Long Live the King
December 14th, 2014
Dana King is a writer I both enjoy and admire. I’ve enjoyed everything he’s written thus far and I admire his prose style, his plotting, and his characters, and also his personal character as a writer and a human being, which is sterling. He’s written a standalone, the very fine Chicago mob novel Wild Bill, and he’s currently producing two series, the Penns River novels, which so far include the wonderful Grind Joint and and the just-published Worst Enemies, and the Nick Forte private eye novels, the first of which, A Small Sacrifice, was nominated for a Shamus this year as best first indie-published PI novel. The brand new Nick Forte, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, is the most recent book I’ve read, and more or less prompted this interview, which is going to appear in two pieces. I think you’ll enjoy it.
First, congratulations on the Shamus nomination. The Shamus is nothing to sneeze at. You’re writing two series that are related in an interesting (maybe unique) way. Can you talk a little about that and then tell us about the new one, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of?
I’d written four Nick Forte books that didn’t sell. After a standalone (Wild Bill), I started a series that takes place in Penns River, which is essentially an amalgam of the three small Pennsylvania towns I grew up in. I knew the area and, most importantly, I knew the people. In the second book, Grind Joint, the Russian mob is in town, and the local cops aren’t equipped to handle them. I needed something to level the playing field, and I thought of Nick in Chicago. I liked the character and had watched him grow increasingly violent as the cases he worked on wore him down. He seemed like just what I needed, so I made him the first cousin of Ben Dougherty, the cop who is the main character of the Penns River books. Now I have both series operating in the same fictional universe, where characters from either can make random appearances in the other. I don’t want to overdo that, but it’s there if I need it. What surprised me—pleasantly—more than anything is that Nick is the character I’ve received the most flattering comments about in Grind Joint, where he gets to play Mouse to Doc’s Easy Rawlins.
The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of is Forte’s second story, the successor to last year’s A Small Sacrifice. Forte is asked to serve as a bodyguard for actor Russell Arbuthnot, who is about to open a one-man show featuring a prop from John Huston’s movie of The Maltese Falcon. Arbuthnot, who bears a cultivated resemblance to Sidney Greenstreet, claims to have received death threats he can’t substantiate. The protection gig looks to be a publicity stunt to bolster lagging ticket sales, but then someone actually does kill Arbuthnot, which is not the kind of publicity anyone had in mind, least of all Forte, who feels he ought to do something about it.
I make no bones about it: this book is my homage to Hammett’s masterpiece. I use brief quotes any fan will recognize, create a “backstory” for the falcon Arbuthnot owns, with no better provenance than could be shown in the movie. I also titled every chapter, as Hammett did in the book. I’ll never do that again. What a pain in the ass. I don’t know how you do it.
It’s for fun. As I write a chapter I keep watch for a phrase that might suggest where the scene might be going, or just make me laugh. I think “The Maltese Falcon” is maybe the most perfect Hollywood film ever made, and I loved the way you wove it through the book. Where did Nick Forte come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
Originally, Forte pretty much was me, or at least the me I might be if I knew that some all-powerful being—such as an author—could make sure the consequences didn’t get too severe. He was my first character, and all I really knew about writing at the time was the ubiquitous “they” said to write what you know, and I knew me better than anything else, having recently been through a divorce and counseling. Forte’s a former musician, divorced father with grief issues over the separation from his daughter. A wiseass with a temper who takes personally what he considers to be unfair treatment, regardless of who it’s directed at. He’s become much darker as the violence he encounters—and how rarely it has consequences for the perpetrator—wears on him.
James Ellroy once said Raymond Chandler wrote of the man he wanted to be, and Dashiell Hammett wrote of the man he was afraid he was. My two primary series characters—Forte and his cousin Ben Dougherty, the Penns River cop—are a little like that, writ small. Dougherty is the person I’d like to be, while Forte is the person I’m afraid I could be under different circumstances.
Books are all mirrors of their writers, although not always flattering mirrors. Author aside, generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
1. Character. The best books are about people, not things. That’s what makes the thrillers you write stand out from so many others: your books are about people. Too many are more about technology and paranoia and outrageous conditions and blowing shit up, where characterization consists of the male and female protagonists fighting sexual tension until they fall into bed together, almost certainly at the stupidest possible time to get naked and diverted. I know from my own reading it’s the characters that make me stick with a series. I don’t always remember the titles of stories a year later—or I’ll confuse them—but I’ll know who was in it.
Chandler, looking pensive
2. Tone. Raymond Chandler once said, “The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off.” It’s been said that Elmore Leonard—and he pretty much admitted it—wrote essentially the same book with essentially the same characters over and over again, and I still read and re-read them all, because his tone is so perfect, and tone and style and voice are inextricable. I’ve ditched story ideas I liked because I couldn’t get the tone I wanted, and the tone was what I was less willing to change.
3. Story/plot. I’m far more worried about jumping the shark than I am with amazing my readers with my plot twists. I want everything to make sense, even if that means sacrificing a little mystery. I don’t do twists all that well, and have read too many books where the author worked too hard for one and took me right out of the story. I’m hoping my readers will enjoy the ride enough they won’t worry too much about where we’re going.
4. Narrative. It’s hard for me to separate this out from tone and story. Whatever I said about the importance of tone, it has to be appropriate to the story, and so does the narrative. Given my lack of relying on plot twists, the narrative needs to be strong to keep the reader going. Now that you’ve got me thinking, these two could be switched.
5. Setting. Last, but not least. Setting can be crucial to a book, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s become cliché to say the setting is a character, but it is in the Penns River series. Forte’s stories could be set pretty much anywhere, with relatively minor adjustments. They’re in Chicago because I came up with the idea for the character while I was living there, and it is a perfect setting for these kinds of stories.
