Oscar Wilde said that life imitates art far more often than art imitates life. This quote comes to mind with Dan Lopez’s new novel, The Show House, which features a serial killer who targets gay men in nightclubs. Lopez wrote his novel prior to the devastating Orlando nightclub shooting in June. These circumstances in fiction and life are quite different, but the parallel is unsettling.
Meet Thaddeus and Cheryl, retirees visiting their son Steven and his husband for the weekend. Thaddeus and Steven have a strained relationship, but there’s hope that Steven’s adopted daughter could help bring them together again. Across town pharmacist Laila worries about her brother Alex who has gone missing. These characters’ lives weave together resulting in a complex tale that’s more than a thriller, but an astute examination of different relationships.
I recently spoke with Lopez about his novel, the Pulse massacre, and writing from the viewpoint of a serial killer.
Rachel León: The Show House is your second book, but first novel. How has the experience been different from publishing Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea?
Dan Lopez: I tend to take a very non-traditional path to publication. I’d originally planned on self-publishing Part the Hawser. I found a great cover designer, a great layout person, a great proofreader, etc. There were a few things that I was still trying to figure out, like ISBN and distribution, but I was on the path and committed to putting the book out myself. But then one of the stories in the collection was included in an anthology put out by Chelsea Station Editions, a fantastic small press dedicated to LGBT lit. Since I knew that they already liked one of the stories in my collection, I figured I might as well see if they wanted to put the whole book out. It was kind of a win-win for everybody. They got a readymade book and I got a larger reach than I would’ve had on my own. That book sold relatively well and went on to be nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. Pretty good for a tiny collection that I’d originally planned on giving away for free.
With The Show House, I wanted to pursue a more traditional publishing model. I was very happy to place the novel with Unnamed. I’ve been a big fan of the type of work they publish since I stumbled upon one of their titles, Nigerians in Space, at my local bookstore a few years ago. This has been my first time collaborating with a press in a holistic way—everything from design to edits to marketing. They’ve made suggestions for the direction of the book that would’ve never occurred to me but that elevate the whole project. It’s a stronger, better book because of their input than it was when I initially pitched them. You have to understand, I’ve been working on this book for ten years, so to have a fresh pair of eyes on it has been a true blessing.
Rachel León: The Show House is a fantastic blend of creepy and smart. Where did you get the idea for the novel?
Dan Lopez: Shortly after college I began working on a book about a young guy who felt out of place and was filled with a lot of angst. I know. It sounds awful, but I wrote a whole draft and kind of shopped it around for a while anyway. It didn’t go anywhere. Probably because that kind of book has never been in short supply and because I didn’t have the chops to make it compelling. So I abandoned it. But I couldn’t quite shake the main character. There was something about his personality—this mix of cocky and vulnerable—that kept pulling me back. Meanwhile, I’d moved to New York and had signed up for a novel writing class. I had a looming deadline and no novel that I wanted to share, so I started writing a new book. It would be a drama about a deeply troubled family living in central Florida, grappling with the accumulation of their various choices. I knew I was on the right track when I found a way to work in the main character from that earlier abandoned book as a secondary character in this one. The family drama was a good foundation but the novel needed a hook, something explosive. That’s when the serial killer showed up. I had this idea for his very first line: “You sharpen the knives.” From there I just let the voice dictate the direction and the story slowly came together. I think that’s were a lot of the “creepy and smart” parts come from. I basically kept writing myself into corners and had to come up with ways to reconcile these very different storylines. Really, though, it wasn’t until I added the character of Laila based on some suggestions my publisher made that the story really coalesced.
Rachel León: You wrote the manuscript before the Orlando nightclub shooting. How does that tragedy change or frame this novel?
Dan Lopez: In some ways I think I’ve always been waiting for something like the Pulse massacre. I think we all have. I started this book at the end of the George W. Bush era—before marriage equality, before adoption rights were secured in Florida, before transgender bathroom rights were being discussed on the national stage. We’ve made a lot of progress as a community since then, but a lot of very bad things have also happened and there’s this persistent sense that any of us could be the victim of the next bad thing. I don’t mean just us as LGBT people, or Latinos, or minorities, etc. I mean there’s a palpable sense of danger in the world at large and it affects everybody. The main thing that has stuck with me throughout the whole process of writing this book is that you simply cannot prevent rogue actors. You can plan for them and you can mitigate their impact to some degree, but a deranged person with an agenda will find a way to inflict a lot of harm. It’s inevitable. I never thought of the book as an expression of that sentiment but looking at it now, after Pulse, after Sandy Hook, after Trayvon Martin, after pick-your-tragedy, there are specific moments in there that struggle to come to terms with the fundamental uncertainty of life that these kinds of events expose. If the book is to have a broader impact on society, I hope it’s as a reminder that being reactionary doesn’t prevent the next tragedy, it only justifies it. What we need is less vengeance and more forgiveness.
