What made you know you wanted to be a writer?
From the time I was a tiny child, I was always an avid reader. My father’s cousin was the children’s librarian at the local public library when I was growing up and she tipped me to all the best books. Sometime when I was eight or nine, it occurred to me that it would be a lot of fun to be the person who actually wrote the book rather than just reading it, and so I sat down and went to work on a gripping adventure story. But before I could get very far along with it, the other neighborhood boys came along, insisting that I needed to play a pickup football game with them. That sort of thing went on for a number of years, and then I discovered girls, which was another major distraction, and by the time I finally got back around to writing, I’d lost the story I’d begun and had to start all over again.
What is the appeal of the crime genre for you?
My parents were fans of crime fiction and so the first “adult” novels that I read were books by Erle Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie and other folks like that. I loved the books as much as my parents did, mainly because they’re classic stories of good guys versus bad and truth and justice almost always triumph in the end. I also always enjoyed trying to puzzle out the mystery ahead of the reveal at the end of the book. In that sense, I was literally raised in the genre and, although I do periodically read in others, when I want to relax with a good book, I almost always grab a crime novel from the shelf. I’m also a big fan of series fiction; I like following characters I enjoy from one book to another and, of course, you find a lot of such series in this genre.
What authors have been the most influential on your style?
That’s really hard to say. I think a writer is inevitably influenced by every other author he or she reads, at least to some extent. I think this happens as often as not, subconsciously. The more books you read, especially in genre fiction, you tend to learn what works and what doesn’t without even thinking about it all that much. In that context, even a bad book teaches you something. But like most other writers I try as hard as I can not to mimic other authors that I really like. I’m a huge fan of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series and I also love people like Ian Rankin, John Sandford, Michael Connelly and Robert Crais, to name just a few. My dream as a writer would be one day to write a book nearly as good as any of theirs, although not exactly like any of theirs. In that respect, I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.
If you were ever murdered/abducted, which classic literary detective would you want on the case to solve the crime or ensure your safe return?
If it’s all the same to you, I’d much prefer to be abducted rather than murdered. If one of my favorite protagonists is going to be involved, I want to be around to enjoy the experience. But I don’t want to be abducted by any sloppy, run-of-the-mill kidnapper, so I assume I’m in one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. I’m probably they guy who has the combination to the safe of the armored car company that Parker‘s crew is going to knock over on Monday morning, and when I get home from work on the Friday afternoon before, they kidnap me and my family so that they can spend the weekend torturing me until I give up the combination.
When my wife fails to pick up my mother-in-law for bingo that night, my MIL knows that something is badly amiss. She calls the cops, but they won’t do anything other than taking a missing persons report. So my MIL trudges down to Armstrong’s Saloon and hires Matthew Scudder to find us. [Donald Westlake, who also wrote as Richard Stark, and Scudder’s creator, Lawrence Block, were best friends and collaborated on a couple of books. So it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that both of their protagonists would be involved in this caper.]
My MIL makes it clear that she doesn’t care if she gets me back or not, but she is worried about her daughter and grandchildren. Scudder goes to a jazz club where he finds Danny Boy Bell in the company of an extremely tall, thin Nordic blonde of indeterminate sexual orientation. Danny Boy tells Matt that he’s heard through the grapevine that Alan Grofield is back in town. Matt know that if Grofield is around, Parker probably can’t be far behind. Matt also knows by now that I’ve got the combination to the safe and that it’s going to be overloaded with cash on Monday morning because it’s payday at the big factory on the edge of town where they still pay all the workers in cash. Matt puts two and two together and figures out what is probably going on.
Matt knows, of course, that Grofield has a huge interest in the theater and another source tells him that Grofield used to date an actress named Sally Something Or Other. Matt checks with Actor’s Equity and discovers that Sally is currently appearing in an Off-Off-Broadway play. He goes to the play and hangs around outside after. He sees Sally leave with Grofield and follows them to Sally’s shabby rooming house.
Matt stays outside in the cold drizzling rain for the rest of the night until Grofield finally emerges at 5:00 a.m. Matt follows Grofield to a house in a run-down neighborhood where nobody looks twice if a group of tough-looking thugs suddenly moves into the neighborhood and shares a house together. Matt sees Parker and Grofield leave the house. (They’re going to steal the semi-tractor trailer that they’re going to use to haul away the loot.)
Scudder sneaks up to the house, looks in the window, and sees me tied to a chair, being brutally beaten by one of Parker’s henchmen who is still trying to make me give up the combination. Matt jimmies a window in a back bedroom, sneaks in and kills the two bad guys who are in the house at the time. Miraculously, neither I nor my wife nor any of our seven kids are hit by the hailstorm of flying lead.
