Consider the following: “Thomas Lowenstein's The Ghost Detective is at once a brilliant work of fiction and an illuminating exploration of the truths that elude us in life and, perhaps, in death as well. With stark and powerful prose, this stunning first novel evokes an era beyond living memory, where the dead walk restlessly and the living search for meaning,” wrote David Bender, Host of Ring of Fire Radio.
And, Thomas Beller, author of The Sleep-Over Artist, wrote, "Lowenstein’s engrossing story moves between centuries with fluid ease, just as his gaze moves between his searching, earthbound characters and the skies above, where their souls may or may not reside."
Powerful comments indeed, especially for a debut novel. Thomas Kennedy Lowenstein was born in New York, educated in Boston, and now resides in New Orleans. A dedicated advocate against the death penalty, he has worked as a writer, a journalist, an editor, and a policy strategist. With a special interest in helping those wrongly convicted of a crime, he has endeavored to focus attention on inequities in the American criminal justice system. Thirsty was fortunate to catch up with him at his home for this interview.
Thomas Kennedy Lowenstein
THIRSTY: What inspired you to write THE GHOST DETECTIVE?
Thomas Kennedy Lowenstein: I wanted to write about reconciliation, about what it is that makes some people able to accept horrible events in their lives and move on while others get hung up on anger and can never get past it. And I wanted to write about a distant cousin of mine, Cam Lyman, a passionate dog-breeder who was born a woman, became a man, and was murdered. I wanted to explore what his life must have been like. And I thought Boston would be a great setting for a gothic novel; walking down Boylston Street past the old graveyards I always thought there had to be ghosts around. I set the story in 1915 because I think that year was a turning point in so many ways—“duty” and “honor” committed suicide in World War I, which helped rip the cover off the great lie of the 19th century—that powerful white men knew best on all things and usher in the loud, messy struggle for freedom that dominated the 20th century. Also, around 1915, money supplanted God as our highest ideal and today all the hard-fought freedoms of the 20th century seem too often to mean the freedom to buy TVs and processed food and to be endlessly narcissistic.
THIRSTY: How did you arrive at the ghost of James McParland, the Great Detective of the 19th century, to be your protagonist? And, why did you set this story in Boston?
Thomas Kennedy Lowenstein: I just think McParland was a fascinating person, and his role in the Molly McGuires case offered a good chance to explore the intersection of duty, freedom, and peoples’ need to make a living. I set the story in Boston because, as I mentioned, it’s a good setting for a ghost story. Also, having Isabel South be from an old-line, WASP family allowed me to set that piece of the story within a family that would never have questioned its own right to be rich, to have power, to rule over others—or its own sense of decency and honor. The world was changing around them.
THIRSTY: What writers influenced you in writing this book and in your career?
Thomas Kennedy Lowenstein: The first book that ever made me want to write fiction was Native Son, by Richard Wright, which I read when I was ten. I loved Faulkner—Absalom Absalom, A Light in August, and Intruder in the Dust. For this book I was deeply influenced by Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov and “Bobok”), Dickens (Bleak House), James Agee (A Death in the Family), and Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita).
THIRSTY: You have worked as a journalist and an editor. How did those experiences help you in your process when writing your debut novel?
Thomas Kennedy Lowenstein: Being a journalist is a crucial counterweight to me for fiction—it feeds my need to at least try to “make a difference” (which you can only do with fiction if you get famous). Each has it’s own truth, and I can never figure out which of the two kinds of truth is more important to me. In journalism I work on listening, presenting stories as people tell them to me, and telling the truth as much as is humanly possible. In fiction, I work on hearing my characters, presenting their stories, and telling the truth as much as is humanly possible. And being an editor just reminds me over and over again how fraught with chance the entire profession of writing is and how important it is, therefore, to just do your thing, tell the truth, and let the rest of the business end of the thing deal with itself.
THIRSTY: You have been an advocate against the Death Penalty for many years. What are the current issues and trends regarding the Death Penalty in America?
Thomas Kennedy Lowenstein: The biggest change I’ve seen since I got involved is that it is now scientifically proven beyond any doubt that innocent people end up in prison and on death row in surprisingly large numbers. (Even if it’s 0.5% of the people in prison now, that’s a lot of people.) This fact has made many people reconsider their support for the death penalty. Also, more and more evangelical Christians have turned against the death penalty (there’s a bumper sticker that says it best: Who Would Jesus Execute?). And, finally, more and more law enforcement professionals have realized that it’s not a cost-effective crime fighting technique—that it’s a waste of resources.
THIRSTY: You have been involved in the policy and the implementation of exonerating people who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned. How has the advancement of science aided you in your work?
Thomas Kennedy Lowenstein: DNA testing has exonerated 255 men and women in the last 20 years. So we know wrongful convictions happen, and we can study how they happen. With few exceptions, most people who work in criminal justice (DA’s, judges, police officers, as well as defense lawyers, etc.) understand this and want to put this knowledge to work in order to prevent wrongful convictions in the future. My policy work involves reaching out to people in power, getting them information, and trying to bring them together to make changes to the system. It’s a terrific thing to be doing these days, because, again, most people who are involved in the criminal justice system understand that no system is perfect, and therefore want to move forward on necessary reforms.
THIRSTY: Will there be a sequel to THE GHOST DETECTIVE?
Thomas Kennedy Lowenstein: I’m currently deeply interested in extremism, particularly in those who believe (in the words of Barry Goldwater) that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” James McParland dealt with in his life, too.
Thomas Kennedy Lowenstein's profile at Stay Thirsty Publishing
Thirsty : August 2010 : Thomas K. Lowenstein interviews Mike Farrell
Thirsty : July 2010 : THE GHOST DETECTIVE by Thomas Kennedy Lowenstein
Thirsty : July 2010 : COMMENTARY : INNOCENT IN PHILADELPHIA?
Thirsty : June 2010 : COMMENTARY : TOUGH ON CRIME