Leonard Rosen 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 Leonard Rosen. Rosen is the author of the highly acclaimed literary thriller All Cry Chaos, the winner of the Macavity Award for Best First Novel in 2012 and ForeWord’s Editor’s Choice Prize in 2011, as well as a finalist for an Edgar Award, Chautauqua Prize, and Anthony Award. His newest novel, The Tenth Witness, is the second Henri Poincaré Mystery and is a prequel to All Cry Chaos. Rosen is also the bestselling author of textbooks on writing, has taught writing at Harvard and Bentley University, and has contributed radio commentaries to WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station. Blackstone Audio published the audio version of The Tenth Witness, narrated by Grover Gardner, simultaneously with the hardcover on September 15, 2013. Welcome Leonard and thanks for joining us today.
LEONARD ROSEN: Thank you for the invitation. I appreciate it.
MH: I want to congratulate you on the release of The Tenth Witness, your second Henri Poincaré Mystery. What prompted you to write this book as a prequel?
LR: All Cry Chaos ends with Henri fairly beaten up and his family beaten up. Unlike investigators in other mysteries-slash-thrillers, Henri’s not a loner. He doesn’t drink heavily. He doesn’t kick his dog. He is a family man. His kids love him. His wife loves him. When a family man brings home work it’s typically not catastrophic. But when someone who works with the type of, or investigates, the type of criminal Henri does, when he brings home work it can be catastrophic. All Cry Chaos ends in a place that Henri learns quite a bit, but his family has suffered for it. I didn’t have the heart to put him or his family through that again, and so I wrote a prequel. I wrote the story of how he came thirty years earlier to become an Interpol agent.
MH: That is interesting right there. You’ve created a fictional character. He’s French. He works for the international agency. What made you choose him as your protagonist?
LR: I wanted an international palette. I like to travel. Frankly, these are the books I like to read. So it made more sense. Rather than making my protagonist a member of the Philadelphia or Boston police squad, I wanted to give him a far more wide-ranging beat to work on, so to speak. So I figured it would have to be international work and I just went down a list, the roster, of which sorts of agencies would make that possible. And Interpol was the one.
MH: You’ve chosen to write in the mystery genre series in your forays into fiction now, one of the most enduring forms of fiction. But I think what stands out for many of your readers and listeners is the complexity of the plots, as well as your characters seem to find themselves at moral dilemmas, lifted beyond the usual genre limitations. So my question is do you start with the moral, ethical “what if,” or do you start with the plot and then find these characters in these moral quandaries?
LR: I think it must be a combination of the two, working both ends against that middle. When I had the target year for this new novel, The Tenth Witness, 1978, in which Henri is a 28-year-old mechanical engineer, I thought, “Well, this novel has to show the conflict, the tension in his life that would dramatically alter his career.” That means he had to be exposed to a pretty nasty evil. In 1978 what would that be? There were many candidates. Pol Pot in Cambodia was alive and well. Idi Amin was alive and well. But then I realized that Henri could fall in love with a woman whose father was a Nazi—had been a Nazi—and that’s what I did. What would it be like to fall in love with a woman who had to struggle with a past like this? She was born after the war so the blame was not hers, but what did she learn at Papa’s knee? What did her brother learn, who runs the family company with her? So that’s my ethical quandary. It’s important to me in my books to place believable characters in a situation that tests them morally because I think this is what we face living in the actual world all the time. I don’t want things to be easy for them. So as much as there is page-turning action and threats to a characters life in my books, I want there to be a kind of internal action as well. In this case Henri has to choose between his conscience and sense of right behavior and his affections for Liesel Kraus.
MH: The influence of Chaos Theory on your writing—your character is the grandson of one of the founders of the theory—how has that impacted the way you view literature and writing?
LR: I studied Chaos Theory with a mathematician for long enough to stay half a step ahead my readers. Because I could not follow the mathematics of it so well, but I did read a lot and talk a lot with people who understand this. In fact, what Henri learns at the end of the first book has informed the way I view the world and subsequently that would include the way I view fiction, reading and writing, and that’s this: that human beings are in nature, the way a storm is in nature, the way our blood pressure is in nature, the way that crops grow is in nature, and that is to say that each of these are dynamic systems that can change and be tipped into chaotic behavior. The so-called Butterfly Effect with storms can tip a weather system into a hurricane. Some glitch in our body chemistry can turn our blood pressure system, can collapse it or can send it soaring, which causes a cascade and a catastrophe. But after a while, things sort out, the storm blows over, and equilibrium is restored. Whether or not that storm hits you or me, Malcolm, the universe seems to be indifferent. It’s not because I’m deserving and you’re not, but it’s the way the world works. For those of us who believe in a god, and I do, I think that God plays by the same rules. That the world we find operates according to a certain set of rules and God is at its mercy, as well as we. So then, when I write, I have a sense that evil is out there and it affects you or me and not the other person, not because we may be deserving, but because it’s our turn. And order and calm return after a while and these storms do blow over. But the writing that I do affects me. The first novel in fact informed the way I have come to view the world. This is how I write now and The Tenth Witness is informed by that same philosophy.
