SARA GRAN IS the author of the stunning novel Come Closer and the brilliantly complex and layered Claire DeWitt detective series. The eagerly awaited third in the series, The Infinite Blacktop, is out now. A successful TV writer, she has worked on Chance for Hulu, Southland for TNT, and, most recently, Berlin Station for EPIX.
The two of us talked in Culver City about her writing and later by email; the conversation has been condensed for clarity and edited for fan-girling.
DÉSIRÉE ZAMORANO: I first discovered you via your novel Come Closer. It was intoxicating. Was that your intent as you created that world?
SARA GRAN: Come Closer was a hard book to write because the narrative structure of that book is unusual, and I didn’t realize at the time how unusual it was. I’m not sure if it’s an unreliable narrator so much as an unreliable narrative structure — there’s a certain point where things flip and it becomes more and more clear that what’s happening is real, and all the clues have been really subtle. Each reader finds these clues at a different point. For me, there was a clear point in the manuscript where things change, but for other people those points were different. So this contributed to this sense of going into this narrative, this dream world where you are sucked into it and can’t get out. I just was focused on the character, and the character changing, and ended up with this weird narrative structure.
What is your series’s genre?
For the Claire DeWitt books, I feel that there is a mini-genre of character-driven detective novels that are about the detectives, and not about the crime. My real idol in that is James Sallis, who writes the Lew Griffin series. That has been a huge inspiration. Another one that I love, coming from a completely different background, is Andrew Vachss’s Burke series, much more crime, much less mystery. And of course in the Chandler books no one cares about the mystery, they don’t always even make sense.
Claire DeWitt is fierce, yet compelling. These novels are a fascinating and entertaining eclectic mixture of esoterica, deadly poisons, drugs, and mysticism; the influence of Jacques Silette with his handbook Détection, simultaneously a shadow and a beacon for Claire. What is the genesis of this series?
Since I started writing, I knew I wanted to write a detective series. My father was big fan of the Nero Wolfe books, by Rex Stout. They’re procedural, but also character driven. When I was a teenager up until now, when I had nothing to do I’d pick one up and read it. There’s a unique experience in staying with characters throughout the course of a series. Andrew Vachss does that really well, too; in his series the characters age, kids grow up, people get old, kids go to college, people marry and divorce, just like they do in real life. You can look at it as one novel spread out in a series over the course of a lifetime.
Another big influence on my series was a comic book artist named Grant Morrison. He had this amazing comics series in the ’90s called The Invisibles, although I didn’t read it until the 2000s. He wrote very new-age-y, Terence McKenna drug stuff. Crazy, crazy stuff. So here you have really traditional mystery, Wolfe; more modern mystery, Vachss; and this Terence McKenna/Robert Anton Wilson stuff that I’d always been really into but never knew how to apply to fiction before. Grant Morrison said he intentionally wrote a character as an avatar of himself, that he was going to have amazing, interesting, fascinating things happen to his character and he hoped that they would happen to him, and they did. He said it worked.
So I really loved all of these ideas, this idea of staying with a character and having her sort of be an avatar for your life. Except something went horribly wrong with the Claire DeWitt series — I recently lost my parents and my life has gone to hell, as hers often has! I hope I didn’t write myself into a corner with that. [Laughs.] I’m much more conscious of that going forward. I’m going to write her a better future, and maybe that will bring me a better future.
I always wanted to do a series for all of these reasons, and then I started a book when I was in New Orleans in 2007 — I started writing a character who was not a detective, it was going to be something else altogether. I realized, “Oh, this character could really be something. This could be the series I’ve wanted to do.” So I reworked that, and that became Claire DeWitt.
Your novels very casually include ethnic minorities, people of color. Why is that?
The books are really like the America I’ve lived in. I grew up in New York City, which was majority minority. Brooklyn was majority black when I grew up there, and I believe the second largest category was Latinx. When I lived in New Orleans, it was 85 percent African American. I lived in the Bay Area; San Francisco is not entirely white but it is very white, but when I lived near Oakland, 10 years ago, it was also majority black.
I grew up with different kinds of people. For me, it’s an aberration when I see an all-white environment, although I know for some white people it is true to their experience. When you look at some of the numbers for this country you realize some white people live in this all-white universe but that’s never been how I was raised, or how I choose to live.
