Robert Dugoni is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon bestselling author of the Tracy Crosswhite Series: My Sister's Grave, Her Final Breath, and A Clearing in the Woods. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed David Sloane series: The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One, and The Conviction. Dugoni has twice been nominated for the Harper Lee Award for Legal Fiction, was a 2015 International Thriller Writer's finalist for thriller of the year, and the 2015 winner of the Nancy Pearl Award for Fiction.
After I accosted approached him at a recent PNWA conference, he agreed to participate in this back-and-forth interview, which unfolded over several weeks, suspended briefly as we both took vacations. A fan of his Tracy Crosswhite series, I'm thrilled to bring Dugoni to my readers.
Lisa: I just finished reading My Sister’s Grave, and wow. You took a tremendous risk with your twist at the end. What compelled you to go that route? At what point in your process did you know that’s how it would end?
Bob: With this book I knew at the beginning. I really was playing with an old legal maxim which is at the start of the novel. I wanted to point out that a maxim is never 100 percent accurate. There’s a key moment in the book, after the reveal, where this is spelled out.
Lisa: The legal maxim first appears in the quote you use to open the book, right? From Sir William Blackstone, “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Tracy Crosswhite upholds this maxim, though, not to stop the suffering of an innocent man but out of a driven quest to find the truth. You portray her sharp instincts so well—that scientific truth-seeking is my favorite aspect of her character. Do you think of her as the hero of the novel? Or is someone else? I don’t want to give the ending away, but she has a counterpoint in the story, like yin and yang. Are there two heroes in your mind?
Bob: No, I really see her as the hero. She’s lived with this case for 10 years and had the courage to follow through on it when most others would have given up. She’s heroic in many ways.
Lisa: Fair enough. Another risky aspect is writing in a different gender than your own. Tell me about the challenges of pulling this off.
Bob: First, I decided not to try to write from the perspective of a woman. I thought that would be a huge mistake. Instead, I wrote from the perspective of a person who has been wounded, trying to survive, day to day, with that wound. That’s a universal existence not dependent on gender. On the other hand, I have four sisters and a strong-willed mother. I’ve worked in a profession with a lot of strong-willed female attorneys. I tried to draw from those experiences.
Lisa: What tipped you over to creating Tracy? She’s pretty badass all the way through, so kudos to you for the portrayal. At what point did you move from “that would be a huge mistake” to “this is the way I have to write this story”?
Bob: I never worried that it would be a mistake. Years ago I wrote the story Damage Control with the protagonist Dana Hill. I did the same thing. I never tried to write like a woman, just a person going through a difficult time in their life. Men and women are not the same, I recognize that, but I think in many ways we’re similar when it comes to the basic things in life we want and how hard we will fight to achieve those things.
Lisa: You mention in the acknowledgments section conversations with two researchers who gave you insights into the minds of sociopaths and psychopaths, but I note that your general idea for the novel preceded these conversations. Where did the idea come from, initially? Did knowing you were going to use that twist to show the maxim isn’t absolute mean you had in mind there would be a psychopath in the book from the beginning?
Bob: Actually, Tracy Crosswhite is a character in Murder One, a David Sloane novel. She has a very small part. When I was deciding to start a new series, I went through my old novels searching for a new lead character. She was really an unlikely choice, but she made me curious. I wanted to find out more about who she was and how she went from being a high school chemistry teacher to a homicide cop. I know that sounds odd, since I created her, but I really had to stop and explore who she was at her core. I do a lot of research, and it often comes up in a different book than intended, or in more than one book. Unlike some books, I knew in this book I wanted a psychopath because of the nature of the crime and the location and setting.
Lisa: I enjoyed the town as a sort of character in its own right in the story. Why is that important, both in terms of and separate from Sarah’s murder?
Bob: Because of what the police told me about a murder. They said a murder is rarely about one person. A murder impacts an entire family. When I mentioned she lived in a small town, they said the murder would impact the entire town. Everyone would know Sarah, and everyone would live life a bit differently after she disappeared. It’s a scary thought.
Lisa: What are your future plans for Tracy Crosswhite? How long will you keep the series going?
Bob: I’m just going to follow ideas that come to me. I’ll write Tracy stories until I feel as though I’ve exhausted her and I’m no longer excited to get up in the morning and continue on with her journey. I’ve written four, and I’m a long way into book five. I really enjoy the people I’ve created to surrounded Tracy and my intent is to explore each of them.
Check out Robert Dugoni's web site for videos, book links, and more.