David Corbett’s first novel, The Devil’s Redhead was widely praised and was nominated for both the Anthony and Barry Awards for Best First Novel of 2002. His follow-up, Done for a Dime, was also broadly acclaimed (“the best in contemporary crime fiction … one of the three or four best American crime novels I’ve ever read.”—The Washington Post), was named a New York Times Notable Book, and was nominated for the Macavity Award for Best Novel of 2003. His third novel, 2007’s Blood of Paradise, was compared to the work of Graham Greene and Robert Stone, was chosen by Admiral James Stavridis, then Commander of the US Southern Command, for the SOUTHCOM reading list. It was also selected one of the Top Ten Mysteries and Thrillers of 2007 by The Washington Post. His fourth novel, 2010’s Do They Know I’m Running?, instantly garnered widespread praise, and was selected as Best Novel—Rising Star Category for the Spinetingler Award. David’s short fiction has also been widely praised, with stories appearing twice in Best American Mystery Stories, and another, “It Can Happen” from San Francisco Noir, nominated for the Macavity Award for Best Short Story of 2005. He also contributed chapters to The Chopin Manuscript and The Copper Bracelet, serial audio thrillers that now have been combined in a single hard cover version titled Watchlist. For this segment of our Author Interview Series, we asked David what inspired his writing, how he found an agent, as well as a host of other questions. Here’s what he said:
Tell us about The Mercy of the Night.
The story is based on three incidents that occurred in my own hometown, though I fictionalize the locale, calling the city Rio Mirada and placing it midway between the Napa Valley and San Francisco.
The first incident was the abduction of two nearly identical girls only weeks apart about a decade ago. The first girl was never found. The second girl escaped after three days. She was hailed as a plucky little heroine, and testified against her abductor, but the secret of her pluck was she came from a pretty rough family. There was talk in certain circles that the wrong girl had come home. Track ahead ten years, the plucky little heroine’s life had gone pretty severely off the rails. I saw a story in that: a girl born into a troubled family who suffers through such an unimaginable ordeal, then has to endure an ugly whisper campaign to boot, finally trying to get her life back on track, however misguided the effort might be.
The second incident was the town’s filing for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 9. This resulted from a political standoff between the public service unions and the city, which was out of money. The fight was heated, the union coalition fragmented with the police cutting their own deal, and the head of the firefighter’s union refused to back down. The result: a ruling in federal court that went against the unions. The head of the local IAFF went from being a hero to a scapegoat in a heartbeat, and again I saw a story in that. If he was murdered, how many thousands of suspects would there be, in a city with half the police force it once had?
Finally, the third incident: some kids started throwing rocks at a city employee on a backhoe. He got off, words were exchanged, and suddenly anywhere from 20 to 40 kids were beating the guy into a coma. The incident was caught on a security camera from a nearby gas station, and the story became something akin to: What’s wrong with this city’s kids? I considered that a really convenient answer, and thought there was a deeper story there as well.
For my inciting incident, I mashed these three things together. I had the head of the firefighter’s union, who’s now taken another job out of town, offering this troubled girl a chance to come with him, leave her past behind. He may not have the noblest motives but she’s used to that. Then some kids start pitching rocks at the car they’re in. He gets out, confronts them. And the next thing you know…
Who is your favorite character from the book?
I’m one of those writers who tends to love all his characters, even (or especially) the ones others hate. But Jacquelina Garza, the seventeen-year-old runaway, gained a special place in to my heart. I’ve been gratified by hearing from readers that they’ve found her hard to stop thinking about even days or weeks after they’ve put down the book.
What inspired you to write the book?
Beyond the three incidents mentioned above, which I found compelling, I’ve come to believe the crime novel offers the best platform for political narrative these days. This is certainly the view from Scandinavia, the UK, and Ireland, and my writing fits rather well into that mold.
