Friday, December 18, 2015

A Conversation with Thriller Writer Kim Powers

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Kim Powers

We are delighted to welcome author Kim Powers to Omnimystery News today, courtesy of TLC Book Tours, which is coordinating his current book tour. We encourage you to visit all of the participating host sites; you can find his schedule here.

Kim's new suspense thriller is Dig Two Graves (Tyrus Books; November 2015 hardcover, trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the opportunity to catch up with him to talk more about it.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to the lead character in Dig Two Graves. What is it about him that appeals to you as a writer?

Kim Powers
Photo provided courtesy of
Kim Powers

Kim Powers: I like characters — and people — who are pushed to the wall; who have to rely on everything they have — on more than they have, in their hearts and their heads — to succeed. And nothing requires that more than rescuing a kidnapped daughter. In my new thriller Dig Two Graves, the man who has to do that is Ethan Holt. A former Olympic hero, gold medal winner of the decathlon; the Bruce Jenner of his day. He leaves the world of the body for the world of the brain, to go back to the college he once attended to teach his first love, classics. And most importantly, he's a single father, raising his teenage daughter Skip by himself, after the death of his wife several years earlier.

An early page of the book introduces a lecture that Ethan always gives, where he makes his students look for the "blood on the page" in their reading and translations. Little does he know that his own life is about to be engulfed with that: not just blood on the page, but the walls too.

But despite the surface suspense of a thriller, the beating heart of the book is the relationship between Ethan and Skip. And somewhere along the way, I came to realize that I would have been a damn good father, like Ethan Holt. And that I would have raised a kick-ass daughter.

OMN: Tell us a little more about the backstory to the book. And do you see this as the first in a series?

KP: Dig Two Graves sprang from a single idea: a man who was once nick-named Hercules at the Olympics — an inside joke — is now forced to perform modern day versions of the 12 Labors of Hercules, to save his kidnapped daughter. Along the way of writing the book, I began to think I had a great setting and cast of characters for an ongoing mystery series. An academic, much like the Robert Langdon character in Dan Brown's books, who finds himself embroiled in mysteries on a college campus, mysteries that seem to all be variations on tales of ancient mythology. (My transplant of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse and his world of Oxford to the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts.) He isn't a cop — who needs another police procedural, unless it's brilliantly done? — but someone relies on his own quirky intelligence, and muscle memory from his days of yore, to get the job done.

He's got a side-kick, another of my favorite characters in Dig Two Graves: Detective Aretha Mizell, a sassy black woman saddled with the name "Aretha," much as Ethan is saddled with "Hercules." She has some secrets and heartache of her own, and definitely "goes rogue" in the way she approaches solving a case. (She underwent the greatest sea change over years of working on the book; from a boring white guy named Mizell who stayed up late at night, reading true crime books, to Viola Davis, complete with an ever-changing wardrobe of wigs.)

I love the two of them together; I started envisioning their names on a series of book covers: "A Herc Holt and Aretha Mizell Mystery." I haven't started the next book in the series, but I definitely would see them as ever-changing characters. A lot of trauma happens in Dig Two Graves, and I'd love to explore how they go on from that — or don't — in future books.

OMN: Into which genre would you place Dig Two Graves?

KP: After much debate with my agent, we decided on "thriller." It's just hands down sexier than "mystery." Or "novel of suspense." I don't know if the publishing industry has hard and fast rules about those things; it's more like that old adage, "I know it when I see it." And now that readers have now started weighing in and calling it a page-turner, I feel as if I can legitimately lay claim to thriller. At the end of the day, I want to read something that gets my heart and my nervous system racing, and I think that can happen no matter what the final body count is.

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in the book?

KP: When I started writing Dig Two Graves, I thought the lead character couldn't be any more UNLIKE me. I'm none of the things he is: not athletic, not a father, not a college professor.

But by the end of countless drafts, he sort of WAS me; "me with muscles," I started jokingly saying. Somehow, during the writing process — and I think most writers work like this, even if it's subconscious — I'd tapped into so much from my own life, to bring him alive. His obsession and drive for perfection, fostered in childhood. His love of academics and puzzles and being on a college campus (how I wish I could go back to a life where there was an official "winter break"!) But the part of him that was the most foreign to me — being a parent — I shockingly realized was me writing about my own father, who had raised me and my twin brother by himself, after the death of our mother when we were eight.

