Friday, August 9, 2019

Mark Bergin, Author of Apprehension

It’s a treat to have Mark Bergin on the blog today.

Mark graduated from Boston University with a degree in journalism, then worked four years as a newspaper reporter, winning the Virginia Press Association Award for general news reporting. Joining the Alexandria VA Police Department seemed the next logical choice, in 1986. Twice named Police Officer of the Year for narcotics and robbery investigations, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant. His debut novel, Apprehension, draws on many of those experiences.

Mark lives in Alexandria and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (Bi-i-i-ig fucking house) with his wife Ruth, an attorney and former public defender. They have two children. Write him at or follow his blog at

One Bite at a Time: Mark, thanks for stopping by for a chat. It’s a pleasure to have you here and I hope we can expose some readers to your new book. It’s titled Apprehension, and it drops this month from Inkshares. Tease us a little.

Mark Bergin: It’s the story of the four best and worst days of Detective
John Kelly’s life. He is prepping for a major trial of a pedophile father to protect his child victim, but the defense attorney is Kelly’s lover. She has an unexpected way to win the case but it will hurt Kelly. She also has a personal secret that will change their future. Kelly also has a secret, a terrible thing he did after his niece was murdered, and it’s about to be revealed. He may lose his career and go to jail. And he can’t stop it. But maybe his friends can.

OBAAT: The word “apprehension” can be taken more than one way. For our purposes here the two possible meanings that come to mind are “anticipation of adversity or misfortune” or “the act of arresting; seizure” come to mind. Was this ambiguousness in the title intentional?

MB: Absolutely. I’ve called it Apprehension since I began thinking about it. I actually started making notes for it thirty years ago. Police work is good and bad, terribly stressful and grinding, but fun as hell when you get going. The theme of the book is stress and police suicide, but the goal of law enforcement is stopping bad guys. So I get a double out of the title. I want folks to take it both ways. The follow-up novel is called “St. Michael’s Day,” maybe easier to grasp.

OBAAT: Not that I’m arguing your bona fides, but what’s your background in law enforcement?

MB: I joined the Alexandria, Virginia Police Department in 1986 after four years as a newspaper reporter in Virginia and in suburban Philadelphia, PA, where I grew up. I’d always liked cops and police work, but didn’t care for the cops at home. In the 60s and 70s, it seemed like you had to be a former MP who hated black people and took bribes to be a city cop. I hate to admit that, my own myopia, but it wasn’t till I got to Alexandria and began closely reporting on cops and detectives, riding along or sitting in trials with them, that I realized they were normal, decent, intelligent people. I thought I was, too, so I applied and got hired.

I spent 28 years on, as a patrol officer, street-level narcotics “jump-out,” field training officer, sergeant, and lieutenant. Twenty-seven years on the street, then I got command of the Records Section, and temporary command of Public Information. Desk jobs, heavy on administrative paperwork and computer entry. Where I had two heart attacks, died, actually, and had to retire. The desk jobs did it. But that gave me the chance to start writing, go back to the notes I’d made 30 years ago, that had a beginning and an end and some middle stuff, but that I hadn’t touched since then. Five years later, here we are.

OBAAT: As a career law enforcement officer you must be a tough audience for procedural writers. Who do you read, or do you stay away from the genre altogether, as I know many folks close to a profession tend to.

MB: Don Winslow is very good, very popular and gets it right. I like Bruce Coffin in Maine, and Brenda Buchanan, also in Maine, writes accurately about newspaper reporting. Some kind of Maine thing going, there. Michael Connelly writes cops, lawyers and reporters well and, since my wife is a lawyer I know he knows. Archer Meyer is an unappreciated police proceduralist, I enjoy his plots and he gets details right. Another strong police proceduralist is this guy Dana King – dead on in describing how cops think and work, and the details and humanity of small town Pennsylvania where I was bread and buttered. Penns River isn’t my hometown but I’ve sure spent a lot of time there. The god of this police procedural biz has to be Joseph Wambaugh, and I’ve read everything he wrote. When I knew I had to retire and I decided I wanted to write, I reread certain books by my favorite authors to stir up the creative brain. Alistair MacLean, Elmore Leonard, Adam Hall, John D. McDonald, George V. Higgins. I deliberately avoided rereading Wambaugh, because I knew my book would be similar to his and didn’t want to copy him. Alistair MacLean I’d copy till the cows come home. David Swinson, a former DC detective, has become a master of police noir, bad but redeemable cops who try to do good. Craig Johnson and C. J. Box are Western writers who make it seem effortless and clean, especially now that I’ve learned now just how hard it is to put the words down in the right order.

