Lisa Zeidner, the author of Love Bomb, directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Rutgers-Camden, where Jay McKeen is a student. Jay retired as Police Chief of Hamilton Township, NJ, after service as a detective and Detective Bureau Commander, Operations Commander, and member of Tactical Containment and Underwater Search and Rescue Teams. He provided technical advice to the author.
McKeen: First, thanks for putting up with a cop in your classes over the years.
Zeidner: No, thank you. No student I’ve ever taught has seen more dead bodies. Plus it was useful to have you show up armed to workshops when things got testy.
McKeen: I’m looking forward to giving you the third degree for a change. You comfortable? Some water? Loosen the handcuffs? Here’s a softball, so you don’t invoke the 5th. The initial picture of the domestic terrorist in wedding gown, painted boots, clown socks and gas mask startles and sticks—was that image the genesis of Love Bomb?
Zeidner: Yes. I wanted a female hostage taker. I wanted her to be stagy, over-the-top. I was interested in how people in the room—and readers—would respond differently to a threat of violence from a woman. I also liked the tonal challenge: whether I could take that essentially comical set-up and slide into something deeper, unexpected.
McKeen: Did you know her motives from the beginning too?
Zeidner: I had no clue. That’s why I had you introducing me to the SWAT dudes, the forensic psychiatrist. I loved talking to the psychiatrist. Psychiatrists and novelists are a lot alike, in some ways. We both trade in empathy. We both must avoid oversimplifying. We both listen to stories—but the good ones really listen. At its heart, Love Bomb is about how we construct the stories of our lives, how we make sense of our own narratives.
McKeen: A lot of stories. There are some 60 people in Helen Burns’ great room for the wedding, and many get their turns at the podium. Why did you choose that structure?
Zeidner: Every time a bomb blows in the movies, most of the people are extras. Except they’re not extras to themselves. After 9/11, after the Aurora theater shootings, the press made a point of highlighting the victims. But what do you learn about people from their two minute bios? Not enough. This is why we need novels.
And of course no one knows when or how they’ll die although again, if you’re watching Die Hard, you can be pretty sure that Bruce Willis isn’t going to eat the bullet. It’s still only Hitchcock in Psycho who has killed off his protagonist in the first act. The phrase is “My life flashed before my eyes,” but what would you actually remember when the bomb’s about to blow? This novel suggests that you’d remember love. And, to get flirtily Freudian, Yo Momma. Unfettered tenderness—which most of us, alas, don’t get enough of.
McKeen: Feel free to unfetter some of that tenderness next time you critique my writing, though I guess your tough-love’s for the best. Speaking of Die Hard and Psycho, Love Bomb is dense with literary and cultural allusions. Austen’s drawing rooms and suburban McMansions, Saint Sebastian and Michael Jackson, D.H. Lawrence and David Letterman, Keystone Cops and New Jersey cops, Anna Karenina and Anna Kournikova. Your Tess and Hardy’s? You even have your novelist character Ben Kramer making sense or nonsense of the situation through other novels. Now, what’s my question…oh, yeah: what’s up with that?
Zeidner: One of my favorite quotes from Donald Barthelme: “The loss of experience is a major 20th century theme. One makes love with The Joy of Sex hanging over one’s head, and so on…Unmediated experience is hard to come by, is probably reserved, in our time, to as yet undiscovered tribes sweltering in the jungles of Bahuvrihi.” That’s the snappiest definition of postmodernism I’ve seen. An angry woman in a wedding dress makes you think about Miss Haversham and every other template of jilted love. How can a reader encounter a crazed, betrayed woman and not remember, say, Lorena Bobbitt?
McKeen: —Or NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, who makes it into Love Bomb. I read the word “terrorist” in the first line and—ding!—this Pavlovian dog thinks Bel Canto, despite next to nothing in common between the novels.
Zeidner: Yup. The real world endlessly intrudes upon fiction, and vice versa. The boundary between reality and fantasy has become very porous, even for those not officially insane. Everyone’s got this “been there, done that” attitude towards experience, which makes it harder to forge relationships, because we can’t avoid the comparisons, the built-in tape-loop of Relationship Advice playing in our heads.
McKeen: Despite the density of characters there are few types. You permit even minor characters growth, redemption, but the book is (among other things) a discussion about how we perceive and limit perception by depending upon category, or label. Every group in this novel—the shrinks, the cops, the negotiators—has its own codes and rules. I’d categorize it in part as a novel that muses about the inadequacy of category.
