Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Interrogation Room Suspect #6: Charlie Price

This week we've hauled in author Charlie Price to face the glare of the Interrogation Room spotlight. He faces questioning from two of our detectives, Elisa Ludwig and Laura Ellen.
Raised in Colorado and Montana, Charlie graduated from Stanford in the late 60s and has lived in Italy, New York City, Oakland, and Mexico before settling in Northern California. From street schools in Bedford-Stuyvesant, to locked psychiatric units, to Academic Dean in a therapeutic boarding school, he has worked with adolescents and adults in trouble since the early seventies. Currently he consults and coaches for public and private agencies.
His fourth book, Desert Angel (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux) came out this past October. His third book, The Interrogation of Gabriel James won the Edgar Award for best YA Mystery last year.
Congratulations on winning the Edgar Award. How did you first find out you'd been nominated? How did you learn you'd won?
My editor advised me in an email that I’d been nominated, and later in the day I heard the same from Mystery Writers of America. I was delightfully surprised and honored. As to winning, no one finds out until the end-of-April banquet in New York. I thought it too expensive to go, but Macmillan wound up bringing me out to NYC for a toast at the Publishing House, and sending my editor Wes Adams and me to the ceremony. At the banquet, when they announced Interrogation the winner, I was flabbergasted. I was very proud of the book but I hadn’t allowed myself to think about actually winning. It was one of those three or four overpowering moments in a life.
Where did the idea for Interrogation come from? Was it always going to be a mystery novel?
I knew that a disturbed family can create serious problems for its community. The story about Raelene’s horrible home life is a true one that I encountered during my psych hospital work. It bothered me for years and I wrote a short story about it. I couldn’t understand how a father could justify such an abusive environment. Finally, I wrote the novel (like play therapy) to better understand how such a situation might occur.
I had also long been troubled by the racism toward Native Americans in some western states. It exactly mimicked racism against other minorities and I wanted to look at how that might play out in a school environment. Billings, Montana, where the novel is set, made a community-wide response to a hate crime toward a Jewish family in 1993 and thereby started the NOT IN OUR TOWN movement which is still being replicated in towns and cities throughout the US.
Most of this book is written in the dialogue-heavy format of the interrogation. How did you decide to tell the story in this particular style?
I wrote the book several times in sequential style from different points of view but it never lifted me off the ground the way I had hoped. One afternoon I was trying to buff a particular passage and an idea came to me: what if I told the two-month tale in a day’s real-time interrogation? The dialogue format was dictated by that style decision. This was a few years ago, before I saw the brilliant Slumdog Millionaire where the story evolves from quiz show questions.
Anyway, I got excited by the idea and flew back into a total rewrite. It turned out that writing the story as an interrogation was akin to writing a striptease that ends with a card trick. Each piece of information was revealed as the result of a deputy’s question which Gabe often answered somewhat evasively. And, most questions also spurred Gabe’s more accurate memories. Through the computer screen I watched the imagined detectives and wrote what they said. I didn’t try to force their questions into any particular pattern. They asked whatever came to their minds as the day progressed. But to maintain the story’s tension, nothing could be told before its time . . . a literary card trick because therefore the story had to be shuffled repeatedly, and at the end, the deck had to come out in ordered suits! VoilĂ !
Gabriel is an interesting and relatable character—in some ways, it seems like his desire to fit in is exactly what gets him into trouble. How did his character evolve over the course of writing this book?
The first times I wrote the book, Gabe was very focused on romance with the girls in his life but his relationships never panned out. Also, he was eager to solve the mystery of the fire, the vandalism, and the hazing. When I shifted his focus to running and whether he would attempt to discover and build his skills, Gabe became more compelling to me because that’s a vital question in my own life. Will I have the courage to pursue the talents I’ve been given and in doing so, risk failure?
During years at work I learned that in spite of my desire to help, I had a very limited capacity to “fix” people or situations. The best I might do was occasionally inspire, but I never knew whether that actually happened. At nearly sixty, when I committed to the long-held dream of writing, I was stretching and trying to grow new skills, and simultaneously risking failing and looking foolish. In my case, that decision eventually led to becoming a published writer. In Gabe’s case that commitment leads to improved running ability and increased feelings of self worth and contribution. By the end he realizes he could actually help his team win state.
