Close this window to return to BookThink

A Very Simple Crime

An Interview with Grant Jerkins

by Catherine Petruccione

#155, 11 April 2011

Crime isn't pretty. If you need a light mystery romp or a hero with a magnetic personality, this novel may not be for you. If you like crisp writing that moves along swiftly and prefer unvarnished reality when dealing with life's seamy side, you'll find it to be an enticing page-turner. The reader of A Very Simple Crime is immediately swept into a world of dysfunctional personalities.

Jerkins doesn't pull any punches; he tells unabashed truths about mental illness, revenge, family dysfunction and twisted sexual appetites. A woman has been murdered. Evidence points to her mentally handicapped teenage son as the most likely culprit. But as the story opens, we have learned it's the husband who is facing trial for the murder. Insidious doubts about yet another suspect enter the picture. In the realm of lawyers' offices and the courtroom, a disgraced D.A. takes a stab at redeeming his career; his own hopes for a brighter future are riding on this case. Here the author reveals yet another side of humanity - where egos come into play. Grant Jerkins has written a bold, well-crafted story and refrained from tidying up unpleasant truths that make us squeamish. He keeps us guessing to the end and wraps up the story with a credible twist.

And here's a nice surprise: Grant Jerkins is one of us.

He became a loyal reader of BookThink when he found that selling books online could supplement his family's income while he worked on his writing career. A Very Simple Crime (his first novel) was first published by Berkley Publishing Group in November, 2010, then in hardcover by The Mystery Guild Book Club, and it will soon be released in a hardcover large print edition by Thorndike. It's won positive reviews from The Washington Post and The New York Times . The book has been adapted into a screenplay by Academy Award nominated screenwriters, and Barbet Schroeder has agreed to direct the film version, so there is much more to come!

BOOKTHINK: First of all, I understand you've been a BookThink reader and a bookseller while working on your writing.

JERKINS: Yeah, I was just thinking about that. I'm very bad with dates and time frames, but it's been five or six years now that I've been a full-time bookseller and I remember quite specifically wanting to be a bookseller but being scared of what the consequences might be.

BOOKTHINK: And how has it turned out?

JERKINS: Quite well. I mean, I don't want to make it sound like I've become wealthy from it. But the economic impact to our family - going from my wife and I both working full time to this - there was no difference ... you couldn't tell a difference. Most new businesses start off not making a profit. From day one, I made a profit selling books. It's that online thing; you aren't paying rent or paying employees. There are so many unanswered questions in your mind when you begin. I remember reading several of Craig Stark's articles on the internet, and it gave me the courage to go ahead and give it a try.

BOOKTHINK: There's a pretty sharp learning curve to selling books.

JERKINS: Now, these years later it seems simple. But I guess anything is like that. When you are first going into it, you have so many questions. I do want to get the message out there - how much Craig has been of help to me; what a wonderful human being and bookseller he is. He is directly responsible for getting me on the road to being a bookseller. I think the world of him.

BOOKTHINK: I agree. There have been ups and downs in the book selling world, and he's hung right in there with this website, and I think he's done a lot of people a great service.

JERKINS: I do too.

BOOKTHINK: I'm amazed by your success, because this is your first novel. I understand it was the winner of the Writer's Network Screenplay and Fiction Competition. Can you tell me about that competition and what it involved?

JERKINS: I had gotten to know the Writer's Network because I had dabbled in screenplays - I probably shouldn't say dabbled because I've written about seven of them. You think it's hard to get a book published? It's much harder with a screenplay. I'd worked with them to read one of my screenplays - the first one I'd ever written - and they would give you feedback as far as your style, marketability and things like that, and I was really impressed with what they did, so it was the start of a good relationship. When the contest came up, I had the book already written and had been getting rejections from publishers. So I entered the contest. Sure enough, six months later I got a phone call saying that I had won the fiction category.

BOOKTHINK: That must have picked your head up!

JERKINS: It felt great. I thought, "Well this is it - I've made it ... good-bye common people!" But of course, that's not how it worked out. What I won - monetarily - was a thousand dollars, which, of course, was wonderful. But the more important thing I won was that they would submit the novel to agents and publishers - mainly agents - to get me representation. Again, it didn't work out. People kept saying no to it because it didn't feel commercial enough. It was too dark. It was the one thing I heard more than anything else - that it was "too dark." So they tried, but it didn't work out. But the woman who runs the Writer's Network - Audrey Kelly, the publisher of Fade In Magazine - she pretty much fell in love with the book. And even after the contest year had passed, she kept trying to do something with it. In fact, she told me she had read the novel to people over the telephone - that's how much she loved it.

