Yesterday, I reviewed my friend Jonathan’s new book, The Poison Artist. I loved this book so very much. Here’s my in-depth review here. Lovers of both suspense novels as well as chilling, gothic reads will love this one.
I caught Jonathan on his plane ride home from his San Francisco book tour for his book launch last week to beautiful Hawaii to talk about the book and his upcoming projects.
Hi Jonathan, welcome back to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I’m so excited for The Poison Artist, which is your third book release and the start to a three-part series published with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the U.S. (as well as with other publishers overseas). What a great book, my friend! I absolutely loved it. When I interviewed you a few years ago for your debut novel, Redheads, I knew you’d have great success, but it all happened to so fast! As we are on the cusp of you just celebrating your hot new book, I know you are busy with out-of-state promotion, so what have you got going on?
Jonathan: I’m flying back from three days of readings around the Bay Area. I read at A Great Good Place for Books, in Oakland; at Books Inc. Opera Plaza; and at Copperfield’s, in San Rafael. If someone didn’t make it to an event, but you’re in the Bay Area and want an autographed copy, I also signed stock at all those stores, and at Green Apple Books, and the Books Inc. locations in the Richmond and Marina neighborhoods. I’m always blown away by the book scene in San Francisco. There are so many wonderful stores.
Coming up, I’ve got a few events in the works in Honolulu. And then, in March, I’ve got something very big lined up in the U.K., but I’m not allowed to talk about that just yet.
Erin: Sounds so fun! I was upset that I live on the other side of the United States! But I think I’ll be going to the UK if you are (haha!), so keep me posted! Thanks for taking some time to spend with me during your busy schedule. Come in and let’s sit in my comfy library chairs and discuss what’s been happening. I usually serve tea or coffee, but I’m interested in all the elixirs you tell me about for when I’m reading, and absinthe was a big part of The Poison Artist. I’ll let you choose the drink this time and I’m sure you can virtually whip it up for us, right?
Jonathan: This is a cocktail that Ernest Hemingway claims to have invented. He called it a Death in the Afternoon. Pour one ounce of absinthe in a fluted glass, and then top it off with ice-cold French Champagne. When you add the Champagne, the cold water draws out the herbal oils dissolved in the absinthe, and the drink takes on an almost opalescent hue.
Hemingway recommended drinking four or five, slowly. I’d start with one, and see how you feel before you take it any farther.
Erin: Ha! Maybe we should sit up at the bar instead, though now that I think about it, staying grounded in this chair might be best. I’ll do my best to keep up with Hemingway. 🙂 Should we begin?
Erin: I’ve read The Poison Artist, and as I told you, I was completely swept away. My mind is so busy it’s really hard for me to keep focus these days, but your book truly drew me in. For those that don’t know, can you give us a brief break down of the plot and then where you found your inspiration?
Jonathan: This is the story of Caleb Maddox, a research toxicologist in San Francisco, who becomes obsessed with a woman after a brief, strange encounter in a bar. She doesn’t even give him her name, and he has to comb the city to find her. At the same time, he’s helping the city’s medical examiner with a homicide investigation. As he draws closer to the woman, he begins to realize that his hunt for her is connected to his help with the case.
I first had the idea for this story when I was in my twenties. I went to college in San Francisco, and when I had the idea for the story, I was on an all-night walk from Golden Gate Park, across the bridge, and into Sausalito. I tried writing it, but just couldn’t. It was way over my head. Later, in my mid-thirties, I came back to it.
Erin: How did you create such an element of suspense? Tucking clues in the pacing and yet not openly enough for me to have guessed anything until the end?
Jonathan: Lee Child wrote a brilliant essay for the New York Times in which he explained how to create suspense. So I’ll just paraphrase him. The key is to tell people that you are going to give them some information, and then delay the delivery of that information. I’m going to tell you who shot J.F.K.—right after this commercial break.
Here’s another way of saying that: to create suspense, a writer has to be willing to hold back facts. If you dump all your information at the very beginning, you might have an action story, or a horror tale, but not a suspense novel. In The Poison Artist, I rationed out clues and information like they were from the last tin of cookies on a lifeboat. The hard part was to create the right amount of balance—you want to drive people a little bit crazy, but not so much that they quit reading.
Erin: And you did that very well. You like to put the element of science into your books, whether forensics or toxicology. It’s very technical in nature, yet your stories are so differently done than any straight forensic mystery, such as Patricia Cornwell, and include more science investigation than, for instance, Harlan Coben. Being an attorney by trade, and not a scientist or medical professional, where does this element come from and how do you make it so believable?
Jonathan: I’m so glad it comes off as believable!
If it’s working, it’s mostly because I go out and ask for help. I love to research, and I love to talk to people and ask questions. As an attorney, I may not know the answers to science questions, but I do know how to pick up the phone and pester people until I get what I want. I’m also lucky in that I have a lot of great scientists in my family, and a network of friends who know everything.
