Q: The main narrative in Teller is a mystery. Why a mystery?
A: I first read mysteries in my twenties, after studying literature as an undergraduate and graduate student. With that background, I was fascinated to see how mystery writers use fiction techniques to tell a story.
Mysteries, especially the classic ones, reduce the plot to a simple, but compelling story: a murder victim is discovered in the first chapter, and the main character spends the rest of the book searching for the killer. The reader is hooked from the first page and reads on to discover the answer to the novel’s essential question: who did it? But the best mysteries are also filled with complex characters and larger questions.
In Teller, I wanted to use those standard mystery conventions, because they have such strong story-telling qualities. In the first chapter, Paul Barkley is murdered, and Charlie Teller is drawn, at first reluctantly, to discover who the murderer is. But the story also encounters a cast of unusual characters, who give Charlie pieces of the puzzle and challenge him in ways beyond the solution to the mystery.
In honor of my days as a literature student, I stole two small bits from other writers whom I admire and embedded them in my novel: in Chapter 13 an epithet from Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers,” and in Chapter 30 a character’s name from the film “Sunset Boulevard.”
Q: Why did you choose as your detective a washed-up ghostwriter of celebrity autobiographies?
A: I was looking for a certain voice: a voice of tired wisdom, wry humor, and lost ideals. I thought of a detective who would be the opposite of the conventional detective. He would not be especially brave, strong, or even honest, but he would see the world from a very particular angle.
The angle is celebrity autobiography. I wanted to imagine the inner mind of someone who had spent his career inside the world of celebrity memoirs and absorbed their qualities. It’s an especially American story that permeates our culture. Charlie sees life in terms of this path and applies it to the world around him.
Another part of his voice is that he’s ruined. He’s at the end of his career, and even in this easy, second-rate job that he’s chosen, he’s been a failure. His fall from grace allows him some insights into the fragility of life.
Because the whole novel is in the first person, this voice is at the heart of the book. I hope it’s a rich voice that readers will find interesting and that has the capacity to reveal something new and unusual about who we are.
Q: Tell us about the novel’s structure, which intersperses a mystery with miniature memoirs and reflections on autobiography.
A: As Charlie embarks on his investigation of the murder of his friend and looks into his friend’s past, he also recalls his own past as a ghostwriter. As Charlie says, he wants to trace the imaginary line that happened to bring him to the parking lot on the night when Paul Barkley was killed. In that sense, the memoir chapters function as a separate narrative thread to tell Charlie’s own life-story.
The memoirs also have the qualities of a New Yorker magazine profile, an entire life condensed in a handful of pages. In this way, they work in the novel—and interrupt the mystery—like the portraits of famous people and celebrities that are continually invading our consciousness in newspapers, magazines, and online.
The memoirs beside the mystery contrast Charlie’s role in each, as he digs back into the life of the murder victim and as he helps his clients reconstruct their lives in their memoirs.
The mystery chapters and the memoir chapters also give the novel two different textures. The mystery has a quick plot, physical action, and lots of dialog. The memoirs have the more descriptive, metaphoric, and reflective style of literary fiction.
Q: What part does the novel’s location in Northern California play in the story?
A: Unlike some mysteries that create a fictional world based on a real town or area, Teller sets its scenes in actual parts of Santa Rosa, in small towns around the county, and specific rural locations. I tried to describe the locations with enough specificity and detail so that they capture a sense of place. The locations should create a mood and a picture in the reader’s mind for the scenes that take place, whether it’s the opulence of Rajiv Patel’s sprawling estate in the vineyards above Kenwood, the eccentric counter-culture of Nico and Vincent’s haphazard house near Occidental, or the menacing darkness of Kenny McDonald’s house on Chalk Hill Road.
Q: Let’s talk about the novel’s focus on celebrities?
A: Celebrities have long been a central part of modern American culture, and they’re even more so today with the explosion of internet sites, reality TV shows, aggressive paparazzi, YouTube videos, Twitter, and other social media.
Early in the novel, Charlie says that “somewhere deep within us is the conviction that the comings and goings of one life can tell us something about human nature in general and maybe about ourselves.” Then he wonders if there’s any meaning or truth when his clients look back over their lives and tell their stories?
Why are we so interested in the stories of these people? Is it because their successes and failures are larger than life? Is it just a distraction from our own lives? Or, is there something more?
I wanted to try to go beyond the public face of a few celebrity characters and to tell their stories in a new way and to see what meaning it might have. What does it mean to have early success and be unable to repeat it? Is it possible to change who the public thinks you are? How does a person of privilege fall into addiction? What happens to a skilled athlete who ruins his gifts? How does someone recover from failure?
Q: Is your second novel, Elise, like Teller? Is it part of a Charlie Teller series?
A: Elise is also a mystery, it takes place in Santa Rosa, and it involves Eddie Mahler, the police detective from Teller. But other than that, it’s a very different kind of story.
It’s in the form of a mystery genre called a police procedural. It follows a team of police detectives, over the course of four days, as they try to solve the murder of young woman, whose body is found in a city park. Several years earlier, a similar crime occurred in the same location and was never solved. In that case, 72 hours after a woman was killed, a second woman was murdered. Now, assuming it’s the same suspect, the detectives are racing to solve the crime before the killer strikes again. At the same time, as the investigation proceeds, someone tries to kill the members of the team of detectives, one by one, in an escalating series of attacks.
The novel is a more straightforward mystery than Teller. It also has a darker, more sinister tone. Here Mahler is no longer the wise-cracking cop of Teller, but is suffering from debilitating migraines that undermine his abilities. The members of his team include a street-wise Hispanic, a tech expert, a tough ex-Marine, and a young college graduate.
Among the suspects is a possible serial killer, who may or may not be linked to the earlier murders, and a trio of very smart high-tech engineers who are addicted to Adderall.
The point of view continually shifts between the different members of the team as they uncover clues and two different possible killers.