What makes The Unrepentant unique is the Aymar touch — his ability to craft an action-packed page-turner with humor and heart. If you’ve read his previous novels, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and You’re As Good As Dead, or his short fiction, then you’ll be familiar with his engaging voice and distinctive style. The challenge here, however, is the tough subject matter: human trafficking and the sex slavery trade. Aymar takes us into some dark, vile places inhabited by the worst kind of predators you could imagine, yet manages to do it with compassion, honesty, and sharp wit. This is not an easy task, but in Aymar’s skilled hands, it feels effortless.
If you knew E. A. Aymar, this wouldn’t be surprising. We first connected on social media several years ago, being in the same crime fiction orbit, and I was immediately drawn to his quirky humor and generous spirit. Over the years, we’ve crossed paths numerous times for various projects, both in real life and digitally, and he’s never ceased to impress me with his enthusiasm, strong work ethic, or ability to make me laugh.
I talked with E. A. Aymar over the phone and later by email to discuss violence, crime fiction, and what it was like writing The Unrepentant.
SARAH M. CHEN: Charlotte has been a victim her entire life, first at the hands of an abusive uncle and then sex traffickers who hold her captive. Where did the inspiration for her come from?
E. A. AYMAR: Prior to writing this book, I was doing a lot of research into violence, the philosophy of violence, why it occurs, and the lasting effects it has on people. And I think when you look at violence from the perspective I was, in which it’s a callous and cruel act, you eventually turn to the violence done to women. And that all sort of lead to Charlotte. She was a victim, but I wanted her to be more than just that.
Why the interest in writing about violence?
It’s something I’ve been curious about because, truthfully, I like violence. I’m a fan of the Avengers movies. I loved the Marvel series on Netflix, especially the Daredevil and Punisher series, and those were two rather graphic shows. And I like relatively violent sports; years ago, I studied judo and jujitsu. I also wrestled in my earlier days. So I like violence, but I like it either controlled in the confines of a sport or entertainment, when it’s usually bloodless.
As I got older and as I became a little more familiar with violence personally, through incidents in my life, I began to question that attitude. The realities of violence shook me. I think writing violence was me trying to reconcile those two attitudes toward it: one where I find it as entertainment and the other where I see it as a truly ugly action.
Is this what drove you to write crime fiction? This curiosity about violence?
I think so. When I started out, I was trying to write literary fiction and then that switched to general fiction. Part of it was just sort of a social thing. There wasn’t really a network or a support group or encouragement or any kind of field for just general fiction. I was really envious of my friends who wrote romance because the romance community is so supportive and so engaged, both writers and readers. Crime fiction isn’t far behind.
And coupled with that, the parts of my fiction that were the strongest were the criminal or violent elements, and I always had crime fiction tied to my work. So after a while when I started reading writers like Nelson Algren, who wrote back in the ’50s, and then later, writers like Laura Lippman or Megan Abbott and then contemporaries like Nik Korpon and others, I began to see that you could write really outstanding fiction, and genre lines didn’t matter.
There is definitely violence in your book — something that is to be expected with a story involving sex trafficking — yet it never feels excessive or unnecessary. Was it difficult for you to find that delicate balance?
When I wrote most of the violent scenes, I had to make a conscious effort that they would appeal to the reader and wouldn’t go overboard. I wanted them to be explicit, but not gratuitous. That was the line I tried to find.
Violence isn’t a pleasurable thing and it’s hard because you want to ensure a pleasurable reading experience. It’s one thing to want to portray something honestly, realistically, and authentically and to give people an idea of how you view something, but it’s not why we read. We read for an escape. You read ideally for entertainment and a bit of hope. I wanted to do both.
I think you succeeded because even though this is essentially a gritty revenge tale, there is an undercurrent of hope running throughout the book. Both Charlotte and Mace illustrate this theme, yet in different ways. Can you talk about your approach to writing these characters?
Charlotte has a will to live. I find people like that fascinating, but I think Charlotte was a little foreign for me and a little hard for me to get. She’s a leader, and leaders are always a little distant from us. We’re always looking at them from behind. We’re always watching them and wondering how they do what they do, moving forward, shoulders high despite the pressure weighing on them. And Charlotte is to me, a bit of that. She’s the hero. She’s the leader. I don’t think I fully grasped her, and I think that’s okay.
