The suspect: Joe Bright
Case of THE BLACK GARDEN
The call came in five days ago about the incident at THE BLACK GARDEN. Word on the street was that a guy by the name of Joe Bright, had all the answers. I finally caught up with the suspect after spotting him entering The Smoke House on Lakeside drive. Too bad he couldn’t finish that prime rib, but getting the straight facts about this case was more pressing.
I shoved open the door to interrogation room three. Bright feigned a smile, but the eyes couldn’t mask the million questions that were running through his head—like he didn’t know I’d come after him. His feet were flat on the floor, palms down in front of him on top of the small metal table in the center of the otherwise barren room.
I took a seat across from Bright and studied him a second or two before asking:
“So, what gives, Joe? What’s your story?”
“My life has always revolved around the arts. When I was young, I used to draw constantly. I went to college on a fine arts scholarship and spent a few years on a dance team touring Canada and Europe. I also won a music showdown, playing the guitar and singing songs I’d written. Yet my biggest passion has always been writing. I wrote short stories while in high school and college, but never embarked on the daunting task of writing a novel until I’d graduated and moved to Hawaii.
I’ve been writing for fifteen years now and have written five novels. THE BLACK GARDEN is the first one to get picked up by a traditional publisher. Three of the others were published on audio cassette, but have since been discontinued. I also self-published two of them on my own, but have now discontinued those as well, since I’m rewriting them and plan to submit them to publishers once they’re finished.
Most of my stories fall within the gothic suspense category. THE BLACK GARDEN, however, is more of a drama/mystery. With its rural setting and dark theme, it still fits in the American Gothic genre, but without the supernatural elements that are often associated with the genre.”
“I see what you mean about the supernatural," I said, thinking about my own brush with the Devil. "But why this book? What drove you to do it?”
“One of the inspirations for THE BLACK GARDEN was a murder that took place in my hometown in Wyoming, when I was nineteen. I learned the details of the murder from my older brother’s best friend. He said the girl had been raped and strangled. She was eight-years-old.
A murder makes a large impact on a small town, mainly because it rarely happens there and because it tends to affect almost everyone. We know the victim. We know the killer. We know their families. When you come from a family of eight children, as I do, it increases the chances of there being a connection. In this case, the killer turned out to be my older brother’s best friend, the same one who had told us about the murder.
With the first suspect, I was willing to see the man hanged, even without seeing any of the evidence. When it turned out to be a friend of the family, I felt sick. I felt sorry for his family and for my brother. If he hadn’t confessed, I would have sworn they had the wrong guy. Why? Because I knew him and we often choose sides based on association rather than on the facts of the situation.
This murder is a very small part of THE BLACK GARDEN; however, the theme of judgment runs throughout the story. Who’s right, the Hatfields or McCoys? Depends if you’re a Hatfield or a McCoy.”
I knew exactly where he was coming from—that sick feeling when you find out those you care about most are not who you think they are. “That’s tough, but you can’t play it both ways. I mean, what did you think the people of this town would get out of your work?”
"I hope the novel gives readers a different perspective on events, and entertains them at the same time.”
I skimmed through my note, ran a finger down the page until I found what I needed. “What do you know about Mitchell Sanders?”
“Mitchell is the outsider. He moves to the small town of Winter Haven for a summer job. He doesn’t care about his employers or the community. He’s a coward who has run away from his problems in Boston and then finds himself entrenched in even bigger problems. He’s not comfortable speaking his mind while in the company of people he knows will disagree with him. Yet as the conflict mounts, he’s forced to take a stand and to grow as a person.”
“What aren’t you telling me? I have all your notes, something’s missing,” I said, leaning forward and waving a set of loose pages in his face. “Found them on your website, http://www.joebrightbooks.com/pages/excerpt_black_garden.html, certainly caught my attention. How about you give it to me straight? The whole story; the plot, the characters, the setting, everything!”
“Mitchell Sanders takes a summer job in Winter Haven, helping the O’Briens fix up their house. He moves into the studio at the back of the black garden, a bizarre assortment of items now overrun with weeds. Soon, Mitchell realizes there is something very peculiar about his employers and discovers that not all of their skeletons are in the closet where they belong.
The story revolves around three characters: Mitchell, George, and Candice. Mitchell Sanders, the main protagonist, starts out naïve and detached but gradually grows more and more intrigued by his quirky employers, mainly George. All of us know someone like George O’Brien, a crotchety old man who has nothing good to say about anything. Yet, within his orneriness, you can’t help but be entertained by him and ultimately care about him. George’s granddaughter, Candice has led a sheltered life. Mitchell’s arrival provides her first real glimpse into the outer world. I chose Vermont for the setting mainly because when I visited there I was taken by its beauty and felt it would make a great backdrop for the story. The town of Winter Haven is fictitious; however, I drew a lot on my hometown of Evanston, Wyoming, when describing the layout.”
