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Behind the Book: Caving Realities Part 2

After spending so much of LAST WORDS demonstrating what one should not do in a cave, it seemed prudent to speak to an expert about the realities of caving. Anmar Mirza was a generous resource during my research, and his work should make anyone who goes underground feel a bit safer — as national coordinator of the National Cave Rescue Commission, his focus on educating cavers and first-responders has saved numerous lives. In this video, Anmar talks a bit about rescue operations, exploration, and the allure caves have held for him since childhood. Watch part two of the interview below.


Behind the Book: Caving Realities Part 1

After spending so much of LAST WORDS demonstrating what one should not do in a cave, it seemed prudent to speak to an expert about the realities of caving. Anmar Mirza was a generous resource during my research, and his work should make anyone who goes underground feel a bit safer — as national coordinator of the National Cave Rescue Commission, his focus on educating cavers and first-responders has saved numerous lives. In this video, Anmar talks a bit about rescue operations, exploration, and the allure caves have held for him since childhood.

Behind the Book: Hypnotized for the Cause

I love the field research process (it’s the reporter in me that refuses to die) and LAST WORDS led me to some stranger places than even I’d anticipated. The caves, I thought I was ready for. I had not anticipated undergoing hypnosis, however. But the more I read about memory, the more interested in it I became.


There are a few case studies that inspired the hypnosis elements in LAST WORDS, in particular an investigation where a woman who’d been abducted was adamant that she couldn’t recall anything about the vehicle she’d been in, despite numerous rounds of questioning and numerous approaches. Then, in hypnosis, she not only came up with a clear memory but drew a picture of the vehicle that allowed it to be identified. A famous case is the Chowchilla kidnappings in 1976, when 26 children and their bus driver were kidnapped. Later, the bus driver recalled almost all of the license plate of the suspect vehicle – but only under hypnosis, and then he remembered the numbers in reverse because he’d seen them in a mirror. That case ought to give skeptics pause. (The hypnotist in this case, Dr. William Kroger, is a fascinating story himself).


At times, police departments in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston had dedicated hypnosis units. RimaThose times are mostly gone. The debate over whether hypnosis can be used effectively to recreate a lost memory and the legal risks of using hypnosis in the courtroom or for investigation has greatly reduced its use in law enforcement circles. I spoke to one veteran prosecutor who was candid about his belief in the validity of hypnosis as a tool in major crime cases but said he is reluctant to use it because he feels doing so is teeing up a reversal upon appeal. His written arguments both for and against the admission of hypnosis evidence in criminal cases were great fodder for LAST WORDS, but there’s no substitute for experience, so I sought out a hypnotist to give things a whirl.
I told Rima Montoya, of Bloomington, IN, that I had two concerns: I was skeptical that it would really work, and, if it did work, I was afraid she’d pull the wrong subconscious wire and it would mess up the book.


The experience only helped the book, and as for my skepticism, that vanished pretty fast when I heard a voice counting upward to 10 and my only memory was “hang on, a minute ago we were going down from 10.” That minute had actually been an hour.


Initially, I wanted to conceive of a memory test – to give an account of a remembered event under hypnosis and then see how it matched up with reality. The problem there was in coming up with an event I had recorded, one that had an indisputable reality, as opposed to just conflicting memories. When I went looking for a video record, I couldn’t find anything more interesting than interviews and panel discussions, though. I searched for courtroom transcript of a time I testified in a criminal case during my PI days but couldn’t locate it. Even that felt a little too tame. The type of event I was most interested in was one where there would have been a good amount of adrenaline – let’s see what I remember about the time I had to tranquilize that leopard (no, really, that incident was my first idea…read THE RIDGE for further explanation). But I didn’t have a recorded version of such an event, so it wouldn’t have been an accurate test. I can’t personally vouch for hypnosis as a tool in memory recovery, but what I can vouch for is hypnosis as a tool for insomnia. I’d been taking Ambien for a full decade when I asked Rima to focus the hypnosis sessions on sleep. I promptly began sleeping quickly and deeply, drug-free, after the first of three sessions, which was absolutely astounding to me. Now…it didn’t last. Three weeks, maybe a month, and then my old habits crept back in. But those weeks of easy sleeping were pretty remarkable, and I got some great background for the book out of the experience. I suspect if I returned to the approach it would work again, and perhaps for a longer period. But you can sleep when you’re dead, as they say…


My deepest gratitude to Rima, as she changed the book, endured a plethora of ridiculous questions with grace and patience, and helped me sleep! I would enthusiastically endorse hypnosis for any fellow insomniacs. Worst case, I think you’d emerge with the equivalent of a mental massage, and that ain’t bad.


