Jaden Terrell Races the Devil

March 17th, 2012

Jaden Terrell is a Nashville writer whose work I really love.  Her first mystery, Racing the Devil, came out in January of this year, and another, A Cup Full of Midnight, is on my wait-for-but-not-very-patiently list.   She’s got a lot of great things to say about writing and about books in general.

With an eye on the usual conventions of dividing mysteries and thrillers into subgenres, how would you classify your two new books, Racing the Devil and A Cup Full of Midnight? What writers, if any, sparked your interest in these kinds of stories, and what aspects of the genre particularly appeal to you?

I would call them private detective mysteries, since mysteries have traditionally involved unmasking a villain while thrillers are about catching a villain already known to the reader (if not the protagonist). The lines have blurred in recent years, though, and books like Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole series and Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series are often billed as thrillers, even when their heroes are solving mysteries. I would say mine are similar in tone to theirs—mysteries with a thriller-y edge to them. I’ve always been drawn to books where the stalwart hero rescues others, even at great risk to himself. I must have read The Lord of the Rings fifteen or twenty times, and while that’s a different genre, the basic themes of heroism and sacrifice are the same. As far as crime fiction goes, I started with my grandmother’s Agatha Christie novels. I was reading her Louis L’Amour novels at the same time, so maybe that’s how my detective ended up being a modern-day cowboy. I was also influenced by Dennis Lehane as well as Kellerman and Crais.

How do you get stories? Choose either one of your new books and tell us what aspect of the story came to first, what you did when it arrived, and how you developed it.

Racing the Devil was my first mystery, and all I knew was that I wanted to explore this character, Nashville PI Jared McKean, trying to find his place in a world where his family and his place in it had shattered. The second book grew out of a subplot in the first. Jared’s nephew, Josh, runs away from home, and Jared finds him at a Goth club where he’s been hanging out with an older man known as the Vampire Prince of Nashville. I wanted to explore Jared’s relationship with Josh and the question of whether or not we can save our loved ones from themselves, and I was intrigued by Razor, the Vampire Prince, who was both monstrous and charming. A really complex character. An image popped into my head of a pentagram drawn in blood, and I knew Razor had been murdered there in what appeared to be a ritual killing. I outlined the book and wrote the first draft pretty quickly. Then I rewrote it over and over again, each time getting a little deeper and a little closer to the heart of the story. It’s like dropping a stone into a rock tumbler. It resembles the final thing, but it’s lumpy and dull and misshapen, and the more it tumbles around in the editing process, the more you see what it could become. Connections become clear; a character with end-stage AIDS had been having hallucinations, and suddenly it dawned on me that one of those “hallucinations” could provide a vital clue. At one point, after growing my writer brain two sizes at a Donald Maass workshop, I realized I’d played it too safe with some of my characters, that a scene wasn’t working because I’d been too protective of them. Rewriting that scene tore my heart out, but it made the book a million percent better.

What’s your writing routine? How many days, how regularly, where, and so forth? Why do you feel this works best for you?

I wish I could say I have a regular writing routine. There was a blessed few years when I didn’t have a day job, and I would write five or six days a week, eight or more hours at a stretch. It was wonderful. Circumstances are such that I do have a day job now, and while I like it well enough (and love the people I work with), the hours are brutal during the busy season, which is about half the year. The other half is semi-reasonable, and I try to keep to a writing schedule then, but during the busy season, I just squeeze it in when I can. I try to write something every day, some sort of forward progress, but I don’t always manage it. I write in front of my computer while sitting on an exercise ball or in a spiral notebook sitting on the couch surrounded by our three little dogs.

You’re a woman, writing what I think of as quite male books, not only from a male perspective, but in male first-person. Why did you make this decision, and what, if any, difficulties did you face with that voice?

I read a lot of male first-person books, and I’ve always had a lot of male friends, so it’s a voice I’m comfortable with. I think sometimes men talk more freely to a female friend than they do to other men or to women they’re pursuing romantic relationships with; I hope that gives me some insight. I’m not sure I consciously made the decision to write from a first-person male perspective. I was trying with no luck at all to write a book about a feisty female detective, and Jared sprang into being. My female detective kept ending up too much like me or so far from me that I couldn’t relate to her, but Jared was enough “other” for me to discover him as an individual and to find a voice that was separate from mine. My first drafts end up sounding too soft in places, so during the editing process, I tighten the language and man him up a bit. I have a lot of respect for men, and I try very hard to be true to the good guys I know and care about.

It seems to me that people often say that men can’t write women but rarely do I hear anyone say that women can’t write men. Why do you think this is? Is one sex better than the other at writing the opposite sex, and if so, do you have any theories about it?

I think there are quite a few men who write women well. Having read The Queen of Patpong, I can safely say you’re one of them. The men who pull it off are good listeners and good observers who get the small details and motivations right. The ones who miss the mark tend to write women as if they were men with breasts and designer shoes. It’s as if they start with a male character and then feminize him by throwing in fashion, panty hose, and Jimmy Choos. Voila. Instant female. (I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen a Jimmy Choo; it took me awhile to figure out it was a shoe.)

