Grant Jerkins is the author of three very distinct crime stories. His debut, A Very Simple Crime was a murder mystery featuring one of the most sinister and beguilingly spider-to-the-fly first-person narrations I've had the pleasure of reading, while his second, At the End of the Road was southern gothic, steeped in autobiographical detail capturing the small town Georgia of the mid seventies, and casting a wide narrative-point-of-view net, that made us privy to the rationale of a child, a monster and a policewoman too (it also made my list of favorite books of 2011). His latest, The Ninth Step, is a love story, and a dark-secret, blackmail thriller that takes his everyman and everywoman to some very dark places.
Grant was kind enough to answer some questions I had.
One of the pleasures of The Ninth Step is that each character behaves as if they are the central one, which of course, they are in their own story - everyone, even the minor players, are engaged in the forward momentum of the plot for their own ends and therefore behave like people rather than the author's pawns. I wondered then if Helen was always your main character or if the story went through any versions where Edgar, or even Mr. Slick Back were the central figure?
I actually had this story optioned for film at one point. The producer had funding, a director, and a screenplay (by me.) Next step was to go out to talent. They made offers to quite a few female actors, but never to any male leads. They wanted to cast Helen first. Most of the notes I got had to do with Helen. And it just sort of dawned on me that everybody considered this Helen's story. They were building the film project around her. I was surprised. In my mind, Edgar and Helen are of equal importance, dual leads. But it's cool if readers think of Helen as the protagonist. I like that idea of what it might look like from one of those other vantage points. I doubt Edgar or Helen would have come off as very sympathetic.
The film deal fell apart. But the book got published.
You've written three books now that deal with the darkness beneath unassuming exteriors... Like, really dar. Where does that come from?
The dark thing. Yeah. Hell if I know. It's not purposeful. They really don't seem dark to me. Especially The Ninth Step. I know it would be wrong to call it lighthearted, but that's really the way it kind of feels to me. That's probably crazy.
That, sir, is crazy. So let's talk about A Very Simple Crime for a moment. Adam Lee's voice, in that book, is one of the most electrifying and unnerving first-person accounts I've read. There's a point where the book takes a side-step and tackles the story from a new angle and the tone is much lighter for it - how deliberate was that?
There were really two reasons I switched narrative point of view like that, neither of which was purposeful. The first was that I'd simply written myself into a corner. I couldn't figure out how to tell the rest of the story from that limited perspective. (I remember at the time scouring my bookshelves for other novels that made a similar abrupt narrative shift. I was obsessed with whether or not it was "okay" to switch from first person to third so late in a novel. I found several examples - including Christine by Stephen King.)
Secondly, I just couldn't keep writing in Adam Lee's voice. It was just too . . . It was really affecting me in a bad way.
In retrospect, I regret the narrative switch, because even if the Leo Hewitt section is okay on its own terms, it's never as powerful, I think, as the Adam Lee first person POV, so it feels like a bit of a letdown.
Wow, Adam was affecting you... Now, that does sound like a Stephen King novel. In At the End of the Road your canvas seemed to open up with many different point of view characters. Is it a bigger challenge to keep a large cast like that corralled or to tell a whole story from a single or at least more limited point of view?
At the End of the Road was something of a cheat. It actually started off as a memoir. Excluding the prologue, just about every word in the first 50 pages or so is autobiographical, completely true—including me causing a woman to roll her car in front of our house. It really is a larger cast (for me, anyway), but I already knew most of the characters. It's me, my sister, my brothers, my parents, my bullies, my green pond, my summer of '76. So, even though the characters in the book are completely fictional, I had a real life starting point for many of them. The only characters that I conjured from nothingness are the Paralyzed Man, and Deputy Dana Turpin. To write Turpin, I channeled Lawrence Block. From him I learned that investigation is mostly mundane grunt work, but you can learn a hell of a lot about somebody by how they do their job, how they tackle that mundane work. And it can be compelling.
That's interesting about the mundane-ness of police work being something you were mindful of, as the anything but mundane-ness of the 'average' people in your books seems essential. Is there a reason that it's the 'average' non-professionals of crime (cops, detectives, career criminals) that you use? Or the flipside - is there a reason you don't seem to use the professionals as your main characters?
Nice insight. I should be paying you for this stuff. Yeah, I seem to have not as much interest in actual criminals. Even though people are breaking laws left and right in my stories, these people are crossing a line. Either personally, or culturally—they are crossing a line. Actual criminals live on the other side of that line (and cops too, really). The rest of us just visit there. We transgress. We are changed by the crimes we commit. So our internal and external world changes—police and lawyers and criminals and a burden of guilt inhabit our new reality. And it seems that if we are punished for what we did (by law or ill fate,) the real punishment still comes from inside.
