Monday, July 31, 2017

The Western Conundra

When I first floated the idea of writing a Western a few years ago I thought of it as a lark. Something fun to shift my imagination from the steady diet of crime fiction. After a while it occurred to me that it should also be, you know, good. I’ve always been a fan of Westerns, mostly of a certain type, but I’d never immersed myself in the culture as I have with crime. I have very little good to say about writers who decide to dash off a book because they kind of like a certain type of story but have no knowledge nor understanding of their canon. The results are so superficial a decent high school teacher would toss them out.

This led me to 2017 and my Summer of Western Research™. I set aside all other writing projects and read Western fiction and non-fiction and watch Westerns. Not just any Westerns. What some would call “revisionist” Westerns, though what was revisionist fifty years ago is pretty much the mainstream now. Basically I stayed pretty much away from what I half-jokingly refer as Westerns where no one needs a haircut. I like setting and tone to be as important to what I write as the story, so I’m as interested in how the story is told as I am in what it is.

This has led me to a far more interesting place than I had imagined when I set out on what I thought would be a relaxing summer. It’s not that the research has been a burden. Far from it; I’m having a ball. It’s just that what I’ve read and seen has provoked long conversations with myself and placed me in a situation exactly opposite where I expected to be. Where I at first wondered what I could put into the story, now my primary need is to decide what to leave out, as the elements that interest me have become so broad one book can’t contain them, and I have no intention of writing an epic, anyway.

I have already discarded my original germ of a story idea and tentatively replaced it with a story drawn from the memoirs of a Texas Ranger. The story idea suits all of the questions I have still open, though I have much yet to decide. Among the decisions on the table:
  • When will the story take place? My idea of a Western falls into a window of approximately 1870 – 1900, but when exactly? It matters. Technology and living conditions changed rapidly. The physical location of the story will be bound to the date much more than a more contemporary tale.
  • Speaking of physical location, where exactly? Or does exactly matter? I’m thinking eastern Wyoming or Colorado, maybe even Nebraska, but how far west? Depends on the date setting and what kind of story I choose to tell. Use a real town, make one up of whole cloth, or base a fictional town on a real place, as I have with Penns River?
  • Language and style of writing. This may be the hardest decision of all, and one that will most directly affect the actual work. The examples to choose from range from David Milch to John Ford to Elmore Leonard to Zane Grey to contemporary accounts. All have pros and cons, whether considering dialog or narrative.
  • Point of view. Should the story be told by
    • A real historical figure passing through it
    • Real people in supporting roles
    • Real person as the main character
    • Narrator serving as a Dr. Watson for a real person
    • All fictional
  • Should the story itself be
    • Creative non-fiction, or, as the disclaimer at the beginning of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid reads, “Much of what follows is true.”
    • Pure fiction
    • Fiction loosely based on a true story.
    • Facts woven into fiction, as if the Western were written by James Ellroy
  • The relative importance of female characters. The closer to the frontier one got, the more likely women were to be prostitutes. That’s a fact. Still, not all of them would be, even on the frontier itself. How to handle this without becoming stereotypical, but also not becoming unrealistic, requires considerable thought
  • What prominence to accord minorities, whether referring to Blacks (likely freed slaves or their children), Mexicans, or Indians. Again, time and place are key. I don’t need to worry about treating Indians too much as bloodthirsty savages if the story is set in a town off the frontier ion 1895. That’s a more delicate line to draw if it’s in the Dakota Territory in 1877.
  • Criminals and law enforcement, including
    • Weapons available
    • Techniques of each

As I said, I’m not looking to write an epic. Seventy-five to 90,000 words is my fifteen schnitzengruben. Trying to be too inclusive in a single work is worse than making too many trimming decisions, as the book will wander and eventually be about nothing. That’s okay. This is a book I’ll likely write in fits and starts over time as I can work it in without falling behind on the schedule Down & Out might like for me. It may evolve more be written. It may also be the only Western I ever write, so I’m going to want it to be something I’m proud of, even if others may disagree with some of my decisions.

Comments not just welcome. They’re encouraged. Have at it.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Lonesome Dove

We watched Lonesome Dove as part of this summer’s Western research and loved it just as much as ever. I know everything that’s going to happen and most of the lines and it still moves me just as much. Lonesome Dove also serves as a valuable tool for keeping awards in perspective. The Emmy for mini-series that year went to War and Remembrance. Which do people remember now?

The re-viewing resonated so well with me I re-read the book. William Wittliff did as fine a job adapting Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer-winning novel as any screen- or teleplay I’ve ever seen,
creating a program that surpasses the source material. (More on that later.) The casting was spot on and the performances are true to the characters. Reading the book, I hear words attributed to Gus or Woodrow or Clara in the voices of Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, and Anjelica Houston more often than not. Dish’s mustache is exactly as described.

Virtually all of the dialog comes verbatim from the book and most of Wittliff’s additions come from internal monologs McMurtry wrote. Wittliff also knew not to do too slavish an adaptation. The character of Wilbarger does not appear, though he plays a small yet key role in the novel. Some of Jake’s experiences with the Suggs brothers and Frog Lip are condensed. (Editor’s Note: It occurs to me those who have not read the book or seen the TV show will not know who those people are. Sucks to be you. It’s your own fault. They’ve only been available 30 years now. Get busy.)

Simon Wincer was also an inspired choice for director. An Australian who’d never done a Western (he went on to do Quigley Down Under and three episodes of Comanche Moon), Wincer took an outsider’s look at America’s most unique and beloved genre. Some of the stereotypical camera shots are missing (some had to be thanks to shooting locations that required angles calculated to make things look appropriate, such as having New Mexico fill in for Nebraska), Wincer also appreciated how to show scopes of size, most notably when Gus trails through the Llano Estacado in search or Lori and Blue Duck, and when pursued by the Kiowas Blue Duck sends back to kill him.

Few, if any, television shows or films have attempted to show such a breadth and depth of any period, from human relationships that transcend time to the hardships unique to the American frontier and the types of people it attracted and spawned. In that it also emulates the book, which shows how an epic story need deal with only a year and a relative handful of people to be successful. The catch is, though the book won its big award and the series did not, the series is better.

To some this will seem like apostasy, but the book has significant flaws. Not in the most important elements of story and characters but in the writing itself. Lonesome Dove, for all its brilliance, badly needed an editor.

First, it’s too long; judicious cuts would take nothing away. About a quarter of the book is backstory. McMurtry works it in as he goes, but at times becomes so enthralled with the past lives of characters he seems to forget shit is happening right now in the reader’s experience and it would be nice to get back to it. He invests four pages examining Pea Eye’s thoughts on women, which would be okay except that Pea Eye doesn’t really have any. Worse, Pea Eye is a spear-carrier for much of the book. He’s needed, and Gus and Call depend on him as a reliable hand, but he’s there to perform functions, not to enhance the experience. This is not an isolated example. At some point just about every character has at least one extended reminiscence—in the case of Dish’s feelings for Lorena more than one—that does little or nothing other than slow things down.

I hear you. “But it’s such beautiful writing.” Much of the time it is. There are also too frequent examples of amateurish mistakes that would get a lesser-known writer tossed before an agent finished the first page. Repeated words in sentences. (“’A ladies man like me can hardly be expected to resist such a passel of ladies.” In the teleplay the line is, “A ladies man like me can hardly be expected to resist such a passel of beauties.” Much better.) Unclear speech attributions. Word order in sentences. (“’Newt Dobbs,’ Augustus said, after a pause.” Why not, “After a pause Augustus said, “Newt Dobbs?” Or an action to describe the pause. Something before he speaks though, so we don’t have to go back and add the pause retroactively.)

Point of view flits from character to character like a bee through a field of clover. McMurtry’s good enough to pull this off the overwhelming majority of the time, but there are still occasions when one wonders whose head we’re in, and why? I’m not here to question his talent nor the magnitude of the accomplishment, but that’s sloppy work. The book and his readers deserved better.


