Thursday, December 17, 2015

Twenty Questions With J.D. Rhoades

So there I was, agonizing about what to say that would do justice to a man like J.D. “Dusty” Rhoades. I mean I know him, know his work and like both (a lot), but as either of my ex-wives can tell you, I’m no Rhoades scholar. Everything I came up with was thin gruel, until I saw this bio, which I cannot improve upon:

J.D. Rhoades is America's foremost writer of the genre known as "Redneck noir," and his biography reads like "Tobacco Road" as written by Hunter S. Thompson.

Rhoades never knew his parents; he was found abandoned on the steps of a cut-rate Filipino tax preparation service in Slidell, La. As a child, he was bounced around between a series of orphanages, reformatories and opium dens. His first brush with the law came when he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. He was seven years old at the time.

Rhoades first turned to drugs at the age of five, when he discovered you could get high by snorting Nestle’s Quik through a rolled up copy of Highlights magazine. Since then, he claims to have ingested marijuana, peyote, heroin, psilocybin, uppers, downers, screamers, laughers, dried banana peels, glue, paste, mucilage, LSD, DMT, STP, ABC, CNN, TLC, Sterno, Drano, Bondo, Ketamine, Dopamine, glucosamine, Ovaltine, and Krispy Kreme.

He hit rock bottom when he did all of them in the same night and woke up two weeks later, hanging upside down by his knees from a tree limb in Duluth, Minn., and singing an aria from “Die Fledermaus.” In German, a language that he does not speak.

Rhoades is rumored to have once killed a stripper with a fondue fork and disposed of the body using an electric pencil sharpener over a period of 14 hours.

Ii is not known whether the rumors are true that Rhoades kidnapped the Lindbergh Baby, nor can reports that he was the shooter on the grassy knoll when Kennedy was shot be confirmed. He does, however, know Tom DeLay personally.

(Biography contributed by James Frey)

Now that you’ve been properly prepared, let’s see what the deal is with his newest, the fourth in the Jack Keller series about a bounty hunter with PTSD.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Devils and Dust.

J.D. Rhoades: It’s the fourth Jack Keller novel. Jack’s been living in the desert ever since the end of Safe and Sound. He’s gradually adapting to living some version of a normal life, away from the hunt and the adrenaline rush he used to be so addicted to. But of course we can’t have that. His old boss (and love interest) Angela seeks him out and asks for his help in finding her husband (and Jack’s friend) Oscar. Oscar’s an illegal immigrant who’s been trying to bring his sons to the US from Colombia. When they disappeared, Oscar went south to try and find them, then he vanished as well. So Jack has to pick up the gun again and do what he does best: find people. He uncovers a conspiracy between a Mexican drug cartel and a white supremacist cult to kidnap undocumented immigrants and force them into literal slavery.

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.)

JDR: I write a weekly column of political humor for the local newspaper. Since I’m very liberal, and this is a very conservative area, some of the e-mail I get is…interesting. A couple of far right goons have decided to “educate” me by putting me on the mailing lists for neo-Nazi, Christian Identity, and white supremacist newsletters, which of course, I read with horrified fascination. There’s a lot in there about how to solve the “immigrant problem” that’s extremely chilling.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Devils and Dust, start to finish?

JDR: Well, since I actually started it in 2008, 6 years. But that’s because I dropped it for lack of interest from my agent or publisher. When I picked it back up, it took about eight months.

OBAAT: I’ve been a Jack Keller fan ever since I “discovered” you when I was asked by New Mystery Reader to review Good Day in Hell. Where did Keller come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?

JDR: Thanks! Keller came from some thinking I’d been doing about one of the tropes of hardboiled fiction, a character who I called the “Psycho Buddy.” Examples are Spenser’s Hawk, Bubba in Lehane’s Patrick and Angie series, and Easy Rawlin’s pal Mouse. They’re all bad-ass, dangerous, maybe mentally unbalanced, but they get to do the nasty work that might make the hero less, well, heroic. I thought about doing a character who was his own psycho buddy, a guy that had a dark side that even he’s a little afraid of. At the same time, I was hearing and reading a lot about Post Traumatic stress disorder, in particular with returning combat veterans. So Jack Keller was born.

As for how we’re alike—well, Jack’s got anger issues, and so do I. I think I’m getting mine under a lot better control in the past few years. But Jack’s also fiercely loyal to the people he cares about. I’m that way, too, except without so many guns.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Devils and Dust set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?

JDR: Devils and Dust is set in the present, and the locale varies from the desert where Jack’s been holed up since the end of Safe and Sound, to a border town in Mexico, to the swamps of South Carolina. I always come back to my southern roots, I guess. It’s what I know, and that’s where the places that speak to me all are.

OBAAT: How did Devils and Dust come to be published?

