Meet Dana King and “Wild Bill”

October 15th, 2011

I first met Dana King (virtually) through correspondence about the Poke Rafferty books, and some very nice reviews of those books that Dana published online.  It’s a great pleasure to introduce you to his new ebook novel, WILD BILL, which I read in two sittings.

WILD BILL is an accomplished, fast-moving, extremely persuasive novel about what happens when a power vacuum opens up in the Chicago mob — a scramble that involves not only gangsters but also the law, both Federal and local.  There are a great many characters, and I responded to every one of them.  So it’s great pleasure to welcome Dana to the ranks of writers who have actually put a novel out there, where absolute strangers can see it — an act of considerable courage.  And who’s done it with a really good book.

Why did you choose this arena — a war between the Chicago Outfit and the law?  And how did you research it?

The research actually came first. I grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh. Our idea of crime was egging houses on Halloween. The idea of organized crime fascinated me. Not that I wanted to become involved, but that such a thing existed. I read a lot of stuff about New York OC, but about ten years ago I stumbled onto the books of William Roemer, who was Sam Giancana’s personal albatross. Those led me to Gus Russo’s excellent history, The Outfit, and Robert Cooley’s When Corruption was King, and Jeff Coen’s Family Secrets, which is more current. Most people have no idea of the level of corruption in Chicago until twenty or thirty years ago. Not that there isn’t any now, but from Capone’s days until recently, the Outfit ran what they wanted.

Add to that my love for that area. I worked in The Loop for a few years in the mid-Nineties. Of all the places I’ve been and lived in since I left Pittsburgh, Chicago is my favorite. I’d live there again in a heartbeat. Wonderful city with great and caring people amid this culture of corruption. Sometimes I wonder if I feel about Chicago much the way you feel about Thailand, loving it in spite of its flaws.

What aspect of the book was most challenging to you, and how did you overcome the problems?

The voice gave me hell at the beginning. Wild Bill was my first third-person, multi-POV novel, after several efforts at first-person PI stories. I must have re-written the opening chapters half a dozen times until I was comfortable enough to move on.

You have a large number of characters, and virtually every chapter takes us almost inside one of them, albeit in third person.  How did you manage to make so many characters so distinctive and keep them that way throughout the book?

Thank you. That was a major concern of mine. I wanted to do a lot of the characterization by how the characters themselves saw things and felt about them. Each needed his or her own voice. What I ended up doing was editing a late draft out of sequence. First all of Will’s chapters, so I’d be thinking like Will and could better ensure consistency for him and his attitude. Then a pass of just Frank’s chapters. Then Mad’s, Junior’s, until they all had their own flow and feel.

Did the work of any specific writer influence WILD BILL, and if so, who was/were he/she, them, and how did their influence manifest itself?

Elmore Leonard, for making me comfortable with allowing dialog to carry the story. Leonard is also the master at writing books that have humor, but aren’t comedies. Funny things happen, funny things get said, but not as jokes. Leonard also likes to use unexpected violence, which is important to Wild Bill. I never set out thinking, “How would Leonard handle this?” but after the fact I saw his influence.

Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct stories taught me that time could be taken away from directly moving the plot if it made the characters more real, and was entertaining. If there’s just a story, people will blow through it like junk food. They’ll linger over, and remember, characters.

Which of the characters were easiest and hardest to write, and why?

Mad was the hardest, by far. I’d never written anything from a woman’s point of view before, and I didn’t want her to be a caricature or a stereotype. A strong woman, not just a man with tits, and definitely not a martial arts killbot with a hot body. If I had to choose what I’m most pleased about with Wild Bill, it’s that I’ve had more nice comments about her than any other character.

Will was the easiest. I just put him in a situation, and thought, “What would I like to do here?” Not, “What would I do?” “What would I like to do?”

Are you a plotter or a pantser, and why?

Plotter. Making up stories is hard work for me. Telling stories that have already happened is easy and fun. For me the heavy lifting is deciding what’s going to happen. How it happens, and making why it happens seem plausible, is the fun.

What do you think you learned from writing the book?

To take my time. The plot on the index cards might be fine, but if something presents itself in the writing, go with it. Living with a book for over a year like I did with Wild Bill allowed new ideas and attitudes to take effect. I know I just said I’m a plotter—I still have to know where I’m going—but I learned to take alternate routes as they presented themselves.

What one or two things do you hope readers will take away from WILD BILL?

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. I think we all focus sometimes on what we want and how we’re going to get there, which reminds us of what we don’t have. Not that we shouldn’t strive, but don’t forget to appreciate where you are, too. This phrase has been overused, probably because it’s true: It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. Everyone should watch the movie Up from time to time.

The other is, it’s always the things you don’t expect that trip you up. Not necessarily surprises. I mean things you’re aware of and think you have under control, or underestimate their ability to harsh your mellow, as a friend of mine would say.