Dana and I agree completely that character drives, or should drive, everything, and that seems like a great place to break for today. I’ll put up the second part of this interview in 3-4 days. Dana’s got a lot more to say.
A Few Thoughts About FOR THE DEAD
December 2nd, 2014
It’s not just Poke, Poke, Poke all the time.
Six books into the Poke Rafferty series, my interest in writing the books is higher than ever. There’s none of the “series fatigue” that I felt late in the writing of the Simeon Grist books and that many of my friends have described as their own series stretched out toward double digits. In the Rafferty books I somehow had the sense to create, rather than a single viewpoint, three protagonists: Poke, Rose, and Miaow. That instinctive and almost accidental decision has given me not only triple the material to deal with, but more than triple the perspectives because Miaow’s perspective, between the ages of seven and 13, has changed from book to book.
One of the great treats of writing the Rafferty books has been exploring the domestic life of this oddly-assembled, slapped-together little family. The moment my imagination takes me into the living room of that two-bedroom apartment on Soi Pipat, things begin to happen: conversations begin or continue, differences of opinion arise, somebody laughs, the three of them group and regroup, and they generate a kind of familial force field that no one of them could create alone. And from that rich mix of feelings and mutual commitment (and love), the book’s story almost always arises.
Of the three of them, Miaow is the one who most engages me. In book after book I’ve had to resist letting her walk away with the story. In FOR THE DEAD, I just gave it to her and let her run with it.
At the age of two, or possibly three, her parents abandoned her on the street to beg or steal for survival. (She’ll tell the story of the night she was abandoned, for the first time, in the seventh book, THE HOT COUNTRIES, which will come out in 2015.) Poke and Rose adopted her when she was seven, or possibly eight, putting her into an apartment eight stories above the sidewalk, a height that symbolically means a great deal to her.
Her experience on the street has scarred her with shame for having been the lowest of the low, for not being worthy of her biological parents’ love, for being filthy for years (Thais are very particular about personal cleanliness), and for having stolen and lied to stay alive. But it’s also given her strength, daring, and internal resources that most kids her age can’t even imagine. And when she demonstrates those qualities in this book, to save her boyfriend’s privileged little ass, it leads to her unmasking, the ripping away of the new identity she’d created.
Her combination of almost morbid sensitivity and stainless-steel toughness makes her my favorite character to write out of all those who have pushed their way onto my pages, not just in this series, but ever.
She steals–for me, anyway–every scene she’s in. When she’s being difficult, which is not infrequent, I know exactly why. I can calibrate in some unnamed (so far as I know) unit of emotional measurement the differences in Poke’s and Rose’s attitude to her moment by moment, and it’s all instinctive — I never, ever have to think about it. Poke is easier on Miaow than Rose is, but the relationship between Rose and Miaow is the deeper and more complex.
Quite a few of the largely excellent reviews for this book have noted that I spend a lot of energy on dramatizing the gulf in Thai society between rich and poor, especially the difficulties faced by villagers in the Northeast, the most populous and poorest region of the Kingdom. All I can say is that the social commentary, such as it is, arises directly from my feelings for Miaow and Rose, both of whom have roots up there, and that I’m thinking about these issues in purely personal, rather than political or economic, terms.
But what I really want to say in this blog is that here, at long last, is Miaow’s book, and I feel like I’ve owed it to her for a years. Why she’s so real to me I can’t say, but she is, and one of the reactions to the book that’s most delighted me is that of Julie Campbell, who reviewed it on the popular mystery listserve “4 Mystery Addicts.” She wrote, “How Tim Hallinan is able to perfectly channel all that is a 13-year-old is a question I’ll never be able to answer, but I am oh so glad that he can.”
Thanks, Julie, and to all the reviewers who focused on Miaow in reacting to this book. I’d say it pleases her, but I know instinctively that she’d find something wrong with it.
“HERBIE” IS HERE
July 13th, 2014
Well, actually he’s gone, in the fictional sense (as you’ll see when you read it), but HERBIE’S GAME, the fourth Junior Bender escapade, will come out Tuesday, July 15, in living color — aubergine, to be specific.
This eggplant masterpiece of a cover is (like the others in the series) the work of the wonderful Katherine Grames. The quote is by one of my favorite writers, Bruce DeSilva, and it’s high, high praise for someone who thinks Chandler trailed rainbows behind him, grumpy though he might have been, and I thank you, Bruce.
I think this is my pet in the series so far, although I’m REALLY liking the fifth, KING MAYBE, as I write it. Of course, I’m still early in the story, when there’s no such thing as a mistake, so ask me in a month or two. Nothing in the world is easier than beginning a novel, and I know few things more difficult than finishing one.
And speaking of finishing one, the 2015 Poke Rafferty, THE HOT COUNTRIES, has moved from my “to-do” list to my “to improve” list. At 110,000 words it’s definitely overweight and possibly overwrought, but it’s my baby and it has all its fingers and toes (perhaps a few too many of each) and I love it anyway.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the people at Soho Crime, especially Juliet Grames, Paul Oliver, Bronwen Hruska, Amara Hoshijo, Rachel Kowal, and Abby Koski, for their infinite patience and the pains they take with my stuff. I’ve worked with a lot of publishers, and Soho is top of the list, with a big blank space between them and number two. And since they apparently had too much of me yet, they’ll also be releasing the sixth Poke, FOR THE DEAD, this coming November Here’s a peek — another killer cover.
Hope you like HERBIE’S GAME, wherever you get it
The Writing Process (my version, anyway)
May 25th, 2014
Michael W. Sherer, a very fine thriller writer who deservedly sells a lot of books, suggested that I join in on something called a “blog hop” in which various writers take turns blogging about a common theme — in this case, their writing process — linking forward and backward in the hope that readers will click their way merrily along, being exposed to writers and books they might enjoy. You can find his blog at http://www.michaelwsherer.com/blog.htm
I can tell you right now that you’ll enjoy Sherer. The two books featuring Blake Sanders, a necessarily nocturnal hero (he has some issues that make him more comfortable at night) who can literally find his way around Seattle blindfolded, especially hit me. The first is Night Blind, and I recommend it. Both it and Night Tide, the second, are free for the Kindle at the time of this writing.