Matt calls Joe Durkin who sends the cops and when Parker and Grofield return with the stolen truck, they see all the cop cars and know that the caper has been blown. They get away safely, but that’s OK with me. Even though Parker has kidnapped me and my family and has beaten me nearly to death, I’ve developed a grudging respect for him.
I have about twelve broken ribs; I’ve been concussed, and I’ve lost thirty-seven quarts of blood. But Matt tells me to man up and with a couple of butterfly Band-Aids and a shot of Wild Turkey I’m good to go. Because I refused to give up the combination, my boss names me Employee of the Month. He gives me a nice plaque and a gift certificate from Taco Bell.
That night my MIL invites the wife and kids to dinner. I don’t get invited, of course, but that’s OK, because Matt and I go to Grogan’s Open House and spend the night drinking and spinning tales with Mick Ballou. (Matt is drinking Coke, naturally, while Mick and I make a serious assault on a couple of bottles of Jameson.) Since Mick and I are both Irish, we have a lot to talk about, and as we’re leaving the Butcher’s Mass early the next morning, Mick and Matt tell me to drop by anytime. That, plus the fact that I did not have to go to dinner at my MIL’s, makes the whole savage ordeal more than worthwhile…
How do you react to a negative review of one of your books?
Anyone who says that they aren’t bothered by negative reviews is probably lying. They hurt and they make you question your worth as a human being. Sometimes you think that a review is totally unfair and at other times you have to grudgingly admit that maybe the reviewer had a legitimate point. It’s sort of like having your boss give you a negative evaluation at the time of your annual performance review. Still, by the time they see their first reviews, most writers have already had a lot of experience with rejection and your hide should be fairly thick. You’ve already experienced all the agents who initially rejected your book as well as the publishers might have taken a pass, and that hurts a lot too.
In that case you have to remember that ninety-five percent of the people who ultimately get published go through the same experience. You draw comfort from the fact that even a great writer like James Lee Burke was rejected by something like 105 publishers before someone was willing to take a chance on his first book. And, of course, you think of the agent who told Tony Hillerman that she really liked his first Joe Leaphorn book but that he should really leave out all that “Indian stuff.”
In the case of bad reviews, you simply have to remind yourself that everyone gets them—even the most successful authors. Mostly this is because readers have widely different tastes and what appeals to some will not appeal to others. I’ve seen scathing reviews for books that a lot of other people loved, by writers who’ve sold millions of books. So I console myself by saying, “Well, if it can happen to him or her, it’s sure as hell going to happen to me.” That doesn’t mean that you’re ever going to like it, and you certainly hope that it doesn’t happen very often, but if you’re going to be in this business, you have to understand that the occasional bad review is simply a fact of life.
What do you prefer reading – paperback, hardcover, or e-books?
Although I have a couple of e-readers now, I still prefer to read a traditional printed book. I’m one of those people who loves the tactile sensation of holding the book in my hand, smelling the pages and all of that. I don’t really care if it’s a paperback or hardcover book; it’s more important to me that the book is well-made and can stand up to several readings. I’ve had both paperbacks and hardcovers that have basically fallen apart on the first reading and I really hate that. Once I buy a book, I hang onto it forever and I want it to last.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
My first attempt at crime fiction was a fairly traditional mystery novel. I knew nothing at all about the business and practically the second I had a first draft done, I was sending it out to agents with visions of the huge royalty checks that were about to start rolling in. But nobody wanted to take it on and most of the responses I got were the nebulous kind about “the book doesn’t fit my list at this time,” and that sort of thing. One agent, though, actually read the manuscript before rejecting it and sent a note with the rejection slip basically telling me that I wasn’t ready for prime time. Given my exaggerated and totally unrealistic expectations, that was a hard bit of advice. But she was absolutely right and re-reading that book now, I tend to cringe a lot. Fortunately, it’s sitting in the “inactive” file on my hard drive and will never see the light of day.
At the other extreme, following that experience I wrote the first Sean Richardson novel and had learned a lot from my experience with the first book. I sent out some query letters and immediately got requests for partials and fulls from three New York agents. One of them called me a week after I’d sent her the manuscript and asked me please not to sign with anyone else until she’d had a chance to read the book a second time. She called me back two days later saying that she’d love to rep the book and that she thought it was the best first novel she’d ever read. As a newbie who’d experienced nothing but rejection up to that point, that was easily the best compliment I’d ever gotten.
Do you work with an outline, or just write?
I just write. I’ve tried outlining but it just doesn’t work for me, at least when writing fiction. I tend to approach writing a book the same way I read one; every time I pick it up, I never know what’s going to happen next and I’m always anxious to find out. The only problem with this approach is that sometimes what seemed like a great idea just fizzles out and goes nowhere. I’ve got several attempts at novels in my computer now where I got 10, or 15,000 words into a book and couldn’t see a way to do any more with it.
