An Interview with Colin Harrison on His Novel The Finder
1. Your books span the breadth and width of New York City in terms of geography, class, and culture. It seems like you're pairing the genre of the urban thriller with the scope of the social novel-like Tom Wolfe with a little more dirt. Do you have this in mind when you begin a novel? Is there a conscious effort to reflect the city in this way?
You've put forward a pretty succinct description of what I'm trying to do in my own quiet way. By Wolfe, I assume you mean Bonfire of the Vanities because the later novels aren't set in New York. I've always admired his observed detail, his style. The mustard on his hot dog, so to speak. But you know, the New York social novel was written well a long time before Wolfe. Edith Wharton may have been the best ever. But anyway, yes, I am mixing some social observation with the riggings of the thriller narrative. While writing I am conscious of this fusion, in the sense that I know I'm doing it, but also I'm unconscious in that I can't do anything else-it just seems to come to me this way. It's what I do, I guess. My head seems to flash back and forth between the particular moment or person and the larger societal forces at work. It comes from having a bit of a journalistic sensibility, though I think that as novelists get older they generally look more and more at the forces upon individual lives. They see the big picture.
I was a young editor at Harper's when Tom Wolfe published his famous self-justifying essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” I remember seeing the typed manuscript pages coming out of the fax machine. In the essay Wolfe argues that novelists would do well to report on the world, not just what color lint is in their navels. The tone was triumphant and condescending, and he took a lot of smart heat for the piece but his basic point made sense to me, not because I hoped to believe in it but because I was already trying to practice it as a writer. I'd been a kid newspaper reporter in the summers after my junior and senior years in college, first at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville and then at the Courier-Express in Buffalo, a paper long gone now. So the journalistic impulse was in me from the start.
2. What is your opinion of New York City lately? It has been touted at a much cleaner and safer place in the last few years, yet your books show a violent underbelly, often very close to this placid surface.
New York has gotten safer, in terms of the numbers of homicides. But hey, things keep happening here. Just read the papers, preferably the tabloids, which do a better job of itemizing all the granular horror of the city. Not long ago I served on a grand jury in Brooklyn. In the State of New York, grand juries hear evidence to determine whether indictments can go forward. You see everything. Our jury saw about forty cases, and they included everything from murder to arson to rape to assault to bank robbery to drug charges. It was an extremely dramatic experience and also served as a government-guided tour through hell. We saw and heard testimony from rape and assault victims, testimony from undercover cops and detectives, and from the accused themselves. There's a lot going on out there, no matter what the statistics say.
But you know, there're other ways that ever-vertiginous New York is dangerous that don't necessarily involve physical violence. People get greedy, ambitious, or careless and things happen to them. They lie about something, they cut a corner. Often money is involved. Insider trading. Clergymen stealing from the church. Executives ripping off their own companies or investors. Somebody pisses somebody off and gets taken out. Fired, undermined, skunked in some way. None of this financial violence is new, of course. It's always been here. Then there are the people who do nothing wrong but just find themselves in someone else's high beams. I was talking recently to a guy who works at a law firm and he told me a story in which the firm had two big corporate clients that came into legal conflict with each other; one of them had to be dumped, naturally the one that the firm did less business with. The big client that stayed with the firm wanted to be reassured of the firm's loyalty. A blood offering was required. The firm's lawyer who was the lead attorney with the client that had been dumped was then himself fired.
If you're a novelist interested in the city's money and power, there are always good stories to be found.
