Baltimore native Justin Kramon publishes thriller 'The Preservationist'

Quirky supporting characters provide comic relief in psychological thriller in which three characters explore ways to cope with loss

  • Baltimore-born Justin Kramon will read from his second book, a young-adult thriller called "The Preservationist," on Oct. 22 at the Ivy Bookshop.
Baltimore-born Justin Kramon will read from his second book,… (Eleftherios Kostans / Pegasus…)
October 21, 2013|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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