Friday, July 20, 2018

Guest Post by Dale Phillips: The Simple Art of Murder

Today’s guest post is by Dale Phillips, who is one of those people who gives crime fiction writers a good name and deservedly so. Dale has published novels, story collections, non-fiction, and over 70 short stories. Stephen King was Dale's college writing teacher, and since that time, he’s found time to appear on stage, television, in an independent feature film, and compete on Jeopardy, losing in spectacular fashion. (Which is the best way to lose. No point going out quietly. ) In his spare time he co-wrote and acted in a short political satire film and has traveled to all 50 states, Mexico, Canada, and through Europe. I've read some of Dale's stuff and will read more. He's an underappreciated gem of a writer.

Thank you, Dana for allowing me to pontificate here, as I love talking about mystery writing: its origins and practice, and the reasons why I spend so many hours of private time creating stories of it.

I first saw Dana King when he was quoting from The Simple Art of Murder, the famous essay by noir master Raymond Chandler. I was the one in the audience nodding in vigorous agreement, and practically shouting Amen! Because what Dana was describing, by way of Chandler, was the type of mystery novel I write (currently five books), and my protagonist Zack Taylor.

Chandler argued the virtues of the hard-boiled detective novel, and this piece stands as one of the most insightful and eloquent studies of detective/crime/mystery fiction. It explains why writers like Dana and I write what we do, and not mannered tales of English vicars who repeatedly stumble across bodies and help the hapless local constabulary solve quaint murders in even quainter villages.

They say to write the kind of book you like to read, and I was indoctrinated by the masters of the hard-boiled school: Dashiell Hammett, Chandler, Jim Thompson, Mickey Spillane. John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, and so many more. Here, murder is a dirty business, where people aren't being offed for control of a mansion or an inheritance, but sometimes for a few bucks in their pocket, or because they've fallen in love with the wrong person or crossed someone dangerous. In these tales, the people who killed will likely kill again, unless they are stopped. There is a great deal of peril for the person trying to solve the crime, and things won't be going back to a quiet, normal existence, because murder leaves a horrid stain on all those who come in contact with it.

So I write what I know, the life of people in Maine, and I try to bring those stories to a sense of realism with people you might know. I find it difficult to connect with the kind of traditional mystery where a cozy Mrs. Pennyfeather sips tea and somehow brings a murderer to justice with help from her cat and her quilting club. In my books, I show the aftermath of violence, how it marks people and affects their lives. I depict a flawed hero, a man who makes many mistakes, but who desperately tries to be a better person, even though he’s resigned to being the outcast, the near-criminal who can only make a difference by being what he is. I model my series and character after John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, and pay homage, even though my character is far more flawed, far less effective, and haunted by the things he’s done. Like Travis, he’s not above scooping up windfalls of illicit money. It helps him to help others, and keeps him out of jail by paying a very expensive attorney.

Too often the rich and powerful can escape justice for their crimes, and if Zack Taylor cannot bring justice, at least he can conjure a reckoning. But in doing so, there is usually unintended collateral damage, and Zack pays a terrible price for doing what he does. In the latest book, A Sharp Medicine, Zack realizes he’s losing the love of his life because of his brushes with violence. He begins to unravel, and his solution is to go deeper into danger and risk, searching for a missing reporter.

One big problem for our hero, though. Despite the fact that murders and criminals love and
use guns, Zack hates them due to a past tragedy, and doesn’t use them. Too often in mystery fiction the protagonist whips out a gun to escape danger and all problems are instantly solved. Where’s the fun in that? Better to have our protagonist at a major disadvantage, leaving the reader wondering how he’s going to survive. Makes for a more interesting tale, in my opinion.

I also put themes in each book- nothing that slows the action down, but bolsters the meaning of it all. If all Zack did was beat people up while solving murders, the series would get boring quickly. I change things up and try to better my game with each book in the series, and the careful reader will get more than just a good action yarn. The series is a study in human nature, drawn from life.

There are things I don’t put in my books. Murder is bad enough, so I don’t put in graphic torture scenes or the detailed abuse of children or animals. And while trying to give the air of authenticity, I shy away from detailing ways to successfully commit crime. There are authors who have had readers use something they learned in an author’s book, and I don’t want to be responsible for anything like that.

