John Katzenbach’s career as a novelist began in 1982 with In the Heat of the Summer, an edgy crime novel that looked at the cult of the celebrity, fame and media ethics.
In retrospect, In the Heat of the Summer also showed the newspaper industry at its height and, also, the beginnings of its slide. It was a business that Katzenbach knew quite well because he started for as a crime reporter for the Miami Herald and the now defunct Miami News.
Since then, Katzenbach has written 11 psychological thrillers and one non-fiction book.
Four of his novels have been filmed: The Mean Season in 1982 with Kurt Russell and Mariel Hemingway, based on In the Heat of the Summer; Just Cause in 1995 with Sean Connery; Hart’s War in 2002; and The Wrong Man released on television during 2011 in France as Faux Coupable.
Katzenbach’s new novel What Comes Next is about a university professor with degenerative dementia who thinks he may have witnessed the kidnapping of a teenage girl.
What clichés or preconceptions did you want to dispense about degenerative dementia?
I can’t say there were any preconceptions that I thought to dispel about the disease. What I wanted to do was find some truths about age and infirmity and I wanted to examine the nature of fighting back against illness. But, that said, I took some liberties with the course of the disease on my pages. I didn’t want to write a medical text. I wanted to write a thriller. As a writer you want to be accurate. But you also want to be truthful. They sometimes aren’t exactly the same things.
Why so much psychology in What Comes Next?
The science of psychology always adds to a reader’s depth of understanding not only about characters, but about plot. Readers want to be both surprised by the actions and behaviors of the people they come to know on the pages, but they also want it to make a kind of inner sense. You know, I can’t imagine not investing in the inner landscape of characters in any book I write. It ultimately is what makes the story rich for readers, it’s what involves them and it’s what makes them reach the end with a sense that they’ve been on a trip with not only the author, but his people too. Now, admittedly, sometimes that journey can be pretty dark and shadowy – and that’s what makes a thriller sophisticated. Or, at least, I hope so.
Psychology and the law often play an important part in your novels. Is this because your mother, Lydia, was a psychoanalyst, and your father, Nicholas, who recently died, was a U.S. attorney general under Lyndon B Johnson?
Well, I think in some way or another all writers are impacted by their parents. In my family, with my father’s legal prominence and my mother’s psychological acumen, growing up we roundly believed that with good emotional and legal help, anything could be accomplished. Even writing novels.
The Wrong Man came out in 2006; why so long between novels?
I’m tempted to respond that in order to make this one so good… or perhaps vent about the frailty of the publishing world… or maybe launch into some heart-rending tale about near-fatal writer’s block… but the truth is simple. I got perhaps halfway through another book and just simply didn’t like the direction it was going and wasn’t as fond of the characters as I think a writer should be (both white hats and black hats) and didn’t find that the energy it takes to do the heavy lifting portion of novel writing was there every morning, so I put it aside. It was at this point that my friend that I mentioned above received his diagnosis. These events, feelings, suppositions coalesced at the same time and one plot got tossed and another picked up. Probably a good lesson in this for aspiring writers, that even after so many books and so many years of doing this, it’s still possible to trip and fall down the rabbit hole of a wrong idea.
How has your writing changed since your debut, In the Heat of the Summer (1982)?
At the beginning of one’s career, it’s so much seat of the pants flying. What sounds right on the page? When you get older and wiser you hope to endow characters with greater depth and to tie the knots of your stories tighter. My friend, the great writer (and barely adequate fisherman) Phil Caputo always says that there ought to be a law, or perhaps something in the Constitution, that allows authors to go back and rewrite their first novel after they’ve written five others, because then they actually know what they’re doing. Much good sense in this statement, I think.
How different is the thriller genre now as opposed to when you first started out?
You know, I think the thriller genre has changed some – but mostly in response to television and film. TV seems to have taken over the procedurals (thank you Jerry Bruckheimer and CSI Everywhere). And movies demand more depth and sophistication in thrillers because they have to appeal to a non-thirteen year old boy or girl audience. So authors place greater psychological demands on their stories. At least that’s my impression. If I’m wrong, just cancel everything I just said.
Will we see more movies from your novels?
More movies? Sure. My last book The Wrong Man was filmed for France 2 television this past year. A terrific, unsettling and very stylish job by an excellent director named Didier LePecheur. My book The Analyst keeps bubbling up both here and abroad. But I’m most optimistic that the novel I wrote in 2004 The Madman’s Tale will be filmed this year. I did the script adaptation myself for an Australian director and we’re well on the way to being funded. Now, as the Bard wrote, “there’s many a slip betwixt the lip and the cup” so one needs to be cautious. But cinematic hope springs eternal.
Have you ever wanted to write a series?
Nope. Never wanted to write a series to the immense dismay of my agent and various editors.
Your hobby is fly fishing. Will you ever write a novel with fly fishing at the center?
Curious question. Fly fishing at the center of a thriller? I thought that fly fishing was already in the center of all my novels. Just not explicitly.
What Comes Next? A little pun, there. I’m hard at work on a new book. Three women who do not know one another, a 17-year old high school student, a 34-year-old recent widow and a 51-year-old internist living alone all get the same message at the same time on the same day: “I’m coming for you.” What they do about this threat is the core of the new book.