Fulfilling the Form

Colin Harrison and Sarah Crichton

In Conversation

Colin Harrison and I are an unusual team: he has edited me, and I have the joy of editing him. He went first. In 2003, he edited a book I co-wrote with Mariane Pearl called A Mighty Heart, an account of the murder of her husband, the journalist Daniel Pearl. Four years later, our roles were reversed, and we had a blast working on his thriller, The Finder (“A chilling, high-speed roller coaster of a ride,” said The New York Times). I had to wait nine years for the next book. As editor-in-chief of Scribner, Colin was too busy editing to squirrel away much writing time. But he finally finished You Belong to Me. It was so worth the wait. (“Deliciously twisty and intermittently, startlingly violent,” The New York Times said of this one.) A few weeks ago, we met at Community Bookstore near his home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and chatted about the book.
–Sarah Crichton, Publisher of Sarah Crichton Books

Sarah Crichton: Colin, like all, or at least most, masters of crime writing, you have laid claim to one particular city in which to set your masterful novels. Of the eight books you’ve written, seven are set in New York, and all take advantage of the beautiful tapestry of neighborhoods that are here, including Brooklyn, which is where we are now, and where we both live. In fact, one of the key spots in this novel is a house that supposedly is just a few blocks away from here. Does that house actually exist? If we were to walk over after this, would we find it where you describe it? Would the block fit the description in the novel?

Colin Harrison: Pretty much. I usually fact-check the Brooklyn material closely, either walking by the place or finding it on Google maps. I want to make sure that I don’t get something wrong. You know, you live in New York, you go places, you see things. If you want to try to remember them, they’re there to be remembered.

SC: But you do more than just capture the territory visually—you really capture the texture, the essence of the neighborhoods. And some of them are in pretty obscure spots. Like, you know where to hide a body near JFK airport, or where one could conceivably camp out for days without being spotted. Do you drive around, scouting locations? How do you figure this stuff out?

CH: The reason I know that is because I used to take my son to baseball games out in the Rockaways, where you go across the Marine Parkway Bridge, so I drove out there a billion times. And, actually, another scene in the book takes place there as well, so by living in the city and moving around, I’ve accrued these places that have an intensity to them. For example, driving along the Belt Parkway to JFK, I’ve always noticed those garbage mountains that have been covered over. They used to smell, but that’s been solved, for the most part. And it’s a weird, wild, totally man-created landscape. One day I thought, “That’s kind of an interesting place. You could put some story there.” But first I had to measure out the distance between the garbage mountains and the airport to make sure that you could walk from one place to another.

By living in the city and moving around, I’ve accrued these places that have an intensity to them.

SC: You have a measuring thing.

CH: Well, I’ve looked at it carefully on the map and thought about how long it would take to walk there. I always try to make sure that what I put in my books would actually work because if I get it wrong, there are a lot of smart people out there who will tell me.

SC: I once edited a crime series that was set in Nairobi, and the copy editor at FSG came back and said, “He’s got somebody driving in the wrong direction” on whatever the main drag was in the city. And I wrote the writer to say, “We’ve got to change this, it’s not accurate.” And he snapped at me and said, “It’s fiction.”

CH: You have to be right! Especially in New York City, you can’t fudge it. In fact, Bruce Weber, the guy who used to write the many great obits for The New York Times as well as writing great books on baseball and riding across America, who’s now retired, read an earlier book of mine in galley form, and said, “You’ve got a street running in the wrong direction.” I said, “You know, I don’t think so, I think I checked it out.” And he said, “No, you’re absolutely wrong.” So I fixed it. As an editor, I get manuscripts sent to me that are set in New York City, and they have Lexington Avenue next to Sixth Avenue. Or you see movies set in New York where people walk from the Village to the Upper East Side in a minute. And you don’t believe it. Besides, look who my editor is!

SC: Yes, I’m a born and bred New Yorker; I’m a stickler about this stuff. I want veracity. When I follow you from the elite auction houses of Manhattan to the hard-core weight-lifting gyms of Queens Boulevard and beyond, I want to feel like I’m really there. As your editor, I was really pleased when I sent galleys of your book to friends in Texas because key scenes are set in Texas—East Texas? West Texas?

Colin Harrison and Sarah Crichton

Colin Harrison and Sarah Crichton at Community Bookstore

CH: West Texas. I researched that, too.

SC: Yeah, you did! I know because my friends wrote back and said, “Oh, he’s got it nailed.”

CH: I checked it out. I drove hundreds of miles around West Texas, yo.

SC: I won’t ask about the Hong Kong prostitutes in the book, but—

CH: Oh, you can learn a lot from walking around . . .

SC: You take us on many fascinating side-trips in You Belong to Me, side trips into the store of your extensive knowledge. There’s an incredible riff about the magic of maps, another on the diabolical genius of rats, a digression about the history of malls in America . . . wonderful, wonderful stuff. I said to you early on, when you first turned in the manuscript, “We may have to cut some of these out.” But in the end, I thought, “We can’t cut any of these out, these are delicious.”

