Please join me in welcoming Ed Aymar to the blog, today. Ed is a talented crime fiction author, and one heck of a nice guy with a deep commitment to serving to the writing community. He pens the monthly Decisions and Revisions column in the Washington Independent Review of Books, he is the managing editor of the The Thrill Begins––the online showcase for debut and aspiring writers from International Thriller Writers––and he runs the “Noir at the Bar” series in Washington, DC. His new novel, The Unrepentant, from Down & Out Books, is a compelling story that tackles a tough subject with sensitivity and care.
MB: Ed, welcome to Murder Books. Tell our readers a little bit about yourself. What’s your day job? How did you come to creative writing?
EA: My day job is in marketing. I’ve worked for the C-SPAN networks since graduating college twenty-two years ago. That could sound like some sort of accomplishment but, really, I’m just a barnacle. I cling to things––work, writing, marriage––until someone scrapes me away.
I studied creative writing in college, after failing out of psychology, and had the accidental benefit of attending a university with a spectacular writing program (George Mason University, home of the 2006 Final Four Patriots). The teachers there, particularly Alan Cheuse, were exceptional, such a guiding force that I still hear his criticisms twenty years later.
After college, I knew I wanted to write, and that instinct was propelled by my studies, and by a life experience that filled the pages of an early book. That book was never published––probably for the best––but it served as a wonderful introduction to the passion and techniques that fill better novels.
MB: The story in your latest novel, The Unrepentant, deals with a difficult subject––human trafficking. What drew you to this, and what was it like to write about such a heart-wrenching topic?
EA: The research was tough, but I was spared because, no matter what I wrote, it was never as brutal as the experiences conveyed to me. In that sense, The Unrepentant was a book I wrote with purpose . . . an odd, selfish thing to realize, because I’d written two other books and neither had a reason (outside of my own concerns) that drove my writing to this extent.
Which isn’t to say that those two books weren’t driven, or The Unrepentant wasn’t personal; the balance was simply skewed differently this time. Most of my writing deals with elements of violence, and the effects that violence has on people. The co-protagonists of The Unrepentant are both dealing with violence from their pasts, and struggling to understand how it’s shaping them. That’s a topic that interests me greatly––the forces beyond our control, and how we adjust to them. And if we can eventually bend them to our will.
MB: Your writing has a strong feel of authenticity to it, so I’m guessing you did a fair amount of research as you were bringing this story to the page. Tell us about how your researched this?
EA: Thank you for saying that! This was the first time I’d done this amount of research for a novel. I don’t think I’d ever interviewed anyone for a book, and that was nerve-wracking. Particularly because I was speaking with women who had worked, or were working, in the sex trade. And I didn’t want to come off as insensitive to their experiences.
There’s a naively romantic sense to the idea of a writer talking to current or former sex worker . . . like I was walking down dark alleys, and offering women a cigarette for information. That was definitely not the case. The women I spoke with had often written or spoken about the sex trade, and they were comfortable doing interviews. And I think they were happy that I was trying to understand their perspective. The myth of the “happy hooker” is a damaging trope in crime fiction, and they had no qualms ending that stereotype.
MB: Were there times when what you found made you question whether you would be able to continue with the project?
EA: Not really, but there were things I found that I largely avoided in The Unrepentant, like the attraction men seem to have toward young girls. In a couple of interviews, I read that prostitutes sometimes tell men they’re younger than they actually are. They do this to excite the men, that way the men will finish faster and the experience will be over quicker. That’s a powerful, terrible thing, and not the kind of thing I thought belonged in this book.
Sexual abuse is such a tough topic for readers, and you can’t really write about it commercially without glossing over some of it. I didn’t want to do that, but I also didn’t think it was necessary to over-commit. The Unrepentant, after all, isn’t a book about sex trafficking, or non-fiction. So I didn’t need to provide a comprehensive analysis of the practice.
MB: What advice do you have for writers who are contemplating writing about difficult subjects?
EA: That’s a good question. I guess the first thing I would say is to make sure it’s an issue you can stare at. I was able to write this book because I could absorb a lot of the information. There are other subjects that I can’t do that with. I have the right head space for this one. But if you can’t look at a subject honestly, and as objectively as possible, then your writing is going to show that absence. And it will be glaring.
The other thing I would say is tread carefully. There’s a healthy, necessary debate going on about voice and perspective, and who has the right to tell certain stories. I won’t weigh in on that here, but I will say that you have to take pains to understand and empathsize with everyone you plan on writing about, especially when it’s a character whose experiences are far from your own.
MB: You’re also a very capable short story writer. I’ve learned, through repeated failures, that writing short form fiction is very difficult. What’s your secret for being able to do both, so well?
EA: Ha! That’s nice to hear, even though I’m laughing at the word “capable.” I don’t feel like a very capable short story writer. I think that’s because I’m good friends with Art Taylor and Tara Laskowski and Jen Conley, and their short stories are fantastic. Not only some of the best in crime fiction, but the best in contemporary writing.
As of now, I really only write short stories for readings or anthologies. I haven’t sat down to write a short story, for the sake of just writing a story, for quite a while. I prefer novels.
But I generally view short fiction like an abrupt song. It has to capture the tone and melody immediately, urgently, whereas a novel can take time to develop, or contain different songs. When I write short fiction, I try and make sure that the reader or listener feels like he or she belongs to it, that they have a need to hear this.
And then I usually include some weird sex stuff.
People tend to like the weird sex stuff.
MB: If you could live anywhere, and cost was not a consideration, where would that be, and why?
EA: I traveled a lot when I was younger and hate it now, much to the chagrin of my wife, so probably not somewhere overseas. Well, I’d definitely buy a beach house in Panama. I was born in Panama, half my family lives there, and it’s important for me to have a better understanding of that culture, and for my son to have that understanding. I do study the country, but my visits every three to four years aren’t enough for any depth.
But I’d keep living in America, and I’d probably travel between the D.C./MD/VA triangle and Arizona. This area means a lot to me, and I’m convinced it’s currently producing the country’s best crime fiction. It’s a wonderful community to be a part of. And the diversity here is wonderful. I was always the only mixed kid growing up. If we stay here, my son won’t grow up feeling that way.
I grew up in Arizona, and the land just speaks to me. I deeply love that state, like family. Admittedly, if Arizona is family, then it’s the drunk racist uncle complaining about Mexicans during Thanksgiving dinner, but family nonetheless. I don’t know if I could ever move back to Arizona, but every time I visit, I know I’ll have to return.
MB: What’s next from the pen of Ed Aymar?
EA: I’m working on a new book that’s due to my agent in December of 2018, so I really should get on that. Otherwise, it’s the monthly columns for the Washington Independent Review of Books and the occasional short stories for readings.
Thank you so much for this interview, Roger!
Ed Aymar was interviewed for Murder Books by Roger Johns.