Sam Wiebe is one of those writers people tell you to watch out for. No, not the way your mother used to tell you to watch out for people. I mean in a good way. His debut novel, Last of the Independents, won the 2015 Kobo Emerging Writer's Award for Fiction and the 2012 Unhanged Arthur Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel. The book was also nominated for both the Arthur Ellis and Shamus Awards for Best First Novel. His short fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Spinetingler, and Criminal Element's Malfeasance Occasional e-collection.
Sam lives in Vancouver
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Last of the Independents.
Sam Wiebe: I like to think of it as an update on the classic private eye novel. The book covers PI Mike Drayton's search for the missing son of a junk dealer, someone who buys and sells secondhand goods. Along the way Mike encounters a rogue's gallery of shady characters who know more than they let on, and finds himself tested as to how far he's willing to go to find this child.
Also, there's some necrophilia.
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.)
SW: I finished grad school heavily in debt, pissed off, and without a job. A lot of my friends were in similar positions. I thought a private eye novel would be a cool way to look at how work informs our lives--a lot of those in-between jobs, off the grid jobs, are disappearing, and for people like myself who don't want a nine-to-five job, making a living has become a bit precarious. At least that's what I felt when I was 28....no, I still feel that way.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Last of the Independents, start to finish?
SW: A year, maybe.
OBAAT: Where did Michael Drayton come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
SW: He's like me in that he's something of a workaholic--his identity is tied to his work. For a lot of people that's not the case--they work to live, have hobbies, etc. Also his sense of humor is pretty much mine, for good or ill. He's got a worse temper, though.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Last of the Independents set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
SW: Vancouver, present day. Setting is really important--there aren't a whole lot of great crime novels set here, and I'd like to help put Vancouver on the crime fiction map.
OBAAT: How did Last of the Independents come to be published?
SW: I entered it in the Crime Writers of Canada manuscript contest sponsored by Dundurn Press. The book won, and Dundurn published it. All told it took about four years.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
SW: This summer I started rereading the Ross MacDonald Lew Archer series. I just picked up the Women Crime Writers of the Forties and Fifties box set curated by Sarah Weinman, and I can't wait to crack that. For contemporary writers, I like Tana French, Peter Temple, James Ellroy, Michael Chabon...there's so many greats. Fellow Canadians like John McFetridge, Dietrich Kalteis, Owen Laukkanen, Robin Spano and Linda Richards are all great, too. And I can't wait to start David Swinson's The Second Girl. That looks REALLY good.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
SW: It sounds silly, but I tried pretty hard NOT to be an author. When I was younger I just wanted to play drums. But Vancouver is an expensive city, and a lot of my bandmates moved away, and I found myself going back to my first love of writing. I mean, I ALWAYS wrote, but suddenly it was put up or shut up time.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
SW: No clue.
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
SW: The hours. I like to work a lot, but when and where I feel like it, preferably from the couch, in a flannel shirt, with some coffee or tea.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
SW: Francis Ford Coppola, David Milch, Bret "Hitman" Hart. Also my parents.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
SW: My outlines tend to be pretty flimsy and provisional. Usually I have an idea for a scene, maybe an ending, and then it's a matter of working backward to give that scene meaning. Although in the case of Last of the Independents, I got to the ending and changed it completely--the original ending seemed false, and I had to be honest with where the story was taking me.
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?
SW: I write by hand, pen and paper, and then transcribe as I go. It's not the most efficient process, but I think it allows a little more attention to be paid to word choice, and it definitely frees you from distraction. Plus you have an extra chance to edit as you type it 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?
SW: Yeah, usually jazz or alt-rock. I don't listen to lyric-heavy music when I write. I still have my Last of the Independents playlist, actually--a lot of John Lee Hooker, Heart, McCoy Tyner, and Mark Lanegan.
OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
SW: It's not about how much you get done in a day, it's how many days you put in. I try for a thousand words a day.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
SW: I was just writing about this on my blog. New writers sometimes try to cover up their feelings of insecurity to gain entry to the group of writers--you see that a lot at Bouchercon, and last year I definitely fell in that category. Just remember that it's those feelings of insecurity and fraudulence that ARE your ticket into the group--that everyone's been where you are.
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?
SW: I mean, Aristotle said plot was more important than character, because a character-driven book would meander or cover incidents that aren't dramatic. Who am I to doubt Aristotle? The truth is, most of what a reader thinks of as character is really plot, and what they think of as plot is just bad plotting. If it's well-plotted, it seems driven by the characters. One of the paradoxes of writing, I guess.
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?
SW: Can I say that I'd write the same book, but I'd make more people buy it? I'm pretty proud of Last of the Independents. Other than that...it's not a book, but I'm a huge fan of Deadwood and The Wire. I think those are the great American novels of the last twenty years, and it would've been cool to work on them.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
SW: Sleeping, making coffee, walking around the city. Not at the same time.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
SW: My second novel, Invisible Dead, comes out in June. I have a few short stories coming out, and I'm just working on the draft of my next novel. And of course reading through the giant stack of books I picked up at Bouchercon. Thanks again for the copy of A Small Sacrifice, Dana, and thanks for inviting me to do this!