Author John Wray Talks About Writing 'Lowboy,' Schizophrenia, Trains & Thrillers

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 12, 2009


John Wray sits quietly in the middle of a subway car, preparing to break the law.

The downtown 6 is pulling into Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall station, the last stop on the Green Line. Emptied of passengers, it will swing around on a curving track and head back uptown. As it does, it will pass through the original City Hall station -- long abandoned, but once the transit system's crown jewel -- where Wray set a climactic scene of his latest novel, "Lowboy."

A reporter has asked to see the setting for himself, and Wray has obliged. "What we should do, when everyone gets out, is move to the corner," he says. The trick is to get out of the conductor's line of sight.

He has pulled it off perhaps 10 times, with no negative consequences yet. "I suppose the absolute worst fate would be a fine," he says. "I don't think there would be any incarceration involved."

The train stops and empties. Wray leads the way to a back corner of the car. Then:

"Uh-oh -- I think the dude just saw us."

Wray's novel tells the story of 16-year-old Will Heller, a.k.a. Lowboy, a brilliant, beautiful schizophrenic with an apocalyptic vision who flees the institution to which he has been committed.

"On Nov. 11 Lowboy ran to catch a train," it begins. He makes it, evading twin pursuers he dubs Skull and Bones.

Over the next 255 pages, the pace rarely slows. Much of the action takes place in the subway. At one point, Will and a gutsy friend named Emily ride the 6 train past the deserted station:

The lefthand windows were dark and unassuming, but the windows on his right side gave out onto a glittering skylit tomb. Vaults of red and green and coppercolored tile arched gravely over desolated stairwells.

"Okay, here we are," Wray says as a ghostly cityscape, far murkier than his fictional version, flashes into view. "It has this strange, almost Spanish, sort of Moorish theme. It used to be all lit by these beautiful skylights."

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