A while back the always thought-provoking Patti Abbott launched a Facebook discussion about what kinds of questions readers liked answers to when going to an author event. She received lots of good suggestions, none better than those from Katie Caprero. I liked Katie’s questions so much, I decided to answer them all here as if she had grilled me at an appearance of my own, which I hope she’ll have an opportunity to do some day.
Katie Caprero: Why do you write (mysteries, police procedure, thriller, etc.)?
Dana King: The two answers that spring to mind will disappoint those looking for profundity from a writer: I like to write, and I enjoy the positive feedback. I was a musician before I was a writer, and I’ve always enjoyed entertaining people, whether it was with through music or just telling jokes or amusing stories. The enjoyment I receive from entertaining others didn’t go away when I gave up my musical ambitions. Once I got into writing I realized there were challenges for me to try to work a little more than just entertainment into the stories, and folks seem to like that, too. Now I enjoy finding a story I like and looking for the best way for me to tell it.
KC: When did you know you wanted to become a writer?
DK: I don’t know there was a day when I knew I wanted to “become” a writer. I wrote a few things and got positive feedback, so I wrote a few more. After a while I decided to try my hand at a novel, but even then it was more of a question of whether I could do it. By the time I thought of any ambitions, I’d already written one that got me an agent, found I enjoyed the process of writing, so I kept at it. I guess I could say I didn’t know I wanted to become a writer until I already was one.
KC: What is your worst book signing story?
DK: I’ve been lucky in that the few signings I’ve had all went pretty well, though I do have one that was less than optimal.
I hooked up with a local bookstore/stationery/gift/clothing/candy/other-stuff-on-the-first-floor-I-never-saw-store for one of the classic “events” all writers dread. They put you at a table with a stack of your books and leave you there for a couple of hours. Do your best.
Like most writers I’m an introvert, so I pretty much sat there waiting for other people to start conversations which I would, with luck, work back around to the book. A casual acquaintance stopped by and chatted for half an hour or so, which was nice. (And she bought a book.) Another woman and her husband or boyfriend or whatever circled the table for a while until she came over and chatted me up. Asked a bunch of questions that bordered on non sequiturs and half listened to the answers. After fifteen minutes or so she saw her significant other and split. He came over a few minutes and apologized. Said they’d met friends for lunch and she had more to drink than expected and was really drunk enough that he was trying to take her home but they’d had an errand to run in the store and she wandered off. I said it was fine, I appreciated having someone to talk to, but he felt bad and bought a copy of the book to make it up to me, figuring she must have cost me sales.
KC: In a series -- is there something that happened early in the series that you regret and/or had to fix later? (Tattoo, annoying neighbor, pet that had to be fed, significant other that limited plot, etc.)
DK: If I had it to do over again I wouldn’t base Nick Forte, my private eye character, in Chicago. My other series takes place in Western Pennsylvania and it was great to bring Nick in as a guest star for Grind Joint, but it would be nice to be able to have him make random appearances without having to come up with reasons for him to have traveled four hundred-plus miles to see his parents precisely when his cousin the cop needs him. I tied Nick’s daughter and all the supporting cast to Chicago, so if I moved him, I’d lose them all.
KC: What is the role or influence of family in your story?
DK: Substantial. The main character in the Penns River books, Ben “Doc” Dougherty, spends at least a couple of chapters per book visiting with his parents. The work in progress introduced his brother. As I mentioned earlier, Doc’s cousin Nick Forte is a Chicago-based PI who comes to town to visit his sick mother and ends up staying through several life-threatening experiences. Forte is a divorced father who spends at least a couple of chapters of each book with his daughter, Caroline. The family associations serve to help to humanize characters who may at some point take dramatic or violent action, and also serve as touchpoints to ground the characters and give the reader insights into them as people without spending too much time on backstory.
KC: What is the difference between you as a writer and you as a speaker about books?
DK: Speaking is more informal to me. My writing style is pretty informal, too, but I’m always aware that’s much more of a one-way street. When speaking about a book in front of an audience—or even as part of an interview—I don’t worry about closing the loop so much, as the next question can always ask for more, or take the conversation in a direction I didn’t anticipate. I’m also less worried about going off on a tangent when speaking because I can always tell an anecdote then go right back to the topic at hand. In a book there needs to be better flow or you risk losing the reader.
KC: Which of your characters would you hate to have buy the house next to you?
DK: Deputy Chief of Police Jack Harriger. He’s the kind of stick-necked prick who’d call the homeowners’ association on you because your grass was half an inch too high.
KC: What book would you read again and again?
DK: Would I? There are several I do already. Chandler’s big three: The Big Sleep; Farewell, My Lovely; and The Long Goodbye. Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty. There are also several that haven’t yet qualified for “again and again” but will get there if I have time.
KC: How do you choose the names of characters in your books?
DK: Character names are enormously important in the Penns River books, as they help to set the sense of place. The area of near Pittsburgh where the books are set is heavily ethnic: German, Italian, Polish, Eastern European, Irish. I work hard to use names that keep that in the reader’s mind, so much so I provide a pronunciation key in the front of each book. I use local newspaper articles and my old high school yearbooks as references. I’m working on a short story for an anthology now and need a couple of names for Dixie Mafia guys, so I asked a good friend who’s from Mississippi and has lived for years in Tennessee for suggestions.
KC: How do you decide how characters will die?
DK: I work hard so my readers don’t have to expend too much energy suspending disbelief, so you’re not going to see anyone killed by a rare, untraceable poison that was dropped in their tea by a bird the killer had trained to fly by that exact spot at 7:57 every morning because he knew the victim always sat in that chair turned at that angle for the morning beverage. That said, the details of how they meet their demise still must conform to the needs of the story. Not just how, but which characters will die are always subject to what The Beloved Spouse and I call Stringer Bell Disease—after the Idris Elba character in The Wire—or Lemanski Syndrome, after a key character in The Shield. If the story needs for them to go, they go, in whatever manner is necessary.
Many thanks for Katie for inadvertently providing fodder for this interview. I hope she likes my answers. As a tribute to her, I’m going to add a bonus question she didn’t ask but may have thought of, as it was bandied about at length in Patti’s discussion and authors often speak of it—in sometimes less than flattering terms—as the question they most often hear at events:
Q: Where do you get your ideas?
DK: Ideas are everywhere. The sad truth is we’re tripping over them every day. I probably stumble onto two or three a week that would be worth writing on, and that’s a conservative estimate. The hard part is finding the ideas that dovetail with your abilities and interests and that you’ll want to spend a year or more working on. An idea may occur to me, and I’ll even noodle out some possibilities before realizing, “Ah, this is a Laura LIppman novel. Or a Dennis Lehane novel. Or a John McFetridge / Les Edgerton / Declan Burke novel because it lies in their wheelhouse, not mine.
I think this is such a popular question because readers see a writer at an event and we’re not that impressive to look at. There’s nothing about any of us that would lead a person who didn’t already know who we are to point and exclaim, “Writer!” Since we’re such an ordinary-looking bunch, there’s a natural inclination to figure there must be some spark that sets us apart from everyone else, and that spark must be our ability to come up with ideas no one else can. I hate to disappoint them, but Edison was right: Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. The idea is fine, but I’m sure any group of fifty random people can generate twenty ideas as good as anything I can come up with. The difference—the secret—is locking oneself in a room alone, often hours at a time over an extended period to get an end result that fulfills the author’s vision. Some are better at this part than others, but no matter how much perceived talent someone has, this last part, the locking oneself away, is non-negotiable.
I’ve grown to like the “ideas” question, as it opens up new avenues for discussion one rarely has a chance to get into.
Speaking of new avenues of discussion, many thanks to Katie Caprero for setting me up so well for this blog post.