manic depressives in my life, and I drew Catherine’s symptoms largely from them, of course changing the details. I didn’t do much more research than that, because mostly when dealing with her I’ve been describing Cardinal’s reaction to her, and that is much easier to imagine.
What's it like to hear praise such as from Book Page, "the most chilling literary villain since Hannibal Lecter”
It’s wonderful. It may not be deserved, but I enjoyed seeing it. Lecter’s a great literary creation — a figure like Sherlock Holmes or Boo Radley who has gone into the cultural mainstream.
What are your influences?
Biggest one, bar none, is Graham Greene. After him, among crime writers anyway: John le Carre, Martin Cruz Smith, and Ruth Rendell.
Who do you most recommend readers read besides yourself?
Graham Greene. He’s brilliant at everything: plot, character, texture, setting. No English writer except Shakespeare studied the human heart from more angles with more wit and more compassion. It’s ridiculous that he didn’t win the Nobel prize.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working on a story set in the US. It’s about a father and son who every year cross the country in a huge Winnebago, seeing the sights. They also pull robberies along the way. It’s fun, but it’s very different from the Cardinal novels.
Thanks to Mr. Blunt for the interview.