So, on balance, this is the rare situation where I prefer the visual medium to the book. Wittliff and Wincer knew what to keep, what to get rid of, and what to change to create a masterpiece from a brilliant book with significant flaws. If you’re among the handful referred to above who have experienced neither, get the DVDs. You’ll never be sorry.

Friday, July 21, 2017

A Conversation With Elaine Ash, Author of Bestseller Metrics

Elaine Ash is a highly-regarded editor and author, though you won’t know her as an author because she writes under a pseudonym. (I know what it is and could tell you, but then Elaine would kill us both, hopefully before her alter ego really fucked us up. I’ve read some of her stuff and she don’t play.)

Her newest work was written with her editor’s hat on, an exploration of not how to write a bestseller, but of what bestsellers have in common, regardless of genre. I could explain it to you, as the book is a quick and easy to understand read; it’s the exercises that will take time. That said, why should I? She’s here and can do it better than I could hope to.

One Bite at a Time: There are few things I hate more than someone asking me to come up with elevator pitches, but let’s start with your hundred-word description of Bestseller Metrics.

Elaine Ash: Bestseller Metrics shows how to structure a novel like a bestseller. Wobbly structure holds back the majority of unpublished manuscripts that I see as an editor. For those writing a first novel of 100,000 words or less, this book shows step-by-step how to structure all genres--mystery, chicklit, horror, fantasy, thrillers, science fiction and more. There are diagrams and drawings to make it clear and visual. A series of simple-to-do tests reveal what your writers' group can't or won't tell you. If you can count to ten you know all the math necessary to understand it.

OBAAT: Ninety-six words. Well done.

There are a million books on how to write, the vast majority of them written by people one has never heard of, which leads me to wonder why they aren’t famous, they know so much about writing. You took a different approach, breaking down successful books to look for the common elements. What gave you the idea to do this kind of analysis?

EA: I have my writer clients to thank. Doctors show patients x-rays. Mechanics present diagnostic tests. I do it with metrics. If you want to write a bestseller, why not look at other bestsellers to figure out how it was done? There's an order to telling a story in a novel, and it's rarely discussed, let alone taught. In order to convince my clients of the changes needed to sell their stories, I looked into the metrics of books by million-selling authors past and present. Agents and publishers responded enthusiastically to the results.

OBAAT: You hooked me in Chapter One with your concept of Imaginary Memory (IM). It’s the kind of idea I sometimes say relates to genius, as it’s something that’s lying right out there in the open for anyone to see, yet as soon as someone points it out it’s so obvious your eyes hurt. (At least mine did.) Where did you get this insight?

EA: Ha! I like the way you said that. When I kept seeing manuscripts with the same problems from hardworking writers who were taking classes, attending writers groups and revising over and over without seeing a different result from the buying market, I knew there had to be a blind spot. I finally figured it was like this: A writer uses all of his/her imagination while crafting a novel, and when it comes time to read over the draft, imagination doesn’t quit. It fills in pictures and details, weaving memories into a seamless and satisfying read for the writer. By the end, the writer feels like he’s just watched a good movie—unaware that IM has edited the movie all the way through—smoothing over missing descriptions, fleshing out skimpy plot points and more. The complete story he thought he read isn’t necessarily the one on the page. Then I asked the question, “What would turn IM off? What kind of test could point to what’s missing?

OBAAT: What I might like best about the book is how you never tell the reader what to do as a writer. I’ve read several books that propose to tell how to write the breakout novel, and all I ever thought of while reading them was this guy wanted to teach me how to write a book I wouldn’t read myself. There was a subtle formula there. What I see in your work is not “Here’s what to do?” but “Here’s what to look for in what you’ve done.” You need the author to have written at least a draft first before you get to work. To me, this helps the author in keeping her own vision of the book and looks for weaknesses and rough edges instead of trying to shoehorn it into someone else’s idea of what will sell. And let’s face it, no one really knows what will sell.

Have I inferred something you didn’t intend, or do I have that about right?