At the beginning Gabe was not particularly aware of his limitations. His life had started to go well: buddies, girlfriend, sports. As he encountered the girl’s dilemma he was forced to deal with uncertainty: did his desire to help make things better or worse for the girl? In the course of the story he becomes increasingly self-aware as he questions his own motives and capabilities. He becomes humbled by the consequences of his behavior and the finite nature of his ability to fix a complex situation.
Like Interrogation, Desert Angel has some very dark themes. How do you manage dealing with heavier issues when writing for a teen audience?
Actually, I consider these more life themes than dark themes. In at-risk schools and psych hospitals I encountered many young people whose personal difficulties had become so major they had to have help. My clients and students came from all walks of life. In wealthy homes, in professional homes, in average homes, and in poor homes, there can be horrible dramas daily that usually remain secret until later, grown up, a family member enters therapy or winds up in our legal system. Every family—every family—has members at some level (mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, grandparent, cousin) with problems of addiction, domestic abuse, and/or mental illness. Feelings of shame and fears of stigma or legal intervention prevent most families from talking about the affected persons or sharing those problems with outsiders. One of the values of writing about such characters and subjects? Characters that mirror those kinds of issues are safer, easier to discuss, in less guarded arenas where we might encounter fresh or useful ideas.
As to my audience, I hear feedback equally from teen and adult readers. Since the subject matter is intense and the style mature, the novels have been “crossover” books. All of them have strong adult characters. My first book, Dead Connection, was written as an adult novel and edited to become Young Adult. I never write “down.” I do try to represent the young people I met who faced deep trouble and pain with courage and resourcefulness. We’re all in this together. I try to write stories that are thrilling and real.
Where do your ideas come from? Do you plot your novels very carefully or do they evolve more organically?
Each story grows organically. I do not outline or try to steer my characters. My first three novels came from true stories that haunted me: A high school girl my daughter’s age, kidnapped and never found. A boy with a psychotic mother that started to lose his own boundaries due to the stress of his situation. A shy girl with a secret bizarre home life. The next two books came up spontaneously while traveling. I wondered how some different teens I’d worked with would handle situations I encountered.
How does your work in the mental health arena dovetail with your writing? Are there any parallels in the process of therapy and composing a novel?
Most of my teen characters are based on real people from my work experience. I disguise them completely, to protect their anonymity, but I have known these people, listened to them, admired their courage, wondered where they found their ongoing willingness to persevere. Their strength and resourcefulness are central to my writing. I had to search for those qualities in myself as an adolescent. I wind up telling stories about the kind of valiant teens who can be often unseen or unrecognized in our mainstream culture. Therapy is about listening without judgment. Novel writing is about watching characters without consciously steering the outcome.
Any recommendations of other great YA or MG mysteries for our readers?
I crave stories that are suspenseful and ring true, stories that engage me immediately. I love Chris Crutcher’s books because they often show a hidden or controversial side of life that many adults and teens have trouble facing. They’re mysteries in that I always wonder how his characters can possibly get out the jams he creates. I have liked Sherman Alexie's books, particularly True Dairy of a Part Time Indian. I realize as I write this that it is not the attribute “mystery” that interests me, but the quality of the writing. Many of my favorite books contain equal degrees of adult and teen characters. Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Peace Like a River. I love adult “detective fiction,” Burke, Crais, Crumley; loved the story Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, the book City of Thieves by Benioff, and this year’s adult Edgar winner The Lock Artist by Hamilton. I guess I’m too idiosyncratic a reader to be of any use as a recommender. So far I have not tried not to read YA mysteries or thrillers because I don’t want to be subconsciously influenced by excellent writers' styles and story lines from the same YA genre.
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1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating interview -- thank you Elisa, Laura, and Charlie! I'm really intrigued by your writing process, and, as a control-freak writer, love thinking about this concept: "Novel writing is about watching characters without consciously steering the outcome." Looking forward to reading THE INTERROGATION OF GABRIEL JAMES -- it's moving to the top of my to-read pile!


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