Behind the Books:
Q: Your latest book, The Informant, deals
with a serial killer whose barbaric method of murder
is sure to leave your reader speechless. Or should I
say tongue-tied? How did you come up with the serial
killer's signature of murder?
A: I don't believe in using violence for shock value. That is to say, I didn't think of the signature and then build a character around it. I created a character and then developed a signature that suited his complex motivations. John Douglas, the FBI agent who pioneered criminal profiling, often says that to understand the serial killer, you have to look closely at his work. I took that advice to heart in choosing the killer's signature in The Informant.
Q: The descriptions you gave of the FBI and their part in catching the serial killer read with the authenticity of an insider, as says former FBI agent John Douglas. The events that led up to catching the serial killer involved profiler and tactical knowledge. What kind of research did you do for this?
A: I started by reading the leading books on profiling and serial killers. I read everything I could get my hands on. I reviewed FBI training materials -- slides, videotapes, case studies. Once I felt educated, I talked with professionals who actually do this kind of work. One of the more helpful sources was a psychiatrist who examines criminal defendants to determine whether they're competent to stand trial. The most help, however, came from law enforcement personnel, particularly an FBI agent with whom I kept a running dialogue throughout the drafting of the novel.
Q: Nobody likes a snitch. The serial killer takes his dislike of squealers to the extreme. How do you feel about snitches?
A: "Snitch" has such a negative connotation, but it all depends on the person's motivation. Whistleblowers who expose corruption in government or dangers in work areas, for example, are often labeled "Snitches" even though their only motivation is to clear their conscience or to correct an injustice. Others spill their guts only if there is something in it for them -- be it money, a perverse satisfaction in seeing others get in trouble or the chance to go on television talk shows and bask in their fifteen minutes of fame. Those are the ones nobody likes, and I don't like them either.
Q: At the root of this novel is a very moving love story between Mike Posten and his wife Karen. It is incredible how you were able to link two seemingly incongruous things like a serial killer1s impetus for murder and a failing marriage. At the heart of both problems seems to lie the question of trust, and the risk of betrayal. How did you see the role of trust unfold and perform in this novel?
A: The basic question is, who can we trust, why and what are the consequences? Karen sums it all up when she tells Mike, "Only two kinds of people can talk without inhibitions. Strangers or lovers. Everyone in between is just negotiating."
Q: Out of all the characters in your novel, who do you identify with the most, and why?
A: Strangely, I1d have to say Karen Posten, the wife of the male lead, Michael Posten. She agonizes about falling into that no-man's land between strangers and lovers, where there is no such thing as total honesty.
Q: The Informant has many plot twists and turns. The organization and structure seem quite demanding. How do you develop your ideas for your books? Do you find outlines helpful?
A: In the most general sense, I develop ideas by observing events and playing the "what if" game. The trigger for The Informant was the whole notion of "checkbook journalism." Some journalists will pay sources, others think it1s sleazy. I asked myself, "What if a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter could help catch a serial killer only by breaking his own rules and paying an anonymous informant?" All of my writing starts this way, usually with one sentence. Once I have the hook, I expand the idea to a paragraph, then to a page, then to a three page synopsis. Then I put it down for a while. If I still like it when I come back in a week or so, I develop an outline. Outlining for me is absolutely essential. I like a complex plot, but as a reader I hate to be confused. I spent three months on the outline for The Informant before I ever started writing.
Q: Besides your writing career, you have also practiced trial law. In what ways do your law background and experiences help your writing?
A: Being a good trial lawyer means being a good storyteller. I don't mean that in a negative way. You don't make things up as a lawyer, but to persuade a jury you have to present the facts in a way that is both compelling and believable. You have to develop a theme, decide which arguments to make and then figure out the best way to make them -- all within the time constraints established by the judge and by the attention span of the jurors. More than anything, having stood in a courtroom before a judge and jury has made me more sensitive to readers. I don't bore them with digressions. I don't use two pages when two sentences are enough. And I don't bill them by the hour.
THE INFORMANT: HarperCollins Publishers: May 2001 Behind the Writing of the Novel: Copyright 2000 James Grippando