Which parts of writing a novel are easiest for you, and which parts are hardest? Do you know why that is? Where do you think you need the most improvement, if you can identify such an area, and how do you work on it?

Character is the easiest for me. Plot is the hardest. I work very hard at making complex plots that hold together. Since I have no sense of time, I use timelines and charts so I know where each suspect was at the time of the crime and where everyone is during the investigation. I write out each scene on an index card and then organize the cards into a loose outline that changes as the story emerges. I also wish my first drafts were crisper and sharper. I read books by folks like you and William Kent Krueger, and I want to weep—or maybe strangle you—the language is so beautiful. I don’t know that I’m an especially good writer, but I think I’m a good rewriter. And I’m always learning. I read books on craft, read the thesaurus, attend workshops, and study books by writers I admire. I go to every Don Maass workshop I can afford, since every time I do, I feel my writer brain grow about three sizes.

How integral to your books is the Nashville setting, and why do you think Nashville is a particularly effective setting for mysteries? I find it hard to believe I might get tired of writing about Bangkok; do you feel the same about Nashville?

Nashville is great setting because it’s so full of contrasts. We have a classical Greek-style nude statue on Music Row, and a few blocks away, a giant fiberglass catfish wearing a cowboy hat. Square in the buckle of the Bible Belt, we have more churches per square mile than anyplace else in the country—and also more adult entertainment business per square mile. We have the Swan Ball, where rich people dress in fancy clothes and have an elaborate dinner party to raise money for charity, and shortly thereafter, we have the Swine Ball, where people wear jeans and eat ribs and listen to country music to raise money for charity. We’re a biggish city at the junction of three interstates, which means we have big-city problems like meth labs and human trafficking, but you can drive fifteen minutes from downtown and be in rural farm country. Or you can explore suburban angst by setting a story in one of Nashville’s satellite communities. Take country music; there’s a glitzy façade, but at its heart, it’s about down-to-earth people living everyday lives with everyday heartaches and pleasures. That’s Nashville. I can’t imagine running out of things to write about it.

Here’s the question I ask everyone. Could you recommend four or five books, not necessarily mysteries, that you especially like, and tell us why they’re worth reading?

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – In spite of the exotic location and nonhuman characters, it’s very human. The language is beautiful, and the characters and setting are so detailed and well-developed you feel like you’ve been there. The story works on many levels; every time I read it, I discover a new idea or insight.

Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger – The language in this book is so vivid that, when Krueger describes a snowstorm in Minnesota, you can feel the cold all the way to your bones. Krueger gives us a complex, likeable character in half Irish, half Ojibway protagonist Cork O’Connor, then weaves Native American tradition, modern American life, and a carefully layered plot together with exquisite tension.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – This book is worth reading just for the artistry Niffenegger shows in weaving scenes from Henry’s nonlinear life into those of Claire’s linear one. The plot fits together like an intricate puzzle box. The author’s portrayal of time traveler Henry, who can neither predict nor control his travels through time, is poignant

Finally, there’s your Poke Rafferty series (and no, you didn’t pay me to say this, LOL). They’re beautiful, heart-wrenching, heartwarming books. From A Nail Through the Heart to The Queen of Patpong, they’re among my favorites.



8 Responses to “Jaden Terrell Races the Devil”

  1. Jenny Milchman Says:

    What an honest, revealing interview by Beth (Jaden)! I loved every word. I’m impressed that she writes so diligently despite what is a taxing day job. My copy of RACING THE DEVIL is staring up at me right now, and I can’t wait to read it.

  2. Sharai Says:

    Great interview Jaden and Tim. Brilliant questions/insightful answers. Since we agree on The Lord of the Rings I suspect you’ll be my next favorite writer!

  3. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I’ll have to check out your books. Good questions as always, but Jaden’s answers are particularly thoughtful and thought provoking, thank you.

  4. EverettK Says:

    I liked the interview a lot, read the sample of Racing The Devil on Amazon, and was hooked. It’s now waiting patiently on my TBR stack. Thanks to you both!

  5. Peg Brantley Says:

    Jaden, you know how much I loved RACNG THE DEVIL. It took over my day. I’m with Tim… not very patiently waiting for number two!

  6. Jaden Terrell Says:

    Thank you for the interview, Tim. I loved your questions!

    Jenny and EverettK, my TBR stack has gotten so big it needs its own room. I hope you find RACING THE DEVIL worth the wait.

    Sharai, always good to meet a fellow LOTR lover. I recently saw the new trailer for THE HOBBIT movie and can hardly wait. Nothing lives up to the original text in my eyes, though.

    Lil, thank you. Tim is an excellent interviewer, which makes the job of the interview-ee much easier.

    Peg, you make my day. Fortunately, you won’t have to wait much longer. The ARCs for A CUP FULL OF MIDNIGHT just went to print. :o) Tim, I can’t even begin to predict the completion of book 3.

  7. Joyce Yarrow Says:

    Jared – I thoroughly enjoyed this interview, especially your remarks about searching for a voice for your detective that was far enough from your own to be unique, yet close enough for you to feel comfortable as a writer. Your solution was brilliant!

  8. Joyce Yarrow Says:

    oops – I meant to address my comment to Jaden rather than Jared – I’ll bet that happens a lot 🙂

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