Louisville writer Will Lavender has become an international success.
He made The New York Times' best-seller list in 2008 with his debut novel, Obedience, and it has since been published in 14 countries. It even was Taiwan's best-selling mystery novel of 2009, he says. Earlier this month, the former literature professor's second title, Dominance (Simon & Schuster, $25), which like Obedience is a puzzle thriller set on a college campus, hit bookstores.
Perhaps surprisingly, Lavender credits his hometown roots for his worldwide success as a writer. Small towns lend themselves to stories, he said.
"I'm from Whitley City," said Lavender, 34, a graduate of Centre College. "Being from a small town, you see a lot of people sitting around telling stories. I'm not a storyteller by nature. I don't have it in my blood to be one of those people, but I do have a sense of how I want my imagination to be harnessed, and it's always been through books."
Michael Cruikshank, spokesman for Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, where Lavender will sign and discuss Dominance on Tuesday, said, "Will Lavender is a much-needed, fresh new voice in the mystery-thriller genre. His first book, Obedience, is one of the most original thrillers I had ever read."
In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin called Dominance "quick and complicated," and wrote, "Lavender should be able to write his third, fourth and fifth puzzle-crazy potboilers on the visceral strength of the first two."
Briefly, Dominance revolves around a group of literature students at a small college in 1994 who take a class called Unraveling a Literary Mystery. The instructor is a brilliant, Svengali-like professor, Richard Aldiss, who is teaching from prison after being convicted of killing two female students years earlier. Aldiss teaches by asking his students questions, including about one of the class's main subjects, the reclusive author Paul Fallows. Cut to the present day, when the students are reunited at the college because of killings that mimic those for which Aldiss was convicted.
The Herald-Leader caught up with Lavender on Monday, the day before he returned to Whitley City for a signing of Dominance, to ask about his latest title, his Kentucky roots and his journey from small-town boy to successful novelist.
Question: Where do you spend most of your time writing?
Answer: I've got two kids, so it's impossible to write in the house. I wrote my first book, Obedience, with my son on the couch next to me. Actually, I didn't know what I was doing; I didn't know it was a novel until about 100 pages in, ... but two children is a much different world. There's a little public library here in Fern Creek I write in now.
Q: What items must you have with you when you sit down to work?
A: When I sold my second, Dominance, I was writing on a Mac. There was something about the keys; I just wasn't feeling it at all. So, I went out to Best Buy and told the guy I wanted the cheapest computer in the store. Don't ever do that, because he will give you the cheapest computer in the store. It is a bad, bad computer. That computer is really all I have with me.
I have started to read in the down times. I'll pick up a book off the shelf at the library: The Secret History by Donna Tartt (about a murder on a small-college campus). ... If I can find that book on the shelves, I usually go read that.
Q: You write in the acknowledgements of Dominance, "Major thanks to the folks who operate Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, Kentucky. I can honestly say that without Joseph-Beth, you would not be holding this book. A good part of my education happened inside that wonderful store." Why are they so special to you, and why did you choose to do your book signing there?
A: When I was growing up, Joseph-Beth was probably the only real bookstore I would visit. I remember being 14 and going in there, and it being like a fantasy world.
Q: Why the S&M-themed titles, Obedience and Dominance? What was obedient about the first and dominant about this one?
A: The first one is very much about the Stanley Milgram social experiments at Yale, where he was bringing people in during the 1960s. The book hinges on those experiments on authority. The main character, in particular, becomes very obedient to the assignment their professor gives them.
I really wanted to explore the bondage theme with Dominance. The characters are all looking to exploit other characters in the book. You have this professor who is trying to control Alex (one of the students) and lead her through the steps to solve the crime. I really wanted to look at the types of people in this book who believed they could get away with the crime. They think they are dominant — intellectually dominant.
Q: In Dominance, the characters rebirth a literary game called The Procedure to find out who's committing the recent murders. The game requires participants to act out passages of literary works by Fallows, and it can get dangerous. Can readers play The Procedure with your books?
A: You would have to be a really special person to play The Procedure with my book. I actually stole the game idea from a radio advertisement I heard at either the University of Kentucky or University of Louisville. It's a game they play on college campuses, Zombies vs. Humans. I wondered if you took that, blew it up and made it very serious, with people who felt they had this dominion over other people, what would it look like?
Q: What writers influence you, or who were you inspired by?
A: Michael Connelly, he's the great L.A. police writer ... one of the masters, and Peter Abrahams. He has this book, Oblivion, and it is a masterpiece of the form. He takes a detective novel and turns it completely over. When I read that I thought, this is really what I want to get into and the fiction that I want to write.
Q: What was it like being from a small town and doing creative writing in New York?
A: I made up my mind pretty early on I wanted to go away to graduate school. Bard College is upstate, but you can get on a train and be in the city in 45 minutes. It was a culture shock from being in Danville at Centre. Bard College is an experimental school, and that's what I was doing in my 20s: I was writing experimental literature. The poets and authors I was reading in undergrad ... were there.
Q: What is your next book about?
A: The Descartes Circle (named after the philosopher) is also a campus thriller, but it doesn't involve a class like the first two. It's about two identical twins, one good and one evil, and one has been accused of murdering his wife. One of the twins is brought in to see if his brother is guilty or not, and he must solve a puzzle at the campus. This one is in first person, and it's more conversational, more grown-up. Not that I've been writing young-adult fiction or anything, but it deals with themes that are a little bit more adult.
Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?
A: I have two pieces of advice. One, read diligently and faithfully, as much as you can inside and outside of your field. So you can talk about your book in the context of literature as a whole. It's important to be knowledgeable. Two, you have got to know how to fall gracefully as a writer, because you're going to get rejected — it's going to happen. You have to know how to fall down and get back up, and you have to love your work.