OBAAT: How much of your experience is in Apprehension? Not to say John Kelly stands in for you, but either direct or indirect experiences that affected the book.

MB: It’s all real but it may not be all true. I tried to write a book that my fellow officers could read and say, he got it right. That they could give to their families and say, this is how it is. I certainly took my experiences of how cops think and react to craft scenes and events. “Wart Lip” is a true story. The shotgun suicide happened. And we did have a witch doctor in Alexandria. The magnets are made up but we thought about using them. Most of the rest could have happened. I know the stress is real, and grinding and feels inescapable, so I’m giving half my book profits to programs that combat police suicide. Might be only seventy-five or eighty dollars. We’ll see.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences as a writer?

MB: George V. Higgins, who wrote The Friends of Eddie Coyle, is definitely my muse. He could write whole chapters of his crime stories in dialogue, and only in the last paragraph insert whatever it is that moved the plot along. Elmore Leonard puts folks in normal places but sets off explosions around them. James Lee Burke puts naked souls on the page and they bleed on you. Alistair MacLean is my favorite writer, and his The Secret Ways is my favorite book, but I don’t write adventure. Yet.

OBAAT: We ran into each other a while back at a James Ellroy event. Ellroy doesn’t provide the most flattering depictions of cops. What’s the appeal to you, or do you like him in spite of how he writes law enforcement?

MB: I’ve carried around an original copy of his first book, Brown’s Requiem since it was published in 1981. Only just reread it prepping for that event. His hero is another flawed, former cop like Swinson’s. But the clarity of voice, the constant, subtle but strong emotional tone of challenge and despair, the picture of 80s Los Angeles, stayed with me all that time. I didn’t remember the details but I always felt the impact. Ellroy was gracious and signed it, though he was there to plug his newest. He wrote, “Did this move you?” What a great, laser beam question. Yes. In this and later books he clobbers cops, and I take that as the literary tool he needs to tell the story. C. J. Box always includes inept or evil cops in his Joe Pickett novels. I asked him why, and whether he had bad experiences with police. He paused a sec, like he was trying to come up with the right answer, then said, “It’s just for dramatic tension.” Okay.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

MB: “St. Michael’s Day.” It is another novel about police, but it’s also about faith. What if you survived a horrendous, nearly fatal machine gun attack, and the people around you decided you were blessed, protected, specifically saved and empowered by God? And what if you weren’t sure you believed in a God who did that, but tried to reckon out your feelings while investigating a case and looking for your own shooters? I have been thinking of this one, and themes of faith, almost as long as Apprehension. Apprehension started as an examination of what it was like to be a squad of white cops who arrested mostly black people, because that’s the reality of 1980s drug enforcement in big cities. It was for me, I was there, lived and worked it and wondered, was it racist or the real and unavoidable result of racial and economic splits in society? Those elements are still part of Apprehension but fell back in the examination of stress and suicide. I tried to use writing the book to come to grips with my own concerns. The next one, “St. Michael’s Day,” is my attempt to understand my own faith, or lack of strong and clear faith. It won’t be preachy. I put faithful and faithless Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindi, Muslims and atheists in a pot and turn the heat on. I won’t kill a cop in my books, that’s too easy a literary device, and too painful to write, though I do shoot one in book three. I hate serial killer books, but one just showed up in “St. Michael’s Day.” Popped up on the page. Funny how that happens.

(Editor’s Note: I hope you enjoyed this, as Mark will; be back. There’s lots more I have to talk with him about.)

