New York Times bestselling author Chris Pavone joins Zibby to talk about his latest novel, Two Nights in Lisbon, which he refers to as a “Trojan Horse novel.” The two discuss why Chris wants to trick his usual reading base into reading this story, as well as what his journey through the publishing world looked like. Chris also shares why he made the decision to start writing thrillers, how he views his reputation as a writer, and a handful of fun anecdotes with well-known characters he had while working at Doubleday Dell.


Zibby Owens: Hi, Chris. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Two Nights in Lisbon and your whole career and everything else.

Chris Pavone: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. It’s great to see you.

Zibby: This is particularly rewarding given that I was rejected from interviewing you early on when I had just started my podcast.

Chris: But not by me.

Zibby: Not by you. I won’t hold it against you. This is one of those moments. This happened with Anna Quindlen. I was like, I did it. I finally did it. It’s taken me years. I feel that way with you. Just a private joy for me. I read The Accident with my book group years ago and was obsessed. Could not put it down. We all discussed the whole thing. It was just wonderful. Now you’re back with Two Nights in Lisbon, instant New York Times best-seller. Would you mind telling listeners what it’s about?

Chris: That’s a good question. I sort of would mind, but I’ll tell them what it’s not about.

Zibby: Okay. I can tell them what it’s about if you want.

Chris: Oh, I’d love to hear what you — here’s the thing. I wanted this book to look like a book that’s about one thing, and it’s really not. I wanted this to look like a book that opens like a thriller about a man on a business trip who takes his wife along to this business trip in Lisbon, and he goes missing. At the beginning of this novel, it looks like it’s a story about that, about this guy and about his new wife’s quest to find him. Over the course of the narrative, it gradually evolves that the book is really about something completely different. The cover of the book and the flap copy and the blurbs and all the marketing, nothing about that actually suggests what the book is really about. That’s purposeful because I want a certain type of reader to be able to come to this book because it’s the type of book that they like to read, because it’s an international thriller, because it’s about this guy, because they’re going to bring to the reading experience a lot of different expectations about what’s going to be going on here, and for those readers to find themselves completely mistaken about what’s going on in this book. It’s sort of like a trojan horse of a book. The real subject does not become apparent for a while. I feel like that’s most important for a type of reader who I actually want to trick into reading this book because it’s a subject that they would not voluntarily pick up a book to read about.

Zibby: Wow. How did you arrive at this? Did you always know you wanted to take the reader through this path to the actual story?

Chris: When I started writing this book, I knew that. When I started writing this book — the idea came to me during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. It occurred to me at that moment, which I could not stop watching even though it depressed the hell out of me — for me, there are certain aspects of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and Donald Trump’s campaign and his entire presidency that have nothing to do with politics at all, not red-state issues versus blue state, not Black lives versus blue, or hawks or doves, or anything like that, but simply a matter of decency and looking at things that are crimes and calling them crimes. During the Kavanaugh hearings, my spirit sank so much about the giant shrub that was being offered by so many people in this country and so many people in Congress who looked at this thing that, to me, is something that’s disqualifying to hold any major position of responsibility and chose to not care. I feel like we’ve all become trapped in these very, very hardened silos where every day we’re exposed to news and so-called facts and opinions that are only exactly our own. We are never given the opportunity or we never give ourselves the opportunity to find any evidence to the contrary. Every day, we go out there into the world of consuming social media and radio and newspapers and television, and we’re confronted again and again and again with opinions we already have.

We never are forced to look at any conflicting evidence, and so our positions just become more and more hardened. We start thinking that the people who hold other positions are more and more deranged. I think we’ve lost track of a common sense of agreement on the fundamental facts of the world. That was a long way of getting at the reason of why I wanted to do this in this book. That’s it. That’s the thing of it. I feel like we’re so dismissive of so many things. There are television stations and newspapers and online precedents that I will not engage with at all. I will not glance at the headline. I will not even remotely entertain the possibility that anything they have to tell me is anything even remotely approaching the truth. I feel like half of this country feels exactly the same way about all the things that I consume. I’m not saying that I yearn for the good old days. There were no good old days. I do yearn for the days when there was a set of common facts that we agreed upon in this world, that two plus two did equal four and that sexual assault is a crime.

Zibby: Wow, that was powerful. I love it. I’ll just ask you two questions, and we’ll be done. This is so easy. Can we back up to how you got started and your life? Where did you grow up? How did you become a writer? I know you were an editor for a very long time. Can you tell us the path here?