So if you like your fiction hard-boiled, down-to-earth, and a tad gritty at times, give the Zack Taylor series a try. Whether it’s the mean streets of Portland, Maine or Penns River (as in Dana’s work), you’ll get a good read that’s worth your time.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Nostalgia Post: Inside Man

(I’m away from the blog today for my semi-decennial colonoscopy. To hold you over, here's a post I wrote for my previous blog, From the Home Office, upon a similar occasion ten years ago. Nothing has changed.)

Among the “benefits” of being fifty-one years old and the owner of a hemorrhoid and family history of colon cancer is the necessity for occasional colonoscopies. (For those of you not well versed in the intricacies of invasive medical procedures, a colonoscopy involves sending a fiber optic tube approximately 75 feet up your ass to take pictures of your innards. Think I exaggerate? It wasn’t your asshole.)

The first impression I got of yesterday’s procedure was the warning that the laxative I had to drink should be ingested through a straw, “to get it past the taste buds.” Doesn’t that sound promising? I hadn’t tasted anything this nasty since Lady Voldemort and I went our separate ways.

There’s more to do than just drinking Liquid Plumber for Humans. My pre-procedure fast lasted forty-two hours. That’s a long time for a 240-pound man. Calling it a “fast” is a misnomer; time had not moved this slowly since I left Lady Voldemort. (I know, that’s two paragraphs in a row. Having things shoved up my ass must bring her to mind.)

Forty-two hours doesn’t seem like much compared to Gandhi’s hunger strikes, but look at the context. Gandhi didn’t weigh a buck-twenty-five, even if his diaper was wet. I need twice as much food just to maintain weight. Plus, food obviously takes a more elevated place in my pantheon of pleasures than his. (That’s why I weigh 240, right?)

Aside from that, what did Gandhi eat, and how much of a sacrifice was it to skip three, four, or fifty meals? To me, anything eaten that doesn’t have at least some meat in it is a snack, not a meal. My relatively brief fast allowed cattle to sleep easier than anything since the advent of Chick Fil-A.

So it’s the morning of the procedure. I’m starving, and my butt’s been wiped more times than Tom Cruise has been asked to come out of the closet. I talk to the doctor for a few minutes, and he steps out of sight and gets quiet. For all I know he left the room. Just about the time I start to wonder when the hell they’re going to get this show on the road, the nurse offers me something to drink.

Not my colon. At least I don't think so.
Hard to tell from this angle.
It’s over. I missed it. The anesthesia was so quick and so good, I didn’t even have to count backward from one hundred. If I did, I don’t remember it. Nothing to complain about here, right? An invasive procedure rendered so painless I missed it. Couldn’t be better.

Maybe. Problem is, did I get scoped at all? Sure, they gave me color pictures. What difference does that make? Could you pick your colon out of a photo array? For all I know, they could have played tic-tac-toe on my bare ass with felt-tipped pens. It’s not like I can see back there.

It’s all about trust. (Let’s face it, if pulling down your pants and allowing strangers to knock you out without any supervision isn’t all about trust, I don’t know what is.) The good news is that recent advances in technology have allowed them to make the fiber optic tubes both longer, and more flexible. So now I not only know my colon is clean, I don’t have any cavities, either.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Writer's Block? Nah.

I haven’t written a fictional word since March. Even then I was putting the finishing edits on the work in progress, so I guess one could argue I have not written an original word of fiction this year. (I realize there are those who might posit I have never written an original word of fiction. Bite me.)

It’s not writer’s block. I’m not stuck. I just don’t feel like it. The two books I already have finished are due out next year so there’s no way I’ll have anything else that needs to be published until at least 2020, so there’s no sense of urgency. I have other things on my mind and they’re sucking up much of my energy.

Joe Clifford made one of his more insightful comments at last year’s Toronto Bouchercon when he said teen angst is what happens when a young person develops sources of information other than his parents and realizes Mom and Dad have been lying to him. “Lying” may be too strong a term, but the kid realizes that what his parents have been telling him about the world isn’t true and now he has no idea who or what to trust.

