An Interview With Klavan: Crime Novels, Writing Habits, And Why Reading Dostoevsky ‘Was Like A Map Of My Psyche’

An Interview With Klavan: Crime Novels, Writing Habits, And Why Reading Dostoevsky ‘Was Like A Map Of My Psyche’

Ask Andrew Klavan about his work at The Daily Wire, and he wastes no time, “You’ve got to be excellent all the time, and I couldn’t be four times a week. But once a week is manageable.”

Klavan’s sharp wit is what keeps his audience laughing.

By Wednesday of each week, Klavan is working on his opening satirical monologue for “The Andrew Klavan Show” podcast which publishes every Friday. He writes and rewrites, he says, up to broadcast time.

Keeping up with political figures is a big part of his fourteen-hour workday. He consults RealClear Politics, the Wall Street Journal, Instapundit, the Daily Beacon, which in turn offer hyperlinks to other stories.

“I’m always looking for the cultural angle,” he explains.

He pores over Op/Eds from liberals and conservatives alike, which forces him to take a stroll down ‘Knucklehead Row,’ Klavan’s moniker for the Op/Ed writers at The New York Times — a publication he now calls ‘a former newspaper.’

He listens to Ben Shapiro, Victor Davis Hanson, and watches Brett Baer on Fox News. And of course he devours books, lots of books.

“The Daily Wire has been unlike any experience I’ve ever had.”

After podcasting for several years, Klavan spoke at a conservative conference. “I was mobbed — like a rockstar.”

That certainly doesn’t happen when he sends off another manuscript to his publisher.

Great Literary Writers

As an English major at UC Berkeley, Klavan dutifully bought every book his professors assigned. And kept them. What he didn’t do was read them.

He had no interest in pretentious, long-winded, ‘literary’ fiction. He did, however, enjoy reading hard-boiled detective stories, crime novels.

That all changed the day he read a William Faulkner novel. He knew he was wrong. Faulkner, and the other great writers from history he had snubbed, wrote superb books. In fact, he became so enamored with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Dostoevsky, he began to look down on his coveted crime novels.

He even tried his own hand at literary fiction, but something didn’t quite fit. Looking back on this period of his life, Klavan says, “When I was young, I wanted to be Raymond Chandler, but during my dark period I wanted to be Shakespeare.”

An Edgar Award

As he recounts his writing journey in his memoir, The Great Good Thing, when he abandoned thoughts of writing literary fiction, he was reminded of an old Victorian era crime novel by Wilkie Collins: “The Woman in White.” He realized he could write about serious subjects through mysteries and suspense.

Out of desperation he quickly wrote his first crime novel titled “Mrs. White,” calling on his younger brother for help. When they finished, Klavan, embarrassed by writing something he still considered beneath him, decided to use the pseudonym Margaret Tracy.

And then, “Mrs. White” won the 1984 Edgar Award — the most prestigious award for crime writers — for Best Paperback Original. To win the first time out is no mean feat.

Once Klavan understood the work he was born to do was worth doing, he stopped using pseudonyms and began writing in his own name. And work he did. To date, he’s written thirty novels.

Klavan’s average workday lasts fourteen hours. Rising around 5:20am, he begins writing around 6:30am and writes for a solid four hours.

“I write and rewrite again and again. At least three ‘page-one’ drafts, but often more or more in parts. I’m a slow writer because I’m always rewriting. If I get 1,500 words of fiction or 1,000 of nonfiction, I’m happy.”

Every Story Starts With A Question

Klavan approaches each new novel with a question: What if?

For instance, for “Don’t Say a Word,” the ‘what if?’ is: What if my child were kidnapped?  

Or, in “The Identity Man,” the ‘what if’ is: What if a man were offered the opportunity to change everything about his physical identity — from his face, to his fingerprints to his DNA? What would he do with such a second chance?

These are not the sorts of questions writers of suspense or crime or YA novels often wrestle with. But Wilkie Collins did, Donna Tartt does, and so does Klavan.

Dostoevsky: ‘A Map Of My Psyche’

If Collins showed him the possibilities that thrillers offer, Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” altered his view of the power of fiction altogether.

“It changed my life, and I know how,” says Klavan. “I first read it in college when I was around nineteen.

