Nine years after San Francisco’s great earthquake and fires, the city is just beginning to be reborn and is full of possibility. In THE HIDDEN MAN: A NOVEL OF SUSPENSE (Ballantine/Mortalis Trade Paperback, June 24, 2008), the World’s Fair is opening to herald the completion of the Panama Canal and display exciting wonders and the promise of the new technological age.
Yet the primitive past haunts the city’s renaissance. Leaving a trail of brutality, a murderous fanatic secretly stalks one of the fair’s chief attractions: the brilliant mesmerist James “J. D.” Duncan. Homicide detective Randall Blackburn and his adopted son, Shane Nightingale, must combine their intuitive profiling skills and deductive techniques to solve a murder that hasn’t happened yet . . . one that only its terrified intended victim can see coming.
A Talk with Anthony Flacco
Interview by Mark Combes, Contributing Editor to ITW newsletter, who is an avid sailor and Scuba diver and travels extensively in the Caribbean pursuing his passions. He works in book publishing and RUNNING WRECKED is his first novel.
1. Alzheimer's as an obstacle – sounds brilliant. But is it also confusing for you to write? What is real – what is imagined – for your characters?
The line of reality gets danced across from time to time throughout the story, in order to reflect the confusion of one who suffers from this illness, particularly in the early stages when the ability to reflect upon one’s situation is still strong and an afflicted person still mounts a mighty struggle to remember and to make sense of things. Duncan’s plight represents what the great mythologist Joseph Campbell called the “inmost cave.” The inmost cave is any character’s absolute pit of despair. It may be a physical place of doom, but it may also be psychological in nature. Crushing despair, for example, is an inmost cave for the sufferer. And for me, the salient aspect of the inmost cave, and the way that you can determine whether or not you or a story character has entered their inmost cave, is to look for the loss of inner ability.
In the inmost cave, you are not only stripped of your alliances, perhaps faced with rejection and ridicule, but you are also afflicted with the loss of your internal abilities. Confidence goes, memory falters, mood plummets, suspicions buzz through your brain like mosquitoes. In the inmost cave, I believe that there are only two possible outcomes: (A) death, or (B) spontaneous evolution. I see the inmost cave as the engine of evolution, whether for an individual or an entire civilization. Duncan is a character pushed to his limits, whose prodigious abilities are failing him in an internal and irreversible cave-in. Duncan’s particular cave is one from which he will not emerge, this time. But at the end he makes a very bold choice, the result of his own evolution, and employs his death as a force of healing.
2. You are a screenwriter as well. How does that skill translate to writing novels? Two very different vehicles – screenplays and novels.
I believe anyone who has worked as a screenwriter will tell you filmic writing differs from narrative writing mostly in terms of how a visual image alters storytelling. The fundamental elements of storytelling are the same in any medium of communication; a narrative writer is always asking how to best describe a moment to tell the story, while a screenwriter comes from another angle and asks how to best show the story. In other words, the screenwriter always has to be telling us what the audience is seeing at one moment, then the next moment, then the one after that. It may be a close up shot of a tiny object that is shown in a level of detail the human eye cannot ordinarily perceive, or a wide angle pan of the galaxies and stars in our sector of the physical universe. Either way, the eyes have it.
But let’s talk about descriptions. Because I have to tell you that as a reader, I have always been in it for the descriptions. Sure, I love a good story, a real page turner, but a good story is a good story in any form. The narrative author does it with word play.
I was still a boy when John Steinbeck shook me out of my stupor of childhood – first with Cannery Row and then with Tortilla Flat and so many of his books – and he did it with description. By coincidence, I had been to “cannery row” in Monterey, California shortly before stumbling across the book, so I thought I knew what the place was like. Then he reintroduced me to it. Steinbeck took a narrow shoreline avenue of old canneries made of rusted sheet metal and hung with the stench of dead marine animals and transformed it into a magical place of heightened reality. In both Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat he actually made it seem believable that a bunch of hobos and stumblebums living in the area chose to treat one another with courtly gallantry, to uphold a common code of decency, and even to regularly lapse into fake Elizabethan terminology with one another in noble but absurd attempts to sound Shakespearian. Steinbeck uses his descriptive narrative in such a way that all of this is not only acceptable, but his characters' failures at imitating the Bard make their consistently repeated attempts seem all the more engaging.
Speaking of dialogue, it can run for longer patches in the narrative form, while if a film uses too much dialogue it begins to feel like a play. The theater may be a medium dependent upon dialogue while image is king in film, but the need for evocative dialogue is strong in all three forms.
3. Why historical? Are you a history buff? You could have set your story in any time period, why 1915 San Francisco?
The time setting of The Hidden Man is controlled by its predecessor, which was set against the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Moving the next book to 1915 allowed me to advance the ages of Shane and Vignette, who are twelve and nine, respectively, in The Last Nightingale, to that of a twenty-one year old young man and a young woman of nineteen for The Hidden Man. This gave each of them substantially more ability to affect the story with their actions. The nine year leap ahead in time also placed the setting at the beginning of San Francisco’s glorious coming-out party after the decimation of the 1906 quake. The Panama-Pacific International Exhibition made for a grand story backdrop.
As for being a historical writer, I just love working with good story material and am quite happy to go wherever it leads, into the past or here in the present time.
4. You’ve placed a young girl in your series – Vignette Nightingale. You don’t see that very often. Why a young girl?
Thank you for asking about her, Mark. I love Vignette. She is my homage to Huck Finn. As a young girl, as an orphan with absolutely no backup behind her, as a sexually abused child, and as a runaway, she is a symbol of ultimate helplessness against the extremely rough and dangerous backdrop of the story’s setting. I love her firecracker-y, take no prisoners personality. I love the fact that she will lie, cheat or steal with absolutely no compunction from a stranger, but is instantly willing to defend someone she loves, even at risk to her life. She is my statement of hope that the essential goodness of the human spirit can find a way to persevere and triumph even in the most outrageous of circumstances.
Readers of my nonfiction books Tiny Dancer and A Checklist For Murder know that I love to work with the character of a young female, because of the fascinating ways that many of them use to gain some measure of control during a time of life when they have so little.
5. You’ve got this triumvirate working in your series. Again, not common. How do you balance the three page-time-wise?
Well, I’m one of those writers who really likes to use outlines. I know that many writers avoid them like the plague, but I wonder if there isn’t an element of revulsion left over from college term papers at work there. Because I find that the story balance that you mention is the main benefit to that particular work method. Of course, because we have control of our story, the outline is not rigid at all. Anytime that you make a creative discovery that requires changing it, you change it. There is never an aspect of being trapped into writing anything or to writing it in some certain way. What you have in the type of outline I describe is a road map. You can take all of the detours that you want, and trust the map to keep you from wandering so far off course that the story structure falls apart. Or that the story ceases to have a coherent structure at all.
As for this particular trio, I love all three of them. My heart goes out to them. And now that Shane and Vignette are grown, I wish I could have all three of them over for pasta and soup and a nice dry red wine. I would give Blackburn the night off and do the cooking and the cleanup, and start the evening by taking him aside and assuring him that he’s ten times better off without Miss Freshell in his life. Over dinner, I would see if I could get Shane to reveal whether or not he will ever let himself fall for a woman. And after dessert I would try to get another glass of wine into Vignette in hopes that she might loosen up enough to teach me something about that weird “moving things around” thing that she does.