Friday, August 2, 2019

July's Books and Movies

This month’s best reads:

The New Centurions, Joseph Wambaugh. His first, and the book that deservedly put him on the map. A little dated in spots, but much of that is because it so heavily influenced so many books that came after it. Wambaugh’s writing style loosened up as he continued but the power of some of these scenes is shown by how well I remembered many of them as I got into them after not having read the book in well over forty years.

The Dain Curse, Dashiell Hammett. Probably the weakest of Hammett’s novels, mostly because the plot is so outrageous it makes L.A. Confidential and Murder on the Orient Express look like Dr. Seuss. This could be because it first appeared as a serial in Black Mask and Hammett may have written himself into a corner. The writing, though. Crisp, clean, not a word wasted and not a word misplaced. It’s a master class in how to tell a story even if the story is a bit much.

The movies I saw in July:

Cop Land (1997) A friend mentioned this on Facebook one day and I found myself at loose ends that night and figured what the hell. Incredible cast includes Sylvester Stallone (don’t laugh, he’s very good in this), Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Janeana Garafolo, Robert Patrick, Annabella Sciorro, Edie Falco, and Michael Rapaport. (Get over it, kids. I’m okay with Rapaport.) Stallone plays the sheriff in a small New Jersey town where the mob has set up corrupt cops with sweetheart deals and houses and who knows what all so the cops let the hoods run the precinct. It’s a classic story of the well-meaning but overmatched boob forced to take too much who settles things himself, but it’s well played and paced and filmed. Reminded me of a 70s movie, and you know how I feel about my 70s movies.

Appaloosa (2008) I don’t watch this one as much as LA Confidential, but as much as any Western. Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen bring Robert B. Parker’s traveling lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch to life with Jeremy irons as a properly greasy “rancher” who has plans other than ranching. The only thing I don’t like about this film is that they expect us to believe a man like Virgil Cole would lose his head over Renee Zellweger, who’s as pinched-face and unpleasant as ever. Classic Western done in revisionist style and well worth watching more than once. Bonus points if you can spot Lance Henriksen without knowing in advance which part he has.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) One of my small handful of comfort food movies. I wanted to relax and smile and this was exactly the ticket. I remember seeing this in the theater with my parents, thirteen years old, and feeling them both tighten up as Katherine Ross started taking off her clothes.

Major League (1989) Not as good a baseball movie as Bull Durham but still eminently watchable more than once. It still amazes me that the Cleveland Indians let them use the team name and logo.

Apollo 11 (2019) Wonderful documentary cut from NASA video and audio recorded during the moon flight, meticulously synched. NASA had cameras everywhere, including in stages of rockets. Crafted seamlessly into HD this is a loving and gripping travelogue of mankind’s greatest accomplishment, though when it was over my first thought was, “It’s all been downhill from here.”

Hombre (1967) One of the small handful of greatest Westerns ever, and deserving to be listed among the best films, period. Paul Newman plays John Russell, a white man kidnapped by the Apaches as a child who came to prefer living as an Apache. The supporting cast of Richard Boone, Frederic March, Martin Balsam, Diane Cilento, Barbara Rush, and Frank Silvero (who steals every scene he’s in) does a wonderful job with what might be Elmore Leonard’s best story and much of his best dialog. I’ve seen Hombre probably ten times now and if there’s a weakness I haven’t found it.

Blade Runner: Final Cut (????) I have no idea which version number this would be of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi noir masterpiece but he should have stopped messing with it at least one version sooner. It had been a while since I saw Blade Runner, was inspired to take another look on the passing of Rutger Hauer, and wasn’t as careful as I should have been when picking from the Amazon list of Blade Runners. At some point creative artists who release their work to the public should understand the public has a certain proprietary interest and limit how much they fuck with it. A bitter disappointment, the slower pacing allowing several holes in the story to stand out. Close to the most disappointing movie I’ve ever seen, though that crown remains solidly in the camp of Blade Runner 2049, a movie I’d encourage Denis Villeneuve to fuck with.

