SEPTEMBER 23, 2019
IF YOU ASK a group of crime novelists to list the most exciting stylists working today, Jamie Mason’s name is bound to come up. In many thrillers, the language is workmanlike — plain, even. The suspense is the point; the sentences are the delivery system. In Jamie’s books, however, the words themselves are, if not the star of the show, then a strong second lead: my copies of her books are highlighted, dog-eared, crowded with exclamatory marginalia. I want to pin her sentences to my wall so I can admire them.
She is able to land on imagery that is both perfectly apt and startlingly original, and perhaps this latter quality is one of the reasons she has been called a “writer’s writer.” Cracking open a book in a genre you write yourself is a great way to trigger a counterproductive spiral of shame and self-doubt, but I’ve never berated myself for not being able to operate on Jamie’s level. I’ve never remarked, “Now why didn’t I come up with that?” Jamie’s thoughts are just too uniquely her own.
Jamie’s newest book is The Hidden Things, an ensemble crime drama with an unforgettable teenage protagonist at its heart. In its opening chapter, 14-year-old Carly Liddell bravely fends off an attacker in the foyer of her home. In another book, this scene might be the climax of the story, the resolution of an arc, the moment when the heroine, at long last, recognizes her innate strength and manages to defeat the bad guys. But The Hidden Things, intriguingly, chooses this as a jumping-off point. When the security footage of the attack goes viral, Carly finds herself drawn into even greater danger. I spoke with Jamie about process, truth, trauma — the kind of straightforward stuff you can definitely get to the bottom of in a single interview.
In my defense, it started off simply enough.
ELIZABETH LITTLE: How does a new book idea come to you? Is it character first? Voice? Inciting incident?
JAMIE MASON: I tend to get the lightning strike of an inciting incident first. It’s practically voices in my head, describing a little scene. Or matter-of-factly reciting an opening line like that string of words existed somewhere else before the inside of my skull. It’s fun, if a little unnerving. Then it can take me just short of forever to figure out what to do with it. Once I know what kind of trouble the inciting incident is going to cause, then I start thinking about what kinds of people would find themselves with this particular problem.
What was the lightning strike for The Hidden Things?
I ran across a video clip of a young girl attacked in the foyer of her home. Like Carly in the book, she gets away, although the eventual description of what happens in Carly’s front hallway is augmented by my own imagination and a different video I saw of a much older girl felling a bully with an effortlessly graceful, though un-choreographed, heel to his obnoxious head. Some people really need to be kicked in the head.
Originally, my relief that the girl got away relatively unscathed was followed up with curiosity: why did this family have cameras inside their home? I get having outside cameras as part of an automated home security system. I get it and I’ve actually got it. But I can’t understand cameras inside the house. I’m sure there are good reasons to do this and to be okay with it, but I don’t want to know them. For my purposes, it was much more fun thinking it was a really odd thing to incorporate CCTV into regular homelife.
But my attention drifted and it didn’t come back to it for a couple of years. In the meantime, I tried to write a different book that stubbornly wouldn’t develop and is currently sitting in the corner without its supper for as long as it takes for it to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up. Then I remembered the girl.
And what a girl she is.
Carly was a delight to write. I remember a lot about being that age. And I wanted to give Carly her dignity. That time in growth was hard. I hated being written off (or at least down) as not knowing anything, almost mocked as if naïveté was a character flaw. I still knew what I knew. It wasn’t nothing. I guess that’s why the epigraph that yielded the title was so meaningful to me: “Try to put well in practice what you already know; and in so doing, you will in good time, discover the hidden things you now inquire about.”
You’re never starting from zero. If you’ve lived and screamed your first day, you’re on your way, with some variety of arrow in your quiver.
By my last count, there are approximately 800,000 domestic thrillers predicated on blackouts or memory loss. This isn’t a criticism — I count my first novel among their number. We’re all working through the same shit here. But with The Hidden Things, you do something fundamentally different: you don’t leave your heroine hanging for 300 pages. Right from the start, you let Carly see the security footage from the attack so she knows, without question, what happened during the inciting incident — and how impressively she responded.
There have been times in my life where I’ve handled things poorly, where I’ve been clumsy or cowardly or just wrong. I’ve always been soothed by, “Well, that’s over. At least it wasn’t caught on film.” But what about all the times I was awesome? What about when I was better, cleverer, more precise than I knew myself to be? How would it feel to see myself win? And what would be the fly in that ointment? What would be the problem if I was so awesome that everyone would want to see — on YouTube even?
I think we are not blank slates at birth, but our wills are necessarily pocket-sized. We pass easily from hand to hand. Until all of a sudden we don’t. In our society, the puppet is cut off its strings kind of abruptly, really. With The Hidden Things, I wanted to explore what would happen if right about then, a girl became convinced, by irrefutable evidence, not hubris or dedication to what anyone else — well-wisher or ad man — expected of her, that her own inner advocate could get stuff done that she hadn’t thought possible? What would she become at that crossroads of powerless and powerful?
It was fun to imagine.
Irrefutable evidence, what an idea. I’m not sure I ever believe in my story — I’m not sure I’ve ever been allowed to. I’m always questioning my own memories. Sometimes I have to squeeze my son’s arm or leg or put my hand on his head to remind myself: I made that. I made that and I birthed that and it hurt like a motherfucker but I did it anyway and no one can tell me I didn’t. Here is my proof, goddammit. I worry that I could be talked out of just about anything. So I collect quantitative facts and replicable results, like talismans.
