Two coastal-themed woodcuts adorn the wall of Paul Moomaw’s downtown office: a seal and an orca, positioned with the latter swooping down as though to attack.
“And I’ve positioned them that way on purpose,” says Moomaw. “I mean, look at the expression on the seal’s face—he knows what’s coming. In some ways, that’s the illustration of life.”
Moomaw’s other contributions to the office he shares with a partner include the grandfather clock he bought when he began his practice and a large oil painting of Pike’s Peak done by his grandmother. Predation and landscape run concurrently both in Moomaw’s office and in his novels.
It’s not surprising that, in addition to his psychology practice, Moomaw is also a writer. Missoula and the surrounding area is home to more professional writers per capita than San Francisco, New York, or any other literary center you’d care to name. These days no one knows who’s to blame for this, though a legacy of local literary giants like Richard Hugo and Norman Maclean might be largely responsible. With international thrillers like Lazarus Drop, The Dragon with One Ruby Eye, Goddess Under Zakros, and the forthcoming The Other Mortal Sin (the only one set in Montana), Moomaw is hardly walking in Hugo’s footsteps. He says quite plainly, “I write trashy thrillers.”
“If I were to name my holy trinity of writers, I would name Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, and John le Carré. Greene wrote about foreign places, Maugham is a tight and concise writer, and John le Carré is just a master of the genre.”
The virtues of Moomaw’s holy trinity have much to do with how he views his own writing.
“I want to write in plain vanilla English,” he says, acknowledging that the respective virtues of authors in this “holy Trinity” are a source of inspiration in his own writing. “In these books language is not a virtue, nor should it be. You take a local writer like Deirdre McNamer and you can almost feel the grass tickle the bottom of your feet when she writes about the landscape. In my books, I never want people to stop and say ‘Oh what a beautiful phrase.’ It pulls them away from the story. It takes them away from the plot.
“Language in genre writing should work like movie music,” Moomaw continues. “Really good movie music carries you through the plot—you don’t want to stop the action to listen to the score.”
Educated in Mexico City, Moomaw worked as a journalist in Mexico, California, and New Mexico before joining the Denver office of the Associated Press, an organization he now describes as “basically a sweatshop.” Disgruntled, Moomaw returned to school for a doctorate in clinical psychology. Soon after, in the early ’80s, he settled in Missoula permanently to practice.
“One day I decided to write a thriller novel,” he explains of his initial foray into literature. “This was around the time when the idea of global warming first began to make headway into the media. So I decided to write a novel that took place in the future after global warming had already taken effect.”
That novel, Lazarus Drop, was first read by the author’s brother-in-law, an editor, who observed that “nothing much happened.” Moomaw relates this with a chuckle and explains that while writing The Dragon with One Ruby Eye, he “didn’t really know what was going to happen.”
“My own rule with writing,” Moomaw says, “is to start and not let yourself know where you’re going. Sometimes the stories you want to tell don’t work and you realize you’re not telling the right story.”
Dragon’s protagonist is a retired CIA officer pulled back into the agency to help capture an international arms dealer. The novel jumps from Washington and Idaho to Austria, Japan and France. Illustrated in the plot and character relationships are Moomaw’s experiences with the collective unconscious, both as a psychologist and former journalist: “Working with people everyday, I have a different sense of what makes people tick, of the tensions in life and relationships.”
Moomaw’s novels have been published and recorded by small publishing companies specializing in eBooks and audiobooks, in addition to the traditional paperback. Lazarus Drop was picked up by Books In Motion, a publishing house that buys manuscripts for the purpose of recording them into audiobooks for readers to rent and listen to while driving along the interstate.
Thrillers consistently capture the public’s imagination because they combine the criminality and surprise of the detective form with the dangers and pressure of horror. As a genre, the thriller’s main strength lies in its ability to provide stories with built-in energy and structure. Their weakness is that thrillers often seem to follow predictable formulas.
“I hope people enjoy my books,” says Moomaw. “I hope I’ve given them memorable characters. For myself, writing trashy thrillers gives me a chance to play, to go places I’ve never been. Here I don’t have to take myself seriously.”
For writers like Moomaw, and for the public in general, one wonders where the fascination with the “chance to play” come from. Arguably from Cicero: Some would argue that the Roman orator, writer and statesman born in 106 B.C. is the father of our modern thriller. Because ancient Rome published no newspapers, Cicero’s public speeches took on tremendous importance, providing both news and entertainment.
Today, the thriller is a whole family of genres including mystery, suspense, adventure, politics and crime. Authors often assume a criminal’s point of view, or that of an agent or officer, a warrior who must fight those who make their own laws. In The Dragon with One Ruby Eye, Moomaw does both. We see the story unfold through both the protagonist—cynical, heroic, and womanizing—and through the villain, who exudes a malevolence stemming from an intense childhood pain: His villain, says Moomaw, “is essentially a hurt child.”
Ultimately, thrillers allow readers to both feel and participate in the sense of a mystery being solved. Unlike the world and all its unresolved mysteries, thrillers in the main offer answers and resolution; crimes occur and recognizable characters, ones with whom we can identify, turn wrongs into rights. In these pages, the mystery of evil can be penetrated and defeated in a dramatic, fulfilling way. The story of the orca sweeping down to capture the seal is one of humanity going about its business. We revel in both the violence of the attack and the hope of the seal’s impending escape.
Paul Moomaw has lived in the very real worlds of journalism and clinical therapy; he has also lived in the created world of stories, beginning as far back as the tales he spun on the fly for his children at bedtime. These days he peruses travel books to help set the landscape for his international thrillers, and cautiously maps Missoula’s train for his newest novel, The Other Mortal Sin. And he still reads his favorites: Maugham, Greene and le Carré. Indeed, le Carré’s words in a recent interview echo both the evolution of the thriller genre and Moomaw’s own sentiments: “A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself. And on that subject, if he is wise, he holds his tongue…nothing that I write is authentic. It is the stuff of dreams, not reality…And to a point I am flattered that my fabulations are taken so seriously. Yet I also despise myself in the fake role of guru, since it bears no relation to who I am or what I do. Artists, in my experience, have very little center. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception.”
Like many writers, Moomaw pulls from his experience, rich in the complications of human interactions, and traces them out. He has a little fun, learns along the way, and, like a spy, he weaves himself into that world of action, crime, and adventure.