I’ve read and enjoyed Mike Dennis’s work for several years now. Setup on Front Street could be taught as part of a course on how to match style to story in the hard-boiled idiom; “The Session” is one of a handful of my favorite short stories. As fate would have it, a week before we learned we’d be on Peter Rozovsky’s “Hard-boiled, Noir and the Reader's Love Affair With Both” panel at Bouchercon next week, I downloaded Mike’s first novel. The Take is a noir story in the classic sense, with a variation of the femme fatale and an ending both shocking and inevitable. Mike was kind enough to answer some questions before we meet up in Albany.
One Bite at a Time: You and I have known each other—online, at least—for a while now, so I know a fair amount about you. (Which, for reasonable financial considerations, can remain private.) Catch up those who are late to the party: who is Mike Dennis?
Mike Dennis: Right, Dana. Just email me your account number in the Caymans.
I’m just a guy who played music (piano) for a living for thirty years, and then turned respectable by becoming a professional poker player. I did that for five or six years until a publisher picked up The Take, which was my first published novel. This event forced me to quit poker and cross back to the other side, since I needed to develop a promotional mechanism and write all the books that were struggling to get out of my head.
Back in December, I married my lovely wife Yleana in an evening rooftop ceremony in Havana, Cuba.
OBAAT: Interviewing you about The Take is tricky, as almost everything I’d like to ask you is a potential spoiler. Lots of twists, all of them prepared so they don’t come quite as the reader expects, but aren’t out of the blue, either. Did you outline, or make everything up as you went?
MD: I don’t outline. And by that, I mean I honestly can’t make up stories. I begin my novels on the flimsiest of premises and the characters tell me where they want me to take them. I usually have nothing more than an opening sentence, or a hazy notion of a character, sometimes just a title. The Take emerged altogether from two lines of the Marty Robbins classic song, El Paso. One of the characters actually sings the lines somewhere in the book.
OBAAT: My usual peeve with stories that unfold as The Take does is the protagonists, confronted with several options at key points of the story, always make the exact worst decision possible; makes them hard to root for. Eddie never does that. His decisions aren’t perfect—some are pretty clever at the time he makes them—but the potential ramifications aren’t always thought through. Did this come easy to you, or were you aware of the convenience of protagonists who are too stupid to sympathize with and made a conscious effort to stay away?
MD: I never operate on such a grand scale of awareness. With all my central characters, I try to get inside their skins and let them behave as they normally would. Once I see them as living, breathing people, everything flows from there. The dialogue, their decisions, everything. Keeping in mind that Eddie is a true noir character, he’s going to make some bad decisions along the way, but they are decisions that fit his circumstances at the moment, because he doesn’t really see beyond the moment.
I would like to address your point of rooting for central characters. You know that most of mine are criminals, some of them very crude and violent. But you can root for every one of them. Not because I’m such a great writer, but because they are real people. Or rather, fictional people whom I have shown to be real by, as I said earlier, getting inside them and bringing out their humanity. People who have often been pushed around until they’re pushed too far. Everyone can relate to that.
That’s the beauty of noir. It mirrors the human condition.
OBAAT: The Take moves along as a noir story of a man in trouble who makes decisions that seem fine at the time—given a certain criminal mentality—but kept getting him in deeper and deeper. Then, near the end, Quentin Tarantino shows up for as violent an ending as I’ve seen in a while. Like everything else, the reader sees the clouds gathering, but the impact is still considerable when it plays out. Was that always the plan, or were particularly bloodthirsty that day?
MD That climax just happened as I was writing it. As I mentioned earlier, I just drift along, letting the characters dictate their own actions. The scene in the gas station, however, I had thought up while I was about halfway through the book.
OBAAT: Felina is not a classic femme fatale. Sure, she oozes sex appeal, and is clearly out to make the best deal she can for herself, but she is not the instigator, and spends more time throughout the book reacting than acting, though she’s quick-witted and ruthless when opportunity presents. Tell us a little of how she evolved in your mind.
MD: She came from the same well that inspired the novel:
Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina
Wicked and evil while casting a spell
My love was deep for this Mexican maiden
I was in love but in vain I could tell
She sprang fully formed from those lyrics (from the Marty Robbins song), and baby, that’s noir!!
OBAAT: When the movie is made, who would you cast as Eddie? Felina? Linda? (Old and dead actors can be used.
MD: Well, if this movie ever gets made, the actors are undoubtedly still in grade school at present. As for older actors, I just can’t say. I don’t really think about it.
OBAAT: Who do you consider to be the most prominent influences on your writing?
MD: I try not to let anyone influence me while I’m actually writing, but I do love Jim Thompson, James M Cain, Gil Brewer, Mickey Spillane, David Goodis, and many more.
Of the living writers, I like James Ellroy, Tom Piccirilli, Vicki Hendricks, Andrew Vachss, Lawrence Block … you know, all the frothy, light-hearted stuff.
OBAAT: As a recovering musician, there’s one question I love to get responses to when I find someone such as yourself, with both a musical and literary background: which do you find to be the more demanding skill?
MD: I’m not trying to back away from this, but I think they’re both tentacles of the same octopus. I’m just an artist groping for an art. I find writing, and the learning about it, to be no different a challenge than music was when I was starting out, and at every stage along the way. The similarities are striking.
OBAAT: What’s next?
MD: Not long ago, I started doing voiceovers for audiobooks. I’ve done a few so far, and I’m pushing for more. I really like it and I think I can do it well, although I’m still learning the ropes. This is yet another tentacle (see previous answer).
Thanks for your time, Mike. Remember the lessons of the Cleveland Bouchercon: Albany is 1500 miles north of Key West. Dress appropriately.