The Accident: Susan Condon Talks to Chris Pavone
Chris Pavone grew up in Brooklyn, graduated from Cornell and was an editor at a number of book publishing houses in New York for fifteen years. His debut novel, The Expats, published in 2012, was an international and New York Times bestseller and has already secured a major film deal.
According to Michael Connelly, “Chris Pavone is the new best thing. The Accident proves the promise of The Expats. It is as intelligent and timely as it is relentless and gripping. Pavone is going to be around for a long time and now is the time to jump on the train.”
His latest novel, The Accident, is a masterful follow-up to one of the most acclaimed and striking debut thrillers of recent years. Isabel Reed, one of the most respected and powerful literary agents in New York, is in possession of a time bomb and she’s about to give it to her good friend and trusted editor at one of the top publishing houses in the US. Anyone who begins reading the manuscript is immediately struck by the importance of its contents. They can also see that publishing it could be dangerous, but it could also be the book that every agent, editor and publishing house dreams of… What they don’t realise is that reading it could get them killed. On the trail of this manuscript is veteran station chief, Hayden Gray, for him, quite simply, it must never see the light of day.
I meet Pavone in Bar No 23 at The Merrion Hotel, which according to the hotel, has the feel of a private club and is hung with works of art from The Merrion’s private collection. Pavone, sitting in a corner at the back of the room, appears quite at home. After the introductions, a pint of Guinness and a freshly squeezed orange juice are discretely placed before us and the interview begins.
Pavone appears slightly embarrassed when I mention Stephen King’s recent Tweet to his 350k followers, which reads: ‘THE ACCIDENT, by Chris Pavone:if you like real nail-biters, this is the best one so far this year’. But eventually he smiles as he admits, “I don’t know what to say about that, other than it feels very gratifying.”
In the book business for many years, Pavone spent time as an editor specialising in cookbooks. He even went on to publish, The Wine Log, and became known as a dedicated wine enthusiast, but he revealed, “I like to be having the right thing in the right place, which is why I’m having a pint of Guiness in Dublin!” He raises his glass for a toast before telling me, “I had a glass of really good red wine, last night, at a wine bar in Paris,”he smiles, “because that’s what you do.”
The trigger for The Expats, appears to have been Pavone’s lifestyle change when he and his family moved from New York to Luxembourg with his wife’s job. I ask if he thinks that first novel would have been written yet without that move and all that it entailed. And presumably if it had, it would have been a totally different novel. Pavone agrees, “I was never intent on writing a crime fiction novel. I always wanted to write a novel and I definitely wouldn’t have written The Expats had I not been one. That story only could have existed for me, having not just lived there, but gone through the experience. It’s a book about marriage and about intimacy and honesty and their limits and there’s a real marriage in that book and a sham marriage and there are a lot of different ways that people are relating to the idea of being married. That, to me, is the core of that book and being an expat is also an important part of the book. The crime element is layered on top of it in a way that I had a good time with and I think is fun and hopefully exciting, but I don’t think is the essence of The Expats.”
Pavone goes on to tell me how, once he hit on the idea that the protagonist was keeping a tremendous secret from her husband that the book then began to take on the shape of a thriller. “Once I made the committment for that to be one of the core tensions of the book then I started adding a lot of thriller elements onto it to make that richer and to make the tensions more complicated, to make the relationships more complicated, and I had great fun developing the plot. When I started the book I didn’t have that plot. I didn’t have any plot, sadly,” he laughs.
As a stay-at-home Dad while in Luxembourg, Pavone went to coffee shops to write. I enquire whether that was to get away from the household chores or because that was where he wrote best. “Before we moved to Luxembourg for a year I was a ghost writer and at the time our children were three years old and they were home most of the day so there was no way for me to work there. I had to leave the house. So I joined a club where I could work and where I could feel safe leaving my computer and leaving the building sometimes to go out to lunch or something. It was a place where I felt comfortable working. It’s like this in a way,” he looks around the beautiful room we are sitting in, “except it’s private. But in a way I got used to having all the activity around and even once my children were in school and I’d settled into being a primary parent and taking care of the laundry and the washing-up and the cooking and all that, I realised it was very unproductive for me to be home because I would do all of that, and my bills would be paid a lot more on time, and my kitchen would be a lot cleaner and my dining room would get a fresh coat of paint… It’s not just that I felt the obligation to do these things, so much as I think all writers feel the need to procrastinate. And if what you’re procrastinating with is something that’s ostensibly good for your household, then it’s all the easier to say, well I’m not writing right now, but I’m doing the laundry and we need the laundry done, and that’s an easy way to have hours, or a whole day slip away, without accomplishing something.”
