By Daniel Pyne
(Blue Rider Press, Hardcover, 9780399171642, 304pp.)
Publication Date: December 30, 2014
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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What if a man is placed in the Federal Witness Protection Program against his will?
And doesn’t even know what he supposedly knows that merits a new name, a new identity, a new life?
Jay Johnson is an Average Joe, a thirty-something guy with a job in telephone sales, a regular pick-up basketball game, and a devoted girlfriend he seems ready to marry. But one weekday afternoon, he’s abducted on a Los Angeles Metro train, tranquilized, interrogated, and his paper trail obliterated. What did he see, what terrible crime—or criminal—is he keeping secret? It must be something awfully big. The trouble is, Jay has no clue.
Furious and helpless, and convinced that the government has made a colossal mistake, Jay is involuntarily relocated to a community on Catalina Island—which turns out to be inhabited mainly by other protected witnesses. Isolated in a world of strangers, Jay begins to realize that only way out is through the twisted maze of lies and unreliable memories swirling through his own mind. If he can locate—or invent—a repressed memory that might satisfy the Feds, maybe he can make it back to the mainland and his wonderful, even if monotonous, life.
Set in a noir contemporary L.A. and environs, Fifty Mice is a Hitchcockian thriller as surreal and mysterious as a Kafka nightmare. Chilling, paranoiac, and thoroughly original, it will have readers grasping to distinguish what is real and what only seems that way.
DANIEL PYNE’s screenwriting credits include the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, Pacific Heights, and Fracture. He made his directorial debut with the indie cult film Where’s Marlowe? Pyne’s list of television credits (writing and showrunning) is vast, and includes J. J. Abrams’s Alcatraz and Miami Vice. His two previous novels, Twentynine Palms and A Hole in the Ground Owned by a Liar, were published by Counterpoint Press. He lives in Southern California.
Advance praise for Fifty Mice and an author Q&A:
“[A] wonderfully paranoid jaunt through competing realities…Pyne’s confident hand guides readers to a surprising, popcorn-dropping final twist.” —Publishers Weekly
“Drawing on the noir tradition…a serious consideration of memory and how it functions, or doesn’t.” —Booklist review
“Exceedingly clever, expertly timed, and dripping with paranoia, the nightmarish scenario at the center of this thrilling story turns on a kick-ass dime.” – Karin Slaughter
"Screenwriter and author Pyne (Twentynine Palms) weaves a smart, exceedingly clever, and unusual tale with a horrible secret at its center, which is as much a late coming-of-age story as it is a thriller. Fans of brainy noir will find much to love in this highly satisfying, big-screen-ready book" – Kristin Centorcelli, Library Journal
“A unique thrill ride…. A real cat-and-mouse story….This plot is both gripping and suspenseful, as the author offers up a secret that will make all us ‘normal’ people out there think long and hard about the people powerful enough to change lives in an instant. Pyne is an extremely clever writer. “ – Suspense Magazine
“[Pyne] knows how to control a thriller, but in “Fifty Mice” he intentionally removes any notion of control. There is no telling what will happens from one page to the next because he creates a flawed, vulnerable character with no sway over his own memory. “Fifty Mice” illustrates the obscurity of life, how easy it is to erase a life not lived, and how difficult it can be to tell the difference between a mouse and a man.”– Boston Herald
“It’s an exciting, disturbing read. The words fly. The story twists and turns inward, then outward, then in on itself again, and everything that happens might be a ruse – social, mental, or both.” – LitReactor.com
“FIFTY MICE is loaded with surprises, twists and turns that kept this reader guessing until the very end.” – BookReporter.com
Q&A with Daniel Pyne, author of FIFTY MICE
The title of the novel refers to a scientific experiment performed on mice to “implant” them with new memories. Is this based on a real experiment?
No and yes: Most of the experiments in the book are based on real studies, but I made a couple of them up. The title of the novel refers to some cloned mice in Utah who fail to respond in an expected way to the experimental neurosis study that Vaughn tells Jay about in Chapter 2 (“They don't give a shit”). It’s a real experiment, but I took some dramatic liberties with the results—less about memory and more about the effect of perception and uncertainty, over time.
What is it about memory that intrigues you?
