Q: The action in this book was based in part on a shooting in the U.S. Capitol in 1998. Why did you decide to focus on that incident?
A: I moved here in 2000 from abroad. [The shooter] Russell Weston’s case was percolating through the court system. When I took over the federal courts, there was a huge file, “Russell Weston.” I went to a couple of hearings. It’s stuck in my memory—it was a high-profile case.
All the Sully books are based on real incidents in D.C., and that would get me out to St. E’s [St. Elizabeths mental hospital], one of the most remarkable-looking places in the city.
Q: How did you research the various details in the book in terms of accuracy?
A: I wanted to be accurate, up to a point! I had several books on the Capitol and I looked at different routes for [the character] to run through. If you’re writing a thriller and you have something called the Crypt, you have to start there! You pick the low-hanging fruit!
At St. E’s, all that West Campus is closed now. They give a few tours. The little part of the hospital still functioning is on the left, the East. I needed a sweep, that view of the capital city and the cemetery.
I went to dinner with Russell F. Canan, a superior court judge I knew who had been a defense attorney and had represented [John] Hinckley, [President Reagan’s attempted assassin who was sent to St. Elizabeths]. A lot of that detail I got from him.
I did not know that even in the late ‘90s the population of St. E’s was almost entirely African American. Hinckley was one of the only white patients there.
I read The Lobotomist, and watched an hour-long special based on [lobotomy doctor Walter] Freeman. I went to the GW library where all his papers are stored. You really can pick up his original ice pick and metal rods he used to drive into people’s heads.
The man was not a surgeon, and he did [the lobotomies] in his office on Connecticut Avenue, and everybody was cool with it. That stuff is so powerful I had to watch the tone to keep it from turning into a horror story…
Q: How do you think Sully has evolved over the course of three books now?
A: I wanted to pick him up where you see a very badly damaged human being trying to put his personal and professional life back together. The events in each book change, but Sully’s arc is what’s consistent.
I wanted to see him make mistakes, struggle with alcoholism and his attitude. I wanted him to fight his way through that. In the third book, you finally see, this is why this guy was a big star. He figured it out. This is where his rough upbringing is a benefit. He was raised with a bad situation, and he’s more at home there than inside the Beltway.
That’s what he does in this book. Sully’s had a lot of rough experiences. At the end of the book, you see him a little at peace.
Q: I liked the relationship he has with his nephew.
A: I wanted to bring that in, how different he and his sister turned out. When he’s with Josh he’s thinking outside of himself. Josh gets on his nerves, but he kind of likes the dude. I really liked that—I was surprised at what a good rapport he and Josh had. It happened pretty naturally in the writing.
It’s nice foreshadowing—I was in a hotel room, and the movie Josh is watching—a terrible horror movie—[was on]. Sam Neill was in it. I had the same reaction [Sully does]—Isn’t that Sam Neill? What is he doing in that picture? It’s perfect foreshadowing for…where the book is going—in an asylum. Josh loves horror movies.
Q: How was the book’s title chosen and what does it signify for you?
A: There’s a little bitty passage in the book but it’s from my own growing up. I didn’t go hunting a lot down in Mississippi, but I did some. I remember the advice, if you’re running you can’t hear anything going on around you. That was the turn of phrase I came up with--That works!...
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Another book about Sully. That book ends with him talking about taking Alexis to New Orleans. On the trip, they will go to his hometown and find out who killed his mom…That’s festering in Sully’s little brain, and he’s going to take time off.
I don’t know whether to write that one first or a stand-alone, a modern retelling of True Grit. I love that thing. It fits into some themes I like to write about, and gives a modern touch. I’m writing about the long arc of violence. It pops out on the page.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: It’s the reporter in me—the stuff in the Capitol is absolutely correct, until you go down the corridor toward the Speaker’s office. I’ve seen diagrams, but you can’t get back there now. I got to the same thing at St. E’s—Oh, no, the criminal ward is on the [other] side, I don’t know what the building looks like. Then I thought, Make it up!
The difference between fiction and nonfiction—you always want an idea of whoever’s writing is a good talking-to from somebody who knows the score. They’re telling me what’s what.
Whether it’s factually correct or not is immaterial in the novel. These books are written with that in mind. In the last one, I created a little island. I give myself a little escape clause at the end—I do alter the landscape and time line a little. It’s not a mistake…
That’s just my 30 years of being a reporter…I know this isn’t right, it’s different! Unless it’s a documentary or nonfiction, you can do whatever you want in the [book].
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Neely Tucker, please click here.