Rich Chiappone’s new book, The Hunger of Crows, will be published in November and is available now for pre-order. For the long-time Alaska writer, it represents a distinct swerve from realism into a more commercial style of thriller, albeit with literary dimensions. Beginning three years ago, I started to make the same mid-life turn toward suspense, which made me curious to ask Rich, a self-proclaimed “late bloomer,” how he got started.
Rich Chiappone: I started out intending to write something purely commercial—a simple thriller. But then I sort of fell in love with my characters and got sidetracked into their lives and their hearts and minds. It took a couple years of re-writing—first, under the advice of my agent, and then with the help of the publisher’s editors—to eliminate a lot of backstory and ancillary scenes that were purely character development and did not move the action forward. It was a tortuous learning curve for a short story writer like myself who got into writing back in the MFA program world of the 80s when words like “plot” or “genre” were blasphemous curse words.
The result is a hybrid: a literary thriller or crime novel is how the agents and publishers seem to want to describe it. That made it difficult to sell, of course. And just to make it even harder, the main character is a woman; in the current age of cancel culture, an old guy writing about a younger woman was a tough sell. One publisher rather honestly said she simply could not get past knowing that.
Andromeda: I’m glad you mentioned your need to pare back a lot of backstory and extra character development. My first attempt at a domestic literary thriller, back in 2018, sunk entirely because I was trying to cram in too much. Just for example: I set the story in Canada and Italy, and I was even considering some scenes in San Francisco. Some thrillers move locations (consider Talented Mister Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, a personal favorite, which starts with the narrator in the U.S., before he goes to Italy.) But in my case, the two locations gummed things up.
A tighter frame—geographically, chronologically—is often helpful for any kind of book project. I’d written only about 25,000 words when I realized my structure wasn’t sound. I happened to have lunch with a former editor and pitched her that Italian thriller. She nodded politely. Then I followed up by saying I knew what I was doing wrong, and what would be better. Then I explained an idea I’d just started thinking about, involving a thriller entirely set in Guatemala, over the course of only a week, based on some disturbing experiences I’d recently had there, which I explained in agitated detail.
The editor lit up and said, “That’s the one. Go home and write that. I challenge you. Can you do it in two months?” In the end, it took me about four months for a first dirty draft, and another full year in revision, a process that’s still ongoing. I am still learning how thrillers work, and leaving some of my old plotting habits behind. It’s been fun.
Rich, tell me more about your process. What got you from first concept to finished book?
Rich: The novel grew out of a short story that was in my second collection. It was the only short story I’ve ever written that contains multiple points of view. I generally tend toward the classic structure as set out by Poe and others: one main character with one central problem. So when I finished that story in a bit of a hurry (the collection was going to print and I needed to send it to my publisher), it never felt complete. I wasn’t really sure it should have been included in the collection
After the collection came out, a good friend and fine writer, Nancy Lord, kindly mentioned that she liked my collection and especially (you guessed it) that story. So I went back and read it again to the end, and I knew it wanted to keep going. At first, I thought it might go to novella length, but once the dangerous antagonist showed up I had to keep going to see what happens.
As for why it became a thriller: the original story ended with two short chapters. In the second to the last, a woman (a very attractive divorced cocktail waitress) goes out alone at night onto Kachemak Bay in a skiff and runs into a terrible squall. That chapter ends with no clear ending. She apparently drowns. Then the next and final short chapter is in the POV of a lonely, newly-divorced guy. He is in his own boat anchored in the lee of an island waiting out the sudden storm, alone and feeling sorry for himself. The chapter more or less ends with nothing happening (I’m a big fan of Chekhov).
So, I said to myself; What happens next? I didn’t set out to write a thriller. I set out to find out what happened to that waitress, and what the guy on the boat had to do with it. The answers to those questions is the whole novel.
BTW, this is a TERRIBLE way to write a novel. Having no plan, no outline, no timeline, no idea what is going to happen next is a lovely way to write short stories (the only way, as far as I’m concerned), but a really stupid idea for novel writing.
I have to say I’m a bit bemused or befuddled by your comment that not knowing what you are doing is “fun”. The journey is the best part of it, only in retrospect. Now that it’s done, I can sort of (almost) look back fondly on the process. At the time, my sense of humor was more or less played out. I f*ing hate writing. That, said, I’m sure glad I still do it.
I’m afraid I can’t begin to guess what people will make of my novel. It is largely a look at middle age. Four of the characters are in their late thirties or early forties, and juggling the regrets of decisions made in the past, and the terrors of the unknown future. Being plunged into a life threatening thriller scenario is almost a relief in a way: it allows them to stop thinking about their inner lives and worry about their physical well being. This is the narrative drama I’m interested in. Flannery O’Connor famously has her character The Misfit say, “She’d have been a good woman if there had been someone there to shoot her every day of her life.” That’s the central thought of my main character’s situation. After years of living from one meaningless sexual encounter to another, she he has to make a decision that really matters.
The question is: will readers thinking they are getting a mindless thriller be willing to wade through a major life-changing moment like that?
Andromeda: That sounds great to me, Rich. (And I love that O’Connor quote.) In fact, I’m only interested in the more psychological/emotional thrillers because they give me that. Life, accurately described, plus higher stakes provided by the more immediate, physical drama. Pure action bores me to tears, in book or movie form. But internal distress combined with peril—that keeps me curious.
Anything else you want to tell us about your new book—a little more of a peek into the plot?
Rich: Why is Carla, my main character, in Homer? She’s running away from D’Angelo.
• How did they meet? A one-night-stand in Phoenix.
• Why is she running away? She has something of his that that poses serious political ramifications for the huge contractor he works for.
• How did she get that thing? She picked him up in the bar where she works and stole it the night they had sex, a sort of “memento.”
And so forth. Five years and hundreds of deleted pages later, I had a novel.
How does D’Angelo track Carla down all the way at the end of the road in Alaska? And what happens then? You have to buy the book to find that out.
Rich Chiappone is the author of three collections of short fiction and essays who has taught at the University of Alaska Anchorage since 1995, and served as an associate editor at Alaska Quarterly Review for more than a dozen years. His work has been featured on the BBC Radio 3 literary show “The Verb” and his story “Raccoon” was made into a short film and featured at international film festivals. He is a two-time winner of the Robert Traver Award. He now teaches at Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College and in the Master of Fine Arts Writing program at the university of Alaska Anchorage. A thirty-seven year Alaskan, he lives with his wife in Homer, where he has been an organizer of the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference for the past seventeen years. Visit his website at www.chiappone.us.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach and the author of five novels including Annie and the Wolves, a novel that is hybrid historical fiction/thriller, which was recently chosen by Booklist for their “Top Ten Historical Fiction of the Year” list. It was also named a most anticipated book of 2021 by Oprah, The Millions, Popsugar and Buzzfeed, and listed as one of “50 Best Fiction Books to Read This Year” by Reader’s Digest. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter at @romanolax.