Ted Flanagan’s dark debut thriller, Every Hidden Thing, brings together an EMS worker whose son has a life-threatening illness, a corrupt politician, a dirty cop, a disillusioned reporter, and a deranged domestic terrorist in a twisty tale that grabs you from the first page and never lets go. Set in the gritty city of Worcester Massachusetts, it evokes the work of Dennis Lehane and Michael Harvey while shining a light on a blue-collar world where hope is fragile and despair is just around the corner. As its main character Archer struggles against seemingly insurmountable problems, Every Hidden Thing will move you, even as you race to turn the pages.
Every Hidden Thing has earned high praise including:
“A rich, reeking, ambitious study of an urban jungle that could be Everytown.”
“This is a righteous, hard-charging, bell-ringing, mother-……. debut novel!!!!!”
—James Ellroy, New York Times bestselling author
I was thrilled to speak with Ted Flanagan about Every Hidden Thing, his gripping and heart-wrenching novel set in the “Worcester of the soul.” So pull up a chair and let’s get to the good stuff.
Every Hidden Thing tells a big rich story, with a complicated plot that keeps tightening the screws on the characters trapped in its dark and dirty world. What inspired you to write this twisting python of a novel?
I think it’s my own love of twisty, pythonic (is that a word?) novels. As a reader, there’s no better feeling for me than that sense, halfway through a book, that I’m utterly lost at sea, or in a dense jungle, either searching for a hint of land on the horizon or a break in the foliage – I don’t know, I’m probably crushing the analogy under the weight of my own inability to explain it. I love novels that start with an unknown world, with characters on a journey that I expect will surely come together at the end and then, when it actually happens, AMAZING!
As I think about this, three novels come instantly to mind – Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, and, perhaps the most stunning example of this in recent years, Richard Powers’ The Overstory. Each of these books are complicated and sinuous and require the reader’s utter commitment.
In addition to my love of novels that operate in this way, there were also a lot of things going through my mind that I wanted to work out through this story.
Being a Paramedic, especially one who spent a huge chunk of his career working in urban 911, it’s depressingly easy to just put your head down and wade chest-deep into the worst things in life, to bathe yourself in the ugliness that so often confronts us, and then wear the damage from that like a badge of honor, the same way when I first started in the field people bragged about how much blood they’d get on their uniforms (which, thankfully, is no longer a thing). I wanted to wrestle with that in this book, what it takes to keep your humanity in a profession that is almost designed specifically to strip it from you. Archer is no hero, he’s a decent guy struggling to find a way to remain decent no matter what’s thrown his way, just like the thousands and thousands of nameless and faceless EMS providers who do it every day.
The character of Evangeline is based on a real girl from Worcester, who survived a drowning in a permanent vegetative state, and then went on to some amount of fame as a healer. The Catholics call it being a “victim soul,” someone placed on Earth to endure suffering while easing the pain of others. When one of my twin sons faced a life-threatening illness when he was 3-years-old, I trusted the science first and foremost, but I also had friends who did things like got him on the daily prayer list of the Dalai Lama or brought oil consecrated by a famous faith-healer from the area. Listen, there are no atheists in foxholes, and I was open to anything that might have saved my son’s life. The novel isn’t significantly autobiographical, but I’ll admit my approach to my son’s illness was much like Archer’s thoughts on his own son—let’s give it a shot. He’s 19 now and a Dean’s list college sophomore, so something worked. It’s also worth noting that the real Evangeline is currently in the process for beatification. I don’t know what I think, and I hope, if I’ve done my job right in the book, that I leave it up to each reader to decide. Regardless, it was something I wanted to work out in writing, and it’s there in the book.
Finally, I’ve had a lifelong love for newspapers, and the slow death of the industry has been heartbreaking for me, and an existential threat to our nation itself. I used to work at one point for a small, Pulitzer Prize-winning daily newspaper that was hardnosed and unapologetic. Walking into its newsroom was electric. The noise, the people, everyone whip-smart, sitting in waist-high cubicles that filled the cavernous room. Multiple scanners shrieking and squawking, it was about the best place I’ve ever worked. A couple years ago I returned for a visit, and it was one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen, at least professionally. The scanners were gone, replaced by eerie silence, and about three-quarters of the reporters’ cubicles were either empty or being used for storing the leftover detritus of journalists long gone. I think the future of digital journalism is far brighter than it was when I first conceived of Lu’s journey, so hopefully all is not lost, but I’m sure anyone who’s worked in a print daily newsroom like that will lament its loss.
You capture the seamy underbelly of Worcester, a city near where you grew up, so well—with its corrupt politicians, crooked cops, and more. And you also show us the hardworking, well-meaning people who are simply doing the best they can to get by in this tough blue-collar world. What were the challenges to writing about the darker side of a place so close to home?
