Interview: John Pearce Author of Last Stop: Paris

Finalist of the 2015 Shelf Unbound Competition for Best Independently Published Book

Eddie Grant has solved life’s puzzle—almost. He has the love of beautiful Aurélie and the romance and charm of life in Paris. But the final piece eludes him—he desperately wants to avenge the murder of his family ten years before. Without warning, a golden opportunity falls into his lap, if he’s brave enough to put his own life on the line. And Aurélie’s. —JP

Shelf Unbound: Last Stop: Paris is the sequel to your novel Treasure of Saint-Lazare. Had you always planned on a sequel?

John Pearce: Yes, almost from the beginning. I’d only written a few chapters before it became obvious that I couldn’t tell the whole story in 80,000 words, so I ended the first book at the point where Eddie Grant and Aurélie Cabillaud crack the code of the treasure’s location. Then I picked up the story in Last Stop: Paris and took it much farther than would have been possible in one book.

Like a lot of us who’ve let time go by since a serious trauma, Eddie thought he’d put the whole thing behind him during the three years between the end of Treasure and the action of Last Stop. He’s getting on with his new life when the old one comes roaring back, starting with a failed-but-barely attempt to kill him, followed by a particularly nasty murder, an unexpected reunion that warns him he is still in danger, and a kidnapping—all pointing him toward the mastermind who orchestrated the deaths of his wife, young son, and father years before.

It takes him a while, but eventually he recognizes he’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. He grabs it and struggles to stay in control as it mushrooms far beyond the search for an old painting into something much more sinister that threatens the lives of hundreds of people.

I like stories that are topical, with a ripped-from-the-headlines feel. You wouldn’t think a painting stolen during World War II would fit that description, but Treasure of Saint-Lazare came to market at about the same time the movie The Monuments Men came to the screen. They seemed to fit together well, especially since Eddie Grant’s father was a Monuments Man. The public seemed to agree, because the novel climbed to #39 on the Kindle best-seller list and was picked as the top historical mystery of 2014 by a big review site.

Last Stop: Paris is another topical story. It’s about the thousands of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles called MANPADS that went missing in Libya after Khadafy was overthrown and killed. They’re the terror of civil aviation. When the Russian Airbus crashed in the Sinai Desert at the end of October, the first thing the airlines did was re-route their flights away from that area for fear the Islamic State was using MANPADS. We’ll see.

Shelf Unbound: You’ve lived in Paris and Frankfurt, and these places are part of your novels. What other research or experience went into creating these stories?

Pearce: I like to hang stories on things I know well, in which I’ve had some experience. That’s not to say I’ve been stalked by killers or kidnapped and thrown into a root cellar, but I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe and I’m especially at home in Paris, where my wife and I live for part of each year. As a result, writing about Paris, Frankfurt, or Munich is like writing about Sarasota, our permanent home. Of course, imagination plays a big part as well.

I have visited almost every major site I’ve written about, sometimes several times. I walk through them at different times of day and imagine how they might change if, for example, I set the action in the early morning instead of late afternoon, or in the Marais instead of Montparnasse. I take a lot of pictures, and I’ve become good friends with Google Earth for those places I can’t easily visit or have to leave before I’ve thought through all the possibilities.

Shelf Unbound: Eddie Grant is a great character. How did you go about creating him?

Pearce: Thank you. Eddie is full of contradictions. He’s confident but at the same time has an abundance of self-doubt. I wanted to create a character who should have everything he could ever want, but whose perfect life is derailed by something over which he has no control, in this case something that was part of his father’s military service 60 years before. He’s rich, but his fortune really doesn’t matter to him. He’s loved by the perfect woman but can’t handle it and spurns her (don’t panic; he rectifies that). He falls into bed with the wrong woman, who turns out to be totally unlike his first image of her, or so he thinks. In other words, he’s like most of us—screwed up, incomplete, unhappy at least some of the time.

It’s odd, but to me Eddie wasn’t the most appealing character in Treasure of Saint-Lazare. Most of the men I talked to were attracted to Jen, the bad girl. Aurélie appeared almost too perfect, but she turns out to have a depth of character that surprised me. 

On the other hand, several of the reviewers who’ve looked at advance copies of Last Stop: Paris share your view: They like Eddie. And they want more of him. 

Maybe he’s Everyman. He and I are still negotiating the plot of the next book, and he’ll definitely be back.

Shelf Unbound: With different locales and various plotlines, how do you go about mapping out your novels?

Pearce: I work very hard to simplify plots and put them in linear form that readers can grasp and enjoy, but the fact is that some stories, like life, are messy and complicated and require a certain investment of effort to understand. Treasure of Saint-Lazare is like that.

Many of my plot and character ideas spring up during my morning walks, and I dictate them to a small recorder. Dragon Dictate transcribes them and I file them in Evernote, the go-to database for everything in my life. By the time I sat down to write Last Stop, I had an immense amount of data and a huge number of pictures on my Macbook Pro.

Tree, a Mac app that creates horizontal outlines, is where I do the initial story planning. Tree lets me isolate parts of the plot on separate tabs, which makes it easier focus on the section at hand.

When I have a reasonably firm grasp of the first act, I start work in Scrivener, where the final outlining and most of the writing is done. I find Scrivener’s index-card view a critically important tool in the final organization, especially halfway through when I’m moving scenes and snippets of action around in the book.

Most of the long writing is done in Scrivener, although I do parts in longhand. I buy paper by the case so I can print the manuscript frequently for editing (longhand, on paper of a different color). Rinse and repeat. The manuscript of Last Stop: Paris still sits on the cabinet above my desk, a stack of paper two feet high.

When I have something I can live with, I send it off to my editor, who goes through it three times, each followed by extensive discussions and corrections. The cover designer starts her work at about the time the manuscript goes to the editor. 

Read an Excerpt:

Featured in Dec/Jan 2016 Issue: 2015 Indie Best Award Winners

A second before the métro train passed, she planted her foot behind Max’s ankle and pushed him with the last of her strength. He dropped the knife so he could hold her with both hands, but it was too late—by then she had tipped him beyond the point of no return. She released her death grip on his right wrist and he tumbled headlong in front of the hundred-ton train. His anguished scream died abruptly as the first car rolled over him. 

The young man grabbed Aurélie tightly around the waist to pull her out of the way, but even with his help they bounced a dozen feet along the side of the slowing train. Aurélie caught a glimpse of passengers holding tight to their seats to avoid joining the standees who had been thrown like dominoes to the floor. And then she and the young man found themselves side by side on the platform, bruised and exhausted but alive.

She turned to look at him. “You are a brave man. Thank you.”

“I am a soldier, or at least I was. Where did you learn to fight like that?”

She picked one of the blue plastic chairs lining the station wall and sat down. “It’s the second time I’ve been threatened by a man with a knife,” she said. “After the first I swore I’d never be the victim again, so I made my fiancé teach me. He was also a soldier.”

“It worked. What did you say to that man just as you pushed him in front of the train?”

“I told him to tell his friends in hell that I sent him.”

From Last Stop: Paris by John Pearce. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. 

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