Tuesday , February 20 2024
The editor of a 20-author collaborative mystery novel discusses the logistics of this undertaking.

Interview with Jonathan Santlofer, Editor of ‘Inherit The Dead’

Jonathan Santlofer is the editor of Inherit the Dead, a book similar to No Rest For the Dead, which I did an interview for here in 2011. In both cases the books are written by at least 20 well known mystery writers. They are doing that old thing where one person starts a story and hands it off to another author who continues the story. The result is a fascinating thriller.

This kind of project can have hilarious results as was the case when Lisa Lutz co-wrote a novel, Heads You Lose, with her ex-boyfriend, David Heyward. In that case the book contained the communications between them as they’d complain about each other’s writings. They also dispatched with each other’s favorite characters just to be irksome. I found it delightful, but I think Lutz and Heyward were less happy with the result.

This book, Inherit The Dead, is different from that in many ways. The authors work well together. There is no communication between the writers included — though I’m curious about what communications did occur between the writers on this one. It’s not funny nor is it meant to be.

The writers of this book are, in alphabetical order, Mark Billingham, Lawrence Block, C.J. Box, Ken Bruen, Alafair Burke, Stephen L. Carter, Marcia Clark, Mary Higgins Clark, John Connolly, James Grady, Heather Graham, Bryan Gruley, Charlaine Harris, Val McDermid, S.J. Rozan, Jonathan Santlofer, Dana Stabenow, Lisa Unger and Sarah Weinman. It includes an introduction by Lee Child and a preface by Linda Fairstein.

It’s hard to tell which author is writing which chapter, even when they clearly label it. I think this is more indicative that the writers work well together than that they are less diverse and distinct in style than one may think.

The book is about a former NYPD homicide cop who is not having a good life having lost his badge and his wife. He is hired by a wealthy woman to find her hot but aimless daughter who is about to become a rich young heiress. But it appears the young woman does not want to be found and many of the players have their own agenda. So trouble, as they say, ensues.

Here’s my interview with Mr. Santlofer:

How did this project develop and get its title? Is it related to the prior project No Rest for the Dead?

The title came later. It was a play off the last serial novel title. We had several we liked, but Inherit The Dead won!

How was it decided which author would write which chapter? 

I tried to match authors with certain things that came up in each chapter. i.e. I knew Heather Graham would add some romance and sex; that Lisa Unger would surely add suspense, as would James Grady, and so many others; that John Connolly would add a dash of music; that Val McDermid would know how to spin the pivotal chapter when we finally meet our missing heroine; that Marcia Clark would  spin the legal stuff and make it crackle and that Mary Higgins Clark would add a wonderfully homey touch.

What was it like being the lead, writing the first chapter? Pressure to do good or fun to get the action kicked off?

I knew the story, since I created it, and I felt it was only fair that I set everything in motion, which was fun to do.

Was any editing done or changes made because, say, an author later in the book may contradict something earlier in the book?

Of course! But every author was cooperative when there were inconsistencies and rewriting to be done.

Do you have a favorite chapter and why?

You trying to get me in trouble?! In truth, I am happy with them all. It’s so obvious that everyone had a good time with his or her chapter and I do not think there’s a dud in the group!

How did you guys decide which charity group would benefit? I mean I think it’s great that you are doing this for Safe Horizons (details here).  I was just curious how it was chosen.

I chose Safe Horizon because it made sense that crime writers should donate their royalties to victims of violent crime as a way to pay back.

Were there rules for each author, i.e. a minimum and maximum word count? They were allowed to read the prior entries but not the ones that were written after them?

There was a minimum word count of 2000-2500 words, but many authors wrote more because they got so into it. Every writer received a plot summary, a summary of their chapter, and a character sketch page, along with photos of various locales in their chapter. Because the chapters were written simultaneously it was not possible for anyone to read the chapters that came before theirs. What’s amazing is that the chapters and the story hang together so well. I think there was some sort of magic in the air that guided the writers’ minds and hearts.

What was the best part of being part of this project? What was the hardest part?

The best part was opening my email and getting new chapters. It was really exciting and fun to see what each writer did, how diverse they were, yet part of a whole.

The hardest parts came before anyone wrote – when I had to organize the book, the chapters and who would write what. After that, the writers each did their job seriously and beautifully.

The publicity materials for this book say that you are the director of the crime fiction academy at the Center for Fiction. Where and what is that? Sounds like fun but as a lover of crime fiction I’m admittedly biased.

The Center For Fiction is on East 47th Street in Manhattan. It’s the old Mercantile Library, a beautiful place steeped in history. The director of the center, Noreen Tomassi, has a love for crime fiction and has amassed an award-winning collection of crime fiction books. She asked me to help put together a program devoted to crime fiction where writers could come to write and finish their crime novels, and we actually pulled it off. We have weekly writing workshops, a reading seminar led by people like Megan Abbott and Duane Swierczynski. We have monthly Master Classes with writers like Lee Child, Laura Lippman, Charlaine Harris and Mary Higgins Clark (both in Inherit the Dead), Elmore Leonard, Linda Fairstein, Karin Slaughter, Joyce Carol Oates and many more. This coming session George Pelecanos, Scott Phillips and Nelson DeMille are coming. We have nights with editors and agents as well, the whole idea being to get books finished and sold. What we hope is to create the next generation of great crime fiction writers. Anyone who is interested should go to our website and come join us! It’s truly a great place.Details here.

What would you like people to know about this book that  I haven’t covered?

That it’s not only a fast fun and thrilling novel, but that it was a team effort by some of today’s best (and most generous) crime fiction writers all writing at the top of their form.

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 working in mental health for the last ten 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.

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