Author of Souls of Men
It’s a short road to hell, when you don’t know you’re on it.
Veteran detective Elaine Hope is driven by the search for justice. To find the sadist who beat a teenage girl to death, she’ll stand up to anyone, including her bosses, bad cops, and Serbian gangsters–even when she becomes their prey.
Nilo Srecko, the vicious scion of a Serbian crime family, is Elaine’s prime suspect. Nilo wants nothing more than gratification of his twisted desires, and when Elaine turns up the heat on him, he turns the tables.
Neither of them realizes that they are jeopardizing a far-reaching plan that Nilo’s uncle Anton, the family capo, has been developing for years. And Anton has no qualms about sending anyone anywhere, even to hell.
In Souls of Men, what moved you to write a novel with a female protagonist?
Gender roles interest me greatly. It’s important for me to portray strong female characters, especially in a dark book like Souls of Men. I started with a story involving two scarred people–Peter and Elaine–but I wasn’t clear which of them was going to be the protagonist. As the story matured it demanded a strong female lead who could stand up to anything the world threw at her. Once I had sketched the first few chapters, if I hadn’t made Elaine the protagonist, she would have brow-beat me until I did! She’s that kind of gal. If she weren’t British, I’d swear she was Texan.
Erica Jong wrote, “I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.” How difficult is it for you to put your work out before the public eye? Does the idea of your work being judged interfere with the writing process?
The notion of other people reading my words and peering into my psyche scared me for years. It doesn’t anymore. People can judge my work on its prose style or whether or not the characters are true. It makes good conversation and food for thought. Much of the criticism will help me improve my writing.
Did you know the ending of Souls of Men before you began writing the first chapter?
No, I didn’t. How could I have envisioned those last three chapters? Elaine and her antagonists took the story to that point. They forced the final arc to twist in directions that the standard thriller tropes rarely seem to go. When I got to the end, it was the only honest way that I could see to end this part of Elaine’s journey. Of course, her story isn’t over at the end of this book, so I needed an ending that wrapped the main plot, yet created more tension and drove her forward.
Some writing coaches suggest that a writer should complete a list of traits and facts about each character before they start writing. Do you do that?
No. I attempted to complete a couple of those lists when I first started writing, but it was more time-consuming than it was helpful. I once saw a list that included the character’s favorite colors, what they like to eat for breakfast, parent and sibling names, and other obtuse information. It was preceded with the pontification that the more surprising the details are, the stronger the character will be. Say what? If I relied on that, I’m sure I’d get a contrived character. Strong characters are built by what they do and how they meet the challenges of the story.
Anna Castle, a novelist friend of mine, says she makes up character traits from the story, backwards. I do, too. My list for Elaine is quite short, and grew from the story. How does she relate to her Superiors, peers, and subordinates? What does she expect from colleagues? What principles is she loyal to? How does she react to emotional, professional, and physical threats? What does it take to force her to act outside accepted norms of behavior?
Share a little about your early writing influences.
When I was growing up, I read all the classic books that my teachers required me to read, plus healthy doses of C.S. Forester, Patrick O’Brien, Isaac Asimov and Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness was a mind-opener for me concerning gender roles.
In my early twenties I discovered Dorothy Sayers. Sayer’s Gaudy Night gets my vote as the best mystery ever written, and the one mystery all aspiring mystery writers should read. I say this primarily because the central crime isn’t murder and the academic and romantic plots are every bit as engaging and tension-filled as the detection plot. It also includes the most astounding final dialog of any book I’ve ever read.
My current favorite mystery/thriller writers are Peter Robinson, Val McDermid and Louise Penny. I find most of the Scandinavian Noir writers to be good reads, including Henning Mankell, Arnaldur Indridason, and Helene Tursten.
Will your next novel be in the same genre?
Yes. I’m currently working on the second of three planned Elaine Hope novels. Payment in Kind begins about nine months after the end of Souls of Men.
About the author
Russ Matlock writes the Elaine Hope series of suspense thrillers. Souls of Men, the first book of a planned trilogy, is in final edit. Russ has a degree in history and has worked as a liquor store clerk, auto mechanic, technical writer, marketing copy writer and high-tech product manager. He is a native Texan and resides in Austin, Texas. His website can be found here, and Russ can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org