Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Interrogation Room #24: Paul Griffin, author of BURNING BLUE

Today we've hauled YA author Paul Griffin into our Interrogation Room to question him about his new novel, Burning Blue. At first we just had one burning question for him. After publishing three contemporary YA novels, what made him turn to mystery?

His answer surprised us. While this is his first published mystery, he's actually been quietly writing mysteries for years. He's also extremely well-read in this genre.

We knew we couldn't let him off the hook so fast. Surely he had valuable insights into the craft of mystery writing!

Notes from the Paul Griffin File:
Paul Griffin is an award-winning author of contemporary YA fiction. His previously published novels are Ten Mile River, The Orange Houses (an ALA Best Books for Young Adults Top Ten), and Stay With Me, all from Dial/Penguin. When he's not writing, he conducts workshops for at-risk, incarcerated, and special needs teens, and he is a volunteer EMT. He lives in New York City with three dogs and one wife, documentary filmmaker Risa Morimoto.

Here's a little bit about his Paul's new book, Burning Blue (Dial/Penguin):

How far would you go for love, beauty, and jealousy?

When Nicole Castro, the most beautiful girl in her wealthy New Jersey high school, is splashed with acid on the left side of her perfect face, the whole world takes notice. But quiet loner Jay Nazarro does more than that--he decides to find out who did it. Jay understands how it feels to be treated like a freak, and he also has a secret: He's a brilliant hacker. But the deeper he digs, the more danger he's in--and the more he falls for Nicole. Too bad everyone is turning into a suspect, including Nicole herself.

Award-winning author Paul Griffin has written a high-stakes, soulful mystery about the meaning--and dangers--of love and beauty.

Here's Diana Renn's Interview with Paul Griffin!
(And be sure to enter our giveaway at the end of this interview!)

DR: Although some characters in your other contemporary YA novels are touched by the world of crime in some ways, Burning Blue marks your first foray into mystery/thriller territory.  What inspired you to turn to mystery?

PG: I’ve always loved mysteries and thrillers, stuff like the Bourne franchise, The Alienist, Thomas Harris, Michael Connelly, Richard Price, Lee Child, John Grisham, P.D. James, so many others. Dennis Lehane is awesome. The Stieg Larsson books are probably my most recent favorites. Diana Renn rules, too. 

DR: Aw.

PG: Presumed Innocent is another favorite, because you have a lot of edge-of-your seat reading fun as you wonder about the WHO, but just as interesting is the WHY of that story.   

I started writing mysteries about 20 years ago, lots of bad ones, and they all went unpublished, and rightly so. I don’t regret all those drafts, though. I had a ball hanging with the characters, if only in my head.
I was very surprised when, after having written mostly thrillers and mysteries, my first book accepted for publication was a quiet little literary novel about two homeless boys. That one was called Ten Mile River, a title I made up on the spot, as I was pitching the story to my friend Elisa, who was then an assistant at Doubleday. I probably pitched her thirty stories that day, and the only ones she liked were Ten Mile and this other book about a homeless dog. They were the last—and in my mind, weakest—two stories I pitched her.

Regardless, Elisa passed the manuscripts on to a very nice man by the name of Kirby Kim, an assistant who was becoming an agent, and Kirby said, “Yeah, the dog thing? I don’t know that I’d show that to anybody. But that Ten Mile River isn’t so bad. You know it’s a YA, right?”   

“Of course it’s a YA,” I said, not knowing what the hell a YA was. He could have called it a cookbook, and I would have agreed, I was so broke and desperate to get a sale, which, miraculously, Kirby got for me with Penguin/Dial. While Dial for the most part has been interested in seeing more literary stories, my friends there, Lauri Hornik (my Publisher), Kathy Dawson (Associate Publisher and now Publisher of her own imprint, Penguin/Kathy Dawson Books—yay, Kathy!) and my wonderful editor Kate Harrison have been generous in letting me experiment. When I begged them to let me write a mystery, they got behind me, and I’m grateful. 

DR: And we're so happy you finally published a mystery! Did you start this novel with a mystery in mind, and did you know the nature of the crime?

PG: I work as an EMT with a volunteer ambulance here in NYC. One day I’m called down to the subway, where a man had been attacked and blinded with what I think was police-grade pepper spray. Somebody just tapped him on the shoulder, and when he turned, the assailant nailed the victim, first in the eyes, then the mouth. Nasty. Chemical burns are messy calls, because you have to be really careful as you try to contain the chemical, i.e., not burn yourself as you’re cleaning up the victim. Getting a blinded man out of a crowded subway station and into an ambulance is tricky and takes time. And then it was one of those hot, midtown NYC rush hours, and we were stuck in traffic. 

