Dietrich Kalteis is unique. I can’t remember the last time he and I didn’t get together at Bouchercon, except this year it’s in Toronto and he won’t be there even though for once he won’t need a passport. (I will, but not to get into Canada. I’m an American citizen and need one to come back. Go figure.) Well, okay, the reason he can’t go is because his latest book, Zero Avenue, launched yesterday, so he has promotional stuff to do. To me, what better way to promote a new work of crime fiction than to go to the largest gathering of crime fiction devotees in the world—where, among other promotional opportunities, he could buy me a drink—but I guess not everyone has the marketing chops I have. (Amazon didn’t just give me that $7.52 I made last month, you know.)
Dieter has like no biographical information online, so suffice to say he’s a disarmingly charming guy whose serene demeanor in no way reflects the content of his books. I could go on, but it’s better if we let him do it. He’s good with words. Very good.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Zero Avenue.
Dietrich Kalteis: Zero Avenue is set during the early days of Vancouver’s punk rock scene.It follows Frankie del Rey, who aspires to launch her music career and raise enough money to cut a demo record and take her band Waves of Nausea on the road. To make ends meet she mules drugs for a powerful dealer named Marty Sayles. Things are going well when she gets in a relationship with a Johnny Falco, owner of a struggling club on the Downtown Eastside. That is, until Johnny decides to raid one of Marty Sayles’ pot fields. When he gets away with it, Frankie’s bass player finds out about it and figures that was easy enough and rips off another one of Sayles’ fields. When he goes missing, Johnnie and Frankie try to find out what happened. Meanwhile Marty Sayles comes looking for who ripped him off the first time — a trail that leads straight to Johnny and Frankie.
This is the first novel where I tried writing a female lead character, and at first I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, but once I got going I had fun with it, and it worked out well.
OBAAT: You hooked me with the name of the band. Waves of Nausea sounds like something Carl Hiaasen would come up with. You must have been but a child when punk cut its teeth in Vancouver. What made you pick that period and how did you research it?
DK: I wasn’t in Vancouver during early those punk days, but I was around. Jesus, I remember when Brian Jones was in the Stones. And the setting seemed perfect for a crime story because the punk scene was so raw and angry, and Vancouver was such a polite, sleepy backwater town back then, so there’s this natural tension. It was also a time before Google Earth, Google Maps, and satellite imagery, back when pot fields were a lot easier to hide.
As far as research, there are some great books that helped with the details: Guilty of Everything by John Armstrong, Perfect Youth by Sam Sutherland, I, Shithead and Talk-Action=Zero, both by Joe Keithley. And there was Bloodied but Unbowed, a documentary by Susanne Tabata that’s jam-packed with clips and tales from Vancouver’s early punk scene.
OBAAT: You’re a Vancouver guy, so you sit perilously close to the border with Baja Canada, or what many here refer to as the United States. With a country that close ten times the size of Canada, who do you feel is your audience? Or do you have a single reader in mind? Or just don’t give a fuck and write what you like and hope for the best?
DK: I do give a fuck, and I write the kind of stories that I would personally like to read. And they tend to be crime stories that end up on the gritty side with a little dark humor tossed in. I’ve used settings on either side of the border, so I hope the stories appeal to readers who like that type of story too.
OBAAT: You’re one of the few people I know who diched his day job and jumped feet first into writing. Did things go about as you expected, or did you find a lot of surprises once you made the leap?
DK: When I ditched the day job about ten years ago, I wasn’t sure how far the jump was. I just knew if I was ever going to do it, I had to take that leap. And there were some surprises along the way, although most of them have been good ones — like getting that first novel accepted. Signing that deal was a rush, one which never gets old from one novel to the next. And like you, Dana, I’m blessed with a beloved spouse who is totally supportive; and without that, I might still just be talking about taking the jump.
OBAAT: You’ve said before that tone is what keeps you reading a book, by which you meant voice and pace. What is it about the tone of a book—or an author—that makes it the key element for you? We agree on this by the way. I’m just wondering how you came to that point.
DK: The voice is the personality of the writing, it’s what makes each author sound unique. It’s the way a writer combines syntax, pace, character, dialog, and all the story elements to pull the whole thing off and come up with an individual style.
When I read a book where the author’s voice resonates with me, I often find it’s hard to put it down, and that’s like magic. And when I find an author that I really connect with like that, I just want to read everything they’ve ever written, and then reread it all.
OBAAT: I know a lot of writers who don’t read fiction when they’re working on a book because they’re afraid it will influence their work in progress. As someone so closely attuned to voice and style, do you cut yourself off from such potential influences, or do you not worry about that?
