Interview with author Thomas Shavner
A few years ago an attorney came into my bookshop to see if I was interested in purchasing a first edition Mormon bible with an inscription dated 1844 (the year of Joseph Smith’s martyrdom) from Sidney Rigdon, an early and controversial elder of the Church.
It was the Palmyra edition printed by E.B. Grandin “for the author” and therefore extremely rare. The latter phrase was important in identifying it as a true first, because later editions attributed the author to be Mormon himself, not Joseph Smith, Jr. According to Smith biographer, Fawn M. Brodie, one of the original founders pledged to revenge the prophet’s death by killing Thomas Ford, the then Governor of Illinois and his descendents “to the fourth generation.” I expanded the curse to include the sixth generation in order to bring it to the present.
Mormonism has enough interesting and quirky tenets to fill a myriad novels beginning with A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes mystery by Arthur Conan Doyle. I live in Jackson County, Missouri, declared by Mormon founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., to be the original Garden of Eden. It’s also where he was jailed for his beliefs and forced to flee. About 70 miles north of Kansas City is a river valley where he claimed Adam and Eve fled after their fall from grace. The place is called Adam-ondi-Ahman and it’s where Smith decreed that the righteous would gather to greet the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Lots of interesting material and settings.
Modern Mormons tend to shy away from the old unusual prophesies, focusing on core doctrines and what is common between their interpretation of faith and modern Christianity—they think of Zion more metaphorically, as a state of spiritual being. That’s not to say they discount the old Mormon sites. Places in western Missouri such as Independence, Far West and Adam-ondi-Ahman carry great significance as reminders of the suffering and fortitude of that first generation of Saints. Nonetheless, there are still those who follow the old tenets and even some who believe in ‘blood atonement’—where some sins are so heinous that they can only be atoned by having the perpetrator’s blood spilled upon the ground as a sacrifice.
How long do you think about a topic before writing about it? Do you have a set of notes where you write down topics before making a decision?
Not long. For the Michael Bevan series I simply wrote about something I knew a lot about after fifteen years in the used and rare book trade. I’d just closed the business and had time on my hands. There was no outline, no real idea of a plot. I just started writing to entertain and surprise myself. This is not to say I hadn’t spent years honing my writing skills, going to writers conferences, and submitting old manuscripts to agents.
I generally don’t consciously try to come up with a topic. When I was recently asked by my editor what I wanted to do next in a series, what I came up with wasn’t very good. I was straining to please her and not myself. I decided to let it rest for a while and spent the spring revising an old manuscript in a different genre that I’d worked on years earlier. Then one day an idea for a new mystery series materialized when I met a police officer in my neighborhood who spoke with a French accent. He came over from Marseilles to help his brother start a restaurant in a little river town and eventually became a cop. Instead of donuts, he eats croissants.
As for notes, I jot down ideas and catchy overheard phrases in a three-ring binder. I have a topics folder stuffed with lots of newspaper and magazine articles that strike me as possible leads—if only I could remember where I put it.
How long does it take to research a topic before your write? And for this book?
I spend about 25 % of my time on research. And that’s probably too much. Research, at least for me, is the easiest part (after editing). I have a tendency when the creative well is dry to start looking up things. It activates my left brain while putting the right (creative half) to sleep. I find lots of interesting tidbits, most of which I don’t use, and it takes a day or two to get back to the hard work of telling a story.
What resources do you use? In general and for the last book that you wrote?
I consult rare book catalogues and classics on book selling and collectors likeThe Book Hunter by John Hill Burton, The Anatomy of Bibliomania by Holbrook Jackson, Fine Books Magazine and anything by Nicholas Basbanes, but rely mainly on what I’ve learned over the years in my shop and at book fairs around the country and the United Kingdom.
For The Widow’s Son, I referred to passages from The Book of Mormon, the great biography of Joseph Smith, Jr., titled No Man Knows My Name by Fawn Brodie, One Nation Under Gods by Richard Abanes, Prophet of Death by Pete Earls, Far West Records, and a number of other books on Smith, and old Mormon sites in western Missouri. And then there’s Google…
How helpful do you find authority figures such as the police when writing about them? Is there a good way to approach them?
My character, Michael Bevan, knows the law, rare books, and how to handle himself in a fight. He’s not a policeman and doesn’t try to be. Josie Majansik was an FBI undercover agent, however. I know an undercover policeman, as well as a beat cop, and a retired FBI agent. Two of them I know from playing on the same rugby team. All three were willing to share some insights, but I haven’t taken advantage of the opportunity. I will for the next series that has a cop as protagonist. Most cities have opportunities for citizens to ride on patrols.
How many times have you been rejected before your first novel was accepted?
Over the years, probably over 500 rejections for five different novel manuscripts; and that includes having had two fine New York agents pushing my work at one time or another. I’d stopped submitting for a few years until I closed the bookstore and finished the manuscript of The Dirty Book Murder. Then, rather than do the email submission/rejection dance, I attended the annual ThrillerFest Conference in New York and pitched to twenty or more agents in the course of one pressure packed afternoon. Fourteen asked to see the full manuscript and one ultimately agreed to represent me. A year later my agent informed me that I had a three-book series deal with Penguin Random House.
Did you need to self-publish on e-books before your first novel was accepted or before this book was accepted?
I had published a short story on Smashwords, but never submitted a novel. After all those rejections, I needed the assurance of professionals that I had something of real value to offer.
Would you recommend self-publishing and building an audience before approaching a publisher? If so, what benefits do you see that it might have for an aspiring novelist?
No. Obviously, there are rare success stories. However, I think most publishers still look down upon self-publishing efforts. If you are going to do it, however, you need to approach it in a truly professional manner. And that means spending money to have your finished manuscript professionally vetted and edited for grammar, style and plot. That goes for cover art, too. Otherwise, you’re fooling yourself.
Does writing provide sufficient income to live on? And how long does it take for this to happen?
The writing trade is like any creative endeavor. I’m sure there is bell curve out there showing winners and losers and those in the middle surviving on peanut butter. Writers write. Keep your day job while proudly proclaiming you are an author. Consider any money gained in the trade to be a bonus, even if it takes forty years.
What is the funniest thing that happened to you on a book tour?
Due to a brain freeze I couldn’t remember the name of my main antagonist and how the book ended. But that pales to what happened to an author I know who lectured a crowd for an hour unaware that his fly was open.