Even Kyle Edward from At the End of the Road. He transgressed. He did wrong. We forgive him because he was only ten years old. But I doubt he ever forgave himself. Thirty years later, he still stands accused, reminded of those who reached out to him for help. I imagine he has some problems.
Of your three books, At the End of the Road, is the only one where the southern setting really seemed to flavor the story or color the atmosphere, how interested are you in writing about the South or Georgia in particular?
The Southern thing. Yeah. I don't know. Part of it is, The South isn't southern anymore. I still live in the same Georgia county as the one portrayed in At the End of the Road. It's not the same anymore. Now it's just strip malls, Super Walmarts, and suburbs where people raise their kids, mow their lawns, and get high in their finished basements. It's a pastel wonderland. I had to go back thirty-six years to write something southern. That South seems to exist now only in isolated pockets.
You'll notice that with The Ninth Step, I set it in New England. I could just as easily have set it Georgia. I'm almost exclusively interested in what's going on in my characters heads, to the point that what region they hail from just seems like window dressing. This is probably a great weakness of my writing.
Tell me what's up with Barbet Schroeder?
The film project of A Very Simple Crime is still alive. Schroeder is still attached to direct. I've read the screenplay and thought it was fantastic. Last I heard, funding was in place and things looked good. In the end, though, who knows? There are so many ways for a film project to go off the rails. Still, I'm optimistic.
How important would it be to have a film made at this point?
Uh, it’s pretty ****ing important. For me, anyway. For the continued existence of the universe? The film would likely have little impact on that. There are no lives in the balance. The world will continue to turn. But yeah, I would love to see it come together. As James Ellroy pointed out, even bad movies sell books. So there is that aspect to it. And this project seems to have the ingredients for a pretty good movie. And then there is the fact that moving pictures are our main cultural currency—the way most people like to be told stories. Plus, you know, it would just be really cool.
Have you written any screenplays yourself? Are there other mediums you'd like a crack at?
I've written several screenplays. I prefer writing novels. My publisher has never changed or asked me to change a single word in any of my published work. With Hollywood, the exact opposite has been true. Breaking into screenwriting is hard, and if you get lucky enough to option a script, then that's when the real hell begins. Development. The land of development is populated by these seductive creatures called Development Executives. These guys wear masks. They camouflage their true nature. They seduce you. Charm you. In fact, film development is a lot like the stone soup fable, with your spec script being the stone. So it starts out that your screenplay is perfect as-is. Everybody's certain that it's going to be an award winning blockbuster. Then the notes start coming in. Yes, this screenplay is perfect, but do you know what would make it even better? Even more perfect? And they tell you exactly what would make it better. And everybody's been so nice to you, and you feel so honored that they would even consider your work, so that even if you don't necessarily think these changes are for the best, you do it, because you're a team player, right? And besides, these guys are professionals and they know what they're doing. And the notes just never stop. And you start to notice inconsistencies, like that the sixth round of notes contradicts most of the stuff in the third round of notes. And you look up three years later realizing that none of these people know what they're doing.
Yet still, movies do get made. I've just found that I don't have the stamina for it.
What can we look for next from you?
I have an unpublished manuscript called Abnormal Man that uses a shifting 2nd person POV, so that the "you" in one chapter could be an overweight manager at Shoney's, then a teenage runaway in the next chapter, then a child pornographer shopping for adult diapers at Walgreens. I know that sounds like it would be disorienting and hard to follow—not to mention gimmicky—but it's really not.
I think you would be in the minority of human beings, but I think you would like it.
Sure, I'd love to get my mitts on that.
I'd like to see that get published. I really would. But it seems unlikely. Beyond that, I have two projects I'm circling. One is a sequel to A Very Simple Crime. The brothers Lee would be back. As would Leo Hewitt. It feels like it might be a story of redemption. The other project would be collaboration with writer Jan Thomas. It's essentially a week in the life of a police sniper. A man who makes his living killing people. The genesis of the story comes from Jan, who is married to a police sniper (technically, a counter sniper). What draws me to the story is the mundaneness of their existence (Hi honey, I'm home. How was your day?) juxtaposed with the peculiar fact that his day could easily have included putting a high caliber round through someone's orbital socket—not in a heated, kill-or-be-killed exchange, but with meticulous, prolonged purposefulness. And trying to hold onto this idea of being an ordinary guy, when you are anything but ordinary. I'm excited about it, but there's a long ways to go.