Please welcome Kim Powers, author of Dig Two Graves and other works.
What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Pretty much like the last few days I’ve spent for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays: away from my day job at ABC (senior writer for 20/20), and at my home-away-from-home in Asbury Park, NJ. Really relaxing after several hectic weeks at work, and with another week of vacation stretched out in front of me.
Chilly enough for a Duraflame log fire; geese flying along the lake in my backyard. Binge-watching on Netflix and online (some recent favorites: London Spy on BBC; Luther; the third mesmerizing season of The Bridge (in Swedish); a new all-star English TV production of And Then There Were None.) Reading several different books at once; doing the crossword; lurking on Facebook and Twitter. Enough food in the fridge that I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want. The diet will start in January. I think.
And last but not least – some writing. But the “perfect day” part doesn’t come in until I’m at least three or so drafts into a new project: only THEN do I really enjoy getting down to playing with words on a page. (Sorry, just telling the truth.)
Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
There’s a phrase I use a lot: “blood on the page.” It started out as a joke, but somehow turned into something very meaningful along the way. I first read it in an interview with a pretentious theater director; she said she wanted to do plays that had “blood on the page.” Way too much drama queen in those four little words, I thought. That was all BEFORE I started writing myself.
Once I wrote my first two books (a memoir and a “literary” novel), and then this third one – a thriller called Dig Two Graves – that phrase “blood on the page” became all too real to me. All three books had blood on the page – and on the walls. All of them felt like they cost a pound of flesh to write. I wouldn’t ask readers to put their time into anything less.
Now, the opening chapter of Dig Two Graves even has an homage to “blood on the page”: the main character, a college classics professor, asks his students come up to his desk on the first day of class, and literally dip their hands into a tray of red paint, to leave their imprint on a piece of writing that has meant something to them. Not realizing real blood will be shed by the end of the book.
Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
The first name/person that pops to mind is Carolyn Keene – and yes, I know “she’s” not a real person! I began reading at a very early age; my Saturday afternoon ritual from the time I was seven or eight was going to the local library and then to the movie theater, watching whatever was on. I read very widely – all the usual suspect kid books, all the Newberry winners – but the first books I ever actually BOUGHT myself – and actively collected – were the Nancy Drew books, from the local Woolworth’s. No matter how desperately my father tried to get me to switch over to the Hardy Boys, Nancy was my girl, my guiding spirit. Along with Bess and George. I loved the geographic adventures she would take me on – anywhere from summer stock to the Pennsylvania Amish country… from castles in Scotland to Chinese junks. My very first attempts at writing used the Nancy Drew characters, with mysteries of my own invention; my fourth grade classmates and I even did our own play version of “The Mystery of the Dancing Puppet”!
Second, I would say my high school drama teacher, Barbara Imrich. She’s the one who introduced me to a much wider range of “major writers” – wait, you mean Carolyn Keene wasn’t??? Through Mrs. Imrich, as we called her, I entered, for several years, in a statewide contest in Texas (where I grew up) called UIL: University Interscholastic League. There were contests in everything from typing to spelling, essay writing to a one act play contest. The category I did was “Prose Interpretation” – where I would read/act out passages from the works of major world writers – one American, one English, one European. In reading through hundreds and hundreds of short stories to select my final three, I read John Cheever, Carson McCullars, Eudora Welty, Graham Greene, Pirandello, you name it. That was my major introduction to world literature, not any class I took in college. Just like I had done as a kid, I spent every Saturday checking out stacks of books from a library. In retrospect, what Mrs. I led me to and all those writers – were the most formative part of my reading education. (In writing that, I feel like John Boy Walton, talking about walking to the schoolhouse and the one teacher who encouraged him to be a writer!)
The last person is the one who did for drama, what Mrs. Imrich did for literature. A crazy Greek man named Nikos Pscacharopoulos, who was the artistic director of a wonderful summer theater in the Berkshires called the Williamstown Theater Festival. I had grown up watching performances from there on a wonderful PBS series called “Theater in America,” and then I actually started working there as an apprentice and then intern during college. Nikos is long dead, and would not remember me, and it’s not so much what he did personally to me, but what that whole world of theater introduced me to. This was not your Neil Simon/Agatha Christie summer stock theater: they did Chekhov and Gorky and Tennessee Williams and Molnar and Noel Coward, the world greats. I continued visiting there for decades, and I planted the seeds for my whole career post college there, when I got interested in the world of literary management and dramaturgy.
So bottom line – two names nobody else would know – and a made-up name for someone everybody knows!
Do you listen to music when you write?
For certain scenes, when I need to get into a heightened emotional state. Which is a complete about face from when I first started. In my early days, I thought I needed to really close off all my senses, so that the only thing I was experiencing was what I was seeing in my head, that I would then sort of “channel” on to paper. I’d literally close my eyes as I was typing and put on headsets to block outside noise.
But when I was working on my second book — a novel called Capote in Kansas, about Truman Capote and Harper Lee — I found myself listening to the beautiful Elmer Bernstein soundtrack/score of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lush early 60s movie music, full of yearning and wistfulness and memory. The idyllic sound of a childhood remembered. And it brought back all those indelible black and white scenes from the movie, too.
I got so used to listening to it as I worked on the book that it almost became a crutch: I thought I couldn’t get into the emotional mindset I needed if I didn’t listen to it. But it somehow gave me the freedom I needed just to let go with my words, like an instrument in that orchestra.
I needed a similar emotional “trigger” for the big cemetery showdown scene in Dig Two Graves, something that would take me to the edge of sanity. (Talk about drama queen!) I started listening to the two most intensely moving pieces of music I know: Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Puccini’s opera, Suor Angelica (part of Il Trittico.) The climax is the nun’s final mad scene, where she poisons herself so she can be with her dead son. Finally, in her death throes, she sees his ghost, coming to take her to heaven. Or at least that’s my interpretation of it. Meryl Streep had nothing on me as that music transported me to write the last scene in my book. And left me a sobbing mess, no matter how many times I listened to it!
