NAW Interview with Chris Pavone


Chris Pavone’s first novel, The Expats, was a New York Times and international bestseller, with nearly twenty foreign editions and a major film deal, and received both the 2013 Edgar Award and Anthony Award for Best First Novel. The Accident, published in March 2014, was also an instant New York Times bestseller.

NAW- Tell us about your book, The Accident. How did you get the idea for it? Did you carry out any research for the book?

A woman receives a mysterious, anonymous manuscript that reveals the dangerous secrets of a powerful man, and then people around her start dying. The Accident is a novel about ambition and corruption, and it takes place, in large part, in the book-publishing business, which is where I’ve spent nearly all of my adult life. So I guess that was my research: my whole career.

NAW- In The Accident, each chapter is told from viewpoint of a different person which is a good technique. But this sometimes leads to confusion due to too many characters to remember. How did you get the idea for this?

There are plenty of novels that are written with the goal of being very easy to read, with predictable plots and simple characters; these books are reassuring and self-affirming, and they help people pass the time. I don’t much enjoy reading these types of books, and I don’t want to write them. As a reader I want to be a little confused at times; I want to do some work; I want to guess, and be wrong; I want to learn something about humanity; I want to be challenged and surprised. The expenditure of effort—an active reading experience—makes a novel more rewarding for me. I’m trying to write books that as a reader I would enjoy.

NAW- Tell us about your other works.

My first novel, The Expats, is about a woman who moves abroad with her family, and discovers that no one in her new life is who they’re pretending to be, and neither is she. I began writing The Expats while I was an expat, living in Luxembourg. That book was an instant New York Times and international bestseller, translated into twenty languages, and won last year’s Edgar and Anthony awards for best first novel.

NAW- How difficult (or easy) was it getting published? Tell us about your publishing journey.

Beginning a quarter-century ago, I held twelve job titles at eight different publishing outfits, with responsibilities ranging from proofreading and copy editing to acquiring manuscripts and managing departments, plus ghostwriting a couple of nonfiction books and writing a tiny book about wine that consists mostly of blank pages. My publishing journey has been long and complex, and the same is true for the fiction-writing part. Once The Expats manuscript was ready to submit, it didn’t take a long time to find a publisher—just a couple of days—but it had taken a couple of decades for me to get to that spot. I don’t think it’s easy for anyone.

Accident book cover

NAW- How do you decide the names for your characters? Is it a random process or a well thought one?

No aspect of my writing process is random. Every character’s name is meant to convey something cultural, socioeconomic, or symbolic, and these symbols are fairly straightforward. For example, the protagonist of The Accident is a literary agent whose main job is to read manuscripts, and her name is Reed.

NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?

I’m the parent to twin schoolboys and, very recently, a puppy, and these other living creatures currently occupy most of my non-writing life.

NAW- Who are your favorite writers?

Speaking of my kids: they ask me about favorites all the time—favorite ice cream flavor, favorite Yankee infielder, favorite whatever. I continually disappoint them by admitting that I don’t have favorites in most categories. Including writers. I get something out of everything I read, and my favorite writer is always the one whose book I just finished. If I don’t love the book, I don’t finish it.

NAW- How do you write, planning the complete plot beforehand or do you let the book take its course? Take us through your writing process.

So far I’ve published only two novels, so I can’t say that I have a finely honed process based on decades of experience. But what I’ve done for the past few years is this: I spend a good amount of time writing about the novel—summarizing the plot, sketching the characters, explaining the back story. Then I outline. Then as I write the text, I continually adjust the outline to conform to new ideas, new plot twists, new revelations. I always use an outline, but not dogmatically.

NAW- What are you working on next?

My next novel is about an accidental spy, and I expect it’ll be published in 2016.

