By Alexander James
Author Joe Bright’s newly published novel is about murder. But the fiction has lain to rest the ghost of a brutal, real life killing that had haunted him all his adult life.
Joe was still a high school teenager when the quiet town where he lived was rocked after the body of a missing schoolgirl was discovered in a pond near the railway tracks. She had been raped and strangled to death.
The killer later turned out to be an intimate friend of Joe’s family.
The whole town was in shock. But I was more deeply affected than most. The young killer was my brother’s best friend. I’d often laughed and joked with him around the Sunday dinner table and had gone out shooting rifles with him.
One day soon after the murder, while police were still hunting for clues, this good pal passed me in his truck when I was on the way back from a run along the same road where the body had been found. He gave me an odd look, as though he was worried about where I’d been.
Something about that look made me think for a moment that he might be the killer of that little girl. But … c’mon … he was a friend. I dismissed the thought and didn’t tell anyone about the encounter. Later, of course, I realized it had been a look of guilt. Our instincts are often more in tune with the world than we give them credit for, but when the instinct suggests something frightening, we often allow ourselves to push it aside.
I’d have been glad to see the killer hanged … until he turned out to be my friend. Then, I just felt sick. If he hadn’t confessed, I would have sworn they had the wrong guy. Why? Simply because I knew him, and we often choose sides based on association rather than on the facts of the situation.
The horrible knowledge that someone we trust completely can be so secretly dark inside scarred me. I could never shake the dreadful feeling that people -- even those I knew well -- might conceal something awful and dark in their hearts.
But writing The Black Garden served as a catharsis for me -- a kind of exorcism of a haunting. Using what I learned about murder, murderers and the difference their crime makes to those around them as a backdrop to the main story was therapeutic. I projected all my fears -- how little we actually know even our closest friends -- onto characters in my book. It helped me work through the inner conflicts that had dogged me since youth.
The Black Garden -- released this month by Europe-based publishers BeWrite Books -- is set in a small town in Vermont, far from where the real life murder took place in Evanston, Wyoming. And it is also set in the fifties, long before the actual murder took place in 1979.
A few years after the murder, Joe -- one of a family of eight brothers and sisters -- left Wyoming and received his BA in English from Utah State University.
He began his career as a technical writer for Thiokol, the manufacturer of space shuttle rocket boosters. He later taught English in Honolulu, Hawaii and Berkeley, California.
He currently lives in Studio City, California, and works as a graphic designer.
Joe always had an interest in the arts and attended college on a fine arts scholarship, yet spent much of his time playing the guitar, writing songs and performing with a band. He did a lot of short story writing in high school, but didn’t get serious about it until 1994, while teaching English in Hawaii.
This was when I wrote my first novel, and I’ve been writing consistently ever since. Five novels in 15 years; three are out on audio cassette, two have been self-published, but The Black Garden is the first so far to have hit the spot with a traditional publisher and been released internationally.
The Black Garden is set in a small town in Vermont.
For years, the residents of Winter Haven have speculated about George O’Brien’s misdeeds; however, during the summer of 1958, when Mitchell Sanders arrives to help the O’Briens renovate their home, he discovers that not all of their skeletons are in the closet where they belong.
Since the story is set in 1958, I had to do a lot of research about the era to make the setting authentic. I wanted to make sure the dialog didn’t contain slang or technical terms that didn’t exist at the time. I also needed to know how the police investigated a crime prior to the advent of DNA testing. Fortunately, one of my older brothers works in law enforcement, and I was able to pick his brain on procedures and protocol.
Most of my stories fall within the gothic suspense category. The Black Garden, though, is more of a drama/mystery. With its rural setting and dark theme, it still fits in the American Gothic slot, but without the supernatural elements often associated with the genre.
Murder is a small part of The Black Garden; but the theme of judgment runs through the story. Who’s right, the Hatfields or McCoys? Depends if you’re a Hatfield or a McCoy. I hope the novel gives readers a different perspective on events, and entertains them at the same time.
My protagonist is Mitchell Sanders, the outsider who moves to the small town of Winter Haven for a summer job. He doesn’t care about his employers or the community. He’s a coward who has run away from his problems in Boston and then finds himself entrenched in even bigger problems. He’s not comfortable speaking his mind while in the company of people he knows will disagree with him. Yet as the conflict mounts, he’s forced to take a stand and to grow as a person.
