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Interview: Jonathan Hayes by Gayle Surrette
Review by Gayle Surrette
Date: January 2009

Links: Jonathan Hayes Website / Review: Precious Blood / Show Official Info /

Having finished reading Precious Blood, and having listen to Jonathan Hayes talking about his book and forensic science at Bouchercon this fall in Baltimore, Maryland, I decided I'd check and see if he be willing to answer some questions for us for this issue. Luckily, he was willing and his answers are below.

If you haven't yet read Precious Blood and you don't mind your mysteries a bit dark give it a try.

Gumshoe: I noticed on your website that you're working on a sequel to Precious Blood called A Hard Death. I enjoyed Precious Blood and wondered if there'd be a sequel since everything is wrapped up pretty neatly except the problems with Whittaker, who seemed bent on destroying our protagonist. Was it difficult to move on to a sequel when you'd so neatly tied up loose ends in the first book? Did you always intend to have a sequel or a series?

Jonathan Hayes: A Hard Death is the second in a series of five books I have roughed out. In fact, I'm finding that the better I get to know Jenner, the more I want to do other books that would fill in time between the events in my original five book arc.

To me, Precious Blood doesn't, in fact, wrap up neatly – Jenner's done the right thing, but at a significant professional and personal cost. He still needs redemption, but he's going to find redemption can be hard to come by.

You're right, though – we haven't heard the last of Whittaker.

Gumshoe: Looking over your website and blog, my goodness when do you get time to write? It seems like you have enough stuff to do with work and writing to fill more hours than 24 each day. How do you manage to carve out writing time?

Jonathan: In fact, I actually DON'T find time to write - it's a constant struggle. Precious Blood took me several years, largely because I was dealing with my own stuff after 9/11, and the book was pretty dark - a hard place for me to visit. To work on A Hard Death, I've had to resign as a contributing editor at Martha Stewart Living, and cut way down on my other freelance writing. I had hoped to get a lot done in December: I've been renovating a tiny apartment in Paris, and I had this fantasy of spending December writing away under the roof. But when I got there, I found the renovation still wasn't finished, and needed a lot of work on my part.

Even more problematically, as I went to France I was in the middle of falling in love; since I'd left her many time zones away, our endless text messaging, IM, and phone calls took place at absurd hours, and completely bankrupted my sleep stores. I spent most of December in a trance state, dreaming of her as I argued with the painters about how the paint they had used was NOT, in fact, the "Stony Ground" I'd ordered. (True story: in 3 ½ weeks, I had the apartment painted three times; we're still arguing, my painters and I.)

Long story short, I'm behind on A Hard Death, and am going to have to really wail on it now.

Gumshoe: Your main character is a forensic pathologist and so are you, did you have any difficulty maintaining distance from your character? Writing wisdom says write what you know, and the book was definitely alive with information on forensic techniques and details. Is it difficult when you know so much about a subject, to maintain a balance between informing the reader and moving the story along but not overwhelming a reader with detail?

Jonathan: I think the key is to work with details rather than huge slabs of knowledge. I've been a forensic pathologist for almost 20 years now, and readers don't need to know every single thing that I know or every technique I use – details convey a sense of the reality of the science without turning a zippy story into a dull science lesson. If I've done my job well, after reading Precious Blood, you'll have a clear sense of what it feels like to go to a crime scene, or to participate in a forensic autopsy, but if I were to hand you a scalpel and point you at a body, you'd run away shrieking…

Gumshoe: What has surprised you the most about the readership of Precious Blood and their response to your book?

Jonathan: I've been amused and delighted by the apparent bloodthirstiness of women around the world! (Most of my fan letters and email come from women, and the majority of people who come to my readings are also women - clearly, the men are all too busy watching football…)

It's been fantastic meeting and emailing with all the people who've loved it. I really like hearing thoughts and questions, what readers found disturbing, what they thought exhilarating.

I think most writers will tell you that fan mail is great – when you're sitting there alone in your Paris attic, slowly asphyxiating on paint fumes as you plink away at your next masterpiece, to have someone write to say your book got them back into reading is just marvelously encouraging. Particularly when you know the morning will bring more lively "debate" (in French, the difference between "discuss" and "fight" can be very slight) with Fabien and Farid about the ACTUAL paint color.