I’ve been going through the adult version for several years now, the process exacerbated by the 2016 presidential campaign, the election, and subsequent events. Not to be political, but there are things on my mind demanding attention. Fiction seems trivial. I have words, but need a better place to use them for the time being.

I’ve been more abrupt than usual in some discussions. (Diversity in conferences, how to address enbies, a few others.) I know these matters are of great importance to some, and it’s a sign of my white male privilege that I’m not directly affected, but compared to babies being taken from their parents and people losing health care and long and mutually beneficial international alliances being torn asunder, they’re not at the top of my list of concerns. The garden where I grow my fucks has been overfarmed. I need a little crop rotation so I can move forward again.

I took last week off, not just from work but from life in general. Very little time reading the news or Facebook. It was a pleasure, so much so I actually found the urge to write returning. I have a short story for an anthology due by the end of the month, and a good idea for that. The outline for the next Penns River book is taking shape and the germ of an idea for a new Nick Forte novel has come to mind. (Writers among you are snickering. We all know the distance from “germ of an idea” to “something I’m willing to spend a year writing.” On the bright side, there is no “something I’m willing to spend a year writing” without there first being the germ of an idea.) I spent several of my vacation evenings watching familiar Westerns and the long-postponed Western novel now has a few more things fleshed out, at least in my mind.

It’s easy for those of us who live so much in our own heads to talk about how hard writing is. How I can’t write something about what’s really bothering me, not only because it will no longer be topical by the time the book comes out, but because things one is too close to are almost impossible to write well. What’s getting me past that is reminders that, no matter how much I may shy away from writing something ripped from the headlines, I’m not the person who had his children taken away because I asked for something I have a right to do, nor have I lost my health insurance because someone who makes more money in a day than I make in three months would rather people lose their homes—or die—because they can’t afford proper medical care than pay an extra few percent in taxes. I have a good life—better than I have any right to expect or deserve—and to have to imagine misfortune in order to write about it is a blessing I cannot in good conscience ignore.

That doesn’t mean I have to wallow in it. I don’t need another story about how the government can’t find some of these kids or their parents; what I want to know is what’s being done about it. So I’m trimming my interactions in Facebook to either those I’ll learn from and enjoy, or those I hope to learn from even though I might not enjoy it. There’s no longer any time to read folks bitching about yet another example of the same old thing without suggesting a viable remedy. I don’t care what Donald Trump tweeted this morning. He’ll tweet something even more offensive tomorrow. The time I spend being outraged could be more profitably spent interacting with those who are actually willing and able to do something about it. Elected representatives. The ACLU. The Southern Poverty Law Center. The Beloved Spouse and I went to the immigration rally last week and I plan to counter-protest the White Civil Rights rally next month. Energy breeds energy, and I’m tired of letting bad news flow over me like the overflow from a backed-up sewer. It’s time I pushed back in some way.

Then I’ll be ready to write.

(Afterword: I have begun a short story since the first draft of this post was written. So, progress.)

Friday, July 6, 2018

Stuck in the Middle, Guest Post by Sam Wiebe

Sam Wiebe is the author of the Vancouver crime novel, Cut You Down, Invisible Dead, and Last of the Independents. Wiebe's short stories have appeared in Thuglit, Spinetingler, and subTerrain, and he was the 2016 Vancouver Public Library Writer in Residence. He lives in Vancouver.


That’s from Sam’s website bio. It’s accurate, as far as it goes. What it doesn’t tell you is how Sam has won awards and may well be the tip of the spear that brings private investigators back to their deserved position at the apex of crime fiction. Sam didn’t just stumble onto this. He’s as thoughtful about the craft as any writer I know, so I was delighted when he agreed to be this week’s guest poster.

One more thing few people know about Sam: Even though he’s from Vancouver, he has an
affinity for hush puppies. (Not the shoes, dumbass. The food.) Find some from Claude Cooper’s and Sam will follow you anywhere.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
Stuck in the Middle

“If you want to write commercially, abandon pretense and go for the throat.
If your field is literature don’t worry about the market.”
Jack McClelland, shared to me on Facebook via John McFetridge

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately, as I try to figure out where my career is going.