The black garden from which Joe’s new book takes its title rests behind the house of George and Candice O’Brien, a grandfather and granddaughter with dark secrets. The residents of Winter Haven have speculated for years about the deeds of the O’Briens, but in 1958, Mitchell Sanders discovers the horrifying truth.
Mitch has come to Winter Haven for the summer, hired by the O’Briens to renovate their home. Unaware of the controversy surrounding the family, he moves into the studio at the back of the eclectic garden, where he has a rare view of the lives of George and his granddaughter. He notes how George spies on his neighbors through his binoculars, how they refuse to speak of Candice’s parents, and how they never leave the house. Especially troubling is the way the townspeople turn cold whenever he mentions that he’s working for the O’Briens.
Their bad reputation stems back 20 years to when George’s daughter Carolyn was raped and subsequently gave birth to Candice. The accused rapist, Grant Baxter, is from one of Winter Haven’s more prominent families and, true to the unbiased nature of American justice, the verdict favors the wealthy. Rubbing salt into the wound, Baxter’s lawyer casts suspicion on George by inferring that he was the one who impregnated his own daughter.
Infuriated by the verdict, George managed to alienate himself and his family from the townspeople, who have grown more convinced that George is the guilty one. As the slander intensified, Carolyn broke down and took her own life. A few weeks later, Grant Baxter vanished, never to be seen again. Howard Baxter, Grant’s father, is convinced that George O’Brien had everything to do with his son’s disappearance, yet is unable to present a shred of evidence.
I chose Vermont for the setting mainly because when I visited there I was taken by its beauty and felt it would make a great backdrop for the story. The town of Winter Haven is fictitious; however, I drew a lot on my own hometown of Evanston, Wyoming, when describing the layout.
With a first traditional release under his belt, Joe can now take time to reflect on the years that went into its accomplishment.
It’s such a great feeling to finish a novel. I also write songs, and I remember how proud I was when I wrote my first, which took a few days.
A novel, on the other hand, takes much, much longer. Thus, the feeling of pride is that much greater. I wrote the first draft of The Black Garden, for instance, 10 years ago. Then it was a work-in-progress while I revised, adjusted, wrote a screenplay version, launched on the long and difficult search for a publisher, and eventually went into months of fine-tuning with my editor at BeWrite Books, Hugh McCracken.
The most rewarding part of it is having other people read and enjoy it. It’s a nice boost of confidence and encourages me to continue developing my writing skills and to work on the next novel.
The hardest part about writing is the blank page. It’s a lot like creating a sculpture out of clay. In the first draft, you are creating the clay. That’s the hard part. Molding it is the fun part. To help me through this process, I first write an outline, plotting out the story. Through this, I come up with my characters, establishing their backgrounds, their likes and dislikes, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. Once I know my characters, it’s much easier to know how they will react in a given situation.
Often I’ll write anything that comes to mind, just to get the writing going and to fill up that daunting blank page. I also tend to keep other novels around so I can pick one up and read a little to get me in the right frame of mind.
The first novel I ever wrote, I took the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach. That is, I just delved in without really knowing where the story would take me. Many writers work that way and do a splendid job. Not me. I ended up doing a lot of editing that I could have avoided if I’d have thought things out better.
Now I always outline. First, I write a brief synopsis of the story. Second, I figure out who my characters are. This often takes a month or more, because I really need to know who these people are so I can work with them. Third, I write an outline. My outlines include most of the dialogue and brief sketches of the action. So they tend to be around a hundred pages long. Fourth, I start writing the novel. It never follows the outline completely, since I discover new things while writing and often encounter flaws that I’d overlooked before.
I’m a graphic designer during the day and a writer in the evenings, so I’m at the computer all day long. The tragic part of that is that I have very little social life. I can be quite obsessive and have to force myself to take a break and go do something fun. I’m still trying to find the balance.
My parents and brothers and sisters have always encouraged me. It’s vital to have someone believe in you … especially when you’re having trouble getting agents and publishers to read your work. I’m very fortunate to have such a supportive family.
The Black Garden is published by BeWrite Books and is available from all major online book stores or can be ordered at any local high street book shop.
Possibly related books:
[Interview] Bernadette Steele, Conversations with Writers, March 29, 2008