A Session with James LePore
Why do you want to write?
To be a writer, you don't have to be good. You don't need to have any fancy tools. Whether you use a Macbook pro and markdown authoring tools, or a few pieces of paper and a decade old crayon, you are a writer. It's not about finishing your work, it's not about making it the best work ever written. It's about needing to write, and writing for yourself as much as for those around you. If you stop in your tracks at some point in your life and think, "I have to write about this," then you're a writer. — Christopher Hitchens
I agree with Hitchens. Writing has to be an obsession, something you can’t stop yourself from doing. When it stops being an obsession, you can still write—you’ve found a formula, so go ahead and repeat it—but what you write won’t be any good. Forget about being published, about “communicating,” about getting your voice heard above the throng. Forget about fame and fortune. Sit down and write something. Or stand up and write something. Remember, you can’t help yourself, so just do it.
Who are you as a writer?
It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories In Our Time went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In This Side of Paradise I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound of a hemophile. —F. Scott Fitzgerald
I am trying, in my writing, to, as Scott Fitzgerald put it with such deceptive simplicity, get right down to the bottom of all that I have ever felt and known. That’s a tall order, you say. I agree, but it’s who I am as a writer.
Genre? It doesn’t matter. Pick one. I write thrillers. I love an intricate plot with sex and violence in it. I also am drawn to the workings of the human heart. My central characters, finding themselves in situations of grave danger, are forced to look inward, to understand the emotional as well as the real world predicament they must navigate in order to survive.
In my first novel, A World I Never Made, Pat Nolan, bitter at the loss of his young wife, neglects his daughter Megan, who turns on him with a terrible vengeance. The exterior story involves Pat’s search for Megan after she fakes her suicide and goes into hiding. The interior story follows Pat and Megan on their road to redeeming themselves in each other’s eyes—and hearts.
Both stories begin with Pat, sitting in a French Police Inspector’s office, reading Megan’s suicide note:
Dad, I don’t owe you or anybody an explanation but I think you’ll appreciate the irony of a suicide note coming from a person who has abhorred tradition all of her life. I met a young girl on the street the other day who looked into my eyes and told me that Jesus was waiting for me in heaven. She was fourteen or so, selling flowers on the Street of Flowers, and had the look of a young Madonna. The red roses I bought from her were the last thing I saw before pulling the trigger. If, as you read this, I am actually with Jesus in heaven I will be one shocked woman. I doubt it though. Megan Nolan is no more. Go and have yourself another daughter. Its not too late, and the odds are very good that she will turn out better than I did. If I were famous I would be joining the long line of suicides known to history, but as it is, in a matter of days if not hours my life and death will be as anonymous and as forgotten as a stray breeze. Megan. P.S. You know how I feel about being buried. Please, no service and a quick cremation. Don’t let me down.
Pat has time to kill before he is scheduled to be at the morgue to identify Megan’s body. Wandering around Paris, he runs into the flower girl on the Street of Flowers, who tells him that Megan is alive and waiting for him. He returns to his hotel to wait for the French Detective assigned to the case to pick him up.
Pat arrived at his hotel at a few minutes before noon, which gave him just enough time to put the roses into a vase with water and wash his face and hands before going down to the lobby to meet Officer Laurence. When he unwrapped the roses, a prayer card of some kind fell out; he put this in his pocket without thinking much about it. He told the desk clerk that he was expecting an Officer Laurence of the Paris police and pointed to a stuffed chair in a corner where he would be waiting for her. There he sat and began to ponder his strange meeting with the flower girl, but within seconds, or so it seemed, he was interrupted by a tall angular woman in her mid-thirties dressed in a chic dark blue suit over a white silk blouse. Her nose was on the large side and slightly bumpy, and would have dominated her face except that it was nicely in proportion to her high, wide cheekbones and full-lipped broad mouth. The eyes in this face, forthright eyes that met his squarely, were an arresting shade of gray-green that Pat had never seen before. Her gold bracelets jangled as she extended her hand to him and introduced herself with a half smile and a nod of her head.
“Do you speak French, Monsieur Nolan?”
“You prefer English?”
“Mais oui. Of course. You seem surprised, Monsieur. I am not dressed to chase criminals today.”
“I was expecting someone in a uniform. Inspector LeGrand said you were an officer.”
“I am an officer of the judiciary police. In America I would be a detective.”
Pat was surprised at Laurence’s appearance, but it wasn’t at the way she was dressed. Nor was it solely how lovely she was, although she was quite lovely to look at. It was, he realized, how interesting the look in her beautiful eyes was. There was no French arrogance in them, but its opposite, something akin to humility or a complicated, frustrating sadness not unlike his own. This look, whether imagined or real, and the thought it sparked in his overworked mind, took Pat for a moment—a very brief moment—out of himself, a process that on some wider level he observed with gratitude.
