Over the past decade, I’ve published nine thrillers in what is known as the “suburban” thriller category— recognizable, every day moms and dads in an upscale setting you could pretty much hold a mirror up to and see yourself, and who through either a momentary weakness or misstep, end up over their heads in something sinister. By most measures I’ve had some success—five have made the NYT Bestseller list, all but one, Top Ten in the UK; I’ve received the occasional star from various review publications, been published in over twenty countries, and an enviable, long-term book deal from Harper Collins.
So why am I walking away from all this?
Hopefully, I’m not crazy. At least, not completely so. For several books I’ve felt constrained by the narrow niche of what my publisher, and perhaps even my readers, expected from me. Not only the familiar “suburban” setting, with root-for-able yoga moms and hedge fund dads with one foot in something murky and the “protect-your-family-at-all-cost” theme. But crisply-paced, plot-driven story lines with a dollop of some emotional resonance at the end, a carryover, perhaps, from my co-writing days with James Patterson. It was how my publisher positioned me. There was a strategy and a goal. I went along willingly. I’ve had the benefit of aggressive marketing campaigns. I was always told I wrote engrossing, exciting books that had a deeper soul in them than the outward constraints of plot and pace generally allowed.
I was writing good books, just not the books I always intended to write.
(Maybe there’s a little Caitlin Jenner in all of us.)
My favorite stories growing up were sweeping tales of the Persian-Greek wars, the First Crusade, escapes from Devil’s Island, the clash of Napoleon and the tattered Russian armies, Nazi conspiracies in and after World War II. Stories that transported you, not just grabbed you. Stories of heroism in the face of a known, historical outcome. Books of “what if...” Probably the book of mine that I recall with the most satisfaction was of a twelfth century peasant who comes back from the Crusade to find his wife and daughter taken by a lord and becomes a jester to find them, co-written with James Patterson.
The truth was I did feel like I was perpetually pushing a boulder uphill in the niche that I found, continually having to come up with fresh and original traps for my characters, new ways to threaten the “family.” And extricate them. I wanted to write books with bigger bones, broader themes and richer, atmospheric settings. My contract ended. An idea stared me in the face.
So I decided to let the boulder fall.
My father-in-law is 95, and came here in from Warsaw in early1939, only months before the war. He never had any idea what fate befell his parents, or for that matter, any of his extended family. He was the only one in his family to survive the war. For years it’s been like he’s carried a weight of sadness around with him; guilt and loss. A peace that always seemed to elude him, despite his successes here. To this day he has never spoken a word to my wife or her brother about his family life back in Poland. Like a lot of survivors, the yoke of memory is just too hard to bear. He came here as a student, but in 1941, when the U.S. entered the war, he enlisted, and because of his facility with languages, was placed in the Intelligence Corps. He has never divulged what his duties were there.
I always wanted to write the story he might tell.
As I looked into certain aspects of his past, I came across the massacres in the Polish (now Ukrainian) city of Lvov where in 1941 the Nazis systemically “purified” the university town of its Jewish intelligentsia, murdering hundreds of doctors, lawyers and esteemed professors. From there, it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine what if one of those victims might have held some vital knowledge to benefit humanity that died along with them: a seminal philosopher or a respected surgeon. Or maybe, a physicist who specialized in a vital aspect of atomic fission.
THE ONE MAN is the story of an escaped Pole who is convinced to return to the place where his parents were murdered by the Nazis to rescue the one man the Allies believe can ensure them victory in the war. That man is a nuclear physicist whose expertise is urgently needed on the Manhattan Project. And the place the young Pole must get him out of is Auschwitz.
It’s a thriller, in the sense that it’s about a near-impossible mission with a ticking clock winding down, but much richer in theme, more deliberate in characterization, and far more detailed in setting than anything I have ever done.
Writing this kind of book was not without its risks. The risk that fewer publishers would bid for it when I went to sell it. The risk that some of my readers might not follow me to a new place. The artistic risk that I could pull it off.
But I reminded myself, far less of a risk than the one I took when I got into this business in the first place.
This past July I turned in THE ONE MAN to Minotaur, my new publisher. I have no idea if it will deliver the wider, crossover audience I am hoping for. Or how it will stand up against the canon of work already based on the Holocaust. I only know it came out richer and better than my wildest hope for it, and that my next books will be in the same style and vein. And that my father-in law, after reading a few chapters, put it down with moisture in his eyes, turned to my wife and said, “Lynn, there are some things I’d like to talk to you about.”
THE ONE MAN will be published next September by Minotaur, a division of St. Martins.