I figure I was with this guy for about forty-five minutes, all told. That doesn’t seem like a long time, but the minutes stretch out in situations like these, when all your patient (not to mention you) wants is get to the hospital and get the burning to stop. All the while, I’m trying to flush this poor guy’s eyes with saline, and he’s a wreck. Not angry, just sad. He keeps blaming himself.  “What did I do to provoke this?” became “I can’t believe I got myself burned.” 

The victim’s blaming himself was heartbreaking, and I started writing Burning Blue to figure out why folks do that. I don’t know that I got any closer to a new understanding of self blame, but I needed to try. Again, figuring out the WHO of the crime is always interesting, but it’s the WHY that keeps me writing and reading mysteries.

DR: The mystery plot of Burning Blue takes many twists and turns. It kept me guessing until the very end. Did it surprise you too, or did you know who the villain was from the outset?

PG: I knew from the outset. Now, again, remember, I’m like one for twenty in selling these things, so don’t take what I’m about to write here as anything resembling good advice, but, while my mystery ideas usually start with the perp, I’m often surprised to find that the bad guy’s ID changes as I flesh out the other characters. They start walking and talking—and slicing and dicing—on their own, and then my original outline is out the window. Allowing the story to change is a lot of fun and keeps the story fresh for me as I’m writing it. But for Burning Blue, the perp was always [DELETED]. Now that I think about it, since Burning Blue was the only one that sold, I’ll be sticking with my original perps from now on, so forget everything I just said. At my age, the ability to pay my rent trumps artistic integrity.

DR: While the novel is narrated primarily from Jay’s point of view, you include occasional journal excerpts from Nicole. It’s wonderful, and rare, I think, to hear the voice of the victim. And I love the mix of vulnerability and resilience we get in Nicole. She’s such a complex character. What prompted your decision to include so much of her voice?

PG: My editor Kate. She’s a girly girl, thank god, and kept saying, “I’d really love to get inside Nicole’s head here.” 

I asked her how the f--- I was supposed to that when Nicole, the victim, is also a suspect. 

“You’ll figure it out,” Kate said. “Have fun.” 

And I did.  The tricky thing was—and without giving away too much here—Jay can only get inside Nicole’s head if he hacks into her privacy. That invasion, that forsaking of trust, is a major obstacle the two have to overcome as they try to come together to catch the bad guy. But obstacles are great things in romance. Once you overcome them, and if the other person is still there with you, then you know the love is for real.

DR: What was the most challenging part of writing a mystery specifically for a YA audience? What was the most rewarding part?

PG: The biggest challenge: school. That the characters have to go. It’s hard to be a full time detective when you have eight hundred hours a night of calculus homework. The solution was obvious: don’t do your homework, which is something I always recommend to the kids when I’m working in schools all across our great land. Actually, the characters’ school obligations ended up being great opportunities to flesh out relationships between the suspects. Those buffed faux marble floors in those long high school hallways can be pretty interesting meeting places when they’re jammed with kids dashing off to class, and even more interesting when they’re empty, except for maybe that one shadowy figure hiding out in the cutout behind the water fountain.   

DR: I love how you turned a YA challenge into an advantage! So now what's the most rewarding part of writing YA mystery?

PG: Well, you know, young adults are horrible people, so I’m stumped. No, the YA world is an amazing place to be. Young adults are endlessly fascinating, exuberant, dark, brilliant, passionate. They’re not yet jaded, and they’re eager for new experiences. Our characters can and must reflect that hopefulness if they’re to resonate with our readers.

DR: Do you read mysteries? Did you read them as a teen? And how important do you think it is for mystery writers to read in this genre?

PG: Repeating myself here, but mysteries have always been a favorite. Way back when I had a paper route, this guy on my route used to get Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. I’d “borrow” it for a day or two (along with his Playboy subscription) before putting it back into his mailbox. Initially I read mysteries for fun, trying to guess the perp’s ID my chief aim, but nowadays it’s the bad guy’s motive that keeps me going. We, with Hannibal Lecter, know early on in Silence of the Lambs that we don’t want to get caught in a parking lot with Buffalo Bill, but getting to know him is, while in no way a pleasure, fascinating. 

I saw the amazing Harlan Coben speak at a conference recently, and he gets together with Lawrence Block and Lee Child and a bunch of other greats once a month, and they read each other’s stuff. So yeah, I think you only read mysteries if you love them, and in the process, when you’re in the grips of a great writer, you’re getting a phenomenal education about what makes mysteries work—and a lesson in what makes them fun.