Zeidner: The tyranny of DSM codes. Racism, sexism: different ways of boxing people. One of the most interesting things I learned in my research—from another guy you introduced me to, a specialist in cop safety—is that the police most likely to get shot in the line of duty are not the green, inexperienced ones. On the contrary, they’re the older officers, in fact often approaching retirement age. Why? Because they think they know the drill, can “size people up”—thus don’t follow procedure, cut corners, and put themselves at risk.
McKeen: Yes, the danger is taking a shortcut through threat assessment, missing the particular detail that makes the situation unique because you’re overconfident from handling similar situations. The result: the officer chooses the wrong trained response. It’s grabbing a black-and-white template before first surfing the grey area. But in Love Bomb you choose as the novel’s central consciousness Helen Burns. A woman who really doesn’t depend on templates at all, doesn’t follow any shrink protocol. Was she also there from the beginning?
Zeidner: Very much so. I wanted to contrast the nuttiest woman imaginable with the most sane. A friend is a therapist in the Helen mode-warm, intuitive-and I picked her brain about how she’d respond. The paragon here (for Jane Austen nuts, of whom I’m one) is quiet Fanny in Mansfield Park rather than the “light and bright and sparkling” Lizzie Bennett, as Jane called her. Except in Austen, of course, no single woman Helen’s age could find love. There’s a lot in the book about young love vs. mature love, sexual love vs. parental love—how love permutes over time.
McKeen: It’s about time we talked about time. Can you explain how you manage to bind the reader to the clock ticking away during that nine-hour stretch of June 25, 2011, yet still move the plot deeply through time in both directions, to tell stories from the characters’ pasts and also give glimpses into their futures?
Zeidner: That was certainly the novel’s hardest technical challenge. There are plenty of antecedents for a progression of discrete stories. But I also wanted this kind of user-friendly, fast-moving surface. So the pacing was tricky. Much of it depended on the transitions between the sections—trying to get them clear and sharp. Which required cutting a lot. I still phantom-limb-miss some of the hacked stuff.
McKeen: You juxtapose suburban New Jersey culture to other cultures: The Middle East, Mali, Hollywood, and my beloved cop culture (which you nailed, to both my pleasure and wincing pain of recognition). How were those threads important in telling your story of the “terrorist of love?”
Zeidner: Well, partly to invite an unexpected crew at that wedding. But I didn’t want to just make a jolly mix-tape of mismatched wedding guests; it was important to me to get their stories right. Maybe too important—one writer-friend joked that I was over-researching as a writing avoidance technique. Was it strictly necessary, for instance, for me to spend an entire day hanging out at the Camden County 911 call center? Well, I think so, because it was around then—four plus years into this writing project—that my HT finally coalesced for me. Of course I didn’t go to Mali, one of my life goals being not to travel anywhere I could become a hostage or get beheaded or wind up in a prison with rats, but I did the best I could.
McKeen: Prison, rats? Steve McQueen! Papillon! Sorry—I’m as trapped in reference as your characters. I love the comic and satiric flavors in Love Bomb—and your layered play with language—but they don’t overpower the bitter taste of social commentary on love and betrayal, marriage and family, all inflected by sexual and racial inequality. It’s funny as hell, but it’s not about funny. But I, like your character Jake, should shut up. So you tell me, how would you categorize this novel that’s in part about the tyranny of category? Do you see it as predominantly satirical?
Zeidner: Practically all of the writers I most admire are funny. I think humor is seriously underrated, and not just in numbers of Oscar nods. And I think we should declare a permanent moratorium on the phrase “darkly funny,” since practically everything funny is dark. I guess I’d hope that the novel was not farcical, but ironic, in a way that allows you to see things in complicated and competing ways simultaneously.
McKeen: I’ve got to tell you, Lisa, I’ve thought about this quite a bit since reading Love Bomb. Despite the novel’s meditation about category, this novel is very hard to place in one, or sum up. The attempt to sum it up by the Library of Congress tags inside the book’s front cover (and I guess that will be the Kindle/Nook/Sony Reader tags): 1. Hostages—Fiction and 2. Wedding—Fiction, is, well, the first irony of the text. I’m not in the book-marketing business, but I don’t think you can even start to talk about the book in blurb-size chunks.
Zeidner: Hopefully, the punning title gets you to that clash pretty quickly.
McKeen: Finally, how was that immersion in cop and anti-terrorism culture? I can still get you some assault weapon and explosives training if you’re ready for your next book.
Zeidner: The saddest thing about the research is that it has destroyed my ability to enjoy Law and Order: CSI: Special Victims Unit. As the SWAT guys made very clear, the show gets almost everything wrong. Remind me, by the way, to return your “Care and Cleaning of the Glock” manual. It was a riveting read.
McKeen: You laughed! You cried!
Zeidner: I did. Thanks for the talk, Jay, and let’s do it again when your book comes out.