Allen Eskens is the author of THE LIFE WE BURY, a thrilling mystery that hits every mark necessary for a solid debut novel. With one part murder mystery, one part legal story, just the right dose of family drama and a relatable romance, THE LIFE WE BURY is a great read. Eskens is also a practicing criminal defense attorney in Minnesota.
The story is about Joe Talbert, a junior at the University of Minnesota, who receives a class assignment to write a biography of someone who has lived an interesting life. At a nursing home he meets Carl Iverson, a man dying of cancer who has been medically paroled after spending thirty years in prison for the murder of a fourteen-year-old girl. Carl agrees to tell Joe his story, and Joe sets out to unravel the tapestry of the thirty-year-old murder.
To complicate things, Joe's bi-polar, alcoholic mother has taken up with a low-life who hits Joe's eighteen-year-old autistic brother. Joe is torn by the guilt of going to college and abandoning his brother. Throughout the novel, Joe has to intercede to protect his brother and is conflicted every time he has to once again leave his brother behind. The power of that guilt weighs heavily upon Joe and will demand a resolution of its own.
Allen Eskens was kind enough to take time from his practice and his writing schedule to speak with me about his debut novel.
THE LIFE WE BURY, the title of your debut novel, rings true with your characters throughout the story; each is trying to bury a part of their life. Across the story arc we learn with the characters that they are unable to do this and that some things are unable to be buried for good. Where did this idea of facing the past originate for you and why was it something you wanted to tell?
While I was in college, at the University of Minnesota, I had the assignment that Joe undertakes—interviewing someone and writing their story. I went to a nursing home to find a subject just like Joe did. That’s where the idea for The Life We Bury originated. I thought, what would have happened if I’d met someone with a dark past. From there I knew that the theme of the novel would be an exploration of people trying to bury their past and others digging theirs up. Everyone has secrets, and some people carry around a secret so dark that they don’t even whisper it to themselves. Those are the kind of secrets that I pry loose in my novel.
I really enjoyed the interaction and tension you created between your characters. Particularly, the relationship of Joe (not so average) and his brother Jeremy; it let the reader connect with your protagonist from the get-go. How did you approach the brotherhood / caretaker role of Joe?
I knew from the inception that Joe would be running away from home to go to college. I wanted Joe to be driven to move on with his life, but I needed a catalyst for what he was running from and what tether still connected him to his past. About that time I went to see the play, The Glass Menagerie. The final soliloquy from that play (which I wrote into the novel) gave me my answer. Joe’s story would begin where the play ended—with the guilt of leaving a loved one behind. From there the pieces fell into place for the relationship between Joe and his autistic brother Jeremy.
Besides the legal / lawyer side of the story, is any of the novel autobiographical?
I can’t say that any of the characters are autobiographical, but if one of the characters were to be molded from my personality, it would probably be Boady Sanden, the attorney. As for the rest, I’ve been blessed with a vivid imagination and I enjoy letting my mind fall into the daydreams that ultimately find their way into the novel as plots and subplots.
Looking back on your debut novel, how to you feel about it now that it is in print?
The Life We Bury is getting some wonderful reviews, and the emails that I’ve received have made this process a terrific experience. I am very proud of this novel and am delighted that readers are enjoying it. I am continually surprised at how different readers will point to different aspects of the novel as being their favorite part, depending upon their own experiences. A Vietnam vet was moved by a conversation in the story that took place on a firebase in Vietnam. A young woman, who was particularly close to her grandfather, cried when that backstory was revealed. The reviewer for Suspense Magazine wrote that the novel “touched my heart.” That kind of praise is the most gratifying.
Writing essentials: when you sit down to write, what must you have with you?
I have a dictionary and a thesaurus at the ready (on line) as I write. I also have books that inspire me nearby. If I start to feel that things are falling flat, I just stop writing and read for a while. The juices always start to flow after a couple pages. I also have my outline handy, so if I run off on a tangent I can work it into the plot to make sure that it works within the story.
Can you tell me a bit about your process? Do you have a routine? Do you work best at a computer or are you a pen and ink guy?
I write on a laptop—literally, it sits on my lap. I have a recliner that I like to sit in and type my manuscripts. I try to do a chapter a week, reserving a full day on the weekend for editing the chapter that I just wrote. I usually spend months outlining and formulating the various characters and subplots before I start writing. I look at my outlining process as if I were creating a blueprint (I have a construction background before going to law school). Just like a contractor will not start building a house before the blueprint lays out a complete structure, I don’t write until I can see the entire story in my outline.
Can you talk about your next project? What can your readers expect from your sophomore and subsequent novels?
My sophomore novel is at the publisher’s already (I’m now working on book three). I am not writing a series because my protagonist, Joe, is a college student, not a cop or reporter. I am not a fan of series where an amateur sleuth is able to stumble upon dead bodies book after book. Instead, I’ve taken a supporting character, Detective Max Rupert, from my first book and I outlined a three book trilogy to feature him. I will also have Boady Sanden come back as a co-protagonist in one of the books. I intend to move around among a handful of characters who will carry the water of the protagonist in future novels.
Many thanks to Allen for taking the time to do this interview. To learn more about Allen, his upcoming works, and how to buy THE LIFE WE BURY, visit his website at www.AllenEskens.com
Thanks for reading.