Jeffery Deaver’s literary rewind

Posted Sunday, Sep. 29, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
The October List * * *  by Jeffery Deaver Grand Central, $26 Audiobook: Whole Story Audio Books, $35; read by actor Todd Boyce.

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Jeffery Deaver loves a challenge.

So once the bestselling author got to musing about a thriller that should be read in reverse, he was determined to make it a reality.

The result is The October List (Grand Central, $26, out Tuesday), a gritty, race-the-clock crime story about a kidnapping and conspiracy that opens with the ending, then sends readers spiraling backward, backward, forever backward until they arrive at the shocking twist “beginning.”

It’s a novelty of a novel, complete with the gimmick of starting with Chapter 36 and winding down, 300 pages later, to Chapter 1.

We talked with Deaver — who’s currently working on a true sequel to The Bone Collector, the 1997 novel that introduced his most popular series character, Lincoln Rhyme — about the agony and ecstasy of writing a book in reverse.

What compelled you to write a book in this way?

I was listening to public radio, to a show called Fresh Air, hosted by Terry Gross, and she was interviewing Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim referred to a musical, one of his that I had not seen, called Merrily We Roll Along, in which the story went backward. It opened at the end and then proceeded “X” number of years earlier and then “X” number more years earlier.

And he said something that struck me as interesting, which was that one of the songs when the musical opens, which is to say at the end of the story, is reprised throughout, but it has a different meaning when played again. For instance, what could be a poignant love song at the end might be a song of breakup earlier. The words were the same, but the meaning was different because the context was different.

And I thought right there, “I want to do that with a thriller.”

Once you decided to try your hand at this, how hard or easy was it to execute?

It was exhilarating, but very, very difficult. How can I do the twists and turns and surprises that my books are known for, yet start where we think we know the resolution? How can I play with our perceptions and still play fair with the reader? Because you have to play fair.

I thought of other forms of entertainment that had done that, like the movie Memento. Martin Amis wrote a book called Time’s Arrow that goes backwards. And there’s the famous Seinfeld episode that goes backwards. So I knew there was a precedent.

So, I sat down and then came the hard part: I had to plan and write the book.

If somebody gets the bright idea to start with Chapter 1 anyway, what will the reading experience be like?

I’ve read both ways many times, just to make sure that the mechanics of the plot work and that I’m playing fair. It can be done, and I’m sure some people will do it, but it isn’t very compelling to read from Chapter 1 to Chapter 36, because this book is an example of how reversal is integral to the story itself.

Originally, we were going to number the pages backwards, too, and we even tried it in the advance copies, but there were a few people who thought, “Well, I have to start at Page 1, no matter where Page 1 is,” and they did not have a good experience at all. Really, it only works aesthetically reading it backwards.

The book also contains black-and-white photos that you, a closet photographer, shot. What is the story behind that?

I’ve done photographs for other projects, as well. Roadside Crosses [a thriller featuring Kathryn Dance] had some work of mine. Not in the book itself, but on the accompanying website.

And for The Kill Room [the most recent Lincoln Rhyme book], I came up with recipes and did studio shots of food because my hit man was a gourmet cook. Again, that was for the website.

Why do it? I like the interplay of words and visuals. Also, I think readers have more of a visual sense now. We authors need to consider ways to keep up with other forms of entertainment by integrating pictures and video with written storytelling.

What do you most hope readers take away from reading The October List?

My books are entertainment, pure and simple. So I hope readers are very excited. I hope they laugh when they read the book, and I hope they’re shocked and surprised when they realize what’s really going on. But I have been so interested, all my life, in perception versus reality.

So if there’s anything I want them to kind of have in the back of their minds is that what we see isn’t necessarily what’s going on, that life operates on several levels. It’s a fairly mundane philosophical point, but if there’s any hook or loftier takeaway, that is what I would like readers to think about. 

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