MH: Now, you were a teacher for many years, both at the high school and college level, and also a columnist, an essayist. What made you turn to fiction?
LR: I suppose I’ve never been far from it. When I was a high school teacher I taught literature and as a college teacher I taught literature and writing. I’m drawn to stories. One person may walk down a sidewalk and whistle a tune and that’s how she spins in the world. I walk down the street and think of stories, what-ifs. I thought that way as a child and I continue to think that way. It was only until I turned fifty that I thought, “Well, perhaps it’s my turn to start writing stories that other people read rather than just thinking ‘what if’ as I walk down the street.”
MH: Describe for a moment your process. Guide us through a workday. Once you’ve developed the characters and so forth, walk us through a little bit of that process for you.
LR: My workday begins early. When I wake up, I don’t get out of bed for sometimes a half hour and in the kind of dreamy half-sleep, I will think about what’s going to be happening in the book that day. Often, I’ll prep myself the night before. I’ll take stock of where things are and what might be happening in the next chapter, or next scene, and that morning I kind of dream myself into it before I do anything. If I’m actually working, then I’m not checking my email first. Then I’ll sit down and kind of dream my way through it. You may remember the children’s story Harold and the Purple Crayon. Well, that story is the perfect metaphor for my writing process. Harold is put to bed and he doesn’t want to go to sleep. He has a purple crayon and he draws a window. He looks outside the window and says, “Well, I wonder what’s out there.” So he crawls outside and then he draws his way into an adventure. He draws a forest with a tree in it and an apple in the tree and a dragon to guard the tree, and he backs across into an ocean made by squiggles with his purple crayon, and he finds himself on the far shore and so on. This is pretty much how I work. I will outline as far as I need to, to give me a sense that I can stand, however flimsy the space. That is to say I use a purple crayon and climb through the window. Then I’ll use the purple crayon metaphorically again to draw another space and then I take a step and then take a step and another step. And that’s how the story seems to unfold for me. I unexpectedly discovered Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon and it was far more than a children’s story I read to my boys. It became a metaphor for my whole writing life.
MH: What writers have been your greatest influences on your style and your approach to writing?
LR: Writers that I’m really pretty impressed with include Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. One of the best books, I’d known the story for a long time, but I just happened to read it recently, and that was Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs. Both stories, along with Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. All these stories are rich with character detail and characters who aren’t afraid to have an idea. They’re action-filled, and yet the writer’s not afraid to linger with the description and not afraid to dive deep with a character. I aim to do what these writers do and that is to write a page-turning novel, a mystery or thriller—I think to live in both worlds—at the same time, have a book that’s idea and character-driven. So I tend to read those writers who can teach me about that. Alan Furst is another one.
MH: On your blog, you wrote an article many years ago for the Baltimore Sun. It was a deeply moving piece about your father. I just wondered what sort of influence he had on your work, and life in general.
LR: I wrote that probably twenty years ago. It may have been my first published piece. It was an essay about realizing how I carried my father without knowing that I did. My father was an inventor, a mechanical engineer, grew up very poor, dropped out of high school to support his family, got his GED equivalent, and then worked his way through John Hopkins School at night during the war. Then, he worked in the basement of his mother-in-law’s very small home for fourteen years, founding a company. He subsequently moved out and that company is flourishing today. His name is Sydney Rosen, and what I’ve learned from him primarily—I refer to it, just to myself, as the Sydney Standard. I build with words. He builds with pieces of steel. But do I write something that lasts, that has quality? The first machine he built worked. These machines fill liquids into bottles, used all over the world. The first machine he built worked for forty years with just some minor replacement parts. I ask myself consistently if my work rises to that standard. As an engineer he dreamed and then he built, using his hands to do that. As a writer, I dream and build. The construction materials differ, but in some respects the impulse and the ambition to leave a mark must be the same. You are the first person ever to have asked me that. Thank you.
MH: It sounds like you are your father’s son.
