Thursday, August 6, 2020

What to Write?

“Don't ever write anything you don't like yourself and if you do like it, don't take anyone's advice about changing it. They just don't know.”

 --Raymond Chandler

 This applies on both the macro and micro level. You’re going to spend a lot of time with whatever project you select; it better be something you’ll enjoy reading. And reading. And reading again. I went through my most recent book nine times, with another pass pending when the edits arrive. How can I expect someone else to enjoy the read if I felt it a chose to write?

This is the primary reason I’ve never tried my hand at a thriller. I don’t often read them. I like more realism than contemporary thrillers tend to provide. I’m not ripping those who do enjoy them—we’re all entitled to our own tastes—but the work would be drudgery, which means the reading will almost have to be.

 (Editor’s Note: He does sometimes entertain the idea of writing a satirical thriller, but he hasn’t even bought it a drink yet.)

 The micro level is just as important. I recently wrote about the inherent conflict between authors and editors. I stand by everything I said there, but I should have been a little more resolute myself. I sent an e-ARC to a loyal reader (yes, I have some) who wrote back to express his appreciation of a particular line, which I had cut from the final version at the editor’s suggestion. I liked the original better myself but I didn’t stick up for it. That’s my fault but it’s okay for two reasons:

1) I learned my lesson and will not make that mistake again;

2) I was able to get it changed back before the book went to press.

 “Maybe your books don’t sell because you obstinately avoid the mainstream of public taste,” id the obvious question.

 Maybe. Probably. So what? Not everyone has the skill set to write in a certain genre or style. Leonard Bernstein is possibly the greatest musical polymath this country ever produced. He went to his grave lamenting his inability to write a hit song, and had great respect for those who could do it. No one is going to ask Tom Brady to play linebacker; that’s not where his gifts lie. Even if he wanted to and was young enough to learn the position-specific skills, that’s not what he was born to do. As Captain Dudley Smith said to Bud White when White asked if he was going to work cases in the Homicide Division: “Your talents lie elsewhere.”

 I am a massive fan of Dennis Lehane’s The Drop, both the book and movie. They’re master classes on how to develop and tell a story. The movie had a small budget and still lost money in the United States despite having Tom Hardy (when the movies on either side of The Drop were The Dark Knight Rises, Locke, Child 44, and Mad Max: Fury Road)and James Gandolfini in his final role. Foreign receipts pushed the film into the black but the money men can’t have been happy.

 This is what Lehane said about the film in an interview with Boston Magazine: “Everybody was always on board to kind of make a gritty, down-and-dirty, 1970s-influenced film. The commercial considerations didn’t override the film. We didn’t say, ‘Oh, we have to slap on a happy ending,’ or ‘Oh, we have to do this because market research.’”

 I get that. I love 70s crime movies. That’s probably why, without any conscious thought or effort, I write novels that could easily be 70s movies. I’m well aware the population at large isn’t much interested in seeing films like that anymore. This is my wheelhouse, for better or worse.

 Maybe my favorite book I’ve written is the standalone I wrote between the Nick Forte and Penns River series, Wild Bill. It’s the story of how a mob war in Chicago ruins a large FBI investigation. I showed it to an agent everyone thought I should work with. Met her a Bouchercon where she told me she liked the book but

1) No one cares about Italian gangsters anymore. Maybe if they were Russian.

2) It needs more unexpected violence.

(She also didn’t like it enough to send me any of this feedback. I had to find out at the bar.)

 Maybe it did need more unexpected violence to sell, but that would have been a different book. It did have half a dozen corpses but they weren’t the point. What mattered was how and why they got that way.

 Could I have re-written it to accommodate her suggestions? Sure. Would that have increased its changes for a sale? I think not. I’d be writing someone else’s book, and I give readers credit for being smarter than that. They’ll know something is a quarter bubble off level. Wild Bill was the book I had in me and I wrote it the best I know how. I still think it’s the best constructed book of the eleven I’ve seen published.

 I sometimes toy with the idea of getting an agent to shop the Penns River books for a streaming series. My ego is large enough to think they’d make a good one. What’s tricky is that I’m the square peg in the round hole. I have no screenplay, so I have to go through literary agents who will look at my sales figures and pass unless I want to try something else. Down & Out Books lets me write what I want. The books are better, and I’m happier, because of it.


Thursday, July 30, 2020

Resting Transparently

No one knows how writing happens. “Sit your ass in front of the keyboard” is less about writing than typing. “Plotting” vs. “pantsing” deals with the mechanics of story. Where does creativity come from?

If I knew, you think I’d be telling you for free?

The best I can do is refer to a series of videos in which David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) talks about “The Idea of the Writer.” Recorded at the Screen Writers’ Guild auditorium during a writers’ strike, Milch held court for a couple of hours each day for a week about the creative aspects of writing.

These are rambling discourses, covering subjects as diverse as chemistry,

I have always been more left-brained than it’s probably good for a creative person to be. Charlie Stella described my writing style as “documentary,” and that’s fair. I’ve always thought I did my best work describing things that had already taken place in my mind.

This caused first drafts to require more heavy lifting than I like to do. I’ve used the term “mining” to describe my first drafts, no one’s idea of a pleasant experience. Editing was where I had my fun.

The current book—Number Seven in the Penns River series—is the first time I’ve made a conscious choice to change, thanks to Milch. I’ll write more about his talks as time goes on, but two takeaways not only shifted my attitude about the first draft but make me look forward to each day’s production, so much so the blog has to fight for time. (Apologies to Patti Abbott. I haven’t forgotten about the post I owe you.)

Most important for me (filtered through my experience and personality) is the concept that all art must rest transparently on the spirit that gives it rise; the artist must therefore do the same. It’s a concept Milch adapted from Kierkegaard’s definition of faith as the opposite of despair: "In relating itself to itself, and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it."

Milch’s faith is in his Higher Power, learned from years of working his twelve-step program. Mine is in knowing I can take as many passes as I want to make things better. It’s all about removing the ego, which is the enemy of creativity. As soon as I start thinking too much about what I’m writing, or whether it’s any good, I stop. It’s impossible to rest transparently when thinking about the potential effect of the art on others, and how they may respond; the writer creates what he creates. The reception is beyond his control.

How to get to a state of resting transparently is up to the individual. I need my increasingly vague and flexible outlines to remove worry I’ll write myself into a corner that requires either an implausible resolution, or throwing away thousands of words of work. (Which I’ve done and it’s no fun.) Like all writers, I depend on a certain amount of inspiration, a Muse for lack of a better word, to do my best work.

The German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé discovered the ring structure of the benzene molecule after twenty years of work. The solution came to him in a dream of a snake swallowing its tail. In Milch’s telling, his peers gave Kekulé a ribbing. “Why did you work twenty years on this? A dream was all you needed.” Kekulé’s reply was, “Visions come to prepared spirits.” That’s the key: how to prepare the spirit. Everyone does it in their own way

Milch swears he never thinks about writing except when actually doing it. How the ego influences that is a post of its own. He battles with OCD and would wrap himself in knots if he thought about the craft too much. His energy goes directly into the work.

