An Interview with David Levien
1. How did you get into writing?
I felt the call to be a writer from my early childhood, although I produced very little at first. I was not one of those kids turning out stories and filling notebooks. I was a big reader though, and believed that creating works like the ones I was reading was in my future. My first efforts, like everyone’s save a gifted few, undoubtedly read like evidence to the contrary. The first novel I wrote (Wormwood), in my early twenties, became the first one that got published – albeit after several years of growth and re-writing. You have to have a blind belief in yourself, even though there will be very little to support it for a long time. You have to be fairly crazy to make a go of this. You’ve got to use that as some kind of fuel to keep going when the feedback isn’t good at first.
2. Can you tell us a little about your new book, Signature Kill?
I’m completely fascinated by a certain kind of evil that is almost banal, the kind that walks the streets amongst us, unrecognized. Every few years in the U.S., and around the world, it seems a horrifying discovery comes to light — a man keeping several women locked in his basement for years, a father building an elaborate dungeon to imprison his own daughter, a backyard trove of human remains unearthed. And the neighbors never suspect what was going on. Certain real-life killers like Dennis Rader, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Dahmer, going all the way back to Albert Fish and H.H. Holmes — these people led quiet, ‘normal’ lives to the outside world, but their real existences were far from quiet or normal. The ‘regular’ way this type of killer conducts himself makes him extremely difficult to discover and stop. It would take someone, I posited, singular of purpose, with extreme determination, toughness, and ingenuity (like Frank Behr) on a quest of sorts to hook into the mind and actions of a killer like this. At the start of the book, the downward progression of Behr’s character career-wise finds him in lean times, with financial responsibilities pressing down on him, so he jumps into an almost hopeless case to locate a missing young woman, hoping for a payday in the form of a reward. But before too long, Behr starts to believe she crossed paths with a killer and discovers he’s in the middle of something much bigger and much more sinister.
3. What attracts you to the thriller genre? What do you think makes a really good thriller?
For me the thing that creates the ‘thrill’ is extreme attachment to a character, and his or her outcome. The character doesn’t have to be engaged in a crime plot or in physical danger for this to be the case. If I’m truly captivated by and emotionally involved with the character, then I’m hanging on tight to what happens. In this way I can be equally thrilled by a Cheever story as I can by The Silence of the Lambs. The scenario of the first book in my series, and correspondingly the character (Behr), exists in a world of crime, darkness, physical danger, violence and mystery. The books live squarely in the thriller genre as it is typically defined, but I intend and hope that by virtue of reader attachment to my characters there is an extra dimension to the experience.
4. How was Frank Behr born? What gave you the idea for the character and the series?
The seeds for the first book in the series, City of the Sun, began to haunt me many years ago. The idea was that a boy in the Midwest gets abducted, virtually without a trace, and his father – a man who has no skill set for it – becomes obsessed with finding him and so hires and ultimately teams with Frank Behr, a big, dogged, tough, brooding and violent private investigator with a dark past. Although Behr is a fictional construct, my stepfather was a cop and Secret Service agent and a longtime private investigator, and he also happens to be a large man, so I had sense of what his profession was like. Unlike my stepfather, Behr’s failed career as a cop and the tragic incident that marks him, his methodical style, his willingness to use violence, his way of talking, of physical training, his array of contacts – all that stuff is created. With Signature Kill, the idea of a monstrous killer, perfectly camouflaged by the ‘regular’, gripped me and made me wonder about just what kind of effort it would take to track it down. Law enforcement is spread extremely thin and can’t focus on what can seem like mundane pieces of evidence or clues. I imagined that it would take a completely dogged person with nothing else to live for and nothing to lose in order to stop a killer like that. Then I realized that person was Frank Behr.
5. Who are your favourite authors?
I grew up reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald and still love them. I went through a period when I read a lot of Carver, Phillip Roth, Bukowski and John Fante. I also really like Hammett, Chandler, Leonard and Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorites. I am absolutely inspired by them – by the work they produced (and are still producing in the one case), by how they approach story telling and use the language, and also by the sustained effort they put in. It’s not an easy racket – you have to commit to it fully, and these guys absolutely did.
6. You’re also a Hollywood screenwriter and director – do you find this informs and influences the way in which you write your books?
Screenwriting, directing and writing fiction are all story telling. Certain aspects of the jobs are very different. A screenplay is a blueprint for a fuller work to come, while a novel needs to be a complete experience rendered in prose — although of course many novels are adapted into movies and TV and undergo further evolution. Novel writing can be solitary, directing is very social and interactive, trying to steer a large crew of collaborators toward a singular vision. Screenwriting can be somewhere in between. I carry certain precepts across the mediums — like looking to get into scenes late and cut out early, trying to establish levels of text and subtext, finding a unique and unified tone, presenting fascinating but flawed characters, certain instances of intercutting between scenes. Each project presents specific challenges and the hope is that the toolkit is a bit bigger and more varied by virtue of working in both areas.
7. Who could you see playing Frank Behr in a TV or film adaptation of your books?
Someone big, brooding and bad ass, who is also a great actor.
8. If you could recommend one book you’ve read recently, what would it be and why?
I’ll be difficult and recommend two. Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter and Tenth of December by George Saunders. Both are incredible excavations of the unexpected mystery of humanity and both are examples of great writing. If you haven’t read them, get them and do so, you won’t be sorry.
9. What’s next for you?
I’m currently writing and exec producing a series called Billions for Showtime. It chronicles the battle between a hedge fund magnate and a U.S. Attorney and stars Paul Giamatti and Damien Lewis. I created it with Brian Koppelman (my filmmaking partner) and financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin. It will air in 2016.