Interview with Lawrence J. Epstein, author of Back to Life
07 Aug 2017
What can you tell us about your new release, Back to Life?
It is 1939, and the world is on the edge of war. Back to Life starts off in Hollywood with the violent murder of an actress known for her pro-Nazi sympathies. Across the country, Charlie Singer makes a desperate effort to save Katie Walker, a young woman who has jumped off a bridge. Later, Charlie watches helplessly as his wife, Amy, is stabbed to death. Almost destroyed by the murder of the woman he loves, Charlie is helped by Katie. To settle a profound moral debt, the two journey to old Hollywood, a place filled with glamour, famous sites, and broken dreams. There they try to track down a cunning killer and face the leader of an organization of American Nazis. They must also struggle with their terrifying inner demons. Charlie and Katie uncover unsettling truths about the complicated nature of families, the dangers their country is about to confront, and the emotional troubles that haunt them.
What or who inspired you to become an author?
When I was thirteen, I was in my small-town library when the librarian announced that it was closing time. I didn’t know anything about books, but I saw the book Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. The title reminded me of an Abbott and Costello cartoon in which the Costello character called the Abbott character “Babbitt.” I thought the book must be funny. So I took it out. I went home, lay down on the couch, and began reading. No more than a page into it, I put the book across my stomach and thought to myself, “I can’t believe an author can put so much truth on the page.” From then on, I read an incredible amount and, as I got older, realized this writing was what I wanted to do.
What’s on your top 5 list for the best books you’ve ever read?
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert was the best novel I’ve ever read. God in Search of Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel was the most influential non-fiction book I’ve ever read, though Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl was also important. In terms of mystery novels, I started as a child with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries (a girl living across the street had a wonderful father who bought her the whole Nancy Drew series, and she lent them to me). I’ve read most of the famous series. I was very influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, Robert B. Parker, and Michael Connelly, among many others.
Say you’re the host of a literary talk show. Who would be your first guest? What would you want to ask?
It’s a tricky question because the best authors are not necessarily the most articulate about their work. I used to love interviews with P.D. James. She had a clear vision and, of course, was an extraordinary writer. Sadly, she’s no longer here to interview. I suppose Michael Connelly would be the first guest. He has a new series with a woman protagonist. I’d ask why the new character and the challenges he faced writing about a woman. Alternately, I’d have Sue Grafton and ask her about her struggles as a writer. Mysteries as a genre have always been particularly hospitable to women writers, and that’s a subject worth more investigating.
What’s your favorite thing about writing?
The pleasure of getting a sentence right. I’m of the writing school that teaches that you haven’t learned to write until you’ve learned to rewrite. I enjoy searching for the right words in the right order. I like planning scenes. I like being surprised by characters. Elie Wiesel used to talk of characters he had taken out of a novel coming to him in a dream begging to be put back in the book. Characters do seem to come alive.
Where is your happy place? Why does it bring you joy?
It’s being surrounded by my five grandchildren. They’re very young and love stories. They have vivid imaginations and like being silly. I can just look at them and smile.
What scene in Back to Life was your favorite to write?
My favorite scene was the beginning of the second chapter. The audience meets Charlie Singer and Katie Walker, the protagonists of this new series, in what I tried to make a most dramatic way. As a writer, I found it an interesting challenge to introduce characters by revealing telling details about them, make readers like them as much as I did, and provide suspense and excitement at the same time. There were other scenes I liked, but that one was the most crucial to get right.
Do you have a motto, quote or philosophy you live by?
By tradition, the wise King Solomon sought advice for what he should have engraved on a ring he wore. He finally decided on “This, too, shall pass.” It’s a good motto, one I try to follow. When times are bad, I try to remember those bad times will leave and be replaced by good times. The wisdom comes because when good times come, that same motto is a reminder to enjoy the moment for it will vanish as well. I like the motto because it provides a natural emotional moderation to life.
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