I’m lucky. I’ve written only the books I wanted to, and the response to them has been overwhelmingly positive. But I’m also not sure where to go from here.

There isn’t a lot of advice for the mid-career writer. Other than a couple columns—Chuck Wendig’s was pretty good—it’s not an area that attracts a lot of philosophizing. People want to know how to break in, or how to make millions overnight. Few people want to know how to sustain a writing career once you’ve breeched the walled city.

As Harlan Ellison wrote, “The trick is not to become a writer; it is to stay a writer. Day after day, year after year, book after book.”

I didn’t know anything about the publishing world when I started. (Not much has changed.) It’s a problematic business, especially when success is measured by two things which might not help, and may actually hinder, a sustained writing career: giant advances and first week sales. It’s a business that moves slowly, when it moves at all, and a business in which writers are not often ‘looped in’ with marketing and publishing decisions that affect their fates. (There are several columns to be written on these topics, by people much smarter than I am.)

To go back to the McClelland quote: I’ve never worried about the market, but the genre I write in is commercial to some extent. I think of myself sometimes as being in the middle, between someone writing just for themselves and just for an audience. It comes back to the advice of “write the book you want to read.”

The middle is a dangerous place to be, career-wise. Your work is in market competition with books written for no other reason than to sell. On the other hand, as a genre writer, you’re shut out of a lot of the protections and awards that gild the careers of “literary” writers. You have to make your own opportunities, but at the same time, you’re writing something you care about. Any business success serves only to sustain a writing career so you can write more things you care about with fewer distractions.

Writing comes first, business second, but the distance between those isn’t as big as I’d once believed, and they’re interrelated in ways I’m only now appreciating.

Anyway, there’s no conclusion to this, no, “And here’s where I learned sales don’t matter…” We all have books to write and bills to pay, and I love to see conversations about doing both.

(Editor’s Note: Sam has expressed things here I’ve thought quite a bit about myself. Expect to see more on this topic from him and me in the near future.)

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Favorite Reads in May and June

Beast of Burden, Ray Banks. Banks is one of the writers that forces me to look for ways to be sure they don’t fall through the cracks of a busy life. I’ve never been disappointed in anything he’s written. In fact, I’m always pleasantly surprised, even though my expectations are routinely high. Beast of Burden is the fourth and last of the Cal Innis PI books. Not that Cal is really a PI. He tries to be. Sometimes. Thing is, Cal is too tied to his history to break away and do much for himself. It’s going to undo him someday, though not likely for the right reason. That’s cryptic, even for me, but this one has a twist in the end I don’t even want to make you look forward to, let alone spoil. Banks is the George Higgins of the UK, writing dialog that carries his story in ways no one else would think of. It may take a while for an American to fall into the flow of the slang, but once you do few writers can wrap you up in their world better than Banks.

Playing Through the Whistle. S. L. Price. A non-fiction account of the rise and fall of Aliquippa, PA, as seen through the prism of its high school sports teams, especially football. Even in its heyday Aliquippa never had 40,000 residents; now the population is less than half that. Still the town cranks out top rate NFL players that run from Mike Ditka through Tony Dorsett to Darrell Revis and beyond. The original Jones & Laughlin mills ran for seven-and-a-half miles along the Ohio River west of Pittsburgh. (Think about that for a minute: seven and a half miles. A straight line west to east across Manhattan Island through Central Park is less than two.) The mills are gone for all intents and purpose, but the town lives on. Price is not a native but has the perfect combination of perspective and love for the community to tell this story as few can. Penns River is not Aliquippa—things are actually better in Penns River—but it could have been had I been born 40 miles farther west. Playing Through the Whistle deserves every accolade it’s earned.