If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
What a fantastic question! (I’ve written a lot for Barbara Walters at ABC over the years, and in all the questions she’s ever asked – “What kind of tree are you?” etc. – she’s never asked the chocolate question!)
I think I’d be some kind of high-quality, expensive Mexican chocolate. With nuts. Not as sharp and bitter as the darkest chocolate, but warmer and more complex than milk chocolate. Maybe a little cinnamon or chili kick to it. Something that goes down pleasurably, but leaves an after-taste. And those embedded nuts for extra crunch. I think that describes my writing: user-friendly but literary; an extra bite to it, that you have to chew on to properly digest.
Now I’m hungry!
What made you interested in writing this particular story?
I’ll be honest: I found the DNA and heartbeat of Dig Two Graves only after I had the outer plot. In other words, I knew what would happen, but not who it would happen to. Perhaps because my first two books were very “literary,” I wanted to see if I could write something bigger, something high concept and overtly commercial. I’d been such a lifelong fan of mysteries and thrillers, I wanted to see if I could actually write one.
I still think it’s the best high concept idea I’ve ever had, or ever will: a man who was jokingly nicknamed “Hercules” at the Olympics, when he wins the gold medal in the Decathlon, now has to perform modern-day versions of the 12 Labors of Hercules to get back his kidnapped daughter. (And even though I’ve never been the parent to anything except four dogs, the father/daughter relationship at the heart of book ultimately became the main thing I was interested in exploring.)
What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
Sometimes I joke, “All I write about is dead people. Everything I write ends up in a graveyard.” For better or worse, both of those things are true. I wrote about dead family members (real ones) in my memoir The History of Swimming; I wrote about real dead people (the murdered Clutter family from In Cold Blood) in Capote in Kansas; there are dead people and a cemetery showdown in Dig Two Graves.
I think – and I don’t say this lightly, or to garner sympathy – that when you’ve experienced as much death as I have (my mother dying when I was eight; my two brothers, one of them a twin, dying of AIDS in the same year)… you can’t not write about those things. Or at least there’s an undercurrent of melancholy that finds its way into your work. I think we all have one or two main narratives – and those are mine. I say it without apology anymore.
But inherent in that, I also write about childhood. And ghosts. Spirits that never leave a place. I guess I use the world “ghost” when I could just as well use “memory.” In that vein, I think the theme that connects all my writing is how the past always has a hold on us, no matter how old we get. And how difficult – if not impossible it is – to finally let go of it.
Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
I like characters – and people — who carrying a mystery with them. Who have secrets. I like unpeeling them, bit by bit, to get to the core of truth. My protagonist, Ethan Holt – who at one point had been one of the most famous people in the world, as the winner of the Decathlon at the Olympics; who had been on millions of TV screens around the world — has a big secret. He’s always smiling on the outside – the life of the party- but always looking over his shoulder, to see if someone is gaining on him. To see if someone knows. I wanted to explore writing a character who everyone would agree was a great guy – who couldn’t honestly say that about himself.
Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
He’s Bruce Jenner (pre-Caitlyn) meets Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse meets – oh, who’s the best hip young handsome father in the world? This is dating me, but maybe Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer. Or Ben Affleck, in real life. A father who’s having to make up the rules as he goes along, about raising a child by himself, but who will do anything and make any sacrifice to save and protect that child.
If you could host an author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Because my reading of the “classics” has been so negligible – sorry, English majors — there probably wouldn’t be a lot of famous dead people around my table. Except for Oscar Wilde, because I know he’d make the guests laugh. And so I could apologize to him in person, for how horribly people treated him.
Along with Oscar, I’d invite the authors of some of my favorite children’s books: Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time); Zilpha Keatley Snyder (The Egypt Game); E. L. Konigsburg (From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler).
Anthony Doerr, so I could tell him in person how much I loved All the Light We Cannot See, and ask him where that book came from. (I’d ask Hanya Yanagahari, who wrote the devastating and brilliant A Little Life, but I’m afraid she’d scare me too much.)
Lastly – because he’s such a hoot on Twitter – I’d invite my new buddy Matthew Fitzsimmons. He’s written one of my favorite thrillers of recent months, The Short Drop. He and I would be the “normal” guys at the table – just two hard-working guys doing our best to write books that entertain people. We’d probably be sent to the children’s table or to our rooms without dessert; I can just imagine us goofing off too much or rolling our eyes when Oscar gets a few too many glasses of Claret in him.
What’s next for you?
I’ve recently finished the umpteenth draft of a new novel called Rules for Being Dead. (I call it – along with Dig Two Graves – part of my “Cemetery Suite.”) Over the course of many title changes, and several different ways of telling the same story, it’s something I’ve been working on for probably ten years. It’s about a little boy whose mother dies, and his detective-like approach to finding out what killed her, when none of the adults around him will say. At the same time, the dead mother herself is floating around in the ether, trying to figure out the same thing.
With that book, I will have scraped all the family skeletons out of the closet – and have to start raiding someone else’s life for book ideas!
Kim Powers is the author of the novel Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story as well as the critically acclaimed memoir The History of Swimming, which was both a Barnes & Noble “Discover” Selection and a Lambda Literary Award finalist for Best Memoir of the Year. He also wrote the screenplay for the festival-favorite indie film “Finding North.” Powers is currently the Editorial Producer/Senior Writer for ABC’s 20/20, and has won both Emmy and Peabody Awards, as well as the Edward R. Murrow Award for Overall Excellence. A native Texan, he received an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, and lives in New York City.