Highlighted as a must-read in our Mysteries & Thrillers Spring Preview, Chris Pavone’s The Accident is a gripping read for suspense lovers, as well as those interested in an insider’s peek at the publishing industry. While the heart of the book is about a literary agent hell-bent on protecting an anonymous manuscript filled with unimaginable secrets, Pavone admitted to us that his 20 years as an editor helped him to slip some important insight into the work. He uses his characters to not only unfurl the mystery, but also to explore the dramatic changes to the publishing industry caused by ebooks and the closing of indie bookstores, and the very real risk of job loss.
Bookish: You were an editor for about 20 years before you became a novelist with The Expats. Several of the characters in your follow-up thriller The Accident are decades-long veterans of the publishing world, who aren’t particularly thrilled with the current state of their industry. How do you feel about it, both as an author and editor?
Chris Pavone: I really love the book-publishing world—the editors and the literary agents, the booksellers and the authors, the bookstores and trade shows… Almost everything is convivial, and almost everyone is passionate, so it’s a fun, rewarding world to live in. And because the stakes are relatively low, very few people take themselves too seriously. Life is people, and I think the people in the book business are a good way to populate a life.
But right now is a scary, uncertain moment for publishing as a business (that is, scarier than others, though perhaps people in book publishing are always saying this), which is what I was attempting to communicate in the novel. It’s not clear what parts of the business are going to survive, in what forms. And for the people inside, this is a question of personal survival: Will I have my job next year? Will my job exist?
Bookish: Along with the publishing types in the novel, there are also CIA hitmen, shady NSA creeps, spies, and a whole assortment of international goons. How did you learn about the dark side of national security? Especially the technical capabilities that fill the pages?
CP: I read the newspaper, and I make things up! I didn’t do any special national-security research forThe Accident. In both my novels, I’ve tried to keep the focus on characters, and the tensions and conflicts among them, not on tradecraft and gadgets and a regurgitation of research.
Bookish: The story is told from multiple points of view, spans across different countries, and takes place over the course of one action-packed, dangerous day. With a plot so complex, did you have to map it out before you started the actual writing?
CP: Yes! Although I’m not a very diligent researcher, I do spend a lot of time outlining and re-outlining, revising and re-revising. There might be people who can write complicated plots without a detailed outline, but I’m definitely not one of them.
Bookish: Even as certain characters race through New York City in a life-and-death struggle, many of them reflect on how much Manhattan and the outer boroughs have changed and affected them through the decades. Do you think the literary and artistic culture is still as fresh and vibrant there as ever? As someone who has lived and worked in the city, how has it affected you?
CP: It seems to me as if half the novelists in America live in Brooklyn now, but I guess that’s not a completely new development. And I know of five people on my Greenwich Village block who’ve written books—two humorists, a poet, a literary novelist, and me—and I’m sure there are others. So, there’s obviously still a lot of culture creation going on.
What I’ve noticed definitely has not changed in my lifetime is that New York remains a place where people work incredibly hard, even when they don’t have to. At my first book-publishing job in the early ‘90s, Jackie Onassis occupied the office at the end of the hall, and she could’ve been doing anything else. In Luxembourg, where I lived for a year and a half—and where I started writing The Expats—it was easy to let days slip away with French lessons and playdates and a couple sets of tennis. I’d be ashamed to behave like that here.
Bookish: The Accident has a lot to say about what goes into making a bestseller. Well, you’re an international bestseller! Do you apply any of what you learned in the business to craft your novels?
CP: This reminds me of E.B. White’s comment in his old faux-advice column “Answers to Hard Questions,” about the possible inadvisability of conceiving a child while suffering from hay fever: “The time not to become a father is 18 years before a world war.”
Which is to say: I don’t think there’s any way to write a bestseller. That’s a publishing achievement, not a writing one. I believe that as an author, I can only write the best book I can possibly write—the book that I’m in the most compelling position to write—and then hope that my publisher brings the necessary vision, enthusiasm, and resources to bear, and that the booksellers recognize the book’s potential, and that reviewers assess it favorably, and that the book-buying public agrees. None of that has anything to do with writing.
Bookish: An independent bookstore in Greenwich Village plays a part in the novel. Do you have any favorites indies?
CP: Of course! I do a great deal of my browsing and buying at Three Lives & Co., which is a two-minute walk from my apartment. It’s a wonderful place. But Three Lives is not the model for the bookstore in The Accident, which is a fictional mash-up of a few old downtown shops that are now gone, replaced by high-end fashion and bank branches. I would love it if someone could explain to me how so many banks can afford to pay so much exorbitant prime-Manhattan rent for their ATMs. It seems insane.