Welcome to another exciting tour with Novel Publicity. Today we have a feature interview with the author!
In this interview, we dive deeper into the world of Darkroom, Mary’s newest novel, just released this week. The characters, setting, and themes along with what makes them tick, and who was the loudest character that just wouldn’t shut up! You’ll also get an in depth view into the writing process, and what makes Mary tick too.
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What inspired you to write this latest dark fantasy?
MM: Unlike the Daemon World books, Darkroom isn’t dark fantasy. It’s just dark—a suspense thriller influenced by film noir, black and white B movies from the 40s and 50s with stories that center on crime and sex and a worldview steeped in cynicism and fatalism.
Film noir has a distinctive visual look, black-and-white cinematography with Expressionist elements. Some filmmakers who fled to the US from Nazi Germany were largely responsible for this style. Two of the better known are Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. And their visual style influenced directors like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.
In Darkroom, Day Randall has a unique visual style of her own. She takes photographs in black and white and develops the film in a darkroom. She’s a throwback to the past in the age of digital photography. Although her photographs don’t have the Expressionist flavor of film noir, they uncover the secrets of some very nasty people. And that gets her in trouble.
Like many noir protagonists, Kelly Durrell is an innocent who enters a sinister world where she doesn’t belong. Gangsters like Gregory Tyson and Stuart Helm are alien to her. So are morally ambiguous people like Animal, one of Tyson’s underlings, who might help her find Day. Or not.
A well-known noir archetype is the femme fatale, a beautiful woman who destroys the men who love her. In The Maltese Falcon, the femme fatale played by Mary Astor uses several men—and gets them killed—before she meets her match in P.I. Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart. Odette Helm isn’t in the same league, but like Astor’s character, she acts a lot more helpless than she is.
Another of my noir favorites is The Big Heat with Lee Marvin and Gloria Graham. Graham, one of my all-time favorite film actors, is a bubbly goodtime girl until her gangster boyfriend, played by Marvin, throws coffee in her face. Then she’s out for vengeance. Lee Marvin makes a great bad guy. If Darkroom became a movie and Marvin were still alive, I’d want him to play Helm’s henchman Yount.
I slipped an allusion to another noir film into Darkroom. Readers who watch a lot of old movies will recognize it.
How is this book similar and different from Talion and Daemon Seer?
MM: Along with having no supernatural elements, Darkroom contains less violence than either Talion or Daemon Seer, but its violent scenes are rather graphic.
Like Talion, Darkroom is written in close, or deep, third-person from multiple perspectives. I favor this point of view because it’s fun getting inside the heads of a variety of characters. The down side is that the hero can be elbowed out of the central role. Other characters move the story forward while she’s dragged along, a passive victim of events. The villain can take over the story. The serial killer Rad Sanders, the Professor of Death, dominates Talion. To keep this from happening in Darkroom, I included several bad guys. The most interesting of them is Gregory Tyson because his motives are the most complex.
Your latest novel includes a character with bipolar disorder. How much research into this illness did you do before writing the character?
MM: Mood disorders, including bipolar, run in my family. I luckily don’t suffer from bipolar, but I’ve seen the havoc it causes. Over the years I’ve read books and articles about mood disorders and spoken to people who suffer from them, so I didn’t need to do additional research for Darkroom.
Bipolar people are often creative, like Day Randall, and the medicines used to prevent manic episodes can dampen creative energy. That’s why Day chooses not to take them.
People with bipolar disorder are prone to substance abuse, which can trigger manic episodes that culminate in psychosis. So Kelly gets worried when Day smokes hash in the first chapter.
Is research a part of all your writing? Where are your go-to places?
I always need to do some research for my novels. Before writing from the point of view of Rad, the serial killer in Talion, I read about two dozen books. Some are books about serial killers written by psychologists or FBI profilers. Others are broader in scope and examine violent behavior in general. Two of my favorites in the second category are A. Lyall Watson’s Dark Nature: A Natural History of Evil and Richard Rhodes’ Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Sociologist. These books are worth reading even if you have no particular interest in serial killers.
Watson comes at the problem of violence from a sociobiological perspective, pointing out how human behavior is similar to that of other animals. What many people call evil is amorality rather than immorality. Someone can be immoral only in relation to a moral system: you need to have rules to be defined as a rule breaker. Someone who’s amoral has no rules, but their actions can explained in terms of biological imperatives like survival and the drive to reproduce. Interestingly, one kind of behavior Watson has trouble explaining is sadistic violence, killing someone just for fun. Where’s the evolutionary advantage in that?
