Q&A: Brad Parks, Winner of the Shamus, Nero, and Lefty Awards

Photo by Sara Harris

 

Brad Parks is the only author to have won the Shamus, Nero, and Lefty Awards, three of crime fiction’s top literary prizes. His previous novel, Say Nothing, was named one of LJ’s five Best Thrillers of 2017. With the March release of Closer Than You Know (starred review, LJ 10/1/17), Parks continues to delve into the darker aspects of suburban life. Here he shares his inspiration for the new book and writing background.

What sparked the idea for Closer Than You Know?
A tragedy from 15 years ago. I was a reporter in Newark, where two little boys were discovered locked in a basement, starving, covered in burns. One of the boys told police he had a twin brother whom he hadn’t seen in a few weeks. Authorities eventually found the mummified remains of Faheem Williams sealed in a plastic storage bin. The case put New Jersey’s child protective services system in the national news….

The specifics of Faheem’s story are nowhere near this book—sometimes, real life is just too awful for fiction. What it did was open my eyes to this fact: no matter where you live in America, there is an agency of government that has the authority to take your children away from you. What an awesome power. Most of the time it is used judiciously and only as a last resort. But what if that power were abused? That’s the question that fuels [my novel].

Who is your protagonist Melanie Barrick?
She’s a survivor. That’s the first word that comes to me when I think about Melanie. She survived an awful, awful childhood—with an abusive father and a pill-addicted mother who chose staying in a violent marriage over keeping custody of her children. Then Melanie survived being a ward of the state, bouncing between group homes and foster care settings. Somehow, she’s overcome all of that to become a well-adjusted young woman with a college degree, a solid job, and a loving husband. Then along comes this author who takes her tidy little life and blows it up, forcing her to [endure] a whole new set of traumas. There were honestly times when I felt like a real jerk for what I did to her in [the book].

How does your background as a reporter influence your writing?
I’m just old enough that I came of age when the physical newspaper was still dominant. And in the newspaper, the most important stories started on the cover then jumped to the inside. But the trick was, you only got a few inches of copy—200 words, give or take—before the jump. That’s how long I had to hook a reader on my story, so I learned to make those 200 words count. People reading novels are a littlemore patient. But only so much. I go into a book with these old reporter’s instincts firmly intact, feeling an urgency to earn my reader’s attention quickly.

Do you have any plans to bring back your series character, news reporter Carter Ross?
Someday, yes. Carter is a big part of me. (Or I’m a big part of Carter—frankly, it gets a little difficult to untangle). But at least for the time being, I’ve been enjoying the freedom of writing stand-alones. And, for whatever reason, the stories I’ve been drawn to these past few years haven’t been the kind that have a place for Carter. So he’s on the shelf for the moment. But don’t worry. I won’t let him get too dusty.

Why do you think readers are so enamored with domestic thrillers?
Don’t get me wrong, I love reading stories in which the protagonist can break someone’s jaw by looking at it, or wrestle sharks while free diving 300 feet down, or write an algorithm that will fold your socks for you—or, preferably, all three. I just don’t bump into a lot of folks like that at the grocery store. So I tend not to relate to characters like that; and if I can’t relate to them, I don’t write them very well. I enjoy taking people whose native abilities are about on par with mine—which is to say: not very impressive—and putting them in challenging situations. And I think readers enjoy that, too. Done right, it puts them in the middle of the story, constantly asking what they’d do if this happened to them.

Which comes first for you, the beginning or the ending?
Neither. For me, it’s: What problem is my character facing? Then I figure out an exciting place to have that confrontation begin. Then—at some point much, much later—I figure out the ending. It’s the last part that’s the most terrifying, because I’m usually about 80 percent of the way through the first draft and still coming home to my wife saying things like, “I have no idea how I’m going to get them out of this mess.” My hope is that the reader is having the same feeling.

What’s next for you?
Another stand-alone, tentatively titled The Last Act. It’s the story of an out-of-work actor who is hired by the FBI to go to federal prison, impersonate an inmate, and befriend a former bank executive who is harboring documents that could bring down a Mexican drug cartel. (I just finished the first draft. And, no, I had no idea how that one was going to end for a long time, either).—Jeff Ayers, Seattle P.L.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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