“Where’d you dig up your facts?”
“Since THE BLACK GARDEN takes place in 1958, I had to do a lot of research about the era to make the setting authentic. I wanted to make sure the dialog didn’t contain slang or technical terms that didn’t exist at the time. I also needed to know how the police investigated a crime prior to the advent of DNA testing. Fortunately, one of my older brothers works in law enforcement, and I was able to pick his brain on procedures and protocol.”
“A cop, huh?” I was thinking maybe Bright wasn’t so bad after all. Still, I needed to satisfy that nagging voice that wouldn't stop tapping inside my head. “This case you stumbled onto. Any road blocks along the way?”
“The hardest part about writing is the blank page. I often say that writing is a lot like creating a sculpture out of clay. In the first draft, you are creating the clay. That’s the hard part. Molding it is the fun part. To help me through this process, I first write an outline, plotting out the story. Through this, I come up with my characters, establishing their backgrounds, their likes and dislikes, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. Once I know my characters, it’s much easier to know how they will react in a given situation. Often I’ll just write anything that comes to mind, just to get the writing going and to fill up that daunting blank page. I also tend to keep other novels around so I can pick one up and read a little to get me in the right frame of mind.”
“So how does a guy who works full time find time write?"
“I’m a graphic designer during the day and a writer in the evenings. Thus, I’m at the computer all day long. The tragic part of that is that I have very little social life. I can be quite obsessive and have to force myself to take a break and go do something fun. In other words, I’m still trying to find that balance.”
“Who are you trying to kid?” Everyone does the juggling act. I thought to myself. I leaned back and waited to see if he flinched—he didn’t—damn it. “All right, Bright, what I want to know is how did burning the midnight oil affect you? Everyone has their breaking point. What’s yours? How did working on THE BLACK GARDEN impact you?"
“It’s such a great feeling of accomplishment to finish a novel. I also write songs, and I remember how proud I was when I wrote my first song, which took a few days. A novel, on the other hand, takes months or years. Thus, the feeling of pride is that much greater. The most rewarding part of it is having other people read and enjoy it. It’s a nice boost of confidence and encourages me to continue fine tuning my writing skills and to work on the next novel.”
“Something tells me you weren't working alone. Who talked you into it?”
“My parents and brothers and sisters have always encouraged me. It’s nice to have someone believe in you, even when you’re having trouble getting agents and publishers to read your work. I’m very fortunate to have such a supporting family.”
“This is premeditation plain and simple. So how’d you do it? Did you have a plan? Did you outline the chapters? Did you plan out the plot? What steps did you take before you wrote the first sentence?”
“The first novel I ever wrote, I took the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach. That is, I just delved in without really knowing where the story would take me. Many writers work that way and do a splendid job with it. Not me. I ended up doing a lot of editing that I could have avoided if I’d have thought things out better. Now I always outline. First, I write a brief synopsis of the story. Second, I figure out who my characters are. This often takes a month or more, because I really need to know who these people are so I can work with them. Third, I write an outline. My outlines include most of the dialogue and brief sketches of the action. Thus, they tend to be around a hundred pages long. Fourth, I start writing the novel. The novel never follows the outline completely, since I discover new things while writing and often encounter flaws that I’d overlooked before.”
No matter how hard I pushed, I couldn’t break this guy’s spirit. Worse, I couldn’t hold him another minute without cause. But my gut was sending me signals. This wasn’t the last I’d see of Joe Bright and you can bet I’m going to keep an eye on him. He wiped the sweat from his brow and asked if he was free to go. I said sure—for now, but couldn’t leave it alone. I just had to ask him that burning question: “What’s next?"
“I’m doing a rewrite of my first novel, The Reflection. It’s a gothic suspense about a man who inherits an estate in England from someone he doesn’t know, and then discovers that he looks like the man who killed his benefactor. This is one of the novels that I self-published earlier. I’ve learned a lot since then and feel this new version is vastly superior to the last. I still have a few more months’ worth of work to go on it.”
I wasn’t entirely sorry I asked. Silenced followed us as I walked him down the main hall. When he started out the front doors of city hall it hit me again and I yelled: “Hey Joe, any words of wisdom for the fledgling writer?”
He turned and shot me a Hollywood smiled. “Never stop learning. There’s always more to learn about the art of writing that can help you perfect your novel. Besides reading novels and analyzing the authors’ techniques, it’s good to read books about writing, even if just to refresh your memory. I highly recommend Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain, and The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. If I’d read these books years ago, I probably would have gotten published sooner.”
About the author:
Joe Bright was raised in Wyoming and received his BA in English from Utah State University. Bright began his career as a technical writer for Thiokol, the manufacturer of space shuttle rocket boosters. He later taught English in Honolulu, Hawaii and Berkeley, California. He currently lives in Studio City , California , and works as a graphic designer. Bright is published by BeWrite Books (UK).