Happy to be back to Bookshine after my ill-health hiatus of the last few weeks. And I’m straight back in with a treat, as I got the opportunity to put some questions to author Michael Stephenson as part of the blog tour for his latest book, The Ones That Stare.
First, here’s the book:
Blurb: Sometimes, silence is dangerous.
Black and Native American. Chocolate and peanut butter. Darien and Sayen blended together like a perfect match. The charming, always smiling film junkie and the always optimistic, coquettish altruist. The quaint suburban couple surrounded by quaint suburban neighbors. Perfect neighbors, though occasionally assuming. They all partied together, shared the latest community gossip, and sometimes… stared into each other’s windows. A tight-knit community that should have served to protect one another. But one fateful night changed everything.
Now, Darien’s wife is GONE, and he’s going crazy trying to figure out what happened to his love. Somebody knows. Somebody has the answer to this mystery. But why haven’t they said something? Why did they leave him to suffer in quiet? Do they know that something sinister has happened? Has… a murder occurred? And if so, who knows the killer’s identity? Darien has but one hope: solve the mystery of the silent, spying eyes, for he knows someone awaits in a dark villainy. Someone plots another’s demise. Someone awaits to plunge the knife. Someone saw something. Someone had to have!
A heart-pounding psychological thrill ride for fans of Domestic Thrillers, each new chapter will keep you guessing. At the end… don’t forget to breathe!
Sounds sinister! Let’s find out a bit more from the author himself…
As a writer:
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Vegetable gardening. I recently built a raised-bed garden. I’ve noticed a lot more people concerned about food safety and security since Covid-19. I think it’s important that we try reconnecting with the land. I also do the usual: watch films, watch TV, watch NBA basketball, read, and go on long walks.
What do you most love and/or hate to write?
Love this question. I’m usually asked what I love “about” writing rather than what I love “to” write. Vast difference. I love writing a story’s end and beginning. I rarely write either of those first, but once I do, having already explored the characters and plot, it thrills me to conclude or begin it. For The Ones That Stare, I didn’t write the first chapter until about day 11 of the process. By then I had already written the couple’s meet-cute, and some of Darien’s detective/sleuthing work. Going back to seed the coming madness gives me what I call a “giddy author moment.” Every author has them. It’s that moment they feel they’ve done something so clever it deserves a self-congratulatory pat on the back.
As for hate, can’t say there’s anything I “hate” but one or two things I dislike. I try to write honestly because I think that’s what artists are called to do. So, though I may not believe in a topic or have strong feelings about it, I write it as honestly as possible. Sometimes that means being more controversial than readers may like. Whether the topic is race, religion, gender dynamics, etc., I can’t shy away from it. But I sometimes dislike those chapters in which heavy things are addressed. There’s one chapter in The Ones That Stare with every character gathered to eat that, though my instincts told me was crucial, I cringe-wrote.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
Yes, I do. My reaction: take what’s useful and say, “Maybe I’ll get you next time.” Keeping honest, I think we actually have a two-fold problem in art and entertainment right now. First with creators. A debate exists that assumes quality should always win over quantity, as if the two are in contention. They should go hand in hand. As a creator I should have multiple works if I want to be noticed. I remember when managers, agents and publishers wanted you to have no less than seven finished works. Some still do. Why? Because it’s rare for your first thing to “pop.” If I spent ten years on one work, whether that be a book series or one magnum opus, then I showed it around and people hated it, I’d be crushed, and rightfully so. That would have been my only reach. But if I can work on my magnum opus and also on two completely different things, without diminishing quality, then I can more readily admit that not every story is for everybody. Bad reviews happen. Hell, even greats get bad reviews. I remember when Go Set a Watchman came out and was met with accusations of racism, undoing the author’s legacy, and on and on. I know not everyone is going to like The Ones That Stare maybe because of the themes, but maybe they will like The Knowledge of Fear because it is a mystery written in a completely different way.
The second problem of modern criticism is, I think, the fans (myself included, sometimes). We occasionally approach it from a wrong angle. Now more than ever we bring our own prejudices into everything we consume, to such an extent that it can become toxic for both consumers and creators. No, just because a creator writes about a certain subject doesn’t mean (s)he believes in it or is glorifying it. Just because something’s never happened to you doesn’t mean it’s not realistic and would never happen to a character. Just because someone likes a book/movie/TV show you don’t doesn’t mean they’re stupid. And authors shouldn’t be attacked because you expected the story to go one way and it doesn’t. Plenty of articles about authors behaving badly exist, but we have a problem not just confined to them. Some modern criticism is letting in too much of our expectations, societal pressures and biases in a non-meaningful way that can be ruinous to the enjoyment of a work. Lecture over. As for good reviews, “Yes, please, give me all the praise!”
As a reader:
What is your favourite book (other than your own!)?
No favorites. Mood, length, age, genre, theme, characters, plot, and a thousand other things factor into why I like or dislike a book at a certain time, making it near-impossible to choose a favorite. Same for all entertainment. I remember not liking Vertigo when first I saw it, a similar sentiment shared with most critics and audiences of its time. But when I learned of the themes behind it, I was once again captivated by the genius of Hitchcock, also a similar sentiment shared with critics of today. It, along with Rear Window, has now been used as a template for a great many modern mysteries both in book and visual media form. But currently I’m crushing on Where the Crawdads Sing. So lyrical.
