A Conversation with George D. Shuman, author of LOST GIRLS: A Sherry Moore Novel
Q: You were a Washington, DC, cop for 20 years. How have your experiences as a cop influenced your writing? GS: The “cop” years were certainly instructive. You can’t really experience the kinds of things police men and women witness in major city projects and walk away clean. Anyone can write about bodies and forensic evidence, but who can express that mood, that ephemeral whiff of danger that hangs over a crime scene? Evil is truly a palpable thing—it’s like the scent of a woman’s perfume in an empty room: you feel its presence and its power. It is a feeling that is both exciting and disturbing at the same time.
Q: Psychic involvement in criminal investigations is a controversial issue that you touch upon in LOST GIRLS. And they’re being dramatized in TV shows like Heroes and Medium. Have you ever worked with psychics? GS: No, I haven’t and in fact I’m not really a psychic kind of guy. I forget who said it, but if there really are all these tens of thousands—look in any phone book—of psychics out there, why don’t we know where Jimmy Hoffa is? I’ve never seen any of the psychic shows. Actually the first Sherry Moore novel—18 Seconds—was written in the early 1990’s, long before the craze hit television. Sherry Moore, to me, falls in category apart from psychics. Her abilities to tap into memory are based in science and biology more than the paranormal. She is in fact a walking discourse over whether or not the brain retains memories after death and whether or not a computer—the brain is the most sophisticated computer on the planet—could tap into that memory of a dead person through their own wiring—the central nervous system?
Q: Much of this book takes place in the Caribbean. Why did you choose these settings? How important is place in crime fiction? GS: I start every story with place in mind, some central location that will be critical to the mood of the story. I tackled the islands because there is certain mystique attached to the Caribbean. We know the tourist traps and shopping districts. We might even know one or two great little getaways, a private beach, a hotel or bar off the beaten path. But we also know there are places you don’t go. We sense there are dangerous coves and untold numbers of boats and airplanes navigating lights-out in the night.
Q: The Caribbean is known to be a gateway for drug smuggling and the fictional Mendoza cartel in LOST GIRLS has diversified its smuggling. What happens when it isn’t drugs that are being smuggled but people? What are the consequences? GS: They call it a victimless crime. Some might say that prostitution is a realistic alternative to women and children living in poverty. I might even—wince and grit my teeth—say, “Well okay, I could accept that, if the women actually got to keep the money they made”. But they don’t! It is only the men that prosper, the ones who control them and the buyers that feed on their misery and misfortune. One can see how easily drug traffickers can slip into the trade of women and children. The victim’s are lined up. The webs are already in place. It only takes the promise of a dream or a better deal to lure the innocent and desperate into their sticky tendrils.
Q: Estimates of 600,000 to 800,000 people being smuggled a year is an astonishing number but not a fact that is widely known. Where did you get the idea to write about this timely topic, and how does it shape a thriller? GS: I have always been intrigued by the idea of missing people. I mean where do they go? As of December 31, 2007, there were 105,229 active missing person records on file in the National Crime Information Center. That’s just in the US! Not to mention that whole families, clans, tribes are being cleansed through doctrines of murder and rape around the world. Poor and displaced children wander the streets of every country while rich men and women (you should read about the boy trade in Africa) sit feet up, cocktail in hand, thumbing through Sex Tourism Guides for their next fix. Do they really think these young children and women are hanging out on the other side of the word just dying to meet them? It’s a nightmare and a shame on humanity.
Q: Sherry Moore is one of the most original characters in the thriller genre. In LOST GIRLS Sherry meets her match in a legendary voodoo priest who has powers that mirror her own. Why was it so important for her to meet someone with a similar gift? GS: Because Sherry’s gift of “seeing” is based in science—as I contend—then others must be able to do it. Right? But who are they? Could they be the people that call themselves psychics who only think they are seeing visions from spirits, but are instead capturing glimpses of actual memory? I would think Sherry’s abilities are as common as epilepsy, the misfiring of a brain that could accidentally co-join brains to send signals through another’s central nervous system. Who would know unless they took up a dead person’s hand?