Can you chat a bit about fierce Claire, character-driven novels, and “unlikable” characters, as written by women?
Growing up in New York in the ’70s, there was no option to be this certain type of woman who doesn’t speak up, who doesn’t say what’s on her mind. Women have always been like this. I bristle a bit when Claire’s called self-destructive. It’s accurate, but it’s not the whole picture. To do the work she needs to do, she needs to have a different frame of mind, a different mindset. Some of those things she does may seem self-destructive but are actually constructive. She does go on self-destructive binges, especially in the second book — there’s a drug binge that leads to her nearly dying in a car accident, that’s definitely a bad thing. People shouldn’t do that! But I think a lot of the things she does that seem to not make sense do make sense. That is a real reflection of me in my life and people telling me, “You’d be making more money if you did this,” or, “You’d be more successful if you did that,” and me having to summon up the spine to say, “No, that’s not what I want to do.” Life is really short, and I don’t want to devote it to making money, to being famous. Those things are probably wonderful, and to the degree to which I have them I appreciate and enjoy them, but I don’t want to sacrifice anything that’s important in order to have them. They’re not gods whose altar you want to worship at. That seems very self-destructive to some people, and that’s reflected in Claire’s story.
Also, I think of the difference between being kind and being nice. I always struggle with that. What’s being nice, and what’s being kind? What is actually being good and what is making someone feel good? I think it’s the same with characters: there’s interesting and there’s nice. Likable versus interesting.
The woman thing comes into people’s perceptions of my work, but not my perceptions of it. To me, who wrote a book as a woman or a man is not interesting, but I have to constantly think about it because people are not judging me as a human, as a “gender neutral” man, but as a gendered female writer, and they are judging my characters in the same way. In a way, it’s a real gift to be a woman in this business and to be held to a standard that is 10 times higher than my male peers. I’ve never had the opportunity to slack off. I know I have a career in Hollywood not because I’m good enough, but because I’m better than a lot of candidates, who are given a faith that no woman is ever given in this business. It’s a challenge, but I try to look at it as a positive for myself (it is of course a huge negative, and a huge net loss, to the world at large). I know I am reaching an impossibly high standard every time I publish, every time I get a script out there as a woman.
What are the themes that propel you, that you want to explore?
I try to give each book its own thematic structure. Each book has its own thematic vocabulary, both in terms of the imagery, and in terms of what it’s about. The first book is obviously about trauma, and loss, and how you go on after that, and how you have to change after that. The second book is very much about love and relationships. The third book, I recently realized (thanks in part to our conversations!), is about happiness. How difficult it is to appreciate life as it unfolds, how easy it is to just let it be this long, infinite road of dissatisfaction. I don’t want to do that!
How do you balance your novel writing with your industry writing?
It’s hard, it’s ridiculously hard. It’s one of many reasons I haven’t had a book out in so long. It’s been five years. Between everyone in my family being sick and having to make a living, it’s been really, really rough. I have zero advice on how to balance anything to anyone, other than just try not to cry too much. [Laughs.]
What lies ahead?
I’m going to continue to work in TV. I have a bunch of pilots out there at various networks and places that will probably not get picked up but that are fun to work on. I wrote for Berlin Station for season three and might do another season if we come back. Season three is going to be amazing, and I’m really proud of it. It was run by Jason Horwitch, creator of the show Rubicon, an amazing writer and good friend from Southland.
I’m going to write another Claire book. I want to resolve the loose threads and start a new arc for the series, which I have 20 million notes for. That’s the nice thing about writing a series. I’ve been asked, “Do you ever have to put something aside because it doesn’t fit in a book?” And the answer is: “Yes.” But the great thing about a series is that I very often have the opportunity to use that thing again, coming up in the series. So I have hundreds of pages of notes, and one page of an actual book. [Laughs.]
Originally Claire DeWitt was going to be a series of three or four books, and now I think I’m going to do it for the rest of my life. I want each book to work as a standalone, which pushes me in a good direction in that I reexamine the origin story, everything that’s happened before the books begin. This means looking at each story as if it’s a gemstone: we’ve seen one facet, now let’s look toward a different facet. Or maybe it’s a peepshow with different windows, and you’re looking at a different view every time. It’s forced me to go back to those earlier stories, to make sure there’s something new for the old reader, and that everything comprehensible for the new reader too. It’s been a worthwhile challenge.