Interview With Philip Luber

by Claire E. White

Philip Luber is a forensic psychologist with degrees from Tufts University, Temple University, and the University of Texas. He has spent the past eighteen years evaluating and treating violent mentally ill patients and criminal offenders. Dr. Luber's first novel, Deadly Convictions (Warner Books, 1986), is the story of a sinister mass-murderer who fools the legal system into finding him not guilty by reason of insanity. Forgive Us Our Sins (Fawcett Books,
Photograph of Philip Luber
1994) introduced us to psychiatrist Harry Kline; and to Veronica Pace, a Harvard-trained prosecutor turned FBI special agent. Together they pursue a serial killer who seeks vengeance for a terrible wrong. In Deliver Us From Evil (Fawcett Books, 1997), Harry unwittingly gets involved in a case of premeditated murder. The murder investigation zeroes in on one of Harry's patients, and then on Harry's lover. His world is turned upside down as his personal and professional lives collide. In Dr. Luber's newest thriller, Pray For Us Sinners (Fawcett Books, 1998), Harry and Veronica set out to solve the long-ago murder of Veronica's mother. Philip Luber lives with his wife and daughter in Concord, Massachusetts. He spoke with us about his life as both a forensic psychologist and an author, why we love to read true crime novels and his secret love: songwriting.

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Philadelphia. I lived in a safe city neighborhood. You could walk at night without worry. About fifty rowhouses backed up onto a common alley, so as a young boy I had plenty of company without needing to cross any streets. Stickball and touch football in the alley, ice cream trucks in the summertime, and when I was a little older there were buses and elevated trains to take me downtown. It was safe, but there was drama. Alliances made and unmade. Romantic rivalries. Bullies. The FBI caught up with a Soviet spy who was living a few blocks away from my house. An elderly, mildly demented neighbor used to take our garbage pail and hide it in her bedroom. My best friend, who fancied himself an amateur chemist, accidentally set off an explosion in his driveway that knocked me off my feet and ignited his face and hair. With the exception of a few years in Texas, I've spent about half my life in Philadelphia and half in the Boston area. My first published novel, Deadly Convictions (Warner Books, 1986) was set almost entirely in Philadelphia, and I made extensive use of my childhood neighborhood. My three other books are all set in Concord, Massachusetts, which is where I have lived since 1981.

When you were growing up did you know you would be both a psychologist and a writer?

Both interests developed when I was an undergraduate at Tufts College. Shortly after graduating I wrote my first novel, which was a self-indulgent, cathartic effort that I undertook in the aftermath of a failed college romance. Actually, I never got beyond the first draft, I never showed it to anyone, and I destroyed it a year later because I didn't think I would ever want anyone else to read it. I regret that now. My work as a psychologist has influenced my writing in some direct ways. Deadly Convictions is about a mass murderer who beats the legal system by feigning insanity. It's set at a maximum-security psychiatric hospital, not unlike the one where I spent several years working and learning about violent mental illness. Forgive Us Our Sins drew on my doctoral dissertation research about women who had suffered the death of a young child. Deliver Us From Evil was inspired in part by my professional interest in the controversial area of so-called recovered memories.

Tell us what a forensic psychologist actually does. What's it like to interview killers for a living?

A forensic psychologist practices at the interface of psychology and the law. In his old song, "Alice's Restaurant," Arlo Guthrie wrote about finding himself seated one day with a group of "mother-rapers, father-stabbers, and father-rapers." Those are the people I spend my professional time with. I've spent eighteen years working with criminal offenders and violent mentally ill patients. Some have committed indescribably brutal acts. For every wretched fantasy you have, I know someone who has lived it. The work is challenging, frightening, depressing, exciting -- all of the above and more.

How do you keep the horrific things that you hear during the day in your practice out of the rest of your life?