The Beloved Spouse™ can attest I am not above overthinking things myself. I have made a major effort not to think about this book unless I’m working on it. I read the chapter’s brief slug in the outline or review the last few paragraphs from the previous day, and jump in. Not only is it easier and more fun, based on feedback from TBS it’s at least as good as the other first drafts she’s

A surprising benefit is how often ideas now come to me unbidden. Last weekend I went grocery shopping and a few disparate thoughts and events coalesced and the next Nick Forte fell together by the time I got home. More came to mind as I told TBS about it. Another useful event dropped in on me the next day, vision coming to a prepared spirit.

I’ve never been more enthusiastic about writing, other than right after conferences. I’m rushing through this so I can get back to the book. (After I add the notes to the file for the next Forte.) It’s messy, but I have faith all will get sorted out, and that’s what really matters.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Favorite Reads Since Last Time

It’s been a while since I passed along my favorite recent reads, so let get right to it.

Remo Went Rogue, Mike McCrary. Every time I see Mike McCrary on a panel I decide I need to read him, and I never get around to it. I saw him at Bouchercon in Dallas, walked up and asked who to see in the bookstore so I could march right down and get one. He told me he’d been unable to work anything out, but I was welcome to the copy of Remo Goes Rogue he’d read from on the panel. Free. Gratis. He even autographed it. That’s the kind of guy Mike McCrary is. And the book kicks ass, too. He always stops just before things get too over the top, but no one hangs you on that precipice as well, or for as long, any better than he does. Great fun. I’ll be back.

The Hook, Tim O’Mara. Former cop turned schoolteacher Raymond Donne is back (finally) and hasn’t missed a beat. The Donne books are of a genre I don’t much care for, the amateur sleuth. This series has a difference. Raymond is from a family of New York cops. His uncle is Chief of Detectives. Raymond himself was on the job until an injury forced him into retirement. When trouble breaks out in or around his school, certain instincts kick in, and he has the skills do know what to do. He has help: His girlfriend is a reporter—and believable friction results there—and his best friend runs a small security business. Add a wordsmith of considerable talent to the mix and you have a series that has not earned near the acclaim it deserves. Start here or anywhere. You’ll be hooked. (See what I did there?”

The Second Girl, David Swinson. This a re-read, and one I looked forward to. This one made Swinson’s name, and deservedly so. All three Frank Marr books are outstanding, but this is still my favorite, if only because of meeting a character unlike anyone else I’ve read.

400 Things Cops Know, Adam Plantinga. I review this one whenever I start a new book. Every crime writer needs this one, even if the cops aren’t the main characters.

The Cold Six Thousand, James Ellroy. Yet another re-read, as I work my way through the Underworld USA trilogy a second time. This was my first Ellroy, and I had no idea what to expect; it was the most unpleasant reading experience I ever had. Now I see it as the masterpiece it is. I’ll have more to say about TC6K when I have a chance to do it justice.

Police Craft, Adam Plantinga. Everything I said about 400 Things Cops Know applies.

Burglars Can't be Choosers, Lawrence Block. My first exposure to Block was years ago, in a Keller anthology. I’m not a fan of hit man novels—I detest most serial killer stories, and a professional hitter is just someone who figured a way to make a living doing what he’d do for free. I got tired of hearing about how good Block is and was in the mood for something lighter, so I started at the beginning of the Bernie Rhodenbarr series. Smart and full of wit, now I understand how Block came to occupy the position he has. Now I’m all in and expect I’ll like Matt Scudder at least as much.

Left Turn at Albuquerque, Scott Phillips. Everything one would expect from the author of The Ice Harvest. A lawyer who’s not close to as smart as he thinks he is comes up with a caper to solve all his problems. Problem is, he can’t do it alone, and his issues with impulse control make it difficult to pull off a long con. Always witty and laugh out loud funny in spots, this one’s a gem.

Friday, July 17, 2020

S. W. Lauden, Author of Good Girls Don't

You want to know what kind of guy S.W. Lauden is? He wears a ball cap almost all the time due, I believe, to some follicle desertion issues. One day at Bouchercon a few years ago I noticed him without the hat and spent close to a minute perusing and touching his, making the comment, “I don’t know why you wear a hat all the time. You have a very attractive head,” and he did not punch me in the face. That’s the kind of guy Steve Lauden is.

He’s also wormed his way into becoming one of my favorite writers. He co-edited the essay collection, Go All The Way: A Literary Appreciation of Power Pop. His crime fiction novelette, That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist, was released in 2019. The follow up, Good Girls Don’t: A Second Power Pop Heist, dropped last month. His Greg Salem punk rock PI series includes Bad Citizen Corporation, Grizzly Season and Hang Time. S.W. Lauden is the pen name of Steve Coulter, drummer for Tsar and The Brothers Steve. (Holy shit! I didn’t know that. I thought we were friends and now it’s like I don’t even know him. No matter. I’m going to consider Steve Coulter his gig name. I’m old and I don’t like change.)

One Bite at a Time: Hearing you’d written a sequel to That’ll Be the Day was the best news I got that day. What’s up with the Sharp brothers in Good Girls Don’t?
Steve W. Lauden: You’re too kind, Dana. I feel lucky to say that stopping by
your blog has become a bit like playing the same nightclub in a certain city every tour. Something you look forward to in the whirlwind of activity. Thanks for having me back.
In the second book, Jack and Jamie are headed to LA (with their drummer, Chaz) to record a reunion album. The whole elaborate affair’s being funded by Russell Patterson who is both their biggest fan and their worst nightmare. Like any good wannabe music mogul, he’s paying the bills—but exacts his pound of flesh. In this case, he wants the Sharp brothers to steal a famous guitar that’s on display at a Hollywood music store. Things get out of hand pretty fast from there. Bullets fly. Blood spills. Hi-jinx ensue.

OBAAT: No one writes musicians on the borderline of careers better than you. How has your experience as a musician helped you to bring these characters to life in believable and sympathetic ways, even when they may not on the surface seem like sympathetic characters? (No offense with that “borderline career” crack.)
SWL: Ha! “Borderline career” describes every career I’ve ever had, and there have been quite a few. When it comes to writing about musicians, it’s a matter of “write what you know.” I’ve been playing drums in bands on and off since my early teens, and been a huge music fan since before that. Translating my love of music into crime fiction is easy because the music industry has always been filled with egomaniacs, conmen and thieves. There’s a reason “sex, drugs and rock & roll” is in that order—music comes last.

And thanks for saying I create “sympathetic” and “believable” characters. I think that’s something we all have to worry about in a genre where action and violence sometimes overshadow personality (especially on the hardboiled end). As a reader I need to connect with the characters (even if I can’t sympathize), so I think I use that as my own personal guideline.

OBAAT: You still gigging?
SWL: Yes! Not a ton, but I played a few shows with The Brothers Steve in 2019. I’m guessing 2020 is pretty much a wash, but we’ll probably do more shows when bars and nightclubs open back up. I’ve also gotten to record a little lately, which is fun. We should have some new music coming out in the next few months.

