WHITMAN — It was a literary homecoming.
Author Edwin Hill spoke about the process of writing his debut novel “Little Comfort” at the Whitman Public Library on Thursday, Sept. 27 — to a crowd that included old friends and family members of the writer whose grandmother Phyllis Hill was the librarian in Whitman from the 1940s to the late ’60s.
Many in the room had not yet read the mystery-thriller featuring Hester Thursby, a petite Harvard librarian who takes care of her 3-year-old niece, her non-husband Morgan Maguire and a Bassett hound named Waffles while working on missing persons cases in her spare time.
The book has been out for just over a month with Hill still a bit nervous in only his fifth book talk, and the first without a moderator, in support of the novel.
His talk focused on how the novel developed, focusing on three main characters — Hester, Sam Blaine and Gabe DiPuriso.
“I actually worked on the novel so long [eight years], that I actually forgot a lot of this and it’s been fun over the last month to just discover it,” Hill said, noting that the Clark Rockefeller case was his entry point. Christian Gerhartsreiter — AKA Clark Rockefeller — was a professional imposter who kidnapped his daughter and was later convicted of murder.
“I saw that story and I thought, ‘I always wanted to be a writer, I’m going to write something,’” he said. The resulting two-and-a-half-page theme sat on his computer for years. He knew his villain would be named Sam and that he had “done something bad, and left town.”
Hill would open the file occasionally, read it and think to himself, “That is terrific.” Then he would close it again.
In between jobs he started to write a novel on it, but ended up keeping Sam, but needed a foil. Thus Hester was created.
Hester’s living situation with her non-husband in a three-family home where they kept separate apartments, and her fondness for dark films featuring strong women, informed her character, Hill explained.
He read from his book to illustrate how he introduced each of his three main characters.
Hester, for example, drinks her coffee with cream and seven sugars — a passage that has drawn knowing laughter in each of his talks so far.
Sam is based on that friend everyone seems to have who can get away with anything, but he’s also a serial killer who always knows when to get out of town.
“He really knows how to get into these people’s lives,” Hill said, explaining that Sam’s crossing paths with a librarian like Hester, for whom finding information is her job, illustrates how information has changed life in the Internet era. “If you wanted to disappear right now, you’d really have to work at it. It’s really hard.”
That also serves to shift the theme from the search for someone to what happens after Hester finds him.
Gabe, meanwhile, is Sam’s human collateral damage.
“For me, he sort of turned into the heart of the novel,” Hill said. “He’s the character who changes the most — from someone who seems very lost, who seems very disconnected from the world — and he changes in the novel in a way that, I think, he and Hester certainly have a strange bond at the end.”
He uses narrative discourse for all but the most essential dialogue from Gabe to keep the reader at a distance from the character, especially at the beginning of the story.
Audience members asked if the characters — or story — came first and are they based on real people, how he picked Boston/Somerville as the setting and how Hester ended up being so short.
The title has nothing to do with Whitman, save that it used to be called Little Comfort and he always liked that phrase.
Hill put a bit of himself in Hester’s love of horror movies and her sloppy habits and used his understanding of loneliness in creating Gabe, but tries not to base whole characters on real people.
He said the scene he wrote all those years ago, while not in the book at all, was his gateway to finding Hester.
A writer who likes contrast, Hill was looking for traits that made it hard to not notice, an occupational drawback for someone who follows people for a living. He also wanted her to be someone who has to fight a little bit.
“It was story first, then character, then story, then character, and with a mystery novel, you always want to make sure that there’s tension and that there’s forward momentum in that story,” he said.
Hill lived in Somerville for several years and works in Boston.
“The easiest reason is write what you know,” he said. “Hester basically lives in the [imaginary] house next door to the one I lived in. … Somerville has a nice mix of population.”
Beacon Hill gave him a chance to “play with class” and in Boston one can travel from an urban to suburban or rural area easily.
Hester returns in Hill’s next book, “The Missing Ones,” due out in September 2019.