Editing a Thriller You Can't Put Down: a Conversation with Pamela Dorman, SVP & Publisher of Pamela Dorman Books
Ashley Elston’s FIRST LIE WINS is Reese’s Book Club Pick for January 2024, and what a thrilling ride it is. We spoke with Pamela Dorman, SVP & Publisher of Pamela Dorman Books and editor behind the debut thriller, to discover more about the genre and what makes FIRST LIE WINS a compelling read.
What elements make for a compelling thriller? What are some of Pamela Dorman’s thrillers of all time? What should an aspiring editor keep in mind? Discover this and more below.
You’ve said that one of the greatest joys of being an editor is discovering debut authors. How do you know when you’ve found a gem?
I’ve always said I get this vibrating feeling when I read something new that might be good. I get very excited. We used to have a Schnauzer and my husband says that when I want something, I go into schnauzer mode. I read it quickly and a lot of times I won’t stop until I buy it.
No matter what kind of book it is, although it’s particularly true with debut fiction, it always comes down to voice. In terms of thrillers, they’re about setup and they’re about plot, but the ones I love the most always have characters that I think are really interesting and that was certainly true of FIRST LIE WINS.
What did you find most compelling when editing FIRST LIE WINS?
Evie Porter (or whoever she is) is a really smart character, with an edge who’s been through a lot. All of those things attracted me to her. She is in this cat and mouse game working for her boss. But in the end, she is working for herself. This was not just a cool thriller, but rather, something I hadn’t really seen before.
It sounds like Evie Porter has some surprises up her sleeve.
Absolutely. She’s a con woman and she spends her life working different cons to try and get what her boss wants out of whoever the mark is. She’ll go into a town, she’ll learn everything she needs to know about the person she’s going to swindle, and then she inserts herself into the community. Until she realizes that something she’s done has made her boss make a mark out of her, and now she has to outwit her boss.
The ultimate con.
That’s right. There’s something very noir about this book which is partly due to Evie’s cynical attitude and partly due to the voice, which I really loved.
FIRST LIE WINS is the January Pick for Reese’s Book Club and it’s been described as a “fast-paced read [that] has everything you could want in a thriller…”. What elements need to come together in a thriller to produce a book that readers can’t put down?
Many bestselling thrillers are all about plot and pacing. FIRST LIE WINS is so complicated and twisty that there’s no way to know what the next step is going to be. When a thriller combines those plot elements and pacing with somebody like an Evie Porter, a really fantastic character, then you have something that you can really run with. Not every thriller has all that character development, but the ones I like the best do.
Tell us about your favorite thrillers!
Patricia Highsmith’s THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, which is, similarly, a story about a con man who is a complete sociopath who will stop at nothing to get what he needs. He has complete sangfroid and a disregard for anything that has to do with morality. And yet, he is such an arresting character.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS by Thomas Harris has the unbelievably memorable cat and mouse dynamic between Dr. Hannibal Lecter and the FBI investigator, Clarice. I still cringe thinking about some of those scenes.
I also really love Lisa Jewell‘s thrillers. She wrote one a few years ago called THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS, which is very atmospheric. It’s about this family that moves into another family’s house and gradually starts to take over and the atmosphere in the house is one of the things I remember best about the book. What’s going on behind closed doors is creepy and the relationships between the characters are complicated.
Then hands-down a favorite (not a thriller but a mystery) are THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB mysteries by Richard Osman (Penguin), which we publish. I love that it’s about these four septuagenarian who don’t play bingo, but instead solve cold cases and then end up solving some live cases as well. The characters are fantastic.
How many thrillers would you say you’ve edited?
I would say 30 is a minimum, but it’s probably more than that. This number includes a lot of mysteries because I worked on mysteries series when I first got my start in publishing.
Before publishing, I never read mysteries or thrillers. In my first job, I worked at St. Martin’s Press and we published a lot of mysteries. My boss, believe it or not, edited 100 books a year by himself. He edited a lot of them, as well as a number of thrillers, and so, I kind of learned on his list.
What advice would you give to aspiring editors?
I think the most important thing is to read all the time. When you’re trying to edit and read for acquisition, it’s hard to find time to read books you love and books on the best seller list, but it’s the way that you figure out what people want to read.
It’s also just to read a great variety of things, particularly for fiction editors, when first starting in publishing. I had never read commercial fiction and suddenly, that’s what I was doing. It’s how you learn what you’re good at too.
But also, you really have to love it. If you are an aspiring editor, you must come to terms with the fact that you are going to be working a lot of nights and weekends, and you might not be particularly well paid for a long time. I always say if you can think of anything you’d rather do, you should go do that, because editing is really demanding.
But I love it and I always have loved it. So I’m a big supporter of careers in publishing.
More about Pamela Dorman
Pamela Dorman is senior vice president and publisher of Pamela Dorman Books/Viking. In her more than thirty years at Viking Penguin, Dorman has published multimillion-copy, #1 New York Times bestsellers by Kim Edwards, Helen Fielding, Gail Honeyman, Sue Monk Kidd, Jacquelyn Mitchard, and Jojo Moyes. Other New York Times bestselling authors include Ashley Audrain, Paolo Giordano, Shari Lapena, Richard Osman, J. Ryan Stradal, and Rosie Walsh.
Dorman has published New York Times bestselling memoirs by Kelly Corrigan and Julie Metz, and bestselling inspiration by Martha Beck, as well as #1 New York Times bestselling author Maria Shriver. She began her publishing career at St. Martin’s Press and is a summa cum laude graduate of Wesleyan University.