Interview with Ron MacLean, author of Headlong


By Beth Castrodale, with Ron MacLean, author of Headlong
Last Light Studio, 2013, 312 pages

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Ron MacLean’s Headlong, published earlier this month by Last Light Studio, did for me what the best novels do: It pulled me wholly into its world while I was reading it and burned like a steady flame in the back of my mind whenever I wasn’t.

Headlong tells the story of Nick Young, who returns to his hometown, Boston, after his difficult and distant father suffers a stroke. The life Nick has left behind, in LA, is nothing he seems eager to return to. Though still in love with his ex-wife, an actress whose career he helped manage, Nick sees that she is well on her way to a new and happy life without him. He is at loose ends not only in his personal life but in his work life; having walked away from a promising career as a reporter, Nick has no idea what he’ll do next.

Back in Boston, Nick reestablishes contact with a high school friend and her teenage son, Bo. As Nick soon discovers, Bo has taken up with an anarchist group opposed to global capitalism. Among other things, members of the group trash the lobby of Endicott, a major financial-services and investment firm whose janitors have gone on strike after Endicott refused to increase their wages and meet other demands.

When the home of a top Endicott executive is robbed in broad daylight, and the executive’s son beaten and left near death, the old investigative-journalism blood begins to flow back into Nick’s veins. Why, he asks, are the local cops so slow to turn up any leads in the case? More disturbing, is it possible that the anarchist group—and, more specifically, Bo—could have played a role in the robbery and beating?

As Nick pursues his own investigation of this case, he rediscovers the joy of chasing a story and also—through his encounters with Bo and Bo’s peers—the power of youthful idealism. His story suggests that if we can somehow reconnect with that idealism as we grow older (and, hopefully, wiser), we may find ourselves—and the world we live in—the better for it.

Headlong is a noir-ish thriller that kept me turning the pages. But it also made me ask some hard questions about the course my own life has taken, and the extent to which my current-day idealism is all talk and no action. 

 * * *

 In an insightful interview on his Web site, Ron MacLean answers questions about, among other things, why he chose to write a thriller, how the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the “gaping abyss between rich and poor” helped inspire the novel, and how he thought through the conflicts—both internal and external—facing the snarky yet sympathetic Nick Young.

Here, MacLean responds to some more questions from me (Small Press Picks editor Beth Castrodale) about the novel, his writing process, and small-press publishing.

 I love how central place—in this case, Boston—is to the novel. How early in the writing process did you decide to set the novel in Boston? Were there any ways in which the story felt like it needed to happen in Boston, as opposed to some other U.S. city?

Boston was the home for this story from the beginning. I knew from the time I began hunting an idea for a crime novel that I wanted to set it in Boston. The history of this city fascinates me – the combination of lingering Puritanism and casual corruption was something I wanted to explore. Once I got into the writing of Headlong, I learned something else – this book was a hymn to the city I love. In a sense, Nick Young’s journey is one of wrestling with the contradictions inside him. Boston is a perfect city in which to explore contradictions.

 I’m betting that Nick Young’s efforts to reconnect with his youthful idealism—and to do something constructive with it—will make many middle-aged readers (including me) take a closer look at the paths their own lives have taken and consider whether they need to plot a different course moving forward. As you wrote the book, were you hoping to have this effect on readers? Did the process of telling Nick’s story make you reflect on your own life?

Oh, yeah. I might even say the book grew out of the fact of me reflecting on my own life. I became fascinated by the question of what happens to idealism and conviction – which so many of us as young people start out with – as we age. And part of the answer is easy: life happens. We realize things aren’t black and white. But I couldn’t shake the idea that to leave it at that is a cop-out. There’s something that I need – that we as a culture need – about cold-eyed, uncompromising idealism as a standing challenge to complacency.

 I wouldn’t say I wrote the book intending to make readers take a closer look at their own lives. That sounds a little too close to fiction-as-medicine, and I don’t think fiction works well that way. What I wanted to do was engage some core questions in a compelling way – like what happens to idealism as we age, and what value might the challenge of adamant young people have – and invite readers to engage those questions with me.

