Travels to Tragic Shores with Thomas H Cook

Written by Ali Karim

In my professional opinion, one of the greatest living Mystery Writers working today is Thomas H Cook; a writer who reveals much about the darkness [as well as the light] in the predicament of The Human Condition through the lens of his fiction – though his latest work is one of non-fiction, yet it too reflects the melancholia inherent in our perceived reality.

Many years ago, Tom Cook mentioned to me that he had been writing a new work, a departure for him for he was penning a travelogue; but one with a twist. He had a working title at the time ‘visiting the saddest places on the planet’. I told him that this was something that made me intrigued due to my own interest in history and the philosophy of what I term ‘existence’. We discussed that sometimes we need to experience the darkness, to make the experience of light, resonate in our natures and our thoughts. It also allows us navigate this existence with insight as well as allowing us to moderate our expectations toward the realistic, and manage our moods – the prism that we view reality from our sensory apparatus. 

Later, I noticed on Tom’s personal Facebook Page that he was featuring photographs from some of these sad places that he had been visiting over the years. I grew excited reading about this upcoming travelogue from not only an elegant writer, but also a very deep thinker. Then Tom suffered a personal tragedy, with the passing of his beloved Susan Terner at the close of 2014. 

Then at a literary gathering in London in December 2016, I was seated next to Alice Geary of MIDAS PR. Over the meal, she told me how much she enjoyed an interview I had conducted with Thomas H Cook, in 2009 for January Magazine following Tom’s appearance at Theakston Crime Writing Festival in 2009. Alice remarked that it had been incredibly useful on a book she was working on with Quercus Publishing and enquired whether I’d be interested in reviewing an upcoming work from Tom Cook, with the caveat that it’s a stark departure from main body of his work – a travelogue of sorts. The penny dropped. Alice was talking about Tom’s visits to the world’s saddest places, so excitedly I asked her with a smile, if she was aware of the Pope’s religious affiliation? Like many of us, when I get excited, I start to write my thoughts down [from what I knew about Tom’s recollections of his visits to the saddest places on Earth] as I awaited a copy for review; finally uploading my thoughts here.

And then the book arrived, it jumped to the top of my pile - despite my huge reading / reviewing commitments, including obligations to The CWA and Ian Fleming Publications and others.

My review took a great deal of time, as I was conscious that I wanted to do this remarkable book justice, and is presented Here.

Though when I put the book down, I still had questions as Tragic Shores had made me think very deeply, providing me insight as well as pause for thought, reinforcing as well as challenging some of the lines of my own cognition. I tracked Tom to Los Angeles and he kindly agreed to answer some of my queries, and we promised to meet up yet again, and have one of our evening dinners where over wine we would discuss the role of literature upon our lives, and the lives of others.

So Shots eZine are delighted to present this feature interview updating our conversation from 2009, and hope you find as much insight as I did conversing with Thomas H Cook

Ali : So the first question; can you tell us a little where the genesis for Tragic Shores came from?

Tom :   Much is lost in the mists of time, but I think that at some point in our travels, it simply occurred to me that our family had had far deeper experiences in dark places than in the various theme and water parks we’d visited  Those were fun, and there is a place for them.  But the dark places resonated much more through time.  After that, we began to actively seek them out.

Ali : and what was the reaction from your Agent and Publishers that you planned to write a travelogue?

Tom :  No publisher in the US would fund this book.  It was considered too dark despite the fact my idea was that it not be dark at all.  It is a celebration of dark places, of their ability to move us emotionally and add texture to our lives.  Later, in Adelaide, Australia, the subject of this book came up when I was having dinner with the great Anthony Cheetham.  He immediately embraced the idea, and the book was born for Quercus Publishing.

Ali : It was many years ago that the legendary Otto Penzler first introduced me to your work; and I know Otto has been your friend [as well as Publisher] for many years, so what was his thoughts about Tragic Shores and would you care to tell us how you first met and the friendship you two have shared over the years?

