Author Essay by Jodi Compton
Creating the Sarah-Shiloh relationship
Since publishing THE 37TH HOUR, my first novel, I haven't gotten a lot of the questions that writers are supposed to field regularly: Where do you get your ideas? and all that. Likewise, no one's asked me how I balance the personal and professional lives of my fictitious detective, Sarah Pribekor, put another way, how much private-life material is too much?
That's too bad, because I know exactly how I'd explain it. Seven years ago, Actress Gillian Anderson was on The Tonight Show promoting the new X-Files movie, and she told a story about an audience member at the screening of the film, whose wallet was stolen. The police officer who took the report was all business until he found out the man had been at the X-Files preview, and then he refused to go on with the process until he got an answer to a burning question: Do Mulder and Scully kiss?
That says it all. This wasn't just a guy, this was a cop. By rights, we'd think he'd be interested in the fight scenes, the chase scenes, the accuracy of the weapons used. Not so: He went straight to the question of the unrequited sexual tension.
The moral: Romance in the hard genrescrime, horror, science fictionis like fat in cooking.
Everyone says they want as little as possible, but it's impossible to truly satisfy anyone without it. That should have reassured me during the writing of THE 37TH HOUR. The book's concept was so simple, it almost sounded like a joke: Missing-persons detective's own husband goes missing. It was all about a marriage in crisiseven if the crisis wasn't one most husbands and wives ever face.
And yet, the extent to which this book was going to depend on the power of the Sarah-Shiloh relationship was unnerving, too, because of the kind of relationship this pair had.
Shiloh's first words to Sarah in the book are "You dumb shit." Later, when Sarah thinks that he's left for Quantico without her, she addresses him internally: Good-bye to you, too, you son of a bitch. These are a pair of devoted lovers?
I didn't sit down with a list of specs when I created either Sarah or Shiloh. I didn't design them at all; in fact, they just evolved. But it was clear to me early on that their attachment had an antiromantic quality that I didn't see much of in crime fiction. Often, the love relationship in crime writing is handled in one of two ways. In the first, the love interest is a man the protagonist is thrown together with during the course of the investigation. In the second, the boyfriend/husband is an established character, the relationship a haven against the ugly world of police work.
Shiloh doesn't fill either of these roles. He's well established as Sarah's lover, but there's an undercurrent of instability in their relationship, one that starts in its very first hours. We learn that Sarah and Shiloh met in an airport bar, where she is drinking away the emotional residue of a trip home for a family funeral, and he has apparently just split with an unsuitable lover (really unsuitable, as it turns out). They have a one-night stand and do not expect to meet again, learning that they're both "on the job," when they suddenly find each other on opposing teams in a pickup basketball game among cops. Their discomfort at the situation presents itself as something near hostility as they guard each other so competitively on the court that Sarah's friend (later partner) Genevieve Brown comments on it afterward: "What the hell was that?"
Sarah and Shiloh get past their initial discomfort, but throughout the book, Sarah's first-person narration gradually reveals a relationship heated by fierce attraction yet chilled by a certain sense of mismatch. Twice, someone asks Sarah what her husband is like; both times, she has difficulty summarizing him. In her narration, Sarah makes it clear that she sees Shiloh as her intellectual superior. And she admits that she and Shiloh married in relative haste: "grabbing at something that needed to be finessed," she tells the reader.
All in all, I began to wonder: have I taken this too far? Should I backpedal, throw in some hearts and flowers, move this relationship closer to the mainstream of what readers will expect? Will readers like Shiloh, in all his brooding inscrutability?
I didn't have to wait long for the answer. Before the book was published, a number of people read it in manuscript form. Among them, female readers were quite eager, before even finishing the manuscript, to know if Shiloh would survive to appear in later books about Sarah Pribek. It was my version of the do-Mulder-and-Scully-kiss? question, the one that let me know I'd hit my mark. Readers got Shiloh. They felt him; they liked him.
That's my answer to the how-much-private-life-is-too-much question¯áthat it's a false issue. A character's professional life and private life can't be separated, like frosting from a cake. They are integral to each other, one coloring and flavoring the other throughout the story.