Today finds Faber Editor Katherine Armstrong in conversation with author James Carol whose third book in the Jefferson Winter series has just been released.
Katherine Armstrong: Many readers might be surprised to learn that you're not actually American. What drew you to the US and why did you create a character from there?
James Carol: I guess my love affair with America started when I was a kid. Turn on the TV and there it was, this land of infinite possibilities. Yes, I was viewing it through Hollywood’s rose-tinted lens, but for a child stuck out in the middle of nowhere that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I could escape for a while.
From the word go Winter had to be American. He’s supposed to be the best profiler in the business, so it made sense that he worked at Quantico. Also, being American ties in neatly with the idea that his father is a serial killer. There are believed to be almost a hundred serial killers active in the US at any one time. When you factor that in, it becomes easier to believe that there’s a kid out there living a suburban life, completely unaware that his father is a murderer.
KA: How did you go about creating the character of Jefferson Winter? He's super-intelligent but slightly arrogant, a loner who loves music, expensive whisky, coffee and cigarettes - how much of you is there in him, if any?!
JC: The great thing about Winter is that it gives me the opportunity to live vicariously. I gave up smoking years ago, I’m pretty much teetotal, and my days of drinking a gallon of coffee a day are long gone. Yes I miss all those things, but getting Winter to do them for me is so much healthier!
Music is another matter. That’s still very much a part of my life. Winter uses music to balance out the dark aspects of his existence, and I can relate to that. Then there’s his belief that there’s a parallel universe where he’s playing keyboards at Madison Square Gardens. In my alternate reality I’m playing guitar at Wembley.
KA: PREY explores the dark side of family life. The nature versus nurture debate of child-rearing. Is this a subject that you were particularly interested in, and if so, could you tell us why?
JC: My daughter is six, my son three, so this is a question that keeps me awake at nights.For better or worse our families shape us, particularly during those early years. As a parent you have a responsibility to do the best for your kids. You’re never going to get it right all the time. The best you can hope for is that you get things right more often than you get it wrong.
Problems occur when the balance tips too far towards the negative. That’s when people end up broken. Inside every monster you’re going to find a damaged child. Why do people do the things they do? How much is down to nature and how much is nurture? Personally, I don’t believe it’s a black and white situation; it’s a continuum rather than a set of absolutes. If there’s a theme that runs through the Winter books, then I guess that’s it.
KA: There are a lot of female characters in your books. Do you find it difficult to write about women? How do you avoid stereotypes?
JC: When it comes to characters I run an equal opportunities policy. I don’t care if they’re male or female, I don’t care what colour they are or how old they are, I treat them all the same. I like to give my characters space to be themselves. Even with my antagonists I try not to be judgemental. The thing to bear in mind is that nobody is totally good or totally evil. We all fall in the grey area somewhere in-between. People are people. Some are good, some bad, but all are unique.
KA: You often choose gruesome subjects for your books - lobotomising in BROKEN DOLLS; being burned alive in WATCH ME - yet you don't sensationalise what happens to the victims. How would you respond to the genres critics who suggest that the violence in crime novels is glorified?
JC: One thing that crime books do is provide a safe environment for readers to try and make sense of the senseless. The sad truth is that violent things happen in the world all the time. Every second of every day, people are suffering in unimaginable ways. However the one thing I know for certain is that whatever I dream up won’t compare to reality. Not even close.
I recently watched a documentary about the holocaust and it was the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen. Bodies lying discarded on the ground like trash; bodies being picked up and dumped in pits the size of a football field; bodies frozen like statues; bodies decomposing. I had to keep reminding myself that this really happened. Ironically, if this had never happened and I’d used it as the subject of a story, it would be rejected as implausible; I’d be accused of sensationalism. But it did happen. This was as real as it’s ever going to get
So, do we turn away from the violence? Do we stick our heads in the sand and pretend that it doesn’t exist? If we do that will all the bad things in the world magically disappear? Unfortunately the answer is no. The only way that humanity can progress is by learning from the mistakes of the past, and the only way to do that is by examining and understanding what has gone before.
KA: Which writers inspire you and why?
JC: My top three writers are Stephen King , Lee Child and Jodi Picoult. At first glance this seems like an odd grouping. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find plenty of similarities. First and foremost all three are storytellers. They grab the reader by throat, drag them into whatever tale they’re telling, and don’t let go until the final full stop. Secondly, they create these amazing characters that come striding off the page, fully formed and as alive as you and me. Thirdly they really care about what they do. All three are incredibly gifted writers, but they don’t rest on their laurels. You get the sense that they want each book to be better than the last. Finally, they write books that entertain millions of people. To touch so many lives, even just for a short time, is an amazing thing to be able to do.
KA: What next for Jefferson Winter?
JC: Winter’s got another busy year coming up. PREY has just been released and I’m currently working on the second draft of 15 MINUTES (Jefferson Winter 4). This time Winter is in Berlin where he’s hunting a serial killer who terrorises his victims by bringing them face to face with their worst fears. This will be released in February 2016, but don’t worry there will be another instalment of the Jefferson Winter Chronicles between now and then … maybe even two.
PREY by James Carol is out now (Faber & Faber, £7.99)
Has Jefferson Winter finally met his match?
Six years ago a young married couple were found brutally stabbed to death in their home in Upstate New York. Local police arrested a suspect who later committed suicide. But what if the police got it wrong? Ex-FBI profiler Jefferson Winter is drawn into a deadly cat-and-mouse game with a mysterious female psychopath as she sets him a challenge: find out what really happened six years ago. The clock is ticking and, as Winter is about to find out, the endgame is everything . . .