Charlie Price on Mastering the Art of Suspense

Charlie Price is one of Figment’s judges for the teenquake contest and the author of a number of mystery novels. His latest, The Interrogation of Gabriel James, is about a Montana teenager who becomes wrapped up in both a local murder and a classmate’s disturbing private life. Below, we ask Charlie a few questions about his work and accomplishments.

The Interrogation of Gabriel James was inspired by a true story you came upon while working with at-risk teens. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience, without giving away too much of your new book?

The true story that has haunted me for years involved a quiet, shy girl who started attending high school as a junior, having previously been homeschooled. She became attracted to a boy in one of her classes. They talked a few times and he asked her to a school dance. At that point, she realized she couldn’t continue this relationship and began to freeze him out. He was unwilling to take her rejection at face value and attempted to understand her behavior. After eliminating every possibility he could imagine, he decided to follow her home one evening and discovered something about her home life that shocked and baffled him. From that point forward, he searched for a way to rescue her without ruining her life.

What are the challenges of writing a book that takes place in a single day?

I enjoy writing a story with a compressed time period—say, a day or two—because the sequencing is fairly straightforward. The difficulty with a book like The Interrogation of Gabriel James is that the story must unfold in response to rather quixotic questions from the two detectives, yet nothing can be revealed out of order so the suspense can be maintained. It felt like putting a peeled onion back together, and that I had been handed random pieces—how do you take the thin layers from the middle, inside, and outside individually and rebuild the whole onion? By the time I finished, I knew the story inside out, so to speak.

What’s fun about writing a suspenseful novel?

I never “script” or outline my books. I attempt to create characters I believe in—characters that I admire or that interest or frighten me. I put them in situations that have troubled me since the moment I encountered them. Then I look through my computer screen and watch what happens. I’m often surprised and have no clear idea about the ending until the characters arrive there. In a way, it’s like play therapy, as I watch people try to manage a situation that I’m not sure how I personally would handle.

What do you consider the essential elements of a good suspense story?

The most essential elements are the characters—are they real, do they breathe, do we care about them enough to be fully engaged in their adventure? I’m very interested in the ethical binds we all face from time to time. When no one is looking, will we still follow our conscience? In an ambiguous situation, how will we determine the best way to respond? How will we act when we’re afraid? When we need to know something, how will we go about finding it out? How will we solve a problem when our life or someone else’s is at stake? I have met teenagers with much more courage than I have. How do they develop it? How do they access it?

The second most important element for me is a real-life mystery: something puzzling and unexplainable that any of us could encounter any day during our regular comings and goings.

The Edgar Award is given by the Mystery Writers of America, and winners are considered to be the best mystery writers of the year. How does it feel to be an Edgar award winner?

Winning the Edgar was the most surprising thing that’s happened in my writing career. For years, I have looked at lists of the Edgar winners and nominees to find books I wanted to read. And now to be one? I was already proud of The Interrogation of Gabriel James. I had written it several different ways and had finally created the book I had hoped for, but even so, I was astounded when they opened the envelope and announced my name. I was so thrilled and delighted I could hardly speak.

Now the ceramic statue sits next to my computer and cheers me on when I’m feeling bewildered or cloddish. It is a great honor and a wonderful hoot!