Chris: Absolutely. I grew up in Brooklyn. I went away to Cornell for college. I did not major in English. I was a government major. I came back to New York somehow convinced that I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t want to be the type of novelist who spends his career teaching creative writing to freshman seminars in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t want to work in an advertising agency trying to get my big break to write a sentence about deodorant. I felt like those are the types of careers, at least for me, that you’re all in on the writing and if it doesn’t work out, then what do you end up with? I didn’t want to end up that way. I feel like trying to become a novelist is an extremely risky endeavor. It works for almost nobody. Even for the people for whom it does work, that you look at them and you think, wow, that person has a very successful career as a novelist, they probably don’t make a living at it. They never really have. I didn’t want to be all in in that way. Instead, I decided that I wanted to work in publishing. I thought, ideally, that the job I should get was as an assistant at The New Yorker.

Zibby: Because that’s where the money is, right there.

Chris: They were unimpressed with my B+ average and my non-English major and my complete lack of connections or relevant experience. Unsurprisingly, they were one of many, many magazines that did not hire me. I had some pretty random jobs for a year working in professional publishing. I worked for a newspaper that was sold by homeless people. Then I got a job as an assistant at Dell Puzzle Magazines, which published mostly crosswords, which I loved. I still do. I love puzzles. My love of puzzles is actually a big part of how I construct books. I knew that I didn’t want to have a career in puzzles, so after a year of working there, I marched my little self over to the parent company’s human resources department, or personnel, as it was called, and said, “Is there anything else I can do at this company?” Dell Puzzle Magazines was part of this big conglomerate called Bantam Doubleday Dell, a bunch of publishers. I got a job as a copyeditor there. I started on a Monday, as people tend to start. Because I didn’t have any experience, I was given the easiest thing that a copyeditor could be given, which was a manuscript for a children’s book. Doubleday didn’t really publish children’s books, once every couple of years because an editor was doing a favor for somebody. I did my little work on the children’s book. I asked to query. I marched the manuscript down the hall. I gave it to the assistant, who messengered it to the author, who looked it over, who messengered it back, who gave it to the editor, who marched down the hall herself and came to my office and knocked on the door and said, “Hi. Are you Chris?” This was Wednesday. I’d started on Monday. I looked up. I said, “Yeah, I’m Chris.” She said, “Hi. I’m Jackie Onassis.”

That was my introduction to book publishing. I continued to work there until she died. That was coincidental. I didn’t leave because Mrs. Onassis died. I was an assistant there. All my friends at the company were also my age and similarly broke. People were working night and weekend jobs at Banana Republic and babysitting and doing things like that in order to pay the rent. It was so affirming that this person who could be doing anything chose to do this with her life, and not just for a year or two. She was not a dilettante. This is what she did for three decades. She went to a book publishing house. She acquired books. She pitched them in meetings. She stood there in the conference room and clapped for the boss just like everybody else. She didn’t come to work on Fridays. She didn’t come to work in the summers. Nobody begrudged her that because she came to work ever, because ever she walked in the door. That was fantastic. I worked on everything that Doubleday published. My job was to do a little amount of work on a hundred, a hundred and fifty books a year. That was the first time in my life that I’d ever read contempory best-sellers. I was twenty-three years old, something like that. As young people do, I read what I thought of only as serious books. It was literature with a capital L. Suddenly, it was my job to read other types of things, every type of thing, really.

Every year, our biggest responsibility, everybody, was to turn John Grisham’s annual typescript into two and a half million hardcovers on bookstore shelves as quickly and as typo-free as possible. I had a very small role in making that happen. Part of that involved merging the author’s set of typeset pages with the proofreader’s set of pages and resolving any discrepancies and creating a master set of first-pass pages, which I would pack into my bag and take into the elevator in Times Square, get a taxi, and go to LaGuardia and get on the Delta shuttle. At the time in the early nineties, you got on this airplane with no ticket. You found an empty seat. You paid on board. That was fantastic. Got off in Washington where a driver from the printing plant would pick me up and take the two-hour drive out to Berryville, Virginia, where I would hand this master set of pages to the typesetter and then wait around for the second pass, all because that rigamarole was faster than overnight FedEx. Every day counted. Those early Grisham books — this was the third, fourth, fifth books. Those were revelatory to me. They were books about important issues, about big tobacco and the death penalty and sexual assault. The political issues were not grafted upon a thriller, nor the other way around. The thriller existed because of the political issues. The political issues were only there in service to the thriller. The whole thing was just so brilliantly constructed and un-put-down-able as reads. It had never been the type of book that I had considered before. I thought that this was all romances and things like that. I didn’t know what the hell was going on in best-sellers. I was so ignorant. I thought that these books were genius.

