Later, I read The Art of Character—Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film and TV and frequently refresh myself on its contents. I reviewed it here.
Corbett sat on a few panels at Left Coast Crime in Portland earlier this year, including a memorable one about clichés. I finally got around to reading one of Corbett’s highly praised novels, The Mercy of the Night, and found it (surprise) character-rich.
It’s a gem.
David was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work and his process. In his first answer, Corbett brings up the death of his wife, Terri, from ovarian cancer in 2001. If you want to read about Terri, and also check David’s ability to tell a powerful story, visit this reflection on David’s page.
As you’ll see, David’s experiences run deep. So do his thoughts about writing.
A full review of The Mercy of the Night follows.
Question: Okay, I’ll start with a kind-of a jumbled-up question: With all your years as a private investigator did you encounter people you wished you could turnaround? Or help turnaround? Since Phelan Tierney knows a thing or two about starting-over, was that one of the underlying themes you wanted to explore?
David Corbett: There were people I wish I could have helped more—defendants who went down hard on pot smuggling charges, for example, whose incarceration served no thinking person’s idea of justice. But the theme of turning someone around first occurred to me when I realized, much as Phelan does in the book, that I was blind to my own unconscious obsession with somehow “turning around” my wife’s death. I had no conscious awareness I was doing this—trying to help women in terrible marriages as a way to somehow magically obliterate the reality of Terri’s death—and when it dawned on me I was ding that, it created a very unpleasant shock.
As for helping people in criminal trouble turn themselves around, I probably got the idea for that through my interactions with former bank robber-turned-memoirist Joe Loya (The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell). Joe’s become a close friend and he openly admits his criminal inclinations remain; he’s just better at controlling them now because he has a stable marriage and a beautiful daughter who means the world to him. But he had to grow to that point of personal confidence and trust in others.
And that’s very much what the book is about. The first step in turning someone around is getting them to believe that someone who’s trying to help doesn’t have his own selfish agenda.
Question: Your main characters, I would suggest, are keenly aware of competing loyalties. The heart of the book is the interaction between Phelan Tierney and Jacquelina Garza as they choose their path forward at this critical crossroad. Agree? Were the layers and complications in place before you started writing or did they develop as you wrote?
David Corbett: The competing loyalties lie at the heart of the trust issue. Why trust someone if he has other obligations that may force him to betray you? I think maturity lies in recognizing this is always the case—everyone has competing loyalties—and no trust is or should be absolute. But that doesn’t mean you have to live in cynical isolation. At the book’s start Jacqi is totally convinced that no one deserves the truth. It takes her a while—and a considerable amount of grief—to get to where she realizes that her lies have created a form of prison far more insidious than the one she escaped from at age eight. Phelan guesses at that even if he doesn’t know all the circumstances. He can see the girl needs to be able to lean on someone who won’t betray her. Interestingly, it’s only once he has a compelling, competing loyalty that she finally does let down her guard. Now that he has to balance his commitment to her against his promise to someone else, he becomes trustworthy.
Question: The Mercy of the Night isn’t labeled as anything–a mystery, a crime novel, a literary novel, suspense, anything. It seems to be all of the above–like the best of Richard Price, Geore Pelecanos or Elmore Leonard. Tired of labels and categories? Have they grown meaningless? Are you thinking in any particular structure when you start?
David Corbett: Well, that’s very flattering company, and thank you for comparing the book to their work. Those are three writers who’ve influenced me a great deal—along with Robert Stone, Ross Thomas, Dennis Lehane, and Kate Atkinson. I don’t set out to write a crime novel, per se. I primarily focus on the social and interpersonal problems that create crime or arise in its aftermath. It’s never about the crime for me, but the people damaged by it. And I’m a firm believer that compassion trumps justice, though not absolutely.
