Jeffery Deaver tries something different in The October List: A Novel in Reverse, a crime thriller.
Why write a novel backward?
My 33 novels and 60 or so short stories generally follow the same formula: past tense, third person, multiple plots, with the story revealed through multiple points of view. Everything I write is characterized by a twist. But I wanted to take this same idea but turn it around; in other words, write a typical book but with a “surprise beginning”; readers would realize that the characters they’d met and the facts they’d learned were, in fact, different from what they’d thought.
What were the challenges in writing such a book?
There were two major challenges. One, I had to maintain suspense about the outcome of the plot. I had to maintain ambiguity about the fate of the characters and the mystery throughout. Two, there was a technical problem to overcome: beginning a story with characters who are introduced later, you can’t really in fairness describe them as if we’ve never met them before. There were literally hundreds of instances in which I had to rewrite passages to play fair. One of my motives in writing this was that I realize I’m taking on Honey Boo Boo, Angry Birds, and other cultural icons one-on-one for readers’ attention. I like to try something different. That’s why I’ve used mixed media in several of my novels, such as music [a country-western album] in XO and photographs in The October List.
Were you concerned that the backwards narrative might make readers have to work harder to follow your story?
Very much so. I did everything I could to make the story easy to follow. My theory of writing fiction is that I do this for the readers. Much of my job is making sure that my readers have a thoroughly enjoyable time turning the pages of my books. In The October List I went to great lengths to let readers know exactly where they were in the reverse-time action, remind them who the characters were, and recapitulate what had gone before.
In the book’s foreword, you give examples of similar reverse projects from stage, screen, and TV, but none from books. Is yours the first?
Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow is one that comes to mind. His novel, a reverse telling of the life of a Nazi Holocaust doctor, is a bit loftier than mine.
Would you want to write another reverse novel, or could you see another of your peers attempting one?
One was enough for me! But perhaps I’ve started a new genre. I look forward to my fellow authors’ efforts.