I realized that I had been looking at novels in a different way, in maybe a wrong way. It was also at this time that I stopped trying to divide books between good and bad. I started thinking more in terms of things that I liked and things that other people may like and things that nobody will like, but not value judgements of good book or bad book. I resolved that I thought I could write this type of book one day, but it took me a long time to get to doing it. It took me until I was forty years old, right before I turned forty. I’d been a book editor for a while. I’d had a very satisfying career. My wife also works in book publishing. She came home from the office one day and said, “What would you think of living in Luxemburg?” At this point in my life, I’d only ever lived in New York City and Ithaca. I’d never considered moving anywhere else. My little brother had lived for a few years in China. I’d never even seriously considered moving to the East Side. I felt like this was a giant pull in my personal experience and bravery in general. I was so excited for this opportunity to go live somewhere else and be someone else. I was forty years old when we moved. We have twin boys — they were four years old — and a dog. I became a completely different person. I left behind my career and my friends and my family and everything I know how to do. You’ve lived in New York your whole life, right?

Zibby: I’ve escaped a little, but yes, mostly.

Chris: When you’ve lived in a place a long time or at least since you were a child, you’re so familiar with everything. You feel like there’s nothing you don’t know how to do. There’s no problem you don’t know how to solve, or at least find the person who can solve it. I felt like in Luxemburg, it had never occurred to me how comfortable I was in New York. It had never occurred to me how hard life can be even for someone whose life isn’t hard. I didn’t have a job there. I didn’t need to work in Luxemburg. I was home with four-year-old children, which I’d never done before. I was living in a country where I didn’t speak the language, where I had no friends, where I didn’t know how to do things, fundamental, like take out the garbage or get somebody to fix a broken toilet or something. Everything was challenging in a way that nothing had been challenging before. My set of concerns in Luxemburg was completely different than my set of concerns had been in New York.

I had to do a bunch of things that I never contemplated doing. I had to make a whole new set of friends from scratch, from zero. That’s hard. That’s hard when you’re ten years old. It’s hard when you’re twenty-five. It’s definitely hard when you’re forty. I’d never had to do it until I was forty years old. I’d never had that experience of just arriving someplace where I don’t know anybody. I started writing about that. For a few months, I was writing a book that was extremely whiny and very, very bad. It had not occurred to me how to construct this story in a way that would be interesting to other people. I thought that I had a setup that was intriguing. Expats in Luxemburg, which I was one of, I thought, that sounds interesting. If somebody just says that to me, sure, I want to know more. I will ask a question. What’s going on? The “what’s going on?” is the thing that I didn’t have at the get-go. All I had was the title, which was The Expats. I struggled through a few months of writing, just writing, just pushing through to get things on the page before it occurred to me that I could turn this into a thriller. I think your original question was, how did I get started in this?

Zibby: No, keep going. You figured out how to make The Expats a thriller. Then what? You sat and wrote it, and then it became a best-seller? Easy-peasy?

Chris: Not exactly. I think it’s an extremely important decision for novelists to decide, what type of writer am I going to be? Most people, almost nobody, gets to change lanes. You pick a lane, and that’s your lane. Maybe you move a little bit in one direction or a little bit in another direction. Maybe you go faster. Maybe you go slower. Maybe you’re good at it. Maybe you’re not. If you write a first novel that’s a thriller, you don’t get to write a second novel that is speculative fiction. You don’t get to write a third novel that’s literary fiction. That’s not how publishing can work. That’s not how publishing can operate. Publishers don’t want it that way. Booksellers don’t want it that way. Readers don’t want it that way. It’s true not just in publishing, but in everything. You don’t get to choose every couple of years to do something else and ask the world to respect that you’re going to be good at it. You can’t be an ENT and then become a heart surgeon. Nobody will go to you for that. Hell no. You’re used to looking up noses, and you’re going to cut open my heart? I don’t think so. Maybe your original training was the same, but that’s not how this works. I feel like novelists — nobody’s life is at stake, but you’re asking readers to trust that you know how to do a certain type of thing. I think you’re then obligated to give them increasingly better versions of that thing. They can be different versions of that thing. They can be wildly different versions.

