James Renner: "It’s Beyond Surreal."

James Renner: "It’s Beyond Surreal."

The Man From Primrose Lane book coverAuthor James Renner discusses the recent rescue of three kidnapped Cleveland women and their startling role in his mystery novel The Man From Primrose Lane.


Zola: You put Cleveland kidnapping victims Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight into The Man From Primrose Lane as possible victims of the serial killer you created—even though they had been forgotten by most of the world. Now they have all been discovered alive and well (at least as well as might have been hoped for). As a reporter and a novelist who has written about them, how shocking is this turn of events?

James Renner: It felt like waking up and finding myself in one of my novels. It’s beyond surreal. I spent two months researching their disappearances for a Free Times feature in 2006. I sat at a conference table at the FBI office in Cleveland and discussed the cases with Amanda Berry’s sister and Gina DeJesus’ parents for a couple hours. Both families believed their loved ones were still alive but I remember thinking they must be long dead. I had Arlene Castro’s name in my notes. I will wonder for the rest of my life what might have been if I had tracked her down and asked her some pointed questions. Would she have implicated Ariel somehow? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe in some other timeline, it played out differently.

Zola: The plot of The Man from Primrose Lane is mind-boggling, yet it also seems painstakingly planned out. How much did you sketch out before starting and how much was just flying by the seat of your pants day to day?

JR: I tell myself a bedtime story every night while I try to go to sleep. In that way, I begin to shape a new story in my head. And I tell it over and over and over until it finds some kind of order that is interesting. I usually think through a story like this for about two years before beginning to write. By then, the structure is pretty solid and I just have to get it out onto the page. But I do allow myself to wander a bit during the writing process.

Zola: It’s hard to discuss this novel without mentioning influence. Everyone seems to be in here: Philip K. Dick’s penchant for linking fiction with the supposed nonfiction of his own life; H.P. Lovecraft’s diary style; the grim, all-knowing first-person of Vonnegut. And Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone are referenced more than once. How conscious were you of the sci-fi community’s love of the line of influence, and how much was it just you doing your thing?

JR: I love the whole life-imitating-art-imitating-life cycle. If you get into Lovecraft and Dick and Vonnegut, their stuff is loaded with subtle references to the stories that have inspired them. Lovecraft was in love with Poe. The Twilight Zone was what shook me up as a kid and woke me up to storytelling and what a good, scary story can do to a person. Those old black-and-white episodes were so tight and well-written. Serling showed how you could tell a crazy story but still have it be a reflection on humanity. Look at “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Terrifying story about aliens just fucking with people. But it’s actually a commentary on how suburban life has isolated us from each other.

Zola: You wrote two popular nonfiction books before this. How did you make the transition to fiction?

JR: I became obsessed with solving the 1989 abduction/murder of Amy Mihaljevic. I got to wondering what I wouldn’t do to solve the case. The Man from Primrose Lane is an answer to that question. In fact, Amy was included in an earlier draft of the story. So the move to fiction was a method of therapy, I guess. I wanted to stop writing about cold cases and write a story with a resolution for once.

Zola: What are your favorite noir and sci-fi novels?

JR: Stephen King wrote this little book for Hard Case Crime a couple years back, The Colorado Kid. I was compelled to read it in one sitting. I love the sprinkling of the paranormal in my crime stories. I’m not a big sci-fi reader, actually. I really dug Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. And my all-time fav is The Hitchhiker‘s trilogy. I remember devouring those in a month when I was 13. But the book I turned to time and again during the days I spent writing The Man from Primrose Lane was actually The World According to Garp. I love the tone of that book and the way John Irving paints his characters.

Zola: Your narrator struggles with depression and anti-anxiety meds. Did you take that from your real life?

JR: I have been on and off Cymbalta for five years. I developed secondhand PTSD from all that digging into real-life murder when I was a journalist. Basically, it destroyed that part of my brain that regulates decent social interaction. When I’m not on the meds, I will say the most inappropriate things to people, sometimes out of anger, sometimes just to get a rise out of them. One of the last things I did before seeing the doctor was to badger a state senator about an extramarital affair he was having. This was in a room full of his political donors. I eventually lost my job over that story. He dropped out of politics shortly thereafter. So, I’d call it a wash. Also, the stuff about the withdrawals in the book is absolutely true. When you go off Cymbalta cold, you get these awful brain zaps. It’s really unpleasant.

Zola: Do you have a writing ritual/schedule? And does it differ between fiction and non-fiction?

JR: I write every morning, 365 days a year. Some days I get a page, some days three. On great days, I get five. It adds up quickly, though. I’m sitting on two complete novels right now. I tend to write nonfiction later in the day, using the morning for research. Writing nonfiction almost hurts physically, because you’re trapped by the truth of the thing. There’s no room to stretch and have fun.

Zola: Without giving anything away, there’s a lot of advanced theory in the book regarding time. Did you actually study this stuff, or is it all MacGuffin?

JR: I really studied theories on the nature of time for a couple years. I spoke to theoretical physicists at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. People like Lawrence Krauss and Tanmay Vachaspati. I really wanted to get it right. And I think I did.

Zola: Is there going to be a sequel?

JR: The Man from Primrose Lane is the first part of a trilogy of books. The second is all mapped out and takes place about three years after the events of the first book. It revolves around two mysteries, actually, and has very little to do with time. I’m thinking of calling it Curse of The Man from Primrose Lane.

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.