LR: (laughs) I hope.
MH: What is coming up for you? I read a tantalizing little bit that you’re moving into, I guess it would involve a little bit of magical thinking, in terms of your next project.
LR: My next project does involve magic. We’ve all been to magic shows. Think of the best moment in a magic show that you can recall, when the effect unfolded. For me sometimes if the hat that had been empty is pulled up and reveals a cantaloupe, or a bowling bowl drops out of a thin sheaf of papers. Think of that moment and before the analytical brain kicks in, in that moment your jaw drops, you clap your hands, you laugh, and it’s amazing. It’s amazing and anything is possible in that moment because you’re not yet thinking analytically. That’s the moment I’m interested in. That’s what I’m going to build a story around. Because it could be miraculous. You don’t know. God doesn’t seem to have reached into human history for a couple thousand years, but perhaps God is. Or, it could be magic, in which case there’s a very different cause. That is, sleight of hand, misdirection from the magician him or herself. So I’m having a lot of fun with it. I’m reading a lot about magic. I go to lots of magic shows. Most fun of all is that I’m studying with a magician here in Boston. His name is Matias Letelier, and he is a professional magician, about thirty years old and he’s from Chile. And he’s quite gifted in his work. I’m learning quite a bit. I’ve been to magic shows where one of the great levitation artists of our era, Losander, makes tables and other things float. I’ve watched these shows from three, four, five different angles. I come back and back. I cannot figure it out. The analytical brain says tables don’t float, so what’s going on? There’s a story here, and I’m thick in the middle of it.
MH: It sounds really provocative and aside from also being a lot of intellectual fun as well. Do you listen to audiobooks? Have you had a chance to listen to Grover Gardner’s narration of The Tenth Witness?
LR: The answer is yes and yes. I’ll start with the second question first. Grover Gardner’s reading of the novel is just a wonder to me. I frequently forgot that I wrote the book. His rendering is so vivid and compelling that I’ll turn it off after a section and go, “Oh, my lord! This is tremendous.” I get shivers. It sounds vain and extreme to say that the writer’s getting shivers at his own stories, but it’s something different from that. It’s a sense that characters come alive that I find very moving. He’s really first rate. I so appreciate his artistry on this project. And do I listen to audiobooks? Yes. The most famous example would be when our kids were younger, we would go—we live in Boston—and we would go for family vacations to the Delaware seashore and we would get books on tape. We would drive down ten hours and drive back ten hours and we would always have a book. Time and again this happened: We would be in the car with two young kids for ten hours, we would end up at our home here in Boston, and no one would want to get out of the car. We would sit in the car for twenty extra minutes to hear the end of the story. It is the funniest thing that good books and books read to you—there’s something about a book being read to you—that is very precious and I think takes us back to our childhood. But even for adults that pleasure remains. I do it to this day. I love it.
MH: That makes the perfect conclusion to this interview. Thanks so much for joining us today. Really wish you well with your upcoming book, and of course we’re very excited with the release of the audiobook of The Tenth Witness. Best of luck going forward.
LR: Thanks so much for the chance to talk with you. I truly enjoyed myself.
MH: Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Leonard Rosen. You can find The Tenth Witness, All Cry Chaos, and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in September 2013.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
The Tenth Witness
The Tenth Witness, a prequel to the award-winning All Cry Chaos, is the tale of a man upended: a twenty-eight-year-old who rejects a brilliant career in engineering for a dark, uncertain one in international police work.
On the night of October 9, 1799, the frigate HMS Lutine broke apart on the shoals of the Frisian Islands off the Dutch coast. When the insurer Lloyds of London paid on the wreck, it took ownership and planned expeditions to recoup the lost millions in gold and silver. Nearly two hundred years later, after a series of largely failed salvage operations, Lloyds tries again—this time on the strength of new technologies and a strategy devised by the gifted young engineer Henri Poincaré.
It is late spring 1978, and Poincaré has worked nearly to exhaustion preparing for the Lutine dive. Before the salvage season begins, however, he takes a rare holiday: a hike at low tide across the vast, muddy flats of the Wadden Sea. His guide is Liesel Kraus, who is smart, able, appealing—and troubled. She and her brother Anselm are haunted by a violent history that generates both rage and, as the directors of Kraus Steel, an enormous, corrupting wealth. The closer Poincaré draws to Liesel and Anselm, the more warped life becomes until, finally, love and a death threat compel him to investigate what no one else will—aside from Interpol. It seems that pain as well as treasure can be dredged up from the past to reshape the present.