Exploring the light and the dark – The Definitive Albert J. Sterne
The Press has asked me to talk about the first novel of mine that they published, back in November 2010. The Definitive Albert J. Sterne was also the first ‘proper’ novel I ever attempted, at the grand old age of 29. I began writing it way back when The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) was still new. I was fascinated not only by Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, but also with Anthony Hopkins’ Dr Hannibal Lecter, and I loved that they were fascinated by each other as well.
(I was also very much into vampires at the time, from Bram Stoker’s to Anne Rice’s, which may or may not be relevant. The fantasy rather than the reality…? Anyway!)
Inspired to dream up a gay / FBI / serial killer tale of my own, I began writing a short story in which Albert and Fletcher are investigating a nasty crime, and becoming intrigued by each other. The present-day scenes were interspersed with short (italicised!) flashbacks to Albert’s childhood and the death of his beloved parents. These terse bits of backstory became more and more significant to me, and even once I’d finished the story to my satisfaction, my imagination wouldn’t let the characters go. I realised there was more to Albert than one short story.
I started writing another story about another crime investigation, but then – sitting in the car one evening, waiting for Mr B to finish work (I remember it so vividly) – it suddenly occurred to me that there was a whole novel in Albert. And if there was Albert then there also had to be Fletch, his one and only love. And if I was dealing with a forensics expert and an empathic FBI agent then I needed a villain worthy of them.
Albert and Fletch were both bisexual, and I wanted a villain cut from the same cloth. I started reading voraciously about violent crime and serial killers, and soon found John Wayne Gacy. He – or, to be honest, the insidiously charming version played by Brian Dennehy in the film To Catch a Killer (Eric Till, 1992) – provided the starting point for John Garrett. My imagination had to fill in the rest.
To my surprise and disquiet, that proved remarkably easy. To the point of seductive. I am a pacifist who has fits of conscience over causing any kind of hurt. I was a vegetarian at the time – a choice I shared with Albert. And here I was writing about a killer. And I got right into this! I was as engaged with Garrett as with either of my heroes. I sought to understand the definitive John Garrett as well as I might. Writing his chapters was intriguing, despite the fact that I tried to make his victims as likeable and sympathetic and ‘young man next door’ as possible.
Where did that come from? I don’t know, but it was a part of me for a long while – for the two years of writing, and for all the reading, pondering, researching, editing throughout. It was discomforting, but after a while I felt I just had to accept it.
Eventually, however, after a few more years, it was as if I’d got that out of my system. I was no longer so interested. I was no longer so thrilled. I haven’t even watched any of the new Hannibal TV series (Bryan Fuller, 2013-2015). Once, when I was reflecting on that time, I found myself thinking, ‘I’ve done my time in hell.’ And I felt no need to go back.
These days, as some of you will be aware, I write lighter fare, with heroes who are low on angst and high on decency. A friend talks about the BBC series Merlin (The Four Jays, 2008-2012) being her ‘happy place’. I aspire to writing novels that provide happy places for people, somewhere in which to dwell for a while sans souci – akin to Butterfly Hunter’s Dave and Nicholas being safe and happy at their Dreaming waterhole.
I’m proud of what I accomplished with The Definitive Albert J Sterne and its companion volume, however, and I still love Albert in particular. So very much. He’ll always be a part of me! For whatever reason, that novel punched down into deeper layers than anything I’ve published since. Because of that, it may be judged my best work overall – and it may remain so, no matter what I write next. I have to conclude that my time spent with the absolutely unpardonable John Garrett is one reason why.