Interview: Thomas Lakeman
by Ernest Lilley
Gumshoe Review Interview ISBN/ITEM#: 1006TLakeman
Date: October 3, 2006 / Show Official Info /
Along with our review of his debut novel, The Shadow Catchers we wanted to find out more about the author Thomas Lakeman, who's gone from a childhood passion for writing through the dot com boom/bust as an internet maven and has now come full circle to teach English at a southern university and return to writing.
Gumshoe: When did you start working on The Shadow Catchers, and where does the idea come from?
Thomas Lakeman: Technically I began working on the book in the Fall of 2000, back when I was still living in Los Angeles. I say "technically" because the book has undergone such a massive transformation over the years. My original vision was a grim, hard-fisted novel about the life and death of a religious cult in southern Nevada. It was going to be this massive epic with four first-person narrators, weaving history and fiction together -- kind of like The Poisonwood Bible meets Ragtime as re-written by Chuck Pahlaniuk. I think I may have invested three weeks in that first draft. It was a total disaster. But then there was this minor character, an FBI profiler named Mike Yeager, who seemed worth keeping. I found I liked his voice and I was interested in staying with him...and so, over the course of some eleven or twelve drafts, the other characters just fell away and Mike gradually took over. At some point I crafted a new plotline for him and created a new cast of supporting characters.
Very little of that original draft has survived -- a line of dialogue, or a random description here or there. Otherwise it's like the old axe that's had three new handles and two new blades.
Gumshoe: If you were ever a police profiler in your random walk through life, I missed it. Yet you've done a pretty convincing job of showing us the world through Special Agent Yeager's eyes. Did you moonlight with the FBI to get a feel for the job, or are you just making this stuff up as you go along?
TL: I would love to tell you that I'm a grizzled FBI veteran with twenty years of hard-core experience, but the truth is that most of what I know came from reading books. Some very good ones, I hasten to add. During the early stages of research, I was ordering a lot of FBI and criminal justice textbooks on profiling, serial murder, forensics, ballistics, etc. I must have wound up on some federal agency's watch list, because one day I got a phone call from some guy claiming to be from the Better Business Bureau. He asked if I'd been overcharged for my copy of The Tactical Advantage: A Manual For Hostage Recovery, but I think he really must have been an FBI agent on the lookout for nut-jobs. I never heard back from him again, so I can only hope I passed the test.
For anyone interested in procedural work -- or the source of my research -- I highly recommend the FBI's Crime Classification Manual, compiled and written by some of the Bureau's most legendary profilers: John E. Douglas, Ann W. Burgess, Allen G. Burgess, and Robert K. Ressler. It's not light reading, but it absolutely nails the subject.
Gumshoe: I love the description of the Colt "Buntline" in the book as a gun that would "do terrible things to a man", leaving the question of who it had the greater impact on, the shooter or the target, to the reader to resolve. Are you into guns, and where did the Buntline come from for the story?
TL: I actually don't know that much about guns! However, since I was writing an FBI thriller, I knew that I'd have to demonstrate at least a basic understanding of firearms. More trips to the library. The "Buntline" has a special place in the book, as it does in Western lore. As many of your readers undoubtedly know, it was designed by Ned Buntline, pioneer of the "dime novel" and one of the 19th Century's pre-eminent sources of cowboy and gunfighter mythology. He was eager to carve out his own niche in the Wild West pantheon, and so gave out Buntlines to all of his favorite lawmen -- including Wyatt Earp. The Buntline is one weird-looking gun. It has a twelve-inch barrel and is by no means a fast-draw weapon. Like so many of Ned Buntline's creations, it's primarily designed to seem larger than life -- more for show than everyday use.
Since The Shadow Catchers is set in Nevada -- and because I conceived of Sheriff Archer as a survivor of the old gunfighter code -- I knew he needed a weapon that would convey both his Old-Testament morality and his obsession with his own reputation. The Buntline seemed perfect for that. It's big, it's loud, and it will blow a big hole through whatever you fire it at. As a story prop, it belongs to a Western folkloric tradition known as "The Tale of the Gun" -- the idea that certain weapons are doomed to bring harm to anyone who uses them. The Buntline represents enormous power, and all power tends to corrupt -- as Archer puts it, the gun "will do terrible things to a man." As an FBI agent trained in the use of force, Mike Yeager has learned to treat such powerful tools with the utmost respect.
Gumshoe: Are there more Mike Yeager stories in the works, or are you moving on to another character. Feel free to tell us the answer is "both" since I'm looking forward to finding out what's next for you and for Mike.
