Chris Knopf in the Witness Box

February 17th, 2012

One of the advantages of going to mystery conventions is that you get to meet writers whose work you enjoy.

At the 2011 Bouchercon, I found myself spending lots of time with Chris Knopf, whose books I’ve devoured.  He turns out to be (like so many mystery writers) a terrific person, and also one whose sunglasses I seriously covet. Chris is about to release a new edition of his first Sam Aquillo novel (for reasons detailed below), and I thought that was a good excuse to ask him some questions.

One of the things I love about the Sam Acquillo books is the narrative tone. It’s very individual, and it doesn’t seem (to me) to fall neatly into any the usual voices for mysteries or PI books, although Sam is often cast in the PI role in the books. Did you put a lot of thought into this tone, or was it simply the voice that emerged as you wrote?

Thanks, Tim. Sam’s voice came to me as I wrote the first chapter of the first book, The Last Refuge. It was a voice I had in my head as I thought about the character. He just started to speak and I wrote it down.

Where did Sam come from?

It was only after I’d written a few of the books that I figured out Sam’s origins. A big hunk of his personality derives from my father who, like Sam, was a mechanical engineer with a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He was a trouble-shooter and problem solver, personally and professionally. He thought methodically, but also was fearless in dissecting machinery and relentless in digging up information (harder to do pre-Internet). He was also very tough and prone to get into fist fights. His father was a light heavyweight boxing champion, and also a Penn-educated mechanical engineer. So that combination is hardly foreign to me. My dad also had a dry, acerbic wit. Another big influence are old-time, hardboiled detective authors like Hammet, Chandler and Ross MacDonald. You mix that in with a heavy dose of my own omnivorous literary interests, everything from James Joyce to Philip K. Dick, and there you go.

How would you categorize the Acquillo books to someone who hasn’t read them?

At their core, they are hardboiled crime fiction of the amateur sleuth sub-genre. The Hamptons setting, both the natural shoreline beauty and the perspective of the year-‘round locals, plays a big role. And lastly, Sam is very literate and expressive. I don’t suppress that side of him.

That’s one of the things that defines his voice for me. Your Jackie Swaitkowski books are written in a female first-person. Did you approach this task with any trepidation, and did it present any special challenges? Did you have the voices of any specific women in your ear as you wrote?

Lots of trepidation. But I think the answer lies in the dedication in the first Jackie book, Short Squeeze: “None of my favorite female friends and family were spared in the making of this book. You know who you are.” I also had some excellent guidance and counsel from my agent (Mary Jack Wald) and various female editors who kept me within proper gender parameters.

In addition to Sam’s books, you’ve written several stand-alones. What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing a stand-alone rather than another entry in a series? And conversely, what aspects of writing a series do you find especially rewarding and/or frustrating?

Interestingly, readers who really like your series sometimes feel a little offended when you publish a standalone. Like, how dare you work on that instead of your next Sam book? Mostly, though, the standalones can widen your audience more than narrow it. For me, the change in pace is very valuable. The advantage of a series is you already have the setting and lots of characters ready to go. That’s also a disadvantage, because the books have to feel fresh each time out. Another huge challenge is getting the back story in there – not too much, not too little, so new readers won’t feel left out, and regular readers won’t be bored.

When did you decide to write novels, and what prompted the decision? Can you describe the experience of writing your first book?

Writing has been a lifelong compulsion. I started trying to write fiction in childhood. I finished a book while still in college, then wrote a novel as the thesis for my masters degree in creative writing. I wrote several more after that, though despite all this precociousness it took till I was 52 to be published. I’m a copywriter by trade, so this obsessive behavior has served me pretty well.

Raymond Chandler famously said that when he started writing, it “took him 50 pages to get [the character’s] hat off.” What kinds of things have you learned over the course of writing your books?

More or less the same thing. With each book the writing is more streamlined and efficient. I love richly rendered prose, but it’s really easy to overdo it and entangle yourself in complex description. So I’m letting my inner D.H. Lawrence fade into the background in favor of my inner Hemmingway (aspirational, mind you – would that I could write as well as those guys).

