Jonathan Hayes e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson (January, 2008)
On his website, Jonathan Hayes says: "I am an English freelance writer living in New York City. My focus is on food and travel, with occasional forays into design, video games and pretty much whatever I find interesting. My work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, GQ, Premiere, Gourmet and Food & Wine, among others; in 2003 I joined the masthead at Martha Stewart Living in a contributing editor position. I am a career forensic pathologist, a Senior Medical Examiner in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Manhattan, and a clinical assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine."
Those very impressive - and surprisingly varied - credentials have resulted in a brilliant debut novel, Precious Blood, which Hayes himself calls "A fairly violent forensic thriller" (a typical English understatement for a chiller reminiscent of Jeffery Deaver at his most gruesome). While you browse the author's website, don't miss his engaging article Exquisite Corpses, where he says that "CSI works not so much as forensic science but as forensic science fiction" but that "at its heart, the show really nails the true nature of forensic investigation - the elimination of false leads, the winnowing down to the provable conclusion." Jonathan Hayes' depth of expertise in forensic investigation adds substance and credibility to his harrowing thriller, Precious Blood.
Q: You give your protagonist, Dr. Edward Jenner, a similar background to your own as a Medical Examiner/forensic pathologist. Are relationships with the police often as collegial and occasionally as tense as portrayed in Precious Blood?
A: Relationships between the police and forensic pathologists very much depend on their specific jurisdictions. In smaller centers where everyone knows everyone, the relationships tend to be pretty chummy. In larger cities, particularly in cities that have had police or medical examiner scandals in the past (i.e. most of them!), polite, professional distance is more common.
There are opposing tensions: the work we do is intense and demanding on so many levels – moral, physical, intellectual, spiritual – and that kind of work naturally fosters strong bonds. At the end of the day, though, the cops remain slightly wary, because they know that if they shoot and kill someone, we'll be investigating them, and we won't pull punches. And none of us would expect them to go easy on us if we were suspected of having committed a crime.
Q: Was your Dr. Jenner's name chosen in homage to the historical Edward Jenner, who came up with the smallpox vaccination and, if so, why pick him in particular out of all the medical heroes of history?
A: Jenner got his name long before I started writing the book, long before I knew very much about him. I was driving in Northern California with my girlfriend sometime in the early 1990's, and we saw a turn-off signposted JENNER 5 miles. And I immediately knew that was the name I wanted for my hero.
Jenner's first name (which he abhors) was indeed chosen by his parents in homage to the original; Jenner's family made its money in the pharmaceutical industry, but, beyond that medical connection, I don't know why they chose the name.
Q: Your Edward Jenner fell apart after dealing with the aftermath of 9/11. For those of us who have never been close to a disaster (whether natural or manmade) of that magnitude, the impact is unimaginable. Were many of your medical, fire department and law enforcement colleagues affected in a similar fashion to what you described in the book?
Q: Your serial killer seems very well thought out, as if you plotted his life in detail from birth onwards, and then gradually filled in the reader from his crimes backward - was that the case?
A: That's exactly right. Indeed, the first draft of the book was about 30% longer, much of it covering the killer's life and early career. I cut it drastically to keep the book moving in the present, but also because I felt that revealing too much of the killer weakened his mythology. I wanted him to be somewhat unknowable, somewhat impenetrable.
One of the truisms about murder investigations is that there's always something that you just can't explain – how something happened, why something happened. In the same way, I didn't want the killer's motivations to be spelled out too explicitly, his actions to be too legible. At the end of the day, what he does comes from horrible pit of viciousness deep inside him, and is resistant to logical analysis.
Q: You mention in the Exquisite Corpses article that for a medical examiner "Unexpected natural deaths, accidents and suicides fill up the roster; homicides, the purring engine of the forensic drama, are in the minority." Have you ever dealt on the job with a victim of a serial killer?
A: I've been a forensic pathologist for 18 years now, first in Miami and then in NYC, and have dealt with the work of several serial killers. I rarely talk about my real cases – these are real people, real deaths, and each death is a tragedy in its own way. Writing fiction lets me talk about the way murder works, and the effect dealing with violent death has on the men and women who investigate it.
Q: Where did Jenner's colorful Japanese neighbor Jun come from? Did you meet someone like him in New York or on your travels, or is he a composite of traits pulled together in your imagination?
