Author Q&A: Peter de Jonge

  • September 11, 2012

Q&A with the author of Buried On Avenue B, among others, and co-author with James Patterson of three books.

When a home attendant appears at Homicide South in Manhattan, she skeptically reports the confession of a senior citizen who is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s. Gus Henderson, a former junkie and petty criminal, claims he murdered and buried his former partner in crime in a park off Avenue B more than a decade ago, a lowlife who fell of the grid and hasn’t been seen since.  After the mother of the presumed victim shames the NYPD’s Darlene O’Hara, the city reluctantly agrees to excavate the community garden where the body is allegedly buried.  But it’s not her son buried beneath the willow tree….

The cops find the skeleton of a ten-year old boy, neatly dressed and buried ceremoniously with a comic book, a CD, some pot and booze.

Q & A with Peter de Jonge

Why Darlene O’Hara? How did you create her as your main character, a homicide detective for the NYPD? Is this how 15-year-old mothers avenge their loss of credibility?

Before, I started an outline for my first book in the series, Shadows Still Remain, I spent several months with a group of detectives in the 7th Precinct in Lower Manhattan, gathering material. It’s an absurdly inefficient way to work but it allows you to give the story the detail and context that makes fiction believable.

During that time several homicide detectives passed through the precinct, and through one of them, I met a detective, working out of Homicide North, who had a son when she was 15. To have a child that young, and keep him and end up twenty years later as one of a handful of female detectives in homicide is quite a feat and Darlene O’Hara is modeled to some degree on this remarkable woman. My character loves her son, Axl, ferociously, but at the same time is hypersensitive to her failings as a parent, most of which are imaginary.

Is it a tired reader and/ or clever author that somehow manage to change the pacing, three quarters of the way into the book, as in this book?  Maybe the reader is tired of living with murderous folks and anxious to know the outcome but somehow at the exact moment, the story suddenly seems to move so much faster. What is the secret?

I would tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. Actually, several readers who reviewed the book online have praised what they considered to be the realistic pacing of Buried on Avenue B. As in actual cases, there are more dead ends than good leads, and often a new piece of information pushes the case sideways instead of forward. At a certain point, however, at least in cases that get solved, there are significant breakthroughs and when there are enough of them, the investigation picks up steam and then gets closed, and in this way Buried on Avenue B attempts to be faithful to the pace of an actual investigation.

Every time I read about Avenues A or B or St. Mark’s Place, some group has turned it into their particular place. Why is this area of New York such a powerful canvas?

Manhattan retains very little of its gritty urban character, but there is still a bit left in parts of the East Village and the Lower East Side. The other interesting parts are on the opposite end of the island in Washington Heights and Harlem. In between is just a lot of shopping.

“Witnessing the slavish routine of addiction might be sobering…..” instead O’Hara averts her eyes and drinks her drink. Watching seems to be worse than succumbing? Perhaps a mirror wouldn’t exactly be a good cure for addiction? In the story, the reader is not quite sure Det. O’Hara believes she has a drinking problem. Is she the consummate functional alcoholic? How is it that none of her colleagues seems to react beyond giving her a mint?

This may be surprising, but like O’Hara herself, I’m not at all sure she has a serious drinking problem. In fact, I’m inclined to think she doesn’t. In the course of the book, she has a drink at Milano’s on four different mornings. On each of those occasions, she only has a single drink and on two of the four, it’s not her morning, but the end of an extremely long night. One important indication of an alcoholic is that drinking triggers a personality change and this doesn’t happen to O’Hara. O’Hara’s affection for Milano’s is based as much on the quiet as the alcohol. For her, Milano’s is a great place to ponder the case, make and review her notes and think, and like all great detectives, O’Hara is a world class muller, the kind of person who can keep thinking about the same subject until she finally comes up with something new worth pursuing. On the wall of my office, I taped a note to myself: “key thought: this novel is primarily a journey through O’Hara’s head.”

Is it cynicism that really makes one come up with “the backwards take your kid to work”?”

I don’t want to give way too much, but I will say that I’m probably the least cynical person on earth. I’m like the characters in “Dumb and Dumber” crying at an insurance commercial. At times, the perps in this novel display a blood chilling cynicism, but O’Hara’s reaction is always heartfelt outrage.

You say in the book that “courage is the most miraculous trait” and in this instance, it gets the character killed. Do you think most folks are aware of the possibility when they commit a courageous act? Does true courage always contain a measure of peril? Have you ever done anything courageous? Please tell us what you did.

I do find human courage miraculous because the willingness to risk your life for someone else is so counter to our instinct for self-preservation. And yet in every neighborhood and every group of people there are those who stand out for their courage. Take a Polish farmer who risks his life hiding a family of Jews in his barn during the holocaust, when so many of his neighbors were behaving in exactly the opposite way. Why does he or she do it? Because they’re remarkably brave. Every day, people behave bravely and whenever I hear about one of them, I find it tremendously moving. The only brave thing I’ve done is to become a writer, and in that case, the peril is primarily financial and psychological.

Did O’Hara’s love story take place in another book?

Yes, in the first book of the series Shadows Still Remain which by the way, I heartily recommend. In that book, O’Hara has an unlikely affair with the medical examiner, Sam Lebowitz, but like a lot of people O’Hara has trouble appreciating a good thing when she has it.

You’d think that 3 “patrons” in the same bar every morning might warm up to one another. Could you not find any words for them to use with each other? Not even a bad joke? Why didn’t you want them to speak?

Would you have preferred a bad joke to silence? Based on my research, people who go to a bar at 8 am, unless they’re coming off an overnight shift, are not looking to socialize. The last thing they want to do is reveal who they are and where they work.

In writing class, every ingredient in a book is supposed to be necessary. It’s never true in the books readers most like. There is always a loose end. That message probably makes most novices overwrite or eliminate something nifty that reader might want to ponder. What do you think?

I think it’s crucial in a crime novel that there be lots of bits that don’t do anything but express the protagonist’s world view. If everything is a clue and significant there’s no verisimilitude and the book doesn’t breathe. It all feels over programmed and schematic and the people don’t seem like real characters because they are only there to serve the plot. My characters are unruly by nature and refuse to exist only to move along the action.

There is a lot of music in the book. Are some of the songs your favorites?

O’Hara’s love of heavy metal and classic rock comes more from my wife than me.

But who couldn’t love “Walk this way” by Aerosmith or Prince’s “Love you more than I did when you were mine?” Those songs are going to hold up a lot longer than a lot of so-called literature.

How’d you come to write with James Patterson? How’d you leave writing with James Patterson?

I met Jim when we were both working at the same advertising agency. Impressed by the magazine articles I was writing in my free time, he asked me to co-write a novel called Miracle on the 17th Green. After writing two more books with him, I thought it was time to try something on my own. As I indicated earlier, I’m not brave, I’m just stupid.

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