Erin: You have so many layers and elements to your story, however. I loved your use of art and history in your piece. I don’t want to give away anything in this interview so that people may enjoy the book, but can you talk about how you enjoy intertwining dark, gothic, and atmospheric references within what could be a cold and sterile scientific environment/plot? You’ve done it several times now, but this time was outstanding.
Jonathan: Again—I’m so glad it worked for you. You’re right that this is a complicated story that involves a lot of science. There’s a study about pain thresholds, and there are references to research grants from the NIH, and the way mass spectrometers work, and techniques for autopsies on bodies that spent way too long in the water. I wanted to tell a complex story, but I wanted to do it in an elegant way. I didn’t want it to sound like a Wikipedia article, and I didn’t want to cheapen the experience by forgetting about all the things that actually motivate people—things like beauty, and desire, and loneliness. Things you can’t really control, like lust and addiction. So it’s certainly true that this was a story that involved science and investigative techniques, but I always hoped it would be more than that.
Erin: In your last two books, Close Reach and The Poison Artist you were able to capture as well a psychological element based on a character’s past and their current actions or ordeals. In fact, Redheads was quite psychological as well. One of the things that draws me to your characters is their deepest struggles and how they do, or don’t, deal with them. Why do you feel this is so important in the creation of your characters as well as your story?
Jonathan: That must be a good question, because I have no idea what the answer is.
I think one of the things I enjoy most about writing is the way a story can slowly reveal a character. I’m always fascinated by watching when a good artist sketches something. You see her hand move across the sheet, and you watch as the lines are laid down. You understand the parts as she creates them, but you won’t grasp the whole until she’s finished. I think characters work the same way. You peel back the layers scene by scene, so that at the same time you’re advancing your plot, you are bringing a character to the surface. It’s a lot more fun to do if there is some real depth to the character, so that you can explore that history throughout the book. Perhaps that’s why my characters often have, for lack of a better term, a backstory.
Above: Jonathan provided this photo just from the other night, after his return to Hawaii, when he and his wife were out taking in this glorious scenic view!
Erin: If anyone read about you here before, or knows you, they know you love sailing. You wrote your first book on a sailboat you loved and enjoy being out on the ocean. Of course, Close Reach takes part primarily on the sea. I was thrilled to see you incorporate a bit of boats into The Poison Artist, which took place in San Francisco.
A: How important is it to you to leave a map of your own self on each of your books by including interests such as this?
B: Since you live in Hawaii, how were you able to research the piers near Golden Gate Bridge, as well as the rest of the San Francisco area around them, which were so important to the action and descriptive locations of your story? You really made the area come to life with your details.
A: My next book, The Dark Room, does not have a single boat in it. But it does indulge in some of my other pet interests, such as photography, live burial, and blackmail.
B: Researching San Francisco for The Poison Artist was incredibly fun. In fact, I had such a good time, that my next two novels are set there. I went to college in the city, and I go back several times a year on business. On top of that, my sister lives next to Golden Gate Park, and she’s always willing to reconnoiter a place for me. I had her case the security at the Legion of Honor and the Haas Lilienthal House, and it was through her that I got in touch with some wonderful people at the Sausalito Police Department. Last year, for my book The Night Market, I sent her up the bell tower of an old church on the edge of Chinatown, and then to a North Beach strip club.
Erin: Back to the gothic elements, it was splendid how you placed them strategically around the book to create a foreboding tension. I’d name them all, but I don’t want to give it all away for readers. However, your use of absinthe was a huge part of your novel, and as it is most well-known for being popular in the 19th and 20th century in France, and so this was very interesting. It was almost mesmerizing and hypnotic in the way you explained, through your characters, how to drink it with sugar. It became a rather toxic thing in my own head, like it has a mind of its own! Now I can see how Hemingway wrote and Van Gogh painted (both huge absinthe drinkers)! Can you tell us anything about your thoughts behind this or about your intentions or use of it in the book?
Jonathan: Rightly or wrongly, people ascribe a lot of meaning to each other’s drink orders. You think one thing about a man who orders an after-dinner brandy, and something entirely different about a guy who drinks Smirnoff Ice.
There is a character in The Poison Artist who has a rather distinct sense of style. She drives an Invicta Black Prince, a car with a production run of only 15 automobiles. She wears pearls, and hook-and-eye corsets, and only takes off her silk gloves to play the piano or go to bed.
Absinthe was the only thing I could give her. I didn’t have any say in the matter; she was very clear on that subject.
Erin: One of your main characters was the coroner, Henry. He was a supporting character to Caleb Maddox in this first novel, but do you hope to use someone like Henry again, since he is a coroner and ultimately has the ability to view and deal with further cases?