I have two audio clips with Rima – the first a short interview about her approach, and the second a reading from LAST WORDS, her own take on the hypnosis induction scene I wrote. I’ve included the text so you can see what the words are and how she reads them. Very, very different, and, as she explains in the interview, very carefully designed. The clips are audio and not video because that’s how I want them experienced, as if from behind closed eyes, nothing but the voice out there.


You may close your eyes, if you wish…

A Note on Character and Voice

When I wrote books in first-person, I inevitably heard readers tell me that they thought I was Lincoln Perry. He and I were one and the same. Not the character, of course, but the voice. I’ve heard numerous writers, all of whom I greatly admire, dispute this notion about their series characters. I’ve disagreed with almost all of them.

Lincoln’s voice was shadowmy own. When I first wrote a Lincoln book, I was 19, and I didn’t have any other voice, I just knew what I liked to read. So the Lincoln I imagined was as an odd mashup of literary influences: he was the Continental Op, Marlowe, Spade, Archer, Robicheaux, Spenser, Bosch, Kenzie, Cole, and….Koryta? Absolutely. Lincoln’s dialogue and sense of humor – or lack thereof, depending on your perspective – are undeniably similar to my own. Yes, he sounds like me. He’s just taller, tougher, smarter, better looking, and funnier, was my early line on this topic. The idea that Lincoln Perry is the character who sounds the most like me is absolutely correct. Perhaps that’s why he began to bore me. When he surprises me – and I truly believe this will happen – that’s when I’ll want to write in his voice again.

If I were to do a poll asking people to guess the character to whom I felt the deepest connection, the most bone-deep I know you connection – or, more chilling, the he knows me connection – I suspect the audience winner would be Lincoln Perry, but I actually connected most with Adam Austin of The Prophet. We share no history, no sense of humor (what little he exhibits), we’ve lived in different places, he had a brother and sister while I had only a sister, he was an athlete while I was a…(insert a term opposite of athlete here), and so on. We share nothing.

And yet…

Here’s a story I’ll always remember, and treasure, from The Prophet’s publication. My publicist, Sabrina Callahan, who had worked on several books with me and had read the Lincoln Perry stories even though she didn’t work on those books, went into a marketing meeting and said “One of the reasons I’m excited about this book is that it’s the first time I’ve seen Michael put himself on the page. He’s Adam.” According to Sabrina, this was met with some confusion. It was met with my utter fascination, because it’s the most accurate read of the book that I received, far and away. While I shared so little with the character, the emotional connection was incredibly deep for reasons that I can’t explain, and, frankly, don’t want to try. I don’t want to try because that connection was the magic of it for me; that connection was the reason I loved writing the book, and anything good that came from those pages came from that bond I felt with Adam. When writing doesn’t feel a little like magic, or at least a little surreal, it’s probably not working.

Some of my most treasured readers are those who chastise me for the way I treated Adam Austin, because I’ve never felt more emotionally connected to a book than I did when Adam made a bad choice. Don’t do that, Adam. Why would you do that? God, Adam, don’t you see the consequences?

            That relentless – and draining, it was truly draining to write Adam Austin – emotional engagement with character is a blessing that I can’t really describe, except to say that I hope for it each time out, and when it comes, the reward is magical. It’s why I come to the blank page with such excitement and, crazy as it sounds, with such a sense of responsibility. I feel for the characters.

prophet cover

prophet bind

Cemetery Dance just published a gorgeous, leather-bound limited edition of The Prophet. This came several years after I was done writing the story. While I was admiring their work, I randomly flipped to a page on which Adam makes a critical decision, and I winced and closed the book and put it on the shelf. I wrote the book, and yet I still can’t bear to look head-on at what Adam does, and at what costs.


At the end of LAST WORDS, you’ll find a teaser chapter of the next book. It’s Markus Novak again, but it’s first-person narration. I hope you enjoy the teaser, but you won’t see it in the actual book. (I went very literal with the term “teaser” evidently…) I’d always wanted to move from third to first with Markus, because I thought the events of LAST WORDS would leave a very changed man behind and it seemed like a fun idea to embrace that in voice. I wrote nearly 300 pages of the book in first-person, and then I scrapped it. That is not a decision that can be made lightly, I assure you, because tossing out five months of work is never a really great feeling. But I’d found myself writing Lincoln Perry under another identity – the deeper I got into the first-person narrative, the more my own voice bled into the book, and my own voice sounds too much like Lincoln now. At least to me. So after pacing around on high ledges for a while, I went back to third, and Markus reappeared for me.