By the way, these weren’t the messages I meant to convey when I started Wild Bill. I have no idea now what those were. These evolved as the story grew. I think that’s pretty common with writers.

Why did you decide to go the ebook route as opposed to traditional publishing?

I piled up a substantial number of encouraging rejections for one of my PI stories. My favorite—which I understand others have heard—was that the book was too good for paperback but not good enough for a hardcover series, which is bullshit, plain and simple. I got close enough that I started to do some research on what to expect after I got a contract and came to the conclusion that might be a bigger pain in the ass than getting a contract in the first place. I’m lucky enough to have a day job that pays well and I like (generally). There are only so many hoops I’m willing to jump through.

Then I wrote Wild Bill and everyone told me mob stories were dead. No one was buying them. It’s funny, how agents and editors always seem to know what won’t sell, but never what will. Anyway, I really liked the story and the characters. I’d considered releasing the PI series as ebooks, and decided to learn some lessons by publishing the standalone first. That way no other book would be too directly connected to it if I mucked it up.

Can you recommend three thrillers or mysteries you especially like and give readers a few reasons to read them?

Wow, just three? Okay. The Friends of Eddie Coyle might be the greatest work of crime fiction ever written. Higgins lets dialog carry the book even more than Leonard, and there’s no glamour. None. Eddie’s a bit player in Boston’s crime community, so there’s no sentimentality for his mistakes, and no allowances are made. I don’t know any criminals first hand, but Higgins creates a world that I believe completely.

I tend to think of Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know and Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep together, and not because they’re written by women. Both books are loosely based on actual events, and both create worlds as well as any books I’ve ever read, regardless of genre. Abbott has a little more work to do because she’s actually taking the reader back in time, and it took me a couple of chapters to synch my reading eye up with her period-influenced style. Once I did, it was like living in a black and white movie. I live not far from Baltimore, though I’m not native, so I knew some of the places Lippman was referring to, which can be both good and bad. The way she works within the confines of the world she pulls the reader into and still makes the twist at the end seem inevitable is brilliant. I was a little surprised, because I’m not a huge fan of her Tess Monahan books, but What the Dead Know is a masterpiece.

Since I grouped the last two together, I get one more. I hesitate to mention this because it will sound like gross sucking up, but The Queen of Patpong is a marvelous book. You wrote a truly character-based thriller that spends more time on its characters than on the thrills, which makes each thrill that much stronger. The descriptions of Rose in her village and the climax are as well-written and gut-wrenching as anything I can name.

And, last of all, what’s next for you?

I’m working on a series about cops in a small Western Pennsylvania town. The hope is to make the town and the economic atmosphere characters as much as the people. I plan to get one of them out sometime over the winter.

Thanks for the compliment, and I’ll be looking forward to the next one.

19 Responses to “Meet Dana King and “Wild Bill””

  1. EverettK Says:

    Thanks, Dana and Tim!!! Reading the author’s thoughts about the writing process as well as the book itself always makes me want to read the book. 🙂

  2. Sheri Hart Says:

    Thanks for bringing us this great interview Tim!

    I love OC stories,so I will definitely check out your book, Dana. Like Everett, I also enjoy hearing about other writers’ processes and struggles.

    I hope you will come back and let us know how your e-book experience turns out. It’s fascinating to watch the changes in the publishing world through writers’ eyes.

    I liked your comment about how editors and agents know what won’t sell but never seem to know what will. And will cop in advance to stealing the “harsh your mellow” phrase from your friend!



  3. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I enjoyed reading your post, and I think I have seen you around the blogoshere. One of the most delightful things about ebooks is that they are (usually) affordable. This allows me to to read authors who are new to me. I wish you luck in your ebook ventures. I once lived in Pennsylvania so I will look forward to reading your next series.

  4. EverettK Says:

    By the way, since you didn’t include the link in the interview (SHAME on you! SHAME!) here’s the link to Wild Bill on Amazon:

    EBOOK: Wild Bill by Dana King

    (What are alternative things that a stuttering Weirdo Tim might do? Why, my reCaptcha, of course: pperveo Options.)

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks for the catch, Everett — I fixed it in the tease and I’m leaving yours down here, too.

    I’ll respond to the other comments after Dana gets a chance to come on and chat with y’all.

  6. Pat Browning Says:

    Good interview, and best of luck to Dana King. As a longtime Ed McBain fan I especially liked this statement:

    “Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct stories taught me that time could be taken away from directly moving the plot if it made the characters more real, and was entertaining. If there’s just a story, people will blow through it like junk food. They’ll linger over, and remember, characters.”

    My sentiments exactly, and one of the reasons I’m such a fan of Tim’s writing. Sorry, Tim — just had to get that in. First time today I’ve mentioned it. (-:

    Pat Browning

  7. Laren Bright Says:

    Great insights. Always interesting to know people’s process of writing — and their perspectives of other writers’ writing.