Rhodes’ book is a biography of the sociologist Lonnie Athens, who grew up surrounded by violence and made it his life’s work to understand why human beings are violent. He conducted numerous interviews with prisoners serving time for murder and other violent crimes. The information he gained from these criminals led him to a theory that runs counter to the thinking of most sociologists. Rather than seeing incorrigible violence as a psychopathology, Athens argues that it’s a behavior that can be taught to anyone. His theory explains how people become violent, stage by stage.
Why They Kill turned out to be useful in writing the violent characters in Darkroom. Gregory Tyson (Gee) recalls watching his brother torture and kill a man who owed him money. This is an example of what Athens calls horrification—being forced to watch helplessly as someone else is attacked, defeated, and humiliated. The incident explains some of Gee’s actions later in the story.
A useful—and fun—kind of research is field research. For Daemon Seer I went to Park City. For Darkroom I went to Boulder. While it’s possible to view images of these places online, being there allows you breathe in the atmosphere. I guess visiting art museums counts as research for Darkroom although I do it for enjoyment. Museums and art books gave me enough background to imagine the fictional paintings in the novel.
I interviewed the curator of a small museum to discover what sorts of tasks she might perform. Earlier drafts show more of Kelly at work, interacting with her boss and others at the Museum of the Rockies. Most of the work scenes got cut from the final draft because they slowed down the story, but the research gave me a solid base on which to build Kelly’s life.
I did some reading about art and photography specifically for Darkroom. I discovered Larry Clark, the photographer and filmmaker whose style and subject matter is similar to Day’s. He may be best known for his 1995 film Kids, a raw portrayal of urban teenagers.
While traveling, I passed through the Denver airport and had a look at the art on display there. It’s a wonderful collection. Since the novel has a scene (or actually two scenes) at the airport, I did some research. The collection consist of the work of contemporary artists. Most of it is rather edgy. The kind of art that not everyone appreciates.
The most controversial piece is Blue Mustang, a huge outdoor sculpture that’s visible as one approaches the airport. The artist, Luis Jimenez, was killed when a piece of the sculpture fell on him. As a result, some people think the Blue Mustang is cursed. Nicknamed Blucifer, it’s a fearsome looking horse, electric blue with fiery red eyes, rearing over 30 feet in the air. And, as one reporter noted, Blue Mustang is “anatomically correct.”
Darkroom begins with two characters, Kelly and Day. Can you tell us a bit more about each; what would be their favorite foods, car and travel spot, if they were real human beings?
Although Kelly and Day are good friends, they’re opposites in most ways.
Kelly grew up in a small Midwestern town and yearned to go somewhere more exciting. She likes foreign foods from Indian to Italian to Asian. She enjoys cooking when she has time. In the first chapter she tries to show Day how to make curried lamb. Kelly is happy driving her Jeep Cherokee. It’s a useful vehicle in the mountains and has plenty of cargo space. Of course Kelly loves museums. She’s visiting the Art Institute in Chicago when Day disappears. As a teenager she was awed by to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which moved her toward a career in art.
Day loves fast food—burgers, French fries, and pizza—and eating at pancake restaurants any time of day. She desperately needs a new car. Her Corolla has over 160,000 miles on the odometer. She would be happy with any vehicle that gets good gas mileage. Day’s parents were wanderers who never stayed anywhere long. She yearns to settle down and finally gets the chance when she stays with Kelly in Boulder.
Photography plays a big role in the book, as well as Day’s darkroom. How did you use photos to advance the plot throughout the story?
Day takes photos that reveal a terrible secret. To protect herself, she prints several sets of the photos, hides some of them, and sends others to various people. She believes that she won’t be harmed as long as the photos could come to light. The people who need to protect the secret are searching for them. And those people are ruthless.
This book has some dark themes with drug trafficking and sexual predators. How emotionally taxing was it to write about these subjects, and what did you do to unwind/recharge after particularly tough spots in the novel?