As Michael told me, a blog hop is sort of a blog chain letter. I have unmixed feelings, all negative, about chain letters, and yet here I am, participating in one. Two wonderful writers, Catriona McPherson and Jeri Westerson have agreed to play, so at the bottom of this post you’ll find something about each of them, along with a link to their respective blogs, where their version of this thing will appear on Monday, June 2.
Is anybody still reading? Okay, the question-and-answer portion:
1. What are you working on?
I’m currently in the schizophrenic position of being in pre-publication mode on two books while trying to write two more. The ones that are coming out are the fourth Junior Bender, Herbie’s Game, which Soho will release on July 15, and the sixth Poke Rafferty, For the Dead, which will appear in better stores everywhere, as they say, in November. I don’t usually make this claim, but I think they’re both pretty good.
The books I’m trying to write are the seventh Poke, The Hot Countries, and the fifth Junior, King Maybe. The Hot Countries has the potential of being quite different if I can finish it; I’m trying to do something I’ve never done before, and it seems to be working out. Oddly, it’s the more familiar elements of the book that are giving me trouble, but I guess something has to, or it wouldn’t be my writing process, which has trouble built into it.
King Maybe has two great (I think) plots, and the primary challenges are how to braid them together and how to get Junior out of a corner into which I have very effectively painted him. There are times I wonder why I don’t just get a job as a crossing guard.
2. How does your work differ from others in this genre?
Oh, boy. Does it differ? Is there even such a thing as “this genre?” Taking the four writers whom I’ve named here–Michael, Catriona, Jeri, and Pat–they all write books that are very different from each other’s and from mine. The whole genre thing really pushes my buttons.
But okay, here’s an answer of sorts. I think I try to do what most good writers try to do, which is to put character first, last, and always. Novels are about characters, regardless of the “genre.” Plot is what characters do, dialogue is what characters say, narrative is the prism through which we see characters’ perspectives. Setting is a place, as experienced by characters. When I said above that I had what I think are two good plots for King Maybe, what I meant was that two characters came to me, each pulling a story behind him/her.
But it seems to me that my books are–like pretty much everyone else’s–the story of a person who. That’s always seemed to me to be the basic definition of a novel (or a play, for that matter): it’s the story of a person who. The hell with genres.
3. Why do you write what you do?
Like (I think) every other writer, I write books I would like to read. Whenever I start a book, my goal is to write something that, if someone else wrote it, it would land on the top of my to-be-read pile. (That’s purely figurative because my TBR “pile” currently has more than 300 books in it and I have no room with a high enough ceiling to allow them to be stacked singly on top of each other.)
So I start out hoping to write one for the top of the stack. Then, as the book gets longer and all that shiny, perfect abstraction turns into actual words, many of which are not the right words, I lower my sights. By the end, I’m hoping for a story that makes sense and means something to someone somewhere.
But however imperfectly I may render them, they’re all stories I would like to read. I think we all have an instinctive grasp of the dos and don’ts of the kind of story we like best. It would be silly, I think, to try to write anything else.
4. How does your writing process work?
Since I start from character, I can’t outline. I begin with a person, or three or four, and a sense of the situation, and then it’s as though I drop those characters, like a lot of little ball bearings, onto the surface of my desk and watch them roll around. Because some of those ball bearings represent people who are in relationships, groupings tend to form and re-form. As the characters develop and as new characters stroll in, they get all ideas of their own, and I almost always follow them. I am occasionally praised in reviews for my plotting skills, but the fact is that I have no idea what the plot will actually be until the characters take me there.
At some point, usually about 60% of the way in, I make an outline, but it’s a retroactive outline. For each chapter I list the chapter title and number; the day in the story (1, 2, 3, etc,. plus day of the week); the primary location(s); and a summary of what happens. This is partly to remind me where I am, but the main objective is to find balls I instinctively left in the air–loose ends, something unresolved or ambiguous or misunderstood. It’s amazing how often these tickle my brain, giving me exactly the prompts I need for the final sequences.
A friend of mine, an Oscar-winning songwriter named Robb Royer, once said that writing isn’t actually like architecture, in which you construct something; it’s more like archaeology, in which you uncover something that was already there. The trick is to have the patience to uncover it without forcing it into a new shape, or, even worse, breaking it.
By the time I’ve done this retroactive outline, I usually have an idea of where the book is going. Bits and pieces of it come to me as I do whatever I’m doing, and I write them all down in a file called WHERE WE’RE GOING. Most of that material finds its way into the book, although there’s always also a major surprise or two at the last minute.
So that’s my process, and I’m stuck with it.
Playing it Forward
When Michael slogged this off on me, it was on the condition that I rope more writers into sharing their own process and then passing it on to yet more writers. Here are the two writers who came out to play. The pieces will appear on their sites on Monday, June 2.