Read an excerpt from The Accident below-

The Accident by Chris Pavone

Chapter 1

It’s just before dawn when Isabel Reed turns the final sheet of paper. Halfway down the page, her mouth falls open, her heartbeat quickens. Her eyes dart across each typescript line at a rapid-fire pace, accelerating as she moves through the final paragraph, desperate to arrive at a revelation, to confirm her suspicions. She sucks in her breath, and holds that breath, for the last lines.

Isabel stares at the final period, the little black dot of ink . . . staring . . .

She lets out her breath. “My God.” Astounded, at the enormity of the story. Disappointed, at the absence of the confirmation she was hoping for. Furious, at what it means. Terrified, at the dangers it presents. And, above all, heartbroken, at the immensity of the betrayal. Betrayals.

She puts the page down on the fat stack of paper that sits on the bedspread, next to a crumpled soft-pack of cigarettes and an overflowing crystal ashtray, a mildly snarky birthday present from a passive-aggressive colleague. She picks up the manuscript with both hands, flips it over, and uses her thumbs to align the pages. Her hands are trembling. She tries to steady herself with a deep breath, and sets the straightened pile of pages in her lap. There are four words centered at the top of the page:

The Accident

by Anonymous

Isabel stares across the room, off into the black nothingness of the picture window on the opposite wall, its severe surface barely softened by the half-drawn shades, an aggressive void invading the cocoon of her bedroom. The room is barely lit by a small bullet-shaped reading sconce mounted over the headboard, aiming a concentrated beam of light directly at her. In the window, the light’s reflection hovers above her face, like a tiny sun illuminating the top of her head, creating a halo. An angel. Except she’s not.

She can feel her body tense and her jaw tighten and her shoulders contract in a spasm of rage. She tries to suppress it, bites her lip, brings herself under the flimsiest tether of control.

Isabel draws aside the bedspread, struggles to a sitting position. It’s been hours since she has shifted her body in any appreciable way, and her legs and back are stiff and achy—old, if she had to choose a word for her joints. Her legs dangle over the side of the mattress, her toes searching for the fleece-lined slippers.

Along the wall, long slivers of aluminum shelves—hundreds of horizontal feet—are filled with neat stacks of manuscripts, their authors’ names written with thick black Sharpie into the sides of the stacks of pages. Tens of thousands of pages of proposed books of every sort, promising a wide assortment of entertainment and information, produced with a broad range of skill levels.

These days, everyone younger than Isabel seems to read manuscripts and proposals on e-readers; quite a few of those older, too. But she feels like uncomfortable, unnatural, sitting there holding a little device in her hands. Isabel is of the generation that’s just old enough to be congenitally uncomfortable with new technologies. When she started her first job, she didn’t have a computer at her desk. A year later, she did.

Maybe next year she’ll start using one of those things, but for now she’s still reading on paper, turning pages, making notes with pens, surrounding herself with stacks of paper, like bricks, bunkered against the relentless onslaught of the future. And for The Accident, she didn’t even have a choice. Because although 99 percent of new projects are now delivered to her office electronically, this submissionwas not.

She shuffles down the hall, through the darkness. Turns on the kitchen lights, and the coffee machine—switched from auto-on, which is set to start brewing an hour from now, to on—and the small television. Filling the silent lonely apartment with humming electronic life.

Isabel had been reading frantically, hoping to discover the one assertion that rang untrue, the single mismatched thread that would unravel the whole narrative, growing increasingly discouraged as page 1 at the office in the morning became page hundred-something at home in the evening. She fell asleep sometime after eleven, more than halfway through, then woke again at two, unable to quiet her mind, anxious to get back to it. People in the book business are constantly claiming that “I couldn’t put it down” or it “kept me up all night” or “I read it in one day.” This time, all that was true.