The emotional toll of writing about violence and other dark subjects depends on the writer’s distance from them. In Darkroom, a businessman and drug dealer named Gee recalls an incident from his teenage years. Gee had witnessed his older brother torturing and killing a man. He’s horrified yet powerless to help the victim, and he tries not to acknowledge those feelings. I found the scene hard to write because the point of view is close. Events are filtered through the character’s perceptions. Describing the horrible things the brother does to the victim was easier than imagining Gee’s response to them.
In another scene from Darkroom, a rape victim awakens with no memory of the previous evening. She knows she’s been raped because of the pain. She guesses who raped her and she’s furious. The rape happened at the Cascade, the club where she works, and reporting it to the police will mean losing her job. She has no money saved, no friend she trusts enough to confide in, and she doesn’t want her parents to know what happened. She needs to find the strength to go on with her life. It was difficult imagining her helplessness and outrage. In revision I cut the scene from the novel because it doesn’t advance the plot, but writing it helped me know the character better.
I don’t experience the process as emotionally taxing while I’m writing. My imagination takes over. But afterward I feel drained. I relax by doing something physical. Taking a walk is good, especially with a friend. I’m lucky enough to own a horse, a beautiful Andalusian. Riding is one of the best ways to unwind from creative work because it demands concentration on the process. If I obsess over a difficult or emotionally taxing scene, I’m liable to wind up in the dirt.
Are you an author that hears the voice of characters in your head? If so, which character from Darkroom was the loudest, and which one just wouldn’t shut up?
Both Day and Animal, the bouncer at the Cascade, have distinctive and persistent voices. They’re the characters I most enjoyed writing and the ones readers seem to like most.
The most surprising character was Animal’s girlfriend, Nina. In a key scene she refused to follow my plot outline. She just refused! I struggled with the scene for a couple of days before giving in and writing it her way. Then I changed the story to accommodate her decision. It turned out she was right, the story played out in a more interesting way.
We don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, but we do want to ask . . . when you were writing the story, did it always end the same way, or did you have alternate endings?
From the first draft I knew how it would end, but the story changed radically during revision.
Now for a fun one. If Darkroom were a drink, recipe, painting, and geographic location, what would it be?
Darkroom is a red wine, something smooth and rich like Gee serves to Kelly.
It’s the painting behind Gee’s desk:
“A demon cloaked in flames. Its sulfurous eyes glinted through a sooty cloud that partly obscured its face. Behind the fangs of its yawning mouth, a chrome-yellow crucifix stuck in its throat. The painting captured the unstable instant when the demon would either swallow the crucifix or choke.”
It’s the mountains behind Stuart Helm’s estate, empty and wild and sinister.
About the Books
There’s plenty of room for another grave in the mountains …
Talented but unstable photographer Day Randall has been living rent-free in Kelly Durrell’s Colorado condo for eight months. Day needs someone to keep an eye on her. Kelly needs someone to draw her out of her stable but not spectacular life. The arrangement works for both of them.
Then Kelly comes home one day to find Day gone. There’s no note, no phone call. Day’s car is still parked out front, but her room is starkly, suspiciously spotless.
No one seems to care. The police certainly aren’t interested in a missing bipolar artist, but Kelly knows something is wrong. Day wouldn’t just leave.
Alone, Kelly traces Day’s last steps through shadowy back rooms of Boulder nightclubs and to a remote mountain estate, where the wealthy protect themselves behind electric fences and armed guards. Along the way, she uncovers a sinister underworld lying just below the mountain snow, and a group of powerful people who will do anything to protect the secrets hidden in Day’s enigmatic photographs.
If she trusts the wrong person, Kelly herself will be the next to disappear.
“… tight, compelling, and convincing writing that is also witty and insightful.“
— Jon A. Jackson, author of Hit on the House and No Man’s Dog
“I couldn’t put this novel down. Darkroom is suspenseful and beautifully written. Kelly Durrell is a deftly-drawn, intelligent, and likable heroine.”
— Daiva Markelis, author of White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life
Mary Maddox is a horror and dark fantasy novelist with what The Charleston Times-Courier calls a "Ray Bradbury-like gift for deft, deep-shadowed description.” Born in Soldiers Summit, high in the mountains of Utah, Maddox graduated with honors in creative writing from Knox College, and went on to earn an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She taught writing at Eastern Illinois University and has published stories in various journals, including Yellow Silk, Farmer’s Market, The Scream Online, and The Huffington Post. The Illinois Arts Council has honored her fiction with a Literary Award and an Artist’s Grant.