“Shall we go?” Laurence said softly, bringing him swiftly but gently back to the grim task at hand.
The ride to the hospital in Laurence’s black Peugeot station wagon was short and quiet.
Once there, Laurence spoke rapidly in French to a desk clerk, then shepherded Pat into an elevator, which took them to the basement.
“Wait,” she said when they exited the elevator; then, turning, she walked quickly down a long corridor, her high heels clicking on the tiled floor. She disappeared behind double swinging doors, reemerging a moment later and gesturing to Pat to come. It was a long walk for Pat, longer even than the one he had taken twenty-nine years ago to confirm for himself that his wife of eight months was dead. Laurence held open one of the swinging doors for him and he entered a squarish, harshly lit room with a wall of stainless steel body lockers at one end and an autopsy station at the other, where a lab technician in a white smock stood next to a gurney. Pat took this scene in for a moment and then felt Officer Laurence’s hand on his left forearm. At the gurney, Laurence nodded to the technician, who pulled down gently on the pale green sheet. Pat’s eyes went first to the shaved head, then to the crude sutures at the right temple, and then finally to the face, white and stony in death these last four days. It was not Megan. It was a woman generally of Megan’s age and size and coloring, but it was not her.
“This is your daughter, Monsieur Nolan?”
Pat’s mind had stopped working for a second, but it started again when he heard Officer Laurence’s voice. Other voices then filled his head.
My birthday’s coming up. You can bring me a present. A quick cremation.
Have faith, Monsieur. You will be led to her.
Megan was alive but wanted the world to think she was dead. The world except for Pat and the flower girl on the Street of Flowers.
“Yes,” he answered, nodding, and at the same time reaching out and placing his right hand over the body’s left hand. He pressed through the sheet to feel for the heavy silver ring that he had bought for Lorrie on their honeymoon and then given to Megan when she turned sixteen. To the best of his knowledge, she had not taken it off since. He confirmed its absence, then stepped away from the gurney, keeping his eyes on the unknown woman who had visited Megan on December 30 and killed herself in furtherance of what dark and strange conspiracy—a conspiracy he had now joined—Pat could not fathom. Why, Megan? And where are you?
“She has lost weight from her cancer,” said Laurence.
The detective nodded to the technician, who pulled the sheet up and began wheeling the gurney toward the lockers.
“Detective Laurence,” Pat said.
“I would like to have my daughter cremated today if possible. Can you help me?”
“Yes. Upstairs we will sign papers to release the body. We will call a crematorium from my cell phone.”
“And her personal effects?”
“I have them in my car. I will take you to her room if you like.”
“Yes. I would.”
“Perhaps you would like something to eat first, a drink?”
Yes, I could use a drink, a long night of drinking, Pat thought, realizing, as Laurence stared intently at him that the stunned look on his face was not what she thought it was, sorry that he had had to lie to her.
“No,” he said, thanking her with his eyes for the sympathy in hers. “Let’s get it over with.”
Do you feel Megan’s pain? And her father’s as he approaches what he believes will be his daughter’s corpse? It is a given that the people we love the most can and often will tread heaviest on our hearts. Pat and Megan have done that to each other. But something has happened to cause Megan to fake her suicide, to leave clues as to why she did this, and where she might be, that only her father can decipher and follow. When she was in dire trouble, though she was still angry and hurt over his neglect, she turned to her father for help. When Pat realizes that Megan is in grave danger, though she has marginalized him for years, he does not hesitate to begin a seach that he instinctively knows could end in disaster. Their journey to redemption—the novel’s interior story—has begun.
My second novel, Blood of My Brother, is, on the surface, a novel of murder and political corruption. Its central character, Jay Cassio, is a loner who wants to forget his past and avoid his future. He is forced to confront both as he sets out to avenge the brutal murder of his childhood friend. Along the way, he meets Isabel, a woman with a terrible secret. They don’t know it, but they are about to save each other from the spiritual death spiral that inevitably results when, out of bitterness and pride, we let our hearts turn to stone:
“Would you like me to stay to help you kill the Feria brothers?”
“That wasn’t our deal.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Why are you not married?”
Isabel watched as Jay’s beautiful gray eyes turned inward, surprised at his reticence. He drummed his fingers on the wooden arms of his patio chair, as if giving the question more weight than she intended. Much more.
“I was married once,” he said, finally. “For a short time.”
“My parents died in a plane crash.”
Isabel said nothing, not realizing, until this moment, that Jay had been a puzzle from the start. And here was a key piece of that puzzle floating in the air toward her, its contours handles she might grab and hold on to.
“When?” she asked, finally.
“Fifteen years ago.”
“And you left your wife?”
“She left you? Are there children?”