Rules of Engagement (2000) Solid military courtroom drama worthy of mention in the same breath as A Few Good Men. William Friedkin directs the usual outstanding performances from Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson as two best friends from the Vietnam War who reunite when Jackson faces court-martialed for ordering his Marines to open fire on a crowd of supposedly unarmed protesters outside the embassy in Yemen. Guy Pearce plays the prosecutor and Ben Kingsley the ambassador, with Bruce Greenwood his usual slimy self as the National Security Advisor. First rate all the way.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Terriers or The Nice Guys?

A discussion on Facebook last week asked if, given the choice, we’d rather see two sequels to The Nice Guys or two more seasons of Terriers. I voted for Terriers, not because I liked it better than The Nice Guys, but because I’ve become such a fan of serialized limited run television. 

I find I watch a lot fewer movies since I got into serialized limited run TV starting with The Sopranos. The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Justified all showed what can be done when an able showrunner has the time to really examine a universe and the characters who populate it. The best of these series also seem to get less interference from the suits and marketing people that has led to so much timidity in movies, where everything has to be a blockbuster and the entire industry’s sphincters are in knots for fear their $200 million superhero/comic book/Star Wars/Star Trek/TV show reboot is the one that lays the egg that brings down the studio and makes moviegoers everywhere wonder, “Why have we been watching so much of the same shit for so long?”

I digress.

A series has an ability to become part of your life much more than a movie, where you go to the theater (or stream it; doesn’t matter) and know you’re coming out two hours later. We spent over eighty hours with Tony Soprano. We were invested in that motherfucker, which was why so many people were so upset at how the series ended. The end of The Wire left The Beloved Spouse™ and me feeling these people’s lives would continue; we just wouldn’t get to watch them anymore. The Deadwood movie really brought that feeling home, as did Justified with its skipping ahead a few years at the end. Movies are finite. Series become too much like real people to just walk away.

Obviously that’s not true of all series. The showrunner is critical. Should he or she lose their vigor, so will the show. It’s not that the showrunner is irreplaceable, but damn near. What did all the series I mentioned above, plus Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Americans, and others we think most highly of have in common? Consistency of vision. I thought Ray Donovan would be such a show until Ann Biderman left after Season 2. It’s still a good show but much more a soap opera where Ray’s family forces ridiculous situations on him for no good reason. (Really, Bunchie? Taking your settlement money—in cash—to a sandwich shop on the way to close a real estate deal across the street? Did you want to get robbed? And wasn’t it convenient that he bumps into hostage-taking robbers at that precise time of day? Who the fuck robs a Subway in broad daylight?)

Again, I digress.

That’s another reason I chose more Terriers over The Nice Guys, the ascendance of the showrunner. Directors don’t get that kind of independence with nine-figure budgets. (Editor’s Note: He knows not all movies have nine-figure budgets. He also knows that those who run Hollywood don’t really give a fuck about the those.) If a director hits it big enough with a movie to warrant a sequel, odds are the studio will want to be more involved, like sharks flocking to a rotting whale carcass. The tendency is always to outdo the original, to make the sequel more of what made the original in the hopes of revving up the audience more, forgetting that what made the original worthy of a sequel was that it didn’t do that. (Jaws 2, anyone? See what I did there with the sharks?) Sequels only work well if you had more material than could be used in the original (The Godfather, The Godfather Part 2) or the viewers are so invested in the franchise they’ll let it run and run and run, essentially making it a large-scale series with fewer, less directly connected episodes.

A movie can be a nice way to spend the evening but I’ll take a series like those we talked about here when I want to invest some time.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Where do You Get Your Ideas?

It is generally accepted—or may just be a truism—that the question readers most often ask writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Writers like to disparage this question, as anyone who has done much writing knows that we spend our days tripping over ideas hoping they don’t distract us from the task at hand. The trick is in knowing which ideas work best for your talents and which you may want to spend a year (or more) of your life on, often forsaking all others.

I am not to the point where this question disturbs me. Much of that is due to the fact that I am delighted when readers ask me anything. Another has to do with the idea of reader engagement. If this is what they most often ask, then they must be interested and people are always willing to talk about what interests them and will tend to think kindly of those who engage them on such topics, especially if some enlightenment is involved.