Catriona McPherson is the Agatha, Bruce Alexander, and Macavity winning author of eight preposterous 1920s mysteries, set in her native Scotland and featuring the gently-born but rather kick-ass Dandy Gilver. The latest – DANDY GILVER AND A BOTHERSOME NUMBER OF CORPSES (Minotaur) – won a second Bruce Alexander award for best historical novel at Left Coast Crime. Her first contemporary stand-alone – AS SHE LEFT IT (Midnight Ink) – was a Kirkus top 20 pick for 2013, was shortlisted for the Calamari at Left Coast, and is currently on the shortlist for the Anthonys and a Foreword Reviews BOTYA. The second – THE DAY SHE DIED – came out in May, and Kirkus called it “a tour de force, a creepy psychological thriller that will leave you breathless.” Catriona is the current vice-president of Sisters in Crime and lives in northern California with two black cats and a scientist. She is also great, great company. You can find her online at http://catrionamcpherson.com/
L.A. native Jeri Westerson combined the medieval with the hard-boiled and came up with her own brand of medieval mystery she calls Medieval Noir. Her brooding protagonist, Crispin Guest, is a disgraced knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London. Her latest, Shadow of the Alchemist, was named the Best of 2013 by Suspense Magazine, and the newest, Cup of Blood, will be released in July. Jeri’s Crispin Guest books have been nominated for a variety of industry awards, from the Agatha to the Shamus. She is president of the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and former VP for Sisters in Crime Los Angeles. Jeri speaks all over the Southland about medieval history, including as a guest lecturer at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, CA. See more at http://www.getting-medieval.com/
That’s all, folks — but check these blogs out on Monday. All these writers have something great to say.
May 18th, 2014
Grueddhism (noun) (derivation: Gruesome + Buddhism): tenuous form of Buddhism adopted by the wealthy of the West as a fashion accessory and status symbol. Usage: See the woman in the five-inch heels and the Buddha T-shirt? She’s a Grueddhist.
Snapshots from the practice of Grueddhism:
A heavily pregnant woman is pushing her shopping basket toward her car in a Whole Foods parking lot when a Prius (the automotive choice of those who treasure the earth and all who abide there) cruises noiselessly up behind her, and the woman driving it leans on her horn. The pregnant woman leaps aside and the driver of the Prius slows as she passes to shout something. Her license plate frame reads Namaste, which means the spirit in me honors the spirit in you. The Buddha didn’t have a license plate and, so far as we know, never yelled at a pregnant woman who was too slow getting out of his way.
A billonaire tycoon known internationally for his explosive temper and massive ego builds himself houses centered on the minimalist stillness of Zen rock gardens to give him, you know, perspective, and goes on “spiritual retreats” when he’s not skimming the oceans on one of the world’s biggest personal yachts, which he’ll soon be sailing to his own private Hawaiian Island, purchased to give him a peaceful environment. When the Buddha needed peace, he closed his eyes.
A Hollywood uber-agent, once the most powerful man in the entertainment industry, who accumulated a huge collection of Buddhist art and put up an office building largely to house it, told a screenwriter who had decided to seek representation elsewhere, “My soldiers will hunt you down and kill you.” The Buddha never had a soldier.
Grueddhism is one of the fastest-growing belief systems/status symbols among a certain population, largely West Coast-based members of the one percent. As a lifetime left-leaner I’m somewhat ashamed to say they’re mostly west side liberals who believe fervently in the achievement of justice and social equality through the redistribution of everyone’s wealth but theirs.
Okay, these folks already have nicer cars, bigger houses, hipper friends, better drugs, more accomplished plastic surgeons, and tonier ZIP codes than we do. So why do they need Grueddhism? It’s very simple: by demonstrating publicly that they have all these things but don’t really care about them, they’re practicing spiritual one-upmanship. Some of them trained for this by being among the first to renounce fur or to campaign for veganism among the poor. But those bold stands of principle, personally satisfying as they might have been, weren’t visible. Grueddhism announces itself: it says, I can afford this designer coat with the Buddha on it in (ahem) rainforest green, and you can’t.
Would the Buddha have worn this? No?
It’s religion as a shawl or a hairstyle or a new accent, an announcement of a superiority so absolute that it would be visible on an X-ray. The deity that actually inspires it, of course, isn’t the Buddha, not some long-dead Indian with (probably) brown skin, but rather Mario Prada and/or Louis Vuitton. Can a brown purse festooned with little mustard-yellow Buddhas be far behind? Not when this attractive clutch is already available for those who attend enlightened but exclusive events.
Wouldn’t this have have been a beautiful accent to the Buddha’s saffron robe?
Of course, every religion has its backsliders and hypocrites. Thailand has among its enormous population of Buddhist monks several who mess prominently in politics, throwing their support to one worldly faction or another in exchange for who knows what, or who trade in amulets that confer dubiously miraculous powers. It has politicians who preach rectitude and steal like pashas. It has business tycoons who believe that Asanga’s Fivefold path comprises acquisition, consolidation, domination, cost-shaving, and branding.
But it’s one thing to believe in a religion and be unable to live up to it, and another thing to wrap yourself in one because mink has become unfashionable. As far as I’m concerned, the only good thing about Grueddhism is that it makes radical Islam look a little better. I think we non-Grueddhists should go out of our way to present every Grueddhist we meet with an opportunity for spiritual growth. Egg his or her Bentley or Mercedes. Give them something to transcend.
And make sure you remind them to have a nice day.
The Writer’s, uhhh, Friend
May 8th, 2014
I think that people who don’t write sometimes envy those who do, and I think it’s time to set them straight.
I’ve had people in bookstores and at writing conferences tell me they can’t imagine how amazing it must feel to sit down and have the story transmit itself through me, to see vistas unrolling beneath my fingertips, populated with attractive, fascinating people doing memorable things.
Usually, I lie to these people. I say it’s all in the sitting. That the only way to inspiration is via drudgery. Inspiration, I tell them, is a result of gruntwork.
But as true as that answer is, it avoids what they actually said, which was about what it must feel like. So this is what it feels like.
The writer at work
And that’s a good day. On a bad day, it feels more like this:
Inspiration on demand
I can’t speak for other writers, but for me, writing is a product of anxiety. Every day I get up absolutely certain that I’m going to write all day, that this will be a three thousand-word day. (At three thousand words per day, assuming that they’re the right words–which they never are–one could conceivably write a 90,000 word novel each and every month of the year.)
