Talking Thrillers with Author Rex Pickett: The Archivist

Rex Pickett
Author biography: Rex Pickett is the author of "Sideways," the multiple award-winning Alexander Payne film of the same title. "Sideways" won over 350 critics and awards organization plaudits, including 2 Golden Globes, an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, the prestigious Writers Guild Award, 6 Indie Spirit Awards ... and the list is endless. In addition to the critical accolades, "Sideways," including DVD and all ancillary revenue streams, grossed over half a billion dollars. And it inarguably transformed the world of wine forever.

Rex’s love of wine began back in the ‘90s when he was unwittingly researching his legacy work "Sideways." That passion has never abated.

Rex grew up in southern California, attended the University of California at San Diego, graduating with Highest Honors in Special Studies, with an emphasis on Contemporary Literary & Film Criticism and Creative Writing. A member of the Writers Guild of America for two decades, Rex has published poetry, written and directed two feature films, written numerous film and TV scripts, 4 novels, and successfully staged his Sideways the play.

All his writings, films and correspondence are now enshrined in UCSD’S Geisel Library’s Special Collections and Archives.

TFx: Where did you come up with the idea for this book, and what can you tell us about the plot?

Pickett: When my papers were taken by Geisel Library, on the campus of my alma mater UCSD, I had no idea what they were going to do with the fifty bankers boxes of writings, born digital materials and films that constituted the whole of my creative life that I had literally dropped off at a loading dock.  A year later, almost by accident (!), I met my processing archivist, Kate Saeed.  She took me down into the “Stacks” where my collection had been lovingly organized into uniform, and uniformly beautiful, pewter-gray document boxes.

I was utterly overwhelmed with emotion. Tears fogged my eyes. When I learned that Kate had spent half a year processing my collection, had read through almost everything, including early journals I would never dare look at, I realized, at that very moment, there was a book where a writer (a donor) falls in love with his archivist.

The Archivist is about a young project archivist, Emily Snow, who is hired to finish up the processing of the papers of a famous, award-winning author.  Her predecessor, Nadia Fontaine, an esteemed archivist, had died in a drowning accident.  In delving into the collection, Emily stumbles upon a treasure trove of torrid love emails.  I go back in time to that story.  A love story becomes a tragic love story becomes ... a murder mystery, with Emily Snow the unwitting detective who follows the labyrinth in the dark archives to the truth.

TFx: How did you choose the setting(s)?

Pickett: The main setting, Geisel Library, is an iconic 8-story structure built in the sixties in the Brutalist architectural style.  I spent many hours there in my student youth.  My archives are there.  I know it like the back of my hand.  It is where my creative and intellectual life began, and where I came full circle, after three decades in Hollywood, back to.  I grew up in San Diego.  I know southern California intimately, all the locations.  I currently live five miles away from UCSD.  Not to wax sentimental, but Geisel Library is the mother I never had.

The great psychiatrist C.G. Jung once said:  “I have plumbed the depths of the soul and believe I know most everything about the human psyche.  But there is one thing I will never understand, and that is the mercuriality of love.”  I’ve always wanted to move away from my three comedic Sideways books and hunt bigger game, namely, a sprawling tragic love story. I’m a huge fan of The English Patient, and I’m a sucker for tragic love stories as well as mystery and detective fiction.  At the risk of immodesty, The Archivist is my attempted marriage of Chandler’s masterpiece The Long Goodbye and Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

TFx: What are you reading now, and what good books have you read lately?

Pickett: I’m reading a fascinating collection of short stories (The Dangers of Smoking in Bed) by Mariana Enriquez, an Argentinian writer often compared to Poe.  Love her stories.  They’re dark, twisted gems.  I always have two books going, one on my e-reader, the other an audiobook.  The audiobook I’m listening to right now is The Power of the Dog.  Not the Don Winslow title, but the one by Thomas Savage published in 1967.  I’m reading it because it’s the basis for Jane Campion’s new movie of the same title.  Savage has a powerful command of the language.  When I was writing The Archivist I only read women authors, and especially the brilliant Clarice Lispector.

TFx: What’s next for the series?

Pickett: Emily Snow is a project archivist.  She is tied to no institution, and nobody, and she prefers it that way.  She is a free spirit and she can go wherever the fickle winds of her profession take her.  As a project archivist, as opposed to a tenured archivist, e.g., she’s like a lone gunslinger.  She rides into town for one job, then is out.  She refuses to be tied down.  She can go anywhere in the world.  I’m thinking of taking her to Florence, the U.K., a major university on the East Coast, or even Auckland, NZ.  She will definitely be some place far away from southern California in the next one.  The archival world is an unexplored, and largely untapped, world in mystery fiction.  Archivists, who work mostly in anonymity, are privy to some of the most sensitive materials in the world.  Stories abound in this milieu, this fascinating profession that few no anything about.

TFx: What are you working on now? (if different from above)

Pickett: I’m writing my three-volume autobiography My Life on Spec.  Vol. I is done and I just have to answer the line-edit.  My life has been one of extreme highs (Sideways and the two Academy Awards I’ve, technically, won) and extreme lows:  my battle with alcohol (sober 11 years now), depression, loneliness, destitution and an omnipresent cloud of despair.  My autobiography spares nothing and no one, including myself.

TFx: What is the significance of the title?

Pickett: The Archivist to me is the archivist that any donor would fall in love with if they knew what they really did, how much they cared for your life’s work.  The Archivist, to me, is the eavesdropping angel everyone would like to have, that person who knows you so deeply you can’t resist her.  She is love personified.  And her profession is pure as the driven, well, snow.  Thus the naming of my hero, Emily Snow.