So let’s talk about where ideas come from, and how unique they need to be.

An idea—damn near the whole book—fell into my lap last week when an article in the “Penns River” newspaper described how one of the towns had six shootings in the past six weeks and how concerned the locals were. I live halfway between DC and Baltimore, where six shootings in six days is a slow week, but the article presents an opportunity to examine the dramatic difference in how Penns River residents view such things.

This silver platter disguised as a newspaper article handed me the premise for an entire book: Small town has six shootings in six weeks. The local police department is already stretched thin. While not all the shootings are fatal—some only result in property damage—the locals are upset. (More on this in a couple of weeks.) How this plays out is made to order for examining Joseph Wambaugh’s dictum that a good procedural doesn’t just show how the cops work the cases, it shows how the cases work the cops. Even the title sets up perfectly for a series with all two-word titles: Six Weeks.

Boom! Done. Easy, right?

Well, yeah, except for the niggling details such as actually converting a 600-word article into an 80,000-word novel that maintains reader interest and the characters, dialog, supporting events, and more satisfactory resolutions all that requires, along with a little comic relief and some examination of the ripple effects on the town and the cops that can be used in the series down the road. Not to mention the fact I currently have a book in the series about half finished, the next fairly well planned, and another pretty good idea for the book after that, which may now get pushed back thanks to this new idea.

Sure, it’s nice when the idea falls into your lap already formed. All it does is start the work.

Let’s focus on the “How am I going to create 80,000 worthwhile words out of this?” It’s not enough to have an idea, or even a good idea. Not even a great idea. It still has to be an idea that fits your talents and interests. Give the same idea to Megan Abbott, Michael Connelly, Laura Lippmann, and me and you’ll get four radically different stories, even leaving aside the chutzpah it took to mention myself in the same sentence as the others. Giving four writers, even in the same general genre, an idea is not unlike handing four fashion designers identical bolts of cloth. What comes out will still be unique.

Doubt me? Stick around.

Premise: A mob boss has some issues and goes to see a shrink.

Results: The Sopranos. Premiere January 10, 1999
Analyze This. Premier March 5, 1999.

Both were in development at the same time; I doubt either creator know what the other was working on until the trades started talking about them. The two end results share little except for the mob boss and the shrink.

Premise: An outlaw gang with a charismatic boss in the American West sees their times are ending as the 20th Century dawns and moneyed interests create permanent posses to hunt them down. Both gangs heads south where they meet grisly demises.

Results: The Wild Bunch. Premier August 7, 1999.
Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Premier October 24, 1999

The thought of a mob boss seeing a shrink inspired different ideas in David Chase vs. what Kenneth Lonergan and Peter Tolan came up with. Walon Green and William Goldman took even more commonality and went their own ways with it. Ideas are great. Nothing good can come without them. All they are is the gas in the car. You still have to know how to drive.

Friday, July 12, 2019

First, Do No Harm

The Sole Heir™ recently graduated from medical school. (“We know!” shout the masses of readers. “Congratulations to her but it’s not like you haven’t mentioned it every day since.”) Part of the graduation ceremony is the taking of the Hippocratic Oath. While this phrase never actually appears in the oath’s current iteration, most of us know it as the source material for the exhortation to “First, do no harm.” This is good advice for way more people than just doctors. Since this blog exists to discuss writing, I’ll stick to that avenue today, though the lessons apply to all walks of life.

I’m one of those who believes a writer’s real work comes in editing and rewriting. To me, the real function of the first draft is to provide the ore from which the final product will be refined. That said, nuggets are sometimes recovered in final form directly from the stream. The trick of editing is to recognize those while improving everything else. In other words, doing no harm to what needs no assistance.

What is the surest way not to do harm to what already exists? (Short of not editing it, of course.) Accept your limitations. We all have them. If a particular phrase doesn’t read quite the way you’d like, change it, but keep the change only if you’re sure you like the edited version better. A tie should go to the original, if only because that was what you wrote in the full flow of creativity, presumably with the Muse perched on your shoulder.

Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe you were just stuck at the time. It was late, you didn’t feel well, shitty day at the paying gig. Whatever. You took what was available, maybe justifying yourself by considering it a placeholder until you could get back and fix it in the edit. Now the edit is here and you still don’t have a better way.

There are a couple of directions to go from here. The preferred method is to re-write the entire paragraph or section to create a more elegant setup or exit for the problem sentence or phrase. Here’s the key: make sure that in fixing the offending sentence you don’t fuck up the surrounding material. If a less than optimal sentence is the result of leaving alone excellent writing both fore and aft, well, ain’t no one perfect.

That’s not to say you settle. At least for me, there are always additional editing passes, including a gruesomely detailed read/edit on screen/edit on paper/read aloud and proofread sequence that marks the final draft, after which I can type THE END and move on. This comes after at least two thorough edits beyond the first draft. Sometimes more.

The prescription to do no harm allows me not to have to undo anything in the later drafts that I should have left alone in the first place. I’m not so much accepting a less than stellar segment as I’m accepting that maybe that’s all the better I can write it at this time. If I’m diligent in improving my craft, I may have absorbed what I need to improve this bit by the next time I come around to it. This is why I don’t mind reading fiction when I’m working on a project. First, I almost have a project working, so I’d hardly ever get to read fiction if I denied myself access while crafting my own piece. More important from a writing perspective, I never know when something will strike me as a better way to handle whatever is giving me trouble. I like to thinking of it as inspiration or education rather than plagiarizing, but let’s be honest: we all steal. Might as well steal from the best, and from a passage that has some relevance to what you’re stuck on rather than a book of writerly advice.

First, do no harm. Editing can be enough of a pain in the ass. Don’t make subsequent passes harder than necessary because you improved what was good in the original right out of existence in the hope of making it better. (This is also why you should keep all drafts in separate files, so you can go back.) We write as we learn, in increments. Take your improvements as you find them.

And what if you never do get that sentence exactly how you want it? Regrettable, true, but not every word of your deathless process need bring a tear of envy to Shakespeare’s eye. Pick any favorite book from your shelf. I guarantee you there will be word choices, phrases, sentences, that you look at and think, “That’s not his best effort.” Doesn’t matter who the author is. The perfect cannot be aloud to become the enemy of the good.

Friday, July 5, 2019

June's Favorite Books (Movies, Too)

What with only weekly blog entries for the foreseeable future and hoping two a month are Diversity Friday posts, most months would be no more than one post for my favorite reads of the month prior and one would be the movies I’ve seen since last I mentioned them. We all know I’m too opinionated to keep them all to myself lest I burst, showering entrails across the countryside, so today we’llo see if combining the two allays the situation.

First, the books I liked best, because though never having been a journalist, I know better than to bury a lede. (And I know how to spell the cocksucker.) (Editor’s Note: Yes, he’s watching Deadwood again. Roll with it. It’ll fucking pass. Oops.)

Deadwood: Tales of theBlack Hills, David Milch. The companion to the series, written by The Man himself. Full of insights into history, drama, characterization, human frailty, and just about any other fucking thing you can find to say about such an immersive experience. I don’t believe in saying something is a “must read” or a “must have,” but if you’re looking for a peek into the experiences and mind that drove Deadwood, you ought to take a look. More than one.

Cheapskates, Charlie Stella. My favorite Stella, full of pitch perfect dialog and well-drawn but less than reverentially depicted characters with various plots and plans coming together in ways no one expects, least of all the characters. Stella hasn’t had a book out in a while, which is a shame, but Mr. Silver Lining here seized an opportunity to look back on what’s come before and be reminded how good it is.

And the movies…

The Highwaymen (2019) Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson play Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, Texas Rangers brought out of retirement to capture Bonnie and Clyde while a thousand-man dragnet foundered. Costner and Woody are prefect, their chemistry is perfect, the other casting and performances are perfect, and every other decision made by writer John Fusco and director John Lee Hancock works, too, to create a wonderful film. (Or whatever it is we’re supposed to call Netflicks.) Highly recommended.

