Interview with Danielle Trussoni, author of The Puzzle Master
Danielle Trussoni is one of the most pleasant people to speak with. She’s passionate and painstaking about her storytelling and as she talks to me via Zoom, she leans forward toward the camera as if pressing closer will help emphasize the points she’s making.
For such a gentle person, it may surprise you that Trussoni used to write horror reviews for the New York Times, a position now newly occupied by Gabino Iglesias (congratulations, Gabino!).
The Puzzle Master, the book we are discussing, follows Mike Brink, a celebrated puzzle master who gained his ability after a traumatic brain injury caused a rare, but real medical condition called “acquired savant syndrome.” In a flash, he went from high school football star to off-beat genius who can see patterns and solve numerical problems in a blink of an eye. He is called into help Jess Price, woman serving thirty years in prison for murder. Here’s the kicker—she hasn’t spoken a single word since was arrested, not even in her own defense, and now she has a puzzle for Mike.
The real puzzle master at the NY Times is William Shortz, and anyone who has done the paper’s crossword puzzles will be familiar with his name. Though Mike is not based on Mr. Shortz, I did ask Trussoni if she had interviewed Shortz as she researched the book. She had. They had dinner and she saw his house. The description of Mike’s shelves full of puzzles was inspired by that dinner.
How did this story come to you?
I started writing Jess Price’s story first. Once I had that part down, I needed someone to solve the murder mystery and figure out why Jess hadn’t said a single word during her trial or after. I didn’t want Mike to be a stereotypical genius but when I stumbled on acquired savant syndrome, I knew I had my answer.
What did you know about Jess right away?
That she had an interest in porcelain dolls, which are very creepy. The story moved from there outward, like a nesting box. I didn’t write it linearly; it came out in concentric circles. I knew she was in jail for a murder. I knew there was more to the murder than met the eye and that something unusual and unexpected had happened that led to her both her imprisonment and her outreach to Mike Brink.
It took three years to write The Puzzle Master while I worked my way through the world and the mystery and the link to Jewish mysticism. The next book, The Puzzle Box, came faster and was done within a year.
Let’s talk about the Jewish mythology you incorporated, because that was the part I hadn’t expected. What made you connect to the golem story?
It was the porcelain dolls, and the idea that they could be a type of golem. The golem story is everywhere in literature and film. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a singular example, of course, but horror dolls like Chucky and M3GAN are as well. Humans are fascinated by the creation of life, and I thought about what would happen if that forbidden knowledge was passed down, but messed up? What would be the impact?
Where did you start writing?
I didn’t start in fiction. My first book was a rather literary memoir about my relationship with my father. It did well and got a good bit of press, including 60 Minutes, Time Magazine, and the NY Times Book Review, but as well as that book did, that success didn’t necessarily follow me into my fiction career. It was almost like starting over.
What do you think gave you the positive press about The Puzzle Master? Besides writing a great book, what do you think made the difference that carried that book onto best of lists, for example, the Washington Post’s “Best Thriller of the Year” list?
Honestly, it is hard to say. Mainstream media took a while to find it. David Baldacci was incredibly generous and gave the book a quote, which helped, but I think it was given a big push when an Amazon editor chose it for a book of the month, plus a number of positive reviews on Goodreads.
How do you like to stay connected to readers?
Instagram is my primary place, plus my enewsletter. I go to some conventions like Thrillerfest and Bouchercon as well.
Thanks for chatting with me. Where can folks learn more about your novels?
Start with https://www.danielletrussoni.com and of course, follow me on Instagram at @danielletrussoni.
About the Author
Danielle Trussoni is New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Ancestor, Angelology, and Angelopolis, all New York Times notable books, and the memoirs The Fortress and Falling Through the Earth, named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review. She wrote a monthly horror column for The New York Times Book Review. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and winner of the Michener-Copernicus Society of America Fellowship, her work has been translated into more than thirty languages.