Editor and writer Jonathan Santlofer gives us a behind-the-scenes look into his collaborative crime novel
It is said that the generosity of crime fiction writers exists because the authors get their frustrations out on their twisted pages. There is no better tribute to their kindness than when they use their words to benefit charity. The book Inherit the Dead was born because 20 bestselling writers in the crime fiction world took time out from other projects to contribute a chapter each to this collaboration. Editor Jonathan Santlofer saw this gracious spirit first-hand after prolific writers like Lee Child, Mary Higgins Clark, and Charlaine Harris signed on immediately. To begin what would seem like a daunting task to most, Santlofer skillfully created the story’s outline and worked with all the writers by preserving their unique styles, while creating a cohesive thriller. The royalties from the sale of the novel, which is already a bestseller after only being released on October 8th, benefit Safe Horizon, the largest victims’ service agency in the country. New York-based Santlofer, who sets the book in a penthouse on the Upper East Side, put it best when he said, “What better place for crime writers to give their money than a place that helps victims of violent crime? Here are writers who make their living out of writing about violent crime, so let’s pay back.”
How did this book come about?
There was a book before this, No Rest for the Dead, that is a serial novel that Touchstone put together. I did a lot in that book, so Touchstone asked me if I’d do another, and I said I would if I could choose the authors and the charity. It’s been done before, but truthfully, I think we did the best. I’m amazed at how all these different writers just picked up the thread.
They were. I created a story, which I kind of stole from the greats. The idea of searching for the missing heiress, very cliché, but I thought, “Let’s make it contemporary; it will be fun.” I knocked out a story of 10 pages, but then thought it was too long for the writers. I reduced it to a page and a half. I made an outline of chapters 1 through 20 and sent it to them.
Did you pick a chapter for each writer?
That became too hard. For example, I had asked another writer to write that chapter about the heiress and she said, “I don’t want to write a bad girl.” And so I called Val McDermid in Scotland and said, “How do you feel about writing a bad girl?” And she said, “I am a bad girl.”
In the introduction, Lee Child writes about the legend that “crime fictions writers are the nicest of all.” Is that really true?
That’s what everybody says. I came out of the art world, which is not a kind and gentle place. But the crime fiction world is. Most people are incredibly generous and nice. There’s a lot of comradery and you get to be friends.
Some writers you asked to participate didn’t come on board.
I was shocked; I thought everyone would say “yes.” It was really interesting to see the writers who said “yes,” and the ones who didn’t. I was really surprised when people told me they were too busy. So Lee Child isn’t busy? People make choices. I wouldn’t name the people who said “no,” but I think a lot of them are sorry that they didn’t participate.
Marcia Clark, prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson case, writes a chapter.
She is so great. I had met Marcia once at a mystery conference. Her chapter is really funny.
How did the editing process go?
I edited along with Michelle Howry at Touchstone. She was great. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but she was sensible and didn’t like when things conflicted. I didn’t mind; I thought it was sort of fun. I’ve edited a bunch of anthologies; I just love working with a lot of authors.
The NYPD is a big part of the book. Who has the police background?
Most people learn it. In one of my other books, I wrote about a police sketch artist. I sent out an internet search and got to know all these sketch artists. You just get to meet people. I’ve gotten to know a lot of cops. And the stereotype of cops is often very wrong. They have a really hard job.
How much of the book’s profit goes to Safe Horizon?
People got paid a flat fee for their chapter. Every royalty that’s made is going to charity.
You studied art in college. What made you pursue writing?
I went to Boston University, then I went to Pratt and got a masters. I had a really successful painting career and lost a ton of work in this big fire in a gallery in Chicago. It changed my life in an interesting way; I never would have been writing.
Your first novel, The Death Artist, became a bestseller. Were you surprised?
Nobody was more surprised than me. I wrote this book, took me 10 years. I was really lucky to get attached to a really good agent. She sold it in four days and it went into twentysomething languages. It’s being developed for a movie, knock on wood.
Explain the Crime Fiction Academy that you started in the city.
It’s this really intense program; the students are fantastic. We have really small classes, 8 to 10 people in a workshop. It’s already producing the next generation of great crime writers. It’s amazing.
Where do you live? Where do you find quiet places to write?
I live on West 28th, the flower market, which is really noisy. I work in the back of my loft; it was a fur vault. I also have a place upstate that I go to. I also write in Saratoga, at a place called Yaddo – the oldest artists’ colony in the United States.
What books are on your book
I read everything. Of course I always read everything that Lee [Child] writes, Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard. I don’t just read crime writers. I just finished reading Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon’s book. Now, I’m reading The Marriage Contract, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Lately, I’ve been liking nonfiction more. But give me a good novel and I’m happy.
For more information on Jonathan, please visit www.jonathansantlofer.com
To learn more about Safe Horizon, visit www.safehorizon.org
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