Jonathan: Henry Newcomb is a character in The Dark Room, and also in The Night Market. All three books stand on their own, but they share a mood and a tone—and Henry.
Erin: Can you tell us anything else about the next two books in your series? When will book two come out and how far along are you in writing them?
Jonathan: The Dark Room comes out in January of 2017, and The Night Market follows in 2018. The Dark Room follows an SFPD homicide inspector named Gavin Cain, who is pulled off a cold case murder investigation to hunt for a man who is blackmailing the mayor. The story takes place about one month after the events in The Poison Artist.
The Night Market is a little different, not the least because it’s set fifty years in the future. The main character, Ross Carver, wakes up with his memory gone after spending the night investigating a horrific murder. There’s a strange woman in his apartment, and because he doesn’t know if he can trust her, he keeps her at his side as he tries to find out what happened to him.
Both manuscripts are finished. My editors and I are almost done polishing up The Dark Room, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we take a breather before getting to The Night Market. We’ve got two years, and they’ve probably had just about enough of me for now.
Erin: It was only a few years ago you had Redheads published with an important nod from legendary author Jack Ketchum, and soon after, you were short-listed for the Bram Stoker Award. I knew you from shortly before you released Redheads until now, and even though you have a big book deal and a blurb from the ultimate author Stephen King, I can certainly say that you’ve been pretty even keeled through it all, and extremely humble. In fact, you are the most humble person I know. I’d have fainted and been swinging from treetops. How do you keep balanced? How do you feel about accomplishing so much in such a short time? How do you feel about book fame in comparison to telling a good story?
Jonathan: I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, and I’m very grateful for everything. There are a lot of kind people in the world, including Jack Ketchum and Stephen King.
Erin: I’m so happy for you! You’ve published three books now and all with stellar reviews. You signed the three-book deal with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, as well as international publishers like Orion, and last but not least, you are getting ready to be a dad for the first time. Of course, I know which one you are most excited about! How will you manage all this and your law practice duties as well? Do you think this will change with a child and how will you take on the task?
Jonathan: There have been some amazing advances in 3-D ultrasound technology, so I can say with complete conviction that my son has beautiful, dexterous-looking little hands. I’m sure it will only be a year or two until he’s taking dictation from me and doing all the typing. That’s how it works, right?
Erin: Do you have more plans for other books following this series? If so, what are they?
Jonathan: Yes, I have a few ideas. I’d like my next book to be set outside of San Francisco, just for a change of pace.
Erin: Have you thought of writing more short stories? I know you had one to be featured in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I love short mystery or horror stories. It seems to be a lost art or do you think it will make some resurgence?
Jonathan: I think that story, A Swimmer from the Dolphin Club, will come out in the March/April double issue of Ellery Queen. And right after I finished writing my last book, I wrote a new short story called Your Name Will Be Written In Lights. We sold that to Ellery Queen, and I hope it will come out in 2016 as well. That one was a fun little exercise—it’s a piece of noir, but it’s set on the Big Island of Hawaii, up near the rim of Kilauea.
Erin: I enjoyed A Swimmer from the Dolphin Club (so people should buy that issue!) and I can’t wait to read the next one!
If you could write any other book other than suspense or mystery, what would it be? Who are your literary writing idols, mentors, or those for which you like to read to study the craft?
Jonathan: If I could, I would write a book like Haruki Murakami’s brilliant novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. His books are so beautiful, and so strange. I don’t even pretend that I understand them, but I enjoy them immensely.
Erin: I know you sold your beloved boat, and now have a smaller boat and still love to fish. Have you been on the water lately?
Jonathan: I didn’t do very much fishing in 2015—I was busy writing. And then, on top of that, my wife is seven months pregnant. The ocean can get pretty rough, and so we’ve been playing it safe and taking hikes with each other instead.
Erin: Since you traveled to San Francisco for your books, and for your book promotion, what’s the best food or restaurant? What are you enjoying different about San Francisco than what you do in Hawaii?
Jonathan: It’s funny—on my last night in San Francisco, I took some people out to The Tonga Room, which is a tiki bar from the 1940’s built beneath the Fairmont Hotel, on Nob Hill. It’s got a lagoon in the center of the restaurant, and the Polynesian band plays from a floating barge in the middle of the lagoon. There are carved masks and grass roofs and tropical drinks big enough to overfill a trashcan. So I guess I must have missed Hawaii.
Erin: Finally, your Hawaii volcano is still NOT going to erupt anytime soon right? Do you think you’ll always want to live in Hawaii? Why?
Jonathan: Kilauea is erupting right now, and has been continuously since the 1980s. The crater is a couple of miles from our house. We go at night, so we can see the glow of the lava. When it’s very quiet, and there’s no wind, we can hear it rumbling.
