Author Interview: Suspense Stories With a Twist — Writer George Harrar
George Harrar is not really a mystery or suspense writer, per se. His work is noir and tension-filled, but there is a philosophical and psychological sub-strata that’s more reminiscent of Kafka than Robert Parker.
Reunion At Red Paint Bay by George Harrar. Other Press, 288 pages $14.95.
By Glenn Rifkin
Here are a couple of things I’ve learned about George Harrar over the past 33 years. He is a thoughtful craftsman when it comes to writing and editing. One reason the Wayland, MA resident doesn’t turn out a novel every year is that he devotes equal time to the process of finding and settling on his subject as he does coming to grips with the framework and tone of his novel. He writes and rewrites and rewrites again. And he is an able contrarian, always willing and able to take the other side of a seemingly one-sided discussion. That is why his novels, including The Spinning Man published in 2004, are intriguing and thought-provoking. Like the most accomplished writers of suspense and mystery, he is able to twist the journey in enough compelling directions to render the reader unable to put down the book.
Ironically, Harrar is not really a mystery or suspense writer, per se. His work is certainly noir and tension-filled, but there is an inevitable philosophical and psychological sub-strata that is more reminiscent of Kafka than Parker or Lehane.
For the sake of full disclosure, I should note that Harrar and I co-authored our first book together in 1988, The Ultimate Entrepreneur: The Story of Ken Olsen and Digital Equipment Corporation. Needless to say, Harrar has moved a far distance from the technology sector and gave up business writing long ago. He has published several best-selling young adult novels including Not As Crazy As I Seem, which has become a standard of young adult literature on obsessive compulsive disorder, and Parents Wanted, a look at older-age adoption from a child’s point of view, drawn from his own experience adopting an 11-year-old boy.
I spoke to Harrar about his new novel, Reunion At Red Paint Bay.
Arts Fuse: How would you characterize Reunion at Red Paint Bay? A mystery? A literary drama? A character study in self-denial?
George Harrar: I call it a psychological suspense story. By that I mean much of the danger the characters face is in their minds. The unknown threat, I find, can be more powerful than the explicitly identified one.
AF: Your novels tend to focus on main characters who seem above reproach until we dig deeper. What fascinates you about this aspect of human frailty and misperception?
Harrar: I like to create a main character that readers will identify with and root for—and then challenge their faith in him as they learn more about what he might have done. This creates a tension in people, makes them uncomfortable as their beliefs, their judgments, their prejudices are tested. I think this tension keeps them reading to see if their views will be validated or not. Also, it’s interesting to look behind the façade that people show to the world, to see what they do when they think no one is watching.
AF: Was there a specific incident or personal experience that triggered this story?
Harrar: A friend received a note in the mail inviting him to dinner “to pay him back” for something he had done years before. The friend went to the appointed restaurant at the appointed time and immediately recognized a childhood pal, someone he hadn’t seen in 35 years. My friend had lent him some money from his newspaper earnings, enough to get the pal out of a jam, with parents none the wiser. It was a relatively small gesture that was remembered over time, and the kindness was repaid. A story that begins with an anonymous postcard arriving intrigued me, and of course I thought paying someone back could be negative instead of positive. So that’s the path I decided to explore.
AF: The incident at the core of the story is a possible date rape. Rape is much in the news lately, from Steubenville to India. And there were some inflammatory statements made about rape by candidates in the last election. Did you worry about taking on a controversial subject like this?
Harrar: Rape is a highly charged subject to deal with at any time. I wrote the book before the latest incidents brought it back into the headlines. I didn’t set out to write about rape. To me I was writing about responsibility, retribution, redemption—to me these are the important themes, and that’s what reviewers so far are emphasizing. I’m not minimizing the importance of the rape—the “did he or didn’t he do it” question. It’s the nature of the accusation that creates such a conflict between my main character and his wife.
AF: That conflict brings up an interesting question you pose in the book: “Should we be judged on the worst thing we may have done in our lives?” Should we?
Harrar: I don’t think so, but we often are. I’m not sure we should be judging others anyway—who put us in that position? But when we do judge, I think a whole life should be considered. That said, there are some acts so horrific that they certainly erase the good a person might have done otherwise.
AF: You have published widely in the young adult fiction genre. How is it different to write for an adult audience?
Harrar: Kids react with their hearts to stories—their letters to me prove it. Adults tend to filter much of their reaction through learned critical analysis. You have to be more subtle and sophisticated writing for adults, at least if you’re doing literary fiction. An adult might like a story but ask, “Should I like this? Is it politically correct? What does it say about me if I like it?” Kids just like it or they don’t. There’s much less self-reflection. I find it refreshing to alternate between writing for adults and youngsters.
AF: Perhaps your most lauded piece of fiction was a short story called “The 5:22.” It won the Carson McCullers Prize, was chosen for Best American Short Stories, was made into a film, and was recently included in Boston Noir 2: The Classics, a short story collection edited by Dennis Lehane, among others. What about that story resonates so much with readers, in your opinion?
Harrar: I’ve never been quite sure what separates that story from others that I’ve written in terms of readers’ reactions. I do know that it’s the only story where I woke up in the middle of the night and went to the computer to write. So maybe I was channeling some unconscious inspiration, because it takes a lot to get me out of bed in the middle of the night.
AF: Does your background as a journalist impact the way you conceive your novels?
Harrar: As a former reporter and newspaper editor I learned the value of space—don’t waste it. Get to the point, tell the story, include the most interesting details, add a few great quotes. People say my novels read quickly, and I think that’s because I build chapters from dialogue rather than description. I do include deeper themes from philosophy, religion, and ethics, but I hope in a very accessible way.
AF: Do you feel that living and writing in New England shapes your fiction in some identifiable way, other than simply where you set your stories?
Harrar: New England has become a familiar landscape to me from 37 years of living and traveling here. There’s a certain feeling of small-town life immediately conveyed by setting a story in Maine, or in New Hampshire or Vermont, for that matter. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, so I’m probably more comfortable writing about life in Northern New England than in large cities. One reader said to me that though the location in Reunion at Red Paint Bay is Maine, it felt like the small town she grew up in in the South. Perhaps all small towns are the same.