Although my father was an avid reader of mystery novels (Agatha Christie, of course, but Josephine Tey was his favorite), I never acquired the taste, and have missed that great tradition by and large, from the genre novelists so gifted at prose that they have earned a sometimes-begrudging literary standing (Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard come to mind) to the paid-by-the-word pulp tradition, where much of the most feverish genius likely resides. I was thus ill-equipped to take on an interview with the Edgar Award-winning, Woodstock-based crime thriller novelist Alison Gaylin: an author of complex, innovative, psychologically crafty and – this – popular novels, who is by all accounts and reckonings at the absolute top of her game.
I don’t know her. And I don’t know the rules of game. But I decided to make this a feature rather than a bug. I read her latest, the madly engaging and fiercely modern crime thriller Never Look Back, and prepared to introduce myself as a naïf with obvious deficiencies and no real authorities. Told in two time periods – the mid-’70s of my own youth and a fully technologically outfitted present day – Never Look Back traces the colliding lives of two electronic journalists, podcaster Quentin Garrison and film critic Robin Diamond. Both of them have been deeply affected (though only one knows of it) by a series of murders perpetrated by a pair of teenage lovers, April and Gabriel, in the California of the ’70s, the California of cults living in canyons. The story is told mostly from three perspectives: Quentin’s, Robin’s and the presumed-dead April Cooper’s, via a series of letters she wrote in the ’70s addressed to her future daughter.
The rate of new developments in Never Look Back – some you’d call revelations, others complications – is blindingly fast, downhill, accumulating, accelerating. Further, the pattern of development is nonlinear and “distributed,” in the computer-science sense of the term. The data stream in from all directions, from all sources, fragmentary, collecting complexity and possibility in a way that is constantly shifting. It’s a narrative mode unique to the digital information age. A story emerges from the corners. Every character and every encounter smuggles in something new to consider. In short, you don’t need to be patient to enjoy an Alison Gaylin novel, but you need to be alert AF.
One of the things I really enjoy about Never Look Back is how the story is told on two historical planes: the present and the pre-digital ’70s. I am a child of the ’70s, about one year younger than your April, and I like the way you build these parallel strands of period ambiance, especially because the ’70s are seen here through a teenage lens. Is there anything about that period that is significant or attractive to you? Can you discuss some of the challenges of writing with fidelity to multiple periods?
I grew up in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s and early ’80s, and the time and place is very ingrained in my memory. There’s something glamorously false about the area to me: a desert with no natural water source, filled with exported palm trees, sunny all year around and of course, Hollywood in driving distance. The time period in LA is also really interesting for crime fiction. It’s less than a decade after the Manson murders, and it’s the era of the Hillside Strangler and the Night Stalker. There’s something very foreboding and creepy about Southern California back then. This is the second book I’ve written like this. What Remains of Me took place partly in 1980 and partly in 2010. I explored the same people in both time periods in that book, while in this book, it was different generations. It’s challenging to go back in recent time like that, and it requires a lot of Google searches, because, even though I was very much alive during the time April is talking about, my memory is not infallible. Writing this book, I had to find out, for instance, when Starsky and Hutch was airing, when Kool and the Gang’s Hollywood Swinging came out, what a kid in 1976 would be writing about for social studies class, et cetera… I wrote the book in order, and coming back to the present for the Quentin and Robin scenes was sometimes a little jarring.
Here’s where I will reveal myself as a genre novice: In Never Look Back, the police and the traditional crime-solving establishment are portrayed as cumbersome, a little sluggish and ineffectual, even peripheral really, whereas this agile, decentralized new model of pod and Web – equal parts truth and paranoid conspiracy – is where the festering action is. It is cool, to me, that our current modes of communication and information open up all kinds of new narrative possibilities to the crime story, and all kinds of new relationships and psychological points of entry. Since Never Look Back is my first exposure your work, and I am unfamiliar with the novels of your genre peers, I am not sure if this a trend in the tradition. Can you speak to the role of technology and information in your work, and in your field generally?
It’s interesting. There are a lot of terrific writers who write straight-up police procedurals, but I’ve never been one of them, mainly because I don’t feel equipped, experiencewise. What interest me are “regular” people who get caught up in horrifying circumstances beyond their control, or who find out things about people close to them they never would have dreamed possible. I like to write about things that scare me, and those are the things that do scare me. The investigators in my books are sometimes police officers, but more often than not, less traditional types. I have my Masters in Journalism and a lot of journalism experience, so I feel confident having reporters as investigators. Quentin falls into that mode, but I made him a podcaster because I wanted someone more personally involved, less objective about the crime he’s covering. As far as technology goes, it always has played a role in the books I write, whether it’s social media, cellphone technology, tracking devices et cetera. I like to stay true to whatever time period I’m setting my book in, and to me, for a crime fiction book to be set in present day, technology should play a major role.
Nary a character passes through this novel without a pretty full psychological workup. I understand that’s kind of your “thing,” and it is fascinating the way that the crime story is inseparable from this interlocking psychology of the characters. Never Look Back has all kinds of mirroring of relationships. Do you start with a set of crime facts, and then develop the psychological/relational dimension as you go?
For me, character development and plotting go hand-in-hand – because if a character isn’t of a certain psychological makeup, she’s not going to propel the action forward. I have a loose plot in mind in the beginning, and create the main characters at the same time. Who they are and what they’ve experienced determines how they’ll act, how far they’ll go to hide secrets, what they’ll do to protect others or themselves. I hope that makes sense!
Not only does it make sense, the proof is in the pudding. Finally, who are some of your primary influences as a writer, including those outside the genre and outside the century? Within the tradition of the crime/psychological thriller, who are some women writers who were models or inspirations for you?
Patricia Highsmith, Mary Higgins Clark, Flannery O’Connor have all had a strong influence on my writing. Highsmith and O’Connor go deep into the psychology of their characters, and Mary Higgins Clark is a master of suspense and pacing. Current crime writers I love and admire include Laura Lippman, Alafair Burke, Megan Abbott, Wendy Corsi Staub. There are so many more, but that’s a start!
Second finally: Anything you care to add about living and working in the mid-Hudson Valley and Catskills? Writing is, in my opinion, the most solitary of the arts, both in its making and its consumption, and yet community remains so vital to the health of the art.
I love it here. There’s a terrific community of writers – not to mention amazing bookstores like Oblong in Rhinebeck, Inquiring Minds in Saugerties and my all-time favorite, the Golden Notebook in Woodstock.
Alison Gaylin will make two local appearances to celebrate the publication of Never Look Back: the Golden Notebook in Woodstock on July 20 (https://goldennotebook.indielite.org) and Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck on August 7 (www.oblongbooks.com). ♦