Friday, 11 December 2009

INTERVIEW: Jonathan Hayes

All jobs are stressful and require a way to ease yourself away from the days hardships and toils with writing becoming the escapism that one Forensic Pathologist prescribed himself. Now with two novels to his name we thought that we'd love a few minutes with the enigmatic and self confessed serious eater Jonathan Hayes, to discover a bit more about him from his choice of music, through to an eclectic scent selection before we dive into the nitty gritty of his barbarism within the pages of his novels...

Falcata Times: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you? When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

Jonathan Hayes: Writers write. Someone said that to me a long time ago, and I think it's really true - it doesn't matter if you're being published or not, if you're a writer, you're writing. Writing is no more a gift or an affliction than is digestion.

I started writing professionally by chance. When I moved to New York to become a forensic pathologist, I joined an early online community, where I was very outspoken about films and restaurants. An editor at a trendy magazine ( ) noticed my comments and asked if I'd be interested in writing for them. I wrote a round-up of my favourite NYC Vietnamese restaurants; they then offered me the chance to write about whatever I wanted for them. For more than two years, I had a monthly column on the electronic music of the rave and nightclub cultures, which was a really fantastic experience, but exhausting because it came in on top of my forensic work. I began to write more frequently about food, and for increasingly high-profile magazines and newspapers, and the money got better and better until suddenly I had a second career. It wasn't a big jump from being a forensic pathologist and part-time food and travel journalist to being a forensic pathologist who wrote forensic thrillers.

FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?

JH: I got thrown in the deep end - I'd written about food and travel and restaurants and video games, and some forensic stuff, but the deal for my first novel, PRECIOUS BLOOD, just fell into my lap. I was working on a dessert cookbook with a friend (now the White House pastry chef), and his literary agent asked if I'd ever thought about writing fiction. I showed her the early stages of the book, and she loved them, and in short order I was a novelist.

I think that short story writing is a technical proving ground; there's something lapidary about the best short stories, and I find that both alluring and slightly daunting. I look forward to trying my hand at a short story, but between autopsies and court testimony during my days and writing forensic thrillers at night, I've yet to break off the chunk of time I'd need to try a short story. One thing, though: it won't be crime fiction. If I'm going to stretch on structure, I'm also going to stretch on genre.

FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?

JH: It would probably be an awkward conversation - while I've lived in NYC longer than I've lived anywhere else, and now consider myself a New Yorker, I still have some residue of the traditional British reticence for self-publicizing.

Essentially, though, my books are forensic thrillers; they're written by a 20 year veteran forensic pathologist, and have an unparalleled authenticity even at their most delirious. They are fairly violent - explicitly but not gratuitously.

FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?

JH: The first word would probably be "Urk!"

Hmm. Let me see. How about: "A HARD DEATH is a dark forensic thriller set in the swamps, strip malls and mansions of South Florida."

FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?

JH: I love Thomas Harris, but since he publishes about as rarely as the legendary Indonesian Corpse Flower blooms, it's unlikely I'll be waiting at a bookshop doorstep for a Harris book anytime soon. At the moment, I'd say Stieg Larsson; I'm dying to read GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, but I have a big stack of To Be Read books written by friends. I've just finished Glen Cooper's excellent LIBRARY OF THE DEAD (which would fit in well here at Falcata Times, actually), and am starting Kathryn Fox's BLOODBORN.

FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? i.e. Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?

JH: I start with my protagonist, my setting, an overall theme and several major set pieces. Research fleshes out the story, and then as I write, it tends to take off in unexpected directions. Some of my favourite bits in A HARD DEATH came completely out of nowhere.

FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?

JH: I don't really relax, I go online and stare blankly at the screen as I hop from link to link. Like many of us in 2009, I think.

FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?

JH: I'm pretty open about my pleasures, and guiltless about them, too – I figure I've earned the right to enjoy whatever I enjoy. I'm interested in natural perfumery, not so much in perfume as in the essential oils used in perfumery. I worry that I take my sense of smell for granted, so I try to train my nose. I have a decent collection of essential oils; I'm particularly fond of the oils extracted from grasses - hay and sweet clover oils are amazing.

FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)

JH: Two black cats, the first foisted on me by an ex-girlfriend, the second I acquired when she insisted the first would be happier with a friend. They're like two throw pillows that fight, shed and occasionally vomit, but at least they're consistent.

FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?

JH: Probably Chip Craine, the debauched Florida billionaire at the heart of the book; Jenner falls for his devastatingly screwed-up daughter. Craine was inspired by a multimillionaire Floridian who did something very similar to the naughty thing Craine does in A HARD DEATH. I'm fascinated by the way enormous wealth feeds moral rot.

FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?

JH: Jenner and I share some history - he's seen what I've seen, the killings, the battered children, the suicides, the rapes. 9/11. I've survived it all better than Jenner did, at the emotional level, at least. When it comes to looks, though, he wins. Barely.

FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?

JH: No real hobbies. I'm a serious eater (in the States they say "foodie", a word I loathe; they also say "veggie", and I hate that even more), and that will creep more into the next book in the series than it has in the first two. I'm serious about music, but I tend to run fairly eclectic (today I've been listening to obscure stuff by Erik Satie, then Elvis Costello, Mclusky, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Field, roughly in that order). I'm wary of using music in my writing - it holds such specific emotional meaning for me, and I think it would be far too easy to invoke a Ciccone Youth song or a Basic Channel record which would completely fail to connect with readers with the specificity I intend. Particularly in the US, where people tend to be less musically literate about stuff out of the mainstream. Natural perfumery has appeared in both books.

