In this gritty American thriller, Dr Theo Zones desperately wants to believe that his father didn’t kill his mother. But his deeply personal investigation gets sidetracked by a series of bombings. Author EW Sullivan stops by to talk about the background to his new novel, ‘Swarm Theory.’ Along the way, Easy Rawlins, George Pelecanos, recent events in Baton Rouge and moral ambiguities aplenty come under scrutiny – hold tight for a revealing read…
First off, thanks to Sully for spending some time with us to talk about this new novel, ‘Swarm Theory’. It’s the second book in the Thelonious Zones series, which features criminal profiler Dr Zones. What do readers who are new to the series need to know before they start reading ‘Swarm Theory’? Or should they go back to the beginning and read ‘Sheaves of Zion’ first? (Love that title, by the way).
Well, I wouldn’t be a writer worth my fair share of agent rejection letters if I didn’t encourage the buying of more books and Sheaves of Zion would be a great choice. The good thing about Swarm Theory is that it fully explains the subplot of Zones’ mother’s murder, which carries over from Sheaves. You won’t miss much with respect to that storyline. The main story, however, is completely different and worth the read if you wanted to get a deeper sense of who the characters are and what motivates them.
For readers who don’t know your writing, which authors inspire you? Swarm Theory has something of a Walter Mosley edge to the dialogue and attitude. Every book is individual and different – but which other well-known authors would you say write in a similar style and genre, so readers can get an idea of where Swarm Theory might sit on their bookshelf?
Great question and Walter Mosley is certainly one of my inspirations. I first became aware of him how many of us did, when President Bill Clinton stepped from the fuselage of Marine One clutching a copy of ‘Devil In A Blue Dress’ – I believe that was the book. And yes, there is some Easy Rawlins in a number of my characters including Dr Zones, Sam Drake and Detective Rome.
But more so than Mosley, George Pelecanos is an author whose writing style I see and whose voice I hear most. His work on The Wire [much adored here at MMM, by the way. We still miss Omar], is some of the best I’ve ever heard. I steal…yes steal… from him more than I steal from any other author. He writes action scenes in a very poetic tempo that compresses the action without cheating the reader. He’s both gritty and poignant at the same time. He uses character stream of consciousness economically, yet the reader is never left in the dark. I believe his writing is Shakespearean in the genre. In another life, I was an architect. Pelecanos is the Frank Lloyd Wright of the crime fiction genre. I hope that I do him justice.
Headstrong characters abound in your books. Who would you prefer to spend an evening with: feisty female cop Olga Rome, Detective Marmaduke (who can’t keep his eyes off the opposite sex), or the troubled Dr Zones himself?
Wow! I’ll either get into trouble with my wife or with my readers. Let’s see, Dr Zones reminds me of myself temperamentally. An evening with him (for me) would go by without much drama or many surprises. If the venue was a football game, he would be the best date. Detective Marmaduke, as you say, loves the ladies. If I were single, he would be my road dog…um, wingman for those west of the Mississippi. As for the lovely Detective Rome, I developed her character with a number of women in mind, my wife, Anita, being one of them. When I first met her (at a backyard barbeque) she claimed to have no interest in me. She was sassy but in a sophisticated way. Anita came from very accomplished people and she never missed an opportunity to brag about them. She was both assertive and demure. Aggressive when the topic was about her profession (medicine), she recoiled when the conversation got a little spicier. Later she would tell me that she thought that I and my business partner, who accompanied me to the barbeque, were criminals. I didn’t consciously give her any reason to draw that conclusion about me but she did nonetheless.
‘Oh yeah’, I recall saying, ‘I thought you were a pew brat!’ Her father was a minister after all. Boy was I wrong.
There is a scene from the book, chapter twenty-seven, ‘I’d Like a Bomb with That Pizza’, where Detective Rome interrupts Zones’ dinner at his home. He asks what she’s doing at his apartment. She says nothing but then locks him in a kiss. Your readers can find out for themselves what happens next. The scene was inspired by a date night with my wife (then my girlfriend) fifteen years ago. Let’s just say that, that night sealed the deal – not interested in me, my ass.
So, to answer your question, I would prefer to spend an evening with my wife as we reenact the scene from chapter twenty-seven, minus the bomb.
Which is your favourite scene in this book – the one you’re most pleased with? Can you give us a short segment so we get the flavour of it?
