Monday, May 18, 2015

Twenty Questions With Eric Beetner

I first became aware of Eric Beetner when, preparing for a Bouchercon panel, I read his novel, The Devil Doesn't Want Me and couldn’t help but visualize what a great movie it would make. Then only issue I have with Mr. Beetner’s writing is what a hard time I have keeping up with him. In addition to The Devil Doesn't Want Me and his newest, Rumrunners, he has also written Dig Two Graves, The Year I Died Seven Times, White Hot Pistol, Stripper Pole At the End Of The World; the story collection A Bouquet Of Bullets; co-authored (with JB Kohl) the novels One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble; and has written the novellas FIGHTCARD: Split Decision and FIGHTCARD: A Mouth Full Of Blood under the name Jack Tunney. This is all since last Wednesday. The man’s a machine.

Eric lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts the Noir at the Bar reading series.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Rumrunners.

Eric Beetner: It's a story about a family who has been doing driving for a criminal enterprise for generations, dating back to prohibition when they were genuinely running rum in the back of model Ts. Now, though, the youngest McGraw, Tucker, doesn't want any part of the family business. Until his dad goes missing during a run. Now Tucker must team up with his grandfather to find the missing McGraw. Things get ugly from there, as usually happens in my books.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
EB: I liked the idea of a guy who has turned his back on the life of crime his father and grandfather have led, only to be sucked into it against his will. From there, I guess I liked the idea of drivers. Getaway drivers, liquor runners, anyone specializing in that part of a criminal operation was interesting to me. It grew out of that. My favorite kinds of stories are ordinary guys thrust into circumstances that are beyond them, and watching them work their way out, often awkwardly and with terrible consequences. 

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Rumrunners, start to finish?
EB: I write fairly quickly, after long periods of thinking about a story and hammering out an outline. I'd say four months from when I knew I was ready to go. I write at night after my day job and after the kids are in bed. If I could do this full time, I'd knock out four or five novels a year easily, I think. 

OBAAT: Rumrunners takes in three generations of “protagonists:” Calvin (the old man), Webb (his son), and Tucker (Webb’s son). In what ways are they like, and unlike each other? For that matter, in what ways are they like, or unlike you?
EB: They're all unlike me except that they are from Iowa. But even with that, I haven't lived there in 35 years. Calvin and Webb are cut from the same cloth, and Tucker is, too, but he doesn't want to admit it. There are many instances in the book where you see his skills as a driver and as a criminal that have been dormant inside him for years. In a way this is Tucker's coming of age story, even though he's already in his thirties. 

OBAAT: In what time and place is Rumrunners set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
EB: The time is now the place is Iowa. I wanted a setting that was off the beaten path. It was more interesting to me to have these families – the McGraws and the Stanleys, who they drive for – be big fish in a very small pond. To set this story in New York or Chicago would have taken it in a very different direction. In backwoods Iowa they can live in their own world and all the pressure on them is from that alone, not the extras that come from living in a big city or being a part of a huge criminal empire. These guys are small potatoes, but they take pride in what they do and no matter how small your world is, when it comes crashing in on you it has the same impact as anyone else. 

OBAAT: How did Rumrunners come to be published?
EB: It was a long road. This book is over four years old. When I originally had sent it to my agent we were shopping another book which eventually got picked up by a division of a Dutton/Penguin. (That book, The Devil Doesn't Want Me has been my most popular book to date) so Rumrunners kind of took a back seat. Then I kept writing more and more novels and I'd get excited about whatever was shiniest and new.

I always liked the book a lot and had plans for a trilogy with these characters, but it was always kind of the forgotten child of my books. When 280 Steps came calling and asking if had anything they could look at, I pulled this one out of the pile and sent it to them. Thankfully they saw the potential and it was saved from obscurity.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
EB: I read almost exclusively crime novels. Some nonfiction, the occasional sci-fi. I love old-school pulp and noir novels about ordinary sad suckers trapped in a web of their own making. I like pulp writers like Harry Whittington, Cornell Woolrich, Day Keene, William Ard. 

Some of the most consistent writers I read today who have yet to fail me with their brilliant work are people like Urban Waite, Roger Smith, Jake Hinkson, Sean Doolittle, Joe R Lansdale, Grant Jerkins, Allan Guthrie, John Rector, Max Allan Collins.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
EB: I've been writing since high school. I started in screenplays for a long time before ever attempting a novel. I loved that in writing a script you could play all the roles in your head. You were director, actor, set designer, editor. It was the only time you ever had complete control over a script. 

When I started writing novels and short stories I enjoyed that same aspect. While you were in the act of writing you weren't beholden to anyone else but yourself and the story. You could move all the pieces on the chessboard without any repercussions. Once it's out and with a publisher or out to readers, you face expectations, personal opinions, skewed perspectives. But when you're writing you control that world fully. And I guess deep down I'm a storyteller, even if my main audience is myself. If I can entertain me, then I figure I have decent shot of doing it for other people.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
Eric Beetner is, in life, a pleasant and not
unattractive young man, yet all his photos
make it appear they are remaking In Cold Blood
and he got a sweet part.
EB: I make stuff up. As a writer, and as a reader, I want to be taken out of my life and shown different people doing different things. I would be a terrible criminal, I'm sure. I've never done drugs, never carried a gun around, never committed a crime worth mentioning. I'm a straight-laced guy and a good citizen. So that's prepared me for wanting to delve into the total opposite of my real world, so if people sometimes think I get dark with my fiction, it's only because my real life is so bright.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
EB: Aside from what I said above about creating and controlling your made-up world, I'd say it's creating a story and characters out of thin air.  I used to play music in bands and I always loved that there would silence, nothing, and then suddenly here was a song. Out if nothing! It's the same way with a book. There are blank pages, and then after a while there are people and situations that never would have existed had I not written them down. That's kinda cool, I think.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
EB: My early life was far more influenced by films than books. I read as a kid, but I didn’t have the same passion for what I was reading as I do now. Mostly it was that thing where the required reading in school wasn’t speaking to me and so I didn’t get out a search for what I really loved in books because I found it in movies.

And even there I liked it pulpy. I love Blade Runner, John Carpenter films, I loved horror movies growing up. I also was very eclectic in my film tastes. By the time I graduated high school I had seen everything from Italian gore-fest horror films to Marx Borthers comedies to Bergman films. I frequented the art house cinema in the town next to mine and went to subtitled films alone all the time. I worked in a video store (remember those?) so I saw anything and everything I could get my hands on. I sampled it all and I loved across genres. Blues Brothers is as good as Citizen Kane to me. Big Trouble in Little China is as funny as Annie Hall.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
EB: I'm an outliner. They are skeletal, but I know where I'm going. And things can change. A good outline is flexible. 

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
EB: I hate rewriting. Hate revisions. I try to get it as right as I can the first time out. I'll never let a plot hole sit unattended in hopes of figuring it out later. I fix it then. I don't really go back and read anything as I go. I plow ahead and only read back once I've finished. I've seen people get hung up on reworking something midstream and it sucks all the momentum out of it. I think momentum is a lot of writing. 

OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
EB: I write on silence. Being a musician maybe, or just how deeply I relate to music means I can't use it as background noise. 

If this book had a soundtrack it'd probably be a lot of outlaw country. The Smokey and the Bandit soundtrack. Fast paced bluegrass. In other words, nothing I listen to very often in real life, but stuff I like when I hear it.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
EB: I think just to focus hard when you are working. Don't take frequent breaks. Finish a thought before you stop for the night. When you sit down to write, don't start by checking email and all that junk. Twitter can wait. Sit. Focus. Work. 
And then please don't end by tweeting your word count. Nobody cares. The finished product is what matters. 

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
EB: Write what you would want to read. I think that's the first step toward finding your own voice. If you try to study what sells you will fail every time. Don't go for someone else's style, no matter how much you admire that writer. Write your book, not theirs.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
EB: Story and character are so inextricably linked that it’s hard to put one above the other. They’re co-dependent. You can have a book with interesting characters but if the plot doesn’t go anywhere they are wasted lives. Conversely, you can have a runaway train of a plot but if you fill it with cliches and empty characters, the reader won’t be thrilled because they won’t relate to it on a human level, which is why we read.

Setting might be last on my list. I write a lot of anonymous places. Cities that aren’t named, stuff like that. It can help add to the universal relatability of a story. I’ve read some great books that I felt were bogged down by a little too much site-specific detail. If a reader isn’t already intimately familiar with your locale, it might not matter if you get every street corner exactly right. Those are details sometimes best left out.

Tone is important, but I think it often comes subconsciously for a writer. If you write from the gut, the tone will follow.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it ab
out that book you admire most?
EB: What a great and difficult question. I’ll say Wild at Heart. I’m a huge Barry Gifford fan and this is ground zero for most people on his work and the start of his most famous creation, the Sailor and Lula books.

I’m fascinated by people in the margins. The outcasts and the ones living in shadows. That’s who Gifford writes about. He has such a distinct voice and he breaks a ton of rules. All those asides and tangents! But I love it.
I wrote a script once that almost got made that, looking back on it now, has a very Barry Gifford style, although this was before I’d read anything of his. It was all short vignettes and weird, unconnected scenes. We did a staged reading of it and some great actors read including Joe Mantegna, Charles Durning, David Alan Grier, Dan Lauria. A studio guy came up to me after and said, “Great stuff. I loved it. Funny and wild. Y’know, it’s not a movie, but I loved it.”

I feel that when I read Gifford. I’m sure some people think, “But it’s not a novel.”
So, yeah, I wish I’d written Wild at Heart.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
EB: I work in the TV/Film industry so I can claim watching TV and movies as research. I’ve been known to paint – badly. I still play music – not often enough. I love being with my kids and my wife. I’m pretty easy to entertain since if I’m ever at a loss I tend to create my own entertainment. I’m never bored. I won’t let myself be.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
EB: This is a very busy year for me. I have a number of books coming out over 2015, but those are already written. Over Their Heads is a crime novel I wrote with JB Kohl. The Backlist is an old school mafia hit man/woman novel I wrote with Frank Zafiro. I have a novella I wrote that will come out near the end of the year called Nine Toes in the Grave. And I just released the full omnibus version of my serialized novel The Year I Died 7 Times.

I’m working now on some short stories I have due for anthologies I’ll be in. Always working a new novel, though at this point I’m trying to pick which of the outlines I have that I want to start.

And if all goes well and there is a decent response to Rumrunners, I would love to complete the trilogy I always wanted it to be. So, fingers crossed people want to read more about the McGraws.

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Nice interview. And he makes great movies too.