3. Talk about your favorite places in New York - where can a person find the real city?
It's all real. Even the unreal places. But I understand your question-where does one get the stink of authenticity, where does one sense the utter actuality of the city? It depends on who you are, of course. My son and I got a tour of the Yankees clubhouse a few years back. My son stood in front of the locker of Jorge Posada, the great Yankee catcher. All his stuff was there; shoes, gloves, socks, fan letters. That was pretty real. But just as real would be what goes on in Riker's Island, the city's main jail, and one of the largest penal institutions in the world, by the way, with something like 14,000 inmates. Or a restaurant where I set a scene in The Finder, The Primeburger, an old-time luncheonette on 51st Street across from St. Patrick's Cathedral. The burgers there are less than $5. The waiters wear white coats with their names embroidered in script. Big time businessmen sit in there discussing business. Millions get moved around with the salt and pepper. Not far away on Madison Avenue is a construction site that I visit every week or so. I've watched the high steel go up, the steelworkers standing on these narrow beams waiting for the crane to hoist enormous beams up to them so they can baby them into place. It's cold and windy and if you miss your step, you're dead. That's real. There's a place on Staten Island where if you make the turn from 278 west off to Victory Boulevard, there's a guy standing there with one foot gone and a begging bucket working the cars at the red light. He's always there. That's real.
4. Your latest book, The Finder is about a very shrewd woman named Jin-Li, who is equally adept at running a legitimate document-shredding business and a very large criminal enterprise. What inspired you to create Jin-Li, where did she come from?
There are a lot of women in New York from China, to say nothing of the New Yorkers who are involved with China in other ways, and I thought it might be interesting to plant someone smart and sexy and secretive like Jin-Li from China in the city and ponder what trouble she might get into. I seemed to have a thing in my books for women who are criminally-minded.
5. The Finder has this intriguing conceit about how valuable found objects (often pulled from the garbage) can be, and also of objects being shredded but then reassembled. Nothing can be discarded, anything can be found, and it is almost like you can't keep a secret any more. What are your thoughts on this?
Well, the essence of the book's plot involves the enormous amount of information that drains-in the form of paper-out of Manhattan office buildings every night as they get cleaned. Thinks of it, millions of sheets of paper, every single night. As it turns out it's pretty hard to destroy all of this paper. Some of it is wildly valuable, of course, and thereby hangs this particular tale. I wanted to stay away from the whole world of the internet and computer encryption and so on, since that no longer feels new. Stuff on actual paper is sort of exotic now by comparison.
6. The scheme for cheating the overseas markets in The Finder is very intricate and plausible, how did you come up with it?
Oh, I'm a buff of the global stock markets. I follow them. There's an old guy named Elliot in the book who has built some proprietary trading software to jack up the price of a stock. He's cagey and careful and disciplined. I tried to think like him.
7. You bring a lot of fine detail to the jobs of your characters, be they journalists (Manhattan Nocturne), lawyers (Havana Room and Break and Enter), or various movers and shakers in the international markets (Afterburn and The Finder). How do you get into their offices, their lives, and their heads? What kind of research do you do?
Mostly my research is incidental. I see something that interests me. I've been lucky enough to travel through a fair number of venues in the city and I always make a point of remembering. Just today I happened to go to a meeting in a big fancy law firm in midtown. All was hushed. The receptionist sounded like Queen Elizabeth. The art hanging on the office walls was amazing. You tend to remember that. Then I was sitting in a fabulous conference room twenty-five stories up, with great views of the canyon of midtown. Yet, given my life, I just as easily could be standing at the hotdog stand at the American Legion baseball fields in outer Brooklyn this weekend, listening to the wild, rhythmic chanting of Latino baseball team of fifteen year olds. These kinds of juxtapositions fascinate me, become a kind of research in and of themselves. Also, I listen to people, constantly. I eavesdrop in restaurants, I make a point of watching. If I need information I really can't get, usually I can find someone who can tell me what I need to know.
8. The idea of power lost and regained (and maybe lost again) runs through many of your books. Why do you find yourself attracted to this particular theme?
Because it's the New York story. The city is a two-way elevator of fate. Few stay on top forever. They fade, they fall, they get taken out by the young panthers. Sometimes they kill a few young panthers first, then get taken out. Look at the corporate chieftains, the politicians, the movie stars, the sports figures. So often gored and left to die in public. I'm fascinated too by the surfaces of power: the hair, skin, lipstick, jewelry, clothes, shoes. People who are really interested in maintaining their power are always masters of the look of power, as well. Power always has an aesthetic, to put it another way.
9. There is an almost queasy intensity to your books - not just in terms of the sexuality and violence, but also the intricate psychological make-up of the characters. And yet, that tone seems to make the books more effective thrillers. Could you talk a little bit about why you push for that intensity?
