Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Man in the Window

In my first (and so far only) traditionally-published novel, Grind Joint, Chicago PI Nick Forte visits his home town of Penns River, PA. While there he beats unconscious a man who annoyed him, saves his cousin the cop from being kidnapped by Russian mobsters, almost provokes a brawl in a restaurant, and kills a couple of guys. (Hey, he was only there for a week.) Forte doesn’t have a death wish; he does have serious case of Don’t Give a Shit.

Readers liked the character—he’s only a guest star in the book, which is part of the Penns River series—which got me to take John McFetridge’s advice and bring out the Nick Forte novels I’d written over the past several years, to show how he came to be that way. (Forte, not McFetridge. John was born smart. I should listen to him more often.) Nick’s a small town boy who failed as a musician and got a real job teaching in the Chicago public schools. He got tired of being the only unarmed person in the building and the cops were hiring. A good cop, the musician in him didn’t take to the regimentation, so he went out on his own.

In the first Forte novel, A Small Sacrifice—which I may have mentioned once or twice was nominated for a Shamus Award last year—Forte grapples with the violence he faces, and frankly, doesn’t come off well. Left to his own devices, Forte would have allowed A Small Sacrifice to tie the record for shortest series in history. (One book, in which the hero dies.) In the second Forte tale—The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Ofhe handles himself a little better, but his reluctance to be more proactive continues to haunt him.

On (or about) June 11, the third Forte novel will drop. (Available at all finer Amazon and CreateSpace outlets near you.) The Man in the Window is a story that orbits Forte’s past as a musician, and his best friend from that life. The principal violist of the Chicago Symphony asks Forte to find out if his wife is cheating on him, but the violist is killed before the report clearing her can be delivered, an apparently innocent victim of a drive-by. The next day Forte is asked to investigate further by a close friend of the dead violist. This leads him to finding people in places they don’t belong, with dubious reasons to be there. When his old trumpet-playing buddy becomes dragged into the worsening situation, Forte finds himself untethered from his natural instincts, and discovers other, less natural inclinations that he’s better at than expected, and comfortable.

I didn’t plan for this character arc. I meant for Forte to be an everyman with some skills who finds himself in situations where he’d have just enough guile and guts to get by. As the series went on, I understood at some subconscious level there was no way for him to experience all he’d been through and not be changed somehow. He could be repulsed by the violence, but continuing a series down that road didn’t appeal to me, in part because that’s not how I thought Forte would respond. Quite the opposite, Forte finds himself drawn in by how violence can accomplish good ends, at least in his eyes. As time goes on, he is not only less willing to walk away, he’s happy to be the initiator.

There are at least two more Forte books on the way. Volume Four, A Dangerous Lesson, will come out in late 2015. That concludes Forte’s development prior to the fateful visit home in Grind Joint. The current work-in-progress (working title Bad Samaritan) shows his continued evolution. Or descent, depending on your point of view. What happens to him after that, I really don’t know.

James Ellroy, talking about the two early giants of the PI genre, said Chandler wrote about the kind of man he wanted to be; Hammett wrote about the kind of man he was afraid he was. That’s a little how I feel about my two primary protagonists. Penns River cop Ben Dougherty is the kind of man I’d like to think I am. Nick Forte is the kind of man I’m afraid I could be, under different circumstances and stimuli. I’m sure I’ll keep him around, one way or another.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Twenty Questions With Eric Beetner

I first became aware of Eric Beetner when, preparing for a Bouchercon panel, I read his novel, The Devil Doesn't Want Me and couldn’t help but visualize what a great movie it would make. Then only issue I have with Mr. Beetner’s writing is what a hard time I have keeping up with him. In addition to The Devil Doesn't Want Me and his newest, Rumrunners, he has also written Dig Two Graves, The Year I Died Seven Times, White Hot Pistol, Stripper Pole At the End Of The World; the story collection A Bouquet Of Bullets; co-authored (with JB Kohl) the novels One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble; and has written the novellas FIGHTCARD: Split Decision and FIGHTCARD: A Mouth Full Of Blood under the name Jack Tunney. This is all since last Wednesday. The man’s a machine.

Eric lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts the Noir at the Bar reading series.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Rumrunners.