Jay did not answer immediately, but neither did he look inward or drum his fingers. When he turned to face her, Isabel saw the pain in his eyes, and regretted asking her initial question.
“I was dating her. When my parents died I married her because I was afraid of being alone. She wanted children. I immediately had a vasectomy.”
“That must have hurt her very much.”
“It did. She left.”
“Did you love her?”
“Now you have lost your friend.”
“Were there other women?”
“Yes, a few.”
“Did you love any of them?”
The whole conversation had taken on a life of its own, the reins, Isabel realized with a start, held by her heart, not her head. There was a precipice ahead, but she knew somehow that it was too late. She would not be able to wrestle the reins back in time. Perhaps she did not want to.
“What about you?” Jay asked. “Have you loved anyone, besides Bryce Powers?”
“I loved a young man once, a politician.”
“The Ferias killed him. On Herman’s orders.”
Now it was Jay’s turn to stare hard at Isabel. yes, she said to herself, there it is, a small piece of my puzzle.
“Is that why you want to stay and help me kill them?”
“No. It’s Herman I want to kill.”
“Is there any way we can get him here?”
“No. He will stay in Mexico City and send his panthers.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“What is it you did for Herman Santaria starting at the age of fourteen?”
Isabel gripped the arms of her chair for a second, then let go and reached into the neck of her shirt, where she found the Mary scapular that Sister Josefina had given her when she left the convent in Polanco. She had kept it with Sister’s letters all these years, but had started wearing it when she promised to help Jay and they fled to Puerto Angel. Fingering it, she remembered Sister’s words. It is not magic. It is a sign of your commitment, of your faith. Do not lose either, no matter what the future brings.
“I will tell you tonight,” she said. “We will drink your scotch, and I will answer your question.”
There is a precipice ahead. In their prior lives neither Jay nor Isabel would have risked such a leap. But now something has happened that they each realize has probably given them their last chance to see their bitterness and pride for what it really is: self-pity. They leap into the unknown, and they finally begin to live again.
A Simple, And Very Idiosyncratic, Action Plan
What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. - Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)
My Basic Premise
There are no ideas or emotions unless first there is a human being (Character 1) who thinks something or feels something. That human being cannot exist of course without context, that is, time and place. Character 1 must be placed in the world (or a world if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction) at some point in time as we know it or imagine it. Action does not necessarily follow. Another human being (Character 2) must first be added to the context, someone past, present, or future, who does or says something (or who has done or said something) that motivates Character 1 to act.
What I Do
I start with a name. I know this sounds crazy, but getting the right name for my central character somehow triggers the mysterious process of writing a novel or a story. I suppose that starting with a place, like a medieval castle or a colony on Mars, would work as well, but you will quickly need a person, a person who feels and thinks. That person will have to have a name. The story, for me, is in the name.
Let’s say Character 1 is Jane Scardino. The first thing that comes to mind is that her friends call her Scar. Does she have a scar somewhere on her body? Maybe. Will it be integral to her story? Maybe. Does she like her name? Is she Italian? I digress, but perhaps you see what I mean.
What does Jane look like? Is she young, old, beautiful? What is she wearing? Let’s say she’s in her mid-forties, worrying about her fading beauty and not happy to be so vain. She’s wearing something comfortable, but fashionable, yes, attractive, a black high-collared sweater, black slacks, funky shoes decorated with faux gems, and sparkling rhinestone (or are they diamond?) earrings. Vanity wins, it seems.
What is Jane doing? Perhaps she’s getting ready for work, putting those earrings on, thinking about her mother’s boyfriend, who she’s worried is stealing her mother’s money. Yesterday she saw her mom going into the bank with Harry, her charming, silver-haired, Cadillac-driving beau. Jane is going to see a lawyer after work to talk about this, a lawyer she met at work last week who asked her out. She had declined, but why then did she pick him?
I think I might have the beginning of a story here, a story that started with a name, a name that somehow has a story in it.
Shakespeare was talking about things, not people. The names of things are not their essence. But could Romeo Montague and Juliette Capulet (beautiful names, aren’t they, filled with romance?) have gone down in history as John Doe and Jane Roe? We’ll never know, but something tells me the answer is no.
About the Author...
New York Times bestselling author William Landay said, "Jim LePore is a great discovery." Blogcritics called his first novel, A World I Never Made, “An outstanding first novel, and a wonderful thriller.” Of his most recent novel, The Fifth Man, Tome Tender said, "This is another great read from James LePore, who seems to have a knack for writing dark, gritty and gripping scenes with characters that can make your skin crawl and will have you looking over your shoulder." LePore’s brilliance is his ability to create complex, relatable characters and place them in tense situations where their very humanity comes into question. The result is stirring fiction that hits you in the gut and the heart at the same time. http://jamesleporefiction.com