Nobody’s Fool. Richard Russo. Been a while since I read any Russo, so I returned to where I started. Most people are aware of the story because of the movie where Paul Newman plays the hapless Sully, who couldn’t catch a break if it floated down to him tied to a parachute, and doesn’t really want to. Towns like North Bath and Aliquippa and Penns River are full of Sullys, outlaws in their own ways without being criminal and whose ration of don’t give a shit has reached self-defeating levels. Russo shows Sully as an asshole who doesn’t mean anything by it, not knowing when to stop teasing his friend Rub and stealing the same snow blower multiple times. It’s a leisurely stroll through several weeks of life in a dying town that’s still lively enough to remain entertaining throughout.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Yet Another Benefit of Journaling

I’ve written about my journal before. How it’s a relatively recent phenomenon and how I’ve come to enjoy it. Turns out it has real benefits for someone in my situation.

I was about to start the final draft of the fifth Penns River novel, Pushing Water, when my father took ill. I set it aside until that situation worked itself to its inevitable conclusion, then again while we got Mom situated in an assisted living facility close to The Beloved Spouse™ and me so we could keep Mom out of as much trouble as possible. I finished Pushing Water in early March but still had enough stuff going on that I wasn’t ready to jump right back into a new book.

First drafts and edits are entirely different animals for me. Editing I can always sit down to do. Pretty much all I need is time. Drafts are a different matter. That’s much heavier lifting and I need my ducks in a row before I can start. This is why I outline. The outlines are flexible and I leave plenty of room to write things up as I see fit at the time. The thing is, I’m not much for writing things down as I make them up. Charlie Stella has described my writing style as “documentary,” and that’s pretty accurate. I don’t make things up when I write so much as I describe things that have already happened, at least in my head. My outlines are the equivalent of a journalist’s notes.*

The book I’m outlining now is a bit of a departure for me. The plan is to write it more as a series of vignettes that describe life in Penns River, though there will be a couple of primary crimes that will keep appearing through the story. This is a different challenge from picking a crime early on and writing the whole book around it. It won’t be quite so linear, and I need more ideas to make everything come out as interesting and not feel padded. Given the lengthy period of inactivity that’s been enforced on me since I first started thinking along these lines, I don’t know what I would have done without the journal.

I don’t think I’m unique among writers in that I get ideas I’d like to write that don’t have any place in the work in progress. I’m not just talking about major story lines that can carry a book all by itself. I mean little character-based anecdotes that I like and can do something with, just not in this book. For example, with I was writing Pushing Water I came up with an idea for a relationship for Detective Ben Dougherty that could be a lot of fun, as well as tell us a lot about Doc. Problem was, I already had one of those in Pushing Water. Compounding the issue was I noodled out the whole plot line for the new idea and no way would I remember it by the time I got around to outlining the next book.

William Goldman once said he never kept notes because he’d remember any ideas worth using. I agree with that in principle, with a twist. I’ve come to realize I might not remember an idea because it wasn’t worth using at the time I came up with it. That doesn’t mean it might not have legs in a different context a few stories down the road. That’s where the journal comes in handy. Just because I wrote an idea down doesn’t mean I have to use it in the next book. It also doesn’t mean it’s not available three books from now when it might fit well and I’m sitting there with the terrible feeling that I once had an idea that would fit here perfectly if only I could remember it. (Sorry, Bill. You’re still The Man.)

What I’m in the midst of now is working through those notes, as well as newspaper articles I’ve saved from the real-life equivalents of Penns River to see what’s worth using, what needs to stay in storage for future reference, and what belongs in the “What was I thinking?” file, a/k/a the recycle bin. I have close to 40 “index cards” in a Word file I’ll print on card stock and use to build the outline when it’s ready. With my average chapter coming in at around 1500 words, I need 50 – 60 chapters in total. I figure another couple of weeks and I‘ll be ready to start organizing. I’ll let it sit while I write a short story I owe and then will get to work describing the events I’ve chosen to happen in Penns River.

(* - I am aware of the school of writers who refuse to outline because they believe the reader can’t be surprised at a plot twist if the writer isn’t surprised when he writes it. News flash: I’m just as surprised as you when I come up with it. Having set it aside I can now concentrate on how best to describe it so the reader gets the full effect.)