Eric Beetner: It's a story about a family who has been doing driving for a criminal enterprise for generations, dating back to prohibition when they were genuinely running rum in the back of model Ts. Now, though, the youngest McGraw, Tucker, doesn't want any part of the family business. Until his dad goes missing during a run. Now Tucker must team up with his grandfather to find the missing McGraw. Things get ugly from there, as usually happens in my books.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
EB: I liked the idea of a guy who has turned his back on the life of crime his father and grandfather have led, only to be sucked into it against his will. From there, I guess I liked the idea of drivers. Getaway drivers, liquor runners, anyone specializing in that part of a criminal operation was interesting to me. It grew out of that. My favorite kinds of stories are ordinary guys thrust into circumstances that are beyond them, and watching them work their way out, often awkwardly and with terrible consequences. 

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Rumrunners, start to finish?
EB: I write fairly quickly, after long periods of thinking about a story and hammering out an outline. I'd say four months from when I knew I was ready to go. I write at night after my day job and after the kids are in bed. If I could do this full time, I'd knock out four or five novels a year easily, I think. 

OBAAT: Rumrunners takes in three generations of “protagonists:” Calvin (the old man), Webb (his son), and Tucker (Webb’s son). In what ways are they like, and unlike each other? For that matter, in what ways are they like, or unlike you?
EB: They're all unlike me except that they are from Iowa. But even with that, I haven't lived there in 35 years. Calvin and Webb are cut from the same cloth, and Tucker is, too, but he doesn't want to admit it. There are many instances in the book where you see his skills as a driver and as a criminal that have been dormant inside him for years. In a way this is Tucker's coming of age story, even though he's already in his thirties. 

OBAAT: In what time and place is Rumrunners set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
EB: The time is now the place is Iowa. I wanted a setting that was off the beaten path. It was more interesting to me to have these families – the McGraws and the Stanleys, who they drive for – be big fish in a very small pond. To set this story in New York or Chicago would have taken it in a very different direction. In backwoods Iowa they can live in their own world and all the pressure on them is from that alone, not the extras that come from living in a big city or being a part of a huge criminal empire. These guys are small potatoes, but they take pride in what they do and no matter how small your world is, when it comes crashing in on you it has the same impact as anyone else. 

OBAAT: How did Rumrunners come to be published?
EB: It was a long road. This book is over four years old. When I originally had sent it to my agent we were shopping another book which eventually got picked up by a division of a Dutton/Penguin. (That book, The Devil Doesn't Want Me has been my most popular book to date) so Rumrunners kind of took a back seat. Then I kept writing more and more novels and I'd get excited about whatever was shiniest and new.

I always liked the book a lot and had plans for a trilogy with these characters, but it was always kind of the forgotten child of my books. When 280 Steps came calling and asking if had anything they could look at, I pulled this one out of the pile and sent it to them. Thankfully they saw the potential and it was saved from obscurity.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
EB: I read almost exclusively crime novels. Some nonfiction, the occasional sci-fi. I love old-school pulp and noir novels about ordinary sad suckers trapped in a web of their own making. I like pulp writers like Harry Whittington, Cornell Woolrich, Day Keene, William Ard. 

Some of the most consistent writers I read today who have yet to fail me with their brilliant work are people like Urban Waite, Roger Smith, Jake Hinkson, Sean Doolittle, Joe R Lansdale, Grant Jerkins, Allan Guthrie, John Rector, Max Allan Collins.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
EB: I've been writing since high school. I started in screenplays for a long time before ever attempting a novel. I loved that in writing a script you could play all the roles in your head. You were director, actor, set designer, editor. It was the only time you ever had complete control over a script. 

When I started writing novels and short stories I enjoyed that same aspect. While you were in the act of writing you weren't beholden to anyone else but yourself and the story. You could move all the pieces on the chessboard without any repercussions. Once it's out and with a publisher or out to readers, you face expectations, personal opinions, skewed perspectives. But when you're writing you control that world fully. And I guess deep down I'm a storyteller, even if my main audience is myself. If I can entertain me, then I figure I have decent shot of doing it for other people.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
Eric Beetner is, in life, a pleasant and not
unattractive young man, yet all his photos
make it appear they are remaking In Cold Blood
and he got a sweet part.
EB: I make stuff up. As a writer, and as a reader, I want to be taken out of my life and shown different people doing different things. I would be a terrible criminal, I'm sure. I've never done drugs, never carried a gun around, never committed a crime worth mentioning. I'm a straight-laced guy and a good citizen. So that's prepared me for wanting to delve into the total opposite of my real world, so if people sometimes think I get dark with my fiction, it's only because my real life is so bright.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
EB: Aside from what I said above about creating and controlling your made-up world, I'd say it's creating a story and characters out of thin air.  I used to play music in bands and I always loved that there would silence, nothing, and then suddenly here was a song. Out if nothing! It's the same way with a book. There are blank pages, and then after a while there are people and situations that never would have existed had I not written them down. That's kinda cool, I think.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
EB: My early life was far more influenced by films than books. I read as a kid, but I didn’t have the same passion for what I was reading as I do now. Mostly it was that thing where the required reading in school wasn’t speaking to me and so I didn’t get out a search for what I really loved in books because I found it in movies.

