Neely Tucker is the author of the novel The Ways of the Dead. A longtime reporter at The Washington Post, he also has written the memoir Love in the Driest Season. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
Q: The murders in your book were inspired by a real set of murders. Why did you choose to write about that, and why as a novel?
A: The novel allowed me a lot more room to write about things in D.C. that are hard to get on the record. The journalist in the book has the problem of what you know vs. what you can print. [There are things] you can’t explain in nonfiction because you would have the same problem.
I came to D.C. in 2000 after being based abroad, and this particular set of killings, on Princeton Place, was just getting into the courts. I was fascinated by it, that a guy was able to get away with it as long as he had because nobody was looking.
In defense of the police department, the victims were women who wouldn’t necessarily be missed for a while—a lot of time went by, which made the cases much harder to follow.
The D.C. coroner’s office was very incompetently run. The cause of death would be listed as unclassified. With one of the victims, the woman’s torso was found, and the coroner’s department called it undetermined.
My frustration was that I was set to do a lengthy story about it, and then I went on book leave to write my first book, so I never wrote about it.
Q: So you always had it in the back of your mind to write about it?
A: It always hung around there. I always wanted to do fiction—I’m a slow starter, I guess!
Q: How did you come up with your main character, Sully?
A: He’s an amalgam of mine and other people’s bad habits. [One explanation for his name is that] I named him after my dog, a 145-pound Rottweiler named Sully. Also, Sully Carter is the name of a distant relative of mine that I never met. At my great aunt’s funeral, my uncle’s wife kept going on about Sully Carter did this, and Sully Carter did that—I just thought it was a great name!
The character is slightly larger than life. He’s had some of my personal experiences—the war in Bosnia; I had covered it. He works at a great big metropolitan newspaper—I knew a little something about that. He drinks Basil Hayden’s and I knew a little something about that. He’s from Louisiana, and I grew up next door in Mississippi.
Q: Your novel takes place in D.C. Could it take place anywhere else?
A: I think it might could take place in any large metropolitan American city. In New York, everybody wants to be the richest. In D.C., everybody wants to be the most powerful and the smartest. That’s one of the things I liked playing with in the book. Maybe nobody is as smart as they think they are.
Q: How has journalism changed since the Clinton era, when this book is set? Could this take place today?
A: I don’t think it could. That was the last of the glory days in newspapers—when a newspaper wrote something, it determined the conversation. Now there are so many websites. Now, this case would just explode. It wouldn’t have the almost stately pace of working on the daily. Now, a reporter would be under pressure to tweet and blog and slap something on the web as fast as they could. You could go off on the wrong track [with a story] now, but not where the rest of the media is in the background and Sully has the inside track.
And I didn’t want Sully to tweet!
Q: You’ve also written a memoir. Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction?
A: I just finished the second book [about Sully], so there will be a sequel.
I kind of like fiction more, but ask me 25 years after I’ve been doing it. I like the freedom to explore things with dialogue that’s very hard to do with nonfiction or journalism. That was a lot more fun [to be able to say,] It would be funnier if he said this—and I could do that and I wouldn’t get into any trouble!
But there are still some challenges. You really have to keep everybody straight. What the bar looks like—it has to look exactly the same [from scene to scene]. A secondary character has to [consistently] have glasses. I did develop a very lengthy bible of the book, where anybody or place is described.
Q: Which writers have especially inspired you?
A: We’re all just an amalgam of stuff [we]’ve read. Elmore Leonard was personally and professionally a huge influence. The Friends of Eddie Coyle [by George V. Higgins] is a bible. Richard Price has the best dialogue going. Anybody out of Mississippi has Faulkner—the deep mindset of how you approach the world. Toni Morrison. I think that would be the standard.
Q: You say you developed a very lengthy bible of The Ways of the Dead. Do you plot out the entire book before you start writing a novel, or do you make many changes as you go along?
A: I plot it out, for what it's worth, but that never lasts past the first 30-40 pages; then the characters start taking over. I stop, replot...and 30-40 pages the characters start taking over again. It goes like that until I get to the end.
Q: So you said you’ve just finished the second book, and you also have your regular job—are you working on another book?
A: I’m starting book three. Hopefully this will be a series of books. Sully has a lot to do! The Well of Time is the working title for the second book. It picks up Sully six months later [after the end of the first book]. Book three will take place about three months after that.
Q: How have readers responded to Sully?
A: Readers tend to love Sully -- even if they think he's a piece of work. Which I do too! He softens in Book II, though, and becomes much more of the leading man by Book III. That was our trajectory.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: It’s a story about Washington set in the last glory days of the American newspaper. You have a guy trying to make sense of the very violent world he lives in. [He decides that] you more or less have to be enmeshed in it—and it bothers him. He makes some decisions that are right, and some that are wrong.
I covered a lot of war and violence, and I was always struck by, you get on a plane, you leave Bosnia or Sierra Leone, and all the rules are different. It took a while [to adjust]—airplanes can travel faster than your morality.
I was back in D.C., and I went to a trial where a boxer had been shot. I asked the prosecutor, So, how many people were killed? [The answer was] one. I said, Really? That’s it? I wasn’t trying to be cute or flip, but I was struck by the whole process [in the courtroom]. Everybody was so focused on one homicide. I remember that sense; my radar was off. I tried to give Sully some of that sense of dislocation.