Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Wednesday, October 19, 2016: Maximum Shelf: Two Days Gone

Sourcebooks Landmark: Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis

Sourcebooks Landmark: Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis

Sourcebooks Landmark: Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis

Sourcebooks Landmark: Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis

Two Days Gone

by Randall Silvis

By all accounts, novelist Thomas Huston has a perfect life. He's a bestselling author with a beautiful wife and three adorable children, looks like a movie star--which doesn't hurt when he's "chatting with Katie on Good Morning America"--and is a popular professor of English at Shenango College in Pennsylvania.

People in the small college town feel "both pride and envy in [Huston's] sudden acclaim.... Maybe you claimed, last spring, that you played high school football with Tom Huston. Maybe you dated him half a lifetime ago... were quick to claim an old intimacy with him, so eager to catch some of his sudden, shimmering light."

Until they wake up one morning to the unbearable news that Huston's entire family was slaughtered in the night, and Huston is nowhere to be found.

One of the locals who knew the author is Sergeant Ryan DeMarco of the Pennsylvania State Police. DeMarco is assigned to the case, and though the evidence doesn't look good for Huston--a kitchen knife is also missing from the house--DeMarco hesitates to jump to conclusions. Having spent time with Huston and his family, DeMarco can't fathom the man being capable of such violence. But then again, Huston's bestseller The Desperate Summer is about unspeakable violence, based on a tragedy involving Huston's parents. Could that personal trauma have changed a good man in ways no one could have imagined?

In the course of his investigation, DeMarco finds Huston's notes and a rough drafts of the beginning of his next novel. The protagonist, an alluring stripper named Annabelle--a modern interpretation of Nabokov's Lolita--is based on a real person; DeMarco tracks her down. According to the girl, who turns out to be a nice college student, Huston met her at the strip club every Thursday for research, but he missed their appointment before the weekend his family was murdered. When DeMarco discovers the reason, he begins to see how it might be related to the mass killings, but not in a way anyone anticipated.

To tell the story of what happened to Huston's family that awful night, Randall Silvis uses dual points of view: Huston's and DeMarco's. The chapters spent inside Huston's psyche are full of unbearable pain. At times, Huston has to dissociate himself from reality in order to survive, telling himself he's a "character pretending to be a corpse pretending to be normal when in fact the world had ended, the bomb had gone off, all was devastation." When reality does seep in, Huston wants only to lie down and wait for death, but survive he must, at least until he can reach Annabelle, for reasons not immediately known.

DeMarco may at first seem like the opposite of Huston--he's a loner, and more analytical than creative. But as the cop delves further into the author's life, it seems the two men have several striking similarities. For one, DeMarco knows what it's like to lose a son. He's well acquainted with grief, listening to "Ry Cooder's agonized guitar weeping all the way from Texas.... Then he turned the radio off because he did not need a soundtrack for what he was feeling."

Two Days Gone isn't all pain and suffering, though. DeMarco's scenes with his commander are welcome comic relief, with the two engaging in wiseass banter. When the commander asks DeMarco before a press conference to brief him on the case because "I'd like to not come off as a complete moron," DeMarco replies, "It's a little late in life to be making that decision, isn't it?" Some of the descriptions also offer unexpected levity in the midst of a grim scene: "[DeMarco] knelt beside the bed to look underneath. Three balled-up socks and what appeared to be the twentieth-year-reunion of a large class of dust bunnies."

Aspiring writers, even those who don't usually read crime fiction, might be interested in all the details about Huston's writing process, which author Silvis modeled on his own. Silvis, who teaches writing, provides an informative look at all the research and effort that goes into creating a novel.

A book can't be judged, however, on how it came about, but on whether or not readers care about its characters and what happens to them. The big revelation about the murders of Huston's family is gut-shredding, and will likely make readers ponder what they would do if caught between a rock and a hard place--nay, between two pits in hell. That central question alone might be enough to make this novel linger in readers' minds well after Two Days Gone. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

Sourcebooks Landmark, $15.99, trade paper, 400p., 9781492639732, January 10, 2017

Sourcebooks Landmark: Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis

Randall Silvis: Life Is Research

photo: Maddison Hodge

Randall Silvis has published 10 novels, one nonfiction book and one story collection, as well as numerous essays, articles, short stories and poems published in online and print magazines. He's also a writing teacher. His crime novel Two Days Gone will be published by Sourcebooks Landmark in January 2017.

How much of Thomas Huston's (bestselling author and murder suspect) writing process is similar to your own? Do you do extensive research and write first drafts in longhand?

It's probably fair to say that I patterned all of Huston's writing process after my own. It's the only way I know how to write. And, yes, when necessary, I do extensive research, but just enough at first to feel confident I can start writing with some authority. Inevitably I run into issues along the way for which I have to gather more information.

I like to get my research from people in the know rather than from a disembodied source on the Internet. For police procedural matters, I checked with two friends who are special agents for the FBI, plus another friend whose father was a municipal policeman and whose brother-in-law is a state policeman. Once I even walked up to two sheriff's department deputies at a gas station and asked them a few questions. (I first had to suppress my teenage tendency to run from the police.)

