ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
And for the next segment in our Thrilled to Death series, we're going to spend some time with the author Stephen Carter. Carter is a law professor who began his writing career in the 1990s as a nonfiction author tackling heady issues such as religion and affirmative action. In 2002, he turned to fiction with the bestselling conspiracy thriller called "The Emperor of Ocean Park". He says story and plot twists are important, but it all begins with well-crafted characters.
Professor STEPHEN CARTER (Author, "The Emperor of Ocean Park"): I always first imagine characters I want to write about. With my first novel, "The Emperor of Ocean Park," which is the story of a family's search for what really happened to the patriarch of the family, who was a disgraced federal judge, I began with the vision of this judge, this very conservative black federal judge who had been enormously successful and then had had a scandalous life that had been disastrous. And I was interested in the effect that would have on his family. And it was writing about the effects on his family that lead me then to imagine the family in the story.
NORRIS: Have you read a lot of thrillers yourself?
Prof. CARTER: I have. I cut my eyeteeth I think on the thrillers of John Le Carre, for example, although when I was younger, I suppose I read a lot of Robert Ludlum, too.
NORRIS: I was going to ask you what were you're favorites and if there are certain scenes that you remember in those books that you can still recall with great clarity because they just put you right inside the action.
Prof. CARTER: There are a number of scenes that I remember as enormously vivid from the novels of John Le Carre. In his novel "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," there's a scene where he just describes two men driving from one place to another to further the solution to a mystery, and they're simply talking about it. But the shadows around the drive, if you will, the shadows of memory, the horrors that have gone on around them for thinking about it, even if not threatened at that moment, just the way he describes this, it's in the background as they talk, is enormously showing.
NORRIS: When you're writing a thriller, how is the process different than when you're writing nonfiction?
Prof. CARTER: When I write one of my nonfiction books, I write it the way I was trained to write, the way I assume people are supposed to write. I write an outline. The outline has as many points as there are chapters in the book. I expand each point into a chapter and I'm done. It's not easy, but it's straightforward. I know how to do it.
When I'm writing fiction, I also begin with an outline. Once I have the characters in mind, but the outline usually has a little do with the final product, and I'll tell you why. It's because I'm of those authors who discovers in chapter four that my characters have become especially complex, but they won't go ahead and do for me what I needed them to do in chapter five. They resist, they push back, and so I have to re-jigger(ph) my outline a bit in order to get the characters doing things that are plausible in light of the way that they've developed.
NORRIS: Now, you sound like you have a very orderly process for writing. You say it's not easy, but you make it sound easy when you describe it. What's your workspace like when you're working on a thriller? Do you have to actually storyboard this? Do you have to put it up on the wall, that timeline that you describe?
Prof. CARTER: It's funny you mentioned that. My very first novel, "The Emperor of Ocean Park," had a storyboard - my kids used to tease me about it. I had one of those presentation boards that they use for kids' science projects, and I had little file cards stuck all over with the different events. I move them around. But I quickly abandoned that. I found it didn't - it was too constraining. And so I find that when I write actually nowadays, I write almost all of my work in the same spot, that is I have a study at home. I sit in the study usually at night - that's when I write the best. When it's dark is the right time to write thrillers. And although I have an outline, I never consult the outline unless I get stuck.
NORRIS: So, you need to write in the dark. So I'm wondering if there's a terrible thunderstorm that moves to your area that you rush to the computer as fast as you can because...
(Soundbite of laughter)
NORRIS: ...the elements are just perfect for writing a thriller.
Prof. CARTER: You know, it's interesting question. When I write my nonfiction, I can write it anywhere, on vacation. I can write in the daytime. I can write in my office. But the thrillers I can write effectively only in my study and only in the dark. And I do write in the daytime sometimes, but it does help if it's dreary. A snowstorm I found, and in Connecticut we have a lot of those from December to March, is a really good time to write. It's very quiet outside. I have to have dead-quiet and preferably many hours of dead-quiet in order to write.
NORRIS: When you write thrillers, you're often writing about people who are doing scary things or people who are afraid because people are trying to do scary things to them. So do you have to push the limits yourself? Do you take on hobbies that, perhaps, lead your adrenaline to elevate a bit?
(Soundbite of laughter)
NORRIS: So do you know what it's like to feel like your life might come to an end at any moment?
Mr. CARTER: Well, I don't know. I don't think I'm an axe in order to write an ax murderer necessarily, but it is true that there is an aspect, for me at least, of writing thrillers that involves much more emotion than writing works of nonfiction. I pour myself into them.
And in particular, I am quite interested in how the characters react to stress. I myself react very badly to stress. There are some people who are exhilarated by stress. Their adrenaline pumps, they do great work. I need to be calm. But I try to remember how bad I feel when I'm stressed and upset, so I impose that, if you will, on my characters. Because a lot of what interests me about thrillers, it isn't so much what's really waiting around the corner, it's what the character is worried might be waiting around the corner. Those fears that go through the character's mind, whether exaggerated or not, and the way those fears affect what the character does next.
So, for example, in my novel "Palace Council," there was a fellow who was tortured in the Far East during the Vietnam era, and he was tortured by being in a way that was actually used then, by being bound by the ankles and lowered upside down into a tank of ice-cold water, just over and over again without asking him any questions.
So in the rest of the story, he doesn't have nightmares exactly or flashbacks, but he's jumpy about what might be around the next corner. Although he doesn't consciously think about all it, it affects the way he looks at all the other twists and turns the rest of the story. Not only is he jumpy, but he becomes more prone, if you will, to violence himself as he works through, perhaps, whatever it was that happens to him. That's what interests me, the way that we respond to stress and fear and often to horror.
NORRIS: What are you working on next? What's your next thriller?
Mr. CARTER: I have a kind of courtroom thriller coming out next summer, summer 2012, but it's a courtroom thriller with a twist. It takes place in the 1860s, and it's an imaginary trial of Abraham Lincoln. If Abraham Lincoln hadn't been assassinated, there were members of Congress who actually wanted to try to remove him from office. And so in my novel coming out next year, I imagine what that might have been like. I imagine what might have happened had President Lincoln been placed on trial for high crimes and misdemeanors in the Senate of the United States.
NORRIS: Stephen Carter, it's always a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.
Mr. CARTER: It's my pleasure, too. Thank you so much, Michele.
NORRIS: That was Stephen Carter. He's the author of several bestselling thrillers, including "The Emperor of Ocean Park" and "Jericho's Fall."