Monday, November 30, 2015

The Choirboys

I kick myself sometimes because I’m slow to read writers I come to love. People I knew about, figured I’d like, and still never got around to reading. Daniel Woodrell. James Crumley. Ken Bruen. A good friend kept after me to watch The Shield since its premiere season. I got around to it the year after the show went off the air. I rationalize my sloth with reminders of how much I did read, and how little time there is, relatively speaking. I make peace with it.

What pisses me off is when I find an author I love and let him slip through the cracks. Like Joe Wambaugh.

I read The New Centurions and The Blue Knight when they first came out in paperback in the 70s. I soon moved into a non-fiction phase in my reading and read little or no fiction for years. After I got into crime I came across Fire Lover, non-fiction about an arsonist, and loved it. I’ve dabbled in his Hollywood Station series. A couple of years ago I got serious and read The Onion Field, which may be the finest piece of non-fiction I’ve ever read. Last week I finally got to The Choirboys.

I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll never let my Wambaugh reading lapse again.

The Choirboys is Catch-22 for cops. Most of it is much the way my daughter described the movie Ted: hilarious and wildly inappropriate. No one has Wambaugh’s combination of chops and experience and he uses every bit of his talent. He knows how to drop a downer into a sequence of funny scenes, and how to hold a reveal so you don’t realize until later a cop almost died while you were laughing. He teases you throughout the book about “the shooting” but never says any more than that about it until he’s 90% finished. By then you’ve come to accept these cops as heroes, assholes, and fifteen other personality traits, many in the same person. There are no better developed characters in literature, regardless of genre, including literary. The ending is a hammer blow that approaches like a slow-motion train wreck, and is devastating.

That’s all I’m going to say. To give away a scene or say any more about the ending would ruin it for you. Suffice to say, I’m updating my To Be Read list to make sure he gets a regular spot until I’ve read every word he’s published. Then I’ll read as many as I can again.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Twenty Questions With Richard Goodfellow

Richard Goodfellow is another of those damned Canadians who are threatening to take over North American crime fiction. His debut novel, Collector of Secrets, has elements of the classic Hitchcock tale of an everyman who finds himself in a bad situation, tries to get out of it, and finds himself in an infinitely worse place.

A software consultant and self-described road warrior, Rich wrote the majority of Collector Of Secrets on airplanes and in small towns throughout Oregon, Texas, Florida, and everywhere in between. After completion of the first draft, he returned to Japan to lay fresh eyes on the novel's locations.

I met Rich at dinner during Bouchercon in Raleigh and was intrigued as he told me how the book came to be. I could bore you with a retelling, or I could let him entertain you with it. Hmmmm….

Okay. I’ll let him do it.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Collector of Secrets.

Rich Goodfellow: Thanks OBAAT. I’d love to talk about CoS.

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.)
RG: This book rolled around in my head since I lived in Japan in the early 90s, but it gelled years later during the watching of a documentary on World War II events in the Philippines (Gold Warrior, America’s Secret Recovery of Yamashita’s Gold – Sterling and Peggy Seagrave). Once the full concept formed it wasn’t so much a conscious choice anymore, as much as simply needing to get the book down on paper as fast as it sprang from my mind.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Collector of Secrets, start to finish?
RG: The first draft took 15 months, working about 100 hours a month (while flying around North America as a software consultant), but there have been many re-writes since then that have taken much longer than the original draft. And I journeyed back to Japan for a month, to follow the full course of the book. So, probably four years overall.

OBAAT: Where did Max Travers come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
RG: The character of Max draws upon my experiences teaching English in Japan, but he’s really a composite character of English teachers I encountered in my travels. I’d like to think he’s most like me in that he has a strong moral compass to “do the right thing.” He’s most unlike me in that he’s a good runner. I suck at running.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Collector of Secrets set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
RG: The prologue takes place at the end of World War II, but the remainder of the book takes place in the year 2007. The timing is important as I wanted it to be as close to current date as possible, but there were important elderly characters who had direct ties back to the war and I didn’t want them to be in their 90s or older.

