- Paperback: 302 pages
- Publisher: Tyrus Books (December 4, 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 144059192X
- ISBN-13: 978-1440591921
And in the next second, I knew it wasn’t a joke or anything to do with drama club or anything Skip had done or…
A note, handwritten, was jabbed into the middle of the “body” with an open pair of scissors.
“YOU’VE KEPT ME WAITING LONG ENOUGH.”
You can’t make sound without air, so I didn’t make a peep, because at that moment all the air went out of my body.
Gone. Everything gone.
Sound. Air. Everything. Nothing. Skip. Life. Gone.
Ethan Holt, widowed former Olympic decathlete turned university professor, is engaged in the fight of his life after his only child, his daughter Skip, is abducted by a madman. As the kidnapper’s demands begin coming in, he realizes with growing horror this is no random act, no bid for something as basic as money. This crime is personal, a cold-blooded, calculated act perpetrated by someone who knows him and wants to ensure his suffering is as sharp as it gets.
The kidnapper’s demands come in the form of twisted rhymes, playing on the Twelve Labors of Hercules, a subject a classics professor is all too familiar with. As a former athlete, each task requires his utmost strength – both physical and mental. Ethan Holt is a man pushed to his absolute limits, the stakes everything he has left in the world. The kidnapper is a person teetering on the edge of insanity, blinded by rage, simultaneously horrified by what he’s become:
The kidnapper was gasping for air, stabbing at the crook in his left arm with a fresh needle. Only stabbing at himself would take over his rage, the rage he wanted to inflict on everything in his wake. On that person. On the other end of the phone. And on himself and how far things had gone. He wanted to stab it all away. Make himself hurt so bad for what he’d done… but his body could barely feel anything anymore…”
The plot of Dig Two Graves is tight, allowing the action to flow without being weighted down by unnecessary diversions. At the same time, the characterizations are superb, the good and bad guys drawn in a way that’s unflinching, portraits of all the best and worst in each. These are real people, three-dimensional and fully formed.
In the best books of this genre, it’s possible to both loathe and understand the motivations of the antagonist. By the end of the book, the reader will despise the actions of the villain, while also feeling a great deal of empathy.
An accomplished journalist, memoirist, novelist, screenwriter and television/broadcast journalist, Emmy and Peabody award-winning Kim Powers here demonstrates his ability to write an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride of a novel. Looking through his staggering list of credentials, you kind of have to wonder if there’s anything this man cannot write well.
Author Kim Powers was kind enough to answer a few interview questions for me:
LG: Have you always been interested in mythology? How did you come upon the idea of integrating the Twelve Labors of Hercules into a mystery?
KP: I like to blame it on Brad Pitt. I had just seen the movie of Seven – this was back when I was writing screenplays – and loved the architecture of it. The seven sins that everyone already knew. A tailor-made boiler plate. So the first thing that actually came to me, before the twelve labors, was the ten events of the decathlon. Maybe it was during the summer Olympics, I don’t remember, but I like that it was a nice, even number.
Believe it or not, the 12 labors, which is really the key driving force of the book, actually came a bit later. There was a time when the solving of the labors ran very much hand-in-hand with the decathlon events: Ethan was literally replaying all ten events: the shot put, pole vault, hurdles, etc. Then that got to be too unwieldy.
I guess I know a little bit more about mythology and classics than the average guy, but not much. I had taken four years of Latin in high school – don’t ask me why; I thought it would be a good baseline for learning other foreign languages – but that all left me. Every translation in the book I had to look up. Back in the 80s, I had very fond memories of watching the Inspector Morse mystery series of Colin Dexter on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS; I loved how every episode seemed to be rooted in some arcane piece of mythology or ancient culture that only Morse could figure out! And maybe in a deeper way, as I got into things, I realized that human behavior, at its deepest, has never truly changed. The outside accoutrement have, of course, but those base emotions – love, hate, jealousy, revenge – have been in existence since the earliest cultures. They are part of our DNA. I wanted to explore that, and also explore how old stories – the oldest stories, in fact – had a way out of pain and misery for my characters. I certainly had escaped an unhappy childhood, into a world of fantasy and books and made-up characters.
