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Interview with Richard Montanari 2013

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Richard Montanari is widely regarded as one of the finest exponents of the American Crime Fiction genre with his vivid descriptions, pinpoint characterisation and unique sense of place rocketing his novels to the top of the best seller charts the world over. The seventh Byrne and Balzano outing – The Stolen Ones (Sphere) – is no exception, taking readers very often quite literally to a Philadelphia few, including residents, will recognise. Chris High finds out more.

Luther manages to get from place to place in Philadelphia via the tunnels and sewers beneath the city. Did you go exploring yourself and how was it as an experience if so?

I did go exploring but, being claustrophobic by nature, it was quite the nightmare. What I discovered is that there are catacombs, passageways, and old stone corridors beneath the streets, some up to twenty-four feet in diameter, some built from cobblestones that were used as ballast on ships that docked on the Delaware in the 18th century.  In many ways it really is a city beneath the city.  The catacombs below the hospital at Cold River were used for many things, including patient transport, impromptu surgery and, luckily for me — and the story — the escape of inmates.

How much other research did you undertake?

 I did quite a bit of research for this book, especially in the area of lucid dreaming and dream engineering.  The field and study of dream interpretation goes back almost as far as recorded history.  Dream engineering, however, is still in the laboratory stage. Just recently — in the last few weeks, actually — neuroscientists at MIT published a paper heralding a breakthrough with audio cues as they relate to dream behaviour in mice, and the planting of false memory.  Experimentation on human subjects is a bit more clandestine.  It is this covert testing that is at the heart of the book.  Some of the other research for the book involved police procedure in Estonia, as well as the history and treatment of mental disorders here and around the world.

Byrne and Balzano are very well defined characters. How do you get “beneath the skin” not only of Kevin and Jess but all of the characters, both good and evil?

After seven books, I feel I know Kevin and Jessica rather well.  That said, they do continue to surprise me.  Readers of the series know that there have been many changes in their lives along the way, and I try to be true to the vagaries brought about by these life-altering events.  Jessica’s daughter is almost a teenager now, and Kevin’s daughter is in her twenties, so these things certainly present new challenges.  Sometimes minor characters arrive with the dew like manna, fully formed.  Others take a great deal of time.  When a character walks across the page, you just never know.

Is the Philadelphia State Hospital a real place, based on a real place and how did you get to learn its secrets?

The Philadelphia State Hospital was indeed a real place.  For an institution that flourished for almost one hundred years there is surprisingly little written about it. Three times in its history it was investigated for its deplorable conditions, not only for patients, but for lower-level staff as well.  It took a lot of digging and cyber-sleuthing to discover the timeline and other details about the facility.  The dark secrets of the hospital revealed in The Stolen Ones are, however, a product of the author’s grim imagining.  And while the name of the hospital in the book is the Delaware Valley State Hospital at Cold River, residents of Philadelphia will recognize the place.  For more than ninety years, every child in a five-county area who did not clean his or her room was threatened with a one-way trip.

What is it that comes to you first and how do you decide a particular story is one for Byrne & Balzano?

The first step in my process is always to determine the killer’s pathology.   In other words, why is he doing what he is doing?  There are certain required steps in the writing of all procedurals — a body is found, police are called, investigators show up at the crime scene — so my main series characters need to be on their game early in the story.  That’s the prevailing theory, anyway.  Kevin Byrne, and to some extent Jessica Balzano, don’t always play by the rules.  This is certainly true of my killers.  Once I know what motivates my villain, and through what shattered glass he views the world, the story begins to take shape.

Dialogue is a tool you use to great effect, particular as a means of keeping the pace rolling. As your career has progressed has this become something you’ve found easier?

I think it has become easier, in some respects.  I certainly know the patterns and rhythms of my series characters.  And quite often, by the time a minor character hits the page, I have an idea about how they will sound, and what they might say, based on their age and educational background.  In my time as a freelance writer I probably did three hundred profiles and, when permitted, I recorded the conversation.  When it came time to write the piece I would listen to these recordings a number of times.  I think this was great training for writing dialogue in fiction.

Your work has been published in over 25 languages. That’s a lot of countries. Do you have a personal copy of a novel in each language and who proof reads them for you; unless you can speak 25 languages that fluently, of course? Possibly as learned from the foreign language encyclopaedias you used to sell?

I've been quite fortunate in this regard.  One of the great joys in this job is getting copies of one's work in another language.  I'm also a huge fan of design, and I love to see how art directors in other countries interpret my work.  Unfortunately, I don't have copies of all my foreign editions.  For instance, I've only seen the Chinese edition of Merciless (Broken Angels in the UK), online.  It looks gorgeous.  There are also French mass-market editions of The Rosary Girls, The Skin Gods, and Merciless I would love to get one day.  As to the translation and proofreading, this is something I leave to my foreign publishers.  English is hard enough.  And the only thing I took away from selling encyclopaedias door-to-door is a somewhat flattened nose from having the aforementioned doors slammed in my face.
I interviewed Margaret Murphy recently who said that once a book is finished and published, what she doesn’t like is the “silence” that emanates from her central characters, stating that she has been working in tandem with them for so long it’s almost as though they’ve grown bored of her company. Is this something you can relate to?

That's an interesting take.  Because I tend to write quite slowly, there are always a number of months between the time I finish the second draft, do the copyediting, and begin the first draft of the next book.  So far, this has worked for me.  I hope my characters never tire of me, nor I of them.

Should the need arise, which 3 novels – not necessarily Crime Fiction – would you want with you on a desert island? 

 Should the need arise I hope I have the presence of mind to grab three proper books and not my iPad.  I'm assuming this island does not have electrical power.  That said, the desert island questions always baffle me.  The moment I submit my answers, more possibilities come to mind.  For practical purposes, I'd like to have a copy of Raw Food for Dummies.  I have a feeling it would come in handy.  As to the others, Notes from the Underground and Bleak House.  I’ve never read either of them, and now I would no longer have an excuse not to.

What’s next for Richard Montanari?

I’ve gotten a lot of email from readers wondering if The Stolen Ones represents the end of the series.  It does not.  I am hard at work on the next novel in the         Philadelphia canon.  I am also putting together a book of my previously published essays.  In addition, I am writing a short story featuring my series characters, a tale that will shock and surprise.

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See also Richard Montanari interview 2007



If you would like to comment on this interview with Richard Montanari in 2013, please feel free to contact me - GUESTBOOK

“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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