Well, I’m fascinated by the notion that memory is imprecise. We tend—in movies, television, stories—to insist that it’s photographic, that we can think back and re-experience things exactly the way they happened in a perfectly coherent flashback that usually clarifies something in the present. In fact, memory is messy; it’s a recalling of events filtered through our present state of mind, subject to our prejudices, our emotions, our wishful thinking, the endless process of revision and redaction that comes from rethinking things, and our reliving them with others who may have been there. It’s ultimately distorted in the present by all the collective information we did not have at the time we experienced the event. Not to mention that memories flood us, they don’t necessarily unspool like a replay, they lurch and jump and loop back on themselves.
I’m also fascinated by the fact that we might not recognize ourselves if we ran into our past persona, or we might be astonished at how different that person is from how we remember we were; and how when we look at ourselves in the mirror we’re seeing, really, the accumulation of all the years we’ve looked at our reflection, a montage of memories and stages of life. The recent mouse studies in memory have touched the surface of how it’s possible to make a false memory seem real, which has been fodder for science fiction for years. This, too, interests me, but I’m probably more intrigued by our relationship with memories than I am by the possible appropriation of them for nefarious story purposes.
Why did you choose Catalina Island as the location for Jay’s detention?
I have always experienced Catalina both as a strange limbo and the perfect embodiment of the California dream deferred. It is both transient and permanent, with a rich (but short) history and yet always feels almost temporary. Almost cheesy. But it also holds something deeper, more significant, in its shadows. It's an American Capri, so close but so far, a place where the wealthy and famous hung out in the ‘40s but now looks somehow lost and forlorn. Take the Catalina Casino ballroom on the point—faded, tacky, beautiful, haunting, seductive, noir, provocative for no rational reason.
At the same time, it has a wildness, a ruggedness that is decidedly Western. Most of the island is uninhabited; there are no tony restaurants or exclusive enclaves. It's accessible by anyone. Crowded in the summer, empty in winter. A place where, I imagine, it would be easy to dream, to disappear, to reflect, to transform.
Who was the most challenging character to write?
Ginger was probably the most complicated character, because she is holding so many secrets, and secrets within secrets, for both professional and personal reasons. It was extremely important to me that she developed and evolved more as an emotional complication for Jay than as a plot device. But, truthfully, my goal wasn't to write a thriller, it was to write a thrilling character story. It was important that every character be grounded in reality, I wanted to avoid as many of the conventions of genre as I could. Jay was difficult because his passivity and aimlessness needed to be compelling—a boring guy who isn't, in fact, boring. I wanted to Feds to be human, flawed, accidental adversaries as opposed to calculating antagonists. I believe that a lot of things happen because of the intersection of agendas, as opposed to conscious conspiracies or nefarious schemes.
This book started as a screenplay. Does a background in screenwriting affect the way that you approach prose?
Screenwriting, in its purest form the art of concision—of deciding how little you can get away with saying and still tell your tale in 120 pages—would appear to be the complete opposite of novel writing, in which the goal is to include everything necessary. They're not. But because of screenwriting, I am more aware of the effect of gesture, of action as a conduit to state of mind in my novels. You generally cannot tell what a character is thinking in a screenplay, you have to dramatize it. Of course, one could argue that I've never really done screenwriting as the “rules” require, that I've always erred on the side of abstraction and of the poetry of words as opposed to simple, blunt description of what happens. I think writing movies has given me a good ear for conversation, and a heightened awareness of pace and tone and voice. I do have to battle the impatience that screenwriting can engender, though. The hurry to get done quickly so that everyone else can get started making their movie, or just to get on to the next one, down that rabbit hole of Hollywood Hustle. I don't know any novelist who would humblebrag that they wrote their book in “just eight frenzied days in a Vegas motel,” or on a series of cocktail napkins, or dictated it to their wife/husband/lover as they drove to Tarzana in rush hour traffic. But screenwriters frequently do.
I find, however, that because the writing really doesn't matter in screenwriting (a topic for another venue), I have often found it easier to experiment and take chances in my screenplays. I'm less self-conscious and will sometimes sketch chapters/scenes/sequences out in screenplay form, then expand the prose. Almost like I'm solving the structural problems in the one discipline and then using the spine of that to guide my work in the other. I'm not interested in "just telling the story." How the story is told is very important to me: the words, the flow, the music of both the story and the style. Faulkner's ability to blend the oral tradition with the pure literary modern one blows me away. David Foster Wallace. Joyce. Chandler. Murakami. Henry James.
Would you ever want to see it made into a movie?