Categories are largely marketing tools, so publishers can cater to reader expectations. But the best books, to my mind, always blur the lines. If all you’re doing is catering to reader expectations, you’ll fall prey to formula. And that’s how you get trapped in a clichéd structure that fails to serve either the characters or the story. I think all three writers you named—and the others I added—focused primarily on character, and let their characters create their stories. That’s why their work defies easy categorization.
David Corbett: The line’s from a song by Guy Garvey, the singer for Elbow, which is about dealing with grief and sadness, and accepting that sorrow is inescapable. I believe that mercy emerges from acceptance, in particular acceptance of our limitations, our fallibility, our mortality, our need for connection with others. Recognition of the necessity for that kind of acceptance often only comes at a very dark hour.
Question: You don’t treat secondary characters like secondary characters. In addition, the novel is well-populated. How do you approach writing about the supporting roles?
David Corbett: I’d like to say I have a deliberate process, but often I simply ask the obvious question: who needs to be there? As I develop the characters I often ask how they are affecting the main characters—are they aiding or abetting whatever progress the main characters are making toward greater insight or honesty or courage? But my general approach is to always give my characters the freedom to surprise me, to betray my own expectations of what they might think or say or do.
Question: About Jacquelina Garza–were you ever involved in locating a key witness, bringing her out of the shadows to testify? Who (or what situation) inspired Jacqi?
David Corbett: Jacqi wasn’t based on anyone in any of my own cases. Her story is based partially on that of a girl named Midsi Sanchez, who was the second of two girls abducted by Curtis Dean Anderson. MIdsi escaped after three days and helped police track down Anderson and then prosecute him. But her own life went into a tailspin after that, and the family came undone as well. I knew an FBI agent and several police officers who worked the case, and gained some insight into what Midsi went through. But I also took her situation in a different direction. Someday MIdsi will tell her full story. In the meantime, Jacqi got to tell hers through me.
As for bringing someone out of the shadows to testify—no one wants to testify. Every time you have to ask someone to get up on the witness stand you’re asking a lot, and everybody knows it. I’d say, though, that getting witnesses to come forward in the People’s Temple trial, where just admitting you’d been involved with Jim Jones could get you ostracized or even fired, was particularly rough. I bonded with several of those folks. As it turned out, none were called to testify, but they were willing to do so if called upon. I admired that.
Question: In The Art of Character, you make a convincing case that writing a novel starts with looking inside yourself. You quote Chekhov: “Everything I learned about human nature I learned about me.” Tierney seems on a mission to get people, particularly Jacqi, to be honest with themselves, to understand what they want and why they want it. There’s not really a question here, just a series of thoughts but honesty seems like a key theme in The Mercy of the Night–honesty as a forgotten virtue, in a way, keeping it real. (Tell me if I’m wrong.) Do we teach our children to lie? Okay, I’m done. Your turn.
David Corbett: The phrase “we teach our children to lie” is the key insight of one of the main characters at a crucial moment in the story, and it begins his turn toward a better self. I think the motive to protect children often obliges a sort of cynicism concerning virtues such as honesty and kindness and courage. They’re all well and good in stories but “in the real world” you “have to do what you have to do,” which is just a sanctimonious (and tautological) way of justifying selfishness, cowardice, and deceit.
As for The Art of Character—I try to get my students to resist the trap of writing stories about stories, i.e., dressing up old tropes in new clothes and thinking that’s all there is to telling a story. By getting them to focus on key moments in their own lives, episodes that might prove the germ of a truly interesting story, I try to move them beyond the realm of conventional thinking and instead ground them on honest awareness and emotion.
Question: Does a writer who has written a guide book to writing ever refer to his own work? Or a guide book by another?
David Corbett: I referred to my own work for the simple reason I didn’t need to seek permission—and it served to address the point I was trying to make. And I refer to several other guidebooks in The Art of Character, in particular Robert McKee’s Story and Lejo Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing.
Question: Care to share any recent reads you’d recommend? Is there anything new or cutting edge in mystery-crime fiction these days? Does the formula need re-thinking … or better execution?
