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Reading Chris Pavone's thrillers are the literary equivalent of getting lost in one of those autumn cornfield mazes. It's exhilarating and great fun - until you secretly start to wonder A) if you'll ever actually get out, and B) is that someone sinister following you from just behind those rustling stalks?
Pavone's first book, a spy story called "The Expats," won the 2013 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and a new one, the much-acclaimed "The Accident," brings Pavone Thursday to R.J. Julia in Madison on a signing tour.
Advance praise for "The Accident" is substantial. There were starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus, and fellow bestsellers William Landay, Paula McLain and Joseph Finder all waxed glowingly about the novel, which takes place in a 24-hour period in such disparate locales as New York City, Copenhagen, Zurich and Los Angeles. The four cities are linked by book business folks desperate to publish an explosively revealing manuscript with far-reaching implications - and shadowy folks even more desperate to keep that from happening.
Someone has hand-delivered the anonymous tome to literary agent Isabel Reed, who is astounded by the scope of what she's reading; if it's true - and it appears to be - the material in the book could crumble some of the most powerful politicians and businessmen in the world. It's also a property that could resurrect Reed's career. On the other side of the world, though, CIA operative Hayden Gray has been alerted to the apocryphal book and has been given carte blanche to find the manuscript and contain its distribution - up to and including murder. And since, despite Reed's best efforts, a few copies of the book have started to circulate due to duplicitous coworkers, it's all starting to spin out of control.
Pavone dances nimbly on intersecting tightropes of plausibility, timing, pacing and character development gleefully and with assured skill. Of course, as someone who writes very intricately plotted stories, Pavone has figured out it's best to leave as little as possible to chance.
"I didn't write myself into corners this time because I outlined the story pretty extensively," Pavone says by phone from New York City in a recent interview. "I wrote 'The Expats' that way and learned a valuable lesson - that I needed to more clearly think out my story and what would happen before I wrote 100,000 words and had to throw most of them away."
As to an oft-stated authorial phenomenon - that characters start to develop independently of the writer's intention as they get fleshed out - Pavone says he doesn't experience that.
He explains, "After I've outlined and started writing the text, I change my mind and revise constantly as I go, but I don't think my characters run away and become independent entities. I hear writers say their characters take on a life of their own and I don't understand that. My interpretation is that the authors change their mind about these made-up people."
Pavone's characters are all flawed; there are no comic-book representations of evil or righteousness in his books. Some are flawed more than others, but all elicit at least some sympathy in real-world fashion - and for some of these folks, it can't have been an easy thing to do. But he pulls it off.
"I'm trying to write novels in which there are no bad guys," Pavone says. "That's the way I feel about life. No one is a villain in their own autobiography; for the most part everyone thinks they're good people. A lot of people end up doing bad things or committing crimes not because they intend to but because of changing circumstances. In the book, a little kid dies and a woman dies and basically it's all done unintentionally and not by bad people. There are a couple of people who get murdered by people we don't know - and I did that intentionally."
A great deal of the action in "The Accident" takes place in the New York publishing industry, a business that is portrayed as perhaps antiquated and certainly in transition. It was absolutely intentional that Pavone describes it in that fashion. He spent 20 years as an editor at a major house before he ever wrote one word of "The Expats." Since he didn't come up the usual way - writing, submitting, rejections, revision, etc. - Pavone has a unique perspective about his new career.
"I have a deep familiarity and appreciation for what's going on with the manuscript when it's no longer in my hands," he says. "When it's at the publisher, I know what they're doing and trying to do and what their limitations are. I know more than most writers what they're up against, and I have great sympathy that enables me to be less of an angry and impatient author. I also solicit a great deal of editing for my work, not just from those getting paid for it but also others who have made careers giving good advice. Believe me, I trust them."
Notes on the business
Before he started writing bestselling thrillers, Chris Pavone spent two decades as an editor at numerous New York City publishing houses. Pavone has a lot of thoughts on the business in this tumultuous period when e-books, audio books and independent publishing are changing the industry.
On one hand, he says, "I have an immense library and I love books, but the truth is I think the physical book itself has created a tremendous number of headaches for the planet - the trees and trucks and distribution and returns ... There are vast inefficiencies. The greater share of a book price goes to shipping and distribution rather than author royalties."
At the same time, Pavone says, "There is a great degree of serendipitous discovery in bookstores that's difficult to replicate in a digital shopping environment. Smaller, specially curated bookstores are having a great resurgence, and that's encouraging. They add tremendous value to the process of choosing what you read."
Who: Chris Pavone
What: Bestselling novelist signs copies of his latest thriller, "The Accident"
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: R.J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Road, Madison
How much: Free, RSVP to reserve a seat
For more information: (203) 245-3959, rjjulia.com, chrispavone.com