I used to write all of my first drafts longhand. But as my handwriting has deteriorated to scribbles that even I sometimes can't decipher, now I usually write longhand only for my preliminary notes. During the several months it takes to write a draft, I also carry a notebook in my motorcycle saddlebag and in the car, so that I can write down ideas whenever they come to me.

What's the most extraordinary thing you've done in the name of research?

Everything is research. No matter what activity I am engaged in, another part of me is standing off to the side, watching, listening, analyzing the situation for its story potential.

But you asked for the most extraordinary thing. If I interpret "extraordinary" to mean "stupid," then [it] was to put a small airplane into a spiraling nosedive. I was taking flying lessons in a Piper Tomahawk trainer, an aircraft reputed to be unspinnable. While my instructor busied himself with jotting notes into the logbook, I spotted a massive black thunderhead moving in from the west.

As a fan of summer thunderstorms, I wondered what a thunderhead looked like from the inside, and made a slow turn toward it. Soon all the lights went out, and the small plane began to rattle and whine. Within seconds it was seized by some invisible force, given a twist, and hurled at the ground. We went corkscrewing down toward the earth. I lifted my hands off the controls and shouted to my astonished instructor, "It's all yours!" Eventually he brought us down safely, but was too angry to say another word to me.

Life provides most of the research a writer needs. The rest are just details.

Edgar Allan Poe figures prominently in your work. Why does his writing captivate you?

As a boy, lonely and sensitive and feeling like an alien even within my own family, I loved the darkness and sense of isolation in Poe's poems and stories. Eventually I outgrew that love of darkness.

But after my sixth book, my agent suggested I write a historical mystery featuring a prominent writer. I thought, I would love to probe Poe's psyche! I spent three or four months familiarizing myself with Poe, his family, his contemporaries, and New York City in 1840, and developed a strong sense of who Poe was. To me he was a sensitive, ambitious man who adored his family, but often found himself the subject of criticism for indulging his "imp of perversity," which caused him to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. The socially awkward boy in me felt, and still feels, a real kinship with that man.

Poe was also a man who struggled his entire life to find respect and success as a writer, and to understand human nature, nature's nature, science, and all of what we call reality. That, too, has always resonated with me.

In Two Days Gone, whose voice--Huston's or DeMarco's--did you prefer writing?

I didn't discover my writing ambition until I was 21. Before that I was a business major. So I have both an analytical side and a creative side. Huston's creativity was in some ways more interesting to me, since the creative side now prevails in my life. But I also enjoyed working through DeMarco's analytical thought processes.

In the second DeMarco mystery, I'm bringing in a lot of his backstory and rediscovering him. Turns out DeMarco had a lonely, isolated childhood, too, and that the persona he presents to the public, especially in the course of police work, hides a whole different person underneath.

That sense of discovery is important to me. I've resisted writing a series character in the past because character development has always been more important to me than plot. DeMarco, though, has plenty of room for growth, and I'm looking forward to walking through it with him in a second and maybe even third novel.

When a case gets really complicated, DeMarco likes to stare at his notes, hoping some clues would jump out at him and give him clarity. Ever do the same when you get stuck and don't know how to resolve a plot point?

Staring doesn't work for me. And I never encourage that tactic for my students. I think through the difficulties by writing, laying out all the possible options for action. If that doesn't work, I jog. I ride my motorcycle. I mow the yard. I make love.

I've found that any meditative activity that takes me out of myself temporarily opens up a window to the subconscious and lets solutions rise into the conscious mind.

Only after a personal tragedy does Huston write his breakthrough book, which becomes a bestseller. Where do you stand on the notion that creative people must be miserable in order to create great art?

First of all, I think being miserable is commonplace for almost everyone. Even those who on the surface appear blessed by good fortune and a perfect life have some dark currents and shadows beneath the surface of their lives.

The degree of one's sensitivity to life seems to be more of a determining factor. There are individuals who plod along contentedly without being too damaged by the blows life deals out. They have no real highs but no real lows, either. Writers and creative types, on the other hand, tend to rise and fall in their emotions with greater degrees of oscillation.

I remember being five or so years old and breaking into tears while watching Disney's The Ugly Duckling. My father, a steelworker and former Marine, asked why I was crying. I told him I had a stomachache, and he told me to take an Alka-Seltzer.

The truth was that I saw myself in the Ugly Duckling, and I saw also all the other ugly ducklings in the world, and all the cruelty and pain. But I had no words to tell him that, and understood on a primitive level that he probably wouldn't understand anyway.

That kind of reaction isn't created by circumstance. We are born with that degree of sensitivity, or the degree that allows us to float along on the emotional surface of life. Circumstances then activate those propensities.

A heightened sensitivity will also turn many of us into introverts. Our self-isolation and the resulting social unease only further exacerbate our inherent tendencies. If we're lucky, we discover a creative expression for the weltschmerz and saudade that run through our veins. As one [unknown] writer once wrote, "I'll kill myself tomorrow. Today I write." --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

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