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Baltimore native Justin Kramon publishes thriller 'The Preservationist'

AuthorsLiteratureFictionAlice Munro

The Baltimore-born author Justin Kramon's supporting characters are so quirky and funny, you'd swear they were drawn from real life. There's the landfill operator who shows a visitor a photograph of a hatchet-faced woman in her 60s and then complains that no one understands the burden of having a pretty wife. And there's the big-bellied, bearded lodge owner who's secretly addicted to online shopping.

But the 33-year-old Kramon, who will read Tuesday at the Ivy Bookshop from his second novel, "The Preservationist," swears that he invented every oddball character.

"Secondary characters don't need to have huge depth," says Kramon, who lives in Philadelphia with his wife. "It's just the process of taking a little contradiction that you see in people that's charming or maddening and blowing it up huge for the reader."

The landfill operator and lodge owner provide comic relief in "The Preservationist," a psychological thriller in which the three main characters explore different ways to cope with loss. The novel is a classic romantic triangle that alternates the point of view between Julia, a troubled college freshman, and Marcus and Sam, her two increasingly untrustworthy suitors.

Kramon acknowledges that he has experienced the literary world's equivalent of overnight success. Just six years after he received his master's degree from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, his first novel, "Finny" was released in 2010 by Random House Publishing. Three years later, "The Preservationist" was picked up by Pegasus Books.

In typical deadpan fashion, Kramon reports that his primary reaction to his good fortune was "anxiety relief."

"Excitement?" Kramon asks. "No. Those good feelings I don't experience so much. It just didn't go as badly as I expected."

Here's a condensed version of our conversation:

You're a thirty-something guy. Why do both of your books have teenage girls as their main characters?

Basically, I'm a young woman in disguise.

I'm lightly joking, but I've always been drawn to books by women and about women.

People talk about male writers as being interested in politics, war and global issues. When people refer to women's fiction — and I don't believe in that label — they're talking about books dealing with relationships, psychology and family, which is the stuff I'm interested in. My first reading love was Alice Munro. I'm so happy to hear about her winning the Nobel Prize.

What inspired you to write "The Preservationist"?

I started "The Preservationist" in 2011 during a year when I was reading a lot of thrillers.

I had lost a couple of people that year, and I began experiencing a kind of grayness and flatness while I was reading the domestic fiction that I had loved for a long time.

These thrillers kind of opened me back up to reading fiction. It's funny — if you're having a hard time in your life, you'd think you'd want to read not-dark stuff. You'd think you'd want to escape.

But one way people cope with darkness is to move toward darkness. It speaks to one reason thrillers have maintained their popularity for such a long time. So I thought I'd write a book about what it's like for a young woman dealing with family issues and loss.

How is writing a thriller different from writing a modern Victorian novel like "Finny"?

I hadn't written in this genre before, so I had to first read a lot of thrillers to become familiar with the narrative techniques and tropes.

There are always advantages and disadvantages with every style. With a thriller, your primary goal is to make the reader want to turn the page. You get just little chances to tuck in things about the characters' lives as they're moving through the story.

It was very different from the first book I wrote, which was inspired by 19th-century literature and Dickens. These books scoop pretty deeply into a character's childhood and formative experiences.

One of my challenges was figuring out where to start the story. In a thriller, you want a more compressed period of time. You want the beginning of the book to be close in time to when the action really gets going, without that period being so brief that readers don't feel for the characters. So "The Preservationist" starts when Julia meets Marcus and Sam.

The killing part of the book is to me like a tiny light you might see off to the side. At the start, it's this thing that seems very small and far away. For most of the characters, murder isn't a very big thing in their minds. As the book gets closer to the end, the idea of killing gets bigger and bigger and overtakes them.

Was it difficult to channel a teenage girl's voice?

The way I deal with life is to angle it through a character to get some perspective rather than being confessional. There are some advantages to writing in the voice of someone who is a little bit different from you.

In real life, your face is right against the canvas. Going back and forth between different characters allows you to get some of the distance you can't get in the real world.

When you're a little different from the character, if you share a few traits, it's like having a backyard that's adjacent to someone else's yard. There's a border that you can touch. When you think about how someone else's experience intersects with yours, that common ground is the landscape of fiction.

George Eliot said that the purpose of fiction is to expand sympathy. Books don't save the world, but ideas can make you more human.

You've said previously that you want your writing to be better than you are in real life. What did you mean?

There's an expectation that a literary novel will offer perspective, wisdom, or insight. Life is a mess for everyone, but writing allows you to be thoughtful and put it into a perspective that isn't available at the moment it's happening.

Think of someone like [short-story master] Raymond Carver writing about alcoholism. He'd turn out these beautiful, sharp stories. But, I'm sure if you met him at most parties, he probably was drunk.

[Laughs.] I'm striving when people meet me to be the biggest disappointment possible. I want to present the largest gulf imaginable between my writing and my actual self.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

About the book

"The Preservationist" was released Oct. 10 by Pegasus Books. 336 pages, $19.

If you go

Author Justin Kramon will read from "The Preservationist" at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Free. Call 410-377-2966 or go to theivybookshop.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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