Interview with Athol Dickson1. What was unique about the setting of the book and how did it enhance or take away from the story?
Most of the action in The Cure takes place in a fictional town in Maine. The setting is very much a force within the story. In particular, weather plays a strong role. For example, the principle character, Riley Keep, is homeless at the outset and faces the brutal Maine winter as if it were a sentient enemy. There is a scene where he decides to commit suicide by hypothermia, deliberately failing to seek shelter so he’ll freeze to death. The winter is described as a predator, descending on him with fangs and claws. Also, the town’s dying economy, empty shops along main street and empty lobster traps, is used throughout the story as a metaphor for spiritual malaise.
2. What specific themes did you emphasize throughout the novel? What were you trying to get across to the reader?
Thematically speaking, The Cure is about grace. It explores the idea that we all need more from life than we can offer in return. We try to live as if events are under our control. Even as a homeless alcoholic, Riley Keep continues this delusion. One would think a man in that position would know how helpless he is, but Riley suffers from a kind of prideful guilt, based on the conceit that he’s responsible for a great tragedy in the past. In fact, he was a victim of the tragedy, but rather than accept that he was never in control and seek help and comfort, he defends his pride with delusions of responsibility. In every life there comes a moment when we glimpse our fundamental powerlessness. What should we do then? Should we rage against that fact, or submit to whatever Power actually controls the universe? That’s the question in The Cure.
3. Do the characters seem real and believable? Can you relate to their predicaments? To what extent do they remind you of yourself or someone you know?
I can definitely relate to Riley Keep. Readers who haven’t personally experienced homelessness or addiction often mention that they get powerful new insights from his character in The Cure. I think that’s because we have a tendency to assume everyone living on the streets is functioning at very low mental and emotional levels. That’s not true in many cases. I know, because over thirty years ago I struggled with substance abuse and I was homeless. I did some awful things during that dark time in my life, committed many crimes, but I also cared about the people in my life, and some of them cared about me. I remembered that as I wrote The Cure, which is why there are no one-dimensional characters in the story. The best of people in the novel show they have some evil in them, and the lowest of the low are capable of selfless acts. It doesn’t get more real than that.
4. How do characters change or evolve throughout the course of the story? What events trigger such changes?
Without giving away too much of The Cure’s plot, there’s one character who has reacted to great evil with a life of cowardice, but courageously sacrifices life itself in the end. Another has suffered terrible deprivation and loneliness for the sake of a high moral code, and is rewarded for it in the end. A third who is estranged from loved ones at the start, but finds the way back into their hearts. Another on a self-destructive path learns to trust in others. And all of this takes place because Riley Keep finds a cure for alcoholism, which attracts legions of the homeless to the little town in Maine, where one way or another, everybody learns that the problems they thought they had were never really their real problem.
5. In what ways do the events in the books reveal evidence of the author’s world view?
My world view is there in everything, not only the events or plot, but throughout the setting, characterization, and theme in The Cure. It’s difficult to image a decent novel being written any other way. One must pour one’s heart into every word on the page, or the whole thing’s superficial.
6. Did certain parts of the book make you uncomfortable? If so, why did you feel that way? Did this lead to a new understanding or awareness of some aspect of your life you might not have thought about before?
I didn’t enjoy murdering one of the characters. Several people are killed in the course of the story, but in that one character’s case, I hated to do it. It was so unjust. And I really liked that person. But sometimes that’s the way it is. One novel I wrote, not The Cure, has a main character who dies in the end. Oh, how I agonized about that. But in the end, it had to happen for the sake of the larger story. Art imitates life that way, I guess. Often it falls on the very best of us to make the most painful sacrifices.
7. Was there a basis for your story? A previous experience? Something else?
As I mentioned, I went through homelessness and substance abuse early on in life. Now, I volunteer in a homeless shelter, where I’ve gotten to know many residents over the years. I’ve met all kinds of people living there, most of whom reinforce my own experiences and remind me that every single one of us is just a few bad choices or a few tragic events away from that same place. Our safety net in life, the things that keep us comfortable, is so much weaker than we imagine. And the answer to that problem is not to live in denial of it, but to recognize it and live every day with tremendous gratitude for every gift we’re given, be it a meal, or a sheltered place to sleep, or a warm coat, or even our next breath.
8. What research did you have to perform to back up your story? Any research which really opened your eyes or gave you new respect for a topic or profession?
I think this one’s been answered above.
9. What is your method for writing a book? A certain amount of hours every day? A certain routine? Are you character/story builder or an outliner or some other method?
I start with a germ of an idea, and then I look for other interesting ideas to add. These ideas usually don’t seem to fit together at first. For example, in The Cure I thought it would be fun to write about a small town in Maine and a village in a tropical jungle as if there wasn’t any difference between them. Then I set about adding plot ideas which make sense of the original ideas, and I build them up until I have a four or five page synopsis, which is sort of a short story version of the novel. I break that into scenes, which I then follow as I write the first draft. After that, it’s all editing and rewrites.
10. How do you get past writers block or distractions like the internet?
Writers block is for amateurs. I don’t get it. Some days I write more slowly than others, and sometimes at the end of the day what I’ve written is awful and must be destroyed, but I always write. The internet is a distraction sometimes, because I usually go there several times a day for answers to some arcane question. Often that research leads me down a rabbit trail and I end up reading about something unrelated to the novel. So I have to be careful not to waste too much time that way, which is just a matter of exercising discipline. But on the other hand, I’m a big believer is letting life lead me around as much as possible, rather than trying to orchestrate everything. Sometimes what I find by following those rabbit trails ends up inspiring a totally unexpected idea, which makes the work richer. So I don’t worry about it very much.
11. Favorite book from childhood.
I got a lot of joy from reading The Hardy Boys series. But don’t ask me to pick a favorite book from any period in my life. It isn’t possible. There have been hundreds that I loved. Maybe thousands.
12. What’s on your desk? Can you see your desk? Describe what you see when you look around.
I don’t work at a desk. I sit in a recliner with a laptop, or on the sofa. Sometimes in one room, sometimes in another, but mostly I write in a room with a view of the Santa Ana Mountains straight ahead of my favorite chair, a rock fireplace on my right, and a wall of books on my left. Most of the books are novels, although there are a few about art and boats, two of my favorite things. I also have a lot of family photos here to keep me company, since writing is a lonely business. And paintings. I collect original oils, when I can afford them. There’s a beach scene over the fireplace, a still life behind me, a landscape on the wall beside the window, and an old English pub sign called “The Red Cat,” which is propped up by the bookcase. Throw in a cheap but pretty bronze sculpture I bought at Ikea, a hand carved wooden statue of a heron, and a small collection of pots and baskets, and that’s pretty much the entire scene.
Mystery Blog: www.MalcolmCutter.com
They Shall See God - http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0096JCEUK
January Justice - http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00AGAW6EC
The Cure - http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0098TB1LQ
River Rising - http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009AZM8K6
Winter Haven - http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009AZM8B0