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Inspiration for "Airtight" Came from Author's Past

Guest post by author J.P. Smith, on the autobiographical genesis of his newest thriller, Airtight. Booklist praised it as “solidly constructed and nicely written.” View his full title selection on his author page.

AirtightMemory has always been a kind of obsession for me as a writer, and though I’d published five novels previous to it, Airtight really is the first that came out of my direct past. I’d dealt with it before in more obscure ways, but Airtight is a piece of my past, translated into a tale set in the year 2000. My wife and I had been watching Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown when something jarred my memory: back when I was in my second year of college, I’d been involved in the purchase of some $400 of marijuana and hashish in Cincinnati, which my partners in crime and I were unable to sell back at college. Consequently, what remained was buried in two Mason jars on the campus. It was 1967, and that’s how we lived back then: on the edge, enjoying life to the fullest, and taking risks we’d never take now.

And we never dug it up.

I thought, well, this is a movie, and Airtight began as a script entitled Downtown Men, shown to some producers and development executives who knew and liked my work, and because the two main characters were inching up to the age of fifty, it was decided that this would never get greenlighted. Old men don’t travel well in movies, it was then thought. Fast-forward to 2012, and Brad Pitt and George Clooney are the exact ages of my characters. Suddenly it all changes.

Airtight really isn’t a tale of college, but rather one of how two men, aged out of their positions in advertising and law, and who meet up at a jobs fair in New York, decide to go back and dig it something buried thirty years earlier, thinking that they may save their families by selling it in the current market. I changed the kind of drug involved, made it more of a cash crop, and created the character of Ray Garland, AKA Leroy Ives, to whom they would sell it. A narcotics dealer with one great big deadly secret.

But this is also a tale of how one character, Nick Copeland, comes to realize, as he delves back into his past, that there have been things he shouldn’t have done, and things left by the wayside that he should have done. He is a man weighed down by moral debts. Airtight is a thriller of sorts, but it’s also a study of character, of how a man comes to grips with his past, what he learns of it now, and how he decides to make the right decision when everything comes down to him. As one of my Amazon Vine reviewers, who understood the book exactly, put it: “Smith’s writing is top notch as he delivers a crime-genre tale that boasts multiple plot twists and a surprise ending that would make Elmore Leonard proud. At the same time, he also delivers the penetrating portrait of a middle-aged man finally coming to grips with his past to embrace the future with a newfound appreciation of life.”

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