And even there I liked it pulpy. I love Blade Runner, John Carpenter films, I loved horror movies growing up. I also was very eclectic in my film tastes. By the time I graduated high school I had seen everything from Italian gore-fest horror films to Marx Borthers comedies to Bergman films. I frequented the art house cinema in the town next to mine and went to subtitled films alone all the time. I worked in a video store (remember those?) so I saw anything and everything I could get my hands on. I sampled it all and I loved across genres. Blues Brothers is as good as Citizen Kane to me. Big Trouble in Little China is as funny as Annie Hall.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
EB: I'm an outliner. They are skeletal, but I know where I'm going. And things can change. A good outline is flexible. 

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?
EB: I hate rewriting. Hate revisions. I try to get it as right as I can the first time out. I'll never let a plot hole sit unattended in hopes of figuring it out later. I fix it then. I don't really go back and read anything as I go. I plow ahead and only read back once I've finished. I've seen people get hung up on reworking something midstream and it sucks all the momentum out of it. I think momentum is a lot of writing. 

OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
EB: I write on silence. Being a musician maybe, or just how deeply I relate to music means I can't use it as background noise. 

If this book had a soundtrack it'd probably be a lot of outlaw country. The Smokey and the Bandit soundtrack. Fast paced bluegrass. In other words, nothing I listen to very often in real life, but stuff I like when I hear it.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
EB: I think just to focus hard when you are working. Don't take frequent breaks. Finish a thought before you stop for the night. When you sit down to write, don't start by checking email and all that junk. Twitter can wait. Sit. Focus. Work. 
And then please don't end by tweeting your word count. Nobody cares. The finished product is what matters. 

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
EB: Write what you would want to read. I think that's the first step toward finding your own voice. If you try to study what sells you will fail every time. Don't go for someone else's style, no matter how much you admire that writer. Write your book, not theirs.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
EB: Story and character are so inextricably linked that it’s hard to put one above the other. They’re co-dependent. You can have a book with interesting characters but if the plot doesn’t go anywhere they are wasted lives. Conversely, you can have a runaway train of a plot but if you fill it with cliches and empty characters, the reader won’t be thrilled because they won’t relate to it on a human level, which is why we read.

Setting might be last on my list. I write a lot of anonymous places. Cities that aren’t named, stuff like that. It can help add to the universal relatability of a story. I’ve read some great books that I felt were bogged down by a little too much site-specific detail. If a reader isn’t already intimately familiar with your locale, it might not matter if you get every street corner exactly right. Those are details sometimes best left out.

Tone is important, but I think it often comes subconsciously for a writer. If you write from the gut, the tone will follow.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it ab
out that book you admire most?
EB: What a great and difficult question. I’ll say Wild at Heart. I’m a huge Barry Gifford fan and this is ground zero for most people on his work and the start of his most famous creation, the Sailor and Lula books.

I’m fascinated by people in the margins. The outcasts and the ones living in shadows. That’s who Gifford writes about. He has such a distinct voice and he breaks a ton of rules. All those asides and tangents! But I love it.
I wrote a script once that almost got made that, looking back on it now, has a very Barry Gifford style, although this was before I’d read anything of his. It was all short vignettes and weird, unconnected scenes. We did a staged reading of it and some great actors read including Joe Mantegna, Charles Durning, David Alan Grier, Dan Lauria. A studio guy came up to me after and said, “Great stuff. I loved it. Funny and wild. Y’know, it’s not a movie, but I loved it.”

I feel that when I read Gifford. I’m sure some people think, “But it’s not a novel.”
So, yeah, I wish I’d written Wild at Heart.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
EB: I work in the TV/Film industry so I can claim watching TV and movies as research. I’ve been known to paint – badly. I still play music – not often enough. I love being with my kids and my wife. I’m pretty easy to entertain since if I’m ever at a loss I tend to create my own entertainment. I’m never bored. I won’t let myself be.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
EB: This is a very busy year for me. I have a number of books coming out over 2015, but those are already written. Over Their Heads is a crime novel I wrote with JB Kohl. The Backlist is an old school mafia hit man/woman novel I wrote with Frank Zafiro. I have a novella I wrote that will come out near the end of the year called Nine Toes in the Grave. And I just released the full omnibus version of my serialized novel The Year I Died 7 Times.

