Alison R. Lockwood isn’t a fast writer. It took her eight years to write her second novel, The Arsonist’s Last Words. But the length of time it took was obviously worth it; its starred Kirkus review called it “[a]n elegiac novel that deftly combines elements of investigative journalism and crime fiction.”
For her first novel, Lockwood followed the usual steps. “About 15 years ago, I went the traditional route of looking for a literary agent. I had my little stack of rejection slips. Eventually, I did get a literary agent interested in it, and she suggested some changes. And I went off the rails and rewrote the whole book, and I kind of killed it. I used the opinion of one person to totally change the vision of what I wanted to do with the book, and that told me I wasn’t really ready.”
So with her second book, she never even thought about submitting it to agents. “In the time I had started writing to the time I had finished, everything had pretty much changed in the publishing world,” she says. “The Kindle came out, and [book]stores were closing. I never even sent this book out to anybody. I just decided that I was going to do it on my own.” She figured that she had more than 20 years of marketing experience as a project manager for her husband’s small-business consultancy and for a travel-publication company—how hard could it be? “And, of course, it was very hard,” she says. “But I had a good time deciding what I was going to do with it.”
The narrative chronicles a major urban catastrophe—a devastating fire at the Parramore Plaza in Orlando, Fla., the author’s hometown—that may or may not be a work of sabotage. Reporter Juni Bruner investigates the incident, and the story is told in the form of audio transcripts, newspaper articles, obituaries and official documents. How did Lockwood, a one-time journalist, happen on this unusual structure? “I had started out writing obituaries in my first job, and right away, you know you’re looking for that one little hook for this person, and then you write the rest of the article. And in one sense, it’s appalling because you can’t reduce a person to one thing. But I’m always looking for the story behind the story, and that’s how the structure for the book came about.”
Were the events of September 11, 2001, the inspiration for the novel? “I was obsessed with 9/11,” she says. “You’re trying to solve this puzzle, and it’s too big and nobody’s got all the answers. You know the book Spoon River Anthology? That was one of my favorite books in high school, and so that was another theme of it: all those little poems that are kind of interrelated. A lot of my names in my book are stolen from that; they’re like Easter eggs.
“There are all these layers upon layers, which is what happens in a disaster,” she says. “Nobody ever knows the whole story.”
Lockwood is now hard at work on her next novel, about a con artist who lives in Algiers Point in New Orleans. She says that she jogged her memories of the location by using Google Earth to virtually walk its streets once again. Hopefully, readers won’t have to wait for it very long.