Tom : I first met Otto at Mary Higgins Clark’s house on Cape Cod.  I’d just published my second book, a literary novel called THE ORCHIDS.  We hit it off very well.  Then, later, we met again at NEW YORK IS BOOK COUNTRY, went to dinner with our wives, and from then on we were fast friends.   By now we have dedicated books to each other, and I was the proud best man at his wedding.  

Ali : And I am assuming you kept journals, notes as well as photographs of your journeys; many of which you shared with Susan and Justine?

Tom :  I took random notes, not systematic ones.  I mainly relied on research, of which I did a lot.   I also gathered materials from all the places I visited.  But more than anything I was writing about the experience of the place, what I thought and felt while I was there, and later.  It is a book of very intimate impressions rather than simply a travel book.

Ali : The personal aspects and details of the journeys I felt added context; and made the reader think more deeply about these dark places due to the presence of family. How did Justine and Susan feel about the personal nature of this piece of writing that became Tragic Shores?

Tom :  Tragic Shores is really about a family’s discover of the value of dark places. They have so much to offer, but you can never know beforehand what the gift may be.  At the Alcazar, in Toledo, Spain, I came to a very surprising appreciation of my father. The same happened with regard to my mother when I visited New Echota, where the Trail of Tears began.  And in Verona, I came to a very lovely appreciation of my wife, Susan. These were intimate connections forged between the dark place and my own personal history. and it seemed to me that during these visits the past and present rather embraced each other.

Ali : I understand that you have moved to the US West Coast, since the tragic passing of Susan. At the risk of intruding, can you tell us a little about the changes in your life and your writing since that dark time? 

Tom :  My daughter, Justine, insisted that we come live with her during the last months of Susan’s life.  She was dying of metastatic breast cancer at the age of 61.  It was a very dark time for all of us.  After she died, I decided to remain in California, so I brought my 92 year old mother to the West and we rented an apartment very near to my daughter and her family.  I have a two year old grandson named Terner, in honor of my late wife, Susan Terner.  Living in Los Angeles is very different from living in New York City or on Cape Cod, but it has its charms.  And as anyone will tell you, the weather in Southern California is fantastic.  

Ali : I found the opening details regarding the visit your Father took you on to view an open casket ‘funeral / wake’ most insightful. We know little about your formative years growing up in America’s Deep South; apart from a very moving chapter in Tragic Shores where you touch upon racial segregation. Would you care to tell us a little about that time of your youth, and your love of Literature?

Tom :  I grew up in the American South at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.  It was a society that was going through an immense social change.   Honestly, I expected it to be much more violent than it was.  What I learned from the experience, among other things, was that human beings are able to listen to a moral argument and be changed by it.  The Civil Rights Movement made Southerners confront the fact that the way they lived (total segregation of the races) was simply un-American.  The plight of the blacks was so real, so awful and so unjust, that their treatment flew in the face of both the personal and social values of most Americans.  The Civil Rights Movement allowed the South to enter the mainstream of American life and this was very important for that region, whether you are black or white.

Ali : I find it interesting that some American literary mystery writers appear more popular with professional critics on European shores, than they are on their own side of the Atlantic. I recall reading an essay that postulated that writers such as Thomas Harris, Patricia Highsmith, Richard Stark have a wider appeal with a European audience than with an American one due to a greater acceptance in Europe of Mankind’s ability to reveal its amorality; including in those we term Anti-Heroes, such as Dr Hannibal Lecter, Tom Ripley and Parker. The essay considered Europeans [in general terms] to see life in all the shades and hues of Grey, between the Black and the White – whereas America was less tolerant of amorality as an aspect of our reality and less adept in accepting the shades of grey in humanity. What would be your thoughts, as many of your novels feature dark deeds that cloaked our amorality beneath a veneer of an imagined [or constructed] reality?

Tom :  I’m not sure the issue of American dislike for “amorality” is paramount in all this.  That all sounds a bit too academically windy to me.   It is really hard to say why certain writers do better in Europe, though I certainly do.  But then, Harlen Coben, for example, is very popular on both sides of the Atlantic, as is Mary Higgins Clark and a good many other American writers.  In my own case, I just think that my books don’t move fast enough for the average mystery/suspense reader, particularly males.  My primary readership is in France, but, honestly, I don’t know why, save that French readers are capable of reading a particular writer, even if he or she writes stand-alones, which is what I do.  I think American readers of mystery do prefer series characters.  That is the way to build an audience.  But I don’t want to write series characters, so, as we say, it is what it is.