OBAAT: How did Collector of Secrets come to be published?
RG: In 2008 I went to New York and pitched the book at Agentfest (part of the Thrillerfest event). I sent the full manuscript to over a dozen agents as a result and it was Jennifer Weltz of the Jean V. Naggar Agency who quickly came back and signed me. At the time, I thought this was the biggest hurdle, but it took over 4 years of tenacious effort by Jennifer to find the book a home with Polis Books. I’m pretty sure this has been one of her more challenging jobs and I have to give her huge kudos for keeping things upbeat even when I felt like giving up.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
RG: I love action stories with a historical connection; something that keeps me on the edge of me seat and from which I might just learn a thing or two along the way. John Grisham and Dan Brown were strong early influences. But other authors who don’t fit this mold are Mary Doria Russell (The Sparrow), Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) and J.K. Rowling.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
RG: I’ve said, in the past, that writing a book was on my bucket list, and this is true. However, it wasn’t so much a choice as the fact that I couldn’t get this idea for a story out of my head. Then once I had the World War II connection, I couldn’t stop the story from flowing onto the written page.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
RG: I’ve been personally touched by the murder of a friend, but overall my own life has involved little criminal interaction. While in Japan, I did hang around a lot of Yakuza (not being smart enough to realize the potential danger), which did give me some interesting insights into their world.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
RG: The freedom to create a realm of reality in my head, and then have others enjoy that written journey.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
RG: I love movies! My tastes range from science fiction and action adventure through art house, comedy and some animation. I think that James Cameron is one of the greatest story tellers, as well as Christopher Nolan, Brad Bird, and J.J Abrams.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
RG: Wow, you mean I have to reveal that sometimes I write while sitting around in my boxers? But seriously, I outline the heck out of everything. I have detailed character biographies, and for CoS I used a 50+ column spreadsheet to keep track of everything in all 83 chapters. It’s a bit nuts, but it’s the only way I could track all of the moving parts.

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?
RG: I’d say I work somewhere in between. It’s critical to include things that you’re a bit unsure of and then decide later if you want to keep them, but I won’t waste time including things I know won’t make it to print (the writing process is long enough as it is).

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?
RG: Early on, I decided to be Pavlovian in my approach to writing. So prior to each writing session I close my eyes and listen to Natasha Bedingfield’s song “Unwritten.” I’ve listened to that song hundreds of times now (and surprisingly still really enjoy it).Does it work? Well, when I’m in a mall and it plays over the sound system, I always run to find paper and pen, so it must work. (Grin)

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
RG: Plan your time and work the plan. So when I hit roadblocks I still work for the planned time. I found if I stuck with the effort – even on a really bad day – when I came back to it later my brain had already figured out what to do, and the edits came easily. If I aborted early, then the subsequent writing session was always more difficult.  

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
RG: Never give up writing what you enjoy reading.

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?
RG: For sure story/plot and character are the top two. In crafting the CoS story I tried to balance just enough character, without over-doing it and slowing down the thriller/action component that I knew readers would want. In fact (and I hate to admit this) I graphed the perceived intensity level of each chapter in order to ensure that there weren’t any significantly long periods of the book that didn’t provide a decent level of excitement. Setting was easy as there are so many great places to set scenes in Japan, but I needed my Japanese trip to cement the final scenes (in Okinawa) as I had never been there before. As far as narrative is concerned, I really like short chapters that keep the plot clipping along, as well as stories that run several threads which eventually tie together in the end. That “aha” moment is great when you realize why the author has been telling you one story line as it connects with another. For tone I prefer to keep things on the lighter side, as too much darkness swallows me up emotionally. In CoS I didn’t want to shy away from the war atrocities but I also didn’t feel that it contributed to the story to stare at them for too long a time. 