As you may have noticed, if you read me, I do not write a book every month.
Instead, I go through the day, answering emails, checking out the decline of Scientology, laughing at John Boehner’s canned tan, and generally persuading myself that these are pleasant pastimes, as opposed to desperate diversions, and that nothing whatsoever stands between me and the first brilliant words of the day. But when I visualize that nothing whatsoever, this is how I see it.
And it’s higher than it looks.
Writing, for me, is a matter of balancing anxieties. I spend every day in the grip of a pair of almost-identical anxiety twins: on the one hand, anxiety about not writing. On the other, anxiety about writing.
Anxiety about not writing takes up most of my time. It’s characterized by sharp self-criticism on a spectrum of issues, from my lack of will power to my lack of courage, plus, at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near (with apologies to Andrew Marvell) and the chariot’s payload is deadlines.
Andrew Marvell, after a couple of Valiums
Anxiety about writing takes over the moment I (finally) open my laptop. Anxiety about writing is one form of performance anxiety that’s rarely used in a punch line. This is the day nothing will come. This is the day crap will come. This is the day crap will come and fit perfectly into the manuscript, revealing that it’s all crap. This is the day I finally learn that I’d be better suited to a life spent in the sun and in pleasant, green surroundings, retrieving golf balls from water traps. And who thought this idea would work in a book anyway?
The key to my getting anything at all done lies in a careful balancing of those anxieties. It requires judgment and experience to get it right. What I have to do, on a daily basis, is wait until my anxiety about not writing outweighs my anxiety about writing. At that point, I can choose two courses for my day. If I don’t take the cue to get down to it, this is what I face.
This is not something you want to do in front of children.
If I do get down to it, what I face is a slow, word-by-word beginning, much deletion, many games of Hearts, a moderately interesting middle and, perhaps, total exhilaration for an hour or two as I pour onto the page one absolute keeper after another, the best stuff I’ve ever done, most of which will be rewritten the next day. But, God willing, it won’t look so awful when I rewrite it that it’ll put me off the session completely.
The only writing session that’s actually a failure is the one you either abandon or don’t begin.
Somehow, I’ve gotten sixteen published books out of this, um, process, and there are even things in some of them I’m proud of. That’s the reason for this blog: if you want to write something and you’re having a hard time of it, remember me, neurotically balancing anxieties to produce 1000-1500 words a day, most of which are the wrong words. But you know what? At the end of the road, there’s almost always a book.
May 2nd, 2014
Every now and then a reader feels moved to write me to say something helpful like, “I could probably enjoy your books if they weren’t written in present tense.”
Well, okay. Thanks for the share.
I could respond by pointing out that two of my three series are, in fact, written in the old tried-and-true tense, which is to say past. But why confuse the issue? The issue is that this person can’t read/doesn’t enjoy narrative fiction in the present tense.
And my basic reaction is, so?
As someone who reads both fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, dramatic and narrative writing, in both modern and archaic English–and manages to enjoy all of them–I have difficulty sympathizing with those who find a switch in tense to be an insurmountable obstacle. It seems to me it should be simply something one gets used to, as one gets used to a writer’s style or the fact that the last words in some lines of poetry rhyme. It’s not as though writing a paragraph in the present tense turns the text a bright, unappealing yellow and makes it leap and waver all over the page. If one were in a frame of mind to push the old envelope, one might even look for reasons to like present-tense storytelling.
I’m aware that past tense is traditional for narrative storytelling, and I think there were originally a couple of good reasons for that. First, back when we shared stories in the verbal tradition, as Homer did, the past tense told listeners immediately that the story they were about to hear was complete, that it had both a beginning and an end and that, God willing, if they sat there long enough they might be able to hear both of them.
Second, ancient narratives often told well-known tales of gods and heroines, and it was no secret that those stories had happened in the past, often the very remote past. Present tense would have been confusing.
Novels, when they finally arrived upon the scene, were usually told in past tense, although not those written in the once-very-popular epistolary form, in which the story is told through an exchange of letters (Pamela and Les Liaisons Dangereuses are well-known examples, but there were hundreds of them). Letters in such novels are written, as letters generally are, in the present tense.
Dickens opens Bleak House, possibly his greatest book, in a marvelously vivid present tense (my favorite opening paragraphs in literature), but when he changes over to the first-person perspective of the narrator, Esther Summerson, she’s telling a story with its roots in the past. From then on the novel is in past tense.
As are most novels. And I have no problem with that. My problem is with people who get all willieknocked when they brush up against a story told in the present tense.
Because, you know what? We live in the present tense. The things that happen to those we love take place in present tense. And to move away from life and into art, two of the storytelling forms we most enjoy–theater and film–are present-tense media. When a film or a play wants to move to past tense, it usually creates a framing device: a flashback, a memory, a dissolve through something someone is saying.
A framing device
We’re comfortable with the present tense in daily life, on TV, at sporting events, and in theaters. So what’s the big deal about finding it in printed narrative?
Actually, I think it’s just habit. It’s what we’re used to. To someone who has read hundreds of novels in past tense, the present tense, at first sight, just feels wrong.
But so what? For fifty years or so, audiences and even film professionals felt that gritty, realistic films were best shot in black and white. The Civil War was in black and white, the newsreels from both World Wars were in black and white. There was something trustworthy, something unglossy about it. No trickery involved. In black and white, you could believe your eyes. Black and white was real.
Except, of course, that the world isn’t in black and white, any more than it’s in past tense. It’s in color and it’s in present tense. As Orson Welles (who knew quite a lot about black and white) pointed out, it was a technological accident that black-and-white film came first and dominated the film industry long enough to train the audience’s eye to the point where it was seen as, somehow, “realistic.” If the first films had been in color, black-and-white either never would have been developed or would have been viewed as an amusing abstraction – maybe as a way to show us how aliens view the world.