She got it to screenwriter Nicholas Kazan. He read it, liked it, and responded to it. He decided that he would write a screenplay based on the book. So he and a man named Terry Curtis Fox, who is a playwright, wrote the screenplay together and set about getting it produced. And again, that's many years ago, but it seems to take forever to get a film financed and for the stars to align - for talent to sign up for it, for the producer to put up money. At one time, Adrien Brody was attached to it. That would have been wonderful. I don't know what happened, why that fell through; but I've been told not to lose heart. I have a feeling this is going to be the year that they actually go into production. They have the director Barbet Schroeder firmly attached. I think this is going to be the year.

BOOKTHINK: I hope it all comes together for you. I interviewed author Julianne Hoffman recently. And she told me there's a movie option on her first book, Retribution. And it's the same thing - it takes a long time for all things to come together. But she actually tried writing the screenplay herself - they let her try it - but then they said, "Sorry." And she said it's hard; it's a totally different thing than writing a novel.

JERKINS: It is. I feel like I'm better at writing a novel than a screenplay. In general, I think if you've written a novel it's almost better to let someone else adapt it. They will see the strengths and the weaknesses that you won't see. The screenplay that Nick and Terry came up with - I recognize it as brilliant; I recognize it as something I never could have done on my own. Talking about how hard it is to get a film made - are you familiar with the film Million Dollar Baby ?


JERKINS: That was a hard project to get made. Clint Eastwood went from studio to studio, saying, "Hey, I'm Clint Eastwood, I have a screenplay. I'm going to direct it, I'm going to star in it, and last year's Oscar winner is going to star in it with me." But even he kept getting no's…because of the downer ending. And my book has the downer beginning, the downer middle, and the downer ending.

BOOKTHINK: It was a bit dark. It took some effort for me to push on with it the first few chapters. I was pretty much revolted by the characters. It was so well written, however, I had to keep going. It was sort of like watching a train wreck; I couldn't quite turn away. And then about half-way in I found myself cheering for Leo the Lawyer and he carried me through to the end. That turned out disappointing too, but life can be that way.

One thing I did come away with is that things are not always what they appear, and the justice system can really be just plain wrong about who is guilty. And I kept reminding myself, crime isn't pretty! Criminals are going to have something wrong with their thinking. There are stories and films that can make some charming criminal types, but when it comes to murder, it's probably not going to be people you feel warm and fuzzy about.

JERKINS: I wrote it a long time ago. I don't think I'll ever write a book quite like that again.

BOOKTHINK: It's probably a good thing you wrote it when you had it in you, because it's been published and it's got a screenplay, and that's terrific.

JERKINS: I'm delighted that it's published, and I think it seems to be selling relatively well. I was really lucky in regard to reviews and attention. It was reviewed in The New York Times and The Washington Post. There are a lot of writers that are much better than me and who have been toiling at this a lot longer that have never been reviewed in those papers. I was very lucky that it happened. I'm not sure how it happened. But it did.

BOOKTHINK: Well, you grabbed their attention.

JERKINS: I don't know if you've ever read Bret Easton Ellis. My book is dark - but compare it to Bret Easton Ellis. My book is a ray of sunshine! He writes really disturbing stuff. His American Psycho is the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of writers that dwell on the dark side, but I don't think that A Very Simple Crime is that shocking or that disturbing. Maybe it's that a reader wants to identify with someone; it's just natural when you start to read a book that you want to do that.

BOOKTHINK: I think readers look for a character with whom they identify. But that doesn't happen in all books. Unlike the characters in your book, it sounds like you have a happy life. Can you tell us a bit about your life?

JERKINS: It is a nice life. My wife is Andrea. We've been married - wow - about 15 or 16 years now. We live in the suburbs of Atlanta. We're very garden variety except for the fact that about six years ago I quit my job and became a full-time bookseller, which was kind of a rebel thing to do. And she actually did the same thing about two years ago. She quit her traditional corporate job and she opened a thrift store, because that is what she always wanted to do.

We're both kind of living on our dreams right now. Of course, what she took on is more complex because she has a huge store with employees and a landlord, and rent and utilities to pay every month, much more complex. But she's doing it, and I'm happy for her and proud of her. We have a six-year-old son who is in first grade.

BOOKTHINK: I think there are a lot more people making a living in unconventional ways now. I know a lot of stay-at-home Dads.

JERKINS: In essence, I'm doing that. My wife has to invest a lot of time in her store right now, so a lot of the parenting responsibilities fall on me. I'm the one he comes home to after school, I make sure he gets his dinner and anything else he needs.

