WeekEND Reading: Brad Parks on his new domestic thriller, CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW


By Leslie Lindsay 

What if you went to pick up your child from daycare only to learn he has been taken by social services? That’s what was haunting Brad Park when he set out to write CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW; understanding the emotional arc of his female characters, how being stubborn is his greatest strength at the keyboard, plus Coke Zero & ice cream

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Brad Parks is back with another stand-alone domestic thriller with engaging characters, stunning twists, and chilling discoveries, this time focusing on Child Social Services, a drug bust and more. 

CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW, the latest thriller from Brad Parks, is the perfect encapsulation of everything Parks does so well—shocking twists, compelling, true-to-life characters, and affecting emotional impact.

So when the publishing house reached out to me with this one, I knew I had to get my hands on it. Plus, that cover! It’s so hauntingly typical.

After a childhood spent bouncing between foster care homes, Melanie Barrick finally has the life she’s always wanted. But one day, Melanie goes to pick up her son Alex from childcare and discovers he has been removed by Social Services.

When she arrives home, she learns that her house has been raided by the sheriff’s deputies, who tell her that they’ve found enough cocaine to put her behind bars for years.

Though she maintains her innocence, Melanie knows she will lose Alex forever if she can’t find definitive proof that someone is trying to frame her.

Parks’ first standalone, SAY NOTHING, received rave reviews from top media outlets, genre titans–including Sue Grafton, Lee Child, and Jeffery Deaver–and readers alike. And CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW is just as thrilling. 

Please join me in conversation with Brad Parks. 

Leslie Lindsay: Brad, I’m so thrilled to have you today. I’m always interested to know what inspired a particular title. Can you tell us how you chose to center the plot of Closer Than You Know around the child welfare system?

Brad Parks: As an upper middle class white kid, I grew up with exactly zero experience of the child welfare system. Then I spent a decade as a reporter in Newark, where child protective services was an enormous presence in the lives of many, if not most, poor families. As a political nerd, it fascinated me that in America—a nation founded by guys trying to resist tyranny—we created a system that gives government so much authority over such an intensely personal aspect of citizens’ lives. Think about it: No matter where you live, there is a state or local agency that has legal ability to take your children away from you. Now, most of the time, that authority is only used with great caution and only as a last resort. But what an awesome power. Especially if it was abused. That’s the basic germ that I allowed to take root in CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW that someone who understands the system could manipulate it to steal someone’s baby.

L.L.: What research did you do for this novel? Were there any differences between this book’s research into the judicial system and that of your last book, Say Nothing?

Brad Parks: I spoke with people who work for Virginia social service agencies at a variety of levels—from a former secretary all the way up to a director. They were, without exception, dedicated professionals whose hearts were absolutely in the right place. From them, I learned how the system is supposed to work. Then I spoke with, and read memoirs by, former foster kids. From them I learned how the system actually works. There are some success stories, of course. But for a lot of children, particularly those who enter foster care at later ages, the system creates as many problems as it fixes.  I also spent time hanging around Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court, talking with lawyers and a judge. The great difficult there is that, unlike adult courts, trials involving children are closed. That was probably the greatest difficulty: Not having the opportunity to observe directly. I found myself asking a lot of my sources questions like, “Okay, how does this go exactly? What does this look like?”hqdefault

L.L.: This is your first novel told from the perspective of female protagonists, Melanie Barrick and Amy Kaye. Did you find writing from the perspective of female characters more challenging? How did you ensure that the tone felt authentic? 

Brad Parks: With forty-three years’ experience thinking like a guy—and none thinking like a woman—the prospect of writing from the female perspective definitely intimidated me at first. And there were a handful of scenes where I was cognizant that a woman would experience the events unfolding in a fundamentally different way. But for the most part, once I got into the story, I was amazed how little it actually mattered. In most of the situations these women faced, gender was probably the seventh or eighth most important thing motivating their thoughts and actions. There were other aspects of their personalities that simply mattered more. They were driven by their wants, their needs, their ideals, their hopes. I realized pretty quickly I wasn’t writing female protagonists. I was writing human protagonists who happened to be female.

L.L.: CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW is your eighth novel. How is this one different than your previous stories?

Brad Parks: I always have strong feelings for my characters. But I was more attached to Melanie Barrick than I’ve ever been to any of my previous protagonists, even the one loosely based on me. There were times when I felt this horrible guilt about what I was doing to her—ripping her baby away from her, putting her through this horrible ordeal, sending her to prison. I always talk my characters throughout the writing of a novel. I found myself apologizing to Melanie quite a bit.

L.L.: You write a lot about the bond between a mother and her child in CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW. How were you able to convey this unique relationship on the page so vividly? And did your own experience as a dad shape the narrative?

Brad Parks: I did a tour of duty as a stay-at-home dad with an infant. For many long hours each day, it was just me and this baby. I came to realize that a big part of what our culture calls “motherhood” is really just having another human being who is wholly dependent on you for every need, all the time. So I certainly drew on that physical and emotional experience. But I also came to understand there is another aspect to motherhood, and that’s because I watched my wife parent this same child. She wasn’t with the baby for huge chunks of the day, like I was, and yet there were ways in which her bond with the baby was undeniably closer. That really helped me flesh out Melanie Barrick, because when Alex gets taken from her, she is no longer his caregiver. But, deep in the very core of her, she is—and will always be—his mother.