I have many favorite scenes, but ‘The Hack’ (chapter forty-nine) is one that represents the best elements of scene: tension, setting and pace to name some. What I find fascinating about the scene is that it’s not one with a lot of action, but it’s one of my favorite to read. It starts with Zones paying a visit to Stats, a paranoid hacker and genius, at his converted cotton mill loft apartment. Stats refuses to help Zones with his case (as he had done in the past) so he resorts to threatening him:
“…Too busy, huh.” Zones walked to a monitor mounted on a column. “What if I—”
“You can’t threaten me by calling the government. They pay me to hack the Chinese.”
Zones raised his brow, his leverage gone. “I can’t appeal to your sense of civic duty?”
“How much does that pay?”
“I see.” Zones spied a photograph hanging on the wall above Stats’ desk. “You know Dr. Bruno?”
Stats whipped his head around to the picture. “We’re both members of an organization.”
“You mean the one where you collect the DNA of other people.”
“How did you—”
“No worries, your little freakery is safe with me. What If I told you I could get you Hank Aaron’s DNA?”
“Got it already.”
“Got hers and got all the Pips.”
“What about Tyler Perry?”
“Got his but…can you get me Madea’s? She doesn’t appear in public.”
“They’re one in the…absolutely.”
I love the dialogue between them and Stats’ seemingly gleeful ignorance of reality verses make-believe is a respite from the story’s grittiness. To fully appreciate the scene, one would need to know that Madea is a fictional character portrayed by Tyler Perry.
Swarm Theory is a meaty read which runs to around 500 pages packed with action, investigative dead-ends, some heavyweight science stuff and sneaky plot reversals. How easy do you find keeping track of the narrative and characters? Do you plan extensively or do you just let the story unfold in front of you?
I’m an architect/contractor by training, so planning has been ingrained in me. In fact, I find the building design process and the story design process to be quite similar. Larry Brooks’ book ‘Story Engineering’ resonates with me and I use it religiously. I use some of the same design elements in planning my writing that I’ve used when designing buildings. I plot as much detail as I can, using a four act system (in lieu of the standard three act) with the standard beginning, middle and end. I add to it or subtract from it as the story progresses. I’ve found that this helps me in two very important ways: I rarely get writer’s block and it keeps me from writing myself into a corner. There is some ‘pantsing’ that takes place but very little of it. For me, the more detailed the initial planning the easier the writing process. Remarkably, it’s the same for erecting a building.
The dialogue definitely comes over as contemporary American ‘street’ – the reader can clearly ‘hear’ your characters speaking in their own styles. One of the animal rights conspirators slips up when using British slang – did you get any help with the English-English?
Interesting word you used ‘street’. I was taught that your dialogue should be conversational and to a great degree that is ‘street’. As a consumer of books, if the dialogue is laborious then some of the joy of reading is lost for me. I bought a New York Times bestseller once and couldn’t get past the first chapter because of the dialogue. The book was an international hit and was made into a blockbuster movie (which I loved). It was just a very hard read for me. Perhaps something got lost in translation, it being a foreign publication.
That’s my approach to dialogue, to make the reading of it enjoyable. Part of accomplishing this is to know and research the natural cadence and structure of conversation – how we fit phrases together. As you can imagine, there are as many ways to do this as there are dialects or cultures. I’ve always been impressed with actors who could summon a dialect that wasn’t native to them. In the movie ‘Snatch’, Brad Pitt’s Cockney accent was believable to me. A native speaker however may have thought otherwise. Charlotte Pirote, the character from my book, has just a few lines throughout the book in the Queen’s English. I just needed to make sure that I properly used their culturally specific slang.
On a serious note, after the recent events in Baton Rouge and other incidents involving the police and the public in the USA, were you at all concerned with how aggressive Detective Rome can be? She escalates to lethal levels pretty rapidly. We know this is ‘make believe’, but how close to reality do you think you can tread? Where do ethical concerns start to influence fiction?
Great, great question! I was concerned not in the least, and I’ll try to keep this apolitical. There is a well-known adage in entertainment that, to a comedian, nothing is off limit, not life, not death, not gain, not misfortune. That’s why they can get away with jokes about everything and anyone from the Pope to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth – well-beloved figures. There are some boundaries in which they must apply their craft, but for the most part, they have unfettered license to offend. This license does not extend to everyone in entertainment, however. Some very funny jokes have cost many non-comedians their careers.