DK: I always read while I’m working on a novel, which for me is most of the time. If I didn’t read when I was writing I’d never get to read. I think reading something well written not only entertains but inspires me to write.
OBAAT: The “inspires [you] to write” comment hits home with me on multiple levels. Sometimes other fiction doesn’t just inspire me, it suggests things. For example, reminders of what someone else does well can trigger a thought that I’ve become a little lazy in some way. Even more, I’ve picked up plot suggestions from other books in the nick of time. Not that I plagiarize anyone, but some trick or twist I’ve read somewhere can be adapted to my situation and become useful to me. The climax of my first Nick Forte novel, A Small Sacrifice, was inspired by the ending of the film Three Days of the Condor, though the situations are so different one could hardly call it a copy. Have you ever had that happen?
DK: I get what you mean. What inspires me can spark my own ideas. Sometimes it comes from something I read, but also from something I see or hear, anything around me really. It might send me thinking, well, what if this happens … And it’s partly why I don’t plot a story in advance. These sparks might come along when I’m working on a story, as the whole thing’s taking shape, and it might give birth to a new idea or a twist. And that’s probably better than anything I would have come up with if I just sat down and outlined the whole story before I started writing. I mean, it’s just so organic, and that’s just something that works for me.
OBAAT: When we chatted in 2014 the question arose “Does writing ever seem like work to you?” Your reply: 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.
This put me in mind of what I consider the greatest bit of dialog ever written to describe the public’s perception of writers, Bo Catlett explaining to Chili Palmer how easy it is to write a screenplay:
“You asking me,” Catlett said, “do I know how to write down words on a piece of paper? That’s what you do, man, you write down one word after the other as it comes in your head. It isn’t like having to learn how to play the piano, like you have to learn notes. You already learned in school how to write, didn’t you? I hope so. You have the idea and you put down what you want to say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas and shit where they belong, if you aren’t positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words. There people do that for you. Some, I’ve even seen scripts where I know words weren’t spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it. So I don’t think it’s too important. You come to the last page you write in ‘Fade out’ and that’s the end, you’re done.”
Chili said, “That’s all there is to it?”
Chili said, “Then what do I need you for?”
(Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard. Page 143.)
That’s a long way to go to get to this question: Do you ever find bits of your stories showing up in your life? When I was working on Wild Bill, The Beloved Spouse™ said she could tell who that day’s POV character was by the way I talked when I came downstairs.
DK: That’s funny about your wife being able to tell the day’s POV character by the way you talk when you come downstairs. I think I get that. When I finish writing for the day, I sometimes feel like I’m in a fog, like I’m waking up from the story and coming back down to earth.
And sometimes I stick bits of my real life in my stories — like something I experienced or just heard or read, with some fiction thrown in. I often jot little notes, like when somebody says something that I can use in a story I’m working on. Little bits drift in all the time, and I don’t want to miss them, so I write them down.
And you’re right about that scene from Get Shorty and the great dialog. What works is how simple and real it sounds. It’s a great example of how Elmore Leonard was just a master of the game.
OBAAT: You and I are both strongly influenced by Elmore Leonard, who once said he strove to get out of the way so the reader is unaware Leonard is writing at all, yet few writers are as easily identifiable as he. Why do you think that is?
DK: He just had this amazing voice, and he said if his writing sounded like writing, he rewrote it. He wanted to let the point of view of his characters come through, so he got out of their way so they could plot their own course and make their own decisions, good or bad. Doing that really let their cleverness or dumbness show through. And I think that’s one of the great lessons one can take away from Elmore Leonard.
OBAAT: Thanks for a great time, Dieter. I’m looking forward to seeing you at Bouchercon in Toronto. (You will be there, right?) Till then, what’s on the agenda for you writing-wise?
DK: After Zero Avenue comes Poughkeepsie Shuffle which takes place in Toronto in the mid-eighties and centers on Jeff Nichols, a guy just released from the infamous Don Jail. He lands himself a job at a used-car lot and finds himself mixed up in a smuggling ring bringing guns in from Upstate New York. Jeff’s a guy who’s willing to break a few rules on the road to riches, living by the motto, “why let the mistakes of the past get in the way of a good score in the future.”
I won’t make it to Bouchercon this year, I’ll be on the West Coast promoting the new book, but hopefully we’ll be able to catch up at next year’s Bouchercon in St. Petersburg. And thanks very much, Dana, for having me on One Bite at a Time. It was a lot of fun.