Ali : Tragic Shores, like much of your work provokes intense and deep thought. I would have often found myself putting your book down, reaching for a glass of Gin, dimming the lights and thinking very deeply about life. Tragic Shores, like many of my favourites from your canon – Sandrine [aka Sandrine’s Case], Red LeavesThe Murmur of Stones [aka The Cloud of Unknowing], The Last Talk with Lola FayeThe Crime of Julian Wells,  Breakheart HillThe Chatham School Affair had me thinking very deeply indeed. Could I ask you what sort of Man are you when you are writing?

Tom :   A hard-working man.  That is about it.  I work very hard to shape my books.  I edit and edit and edit.  I go over each passage scores of times.  I keep an eye both to the meaning of the sentence, and to its actual rhythm.  I change sentences in order to make them more rhythmic.   My themes are dark, but as you know, I am not a dark person.  I like to laugh and have fun.  So, I am not depressed while I am writing.  Actually, I am filled with joy.

Ali : Of the novels I mentioned above [many award-wining or award-nominated] can you tell us which ones gave you the most pleasure in writing, and why?

Tom :  The City When it Rains, because the little girl is just like my daughter at that time in her life.  It is a very personal book.   Mortal Memory, because it showed me the kind of mystery I wanted to write.  Breakheart Hill because it was, at its conclusion, exactly what I had wanted it to be when I started writing it.  Red Leaves and Sandrine’s Case, because I loved the stories themselves.  The Quest for Anna Klein because of the sweep.  A Dancer in the Dust because it is my first political novel.  And The Chatham School Affair because it won the Edgar for Best Novel, a great honor.

Ali : Despite some of the melancholia inherent in the human condition as well as in your writing, you are a remarkably cheerful and jovial chap when we’ve broken bread and drank fine wine – so tell me, is it an act we put on - to keep the darkness within ourselves locked away by our outwardly jovial personas?

Tom :  No, it’s not an act.  I think the fact that although one can know that life is, essentially, a rather dark business, it is still possible to grasp and maintain one’s personal happiness.   Evolutionary, I think it was absolutely necessary for the human species to cast a blind eye toward the dark realities of life.  We must be able to live despite the fact that we are all going to die.  We must be able to enjoy our health though we know that at some point we will lose it.  We must be able to love despite the risk of losing those we love.  If we can’t do this, we will go mad.

Ali : I found profound sadness reading about when you witnessed Susan getting physically upset at a visit to a Nazi Concentration Camp, as well the two Black woman at the African Slave Prison, for we witness close-up, how personal the history of humanity is to many of us; so could you tell us which of the visits affected you most in personal terms?

Tom :  Verona was very powerful to me because its darkness showed itself suddenly.  I had not expected to confront what I confronted there.  I have never forgotten it.  I was also very moved by the procession at Lourdes.  The insight about dark places that I gained on Kalaupapa also stayed with me.  And, of course, one cannot walk through Auschwitz or among the trenches of Verdun and not be moved by the sheer weight of so much death and destruction.

Ali : You tackle and contrast some aspects of our dark history against more contemporary issues, such as corruption, racism, environmental issues, commercialisation all with a gentle, but unflinching eye revealing your inner thoughts. As a writer are you conscious of revealing much about yourself to your readers - as much of the act of writing is indeed personal; even if cloaked in fiction, or as a travelogue – so what are your thoughts about the process of writing and the effect on the writer?

Tom :  I think that how a writer reacts to the act of writing depends entirely on the writer.  This insight is what I call a Penetrating Glimpse into the Obvious (PGO).   Of course writing influences each writer differently.  The odd thing with me is that I am ALWAYS HAPPY when I am writing.  No matter how dark the theme of the book, no matter how tragic the course of the drama, I am happy when I am writing it.  The act of writing has always been a joyful experience for me.  I love every part of it, from inception to completion, from the creation of the tale to the tiny editing details.  I have been incredibly blessed to have made a living doing work I love so much.

