My latest book is called IRON HOUSE, a reference to The Iron Mountain Home for Boys ("Shelter and Discipline Since 1895"), a brutal, hardscrabble orphanage located in a high, cold valley in the North Carolina Mountains. Two young boys have been there since their long-ago discovery – half-dead – in a frozen creek. The place is tribal, unforgiving, life there so difficult that it’s broken one brother and given the other no choice but the be fierce and strong. Michael lives to protect his younger brother, Julian, a small, frail boy so traumatised he may never recover. When one of his worst tormentors dies with a blade in his neck, Michael makes a final sacrifice: he flees the orphanage and takes the blame with him. Now he’s an enforcer in New York’s world of organized crime, a prince of the streets so widely feared he rarely has to kill anymore. When he learns that his girlfriend is pregnant, he decides he wants out of the life. But the mob doesn’t let go easily, not when you’ve been trusted for so long. Not when you know their secrets. They want Michael dead, same with his girlfriend and brother. When Michael returns to North Carolina to protect Julian he finds a whole new kind of trouble: bodies and politics, money and power. The book is about family and payback, the price of greed and betrayal. You know, light and easy stuff.
I’ve always been inspired by writers able to combine a full-bore plot with depth of character and beautiful language. People like Pat Conroy and Dennis Lehane. It’s the language that separates the good from the great, those moments where you stop and say, "Damn, how did he do that?" Then you read that bit again.
Violence is more real now than ever, so all around us you can’t ignore it. A good writer finds ways to explore the power of violence without ever making gratuitous use of it. What matters is the effect of it, the ripple. Fiction is about stripping people down to see what makes them work, and the proper use of violence in writing is a good way to see what’s under the soft veneer we all wear like cloth. Turn up the heat and see what you get. A coward or a lion? Shallowness or a soul so deep it resonates ten years after you finish the book? At the end of the day, no one wants to read about a lovely day of shopping at the mall.
When it comes to the writer’s purpose, sex is a lot like violence. More enjoyable, I would hope, but just as revealing. Is the character a giver or a taker? Gentle or rough or weak to the point of ineffectiveness. It’s all about getting under the skin, and sex is a good tool for that. As to the question of being graphic or not, the writer faces risk either way. Let’s just say I avoid the words "Throbbing" or "Raw" at every opportunity.
I think my fiction works because it’s multi-layered. You could call my books thrillers, mysteries, family drama or southern gothic and I would not disagree with any of those terms. Most important though, I work to make the books credible. Whether we’re talking about character, voice, dialogue, plot … if the reader is given any opportunity to pause or shake his head, the novel fails. You need a compelling story and the kind of craftsmanship that leads to complete immersion. A reader’s first gift is faith. Once the writer abuses that trust, it’s game over.
I write for the sake of the story. Period. Once you try to please someone, be it a faceless reader or some noteworthy critic, you surrender too much of yourself as a writer. It’s literally impossible to please everyone, and trying to do so strips away all the things that make writers interesting. We’re supposed to be free spirits. That license is another gift, and I’ll be damned if I ever give it up.
I make up the books as I write them, so it’s tricky business saying what it’s about this early in the game. But I’m pretty sure it will have sex and violence.
IRON HOUSE is published by John Murray