Saturday, October 28, 2023

Q&A with P.J. McIlvaine




P.J. McIlvaine is the author of the new novel A Good Man. Her other books include the new young adult novel The Curious Conundrum of Charlemagne Crosse. Also a screenwriter, editor, and journalist, she lives on Long Island.


Q: What inspired you to write A Good Man, and how did you create your character Brooks?


A: In the summer of 2021, I’d just finished a middle-grade novel. I was torn on what I should work on next. In addition to having multiple projects in various stages, I also have a huge idea file.


Two ideas from this file kept tugging at me: the first idea was a middle grade about two brothers on summer vacation who invent a “monster in the dunes” to keep their parents from getting a divorce. The second idea was an adult thriller about a bad boy novelist who can’t forget the worst night of his life.


Rather than write two separate novels, I decided to mesh the two together. I wasn’t sure it was going to work, but two months and 94,000 words later, it did.


As for Brooks, my troubled writer, the inspiration was my late brother Michael. Michael had so much talent, but he had his demons and turned to drugs. He was able to overcome his addictions until years later, he relapsed and eventually killed himself.


Although I didn’t realize it as I was writing it, A Good Man was my way of giving Mikey a better ending than the one he had in life. At least, it seems that way to me, in hindsight. 


Q: I’m so sorry about the loss of your brother…


In terms of the novel, how was its title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


For me, the title perfectly captures the dichotomy/relationship between Brooks and his father Bernard. Both believe that they are fundamentally good people and do good things for the right reasons, but as we learn through Brooks’ travails, the definition of what constitutes being a good man isn’t so black and white.


Good vs. evil is two sides of a coin, a constant battle. I really wanted to explore the idea of evil and how far one would go under the guise of “good.” Historically, people have done terrible things using the excuse of being righteous; for example, it’s been estimated that over 50,000 people were executed in European witch hunts.

Q: Without giving anything away, did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I don’t outline. I wrote a brief, one-paragraph summation of the story, and jumped right in. Many scenes and plot points came as I was writing; at times, it felt as though I were writing on autopilot, it just poured out of me. It played in my head like a movie and the characters spoke to me. Overall, it was a pretty organic process. 


As for the ending, I had a very good idea of how it would play out, but when imposter syndrome kicked in and I worried that I was writing above my skill set, I thought of the ending and realized that if I didn’t write it, no one would. That gave me the impetus to keep going.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: This book is very dear and personal to me since it was inspired by my brother, our dysfunctional family, and a magical summer in Southampton when I was a teen. With this novel, I followed my dream and passion and I hope that comes through for readers.


I’ve been told that A Good Man isn’t your average, run-of-the-mill thriller, and I take that as a real compliment. I bled on every page and I challenged myself to go to places I’d never thought I’d go. I’m known for my family fare so A Good Man was a big departure/gamble/leap of faith. I hope it shows. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Actually, I’m currently writing A Good Son, the second book in what I hope will be a trilogy. When I finished A Good Man, I knew that I wasn’t done with Brooks and Cassie. I had a kernel of an idea brewing, and over this summer it suddenly crystallized and came into focus. Once that happened, I dove right in. We’ll see if I can pull it off--there I go again, setting the bar even higher.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My debut young adult alternate history adventure, The Conundrum of Charlemagne Crosse, just came out in late September. Completely different in style and tone, this novel is set in Victorian London about a teen heiress determined to reunite with her parents who mysteriously vanished in the wake of a solar eclipse. This one had quite the journey, but I’m delighted it’s out in the world now.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb