Dietrich Kalteis is an example of the kinds of fortuitous accidents that occur at conferences like Bouchercon, when you hang out with the right people, in this case John McFetridge. I might not have been aware of Dietrich as a writer had John not introduced us, and that would have been my loss. How was I to know his short stories have been published widely, and his screenplay Between Jobs was a finalist in the 2003 Los Angeles Screenplay Festival?
His first novel, Ride the Lightning, was released earlier this month by ECW Press. Dietrich lives in West Vancouver, British Columbia.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Ride the Lightning.
Dietrich Kalteis: Ride the Lightning is my first novel; it’s fast-paced with a lot of dark humor. It’s the story of a Seattle bounty hunter, Karl Morgen, who goes after a dope dealer on a skipped bond. He finds the dealer, Miro Knotts, at a rave with an underage girl and lays a serious beating on him before dragging him in. The dope dealer files a complaint, and Karl ends up having his license revoked for using excessive force. Miro gets off with just a suspended sentence.
With no prospects in Seattle, Karl moves north to Vancouver and takes a job as a process server, a job with half the pay in a city that costs twice as much. He meets and falls for PJ Addie and starts to think this might be a good place to settle down.
Meantime, Miro dodged a drug sweep and ducked across the border into Canada. When Karl finds out Miro’s in town, he plans to settle the score, eager to take another crack at the scumbag who had his license revoked. But, it’s not as simple as he thinks. Karl’s opened a Pandora’s box and it turns into quite a ride.
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.)
DK: I read an article a few years ago that sparked the overall theme for the story. It talked about the incredible number of grow-ops in British Columbia: an industry generating billions of non-taxable dollars annually. BC bud is bigger than fishing or lumber. Wow. It fascinated me and stuck in my head. And that night when I took my dog for a walk, I was looking at the houses on the street and thinking of that article claiming that one in every hundred houses was a grow-op. So I walked along, and I started counting, eyeing places with drawn curtains and lawns that hadn’t been cut. This one lady watering her begonias didn’t look right to me … Okay, I’m kidding, but it did get me thinking, and I started putting scenes together in my head, forming the story.
My character Karl Morgen came from a short story I wrote a couple of years earlier about a bounty hunter who tries to serve up divorce papers on the manager of a travel agency. He has a hard time getting past the guy’s pretty receptionist, the dialogue between the two sending sparks. I liked the way it sounded, so I dropped him into a scene for the novel, and I just started writing, letting his character develop and tell the story.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Ride the Lightning, start to finish?
DK: The first draft took me about three months. After taking a short break from it, I went back and edited and polished it a few more times for the next nine months before I felt it was ready to send out.
OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
DK: Karl’s the kind of guy who has a strong sense of what’s right and wrong but likes the excitement of life on the edge. When he was a bounty hunter in Seattle, he had an article the Times ran about him tacked over his desk: If your man’s breathing, Karl will find him; if he’s not, he’ll show you where he’s planted. I think that sums up his character.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Ride the Lightning set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
DK: It’s set in present time. Vancouver makes a great backdrop with its high number of grow-ops and seedy parts of town where much of the story takes place. I felt confident using it as my setting since I’ve called the city home for over twenty years and know it pretty well. And I liked that Karl is a fish out of water in Vancouver since he’s new in town, putting him at a disadvantage once he locks horns with Miro for the second time.
OBAAT: How did Ride the Lightning come to be published?
DK: I sent queries out to agents and some publishers that accept submissions over the transom. I heard from Jack David at ECW Press and he told me he liked the story. And here we are.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
DK: I read all kinds of fiction and non-fiction and enjoy anything that is well written, with a lean toward crime fiction. Old favorites in the genre are Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, George V. Higgins, Robert Crais and Carl Hiaasen. There’s a whole sea of great contemporary crime-fiction writers I enjoy reading: John McFetridge, Peter Leonard, Joe Clifford, Mike Knowles, Johnny Shaw, just to throw a few names around. Outside the genre, I like anything by Hunter S. Thompson, Patti Smith, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, as well as classics by Hemmingway, Salinger, Steinbeck, Twain …
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
DK: For crime fiction, Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy are right up there. I think I’ve read almost every story either has ever written – many of them more than once. Nobody does dialogue better than Elmore, and Ellroy sets a pace that could light the page on fire. I’m also a big Coen brothers fan as far as stories written for the screen. I love their brand of dark humor. For me, Fargo and The Big Lebowski are hard to beat. And playwright Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) and screenwriter Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy) have also been great influences.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
DK: I start with a rough outline, then let my characters drive the story and just see where it goes from there. As for pants, I always wear them when I write. I have cats.
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?
DK: I start with a scene based on either a real-life event, or sometimes I just make stuff up, and I write my way through a first draft. Then I put it aside for a week or so and come back with fresh eyes and start editing, taking out anything that doesn’t work, adding in anything new I’ve come up with or researched. I edit the manuscript three or four times like this until I’m satisfied that everything works and flows. When I send it out, I want it to be as clean as possible.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
DK: Well, with one book under my belt, I still feel I am a novice, but if I had to give one piece of advice it would be write the kind of stories you like to read. Write every day until you find that original voice that works for you, then just keep on writing. And when you’re not writing, read. Read a lot.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
DK: My wife and I like to go for long walks. It gives me a chance to focus on things other than the characters running around inside my head. Okay, I do sometimes bring a notepad and pencil in case I get the spark of an idea. In the evening, I like to watch a good film or plunk away on my guitar, often at the same time. Sometimes I paint.
OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
DK: Ride the Lightning just hit the shelves, so I haven’t had too much of either yet. But, I guess you really can’t have one without having the other. Good reviews lead to people buying your books, right?
OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
DK: No. Definitely not … uh … well … how much are we talking? No, seriously. No.
OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
DK: I am with a medium house, and I’m very happy with that and presently couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.
OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
DK: Beer – make it a good craft brew.
OBAAT: Baseball or football?
DK: Football – the European kind.
OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
DK: Well, you’ve covered beer and football, and you asked if I wear pants. Okay how about this, does writing ever seem like work to you?
OBAAT: What’s the answer?
DK: The only time writing ever seemed like work was when I gave myself a crash course in grammar back when I started out five years ago. I studied a half dozen grammar texts and kept a notebook which I still refer to from time to time. I thought since I was working with words and called myself a writer, I ought to at least know where to put the commas and stuff.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
DK: I’m nearing completion on another crime novel. All I’ll say at this point is it’s also set in Vancouver.
Lastly, I’d like to say thank you for inviting me over, Dana. It’s been fun, and next time we bump into each other, the craft beer’s on me. Cheers.