I’ll be interested to hear what readers think of that first-person sample, which has somehow gone from teaser to artifact of a book that will never exist!

Last Words Playlist

Listen to Michael’s playlist for LAST WORDS and read a synopsis below of why each song made his list.


1. Beggar in the Morning, by The Barr Brothers

I first encountered this song at a time when I was struggling with the character of Markus Novak, had questions about him, and for whatever reasons, this song helped bring him home to me. “Steady woman, won’t you come on down, I need you right here on the ground. I’ve walked the outskirts of this town, been terrorized by what I found…” felt like Mark’s internal and external struggles in the novel captured in two lines. Strange as it sounds, even the faint echo of the barking dogs in the opening instrumental gave me an anchor in the book.


2. Leave Me in the Dark, by Walking Papers

Title alone should explain why I was drawn to this one! The Ridley Barnes theme: “I was raised on a shoestring, I was thrown to the wolves, I cut my teeth on minor chords, I was trampled under hooves. If love is blind, baby, you can leave me in the dark.” (Also, props to the drummer in this band – he’s great)


3. Live Oak, by Jason Isbell

I was disappointed when Isbell left the Drive-by Truckers, but now acknowledge it was certainly the right move. His growth as an artist has been dazzling. Live Oak is its own story, but it has my theme line for the novel for so many characters: “There’s a man who walks beside me, he is who I used to be, and I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me.”


4. Shrine, by The Cave Singers

In a twist I’ll be forever grateful for, I discovered a wonderful band simply by being drawn to their name. This is one of the more intoxicating numbers, and made me think of Julianne Grossman.


5. Lonesome Dreams, by Lord Huron

To repeat my repetition: I’ve been digging this album. This one was for Ridley Barnes: “And I search all day and never find anyone…I’ve been dreaming again of a lonesome world where I’m lost and I’ve got no friends, just the rocks and the trees and the lonesome dreams in a room that never ends.”


6. Devil Winter, by Jus Post Bellum

My editor, Josh Kendall, gave me this album, which offers a bit of insight into how well he knows my process. This absolutely gorgeous album is a storytelling piece about the Civil War, though I bent the lyrics to mean what I wanted them to for Ridley Barnes: “It’s been a long, long winter, there is a darkness in my mind, and a flickering of flames don’t keep the devil out of the night….I pray they were not lying about a good Lord up above. Cool my mind, cool my mind, it is the killing time.”


7. Start A War, by The National

This one served as my go-to song for the stretch where Mark returns to Garrison. “Walk away now, or I’m gonna start a war.”


8. Ohio, by Patty Griffin

What a haunting voice! “My blood is the water and it’s darker and deeper than time…” raises the hair on the back of my neck when she sings it. I decided this was Sarah Martin’s voice. In reality, this song is a beautiful storytelling piece about the Underground Railroad’s final stretch of escape to the north.


9. Beach House, by The Cave Singers

Drawn again by the name of band and also the name of the song (Mark parts from his wife, Lauren, to meet her at a rented beach house on Siesta Key, only to never see her alive again).


10. Even the Darkness Has Arms, by the Barr Brothers

A mellow tune with a haunting line that made me think of Ridley’s time in the deep caves with Sarah Martin: “Even the darkness has arms, but it ain’t got you. Baby I have it, and I have you, too.”


11. Don’t You Look Back, by Augustines

Thanks to these guys for reappearing under a different name (formerly We Are Augustines) when I needed them. I loved this one mostly for the musical energy, but how great is this line: “This kiss ain’t got no hope, but I’m gonna get it right.”


12. I Need My Girl, by The National

Nobody but nobody can out-brood The National when they decide to brood, by God, and here this great band is brooding the hell out of it. Mark Novak certainly needs his girl. He was feeling this one, maybe a little too much. “I’m under the gun again…but I am good and I am grounded….but I can’t get my head around it…I need my girl.”


13. Old Mythologies, by The Barr Brothers

“It’s probably now that I need you the most, when I’m one half child and the other ghost, and one of them wants to pull you close, and the other let you go.” Mark’s song for Lauren.