Rachel León: I thought the use of a second person POV for the serial killer was very well done and effective. What was it like writing from the killer’s perspective?
Dan Lopez: Honestly, it was really fun. I know that sounds awful, especially after the previous question. I will say that I don’t know if I’d be able to pull it off now, but at the time I was obsessed with making the serial killer likable, or at least sympathetic. A lot of thought went into the timing of certain reveals to preserve sympathy. That desire also informed my decision to go with a second person POV. I have this theory that second person is really just a more intimate first person because it allows the narrator to say things about themselves more honestly if they can take the “I” out of it. I wanted this guy to be struggling with his desire to be a respectable member of society even while he was going around killing people. By having him talk to and about himself in the second person, he’s able to look at himself somewhat objectively. There’s a larger tension in the book that all the characters are dealing with. They are trying to decide whether to do what is expected of them by society or to do the thing that they want to do. My serial killer is a literal serial killer, but he’s also a giant metaphor for that tug-of-war.
Rachel León: There’s a fantastic passage on why the killer is doing what he does: “Why hurt your own people? The answer is simple: because the minority lacks a critical mass and is therefore dependent on the sympathies of the majority. Because somebody must be vigilant that those sympathies never wane, action must be taken. And nothing rallies the masses like genocide.” I loved those lines and was hoping you could talk about what sparked this rationale.
Dan Lopez: Partly, it’s what we were discussing earlier. I had to find ways to reconcile what felt like two very different stories and this passage was a pillar in a framework tying the two storylines together. But, partly, it’s also an example of hyper-logic. My serial killer doesn’t do subtly well. He views the world in absolute terms. If you look at conflicts from that perspective, his rationale makes sense. It’s chilling and it’s horrifying when you consider that real lives are being ended to promote an abstract concept, but from a purely logical perspective it makes a lot of sense to sacrifice a few people to preserve a larger community. And, again, he’s also a metaphor. If you’ll indulge a political tangent for a moment, there are no shortages of instances when we as a society have been perfectly willing to sacrifice individuals’ lives and rights in the name of a greater good. The Dakota Access Pipeline comes to mind. A lot of people are willing to risk contaminating drinking water so that we can reap the benefits of domestic fossil fuel production. Supporters of the pipeline will argue that as a nation it’s critical that we secure our energy independence, that in the long run doing so will ensure less violence at home and abroad. Maybe. But even if you ignore the environmental impact, the rationale behind prioritizing energy independence over drinking water doesn’t seem all that different from the logic that leads a deranged person to commit murder in order to ensure that support for his community never wavers, does it?
Rachel León: One of the things I loved about your novel is that it’s much more than a just well-written thriller, it’s also an examination of different relationships. The juxtaposition of the relationships between spouses, siblings, and parents and children is really interesting. Are you drawn to one [of these kind of relationships] more than others?
Dan Lopez: It’s an interesting question. One of the great things about writing a book like The Show House is that I got to explore a lot of different relationships. There were times when certain of those relationships were more important to me than others, but that changed constantly throughout the process. In a way, it was a giant exercise in empathy. To get the characters right, I had to understand them and to understand not just what they wanted but why. My actual life is nothing like any of the lives these characters are living, but there are parts of my experience in each of them. Those little moments helped me navigate to the inner cores of each of my characters. One of the best (and least anticipated) pleasures to emerge from this whole process has been to come across little things that I wrote into the book years ago in my actual life. For instance, I didn’t have any nieces or nephews when I started the book, but I do now. And as I watch them grow up and hear about the struggles and joys of parenting from my family, I’m often secretly patting myself on the back for getting the emotional truth of it right in the book.
Rachel León: Any plans for another novel or story collection?
Dan Lopez: Yes! In fact, I’m pretty far along on a new novel and I hope to start shopping it around in the not too distant future. (Note to agents: Call me!) It’s a different genre from this novel and from the short story collection. The new one is a science fiction story. I don’t want to talk about it too much, but I can tell you that it feels like the end of a particular phase in my career as a writer that both The Show House and Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea belong to. Whatever I write after this next one will probably be very different.
FICTION The Show House by Dan Lopez
Published December 13, 2016
Dan J. Lopez’s work has appeared in The Collagist, Storychord, Mary Literary, Time Out New York, and Lambda Literary, among others. The Show House is his first novel. He lives in Los Angeles.