I’m working now on some short stories I have due for anthologies I’ll be in. Always working a new novel, though at this point I’m trying to pick which of the outlines I have that I want to start.

And if all goes well and there is a decent response to Rumrunners, I would love to complete the trilogy I always wanted it to be. So, fingers crossed people want to read more about the McGraws.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Twenty Questions With Josh K. Stevens

OBAAT is lucky to have sit for Twenty Questions another of the burgeoning number of writers who are making 280 Steps a publisher rapidly earning its cred. Josh K. Stevens’s new book, Scratch the Surface, is a “fun pulp joyride,” according to no less a source than Victory Gischler. (Gun Monkeys, The Deputy.) Josh’s short stories have been published in RAGAD, Boston Literary Magazine, The Woodstock Independent, 55 Words and decomP. His first novel, Bullets Are My Business, was released in 2012. Josh lives in the Midwest with his wife and children.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Scratch the Surface.
Josh K. Stevens: Scratch the Surface is the first book in the Deuce Walsh trilogy, arriving back-to-back this year. Deuce Walsh is a wiseguy who was left for dead. He’s leading his life as a regular Joe under an assumed identity and gets pulled back in to the life when his brother-in-law is in danger. The only way out is to finish one last job and hope that he makes it out alive.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
JKS:  The main character, Deuce Walsh, had been lurking around in my head for years and, one day, when I was working overnights doing security, I started thinking (and I had a lot of time to sit and think) that my wife never questioned whether or not I was actually going to work. She just assumed that I was always where I said I was going. It was one of those random thoughts that should’ve just come and gone but this one didn’t. It took root and then started to sprout and grow.  I started to realize that, as long as I left the house at the time I normally did and came home at the normal time, no one would know if I called in sick once or twice and got up to no good. As long as I didn’t get fired, it would just be assumed that I was going to work, going through the motions. This got me thinking about the fact that, if you came up with a good enough back story, no one would ever question what you did before the present time. It was a perfect case of dual identities. For some reason, I found this absolutely fascinating.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Scratch the Surface, start to finish?
JKS: From the moment that the idea hatched to completion was a few years. Scratch the Surface actually started out as standalone book and about halfway through, I realized that I was telling two separate stories from Deuce’s life. Once I realized that, the book was done in about three months.

OBAAT: Where did Deuce Walsh come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
JKS: Surprisingly, Deuce Walsh came about completely by accident. I was working at a bookstore and one of the employees took a phone call. She misheard the caller’s name as Deuce Walsh and, for some reason, I immediately thought, “There’s a story waiting to be written with that character as the protagonist.” I latched onto it and filed it away, waiting for the right story to present itself. When the story idea arose, I started seeing that Deuce and I are very similar in nature. We both had some good times in our glory days and, while we’ve both moved on to bigger and better things in adulthood, it’s hard not to think back on those days and pine after the simplicity, the lack of responsibility, the lack of monotony. Deuce and I have far too many similarities to count. Our differences? I haven’t stabbed anyone in the hand. Well… not on purpose… yet.

OBAAT: How did Scratch the Surface come to be published?
JKS: My premiere work (Bullets are My Business) was an e-reader exclusive and I had the great fortune to have the wonderful folks over at 280 Steps stumble across my premiere work. One day I got an e-mail via Facebook telling me how much they enjoyed it and asking me if I had anything else that I was working on. I was taken aback but extremely intrigued so I wrote back and sent over some sample chapters of a few pieces that I was working on. After some back and forth between myself and 280 Steps, we both decided that we would be a good fit for one another and the rest, as they say, is history. The folks over at 280 Steps have been extraordinary to work with from the get go. They were always there to offer assistance, they were quick to respond, the editors really put the time and effort into making sure that the work was polished fully, and the artists who did the covers were just fantastic. I really do think that made a world of difference. I hope that we have a long relationship!

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JKS: I seem to always be drawn back to books that have a post-apocalyptic setting, which is strange, but I generally like to read horror and crime fiction. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time was Justin Cronin’s “The Passage” and “The Twelve”. Just absolutely stunning characters, fantastic plot, crystal clear settings. Blew me away. My favorite authors? Best to try to narrow it down to a top five list: Stephen King, Charlie Huston, Mickey Spillane, Charles Bukowski, and Edgar Allan Poe.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?