Well, there's always the possibility of escape through the unbridled use of controlled substances, or through random coupling with multiple and temporary partners. But I'm a husband and a father, so my options along those lines are limited. So it helps to develop a gallows sense of humor -- to look, in an almost macabre way, on the light side of things. I recall a psychotic man who had just been arrested. He was very energized, almost euphoric, as he grinned and said, "I killed my mother *and* I killed my father! And *another* good thing -- I quit smoking!" And I remember a young hoodlum who was awaiting trial for the robbery, rape, and murder of a nurse. The evidence against him was absolutely incontrovertible, but he maintained his innocence. "Everybody keeps saying I'm a murderer," he complained. "Man, that ain't me. I ain't no murderer. The next person who calls me a murderer, I'll kill the m_____-f_____!" But real-life murder is a terrible and ugly thing, and so I try to take it very seriously in my books. I've spent too much time in the company of killers to take it any other way. I don't gloss over the violence in my books. I want my readers to be disturbed by it.

You've been quoted as saying that violence almost always makes sense in novels, but sex seldom does. What did you mean when you said that?

Fortunately, few of us encounter serious violence on a regular basis. Thus when it does occur -- in real life, or in a book -- the very act of it happening stands out as something unusual or noteworthy. That means a violent scene will, if nothing else, almost always serve to move the plot forward in some significant way. But almost all of us have had sex, and some people have it with a relative degree of frequency. We all have the same body parts, and we all do pretty much the same things with them. It's unlikely that a sex scene will do much to move a plot in a new direction. Most sex scenes I've read slow the plot down and serve only to titillate. On the other hand, I've always liked that word. Titillate.

And yet you have a torrid and very graphic sex scene in Pray For Us Sinners.

I look at it as being a love scene, not a sex scene. The characters are at a critical juncture in their relationship, and the particular way they make love in that scene highlights the relationship issue for the reader. And, I'm pleased to say, it does titillate.

What prompted you to write your first novel?

I was involved in a what-if conversation with some colleagues at a hospital for violent mentally ill patients. We were talking about how we would feel if we made a terrible mistake -- if someone we decided to discharge did something horribly violent after his release. I began to think about an entirely different sort of mistake, and those thoughts turned into the idea for Deadly Convictions.

How did the sale of your first novel come about?

Nothing out of the ordinary. I wrote an outline and partial manuscript, I found an agent who liked what I wrote, and she sold it.

When do you find time to write, given the fact that you have a full-time psychology practice?

Early in the morning. Late at night. I don't sleep a lot.

How have your interviews with real criminals aided you in creating characters for your novels?

It takes a certain imprudence to ask people about the intimate workings of their twisted minds. And it takes a certain imprudence to write a novel-length manuscript with the assumption that others will actually want to take the time to read it. There's probably some sort of relationship between those two things, but I'm not sure what it is.

Why did you decide to use Concord, Massachusetts as the setting for your books?

I live in Concord, and I think it's a lovely place. It's a quiet and privileged town where bad things aren't supposed to happen. But in my books those bad things do happen. I like that contrast -- the serenity of the home town of Emerson and Thoreau, balanced against undercurrents of evil and madness.

How did you create Dr. Harry Kline? Is there any of you in the character?

I wanted a character who appreciates his own limitations, and who understands that things are seldom black-and-white. There's an internal monologue in Deliver Us From Evil that gives a good sense of how Harry sees himself and the world. He talks directly to the reader and says, "Psychiatrists can't read minds. We study the chemistry of the brain; we give medications to alter it. We listen to our patients' words; we classify them. We observe our patients' behaviors; we codify them. We match their complaints and impairments against esoteric theories of psychological development, and we come up with diagnoses and labels that fool us into thinking we understand that which is, ultimately, incomprehensible by man: the human spirit." It's not my intention to have Harry be a stand-in for me. I don't need a stand-in, because I'm a minor character in all three of the Harry Kline books. My daughter is, too, and my wife has been in two of the books.

Why did you decide to do that?

Harry is a widower. In the first book in the series, Forgive Us Our Sins, I needed a short scene where one of Harry's Concord neighbors comforts Harry's daughter. I've seen my wife do that many times with our own daughter, and I've always been awed by it. So putting my family into that scene just seemed to fit intuitively. My daughter got such a kick out of seeing her name in the book that I've continued to do that in Deliver Us From Evil and Pray For Us Sinners.

What was your inspiration for Veronica Pace?

