Brian Freeman Interview by Malcolm Hillgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Brian Freeman. Brian is the internationally bestselling author of psychological suspense novels including Spilled Blood, winner of the 2013 International Thriller Writers Award for Best Hardcover Novel, The Burying Place, a finalist for Best Novel of the Year in the International Thriller Writer Awards and a 2012 Audie Award Finalist, and his debut thriller, Immoral, which won the Macavity Award and was a nominee for the Edgar, Dagger, Anthony, and Barry awards for best first novel. Brian’s novels have also appeared as main selections in the Literary Guild and the Book of the Month Club. Blackstone Audio is publishing the audio format of Brian’s latest novel The Cold Nowhere, simultaneously with the hardcover on April 1, 2014. Welcome Brian thanks for being with us today on Downpour.com.
BRIAN FREEMAN: Well, I’m delighted to be with you.
MH: Your new Jonathan Stride novel, The Cold Nowhere, has been highly anticipated by both readers and listeners alike. Tell us a little bit about it.
BF: I’ve been getting emails from listeners who are really looking forward to getting the new audiobook in their hands, and that’s great. I’m glad it’s getting close here. I always like to grab listeners and readers sort of by the throat right from the get-go. In The Cold Nowhere, Jonathan Stride arrives back at his cottage on Lake Superior on a snowy night and finds a teenage girl hiding in his closet soaking wet and claiming that someone is trying to kill her. Stride soon discovers that this girl has a connection to a terrible case in his past, one that he thinks of as the worst failure in his career, and he’s determined to try and get redemption for that failure by helping this young girl. But, his partner, Maggie has suspicions about this girl and doesn’t trust her, and wonders why she’s so obsessed with knives. It starts out with a bang, and hopefully will keep listeners driving around the block to get into another chapter before they arrive home.
MH: Jonathan Stride has become a huge hit with your fans. What was the genesis of this character and why do you think he’s become so appealing to readers?
BF: I don’t like to write about superheroes. I like to write about real people who are put in some dark and difficult situations—and I think that’s who Stride is. He’s a real character. He doesn’t always make the right choices. He makes mistakes sometimes, and sometimes listeners and readers don’t always agree with the decisions he makes. But at his heart, he has this intense passion and sympathy for the victims that he deals with, and he has this determination, step-by-step, to get to the truth. I think that’s what connects him to listeners and readers—that basic humanity about him.
MH: The Cold Nowhere is the sixth book in the Jonathan Stride series and first released since 2010. Why did you take a break from the series?
BF: I had written five Jonathan Stride novels at that point, the last one was The Burying Place, and I felt that I had put poor Stride through such hell that the guy needed a bit of a break. There also were a couple other things I wanted to do. I wanted to introduce new characters and try some new locales and story lines, so I wrote two stand-alones: The Bone House and then Spilled Blood, which won the award for best hardcover novel this year. Readers have embraced both of those stand-alone books, but all of them were writing to me and asking, “When is Stride coming back?” I’ve been looking forward to Stride’s return as much as they have. Even when I was working on the stand-alones I always felt that Stride was standing there right next to me, nudging me in the side and asking when he was going to get back on stage.
MH: How is the writing process, or even just the creation of the story lines, different for a stand-alone book like Spilled Blood as opposed to when you’re developing your Jonathan Stride series?
BF: For the writer I think there is a very different feel to them. When you’re working on a series, you feel as if each book is a long chapter in a much longer novel. You also have that recognition that when you finish one book, you’re going to be meeting those characters again, and you’re looking forward to seeing them again. When you start on a new series novel, it’s as if you’re reacquainting yourself with old friends. When you’re working on a stand-alone, it has a very different feel to it, because you know that the story of those characters is all encapsulated in that one novel. For the writer, there is really a lot of sadness when you get to the end of a stand-alone book because you realize that you’re not going to be meeting those characters again. It’s hard to say goodbye when you reach the end.
MH: You live in the Twin Cities area, one of the great places in the United States—a sophisticated area, but you’ve chosen as the locale for many of your books, the Duluth area, also Door County, Wisconsin—more remote, rural areas. What was behind your choice of locale for your stories, particularly the mysteries, the thrillers?
BF: When I was thinking about the locations for the books, I felt that we had a lot of wonderful mystery writers in the country that have dealt with urban locales and urban themes. We have some great books and series set in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and places like that. I really wanted to take a different approach and deal with areas that were more remote and more rural. I wanted to capture that Upper Midwest feel that is so personal, and so important to me, and which I think carries a lot of inherent drama with it. A place like Duluth is a very dramatic locale. You’ve got the extra elements of the weather and the natural environment. It feels a little bit like a pioneering outpost before you get to the Canadian wilderness, and so you have additional elements that the characters have to struggle with, beyond the mystery itself, because it is a very severe place.
MH: Okay. I have to ask about this. Let’s talk about sex. I was looking at your blog and the study questions, and for the first three books the first question was, “There’s a lot of sex in these books. How did that come to be?” Why did you choose to highlight the, shall we say, the more sensual side of some of these stories?
BF: I get that question from readers and listeners sometimes, and I think it’s a little unusual in this genre that you find a little bit more of the sexuality in my books. But I think what drives that is that what I’m writing is psychological suspense and it really is drama that arises out of the emotions, and the secrets, and the backgrounds of these characters. I think one of the ways you get to understand how these characters are put together is through the drive of sexuality. I don’t include sexuality in my books for prurient purposes, or simply to titillate the listener or the reader. I’m doing it because I think that you’re going to learn something about what drives these characters through those motivations in a way that you can’t through anything else. I think that’s part of really understanding what drives these characters, and pushes them to do what they do, is to learn more about the sexual motivations as well.
MH: You mentioned that you’re not particularly interested in black-and-white characters. You’re really interested in exploring the gray areas of human experience and of course this falls into that. When you start a book, do you start with the hook of the thriller, or do you start with a character dilemma, or are they the same thing?
BF: It can be both really. I’ve had books where I have a twist in mind right from the get-go and I start building stories and characters around what I think is a dramatic twist. There are other books where I have interesting characters in mind, and I want to think about what situations I put them into, and I start developing the novel around the characters. So, it really can go both ways. Sometimes I start with a true crime that I find the details particularly interesting and intriguing and I start playing with the circumstances, and changing them, and modifying them. I think by the time the book is done, people wouldn’t necessarily be able to recognize what truly inspired a novel because it’s changed so much, but those are the little things that start out as kernels of inspiration.
MH: Your first book, Immoral, you came out of the blocks like a rocket as a writer. I mean, with all of these awards—Edgar, Dagger, Anthony, Barry—for best first novel, etc., and then after that, it’s been just a succession of highly successful books. I think you were in your early forties when that book came out. Really an overnight sensation. But reading a little into your bio, I discovered that you wrote your first novel in sixth grade? And, as you put it, there were about a million words between that novel and the success of Immoral. Describe the process of becoming a writer and refining your craft.
BF: People talked about Immoral and said, “Well gosh you’re like an overnight success.” I said, well overnight, as long as you skip those first five novels that are sitting in my nightstand drawer. I’ve been writing my whole life. I completed my first novel when I was thirteen and people will ask, “Are you going to go back and try to do something with those early books?” and I say, well, the first one was written in Bic pen on binder paper, so not too many publishers are interested in that these days. But, I actually feel good about the idea that I wrote those early books because it was a process of learning my craft—gathering the writing experience and the life experience to pour all that into my later novels—so it was an important phase to go through. So by the time I was starting in on Immoral, I felt a maturity in my craft, a life experience I could bring to the characters, and a complexity I could bring to the characters, that I couldn’t have done when I was twenty-five. I hope that as a result, with each new book, the reader can see, or the listener can hear that growing maturity. As you do more, and you write more, and you live more, there’s simply more depth and complexity you can bring to your stories and your characters.
MH: Award-winning narrator Joe Barrett has narrated all of your audiobooks. You were finally able to meet him this last summer. So what was it like to meet Joe and hear the voice of your stories in person?
BF: It was a little bit like sitting down with Jonathan Stride, so that was kind of fun. I finally had a chance to meet Joe in New York when I was out for the Thriller Awards this summer, and he and I really hit it off. We had just a great lunch together. Just listening to his voice and getting a sense of how he embraces characters, it was easy for me to see why I get so many great emails from listeners that have wonderful things to say about Joe’s narration.
MH: Your novels have become hugely popular, not only here in the United States, but internationally—selling in forty-six countries, translated into twenty languages. If there was one thing that you could attribute the success to what would it be?
BF: I think that, at heart, what readers are looking for is that wonderful story that absolutely keeps them turning the pages and driving around the block. I focus so much on pace and making sure that readers can embrace that story immediately and it just keeps on driving them through the narrative. When I hear from listeners who say that they sort of extend their commute and wait in the parking garage to get to the end of the chapter. Or a reader tells me that they are reduced to taking illicit bathroom breaks at work to get in a few more pages. I figure that’s what I’m going for, that’s the job I’m trying to do—create books that you can’t put down.
MH: We polled the staff at Blackstone here for questions to shoot your way. The first one comes from Stephanie Hall, who’s the head of library sales. She would like to know what your favorite food, color, movie, and TV show are.
BF: I would have to say my favorite food, and this would not surprise listeners at all, is going up to Duluth and getting a Sammy’s pizza. I think the folks at Sammy’s must really like me because it seems like Sammy’s Pizza makes an appearance in every Stride novel. Favorite color. I guess I have to pick red. I mean how could I not pick the color of spilled blood. Let’s see, movie. I guess I would probably say my favorite movie is the Tom Hanks/Paul Newman film Road to Perdition. It had that wonderful combination of drama, and emotion, and crime that reflects my books as well. I just thought I was a tremendous film. And TV series. Boy, there are so many great TV series out right now. I think that’s really where so much of the creativity is. I have to say my wife and I are really enjoying the revival of Sherlock Holmes in Elementary. Seeing Holmes brought into modern-day New York with Lucy Liu as Watson, I think it’s a great device. I think it works really well.
MH: Stephanie also wants to know if you have any guilty pleasures, or hidden talents, that your fans should know about.
BF: Guilty pleasures. I really should not admit this as a crime writer, but my wife and I are huge Disney World fans. We have a time-share down in Orlando and I believe we’ve been to Disney World in the neighborhood of thirty times.
MH: Here’s a question from Amanda Kramme, library territory manager. She asks, “What actor would you pick to play Jonathan Stride if your books were optioned for a movie? And why?”
BF: That’s a great question, and truly I think nothing inspires more dissension among my fans about who’s the right actor to play Stride. People bring a lot of different ideas to bear on that. That’s one of the things I always ask at book clubs. Who do you think should play Stride? Me personally, I’ve always had the impression that an actor like Russell Crowe could do a good job with Stride. I think he’s got that combination of toughness and emotional sensitivity that fits who Stride is.
MH: Charlotte Poulos, our library services coordinator, would like to know what type of books you read in your spare time.
BF: It’s funny because I used to be such a big reader in the mystery and thriller genre, and since I’ve broken through it’s hard to enjoy my own genre in quite the same way. When you spend all day writing suspense, the idea of curling up with a suspense novel at the end of the day feels a little like work. I find myself reading in a lot of other genres now. I read history. I’ve enjoyed some young-adult novels. Right now, I’m reading George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I’m a little late to the party on some of these, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
MH: The last staff question is what type of audiobooks do you enjoy listening to?
BF: I think any book that I enjoy reading I enjoy listening to as well. I think when it comes to fiction, one of the great things is how powerful the narration is and the great acting skill that narrators bring to it—that’s the kind of thing that always impresses me. I mean, I’m a writer not an actor, so I listen to what Joe and folks like him can do in terms of translating the words on the page into that living narration and I’m always impressed by that.
MH: What’s next for you? Another novel in the series, a stand-alone, or something completely different?
BF: When I wrote The Bone House, which is set in Door County, I intended that book to be simply a stand-alone, but The Bone House introduced this quirky Florida detective named Cab Bolton who’s very, very different from Stride. Readers and publishers embraced Cab so strongly that I started getting a lot of emails asking, “When is Cab coming back? When are we going to see him in a new book?” So, I’ve actually completed a new Cab Bolton book, and that will be the next one that appears in print and in audio after The Cold Nowhere. I’ll have parallel series going at that point with Stride and with Cab. Now that the Cab book is done, this winter I’ll be diving into a new Stride novel as well.
MH: We’ll all be looking forward to that. Thank you so much for joining us today Brian. We’re all really excited about the audiobook release of The Cold Nowhere. Best of success going forward.
BF: I’m looking forward to hearing it, and delighted to be with you.
MH: Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Brian Freeman. You can find The Cold Nowhere, Spilled Blood, many of Brian Freeman’s other titles, and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in November 2013.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
The Cold Nowhere
Ten years ago, six-year-old Catalina Mateo hid under the porch of her family home while a knife butchered her mother and a bullet killed her father. Now a rough-sleeping orphan, Cat arrives at the house of Detective Jonathan Stride, pleading for protection. Drenched in the icy waters of Lake Superior, she claims to have narrowly escaped a cold-blooded killer.
Stride’s raw instinct is to protect Cat, whose late parents’ case—and his personal guilt associated with it—still sends a shiver down his spine. As a result, he takes the troubled teenager under his wing.
But Stride’s partner, Maggie Bei, is not convinced. She doubts the sincerity of this beautiful young streetwalker who has so easily won Stride’s trust, and now sleeps in his house with a butcher’s knife under her pillow.
As Stride continues to care for Cat, Maggie’s suspicions solidify, and a single question occupies the void between them: Should Stride be afraid for, or of, this terribly damaged girl?