Friday, April 28, 2017

A Conversation With Eric Beetner

Those who say perpetual motion is impossible haven’t met Eric Beetner. I don’t know anyone else who maintains his pace. I don’t know two people who combined can match his pace on Eric’s day off. To give a brief idea of his resume, his books include Rumrunners and its sequel Leadfoot, The Devil Doesn't Want Me, When The Devil Comes To Call and Book 3 in the trilogy, The Devil At Your Door (released last week), Dig Two Graves, White Hot Pistol, The Year I Died Seven Times, Stripper Pole At The End Of The World, and the story collection, A Bouquet Of Bullets.

He co-authored The Backlist and The Short List, both with Frank Zafiro, and, with JB Kohl, the novels One Too Many Blows to The Head, Borrowed Trouble, and Over Their Heads. He’s also penned two novellas in the popular Fightcard series, Split Decision and A Mouth Full of Blood, and two novellas in The Lawyer series of Westerns, Blood Moon and Six Guns at Sundown.

(Pause here to give the reader a chance to catch her breath.)

He co-produces, edits, and hosts the highly-acclaimed podcast Writer Types with S.W. Lauden and has designed over ninety book covers, three of which I am proud to call my own.

Eric has toured as a musician, painted, written screenplays, acted in short films, been to China twice, fished in the Mississippi, met Barry Manilow, and directed films and music videos. His name has been on television over a hundred times, and he owns a real human skull.

He lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts the Noir At The Bar reading series in his copious free time.

In spite of all that, he still found time to shoot the shit with me. As you might expect, he started:

Eric Beetner: Your Penns River series is ongoing and I'm just wrapping up a trilogy, which
felt like the right amount of story for those characters. Did you have a plan going in about how many books [the] story would entail, or are you just following the stories as they come to you?

Dana King: I don’t know I had the idea it would even be a series when I started. Once I had the universe in place stories started to find me. I came to like that world so much I even made the PI from my other series into the cousin of the main character in Penns River so I could overlap the two. Now I’m curious to see how far I can take it.

I thought Lars and Shaine were great characters from early on in The Devil Doesn't Want Me. When you say three felt about right for them, is that an idea that came to you after you wrote the third, or did you have three stories in mind when you started, kind of how David Simon had a five-year arc in mind when he started The Wire?

EB: I really start every book as a standalone so at the end of The Devil Doesn't Want Me it could have been one and done. But at the same time the ending was very leading, at least for me, to wonder what came next for these characters. The relationship they establish in the first book is just beginning almost like he's adopted a new child. There was plenty of story left to tell. I haven't traditionally been a big fan of series work, or long series anyway. I think the Parker books over read ten or eleven. Beyond that I tend to tap out after three, with a few exceptions like Owen Laukkanen's Stevens and Windermere series, Joe Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series. I'm coming around to longer series. Maybe it's my age. J

But for me I like a story with real stakes and that means not knowing if a character is going to make it through to the end. If I go in knowing full well that Phillip Marlowe, for example, is going to be fine it takes a little away from the story. It might be why even in the sequels I've written I tend to still kill off a lot of people. That threat has to be there.

Part of me has wanted to do a series where the main character gets killed off and the books pick up with a minor character who gets pushed forward, then they die and so on. Something tells me a publisher might not be into that idea.

But for books two and three of Lars and Shaine I had a trilogy plotted out by the time I was pitching that book to publishers. Neither idea of the second and third books ended up being what they were about. I came up with new stuff when the time came.

All that said, I was sad to see them go. I've always wondered if writers who do a series 20-plus books deep, if there is some basic reluctance to let these characters go. Like if or when they do, do they go through a depression like losing a family member?

DK: I’ll let you know about that depression business if people can bear to read that many of my books. You do touch on a problem with many series: the reader knows the main character can’t die. That’s why I think—well, I hope—I can keep the Penns River series going. Because it’s an ensemble cast and the town is the continuing focal point, I can kill off anyone I want. Maybe not Ben Dougherty, but there’s nothing that says something terrible can’t happen to him and maybe move him off the front line.

I had an idea years ago for an anthology where the main character in each story played a minor role in the previous story. Ideally the last story in the book would include the first story’s main character in a supporting role to close the loop and make it truly a book you could start anywhere and read. Patti Abbott started a cycle of flash pieces like that and it was great fun to fill a niche.

EB: That anthology sounds like a lot of fun. A different approach to a collection.

I like your approach with Penns River, too. I think it's interesting to make a series more about a place than a person. Like you say, there is a central character in Ben, but if you populate the world around him with compelling people and situations, your limit of stories is endless.

Not to name drop but I recently had the chance to interview Sara Paretsky (for my podcast Writer Types with me and SW Lauden) and we asked her how her character of VI Warshawski ages as the series progresses. Without giving away her answer, it is an interesting thought that most writers probably don't consider at the start of a series. I guess there is always the option to have them perpetually one age like The Simpsons or something, but crime novels generally try to stick to the realism. My characters Lars and Shaine go through some significant changes in just the three books over the course of only a few years, but it was important to me to show that growth, especially since age is such an important thing in the first book, The Devil Doesn't Want Me.

