Ed Gorman’s latest novel, The Midnight Room (available here), is an uncompromising but unquestionably human story about vulnerability and villainy. Its story focuses on two brothers on the police force whose search for a serial killer and a young girl who might be his next victim tears them apart, and threatens to destroy their relationships to their family, friends, and co-workers as well. You can read my review of the book here.
Recently I had the pleasure of asking Gorman some questions about The Midnight Room and his thoughts on writing. Here’s what he had to say.
Pulp Serenade: Let’s start with the dedication page. You call The Midnight Room your Gold Medal book, and then dedicate it to Peter Rabe, Stephen Marlowe, William Campbell Gault, and Robert Colby. What was your relationship to these writers, and how do you see your book as being influenced by the Gold Medal tradition?
Ed Gorman: These were writers I knew personally. They were friends of mine. In fact, Peter Rabe was planning on catching a train to Cedar Rapids where I live and spending a week with Carol and I. Then he saw a doc because of his persistent cough and found that he had advanced lung cancer. Steve and I talked many, many times on the phone. As for the Gold Medal tradition...everybody from Malcolm Braly to Wade Miller wrote big multiple viewpoint novels for GM. I wanted to do that with The Midnight Room.
PS: What was it that initially sparked this particular story and compelled you to write it?
EG: I wanted to write a story where the pursuer was at least as evil as the pursued. And both of them are among the nastiest villains I've ever created.
PS: When Michael Scanlon is interviewing the missing girl’s mother, he comments, ”This was one of those stories that were so ridiculously dark they were perversely funny.” Was this intended as your own comment on The Midnight Room?
EG: Well, I don't know about “perversely funny,” but I certainly meant the pursuit to be ironic. And I don't just mean by Scanlon's brother. The press, the mother of the kidnapped girl, the gutless mayor. Everybody plays a role in cases like these and that role – despite what their official role might seem to be – is to cover their asses and exploit it for personal benefit. Look at the woman (and this isn't the first incident like this) who set up a website to raise money for her daughter's cancer surgery. She raised a lot and spent it all on herself. I remember the mayor of that city using the mother and daughter as props in his re-election campaign.
PS: The Midnight Room has a very unique structure to it. By disclosing the killer’s identity so early on, the book is the exact opposite of a “whodunit” – instead, it’s more of a “whoknowsit.” It’s a daring choice that, in my opinion, makes the main characters seem rather powerless and vulnerable. What was your intention?
EG: Well, the main characters are powerless and vulnerable. They refuse to believe what should be pretty clear. I wanted to create the suspense by having them slowly come to the truth while all around them the two villains were going about their usual business. I'm not much for superhero cops who brag or bully their way through cases. I've known a fair number of cops over the years and I wanted to depict cops here realistically. And I think there's a good deal of humor in the book, too. One of my intentions was to show that Leo Rice, another one of the bad guys, is basically Wiley E. Coyote or Yosemite Sam. He really, really wants to hurt people and kill them. He's just not very good at it is all. You read about criminals like this all the time. I'll always remember a 20-20 I saw years ago. Guy wanted his wife killed on the cheap. He found a want ad in some gun magazine written in code – the code being this guy in Georgia would do anything you asked if the price was right. They got together on the phone. Turned out the would-be killer wanted at least $75 and a round-trip ticket back to a small town in Georgia. He was, by the way, eighteen years old. Now would YOU hire him if you wanted somebody killed? I sure as hell wouldn't. But he was hired and he attempted on three different occasions to kill the wife. Once by stabbing her, once by shooting her, once by bludgeoning her. The last time, if I remember correctly, she was waiting for him. She pulled a gun and chased him out of her house. Then she sicced the cops on her husband. This is “Stupid Criminals” writ large. The problem is these morons are just as deadly as the more accomplished ones. They have no compunction about killing some convenience store clerk for a couple hundred bucks. I wanted all this to be a part of Leo Rice's personality.
PS: Your characters, both major and minor ones, are faced with tough choices – and often they make the wrong decisions. Sometimes they can rectify their errors, but things don’t always turn out all right in the end. How do you balance these elements of tragedy without making the novel seem too hopeless and keeping it enjoyable for readers?
EG: This is a dark book, no doubt about it. But I don't think it's a cynical book. There are no swaggering Dirty Harry cops or genius CSI cops but there are decent people trying to do their job properly. To me the ending – which seems to shock some people – seems realistic given what's gone before. And if you follow most murder cases they end up with the families of the deceased as they do here.
