Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Alice Blanchard Interview

Alice Blanchard won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction for her book of stories, "The Stuntman's Daughter." THE BREATHTAKER (one of my personal favorite audiobooks) is a suspense novel about a serial killer who chases tornadoes in Oklahoma and Texas because it provides him with the perfect cover to commit murder.  If you liked the movie "Twister," here is that movie on steroids. She is also author of LIFE SENTENCES.

Audiobooks Today: You're no stranger to literary awards, but what influenced you starting out as a writer, and how did you make the transition from writing stories to writing novels?

Alice Blanchard: Some of my early influences were the short stories of Raymond Carver, John Updike and Stephen Crane. These writer's stories were not only beautifully written, but demanded an emotional response. The short story is exceptionally hard to master. It requires an unusual discipline and attention to character, atmosphere and epiphany. My stories tended to be 25 pages or longer, and people often commented that I should write a novel. Eventually that idea took hold. So for me, writing short stories was an incubation process for writing novels. The image that inspired "Darkness Peering" came from my childhood. I grew up in New England farm country, where there were all these run-off ponds, and for some reason I had an image of a dead girl lying in a run-off pond. It disturbed me and wouldn't let go. At the same time, I was intrigued by a moral question: what would you do if somebody you loved turned out to have done something very bad? Would you turn them in? Would you believe them incapable of evil? What if you were wrong?

TR: The two things that impressed us most about your new novel "The Breathtaker" was the original yet believable twist on the serial killer subgenre, and the narrative drive of the story, which never bogs down long enough to lose the reader, but rather offers him or her "breathing" space while pushing the story ahead. First, how did you arrive at this plot vehicle for your characters?

AB: The idea came to me very organically. My husband and I were driving cross-country from New England to Los Angeles, and I fell in love with Oklahoma. The sky opened up, the land flattened out, an occasional farmhouse floated by in a sea of wheat. As we were driving through the center of the state, I noticed a dramatic split in the sky--methyl green below, dark green above. Then a hard rain came. We were in flash-flood territory. A stream rose quickly to road level, so we pulled into a gift shop and asked what was happening. The store owner told us there was a Tornado Watch. We left an hour later and drove across the Texas Panhandle under a fading sky, but Oklahoma haunted me for months afterwards. I just knew I had to write about it.

TR: Were you influenced by movies like "Twister" or "Hard Rain"?

AB: "The Breathtaker" began with a simple idea, actually--the landscape of Oklahoma. The land and the people I met there haunted me. I then got an idea about a family that was being torn apart from the inside out. A husband and wife with a teenage daughter are in the middle of a crisis when the storm comes. I wrote the scene. . .the scene turned into a chapter, the chapter into many chapters.

TR: What kind of research did you do for the story?

AB: After I wrote the book, I went back and did the research in order to make sure I was accurate. I was surprised to find out how often I was right about a certain fact, although I had to learn an enormous amount.

TR: Why do you think people chase storms?

AB: My sense is that most storm-chasers are adrenaline junkies and also very intellectually curious. I think the people who track tornadoes are similar in some ways to detectives who hunt down serial killers. With "The Breathtaker," I was struck by the idea that a homicide can rip through a family the way a tornado rips through a town. Both leave devastation in their wake, both leave many victims. There is a desire to know more, to find out why these things happen, to bear witness to such events that are beyond our control.

TR: Charlie Grover's past emotionally affects his presence in the story, and points to a suspect. What are your thoughts about him?

AB: For Charlie Grover, I had an image of a cop with burn scars over a third of his body. I liked the idea that, because of an old tragedy, a fire, he wore his loss and pain right there on his body. He couldn't hide it from the world the way most of us can. It was there for everyone to see. I like a hero who has it all out there and has to deal with it and can't run away from it. I think the whole trick to writing a novel is finding a character or characters you're obsessed with. If you are obsessed with an idea or character, then something true and meaningful will spring from it.

TR: They did a great job on the audio version, and Dennis Kao told me that they took the time to add sound effects because they enjoyed it so much, and thought it would work well here. Did you think, as I do, that the effects aided the story unobtrusively? And what did you think of Peter Coyote's performance?

AB: I think they did an amazing job. I greatly admire Peter Coyote as an actor, and I thought he was just brilliant.

TR: This sounds almost like an audio movie, and in ways is better than "Twister" because it substitutes a mystery/suspense element where there's only an inane rivalry in the movie. Any thoughts on audiobooks as a medium, in an age when more people find themselves stuck in traffic longer, and in all kinds of weather?

AB: I'm from Los Angeles where traffic jams are the norm. I have many friends who are into audiobooks due to long commutes, and I think it's great. When I was little, my grandfather would quote whole sections of "Alice in Wonderland" to my sisters and me. He took us up to his creaky old attic and let us pick out these very old, illustrated books to keep. He taught me that books were special, and for me, there's nothing like the smell and feel of a brand new book, and there's nothing like having a book read to you, either. Although I haven't heard many audiobooks in the past, I intend to listen to more in the future.

(This interview was originally published in Audiofile magazine).

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