Interview With an Author: Thomas Mullen

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Thomas Mullen and his latest novel, Blind Spots
Author Thomas Mullen and his latest novel, Blind Spots. Photo of author: Kate Lamb

Thomas Mullen is the internationally acclaimed author of six previous novels; The Last Town on Earth, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, The Revisionists, Darktown, Lightning Men, and Midnight Atlanta, all of which combine elements of crime and suspense with either speculative or historical fiction. His latest novel is Blind Spots, and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Blind Spots?

Many years ago I happened to read two novels in quick succession that made clever use of redactions and censored content. One was a CIA spy thriller (An Ordinary Spy by future—The Americans showrunner Joel Weisberg) and one was a literary novel from Iran, Censoring an Iranian Love Story, by Shahriar Mandanipour. In both books, parts of the story are censored by black bars, so the reader doesn’t know what it is that’s being kept from them. Somehow, from there I got the idea of a killer who could move around looking to all the world like a black censor bar, redacted from everyone’s view. I liked the idea, and from there I sketched out the world that could make such a scenario possible.

Are Mark, Jeanie, Amira, Peterson, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Not really, no. I try not to base any characters on any actual people in the real world, as that doesn’t seem fair to the people involved.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

If anything, the opposite occurred—I wanted to try to write something very short, very lean, very spare, very stripped down. I thought I could get the book done in less than 250 pages, which would have been a big change for me (most of mine are around 350-400). The first draft was maybe 240, so I succeeded, sort of. But as I worked on next drafts with my agent and editor, I wound up fleshing out more subplots and some of the secondary characters, so it actually got a bit longer than I’d expected (though it’s still my shortest book).

Did you have to do any research regarding new technologies to assist/address blindness (especially on such a massive scale)? Any other areas of research? If so, what was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

I did read a fair amount about blindness, visual impairment, and the various assistive technologies that are being developed and worked on today. The devices in my book may seem far-fetched to some, but they aren’t as far-out as you’d think, when you take a look at what various scientists are working on. And for years people have been predicting what they call the Singularity, when machine learning will somehow become fused to the human brain and body. It’s strange to think about, but something like it is probably inevitable.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Oh wow, lots! I recently judged a nonfiction prize, then traveled to France and read a lot of French authors and histories to get prepped for it, so I wasn’t able to read my usual kinds of fiction for a while. As a result, my to-be-read fiction pile has been growing, and now I can finally dive in!

I just bought Charles Frazier’s latest, as well as the new Jordan Harper and the recently republished first S.A. Cosby novel. I also have books by Naomi Hirahara and Rachel Howzell Hall that I’ve been wanting to check out, plus Imbolo Mbue’s second novel, and I’m slowly making my way through Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series—the second-to-last is on my nightstand as well.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

I probably can’t limit it to five, honestly! It’s so hard to say. Depends on what kind of authors we’re talking about.

John Dos PassosUSA Trilogy was hugely influential to me in my 20s when I was starting out, and had a big impact on my first novel, The Last Town on Earth, and I always looked to Toni Morrison as the impossible-to-reach standard in finding new ways to tell stories while using lyrical language. Like a lot of people my age, both Cormac McCarthy and David Foster Wallace had a huge influence on my writing early-on, albeit in very different ways.

I look to Kate Atkinson as a role model in how she’s built her career toggling back and forth between genres and time periods; the same is true of Margaret Atwood. Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Colson Whitehead were the writers who first showed me ways to combine noir tropes with different kinds of storytelling. Ron Rash, Tom Franklin, and Richard Wright’s Black Boy showed me how to add a touch of Southern spirit to my Atlanta-based series.

Finally, the oral histories of Studs Terkel have been inspiring not just for my historical novels but just the stories he found, the people’s voices, the reminders of the ways we once lived.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Not so much a book as a series, but I devoured The Hardy Boys stories in elementary school.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Honestly, no!

Is there a book you've faked reading?

No, but there were certainly some things I read in college that I wish I hadn’t wasted time on. I took a Contemporary Literary Theory course junior year that involved reading essays by the likes of Derridas and Barthes, and I found it all horribly over-intellectualized, just a long academic chain letter sent between members of an exclusive club, seemingly designed to exclude those who weren’t in the ivory tower. It took something exciting like fiction and made it turgid, dull, elitist.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Luckily the book is every bit as good as the cover!

Is there a book that changed your life?

Wow, that’s a tough one. But if I hadn’t read Gary Pomerantz’s Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, which devotes four pages to Atlanta’s hiring its first 8 African American police officers, I probably never would have had the idea to write Darktown, Lightning Men, and Midnight Atlanta.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I have given Citizen Vince by Jess Walter as a gift to many, many people and no one has ever been disappointed.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres. It has everything a novel should have.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

The TV show Mr. Robot just blew my mind; excellent characters, a wonderfully unique style, and a truly shocking twist at the end of Season 1 that makes me want to rewatch the whole season again to see how they pulled it off.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Sleep late. Great coffee and a baked good, preferably a chocolate croissant. Read for an hour. Write for a couple hours. Lunch with my wife. Second coffee. Write more. Go for a run. Dinner with the family. A good cocktail. That’s pretty much the dream! Maybe move it to a tropical island, though?

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?

No one ever asks about how parenthood influences my work, and how it influences whether I even have time to write—but women authors are asked that question all the time.

My first novel came out when my first son was 6 weeks old, and my second novel came out when my second son was 7 weeks old, so writing books and raising children has always been intricately linked in my life. Over the years my wife and I have rearranged our schedules many times—each of us working full-time, or working part-time to take care of the kids, or freelancing for more time, etc. Back and forth and back again based on kids’ ages, financial needs, school schedules, etc. Having time (and mental energy) to write has always been a challenge, though that too changes. It’s been a constantly evolving dance, and now that our kids are older and need less of our time, I see it becoming less all-consuming. But it’s always been a big part of who I am as a person and as a writer.

What are you working on now?

My eighth novel, due out about this time next year, will be called The Rumor Game. Set in Boston during World War II, it follows two characters—Anne, an anti-fascist reporter and activist who gets a job disproving harmful war rumors to keep morale high, and Devon, a disaffected Catholic FBI agent who prevents industrial sabotage while sleeping around with the city’s many lonely women—who find themselves investigating the same story from very different perspectives.

Book cover of Blind spots
Blind Spots
Mullen, Thomas