There is no way in which the past tense is inherently superior to the present tense when used to tell a story. I use both and enjoy writing both. I read both and enjoy reading both. I think they have different strengths. If someone isn’t flexible enough to get used to it, he or she shouldn’t read it. But don’t fulminate about how it never works, or be prepared to argue with, among others, Dickens, John Updike, Erich Maria Remarque, Franz Kafka, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Niffenegger, Andre Dubus III, Walker Percy, Chuck Palahniuk, Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Lethem, William Gibson, Lisa See, Ken, Kesey, Michael Chabon, Richard Russo, Jhumpa Lahiri, and hundreds of others who have created fine, even brilliant works of narrative fiction in the present tense.
Another promising novel ruined by the present tense
But whatever you do, don’t imitate the English lit-fic novelist and (naturally) professor of creative writing, Philip Hensher. Apparently put out by the commercial and aesthetic success of Hilary Mantle’s Wolf Hall (which is in present tense), Hensher ranted, “The routine use of present tense in the historical novel is quickly becoming a terrible cliché. There is, too, a spread of appallingly dull novels that run, “I go downstairs and make a cup of tea. On the television, the news is talking about a disaster in India. Got any drugs, I say to my flatmate Baz.”
Well, clearly what’s wrong with this wretched little pastiche is the tense. Look here: “I went downstairs and made a cup of tea. On the television, the news was talking about a disaster in India. Got any drugs, I said to my flatmate Baz.”
See? Makes all the difference.
Good writing is good writing and bad writing is bad writing, no matter what the tense.
Who Cares Whodunnit? Part Two
April 25th, 2014
As the title suggests, this post is sort of a sequel. If you haven’t read Part One and think you might like to, it’s right down there.
When I ran out of steam last time, I was getting into two of the things I blame for the low esteem with which some people regard mysteries and thrillers. One was the universal human need to find someone or something to look down on The other is the term “whodunnit” and what it implies.
The problem, on a platter
“Whodunnit,” when you think about it, isn’t a very complicated question. It can usually be answered with a single character’s name, unless you’re reading Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” in which case the answer is, “everybody.” (Sorry about the spoiler.)
And I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I think “Murder on the Orient Express” is a perfect book of its kind, and that I don’t actually like books of its kind. And by that, I mean books in which “whodunnit” is actually the most important thing in the story. Books in which a puzzle, rather than people, is what matters.
The usual suspects
A murder, an act of violence, needs to be taken seriously. These deed affect people – obviously not just the victim, but those who loved the victim, who hated the victim, who envied the victim, who had his or her hopes pinned on the victim. Ultimately, since such acts have a ripple effect, people who never heard of the victim.
An act of violence is an interruption of everything we planned for, all the assumptions we depended on. It’s a disruption on the world. It makes it apparent that our hopes are predicated on expectations that may not be fulfilled, on rules that some people don’t follow, on an instinctive belief in a prevailing underlying justice that may not actually exist. An act of violence, a murder, creates a crisis. And what happens in a crisis is that character reveals itself.
I would argue that the revelation of character, of holding a human being up to the light to see how he or she works – where character is strong or weak or admirable or loathsome or flexible or rigid or holy or profane – is the primary function of fiction.
What’s most interesting to me about all this is that murder and violence – physical or emotional violence – have been used to reveal character and propel events forward in literature all over the world, from the very beginning. What’s Homer writing about? War and survival. The Book of Genesis takes us straight to a murder, Cain’s killing of Abel, and its repercussions. The greatest of Sophocles’ plays, “Oedipus Rex,” is a detective story with a twist, which is that the central character turns out to be the murderer. When Agatha Christie did precisely that in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926, it caused a minor sensation even though Sophocles had already pulled it off almost 2400 years earlier. To look at the Middle Ages, Beowulf is a straight-ahead thriller, a portrait of a society suspended, being held for ransom by violence until someone—some hero—will step forward and take action.
A classic example of serious literature using murder as the microscope for character is “Hamlet.”
You can’t have . . .
. . . “Hamlets” . . .
. . . without hams.
“Hamlet” presents a classic setup: a man has been killed and the job of finding the murderer and punishing him falls to the victim’s son. In fact, this situation has been used so often that it’s become a trope, one modern definition of which is “a story concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.”
But in Shakespeare’s hands, the murder investigation leads us into all sorts of issues: the primacy of kings, the relationship between mother and son, the betrayal of friendship, the immeasurable value of honest friendship, the fragility of young love, the soul-sickness of the murderer, the eternal question of what sometimes keeps us from doing what we need to do even when the path is clear.
At two points, Claudius’s failed prayer and the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, it takes us into regions like the silence of God, the relationship between God and the human soul, and the uncertainty of the afterlife. Big stuff. And all of it arises naturally from fascinating, deeply felt characters who are responding to the old-testament blunt weapon of murder.
And after Shakespeare has put us inside these characters’ hearts and souls for hours–so that Elsinore Castle stands in for the whole universe–at the end, when everyone is dead or dying, he brings in someone new, Fortinbras, to survey the dead, frown at the disorderly throne room, assert a shaky claim to authority, and order that the word of these terrible events be spread far and wide, and now let’s get to work. We’ve got a country to run.
Fortinbras rolls up his sleeves and dusts off his crown.
At that precise moment the bodies on the stage – Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, the others – who have been our world for hours, are just litter to be cleared away to make room for the new order.