Some novelists write the same book every year for thirty years, and everybody’s satisfied with that. I don’t know if the novelist is satisfied with that, but readers are satisfied with that. People love reading series. People love reading books where the expected thing is going to happen. I’m not one of those readers. I’m not one of those writers either, but I do feel an obligation to write the same type of book, at least in the broad terms. Before I really seriously sat down with The Expats as a thriller, I had to think about, is this something I really want to do? Is this the type of writer I really want to be? It’s certainly not the type of writer that I was imagining when I was twenty years old and I was thinking I wanted to be a writer. I was not thinking that my goal would be that people would buy a mass market paperback of my book in airports and then leave it in the hotel room, but that is my goal now. That’s the reading experience that I want people to have. I want people to pick up this book in an airport, not be able to put it down on the airplane, not be able to put it down their first night in a hotel, and then leave it there because it’s a mass market paperback. It’s not something you need to own. I have disabused myself long ago with the notion that I want to go out to the world and prove to everyone how brilliant I am because I know that I’m not. I don’t feel like I have anything that I want to prove to readers or colleagues or friends of mine. The thing that I want to do in these books is write really compelling stories that make people think. I’m not aiming for people to walk around thinking, oh, that guy’s a genius. I’m comfortable in that realm of being a type of commercial novelist where my goal is to write the very, very, very best type of thriller that I can think of, thrillers for smart readers, thrillers for people who want to be engaged in real issues and not just the irrelevancies of some cop pursuing some serial killer and things that don’t exist in the world at all.

I don’t want to write those types of books. I don’t have anything against those books. I read plenty of those types of books. Sometimes that type of story can feel super irrelevant to me. In the current age of really, really bisected politics and high feelings about everything and a lot of people going out into the world and trying to do something and make the world a better place, or at least a less-bad one, I have felt compelled also to pivot a little bit in my writing and to write these genre stories that are a little less irrelevant than a lot of genre stories tend to be. Again, I don’t dismiss the value of them. I think a lot of people come to reading fiction, especially genre fiction, as an escape from the real world. That’s specifically what they’re looking for, is to not be engaged in the real issues that we confront every day. I completely respect that. I understand that that’s huge not just in books, but in every type of entertainment. It’s just not how I engage with literature or stories at all. I’ve been trying to write these — I wouldn’t call them serious, but they’re books that have a more serious edge and more closely tied to real issues that we confront in society. Each one of my books is about that, whether the theme is marriage or work or betrayal. They’re all about something important to us. It’s not just a story of adrenaline that ends with the good guy prevailing.

Zibby: You don’t think that mastering a particular genre and learning how to do it at the very top level of a craft is an act of genius?

Chris: No. Well, I don’t know.

Zibby: What writer — who did you want to be? I feel like you’re trying to say, I’m writing these books, I’m not trying to convince anyone I’m smart. I feel the complete opposite. I feel it is case and point in supporting the argument that you are. Who do you feel like, somebody else, is holding up to say, well, I’m not this guy? Do you know what I mean?

Chris: Yeah, I do. I feel like the mark of genius in the arts, in literature, in creativity of any sort is inventing something new, is writers who invent a new way of storytelling or a new way of using language or a new voice or things that haven’t been done before, looking at the world and saying, I can do something completely different here, and create a new language, create a new visual language, create a new musical language, create a new sound, create a new feeling in people. I don’t want to not sell myself too much, but I don’t feel like I do that. I don’t feel like that’s been my goal. I’m trying to write a really, really good version of a form that already exists in the world. I feel like there are writers — a lot of them are struggling writers, and not a lot of them are very successful financially — who do go out into the world and invent something new. In my generation, I have felt like that is probably Jennifer Egan, who has written a different type of book every book, contrary to everything I was just saying before about how you need to pick a lane. I think that type of bravery is also part of it. I feel like she has dwelt in these different arenas in each of her novels that somehow really, really related to one —

Zibby: Listeners, sorry about that. We’re back. I had a slight Wi-Fi outage. I’m so sorry. Now back for the conclusion of my interview with Chris Pavone. Thank you for your patience. Anyway, Chris, you had just finished telling me about how Jennifer Egan is more of a genius than you are.

Chris: Definitely.

Zibby: I still believe there are lots of different types of genius in the world. Particularly in the literary world, it is like chasing a ghost to try to become somebody who readers regularly turn to and who can break out from the muck. That is a genius skill of its own. Everybody brings their own unique things. I think to many people, being able to do what you have done is an act of genius. I’ll just leave it at that.

Chris: Thank you. That’s very nice of you. I do appreciate it.