LG: How much research went into the writing of Dig Two Graves? What were some of the challenges involved in translating mythology into a modern story line?
KP: The two pieces of “architecture” that began the book – the ten events of the Decathlon, and the 12 Labors of Hercules – were the only two things I really researched. I had a vague sense of both of them, but really had to dig back in to get the full details. And they both pretty much come down to running and throwing heavy things!
I did some research to try to get the medical details of what ailment the villain has; of birth abnormalities and what would have happened when, while he was growing up. Of what his motor and speech skills could be. With that, I didn’t want to pin anything down too literally, but I wanted to have a ready answer, if anyone asked me. (And I was also very much aware, in this era of political correctness, of not wanting anyone to say I had misrepresented their community.)
Coming up with modern-day equivalents to the Labors was a lot of fun; they went through a lot of changes over the course of time. At one point I had some crazy stuff about helicopters being the Stymphalian birds, but as the labors went on and on, came up with things where I could dispatch several of them at one time. I remember being in a gallery and seeing some Spanish painting of a sort of farm and a cattle chute; that was an “a-ha” moment for me, when I put three or so of the labors in the old abandoned kiddie farm.
I also had a lot of fun on Pinterest, which I’ve just discovered in the last two years or so, collecting photos of things that I could use as a reference for the old abandoned school, and the old ski lift/lodge. I can imagine a lot of stuff, but being able to take a wall from this and that drawing on the chalkboard and the way the roof has collapsed from real pictures was good for me.
I’ve written so much about the small town in Texas where I grew up, that I wanted to get away from that landscape for this. So I seized about making the college where Ethan Holt teaches a sort of version of Williams College, in Williamstown, MA. I spent many summers there working at the Williamstown Theater Festival. It’s up in the Berkshire Mountains, and has a fantastic variety of worlds around it. Extreme wealth, as well as hard-scrabble, blue collar, industrial mill poor. And a quick getaway across the state lines into Vermont. That served a lot of what I needed geographically, and it finally got me out of the deep South of Texas and the Alabama/Midwest of Capote in Kansas.
I loved writing the diabolical rhymes that accompanied each Labor; that was maybe the most fun part of the book for me. Rhymezone.com became my best friend, as I mapped those out!
LG: What about the father/daughter dynamic lead you to tell this story from the perspective of a widowed man and his only child? Was this POV always your intent, or did you consider other options?
KP: The father/daughter, Ethan/Skip bond is my favorite thing about the book, and the one thing I felt like I’d like to go back and explore more, in sequels. I’d love to see what they go on to next, in their lives, after the trauma in Dig Two Graves. I’m very interested in how people recover from that; and how some people shut down and quit living and can’t move forward, and how others can let it go and move on.
I’m not a father in real life – except to the four dogs I’ve had through the years – and I’ve never wanted to be a parent, but I loved exploring that dynamic in a fictional way. I think I’d actually be a very good parent, although I don’t think I could ever let go of the worry. I didn’t set out deliberately to explore that, but it became the heartbeat of the novel.
I’ve never been the kind of writer who maps out a lot of stuff in advance, except for maybe a handful of very key turning points, so it was all a discovery for me. And to my surprise, I realized I was very much recalling the dynamic I had with my own father, who had to single-handedly raise me and my twin brother from the time we were eight years old, after my mother died. I realized I hadn’t ever given him much credit. A lot of readers had told me he was the missing character in my memoir The History of Swimming, but he very much gets a chance to tell his story in my next book, Rules for Being Dead, which I write more about later on here!
(There’s a line in the play A Streetcar Named Desire, when one of the characters, a neighborhood lady, says to Blanche and Stella, “Don’t need no ton of bricks to fall on me,” about realizing they want her to get out of the house. But I sometimes think I DO need a ton of bricks to fall on me; so often – and there are so many instances in Dig Two Graves – where I’ve written directly autobiographical things from my own life, but didn’t realize it at the time. Only after I finished writing do I go, “So THAT’S where that came from!”)