CH: If unnecessary.

SC: Well, a lot is revealed in these riffs. One on my favorites is three and a half pages long, and in it a character named Ferris makes a discovery, and he doesn’t know the narrative value of the discovery, but the reader does.

CH: [Reads] “Rats! Ferris knew them, he needed them.” Yes, he’s just having his own self-referential experience. And this is taking place at the corner of 51st Street and 1st Avenue, here in Brooklyn.

SC: Where did Ferris come from? Who did you interview to learn all the things that Ferris knows? Because there’s stuff in these pages you’re not going to learn from books. Except, that is, from yours.

CH: Well, there was actually a rat infestation on our street. I got really involved with rats because I was trying to kill them myself. So, I tried the traps and the poison, and I talked to the rat inspector, and we actually got a summons, which I was furious about.

SC: It’s not like you’re asking them to come hang out with you.

CH: Right! I didn’t bring the rats. We tried to organize the people on our street and coordinate everything, and the rats went from being a nuisance to a psychological imposition into my sense of the cohesion of the universe. I was getting rats in the brain. The inspector was a soft-voiced Caribbean woman, and I engaged her in innocent conversation, trying to pull as many facts as I could out of her, and I studied the form that she handed me, and I went to the Department of Sanitation website. And I watched the rats closely, too. You can work it up. The main thing was just to be willing to indulge in the disgustingness of it all.

I watched the rats closely, too. You can work it up. The main thing was just to be willing to indulge in the disgustingness of it all.

SC: I love how willing you are to indulge in disgustingness.

CH: So this character, Ferris, there are a lot of guys like that, guys who do jobs no one else wants to do, and they have a certain orientation to the world. In his case, he has what many people would consider to be a terrible job, but he’s quite happy with it. I like that reversal of power. And I like the fact that he’s stealing money from a dead guy. He’s scamming the dead, he’s scamming the city, he’s got his own sort of thing going in New York City, and I think there are a lot of people like that in the city. I fall into conversations with people all over this city. I did it this morning with a guy on the street who was supervising the rehab of a building. And, you know, you get people talking and pretty soon they’re telling you things that are very interesting.

SC: Yeah.

CH: I’m kind of reporter/spy-ish, you know?

SC: One of the things I’m sure you discover by talking to strangers is what people are obsessed with. You Belong to Me is a novel of interweaving obsessions.

CH: Possessiveness.

SC: Yes. Possessiveness, rather than obsession. Talk a little bit about that.

CH: Everybody in the book wants something badly. And one of the old truisms of writing fiction is that you must make your character want something, if only a glass of water. I always have found that a very useful instruction. Because if your character doesn’t want something, or the reader doesn’t know it, it’s not interesting because there’s no urgency to anything.

For a long time the working title of this book was The Map Collector, and that’s because the central character is a map collector, as am I. But you ultimately pointed out that The Map Collector, as a title, although kind of interesting, didn’t have enough mustard on its hot dog, so to speak. It wasn’t exciting enough. And I agreed. And we changed it. But I came to The Map Collector by way of my own obsession with maps. I have way too many maps of New York City. I have, if not hundreds, then perhaps in the low thousands. I’ve been collecting maps of New York, at some level, for fifteen years and maybe even longer.

SC: One of which is the endpaper of the book.

CH: That’s actually a facsimile version of the map that’s in the center of the book’s drama. So, I understood the character Paul’s obsession with maps and his desire to possess them at all costs. All the characters in this book want something, whether it’s money or sex or a map or vengeance. Just like everyone here wants something.

SC: You have a very full life: you’re the editor in chief of Scribner, you’ve got three kids, although some of them are out of the house. Because you have a lot going on, it took you nine years to finish this book. And yet, when you read it, from the first page there’s this velocity. One wouldn’t have any idea that it had taken so long to write. How do you sustain that kind of energy and keep going when you write in spurts, or over time?

CH: Well, I do want the book to have velocity, and I have, in my own private way, studied velocity—how to make it and sustain it. It requires artifice and manipulation, all the tricks of the trade. This is actually technically a complicated story—

SC: Very complicated.

CH: There are all these cold opens and characters that you don’t know—it’s unclear who they are or why they’re there—but at the same time you have characters who are sustained, so you’re weaving those with one-off appearances. There’s an old woman who runs an orchard in upstate New York who’s missing her nose; she just appears for a few pages. She’s was based on a guy I know who’s missing part of his face and who runs an orchard.

The story’s so complicated that I typically wrote myself into complete confusion, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I’d have these things that I thought were going to work out, and I’d make these very elaborate written-down structures, and then I’d lose them. And then I’d go do something else, and come back and find the arrangement of chapters that I had thought was right was clearly wrong. I fumbled my way forward, like most writers.

