IT MADE perfect sense that Chris Pavone’s debut thriller, The Expats, became a critically acclaimed bestseller when it was published in 2011, and that it won a slew of awards. The American author had, after all, worked as an editor in the publishing industry for almost two decades. Thus he had a canny understanding of the commercial requirements of a genre novel, and an insider’s knowledge of the craft involved in writing a block-busting thriller.
At least, that’s the theory. Until you realise that Chris Pavone is actually a veteran editor of cook books and gardening tomes.
He began in the industry as a copy-editor, he says, initially working on fiction. “But when it came time for me to become an acquisitions editor, I turned to non-fiction and cook books and some gardening titles, some fishing books,” Chris tells me when we sit down in the Merrion Hotel.
“A lot of what I thought of as ‘light’ subjects, which in many ways were a lot more straightforward-looking to me as a young, still idealistic person. There were things about the fiction side of the business that weren’t quite right to me. It seemed to me that a lot of it was driven by things that didn’t strike me as being important to the work itself, and that wasn’t really true of these other types of books I was publishing.”
If there’s a hint of cynicism about the fiction publishing industry in those words, it’s a cynicism that is writ large in Pavone’s current novel, The Accident. The story opens with a commissioning editor receiving a manuscript of a book that will, if published, destroy a media mogul’s career and lay bare the dark heart of America’s secret service. A race against time begins as a plethora of characters scheme, plot and murder to prevent publication.
“The book, for me, is very much about ambition and compromise,” says Pavone. “It’s not that that’s how I see the whole world, but I wanted to write a book that thought that way. The vehicle for feeling out these people’s compromises and ambitions is this manuscript that’s at the heart of The Accident. Everybody looks at this thing in a different way. It is to some extent corrupting to some of them. ‘Is this the point at which I sell out? Is this where I become corrupted?’ Or, ‘Is my corruption still in the future?’”
The Accident is a pulsating tale that blends thriller, mystery and spy novel tropes and confirms the promise of Pavone’s debut, even if it’s the kind of novel that Pavone, in his younger years, ignored as a reader.
“One of the epiphanies I had was that I got into publishing because I love literature,” he says. “I loved books by people who were dead before I was born, for the most part, who had won Nobel Prizes. But then it became part of my job to read a John Grisham book every year. I had been very dismissive of popular fiction — in fact, I’d refused to read it. And then I started working on popular fiction, and I realised these books weren’t the same as Hemingway, say, but they were good in a different way. They were great in a different way. I became much more of a relativist about the qualities of a novel. Now I think John Grisham writes fantastic books. They’ve got nothing to do with what Donna Tartt writes, for example, but they’re both writers I enjoy.”
With two decades of experience under his belt, Chris Pavone was a highly regarded editor in the industry. Why the leap from gamekeeper to poacher?
“I loved editing, and being a cook book editor is a really a great job. It’s difficult to imagine a more indulgent grown-up job to do, that someone would send you out to restaurants to find great chefs to write a book. But being an editor is essentially about other people’s passions, and helping other people bring out the best of what they have to say to the world. Eventually I realised that I wanted to try to create something myself, and that’s what writing novels is. Not because I wanted to put myself in front of the world, but because I wanted to create something that would go out into the world.”
Chris Pavone is more aware than most that the publishing world is today struggling to come to terms with a number of seismic changes in the traditional model. He admits to being ‘a little pessimistic’ about publishing’s future, but remains on the whole optimistic that readers and booksellers will survive and thrive.
“Bookselling, I believe, is enjoying a resurgence, especially the kind of bookselling we used to think of as booksellers before the advent of chain stores — the Mom & Pop stores, the independent neighbourhood store,” he says. “A lot of the big chain stores are now gone, and independent bookstores are springing up to step into the role again. The book market has levelled out, or at least it’s not declining as fast as it was a number of years ago, and I think readers are understanding more and more what thousands of certain types of independent retailers can bring to the market. That price is not the main consideration. I mean, relatively speaking, books are very inexpensive. A book takes a long time to read, and you don’t pay all that much for it. And paying less for a book isn’t necessarily the goal of every reader.”
That said, he does believe that the industry may have to configure its ideas about how it generates the profits that will allow it to commission new writers, particularly in the face of the digital revolution.
“I’m paying a lot more these days for things that I’m told are free,” he says. “But all these ‘free’ things — say on-line — they’re not free. You’re just not paying for the content. But you are paying for internet service. You’re paying for phone service. You’re paying for the hardware. And you’re paying a lot more than you used to pay, you’re just paying different people. We’re now paying telecom companies instead of movie producers and TV networks and book publishers. It doesn’t cost any less, it’s just going in a different direction.”
With two best-sellers already under his belt, and Hollywood already circling around an adaptation of The Expats, Chris Pavone is particularly pleased that some of the highest praise he has received has come from his fellow writers. Was he ever worried about push-back from writers concerned that he was muscling in on their territory?
“I had many, many worries about my first book,” he laughs, “but that wasn’t one of them. I mean, I was worried that the book wasn’t good enough, and nobody would like it, that people would make fun of my ambitions. Waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking it was all a huge mistake, and that I was going to die destitute and alone.” He grins. “Y’know, pretty much what every writer worries about.”