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PURGATORY BAY gets the mystery-thriller form sort of backward. I didn’t plan it that way, but it happened.
The main character in the story is Jubilee Rathman, a 29-year-old woman who lives in a virtual fortress on Purgatory Bay near the Lake Michigan town of Bleak Harbor. I hesitate to call Jubilee a protagonist because she is not a character for whom a reader would naturally root. Jubilee’s life is committed to a diabolical plot to exact revenge on people she considers responsible for ruining her life as a girl.
This is not a spoiler. The reader knows early on what Jubilee is up to. The question is whether she will succeed. Two other women are the keys to stopping Jubilee’s murderous plans. Michaela “Mikey” Deming is a former journalist who may have put Jubilee’s family in danger twelve years ago. Katya Malone is the Bleak Harbor police chief who investigates some strange occurrences in town that may or may not lead her to Jubilee. As one Goodreads reviewer put it, it’s less a who-dunnit than a why-dunnit.
I didn’t set out to write PURGATORY BAY that way. In fact, Jubilee wasn’t even the character with whom I started. That character was Ophelia, Mikey Deming’s sister, a blind sculptor who lives in Bleak Harbor. One night, I woke up with the Band song “Ophelia” playing in my head: “Bars on the windows, mail at the door / Why would anybody leave so quickly for? / Ophelia where have you gone?” Ophelia’s disappearance essentially begins my story. But who took her? Or lured her away? That took me to Jubilee.
Thus far, most readers seem fine with my upside-down tale. Instead of a single, likeable protagonist to take them by the hand and walk them through a tangle of plot threads, they have a main character who plays with their emotions while a handful of likeable people—Mikey and Katya among them—try to save themselves and others while confronting their own troubled pasts. The tale isn’t simple, but I had great fun figuring out how to pull it off. Not that I was trying to “transcend the genre,” but next time I think I’ll take a more conventional approach.
For secondary characters and institutions in my novels, I frequently use the names of friends and family. To wit:
Jim Mitzelfeld worked with me at The Detroit News, and won a Pulitzer Prize doing so. We also skated together in The News’s nasty annual hockey games versus the Detroit Free Press. Jim left journalism after attaining its highest honor, got his law degree, and went to work chasing down scammers for the U.S. Justice Department.
In my forthcoming novel, PURGATORY BAY, I’ve borrowed Mitz’s name for a man in a photo on the desk of a Detroit Times investigative reporter named Robillard. Robo, as people call him, figures prominently in Jubilee Rathman’s vendetta against those she holds responsible for ruining her life. And Jamison Mitzelfeld plays a small but significant role as well. Take a bow, Mitz!
When I was nine years old, I read a story in The Detroit News that terrified me. Richard and Shirley Robison and their four kids had been shot to death in their northern Michigan cottage. A few years later, my parents bought a cottage not far from the Robisons died. I would lie awake at night, waiting for a stranger to show up and kill us all. The Robison murders were the inspiration–if inspiration is the word–for this book. A certain diabolical character named Jubilee came from somewhere else inside me. More on that another time.
In a recent interview about their book The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation, New York Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly alleged that the Supreme Court justice agreed to sit for an interview if they would assert in their book that he had not spoken with him. They declined.
I make no judgments about the book—which I have not read–the reporters, or Justice Kavanaugh. But I bring up the conundrum the reporters faced partly because it has come up repeatedly in my 40 years as a journalist, and partly because a similar dilemma provides a key plot twist in my forthcoming book, PURGATORY BAY.
Dealing with anonymous sources is a perilous business, one best avoided where one can. One of the tricks I saw employed by reporters—including me, I’m chagrined to admit, in my early years—was to interview a key source at length, use what she said in a story, and include a line saying she “declined to comment.” Which, of course, is bullshit, or to put a finer point on it, a lie to the readers. At The Wall Street Journal, if ethics czar Barney Calame caught you doing it, you were in big trouble. Still, reporters got away with it, rationalizing that what the source provided to readers was worth the minor dissembling of saying they didn’t “comment,” since, in fact, they had not commented publicly. Also bullshit.
In PURGATORY BAY, this sort of rationalization comes back to haunt former Detroit Times reporter Michaela “Mikey” Deming in a much more dangerous way than Barney Calame ever would have threatened. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the lure of a byline on a story that might win prizes, coupled with a bullying editor who also covets those prizes, leads Mikey astray. An award-winning novelist and journalist who read the book assessed Mikey’s situation this way in an email: “We’ve all been there, when you or the desk spins a story a certain way and you think, uh, correct but not true, or something of the sort. And then the agony, which you learn to ignore, about the effect your copy might have on people within, and how ignoring that makes you feel just a little less human.” My character, Mikey, stands to pay an actual physical and emotional price for her own such deal with the devil.
Twelve years ago, my agent called me in my Chicago WSJ office. She asked me about Rupert Murdoch’s pending purchase of the WSJ, a stressful matter at the time. She then asked if I’d feel better if she told me that she’d sold my debut novel, STARVATION LAKE, in a three-book deal.
Pretty good moment that was due entirely to Patricia Lande Grader, then an editor at Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone imprint. Trish made the book better, primarily by asking for a new ending (no, I don’t remember the old one). Then she pushed the hell out of it. Sometime after it was published, she moved on. But I’ve never forgotten that she gave me my start in the novel publishing business, and I acknowledge her in my forthcoming, fifth novel, PURGATORY BAY.