I think that a thriller is obliged to be thrilling. One of the ways you do that is by staying ahead of the reader, surprising the reader, keeping the reader off balance. And one of the ways you do that is by letting characters be a little freaky and strange. Let them do weird, yet authentic stuff. Let the bad guys be a little good, the good guys be a little bad. In the new book, there's a really bad guy. He's hungry and ambitious and more than a little sick. But I let the reader into his head a few times and his thoughts are orderly, make some sense. The reader feels this, is compelled by the close psychic distance, and maybe thinks, if this monster makes sense to me, who am I?
10. Do you have any writing habits-what do you use to write (pen, word processor), where and when do you do it, how long at a time?
I write on paper in restaurants and on a computer at home. If I'm in a big push to finish a book, I can work sixteen or seventeen hours at a stretch. But not for long. Usually two three-hour sessions in a day is more than enough. I'm an obsessive counter of words, too, a trick I learned from reading about Hemingway. He kept lists of daily word counts on a clipboard marked “these bills must be paid.” Sometimes I listen to music when I write. Tom Waits, Mozart, anything that gets me going. Other times I write with ear-protectors on, the kind you use with a chain saw. The most important factor is to be ramped up on caffeine.
11. Many people are curious about how a thriller or mystery is put together. Do you plot it out backwards, knowing the conclusion, or proceed forward and allow the solution to surprise you (as it does the reader) in process?
I start with a picture in my head and navigate by instinct. I don't have a big outline to start. At some point I usually make outlines but often I lose them and then when I find them later, I say to myself, “Well, you certainly didn't follow that!” It's a process of revision, of course. You're always trying to make the thing better, work more fully. At some point I do go back and make sure all the springs and trap doors and red herrings and hidden clues and stuff are all where they should be. But generally I let the story find itself. For example, in the new book I have a scene in which the hero, Ray, is trapped in a room and forced to listen to a murder take place just a few feet away. It's a particularly gruesome and wet event. I wrote that scene not knowing where it would go, just that it had happened. I found its place in the book's architecture later.
12. Who are some of your influences as a writer?
In no particular order: William Styron, Edgar Allen Poe, forty years of reading newspapers, the music of Tom Waits, Norman Mailer, Batman comics, John Updike, Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Shakespeare, Tom Wolfe, Saul Bellow, Don Delillo, the early E. L. Doctorow, Mozart, the soundtrack to “Pulp Fiction,” Martin Scorcese. Some very contemporary writers like my friends Robert Ferrigno and Chuck Hogan are very, very good thriller writers; you read them and you are influenced, whether you want to be or not. John O'Hara's early novels affected me. Peter Blauner and Richard Price have set the bar very high for crime novels about New York. Both are very fine writers. I could go on and on. You read enough and write enough, you even start being aware of particular words that have come to you from other writers. Now I'm thinking I need to go back and read some Dickens.
13. What are the best film noirs you've ever seen?
I saw “The Third Man” recently and that was great. “Key Largo.” “The Big Sleep.” I need to see “Double Indemnity.” “Treasure of the Sierre Madre.” Then there's sort of neo-noir: “Chinatown,” “Mullholland Falls” with Nick Nolte and Jennifer Connelly and John Malkovich. “LA Confidential,” “Blue Velvet.” The lists of great noir and crimes movies overlap a bit. If you live in New York, you confront noirish moments again and again. I was in the subway a few years ago and a very distinguished man who looked like an aging partner in a venerable law firm was standing next to a pillar waiting for the train. The long power coat, the suit, the silk tie-the whole deal. But when he thought no one would notice, he got this wild look in his face and furtively spun around and picked a thick chip of old paint off the pillar and popped it into his mouth and ate it. He was quite mad. Recently in the paper there was a story about two guys who find a dead guy in his apartment and put him in a wheel chair and take him to the welfare office to try to claim his benefits saying the guy was sick, just happened to be sitting right outside in a wheel chair. Of course the dead guy was so dead that he slumped out of his wheelchair and people started to ask what's this dead guy doing here on the floor? I like these kinds of stories. They're noirish.
14. Have you ever committed a crime yourself?