by Paula Gail Benson
If you hear writers and readers talking about author Ed Aymar, they may be referring to the successful columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books and host of D.C. Noir at the Bar (virtual and in-person), or E.A. Aymar, whose short stories have appeared both in online and print anthologies (including two novels in stories, for one of which, The Night of the Flood, he served as co-editor) and whose novel, The Unrepentent, was nominated for an Anthony. Not to mention, he’s written a wonderful letter to his young son that appears in Writers Crushing Covid-19 and has a series of poems attributed to E.A. Alkimist that can be heard on his website. His latest novel, They’re Gone, just launched with him credited as E.A. Barres.
So, prolific and multi-talented Mr. Aymar/Barres, how do you describe yourself as a writer?
Well, it’d definitely be nice to say “prolific” and “multi-talented!” I can live with that! It’s funny because I never imagined myself as “prolific,” but I suppose I am. When I started to take my writing seriously, I really only imagined that I’d write novels. And I assumed that was all I could write.
I started to write more because, although the act of writing has its own immediate rewards, the act of publishing does not. I’ve just had the best launch week I’ve ever had for a novel, and it’s been so lovely…but that came after a grueling submission process to publishers, revision after revision, anxiously waiting for reviews, glancing at GoodReads. I realized early on that I needed something to carry me through those barren stretches of waiting, and writing non-fiction and short stories has been great for that.
We’re taught in school that hard work equals reward, a system that school verifies – study hard, and you’ll do better. With writing, you can work harder than you ever thought possible, and there’s no guarantee of reward. And then doubt and concern creep in. Writing outside of novels helps alleviate that concern for me. It’s nice to have the validation of an accepted essay or short fiction while you’re waiting on word from your work. Plus you flex other creative muscles, and the extra publishing credits can help spread word of the book you’re hoping to sell.
Reviews for The Unrepentent call it “gut-wrenching,” “unflinching,” “gritty,” “brutal, dark, and disturbing,” and “an enjoyable hard-boiled tale that pulls no punches.” In it, you tell the story about a human trafficking victim, the traffickers, and the persons who attempt to help her. How did you decide to write about this subject?
I’m really jealous of the way my friend Jennifer Hillier has established her – I hate this word – “brand.” She writes “dark, psychological suspense,” she does it well, and it’s what her readers expect. It helps with her craft, and it helps with promotions.
Until recently, I didn’t quite know what I wrote.
But there were recognizable themes in my work, one of which is violence. And when you see violence the way I do – as unsettling and horrific – that leads you to an honest examination of its brutality. And that leads to the violence of men done to women (men make up a hugely disproportionate number of violent criminals, particularly in matters of sex abuse).
Violence to women is typically seen in a number of places, but sex trafficking was, to me, one of the most horrifying. The more I read about it, the more I was compelled to write about it, and that informed The Unrepentant.
What research did you conduct to write The Unrepentent and what did you learn that made the greatest impression on you?
I did more traditional research for The Unrepentant than I’ve done with any other novel, or anything I’ve ever written outside of my Master’s thesis. I read a lot of books about sex trafficking and sex work, interviewed people who had worked in those practices, and spoke with organizations determined to prevent it.
One of the things that most interested me most was the battle between legal sex workers and sex trade abolitionists. It’s a lively, vital debate that can be found in academic essays, on social media, and in newspapers. And I don’t really know where I stand. I’m not opposed to sex work, provided the participants are of legal age and the workers have their own firm authority. But I’m also aware that places with legal sex work (like Amsterdam or Germany) have experienced greater numbers of illegal sex trafficking, a practice that typically involves unwilling women or children.
I also remember an account a former sex trade worker wrote about. A father brought his son, upon turning eighteen, to see her. And she couldn’t help thinking about this boy’s first introduction to sex, and the perception that women were able to be bought. The way that this transactional nature in regards to people, and the corresponding attitude of male superiority and female sub-humanity, remained in her. And me, as well.
You write incredibly strong, yet vulnerable women characters. What is your inspiration for depicting females so realistically?
Aw, thank you! That means a lot to me. BUT I GUESS MY MALE CHARACTERS SUCK, IS THAT WHAT YOU’RE SAYING, PAULA?
Just kidding. I have very strong women in my life – my agent, my editor, my wife – who have no qualms calling me out when I get something wrong. And I appreciate that. It’s imperative to me, for a number of reasons, to get characters right who are markedly different than I am.
But it’s not just those women. There are so many wonderful female crime fiction writers today. I marvel at how well someone like Kathleen Barber or LynDee Walker or Tara Laskowski or Kellye Garrett or Angie Kim delves into the psychological makeup of their female protagonists. The emotional dynamics are palpable and complex and endearing and, often, funny. If I have any success in capturing a female character, then it’s because I’ve taken my cues off of some of today’s best women writers.