Friday, June 22, 2018

An Interview with Jim Nesbitt, Author of The Right Wrong Number

Jim Nesbitt is the author of two hard-boiled Texas crime thrillers that feature battered but dogged Dallas PI Ed Earl Burch -- The Last Second Chance, a Silver Falchion finalist, and The Right Wrong Number. Nesbitt was a journalist for more than 30 years, serving as an editor and roving correspondent for newspapers and wire services in Alabama, Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C. He chased hurricanes, earthquakes, plane wrecks, presidential candidates, wildfires, rodeo cowboys, migrant field hands, neo-Nazis, and nuns with an eye for the telling detail and an ear for the voice of the people who give life to a story. He is a lapsed horseman, pilot, hunter, and saloon sport with a keen appreciation for old guns, vintage cars and trucks, good cigars, aged whiskey and a well-told story. He now lives in Athens, Alabama, where he is writing his third Ed Earl Burch novel, The Best Lousy Choice.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about The Right Wrong Number.

Jim Nesbitt: It’s an old-school, hard-boiled crime thriller set in Texas and northern Mexico, with a little bit of the decadent charms of New Orleans, a dash or two of Houston and Dallas and a whole lot of the stark, harsh beauty of the desert mountains of the Trans-Pecos country thrown in.

The main character is a cashiered Dallas homicide detective and private eye named Ed Earl Burch, a saloon sport and ex-jock gone to seed with the bad knees, wounded liver and empty bank account to prove it. He’s also deeply in debt to his lawyer and needs cash -- right now. He’s desperate enough to take a job from an old flame who burned him badly, signing on as a bodyguard after the disappearance of her husband, a high-flying Houston financier who ripped off his clients, including some deeply unsavory gentlemen from New Orleans.

It’s a simple job that goes wrong fast, plunging Burch into a ruthless contest where nothing and nobody can be trusted. Money and sex tempt him to break his own rules—twin temptations served up by the old flame, a rangy strawberry blonde with a violent temper and a terminal knack for larceny and betrayal.

Those New Orleans gentlemen give the game a more murderous edge by sending two hitmen to reclaim their stolen goods and kill anybody involved in the score. When his best friend gets murdered in Dallas by hired muscle, Burch blames himself and grimly sets out for vengeance that also delivers a bloody form of redemption.

OBAAT: Readers love to ask where authors get their ideas and most authors reply with something along the lines of “we’re tripping over them. The trick is to find the idea that works best for me.” What made this idea worth developing, and how much development from the original germ was required?
JN: I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer and usually start off with a few very simple ideas about who the main characters are, what kind of brier patch I’m going to throw them in and what brings them all together -- in this book, greed and money early on, revenge and redemption later. From there, I let the characters, the action, the dialogue, and a keen sense of place drive the story. I write with a very loose rein and am often surprised by the characters and dialogue that pops up on the page -- where the hell did she come from and why the hell did he say that?

For The Right Wrong Number, I was intrigued by the notion of Ed Earl Burch being so desperate for money that he’d take a job from Savannah Crowe, an old flame who burned him badly in love and tried to frame him with the cops for a drug deal that went sideways. He still hates her, doesn’t trust her but wants to suck up as much money as he can from her -- to get out of debt and get a little payback. I wanted to see just how far astray money and sex would lead Burch from the threadbare code he lives by.

That same question applies to an old adversary -- Houston homicide detective Cider Jones, a mystic with Comanche blood who blames Burch for his partner’s death and wouldn’t mind seeing him wind up dead.

I was also interested in developing Savannah’s backstory and that of her husband, an ex-jock and financier named Jason Willard Crowe, a man with some nasty clients he decides to rip off. Savannah is no longer the party girl and small-time hustler she was when she dated Burch in Dallas. She’s flying in much higher circles in Houston, part of a power couple who prey on the coke-and-daddy’s-oil-money set. Until her husband pulls his disappearing act, she doesn’t know he’s also laundering money for the New Orleans mob.

OBAAT: Where did Ed Earl Burch come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
JN: Short answer -- from my fevered brainpan.

We’re both bald, beefy, bearded guys who wear glasses and like saloons, bourbon, Colt 1911s and difficult women who can tear your heart out. We both carry a Zippo lighter -- Burch carries his to fire up his Luckies; I gave up Luckies for cigars. I also hung up the saloon spikes and quit chasing women who tote emotional straight razors. That’s why Burch has one more ex than I do. We’re both terminal smartasses who don’t know when to shut up. Burch was a cop, I was a reporter -- we both made a living by making people pay for underestimating us. Burch doesn’t mind shooting people with that Colt; I never have and hope I never do.