BOOKTHINK: When do you write?

JERKINS: When my son is at school, during the mornings. This sounds like a ludicrously small amount of time, but I budget an hour every day in the morning, and I can get a lot done that way. I write really fast, and if you are consistent with it and devoted to it, it does add up.

BOOKTHINK: I understand you've completed a second novel.

JERKINS: Yes. It's called At the End of the Road , which sounds a little like directions to the town dump [laughter]. My original title was Eden Road , but the editor liked At the End of the Road . I've just kind of recognized that I have to listen to other people when it comes to titles. A Very Simple Crime was not my title. "At the End of the Road " has really grown on me now. I've seen the cover art for it and I think it's really going to work. Remember that old exploitation film, The Last House on the Left ? What a common prosaic term! But still, it just drips with dread for some reason.

BOOTKHINK: What was your original title for A Very Simple Crime?

JERKINS: I've had several, but the one I had stuck with over the years was An American Crime . That actually came to me - I'm not trying to sound other-worldly - but it actually came to me in a vision during one of those times when you are half-awake, half-asleep. I saw a book kind of floating in the air in front of me, it's back was to me, it slowly revolved until the front was facing me, and it said An American Crime . So that's the title I put on it.

BOOKTHINK: Is your second novel very different in theme from your first?

JERKINS: It is. It's still a dark story, but not a mean story. There are definitely heroes this time, and someone you can root for from page one. It's set in a rural area of Georgia in 1976. A ten-year-old boy named Kyle is riding his bicycle down the road when he causes a woman to swerve to avoid hitting him. She flips the car and wrecks; she gets out, and she's bleeding and in shock. Kyle doesn't know how to respond and just runs away from it. The next day he goes out there - the woman is gone and the car is gone - and it seems like it never happened. A policewoman shows up at his house trying to find out what happened to the woman, and it spirals into kind of weird and creepy story of what exactly did happen. I think it will appeal to people - it's a good creepy mystery story.

BOOKTHINK: Where do you get your ideas?

JERKINS: This second book started out as a memoir, and it was about me and my sister growing up on a dirt road in Georgia in 1976. I wrote about forty or fifty pages of it and thought, wow, this is really boring. My immediate family might get a kick out of it, but a general reader isn't going to care about it that much. And I was kind of struggling whether or not to continue on with it. One day I was playing in the back yard with my son. He was going on five at the time, and he called me the "Paralyzed Man." It turned out he was saying the paralyzed hand, and he was talking about a biblical parable. But what I heard was "Paralyzed Man." It just sent a shiver up my spine. I thought about what a weird character that could be. So I inserted this fictional character into what had been a memoir. That engaged my imagination, and I ended up getting a whole novel out of it.

BOOKTHINK: That's a great story.

JERKINS: If the book does well, my son may become famous for inventing the Paralyzed Man.

BOOKTHINK: Is A Very Simple Crime available in hardcover as well?

JERKINS: The book club has it in hardcover. I got ten copies of it myself from the Mystery Guild because I wanted hardcover copies of it. Technically, it hasn't been published in hardcover. There will be a large print edition coming out in April from Thorndike in hardcover.

BOOTHINK: Who is publishing At the End of the Road ?

JERKINS: It's the same publisher, Penguin/Berkley Prime Crime imprint. I don't know if you noticed, but there was a little bit of a broo-ha-ha that Berkley Prime Crime normally publishes almost exclusively "cozy mysteries." Patrick Anderson, who did The Washington Post review, commented about this dark book being published by a publisher of mysteries that have no violence.

BOOKTHINK: Some of their readers were in for a big surprise then.

JERKINS: I'm delighted with Berkley Prime Crime. They have completely embraced the book for what it is; there's been no attempt to dumb it down or to make it anything that it's not. They embraced it for the dark story that it is. I'm glad to be with them. Even the editing process was really easy on that book. The actual editor only asked for three or four changes and they amounted to nothing ... nothing of any consequence at all.

BOOKTHINK: That's a compliment to your writing. Did you always want to be a writer?

JERKINS: I did. It was more like I always admired writers. I was always in love with reading.

BOOKTHINK: Have there been any particular authors that influenced you?

JERKINS: As a kid, Stephen King was a huge influence. I think his books were what first got me hooked. As I grew older, of course, I branched out and read different things. Probably the biggest influence as a writer would be James M. Caine and his Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice . I love those books. They are short, quick, but on the money. That's what I shoot for in my writing. Not to waste a lot of words. I have a morbid fear of boring my readers.