FT: Where do you get your idea's from?

JH: It's usually something odd in my environment, something a little dissonant or evocative. PRECIOUS BLOOD began when I was visiting these incredibly ornate churches in Oaxaca in Mexico; it got me thinking about the similarities in the obsessions that drive religion and serial killing. As far as A HARD DEATH goes, I'd wanted to write about South Florida since I was a forensic pathologist in Miami, flying by helicopter into the Everglades in the middle of the night to retrieve bodies; it's such an unearthly environment, eerie and desolate. Then I read a piece about the bizarre behaviour of an extremely wealthy Floridian, and a Drug Enforcement Agent told me something really odd about pig farms, and A HARD DEATH was born.

FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?

JH: My block takes the form of not being able to make myself sit down and write. When I sit down, I can always write; even if it's not very good at first, as I get rolling, the energy tends to kick in, and things fall into place. Having deadlines is what gets me through it - when my editor calls up and says "We need it by...", that has a stimulant effect.

FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?

JH: I write when I can - it's pathetic, really. I can't write at my office during my lunch break, both because it's busy and because I'm always being pulled in different directions - down to the autopsy room, off to court to testify, lecturing on forensics, etc etc. I write at home usually late at night, usually in bed, or at the Writers' Room, a loft on Broadway with small carrels and internet access where if you make any noise at all, some pointy-heeled self-help author will gut you like a fish.

FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?

JH: I can't have music on in the background. I know Stephen King writes to heavy metal and classic rock turned up loud, but if there's music, I'll listen to it, and it'll take me out of where I have to be to write. Each scene has a specific emotional temperament, and hearing My Bloody Valntine or Arvo Part at the wrong moment could completely derail the piece.

FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?

JH: I had no bloody clue how it worked! I'm not sure that I really do even now, to tell the truth. It's changing rapidly, obviously; if I have no clue now, I expect I'll have even less of a clue five years from now.

FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?

JH: Is that from one of those batteries of questions they give to find out if someone is a psychopath or a replicant?

For me, writing comes from my life; it's the echo of things that have happened in my real world. I dont' really talk about my cases, so writing is an outlet for expressing some of my reactions to it. Some of A HARD DEATH is a reaction to love, and feeds on my own history of love. One of the characters in A HARD DEATH was inspired by a woman I fell in love with, and a scene in PRECIOUS BLOOD where Jenner finds out the woman he's sleeping with is a heroin addict when he spills candle wax on her came from my own experience. (Clarification: I spilled the wax; I've never been a heroin addict.)

FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?

JH: I'm still learning what kind of man Jenner is; I'm finding that out by seeing him into different situations. PRECIOUS BLOOD was a serial killer book; A HARD DEATH is a more straight-ahead forensic thriller, although probably more violent and moodier than most. My next Jenner novel is an international thriller involving bioterrorism, and the book after that will be another serial killer book, but this time even darker than PRECIOUS BLOOD, more horrific. Actually, I'm worried that it might be too dark.

FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?

JH: You wouldn't be interested, unless you're into seeing men in Nazi uniforms being spanked by cross-dressing pituitary dwarfs.

I jest! My history today: - an online merchant of essential oils of superb quality (their amazing oud essential oil, extracted from the rotting heart of the agarwood tree, retails at $645 for half an ounce!) - I love videogames, and this site is for fans of the work of the Japanese game designer Fumito Ueda. He's only created two games, ICO and SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS, but both are extraordinary. ICO kept me sane during the hard days after 9/11; a year or two later, I met Ueda in Tokyo, and got to thank him in person for his work. His next game, THE LAST GUARDIAN, is coming up, and looks amazing. Ueda was the inspiration for Jun Saito, one of Jenner's friends in PRECIOUS BLOOD and A HARD DEATH. - a videogaming blog - this is the blog of a friend, who runs a site about how the police really work. It's frequented by cops, lawyers, criminals, forensic scientists and writers and readers (myself included). Next year, Lee is putting on something called the Writers' Police Academy, where writers will have the opportunity to learn about things like how to handcuff someone, see demonstrations of tasers, and hear me gas on about forensic pathology. - my dark mistress

FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.

JH: No. But at thriller conferences I love hearing what other writers have to say about how they approach their work. Oh, I've taken Robert McKee's story session, but it wasn't helpful to me.

FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?

JH: So far, the critiques have been pretty favourable, so there's not been much to overcome - which is just as well, since, like most authors, I have an infinite well of self-doubt, and will easily sabotage myself given half a chance. I've had very little rejection, too - I was lucky enough to have been approached by an agent, and then my work instantly sold. Really, I've been so obscenely lucky that I deserve to die of Ebola by the end of the week just to even things up.

FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?

JH: I love feeling the story come together, hearing the characters find their way in the world; writing books is a bit like being part of aboriginal creation myths - the characters sing their world into being.

The hard part is that I work full time, and forensics is intellectually, physically and emotionally challenging work. It's sometimes daunting to come home exhausted and immediately sit down to start writing.

At the end of the day, though, being paid to write is really pretty bloody great.


michelle said...

Gifted? Afflicted?

I liken it to a gifted affliction.

Angela Addams said...

Great interview...I don't usually stray too far from the paranormal world these days but perhaps a thriller is going to show up on the next book buying trip!

Diane Girard said...

I really enjoyed this interview and may even look for his novel at the library.