 I really admire the novel’s construction. You weave together a number of plotlines, but everything moves forward smoothly and enticingly, and nothing feels extraneous. Did you work from any kind of outline? If not, did you use any other strategies to keep things focused and sensibly structured?

That’s really good to hear. I struggled mightily with structuring Headlong. This is the most plot-driven fiction I’ve ever written. I don’t consider plot my core strength, and I really had to learn it to tell this story. As you say, weaving together four major plotlines.

 I tried all kinds of approaches. I’m not naturally an outliner – my brain is nonlinear, working by association more than by sequential logic. But after the first couple of drafts, it was clear to me the sequence of events was not coherent. I couldn’t even keep the timeline straight in my head. I tried creating various types of outlines. Most of them failed miserably. For me, if I know where I’m going, I lose interest in going there.

 What I finally landed on was some combination of a timeline – which I came to think of as a map, drawn out on a long roll of butcher paper with different color markers for each plotline – and a summary index card for every chapter, with bullet points for the key events that needed to happen. Weaving it all together was still painful, but those tools allowed me to both move things around within chapters and to look at the weave as a whole, how the patterns worked together – was one color line too dominant? another too absent? Looking at the overall structure abstractly like that – as a mix of colors on the wall – was actually a huge help. Reducing it to a search for visual harmony kept me true to what the whole needed, rather than getting tied to one event or idea that I didn’t want to move or cut. I’m a deep believer in the “music” of a book’s structure, and that map helped me work that way. If the events of each chapter made sense, and led to the next, and the overall composition had thematic harmony, I felt confident I’d have something worthwhile.

 Can you say a few words about how you connected with Armand Inezian, head of Last Light Studio, which published Headlong?

I had met Armand five or six years before, when he’d first started Last Light. He’d wanted to talk with me as someone locally (we’re both based in Boston) who had experience being published by a micro press. He wanted to pick my brain about my experience as he was gearing up to start. And we hit it off. So we had an interest in each other, though I was working with another press for my first two books.

 Over the course of the few years I was revising Headlong, my previous publisher was becoming less active, and I was looking for a new publishing home. I tried a few bigger houses without any luck, and out of the blue Armand got hold of me and asked if I had anything in the works. We had dinner, and the rest tumbled out fairly naturally.

 From an author’s perspective, what are the advantages of publishing with a small press? Are there any disadvantages?

There are definitely advantages. For starters, they were willing to do the book, which isn’t strictly literary and isn’t strictly a crime novel, but an odd hybrid of the two. Larger presses tend to shy away from anything they can’t slot easily for marketing. Another is simply the type and amount of attention you get as an author. I enjoy the actual making of the book – being able to collaborate in the design of the physical object – and that’s possible with a small press. I also enjoy the nature of the relationship. My book matters to Last Light. It’s their focus this season.

 And yes, of course there are also disadvantages. The advertising budget is close to zero. The publicity staff consists of one part-time person and me. Many review outlets won’t consider the book because they don’t recognize the name of the press. It’s the reality of a busy, info-glutted world. Without name recognition of either author or publisher, it’s hard to get attention.

 It’s kind of a strange time for novelists. On the one hand, they have more ways than ever to get their books out into the world: through (less and less commonly) major publishers, smaller presses, and self publishing. On the other hand, novelists–especially those who aren’t published by major houses–are searching for ways to become a signal among all the noise. Do you have any thoughts about how they might connect with readers who are most likely to appreciate their work?

I do. Build an audience, one reader at a time. Keep your focus there, and untether yourself from expectations based on how the world used to be. It will only lead to misery. Use the means that are most democratic – e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, blog – to connect with people. Get your work out to people in whatever way you can, and really – it took me a LONG time to learn this – you are your own best advocate. Whether with a small press or a large one, no one will care about your book as much as you do, and you have to work just as hard to get it into the world as you did writing it.

 Is there anything else you’d like to say about your book, about small-press publishing, or anything else?

Maybe just one thing. In order to stay sane doing this work, I have to remind myself – and have lovely writer friends who also remind me – it’s the writing that matters. All else comes from that. Take joy in doing the work.

Would My Pick be Your Pick?

If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
• Stories in which place (in this case, Boston) is a character
• American Noir, along the lines of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler
• Stories about second chances
• Characters who are caught up in current issues or controversies