In Forgive Us Our Sins I needed a woman sufficiently strong-willed to draw Harry out of the isolation from women that he imposed on himself after his wife died. Also, I needed a character who would lend legitimacy to the task of tracking a killer, because Harry isn't a law enforcement person, and I thought it wouldn't be credible to have him track the killer by himself. Around the time I started the book, I met two women in the course of my work. One was a probation officer who wanted to join the FBI. The other was a defense attorney who had previously been with the FBI. Veronica seemed like a good choice for my book -- an FBI Special Agent who also happened to be a Harvard-trained lawyer and former homicide prosecutor. When I began writing the second book in the series, Deliver Us From Evil, I gave consideration to killing Veronica off. A good friend, female, said, "If you kill Veronica, I'll kill you." And I began to realize that Veronica was integral to the success of the first book, and that the only reason I wanted to kill her off was that I didn't have confidence in my ability to write a female character that would continue to grow. I decided to take my chances on keeping her around. I'm glad I did, because in Pray For Us Sinners she has center stage for much of the book.

Let's talk about your latest book starring Dr. Harry Kline and FBI agent Veronica Pace. Pray For Us Sinners is a thriller, but unlike many thrillers, the plot about the relationships between the main characters seems as important as the action. Was that element of the story important to you?

Definitely. As I write each book, I always keep two distinct end points in mind. First, I always know the solution to the central mystery when I begin a book, and I try to direct all the action and events of the book toward that end. Second, I keep in mind where I want Harry and Veronica to be in their relationship with one another at the end of the book, and I try to direct everything toward that end as well. Writing a series allows me the chance to create characters and relationships that mature over time. Although many good series revolve around characters who remain essentially the same from book to book, as a reader I have always been drawn to series in which the people age, change, and grow. And that's what I've tried to do in my series. The relationship between Harry and Veronica becomes more emotionally intimate over the course of the series, and I think my readers like that a lot.

Both Harry and Victoria must face great grief in their lives. Was it difficult to incorporate these issues into the action without overwhelming the story line?

Harry's wife died seven years before the opening action of Pray For Us Sinners. He continues to deal with the effects of that loss, and with the problems of being a single parent to his daughter, who was only four years old when Harry's wife died.
"There's a well-established body of research that indicates that the most severe mental illnesses -- 'mad' behavior, if you will -- have substantial biological roots. It's not at all clear that criminal behavior -- 'bad' behavior -- can be explained that way."
Veronica suffers the effects of an even more traumatic loss. When she was nine years old, she witnessed the brutal murder of her own mother, and narrowly escaped death at the hands of her mother's assailant. The killer was never caught. That terrible event has had lasting effects for Veronica. She's been depressed most of her life -- suffering the loss of her mother, feeling guilty for not saving her mother, and never being able to trust that anyone can be relied upon to remain constant for her. She's an intense, hard, and inward-looking woman, with little patience for others' frailties. Even her career choice seems to have been determined by the loss she suffered: She chose her profession, she says, because she wanted to hurt people who hurt other people. In my books Harry and Veronica struggle to deal with their own and each other's inner torments, always within the context of solving a mystery. Each is always trying to figure out how safe it is to become close to the other. They love each other, but they also hurt one another. And sometimes -- more so in the earlier books than in Pray For Us Sinners -- the reader can't tell whether they'll remain together, drift apart, or reconcile. Their personal struggles folded neatly into the story line of Pray For Us Sinners. Veronica and Harry set out to solve that long-ago murder of Veronica's mother. The police have always assumed, with good cause, that the murder was the unplanned outcome of a burglary gone wrong. But Veronica and Harry uncover evidence of something much more sinister -- a very intimate form of violence, hatred, and betrayal. And they learn the most disturbing fact of all: the murderer is still out there, and he is once again on the prowl.

What feelings would you like readers to take away from Pray For Us Sinners?

Pray For Us Sinners is, of course, a thriller. But it's also a love story. The caring between the main characters is a crucial element of the book. And it's a story about people struggling with larger, eternal questions. What are the natures of faith, love, and justice? How can people maintain a belief in a God who allows terrible things to happen to good people? I doubt that I will ever write a sentence that carries a more satisfying emotional wallop than the final sentence of this book. It's my hope that when readers reach the end, they will experience an enormous amount of affection for Harry and Veronica, and great happiness at the solutions my characters have worked out for themselves.