I have this same license as an author, as far as I’m concerned.
Take, for example, the first scene in chapter one of Swarm Theory – a rape. Almost every book I read on story development said to stay away from this subject, that it would offend women to use sexual assault as a literary device. Now grant it, a crime novel totally devoted to this subject might not be an interesting read, but that’s more to do with taste and one’s own sensitivity to the subject matter. To round out that scene and to give balance to the imagery it may have painted, I cover the victim’s examination in chapter two. I’ll stop there before I give away too much.
Now, to your question on Detective Rome’s aggressiveness, we all can agree that police brutality is a fact of life. In fact, the issue isn’t even a new one. As far back as dynastic Egypt, where a priest petitioned pharaoh’s court complaining that police ‘…seized me…[and] put us into instruments of torture’, there has been this conflict. One of the biggest fantasies of the thought police is that art (particularly that which they don’t like) negatively influences young minds.
We saw this in the 1950s with the publication of ‘Catcher in the Rye’, when school teachers were brought under fire for assigning it to their reading list. We saw this in the late sixties when purist tried to blame The Beatles’ song ‘Helter Skelter’ for driving Charles Manson on a murderous spree. We saw it in the eighties when lawmakers tried to blame the rap group NWA’s controversial album ‘Straight Outta Compton’ for a series of assaults on police. Salman Rushdie had a fatwa levied against him and marked for death for his controversial book ‘The Satanic Verses’. We see it today when politicians (the ultimate thought police) march before the media cameras to blame the other party for censorship or the lack thereof.
I don’t write in a vacuum. And I’m not so naïve as to believe that words don’t have power. I’m pretty sure, however, that there was violence in the world long before the origin of speech and certainly before the invention of writing. I gave a reading before an all-female book club for my first novel, ‘Sheaves of Zion’, and one of the topics we discussed was my reluctance to ‘go’ in a certain direction with my writing for fear that I might offend my readers. Without hesitation I was admonished to ‘stay true to your writing’. I felt the heavens part after that.
We are all citizens of this world and with citizenship comes an implied respect for one another. Ethical concerns, in the context of your question, must take a backseat to the more loftier principle of freedom to express ones thoughts as purely and as unadulterated as possible. To that end, the only ethical concerns I have as an author is to portray in words my vision of the fictional world I’m trying to create in the mind of the reader and to do this as skillfully as I can and within the context I would like the reader to view it.
Similarly, you really seem to enjoy making current events a big part of your plot. Arab Muslims and extreme environmentalists are among the possible suspects in Swarm Theory. Which plotline interests you more – the investigation into the bombings, or the more personal mystery surrounding the murder of Dr Zones’ mother?
I would have to say the more personal mystery of Zones’ mother’s death and here’s why. We see that, in real life, the perpetrators of bombings can have the pull of geo-political factions that could seem distant – foreign nation states, radical religious groups, etc. The story may struggle to awaken the kinds of passion in readers that’s required for them to make a connection with your protagonist or any other character for that matter.
I know first-hand the devastation that comes with losing a family member to violent crime. Twenty-four years ago my nephew, James, a promising young man full of lofty dreams, and with the whole world before him, was carjacked and abducted from a hospital parking lot. He was there visiting my mother (his grandmother) who had been hospitalized. His abductors forced him to drive them to an isolated, wooded area far from town, whereby they marched him deep into the woods, forced him to the ground and emptied their weapon into the base of his skull. The thing that haunts me the most is the testimony given by one of his killers, describing how James pleaded with them to not harm him just so he could finish college. A simple request not granted.
And finally… True Detective, Ray Donovan, or Fargo?
True Detective (first season). It ain’t even close.
Thanks for your time, Sully – it’s been a real pleasure to be immersed in the intricate events which unfold in ‘Swarm Theory’, and then to learn so much more about what informs its style, story and personalities. After this interview, if I’d not already digested ‘Swarm Theory’ then I’d simply have to read it right away. So, for me, next stop is ‘Sheaves Of Zion’…
Interview by Rowena Hoseason
EW Sullivan’s Thelonious Zones series are available at Amazon UK and Amazon USA in paperback and ebook formats. You’ll also find it at Smashwords
If you’re intrigued to learn more about the author, check out ewsullivan.com