I discovered Lee Thompson after both of us participated in that Next Big Thing Meme a couple of years back. I’m both a sucker for dark fantasy and interconnected tales that form a larger body of work, so after hearing about Lee’s ambitious, strange and wonderful Division Mythos, I naturally had to read his stories. What I found was an author who isn’t afraid to break the barriers of genre, who tells horrifying stories with ton of heart, and who understands that story is, above all things, about the growth of the characters. Indeed, while I only discovered Lee’s work a short while ago, I count him as one of my biggest influences.
That’s why, when he asked me if I would host a stop on his blog tour for his newest book, A BEAUTIFUL MADNESS, I said ‘yes’ immediately. With his latest novel, Lee sheds the supernatural trappings of dark fantasy and transitions into the gritty world of crime fiction. In our interview we talk about his new book and what it’s like to change genres.
Check it out below.
Lucas Mangum: Thanks for stopping by, Lee.
Lee Thompson: Thanks for interviewing me, Lucas.
Lucas: First, tell me about A BEAUTIFUL MADNESS.
Lee: A BEAUTIFUL MADNESS is about a broken family and one stranger and the big misunderstandings they all have. When someone murders Shaun Garrett (a state senator’s son) and drops his body on the shamed ex-governor’s lawn, my protagonist Sammy believes his father, who hated the kid and had a freaky, life-changing moment not too long ago, is the perpetrator.
Sammy’s sister, Delilah, thinks that her older brother found out her and the Senator’s son, Shaun, have stolen some of the drugs he’s been manufacturing and selling to Wargrove’s warped upper crust. She believes that her brother will kill her like she believes he killed Shaun. Unknown to her, what Sammy wants most is for all of their relationships to mend (although he knows that is next to impossible given the severity of the breaks in each of their hearts.)
Detective Thompson thinks it’s an outsider since the perp let a wolverine chew on Shaun Garrett, but he has problems with Sammy and his people getting in the way of his investigation and stealing evidence, which only delays and complicates finding the real culprit.
Lucas: In your dark fantasy work, I see a lot of influence from Ray Bradbury and Clive Barker. Now that you’ve made the transition to crime fiction, who influenced you this time around?
Lee: Thanks. There are tons of Crime authors who’ve influenced me heavily the last two years. The heavy hitters are: Dennis Lehane, John Connolly, James Lee Burke, John D. MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, Gillian Flynn, Les Edgerton, Nic Pizzolatto, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Peter Straub, Michael Koryta, Michael Connelly,Lee Child, Megan Abbott, and Michael Stanley.
I wouldn’t exist as an author without my heroes. They’re constantly impressing, challenging, and inspiring me.
Going to Bouchercon (The World Mystery Convention) was such a blast and I really like the Crime/Mystery/Thriller community. Not much beats meeting one of your favorite writers in person. There is almost something sacred about them although they’re flesh and blood and energy and imagination like the rest of us. Plus it’s nice to be around other readers who are so excited about novels.
Lucas: A lot of horror/dark fantasy authors also work in crime fiction. Why do you think crime/noir is so attractive to horror writers?
Lee: It’s gritty and honest. Whereas horror/dark fantasy uses monsters as metaphors for people or the unknown, crime fiction just has the human side of the equation. I like that the monster is us, it’s always been us. Rural crimes or urban crimes, people are guilty, and other people have to fight back, or die. We have to investigate motives, and eliminate possibilities, and do so while being under tremendous tension. Plus I like the moral questions you can so easily address in Crime fiction. Where exactly is the line between abiding the law and crossing that line into criminal activity? MYSTIC RIVER by Dennis Lehane has a great storyline about that. So do so many other amazing stories. The law isn’t perfect; it’s made by imperfect people.
Lucas: Was it an easy transition for you, or were there some growing pains?
Lee: It was a very easy transition. Most of my supernatural fiction (like the Division Mythos), and my novella WHEN WE JOIN JESUS IN HELL, are about the atrocities people do to themselves and each other. Crime and more specifically, how it affects those who have been its victims, has always been the backbone of my work. I like to see how different characters deal with tragedy, and the greatest crimes, both personal and on a humanity-sized scale, obviously cause the greatest potential for character conflicts and character arcs. I think we gain maturity and become better people through an alertness to our own dark needs and those of others. It’s good to learn how strangers—which all protagonists are when we first meet them—handle their most challenging, life-altering problems. I think we can learn a lot from great characters, maybe even learn with them. There’s some kind of magic in that.
Lucas: Do you have a favorite passage from ABM that you’d like to share here?
Lee: The ending (say the last fifty pages) is my favorite part of every book, but I can’t share that. Here’s a short section following an incident Sammy had at his father’s house with the killer the police have dubbed the Wolverine…
The Wolverine sat on my dad’s roof, in a small valley where two pitches met, lost beneath the shadows of an overgrown oak. Before our mother had left, she’d always told Eddie he needed to take the tree down, but like he did with a lot of things, he only promised to get around to it one day. And like so many other promises, that day was yet to come.
