I’m thrilled to have award-winning novelist Allen Eskens join us on my blog today. Allen Eskens is the USA Today-bestselling author of The Life We Bury, The Guise of Another, and The Heavens May Fall. He is the recipient of the Barry Award, Minnesota Book Award, Rosebud Award, and the Silver Falchion Award and has been a finalist for the Edgar Award, Thriller Award, and the Anthony Award. His debut novel, The Life We Bury, has been published in 16 languages and is being developed for a feature film.
You started your writing career with a bang. The Life We Bury won three prestigious awards and was a finalist for four others along with multiple 5-star (and starred) reviews. How has that kind of pressure to succeed impacted you in your subsequent novels? Do you consider the success of each previous book as you’re writing the next?
I’m the kind of writer who has multiple projects percolating at any given moment. For example, I had my second book written and sold to my publisher before my first novel, The Life We Bury, hit the store shelves. As I write this, I am days away from turning in my fifth manuscript, two days later my fourth book will hit the market and I’ll be writing book number six. Because I am always casting forward, I can keep the pressure in check.
With that said, I have to say that I do feel driven to repeat as much of the success as I can with each new book. I try not to analyze too much because I want every novel to stand on its own merit. On a side note, I have to admit that having that kind of success on the debut novel gives me confidence to trust my instincts as I go forward.
You write in both first person and third person point of view. What have you found to be the pros and cons of these? What made you choose one POV over another for each book?
My personal preference is to write in first person. I feel that I can get deeper into the character’s mind and heart in first person. When I write in third person, it’s because I want to tell a story from more than one point of view. I know a number of writers who will mix first and third points of view in a single story, and it’s been done well by a few. I haven’t tried that because I haven’t yet written a story that invites it.
Location is an important aspect in your work. Whether you are showing us the streets of Minneapolis, small-town Minnesota or the interior of a courtroom, place comes through like a character. Is that something that comes naturally to you as you write? Or do you consciously spend time working on creating both atmosphere and detail?
I love describing my scenes. One of the things that I do in my first revision is to look at my scene descriptions and ask myself if I can make them better. I sometimes think of revision like walking across a field of deep snow. It takes effort to make that first crossing (the first draft) and when I turn around to cross again, my inclination is to walk in the same path that I’ve already cut. It’s easier than walking through fresh snow. So I force myself to look at passages that seem just fine, maybe even good, and make them better. If I can, I will visit the places in my books. This helps me engage all five senses, not just the sense of sight (which seems to be the default sense of my imagination). (Great analogy. I’m writing the first draft of my next book right now, I’m going to apply this to my own work!)
You’ve recently retired from a law career to write full time. Was that a tough transition? Any surprises or challenges in making that shift?
I am happy to be a writer. I practiced law for twenty-five years, all the while wishing that I could quit and write novels. I started studying creative writing as soon as I passed the bar exam. I played around with it for twenty years before I got serious and wrote my first novel. I never expected to be able to retire from my law practice this soon after publishing my first novel, and I consider myself to be very fortunate on that score.
What do you wish interviewers would ask you that they never do?
The question that I hope to get asked and never get asked is: What did the fish say when he swam into a wall. The answer of course is, “Dam!”(Ah ha ha ha, okay, Allen, I laughed out loud when I read this) With that said, on a writing level I don’t think it’s a question I would like to share, but a quote. I studied writing in my free time for 20 years before I sat down to write The Life We Bury. When I finally took the bull by the horns and got serious about getting published and doing this for a living, there was this quote by Maria Rainer Rilke that inspired me. It reads:
[A]sk yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.
(Great quote. Printing this out now…)
What are you working on now?
As I write this, I am five days away from the launch of my fourth novel, The Deep Dark Descending, and four days away from turning in my fifth manuscript to my editor.
The Deep Dark Descending is the end of a three-book character arc for my character, Max Rupert. Book five, which is as yet untitled, but will be out sometime in 2018, is the sequel to my debut novel, The Life We Bury. (Now I’m really excited about book five)
Final words of wisdom:
The word of wisdom I would impart is EVOKE. As writers, we are artists. As artists, we should be looking for every opportunity to evoke as we write: evoke emotion, evoke understanding. Writing should be about more than simply telling a story. We have the attention of the reader for a brief time, and we should make the most of it. I write mysteries, but all my stories deal with character plots that hopefully touch the reader. I want to address deeper themes like guilt, or forgiveness, or tug-of-war between justice and revenge.I see my mystery plots as a vehicle to move the story forward. However, it’s the personal journey of the characters within that mystery that will ultimately engage the reader on a deeper level. That’s the goal at least.
Great word. Thanks again for joining me this week on Arc of a Writer. I hope you’ll join us again next year for book five!
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