So at two a.m. Isabel picked up the manuscript and started reading again, page after page, through the late-late night. Vaguely reminiscent of those days when Tommy was an infant, and she was sleep-deprived, awake in a dormant world. They are very discrete periods, for very specific reasons, when it’s a normal part of life to be awake at four a.m.: it’s for making babies or caring for them, in the small desperate hours when a blanket of quiet smothers the city, but through the moth-eaten holes there’s the occasional lowing of a railroad in New Jersey, the distant Dopplered wail of an ambulance siren. Then the inevitable thump of the newspaper on the doormat, the end of the idea of night, even if it’s still dark out.

Nothing she encountered during the 488 pages seemed false. Now she stares at the anchor’s face on the television, tuned to Wolfe Worldwide News . . . That goddamned son of a bitch . . .

Her anger swells, and she loses control—

Isabel cocks her arm and hurls the remote across the kitchen, cracking and splintering against the refrigerator door, clattering loudly to the floor. Then the heightened silence of the aftermath, the subdued thrum of a AA battery rolling across the tile, the impotent click as it comes to rest against a baseboard.

She feels tears trickling down her cheek, and wipes them away.

The coffee machine hisses and sputters the final drops, big plops falling into the tempered glass. Isabel glances at the contraption’s clock, changing from 5:48 to 5:49, in the corner of the neatly organized counter, a study in right angles of brushed stainless steel. Isabel is a passionate proponent of perfect alignment. Fanatical, some might say.

She opens the refrigerator door, with its new scratch from the airborne remote, whose jagged pieces she kicks out of her way. She takes out the quart of skim and pours a splash into her mug. She grabs the plastic handle of the carafe and fills the mug with hot, viscous, bitter, bracing caffeination. She takes a small sip, then a larger one. She tops up the mug, and again wipes away tears.

She walks back down the now-lighted hall, lined with the family photographs she’d unearthed when she was moving out of her matrimonial apartment, into this single-woman space in a new neighborhood, far from the painful memories of her home—of her life—downtown, where she’d been running into too many mothers, often with their children. Women she’d known from the playgrounds and toy stores and mommy-and-me music classes, from the gyms and grocers and coffee shops, from preschool drop-off and the pediatrician’s waiting room. All those other little children growing older, getting bigger, Emmas and Stellas in precious little plaids, Ashers and Amoses with mops of messy curls in skinny jeans on scooters; all those self-satisfied downtown bo-bo parents, unabashedly proud of their progeny’s precociousness.

She’d bought herself a one-bedroom in a full-service uptown coop, the type of apartment that a woman chooses when she reconciles herself that she’s not going to be living with another human being. She had reached that age, that stage, when a lifestyle starts to look permanent: it is what it is, and ever will be, until you die. So she was making her loneliness as comfortable as possible. Palliative care.

If she wasn’t allergic to cats, there’d probably be a couple of them lurking around, scrutinizing her disdainfully.

Isabel lined this nice new hallway—parquet floors, ornate moldings, electrical outlets where she wants them—with framed photos. There she is, herself, a smiling little toddler being held aloft by her tragically beautiful mother in Central Park, at the playground near the museum, a couple blocks from the Classic 8 on Park Avenue that her parents couldn’t actually afford. And then hand-in-hand with her remarkably unambitious father, starting fourth grade at the small-town public school in the Hudson Valley, after they’d finally abandoned the city for their “country place,” the old family estate that they’d been selling off, half-acre parcels at a time, to pay for their life. Then in cap and gown, the high school valedictorian, bound not for Harvard or Yale or even a first-rate state school but for a second-tier—maybe third?—private college upstate, because it offered a full scholarship, including room and board, and didn’t necessitate expensive out-of-state travel. The drive was just a few hours.

Her parents had called her Belle; still do. But once she was old enough to understand what the word meant, she couldn’t bear to lay claim to it. She began to insist on Isabel.

Isabel had intended to go to graduate school, to continue studying American literature, eventually to teach at the university level, maybe. But that plan was formed before she’d had an understanding of the realities of personal finance. So instead she took what she thought would be a short-term job at a publishing house—one of her father’s school chums was a famous editor—with the irrational expectation that she’d be able to save money to pay for school, in a year, or two. Buoyed by modest success in an enjoyable workplace during good business years, one thing led to another. Plus she never saved a dime. By the time she was twenty-five, she no longer thought about grad school. Almost never.