  8. Dana King Says:

    Thanks to all who have commented. I apologize for my tardiness in replying, but I spent yesterday on a plane for my “real” job and am just now catching up with life in general.

    Thanks for catching the missing link. The lions share of the credit for any thoughts about my process must go to Tim for asking questions that made me think of things I’m not sure I identified to myself while I was writing the book. Something just seemed ot make sense at the time, and I ran with it. Tim’s interview has made me pay more attention to how I’m handling the current work in progress.

  9. Dana King Says:

    Thanks for confirming my thought there are people out there who still like to read an old school OC story. There’s a dynamic there that is hard to capture elsewhere, and can be the container for a lot of good stories.

    I’m working on a project now with the Godfather of OC stories, Charlie Stella. We’re each going to write a handful of stories and put them out together, with or without a publisher. Charlie is a lot of fun to work with and I’m very much looking forward to it.

  10. Dana King Says:

    Yes, I’m pretty sure we’ve bumped into each other on the interwebs before.

    I hope to have the first of what I call the Penns River stories out sometime this winter.

    I agree with you completely about e-books and affordability, and don’t understand why publishers haven’t caught onto the idea of different price points for different authors. Sure, people will drop $25-30 on a new Elmore Leonard or Micheal Connelly. (And let’s hope Tim’s recent acclaim will move him toward that rarefied atmosphere.) Putting an unknown like me out there to compete with those guys on a dollar-for-dollar basis almost ensures my failure. People will spend three three bucks on an unknown; as I’ve said in my blog, most folks spill that much out of their Starbucks cups each week. Asking them to spend eight to ten times that much on what is essentially a pig in a poke is expecting a lot.

  11. Dana King Says:

    I’ve believed for several years now that Ed McBain is the forgotten man in crime fiction. He was so good for so long people cam to take him for granted, and so many authors have glommed onto the police procedural the form seems like it has always been around. What is forgotten is how McBain’s style evolved, and how refined the manner in which these stories were told over the years, always tweaking and trying new things right up until he died.

    I think/hope there will be a big Ed McBain renaissance in ten years or so. It’s hard to overestimate his contribution to crime fiction.

  12. Dana King Says:

    Sorry if this appears twice. I tried to send before, but fat fingered the Captcha and it appears to have gone into Internet Limbo.

    Thank you. I was a musician in a previous life, with a Masters Degree in trumpet. I was in a chamber music interpretation class once, and the instructor told us we had made a sacrifice when we chose to commit our lives to music: we no longer had the luxury of listening to any music–even on an elevator–purely for entertainment. We had to try to learn something from it.

    It’s the same with writing. That doesn’t mean I don’t read for enjoyment; any book I’m not enjoying doesn’t get finished. Life is too short. It means I take a minute to think about what the author did that made it enjoyable, and file it away to see how it might be adapted to my writing.

    Tim’s Junior Bender stories are great example. Junior can break into anywhere, but it’s not with high-tech gadgets or virtual clairvoyance. He’s clever, and as soon as you see what he’s going to do yo thing, “well, duh!” but you hadn’t thought of it before. (I’m not citing examples; read the books.) I won’t rip him off TOO directly, but he’s given me something to think about the next time a similar situation arises in one of my books.

    It’s a different level of reading.

  13. Jenny Milchman Says:

    We are fans of the same writers, Dana, and your book sounds very intriguing, as well. Thanks, Tim, for the rec. I wish Dana the best of luck with this route, and future writings. Props to him for interpreting the sometimes murky language of rejections, and finding his own way!

  14. Harvee Says:

    “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” I like that. I also like that big bad city – my second of four homes – Chi Town. Must read this book!

  15. Dana King Says:

    Thank you, Jenny. I know a lot of people look for self-pubbed writers for success stories to fortify themselves before making the leap. I want to point out that “finding [my] own way” has been fun and rewarding in many ways, but it’s not a blueprint for success. Everyone has their own definition of success; someone else’s mileage may vary. I just couldn’t see the point to doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.

  16. Dana King Says:

    Thanks, Harvee. When I was young, I read mysteries for the puzzles; I never thought about the characters much. Later I realized what I remembered most form my juvenile reading were the characters, not the stories or even the titles of the books.

    By the time I was reading McBain and Leonard, I’d come to realize I enjoyed reading the books more than I cared about seeing how they came out.

  17. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    This has been a great dialogue, and I want to thank all of you, and mostly Dana, who opened himself up to all this probing. Fortunately, there were no aliens among you.

    And I’d love to have Dana rip off, uhh, borrow something from Junior in a future book.

  18. Dana King Says:

    Thank you to all who asked questions, and especially to Tim for this great opportunity. This has been as much fun as I’ve had as a writer.

  19. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    You were a great guest, and WILD BILL is a terrific book.

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