JKS: Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always had stories just bouncing around in my head. I remember that when my kid sister and I were young, we would play with our toys and we would have elaborate plots and stories that spanned weeks at a time. As I got older, the stories were still there, but I had nowhere to put them. I started writing them down in high school, short stories here and there, and two “novellas” that starred my friends at the time. I started writing just so I had an outlet for the voices in my head. I think that I really decided that I wanted to be an author when I was working at the bookstore. I had been an avid reader for as far back as I could remember, but it really dawned on me that authors had such an effect on who I was and what I had become. I really just want to be able to push someone to follow their dreams. If my books make it to one person’s hands who reads it and says, “This inspires me do chase my own dream,” then I’ll consider it a success.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
JKS: Ha. I don’t know that my personal life experiences have prepared me for anything. For some reason, I’ve always been fascinated by crime and criminals. I’ve read countless books and watched far too many movies and television shows and I’ve always rooted for the anti-hero. Something about a flawed character has always appealed to me. Maybe that’s what’s prepared me? The fact that I’m flawed? Or maybe I started writing so I didn’t go out and knock over a bank.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
JKS: I think my favorite thing about being a writer is hearing people’s reactions to my work. Good or bad, I like to think that I’ve at least made people feel something. The characters that I created are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, getting inside someone’s mind and kicking around a little bit. I like the idea that, with my work, I can at least alter the way they look at the world even if just for a moment.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
JKS: So many people have been an influence to me. The people that influenced the style that I write in are Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, Charlie Huston, Stephen King, Denis Leary, and all of the hard-boiled pulp novelists of the forties and fifties. However, I’m really influenced on a daily basis by the people that I come in contact with. So much of what is said and done throughout the course of my day is put into a vat in my mind and left to stew all day. Every person in all of my stories is based on someone I know. Not everyone would be thrilled by that knowledge, but that’s what happens. As the saying goes: don’t piss off the writer or you’ll end up in his book.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
JKS: I generally start out with an idea or a single scene revolving around the main character. I usually write down notes throughout the day of things that I want or need to have happen but, beyond that, I don’t outline. I’m basically watching a film in my head and corresponding the play by play as I see what the characters do in the situation that has been presented to them. That’s the way I’ve always written. I may give the characters life, but they create their own destiny. And pants… well, pants are always optional. I generally wear them, but only because I just happen to have them on when I first sit down.

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?
JKS: I start by just working to get the whole story down on paper. While I’m writing the first draft, I keep notes of plot points or character development that I want to add later, but I usually just put my head down and barrel through. Once I’m done, I go back to the beginning and do the initial edits. Then I go through and polish up.

OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
JKS: I always listen to music as I write. Generally, what I listen to depends on the scene that I’m writing. If I’m in the midst of writing a fight scene or an action scene, I’ll find a pumping song that I’ll put on repeat until I’m done with the scene. I have a track listing for the “soundtrack” to the book (you know… to make life easier if anyone ever wants to make it into a movie…) For this book (and for the trilogy in general) I found myself continually listening to Lana Del Rey’s albums. When I was writing the final chapter of the book, I listened to her song “Ride” over and over again. It was kind of the perfect piece for the finale of Scratch The Surface, so if I had to choose a theme song for this book, I’d say that’s it. Either that or “Short Change Hero” by The Heavy. That was on constant rotation as well.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
JKS: Honestly, I’m terrible with time management. I personally do my best work when I’m in the eleventh hour of a deadline and there is a gun to my head. There were many nights that I started writing at 9:00 and didn’t get to sleep until 4:00. As long as you can get it done before the deadline, I say, do whatever works.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JKS: The best advice that I can offer to anyone was given to me by author Marcus Sakey and it was legitimately one of the best pieces of advice that I’ve ever been given, “Keep your ass in the chair and your fingers on the keys.” That’s the only way that you’re going to get anywhere as a writer. That’s how you create and that’s how you learn. That’s where you’re going to find the voice that works for you. Always be writing.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
JKS: Well, that’s like asking me to choose my favorite child! Each one is special in their own way but, to me personally, I’d have to rank them character, story, tone, narrative, and setting. Character is most important to me because they are the ones that drive everything else. I always start with the characters and get to know them before I put a single word on the paper. They’re the ones who are going to lead me through the story, they’re going to create the tone, the voice of the piece. They’ll let me know where they need to be at any given point in order to get done what needs to be done. When I’m in the chair, writing, my characters show me what they need to do and I follow their lead. Wow…That actually makes me sound like a schizophrenic…

