Inescapable Themes – An Interview with Novelist E.A. Aymar

By Amy Freeman

Anthony Award-nominated E.A. Aymar’s most recent thriller, They’re Gone, was published in 2020 to rave reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus (starred), and was named one of the best books of 2020 by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. His next novel, No Home for Killers, is coming out in 2023 by Thomas and Mercer. Prior to that, his 2019 thriller, The Unrepentant, received similar critical enthusiasm. He writes a monthly column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, is a former member of the national board of the International Thriller Writers and, for years, was the managing editor of The Thrill Begins, an online resource for debut and aspiring writers. He has hosted and spoken at a variety of crime fiction, writing, and publishing events nationwide.

Amy Freeman: You know, of course, that there are writers who plot before writing, and those who go by the seat of their pants (plotters and pantsers, respectively). I’ve heard that authors who write thrillers have to have a pretty clear idea of where the story’s going to go before they sit down to write. Thoughts?

E.A. Aymar: I am slavishly devoted to organization and really despise unpredictability. I need to write down everything in my life by pen in a day planner (I’m thousands of years old), and I even meticulously schedule my weekends. You’d imagine that, when it comes to writing, I’d take the opportunity to separate life from art but, nope. I outline everything
in advance.

There’s a notion that outlining kills the chance for spontaneity. It doesn’t, at least for me. Outlining is like charting a course through river rapids. Yes, you know where you’re going to go, from start to end, but the ride there is full of unpredictability.

And there is usually a moment that occurs, during the course of writing a book, where an idea occurs to me—outside of the outline—that is so jarring and emotional that I can’t disabuse myself of it. It’ll upset the entire book and scar the characters. As much as I resist it, that moment always ends up needing to go into the book. Maybe it’s so upsetting because my characters have been successfully navigating this river, but none of us had any idea about this sharp rock around the bend.

No Home for Killers is your third dark thriller. Are there any through-lines among the books? Themes you can’t seem to put down? Themes you don’t want to put down? Or is each book a whole new world for you?

I think it was Fitzgerald who observed that every writer tells the same story throughout their writing life, and I think your question is exactly what he was touching on. Not many writers can escape the one theme that arches over their books and stories.

The Unrepentant (my first dark thriller) was an examination of the horrors of sex trafficking, and that research still haunts and informs me. As someone who grew up in male-dominated cultures, I was often a quiet witness to the abuse of power and embrace of privilege that happens so often in groups exclusive to men. My study of sex trafficking—an act almost entirely controlled by men, and for the excesses of men, and for which men are usually held blameless—reinforced that belief.

Power and violence are probably my central themes, although I find myself wearying of both. Actually, in writing this response, I’ve had a realization of sorts—the themes we write about aren’t necessarily the themes we choose. But I’ve written enough to know that, regardless of the story, they are the ones to which I’ll return.

How, exactly, does one research murder, assault, and other forms of violence? Not only the physical aspects, but also the emotional. For instance, in this novel, one woman is a vigilante. What was it like digging into how she might feel as she metes out her form of justice?

The thriller has traditionally been a stronghold of a certain type of male character, most famously Jack Reacher. Strong, aloof, handsome, violent, sexually active and single, attractively scarred. And probably a clinical psychopath but, again, attractively so…which is just kind of weird? I actually greatly admire Lee Child’s writing and I don’t have a problem with that type of character, but I don’t find men like Reacher terribly interesting. Or, rather, I would, but his type populates so many male thrillers. Lee’s outstanding prose was a boon for his books. This isn’t the case with so many others.

My violent characters are often written in response to that stereotype. Although Emily—the female vigilante of No Home for Killers—employs violence, she doesn’t escape its damage. That’s important for me to write. By the end of the novel, Emily’s choices have determined her fate, and I doubt readers will find her violence forgiving.

The real question, for me, is why a woman would choose violence when, statistically, it’s often the province of men? It was my editor who helped answer that question. The plot of No Home for Killers revolves around the murder of Markus Pena, an abusive and successful musician, a murder that drives his estranged sisters—Emily, the vigilante,
and Melinda, a burned-out social worker—to unite and find out what happened. Markus’s violence is what informs his sister’s actions, and it’s something Emily embraces and Melinda rejects. They’re both, even without realizing it (and even without me realizing it in early drafts), living their lives in opposition to him.

And there are those recurring themes: power and violence.

The story unfolds through the perspectives of two sisters. I know that writing female protagonists, especially those with unlikeable aspects, can be, shall we say, frowned upon. Can you talk a little about that, as well as where you think the genre is going, in that respect?

The best writers in crime fiction today are women, and I think it’s precisely because those writers are fearlessly testing the boundary of character. Not only that, but they’re covering deeper emotional insight than most male writers typically do. Books by Jennifer Hillier and May Cobb and Katie Gutierrez and Sally Hepworth and Jess Lourey are checking the boxes for compelling crime fiction, and they are fiercely devoted to examinations of their female protagonists— their loves and hates, the doldrum and excitement of their lives, their attitudes toward sex and lust and other women and children and husbands and wives and just such a rich palette of subjects. And (admittedly anecdotally) I see this wonderful depth more often in women-written crime fiction.

It’s good for the genre, both creatively and commercially. Gillian Flynn took the reins of crime fiction with Gone Girl and fiercely yanked it into a different direction with the psychological thriller (she wasn’t the first, but she was arguably the most successful). And I see so many writers heading in that direction; better said, the market has been proven for the kinds of stories they’re writing. The characters are growing more complex, genre-specific taboos of sex and likability are being crossed. It’s a fantastic rebellion to witness.

My books aren’t specific to that wide-ranging category. Stylistically, they’re probably noir or hardboiled, if we’re going alongside classic definitions of subgenre. But the women I write are indebted to the strides today’s female writers in crime fiction are making, and it doesn’t matter much to me whether my characters are entirely likable. I just hope that, when women read my book, they find something in my characters relatable.

Not having written thrillers, I’m kinda curious. Do you have to be in a particular mood to kill off a character?

Ha! I hope, when I write violence, that it’s upsetting. I do think there are sometimes good reasons for violence, but mostly violence is the result of brutal stupidity. And so, when someone dies in one of my books, I really want that death to be earned and felt.

I’ve said before that I want to write like fast food, and I understand that sounds self-effacing, but it’s not meant to be. I want someone to read my books like they eat fast food. Ideally, they’ll read in a rush. And then, afterward, feel a bit sick. I want the taste to linger uncomfortably.

But I want them to return because they like it.

All that to say that I want death to be serious in my work. If there are moments where the violence is necessary, and the violence is exciting, that’s fine. But I never want it to be easy or nonchalant.

What’s next for you?

My next book is called Sunset Heroes, and it’s about a young couple on the run from a criminal organization, and the man hired to hunt them down, a real estate agent who keeps his criminal side a secret from his family. I actually don’t know why it’s titled that, but I really like that title and I hope it still makes sense when the book is completed.

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