What's next for Harry and Victoria - can you give us a sneak peek?

The fourth book in the series will be released next year. It involves serial murder, Walden Pond, racial prejudice, and prostate cancer -- four things that have never before in the history of civilization been grouped together in one sentence.

In the past few years rather graphic novels about serial killers (such as those by Cornwell and Patterson) have continued to rise in popularity. In your opinion, why are so many human beings so fascinated by the gruesome details of another human being's death? Is that "normal"?

Why do we do it? Hell, I don't know. I suppose my choice of career is a disguised reflection of that sort of prurient interest. Is it normal? I suppose so, if you define "normal" to mean what many or most of us do. When is the last time you drove past a traffic accident without slowing down to look at the carnage? It reminds me of a passage from an old song called "Crucifixion," by Phil Ochs. He sings about JFK's assassination. "How did it happen? I hope his suffering was small. Tell me every detail, I've got to know it all. And have you got a picture of the pain?"

Does the current fascination with true crime and gore indicate a problem in our society?

I'm not smart enough to comment knowledgeably on that point. I have enough trouble matching my socks, remembering my friends' birthdays, and eating without drooling. I hate listening to others pontificate, so I try to avoid pontificating.

Do the majority of violent criminals that you treat have an organic cause for their sociopathic behavior, or do you believe that their environment led to their lives of crime?

There's a well-established body of research that indicates that the most severe mental illnesses -- "mad" behavior, if you will -- have substantial biological roots. It's not at all clear that criminal behavior -- "bad" behavior -- can be explained that way.

When you are not working, what are your favorite ways to relax?

I write music. As one friend is fond of reminding me, I'm a singer-songwriter unknown by countless millions.

What kinds of books do you like to read; who are some of your favorite authors?

"We're all more alike than we are different. Depending on your point of view, that thought can either bum you out or give you hope."
My favorite mystery writer is Lawrence Block. He does a terrific job with plot and also with character. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian, is a wonderful writer. She writes about real people so effectively that they seem like fictional heroes and villains. Anne Tyler and Richard Russo create terrific characters. I like a lot of Nelson Demille's work. Some of my favorite well-known books are Ethan Frome, Bonfire Of The Vanities, Catcher In The Rye, Treasure Island, Lost Horizon, Mutiny On The Bounty, and The Sweet Hereafter. Replay, by Ken Grimwood, has one of the best story lines I've ever read. Random Harvest, by James Hilton, has one of the most uplifting endings I've ever read. The Conduct Of The Game, a novel about a baseball umpire by John Hough, has terrific characters. I would be surprised if more than one in a thousand people reading this interview is familiar with Things Invisible To See, by Nancy Willard, but it's one of my all-time favorites. It's a wonderful book -- lyrical, mystical, sad, funny -- about baseball, war, love, and God. Whenever I really need a lift I reread the last few pages of that one.

Do you receive much feedback from your readers from having a website? What have their reactions been to the series?

People appreciate my having posted sample chapters on the Web. Several readers have taken advantage of the order sheet for autographed copies. And I enjoy getting comments and questions at the e-mail address I've posted on my Web page.

You have an interesting quote on your website. You state that, "For every unsavory impulse you keep under wraps, I know someone who has acted it out. I have known the evil and the ill, and have found them to be different from the rest of us more in degree than in kind." Would you elaborate on that statement?

It's always tempting to make ourselves feel better by putting other people down. That's what prejudice and scapegoating are all about, not to mention a high percentage of our political campaigns. But I've always liked something a well-known psychiatrist, Harry Stack Sullivan, wrote. In fact, I used the line in Deliver Us From Evil. "We are all more simply human than otherwise." Under the right circumstances, each one of us is capable of doing awful things, and also capable of doing great good. That's hardly an original thought, but it's something I definitely believe. The patients and inmates I meet in my work have those same capacities for good and evil that you and I have. We're all more alike than we are different. Depending on your point of view, that thought can either bum you out or give you hope.

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