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
JKS: From a strictly greed based, financial standpoint? Any of the seven Harry Potter books. Honestly though, I’d probably have to say “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Harper Lee put out one book and it literally changed the world. It’s still being discussed today, studied, and read today. That’s quite a feat.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
JKS: I’m a movie/television junkie, so I spend a lot of time catching up on that. Presently, I’m making my way through “Californication” and loving every second of it. I listen to a lot of music and, once a year I make what I call a “life mix”, creating a soundtrack to the previous year. I love roller derby so I go to that when I can. My favorite past time though is spending time with my kids and reliving my childhood.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
JKS: As far as writing goes, while I’ve got several story ideas kicking around in my head at the present time (a couple of full-on pulp novels, a contemporary western, and a young adult book) I think that the first project I’m going to undertake is polishing up a work that I finished about ten years ago and has been sitting in a drawer ever since. The tentative title is “Smooth Beans” and it’s another pulp thriller that centers around a couple of twenty-somethings working at a chain coffee house. They receive a box of smuggled diamonds at their location that were supposed to sent to the corporate office. They decide that this is fate interjecting and they decide to try to fence the diamonds. A series of events unfolds that forces them to hole up in the coffee house and general chaos ensues. Ever since I started writing this, many moons ago, I kept having the tagline run through my head “What if you fell ass backwards into a life of crime?” Beyond that, I’ve been slowly working towards opening my own bookstore and I’d like to put some focus on that so that I can make sure that like-minded people have a place to come and discuss the written word.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Malice Domestic

Friends and associates have been after me for a while to attend the Malice Domestic conference, held annually in Bethesda, Maryland. Malice is billed as a celebration of the “traditional mystery,” often known today as “cozies,” and regular readers are aware that cozies are not my genre of choice. Still, Bethesda is only 20 minutes down the road from Castle Schadenfreude, and I’ve been surprised by conferences before.

I could not have been treated better. Mystery conferences are known for their friendliness, and Malice is no exception. Everyone I came into contact with was a pleasure, without exception. If you’re into the world of cozies and can get to Bethesda, I’m sure you’ll have a good time. I’m not into the world of cozies, and I had a good time.

Many may disagree with my assessments. Okay, not “may;” many will. These are observations based on personal preferences. The organizers of Malice are looking at a different set of core attendees than I represent; I’m not suggesting anything should change. What I’ll note below are a few things that kept me from getting into it as much as I might have.

There were up to half a dozen rooms available for sessions at any one time. (Ballrooms were sometimes being reconfigured for larger sessions to come, or broken out after them.) With all that space, it struck me odd that about half the blocks of time allotted for sessions had only one or two of them. This left large swaths of time with nothing to do if the sole session of the hour wasn’t of personal interest. It was mentioned during the Malice 101 session that the fifteen-minute Authors’ Alley sessions for individual authors had been provided because there were more authors in attendance than could be accommodated on panels. As one of them, I could not help but notice the blocks of empty venues where other panels could have been scheduled.

The reason for this may have been the other thing that struck me. I freely admit I may be 180 degrees wrong about this, but the tone and approach of Malice panels seems much different from other conferences I have attended. What I expect from a panel is a chance to hear from authors I may not be acquainted with as they opine on topics related to writing, their approach, personal philosophies, and how their books may relate. I have discovered a great many authors who are now in the regular reading rotation because I heard them speak on a panel. (Megan Abbott, Sean Chercover, Joe Clifford, Les Edgerton, Victor Gischler, Laura Lippman, Brad Parks, and Richard Thompson off the top of my head.) The emphasis seems to be more to get to know the writer, see if he or she interests you, and then read them, or not.

The emphasis at Malice struck me more as, “Their books are here. Go get them.” The first day was spent largely on single panels, each introducing attendees to the nominees in the various Agatha Award categories. Nothing wrong with that, and the panel I saw (Debut Authors) was entertaining. It just didn’t have anything for me to take away from it. Other panels also seemed slanted in that direction, often coming across as five-way promotional interviews.

(A notable exception was Sunday morning’s “Population 2000: Small Town Sleuths.” Moderator Patsy Asher kept things moving with questions that allowed the authors to tell us how they approach things in their books while still covering a broader topic. I almost didn’t go to this one, and it turned out to be my favorite of the weekend.)

This different emphasis—assuming I am even correct in presuming it exists—is not by definition a bad thing, especially if you’re a fan of cozies looking to see what’s new and don’t want to take a lot of chances. That’s why I didn’t submit a survey: I’m not the core audience, and I’m well aware of that. (Never was that brought home more than when a woman seated in front of me stood abruptly and said, “This isn’t Paws,” and bolted for the “The ‘Paws’ That Refresh: Four-Legged Sleuths and Their Sidekicks.”) This was the 27th Malice. These people know where their wheelhouse is.