Realism in literary fiction tends to focus on the personal, the ethnic, or the social, and so it’s been left to crime fiction to pick up the political baton. And at one level, this is a political story: How does a city function when its promises prove to be empty? How can we expect workers to do their job when they’ve been lied to so egregiously? And what do we do when that anger – whether from workers or the kids who realize their future is nothing but empty words – gets acted out on the streets? Who takes the fall? Who skates?
I also felt an inclination to move beyond the antihero zeitgeist that seems to have dominated things since Tony Soprano entered the arena. I’d avoided writing anything to do with private investigators up until now, for a number of reasons, but mainly because I worked as one for fifteen years and from what I could tell readers weren’t much interested in learning about the real thing. They wanted the plains gunman in an urban setting.
But over the years I’ve reconsidered this, and decided that I could find a way to be true to the job as I know it and yet also provide a good story. This required my developing my own unique take on Chandler’s old saw about the detective hero as “a man who can walk the mean streets but who is not himself mean.”
The people I came to admire when I worked as an investigator all shared a fierce dedication to their clients and a full awareness of the injustices built into our justice system. I wanted to bring that sort of Nobody’s Fool Compassion to my main male character, a former lawyer turned legal jack-of-all-trades named Phelan Tierney.
Since the prevailing pessimism these days declares that people don’t change and reform is a joke, I wanted Phelan to be devoted to people who prove the lie to that perspective, and who dedicate themselves honestly to turning their lives around. He knows it can be done – he’s done it himself – but he has no illusions about how difficult it is.
What were your biggest challenges when writing the book?
Like I said, I’d resisted writing a PI novel, but finally found a way to make it work by making my hero a helper, not a fighter or a hunter, though he can do both of those things if need be.
The challenge came in not realizing just how hard it is to write a compelling hero when he bears too great a resemblance to oneself. You assume things are on the page when they’re not, and the result is a cipher, a shadow, not a character. I realized I had to make Phelan Tierney different than me in critical ways, ways that made me have to discover him, not just take him for granted.
Also, this was the first book where I deliberately stage a double reversal, where two main characters had to change to make the story work. It was trickier than I’d originally thought, mainly because I had to make sure I didn’t confuse the reader, making them wonder whose story it was.
Who are you reading now? Which authors and novels have been an inspiration to you, and why?
Well, my main inspiration has come from writers like Richard Price, Pete Dexter, Don Carpenter, Richard Thornburg, and Robert Stone. I’m about to pick up Price’s The Whites shortly. I’m also a fan of Thomas Kelly and loved both Empire Rising and The Rackets. I also feel a kinship with both Kate Atkinson and Dennis Lehane. Atkinson’s Jackson Brody was very much an inspiration for Phelan Tierney. And Lehane’s latest, World Gone By, was a great read. I recently finished Austin Wright’s Tony and Susan and loved it. And whenever I’m feeling like I need a rollicking shot in the arm, there’s always Ross Thomas, the most underappreciated crime writer of the latter half of the 20th century.
I’m also reading a couple of non-fiction books at the moment, juggling them night to night. Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy is about the untold story of black-on-black homicide in our cities. Unaccountable: How Elite Power Brokers Corrupt Our Finances, Freedom, and Security by Janine Wedel is an examination of how technology, systemic deniability, and the complexity of modern bureaucracies have rendered responsibility virtually obsolete. Both books are unsettling, in the way the truth often is.
I’m also dipping into Herodotus and Lady Gregory’s God’s and Fighting Men here and there. Blame it on Game of Thrones.
What advice can you provide to aspiring authors?
- Read voraciously, write daily. (It’s not enough to write, however. More important is the need to finish something.)
- The two most important things a writer must have: a love of literature and a passion for his subject matter.
- Your greatest teachers are the books you admire. (“Readers are writers inspired to emulation.” –Saul Bellow)
- Be clear, be honest. Treat the reader like a friend, not a prisoner you hope to flog with your genius. (“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” – Elmore Leonard)
- Less is more, unless it’s not enough.