L.A. Confidential (1997) Yes, again. I think it’s the first time this year, so be quiet. Yes, I’m talking to you, Mike Dennis.

Bosch (2019: Season 5) True, not a movie, but it’s my blog and I’ll put whatever I want in here. Bosch is a good solid show. The writing is good, the acting is exceptional, and the production values are first-rate. Limited run series like this are now my preferred way to encounter visual stories, as they allow for scope without worrying about padding. That said, the show also lacks the same things the Bosch books lack, at least for me. I know I’m in a minority here, but while Michael Connelly tells great stories, the books don’t sing. There’s little wit in the dialog and, frankly, Harry’s an asshole I wouldn’t mind seeing get taken down a peg. Even so, The Beloved Spouse™ and are looking forward to Season 6, though not with the same fervor as we did for Justified or The Sopranos.

Vice (2018) The most disappointing movie I’ve seen since Blade Runner 2049. I’m no fan of Dick Cheney, but Adam McKay’s hatchet job tends too often to use the blunt end rather than the blade. McKay’s touch was outstanding in The Big Short, but he had Michael Lewis’s brilliant book to work with. He tried a similar approach here, but wrote it himself from scratch and it shows. All told, I’d rather have watched Michael Moore direct a Cheney film, and Michael Moore embarrasses me as a liberal.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) I occasionally let time pass before writing these capsules so my thoughts about a film can coalesce. It’s been two weeks and I can’t remember a single thing worth complimenting about this movie. So, there’s that.

Deadwood: The Movie (2019) Well, it’s about fucking time. Seth and Al and all those cocksuckers come back to add an element of closure to the series so unceremoniously ass-fucked by HBO thirteen years ago. The storytelling is a little different from the series because David Milch had only two hours to work with instead of twelve and HBO cut half an hour while adding some flashbacks for the hoople-heads who didn’t know what the fuck was transpiring back there. Still, it’s a more than worthy bow to tie off the series and an accomplishment on its own. A second viewing only enhanced its appeal and a third is in the offing as soon as we work our way through the series again.
The Choirboys (1977) This is such an execrable adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh’s masterpiece he completely disassociated himself from the film and sued to have his name removed from the credits. He was right to do so.

Friday, June 28, 2019

S. W. Lauden, Author of That'll Be The Day

I can appreciate how good a writer George Pelecanos is, but I never got into his Derek Strange books because he spends too much time talking about cars and music I know nothing of. S.W. Lauden’s new novelette, That’ll Be The Day, revolves around music I know practically nothing of—it’s damn near about music I know nothing of—yet I read it in a single sitting. Literally couldn’t put it down. That’s some storytelling.

Steve stopped by to dish about the book, writing, and music.

One Bite at a Time: We’ve discussed how much I like That’ll Be The Day, yet the more I think about it the more things I find to like. Let’s start with the characters. It’s often said of a book that no character is all good or all bad, but you pulled that off in convincing ways I’d not seen before. Did you have the characters sketched out in advance?
S.W. Lauden: Thanks so much for the kind words! It definitely helps that I played in bands myself for many years and have plenty of personal experience to draw on. And there’s something about a story of this length (17,000 words) that I find easier to write than either short stories or full-length novels. There’s an immediacy to the pace of the storytelling, but the end is always in sight. All of that makes it easier (for me, at least) to focus on the characters.

OBAAT: Jackson Sharp is a man who can hold a grudge. He wants the fifty grand he had to leave behind when he was sent up mainly so he can afford to find and kill his father. He undergoes quite a change by the end. Was that the point of the book when you started, or did things evolve to there?
SWL: Music and fandom are the framework, but I always thought of this story as Jack’s journey to accepting that his dreams weren’t going to come true (at least not the way he once envisioned them). Jamie has made a kind of peace with his shitty life and found ways to be happy, but Jack can’t even see the point in trying. A big area of focus for me was their simultaneous relationship with music and crime, because that’s what’s in their bones. I wanted the guns and guitars to seem interchangeable to some degree. I was also riffing on the proud history of battling brothers in rock bands (like Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks, Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis, etc.).

