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Meg Gardiner, China Lake, and Stephen King: The Complete Story

Meg Gardiner's China Lake was released earlier this month by Obsidian Mysteries after a convoluted path to U.S. publication. It's a firecracker of a novel featuring Gardiner's trademark character Evan Delaney. In this first of a five-book series, Delaney gets deeply involved in a murder mystery after her ex-sister-in-law Tabitha joins the religious group called the Remnant. The writing throughout is taut and exciting, and I'm looking forward to reading the other books in the series, which Obsidian will release shortly. I recently interviewed Gardiner via email about the novel...

               Megmugnew Can you tell us where you are as you’re answering these questions?
Meg Gardiner: I’m sitting at my kitchen table, watching thunder clouds knock around the skies of southern England. The story of how you got a U.S. publisher is an interesting one...
Gardiner: I wrote China Lake after moving to London for my husband’s job with an American IT company.  We expected to be in the U.K. a short while before going back to Santa Barbara.  But our time in London was extended, so when I finished the book I sent it to a British literary agent. He assumed that because I’m American, I’d get a U.S. publisher right away. He thought he’d have to coax the Brits into taking me.  Instead, a British publisher snapped up China Lake. French, Dutch, and other foreign language publishers did too.  But American publishers said, No thanks.

I don’t know why. I’ve heard theories: that U.S. publishers thought I was English--and wanted English crime novels about England, not about California. Or that the plot, featuring a survivalist sect that tries to bring on the apocalypse, ticked off the authors of the Left Behind series, and might have riled up fundamentalists. (Yes, that sounds nuts. But I’ve heard it more than once from publishing executives.) Or that New York publishers weren’t in the mood for a novel that mentioned biological warfare.

Anyway, once U.S. publishers shrugged at the first novel, they shook their heads at the rest. Nobody wanted to pick up a series part way through. Back home, my relatives began looking at me funny. They’d smile and say, “Of course we believe you write books, dear. I’m sure they’re very nice.” Then they’d point at their heads and make a circling motion with their index finger.

Then luck intervened. It intervened in a great, loud, Maximum Overdrive way.  Stephen King was looking for a book to read on a flight to London. He and I have the same British publisher, so from a stack of novels they’d sent him, he grabbed China Lake.  He liked it. He read the whole Evan Delaney series. He thought I should have a U.S. publisher. He mentioned my novels on his website. He wrote a column about the books in Entertainment Weekly. Within a week of his column appearing, ten American publishers wanted to publish the Evan Delaney series, along with the new novel I was writing, The Dirty Secrets Club. And I swear, I didn’t pay Stephen King off, or threaten him, or take his dog hostage. Scout’s honor. He truly wanted to help another writer he thought deserved a boost. I can’t express how grateful I am for his support. Are you at all nervous about the first novel’s reception in the U.S.?
Gardiner: Not at all.  And by “not at all,” I mean of course I am. Sending a novel out to a new audience is nerve-racking.  It doesn’t matter that the book already has complimentary quotes on the cover.  This novel is my baby. And I’m holding it up in public and asking: Do you like it? But I’m not crazy-nervous. I’m less edgy than I’d feel parachuting into Dodger Stadium, say, to sing the national anthem, dressed in a Batgirl costume...Actually, that could be fun. What’s the difference between a cult and religion in your opinion?
Gardiner: A religion is a system of beliefs about the true nature of existence and humanity’s connection to the divine--to a supernatural reality beyond what we can see with our eyes.  And it’s a community that shares convictions about what people must do to bring themselves closer to God. (Or bliss, or enlightenment.) A cult, to vastly simplify, is a group that takes religion to extremes.  It’s fanatical, manipulative, and in the end, destructive. Cults demand total commitment. They often have charismatic leaders who require absolute subservience from followers. And they’re coercive. They tear members away from their previous lives to isolate them from the wicked, tempting world. They may force followers to break contact with family and friends who are “unsaved” or “infidels.” 

Cults divide the world into Good--them--and Evil--the rest of us. To those in their blessed little band they offer love, salvation, and paradise. They promise members a unique role at the center of great cosmic events.  Some promise followers a front row seat for Armageddon. Sometimes they just take people’s money and hollow out their spirits. But cults feed on us-versus-them thinking.  They may believe they’re embattled, and nurture a raging sense of grievance. This makes them prone to conspiracy theories. They can become paranoid, and start to believe that great forces are not just persecuting them, but massing to strike. And at that point they can spiral into violence, self-destruction, or terrorism. People get suckered into scams all the time, of all kinds. Are people naturally gullible or...?
Gardiner: People want certainty. They want meaning. Some want purity. Unfortunately, the world is messy.  Faced with the jumble of everyday life, some people jump off the reality ship, and join groups that promise answers. Simple, total, black-and-white answers.  Some of these people are naive.  Others are lost or needy. Some are seeking permission to unleash the violent impulses they feel. And remember: Nobody sets out to join a cult. They join that really exciting church. Or this prayer group that’s got it all figured out.  Or some right-thinking folks who are going to dish out the punishment the world deserves. Brew up all their rage and fervor, add the promise that believers get glory and goodies in paradise, while everybody they hate (the boss, foreigners, that nasty girl who teased them in school) goes to hell, and you get… the Remnant. What do you enjoy in the fiction you read? One thing I noticed immediately with China Lake is a dual narrative urgency wedded to an ability to give the reader unusual specific detail or description. That’s hard to do.
Gardiner: I enjoy powerful stories. By that I don’t mean books featuring explosions, but stories where people face tough dilemmas, and under pressure must try to find the strength to make courageous decisions. I especially love strong stories told with wit, insight, dazzling writing, or off-the-wall humor. Annie Proulx, Carl Hiaasen, James Lee Burke--I could go on. Where’s the art in what you do, and where’s the craft, or is there a difference?
Gardiner: Art is transcendent creativity. It’s an outpouring of beauty. Craft is creativity harnessed to tactics: It’s good work. I would never claim to be an artist. If I can reach the level of craft, I’m pleased. What do you personally most fear?
Gardiner: I’m a parent. Ask no more. Is there anything political, social, literary, or other, that’s been on your mind of late, and do you mind telling us what and why?
Gardiner: Free speech.  We have to fight for our right to speak the truth and to express robust opinions even when they’re hard to hear.  We mustn’t let anybody tell us what we can and cannot say, much less what we must and must not think.  Especially not the government.  When only one school of thought or point of view is acceptable, when we fear saying anything else, we lose insight, ingenuity, and courage. We close our eyes, plug our ears, and hideous things happen.  It’s vital to stand up for the right to free speech...I’m also in withdrawal from American Idol. And when does the new season of 24 start? What are you currently working on?
Gardiner: A thriller set in San Francisco, the sequel to The Dirty Secrets Club. Forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett must track down a mercenary who has severe memory loss, before he goes on a spree of revenge killings.

For more information on Meg Gardiner, visit her website.


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Hey, great interview! Your path to publication is a fun one. It seems everyone's is different; I think that's why I like to hear the stories.

Btw, I miss 24, too, and I am endlessly confused as to whether you're living in England or the US. :-)

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