EA: I think you’re spot on. My system details the best way to present your story so another person’s brain can grasp it. I don’t care what your story is—there’s an order and a structure that will get it across more clearly and dramatically than any other way. You’re correct—I don’t interfere with a writer’s vision, I ask them to look within the story and see if certain elements are there. If they are, there’s a good chance that story is ready to market. At least you know what doesn’t need to be revised. There is power in knowing what shouldn’t be changed or touched. One thing that’s always driven me crazy is when a writers’ group clearly tells a writer that a ms needs work—which is a good thing— but nobody can pinpoint exactly what it is. This is the point where an editor should be called in. But often that's not feasible. So the writer tinkers around the edges, rewriting and revising aspects may be great already. A lot of that goes on: fixing what doesn't need to be fixed, when the basic problem is structure. I’d also like to say that you don’t need to have a finished manuscript to learn from Bestseller Metrics. Just reading the book will impart a lot.

OBAAT: The first thing I thought as I got into the book was, “Hot damn. Bill James* for writers.” I’m a seamhead, so I’m wired that way. Have you received any pushback from others who might dismiss—or even resent—trying to quantify an artistic endeavor?

EA: Not so far, knock on wood. And that "Bill James for writers" analogy really gave me hope when I was wandering the wilderness, not really sure if I was on a crazy train. Keep in mind that although the book has less than 50,000 words of text, I wrote at least 120,000 words and drew dozens of sketches and compiled tables that got thrown out. At one point, the second half of the book got thrown out (reserved, actually) because it was deemed too advanced by readers I trust.

Literary critics are used to looking at books in a certain way. Everybody thinks in terms of beginning, middle, end. But start slicing a novel into percentages and new patterns emerge. As you said earlier, everything has been sitting out in plain sight for ages. I’m just the one who decided to look at the parts mathematically. As an editor, I also knew what the numbers were revealing, and how to interpret them. (Hopefully, I'm not making myself sound like an oracle picking through chicken entrails...)

In 2016, The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Bestseller was published. Jody Archer and Matthew L. Jockers looked at algorithms and did a “big picture” analysis of 20,000 novels. I had a number of people contact me immediately, worried there might be a conflict or overlap. After my heart stopped thumping in time to Flight of the Bumblebee, I realized that the authors didn’t go into how numbers could benefit “small picture” applications. Here's a wacky and imperfect analogy: They looked at the whole elephant. I look at the bones giving the elephant its shape.

Finally, in my circle of several hundred people in the writing and publishing world, I’m already known as the person who invented the serial-killing-monkey genre—and it’s been successful. So once you’ve done something off the wall that’s worked, people are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. They’re willing to wait and see before they dismiss you out of hand. Getting thoughtful and favorable reviews from people such as yourself also adds a layer of Teflon.

OBAAT: The two books you broke down the most are The Big Sleep and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which shows how your evidence transcends mere genre. You also looked at books as diverse as Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Hunger Games, The Shining, Confederacy of Dunces and probably a dozen more. Aside from the fact all sold like banana splits at the beach, what made you select the books you did?

EA: I wanted to deconstruct worthy books that had huge and different readerships. Because my information transcends genre, I wanted to reach writers in every corner of the fiction universe with titles they knew and loved hard. Nothing connects the list titles except zillions of sales and most being made into movies. I felt these books were worth poring over to find out what makes them tick.

OBAAT: That’s an excellent point. The IM section alone reminded me that I have to keep that in mind, especially since I write a series, which make it important for me not only not to assume the reader knows what I’m talking about, but not to assume she’s read any of the previous books.

It occurs to me this may seem to readers all well and good in a New Agey yet analytical sort of way, sort of a Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance meets Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but there’s no hook for them. Can you show us a digested example of what you’re talking about? Maybe a piece of one of the charts with a brief explanation?

EA: Sure! Let’s look at Table 2, which is the first comprehensive table in the book.