Yeah. About that. Because I have read so many manuscripts that appear desperate to be movies (Choose me! Choose me!), my initial goal in writing books was to tell the stories that couldn't be told on film. This was bullshit, but it got me going. Fifty Mice is particularly problematic in this regard since it began as a television notion, and evolved in my head (and on the page) as both a movie and a novel at the same time. But it got me thinking that, no, a good story is a good story and you can tell it in many different ways, each one with its strengths and weaknesses.
The bitch about screenwriting is that you are never in control of the final product; it's subject to so much dilution and collaboration. Movies are, in the final analysis (sorry Writer's Guild), a director's medium. They control the camera and the final cut (well, sometimes, another subject for another day), what we see, what we hear, what we learn, in the same way that a novelist controls her book's point of view. In the brief pursuit of Fifty Mice (the movie) we flirted with actors like Chris Pine and Ethan Hawke as Jay. Phil Hoffman might have played Magonis. I once had coffee with Kerry Russell to play Ginger. But it was transient; when we had the possible financing, we couldn't quite attach actors, and when we had actors expressing interest, we couldn't get the money.
What are some differences between writing for film and writing a novel?
See above. They're different disciplines, and the requirements of the medium dictate different approaches, and yield different results. One big difference is that films are to be experienced in a single sitting and run relentlessly from beginning to end, never going back (well, in the age of DVR, there's a pause button, but), so film writing tends to be simpler, structurally less complex, perhaps more blunt, perhaps less nuanced. But I would say the biggest difference is that a screenplay is not the final product for anyone except the screenwriter. Film is collaborative, a collage of acting, directing, writing, music, editing, sound, visual arts—a novelist must do all that by himself. It's not to say that a screenplay won't suggest these things, but a novel depends on them. You can't get around it.
In both situations you're creating a movie in your reader's mind. In screenwriting that's the trigger that gets a movie made, one in which your story is important but many other artists will have their say. In a novel, open a book, every word is mine. For better or worse. I find that extremely gratifying after so many years in which I felt like the itinerant poet in the Medici summer house, writing for a select few people who might appreciate my prose but, really, are looking at it as a blueprint for something else.
Who do you enjoy reading?
Everybody. From Chandler to Murakami, from Henry James to Neil Stephenson. Joyce. Dickens. Daphne DeMurier. Fitzgerald. Hemingway. Conrad. Dos Passos. James M. Cain. Flannery O'Conner. Cheever. Carver. Henry Roth. James Salter. Carl Hiassen. Kate Atkinson. Olen Steinhauer. Foster-Wallace. Gunter Grass. LeCarre. Joan Didion.
What are you currently working on?
A new novel. A triptych of novellas I don't know what to do with. A pilot for USA network. A movie about the UN Oil For Food Scandal.
You also previously mentioned that people now write novels with the central aim of having them made into movies, citing Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. We thought this was a poignant/relevant comment, and you may be inspired to expand on that as well.
I've been trying to get a handle on this. I think I've talked a little about it in the answers I've already given, but it relates to my years as someone who adapted novels for the screen, and all the manuscripts and books I've read, many of which, sadly, read like movie treatments, desperate auditions for adaptation rather than fully realized and emotionally viable books. I get that having a movie deal means a lot of money for a writer, and that having a successful movie made from a book can make a novelists career—can catapult, say, Annie Prouxl from much-admired in literary circles to a broader audience. I don't think that's what I'm talking about.
What I fear is that novelists will forget what a novel is, that they will tailor their storytelling, change their prose style, stop experimenting and challenging the status quo in search of that elusive, short-attention span studio executive who they want to dazzle with a pop sensation. It's bad enough that screenwriters often sit and try to predict what "the studios will want" usually based on the last movie that made money—and, by the way, it rarely works—but I fear that if the novel becomes merely an audition for a movie, we lose something essential. A story becomes a product. We look not to cultural truths, but economic ones; genre ossifies, loops back on itself. You only need to consider the narrowing window of studio releases to see where that will lead. Stories have been with us forever; the telling of them has always been an art form first. Movies were an art form once, television never was. Is it surprising that a form developed merely to fill the space between advertisements now dominates the balance sheet of the major media companies that control the film business? How about the surge of sequels and prequels and remakes and branding that, I'm sorry, has nothing to do with storytelling or the exploration of a cultural mythology?
I guess what scared me wasn't that novelists were excited (and hopeful) about getting their books made into movies. It was that I was hearing them say that they were seeking to write books that they thought might get made into movies. Because I think that way lies madness.