David Corbett: One of the great misfortunes of teaching and editing is that all of my reading time is taken up with that, and I get little time to read for pleasure. What free time I do have to read is taken up with research. I think it was John Updike who said he realized early on he could either be a writer or a reader, not both, and he had to choose which he intended to be.
And I would not presume to advise my fellow writers what needs to be rethought, nor would I lecture them on execution.
That said, I did pick up Chalres Portis’s True Grit recently and loved it. I also found Joe Clifford’s memoir Junkie Love riveting. And Dennis Lehane’s latest, World Gone By, kept me awake well past dawn. I’ll note, though, that two of those I read because I was interviewing/introducing the author, and the third is research. (Similarly, I’m reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories—research again—and am absolutely stunned.) Sigh…
Question: What’s next?
David Corbett: I recently came out with a novella titled “The Devil Prayed and Darkness Fell” about an Iraq vet suffering from what’s known as moral injury—as opposed to PTSD—and who has to face the consequences of killing a cop. It features Phelan Tierney again—another attempt to heal the wounded, recover the lost—and I think it may just be my best work to date
I’m also working on a new novel, but I hate talking about works in progress. I’ll just say it features a woman protagonist, and has required me to research the rodeo, art forgery, the code of the warrior, the care of horses, conversion law, and autumn in Arizona. Among other things.
Thanks for inviting me to talk about these matters. Been fun.
Like the best of Richard Price (Clockers, Freedomland and many others), The Mercy of the Night concerns itself more with the human impact of crime than the crime itself. Corbett puts us in the mix with three strong characters (and many more).
When we meet Jacquelina Garza she’s turning tricks again but trying to avoid crank. “Tricking again was degrading enough, but she’d rather set herself on fire than go back to being that strung out. She had no illusions about the undertow. Death by a thousand bumps. And everybody’s got one. Just for you.” When she was eight, Jacqi was abducted by a predator and managed to escape. Now, her life is a mess and she’s protecting a valuable secret.
Lonnie Bachmann knows this particular “circle of hell” where Jacqi is stuck and has started a halfway house with a hillside view of the Napa river watershed and the North Bay wetlands. It’s called “Winchinchala House,” from the Lakota word for girl, “though some of the less enthusiastic neighbors dubbed it the House of Whores or Casa de Crackhead.” (You could make a case that all the characters in this novel are in their own personal halfway house; many are in transition one way or the other.)
Lonnie, who is trying to help Jacqi, enlists the help of a former litigator, Phelan Tierney. Tierney helped Lonnie negotiate with contractors for the renovation of the old Norse American Hall (in the fictional Rio Mirada) that is now the rehab facility/halfway house. Tierney is soon involved in tutoring Jacqui, with a goal of earning her GED.
Now if I write “and then Jacqi disappears” and “one of her potential frequent flyers is murdered” it will sound like reductionist plot points from the back of a bad airport paperback thriller—cheap and forgettable. But, no. Corbett goes organic and substantive, letting the characters breathe and interact (like Richard Price, like George Pelecanos, like Elmore Leonard) as the tension burns like a steady fuse.
What drives The Mercy of the Night is sheer, utter humanity. Other thrillers and novels have the plot points, Corbett feasts on the marrow of motivation and, no surprise, character. (Corbett’s writing guide, The Art of Character, I have previously reviewed with glowing remarks.)
Garza, Bachmann and Tierney are the opening trio in a full cast of players. Do you know how some novels buzz along the surface—all plot? The Mercy of the Night is anchored by a full assortment of deep characters swirling around themes of shame, respect, entitlement, lies, redemption, trust and hope. I’ve made some reference to modern day crime writers but the full cast of characters in Corbett’s novel also felt Dickensian to me, too. I strongly urge that you open this book with an open mind to a fresh approach to storytelling, while keeping your eyes on Jacqi Garza and Phelan Tierney and the decisions they make in challenging, important and utterly human moments.