5 Questions with David Corbett, author of 'Thirteen Confessions'

When you sold your first piece of writing, how did you celebrate?

Well, this is not a happy story.

My first sale was for The Devil’s Redhead, and it sold six weeks before my late wife, Terri, died of ovarian cancer.

When my agent called to tell me that Leona Nevler at Ballantine was very interested in the book, we talked over a number of details over the phone while Terri listened in from her bed in the next room.

By this time we had little to hope for. Terri was emaciated, with dark patches under her eyes, her hair gone from chemo, etc. She was also slightly demented from the chemo and in a fragile state.

Making this worse was a troubled childhood where adults were unreliable, and her father in particular disappeared for long stretches of time.

When I ended the call and came in to tell her the news, she lay there with the covers pulled up over her chin. She said, “You’re going to become famous now and go away.”

I can’t begin to tell you how much that broke my heart. Not that she said it, but that she was genuinely afraid that would happen.

I sat down beside her, took her hand, and said, “Oh, baby. I’m not gonna leave you.”

Tell us about your process: Pen, paper, word processor, morning, noon, night... how do you write?

I’m best in the morning. I get up around 5:30 and get myself going by doing the dishes from the night before (we don’t have a dishwasher). I make myself a pot of tea (Irish Breakfast) and get to work on the computer. I don’t allow myself any email or news surfing until I’ve finished for the morning, which is usually around 10:00 or 11:00.

I research and outline before I begin writing, though I try to limit the research so it doesn’t become an endless ordeal.

When I say I outline, I mean I do extensive character work, because I want the story to emerge form the characters, and then I begin charting out the story, trying as best I can to think of ways it might take unsuspected turns. I often leave the ending or even the entire latter half of the book uncertain. And even the opening half of the book is open to change and improvisation once I start writing. But I feel lost if I don’t have some sense of direction.

Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?

Off the top of my head: Milton’s Lucifer. Who wouldn’t (though I’m sure he’d stick me with the tab)?

Okay, that’s a glib evasion, not an answer. I’d like for him to expand on his statement, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” especially in light of human history. Is there a this-world interpretation to be had from his remark?

What's the best piece of writing advice you've ever gotten, or that you can pass along? 

I think the most valuable insight I’ve gained as a writer is not that less is more (unless it’s not enough), but why this is so. I came to realize that writing is a partnership between me and the reader. I’m not trying to prove something or explain anything. I’m engaged in a relationship where my words create effects that stir the reader’s imagination. Less is more because it draw’s the reader in and makes her employ her own imagination, intensifying the engagement with the story.

Recommend three books, and tell us why we should read them. 

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson: A perfect demonstration of how rules are there to be broken. It’s difficult to imagine how she gets away with so many “errors”: extensive use of inner life rather than external action, a litany of heartbreaking stories in the first 50 pages, the use of coincidence, etc. Genius makes its own rules.

Clockers, by Richard Price: Redfined how we think about crime and crime fiction. Ignore it at your peril. (Also, some of the best dialogue ever, except possibly for another of his books, Lush Life.)

The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides: Reads like modern history, especially in its insights concerning power, corruption, and mob psychology, reminding us that, as the old saying goes, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.


Before becoming a novelist, David Corbett spent fifteen years as an investigator for the San Francisco private detective agency Palladino & Sutherland. In 1995, he left to help his wife set up her own law firm, and in 2000 sold his first novel, The Devil’s Redhead, a thriller about a reformed pot smuggler trying to save his ex-girlfriend from the deadly consequences of her own misguided sympathy. His latest book is Thirteen Confessions, a collection of short stories. 

Find David's books—including Thirteen Confessions—right here!

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