For my first author interview, I was lucky enough to chat with Will Lavender, author of Dominance and Obedience, and one of my all-time favorite writers. His books are incredible intelligent psychological thrillers (described as "puzzle thrillers"), with lots of twists and turns, and hold up to numerous re-readings. He is currently at work writing his third novel.
1) In your books you reference well-known psychology experiments and cases, as well as literary theory and analysis. What drew you to these topics, and how did you weave your research into your fictional worlds?
For my first novel, Obedience, my interest actually began with a newspaper article in the local paper here in Louisville, Kentucky. This was a front-page, above-the-fold story about a horrific incident that had recently happened in a McDonald's in nearby Mount Washington, Kentucky, and the writer of that piece mentioned Stanley Milgram's famous obedience to authority study. At first I was skeptical about the writer drawing the comparison, but the more I researched the Mount Washington case, the more I began to see that there was something there that Milgram touched on in his experiment in the 1960s. So I began to research Milgram, and I thought about my own life--I was a writing teacher at the time--and I began to wonder what people in positions of authority could get away with, especially teachers. That's how the novel came to be. (The Mount Washington case is spoken about at length online, by the way, and it was the basis of a recent movie called Compliance.)
2) Both Obedience and Dominance center around unusual college classes. How and why did you set both your novels in these specific settings?
This is a case of the old adage "write what you know." I taught college writing for six years, and I drew off a lot of my own experiences as I was writing. This was especially true with Obedience, because I was still a teacher as I wrote the first draft. WithDominance, I had always wanted to write a book about books; the college class aspect came later.
3) One of the things I love most about your books are the amazing twists. Do you have the entire book plotted out when you start writing, or do some things come to you as the story develops?
This has been a bone of contention in my writing career. I actually hate outlines; I can't do them, don't understand them, and think writing them rips the fun--for lack of a better word--out of writing novels like this in the first place. However, there are a multitude of risks if you write without an outline, and these risks have driven my editor and agent crazy. The way I write is to have "touchpoints" that I write toward; I think of a set-up, an event in the middle of the book, an event in the last quarter, and then the ending. Those four or five major incidents are what I write toward, and then I use the fall-out from those incidents to build toward the next touchpoint. With Obedience, these moments came easily; with other projects I've written, they've been elusive. I think I'm a good writer of beginnings, in part because the framework of the novel introduces itself to me first. But what has tended to happen is that I'll get in the middle of the book and then start blindly clawing through the narrative, and this is where that risk comes in. You can easily write yourself into a corner. But I still believe that the best, freshest, and most urgent writing I've ever done has been without an outline, and so I continue to try it.
4) If Obedience and Dominance were made into movies, do you have a dream cast in mind?
Not a dream cast, but a dream director: Fincher. I also really love the films of Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners). His movies have that Fincheresque urgency, that kind of growling suspense even when nothing much is happening on-screen. I love movies like that, thrillers that make you pay attention, that are crafted right down to their mood. That's the kinds of books I love, too, and I don't think there are enough of them out there. The people who read in America generally want to be transported; this is why you see a plethora of historicals and European mysteries on the shelves. And from time to time I like these books as well. But the stuff I really respond to are books that are set in the present time, that focus on people who are facing some kind of imminent struggle, and then weird and labyrinthine stuff starts to happen. Hitchcock obviously mastered this form, but I think Fincher has taken that kind of "nobody knows what's real" concept and improved upon it in a lot of ways. I actually think his rendition of Gone Girl was better than the novel. It was scarier somehow, more wicked.
5) What are your favorite psychological thrillers/mysteries/books with twist endings? What would you recommend fans of your books read next?
I read a lot of different stuff, but as I said above the books I'm usually drawn to aren't police procedurals or cop novels, of which there are thousands and thousands on our shelves, but books about average people in hellish situations. I really liked Paula Hawkins' Girl on the Train; the voices of the characters reminded me a lot of Gillian Flynn. Speaking of Flynn, she became famous for Gone Girl, but my favorite novel of hers by far is Sharp Objects. With regard to twist endings, the granddaddy of all twists would have to be Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island, which was turned into a movie by Martin Scorsese. One of my favorite novels actually isn't a thriller, it's the genre-defying Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. This novel doesn't have a "twist" in the traditional sense, but for three quarters of the novel you're left to wonder what's going on and what's going to happen. I love this novel and I still believe, a decade after I read it, that it's the most perfect novel I've ever read. Absolute masterpiece.
6) Would you rather be in Professor Williams' Logic and Reasoning 204 class, or Richard Aldiss' Unraveling a Literary Mystery class, and why? Do you think you would be the winning student in either of these classes?
I would have rather been in Aldiss's class, I think, simply because the idea of tracking down the identity of a reclusive author sounds awesome to me. And no, I would not have won. This is why I'm a writer: I like to sit back and watch other people from afar. I'm not nearly curious (or masochistic) enough to immerse myself the way the best students in these classes do. I would much rather wait until the mystery is figured out and then have someone tell me the solution.
I would like to thank Will Lavender again for talking with me. There is nothing more exciting for a reader than to get a chance to talk to a favorite author!
Check out Will Lavender Official Website and follow him on twitter at