Of course I'm always fighting my instinct to write a character who is fifty as the "older" guy while seeming to deny that I am approaching that milestone myself in the fast lane. I suppose time marches on for us too. We don't get the luxury of being frozen on the page. *sigh*

DK: I bleed for you. I vaguely remember being fifty.

I thought a lot and made conscious decisions about how characters aged in the Penns River books. I haven’t been writing them long enough for anyone but me to notice, but the characters do age, just not in real time. I drop into each story little hints about how long it’s been since its predecessor, even though there may have been a few years since the previous books came out. Doc’s parents will start to show their age, Chief Napierkowski will retire at some point, but most likely at times when those actions will be of most benefit to a story. I borrowed the idea—okay, I stole it—from Ed McBain’s 87th precinct series. He wrote them for almost fifty years and the characters aged some, but not dramatically. The passage of time was most obvious in how Steve Carella’s kids grew up.

You mentioned the podcasts you’re doing with Steve Lauden a minute ago. I’ve heard both that are currently available, featuring names such as Megan Abbott, Joe Lonsdale, Reed Farrel Coleman, and Lou Berney. (Others became available since this interview took place.) What made you decide these were a good idea—they are, I look forward to the next one—and how do you get such good production values? They sound like they could’ve been lifted from NPR.

EB: Well thank you, I'm glad you are liking them. Steve and I both come from a music background that celebrated a do it yourself aesthetic that we both have stuck with into our forays in publishing. We had each been approached separately about doing podcasts as part of a larger "network" and while that appealed to us, we each had the same reservations of wanting to have total control over the product our names would be on. Add to that Steve's experience in marketing, my experience in editing and film and TV productions and we knew we could do something of the quality we required before we attached our reputations to it.

I'm glad to see you reference NPR because that really was our model. We wanted a variety show for crime and mystery fans. We have so many people we want to talk to and interview that we didn't want to limit ourselves to one guest per episode. Nor did we want the work load of doing a show a week. So we decided on once a month and heavily edited (there went that whole workload thing for me). It's been great fun for us to do and we look forward to doing it for a long time.

With being our own producers and engineers we can do it however we want. We recently have done mobile recording. We have two authors who are on tour out there with a list of things I want them to record and which I will then edit into a mini tour diary. We can play with those kinds of ideas.

Steve and I both try our best to promote other authors and build up the crime fiction community much like a music scene. Writer Types has provided us a new platform to do that which allows us to go national instead of just local with a Noir at the Bar or similar reading or event. If we can keep up the quality of the first four episodes, I'll be thrilled.

DK: You mentioned your workload. In addition to knocking out excellent books at a rate any 50s pulp writer would be proud of and everything else you mentioned just now, you also do book cover designs. Really good cover designs, if I do say so myself, having seen the three you did for me recently for the Penns River series. Not only are they good, you’re far more consultative with the author than are most cover artists. How did you get into that? Even better, how did you find time for that?

EB: Honestly, this gets back to the DIY thing and my lifelong curiosity of any art form, usually with the attitude of, "I want a painting in my wall. Why don't I paint one?" "I want to hear a song like the one in my head. Why don't I write it?" And in this case, "I need a book cover. Why don't I do it myself?"

I would not recommend this to everyone. That said, it's not like I have any special skills or anything. I am untrained in design or PhotoShop. I just like to get in and do things. I'm amazed people have trusted me for what is now more than 90 covers. There are many more talented designers, but I am happy to do it if it means helping out a fellow writer who doesn't have the means to do it on their own or a small press who needs it done on a small budget. (Yes, I come cheap.) For every cover I usually throw out four or five concepts and let the author weigh in, depending on the policy of the publisher. Sometimes that can backfire and it means a lot of cooks in the kitchen. But my overall goal is to have the author be happy with their cover.
As for the time, it's time I should be writing. You will see a slowdown in my output for the next year or two. My agent has three completed manuscripts yet to find a home, I'm working on a fourth now. I wrote some TV stuff that I doubt will ever see the light of day. But I did let myself get overextended in many ways and I am trying to really focus back on writing alone, at least for a while. The podcast takes time, other obligations come and go like signing on to write for anthologies or editing my own anthology (Unloaded Vol. 2 - out early next year) but I really need to be focused on only the book I'm writing when I get into it so I'm trying to clear the decks for the next few months to write this new one.

So quit bugging me, Dana! Are we done here? Sheesh!

Seriously though, it's been a fun chat.

Sincere thanks to Eric Beetner, the James Brown of Crime Fiction, for chatting here today. Eric’s newest book, The Devil at Your Door, Volume 3 of the Lars and Shaine trilogy, is available for Kindle now.

1 comment:

seana graham said...

Great stuff. You guys should collaborate on a multi-character anthology, using one or both of the ideas you mentioned. Because I can see you both have a lot of time on your hands...