When I started writing the first Ed Earl book, The Last Second Chance, I wasn’t at all sure he would wind up being the kind of durable character who could anchor a series. It was certainly what I hoped for. I wanted him to be strong, flawed, reckless, cagey, cynical and utterly human, a guy who has a code he sometimes forgets to live by but returns to under pressure. I didn’t want him to be a Spade or a Marlowe -- I wanted him to be more angst-ridden and tortured than those guys.

Ed Earl’s a little slow on the uptake, but not dumb. He’s dogged rather than brilliant. And he sure isn’t supercool like Frank Bullitt -- he’s the polar opposite of that. He’s Columbo without the caricature -- people he goes up against think he’s slow and easily duped when he’s really pretty cagey and lulling them to sleep. He makes them pay for that mistake. Sometimes with a bullet.

What I wound up with in the telling of this story is a guy with whom I think most people can identify. Ed Earl’s a bit of an Everyman who’s been smacked around by life. A friend calls Ed Earl a classic American anti-hero. I’ll buy that.

OBAAT: All the women in your books, whether good or bad, are strong. What did you want to portray with them? 
JN: Exactly that -- strength. A strong story demands strong characters of both genders. I’ve always been attracted to strong, smart, sharp-tongued women who know they’re smarter and tougher than men and aren’t shy about showing it. I find them endlessly fascinating, maddening, alluring and sometimes dangerous. They’re a force of nature to be reckoned with and I’m usually four or five steps behind them on the uptake. So is Ed Earl. Women seem to like and love him anyway -- for reasons I don’t fully understand.

OBAAT: You don't pull back on the sex and violence. Is there any kind of line you don't cross when doing this kind of story? 
JN: Yes. My books are bawdy and bloody, but the sex and violence isn’t gratuitous or served up just for shock value. I’m writing a violent tale and want to be frank about both the sex and the violence in service of that story. I don’t want to shield the reader’s delicate sensibilities with euphemisms and sanitized scenes. That’s an insult to the reader. Might be a different story if I was writing a chicken-fried cozy.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JN: I’m a bit of an omnivore. I like history told with a literary flair -- James D. Hornfischer is a favorite. I’ll read anything Larry McMurtry writes, although Lonesome Dove remains my favorite. I like Elmer Kelton’s Westerns, although his masterpiece is The Time It Never Rained, set in Texas in the 1950s when a deep drought scorched the land. It’s the story of a stubborn rancher who tries to survive this crisis and still keep his independence. I’m fascinated by the interplay between the land and the people who live on it and try to wrestle a living from it. Kelton captures that perfectly. Hemingway’s short stories and one of his posthumous novels, Islands in the Stream, are works I’ll return to in order to rejuvenate my own writing. The common thread here is all these writers paint vivid character portraits and create such a keen sense of place that it becomes a character unto itself. In recent months, I’ve been reading the early novels of the late Milton Burton, who was just brilliant about setting his crime stories in the 40s or 50s without making them sepia-toned nostalgia pieces. Check out The Rogue’s Game and see if I’m not right.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
JN: I’m a fiend for Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson, so I’m sure they provide some undertones to my writing. James Ellroy and Hunter S. Thompson are lurking as well. But I’d say the biggest influences are James Lee Burke and the late, great James Crumley, a vastly underappreciated talent. Not that I’m in the same league as any of these giants, because I’m not. I come from a long line of hillbilly storytellers who instilled in me a deep and abiding attachment to family and place. Reading Burke reinforced that attachment and taught me how important it is to writing a story. Whether his setting is Louisiana or Texas, he makes those places come alive in a very visceral way. Crumley, whose raucous crime novels are laced with whiskey, sex and drugs, taught me it was okay to let it rip with graphic depictions of blood and debauchery as long as it’s in service of the story.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
JN: I’m a ‘tweener. I tend to give each chapter a light edit after I finish and will re-write passages that are clunky or just don’t wring true, but I don’t want to kill off the spontaneity and surprise of a character who takes over the story and drives it somewhere I didn’t intend to go because that’s often better than what I had in mind. A character in my first book, Carla Sue Cantrell, is a good example. I intended her to be a minor character, but she just exploded onto the page as this tough and sexy redneck badass who loves muscle cars, high-grade crank, the high-wire double-cross and shooting people. Louis, the New Orleans hitman in my second book is another example. I started off giving him the looks and style of a good friend of mine and wound up with this conniving, cold-blooded and fully fleshed out character who is a driving force in the story. He’s also a snappy dresser and nasty piece of work. More often than you’d like, you run into a rough patch and the writing feels like chipping away at a rock wall with a chisel and hammer or you’ve got a logjam of ideas and scenes and words. The only way out is to just plow forward and get the words on paper to see what you’ve got. You can break out the chainsaw later.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JN: Research, research, research. Facts are a writer’s friend. I learned that the hard way as a young journalist with the bad habit of trying to write my way around things I didn’t know. The bullshit cliché is a writer should write what they know. That’s just the starting point. You need to expand your knowledge and hone your writing chops by finding out the answers to things you don’t know and reading other writers who are better than you. That knowledge gives a tremendous power and authenticity to your writing and, in a counter-intuitive way, frees you up so you can really fly.