Slowly the house quieted, most of the police left. The stars, visible between branches from where the killer lay, twinkled in the great expanse of sky. In many ways it wasn’t much different than his homeland. He thought it a beautiful idea that from her ashes his mother watched these same stars. A hollow pang echoed deeply inside his stomach. It was a familiar feeling, one that annoyed and worried him at times like this, after someone died and he was alone with the terrible silence.
He listened to the sound of his heartbeat, it was an odd sound, one he never thought about much except for times like this, alone and possibly lonely. Curling into the notch of the roof as he had in the hooker’s arms, he imagined his mother there holding him, bringing with nothing but her touch and soothing voice an uncanny level of both comfort and security as she shared folktales of their country. Most of them had centered on some type of journey for self-discovery, something so foreign in this strange place and these strange times.
He tried to listen for an inner voice, some small echo that might lead to a definite direction his life should have, or possibly still could, take. But there was only his heartbeat, the night sky, and somewhere not far away, a man weeping.
He didn’t move, just listened, feeling a bit of sadness for the old man.
It’s the father, he thought.
Yet he didn’t know what the old man cried for, so unabashedly, so unafraid.
The boy, perhaps. The boy who came with his friends from the darkness, hoping to trap the Wolverine. But nobody had ever done that. The idea of it even being possible seemed out of reach, even as close as some, like Papa’s KGB, had come. And the men tonight, they’d been weak in a way, yet unlike the police, they had tried to follow through for nothing more than love. Not for the old man, but for the son.
The Wolverine knew the police would move the man, and several hours later they did. He wasn’t sure if he should follow; before the old man had been a necessity, the only way for him to find Delilah. Or at least the easiest, since the girl came by and waited for the old man to leave, then sneaking in to steal cash and stand alone in her room for a while, staring at the blank walls, asking herself why her father had taken all of her things down and why he’d thrown them away.
The boy, Shaun, he’d had no answers for her, his eyes hungry with a false comfort and his hands greedy to hold the Delilah and never let her go. But that was beyond Shaun now, too.
After the second police car followed the first down the hill the Wolverine found an unlocked upstairs window and opened it. He knew he had to retrieve the broom handle from where he’d hidden it in the tree soon, but being outside in the still night made him lonely. Better to be where people recently were, where conversation had hummed and pictures hung on the walls, and rooms smelled of lovely things like recently baked bread.
Sliding inside, he found himself in Delilah’s old bedroom. It smelled strongly of disinfectant, as if the old man scourged it daily to erase any trace of her presence. It reminded him of fire and bullets and other desperations. He shook his head, fled the room, into the dark hall, catching sight of a light’s soft glow across the banister and ground floor.
Pausing, he waited for any sign of another’s presence. Surely they’d taken the old man away. It was unwise to leave him there alone. Creeping downstairs, avoiding the noisier steps, he withdrew the black dagger and kept it loose at his side, and kept himself tight to the wall.
The light from the living room shifted, lessened in intensity and then grew stronger again.
Somebody is here, he thought.
The light shifted again as someone moved back across the room, temporarily blocking the light. The Wolverine fought a moment of anger at the intrusion of its space. He held the dagger loosely, knowing from experience that speed arose from relaxed muscles, not tense ones. He took a few natural breaths, forcing his heart rate to remain relatively normal. More than anyone else, he suspected they’d left a police officer behind, and because he didn’t feel like killing, troubled by a melancholy air, he froze there for a moment staring at the floor, caught in indecision.
A floorboard creaked. A man said from the living room, “The police have taken dad under protective custody.” He paused. The Wolverine waited. “Right. Fine. Okay.” His phone beeped as he ended the call. He said, “Shit.”
Listening a moment longer, finding something pleasing about the whole situation, the Wolverine knelt close to the wall where the open doorway led in to the living room. He liked the brothers. They were different than the sister. He was still thinking this, trying to decipher where the differences found their roots when the brother rounded the corner, and stepped into the hall slightly hunched over.
He was thin, wore a long sleeved shirt, had small spectacles, and a thin patch of reddish facial hair. His eyes were not accustomed to the darkness of the hallway, and his attention was on his phone as he scrolled looking for a new number, facing the wall, the Wolverine crouched just six feet to his left in the shadows.
Lucas: Is your process the same for every book, regardless of genre and length?
Lee: It’s pretty much the same system for each book. I get an idea, I invent the characters, I brainstorm their biggest obstacles both internally and externally, and then run with it, trusting my instincts. A lot of times, I go into a new novel with a certain goal, or just a way to challenge myself and see if I can pull it off. Like with ABM I wanted to break one of the big POV rules, and I knew I could make it work, and it did. I like breaking rules. I think some rules are stupid.
In my novella WHEN WE JOIN JESUS IN HELL, I started off in past tense and upon crossing the first doorway, switched to present tense and finished the last three quarters of the story that way. It didn’t trip anybody up too badly, and I think that’s because it was the right thing to do, I just trusted my instincts.
Lucas: Any fun, little-known facts about yourself you’d like to share?
Lee: I can’t think of anything. But if I had to choose between reading and writing, I’d be a reader. There are thousands of amazing stories out there I’ve yet to read.