Atlanta author Grant Jerkins is proof positive that perseverance pays off. He worked on his debut novel, A Very Simple Crime ($14.95, Berkley), for more than a decade and landed not only a publishing contract, but a movie deal as well. A Very Simple Crime is a dark, twisted mystery/thriller that should appeal to fans of the popular genre, and since it’s set in Atlanta, you’ll recognize some of the locales, too.
Where did the idea for A Very Simple Crime come from?
The seed of the story is an incident from my childhood. My bedroom was in the basement of our house, and one night I got up to go to the bathroom. I didn’t bother to turn on the light because I knew the way upstairs. I’d made the trip a thousand times. That night, though, I grew conscious of the pitch darkness and became disoriented. I got lost. I had a little panic attack, a mini freak out. I just stood there and screamed my head off until someone heard me and turned on a light. It was just one of those weird experiences we all have as kids. Somehow, in thinking about that incident, my mind latched onto the idea of a man who was never able to escape the darkness, that it infected every aspect of his life. And Adam Lee was born.
It took more than a decade for this book to be published – tell us about its history?
That’s a long story. Here’s the CliffsNotes: I submitted it to The Writer’s Network Screenplay and Fiction Competition and ended up winning the fiction category. They in turn submitted it on my behalf to agents and publishers, but there were no takers. After that, I was on my own. I burned through three literary agents and pretty much every publisher out there. They all said essentially the same thing: it’s too dark. There’s no one to root for. We need a rootable character. I grew to hate the word “rootable.” It sounded to me like something a pig would aspire to. So, I put the book aside and felt sorry for myself. Then a writer friend referred me to his agent. That agent, Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, liked the book and placed it at Berkley in short order. No one was more surprised than me.
After the contest year had passed, Audrey Kelly (publisher of Fade In magazine and organizer of the competition) took the project on as her own personal mission. She gave the manuscript to screenwriter Nicholas Kazan who read it and loved it. He agreed to write the script on spec, i.e., for no money, and did so with co-writer Terry Curtis Fox, who is an O’Neill Fellow playwright. The screenplay, by the way, is just astonishing. They took the story in a startling direction and still remained true to it. So they got the script to director Barbet Schroeder, who responded to it and wanted to be involved. Of course Kazan and Schroeder have a history with the Oscar-nominated film Reversal of Fortune, so I thought this line up was magical. The stars had aligned. Alas, it turns out getting a film produced is harder than getting a book published. For one thing, a lot more money is on the line. The project is still very much on. There have been many incarnations of it. In fact, Adrien Brody was attached to star at one point, but he’s since dropped out. I’m lucky in that the people involved are tenacious. They believe in the story and will never give up.
A Very Simple Crime is a thriller and mystery – who are your favorite writers in that genre? Which writers influenced you?
My biggest influence is probably James M. Cain, and in particular, his two novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. Those books just shook my foundations. The economy of the writing. The pace of the narrative. And the fact that characters weren’t “rootable.” I like Cornell Woolrich, Horace McCoy, Jim Thompson. Ernest Hemingway. You get the idea.
What is your next book about?
It’s called Eden Road and is actually a southern novel, something I never thought I would write. In fact, I have pathologically avoided writing anything with a southern flavor. It’s been done to death. And by writers I’ll never equal. But still, I am a Southerner and had to face that fact at some point. One way of describing the story of Eden Road would be to look at the apogee of southern novels, To Kill A Mockingbird, and ask yourself, what would that novel have been like if it turned out Boo Radley really wasn’t a good guy? What if Boo Radley had been a monster after all?
Grant Jerkins reads and signs A Very Simple Crime on Tuesday, Nov. 2, at Georgia Center for the Book at the Decatur Library, 215 Sycamore St. in Decatur. www.georgiacenterforthebook.org.