OBAAT: I think we can agree you have some fucked up situations and characters in your books, such as Russell Patterson’s “collection” and my personal favorite, the cocaine-dealing pirate impersonators in Crossed Bones. The synopsis for Good Girls Don’t refers to a violent gang of rock & roll memorabilia collectors. Outrageous as these set-ups seem, you not only always pull them off, but they make sense. Do you have some sort of internal governor that keeps things form getting out of hand, or do you let them play out and hope for the best?
SWL: I’m always pleasantly surprised when somebody connects with the over-the-top characters in Crossed Bones. I don’t think that book ever really found its audience—or maybe you’re it! And I agree that those cocaine-dealing pirate impersonators are distant cousins to Russell Patterson in my Power Pop Heist books. I think it boils down to my love of absurdity. That’s a big part of my personal humor and something I’m always on the lookout for in everyday situations. Maybe it’s a social coping mechanism, but I have always found the strangest things funny, especially in mundane or serious situations. It’s honestly something I’m still learning to control in my writing. If anything, I probably start off going over-the-top with some of the cartoonishness and calibrate from there.

OBAAT: No one else comes to mind when I read your stuff. Who do you consider your primary influences as a writer?
Not even legendary producer Bruce Dickinson
ever asked Steve Lauden for more cowbell.
SWL: I think that whatever style or voice I have managed to develop might seem unique (or strange?) in the context of the genre because I never specifically set out to be a crime author. I love crime fiction, but I’m no die-hard genre historian. My love of reading and writing was very much born in literary fiction, the kind of stuff you’d encounter in high school or college literature courses. I often mention Kurt Vonnegut as an all-time favorite, but books that blew my mind were mostly by authors like Umberto Eco, Charles Bukowski, Katherine Dunn, Mikhail Bulgakov, E. Annie Proulx, Neal Stephenson, Jorge Luis Borges, Robin Sloan—stuff like that.

I definitely read my share of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett growing up, but it wasn’t until I got into Norwegian crime fiction that my attention really turned to the crime genre. I also love Don Winslow and Kem Nunn. More recently, I’ve gotten into Attica Locke, Ryan Gattis, Alison Gaylin, Scott Adlerberg, and Marcus Sakey. I’d say that Blake Crouch is my favorite current author, but his last few books are hard to classify. I also read a crazy amount of non-fiction about music, musicians and bands.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
SWL: I have two standalone novels written. Trying to decide if I’ll shop those to agents and publishers like my other books, or self-publish them like my Power Pop Heists. And I’m working on a couple non-fiction projects, along the lines of the essay collection I co-edited last year, Go All The Way: A Literary Appreciation Of Power Pop. Staying busy.

Friday, July 10, 2020

An Interview With T.G. Wolff, Author of Driving Reign

TG Wolff writes thrillers and mysteries that play within the gray area between good and bad, right and wrong. Cause and effect drive the stories, drawing from 25+ years’ experience in Civil Engineering, where “cause” is more often a symptom of a bigger, more challenging problem. Diverse characters mirror the complexities of real life and real people, balanced with a healthy dose of entertainment. She holds a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering and is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.

One Bite at a Time: Give us the hundred words or fewer rundown on the new book, Driving Reign.

T.G. Wolff: Nothing is simple. Cleveland homicide Detective Jesus De La Cruz
finds out the truth of that when he investigates an apparent suicide as a favor for a friend. The threads he tugs are wound through a sex scandal, a deadly drug dealer, a conceded college jock, and a holier-than-thou matriarch. The facts have Cruz wondering if there is such a thing as an innocent man- or woman. Truth is a rope, tied in a noose. As he closes in, the knot tightens, but who will pay the price? A killer or a member of Cruz’s own family? (Editor’s Note: 97 words. She can come back whenever she wants.)

OBAAT: Driving Reign is the second book in a series called the de la Cruz Case Files. Did you plan to write a series from the start, or did you get the first book finished and decide you have more to say in this universe?

TGW: I knew this one was a series. This structure is the kind where the main characters continue to grow but each main mystery is independent. This is one of my favorite type of series to read.

Knowing it was a series allowed me to be patient when revealing backstory and developing the characters. I was able to plant seeds that will grow into future side plots and maybe even a main plot or two. With this being the second book in the series, those seeds are already turning into something fruitful.

OBAAT: We both write procedural series, so we have some shared experiences. What is it you like best about a series? Is there anything you find limiting?

TGW: In series, I am usually strongly drawn to the characters. I want to be part of their next adventure. This is exactly what I try to give my audience. In my head, every character is the star of their own show, which allows even minor characters to be interesting and contributing.

If there is something about a series that can be limiting, it is that you have to live within the world you created. Some storylines just do not fit Jesus De La Cruz. Or, maybe it is better to say, if he had those storylines, they would have very different outcomes than if another character owns them.

OBAAT: Who are your primary influences, either literary or visual?

TGW: My two earliest influences were Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe (no relation) and TV’s Lt. Columbo. With Wolfe, you have the continuing characters I talked about liking. You also have smart, solvable mysteries. I like knowing everything Archie knows. With Colombo, you know more than Colombo knows, and yet it was never boring to watch him cover the curve. The other thing both have in common is a minimum of violence. I know that is oxymoronic with murder mysteries, but graphic violence doesn’t do much for me. I’m interested in the puzzle. I write the same way.

OBAAT: Good point about Columbo. For me the fun is trying to guess when Columbo figured it out, and how he’s going to turn the tables to get a confession. Since we’re talking about television, you’ve decided that tonight you’re going to watch a movie you’ve never seen before. What is it, and why did you chose it?

TGW: Wait- you mean I’m allowed to touch the remote control? I can pick anything I want? (Kidding, not kidding). Lately when I do sit in front of a TV, I am still picking mysteries, but with a twist. Just yesterday, I watched an Agatha Christie mystery in French. (No, I don’t speak French). Through Roku, I have found the adaptations of the M.C. Beaton’s Hamish MacBeth stories (interesting, but very slow), Bosch (too dark, literally, couldn’t see a damn thing) and Harry Dresden (should be awesome but wasn’t, that’s why it only lasted one season). I tend toward mysteries or comedies, staying far away from reality. There’s too much of that in the world.

OBAAT: You also put out a podcast that’s different from anything I’ve heard elsewhere, called “Mysteries to Die For.” Tell us a little about that, and where you got the idea.

TGW: My teenage son, Jack, is a natural musician. He was playing around on the piano with bass lines one day. I was working with my 2019 release Widow’s Run, which I honestly wrote to be read out loud. I started reading as Jack played and it worked. When I was promoting Widow’s Run in 2019 (pre-COVID), Jack and I performed the first chapter at Centuries and Sleuths bookstore in Chicago. It also worked well. After months of stalling because it was work to figure out how to podcast, we launched in March 2020. The first half of the season is Widow’s Run. The balance will be performances of public domain mysteries and those that authors allow me to perform.

This has been a great adventure. Jack is writing music and/or adapting classical pieces (to avoid copyright issues). We get deep into characters to find their bass lines. He has explored areas I never expecting him too including Russian national music, deep roots gospel, and rap. It’s special when a middle-aged white women and her kid are making dinner while listening to Enimen’s first album and discussing the appeal.

OBAAT: The classic final question: What’s next, and what are you working on now? (In case they’re not the same thing.)

TGW: My next release from Down & Out will be in February 2021, Suicide Squeeze, A Diamond Mystery #2. I’m working on Cruz’s next story – no title yet – slated for February 2022. I’m three chapters in and enjoying the writing. For the podcast, we have a few more months until the Mysteries to Die For is finished with Widow’s Run. Then we will start in with classics. I think the first will be Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” One of my favorites!