A few times, when I began feeling like it was maybe a bit of a cliché to kidnap a young girl, and be another old white guy perpetrating violence against girls and women, I thought about changing Skip to a son. But it just didn’t have the same resonance. It might have been interesting – a novel of all men – but there was something so fascinating to me in that dynamic of a single father, trying to raise a teenage daughter without a rule book. The jealousy that daughter might feel, when her father begins dating again. I had gone through that – not jealousy, but resentment – when my own father began dating, after the death of my mother. And I wanted to explore that.
LG: Skip is such a strong young lady, bright and self-assured. Is she modeled on anyone you’ve known? Likewise, Ethan is both deeply intelligent and athletically talented. Did his character spring from someone in your own life?
KP: I love Skip so much; I couldn’t begin to tell you where her name sprang from, it was just there, full-blown, when I first thought of her. And pretty much she was there, fully formed, as well. In earlier drafts of the book, she was a few years younger than her present 12-years-old, but then that began to feel creepy.
To a little bit, she’s based on my informal Goddaughter, Adelaide Daniel. (Meaning I’m not officially her Godfather; she’s the daughter of my best friends, and I’ve always been her Gay Uncle – Guncle Kim.) She just started college this year – how time flies, but I’ve known her since she was a baby and have seen her grow up, as maybe an only child can. She’s studying acting and has always been interested in theater; those beats of Skip wanting to be an actress and doing sense memory exercises stem directly from that. She was in the musical of Legally Blonde at her high school and I stole that as well. A colleague at work told me about how his young daughter was obsessed, as were all her classmates, with making things out of duct tape, like purses, etc; so I was really picking up details everywhere and anywhere I could.
Ethan, the hero, is really “me with muscles.” I don’t know how else to describe him. I’m the least athletic person of anyone I know, but I went through a period of working out in my 30s. I thought back to that when I was writing all those scenes in the gym, and of him prepping for the Olympics. The pain/pleasure of it all.
There was one long paragraph I wrote – maybe the very first thing I ever wrote for the book – about how he treated the gym like a church, with the ghosts of everyone that had been there in the decades before him. And if you can’t remember that passage, don’t worry; you’re not going crazy! It’s not in the book anymore. I kept shoe-horning it various places, because I was so in love with the writing of it, but it just never fit. Talk about “kill your darlings.” Having to leave that passage out killed me! But Ethan’s emotional life is straight from me: other than the outward facts of his life – the Olympics, teaching, being a father – he is me.
LG: How difficult is it writing from the perspective of a deeply disturbed individual, such as the villain in Dig Two Graves? How does such a kind person as you write from such a dark, depraved place?
KP: Fantastic question! And only another good soul like you would be smart and perceptive enough to think it, or ask it. It was the hardest part of the book for me. At the end of the day, all the writing I’ve done has represented me: who I am as a person, what I believe it. I’ve never written “violence” before. Some early readers of book at one point told me it was clear that Skip – the kidnapped daughter – wasn’t going to get hurt. That she wasn’t in physical jeopardy. I had to grit my teeth and hold my breath and go back and add some, to make that believable, even though it’s not the kind of stuff I like reading.
I was able to write the “villain” by making him a character: at first, getting into his voice, his linguistic tricks, the way he would turn a phrase. And even though it’s a cliché a lot of actors spout, that you have to see him as a person rather than a black-and-white bad guy, I had to do that. When I came upon the chapters of his backstory – of how he first learned The 12 Labors of Hercules, to overcome pain; when I wrote the chapter about how he envied someone else, of how he tried to become that person, watching him on TV (careful not to spoil any surprises here!), that helped him become more a person to me.