TL: Okay -- both! Actually, that's the gospel truth. The first book was Mike's story, designed to put the character through his paces and help me get a sense of how to relate to him. The second book will bring his partner (and occasional girlfriend) Peggy Weaver to center stage, this time with Mike as a supporting character. I plan to alternate back and forth between the two of them, depending on reader interest.
Mike and Peggy are two sides of the law enforcement coin. Mike is emotional, intuitive, and impulsive. He's also a loner. Peggy, by contrast, is more of a team player. She's got her vulnerable side, but on the job's she's cool-headed and keeps her cards much closer to the vest. As I've discovered while writing her, Peggy also has more of a survivor's instinct than Mike. She doesn't like to fight...but when she has to, she only ever shoots to kill. I'm hoping that, by sharing ground between these two characters, I can keep them both flourishing over the course of a long series.
Gumshoe: Reading your bio, we see that you wanted to be a lot of things by the time you were five. How many of them have you managed to do so far, and how do you feel about the list? Does it keep growing?
TL: Well, truth to tell, I never got to achieve any of those childhood dreams. I never became an astronaut or a mad scientist, and so far Batman isn't looking too good either. What I have gotten to do is work in a lot of careers that bring me into contact with interesting people. During my time at as a publicist for Universal Pictures, I answered fan mail for Chucky-the-Killer-Doll from the Child's Play movies (and, yes, Chucky does get mail). I also got to stand backstage at the Oscars while Steven Spielberg received his awards for Schindler's List: for the record, the first thing he did after walking into the wings was ask his wife, "Did I sound corny?" As an Internet executive, I had the privilege of being one of the first people to write and design movie Websites. Now I teach, and find I love being in a classroom with students. I'm up for pretty much any career opportunity, as long as it gives me a chance to use my talents, and as long as it doesn't get in the way of my writing. If I had $25 million to burn, I'd either run for the U.S. Senate or buy a Scottish whisky distillery. Given the state of things, the distillery's ahead by a length.
Gumshoe: We'll drink to that. You've mentioned that you realized from an early age that writing allowed you to live out those lives sooner rather than later. When did you start writing stories, and did your time on the west coast keep you from it?
TL: I was trained as a playwright at Carnegie-Mellon University's drama school, where I wrote two stage plays and a TV play. From there I went to California with the sole intention of becoming a screenwriter, and one of my greatest regrets is that I didn't keep at it. The playwright John Guare once said, "Organize your life so you can write." I'm sorry to say I didn't take that advice to heart. At first I was just working overtime to pay off student loans and upkeep on a car. Later, when I helped start an Internet company, I was working overtime to maintain our business prospects. By then, writing -- my own writing, anyway -- had been shoved way into the background. Had it not been for the dot-com crash of 2000, I might still be slaving away.
A lot of people encouraged me to start writing for myself again. My ex-wife (a dear friend, to whom The Shadow Catchers is dedicated) was especially supportive. When my job, my career, and my industry collapsed, my desire to write was one of the few things left in the ashes. I took the few pages of the book that I'd managed to complete and went east -- first to Tennessee, then back to my home town in Alabama. It's often struck me as remarkable that, after so many years of ignoring my writing, I found it so easy and natural to sit back down at a computer again. The work wasn't very good -- not at first, anyway -- but I had little trouble getting myself into a schedule. It was a very reassuring discovery.
Gumshoe: We know you discovered writing at an early age, or at least storytelling, but how about reading? Were you turned on by books, and if so, which ones?
TL: My mother taught me to write when I was three years old. I know that experts are divided as to how much of an advantage early readers have -- but, speaking only for myself, I'm glad I started when I did. All of the usual children's books were exciting to me, but it wasn't until I got to elementary school that I made my big lifelong discoveries. Madeleine L'Engle was first, followed by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I read all the Narnia books at a stretch, and then sat myself down to write a fan letter to Mr. Lewis in Oxford. I was totally crushed when I found out he'd died a year before I was born.
An early experience with George Orwell (as well as some side trips to Poe and Stephen King) were what turned me on to the dark side. I read Animal Farm thinking it would be a cute children's story like Charlotte's Web, and was completely unprepared for the Stalinist pigs. Once I got over the initial shock, though, I ran straight for 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World. Then I went straight for The Omen, The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, Salem's Lot, The Shining, and Vincent Bugliosi's account of the Manson trial, Helter Skelter. I should add that most of these books belonged to my older sisters, and never should have been left within reach of a ten-year-old boy. But they were, and that's why I don't write cozy romances.
Gumshoe: What do you read now? What do you recommend to readers of crime and mystery? Of good writing regardless of genre?