Yes, I’ll probably always want to live here. There’s a hole in the world, and it shoots out fire and smoke, and it’s practically in our backyard. We can’t wait to share that with our son.
Above Photo by Maria Y. Wang, when the author visited Japan this year. And me…forgot to ask the travel questions!!! Next time.
Erin: Since you’re so busy right now, and I’ve already hounded you, I’ll let you go. Where can readers learn more about you or follow your books?
Erin: Thank YOU so much, Jonathan, for coming by and sharing in the publication of your amazing book, The Poison Artist. I’m beyond over the moon for you. Since we may have had a little too much absinthe though, I think we better sit awhile before we see monsters lurking in the corners. 🙂 Cheers to amazing book sales and talk to you again soon.
Jonathan: Thank you. I hope I haven’t misbehaved too badly, because I’d love to come back next year and talk about The Dark Room.
Erin: It’s better if you don’t behave. And make sure you stock up on liquor.
Note: If you’d like read my past interview with Jonathan about Redheads, go HERE.
Praise for The Poison Artist~
“An electrifying read… I haven’t read anything so terrifying since Red Dragon.”
“Patient, stylish and incredibly suspenseful”—Lee Child
“Magnificent, thoroughly unnerving…I dare you to look away.” —Justin Cronin
“With crisp dialogue and skilled plotting, this atmospheric novel—fittingly set in a dark and foggy December in San Francisco—is an engrossing thriller by an author to watch. Give this one to readers who like forensic thrillers but would also be drawn in by the creepy mood.”—Booklist, STARRED review
“Exquisite…The sympathetic, though brutally flawed hero and the shocking, Hitchcock-esque finale make this psychological thriller a must-read.”—Publishers Weekly, STARRED review
“Moore writes beautiful, careful prose and presents readers with an atmospheric story…Where he excels is in the sensuousness of his writing: food, sex, alcohol—he fully engages all of the senses…Absinthe, oysters, the painter John Singer Sargent, a classic car, and a string of disturbing deaths…make this dark tale memorable.”—Kirkus Reviews
“The Poison Artist is an elegant, gripping, hair-raising gothic chiller, a wicked mix of Poe, The Silence of the Lambs, and Vertigo. Settle in for a long night of reading—once this one grabs you, it doesn’t let go.” —William Landay, New York Times best-selling author of Defending Jacob
“Jonathan Moore has written a wickedly smart, emotionally complex novel that will haunt you long after you turn the last page. Whether you find it seductively terrifying or terrifyingly seductive, in my mind, The Poison Artist is better than Hitchcock.” —Lou Berney, author of Whiplash River and The Long and Faraway Gone
“With The Poison Artist, Jonathan Moore has given us a brilliant debut thriller, confident, mesmerizing, edgy and very cool. So much happens on every page, it’s almost dizzying. Hitchcock should come back from the grave and film this story.” —Howard Norman, author of The Bird Artist and Next Life Might Be Kinder
The Poison Artist, Synopsis~
A gripping tale of obsession and deadly mystery, where the secrets of salvation and the most devastating desires are all written in blood
Dr. Caleb Maddox is a San Francisco toxicologist studying the chemical effects of pain. After a bruising breakup with his girlfriend, he’s out drinking whiskey when a hauntingly seductive woman appears by his side. Emmeline whispers to Caleb over absinthe, gets his blood on her fingers and then brushes his ear with her lips as she says goodbye. He must find her.
As his search begins, Caleb becomes entangled in a serial-murder investigation. The police have been fishing men from the bay, and the postmortems are inconclusive. One of the victims vanished from the bar the night Caleb met Emmeline. When questioned, Caleb can’t offer any information, nor does he tell them he’s been secretly helping the city’s medical examiner, an old friend, study the chemical evidence on the victims’ remains. The search for the killer soon entwines with Caleb’s hunt for Emmeline, and the closer he gets to each, the more dangerous his world becomes.
From the first pages up to the haunting, unforgettable denouement, The Poison Artist is a gripping thriller about obsession and damage, about a man unmoored by an unspeakable past and an irresistible woman who offers the ultimate escape.
Jonathan Moore, Biography~
Jonathan Moore is a Bram Stoker Award nominated author of dark thrillers.Redheads was his debut novel, followed by Close Reach. Currently available is The Poison Artist, with two more to come in this series (stand alone, yet featuring one similar character), called The Dark Room and The Night Market.
Before graduating from law school in New Orleans, he lived in Taiwan for three years, guided whitewater raft trips on the Rio Grande, and worked as an investigator for a criminal defense attorney in Washington, D.C. He has also been an English teacher, a bar owner, a counselor at a wilderness camp for juvenile delinquents, and a textbook writer.
He lives with his wife in Hawaii and are expecting their first child.