Write what you know. That’s author Jeff Lindsay’s primary tip for budding novelists. Speaking candidly with the man who is ultimately responsible for the Dexter series, you would assume the subjects of dysfunction and serial killing were far from his mind, ordinarily. He is a family man, after all, who lives in Cape Coral, Florida (a two-and-a-half hour drive from Miami where the Dexter stories are set), keener to chat about making blueberry pancakes than about the effects his twisted fictional characters are having on old-fashioned family values. Still, Cream scored some interesting feedback from Lindsay about fan fiction versus real life.
Interview by Antonino Tati
Hiya Jeff. Have you always lived in Cape Coral?
Most of my life. I moved around after college and did 12 years in Hollywood, but I keep coming back to Florida.
What keeps drawing you back to Florida?
The weather and the water. There’s just something about this place that gets into your blood, I guess. I like the sunsets, sitting on the porch, sipping a beer and watching thunderstorms come in across the bay.
So, Florida’s rather temperamental, like your main protagonist, Dexter?
Yeah, you could say that. People always ask me: Can you imagine Dexter in some other city? And I say to them: Oh yes, he could absolutely be in Perth, Western Australia. But I guess I can’t imagine him being anywhere else. Honestly.
It’s funny you should say that. I’ve been to Miami a few times and it does remind me of Perth. You’ve been to most of our capital cities, yes?
Yes, I’ve been to writers festivals in Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney and Perth. I was booked for one first, then Hachette [his Australian publishing house] took me around to a few more cities – to get their nickel’s worth.
Going back to Dexter’s hometown, Miami seems the perfect setting for his dark shenanigans. Would you agree the city stands for all the superficiality of the western world and yet, not far beneath it, there lurks this certain darkness?
Yeah, I’d say so too. There’s just something about the beautiful scenery and the palm trees and the pastel colours in the sky – all of that as the background for a headless corpse or two. It just makes it so much more interesting.
Have you always been a fan of thrillers, of noir and the macabre?
No, not at all. In fact, if I weren’t writing Dexter, I wouldn’t be reading it. I really prefer historical fiction; biography. When I was a kid, I read some Agatha Christie, but nowadays I love historical fiction and biography.
Speaking of historical and biographical, did you research the lives of real serial killers in preparation for the Dexter novels?
Yeah, I do a lot of research. I read books by FBI profilers. I talked to psychologists and psychiatrists and find everything I can on the internet. Then, at a certain point, I guess I’d have to say instinct just takes over. Which really ought to worry you a little…
You mean you start to have it in you, naturally?
I think we all do. Not the serial killer instinct, but the hunter aspect, certainly.
What’s the biggest crime you’ve committed?
Well, I drive too fast an awful lot. Other than that, I always return my library books on time. I don’t know. When I was a teenager and in my rebellious period I did some things that I probably shouldn’t have, but nothing major… I’ve thrown laundry detergent in someone’s swimming pool, though I never got caught. Still, I felt so guilty I just stopped doing it.
Are some of the characters in the Dexter series based on people you’ve known in real life, or did you dream all of them up?
Some of them I’ve based on people I I’ve known but I wouldn’t say they look much like them. Like, for example, one of the folks who helped me tremendously in writing the first book and starting the series was this Miami homicide sergeant, and she was really the inspiration for Deborah. There’s even a joke that Deborah tells in there about her nickname that came from my friend Sergeant Alison. I asked her one time, “Do cops have nicknames like they do on TV?” And she goes, “Yeah, they do”. And so I asked “Do you have a nickname?” And she said “Yeah, they call me Einstein”. And I said, “Oh, is that because you’re smart and you solve all the murders?” and she said “No, it’s because if my tits were brains, I’d be Einstein”. So that had to go in.
How do you feel about the way your novels have been translated for television?
Well, it’s been one of my favourite TV shows, and I must admit I kind of get a little thrill every time I see my name up there. It’s like if you’re watching your favourite TV show and your name pops up in the opening credits, there’s this moment of disconnection then reconnection, where you go “Oh yeah, that’s right, I wrote a lot of that, yeah”.
So, it’s quite a surreal moment for you?
Yeah. But you know the story lines are very different from mine, though it’s still recognisable – my characters, my world – and it’s done at a really high level. As I said, I worked in Hollywood for 12 years, so I know what usually happens where writers’ works are completely changed, and that didn’t happen to me. I’ll always be grateful because the producers have done a wonderful job.
Does the show influence you in adjusting plot lines for consequential books?
No, there’s no cross-pollination at all except that occasionally they can’t resist taking one of my good lines, and I usually figure that out by watching the show. I’ll be laughing and say that’s a great line and my wife will smack me and say, “Idiot, that’s your line”.
What about cross-pollination of everyday current affairs or pop cultural themes?
To a certain extent everything you write is going to have an element of news, pop culture or current affairs to it, because if you’re any good at all and trying to be honest about a subject, you’re going to research the here and now.
“People always ask me: Can you imagine Dexter in some other city? And I say to them: Oh yes, he could absolutely be in Perth, WA.”
Why do you think our society is so infatuated with dark themes in television today, to the point of enjoying seeing so many dysfunctional characters, from Family Guy to Fargo, The Sopranos to Game of Thrones?
Well I blame the Republican Party, but that may just be me [coughing exaggeratively].
I don’t think I’ve heard so many coughs after the word ‘Republican’ before.
I do have a thing [a cold] so it’s not merely politics that’s making me cough. I really don’t know; I think it’s just a general fact that we’ve always been fascinated by dysfunction.
Do you think these fictional characters have an influence on society at large?
No. I mean its entertainment. I can’t imagine that this has any real effect on anybody. Yeah, the nuclear family is being chipped away at, but the pressures are more economic than anything else. It’s become necessary to have two salaries for the average home and that’s a whole lot more significant than watching some TV show or reading a book.
You must agree that watching today’s dysfunction on television kind of steers us away from the goody-goody ethos of old shows like The Waltons and The Brady Bunch.
The Waltons and The Brady Bunch were no more real than The Mentalist. Hollywood is always presenting alternatives to reality. That’s why we watch it. Even the so-called reality shows; they’re no more real than Gilligan’s Island. It’s something we watch to take our minds off reality. Ultimately, Hollywood does what the numbers tell them to, and to some extent so does publishing, which is what I’m in, after all. It’s what people want to see, so the networks make more of it… and I get paid more to write books about it!
‘Dexter: New Blood’ (ie: Season 9) is currently streaming on Paramount+ in Australia.