When it comes to writing ridiculously good thrillers, Paul Cleave is a bad, bad man.
Admittedly, I was late finding Cleave’s work. It wasn’t until I dove into Trust No One back in 2015—Cleave’s brilliant story about a crime author who develops Alzheimer’s and suddenly can’t remember if he’s actually a serial killer…or if he truly made up everything that was in his books–that I became a huge fan of his work.
Heading into this year, I was pretty much caught up on Cleave’s backlist, which includes top-notch titles like Joe Victim and The Cleaner (two of my favorites), and ready for his next book. From the moment I first reported on it more than a year ago, I was anxiously awaiting A Killer Harvest. In truth, that kind of anticipation can actually set one up for disappointment, as it’s hard for any book to deliver once you’ve set the bar so high. But not this time.
High bar and all, Cleave delivered. Period.
I loved every second of A Killer Harvest, which is unlike anything else I’ve reviewed this year. Sure, it sounds a little like a YA (Young Adult) novel, but it’s not. Nor is it overly realistic, but that hardly matters. Like most books in this genre, if you suspend your disbelief heading in, Cleave will make sure you walk away thoroughly entertained.
Cleave, who was busy traveling when his book came out, was kind enough to do a quick Q&A, touching on everything from the moment this book idea came to him to what he’s planning next.
TRBS: Your last book, Trust No One, was absolutely fantastic. I hate to admit it, but I honestly thought you might never top it…And then this book came out. First and foremost, where did the idea for A Killer Harvest come from?
Cleave: “Oh man, that’s so cool to hear, thank you. Trust No One was such a tough book to write that it burned me out. It was also a very personal book, with the protagonist being based on me somewhat–minus the killing and the Alzheimer’s. I ended up taking a year off, and when I was ready to write again, I knew I had to write something completely different. The idea for Harvest actually came about back in 2012. I was having lunch with a buddy of mine, and my German editor, who’s also a buddy. My editor was asking if I’d ever write a YA novel. YA isn’t my thing, so I told him no, but then he started listing a bunch of authors that I read who are now also writing YA. So I said something like, “Well, if I were to write one, it’d be about this…” and from absolutely out of nowhere I pitched the idea for what would become A Killer Harvest.
“I came up with the whole ‘what if you’ve got a kid who’s been blind since birth who gets the eyes of his detective father after his dad dies, and then sees the world the way a detective would?’ All this while waiting for my chicken pad thai. It was incredible, and I’ve never had anything like that happen since. If we’d gone to a different restaurant, or not at all, then this book may never have happened. I didn’t do anything with that idea, because it’s not the kind of thing I write–and of course I was working on other novels…but it was the perfect one to come to after Trust No One. In fact, I ended up dedicating A Killer Harvest to the two guys I had that lunch with.”
TRBS: The plot is fascinating. A boy literally ends up seeing the world through eyes of good and evil. That setup leads to several well-timed twists and turns. What is your writing process like–do you work out all the twists before you sit down to actually craft the story, or do you think of them as you go?
Cleave: “I wish I could write that way. I’m one of those authors who has no idea where the story is going, and just goes along for the ride–which, actually, is a lot of fun. Even with Trust No One I didn’t make my mind up of who was guilty of what right up until the end of that first draft. Harvest is a little different–I had no idea of the story, or where it was going–but I did know about the twist at the end.
“It was so funny, because I was in NYC just after writing the book, and I’d tell my editor about it, and then the twist, and then she’d say ‘now tell this person, and this person’ and I kept pitching it, with the twist, and in every case the person would react exactly how I wanted them to–with surprise. Nobody ever saw it coming–and even then there’s a twist on top of that. Off the top of my head, it’s the only novel I’ve written where I knew where it had to go.”
TRBS: There is some science involved here, but it’s presented in a really cool and fun way. How much research did you have to do?
Cleave: “This was tricky. The science involved doesn’t exist–at least not yet. I have a friend who’s a nurse, and she gave me some pointers on the part of the surgery that is real. Then it was really just a matter of extending that. The thing is, I often feel that as a writer, if you can make something seem real, then it’s real.”
TRBS: Which authors do you enjoy, and what books are currently on your nightstand to read?
Cleave: “Oh boy–there are so many–my favorites are always going to be Stephen King and John Connolly. Usually at any given point I have five or six books on the go. I’m reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography at the moment. I’m reading Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes. I’m reading Lee Child’s Night School, Kevin Wignall’s A Fragile Thing, Fiona Cummins’ Rattle, and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.
“I also have a Raymond Chandler novel I’m reading when I’m on planes, and I have Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man that I travel with when I’m in the U.K. I pretty much have books scattered around the house, so if I feel like reading, I’ll just grab whatever one is closest.”
TRBS: Lastly, now that the book is out, what’s next for you?
Cleave: “Well, I’ve had to start running more and going to the gym. I can get pretty out of shape when I write because I binge on Coke and snacks. I hate taking time away from the keyboard to make lunch or dinner–I can work twelve or fourteen hour days when I’m in the zone. So I try to become more sociable after a book is complete–and then I try to get a new one started. Actually, next year’s book has a completed first draft that I wrote over our summer (which is December through February here in New Zealand). This book is different again from the others…and for the first time I’ve set one outside of New Zealand–it’s set in the U.S. It’ll come out next year. Right now I’m trying to get something up and running for 2019…”