When I tell Pavone I’m taking special note of these points, for me, he pushes home the point, “if you leave you can’t do any of that, it takes the decision away. I go to a place where I know some people and if they walk by my table and they see my computer open and I am browsing for vacations or on Facebook I will be embarassed – and so I don’t! My computer is open to a word-processing document with a manuscript on it – and that’s what’s open, that’s what I’m doing.”
Talking about characters and character development, Pavone tells me that, Stan, a film producer in Los Angeles, one of his very minor characters in The Accident is also one of his favourites. “Stan has his own plane and a lot of expensive real estate and he thinks that his next project is the thing that’s going to make him rich. He doesn’t understand that he’s already rich. He has a ranch that’s filled with wildlife – and he’s scared of wildlife – and he has lost track of a certain degree of reality in a way that I think we all do at some point or another. The measures of success keep shifting and it is very difficult.” Pavone looks pensive for a moment, before continuing, “the biggest theme of The Accident is ambition. All the characters in this book are at different points in their career and they are all having their ambitions reflected by this manuscript and what it can mean to them. And all of them make mistakes because of their ambition. Stan is the character who has most lost track of what it was he wanted to do, and who it is he thinks he has become, and here he is flying around on his own plane and he doesn’t recognise that he is already as successful as he can be. He thinks that’s still in the future.”
Many writers I’ve spoken to are quite dismissive of eBooks, preferring instead the physical book. But during our conversation on favourite writing haunts Pavone puts forward excellent reasons for both to inhabit our world. “I went to the Brooklyn Public Library that was a few blocks from my apartment,” he pauses before emphasising, “a lot! It’s a very, very big library and I spent a tremendous amount of free time as a primary school student in second, third, fourth grade (seven to nine years old) in the library devouring everything. I’ve always been a very big reader and I see it now in my children who read almost exclusively on eBooks or digital devices. That has supplanted libraries for them – they have this magical thing – their books are very short and y’know you read them for an hour and they’re finished, and if you read for two hours you need two books and they can just get them. They don’t even have to get out of bed. They still are obedient enough to ask me, Daddy, can I buy a book?, and it’s one of the things I always say yes to, I’ve never said no, and so they just buy the next book in the series. They’re ten years old now, they read a lot of series books and to be able to just satisfy that reading desire, that quickly, and not have to wait until the end of school tomorrow and go to the library and find out that somebody else has checked it out – it’s great. It makes them read so much and they’re so gratified by it. I remember the excitement of discovering how great reading is – and how fun it is that they’re going through it right now. And I love seeing it.”
We both agree, as do his children he tells me, that you can’t beat the physical book, but it appears there’s no reason why physical and virtual books can’t co-exist. When Pavone’s twins are “reading these series, they know that the best way they’re going to get that accomplished is through the eBooks.” He explains that, at any one time, they read two books, “one of them is a physical book that they’ve taken out from their school classroom and the other is their side-reading that is an eBook.”
When we spoke about social media and whether it’s good to connect with your readers, Pavone appears a little bashful. He is of the opinion that there are people who are experts on subjects – be it the politics of the Ukraine or the best restaurants in Paris – and there are people who are interested in what these experts have to say. But, he says, “I’m not an expert on anything and I don’t want to pretend to be and I don’t want to make things up just for the sake of having people listen to me. So I feel like there are reasons to shout and I don’t really have any. And so the only thing for me to shout about is: I would love for people to read my books. But that’s not something that you can shout about, right? You can’t do that. I don’t think you can do that at all.” He throws his head back and laughs, “I mean, I can’t do that at all and so it would be one thing if I had 250 things to say a year and one of them was, please buy my book and the other 249 were intrinsically interesting or useful to people. But unless you really, really love my children, I don’t really have that much to share with you that you want to hear on a daily basis . . .”
Pavone’s advice to new writers is to “figure out what book you want to write and what should happen in it and why. Then make that happen. I don’t stick to my outline. I develop an outline and then as I’m writing other things occur to me and I revise the outline and I revise the manuscript as I go, but it’s always there. It’s actually always there, open on my computer.” The best way forward is by “having a plan, and changing the plan, but making sure that there’s always a plan. And it’s about deliberateness: making deliberate vocabulary choices; deliberate names for the characters . . .”
As our interview comes to a close, Pavone, despite having earlier shared the fact that he doesn’t like eggs would share nothing more with me about his next novel except that it’s about an accidental spy.
So it looks as if, like everyone else, I’ll just have to wait until next year for more . . .
(c) Susan Condon
Susan Condon, a native of Dublin, has completed her debut crime fiction thriller set in New York City. Her short stories were awarded first prize in the Jonathan Swift Award, the Sport and Cultural Council (City of Dublin VEC) Competition and the Bealtaine Short Story Competition and she has also twice been long-listed for the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Short Story Competition. Publications include Original Writing from Ireland’s Own, Anthology 2012; South of the County: New Myths and Tales and www.fivestopstory.com