NOTE: I am a big advocate of writer’s groups. Writers can write in isolation, but at some point they must show their work to other people. There is simply no substitute for dispassionate feedback from qualified readers. I have been a member of the West Hartford (CT) Fiction Writers Group for seven years. One of the most gifted writers in our group is Patrick Lee, who has published his first novel, The Flies of August, as PJ Lee. Patrick was good enough to submit to an interview and share his experiences in writing this novel. Here is a link to PJ Lee’s author page at http://www.amazon.com.
CG BLAKE: How did you become interested in writing fiction?
PJ LEE: I never saw a TV until I was 24 years old. I grew up in South Africa, where there was no TV and precious little else, besides books. I was the only child in the household. I was useless at sport. I pretty much had no choice but to read and write.
CG BLAKE: What was the inspiration behind The Flies of August?
PJ LEE: Suburban trash bins. I wanted to write a crime book and I was looking for a way in that would be real. The town I lived in, West Hartford, CT, converted to mechanized trash collection in 2007. Every household was provided with a new, very large trash bin. When the collection truck arrived it hoisted each bin up with a mechanical arm, and dumped the trash into the back of the truck while the driver sat in the cab. As soon as I saw this I thought, this is a really good way to dispose of a body: the trash bin is big enough, no human is involved in the process of collection, and your trash is immediately comingled with everyone else’s, eliminating traceability. But, this is the suburbs – way too peaceful for people to be throwing out a body with the trash, right? So my challenge became to build a plausible character who was apparently living a standard, docile suburban life, but was actually so torn apart that he could be driven to commit a gruesome murder.
CG BLAKE: Detective Donna Bradley, the main character, is a fascinating study in contradictions: a female struggling to climb the ladder in a male-dominated field, a tough woman with a tender side. How did you go about developing her character?
PJ LEE: I prefer writing female characters, I think they’re the superior gender, much more emotionally complex than men, who are limited by testosterone. I started with her internal monolog, just to get to know her. I was really just jotting down how she would talk, how she would think, at that stage I didn’t intend to write it in the first person. I shared those notes with someone who suggested that Donna’s voice was something distinctive that I could build around. That voice was witty but cynical. Cynicism comes from hurt. Loved children don’t grow up cynical. So Donna created for herself a childhood of isolation and the slightly distorted view of the world that comes from it. All Donna’s mistakes come from not feeling accepted. Her achievements come from the same place.
CG BLAKE: The fictional setting was a diverse community, with wealthy residents and a sprinkling of middle and lower middle class people. In some ways it’s a microcosm of America. How did your setting play into the story’s themes?
PJ LEE: I was writing this book through the period of the onset of the recession, the stock market meltdown. Occupy Wall Street was in full swing, people were losing their jobs and their houses. The polarities in American society were alive around me every day.
One of the characters, Amber Zajac, lives on the fictitious Wilton Lane. Detective Tony di Giorgio describes it as, “the dividing line between prosperous Webster and the part that slides into Hartford. Everything west and north of here is bigger and better houses. Go a few hundred yards the other direction and you’re into the tanning salons and tattoo parlors and then into New Park Avenue, which is drug-score central.”
The town of Webster is based on West Hartford, and Wilton Lane is based on the road I lived in. It is exactly like this.
I came to live in America in 2004. It’s obviously a big challenge to assimilate a new culture sufficiently to write about it effectively, and I made lots of mistakes along the way. But there are advantages in being an outsider. The English novelist Graham Green set most of his books outside of England. Of writing about other countries he said (paraphrasing) you have to be there long enough to understand the place, but not so long that it loses its novelty to you. That novel point of view is important. I will never know America as well as an indigenous writer, but I can use my external point of view to see some aspects of American society more sharply than people to whom it is all commonplace.
CG BLAKE: What were the biggest challenges you faced in developing and completing this novel?
PJ LEE: Doubt. Most writers know the experience of waking up in the morning, re-reading what they wrote yesterday and thinking: This is crap. I’ve been around a long time, I’ve got more rejection letters than most, it’s easy to give up. I am also the MVP of procrastination.
CG BLAKE: What message do you hope readers come away with after reading this story?
PJ LEE: Shy of the idea of sending messages. I think of writers like conductors of electric current. It’s our job to be plugged into the sensitivities of the society around us and convey that current to the readers. Too much interpretation or framing is dangerous. We all have to know our own strengths and weaknesses. I have a limited imagination, that’s not my strength. So almost everything in my fiction is re-worked from real life – my own experience or stuff I’ve been told. My skill is being able to shut up and listen to people. That comes from journalism training. People are dying to tell you their stories if you just listen. That’s gold.
So I just hope readers feel that I’ve captured something true and believable, that they feel the lives of my characters.
CG BLAKE: What lessons did you learn that you would like to share with others?
PJ LEE: The one you mentioned to me way back, but I didn’t listen! The first draft is just the beginning. I thought this didn’t apply in my case because I had been re-working sections many times as I went along. But it is only when you have written the last sentence, step back and “see the whole elephant” that you realize the head is the wrong size for the body.
I took two weeks away from the book after the first draft, then read the whole thing again, and realized that my protagonist’s crisis simply didn’t work. So I still had a way to go.
CG BLAKE: Thank you, PJ, and congratulations on publishing this outstanding novel.