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L.L.: This novel is so emotionally resonant, but also quite thrilling in that psych-suspense aspect.How do you balance the plot so they are both something the reader will ‘feel’ but also entertaining?

Brad Parks: I write by feel. If I don’t feel something, chances are the reader isn’t going to feel something. And if the reader isn’t feeling something. . . well, really, what’s to stop them from putting this down and playing Sudoku?

L.L.:  Before you were a full-time novelist, you were a successful journalist. How does that inform your work today?

Brad Parks: One year at a daily newspaper brings you into contact with enough fascinating stories and weird characters to fuel at least twenty novels. It also teaches you how to learn (quickly!) about anything at all.

L.L.: Do you miss journalism?

Brad Parks: I miss the people. The newspaper newsroom of yore was a magical place: A collection of bright, talented, irascible folks—many of them temperamentally unsuited for employment in any other industry—who spent half the morning strangling each other and half the afternoon worrying about lunch. But then somehow by the end of the day, they managed to get their act together just enough to publish the equivalent of a full-length novel, complete with pictures, graphics, and the horoscopes. And then they’d get up the next day and do it all over again. It was magical to be even a small part of the whole crazy show.

L.L.: How did you make the decision to transition into writing novels?

Brad Parks: In some ways, the decision was made for me. The newspaper business began entering its death spiral around the time I turned thirty. I came to realize there was no chance I was going to be able to ride that dinosaur all the way to retirement. I took a buyout in 2008, when I was 34, figuring it was better to jump than be pushed. At that time it was frightening. And depressing. Journalism was all I had ever done, all I knew. But looking back, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Under ordinary circumstances, I am far too risk-averse by nature to do something as outrageous as leaving a steady job for the uncertainty of writing novels. It took the collapse of the industry to make me pursue a dream I otherwise would have been too chicken to chase on my own.

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L.L.: Can you tell us something about your process that might surprise people?

Brad Parks: How—for lack of a better word—physical it is. While I’m working on a novel, particularly in that crucial first-draft stage, I treat myself like a professional athlete in season. I do everything I can to maximize performance: I eat right; I don’t drink much (besides Coke Zero); I try to give my brain lots of rest, whether that’s goofing off in the afternoon, or getting eight hours of sleep at night. Don’t get me wrong, I have distractions, like everyone. But my goal is to structure the other twenty hours a day so that those four hours in the chair can be as productive as possible.

L.L.: What do you think is the most important trait you bring to the keyboard?

Brad Parks: Stubbornness. It’s the gas for my writing engine, and I’d like to think I have more of it than most. When my wife was in grad school, she had to learn how to administer intelligence tests and I served as her test dummy. There was one test where you had to rearrange blocks. The scoring was a sliding scale based on how quickly you could complete the task. You didn’t get any points if it took longer than two minutes, but the test administrator couldn’t tell you to stop. I kept fumbling with those stupid blocks for twenty-six minutes before I finally solved that second-grade problem. But that’s the great thing about writing. There’s no stopwatch on you. I may not be the smartest guy in the world, but I am willing to bash my head against the screen until the words come out right.

“Exciting. . . Parks excels at keeping the pages turning with brisk pacing, relentlessly high tension, and a knotty narrative.”
Publishers Weekly

L.L.: Rumor has it that you’re known to break out into song during author events. Me, too but not at author events…just around the house. And not well. Everyone rolls their eyes. What inspired you to make this a trademark at your events? Were you involved in musical theater during your school years?

Brad Parks: Those rumors are malicious and false. How dare you. . . Uh, okay, guilty as charged. I was all-state chorus, did high school musicals, sang a cappella in college (yeah, I was one of those guys) and have continued to sing in pretty much any forum in which I am not muzzled by either decorum or someone’s hand. It’s just something I love to do. 

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW?

Brad Parks: To my knowledge, there’s never been a thriller that uses the child welfare system as its backdrop. And while I’m not trying to cram a social work textbook down their throats, I would hope readers come away with a more nuanced understanding of that world and some compassion for those involved in it. That’s one of the things I love about the thriller genre: It’s a vehicle that allows you to explore some weighty social issues, yet do so in a way that’s still wildly entertaining. Done right, it’s like ice cream that’s good for you.

L.L.: Thank you, Brad. It was a pleasure…and now, for that ice cream.

For more information, or to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of CLOSER THAN YOU THINK, please visit:

Order Links:

brad-parks-smile-225-shadowABOUT THE AUTHOR:   International bestselling author Brad Parks is the only writer to have won the Shamus, Nero, and Lefty Awards, three of American crime fiction’s most prestigious prizes. His novels have been translated into a dozen languages and have won critical acclaim across the globe, including stars from every major pre-publication review outlet. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Parks is a former journalist with The Washington Post and The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger. He is now a full-time novelist living in Virginia with his wife and two school-aged children.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website and used with permission from publisher. Images all retrieved on 3.15.18. Sources as follows: stay at home dad image retrieved from, newspaper newsroom image retrieved from, Juvenile and Domestic Relations court sign retrieved from,]

 

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