JDR: I’d noticed that Jason Pinter and his new venture Polis Books were picking up and republishing some books that came out about the time I first got published.  I’m talking about stuff like Dave White’s great Jackson Donne series that hadn’t really gotten the attention they deserved. I’d been self-publishing for a while, but due to a lot of illness and upheaval in the lives of member of my family, I just didn’t have time or the energy to do the relentless self-promotion you have to do to be successful at that. So I dropped Jason an e-mail one Saturday morning asking if he’d be interested in re-publishing the first three Jack Keller novels. He shot back immediately with “you interested in writing a fourth one?” As it turns out I had some notes and a few thousand words from the fourth one I’d started, but which my old publisher and agent hadn’t shown any enthusiasm for. So I said “sure.” By Monday, we had a deal.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?

JDR: In crime fiction, my taste is pretty eclectic. I am a HUGE Laura Lippman fan. She is just so good at making everything seem as if it really happened. Every Lippman book is a must-read for me. Tim Hallinan is like that as well. Any time I see his name on a book, I either get it or put it on my Christmas list. Ken Bruen is absolutely fantastic. His books are so dark, yet also so poetic.  Dennis Lehane never fails to knock me on my ass, he’s so good.

Thrillers, I’m a little more picky about. There’s so much there that’s just dumb. But I love Lee Child.  Jonathan Maberry is also great fun.  

Out of my genre, I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. Currently, I’m reading a lot of Charles Stross. His books are slow reads for me, because every few pages I have to stop, put down the book, and think about the mind blowing idea I just read. Jim Butcher is pretty amazing as well. For pure fun, I like military sci-fi, and my current favorite there is Marko Kloos, even if his eighty foot tall bipedal aliens are physically impossible. There’s a recently published SF writer named Marguerite Reed whose book Archangel impressed me a lot. She’s definitely one to watch.

Finally, I also love history and biography, particularly American history. I’m currently reading the second volume of Edmund Morris’s book on Theodore Roosevelt.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?

JDR: Mental illness.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?

JDR: I’ve been a trial lawyer for 25 years, and it’s certainly influenced my attitude towards crime. Let’s just say that criminal masterminds are very rare and leave it at that. Before that, I’d spent some time as a newsroom/studio cameraman for a big TV station in my area, which has given me jaundiced attitude towards news media in general and TV news in particular, which I think comes across in my books.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?

JDR:  It gives me an excuse to lie on the couch watching the movies in my head. Also, I love meeting and hanging out with other writers. They’re smart, funny, creative people. It’s so great to be part of that community.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)

JDR: Elmore Leonard, definitely. John D. Macdonald. Early Tom Clancy taught me how to write multiple storylines, cutting back and forth to build suspense. Singer-Songwriter Steve Earle gave me the tonal feel that inspired “redneck noir.”

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?

JDR: Since my computer desk is next to the front window and my across the street neighbor is a female sheriff’s deputy, yes, I wear pants when writing. Mostly. I’ve tried to outline, but it never works. The story and the characters go where they want to go. Best I can do is write down what I think’s going to happen in the next few chapters.

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?

JDR: I write very slowly, because I keep going back and fussing with what I just wrote. I know you’re not supposed to do that, you’re supposed to just go like the wind and fix any problems in rewrites. I’m too OCD to do that. I’m like Monk in that old TV series…if something’s wrong, if a picture’s hung crooked, I’ll be nuts till I go back and straighten it. Oddly, I am NOTHING like this when not writing. The upside of this way of doing things is that when I’m done, I’m mostly done. I don’t really change a lot in second drafts.

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?

JDR: I do listen to music quite a bit while I write, but I’ve discovered that it works best if it’s instrumental. It’s easier to write your own words if someone else’s aren’t whispering in your ear. I didn’t figure that out until a couple of years ago, though. What I listen to now is either classical, like Mozart, Bach, or Beethoven, or movie soundtracks.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?

JDR: Cut out as much TV as you can stand. Then cut out some more. The DVR is your friend.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?

JDR: Don’t quit. Cliched, but true. Whenever a writer tells me they’re not published, I always add “yet.”

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?

JDR: Character comes first for me, I think. When I’m wondering what happens next in the story, I always go back to some of the basic character questions: what does this person want? What is he or she willing or not willing to do to get it? Given this person’s emotional makeup and physical capabilities, how would he or she go about it? So that gives you your plot. I think setting and tone are intertwined, and both are extremely important, but I tend to fill out the setting and add tone in later. Narrative I try to keep as simple and direct as possible.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?

JDR: To Kill a Mockingbird. That book just does everything right. And it made its author a pile of cash. What more can you ask for? 

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.

JDR: Music. Both listening and playing.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

JDR: Right this second, I’m doing page proofs for my upcoming novel Ice Chest. This one’s a big departure for me, in that it’s my first intentionally humorous (I hope) novel. It’s a heist novel that my publisher compares to Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, and Carl Hiaasen. So that’s been a lot of fun. When I get done with that, I’m back to work on the fifth Keller novel, in which Keller discovers some dangerous things about his roots.

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