DR: We received a tip from a source. It seems you’ve been moonlighting with an all-volunteer ambulance corps. How long have you been doing that? How has that experience affected your writing – of this book, or of your writing in general? 

PG: So I jumped the gun in my first answer, but yes, I’m an EMT.  Back in 2001 my mother-in-law had a catastrophic stroke right in front of me, as we were eating lunch. I didn’t know what to do, other than dial 911. I rode with Mom, in the back of the ambulance. She was unconscious, but the EMT was so calm, so collected, and he kept me chilled out. I really appreciated that. He probably kept me from having a stroke! 

Not long after that came 9-11, and as you know, the city was crazy that day and for a long while after. Again, I felt powerless, not having any medical training. I signed up for six months of EMT school and started volunteering not long after. 

Yes, every call is a mystery. Whether you’re asked to help victims of crimes of violence or accidents or chronic disease, the big question is always the same: How did this person get here? My life has a habit of leaking into my novels, so exercising the detective part of my addled brain generally has me spinning mystery plots, particularly after an interesting ambulance tour.

DR: A lot of sleuthing in novels these days – and in real life -- is done on computers. I fear the days of skulking down alleys and stairways with flashlights are nearly gone. Googling information and scrolling through Facebook pages could be inherently boring, on the page. But in Burning Blue, there’s a good amount of screen time, and you make cyber-sleuthing utterly compelling. How did you keep coming up with different ways for Jay and others to get information online, without slowing the pace? Do you have advice for mystery writers who are wrestling with how to incorporate technology and social media sleuthing into their plots?

PG: Thanks for the “utterly compelling,” Diana.  You are too good to me, and yes, I am working on paying you back the three grand I owe you.   

(DR: Shhh!)

PG: I’m not a big online guy, probably because so much of it is social connection and “sharing,” and I’m inherently antisocial and a selfish bastard, but the technology fascinates me. I see hackers as the new ghosts.  They can sneak in anywhere. Take a look at The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Salander is a ghost with wicked digital skills. HOW she works her magic, while interesting, is still less interesting than WHY she’s doing it. When I see a ghost, the first thing that comes to mind is: Why are you still hanging around here?  Why are you not off throwing back a few nice cold beers at the ghost bar? 

I think focusing a bit less on the click-by-click methodology and more on the motivation behind the hacking can bring you to some interesting places. Hacking for money makes a lot of sense, but hacking for love?  Now what the hell is that about? I guess you write the novel to find out.

DR: One of the most fascinating aspects of Burning Blue, for me, is the window it offers into the world of hackers. Jay is a brilliant one, and he’s not even the only one in the book. How did you go about researching hacker skills and lingo? (Or do you have another moonlighting gig we should know about?)

PG: My ambulance corps is big on continuing education, and we’ve had some interesting guest lecturers come talk to us, usually from EMS or law enforcement or the military. Lots of the new crime is computer-based, and a lot of our bet-hedging, not just as it relates to anti-terrorism but also to things as mundane as shoplifting, is being focused on dangers of a digital nature.

I took this 14-week course at the NYPD Academy, just for fun . . . . Popping off with that Glock nine was to be perfectly honest an absolute thrill, but the most interesting segment for me was computer crime. The detectives gave us some fascinating real-life scenarios to look at, and yes, the perps’ methodology was in every case ingenious, but their motivations were varied, at times thrilling and at others chilling. We almost root for that poor old guy who had a hard time of it, losing his job in the new economy, as he figures out a way to siphon a little away from the soulless monolith corporation that canned him, but more often than not you’re peeking into the very dark and broken heart of a sexual predator looking to worm his way into his target’s virtual life, and then into her physical world. Scary stuff.

DR: What writing secret will you reveal only under the harsh light of this Interrogation Room?

PG: I’m going to run this question through the translation machine, and—oops—here’s what comes out the other side: Have you ever written drunk?
Answer: I wouldn’t call it writing.

Thanks for the interview, Paul. Hope our Interrogation Room lamp wasn't too blinding. We hope to see more mysteries from you soon!

You can stalk hack find Paul online at his website.
He is NOT on Twitter, which is undoubtedly the secret to his prolific writing!

Would you like to win an ARC of Burning Blue? We have one to give away! Click on the Rafflecopter thingie to enter!
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1 comment:

  1. "It’s hard to be a full time detective when you have eight hundred hours a night of calculus homework." <= Indeed. Glad I'm not the only one who finds school pesky.

    I really enjoyed this substantive interview -- and, oddly enough, I find the 1 for 20 track record inspiring.


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