I was immersed in relativism — Foucault, Derrida. When I finished “Crime and Punishment” I remember burying my face in my hands and thinking they [the moral relativists] were wrong. Without my knowing it, Dostoevsky turned me toward God, turned the ship in a different direction.”

“When I read it again after my conversion, it was like a map of my psyche. Only after my baptism could I understand it. Now when I reread it, I can see how incredibly deep it is, but before my baptism I couldn’t see it.”

“The first time I read it, I was so invested in relativism that when Raskolnikov starts to move toward Christ, I thought this must be a metaphor. He couldn’t really mean it. What relativists are saying makes perfect sense if there is no God. That was my problem. Because I didn’t believe in God, though I knew relativism was wrong, I didn’t know why it was wrong.”

The theme of my early thrillers — and even now when I write — is the question, ‘how do you know that anything is true?’—like in “The Animal Hour” and “Don’t Say a Word.”

“When I wrote “True Crime” the question comes up, ‘How do you know you aren’t a butterfly dreaming you’re a man?’ No, you know. And that was the turning point.”

Years In The Making

Sometimes it takes years for a story to come to fruition.

As an example, Klavan mentions a short story he recently wrote for The Daily Wire, “The Man Who Outsmarted the Devil.” The story came to him in 1976.

Another example also recently came to life. For thirty years Klavan held on to an ending to a book, but nothing else. Then, renowned editor Otto Penzler asked him to write a Christmas mystery, and Klavan was reminded of his ending without a book.

So he tells Penzler yes, provided he could figure out the rest of the story. Two very long walks later, and “When Christmas Comes” and professor Cameron Winter were born.

Klavan has long sought a character who would keep him interested beyond a book or three, and that character is now Cameron Winter.

Klavan loves the possibilities he sees in Winter. “I could write this guy forever. It has to do with how many facets he has, with how many ways of looking at him there are. I could easily write ten books and write from a different direction each time. So I feel he’s a character for the times.”

The Cameron Winter series continues with Klavan’s latest installment “A Strange Habit of Mind.” According to Klavan, this is just the beginning for Winter.

“We’re living in a culture that has just come out of its last effusion, anti-heroes — and now culture has gone flat because we’ve lost what it means to be a good man. Winter has been an anti-hero and is now trying to become a good man. He’s walking through an America where he is the holder of the old values in some ways. The society he’s in is just falling apart completely. He’s oblivious, doesn’t really get it because he’s living in the past. That’s a much more interesting character than, say, the average detective who’s a drunk or has some other flaw.”

“What made [Winter] seem worthy of a series was simply that he is not only many faceted but many of those facets are, as it were, developing simultaneously. It’s not that my other characters are less complex, it’s that they came to life within the one story that would change them most deeply. As a detective, Winter is more like a novelist, constructing stories from life that affect him in different ways at different levels.”

“The thing that brings a story to life for me is a character who has to live through that story. And for now that character is Cameron Winter.”

Yet Winter is (also) violent. Margaret, his therapist, describes him to herself in the following way: “But what disturbed her more than anything was the violence in him. She could see it in those controlled movements of his …. And of course there was the violence of the stories he was finally beginning to tell her. The first man I ever killed…”

And then, too, there was the violence of his passions. In his quiet way he was full of passions. Grief and sorrow. An urgent yearning for beauty and for love. And guilt — lots of guilt — guilt on a grand scale — the sort of guilt you find in the final act of a Shakespeare play when the ghosts of the dead rose up to accuse their murderers”

For The Love Of Books

Because books hold such profound meaning for him, he says, “I use my reading time carefully.”

Klavan is usually reading three or four books at a time, writers like Albert Camus, Douglas Murray, or Peter Schweitzer. Since he doesn’t sleep much, he also keeps a thriller handy for late nights.

On average, because he admittedly reads slowly, he finishes about sixty books a year. Hard to believe for someone so prolific.

As viewers and listeners of “The Andrew Klavan Show” know, his interviews with important writers reveal the depth and breadth of his reading.

Like many professional writers, Klavan also believes no one can be a writer who doesn’t read.

“Oh, someone can learn to write, but that’s different from becoming a writer.”

Cheryl Forbes is Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. She is the author of eight books on theology, philosophy, science, and  memoir.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.