This is not my usual author interview. When I contacted Laurence O’Bryan to ask if he would be interested in participating in one he sent me back an already-prepared Q&A. Rather than delving into the author as well as all of his works, this focuses mainly on the novel I reviewed, THE MANHATTAN PUZZLE. So, for those of you who would have liked to get to know the author a little better, you will be disappointed. But if you’d like to know the story behind the story, and isn’t that all of us, here it is—Laurence talking about Manhattan.
Q: Laurence, describe your connection to Manhattan?
Laurence: I have been to Manhattan, the site of my latest novel, THE MANHATTAN PUZZLE, only four times. Each time it was different and so was I. Manhattan became part of my dream of prosperity. If I had enough money, in my fantasy, I would leave Ireland, visit Manhattan and enjoy all the interesting things that the city could offer. Later, after 9/11 and the financial crash, my impressions of the city changed. They became darker. There were forces battling over the island and innocent lives were being lost.
Q: What things about this place make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Laurence: I imagine the whole of Manhattan as a museum. It exists as an entirely man-made object, a piece of intricate jewellery or a giant snow globe with dollar bills cascading. Every street in Manhattan seems imbued with style, either gritty, trashy or glitzy, but there is nothing boring about it. I know of no other place like it.
Q: Did you consciously set out to use your location as a ‘character’ in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
Laurence: Manhattan, the mid-town section around Grand Central Terminal, is a character in THE MANHATTAN PUZZLE. It exists in the streets around the terminal and in the imaginary BXH Bank headquarters, a 1920s era skyscraper with a secret underneath. I couldn’t write a story about Manhattan without that presence coming through strongly, like Marilyn or Frank Sinatra swaggering past you as they head towards a limousine.
Q: How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you? In other words, similar to the last question, are you conscious of referring to your specific city or locale as you write?
Laurence: I believe place is a vital part of any novel. I went deep under Grand Central to feel it and to smell what it is like. There is a cinnamon-like smell on the lower tracks. I do pay specific attention to details like that, the feel of the stones under your feet as you race along the tracks, the smell, the noise of a train on a distant track.
Q: How does your protagonist interact with his/her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonist?
Laurence: My main characters are blow-ins, like me. They are there to solve a puzzle. They don’t make much of their surroundings, they are too busy surviving, but the city is there, behind it all.
Q: Has there been any local reaction to your works? What do local (ie those who actually live in your novels’ settings) reviewers think, for example. If published in a non-English speaking country are your books in translation in that country and, if so, what reaction have they gotten from reviewers?
Laurence: I have had great responses from readers in New York. Not one has given me a negative comment yet. This is a good thing for me. If I had dropped a few clangers I am sure they would have been noticed by sharp-eyed New Yorkers.
I’ve also written about Istanbul and Jerusalem. Both novels have been reviewed by people from those cities and the Istanbul novel has been translated into Turkish. Aside from a few minor points, such as below, there has been no negative comment about my use of these locations.
Q: Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share—the more humorous the better (we all have).
Laurence: A tricky one this. I wrote a novel set in Istanbul. In it I placed a sea bus to the Princess Islands in one location on the Bosphorus shore of the city only to find when it was being translated that the location was wrong. I also misnamed a tower, allocating its creation to the Venetians, not the Genoese!
Q: Of the novels you have written set in this location, do you have a favourite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Laurence: In THE MANHATTAN PUZZLE the tracks under Grand Central and a secret platform form an important part of the middle section of the book. That part of Manhattan, deep under Grand Central, is a location I love. It’s not a long section in the book but it links the modern part of Manhattan to an imaginary older part, which I have created. It is a factual place that is hidden, which I have used to link to an imaginary place.
Q: If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
Laurence: I would live in Manhattan, in the Village, for the vitality, the energy all around, the great bookshops and the constant flow of people and stories.
Q: Who are your favourite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Laurence: The writers I have enjoyed most include Robert Graves, whose series set in Rome and beyond was definitely inspired by place. Conan Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes series was also greatly involved with place, from the smoke-filled streets of London to the mists of Devon. In the modern era I enjoy Wilbur Smith’s adventure series and Barbara Kingsolver’s novels. All these novels feature place as a key element. I also enjoy Michael Connelly’s novels. He brings LA to life for me.
Q: What’s next for your protagonist?
Laurence: Sean and Isabel Ryan are off to Nuremberg. I am writing the novel at the moment. It’s about modern fascism and betrayal. It also takes the puzzle at the heart of the series one more step forward.
Laurence O’Bryan’s first novel, THE ISTANBUL PUZZLE, was short listed for Irish Crime Novel of the year in 2012. He still lives in Ireland. You can find out more about him and the series at www.lpobryan.com.
Laurence’s thrillers have been translated into ten languages. THE MANHATTAN PUZZLE was published by Harper Collins in the US on 26 August 2014.
Take this link to my review of THE MANHATTAN PUZZLE