TFx: Do you believe you should never judge a book by its cover?

Pickett: I have been wrong in my life about people so many times, both positively and negatively, the answer is an unequivocal No.

TFx: What was the last book you read that had a plot twist you totally didn't see coming?

Pickett: Any one of the only seven mysteries written by the crime writer Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza (especially the debut one, The Silence of the Rain).  Every one of his Inspector Espinosa mysteries moves in labyrinthian, tortuous and unexpected ways.  He surprises you from the opening pages all the way to the, often, surreal finales, all of them anchored by his world-weary Inspector Espinosa character, a Rio de Janeiro homicide cop grounded in real life.  His books are rare in mystery, or detective, fiction, most of which I find prosaically formulaic.

TFx: What was the hardest scene to write in this book?

Pickett: The Archivist is a novel within a novel.  The main novel is written in close third from the point-of-view of my main protagonist Emily Snow, the young project archivist.  The novel within the novel is written in first person from the point-of-view of Nadia Fontaine.  There is very little sex in the book, but the one torrid lovemaking scene I felt it was important to include, written from Nadia’s point-of-view was difficult because it’s from a woman’s perspective.  Trust me, I had a lot of women reading my manuscript, including my line editor Peggy Hageman, and I told them all in no uncertain terms:  if anything is off or cringeworthy or doesn’t ring true, I will change it according to your constructive criticism.

TFx: Had you always wanted to be a writer?

Pickett: Yes.  Since I was 17 and fell tangle-footed in love with great works of fiction that I devoured like a person starved for other worlds than the alienating one I grew up in.  I was also an indie filmmaker, but I made films to see my screenwriting realized, not because I necessarily wanted to be a filmmaker (it’s so hard!).  I like to believe I’m a storyteller:  in films, in novels, and now in theater.  I love creating fully-realized, three-dimensional characters.  I love writing dialogue, I love to make people laugh, and it’s important to me to try to write works that will stand the all-important test of time.  On the latter point, I think you have to find the emotional spine of a story before you can even begin to write it.  Plots are ephemeral; emotion, true feeling, is timeless.

TFx: How important is research when it comes to your writing?

Pickett: Writers are like thieves; we’re always working.  My research in the past has always been the mining of my own life and then fictionalizing it.  Sideways is a great example of disinterring from my life a fictional work.  So, in that sense, just living was research.  For The Archivist I was entering a new world, one I knew nothing about.  Research is everything in this instance.  But, to me, research is not just reading, it’s meeting the people in the profession, seeing where they work, learning what they do, and interviewing them, interrogating them, finding models for characters in their real-life beings. 

Kate Saeed, my processing archivist on my collection, was everything to me on The Archivist.  She was so instrumental to the writing I offered her a co-writing credit on the novel, but she wouldn’t take it.  She does get a credit on the 8-episode limited series that I wrote as the foundation for the eventual novel.  And she earned it.  She took me by the hand into a world in which she lives five days a week.  Invaluable.  Verisimilitude (the ring of truth) is what I always advise writers to aspire to in their writing.  Make me believe the world you’re taking me into, make me believe the characters you’re creating.

TFx: Tell us something fun about you that readers might be surprised to know?

Pickett: Oh, gosh.  I haven’t had a pet since I was a kid.  Not one.  Kate, my processing archivist and the inspiration for The Archivist, introduced me to a rescue kitten a mere four months old.  A special needs cat, it turns out he has a rare condition known as congenital rickets.  His name is Max.  Sometimes his back legs just give out on him and he’s incapacitated.  He’s on supplements.  He was found in a ravine.  I love Max more than anything in the world, and as long as there’s a quality of life, this supposed cynical nihilist with a mordant sense of humor who wrote the bawdy, scabrously funny Sideways would do anything to make sure Max has the longest, most loving life imaginable.  He’s curled up next to me right now, my other eavesdropping angel.

Get Rex's latest release, The Archivist, out now on Amazon.

The Archivist

When archivist Nadia Fontaine is found dead of an apparent drowning, Emily Snow is hired by Regents University to finish the job she started—to organize and process the papers of Raymond West, a famous Pulitzer Prize–winning author who has been short-listed for the Nobel.

Emily’s job comes with its inherent pressures. West’s wife, Elizabeth, is an heiress who’s about to donate $25 million to the Memorial Library—an eight-story architectural marvel that is the crown jewel of the university. The inaugural event in just a few months will be a gala for the Who’s Who of San Diego to celebrate the unveiling of the Raymond West Collection and the financial gift that made it all possible.

As Emily sets to work on the West papers, it begins to dawn on her that several items have gone missing from the collection. To trace their whereabouts, she gains unsupervised access to the highly restricted “dark archives,” in which she opens a Pandora’s Box of erotically and intellectually charged correspondence between Raymond West and the late Nadia Fontaine.

Through their archived emails, Emily goes back a year in time and relives the tragic trajectory of their passionate love affair. Did Nadia really drown accidentally, as the police report concluded, or could it have been suicide, or, even worse, murder? Compelled to complete the collection and find the truth, Emily unwittingly morphs into an adult Nancy Drew and a one-woman archivist crusader on a mission to right the historical record.

Twisting slowly like a tourniquet, The Archivist turns into a suspenseful murder mystery with multiple and intersecting layers. Not just a whodunit, it is also a profound meditation on love, privacy, and the ethics of destroying or preserving materials of a highly personal nature.

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