BOOKTHINK: Oh, you don't do that. Your story moves right along. Do you have any advice you would offer to aspiring writers?

JERKINS: It's just such an interesting world now. I was just reading about Amanda Hocking. She's a new e-book wunderkind. She's a millionaire. In January alone she sold 450.000 copies of her e-books. She does not have a traditional publisher. They are all self-published on Kindle, Nook and Sony E-Reader. She's the exception to the rule, but she's blown it out of the water with her e-book career. But even she says that traditional publishing is what you want to aspire to. Sometimes I look back at the years that I struggled to get published, and I wonder if I should have struck out on my own and self-published. But my main advice would be, "Don't give up." I gave up a hundred times, but it seemed that there was always a little ember somewhere that had not quite gone out and would flare up, with a little interest over here or over there. I'm glad that I never gave up completely. And in dealing with the rejection that writers do get ... believe yourself, believe your heart. Because I got turned down probably one hundred times, yet my book ended up being reviewed in The New York Times . So who is to say?

BOOKTHINK: How has it changed your life, to get that first book published? Or has it?

JERKINS: It has changed my life, but not in a dramatic way. It certainly hasn't changed it financially. It's been a drop in the pan as far as money. But my natural personality is more introverted, and there's a burden on writers now to market their books. So it's changed my life in that I'm asking people to focus their attention on me, when normally I'm trying to get them not to focus their attention on me! I'm facebooking, and twittering, you know ....

BOOKTHINK: It's hard to write and find time to handle the marketing aspects of being a writer. I think most writers are probably introverted, and the marketing they're asked to do kind of goes against their personalities.

JERKINS: You've got to be introverted to want to sit alone in a room and write for hours on end.

BOOKTHINK: Margaret Atwood did a talk at a technology conference recently about writers, authors and books and the state of the trade today - what it means to writers. She's very entertaining, but she hits home with some big truths about the publishing world today. She talks about the marketing piece writers are expected to handle nowadays, and the very small piece of the pie that writers are getting for their work.

JERKINS: It is a very small piece. I never mind sharing financial information - probably because I haven't made that much money. When you are making a lot of money - that's probably when you stop sharing. For a $14 book, I get exactly $1 for every book that sells.

BOOKTHINK: And you are the source! There's something wrong with that.

JERKINS: That's the brilliance of the people that are self-publishing and doing the e-books. My book on Kindle costs $9.99. The self-publishers can sell it for $1.99 or just $.99, and they get 70% of that. But they don't have the marketing of Penguin behind them - I've got distribution, so you can go into bookstores all over the country (if there are any left open at this point) and also in the U.K. and different places, so I am grateful to have the distribution network.

BOOKTHINK: I think the publishers are going to have to find a way to give the authors a bigger piece of the pie. Atwood also spoke of talk in the air about authors forming their own publishing company like actors did when they felt they were getting stiffed. They formed United Artists to produce their own films. So this is another thing that could happen - that authors will band together and form their own publishing companies.

JERKINS: That would be wonderful. A lot of the e-book writers - the majority will sell less than a hundred copies of their books because they are unknown. The typical success stories are the people that published in the 70s 80s and 90s whose books have gone out of print who are re-issuing them on their own.

One thing, as a bookseller, it humbles you, because you know as well as I know how many thousands of books have been published in previous years that have been just so much trash. You have that big day when your book is published, and you do think about immortality and all that.

BOOKTHINK: It is immortality, in a way because I can't tell you how many dead authors I just love!

JERKINS: That's the dream. I want to become one of the authors that people love, hopefully beyond my lifetime.

BOOKTHINK: Hey, if I can crawl into bed with old Somerset Maugham at night, I'm just happy as a clam. There are some writers whose work resonates - it doesn't matter what time period they are in. And that is really something to shoot for as a writer, I think.

JERKINS: Well, I'm going to keep trying.

BOOKTHINK: You're a good writer, and it really says something to have your first novel turned into a screenplay and a movie option out there, and a second one written and ready for publishing. Was it hard to get started on the second book?

JERKINS: It wasn't for me because I started it about four weeks before I found out that A Very Simple Crime was going to be published. I was so happy to get that accomplished, and that energy really propelled me to finish At the End of the Road . I lucked out at that regard. If the timing had been different, I could see myself frozen and unable to move forward. It worked out just exactly right.

BOOKTHINK: Everyone at BookThink is rooting for your continued success as a writer and as a bookseller. We'll be watching for the release of your next book and the film version of A Very Simple Crime. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview.

Visit Grant Jerkins' website at

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC