Brian Freeman Interview by Grover Gardner
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Brian Freeman. Brian is the international bestselling author of psychological suspense novels. His books have been sold in forty-six countries and twenty languages. His debut thriller won the Macavity Award and was a nominee for the Edgar, Dagger, Anthony, and Barry awards for best first novel. His fifth novel, The Burying Place, was a finalist for Best Novel of the Year in the International Thriller Writer Awards and his novels have also appeared as main selections in the Literary Guild and the Book of the Month Club. Blackstone is honored to be releasing the audiobook version of his newest book, Spilled Blood on May 1. Welcome, Brian. Thanks for joining us today.
BRIAN FREEMAN: Well, thank you so much. I’m really looking forward to hearing from listeners about the new book that’s out. I’m really excited about it.
GG: So are we. But before we get to Spilled Blood, I want to back up just a little bit and talk about your initial group of books which featured Jonathan Stride, a recurring character in your first few books. Can you tell us a little about him? And the genesis—how he came to be?
BF: Sure. When I was creating Stride, I did not want the stereotypical, grizzled, emotionless detective. I wanted someone who at his heart is a pretty passionate guy, and passionate about the people he’s trying to help. But sometimes his commitment sort of blinds him to what’s really going on, and he doesn’t always make the right calls, and he sometimes makes mistakes. I think that’s one of the reasons that readers relate to him, because he’s not a superhero. He’s a real, flawed human character, and he’s very much a product of the northern Minnesota wilderness that he grew up in. He’s kind of that classic northern Minnesota character.
GG: On your blog, you talk about boxes—literary boxes—and the fact that blurbs will say, “Well, if you like Harlan Coben,” or, “If you like So-and-So, you’ll like Brian Freeman,” which is very nice and a great selling point. But on the other hand, you talk about being put in a box in that regard. How do you feel about that, and how are your books different from the other people you’re stuck in a box with?
BF: (laughs) I’m not going to complain when people compare me to a Harlan Coben or a Michael Connelly. That’s high praise, and that’s great company to be in. But you know, my feeling has always been that every book should stand on its own, and rather than being put into a specific box, or a specific genre, it really ought to have a life of its own. So, for my purposes, I’m writing psychological suspense, and I’m writing books where the drama really arises out of the emotion and secrets of the characters, and you’re going to find that my books have all the pace and twists and turns and excitement that you’ll find in folks like Harlan’s books, and you’re going to find the intricacy of the puzzle that you might find in Connelly’s books. But it’s different. You’re looking at more emotional drama, you’re looking at more rural drama. More of the scenes are being set outside. I don’t write the traditional urban or suburban thrillers, I write sort of Midwestern thrillers.
GG: So we could say that rather than strictly plot-driven books, you’re more interested in character psychology, emotional development—how the situation develops emotionally for the various characters, that kind of thing?
BF: That’s right. The books really take place in the heads of the characters, and it’s really about all of the character interaction and what that does is let the reader, sort of chapter by chapter, get a new piece in the psychological puzzle. When they get to the end of the book it should not only feel shocking and unexpected in the climax, but at the same time it should feel like all of the psychological pieces have come together. And you’ll really understand what’s been going on in the hearts and minds of these people. I want readers to be able to put themselves in the shoes of these characters and ask themselves, “What would I have done if I were in that circumstance and what choices would I have made?”
GG: You write in a rural setting. You live in Minnesota. Your books are set in Minnesota, Michigan, that area. Is that right?
BF: Most of them are set in Minnesota. I did take Stride and gave him a one-book detour to Las Vegas with my second book, Stripped. That was fun writing about such a completely different extreme compared to the extremes of Duluth. And then my last book, The Bone House, was actually set over in Door County in Wisconsin. So again, western setting, but I went away from Duluth. And then now the new book, Spilled Blood, is set in the badlands of southwestern Minnesota, down in a very rural area—a different part of the state.
GG: So, if you were to compare yourself, who do you think you resemble? Who are your models, as opposed to some of the other thriller writers. Who would you compare yourself to?
BF: That’s a great question. Obviously, I’m always trying to be doing something a little different in the genre, and I sort of want to stake out that individual path. If there’s a writer that has a sort of similar thematic approach and someone I admire a lot, it’s Peter Robinson. He’s a Canadian author of detective novels set over in Yorkshire, and I’ve always enjoyed Peter’s books. He has some similarities with me in that I think he writes very character-driven suspense that again gets inside the heads of the people, and he enjoys sort of playing with time in his books. And that’s a theme that comes up in my books a lot as well. The past is always rippling into the present.
GG: Let’s talk about Spilled Blood now. This is your second stand-alone. This is not part of the Jonathan Stride series.
BF: I’ve been telling readers I put Stride through so much in those first five books that the poor guy needed a vacation, so I’ve let him rest for a couple books, and I’ve done a couple stand-alones here.
GG: Where do you get the ideas for your books?
BF: They come from a lot of different places. Sometimes I might be inspired by a true crime that I read about, and I’ll start playing with the circumstances and changing the circumstances. And by the time it works its way into one of my books, I don’t think anyone would necessarily recognize what the underlying true crime may have been, but that’s one place it comes from. Sometimes I’m just inspired by the places I go, and that’s kind of the way it started with Spilled Blood. I was visiting a number of libraries out in the vast rural country in southwestern Minnesota and driving through some of the small towns down there, and every now and then you’ll drive through sort of an abandoned ghost town from the Depression era. And I was just so fascinated by the feel of that terrain that I thought I really want to set a book down here. And so Spilled Blood started with the place and then I started filling in the details of what was going on.
GG: What’s your process as a writer? Are you inspiration-based? Do you suddenly get an idea and sit down and write for three days straight? Or are you somebody who every morning at eight puts the coffee on, gets the computer out. What’s your process like?
BF: I spent so much time in the traditional workforce that I still kind of adopt that same Monday-to-Friday habit. I get up and wake up with some coffee, and I might catch up on some reader e-mails and do some of that, but then I start turning my attention to the book. The process of developing the book itself, I’d like to say, is a smooth, easy process where you start at point A and go to point B, but it tends to be a little more like sausage making. And when I’m designing a book, I’m coming up with a lot of different themes, and a lot of different characters, and a lot of different plot ideas, and I start kind of seeing where all those threads take me, and I fill page after page in binders just thinking about different ways to go. Slowly, things start to come together and finally you start seeing how those threads connect. That’s when you know you’ve got a book.
GG: On your website you talk about how your books read quickly, but that once you get through the book, you’re thinking that people go back and read it again, because the first time through you’re kind of in the grip of the plot and the situation. Is that your intention, that people think about it and say, “Wait a minute; I need to look at that again,” to find out more about what really happened?
BF: I really do encourage people to do that. You’re right. I want to write books with a lightning-fast pace, where you have to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. One of my favorite e-mails was from a reader who said that she’d been reduced to taking illicit bathroom breaks at work to get in another chapter. Your listeners have told me sometimes that they had to keep driving around and around the block to get to the next chapter. So that’s what I like to hear. But once you understand how the puzzle fits together, I think you can get an entirely different experience by reading or listening to the book again. And when you understand the secrets and emotions of the characters and the nature of their interactions, it’s going to have a totally different meaning when you go back through the book again. And you’ll pick up clues and nuances and insights into the characters that you probably missed the first time through, and readers who have done that always tell me that it’s a very rewarding experience.
GG: Now, you also have a stand-alone short story with Blackstone.
BF: Right. Over the Christmas season, I worked with Blackstone on a short story called The Souls of the Ships. It was very different from my thrillers. It had the emotion and the vivid setting that you find in my novels. But this one was really more of a sweet love story, not a thriller. For me it’s always about the characters. And that story was sort of a chance to bring two lonely people together on Christmas Eve. I really enjoyed pulling it together and … who knows. In the future you may find that I actually take a break from thrillers now and then and do novels that are very different because I enjoy dabbling in different genres.
GG: And you also have a Jonathan Stride short story coming out. Is that right?
BF: I do. It’s called “Spitting Devil.” And it follows on the heels of my fifth Jonathan Stride book, The Burying Place. And I actually wrote it for an anthology for my Spanish publisher. I really enjoyed putting the story together and I wanted to get it out there for Stride readers to have something to tide them over until the next full-length Stride novel comes out. I’ve been getting great feedback on that. So I’m delighted that listeners and readers are starting to enjoy “Spitting Devil.”
GG: Joe Barrett has narrated all of your books for Blackstone and we’ve had an Audie nomination this year for The Bone House.And then in 2006, Joe won an AudioFile Earphones Award for Stripped. You have worked with us on these audiobooks. You’re invested in them and you seem to enjoy the process.
BF: I do enjoy the process. And Joe and I have become kind of e-mail buddies, and he always gets in touch before he actually starts in on the narration of a new book, to check anything he’s not sure about the pronunciation of. Joe will often catch things that I don’t catch and so he’ll tweak things along the way. I get wonderful e-mails from readers. They love Joe’s renditions of all of my books. They love his narrative style, which makes me feel a little guilty in saying that I just can’t listen to them myself. I’ve tried, and I can’t do it.
BF: When you’re an author, there’s a certain kind of music to the prose. And so I hear my writing in a certain way in my head. So I find I just can’t listen to someone else reading the story because it’s just not the way I hear the words. Of course, I am not an actor in any way, shape, or fashion, so I’m very confident that Joe does a much better job than I ever could.
GG: Well, Brian, this has been terrific. Thank you so much for talking with us today, and we’re really, really looking forward to the release of Spilled Blood, narrated by Joe Barrett.
BF: As am I. I really appreciate all your help.
BF: Thanks a lot.
GG: Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview. You can find all of Blackstone Audio’s titles and more at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in April 2012.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
A taut thriller about two rural Minnesota towns locked in a deadly feud—and a teenage girl caught in the crossfire
Linked by the Spirit River, the two towns couldn’t be more different: in affluent Barron, a powerful and secretive scientific research corporation enriches its residents, while downriver in blue-collar St. Croix, victims of that company’s carcinogenic waste struggle to survive. The bad blood between the communities escalates into open warfare when the beautiful Ashlynn, daughter of the corporation’s president, is found shot dead—and a St. Croix girl, Olivia Hawk, is accused of the crime. Reluctantly, Olivia’s mother summons her estranged husband Christopher, a Minneapolis lawyer, to come defend his daughter. As Christopher struggles to unravel the mystery of Ashlynn’s murder and save his own daughter, he uncovers some ugly truths that endanger the residents of both towns. And looming over everything are the chilling, apocalyptic threats from a murderous psychopath known only as Aquarius.