Zibby: By the way, I’ve been wondering, what happened to your brother who went to China? What does he do now? What’s his story in life?

Chris: He is a high school teacher. He did not stay in China. He came back to New York. He had a bunch of adventures. He lived in Alaska for a while. He became somebody who’s teaching primarily kids who spoke Chinese to speak English, which there are a lot of in New York City right now. He actually teaches at the high school that I went to but he did not go to. I also briefly taught as a substitute teacher at that high school, which is called Midwood High School. It’s in the middle of Brooklyn. It was not an experience that I liked. My parents were New York City public school teachers, as were almost all of their friends. I grew up seeing all of these teachers around me and having a lot of respect for a lot of them. Then of course, I had a lot of respect for my own high school teachers. Then when I became one of them — I was only twenty-one years old when I walked back into Midwood as a substitute teacher. Sitting in the breakroom with the teachers and finding out how much some of them disliked their jobs and disliked the students, it was so devastating to me. It was one of those revelatory moments in life when I thought, wow, there are just some things that I could not ever remotely see clearly coming until they were right here upon me. This teacher being a depressed person, I just had no idea. I felt like I’ve always carried that with me, the surprise of finding that people are not who you think they are. To me, that was so shocking. One of the experiences I had as a young person working in publishing in 1995, I think it was, I helped Pat Conroy bring a book called Beach Music to the finish line.

Zibby: Loved Beach Music. I wrote about it in my book. I loved it.

Chris: It was really, really late. Pat was doing a very, very big revision on it. He was having a hard time doing this. He was living in San Francisco. Doubleday really needed to publish this book for financial reasons. It was unsustainable that he could just continue to not finish up work on it. The publisher moved Pat from San Francisco to a hotel on the Upper East Side to finish working on this book in an environment where he could be sort of controlled, as in babysat. The babysitter was me. I woke up every day and left my apartment on West 75th Street and walked across Central Park. At 9:01 in the morning, I would knock on his hotel room door where he was living. He had a little kitchen in his hotel room. He was cooking all the goddamn time. He found so many things to do other than work on this book. It was my job — I was twenty-six years old — to remind him, hey man, you’re here to finish this book and not to experiment in trying to recreate some great pasta dish you had in Rome last year. Pat was a really, really tremendous talker, but he was also an incredible listener.

One of the things that he wanted from me was to go for walks in Central Park to take a break from working. This was in February and March. We would go for long walks. He would just pepper me with one question after another about everything, about my childhood, about my parents, about driving around in Mexico and Guatemala, which we did, and about my job and my girlfriend and whatever. He just wanted to know everything. It was sort of frustrating to me because here I was, this aspiring writer, spending all this time with this super famous, accomplished novelist, and I couldn’t get a question in edgewise. All he wanted to do was ask me about me. Then it was on our last day together he finally got around to giving me some advice. We were walking through the zoo in the rain. He turned to me. He actually put his hand on my shoulder. He said, “Listen to other people’s stories. Listen very carefully.” That’s when I realized that this time that we’d been spending together was not a distraction for him. It was work. He was working. He was getting my stories out of me because he was looking for something to use. I didn’t feel used in any way by that. I felt like he told me what he was doing. He told me that this is what he does. This is what he’s been doing for a half-century.

I took away that lesson, to listen to other people’s stories and to try to see, hear what it is that they’re really saying and who they really are when they’re talking about a problem or an event or a concern. I’ve tried to put a lot of those, all of those — that’s what my books are filled with, are the types of stories that I’ve gotten from other people. There are plot twists that I make up that are borderline ludicrous because I feel like that’s what we want out of a thriller. If you’re writing completely true-to-life fiction, that’s not thrilling. It’s not mysterious. Very often, it’s not actually compelling for other people to read about. I don’t want to listen to most people tell the story of their life for twelve hours. That’s just not how I want to be engaged in the world. I feel like I want more plot twists and more action than happen in most lives, including my own. I add plot elements and peril to heighten certain types of stakes, but I feel like the books are never really about that. They’re about real human concerns behind whatever the hell’s going on in the plot. Those are the things that I’ve gotten from listening to people in my life, and primarily from listening to women.

Zibby: Wow. Very interesting. I love it. Listening, puzzles, a combination of all these factors, and that’s how you did it. Amazing. Chris, thank you so much. Sorry again about the interruption in the middle. Thanks for hanging in there. It was a delight talking to you. Totally fascinating. Really, really interesting.

Chris: Thank you very much, Zibby. It was great to see you.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Chris: Bye.


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