At the end, the showdown in the cemetery with the protagonist, that was two desperate people, not a bad guy and a good guy. That took everything out of me to write; I’d play searing arias from operas as I wrote, to help me get to that place emotionally. Maybe because I began my early life, as a kid and then in high school and college, thinking I was going to be an actor, everything had to have its own internal logic for me. I had to be able to “act” the character realistically. And I acted the villain to the place where I thought he was real, and I could understand why he would do the horrible things he did. He is basically a kid, asking God why these horrible things had happened to him, and getting revenge on the people he thought was responsible. If I’ve done my job right, by the end of the book, the reader will feel some sort of sympathy and understanding toward him. And because every writer always hopes his or her book will become a movie – I was already projecting that in my head: what do I have to give a big A-list Hollywood actor, to seduce them into wanting to play this character??
LG: How does the writing process differ from journalism to fiction? Is your approach to each the same, or do they require different strategies?
KP: The obvious basic difference is that journalism is supposed to be the truth, just the facts, ma’am, without any editorializing. (Haha, as the kids would say.) Once you’ve done it as long as I have, through my writing jobs at Good Morning America and 20/20, you realize how nearly impossible that is. I had never been to journalism school when I lucked into that first job at GMA; most of my colleagues had. The good part of that is that I wasn’t hide-bound by a set of rules, but it was a little bit of my failing, too.
So many of the writers I’ve seen at ABC have no sense of nuance, of creating drama or telling a story through their words. It’s just the facts. You can do that – or at least I can – without being boring. It’s the thing that drives me the craziest; I accuse some of my fellow writer/producers there of being school marms. I think it’s why I’ve lasted so long there – nearly 20 years – and done so well. I’m able to tell a story and convey human emotion. The worst situations there for me are when we have to crash a breaking news story, and it’s just a recitation of who, what, where, when. I like to supply the missing ingredient of Why?
One of the good things, however, that all that writing, day in and day out, has given me, is the stamina for writing books. It’s worked that muscle for me, and I can sit down and bang out five or six pages at a time, until the picture in my head is emptied out. Sometimes I feel like the day job uses up all my words, and I have nothing left at the end of the day, but it has also taught me to approach writing my books like a job: day in and day out. Not sitting around waiting for “inspiration” or “the right mood” to hit me. If I did that, I’d never get anything written.
LG: You’ve written about the loss of your twin brother, the relationship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee, and now a former Olympian faced with a seemingly impossible task, the life of his child hanging in the balance. What’s next for you? Is there another book in the works?
KP: I think the disappearance of my twin brother Tim (written about in my memoir The History of Swimming), and then his ultimate death, informs everything I write. For better or worse, I guess it’s sort of the broken record in my life. In a coded way, even Capote in Kansas was about that: two former best friends, who become enemies. The very last words in the book are Truman saying this to Harper Lee: “I’m sorry.” That was completely me saying it to my twin brother. I was writing a blog post the other day for Dig Two Graves and it finally hit me, like an idiot, how much the search in that completely made-up thriller was informed by what I went through during the three days in which Tim went missing. The impotence of a character – me, or my hero Ethan Holt – to do anything, other than look to the heavens and say, “Where ARE you?”
So my next book goes back to that theme. It’s called Rules for Being Dead – part of my “cemetery suite” I’ve been jokingly calling it, along with Dig Two Graves. It’s a novel, but very autobiographical, sort of a prequel to The History of Swimming. It’s about a little boy whose mother dies when he’s eight years old, and his playing detective to find out what happened to her. At the same time he’s doing that, the dead mother herself is looking for the same answer, sort of floating around in the ether, not allowed entrance to heaven or hell, until she can find out. Sort of like The Lovely Bones. Was it suicide, murder, an accident, what? It will be my magnum opus, finally answering the question that has haunted me all my life. After The History of Swimming came out, I received some information about my mother’s death I had never known before – after some 40 years of mystery. It changed everything I thought I had known up until then. So that’s what the book is about. It’s done, and my agent plans to take it out and shop it around after the holidays. Wish me luck! After that, I’ve scraped the family closets clean; now I’ll have to start actually making up shit!
Thank you to Kim Powers, as well as TLC Book Tours, for the opportunity to read Dig Two Graves.