Friday, July 3, 2020

An Open Letter to Writers' Organizations

As usual, I’m a bit late here, but I wanted to get my thoughts together about the recent International Thriller Writers controversy. Not even ITW so much, as what this debacle says about writers groups in general.

Writers’ organizations such as ITW, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, etc. do not require two houses of Congress and a president to set standards for membership. There is no need to content ourselves with saying how something is terrible and needs to stop, the horror, the horror, then install window dressing and walk away. It’s time to establish who our organizations and events belong to. Consequences are in order.

Understanding that lawyers would have to fine tune this, here’s a proposal for organization membership and event attendance:
  • A Code of Conduct for all members, clearly stated and easily found on the web site. The Code will cover inappropriate sexual behavior, as well as racist, homophobic, transphobic, or religious discrimination. The Code shall make clear this is not a bar to civil discussion of such topics. Context always matters.
  • Conference attendees must check a box to certify they have read and agree to abide by the Code of Conduct before the system can accept their registration.
  • Credible complaints will be forwarded to a standing committee on conduct, which may do any of the following after an investigation:
    • Nothing. The committee will inform the complainant of the reasons why. (Example: “You became uncomfortable after finding yourself involved in a discussion of the invective used in James Ellroy’s works describing life in the 50s. No one called you, or anyone else, any of these names. No sanctions forthcoming.”)
    • Probation. Prohibits the accused from attending future conferences for a prescribed period of time. They are still a member and may participate in other activities until the probation period is over. Probation can be conditional (“on probation until the matter is disposed of”).
    • Suspension. The accused may not attend any events, nor enjoy any of the benefits of membership, for a prescribed period of time.
    • Banishment. Permanently bars the accused from any aspect of the organization. This should apply only in extreme circumstances, though repeat offenders should also be subject to permanent banishment.
  • Members who are on probation, suspended, or banned will have their names posted on the group’s web site. The reasons will remain private, but their names will be available for those who may attend a conference to which this person still has access, so people know who to look out for. The Code of Conduct each attendee must acknowledge prior to registration will clearly include this provision so there are no misunderstandings.

It’s no longer enough to know there are bad actors out there and maybe they’ll face some arbitrary consequences if they misbehave. The consequences have to be clear and public. It does little good to ban someone from ThrillerFest for sexual misconduct only to keep their name secret so they may prey on others at Left Coast Crime or Bouchercon.

This isn’t about punishing the guilty. It’s about keeping everyone else safe. Not just good thoughts and boilerplate platitudes so they’ll feel safe. Taking action to actually make them safer. I’m a six-foot-one-inch, 240-pound straight white man. I have never, not once, felt anything but safe at a conference. Everyone needs to be able to feel that way. To paraphrase Harry Bosch, “We’re all safe, or no one is safe.”

Friday, June 26, 2020

Jochem Vandersteen, Author of Crimes And Riffs: Roadie, Metalhead, PI.

This is Jochem Vandersteen’s fifth interview on OBAAT and each one has been a pleasure. Born and living in The Netherlands, Jochem is as ardent an advocate for American private eye fiction as anyone living. A good review or year-end mention on his  “Sons of Spade” are notable accomplishments and I’m proud to have received both.

Jochem is a writer of note his own self. In addition to two anthologies of PI fiction. (The Shamus Sampler and The Shamus Sampler II), Jochem has published short stories and collections featuring protagonists Noah Milano, Vance Custer, Mike Dalmas, and his newest creation, Lenny Parker. Jochem treads the line between homage and moving the genre forward with aplomb and I’m always interested in what he’s up to. Now you can catch up with him, as well.

One Bite at a Time: Jochem, it’s always a treat to have you on the blog. I hope everything is well with you. Your new book is a collection of your Lenny Parker stories, Crimes And Riffs: Roadie, Metalhead, PI. Talk a little about what readers can expect in the stories. We’ll get to Lenny in a minute.
Jochem Vandersteen: You can expect longer short stories (not yet novelettes
though) divided into small chapters. I first published those at my blog, “Sons of Spade.” They are to a degree standard PI stories but take place partly in the heavy metal subculture and have sometimes a humorous feel although stuff gets dark sometimes as well.

OBAAT: Lenny Parker is described as a “roadie, metalhead, PI,” with PI coming last. Where did you get the idea for him and how did he get into the PI business?
JV: They say you should write what you know. Well, as a metalhead myself and writer for a Dutch webzine about heavy music I know all about the world of heavy metal. I really wanted to set a story in that world. Inspired by other private eyes with part-time gigs I figured a roadie would be a good job that wasn’t full-time enough so offered some chances for the character to do some PI work as well. From that Lenny Parker was born. Lenny started his PI work at a larger PI form, gaining the experience legally needed to start your own PI firm there. At times the daughter of his original boss acts kind of like his muscle and even brains when Lenny needs some of that.

OBAAT: You are as dedicated a devotee of PI fiction as anyone I know, and the entire field respects you for it. I remember what a thrill it was when one of my books made your year-end list in “Sons of Spade” and when you invited me to contribute a story to the second Shamus Sampler collection. What originally drew you to this uniquely American genre and how does it maintain its strong appeal?
JV: I’ve always liked heroes. While I like superheroes I found in the PIs a more relatable kind of hero as a young man. Aside from that I like fast, action-packed reads but detest long fight scenes and a focus on hardware. I like dark stories, but need some lighter moments as well. I like stories that are ripped from the headlines but don’t beat you down with morals. The private eye genre offers me all of that.

OBAAT: Have you ever thought of writing a PI who must go down the mean streets of Amsterdam or Rotterdam?
JV: Not really. I’m not even a fan of PI stories that take place in other places than the USA. I think the PI is as connected to the States as the cowboy is. I have been tinkering around with characters in my home country but if those ever come out they will be in my own native language and not feature private eyes.

OBAAT: You like protagonists who have unorthodox backgrounds. Noah Milano is the scion of a mob family. Vance Custer is a literary Travis McGee who will take on a case if for the book rights. (What’s not to love about a badass writer?) Lenny Parker we already talked about. What draws you to these kinds of characters and how do you come up with them?
JV: You need to do something original to stand out when you want to tell traditional tales but stand out. That is why I try to think of original angles to the backgrounds of my characters. You forget to mention my vigilante character Mike Dalmas who is blackmailed by the cops to take on some missions for them. I guess these kind of things are what I look for in other characters as well. It’s what drew me to Steve Ulfelder’s Conway Sas, A.J. Devlin’s Jed Ounstead and Steve Hamilton’s Nick Mason or even Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. All fairly standard lone wolf PI-like types who either have a different background or just something different / special than just a fedora and an office with their names stenciled on the door.

OBAAT: You’ve focused on short stories. Any plans for a novel?
JV: Writing a novel takes a long time. With a fulltime job, writing reviews for my blog and for the Dutch webzine I don’t have much of that. I like short stories and novelettes. I can get to the point, leave out the parts people skip and tell as many stories as I can. I have been doing a few false starts on a novel though. So yeah, I might write one in the future. I have started a few that might make it to the finish line.

OBAAT: What’s next?
JV: I will continue writing Lenny Parker episodes on my blog. That is something that comes pretty much without effort. I hope the sales of the collection will give me some extra energy to write more and finish that novel we were talking about.

Friday, June 19, 2020

What to Write and How to Do It?

First of all, this is a first world problem. I neither seek nor expect sympathy. I don’t mean to complain or whine and I appreciate more than I can tell you that I’m not breathing through a ventilator.

We’re all affected one way or another by the virus and a president who shows a willingness to run the country by executive fiat if given half a chance. As I type this the whole country and much of the world is (finally) riled up about how police treat minorities. All these things invade our consciousness and affect each of us differently. That’s as it should be. I worry about anyone who claims to remain unaffected. The trick is to compartmentalize enough so one can continue to move forward, learning along the way.

This is a blog about writing and I’d be lying if I said current events had no effect on my work. It’s not that I can’t write, or that I’m blocked. (Regular readers know how I feel about the idea of writer’s block.) Last week I finished a draft of a story I like, using a process different from anything I’d tried before. The problem is deciding what to do next.

The Western has bitten the dust, shot from the saddle by my realization I’m not at home in either the time or the place. I tried to pull together the scenes I’ve written over the past couple of years and, while there’s writing in there I’m proud of, it feels like cultural appropriation. The story seemed less organic than like bits and pieces of other Westerns I’ve read or seen. Maybe I’ll have an idea I like better someday.

I finished Penns River Volume Six last month, so PR-7 is the next logical step. The timing is awkward. Here’s the elevator pitch: A black cop shoots and kills a white guy. The police find no weapon on the victim. Oh, and the guy was a white supremacist and various factions decide to converge on Penns River to send their boy off in style.

You see my problem?

My PR cops are good people who work hard to do the right thing. There are a few jerks, but I know enough cops to know most of what’s in the barrel are good apples. I want cops to be good guys. They protect the people I care about.

Right now it’s impossible to write such a book and not have it be about more than that.

My timing isn’t altogether bad. A new chief took over in Book 6 and in Book 7 he’s going to start to bring in cops from other jurisdictions to replace an exodus of Penns River retirees. They bring big city techniques and attitudes, not all of them palatable to the holdovers. Or the town.

I don’t write door stops, so I’m in danger of doing what John McNally calls putting too much in the container. This is more often a problem with short stories, but it’s a concern with novels, as well. I also don’t want to give anything short shrift. There are things I dare not ignore, but I want to be fair.

I also can’t afford to write as if someone is looking over my shoulder. My books have always been well received (if not frequently purchased) when all I’ve tried to do is write a book I’d like to read.

Which I suppose brings us to the real problem: I don’t know what kind of book I want to read right now. The Beloved Spouse™ and I abandoned a long-anticipated re-viewing of The Shield last weekend after two episodes. We love the show but neither of us was in the mood to watch it. More than ever, I need to hit a proper balance, and that’s going to require more of a plan than I usually take into a book. I always outline the chapters to remind myself what needs to happen to move things along. How it happens I leave for the actual writing. This time I need a better defined vision of not only what happens, but how and why. Not to do so is an invitation to either drift into blandness, write a screed, or create something that goes in every direction without arriving anywhere.

It’s going to be interesting.

At least I’m not on a ventilator.

Stay well.

Friday, June 12, 2020


I don’t watch weekly television. Most recent was Yellowstone, but even then we DVR the whole season and binge them over the course of a week. This means the last TV show I waited a week for a next episode of was Justified.

Ah. Justified.

The Beloved Spouse™ and I watched all six seasons a few weeks ago, the
second time we’ve hung with Raylan and Boyd and Ava since the show went off the air in 2015. While there are lines we can recite with the characters, there are still things we hadn’t noticed and the special features are as good as any I’ve seen.

I don’t have time to discuss all the things I love about this show. Some plots have more twists than an intestine, but the show is an homage to Elmore Leonard, whose plots got out of hand at times and no one cared. That’s not why people read his books, and it’s not why people watch Justified. Leonard’s writing was all about character and attitude and the show has those in spades, from the opening shot of the pilot, Raylan walking through a crowded hotel pool area to kill Tommy Bucks, to the last scene in prison, where Boyd says Raylan personally delivered news of Ava’s “death” because they dug coal together.

Never has anything that ran as many episodes maintained that level of wit in the writing, people saying laugh out loud things and not realizing they’re funny, it’s just what that character would say. Raylan: “If you wanted me to shoot you in the front, you shoulda run toward me.” Boyd: “God damn, woman, you only shoot people when they're eatin' supper?” Ava: “If by uncomfortable you mean it made my skin crawl, then yes.” Dewey Crowe: ““You mean I got four kidneys?” (We could do a whole series on the wisdom of Dewey Crowe.) Art Mullen: “That mystery bag thing is giving me a bit of a Marshal stiffy.”

The show dodged a bullet when the creators realized Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) could not die in the pilot; the chemistry between him and Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) was too good. This kept Justified from being a crime of the week cop show—okay, an extremely well-written crime of the week cop show—and led them to build around annual villains while still showing what else marshals might do on slow days.

Ultimately what makes the show work—in addition to the talent and dedication of the writers, cast, and crew—was the devotion to Elmore Leonard. The special features are full of oblique and direct references to the respect and affection everyone had for him. He died during pre-production for Season Five, and that year’s extras include a hilarious reading of The Onion’s obituary by Patton Oswalt, annotated to show where they broke all ten of Leonard’s Ten Rules of writing. “The Coolest Guy in the Room” is a half-hour biography interspersed with cast members reading from his books. The extra bonus disk has another half-hour of readings, and the actors who read make sure we know what a treat it was to work with him and know him.

Justified is violent, irreverent, funny, and heartbreaking, all in balanced doses. If you haven’t seen it, do so. If you have, do so again. It gets better with age and familiarity. If you’ve seen it and didn’t care for it…different people have different tastes. You’re just not someone I’d want to hang with, is all.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Joe Ricker, Author of Some Awful Cunning

Joe Ricker is a former bartender for Southern literary legends Barry Hannah and Larry Brown. He grew up in southern Maine and has lived in Alabama, Mississippi, New York, and New Mexico. Ricker spent several years travelling the country with his dog and working as a cab driver, innkeeper, acquisitions specialist, professor, lumberjack, ranch-hand, and strip-club bouncer. He lives in Reno, Nevada, where he hikes daily with his four-legged partner in crime. His new book is Some Awful Cunning, from Down & Out Books.

One Bite at a Time: Tease us about Some Awful Cunning. One hundred words or fewer.


OBAAT: Ryan Carpenter works the flip side of witness protection and helps prospective convicts slip off the radar. Where did you get the idea for this unusual occupation?

JR: I’d gone through a bunch of personal and professional setbacks that were really frustrating. I thought a lot about just saying “fuck it” and dropping off the grid, so I moved back to Maine and started working in the woods cutting timber. I worked all winter and decided to take it up a notch by taking a road trip from Maine to the west coast because I’d never been west of the Mississippi except for some Army stuff in Fort Lewis. I was camping in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and there was a crew of prisoners cleaning up the campground. That was the start of it. From there, the idea took shape and it went from wanting to disappear to writing about a guy that helps other people disappear. At first it was a character who helped people escape persecution, but evolved into him helping anyone who wanted to escape. Battered wives, prostitutes, bikers, etc. Basically, Ryan Carpenter helps anyone who needs to get away from where they are or the situation they’re in and start over.

OBAAT: As your bio shows (I will have included it above) you are the quintessential “well-traveled author.” Was it your intent to move around so much, is that just how things worked out, or is that Witness Protection you’re not supposed to talk about?

JR: After that first road trip, I was hooked. I loved being on the road. I went back to teach at Ithaca College for a couple more years, but after continually being turned down for a full-time position, I decided that life would be better on the road. I thought about how fucking stupid it is for colleges to encourage people to take out student loans to get a degree so they can hire you to teach and those same colleges pay dog shit. And then I realized that I was fucking stupid for continuing to teach, so I went back on the road. I picked up work along the way and I did some freelance writing, so I made enough money to survive, which is a lot easier when you don’t have to pay rent. I loved the road. When I got sick of a place or I didn’t like it to begin with, I went somewhere else. It was insanely liberating, and it gave me more to write about, so it certainly became my intent to move around as much as possible. I did that for two years until I settled in Reno.  

OBAAT: Who are the primary influences on your writing? Were they people you set out to emulate, or was it a matter of looking back one day and realizing they’d had more of an impact than you thought?

JR: I’ve had some amazing people influence my writing – some authors I’d only read and a handful of writers I met while I was bartending at City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi. Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver were probably the two authors I tried to emulate the most when I first started to make an attempt at crafting a story. I fell in love with Carver’s prose, and I really liked how dark O’Connor’s writing could be. When I started to focus mostly on crime fiction, Jim Thompson, Craig Clevenger, and Will Christopher Baer became the guys I really looked up to. Jonathan Lethem, too, was big for me. I walked out of a job at L.L. Bean just to finish Motherless Brooklyn, which I did while sitting in my car in the Bean parking lot.

In Oxford, I was fortunate enough to have some really great people who not only influenced my writing, but showed me enough patience for me to have the courage to get things on the page. Shay Youngblood and Cynthia Shearer were instrumental in helping me discover my strengths, which were few and often sparse. Tom Franklin and Ace Atkins took some time to help me figure out what I was doing wrong and how to make those adjustments. And Barry Hannah and Larry Brown were gentle enough to throw in a kind word here and there when I asked a dumb fucking question about writing. My time in Oxford is always a point of reflection, especially now that I’m getting things published.

OBAAT: We’re both Down & Out Books authors. How did you get hooked up with Eric and Lance?

JR: That’s kind of a sad turn of events. My first book Walkin’ After Midnight came out with another publisher. Jonathan Ashley, another author with the same publisher, reached out to me at some point, and we started talking crime fiction. When that publisher went under, Jon went to Down & Out and hooked me up with Eric. Unfortunately, Jon died shortly after that, so I never got to thank him for linking me up with them.

OBAAT: The classic final question: What are you working on now?

JR: Other than getting better at coloring in the lines, I’m doing some edits to the next two books I have coming out with Down & Out and finishing up the prequel to Some Awful Cunning.

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Times, They are A'Changin'

Otto Penzler opened his annual controversy last week with an intemperate response to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s decision to choose another editor for their Best American Mystery Stories anthology. (Editor’s Note: Otto took down his post so I have included a verbatim copy below so no one can say I slanted his opinion.)

The most charitable spin to Otto’s statement is he is an aging white man who hasn’t evolved with the times. It’s a failure as old as history. Things once commonly accepted prove not to be true. Apollo’s chariot does not traverse the sky to bring daylight. The stars and planets do not revolve around the Earth. The Earth is not flat. White men are not inherently superior in any regard; openly accepting the contributions of others into any aspect of society can only improve it.

It is unlikely HMH would have replaced Otto had they felt his choices reflected the current state of crime fiction. One can argue that his dismissal was a politically correct marketing ploy, but that implies, had Otto opened things up more on his own, they would have felt no need to replace him.

Otto’s own comment allows one to reasonably infer he wasn’t open to accepting more diversity: “This means that stories will no longer be selected for excellence, the major criterion evidently now being the race, ethnicity, or sexual preference of the author.” That’s yet another example of the death of irony in America, as, looking back, it appears race and ethnicity were criteria in Otto’s selections.

There’s another layer of privilege here that hasn’t gotten nearly enough mention: Where does Otto Penzler get off deciding it is his divine right to choose each year’s Best American Mystery Stories in perpetuity? Is he the only person, white or otherwise, qualified to be the arbiter of what is “best?” Even if the Aryan Brotherhood started an annual “Best White American Mystery Stories” anthology, one could argue a different editor each year would create a more representative selection over time.

I wish Otto Penzler no ill will; I’ve never met the man. No one disputes his enormous contributions to crime fiction over the years. That said, publishing, and hopefully society in general, is turning a corner. The new direction is clear. The ruckus raised by those who find themselves left behind is evidence of the desperation born of their realization this is true. The train to a better world is leaving the station, and they lack the currency to buy a ticket. There’s room for everyone, but they’ll have to make some changes in themselves if they are earn the means to ride inside the coach.

(The Facebook post I refer to in this commentary is below:
Hi All--A couple of days ago I posted that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had decided not to renew my tenure as the series editor for THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES OF THE YEAR. My heart was warmed by the many supportive comments and the kind words about me and the series. I was stunned by the news and didn't understand the motivation for it, and many of you had theories. I now have an answer. According to an announcement from the editor-in-chief of HMH on Monday, the series "is going in an exciting new direction in response to the changing market and evolving readership and with an increased focus on traditionally marginalized voices." This means that stories will no longer be selected for excellence, the major criterion evidently now being the race, ethnicity, or sexual preference of the author. Forgive my bitterness. First off, I published lots of black writers and probably more than I knew since I never required a photo ID. I also published some writers who I know are gay but, again, doubtless others whose sexual preferences were unknown to me--as they should be. No one was marginalized when my first reader Michele Slung, and I, and the guest editors, sought the best stories. I'm now glad that I was not asked to stay on as I never would have agreed to edit a book on these terms. It's not over. I'll make an announcement soon.)

Friday, May 22, 2020

Joe Clifford, A Man With Too Much Good News to Fit Into a Title

It’s not fair to either of them, but people tend to think of Tom Pitts and Joe Clifford in tandem. This is partly their fault, as they’re fucking inseparable. (Yeah, I know. I’m usually pretty safe for work in these interview intros, but Clifford fucking brings it out in people, you know?) So even though it’s not fair and I love both these guys, as soon as I booked Tom for last week’s interview (prodded by the release of Coldwater), it occurred to me I hadn’t had Joe on the blog for a while and more good stuff happened to him in a short period of time than can be grasped by a single human mind, so I got him for today. Which puts them here as a tandem, which is what I just said was unfair. So I’m a prick. Fucking sue me.

Anyway, Joe doesn’t need much more introduction, as the interview touches on just about every aspect of his life except for his unhealthy fascination with Taylor Swift, which I didn’t ask about because…maybe you should seek help yourself if I have to explain it. Here’s Joe.

One Bite at a Time: You probably thought I was kidding on Facebook when I said this would be the easiest interview I ever did. Your life has been so action-packed the questions wrote themselves. Let’s start with congratulations. I have as much respect for you as I do for anyone I know and to say you deserve all this is an understatement.

Joe Clifford: Stop it. You’ll make me cry. Seriously. Why are the insults always so much easier to take than the compliments? But thank you.

OBAAT: The news that probably got the most attention is your fifth Jay Porter Rag and Bone, receiving a nomination for the International Thriller Writers’ Award for Best Hardcover novel. I suspect you’ll admit that the Porter books, while well received, may not have sold as well as they might because a lot of people found Jay to be unlikable. Does this nomination provide some validation, that there are people who get Jay and understand what you were going for?

JC: Dude, that was fucking nuts. The last thing I would’ve expected. I frequently am looking for good news from, as Tom Pitts likes to say, “the e-mailman.” It rarely comes. That morning I got the news from ITW, I was bleary-eyed, Day 39 whatever of Marchtober or whatever fucking month. Gobsmacked. Which is not a word I use lightly. Not a word I use, really, but can’t think of a better one. I sorta keep waiting for a correction email saying they made a mistake!

But to answer your question? Fuck yeah. The books sold okay, but, no, they didn’t earn USA Today Bestseller status, and I think my publisher, Oceanview, would say the same. The books sold fine. We were hoping for more. Which is cool. That’s a lot of books. I was appreciative that I had a nice loyal group of readers who picked up each new Porter, but you’re right, that one criticism I heard, over and over, was “he’s unlikable,” he being my protagonist Jay Porter. And honestly? After a while it started to get to me. I understand the books are not for everyone, but I also feel like, sometimes, that “unlikable” tag can be a copout. No, Jay isn’t likable. He makes some bad decisions. Like a lot of people I know. Like, well, me. I strove less to make him likable than I did “believable.” If there was a silver lining it’s that. I didn’t hear much “Well, I’d never believe someone like him would do that.” It was more, “Yup. Of course he did that. He’s an asshole!”

Anyway, I won’t ramble so much for the rest of the questions. I could’ve just answered yes. Yes, I am very happy that there are some people who “get” Jay Porter enough to bestow upon me this tremendous honor; it’s fucking humbling.

OBAAT: I’ve had a couple of Shamus nominations and, while it’s a letdown to hear someone else’s name, I never felt like the nomination wasn’t sufficient notice, even though I did want each undeserving winner to have an aneurism and die on their way to the podium. (Not that I’m bitter.) I don’t want to jinx you—I’m assuming you’re going to win—but should the unspeakable happen and you don’t, you’re not going to be one of those who feels like you lost something, are you?

JC: There’s not a fucking chance in hell I win. Did you see those other names? Blake Crouch had a show on TV with Matt Dillon. And a second season with Jason Patric. And Baldacci has been translated into more languages than are currently known (I’m approximating that number). And the rest of the writers? Are you kidding me? A who’s who list! I know it’s cliché to say “honor just to be nominated.” I always say shit like that. Like when someone else is sick and you’re like “Aw, I wish it was me not you.” I never mean it. Except when I had kids. Now I really would prefer I got sick instead of them. And I mean it this time with the “it’s an honor just...” And I am fine with that. Of all the mysteries and thrillers released? To be one of the six Best Hardcovers of the Year? Yeah, I won’t go back to shooting heroin if I “lose.” I’ll Gloria Gaynor that shit.

OBAAT: You also have a new book deal, for Shadow People. Tell us a little about the book, the deal, and when we can expect to see it.

JC: When I was strung out on speed, which was in between/during the heroin stuff (and cocaine) back in the 1990s, well, that shit is bad. Obviously. But it makes you see shit. Like really see shit. And you know it’s not there. Except … it is. And I can’t explain that if you haven’t done a shit-ton of meth but something happens. You cross over worlds. And I know that sounds insane, and it is. But that’s the thing with speed: you go crazy. It’s in the minutia. You focus on the dot and the dots that makes up that dot, until you are so zeroed in you’re … seeing … the inside of the inside. And people will call that hallucination. And it was. I’m not maintaining I was in a parallel universe. But as clear as you see that coffee cup or pen, I’d see people who may or may not have been there. And I’d talk to them. And I’d see cats, and they’d be all automaton-ic, dripping green ooze and moving all robotic, and then it would turn out to be a shirt. But the thing is when you are living like that? It’s fucking real. So you live in this Dali painting, and some days, your … mind … takes you somewhere wonderful. But after a while, it drags you to your worst fears, deepest hells. Interestingly enough, this is the same sensation schizophrenics experience. And I’ve known a lot of them. Was married to one. The guitarist in my first band suffered. Horrible affliction. So using my firsthand … experience … with the symptoms, I crafted a narrative about a schizophrenic who witnesses a crime, and then it’s up to his friend to separate reality from fiction. Basically it’s a road trip novel with an uptight college student and the dude’s equally schizo grandpa, who’s made peace with his disease. So, y’know, a laugh riot.

OBAAT: Keeping the roll going, you sold the audio rights to The Lakehouse five months before the book is scheduled to drop. That’s Michael Connelly/Dennis Lehane action there. What’s the scoop and do you know who’d going to read it yet? I have a soft spot for Gilbert Gottfried.

JC: Lol. That reminds me of when Gottfried read 50 Shades of Gray. I’ve been very lucky with narrators. Timothy McKean, who’s done most of my books and is fantastic, and Jennifer Jill Araya, who did a knockout job with The One That Got Away. Dreamscape has the rights to the new one, and they are as big as it gets, so I have no doubt whomever they choose will be equally terrific.

OBAAT: A new edition of Junkie Love popped to Number One on Amazon when it came out. I read the original about five years ago and there are few books that have affected me as much, thanks to its unvarnished look at the life of a junkie and getting clean. What prompted the second edition?

JC: It wasn’t our intention—“our” being me and Fawn Nuen, who runs Battered Suitcase (publisher for JL), but I think it turned into a New Coke kinda deal. So we had the original Junkie Love with the black cover and syringe, and Fawn and I always thought maybe that cover was a little too … graphic? Anyway, I had this old Polaroid taken by Gluehead (my speed dealer, who got his nickname as a kid because of a bad haircut. Pre-destiny, I guess), with my ex-wife (Cathy in the book) and me and there’s fire all around us, a photography trick Glue employed. Anyway after my brother died, I wanted to update JL, and so I wrote a new intro and significant Afterword, and we released a second edition. Which did fine. But then people were all, “I can’t find the original!” Which was funny because I didn’t change the main text, just augmented with additional material, like ten percent more! So then we brought back our original Coke, which I guess people had cued for alerts or some shit, and so the original became a “new release” (like Spinal Tap and the “New Originals”), and we sold a bunch.

OBAAT: I saved this one for last, but you also got a record deal. I’m a recovering musician while you have remained active, but I suspect this might have been the news that jazzed you up more than the rest. Spill so I can have another reason to hate you.