Mace draws from Charlotte’s strength. He rescues Charlotte in the beginning, but, by the end of the book, she ends up rescuing him a lot more, and that’s how I wanted it to be. Charlotte is physically running, but Mace is emotionally running. He was going to be a side character and then, partially because I had such difficulty really grasping Charlotte, Mace became more prominent. His own issues began to have a lot of prevalence for me. And his depression and his PTSD naturally played off Charlotte.
Mace is essentially between worlds. He’s stuck between wanting to help Charlotte and worried about if they’re doing the right thing. He’s with and not with Eve. And he’s not sure how to get help for his own depression. He’s in between everything, and I’m not sure that ever gets resolved for him.
I empathize with Mace a lot because — you were actually one of the first people that I always associate this with — I never thought of my mixed race as being anything of significance or anything that anybody else doesn’t understand. I was always the only kid who was mixed and usually when writers write about race, it’s from a perspective inside one racial identity. And when you talked about that — being raised basically white, but never feeling part of the white community or Chinese community — that resonated with me a lot. For me, that’s exactly how I felt and so, with Mace, being half black and half white, I identified with him.
You say writing Charlotte was more challenging for you. What was the most difficult aspect?
I was most concerned about portraying her accurately as a woman, and I’m fortunate that people who read my drafts are women writers. My agent and the editor were both women. They called me out on all my mistakes.
For example, there’s a scene where Charlotte returns from a fight. She’s in the bathroom and going to take a shower. Mace is there, she takes off her shirt in front of him, and Mace sees the damage that she’s taken. That scene was one where I had to come at it a couple of times. It changed a lot. I wanted it to be a tender, intimate scene, but also a scene where Charlotte shows her strength. She’s not really afraid of Mace at that point, and Mace isn’t threatening to her. And there’s no romance. I wanted to make sure there was nothing about it that had any semblance of attraction, but was very close and personal.
You really capture the cruel, brutal world of sex trafficking, along with those who aid victims. How much research did you do?
I read a ton of books, and those books were overwhelmingly depressing so I’d alternate topics. I’d read nonfiction and then read crime fiction (which isn’t exactly a great pick-me-up). And I talked with a lot of women who worked around the industry, like former prostitutes or those who were providing shelter for women escaping from prostitution or even domestic violence. Out of all the stuff I wrote for the book, none of it was as violent or as upsetting as the experiences those women relayed to me, or the experiences I read about.
Was there anything in your research that surprised you?
It changed my perspective. I had a different attitude toward prostitution where I thought legalizing it would be the end-all, and I thought it was a victimless crime. I considered it an act legislated by morality more than anything else, and that attitude changed in writing this book.
There’s a heated debate in the sex worker community about legalizing or abolishing it, and I can understand both sides. There are people who are anti-sex work. You’re buying a human to do inhumane things and they view it as slavery. And I understand that. And then there are people who do sex work and they say, it’s my client, it’s my control, and these men are very close to me. I get that too. So I’m not sure I have the answer, or what my position is on that debate.
Sometimes I feel like for a writer, that’s where you should be. It’s like the Anton Chekhov perspective on horse thieves: I can write about horse thieves and I can tell you why they do what they do, but I’m not going to judge those horse thieves. Sometimes I feel like maybe that’s irresponsible, and other times I feel like for a writer, that’s where you should be. You don’t want to be part of the torch-wielding mob. You want to be outside that mob, writing about it, and writing about the people they’re approaching. I don’t know. I’m not sure where these things should fall.
You mentioned the draw of a community built around writing. Is this why you’re so active in organizations like International Thriller Writers and their debut author website, The Thrill Begins?
It took me a long time to get published, and I still feel lucky to be on this side of the fence. I don’t think I’ll ever take it for granted. So part of what I do is to help others on the path. It took a long time for me, and I did some things right, and I made some mistakes. If I can help people avoid those mistakes, I will.
And the other thing is that, with these organizations, I learn more about writing and publishing and, often, I get to work with my heroes. There’s no better award, professionally, than that.
Sarah M. Chen is the author of Cleaning Up Finn.