College professor Sam Madison goes on trial for murdering his wife, Sandrine, in Thomas H. Cook’s Sandrine’s Case.
What appealed to you about structuring this book around a criminal trial?
I wanted to do something unusual, which was to write a really moving love story in the form of a courtroom drama. I had never seen that done, and it struck me as a really lovely, even tender way to write a story.
Given the current debate about whether it’s important to have likable characters in fiction, were you ever concerned with Sam and Sandrine’s “likability”?
I think a story usually requires someone for whom the reader can legitimately root. But do readers like Ahab? No. They like Ishmael, and root from him. I can stick with an unlikable character in the hope that, in the end, he or she will become likable. I like characters who are changed, often for the better, by the dark nature of their experiences. I also can become engaged by a character for whom I wish to see justice done, one way or the other. In general, I require a book to have some sort of moral center. I don’t like spending time with a slew of nasty characters, not one of whom seems worth my time.
You usually set your novels either in the South, where you grew up, or in smalltown New England.
Yes, I do divide my settings between the two, but that gets boring, too, so I also set my books in New York City, and, of course, The Quest for Anna Klein was largely set in Europe. The book I’m working on at present is set in Africa and New York, which gives me a chance to enjoy being in both places at the same time. That’s part of the joy of fiction for me, just leaving Cape Cod or New York or wherever I am at the moment and going to some very distant place.
Ambiguity plays a key role in Sandrine’s Case, as it does in much of your work. What appeals to you about this undercurrent of uncertainty?
Life to me is defined by uncertainty. Uncertainty is the state in which we live, and there is no way to outfox it. The main character in the book I’m currently writing is a risk-management consultant, and that’s perfect for the nature of his situation because he wants to control his risk, but can’t. I think he could easily serve as a stand-in for all of us. Risk will always be a part of life. It’s how we recognize this and deal with it that matters.