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.