TL: These days I mainly read nonfiction -- either for research, or to broaden my interests in classical and military history. I also listen to books on CD and watch DVD programs. Simon Schama's A History Of Britain is wonderful, both in its print and video incarnations. I do read the work of fellow mystery writers -- but quite honestly, if you asked me who I'd recommend, I could only say "All of them." This isn't just me being diplomatic: I'm too much in awe of too many people to choose anyone from the pack. I will only say that Thomas Harris, Dennis Lehane, and James Ellroy are three writers who never fail to inspire Salieri-like feelings of sublime envy in me whenever I read them.
I'm a real fan of "tip-of-the-iceberg" style, so my literary models are the masters of that form -- Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Tim O'Brien, and James M. Cain. The Postman Always Rings Twice is still, in my book, a manual for anybody who wants to learn the arts of pacing, character, and dialogue. I could go on quite a while talking about my favorites.
Gumshoe: Have you ever written any short fiction? How is it different than longer works?
TL: Except for novels, most of what I've written is either dramatic (plays and screenplays) or poetry. I have written a few short stories, but none of them are good enough to talk about. If it's okay by you, I can make better comparisons to screenwriting than I can to short fiction.
Gumshoe: Sure. Screenplays are really about novella length, which is why novels get cut so badly to fit into them.
TL: For me, one important difference between screenwriting and fiction lies in the ways each medium defines believability. In a novel, a sequence of actions is considered believable if the reader understands how the writer got from A to B. In a movie, you're less concerned about how something happens as long as you understand why. Novels rely more on explanations; scripts depend more on motivation.
The best example of this I can think of lies in the novel-to-screen transition for The Silence Of The Lambs. In Harris's novel, there's a long sequence describing how Hannibal Lecter is able to steal a ballpoint pen from his warden, conceal the metal cap on his person for months, and finally turn it into a handcuff key. The script doesn't have time for all of these explanations. Instead, the screenwriter simply establishes then pen and then shows Dr. Lecter looking at it with interest; in the next scene, the pen is missing. Since the audience already believes Lecter to be a brilliant and resourceful man, we close the gaps and fill in our own explanation as to how he was able to steal if. You'll rarely get away with that kind of fast-and-loose storytelling in a novel.
As for short fiction and novels, the best comparison I can give to writers is that short stories are perfected; novels are survived.
Gumshoe: Since you're now an English professor at a southern university, maybe you can tell me. What's the big deal about Faulkner? I've always regretted not having read him, but never quite get around to it. The South's writing seems pretty dark in general, and while The Shadow Catchers actually takes place in the West, would it be that hard to have recast it in the South?
TL: Sure, save the easy questions for the end of the interview.
It may be heresy to say this, but Faulkner is not a favorite of mine. I acknowledge his genius and I love his gift for invention. But when I read him I often feel as if I'm not quite getting the joke. It's not his material I have trouble with, but his shaggy-dog way of telling a story. The Sound And The Fury is the only one of his novels I've ever read twice for pleasure. The best thing I can say about him is no small praise: he is a very funny writer.
Southerners do have a strange ability to find humor in dark subjects. I suspect that it's because, in losing the Civil War, we also lost our sense of ourselves as the dominant force in American culture (which we were, back in the days of the Virginia dynasty) and settled for being a kind of quaint alternative -- the way that Wales is to England, or Dr. Pepper is to Coke. Subordinated cultures have a tendency to celebrate their aloofness and oddness, almost as a kind of rebellion. Add to this a lingering sense of guilt: whether we like to admit it or not (and most of us don't), many of the worst acts of attempted genocide in American history -- slavery, the Mexican War, the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow -- were concocted by Southern politicians, specifically to benefit Southern interests. Guilt denied is a perfect recipe for ghosts.
The dominant themes of Southern literature are the Shadow of the Past and the Inevitability of Loss. Because The Shadow Catchers is built around these themes, I suppose you could move its setting to the South without much trouble. The only thing you'd lose is the desert, which contributes a powerful sense of stark emptiness. Southern settings, by contrast, are all about claustrophobia -- all those hanging trees and crumbling mansions. Incidentally, my second novel -- the Peggy Weaver vehicle -- is set in Tennessee.
Gumshoe: What's next for you?
TL: I want to go to Disney World! Seriously, probably more writing. I have a second book due to St. Martin's (with a possible third), and I've got a lot of work to do if I want to maintain this schedule. The first book took me four years to write; the second book took two, and the third book is projected to be done within a year. If I maintain this mathematical progression, then I can expect to complete my tenth book in two days and nineteen answers. That might leave me some time for the Magic Kingdom.