Oh, I doubt my own story, too. There’s so much that goes into us, into the subtleties of our situation from birth — no, from conception and also that of our parents and grandparents and on and on. There has to be so much of it that’s not true. Or let’s say, that is not accurate. I generally get pretty twitchy about the distinction between truth and Truth, but sometimes the facts are inadequate for the whole picture.
For understanding ourselves, I think we can learn almost as much from fiction, even the fiction in our own backstories, as we do from reality about how we react to what the world lobs at us. It’s kind of like going to the gym. There’s not a reason in the world that this 20-pound dumbbell needs to be hauled to the end of my overhead reach 20 times, but those well-conditioned muscles could come in handy in “reality” — whatever that is.
Do you think it’s possible to be as altered by fiction as Carly was by that video? Could we be convinced of our own self-worth by something constructed by someone else, or is that a flimsier kind of self-realization? (Or, alternately, a more powerful kind?)
My first instinct was to say that we probably aren’t as altered by fiction as we would be by irrefutable documentation of something that actually happened. That seemed right, but then I had to pull back to a shakier, “It depends.” And what I think it depends on is the “why” of things. I think we learn more from why than we do from the other interrogatory doorways — the what and the where and the when and the how.
If a hypothetical scenario, no matter how otherworldly it is, how journalistically realistic or technically meticulous or emotionally wrenching, if it has been populated by characters, human or not, that are logically consistent within that paradigm, I think we could often learn as much from their successes and failures as we could from things that happen in real life. And I’m including self-assessment in that. I think you can measure yourself and grow yourself in response to things that happen on a page of make-believe.
The kind of thing that happens to Carly in the opening of The Hidden Things is probably a special category, though. There’s a lot of general knowledge and growth that can come from analyzing other people’s (even fictional ones) experiences, but personal pain, especially that kind of trespass, is less penetrable by general understanding. Violation flows into our psyches like water slips into the grooves of our fingerprints. Everyone’s hands get wet, but if you could look closely enough, the design would be unique. The effect is so individual.
I can’t even say that what seeing the video does for Carly, how healing it is for her to feel so sure of what she did, would work for everyone. It might be profoundly disturbing and make things worse for some people in her place.
All learning is really holding up a piece of information and comparing it to what’s already there in its slot in our minds. Sometimes, it’s brand-new information, the slot where it goes is found to be empty and pristine. Sometimes it’s occupied, and the job is then to compare and contrast with the existing content to either oust what was there or to add to it. Sometimes we have to punch a brand new slot into the wetworks to accommodate what we didn’t even know to wonder about, and that can be marvelous or terrible.
Now, of course, that’s kind of a lot to task fiction writers with, and every writer should weight that assignment with feathers or bricks as it suits them. I don’t believe there’s an obligation to take on the instruction of the reader. But I know what I like to read always makes me feel smarter at The End in some way. I know that I write with the hope that here and there in the story, I’ll express an idea or suggest a course of action that would tug on the reader to compare it to what they think about these things.
I think all the time about a thriller I read a few years ago. It was incredibly well done. The voice was immaculate, the dialogue electric, the jokes so good I cackled throughout. I should have loved this book. But two-thirds of the way through, the author depicted a violent act with such devastating accuracy that I noped out hard: I straight-up hurled that book at the wall. I wanted to put as much distance between it and me as quickly as possible.
With distance, though, I realized that I would’ve been angrier if the event had been depicted inaccurately. Or treated in a cavalier fashion. Or, even, left out entirely. So this was, actually, the best-case scenario — and still, it ended with a divot three inches above the baseboard in my living-room wall.
As crime writers, we’re necessarily focused on traumatic acts — on violation. But we’re also entertainers. How do you navigate the intersection between the two? Do you feel like you have a special responsibility toward your readers in this regard? Or is that impossible given how unique each reader’s response to trauma will be?
I don’t really think about the line, because it’s crooked, meandering, and widely perforated in places. You can’t win. And as close as you can get to winning is to go crazy. I have not, as yet, figured out a firm position on my obligation to the whorls and ridges of readers’ individual traumas. But I welcome conversation on the subject.
All I can do is work from what I find entertaining. And, basically, I’m entertained when I’m interested. The interest can be objectively exciting or challenging, or it could be very quiet, subtle, even just the sound of the words. I don’t think writers are beholden, to an extent, to evaluate the potential poisons on their barbs. We, just as people, should shoulder the responsibility, the privilege in many cases, to be better neighbors, friends, lovers, families, and allies to people in our lives who have suffered. We are the ones who cross their paths. We are the ones who know them. We are the ones who make their days better or worse. And sometimes never so much than on days where they’ve brushed up against or crashed headlong into something that scraped raw an old pain. We can’t abdicate that facet of life to people far away who had an idea once and a pen to write about it.
But, to the part of authorial responsibility, I also need to believe that I and the creator of the entertainment are more or less on the same page, that I’m getting out of it what was intended. I don’t think there are any taboo subjects, but I do expect that good words on a topic or a scenario will let the reader feel confident that the writer understands the conclusions his or her words sum up to, that they actually know what they’ve written. So I do feel obligated to have that in mind while I work. All art is subject to interpretation by the viewer, listener, reader. But I think writing is the most exact of them, the most likely medium, if done well, for the creator and the recipient to have a very similar experience between their ears. It’s pretty cool, really. Time and distance don’t matter when the words are good. You can share an adventure and its lessons across all regular limitations.