I think I’m most concerned with how it will be received by the people who live there. The critic Michael Silverblatt, a Brooklyn native, once asked Hubert Selbert Jr., who wrote Last Exit To Brooklyn, “Where is this Brooklyn?” Silverblatt pointed out that he didn’t recognize the city as depicted in the book. Selby replied that he was “writing a Brooklyn of the soul.”
That sense infuses my novel. While there are parts of the real Worcester that appear in the novel, there are equally frequent pieces of other cities I’ve worked (e.g. Lawrence, Mass.) I think current-day Worcesterites might rightly take issue with my portrayal of the entropy of the city. I’ve lived in or around Worcester my entire life. It’s a city that’s struggled to find its footing economically since the factories started closing in the 1960s. There have been fraught race and class relations over the years—you only have to trace the interstate that carves its way in big swooping curves through the heart of Worcester to see the ways money and power have altered the landscape and protected those with one or both—and those continue today. It is also fair to say that the city in 2021 is undergoing a Renaissance unlike any I’ve seen in my lifetime. The Worcester of my novel is absolutely a “Worcester of the soul,” and no matter how many good things have arrived, there are still plenty of challenges to conquer, both in Worcester and around the nation.
The fact that your main character, Thomas Archer, is an EMT, makes readers root for him right out of the gate, and you’ve created a compelling portrait of a noble profession that many people don’t know much about. I was especially fascinated to learn how Archer comes to know some of his repeat customers and how deeply personal this job is for him. How did your own background as an EMT influence your depiction of Archer? What were the rewards and challenges of creating fiction from your first-hand experience?
The first thing I want to make absolutely clear is that Archer is NOT me lol. He’s a mix of people with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working. I was hesitant to write about EMS in the first place. There are surprisingly few examples of the profession in fiction, and most of it is not my cup of tea. I’d say the best prior representation of the field would be Joe Connelly’s Bringing Out the Dead (which was also turned into a movie of the same name, directed by Martin Scorsese). What I tried to capture with Archer wasn’t so much the nuts-and-bolts of going on ambulance calls, although almost all the calls depicted in the book happened to someone I know (the only one in the book that I was actually on in real-life was the one with the intoxicated and puking former prisoner in the porn theater), but rather the world surrounding the calls.
EMS can be a bizarre profession, as I always point out to Paramedic students. We are welcomed to the roadside or the bedside, and people we’ve known for 10 seconds will confess things to us that they wouldn’t tell their spouses. Letting readers into that world without resorting to “war stories” or glorification was the biggest challenge of writing about the field. Emergency services have been glorified in popular culture, even while the reality is that most EMS workers live check-to-check, working 80-to-100-hour weeks for shit money and little respect. But they’re grunts, they keep coming back week by week, month by month, sleep deprived and sore, ready each day to roll out and meet whatever comes their way. The job isn’t sexy and no one gets out without some kind of scar, but I’m proud to have been a part of it.
Your novel has multiple storylines that move between the present and past and intersect in unexpected ways. Kudos for pulling that off! Can you talk about your process for making it work? Do you outline? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I am a pure pantser. One of my favorite writers, William Kennedy, who wrote these glorious novels about Albany (Ironweed etc.), used to talk about “thinking with your fingers.” That’s the best explanation of my process. I think about a story for a long time, do a small amount of research, and then…hit the keyboard. I love to write. I’m never happier than when I’m sitting at a desk with my laptop and writing. I’ll write and cut several hundred pages in order to produce 100. I have files full of false starts and nuggets of ideas I may or may not revisit in the future. A lot of writing instructors are going to hate this, but I uncover my story as I go.
I’ve tried outlining, but for me, a detailed map of where my story is going takes all the joy and discovery out of the writing process. The great thing, of course, is that the writing process only has to work for the individual writer, and I have some writer friends for whom I have intense respect and admiration who are devoted outliners. At the end of the day, every novel stands alone with its scaffolding removed eventually, so I don’t get dogmatic about process. ADDENDUM: despite my claim to be a pure pantser, it’s inevitable at a certain point that a structure reveals itself, and once that happens a kind of outline is inevitable and some plotting becomes necessary. By that point, though, it’s more of a process of connecting the story you’ve discovered with the story as it is.
Even as readers will root for Archer, they’re going to hate the ‘bent’ cop Eamon Conroy and Gerald Knak, the unhinged domestic terrorist. How did you bring these diabolical villains to life? How did you decide how much to humanize them—or not?
Eamon Conroy is a guy entirely at service to his worst instincts. Like all the best villains, he doesn’t see himself as the bad guy. His morality is entirely pragmatic and in service to a Darwinian outlook in life in which only the fit survive.