SC: You write in this genre, which is technically called “thrillers,” but what you do is more complicated than that. I’m going to embarrass you here, but I’m going to read what [The New York Times’] Michiko Kakutani once wrote about your work. She wrote, “Colin Harrison’s New York is an eye-for-an-eye, dog-eat-dog Darwinian world with similar map coordinates to Tom Wolfe’s Manhattan and the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy.” You use this genre to pour in all of your ideas about human beings and power and obsession and . . . and . . . and community—and I was so pleased with coming up with the word “community” that I’ve now lost my train of thought . . .

CH: Genre, the limitations or lack thereof.

SC: Oh, yes. How did you get attracted to the genre, why have you stuck with it, what is it that appeals to you, and where do you think it sort of liberates you?

CH: Well, there is this publishing category called thrillers. Thrillers can be anything from a kind of mish-mash of a million TV shows and movies, in which there’s a dashing young guy and a sidekick Sally, and they’re going to make sure that the bomb doesn’t explode or the virus doesn’t kill everybody—so at one end it’s highly commercial and pretty simplistic and formulaic. And then at the other end it gets interesting. Because the category of thriller really does not in any way limit a writer, as far as I’m concerned. Shakespeare wrote thrillers, you know? If you’re a writer and you’re willing to fulfill the form, which is to say have it move quickly, have it be dramatic, have some violence, and have a climax—if you’re willing to do that, you can do lots of other things, if you want to do them and can do them and can convince a reader that they’re worth doing. And I suppose that I’m enough of a ham that I want to do some stuff. I grew up going to a lot of plays—my mother was an actress, so I saw a lot of plays. The idea of characters just doing interesting things in the midst of the whole structure of a story has always been interesting to me. So, Ferris, in the play version, he would be some great crazy character actor.

SC: He’s Shakespearean!

CH: Yeah, he’s sort of a fool who’s interesting. So, I don’t know, I think that a thriller is supposed to be thrilling, and that’s all that’s required. And then, you know, you can do lots of other things.

SC: Both you and I came out of magazines; we were magazine editors to begin with. One of the things that editing magazines teaches you is that, in the same way that an actor has to engage the audience, a magazine has to connect with its readers, otherwise it dies. It was a very valuable lesson to me, understanding that I had to respect my readers, and have them in mind as I edited. When I read your books, I can sense you sensing your readers.

CH: Well, being a magazine editor you also attend very closely to the words and the lines, because space is always at a premium, so you compact. Brevity is important. And the ratio of movement to brightness is important, to coin a term of art right now. The language has to be interesting, and it also has to move. The best magazine writing generally does that, especially if it’s expository, if it’s got narrative in it.

The language has to be interesting, and it also has to move. The best magazine writing generally does that, especially if it’s expository, if it’s got narrative in it.

SC: I love the last two paragraphs in your acknowledgements, and I was hoping you could say a little bit about them. “My brother Dana Harrison and I spent many weekends out on the East End of Long Island clearing overgrown field using chainsaws and wood chippers, often with freezing temperatures and snow on the ground. This shared activity was of great benefit to me when it was time to work on the book.” For those of you who will read this book, you’ll kind of get a notion of what that means. And then it goes, “Certain individuals shared their stories with me during the writing of this book. They shall go unnamed, but they know who they are and that I am grateful.” Can you give us a hint about some of that?

CH: In one instance, there is a very illegal thing done by a lawyer. And I had to figure out how this would be done. And my friend the lawyer explained to me how it could work.

SC: How it could possibly be done by somebody.

CH: Yeah. I had to batter him past his own reticence to even consider the crime. Once I broke that wall down, he could begin to put some of it together. There’s a charismatic detective in the book, and a version of that character is a friend of mine, and he’s said things to me that I have harvested. I’m not going to reveal who he is—that wouldn’t be fair to him. He also knows where I live. But, to answer generally, there are particular little facts, private revelations, privileged perceptions and so on that I have gleaned from conversations with people, and that line in the acknowledgments reflects my wish to honor them without in any way exposing them. So that’s really what that is. I think all novelists do this. I mean, after all, to be a novelist is to be kind of a criminal, a thief of intimacies and perceptions and impolite truths. You’re supposed to steal all of this secret gold from everybody, and then you are required to give it back to your readers in the novel. That’s what the readers are expecting—all the good stuff no one else will tell them.

Colin Harrison is the author of the novels You Belong to Me, Break and Enter, Bodies Electric, Manhattan Nocturne, Afterburn, The Havana Room, The Finder, and Risk. He serves as the editor in chief at Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. A graduate of Haverford College and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is married to the writer Kathryn Harrison and lives in Brooklyn, New York, and Jamesport, Long Island.

Sarah Crichton is the publisher of Sarah Crichton Books.