OBAAT: Is there anything you wish interviewers would ask about more? Some topic you’d like to see writers discuss more in forums such as this?
JN: Readers want to peer inside a writer’s brainpan and see how we think -- get a glimpse of the creative process and learn as much as they can about the why and the how of what we do. They’re not interested in whether you check every box in the template of Chandler’s The Simple Art Of Murder. Their questions are more meat-and-potatoes than that. Why did Ed Earl shoot that guy in Chapter Seven? Why did you kill off one of his ex-wives? I liked her. Why do your books have so much graphic sex and violence? What is it about West Texas that fascinates you? Why does everybody sound like a Bubba in your books, even the women? That hitman reminds me of my grandfather -- did you model him on anybody in your life? We call it dialogue, character development and sense of place, but if you strip away the jargon, you’re answering questions the readers want answered.

OBAAT: Do you have a favorite quote about the writing process?
JN: Hemingway’s line to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.”

OBAAT: What are you currently working on, and why does it kick ass?
JN: I’m slogging my way through the third Ed Earl Burch story, The Best Lousy Choice, and I’m trying to make this one more of a whodunit. In terms of time, this one takes place just a year or so after the nightmare ride of The Last Second Chance, which has left Ed Earl with a bad case of the PTSD jangles. He’s a train wreck who self medicates with whiskey and Percodan and only seems to function when he’s got a case to occupy his mind and help keep the demons at bay. He’s still in debt to his shylock lawyer, Fat Willie Nofzinger, and is forced to take on a divorce case out in the fictional West Texas town of Faver, named for Milton Faver, one of the pioneer ranchers of the Big Bend country. Ed Earl hates divorce work, makes him feel like a slimeball who can’t hose himself down with enough whiskey to get clean. But he gets the job done and is about to leave town when he gets into a gunfight with two sicarios sent to kill the owner of the used car lot where Ed Earl is dropping off a rental. That brings him to the attention of the outlaw cousin of a prominent rancher who has been killed in a barn fire that may not have been an accident. The cousin hires Burch to find out whether the rancher was murdered because he doesn’t trust the crooked county sheriff, a tough-talking ex-Texas Ranger with his eye on the governor’s mansion and his hand out to the drug lord just across the river. The rancher has also ticked off some Houston developers who want his land, an outfit with a reputation for terminal payback. Everybody’s a suspect, even the cousin, and more than a few of them want Ed Earl dead because he’s poking his nose where he shouldn’t. Lots a gun play, lots of sex, lots of snappy patter and lethally picaresque characters. And Ed Earl couldn’t be happier because he gets to do something he hasn’t been able to do since he lost his gold shield -- investigate a murder, a case that might just get him killed. Why does it kick ass? Hell, son, it’s Ed Earl run amok in the West Texas brier patch again.