On the other hand, my elderly aunt hasn't spoken to me since she called last year to announce she was about to read Precious Blood. So there's that.

Gumshoe: Serial killers are fascinating in mystery books but do they really occur as frequently as they are written about? Was your killer based on any particular subject or developed from holy/whole cloth, so to speak?

Jonathan: Gosh, I hope there aren't as many serial killers in the Real World as there are in mysteries! It's impossible to say how many are out there active at any moment, but I'm sure the number isn't that large, and is effortlessly dwarfed by the flood of their fictional doppelgangers.

What makes real life serial killers interesting to me is the gap between their generally colourless presentation to the world and their horrific inner lives; they are obviously human, but their true nature is perverse and vile. They are just like us, except that they are monsters.

The killer's behavior in my book is drawn from several different killers, and his pattern of behavior reflects classic serial killer patterns. I was also inspired by a number of old paintings and sundry observations I've made while traveling (I know I'm being cryptic – I don't want to give too much away!)

Gumshoe: What books are you reading now? What's the last five books you read?

Jonathan:I'm starting Barry Eisler's Hard Rain – I'm going to be at the Left Coast Crime Conference in Hawaii in March, where Barry's the guest of honor. Enjoying it very much – I've loved Japan since I was a child, so it's particularly fun for me. Next on deck is James Crumley's classic The Last Good Kiss – Otto Penzler from the Mysterious Bookshop in New York insisted that I read it, claiming it's one of the best pieces of crime fiction from the last century, and Otto knows his onions. Last five, hmmm…. Heart-Shaped Box (an excellent ghost story from Joe Hill, Stephen King's son, proving that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree); Platform by Michel Houellebecq (a biting perspective on contemporary culture from a popular French intellectual, the book is a jaded mash of nihilistic sex and terrorism). Tim Hallinan's The Fourth Watcher – Tim's a great writer, really lyrical, and Bangkok is one of my favorite cities in the world. I've loved Thailand since I went there in the 1980s as a medical student; indeed, I'm reminded that it's far too long since I've been back. The Story of the Eye (a short and bracingly scabrous novella by George Battaille, a librarian and fringe member of the Surrealist movement in the 1930s; I highly recommend you DON'T read this book if you're the least bit sensitive – it is grotesque, sacrilegious, profane, and utterly revolting. It is also quite hilarious. I read it every few years; most recently because I'd sent it to my girlfriend, and she'd squealed so much I had to go back to it once more.) Rounding out the five is The Ruins, by Scott Smith – really revolting horror story about what happens to a small group of young American tourists trapped in some Mexican ruins.

Gumshoe: When you're not reading or writing or working -- how do you relax? Do you have any hobbies? Pursuits? How do you recharge your batteries?

Jonathan: I don't know the answer to this question! I don't know the meaning of those words!

I'm only partly joking. Between working full time, and writing, I don't have much time for hobbies. Please don't groan too much if I say that New York, in a way, is my hobby – I love this city so much that each day is a gift. The walk to and from work always reminds me what a privilege it is to be here. When I lived in London, I was always a tourist, but in New York City, I feel like a participant; to live in NYC is to feel really alive.

I love all stories – TV, movies, video games. When I finally finish A Hard Death, I'm going to sit down and play video games for a solid month; I've been holding off on playing Metal Gear Solid 4, Gears Of War 2 and Resident Evil, but come spring, my Xbox and Playstation will be belching fire from the endless pounding I'll be giving them!

And I like to dine well. In medical school in London, I took a date to a French restaurant; after watching me order, she leaned across the table and whispered excitedly, "You're GOOD at this!" I'm still not entirely sure what she meant, but I knew that she liked it, and that may have been part of why I went on to become a food writer.

And I like perfumery - not so much perfumes as learning about smells. I started collecting essential oils because I wanted to develop my sense of smell. From time to time I take the oils out and smell them; not as often as I used to, though – sad, that. I've taken classes, and have blended perfumes, but they were abysmal. Absolute, pure evil!

Gumshoe: Thanks for your time.

Jonathan: And thank you for reading all the way to the bottom!

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