PS: Is there anyone in The Midnight Room you would label a traditional hero? Or do you think it is necessary for a story to have one anymore?
EG: I'll tell you, if you look at most of my books whether they're mysteries or horror or westerns, you'll have a hard time finding a traditional hero. Traditional heroes bore my ass off. First of all I find them very difficult to believe in. And secondly they don't offer much latitude for the writer. They have to live by this unspoken traditional hero code. I suppose this comes from reading Mickey Spillane when I was so young. Hammer's at least as crazy as the people he goes after. Then I began reading the Gold Medal writers. You'll never find a traditional hero in Peter Rabe for instance. Never. And Stephen King influenced me as well. One reason I like his books so much is that his protagonists are always people of parts, men and women alike, good and sometimes bad and never heroic in the simple sense. Look at Cujo and the complex people we meet in the course of the story. That's my kind of writing.
PS: When writing, do you always know in advance what your characters are going to do – or are capable of doing? Do they ever surprise you?
EG: It's painful not to know where you're going. I stall out, I back track, I literally get migraines worrying about the next day's work. But this is offset by the pleasure that the book's surprises give me, surprises I've never been able to outline in advance. I use the method Ed McBain/Evan Hunter said he found helpful. I do three or four chapters to see a) if I want to write the book and b) to see if I have any ideas for making it fresh in some way. If I decide to continue I start making rough notes about the thrust of the book though a lot of these get discarded because something better (hopefully) comes along in the day-to-day writing.
PS: I’ve read that before you became a novelist, you worked for a long time in advertising. Had you always wanted to be a writer, and how did your experiences in advertising affect your writing?
EG: Truly, the only thing I've ever wanted to be was a writer. I discovered Jack London when I was in third or fourth grade and then Ray Bradbury and my fate was fixed. As for advertising, I'm sure I just haven't met the right people...but I've talked to two or three dozen writers over the years who worked in advertising or public relations and they hated it. Despised it. My feelings are the same. I used to think that I learned at least a few rudimentary things about writing from ad work but looking back now I don't think so. You can be funny and you can be cute but it's spurious pleasure. For a writer it's empty work that has no bearing on fiction.
PS: What is a typical “writing” day like for you? Do you have any particular routines you follow?
EG: There's BC and AC. Before cancer I tried to write two thousand words a day. After the cancer (I have multiple myeloma; treatable but incurable) and right now the biggest problem is fatigue. So these days I shoot for a thousand, sometimes fifteen hundred words a day, generally seven days a week. I feel guilty when I don't accomplish this. It's easier for me to hit my mark than to face the guilt. This comes from thirty years of doing nothing else hitting my mark. Even when I was at Mayo getting a stem cell harvest (along with my friend Jim Rigney, aka Robert Jordan, who was getting one, too) I managed to write five hundred words a day. Then I'd collapse and watch one of the six channels the motel offered – three of them being religious. (I drove my poor wife Carol nuts. One station ran King of The Hill three times a day. Given a choice between sending money to some religious sharpie or watching three episodes a day of King, I became the most devout fan that show's ever had.) After a book's done I set it aside and then come back to it fresh for the final rewrite.
PS: Ray Bradbury once said that the way he would edit his short stories was to rewrite them from memory, and then compare the drafts. What is your own editing process like (whether for short stories or novels)?
EG: I try to make the first draft as finished as I can make it. I used to throw out entire manuscripts. Now I just throw out chapters and scenes. My friend Linda Siebels is my first editor. She is ruthless and witty (“Well, that sentence set the English language back four hundred years!”) and she makes going over and over things fun. By the time she's finished we've done three drafts or so. Same with short stories. She keeps me humble with those, too.
PS: Lastly, what’s next for you? Any upcoming projects you can divulge?
EG: I just finished a follow-up to my political novel Sleeping Dogs. I meant to write it in the same serio-comic way I did Sleeping but it just wouldn't bend to my wishes. It's a more somber book. Right now I'm writing the last of the Sam McCains. This is book eight or nine in the series – I forget which – and with it old Sam retires. I'm not by nature a series writer and this is the longest running series I've ever done. As much as I like Rex Stout, I don't know how he wrote forty or fifty novels about Nero Wolfe.