In They’re Gone, you entwine the stories of two dissimilar women who join forces to investigate the deaths of their husbands, which occur on the same night in the same manner. What led you to write this novel?
It started with Susanna Calkins, a great writer of historical mysteries. We were at the Printers Row Book Festival in Chicago, and she was telling me about the research she’d done about early twentieth century Chicago (which led to her “Speakeasy Murders” series). And she mentioned a term she’d seen in a newspaper, depicting the widows of the men killed by Al Capone after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. They’d been referred to as “The Bullet Widows.”
I IMMEDIATELY told her that I was going to take that title for a book, and she was like, “It’s yours.” The story came from it, even if we eventually changed the title to They’re Gone. Which is probably more marketable, even though I still love The Bullet Widows. Fine, Susie, you can have it back. Also, everyone should read The Speakeasy Murders.
Northern Virginia, where you reside, is the setting for both The Unrepentent and They’re Gone. It’s as significant as any character in your stories. What makes it so intriguing and well-suited as a location?
I have a love-hate relationship with where I live. There are a lot of practical reasons for living here – jobs, an aggressive and educated readership, a supportive crime fiction community, diversity, Georgetown Cupcakes. But there are also major drawbacks. The traffic sucks. Northern Virginia is a lovely place to raise a kid, but it can often feel like one gigantic suburb. And Washington, D.C., has much to offer, but it lacks the outspoken, recognizable personalities of its east coast counterparts. You can tell when someone is from Philadelphia, Boston, New Jersey, New York, Baltimore. Not so much with D.C. or northern Virginia.
There are reasons for that, some tied to racism and poverty and gentrification, some to the transient nature of this area. And those reasons, for writers living here, are worth studying and integrating into our work. The important thing, I think, for any writer is to have a relationship with your location. You don’t have to love it, and you probably shouldn’t, but you do need to study and include it. I want to make characters recognizable to readers anywhere and, along those lines, I absolutely want local readers to easily identify with them.
I hope my admiration for, and frustration with, the DC/MD/VA region comes through. And I hope I represent it honestly, in both regards.
Your phrasings, descriptions, and dialogue are precise, keeping the narrative moving. Has this always been your style? Was it influenced by your short fiction and by writing noir?
Aw, so that’s really sweet to hear. Thank you!
My two favorite writers, for years, were Anne Tyler and John Updike. I marveled at Updike’s dexterity with language, his enviable vision and poetic phrasing. And Tyler’s gift for nuance and character was inspirational. I wanted to do what they did, and I still do.
Crime fiction, later, became a more dominant influence. I started reading Lippman and Abbott and Atkinson and Block and Massey and I became aware of how well their prose influenced pacing. You never want to have slow moments in a thriller, but there are times when you need to hop out of the speeding car and walk. Taut prose keeps the walk brisk.
Tell us about your son. Does he ever ask you about your writing? If so, what do you tell him?
That kid has changed my world. I used to have this wonderful selfish life where I could write and read for as long as I wanted, and watch endless TV, and SLEEP. And then he was born and all of that has changed and I wouldn’t change it back.
And one thing he’s changed in me is my approach to violence. A former professor of mine, Marguerite Rippy, told me something really helpful about children. Basically, she said, and I’m paraphrasing, “children are total psychopaths, and you need to raise them out of that.” She’s right! I mean, my son’s not torturing dogs or decapitating hobos or anything, but there’s a definite attraction to violence that seems both inherent and misunderstood.
But it’s not just him. Almost everything boys are introduced to has a violent component to it, from superhero pajamas to action figures. Its cartoon violence, and bloodless, but there’s a disconnect in seeing Spider Man punch out a villain and my son sadistically pummeling a teddy bear in the head. I find myself making sure he understands the ramifications of his actions, much more than I ever expected. Some of that is just parenting, but given my own wary relationship with violence, I’m very sensitive to it.
Then again, I keep showing him Marvel movies. I’m the problem.
Following the launch of They’re Gone, what’s next on your writing horizon?
More books, for sure, but lately it’s been nonfiction. I just had two pieces published: one in the Washington City Paper about the DC/MD/VA crime fiction community, and one in CrimeReads about writing outside of identity.
Thank you for spending time with us here at Writers Who Kill. Best wishes for your continuing success.
E.A. Aymar/E.A. Barres (Short Bio)
His past thrillers include the novels-in-stories The Swamp Killers and The Night of the Flood (in which he served as co-editor and contributor). He has a monthly column in the Washington Independent Review of Books, is a former member of the national board of the International Thriller Writers and, for years, was the managing editor of The Thrill Begins, an online resource for debut and aspiring writers. He is also an active member of Crime Writers of Color, the Mystery Writers of America and SinC. He also runs the Noir at the Bar series for Washington, D.C., and has hosted and spoken at a variety of crime fiction, writing, and publishing events nationwide.
His website is https://eaymarwrites.com/