Where Do I Get My Ideas? It’s a long story.
I am not a seasoned veteran of the publishing industry, but I’ve noticed a few things since my agent sold The Poison Artist to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. For example, there is an unwritten dress code for male authors at writing conventions. It goes like this: whatever else you do, your jacket shouldn’t match your pants. If your jacket and your pants are cut from the same cloth, it looks like you’re wearing a suit. That’s way too formal, and people will shun you. Find an old jacket that doesn’t match anything. Elbow patches are probably a plus. If you have elbow patches, people might even take you seriously.
Aside from the dress code, the other thing I’ve noticed is that publishing is a slow process. I started writing The Poison Artist in the spring of 2013, and finished the rough draft in July of the same year. I rewrote the ending twice (at my agent’s insistence), and then she sold the book in May of 2014.
Right now, it’s January of 2016, and the book isn’t out yet. In the meantime, I’ve written two additional novels which will come out in 2017 and 2018.
It’s an interesting delay, because now that The Poison Artist is about to come out, I’m getting a lot of questions from people about what it was like to write it, and how I researched it, and where I got the idea. I have a one-track mind, and am mostly thinking about a book called The Dark Room, which I just finished revising. So when I get these questions, my internal response is usually something along the lines of: I have no idea—that was three books ago. I barely even remember why I wrote the last one.
That answer will never do, so I’ve been thinking back to 2013, and how I came to write The Poison Artist.
It’s strange, what goes into a novel. I think the origins of most novels are tiny and hard to detect, like the headwaters of a river. This little trickle is going to make it all the way to the ocean? You’re telling me that ships can navigate this? But what starts as just a tiny stream picks up other branches along the way, and grows until it carries itself. Somewhere in the north, you can cross the Mississippi by taking a step.
The Poison Artist is a dark novel, set around a cold Christmas in San Francisco. In December of 2012, I stayed for a week in The Palace Hotel while on a business trip. The hotel is a fine place, but I was in no mood to appreciate it. I lived in San Francisco during college, and not all of my memories of college are good. On top of that, I missed my wife, and I was freezing the entire week. Every time I went out onto Market Street after dark, I’d get followed around by a stumbling crowd of meth addicts, so I stopped taking my normal evening walks. But when you’re in a dark mood, The Palace can be a creepy place to be cooped up—just ask President Harding, or King Kalakaua, who both died while staying there. I began hanging out in the hotel’s bar, The Pied Piper, which has an incredible Maxwell Parrish painting over the back bar. I’d drink Jameson and Guinness, and stare at the painting, and look at my watch a lot.
Even though I was on the lookout for one, I wasn’t the lucky recipient of any ideas during that trip. But the hotel and the bar stuck with me.
When I got back to Hawaii, I was diagnosed with skin cancer, and had surgery to remove it. This was my first brush with anything more medically complicated than a simple check-up. The procedure was with local anesthesia, and the spot to be removed was on my face. So I was awake for it, and watching. It was fascinating, and horrifying, to lie there and see a scalpel or a pair of scissors go past my left eye, and out of my sight. There’d be a slight tug, but no feeling, and I’d hear the sound of cutting.
Again, I left the hospital without any ideas, but that surgery stayed with me, too. I dreamt about it for a couple of months.
Finally around March of 2013, I was out for a walk in Waikiki. I wanted to write a new book, something more ambitious than my first two novels. I was hoping if I walked far enough, I’d think of something. I remembered an old idea—a book I tried to write when I was a twenty-two year old college student, living just north of Golden Gate Park. It was a story about a man who becomes obsessed with a woman while simultaneously trying to solve a string of murders. I had been excited about the story when I first tried it on, and was disappointed when it didn’t fit. At twenty-two, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know about murder or toxicology or law enforcement, and I didn’t know about adult relationships or what actual jobs were like. I was afraid to write sex scenes, because my mother was the only person who read my stories. Worst of all, I didn’t know how to research the things I didn’t know. I wrote twenty pages, and realized the story was out of my league. I quit writing it, and after ten years, I forgot it.
On that walk through Waikiki, in March, I remembered my old story, but this time I saw it beginning in The Palace Hotel. I still didn’t know anything about murder or toxicology, but I knew how to research them. I went to the medical examiner’s office in Honolulu, where I saw autopsies in progress, and I interviewed doctors and talked with policemen. I sent my dad and my sister to reconnoiter the police headquarters in Sausalito, and through them struck up a friendship with an employee there who has helped me with all three of my recent books. And I remembered that surgery—the sound of the suturing thread as it’s pulled through the skin on either side of a cut, the sound of steel tools being set on a tray.
I remember that I was at the intersection of Kalakaua and Kuhio. The light had just changed, and I was stepping into the street, and I realized: this time I can do it. This time, I have enough.
The first time I tried to write The Poison Artist, I struggled for three months and got nowhere. The second time, I had an absolute ball. When I look at it now, it surprises me how dark the story is. (Stephen King said it was the most terrifying thing he’d read since Red Dragon. But while I was writing it, I thought I was telling a sad love story.) It wasn’t until I was finished, and could look at what I’d made, that I really understood what it was.
Now I just need to figure out how I came to write The Dark Room, and its sequel, The Night Market, so that in 2017 and 2018 I can explain where those two books came from.