Which author do you feel deserves more love than they get?
I don’t think I can answer this. I know it’s bad to say as an author, especially as an indie author but I don’t really follow authors, therefore, I wouldn’t know how much love they are getting. For starters, I’m terrible with names, so unless they’re big already, I won’t know them by name. That’s both good and terrible. Terrible because I should know this so I could rattle off some authors to support. Good because at least I never blacklist an author from my reading list just because I didn’t like one of their previous novels. But I could rec by book title: Fragments of the Lost; Crown Service book series; and Binti.
What was your favourite book as a child?
How young we talkin’? I think Are You My Mother?” meant a lot to me. As I got a little older I also remember the Animorphs books being important to me, specifically The Change; I did a whole you-pick-a-book assignment on it in school. Changing, evolving into something better has always fascinated me.
What book is top of your TBR pile right now?
Been trying to get through Children of Blood and Bone for a while but can’t seem to get into it. I like to support other minority authors. Also hoping to read Hillbilly Elegy soon, but don’t know when I’ll have time. Being from near there, its Midwest setting entices me.
With regards to THIS book:
One of the aspects of your previous mystery thriller, The Man on the Roof, that really stood out for me was the inclusion of anonymised passages from the point of view of your suspects, giving clues to their secrets but not their identities. Is this a style that you have returned to in The Ones That Stare, or have you gone with a different approach this time round?
Different approach. I don’t do hard mysteries often, but when I do I try to switch things up for each one. I want readers to finish one book, then pick another and say, “Wow! This is a completely different style/experience.” Keeps things fresh. For TOTS, though there’s no anonymity, you’re still scrounging for truth from multiple unique perspectives in a way you probably weren’t expecting when first you read the synopsis/book blurb.
I notice that The Ones That Stare is set in a community of friends and neighbours who may not be quite as friendly or neighbourly as they first appear? What is it about the suburban community set-up that appeals to you as a setting for your domestic thriller books?
The setting is so enticing because of the relational proximity of danger and intrigue. I like my stories to be a little suffocating, especially when writing psychologically intense narratives. I want people to put down the book, observe their neighbors and wonder what secrets and mysteries they hold. Back when suburban neighborhoods sprouted up across all of Western culture there existed a strong pull to “know thy neighbor,” which I think is somewhat gone. My psychological domestic thrillers are a callback to the idea that the closest people to you were the closest people to you, yet still they have secrets, or things they’re ashamed to speak about. Plus, the structures (usually houses) themselves help to build tension, and can even take on special meaning and characteristics. Fully straight, it’s easier to have a house with multiple doors and windows to exit than a third-story apartment with one door and two windows. So, the choice is also practical.
In your last book you assembled a thoroughly unpleasant bunch of suspects for us – how about this time? Are there any characters in The Ones That Stare that you like, admire or identify with? Or are we in for another disturbing trip to the darker side of the human psyche?
What a loaded question. Tough interview, but I like it. First, I have to address the likeable or unpleasant thing. I never quite understand the critique of a character being likeable or pleasant, etc. If we’re aiming to have realistic characters, then they should be looked at as people. A certain darkness is inherent in us all. Being honest with ourselves, the average person probably finds somewhere between 70-90% of people unlikable. Think of your high school class. How many people within your entire high school graduating class did you speak with on a daily or weekly basis? Probably not many. Not to say you wished them ill, or they weren’t good people, they just weren’t your cup of tea. We didn’t actively unlike them, we just became indifferent, regardless of commonalities. That’s not a bad thing. Others, we not only gravitate toward but actually like their darkness; it aligns with our own. In a book, you’re still getting to know a person. For these kinds of books, you quickly learn more about their faults than goodness. Everybody has flaws and faults, it’s just a question of how quickly you can adjust before truth destroys illusion. All that to say that I always write and read/watch from a place of “can I understand a character, regardless of whether I like him or not.” With that said, within The Ones That Stare I identify with Darien, but admire Bern. The reasons I admire Bernedette, I think, are sort of revealed in the book, so I won’t spoil it. But I will say that she has a certain stoic strength to her. As far as why I identify with Darien, that is a much longer conversation revolving around some of the secondary themes of the book. Those would be definite spoilers.
Is there anything else you would like new readers to know before they dive on into your book?
Nothing’s ever quite what it seems, even when it is. I think how someone can enjoy this book is best summed up by the character Clarissa in the Mystery Woman chapter, near the end of the conversation (nope, won’t spoil it for you). I know it is great to read a book in a day, but authors love it when you slow down enough to notice the poetry in their writing. And finally, always remember that the struggle of one does not invalidate the struggle of thousands of others.
Thank you so much for your thoughts, Michael. Lots here to tempt lovers of intrigue, suspense and domestic thrillers! I’m certainly looking forward to my future review of The Ones That Stare.
Great, Steph. I’ve enjoyed this interview, too. As always, a pleasure talking with you.
You can buy The Ones That Stare on Amazon right now, and don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour (details on the poster below) for more great content and reviews!