Hunt takes gamble with her latest book strategy

Arlene Hunt has taken a risk by setting up a publishing company to launch The Chosen, but believes it’s the right decision, Declan Burke reports

The Chosen

Arlene Hunt

Portnoy Publishing,

€13.99; Kindle £5.74

CRIME author Arlene Hunt said of her latest heroine: “Jessie’s very much a product of her own making. Because she’s rebuilt her whole life. She’s where she wants to be, and with the man she wants to be with, doing the job she wants to do. And she would have cheerfully carried on that way for the rest of her days, if she’d been let.”

Hunt is talking about Jessie Conway, a dedicated special needs teacher in a small American town who has fame thrust upon her when she instinctively acts to prevent a Columbine-style massacre in the school where she works.

Hunt has previously written five best-selling titles in her Dublin-set ‘QuicK Investigations’ series, which star the private eye pairing of John Quigley and Sarah Kenny. Her new book, The Chosen, is set in the US, but that’s not its only unusual aspect.

Despite being an established author with one of Ireland’s biggest publishing houses, Hunt made the decision to take the road less travelled for The Chosen, and set up her own publishing company, Portnoy Publishing, with her husband and business partner, Andrew.

“People do think that it’s a little curious,” says Hunt, “because I turned down a two-book deal to go my own way, but it’s a calculated risk. With a two-book deal, you’ve got security for two years, but you also lose the rights to your book for 70 years. And with the tipping-point coming for digital books, I just wasn’t prepared to do that.”

Given the current economic climate, the decision is either foolhardy or inspired. It’s tempting, however, to view Arlene Hunt as a mirror image of her latest creation: a woman very much of her own making who would have been happy to carry on in conventional publishing had circumstances allowed, but who has taken a decision that may well have unforeseen consequences.

“I’m not going to lie,” she smiles, “it’s a bit scary. But the book is as good a product as it would have been had I gone through a traditional publishing house. And that’s important, because the last thing I wanted to do was foist something inferior on my readers. As far as we were concerned, it had to be really, really good.”

Jessie Conway’s troubles only really begin after she foils the high school massacre. Thrust into the spotlight, she attracts unwanted media attention, which in turn unearths the unsavoury truth that Jessie killed the abusive husband she married as a young woman.

Killing an abusive and potentially homicidal man is one thing. I suggest, mischievously, that her female readers may be more outraged by the fact that Jessie has kept the information from her current husband, the loving, trusting Mike.

“I think most women will understand,” she responds. “I mean, Jessie asks Mike at one point, ‘When was I supposed to tell you?’ Which I think is a valid question. If you meet someone and there’s a real connection there, you’re not going to tell them all the worst things about you straight away, all those things that burn you up in the middle of the night. That would take time, and yet over time she develops a relationship with Mike, and she doesn’t want to put that in jeopardy. And then, suddenly, it’s gone too far to start telling him all this stuff. She doesn’t want to go digging through her past in order to create her future, and maybe ruin it.”

But a potential marriage break-up is the least of Jessie’s concerns when her new fame brings her to the attention of Caleb Switch, a single-minded killer with a penchant for kidnapping young woman, releasing them into the wilderness, and then hunting them down.

“I wanted to pitch two people against one another, a him and a her,” says Hunt when I ask where the hunting motif came from. “And I thought, what better way to do it than bring together a hunter who knows the terrain and someone who just won’t give up? It was really that simple. And of course, Jessie is unpredictable, she isn’t what Caleb thinks she is. But then, if she did everything he wanted her to do, she wouldn’t be of as much ‘value’ to him in hunting terms.”

Written in a taut, sparse style, flavoured with the tang and twang of its North Carolina backwoods setting and influenced by contemporary American authors such as Daniel Woodrell and James Lee Burke, the novel is, appropriately enough given Caleb Switch’s weapon of choice, arrow-straight in terms of narrative.

“I don’t do ‘whodunits’,” says Hunt. “You know, reading one of my books, who’s doing what. The trick is to figure out what’s going to happen with these people, how it’s all going to come together, and once it does, what’s likely to happen. Because I don’t really like pat endings. I mean, Jessie doesn’t get away scot-free by any stretch of the imagination. There’s always a price to pay.”

That price, thankfully, doesn’t involve the kind of explicit detail that can generally be found in the ‘torture porn’ of today’s sub-standard serial killer novel.

“I don’t read that stuff anymore,” Hunt says firmly. “When I was a younger reader I’d have been more tolerant of it, but that kind of over-the-top brutality goes very close to titillation. I’m happier, when I’m writing, to delve into the background, what’s going on emotionally and psychologically with the victims, say, or the fall-out in their families. And I’ve said it before, but the reader’s imagination is incredibly powerful. If you paint a picture in broad strokes, you don’t necessarily need to fill in all the details for a reader to know exactly what’s happening.”

The fact that most of the victims in such novels tend to be young women may also be a factor, given that, in the parallel universe that exists beyond her writing life, Hunt is herself a mother.

“Possibly,” she muses. “But I don’t know if it’s about being a mother or just that I’m that bit older. I honestly couldn’t say if it was one or the other. You see it in CSI sometimes, or that kind of TV programme, and it can seem like gratuitous brutality and slasher-killers and all the rest of it. I’ve just lost interest in that over the years. I’m much more interested these days in the consequences of deceit and lies, for example. How one lie can affect everyone in a family, or a community.”

Ultimately, The Chosen is a novel about how one woman responds when fate, humanity’s malign nemesis since the days of classical Greek tragedy, singles her out for Job-like punishment.

“The book opens with a horribly brutal act, and people being shot and killed through no fault of their own,” admits Hunt. “And then this woman, who performs a truly heroic act, ends up with her whole community turning on her, again through no fault of her own, and attracting a killer like Caleb Switch — again, through no fault of her own.

“So Jessie is a victim of fate throughout the book,” she continues, “although she’s a victim with a difference. This is a woman who will fight back. And I liked the idea of this killer entering Jessie’s life just when she’s at her weakest point, and making her stronger.

“Because even though she’s depressed, or thinks she is, when actual death comes at her, she realises how much she wants to survive. How much she wants to live.”

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