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book which you admire most?
RG: Probably The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell) as her writing has so many layers. Sometimes I found that I had to re-read sentences over several times in order to grasp the many different meanings. The book felt to me like a richly woven tapestry.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
RG: It depends on the season. In the summer I love to mountain bike and hike. In the winter, skiing and snowshoeing. But overall, my favorite activity is scuba diving, when I’m in warm climates. I once had a seven foot long guitar shark swim along with me in the Red Sea, off the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. It was amazing!

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
RG: The sequel to Collector of Secrets. Max Traver’s journey takes him onward towards redemption.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Ray Donovan, Season Two

(Fair warning: spoilers abound.)

Season Two of Showtime’s Ray Donovan started off strong with Ray going to Mexico to bring back Mickey to account for how exactly Sully turned up dead. Boston Globe reporter Kate McPherson (Vinessa Shaw) stumbles onto a flaw in the Sully story from the other end and has Ray stuck between the feds and her investigation. Lots of threads to pull together and things were rolling. There was immediate chemistry between Ray (Live Schreiber) and Kate. The Beloved Spouse and I were looking forward to seeing how that give and take played out.

Alas, twas not to be. Ray beds Kate early on and the middle part of the season muddles through
as more of a soap opera than the tight drama we’d come to expect. Many of Season One’s problems become even more prominent here. Ray’s wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson) is all over the place. She’s either mentally ill or the writers only use her as a complication for Ray. A similar situation exists for the kids, too. Half the fun of a well-constructed drama is getting to know the characters so we have some idea what they’ll do in a situation. Too often in Ray Donovan the prime consideration seems to be what can be done to give Ray the biggest pain in the ass.

Even Terry (Eddie Marsan) gets into the act. He decides to sell the gym and move to Ireland with Frances (Brooke Smith). His problem is Ray owns half the gym and has been using it to launder his money, which Terry only finds out about when he decides to confront Ray at Conor’s birthday party. This also happens to be when Mickey (Jon Voight) disses Darryl (Pooch Hall) in front of the entire family by giving the vintage Caddy he promised to Darryl to Conor on the spur of the moment. (All this is after Abby forgot the kid’s birthday and fucked up getting him a cake.) Sure it’s great drama and we get a fantastic scene of Conor and Ray in an “Aw, fuck it” moment, but here’s the thing: Terry and Mickey love Conor. It defies their characters to believe they’d pull that shit unprovoked on the kid’s birthday. True, Mickey is a douche who might do some shitty thing at any moment, but not Terry. I never bought the idea that he would force Ray into a corner during the party.

The series found its feet again in the final four episodes, which, not coincidentally, show Ray stepping up to take control of several situations. He resolves them in his own way and set up confrontations for next season with Avi and Ezra along with whatever goofy shit Abby will pull.

The show is still good enough that we’ll be all over Netflix as soon as Season Three is available. Schreiber is perfect as Ray. He’s not quite the match of actor to character as James Gandolfini and Tony Soprano, but he’s close. A sociopath one can empathize with because, deep down, he will do what he feels he has to do for his family and the people he thinks deserve it. He’s willing to
go to prison to save Kate, and may be in the process of bringing down everything he’s worked for to avenge her murder. His resolution to the situation of Bridget witnessing Marvin Gaye Washington’s murder was creative, ballsy, and badass. You can’t help but root for him.

And let’s not forget Bunchy (Dash Mihok). The more you see how his molestation messed with him, the happier you are Ray shot that priest in Season One. Lots of dramas address pedophilia; few look at the victims twenty years later. Bunchy is permanently damaged, an eternal psychological child in a man’s body, doubting everything about himself. He’s painful to watch at times, though his story lines never veer into the dramatic inconsistency of some of the others.

I would give Season One 4.5 stars out of 5. Season Two is at least that good when it’s good, but no more than an episodic network melodrama with foul language and visible nipples when it’s not. Ian McShane joins the cast for Season Three. We have high hopes.