Gerald Knak is based on a real dude! The actual Gerry Knak’s name (which I’m keeping to myself) would have been a perfect fictional name, and it pained me not to use it. I met him as I worked for a small daily paper that assigned me to cover three intensely quiet small towns in north central Massachusetts. One day, wandering back roads of one of these towns in search of, well, anything, I came across this small, bedraggled ranch-style house with a marquee sign out front that said “Don’t Pay Taxes. Fuck the IRS.” Naturally, I had to stop and bang on his door. Clearly something was going on, and I was desperate for a story. We sat on his back porch for an hour as he pounded Busch Lights and left a loaded Beretta 92 pistol on the table between us (I was just out of the Marines and entirely unimpressed by this prop, which I think was meant to rattle me) while he spouted off antigovernment stuff that would be fairly tame by 2021 standards. At one point during the talk, he put me on the phone with a guy who called himself “Doctor” even though his claim to fame was ownership of a bar in southern New Hampshire, who talked about the militia movement for a bit then abruptly hung up. I never wrote a story about this guy or the mysterious Doctor, but I never forgot them, either.
Every Hidden Thing has plenty of sinners but also one saint: Evangeline, the woman with supposed healing powers who exists in a persistent vegetative state. She’s a little creepy, but also offers desperate people hope in a world that inflicts so much seemingly arbitrary suffering. How did she become part of the novel? Was she there from the beginning?
Evangeline is based on the girl, I mentioned earlier, who is currently being considered by the Roman Catholic Church for beatification. Sadly, the real Evangeline herself passed away a few years ago. She was in the novel from the earliest days. The first scene I ever wrote for what became the novel was written in a Boston hospital room during a blizzard and included her. I don’t know what I think about her healing abilities, but I know tens of thousands of people found peace and solace from her. As I said earlier, I believe in the science that saved my son, but the thing that got us through his years of treatment wasn’t simply the medicine, but also the fact that we never lost hope. In the end, I think that’s what Evangeline represents to Archer (who himself isn’t sure what to think), this idea that hope can sustain us. The first thing you really need to get through the biggest challenges in life is hope. Of course, hope isn’t a plan, but coming up with a plan stems from the presence of hope, otherwise, why would you bother?
Who are some of your favorite writers?
I live in fear of this question lol. I love so many writers and books, that coming up with a manageable list is incredibly daunting. With apologies to the scores of great writers I’ve failed to mention, my favorite writers include: James Ellroy, David Peace, Wiley Cash, Kevin Barry, Rachel Kushner, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Flannery O’Connor, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Richard Powers, Louise Erdrich, Haruki Murakami, William Gay, Larry Brown…I could list a hundred more.
Your novel is packed with atmosphere, tension, and action. It’s very cinematic. There are some great crime movies set in the Boston area (The Departed, The Town, Gone Baby Gone) but none in Worcester that I know of. We need one! What are some of your favorite crime movies?
Worcester ABSOLUTELY deserves a movie!
My favorite crime movie is, without a doubt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. In addition to being a great story, if you grew up in Massachusetts in the 1970s and 1980s, the movie is this amazing time capsule, ESPECIALLY the prolonged scene at the Bruins game in the old Boston Garden! I spent many a glorious night in those seats, watching Orr and O’Reilly and Ray Bourque, or Larry Bird and Robert Parrish and all those great Celtics teams.
I also like the adaptation of Cogan’s Run, starring Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini, called Killing Them Softly. The book was set in Boston, but the movie transplanted the plot to New Orleans (while keeping other Massachusetts town and city names in the script for some reason). The final dialogue by Pitt adds a gut-punch of an exclamation point to the whole enterprise.
I also love all the classic crime movies – GoodFellas, Donnie Brasco, The Godfather I and II, Casino and so on and so on. Also, if you haven’t seen The Pope of Greenwich Village, I’d fix that!
What are you working on now?
I’ve got a couple novels I’m working on at the moment, but one in particular has taken over my attention. In 1956, six Marine recruits drowned in a training accident at Parris Island in a marsh called Ribbon Creek. The Drill Instructor who led the recruits into the creek was villainized initially, and the incident was the biggest national news story (until the Andrea Doria sank a few months later). As in all things, the initial story was not the whole story, and the DI eventually beat the charges and stayed in the Marine Corps until he took a medical retirement three years later. He returned to his home in Massachusetts and spent his remaining years working for the state and living in a large brick house around the corner from where I live. He died in 2003, but I think about him every time I drive by his home, and I’ve always wanted to write about the incident, but never had a good handle the story. This year I read two books, Rashomon by Akutagawa and Occupied City by David Peace, that gave me ideas on how to structure a story that examines a single incident from multiple points of view. I’m deep into the research stage and writing my way into the story, but I’m incredibly excited about this one.
Ted Flanagan is a Paramedic and former daily newspaper reporter from central Massachusetts whose writing has appeared on Shotgun Honey and Cognoscenti, among other places. In addition, he served as a Recon Marine with 2nd Recon Battalion. He lives with his wife and kids outside of Worcester, Mass.