At the same time, though, my biggest compliment from friends at work (I'm the senior writer for ABC's 20/20) is that Ethan doesn't have my "voice" at all. On paper, you couldn't trace him back to me.

Another source of pride is how positively readers have responded to the character of Skip, Ethan's 13-year-old daughter. How real she seems to them. (The book is primarily told from alternating POVs: Ethan's, Skip's, and the kidnapper's.) Maybe that's another way of saying "I write like a girl," but I don't think so.

I based her somewhat on the daughter of my best friends, whom I've watched grow up through her teen years, but I also used details from a Diane Sawyer special I worked on at 20/20. Diane did an hour with Jaycee Dugard, the little California girl who had been kidnapped at age 11, and held captive, unbelievably, for the next 18 years. Some of what Jaycee and her mother Terry said, about how they survived the not knowing, the unthinkable, found its way into the DNA of Dig Two Graves.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

KP: I'm pretty much free-form as I write, without a lot of plotting in advance. Obviously with this story, I had the 12 labors as a piece of architecture, and that gave me benchmarks to get to, little bread crumbs along the way. I had spent many early years of my writing career writing screenplays, and falling into a fairly traditional writing model of a three act structure. A climax at the end of act one, a big turning point in the middle of a long act two, a big climax at the end. So I've sort of adapted that to my book writing: some big key moments in mind, but not much else.

One of the biggest changes along the way, at least in terms of Ethan's character, is that he ended up being younger than I had originally planned. He's just turning 38 when the book opens. For some reason, I had originally conceived him as someone older — maybe late 40s/early 50s, who would have much more difficulty with the physical pursuits he's called on to do. I wanted it to be life-or-death for him, to have to call back on that muscle memory he had relied on at the Olympics; I saw him as someone with aches and pains and bad hips and knees and a body that wouldn't respond as quickly as he needed it to. But when I really sat down and did the arithmetic about a man who could believably have a young teenager daughter, I had to make him younger. And just beginning to get out of shape.

Two of the most organic surprises came in terms of the kidnapper character. He's violent in a way I don't normally like to read, but I found myself almost unconsciously writing two key scenes that gave him a lot more backstory, and even sympathy. With those two scenes, he went from cookie-cutter to a real person, as heart-breaking as Ethan and Skip. (It would be interesting to see if your readers could pick those two scenes out.) Because I sort of act out scenes as I'm writing them, and really try to test their reality in my guts, those two scenes left me emotionally wrung out, as much as any of the trauma Skip or Ethan were going through.

OMN: How did you go about researching the plot points?

KP: Obviously, the 12 labors of Hercules needed a lot of research, and I spent a lot of time watching Youtube videos of various Olympic decathletes through the years. I wanted to get each of the ten events firmly rooted in my mind, so I could imagine what they took out of the body. What various world records were in different years, so I could figure out how MY decathlete ranked with the world's best.

But one of the most unusual bits of research came in terms of making Ethan Holt a Classics scholar, an expert in Latin. In high school, I was a nerd who took four years of Latin — actually, the only person at my school who took four years — but that doesn't mean I actually remembered any of it. I had to use Google translate a lot — and yes, it translates English into ancient Latin!

OMN: How important is the setting to the book?

KP: My first two books had been deep-fried: my memoir The History of Swimming set, for the most part, in small-town Texas where I grew up; and my novel Capote in Kansas set in the south and heartland of Truman Capote, Harper Lee, and In Cold Blood. So I was eager to move out of those red states with this new book. But also, from the get-go, I knew it would take place in my fictional version of Williamstown Massachusetts. I had spent many summers there working at a theater, based at Williams College, and I just automatically knew that landscape was where the book fit. It has both the incredible, creepy beauty of a sort of Gothic, Ivy-lite school, but also gritty working class neighborhoods and mill towns all around. And autumn, when the book is set — it just looks better in New England than the South!

