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Brian Freeman - 5/8/12

Brian Freeman recently stopped by to chat with us at Murder by the Book.

Freeman's first published book, "Immoral," was nominated for all the major mystery book awards. That auspicious start propelled him into the full-time job of writing. He is currently working on the fifth book in the Jonathan Stride series, of which "Immoral" was the first. He also has two non-series novels. It is one of those non-series novels, "Spilled Blood," his newest release, that brought Freeman to Portland.

Although his books are serious and dark, Freeman himself is funny and engaging, with smooth, articulate answers and anecdotes. He made us laugh with the following story. One of Freeman's earliest and best marketers was his mother. She told her doctor about Freeman's first book, "Immoral." The doctor wrote it on a note so he wouldn't forget the title, and attached it to her file. Unfortunately, the note was still there when Freeman's mother next visited the doctor's office, only her regular doctor was otherwise engaged and she saw a replacement. It amused both Freeman and his mother when her doctor reported back that the temporary physician was puzzled about why such a "nice lady" would be tagged "immoral."

Freeman could fill his next book with amusing stories such as that, but he uses humor judiciously in his books. Except in his Ally O'Brien books. The secret is out. In cahoots with his British agent, Ali Gunn, he writes a "'Sex and the City' meets 'Devil Wears Prada' series" under the pseudonym Ally O'Brien. "The Agency" details the scandalous side of book publishing and gives vent to Freeman's sarcastic and sassy side.

"Being a writer was my only dream in life," Freeman said. But after he was unsuccessful in selling the first five books he wrote, he gave up and went to work for a big international law firm and also did mortgage banking. He joked that "writing gigs get a little more respect" than either of his former occupations. He knew he "wasn't being true to himself," so back he went to writing when he could. The result was "Immoral." He credits the dust-gathering first few novels with giving him "a much better sense of what I like to write about, what my niche was in the writing world."

Freeman came at the U.S. market through a side door. His agent is British (the aforementioned Ali Gunn), so Freeman's books are released first in the U.K. Despite their unusual path to U.S. readers, Freeman's books are American and solidly Midwest in their setting.

While other writers may gloss over where their books take place, Freeman goes to extraordinary sensory lengths to vividly describe where his characters operate. In "Stalked" (which probably should have been titled, "Shiver"), it is winter, so Freeman stood outside in a storm and recorded his impressions. "The character of the place should reinforce the characters in the book," he added. People should get a "you are there" feeling.

While he understands the need to quickly define his style – thus, he is often likened to Harlan Coben – he is thoughtful about what he wishes this description would include. Freeman writes psychological suspense, with complex moral issues, if you must categorize him, he said. He described "Spilled Blood," as "an intensely personal and emotional thriller, which is what I like to write."

Next to setting, his stories are anchored on people: "real, flawed human characters who make mistakes" and find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. When he "scratches the surface of ordinary people," he finds there are interesting stories to tell. He's not surprised that his readers may not like some of the choices his characters make. "There are no easy answers," and that's reflected in his books. He also is interested in the "self-perpetuating nature of hatred" as a theme.

Is he a good observer? "You can never really observe everything you need to know when you're writing books, but we are a product of our experiences," he said. He must have excellent powers of observation, however, to create the teenagers in "Spilled Blood." In fact, he has been complimented on his realistic portrayal of teenage characters and angst in general. He laughed and said, "Teenagers have adult hormones and desires but they lack mature judgment," just right to create dramatic situations.

"Spilled Blood" takes place in two fictional small towns set in southeastern Minnesota. Since setting is everything, Freeman takes great pains to describe "the desolate, rural, flat as a board" environment. His vision of the area is based on observations he made during summer drives with his family to their cabin on Lake Michigan, traveling through areas that gave him a "feeling of the remoteness and desolation of the Midwest." 

It opens with a scene of Russian roulette, and Freeman thanks Lady Gaga's song, "Pokerface," for inspiring him with the line, "Russian roulette is not the same without a gun."

How does he suppress what seems to be a natural levity. "That's just a different side of me," he said, "I see that what I'm trying to [write] is serious and intense." It will be a challenge for him to keep that discipline with his next book set in Florida. He mused, "Can you get dark drama out of such a sunshiney place?"

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