We’re witnessing the restoration of order, which was Shakespeare’s great theme, whether the play is a comedy, tragedy, history, or one of the very complex late works that scholars, for lack of a better term, call “problem plays.” Whatever genre (there’s that word again) the play represents, in the first act we learn what’s wrong with the world it depicts, and the end of the fifth act, order has been restored
And that is absolutely what happens in a crime novel, whether it’s a thriller or a mystery. The reader enters a world that’s about to be broken or has just been broken. It’s out of kilter. It’s stopped working the way we believe our world should work. The characters of the people on the page have been stretched thin enough to be transparent; motives and enmities and love are suddenly made visible. The primary course of action of a mystery or a thriller is repairing that broken world and exploring those exposed characters, restoring both to some kind of acceptable balance. It may be retribution, it may be the revelation of the truth. The denouement may be thrilling or comic or tragic. Depends on the book. But at the end of the story – unless it’s noir – there will be some form of restoration.
Question mark or fish hook?
The reason that kind of exploration and illumination work so well in the whodunnit and the thriller is that each of them plants a question mark at the very beginning – in “Hamlet,” the opening words are “Who’s there?” called out by a terrified guard who’s asking the question that’s really being asked throughout the play. Who’s behind that mask? Who’s beneath that crown? Who’s wearing that smile? Who is that man who was pretending to love me?
The whodunnit and the thriller take that question mark and plant it right there in the first act. It may or may not be a coincidence that a question mark looks like a fish hook, because what the question mark does is hook the reader and pull him or her across 100,000 words or so to see what the answer is, and—more important—what happens as we get closer to it.
And that fish hook has to drag the reader upstream because as he or she sits there, nose to the type, the real world is flowing by. People take a break from their lives to read, and writers should never forget that. A reader with the book open is like a rock in a stream: life is flowing past, carrying with it lots of things that compete for the reader’s attention, and some of them will only go by once. I think we owe the reader something in our book that makes that commitment of time and energy and attention worthwhile.
So that means the books have to be about something that goes beyond whodunnit. On a purely personal note and from a writer’s perspective, I can testify that there’s probably not a theme in the world that can’t be explored in a thriller or a whodunit, not a society, not a culture, not a business.
These are essentially investigative forms – there’s almost always a character whose primary function is to ask questions, and there’s pretty much nothing you can’t open up and put a microscope to. To suggest one personal example, in my Bangkok series, I’ve looked closely at Thai culture and American culture and where they overlap and clash. I’ve looked at the dynamic of putting together a family that’s made up of people whose world views and expectations and belief systems are completely different. That’s complex material, and I haven’t even mentioned emotional damage.
In a modest way, when I attempt to hold up to view that kind of material I feel that I’m following in the tracks of a lot of talented writers who have sat down day after day to write the best book they possibly could – to make the reading experience worthwhile for the people who open the book – in both literary fiction and genre fiction. Detective fiction and thrillers have deepened and broadened to include characters who are deeper than the page, predicaments that are more than puzzles, revelations that reflect our own lives. I believe that some of the best writers of the past century have worked and are working in what’s still called genre fiction, and they know that the question is not, and never really has been, “whodunnit?” It’s “what happened?” and “to whom?” and “what does this show me about my world?”
Far as I’m concerned, those are real books.
Who Cares Whodunnit? (Part One)
April 22nd, 2014
I’m here today, in part, to air a grievance. And to do it at some length. In fact, in two parts.
I write whodunnits. I work hard at it. I do the best I can every single day and usually wind up tossing half of my work. I am perpetually faced with something I have no idea in the world how to write, and I write it anyway. Once in a while, I think, I do it reasonably well.
But, like everyone who writes crime fiction, I know that I’m looked down upon. I’m a “genre” writer. I practice my craft in a downscale literary ZIP code, where there are cars parked on the lawn and the houses lean a little and the children usually have stuff on their upper lip. My stories, even the best of them, according to certain people, are not . . . actually . . . books.
The crime fiction ZIP code. You can’t see our beat-up cars because the banks foreclosed on our lawns.
Some of the people who write, edit, publish, and criticize so-called “literary fiction” look down on people like me. We’re not quite real writers. They see themselves atop the high, white marble towers of literature in which they and their readers live, raising knowing eyebrows at each other and tossing off quips while we genre mutts drag ourselves around in the mud on our elbows, grunting at each other and squabbling over chicken bones and the occasional bright bead.
If you’re a reader of crime fiction, you’ve probably come up against this attitude, too. There are people in my life, and probably in yours, who, when they ask what you’re reading and learn that it’s a “whodunnit,” pause for a second, make a sort of Downton Abbey sound like, “Euh,” and then ask, “Is it interesting?” As though (a) it would be a waste of time to come up with a better question for someone on your reading level, and (b) it can’t possibly actually be interesting. In any serious way, that is. For a serious person.
A seriously stupid question.
These people try to build literary fences around us, as though our books might somehow cohabit with their books and accidentally make them, you know, interesting. Nonfiction and literary fiction receive serious and relatively frequent newsprint, but genre fiction is reviewed in a modest little column that appears on odd-numbered Thursdays in months without an “R” in their name.
They restrict our books to their own little ghettos in bookstores, too – the aisles of which I’m happy to say, often have more customers in them than some other aisles I could name. Because that’s the dirty little secret. A medium-selling mystery outsells a medium-selling lit-fic novel, and genre fiction has a really uncomfortable way of taking out longterm leases on the top rungs of the bestseller lists. But you, know, that’s because ordinary people buy them.
Defiantly ordinary reader.
Those of us who write thrillers and whodunnits can get a little defensive about being classified as literary invertebrates. For one thing, we write an awfully broad and complex spectrum of books to be crammed into a one or two-word description. We write the kind of classic puzzles, dependent on clues and timetables, that marked the s0-called “Golden Age.”
We write hard-boiled private eyes, we write cooking mysteries like Murder In the Yeast or Chili Con Carnage. Or craft mysteries like The Dropped Stitch of Death. Or elaborate, amazingly literate mysteries set in the Louisiana bayous, like those of James Lee Burke. Or character-steeped police procedurals like Henning Mankell’s. Or flawed half-villains and their sometimes treacherous friends, like Patricia Highsmith’s characters. We write night-black noir, like Jim Thompson and Ken Bruen.
