Andrew Klavan keeps us on the edge of our seats for a living.
Podcasts. Horror apps. Mystery novels. Screenplays. They all make us lean in, eager for more.
Yet he’s never struck on his signature work, a character who captures his creative essence.
A starred review from @PublishersWkly for The House of Love and Death. "Klavan’s blistering third whodunit featuring hit man-turned-poetry professor Cameron Winter is the best yet." Please pre-order now, and help get this on the lists!https://t.co/hG8nMJJzJJ
— Andrew Klavan (@andrewklavan) August 9, 2023
Cameron Winter, the sleuth behind Klavan’s last three mysteries, is exactly that. He’s formidable, of course, but he’s conflicted by his past and our complicated present.
His third Winter mystery, “The House of Love and Death,” finds our hero obsessed with a tragedy that wiped out an entire family save one last, lonely child. Who committed the mass murder? Why are local police less than eager to accept his “strange habit of mind” which solves the most stubborn mysteries?
The Hollywood in Toto Podcast spoke to Klavan about the book, his thoughts on the current Culture Wars and much more. Here is part of that conversation.
HiT: You’ve written so many great stories, but I get the sense you’ve found your creative muse with Camren Winter. Is that fair? And why do you think it took a while before he came into your creative life?
Klavan: That’s a really interesting question. I think it has to do with coming to this late point in my career.
When you look back and you think, what am I? What have I been writing about all this time and what have I learned from it? And I think Cameron Winter grew up organically from that. I find myself thinking back to what for me, is my origin story as a crime writer, which is the moment I read the opening of “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler, his first Philip Marlowe novel.
I was maybe 14 or 15. I was looking for male role models in fiction because I couldn’t find any in real life. And I always found the tough guy writers and the tough guy actors like Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne very appealing.
But there was something about Philip Marlowe that was a pure deal … Marlowe goes to visit his rich client, he sees a stained glass window with a picture of a knight rescuing a lady.
Marlowe says, ‘If I lived in this house, I would have to climb up there and help him because he’s just not getting the job done fast enough’ … Marlowe is a shoddy, low-rent, working-class guy in a totally corrupt modern town, but he carries within him the ideal of the knight, the ideal of chivalry.
And that’s what Raymond Chandler wrote about him in his famous essay. I think it’s called ‘The Art of Murder.’ He said, ‘Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid,’ and I remember as a kid thinking, ‘Yes, that is what I want.’
What I want is to understand, to be very realistic about the world, but to carry within me this ideal of what I should be, regardless of what the world is. And Cameron Winter, because he is an English professor, because he’s a scholar of English literature, carries within him the Western culture all of the great ideals of Western culture.
But he’s surrounded by a culture that is falling apart, and he’s affected by that. He’s shaped by it to some degree, but he is still trying to recover that ideal. So he’s the ultimate expression of what I started out to look for as a crime writer.
And it’s the first time I have ever written a character where I said to myself, ‘This is a series.’ I have written other trilogies, I once wrote a tetralogy, but this is the first time I thought, ‘No, I want to carry this out for at least 10 books and work through this guy’s development.’ That’s just a fresh, new thing for me.
HiT: When you write your stories, do you have a bit of a strange habit of mind when it comes to creating the crimes that he has to solve, or is it a lot of coffee, a lot of hard work, a lot of dead ends?
Klavan: My method of working is to eliminate as much dead end time as I can because I take such joy out of writing. I do a lot a lot of preliminary work, a lot of outlining stuff I find very boring, but stuff that means that once I’m done, I can then proceed and just create the thing that I’m doing.
But more importantly for me, I think Winter’s strange habit of mind, this habit where he lets kind of a Zen thing almost where he lets go of all his opinions, all his preconceived notions, all the things he loves and hates and, you know, decries and praises.
He just lets them all go and just lets the facts sort of float in space in his mind. And it’s it’s kind of a way of him finding what it is to be a human being in the world, you know? I mean, we have this kind of stupid idea. We either have this idea of human beings as just flesh bags with chemical sets inside so that we have no spiritual being, no actual spiritual being.
It’s just an emanation of our physicality.
But we also have this kind of contradictory and yet complementary idea that human beings are completely rational animals, that artificial intelligence could be somehow some fair representation of what we are. And it’s just not true. I mean, part of what we do is this instinctive, this soulful spiritual exploration of who people are.
You know, we can sit down across from somebody and know in a single instant whether this is an honest person or a false person. We can know whether he’s smart or kind or good or all these things. We can get it wrong. But we can also so often get it so right.
And so Winter brings that capacity, that fullness of his humanity to solving crimes. He is not just an intellectual Sherlock Holmesian crime solver.
HiT: ‘The House of Love and Death’ has a lot of cultural issues in there. The rot in academia, the role pornography plays in our lives, that sin is all consuming. When you’re writing, do you gently layer these themes in, or do they emerge as the story emerges, and then you’re able to kind of work them in in a fashion?
Klavan: Well, I start out with the culture that I’m living in. I’m not trying to write politically. I’m not trying to say, oh, vote Democrat, vote Republican. No, none of that is stuff that defines a character.
I mean, a character might have a political point of view, but that’s not who he is. It may grow out of who he is, but it doesn’t define him. So don’t let everybody have their own opinions.
I let all my characters free. But look, this is the world we’re living in right now. And what I’ve done with the Winter books is I’ve taken it and I’ve pushed it just a little further down the road. So he’s really living in the end times of the Republic.
I do choose those things that I think are indicative of decay and decadence.
And so he because I wanted to pit the ideal within Winter against the society that’s unraveling a place where ideals are being thrown aside and turned upside down. I do pick things from the culture that speak to me about that and those, and that’s how they get there, and they become plot points.
And I have to tell you, I have had to defend them against editorial interference. I’ve had to basically say, ‘No, I’m not cutting these out, even if the New York Times doesn’t like it, even if it’s going to hurt me with certain readers.’ Not because I want to express an opinion, but because I want to represent the culture as it actually is.
HiT: That’s surprising, because I don’t think it’s heavy handed in the least way, but it does give a texture to the stories. What are the complaints? If you can share something?
Klavan: Oh, you have no idea how woke. Seriously.
Publishing for a while was a bastion against wokeness as Hollywood was going down the drain. But now there are things like sensitivity readers.
There are comments like, you know, ‘you must remove this because the minute a critic sees this, he’s going to hit you for it.’ There’s a very, very light plot point that has to do with transgenderism and where it stands in the lives of teenage girls.
That was a problem.
I swear I’m not making this up. I’ve gotten notes where people have said, an editor will say, ‘Well, you shouldn’t refer to this person as having coffee-colored skin because colored people had to pick coffee.’
I’ve got to describe it somehow.
And you really have to fight this kind of small-minded, pinched, woke idea that thinks that it conceives of itself as a resistance to tyranny, but in fact is the tyranny, and it’s a tyranny of mind, and I simply will not let it.
My point of view, seriously, is I have a muse. My muse tells me what to write. I write what my muse tells me what to write. No one has that muse. No one else has access to it.
No one else.
Editors can make great comments about how you fail to get that down on paper, but no one can tell me what I see in the world or what I’m supposed to write about.
You can hear the full interview on The Hollywood in Toto Podcast.