Several writers a year writers emerge who are “the next big thing” or “someone to pay attention to” or…the list of hackneyed phrases goes on and on. So I was less than impressed when Sam Wiebe’s debut Last of the Independents got a lot of buzz and award nominations. Another Flavor of the Month, I figured. People I trusted talked him up so I didn’t dismiss him out of hand, but, still. I have a hard enough time keeping up with the writers I already know I like.
Sam and I have several mutual friends and we got to talking at Bouchercon in Raleigh; I also went to his panel. This is not just some typist sitting at a keyboard pecking out whatever comes to mind. (True, no writer says he is, but read some of their stuff.) So I weakened. Bought Last of the Independents. Didn’t read it right away. No need to rush into anything.
Wow. That’s a hell of a book.
I see no reason to fart around on Invisible Dead. After reading what Sam has to say here, neither should you. There’s a lot more going on here than typing.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Invisible Dead.
Sam Wiebe: On the surface it's a detective novel about the search for a missing woman. While investigating the disappearance of Chelsea Loam, Dave Wakeland finds himself crossing paths with bikers, crooked lawyers, captains of industry--dangerous men who will stop at nothing to keep their secrets safe.
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?
SW: I think even as I was finishing up Last of the Independents, I knew that I wanted to write a book about missing women--one missing woman, specifically, and hopefully illustrate some of the systemic problems in the city.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Invisible Dead, start to finish?
SW: I started the book in the summer of 2012. Between then and now, the book found an agent and then a publisher, and went through edits. Publishing is a slow business, as you know.
OBAAT: Where did Dave Wakeland come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
SW: He comes from Vancouver--I know that's not quite what you meant, but that's my answer. Like me he has a conflicted view of the city he lives in, loving it but being very troubled by aspects of it. He's a bit of a smart-ass, too, which is a whole-cloth fabrication and in no way reflects on the author.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Invisible Dead set and why was this time and place chosen?
SW: Vancouver, present day. I chose that because there isn't a lot written about here and now. When Vancouver figures in movies or film, it's usually as a stand-in for New York or Los Angeles--think movies like Jason Takes Manhattan and Rumble in the Bronx. I wanted to not only feature the city as the city, but show how I see it, as honestly as I can.
OBAAT: How did Invisible Dead come to be published?
SW: Through the hard work and good grace of my agent, Chris Bucci, and my editor, Craig Pyette.
OBAAT: Last of the Independents received nominations for just about every award it qualified for. Aside from the necrophilia, have you ever tried to pin down what it is about that book that resonates with so many people?
SW: Every few months you see another article proclaiming "the death of the private eye novel." I think the PI novel speaks to really important concerns about business, ethics, society and human nature, in a way that a cozy or a police procedural can't. No other type of mystery is so specifically about work--what we do for a living and how we feel about it, to paraphrase Studs Turkel.
OBAAT: When I asked how your life experiences prepared you to write crime fiction you replied—this is a direct quote—“No clue.” While I cherish your honesty I’ve read Last of the Independents and there’s clearly something about crime fiction that resonates with you. Let’s spitball a little. What do you think it is that allows you to catch the tone and actions so well?
SW: Really it's just about trying to read widely and when you talk to people, really listen to what they say, how they say it, and what they don't say.
OBAAT: When last we spoke you had started re-reading Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series. What is it about that series that brought you back? How did you view the books on second look? Not as good as you remembered? Better? Did different things jump out at you?
SW: It was a treat. I think MacDonald is brilliant on setting and character. I like how un-heroic Archer becomes. He loses more fist-fights and gun battles than he wins, and his victories tend to be about revelation instead of resolution--he gets to the truth because he's willing to pay the psychic cost.
OBAAT: How often do you write?
SW: Five pages or 1000 words a day, when I'm working on a draft. A similar set amount when I'm editing. I try not to take days off.
OBAAT: Endings are hard and can make or break a book. Americans as a whole tend to like happy endings, and those are the books that tend to sell best. What do you look for in an ending?
SW: Resonance. An answer to the question posed by the book. The director Paul Thomas Anderson said he goes for "the saddest happy ending possible." I take that to mean an ending which satisfies the audience's curiosity, yet doesn't strain credulity.
OBAAT: Who is your intended audience?
SW: I try not to worry about that. I will say that middle-aged women are one of the most unfairly stereotyped demographics--the idea that they only read cozies, or abhor realistic depictions of violence, or any of the old canards, are in my experience complete bullshit.
OBAAT: What do you hope readers will take away from your books?
SW: I don't know. If all a reader gets from a book is entertainment, who am I to say that's wrong? I do enjoy when Vancouverites tell me the book accurately reflects the city. That's a good feeling.
OBAAT: Here’s a loaded question for you, just to provoke a response: How do you battle writer’s block (if this happens to you)?
SW: Writer's block usually comes at the same point in the manuscript--the middle. "Second act problems" are common because, like the hero in the hero's journey, you the writer have set out on this impossible task and found yourself at a point where you either need to innovate or fail. That's a good thing! It means when you do find a solution, it'll be original, and it'll come from the material rather than being forced on it.
OBAAT: Last time you cited your primary influences as “Francis Ford Coppola, David Milch, Bret "Hitman" Hart. Also my parents.” I know my influences change over time. Has anyone or anything worked its way into your toolkit lately?
SW: I just read E.M. Forster's A Passage to India and holy shit is that a great book. Also Marilynne Robinson, whose essays on religion and philosophy are brilliant. In crime fiction, it's been great to see the field become a bit more diverse. Writers like Danny Gardner, Henry Chang, SG Wong, and Naomi Hirahara, are bringing different sensibilities to the field.
OBAAT: What moves you most in a work of literature?
SW: I like being surprised, when the surprise is credible and drags you deeper into the story. TV shows like Deadwood, The Wire, or Breaking Bad are great at thwarting expectations in a way that you can't anticipate. Deadwood especially--the most violent characters are shown to be capable of great sensitivity and even grace.
OBAAT: Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
SW: I like heroes that are themselves no matter the cost, and I don't like supernatural villains--the scariest monsters are the ones walking upright, in broad daylight, among us. I could probably put Falstaff down for both hero and villain, since his character is so multifaceted. Lew Archer comes to mind as a hero. For villains, the protagonist in Joyce Carol Oates's Zombie is terrifying.
OBAAT: Approximately how many books do you read in a year? How do they break out by genre? Heavily crime? Non-fiction? “Literary” fiction?
SW: It depends. When I'm working on the draft of a novel I'm usually reading research, or fiction that's markedly different. Then when I'm between drafts, I can indulge in crime fiction.
OBAAT: What author, living or dead, would you most like to meet, and what would you like to know?
SW: David Milch, easy. He recently gambled away the fortune he made on Deadwood and NYPD Blue--we're talking tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. And when he was interviewed recently, he was back writing. I think that's heroic, in a way--accept your mistakes and get back to the writing. No matter how much you succeed or how much you fuck up, the blank page awaits.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
SW: I just sent book three off to my publisher a couple weeks ago. I have two scripts I'm working on, a few stories...I find the only way to keep from overthinking and worrying is to just focus on the next thing. So much of the writing business is out of a writer's hands, it's better to focus on what can be controlled--the quality of the next thing you write.