The House of Crime.
It this genre were a single house, it would need rooms for Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Harry Bosch, Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple, Father Brown, Kinsey Millhone, Commissario Brunetti, Arkady Renko, Sam Spade, Easy Rawlins, Jack Reacher, Lew Archer, Lydia Chin, Flavia de Luce, Precious Ramotswe, V.I Warshawski, Inspector Maigret, Lord Peter Wimsey, Dave Robicheau, Rabbi David Small, Brother Cadfael, Father Brown, and literally thousands of others. The house would need a lot of bedrooms, and it’s hard to imagine the conversation at the dinner table, because these people don’t really have much in common.
I’ve barely scraped the surface, and I could go on all day. If this is a genre it’s so broad and varied that the people who chose the word need to go back and come up with another.
And if you doubt that the word is pejorative, a few weeks ago J.A. Jance, a writer who has sold more than twenty million books, called the college from which she graduated and volunteered to put in a month working in their writing program. She was told, and this is a quote, “Oh, no, we don’t do anything with GENRE fiction; we only do LITERARY fiction.”
Why the negative judgment? What is it about so-called genre books, including whodunnits, that gets the literary highbrows’ knickers so twisted?
My first theory is that it’s just another manifestation of the eternal human fact that everybody needs somebody to look down on. Obviously, this thought isn’t original with me, but I defy anyone to make the case that this isn’t a universal and instinctive desire. It’s why the few all-first-class airlines, like MGM Grand, have all gone broke. The problem wasn’t that there weren’t enough people who could afford it. The problem was that there was no tourist class for the people in the front of the plane to feel superior to. What’s the joy of stretching out in first with your foie gras if there aren’t a bunch of grunts in back, folded up like paper clips and eating K-rations and envying you? What’s the fun of boarding the plane first, if no one is boarding second?
So here’s my second theory.
The term whodunnit.
I’ll get to that in Part Two.
Cherchez le Crook
April 14th, 2014
It’s been a year since I wrote here, so this is by way of a catch-up.
Like all crime writers, I love crooks. And they frighten me.
I love them because they’re so much fun to write. They make their own rules. As children they paid no attention to the hopscotch squares chalked on the sidewalk, and as adults they pay no attention to the Ten Commandments and the million lesser laws and quibbles the Commandments spawned. They bubble and seethe, crablike, with malicious energy. They don’t have to be politically correct. They can offend people.
Laurence Olivier, seething as Richard III
They frighten me because they have a way, unless they’re watched very closely, of walking away with my book.
Our heroes have to behave, at least until we’ve pushed them to extremis. Even then, most of the time they can’t get any fun from the damage they do — that might cost them the reader’s sympathy. Our crooks, on the other hand, can win at chess by sweeping the pieces off the board and then shooting the person sitting opposite, shrugging it off as a striking variation on the Sicilian Opening.
Would you bet on black or white?
We’ve seen this taken to unfortunate extremes lately, especially in the serial-killer genre, with sadism and murder serving as straight lines for witless wisecracks. I think this is dishonest writing and actually violates the writer’s agreement to take the reader’s intelligence seriously. On the other hand, some of these books sell quite well, so what do I know?
But I understand the appeal of that energy. I have to admit that I’ll be digging away at a book, trying to figure out where in the world I’m tunneling to (I don’t outline and generally have very little idea what’s going to happen until it actually does) and all of a sudden the crook tears open the page and climbs through the hole, and I experience a burst of electricity. Crooks and villains seem to bring their worlds with them, while I feel as though I have to work to fill in the worlds of my more sympathetic characters. In the fifth Poke Rafferty book, The Fear Artist, which came out in 2012, the reader doesn’t get anywhere near the villain of the piece until page 141, if you don’t count a four-line exchange of dialogue in the second or third chapter. And then, the villain just puts the whole book in his pocket and saunters away with it.
And all the villain, Haskell Murphy, does in his first close-up is get off a plane, climb into the back of a car, and be driven to his house, and within the four or five pages that drive took, I learned so much about him that I had to rewrite the first part of the book. That’s energy. It felt like I’d been digging away at the story with a tablespoon, and all of a sudden I was holding a jackhammer. Murphy even brought a whole new character with him, his daughter, whom he calls Treasure, and she changed not only the ending of the book, but also the book that will follow it this coming November and the book that follows that one.
But, as much fun as Murphy was to write, I couldn’t give him the book. It’s a series, and most readers expect the really important series characters to be alive at the end of the book. If I’d given Murphy his head, it would have been Armageddon.
So I dealt with it. I dealt with it by writing a new series with a hero who’s a crook, a burglar named Junior Bender who moonlights as a private eye for other crooks. When a crook gets ripped off, he or she is not going to call the cops. They’re going to call Junior.
I wrote the first two Junior books, Crashed and Little Elvises, as ebooks, but pretty much the moment I finished the third, The Fame Thief, they suddenly got picked up for everything – publishing (Soho), film, and audio (Blackstone). So the fun I had writing them is apparently detectable on the page.
Right now I’m writing the seventh Poke Rafferty, which is called The Hot Countries (the sixth, For the Dead, comes out this November) and the fifth Junior Bender, King Maybe. (The fourth, Herbie’s Game, is due this coming July.) I’m hoping that the energy will average out between the two series. As much as I love writing the Pokes, and especially the family, they’re less fun (read: harder work) than the Juniors. Almost everyone in the Juniors is crooked to one degree or another, and they’ve all got that energy. Writing them is like playing with matches—the old matches that you see in Westerns and noir movies that would strike on anything. I never know when the page is going to catch on fire.
Crooks. What would we do without them?