A: I've idolized Japan since I was about 12, when I saw Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai; as I've got older, my fascination with the country and its culture has only grown. I've been lucky enough to visit Japan a few times, and have a few Japanese friends; I would say that, although I am pretty well-traveled, I don't think there's anywhere on earth quite so foreign as Japan.
After 9/11, one of the things that kept me sane was playing Ico, a Playstation game where you are a boy trying to save a princess from a ruined tower. It's an amazingly beautiful experience, a game so exquisite that it let me escape from the smoke and death of New York City for a few hours. A couple of years ago, when I was in Tokyo, I got to hang out with Fumito Ueda, the game's creator. It was a huge honour – Ueda is a real genius. He's part of the inspiration for Jun, although he's more cerebral, and more of a pure aesthete than Jun is.
Jun is also inspired by all the Japanese kids who've escaped the strictures of contemporary life in Japan by coming to live in the East Village, my neighbourhood in Manhattan. I think they have a really romantic way of seeing New York City, a sense of its beauty and its myth, a belief in New York as a place where anyone can reinvent themselves. I totally share that vision.
Q: Ana evolves from shattered victim to shocked survivor, turning to substance abuse, and then into someone with the spirit to fight to the end - how much do you believe attitude has to do with those who do and don't survive violence?
A: Attitude has a lot to do with survival, particularly in a context when someone has very little support. Ana grew up pretty wild – in her own way, she's tougher than Jenner, who, at the start of the book is a complete mess – and that drive and defiance ends up serving her well.
I like Ana – she's pretty hardcore. Indeed, in Precious Blood, I respect her more than Jenner. She's tough, resourceful, not a self-pitier. Basically, while she may not be perfect, she certainly kicks ass. Some readers have suggested that they'd like to read more stories about Ana; that idea appeals to me.
Q: As a physician, do you have advice for readers who can't stop looking over their shoulders after finishing your chiller (I speak as someone who couldn't enjoy a shower for years after watching Psycho)?
A: Take up knitting! Everyone seems to be doing it these days ...
Books like Precious Blood are about facing one's fears, and surviving – at least for some of the characters. I think people have to be realistic about their fears, particularly their fears of violent death. It really isn't waiting just around the corner! Murder is rare and becoming even more so – when I first moved to NYC in 1990, the city had more than 2200 murders – that's more than five killings a day. In 2007, we had less than 500.
Of course, as we say in medicine "something isn't 'rare' if you're the person it happens to" ...
Q: You left Edward Jenner in a rather untenable position career-wise at the end of Precious Blood. Will he star again in the sequel, A Hard Death, and will this also take place in New York City?
A: Jenner has destroyed his own life, and now it's up to him to get himself out of it. He's screwed himself in NYC because of his own arrogance. A Hard Death begins with Jenner , his New York license suspended, working in a small medical examiner's office in southwest Florida. Swamps, mosquitoes, rednecks, tourists, rich retirees ...
Precious Blood is actually the first of five books in the Jenner series. After A Hard Death, I'm sending Jenner to hell over the course of a three-book arc.
Q: How does it feel to be on tour with a first novel of this high quality?
A: Busy! It felt busy! The tour was a fantastic experience. I'm proud of the book, but I'm still a fairly unknown quantity; the audiences for my readings were small, but great – smart people with tough and funny questions. I really had a blast.
I'm actually going to be doing a few more readings – I don't know if they'd be of interest to your readers. I'll be talking about my life as a medical examiner, how I took up writing, and doing a reading or two from the book, before answering questions and signing books.
NEW YORK CITY, January 24, 2008 6:30PM The Mercantile Library, 17 East 47th Street http://www.mercantilelibrary.org/
WASHINGTON DC Metro Area, February 21, 2008 7:30PM Border's at Bailey's Crossroads 5871 Crossroads Center Way Baileys Crossroads, VA
NEW YORK CITY, February 27, 2008 7PM The Police Museum of the City of New York 100 Old Slip, near South Street Seaport www.nycpolicemuseum.org
BOSTON late April 2008, TBA
NEW YORK, April 30, 2008, 6:30PM Thriller Panel at the New York Public Library Mid-Manhattan Library Fifth Avenue at 40th StreetFind out more about Jonathan Hayes and his Edward Jenner thrillers, read his Blog and many entertaining articles at JonathanHayes.com.
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.