Friday, June 20, 2014

A Conversation with Crime Novelist Rory O'Brien

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Rory O'Brien
with Rory O'Brien

We are delighted to welcome crime novelist Rory O'Brien to Omnimystery News today.

Rory's debut novel, a police procedural, is Gallows Hill (Merry Blacksmith Press; February 2014 trade paperback) and we recently had the chance to catch up with him to talk about it.

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Omnimystery News: Gallows Hill is your first novel, and based on the synopsis, seems to be the first in a series. Is that right?

Rory O'Brien
Photo provided courtesy of
Rory O'Brien

Rory O'Brien: Gallows Hill is the first book of a projected series, and really has two leads — the detective, Andrew Lennox, and the city of Salem, MA, itself. I didn't/don't think that I could say all I'd have to say about either of them in just one short book. Salem certainly has a number of facets to explore — the witch trials, the Hallowe'en tourist season, the off-season, and so on — and it will be interesting to explore each of them one at a time, and watch Lennox navigate the various faces of the city.

He will have to change as the series progresses, and I'm sure Salem (or at least my views of it) will do so as well. But people and cities change slowly, and I'm in no rush to start making alterations when I'm still getting familiar with these characters and their world.

OMN: Into what mystery subgenre would you place the book?

RO: Gallows Hill is a modern-day police-procedural. The main plotline draws on the Gothic tradition, and includes a looming mansion, a twisted family with their secrets, a stolen inheritance, an heiress locked away in an asylum, and of course a murder. So you could say it's one part police-procedural, one part Gothic.

OMN: Give us a summary of Gallows Hill in a tweet.

RO: First day back on the job, and there's a dead man hanging at Gallows Hill in Salem.

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

RO: I suppose any writer draws on their own experiences and perceptions; I'm not sure how far out of my own head I can really get. But I didn't want to write myself into the story; honestly, I take a fairly dim view of those writers who do. It just seems lazy and egotistical. Lennox isn't me, but I do agree with many of his observations about life in Salem.

Neither he nor any of the other characters are directly based on real people, though I may have borrowed qualities or turns of phrase or quirks from people I know or have otherwise come across.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

RO: I had the story broadly mapped out in my mind, beginning, middle, and end. I'm not someone who gets overly wrapped up in rigid structuring — Call To Action on page 10! Point Of No Return on page 50! Death Of The Mentor on page 100! — but I did break Gallows Hill up into three pieces, three story chunks. As I got into the middle, I started making changes and soon realized that the new middle no longer logically led to the original end, so I had to change that, too. There was a lot more re-writing than originally planned.

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

RO: Fact-checking is fun. I love doing research. I mostly read books or hit the internet, but nothing beats visiting sites first-hand to check things out for yourself, and speaking with locals and experts.

OMN: You mentioned that the setting of Salem is a co-lead in the story. How true are you to the setting here?

RO: Setting is very important; Gallows Hill started with Salem, and wondering what kind of story could take place there. The history of the city shapes and colors the story, influencing Lennox's perceptions and character.

I tried to get things as right as possible — most of the scenes play out in recognizable locations around town — but I didn't want to go into crazy James-Joyce's-Dublin specificity, trying to make sure it was this many steps when walking from A to B. Although I did occasionally fudge the details, I didn't take major liberties — I can't write about Salem and then have glass skyscrapers on Salem Common, or have ex-KGB assassins shooting it out downtown with Colombian drug cartels. You have to maintain accuracy, plausibility, and recognizability. There's no point in setting a book in a real place, and then making up everything out of whole cloth, so the only thing the real and fictional versions have in common is the name.

I also worked against the stereotypical, cliché view of Salem as a mysterious city where everyone is a witch or a wizard or a vampire. That's certainly not the case. In the early stages, I was urged to make the detective a witch using her magical powers to solve crimes. A book like that would probably sell, but it wouldn't be true to the city I know, and would probably be a shitty book anyway.

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

RO: I went to a book signing by Dennis Lehane. As he signed my copy of Live By Night, I said I was going through the demoralizing process of shopping around a novel and nobody was giving me the time of day. He sighed. I want to think it was a sympathetic sigh, not an "Oh, Christ, he's going to ask me to read his manuscript" sigh. "Just keep going," he said.

Have some trusted readers go over your manuscript. Listen to them, but know when to ignore them.

I enjoyed watching Castle for its first few seasons. The network set up an in-character website for Richard Castle, which included some surprisingly good writing advice, including "rewrite rewrite rewrite" and the suggestion that one read great writers and figure out what makes them great, and read hacks and figure out what makes them hacks.

OMN: What kind of feedback have you received from readers?

RO: I'm always pleased when a reader comments on something and I'm able to think "That's just what I was trying to do there! Yes!" My attitude is not "Good for you for picking up on that!" but more, "Wow, you mean I pulled that off?"

