E.A. Aymar is the quintessential writer-about town. "The Town" being the DC Metropolitan Area. He's on the board of the International Thriller Writers and Managing Editor of The Thrill Begins, (ITW's online magazine), he has a monthly column, “Decisions and Revisions,” in the Washington Independent Review of Books, and he organizes DC's Noir at the Bar sessions.
Noir at the Bar has been around for nearly a dozen years, an outgrowth of Noircon in Philadelphia. Aymar organizes two events a year in DC, every fall and spring. "Most readings are staid, serious, and solemn," he says. "Noir at the Bar readings are a little more lively. The stories are no-holds-barred. Sometimes people get offended."
Aymar says he could organize many more sessions, as right now "the DC area is chock-full of writers, probably fifty to sixty crime fiction writers alone." His most recent Noir at the Bar featured readings by three debut authors and James Grady, screenwriter and author of Six Days of the Condor, whose new novel, Mad Dogs, is out now.
I'd read Aymar's story in Shotgun Honey (about a threesome… with a lot of violence), and his story in Noir at the Salad Bar, which is set in "the noir'est place imaginable… a Red Lobster," and his story "The Line" ("Usual stuff – jealousy, stalking, and magnum-sized condoms," in Out of the Gutter, and I'd been chilled to the bone by his contribution to the novel-in-stories he co-edited with Sarah Chen, The Night of the Flood.
Then I read The Unrepentant. I opened the file (provided by Down & Out in exchange for an honest review) around ten at night, thinking I'd read a couple pages before I went to sleep.
But I couldn't stop until I was done, four hours later.
People like to say that thrillers are "unputdownable." But it's still pretty rare that I find a book that keeps me up all night. I don't think that's happened since I was a teenager.
The Unrepentant clocks in at just over two hundred pages and one hundred and two chapters. "I use to think I'd be the kind of writer that wrote books in ten chapters, thirty pages each. Instead I write chapters that are one to seven pages, mostly about three pages each. I do a lot of outlining. The work with the chapters in outline gets the pace moving a lot faster."
Aymar came to his knife-edged pace gradually.
"I'd been reading a lot of authors like Henry James. Long winded. Then I read James Welch's Fools Crow, [a modern classic from the Native American Renaissance]. It hit me like a punch in the gut. I didn't realize you could write like that."
Aymar credits the faculty at the English department at George Mason University with starting him on a career as a writer. "The faculty is really sharp, they put me on the right path." He looked into MFA programs but didn't find one that felt right to him. "So I just read every day, and worked, I started seriously in 1997, finished my first novel in 2003, then it was another ten years before I had my first novel published. Just taught myself, took classes and writing workshops but mostly read a lot."
His goal is to have his readers devour his books just the way I did. "I want to write thrillers that you consume quickly and enjoy, like fast food, and afterwards you sit there feeling a little unsettled. That's my goal as a writer."
The Unrepentant is primarily about two characters, Mace, a veteran who is having trouble pulling his life together, and violent and resilient Charlotte, a victim of sex trafficking who will never let herself be a victim again.
"The title could refer to a couple of characters within the book, but for me, it’s Charlotte," Aymar says in his press release. "It was important for me to create a strong female lead, but this lead had to do things I didn’t quite accept. I don’t know if I agree with Charlotte’s decisions, but I do believe she would make them. And to do that, she needed to go somewhere she may never come back from. Somewhere I’m not sure I could go. Those types of people have always fascinated me."
"I want to write thrillers that you consume quickly and enjoy, like fast food, and afterwards you sit there feeling a little unsettled. That's my goal as a writer."
Charlotte runs away from home to escape an abusive family member. She finds a job and lives in a run-down motel, a gray, sad, life until she makes friend with another hotel resident, a beautiful, funny girl named Sofia.
"Sex traffickers call this the 'honey-pot' approach," says Aymar. "Women, and men too, who are sex trafficked, are lured in. Women can be kidnapped and forcibly coerced, but it often happens through the allure of money. They go to another country for a job, or the promise of a relationship, and instead end up in some kind of sex work."
When Sofia ends up dead, Charlotte's heart is broken. She decides to search for Sofia's mother and ends up leaving Baltimore, where Aymar's novels are usually set, and goes to Reno, Nevada.
One of my hobbies is collecting brilliant descriptions of places, especially cities, that I find in other people's writing. This description of Reno, Nevada, in The Unrepentant really jumped out at me. I'll quote it here because it also gives us a good sense of Aymar's writing:
- When she’d learned the address was in Nevada, Charlotte had expected she’d end up in Las Vegas. She’s never been but has seen so many depictions of it in movies that she feels like she had an accurate image of the city.
- She did not, however, have a mental picture of Reno, which is fortunate, because Reno sucks. Neon-tinged, but not in a good-natured way. The city has a dirty, desperate quality to it, as if it had been intended for better times than it was experiencing. The streets aren’t as crowded as they should be for ones with this many stores, and the entrances to its biggest businesses—hotels, casinos—are dark and foreboding, like the openings to wet caves.
- Excerpt From: E.A. Aymar. “The Unrepentant eARC.” Apple Books.
Most impressive is the smooth segue from past tense to present, the neutral narration filtered through Charlotte's perspective.
Aymar claims he didn't have to think about Charlotte's voice too much. "I do have a bad habit of slipping into passive voice. So I wrote the novel in present tense to avoid that. It was kind of natural, not something I had to force."
As interesting as Sofia is, as fascinating as the violent Charlotte is, for me, the real hero of this story is Mace. A very complex character, Mace starts out as a guy who failed as a lover and husband, and finds himself thrust into a kind of parental position —along with his ex, almost hilariously— of this battered, abused, violent and unrepentant teenager.
Another remarkable thing about the novel is its ethnic diversity. Mace is half-black, half-white, his wife Eve is black, and Charlotte is Mexican. Aymar's mother is from Panama. His parents met when his father was in the military. Although Aymar has forgotten what little Spanish he knew, diversity in literature matters to him. "I think that mix represents the future of America, as well as the next movement in American literature."
The Unrepentant is now available from Down & Out Books. Don't start reading it at bedtime; you'll never get to sleep.