I’m just not in it. I freely admit, that’s more my loss than theirs, but we all have our own tastes. All I know was, by the time I left, what I really needed was to hear someone ask, “What does Marcellus Wallace look like?” 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Twenty Questions With Christopher Irvin

Christopher Irvin has traded all hope of a good night’s sleep for the chance to spend his mornings writing dark and noir fiction. He is the author of Burn Cards and Federales, as well as short stories featured in several publications, including Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, and Shotgun Honey, as well as last year’s highly acclaimed anthology, Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Based on the Songs of Bruce Springsteen. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts. (Chris does, not Springsteen.)

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Burn Cards.

Christopher Irvin:  Burn Cards follows Mirna Fowler, a young woman doing her best to escape Reno, Nevada, while living with the burden of her father's gambling addiction. When his debts are suddenly thrust upon her, what will she do?

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
CI: The idea originally grew from a short story I wrote for Christa Faust's LitReactor class, Tough Dames, in 2012. I was supposed to take the trope of a black widow and rework the concept – avoid those tropes, right? I think I failed, ha, but I loved the story anyway and it stuck with me, especially the protagonist, Mirna Fowler. I really wanted to do something more with her character…so I wrote a rough outline and sat on that for six months.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Burn Cards, start to finish?
CI: I began writing Burn Cards as a novel in the summer of 2012, right after NECON. I had a finished draft a couple of months later, and edited that through the fall/winter, thinking it would be my "first published novel." It was more "everything but the kitchen sink." I suppose everyone has one of those, right? I have to thank Elizabeth White for giving me the critique that buried the original manuscript for the better part of two years. In 2014 I began talking with 280 Steps about reviving the book. I'd had ideas over the years, even taken a couple whacks at editing sections before drifting back to other projects. Eventually (with help, there's always help – kudos to J. David Osborne) I realized that roughly the second half of the book was unnecessary – the "kitchen sink" that I was keeping around more for word count than anything else. Early last fall (2014) I handed in the final draft to 280 Steps…so that's my long-winded way of saying: about two years.

OBAAT: Where did Mirna Fowler come from? Aside from the obvious, in what ways is she like, and unlike, you? Someone you know well?
CI: Mirna's origins are a little fuzzy. There are characters I've created that I can definitely point to parts of and say "this is me" or "this is A, B, or C" person/friend/etc. There are a couple of others in the book that fit the latter, Maxine for one. I love a good underdog, and I think Mirna grew out of a desire to create my own.

OBAAT: Tell us a little about choosing a female protagonist? Did writing from a woman’s perspective pose any problems? Anything come up you didn’t anticipate?
CI: The female protagonist (Mirna) grew from the original short story where she was a black widow, so first it was a necessity from the perspective of the assignment. I don't think it posed any major problems, though I definitely felt conscious of the fact that I really wanted to nail her voice throughout. Having female friends (looking at you, KL Pereira and Kristin Dearborn) read/critique and approve of Mirna was very helpful and a big relief.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Burn Cards set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
CI: Burn Cards is set in contemporary Reno, Nevada. The setting is very important to the book as the people and culture of the city have a great impact upon Mirna's life. As with Federales, I'm a huge fan of setting being used in a meaningful way, and I hope I accomplished it with Burn Cards.

OBAAT: How did Burn Cards come to be published?
CI: In early 2014 I began talking with 280 Steps after they'd read and enjoyed my first book, Federales. I'd always wanted to do something more with Burn Cards (after aforementioned stashing in drawer) and I pitched it to them with a rough outline of what I'd planned to change. The book ended up quite different (…did I mention I cut it in half?) and I'm very thankful to them for putting their trust in me and running with it. 280 Steps is a fantastic crew and it's been a pleasure working with them.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
CI: My interest runs the gamut when it comes to short stories, though I generally prefer it on the darker/weirder side. I love reading collections and getting to know an author's voice and recognize themes in their work. Some of my favorite collections are Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, Sweet Nothing by Richard Lange, Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill, The Inner City by Karen Heuler, Every House is Haunted by Ian Rogers, and The Little Boy Inside and Other Stories by Glenn Gray. I could probably list five or ten more. I wish collections were more popular with the general readership.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
CI: I drew a lot when I was young. I think in 3rd/4th/5th grades we were given little white books and told we could write/draw whatever story we'd like. I still have them – I think that made a huge impact on me. I also remember, as a kid, seeing George McFly open his box of books at the end of Back to the Future and wanting that moment – that moment that you've created something.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
CI: I have a background in law enforcement…so there's that. But honestly, I don't draw on it much. Like any type/style of fiction, human interaction is at the core. I like to think I'm just observant and contemplate people and their actions/behaviors. Everything is boiled down to a statistic these days. What's hidden or lost in the numbers?