Why are we seeing a new release of your first book, The Last Refuge?

We ran out of copies. Sales have held up well since every new release. Whether it’s a Sam or Jackie book, or standalone, they seem to attract the curious to my first book. Also, the very first hardbound edition had a lot of typos and production errors, only partly repaired in the paperback version. It was a chance to freshen the copy edits, typesetting and cover.

What does the future hold for Sam Acquillo? For Jackie? And what’s coming up for you?

I’m starting Sam 6 now. I have the story figured out, I hope, and want to get back into his head – home turf. Jackie 3, Ice Cap, is coming out this May. If enough people buy it, I might get to do a Jackie 4 someday. Mostly, though, I’m pre-occupied with the first draft of Dead Anyway, a standalone mystery thriller coming out next fall.

And finally, the question I ask everyone: please choose 3-5 books you really love and would recommend to the readers of this blog, and tell us something about why you like them.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane is the kind of book that defies categorization.  It is slotted in the mystery/crime genre because that was Lehane’s main turf.  But it’s not really that kind of book.  It’s a work of literature in every respect.  The writing is evocative and original, the voice powerful, the characters real enough to touch and the story riveting.

Presumed Innocent, by Scott Turow is also brilliantly conceived and beautifully written. It’s another genre-buster. You asked about Sam’s voice – I think this book was another influence.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John LeCarre. My favorite espionage novel (now a movie). Dense, deep and dark. Extremely literate, yet with enough suspense to give you a heart attack. This genre has sadly fallen on lean times, supplanted by sprawling thrillers. It’s worth the effort to re-visit the sinister shadow times of the Cold War.

The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald. Don’t be confused by all that Great American Novel stuff – it’s a gangster story! lt’s also a study in how to move POV from close inside the narrator’s head, into a nearly omniscient third-person. The characters are compelling, the setting gorgeous and the suspense drives the action as much as the eloquent prose.

The Dubliners, James Joyce. Especially the last story,” The Dead.” Joyce more or less set the standard for modern fiction. It’s a good idea to read it first hand. The last paragraph of the book is considered the finest ever written in the English language.

Terrific list, although I could tell from reading Chris’s work that he’d have great taste in books.  This has been a real pleasure, and I hope everyone who hasn’t already read Chris will take a look  at his books.  I think they’re tremendous.


8 Responses to “Chris Knopf in the Witness Box”

  1. robb royer Says:

    Thanks for some excellent analysis. My high school age daughter is currently reading Dubliners. Now I can adopt a sage and sanguine mien and say ‘you gotta read that last paragraph’.

  2. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I’ve read Knopf’s books, and I enjoy them. I like his characters because they seem human, bright, and loyal. I guess these are traits I relish in people. Being and ex-New Yorker, the landscape doesn’t hurt either. Thank you for the nice interview, and I look forward to the next Jackie and Sam. I also will check out your stand alones. I just like good writing.

  3. EverettK Says:

    Thanks for the interview Chris and Tim! I admit I haven’t read any of Chris’ books yet, but I like what I read in this interview, so I’ll definitely look them up. And hey, a recommendation from Lil can’t hurt either… 🙂

  4. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Why thank you, Everett. How nice of you;)

  5. john janes Says:

    I like the books I think because they are easy read to read but still require some though if that makes sense. It was a pleasant surprise that I discovered Chris Knopf the author turned out to be the same guy as Chris Knopf my junior high school classmate. I hadn’t been in touch with him for 40 years. I’m working on my third KN mystery now.

  6. Bill Crider Says:

    Great interview, and an interesting reading list.

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, all —

    On behalf of Chris, I want to thank you for the very nice responses and also to do something Chris couldn’t, which is suggest that you try THE LAST REFUGE as a beginning if you’ve never read him.

    Tomorrow or the next day we’re going back to Robb’s view of Vietnam and the historical environs, and I’m hoping for some light and heat out of the discussion.

  8. Bonnie Says:

    Am so close to the end of The Last Refuge that I took Short Squeeze on BART with me this morning; would have finished TLR by Coliseum Station! Really enjoying Sam’s voice and vicariously living on the Sacred Peconic. Carry on!

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