Q: Sherry Moore’s unique abilities are more scientific than paranormal. Can you please explain the scientific theory behind her gift? GS: Well one must first understand that Sherry discovered her ability as a child, when she took the hand of a deceased classmate lying in the casket in a funeral parlor and saw images of things she had never seen before and indeed was incapable of seeing. It would take years before Sherry experienced the visions again. This time on a busy street corner when a man suffering from a heart attack grabbed her hand and pulled her down—seeing eye cane and all—to the sidewalk where he died. The visions she saw then, of a man being murdered, she felt compelled to share with the police. Sherry had every reason to believe she would be ridiculed, but her visions confirmed what police had suspected all along. That the heart attack victim had witnessed the assassination of a union official turned government witness. It was an event that took place both time and distance away from Sherry Moore. One she could not possibly have known about in advance. Press leaks put Sherry in the lime light following her revelation. Doctors could only speculate that Sherry’s head injury at age five, the cause of her cerebral blindness and retrograde amnesia, was somehow responsible for Sherry’s ability to cross-link her brain to the deceased’s through skin cell receptors and the human nervous system. What she was seeing were not visions so to speak, but the last few seconds of RAM—Random Access Memory. What we refer to in humans as Short Term Memory. Sherry probably put it best herself, in the novel 18 SECONDS... “In a sense, I am completing an electrical connection.” She wiggled her fingers. “I am electrically charged, just as you are electrically charged. We are all wired with millions of receptors from our fingertips to our toes. Brush against something and the receptors stimulate neurons. Neurons send signals to the brain retrieving interpretations. Your brain tells you if the object is hot, cold, dull, sharp, whatever. Everything we touch, just like the brail I read, is interpreted by various parts of our brain in short term, or working memory, for real time evaluation....When my skin receptors touch a dead person’s skin receptors, my central nervous system makes contact with the circuitry of the deceased person’s central nervous system. I am hotwiring myself through their central nervous system to their brain... If the brain is more sophisticated than any computer we ever hope to devise, and I dare say we don’t use a tenth of its capacity, then given the right conditions, couldn’t it tap into other human systems and read the data? That’s a pretty simple task to ask of a computer.”
Q: How has Sherry evolved since Last Breath? Was it easier to continue to develop her character this time around? GS: I love watching Sherry grow. We all start out pretty full of ourselves as kids and then hit a wall in life and learn we are mere mortals. Sherry’s life brings her into contact with the horrors of murder. She lives with those memories in spite of all else. In spite of losing the love of her life, the memory of a mother, the knowledge she could once see. But she is only human in the end. Her self-confidence can be rattled. She is as prone to mental collapse as any other human being. She must pull herself up time and again. And she does it because she is compelled to act, to serve some earthly purpose, with knowledge that beyond life’s sorrows is a world of unimaginable beauty. A world filled with good. Q: LOST GIRLS is your first novel to have three heroines. Each of these women are very different but equally strong in their own right. What compelled you to have women at the forefront of this novel? Were there inspirations for these characters? As a man, was it difficult to write from the female perspective? GS: Well, the book is about Sex Trafficking so there’s little surprise it’s going to be full of women. It would have been easy to give my Jamaican detective Rolly King George a leading role however—he is a likeable and able guy—and I had early on envisioned sending him on to Haiti with Sherry. But as the book portrays the suffering behind the human trade, I wanted it also to become a tribute to the spirit of the victims. I wanted to tell it from their perspective. It needed to illustrate their agony, and rage and unrelenting will. Life produces heroes large and small, unlikely or not, in every major conflict in life. These women were mine. As for writing the female perspective, I am only translating human emotions. I never see it as a particularly clever achievement on my part. I imagine them in my mind, I hear what they say and I record it for my readers. Honestly.
Q: Were there any aspects of the book you found hard to write? If so, which and why? (George: You touch upon some very gruesome topics and people will be interested in how putting these images to the page affect you.) GS: I struggled in writing out the whole “red room” torture chamber scene. Actually I only allured to it in my earliest versions of the novel and have to credit my editor with pulling it out of me in the end. I’m not in the least squeamish about writing murder, in fact there are one or two people in the world I could probably murder myself—smiley face goes here—but I haven’t the same stomach for sex scenes, child abuse and injured animals. Yes, it’s true! I honestly can’t watch Animal Police.
Q: What’s next in store for Sherry Moore? Are you currently working on any other projects? GS: Sherry will be back in 2009 in SECOND SIGHT, a novel about the horrors of the Cold War and clandestine labs and secret weapons. And there are some real surprises in store for Sherry.