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
CI: The creative aspect first and foremost, but the people I've met and gotten to call great friends are a very close second. I'm lucky to have met some amazing and passionate people.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
CI: Joe R. Lansdale's short story, "Santa at the Café," made me want to write crime fiction. Megan Abbott's Queen Pin was influential in pushing me toward Noir. Other than that, it's a bit of a blur. People who put it all on the line and know they will succeed because they've got what it takes and they believe in themselves – those are the kind that inspires me. There always seems to be rumblings of jealousy around people of that type, but I have nothing but admiration. Believe in yourself and go do it, ya know?

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
CI: The room where I write is freezing during the winter so I'm afraid pants are mandatory along with an IV drip of coffee.

It's a mix. I generally need some kind of rough outline, especially for anything longer than a short story. But if I outline too much I get bored, so I generally start writing before the path has fully formed in my head.

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?
CI: I usually edit as I go. I love seeing moments come together during the editing process, and it feels good to move forward knowing I have something more-or-less solid to fall back on. I try not to get bogged down in the minutia though. I've wasted spent entire mornings on a page trying to coax it together. I'd better feel really happy with that page in order to not feel like I've lost ground. I try to have a mindset where I'm always moving forward. Keep that and I'll get there eventually.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
CI: As most writers will tell you: Just put your butt in the seat and do it. If you do that more or less every day, you'll end up with something you can be proud of. Also, no social media on the computer, or whatever you are using to write – I only use the apps on my phone and try my best to tuck it away when I'm writing.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
CI: Have fun. Seriously. The odds of you making a living at this are slim, so you better enjoy it.

And! Make your own luck. Who you know might get you in the room, but you've got to be ready to rock n' roll when you get there. A lot often rides on one shot.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
CI: I think my strengths are in character, setting and tone, so in a way those components are the most important to me in my writing. I try not to overthink them and just roll with my gut. On the other hand, narrative and story/plot are nearly just as important as they are the areas I'm trying to improve in. I struggle with plotting – Too much? Too little? Where's the sweet spot? I think that intertwines with my struggle for a higher page count. 200 - 250 page novels seem to be more marketable these days, which is a trend I hope continues. I often find myself drifting when I read books in the 300 – 400 page range. It's rare that I find a long book where I feel the extra bulk is necessary.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
CI: Maybe Daytripper by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá. It's a beautiful graphic novel and I love how well the stories tie together into a satisfying ending that makes you think.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
CI: Shoveling snow Relaxing with my family.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

CI: I've signed a contract for my next book. More should be announced soon, but that will be arriving late in the fall. I finished a draft of a novel – my first book that really feels like a novel. I'm excited about it, but I'm going to let it sit for a couple of months before I dive back in. My current focus is on comics – Bent Eight with Joe DellaGatta and Mat Lopes, and Expatriate, with Ricardo Lopez Ortiz and Mat Lopes. Hopefully more on those soon!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Best Read, April

Life is easing its way back to normal here at Castle Schadenfreude—now that I’m actually in Castle Schadenfreude—so reading time was disrupted for much of the month. Add that to my reading a book that deserved to be savored, and I have only one to report. But it’s a good one.

The Big Nowhere, James Ellroy. Few writers can lock me into a book the way Ellroy can, but it’s also tiring at times, the text is so intense. (Why it took me a while to read.) No one weaves historical fact and fiction together as well. A year’s research would be needed to pull apart what really happened and what didn’t. As in The Black Dahlia, Ellroy uses one of his characters to “solve” an actual unsolved murder, though the Sleepy Lagoon case is used more as counterpoint to the Communist witch hunt plot. Ellroy is a master at showing not only how much things have changed, but also how little; human frailty, and the willingness—and ability—of others to exploit it are constant themes.

Almost any paragraph could be chosen at random as a textbook example of his constantly evolving style. Ellroy isn’t quite to his fully mature “tabloid” language that reaches its fruition in American Tabloid, but all the elements are coming together. As always with Ellroy, The Big Nowhere is densely plotted and written, but few writers have Ellroy’s ability to pull the reader into a book as viscerally as he does.

I made the mistake if beginning my acquaintance with Ellroy through The Cold Six Thousand, a book
even he admitted went too far in its stylistic brutality. Since then I have come to regard him almost as highly as his public persona would lead you to believe he regards himself. There are a handful of contemporary writers I can read who make me sit back with a wistful, “Damn, he’s good.” No one else brings to mind the word “genius” as often as Ellroy.

(Happy birthday, Maynard Ferguson, wherever you are.)