So I used some of the ground plan of Williams College for my fictitious "Canaan College" — along with the footprint of my undergraduate college, Austin College, in Sherman, TX. I used buildings I remembered; I renamed them after good friends. I especially called on my memories of an old Ivy League sort of gym that Williams had — old punching bags and sweat ground into the wooden floorboards — for an important location in the book.

OMN: If we could send you anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, to research the setting for a book, where would it be?

KP: Oh my God. You had me at "all expenses paid." I'm something of an Anglophile and have always loved the Inspector Morse mysteries of Colin Dexter, both the books and the long-running PBS "Masterpiece Mystery" version. (And its sequels Lewis and Endeavour.) So I love Oxford, and once took the "Inspector Morse" bus tour there. I think there are so many mysteries hidden away in those magnificent old buildings, and I love afternoon tea. So that might be my choice, to spend day after day researching away in the Bodleian Library there. But if somebody wanted to fly me to Tuscany, I bet I could come up with something that has an Italian flavor. (Dante is on my list, for another mystery in the Herc Holt/Aretha Mizell series.)

OMN: What is the best advice you've received as an author?

KP: Way back when, during one of those life-changing summers at Williams College, a man who became a sort of mentor to me said, "A writer writes. Period." I had been talking endlessly that summer about wanting to be a writer, but had nothing to show for it. He essentially told me to shut the F up about it, and just do it.

In my "day job" at ABC News, for the past 18 years or so, first at Good Morning America and then at 20/20, I've had to write every day. Five days a week. It's become part of my muscle memory; working that keyboard is pretty much the only exercise I get. But that has lead me to an important discovery — and this is what I pass on to that kid I used to be, thirty years ago. You have to write all the time. You have to work those writing muscles, the same way you would your biceps or your abs. It has to be your new gym, sitting at the laptop. You can't wait for the mood or inspiration to strike; you have to strike first. And it will come.

OMN: How did Dig Two Graves come to be titled?

KP: The book title when through an interesting genesis. The original title was The Labors of Hercules, but I decided that gave away the whole plot. Now, it's become so much a part of the "sell" of the book, it doesn't matter, but that was an early concern. Then for a while it was The Language of the First Time, which is a line from the climactic scene. Someone told me it sounded like a porn movie that was trying too hard to be poetic. Finally, I was googling around for phrases about revenge, and came upon this Confucius quote: "When first you set out on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." That was my a-ha moment, nice and tight. Dig Two Graves. And since there are literally two graves in the book, it seemed perfect!

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Kim Powers Book Tour

Kim Powers is currently the Editorial Producer/Senior Writer for ABC's 20/20, and has written for numerous other ABC shows. He won both Emmy and Peabody Awards for his 9/11 reporting for Good Morning America, and for the past two years has received the Edward R. Murrow Award with ABC News for Overall Excellence.

A native Texan, he graduated from Austin College, where we was just named a Distinguished Alumni, and also received an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, where he was managing editor of Theater Magazine. He lives in New York City and Asbury Park, NJ.

For more information about the author, please visit his website at KimPowersBooks.com and his author page on Goodreads, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Dig Two Graves by Kim Powers

Dig Two Graves by Kim Powers

A Suspense Thriller

Publisher: Tyrus Books

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)BN.com Print/Nook Format(s)iTunes iBook FormatKobo eBook Format

In his twenties, Ethan Holt won the decathlon at the Olympics and was jokingly nicknamed "Hercules"; now, in his late thirties, he's returned to his ivy-covered alma mater to teach, and to raise his young daughter Skip as a single father. After a hushed-up scandal over his Olympics win and the death of his wife in a car accident five years ago, Ethan wants nothing more than to forget his past. Skip is not only the light of Ethan's life — she is his life. Then, Skip is kidnapped.

A series of bizarre ransom demands start coming in that stretch Ethan's athletic prowess to its limits, and he realizes with growing horror that they are modern versions of the Twelve Labors of Hercules, demanded in tricky, rhyming clues by someone who seems to have followed every step of Ethan's career.

Dig Two Graves by Kim Powers

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