OBAAT: Russell Patterson is as fucked up a character as I can remember and in a completely unique way. I suppose people as rich as he is can afford all kinds of off the path hobbies, but what gave you the idea for his personal rock-and-roll memorabilia Hall of Fame?
SWL: Patterson’s definitely a piece of work. I wanted him to embody an overblown version of ‘toxic fandom.’ With any artform, there is always a small but extreme group of fans who take their passion too far and kind of lose sight of the innocent reasons they connected with something in the first place. He’s a shady (sometimes violent) businessman with a very specific kink when it comes to music, but his outrageous collection is really just an extension of his massive ego. The music isn’t enough for a guy like Patterson, he needs to hoard important artifacts from the band’s history and keep them to himself.

OBAAT: Having been a musician myself, I think the reason I’m able to get past the fact I don’t know a lot of the music in the book (I’m more of a classical and jazz guy) was because, unlike the Pelecanos reference above, your musical references are more about the life of a musician than the music. I don’t want to spoil a nice plot point, but I was particularly taken by how Jack and his brother need to make a detour on their way to a job so they can afford to do the job. Musicians live that way, one job to the next. You came up with a creative way to show that while not lessening the motion of the story. (Yeah, there’s no question there. Talk about it.)
No more ever says, "More cowbell!" when
Steve Lauden's around.
SWL: There was an earlier version of this book (in my mind only) that was just going to be the two brothers driving to the heist—kind of like a rock ‘n roll Waiting For Godot or My Dinner With Andre. I ultimately didn’t take the story to that artistic extreme, but I still wanted to capture the mind-numbing delirium of life on the road. Bands tackle a lot of the world’s problems while barreling down the interstate in the middle of the night. They also get into pointless, heated debates about their favorite bands and songs.

Then there’s the musical genre that inspired this story. I previously published a trilogy of books about a punk rock PI (Bad Citizen Corporation, Grizzly Season and Hang Time) that was more aggressive, much darker and almost cartoonish in some respects because I felt that embodied the punk rock lifestyle I had seen firsthand growing up. Power pop, on the other hand, is melodic (sometimes jangly) guitar pop that includes everybody from Raspberries, Big Star and The Knack to The Bangles, Fountains Of Wayne, and The New Pornographers. Power pop bands are usually inspired by the early music of 60s bands like The Beatles, The Who, The Byrds and The Beach Boys. All of that’s a bit more nuanced than punk, especially hardcore punk. So much of the tone, pace and dialogue was set by the music I was listening to.

OBAAT: Jack never wants to play again and his brother Jamie doesn’t really want to do anything else, making great sacrifices to allow him to keep his hand in. To me, the two brothers represent an internal struggle a lot of less than successful musicians have within themselves. Is that what you were going for?
SWL: You hit the nail on the head. Music, especially commercial music, is mostly a young person’s game. It’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears (hey, that would make a good band name!) that most often leads nowhere. So it can be difficult to keep doing it simply for the love of music, especially when it comes to lugging gear around and playing to empty bars in middle age when you should probably be home with your family and/or trying to achieve more reasonable goals.

OBAAT: What’s up next? Will we see you in Dallas for Bouchercon?
SWL: Funny enough (especially given my answer to your last question), I just recorded an album with some good friends as The Brothers Steve. We have a digital single coming out at the end of June. The vinyl album will be available in late July.

I also co-edited an essay collection about power pop with Paul Myers called “Go All The Way” that will be released in October by Rare Bird Books. As you can tell, I really love going down musical rabbit holes like this.

No Bouchercon for me this year. I’m too busy with the book projects, the Writer Types podcast, and music. That’s in addition to the day job and my amazing family. Speaking of which, I should probably go…Thanks again for having me back!

BIO: S.W. Lauden is the author of the Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series including Bad Citizen CorporationGrizzly Season and Hang Time. His Tommy & Shayna novellas include Crosswise and Crossed Bones. A new novelette, That’ll Be The Day: A Power Pop Heist, was released on June 18, 2019. S.W. Lauden is the pen name of Steve Coulter, drummer for Tsar and The Brothers Steve. More info at