Do you have a day job in addition to being an author?
I’m between day jobs at the moment and hoping to stay that way. I much prefer the work schedule of a full-time writer, staying up until all hours of the night and then hauling myself out of bed at the crack of 8:30 in the morning.
Are there any characters in your stories that you personally identify with?
Not overtly. I suspect that any character a writer creates is at least in some small way an extension of her or her own personality. Sean Richardson shares a lot of my tastes in music, food and things like that for example, but I really don’t see him as an alter ego.
How do you come up with names for your characters? Do you think of names before you write, or do you have to wait until you get to know the characters a little?
I’m really bad about this. I know that a lot of other writers agonize over character names and that some of them have really complex systems for naming their characters. In my case, when it comes time to name a new character, especially one in a minor supporting role, I’m usually in the middle of the story and I don’t want to be distracted by stopping to think up a clever name for the character. So I just give the character the first name that pops into my mind, figuring that later I’ll go back and think of a name that really fits him or her. But what almost always happens is that after a while I begin to think of the character with the name I’ve already given him or her. I get attached to the name and rarely ever go back and change it. Of course this may simply be evidence of a certain amount of laziness on my part.
Have you ever wanted to work on a book with another author? If so, who?
No, I haven’t. I think it would be difficult for me to write with another person, although some other writers relish the chance. If I were afforded the opportunity to write with another author that I really admire, I’d be very flattered but I’d doubtless reject the offer. For example, as most of his readers know, John Sandford uses collaborators for his Virgil Flowers books. I love the series, but if Sandford called and asked me to knock out a first draft of the next one, I’d have to turn him down for fear that everyone would hate me for screwing up a perfectly good series. Instead of talking about that “F***ing Flowers,” everybody would be bitching about that “F***ing Thane.”
Have you ever Wanted to write outside your genre of choice?
Yes. I actually started by writing non-fiction, and I’ve written one book and a number of journal and magazine articles dealing with the development of the American West. Writing crime novels was actually the departure in my case.
What was the road from No Place to Die to Until Death like, what with the collapse of Dorchester and everything?
It was beyond discouraging. I had an editor at Dorchester who really liked the work I was doing and who was talking about having me do a book a year for them. Once No Place To Die was published, I thought I was finally on a roll with my writing career. Dorchester bought Until Death along with an option for the next book and then suspended operations only a few weeks before they were to release it. They had paid the full advance for the book which was both the good news and the bad, because it meant that they still owned the rights to the book and I couldn’t do anything else with it. At that point, I had no idea what would happen with my career and feared that I might be all the way back at ground zero.
When the dust finally settled, though, Amazon bought Dorchester’s intellectual property, which included my two books. They were assigned to Thomas & Mercer, which is Amazon’s imprint for crime fiction. Fortunately, T&M liked the books and negotiated a new deal, much better than the one I had with Dorchester. They then brought out a new trade paperback edition of No Place To Die and published Until Death in trade paperback. So in the end, it all worked out for the best. The people at T&M are great to work with and they are publishing much nicer editions of the books than the mass market paperbacks that Dorchester was releasing. So for all the trauma that was associated with the situation, I wound up in a much better place.
Is there another Sean Richardson book in the pipeline?
Yes, though perhaps not immediately. While writing Until Death, I had an idea for a stand-alone suspense novel that I’m just now finishing. I’m hoping that T&M will like it and will publish it as my next book. At the same time, I’m also working on a third Sean Richardson book that would be next in line if everything works out the way I hope it will.
The most important question: hard or soft tacos?
I hate to complain, but I think this question is very unfair; isn’t it a lot like asking a parent which of his children he prefers? It depends, I think, on where I’m having the taco and what’s in it. Sometimes I prefer hard; sometimes soft. There’s a place that used to be down the road from me that made a fabulous soft taco with grilled pork and mango salsa. It was my all-time favorite taco and so, if you’re really going to press me for an answer, I’d have to say soft. But it would be a very close call. Thanks for asking, though.
Dan (and Jim, of course.) What a great interview both the questions and the answers. I particularly enjoyed the story and glad you were abducted, Jim, and not murdered otherwise I would be hearing the story from the grave.ReplyDelete
I'm so glad to know that you would refuse a collaboration. Frankly, I lose respect for those writers (both of them) except for the ones that begin their writing career in collaboration . That, of course, is quite different.
BTW, your heroes are my heroes and the ones I read. Well, I did miss seeing John D. MacDonald and the Travis McGee series as influences but know that must have been an unintentional oversight, right? Rightttt????