An interview with Efrem Sigel, whose second novel, The Disappearance, will be published by the Permanent Press
PW: Your first novel, The Kermanshah Transfer, came out in 1973. What accounts for the 35-year gap?
ES: Well, I wasn’t Rip Van Winkle; I never stopped writing. I joined a tiny newsletter company, which I helped grow and expand. I was editing and writing nonstop—newsletter articles, magazine articles, research reports, four nonfiction books. I started a professional book publishing division and got totally engrossed in that. And then at a certain point I left and started my own company and got tremendously involved there. Along the way I started at least two other novels, wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages, and then my editor’s instincts took over and I said No, not good enough. About 10 years ago when there was less career pressure and I could see an end to my involvement with the second of the companies I mentioned I went back to fiction—first with short stories and then with this idea that I’d had for a long time. Finally the setting, story and characters came together after five or six drafts.
PW: The Disappearance centers around a 14-year-old who goes missing from his smalltown Massachusetts home. Where did this idea come from?
ES: It was a simple one. For me, fiction starts with a very strong sense of place and then a sketch of the simplest storyline. I know western Massachusetts very well. And one summer day, not unlike the one on which the novel starts, I was driving back from some errands, to this perfectly idyllic country setting, a house on a beautiful green lawn, everything perfect: the temperature, the setting, the beautiful blue sky. And I had this horrible thought: what if our teenage son isn’t there? What if he disappeared? The kind of thing I think every parent has thought. It was the juxtaposition of the scene and the possibility of something horrible that stuck with me and I kept thinking about it and I thought, there’s a book here.
PW: Which was harder to write, the first novel or the second?
ES: The second novel was tougher because I knew a lot more. I think without the life experience of a couple of decades between the two books, I couldn’t have written The Disappearance. The first novel had a great setting—it was very pictorial and very plot driven, but when I compare those characters to the characters I labored over for The Disappearance there’s no comparison. It took a lot of life experience to be able to create characters that had a real feeling to them. Getting inside their heads was the key to finishing the novel and convincing someone that it could be published. Also, the second book took a lot of imagining of what would a person not that different from me in background would feel like—and to take that simple story idea—a child disappears and no one knows why—into a novel that really explores what this means for a couple, their relationship and the rest of their lives and whether they can rediscover a purpose to life out of this terrible tragedy. I didn’t just want to write a thriller—a child disappears, they look for him, eventually they find out who did it and bring the culprit to justice. I wanted to do something more complex than that.
PW: How has the publishing world changed since your first novel?
ES: In the ’70s, when I got involved in newsletter publishing we were writing about the media and entertainment industries. That was a time of tremendous ferment and change. All the new technologies—video cassettes, delivery systems, pay-TV, cable TV, satellites, databases. They were all getting started, transforming all these industries. And the book industry was in the process of becoming part of the entertainment industry; there was the possibility for all this big money from film and TV and audio/visual rights from book properties and publishers began to operate their businesses in a different way. They became parts of conglomer-ates and spent big money on ideas that they thought had a chance at success. Smaller books and literary books became harder to publish and there are fewer houses now—15 or 20 houses that were distinctly literary just disappeared into bigger companies. Also I’m struck nowadays by the lack of autonomy for an editor to buy a book. In the ’70s you still had editors at the big houses who fell in love with something and said we’ll publish this. But along the way the sales force got involved, the editorial director got involved, the publisher himself got involved. There were some editors who liked the book and got shot down. Why take a chance on an unknown name in this climate? I knew that was the reality but when it hits you personally it has a lot of force.