Ali : I found your reflections upon the places most associated with Suicide fascinating - such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Suicide Forrest in Japan, the Suicide Rooms, Caves and Cliffs in Okinawa. Nietzsche once said ‘the thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night’. When reading Albert Camus, J P Sartre, Arthur SchopenhauerPeter Wessel Zapffe I pondering upon the philosophical aspects of Anti-Natalism and Suicide. I often pause as paradoxical as it sounds; melancholic thinking actually cheers me up. Hence despite Tragic Shores to appear at face value to be a depressing read is actually quite the converse – it reaffirmed to me the beauty of life; as a contrast to the horrors of existence - so what are your thoughts, and am I eccentric [or weird] finding comfort in understanding melancholia?

Tom ;  My thoughts are exactly the same as yours.   These dark places were beautiful in that they drew me deeper into the heart of humanity, and by that means, deeper into the heart of those closest to me, namely Justine and Susan, but also to my mother and father.   It was as if ‘my present’ and ‘humanity’s past’ entered a strange embrace; a quite loving one.  Dark places are generous in what they offer, and all they ask is that you come.

Ali : And that’s why I love the work of Leonard Cohen, so as he once said ‘there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’ – anyway, I digress. Can you tell us about the ‘yin and yang’ that you find in life as well as in your writing?

Tom :  I don’t know much about a “yin and yang,” but I do know that writing helps the author realize what he or she actually believes, actually feels to be important, and actually wishes to say to his or her fellow man.  When you write to talk to yourself, but more important, you listen to yourself and come better to know yourself.

Ali : I was fascinated by what you mentioned in Tragic Shores that when visiting places that hold such dark memories of humanity, that the emotions one experiences are the most profound, as opposed to lying on a beach for a two week summer holiday?

Tom :  Yes, exactly.  As I say in the book, my family has gone to Disneyland and other amusement parks.  These excursions were fun.  Nothing wrong with them.  But to walk the field at Waterloo with your family, or among the barracks at Auschwitz, or to pass through the Door of No Return in the slave castle at Elmina, Ghana, these are experiences that are far deeper and more resonate than can be had whisking down a water slide.  When my daughter and I talk about the past, we never mention Disneyland.  It never comes up.  But the dark places we shared together, these memories come up all the time.  They have formed the texture of the past we share.

Ali : I thought the chapter regarding Martha’s Vineyard and the extinction of the Heath Hen very poignant and symbolizes how Man’s presence on this planet has been dangerous for other species, as well as ourselves. How do you rationalise the darkness of mankind’s nature against the light of our presence? 

Tom:  The section on Martha’s Vineyard was the most difficult to write because it dealt with both the extinction of a species and the extinction of marvellous human being, namely my wife, Susan.  I found the association very moving personally, and tried to convey that to the reader.

Ali : And finally, what are you working in at the moment?

Tom :   A novel, but I really can’t say more about it because, in a sense, I don’t know all that much more about it.   Frankly, I would much prefer to do another travel book, perhaps about places of exile in the world.  But I fear I may be too old for another adventure of that sort.  As you read in the section of TRAGIC SHORES called THE CASE FOR DARKNESS, there are many places I’d still like to visit.

Ali: Thank you for your time as well as penning such a thought provoking work

Tom : And thank you for your generous words, and look forward to next time we break bread, sip a glass of wine and talk about life and literature. 

Photographs © A Karim © Thomas H Cook & © Quercus Publishing

Shots Ezine would like to thank Alice Geary of MIDAS PR, Quercus Publishing and of course Thomas H Cook for facilitating this interview feature and reproducing a few of the book plates. 

Shots Ezine have copies of Tragic Shores available [while stocks last] at a generous discount HERE and remember there is no US release planned so order from Quercus UK HERE

Criminal Element feature an extract from Tragic Shores HERE

Crimetime feature an essay from Tom Cook about writing Tragic Shores HERE

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Thomas H Cook

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