JC: I might’ve oversold that one! Steve Coulter put together a lo-fi compilation record to help benefit musicians out of work because of COVID. Originally it was just this thing going up band camp. Then Big Stir Records picked it up. So, yeah, as I guy who started out wanting to be a rock-and-roll star, desperate to be picked up by a label, and falling far short… Fast forward thirty years, and now I’m a crime writer, and dream comes true. But really it’s a great cause, super cheap, and it was a blast! Some AMAZING company on this one. Not sure Big Stir will be putting out the next Wandering Jews record. But I won’t lie. Each morning, I check my email kinda sorta hoping maybe… Quarantine Sessions

OBAAT: I recently interviewed Tom Pitts and asked him this same question. I’m asking you before his interview comes out so we can get a weird Newlywed Game vibe going: You and Tom go way back, well before you were writers. How did you meet and how did your paths to becoming acclaimed writers vary? Or were similar?

JC: I feel like this is asking for another Batman origin story. Not sure anyone wants to hear it? But … yeah, Tom and I were junkies and we met at Hepatitis Heights and… Tell you what? Let’s just close with a line I wrote about Tom from Junkie Love. Because it was fucking true then. And it’s fucking true now, except minus the dope: Tom Pitts was a rare breed: a reliable doper. Meaning you could trust Tom with you money, your girl, your dope, your everything. He’d never rip you off or do you wrong. He was true blue then. And he’s fucking true blue now. He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother...

Friday, May 15, 2020

Tom Pitts, Author of Coldwater

Tom Pitts is one of my favorite people. Even just to see him pass by and exchange smiles at Bouchercon is a treat. His talent as an author is a bonus, but that’s not to say it’s insubstantial. He has his own way of pouring his life into his books without about his life, just letting his experiences inform the writing as few can. His new book, Coldwater, drops May 18 from Down & Out Books.

One Bite at a Time: First, welcome back. I don’t keep formal stats but this is the fifth time you have graced this site and I always look forward to getting a chance to catch up with you. The Beloved Spouse and I aren’t going to Bouchercon this year—decided well before all the coronavirus business started—so this will have to do for this year.

Your new book is titled Coldwater. Give us a two hundred word or less
Tom Pitts: Fifth time? Do I get one of those jackets like they have on Saturday Night Live?
I can answer this one with a lot less than two hundred words. Coldwater is my take on a real-life horror story. What happens when regular people are pulled into a nightmarish pool of criminal quicksand.

OBAAT: Your books tend to deal with criminals, usually drug-related (either users of dealers or both), and sometimes cops. In Coldwater you make a suburban couple the focal point of the action. What was it that drew you to that bit of departure?
TP: I think the Everyman facing insurmountable odds is a powerful theme, and very relatable. I wanted to write something akin to Joe Lansdale’s Hot in December or Cold in July, but my own version. And in Northern California. And I wanted it to play out in a few locations, not just San Francisco. I think the suburban sprawl is under-represented in fiction. Gentrification has made the big cities so banal. Where’s the hunger, where’s the struggle, where’s the passion? In the burbs, baby.

OBAAT: I don’t know of many writers who can make their stories as unique as you do. Knuckleball was a fairly straightforward police procedural. Hustle tells the story of two young street hustler addicts. Your previous book, 101, focused on the marijuana trade as legalization approached. Now Coldwater is kind of a suburban horror story. What is it that draws you to such different types of stories and what kinds of adjustments, if any, are needed to write them?
TP: I grouped my four novels together as a “Northern California Quartet” because I think they do have a common denominator. And not just geographically. Really, what I wanted to do with Hustle is a realistic take on drug addiction, which I feel writers often get wrong. With 101, I wanted to do the same thing with the weed industry. With Coldwater, I wanted to capture my version of Sacramento. I want to show the world the view from where I stand, especially on topics I still feel like I have a little input on. My next book will be my take on the homeless situation, which I don’t think people really understand. Not in an empathetic way. I’ve been down in the trenches, and I want to convey what it’s like to be living like an animal on the streets of a big city.

OBAAT: The only thing I don’t like about your writing is that I get so invested in the characters I want more when the book ends. Have you ever considered even a short series? A trilogy, maybe?
TP: Weirdly enough, I thought about it with this book. Mostly because I like the name Calper Dennings so much. I started another book with Calper as the catalyst, but it crashed at about twenty thousand words. But yeah, I’d consider it. I better stop killing everyone off at the end of my book though.

OBAAT: What do you do when you’re not writing?
TP: These days, not much because of the pandemic, but I’m not kidding in the bio where it says I’m trying to survive. Being on the bottom end of the financial ladder in one of the priciest cities in the world doesn’t leave you with a lot of leisure time. I work too much, I worry too much. Not really pastimes, but they do pass the time.

OBAAT: We talked last time about your love of the Bay Area, though you’re a Canadian native. What part of Canada are you from and what was it that drew you to California so this love affair with San Francisco could begin?
TP: The short story is that I moved here from Calgary when I was 17 to play music. SF was punk rock mecca in the 80s, a very different place. But the truth is, when I was younger, my dad’s hockey team would come to Santa Rosa every summer to play. On one day each trip, we’d drive down to San Francisco, do North Beach, Chinatown, etc. And I remember being up near Coit tower, looking across at the density of North Beach, and I thought, I’m moving here when I grow up. This is America, this is where I belong.

OBAAT: You and Joe Clifford go way back, well before you were writers. How did you meet and how did your paths to becoming acclaimed writers vary? Or were similar? (I’m going to ask Clifford these same questions when I get a chance. Get some Newlywed Game action going.)
TP: Now that’s a loaded question. I really should write the story of the day we met, because it was a perfect snapshot of our lives then. It started with a shot of dope, but it ended with Joe attacking some guy in the house over a deal gone bad. But I digress. Basically, we were both living on the floor of different junkie scumbags who lived in the same flat—this horrific place we called Hepatitis Heights—and Joe was introduced to me by this awful person named Skipper Nick. Don’t get me started on that piece of work. Anyway, Joe was dope sick and bent in half. I’d just copped a gram of junk and a half gram of coke, and I threw most or all of it in a spoon and split it with him. Now, that’s a pretty big fuckin’ dose, and trust me, nobody was sharing. It just wasn’t done. I don’t know why I shared it with him, he seemed like a good guy. But that action started a pact between us, we’d split whatever we had, money or drugs, and keep each other well. You see, in Hepatitis Heights, it was a constant free-for-all. Lying, stealing, begging, borrowing, pawning, whoring, everyone was out for themselves. With me and Joe actually able to trust each other, it gave us half a chance to survive.

OBAAT: We’ve both been around long enough, and written enough books, that we can look back at our books with a little perspective. Which of your books is your favorite and which means the most to you? Doesn’t have to be the same book. I know mine wouldn’t be.
TP: I think Hustle means most to me. Maybe because it was my first novel, or maybe because the movie option made me the most money, but I think it’s because there’s a lot of my personal experience in there. But I think my favorite is 101. I feel like, at least with pacing, I’m at the top of my game in 101. That said, readers seem like American Static the most, so, who knows?
OBAAT: With Coldwater hitting the stores, what’s in the pipeline?
TP: Absolutely nothing. I’m writing, of course, but I’m not sure this next one is truly crime fiction. And I’m not sure what’ll happen with it. It’s a book about a homeless man in San Francisco who thinks he’s a prophet and the lives that intersect because of him. I’m trying a very different approach, so we’ll see if it works. Trying to push the envelope and create something new.

Thank you, Dana, it’s always good to talk with you. Hopefully we’ll both be around for a sixth round.

OBAAT: Always a pleasure, Tom. Come back any time.