Brian Freeman is an international bestselling author of psychological suspense novels. His books have been sold in 46 countries and 20 languages. His debut thriller, Immoral (2005), won the Macavity Award and was a nominee for the Edgar, Dagger, Anthony, and Barry awards for best first novel, and several of the books in his Jonathan Stride series have received starred reviews from Booklist (including the newest, 2016’s Goodbye to the Dead.) At the 2015 ALA Annual Conference, I had the pleasure of doing a live performance of one of the standalone Stride short stories, “Spitting Devil,” along with Booklist contributor Karen Keefe, award-winning narrator Joe Barrett, and Freeman himself. After making his acquaintance, I knew he’d be a perfect interviewee for Mystery Month.
Tell us about your new novel, Goodbye to the Dead.
I like to write thrillers where the basic mystery is simple—but all the layers grow increasingly dark and complex. In Goodbye to the Dead, there’s one question haunting Duluth police lieutenant Jonathan Stride: Did Dr. Janine Snow murder her husband? At first, the case looks open-and-shut, but the mystery ripples through the next nine years of Stride’s life. Along the way, he deals with a murder trial, a mass shooting, and a human trafficking investigation before the readers gets to the last shocking twist. For Stride himself, those nine years also change his life completely, as he has to say goodbye to his first wife, Cindy, and try to start a new life beyond his grief.
This is the seventh book in the Jonathan Stride series (there are also two bonus books: a novella and a short story). Do you have to go back and start at the beginning to enjoy the series?
No, I write each book very carefully so that you can dive in anywhere. I always say that meeting a series character should be like making a new friend. You meet them, you connect with them, and it makes you want to go back and find out more about how they reached that point in their lives. Goodbye to the Dead is actually a great place to discover Stride, because you get a chance to see him in both the past and the present to understand his journey. After you meet him, you’ll want to start reading about his earlier cases, too.
How Stride has changed over the decade you’ve been writing him?
He’s probably less impulsive than he was in the early books. He’s more philosophical about life. As you’ll see in Goodbye to the Dead, he’s also learning to let go of his past and embrace the future, whatever it brings.
We’re all the product of our life experiences and the people we meet along the way. So Stride has changed based on everything that has happened to him since he first appeared in my debut novel, Immoral. People ask me if I know how the Stride story will end, and I tell them honestly—I have no idea! It all depends on where my future books take him.
One of the things that your readers appreciate so much about your writing is that your characters are realistic. On your website, you say, “I want them to live in the real world where morality means tough choices and shades of gray.” Tell us about your process for creating characters.
I don’t write about superheroes or super-villains. I like to create characters who are ordinary people facing difficult situations that change their lives. Stride is a decent, courageous man, but sometimes he makes mistakes, the way we all do. I think that’s why readers relate to him.
A writer should always be
able to surprise you.
Before I begin a novel, I develop background sketches on all of my characters, but the reality is, those biographies only take me so far. A character has to come to life on the page. So when I’m writing, that’s when I really get to know these people—and they often surprise me. By the middle of the book, they’re usually guiding me more than I’m guiding them.
You’ve got many Jonathan Stride novels, but tell us about your thrillers that don’t feature Stride.
I also have a series featuring a Florida detective named Cab Bolton. He’s a wonderful character to write—young, tall, charming, with a little touch of glamour thanks to his Hollywood mother. I first introduced Cab as a character in my book The Bone House (2010) and readers loved him. They wanted more! So I brought him back in Season of Fear (2014).
Then there’s my stand-alone thriller Spilled Blood (2012), which revolves around a violent feud among the young people in two rural towns. That book was starred by Booklist and won the award for Best Hardcover Novel in the International Thriller Writers Awards. The previous year’s winner was Stephen King for his book 11/22/63, so I figure that’s pretty good company to be keeping!
Mysteries aren’t the only thing you write—I had the pleasure of reviewing one of your standalone novels, West 57 (2015), which is decidedly chick lit. Tell us why you veered off in that direction.
You caught me channeling my inner woman! Yes, West 57 is one of my favorite books, but it’s nothing like my thrillers. There’s plenty of drama and intrigue, but it’s also funny, sexy, and romantic. Think of it as Sex and the City meets The Devil Wears Prada.
A writer should always be able to surprise you. If you enjoy an author in one genre, come along for the ride when that author does something different. Sometimes that’s how you discover the best books—like Ken Follett stepping away from spy thrillers to write Pillars of the Earth (1989).
What kind of research do you do before settling in to write?
I like to give readers a “you are there” feel in my books, as if they’ve been dropped down into every chapter and can hear, smell, touch, taste, and see it happening around them. One of the ways I do that is by using real-life locales and scouting locations for each book the way a film director would. That’s true whether it’s a Stride novel based in Duluth, or one of my other books based in places like Florida, Las Vegas, or San Francisco. We hit the road to find the best setting for every scene and to capture the authentic flavor of being there.
For example, when I was working on The Cold Nowhere (2014), a police sergeant took me down into a creepy section of Duluth known as the Graffiti Graveyard. Even a lot of the locals don’t know it’s there. It’s a tunnel underneath the interstate that’s completely painted over with graffiti art, and as soon as I saw it, I decided to set the climax of the book in that area.
You and your wife, Marcia, spend a lot of time traveling around the country to libraries, bookstores, and book groups. Tell us about the special connection you have with your fans.
We’ll do more than 50 events this year, including library visits, bookstores, book clubs, and literary festivals. Sometimes people read my books and think: He must be pretty scary! Then they meet me and Marcia, and they realize how down-to-earth we are. Our book events are always fun and funny. Everybody has a great time. By the end, readers treat us like family, which is a tremendous honor. Of course, that’s all thanks to Marcia . . . people meet her, and they feel like they’ve known her their whole lives. (I can attest to this! Marcia is pretty awesome. —RV)
What should librarians do if they want you to visit their library?
Just send Marcia an e-mail. She organizes all of our events. Her e-mail address is easy to remember: firstname.lastname@example.org. She also has a Facebook page where she blogs about the personal side of the book business—don’t miss it! You can “like” her page at facebook.com/theauthorswife.
Even if we can’t visit a library in person, I do events by phone or Skype at libraries around the country, too. Book clubs really enjoy talking about a novel directly with the author, so I always encourage librarians to pick one of my books for their mystery book club and then invite me to join the discussion. They can reach me directly at email@example.com, or at my Facebook page at facebook.com/bfreemanfans.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
When you write suspense all day long, curling up with somebody else’s suspense novel feels a little like work! So I can’t really read my own genre the way I used to. Instead, I read a lot of history now. I try to find historians who are also great storytellers—writers like Eric Larson and Nathaniel Philbrick.
What are you working on now?
I’ll have TWO new books out in 2017, so it will be a big year for me. An all-new San Francisco-based thriller is due out in January, and then my next Jonathan Stride novel will be released in May. I better get writing!