So then there she is, in a little black dress on stage at a book-award ceremony, accepting on behalf of her author who was in South America at the time, chasing a new story. And in a big white dress, aglow, in the middle of the panoramic-lens group shot, the thirty-six-year-old bride with her bridesmaids, at her wedding to a man she’d started dating a mere eight months earlier, short on time, perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to his obvious faults, the personality traits that her friends were too supportive to point out, until the safe remove of hindsight.

That utter bastard.

It still amazes her how quickly youth slipped away, how severely her options narrowed. Just a couple of bad relationship decisions—one guy who as it turned out was never going to commit, another who was a closeted asshole—and the infinite choices of her late twenties turned into the dwindling selection of her mid-thirties, now saying yes to any non-creepy men who asked her out at parties or introduced themselves in bars, sometimes using her middle name, if the guy was on the margins of acceptability, and she might end up wanting to hide behind the unstalkable shield of an alias; over the years she’d had at least a half-dozen dates with men who thought her name was something else. Half the time, she was glad for the deception.

Another photo, a smaller print, lying in the hospital bed with Tommy in her arms, tiny and red and angry in his striped swaddling blanket and blue cap. Isabel had returned to work after the standard three months, but in that quarter-year something had passed, and she was complacent to allow it. Her husband was suddenly making embarrassing amounts of money, so Isabel hired a housekeeper to go with the nanny. She started leading one of those enviable-looking lives—a four-day workweek, driving the shiny car from the pristine loft to the shingled beach house, a perfect baby and a rich handsome smart funny husband . . .

And then.

She stops at the final photo, spot-lit, a small black-and-white in the center of an expanse of stark white matting. A little boy, laughing on a rocky beach, running out of the gentle surf, wearing water wings. Isabel reaches her hand to her lips, plants a kiss on her fingers, and transfers the kiss to the little boy. As she does every morning.

Isabel continues to the bathroom, unbuttoning her flannel top as she walks, untying the drawstring of the pajama bottoms, which crumple as she releases the knot. She pushes her panties down and steps out of them, leaving a small, tight puddle of cotton on the floor.

The hot shower punishes her tense tired shoulders. Steam billows in thick bursts, pulled out the bathroom door, spilling into the dressing area, the bedroom. The water fills her ears, drowning out any sounds of the television, of the world. If there’s anything else in her apartment making noise, she can’t hear it.

What exactly is she going to do with this manuscript? She shakes water out of her hair, licks her top lip, shifts her hands, her feet, her weight, standing under the stream, distracted and disarmed, distressed. It all beats down on her, the shower stream and the manuscript and the boy and the past, and the old guilt plus the new guilt, and the new earth-shattering truths, and fear for her career and maybe, now, fear for her life.

She slips into a soft thick white bathrobe, towel-dries her hair. She sweeps her hand across the steamed-up glass, and examines her tired eyes, bagged and bloodshot, wrinkled at the corners. The bathroom’s high-voltage lighting isn’t doing her any favors this morning. She had long ago become accustomed to not sleeping well, for a variety of reasons. But with each passing year, it has become harder and harder to hide the physical evidence of sleeplessness.

From the other room, she can hear the irrelevant prattle of the so-called news, the piddling dramas of box-office grosses, petty marital indiscretions, celebrity substance abuse. Steam re-colonizes the mirror, and she watches big thick drops of condensation streak down from the top beveled edge of the glass, cutting narrow paths of clarity through the fog, thin clear lines in which she can glimpse her reflection . . .

Something is different, and a jolt of nervous electricity shoots through her, a flash of an image, Hitchcockian terror. Something in that slim clear streak has changed. The light has shifted, there’s now a darkness, a shadow—


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