Two readers have told me that they see some romantic undercurrents between my two detectives, some hints that things will develop between them as the series progresses. I have no idea what they are seeing, as one of the first decisions I made was that there would not be a romance between my male-female detective team. I know that might help sell some books, but that whole idea just seems trite and overdone at this point. My detectives are two people just going about their jobs.

OMN: Suppose Gallows Hill were to be adapted for television or film? Who do you see playing the key roles?

RO: I actually don't really know what the characters look like; I have a better idea of what they don't look like. So if I were casting the movie version, it would be much easier for me to say who would definitely be wrong than who would definitely be right. Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz are right out, for instance.

One reader told me he saw Lennox as Bob Crane — Col. Hogan from Hogan's Heroes. I don't see it myself, but he explained that for him, Bob Crane was very ordinary, an everyman. So is Lennox. So while he wouldn't be my choice (and he's dead anyway), I can see why that would be his.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young?

RO: Like a lot of kids, I grew up reading books that would probably qualify as "fantasy" — fairy tales, Greek and Norse myths, Lewis Carroll, Where the Wild Things Are. That led me to Tolkien (I read The Lord of the Rings twice in junior high), Poe, and the discovery that books were split up into these "genre" things, and ghettoized in their own sections in the bookstore, so they wouldn't get all over the "real" books. I read a lot of Michael Moorcock's fantasy and science fiction novels in high school. About then, I discovered Sherlock Holmes and H. P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury, and from there moved onto other 19th and early 20th century mystery and horror writers — Jacques Futrelle, Arthur Morrison, M. R. James's ghost stories. That brought me to Wilkie Collins and Dorothy L. Sayers during my brief college career. I think Agatha Christie is just about unreadable. I'm in the middle of re-reading a bunch of Dashiell Hammett's stories about the Continental Op.

Having read a lot of genre books growing up, I tend to think in genre terms. It's kind of my native language. My storytelling toolbox has spaceships and murder weapons and ghosts in it, so that's what I end up building stories out of.

OMN: Did any of these authors influence how and what you write today?

RO: From Hammett, I learned about clear economical prose. Dorothy L. Sayers and Wilkie Collins taught me that you're writing a novel first, and a mystery second. Pat Cadigan (specifically in her novel Synners) taught me that you shouldn't slow down for the reader, you should make them keep up with you (and trust them to do so).

I don't put myself in the same league as any of those writers, but they give me something to strive for. A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?

OMN: What do you read now for pleasure?

RO: Quite a few mysteries. I read a lot of science fiction in my twenties, but have drifted away from the genre and would like to get back to it more seriously. For nonfiction, I read a fair amount of history and biography these days.

OMN: Do you have any favorite series characters?

RO: Sherlock Holmes, the Thinking Machine, the Continental Op, Father Brown, Nero Wolfe, Lord Peter Wimsey, Rumpole, Inspector Rebus, Frank Coffin.

OMN: Create a Top 5 list for us on any subject.

RO: In no real order, five books with something to learn from each.

Synners by Pat Cadigan. Probably better than anyone else, Cadigan creates characters whose lives don't just begin on page one. Not a sprawling science fiction novel, a sprawling novel that happens to be science fiction.

Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender. Bender creates offbeat characters and even more offbeat situations. Weird, magical, sometimes puzzling. A little hit-or-miss, as with almost any short story collection, but even the misses are engaging.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Yes, you really do need to read it. I'm serious. Read it and save us all a lot of time, okay?

Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner. A study of often-unexpected "incentives" (and their often-unexpected consequences) which mystery writers will recognize as being "motives." Food for thought.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. What? You haven't already read this? Pick up a copy and be glad he isn't around to talk smack about you.

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Rory O'Brien grew up in New England, in the long shadows of Poe, Hawthorne, and Lovecraft. He was originally going to be an English teacher, but never finished college. He has worked in bookstores, theaters, and state and city government, and was a political reporter for one afternoon (never filed a story). He didn’t drive a car until he was forty and drinks more tea than you do. Rory lives in Salem with the wife, their beagle, and their latest black cat.

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

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Gallows Hill by Rory O'Brien

Gallows Hill
Rory O'Brien
An Andrew Lennox Mystery

Murder in Salem? In this day and age?

First day back on the job, introverted police detective Andrew Lennox and his partner discover the body of a hanged man on Gallows Hill who turns out to be the lost heir of the Musgraves, an old family with a twisted history and who deny all knowledge of the victim.

Solving the case takes Lennox through the colorful byways of modern Salem, a city still haunted by its own dark history of Puritan hysteria and witch-hunting zealots. He must deal with Halloween tourists, self-styled witches, college students, tarot readers, local politicians, retired cops and recent immigrants. Lennox discovers that everyone in Salem keeps secrets, and some will kill to keep them. Print/Kindle Format(s) Print/Nook Format(s)


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