What you’re looking at here, from left to right, is the title of the book, then the author, and that middle column shows the total number of characters appearing in the first quarter of the book. As you can see, the numbers range from 25 for Kill Shot by Vice Flynn to 53 for Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. That’s a pretty narrow range when you consider that those numbers seem to have nothing to do with the age, genre, or total word count of the book! Interview with the Vampire (1976) by Anne Rice is about 130,000 words long but has only 30 characters in the first quarter. Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) by Helen Fielding is 64,000 words long with 41 characters in the first quarter. How can these first-quarter character counts squeeze into such a narrow range? Answer: Our brains process stories, particularly the beginnings of stories, the same way they did in Aristotle’s time. When you start to look at these types of similarities among mega-successful books, a shiny new lightbulb goes on in terms of novel writing.

There is a caveat, however. Epics and sagas such as George R.R. Martin’s 280,000-word-plus A Game of Thrones novels, have their own rules of structure. Massive word count changes structure. Therefore, one has to be careful about applying the metrics shown here to the “literary leviathans.” My promise to the aspiring author is that if you are writing an average-sized novel of 100,000 words or less, my guidelines will help you craft a story with sound structure. Since structure is the number one challenge to most unsold manuscripts, this is good news.

OBAAT: How has Bestseller Metrics been received so far?

EA:  Enthusiastically and respectfully. I did have a few old-timers laugh out loud when I first mentioned finding mathematical patterns in novels, but they weren’t being mean. They laughed because it was so foreign to anything they’d heard before. Once people get a look at the system, it seems like they’re not only ready, but eager to dig in, they’ve been looking for something like this a long time. I have so many offers to speak and teach that it's a struggle to keep up. I’m concentrating on following users—the writers actually testing their manuscripts and taking note of what they have to say as they go along. It has to be user-friendly and it has to work. I’m sure there are improvements and adjustments I can make for the next release.

OBAAT: With this episode of heavy lifting behind you, what’s next? More fiction, or looking into what you’ve done here in more detail?

EA: Workshops, an online course, developing materials for teachers to use in classrooms, and software development. I’m in the process of sourcing textbook distributors, and nonfiction distributors. It’s a long list and I’m just one person, so it’s a long workday, everyday. I need help, so if anybody has any bright ideas and wants in on the ground floor, I’d love to hear from you.

Monday, July 17, 2017

More Movies

Western research and some movie passes combined with a recent week off work had given me more time to watch movies than usual. Here’s the overflow from the other day.

Monte Walsh (1970) I saw this a few years ago and liked it at least as much this time. A story that doesn’t try to be any more than what it is, an aging cowboy coming to grips with the end of an era and his place in the world, seeing his opportunities evaporate. Lee Marvin strikes the right balance of a man who understands he’s missed some chances because he realized too late his time has passed but never feels sorry for himself. The most entertaining scene is still when he breaks the bronco and ruins a town in the process—I do have to wonder where the hell everyone is while he’s wrecking the joint—but the point of the movie comes a few minutes later when he turns down a job for more money than he’s ever made because, “I ain't gonna spit on my whole life.” Nothing flashy but a first-rate film on many levels.

Lonesome Dove (1989) Okay, it’s not a movie. Sue me. I’m re-reading the book now and will write something about both media in a week or three. Suffice to say for now that the mini-series holds up as well today as it did thirty years ago.

Baby Driver (2017) Yes, we left the house again to see a movie. I have to admit to being a little disappointed. Edgar Wright was responsible for Hot Fuzz, a favorite of mine, and the trailers led me to expect an action thriller that adapted that sense of humor into a Shane Black universe. The opening sucks you in that direction with as wild a car chase as you’ll ever see (no CGI or flying cars;
all driving) and a whimsical dance sequence under the credits. About the time one gets settled in the who tone changes and the film can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. The end result is a movie that’s less than the sum of many excellent parts. (Here’s a more detailed review that I could have written myself had I the patience to actually learn to write good reviews.)

Tombstone (1993) I’ve lost track of how many
times I’ve seen this and it never disappoints. Not a great Western, but a damn good one. Kurt Russell shines as Wyatt Earp but Val Kilmer steals every scene and the movie as Doc Holliday. Historically it’s pretty close to the facts and close enough to the truth not to matter, at least for the period it describes. I’ll be surprised if I don’t watch it again. Hell, I may watch the gunfight at the O.K. Corral soon as I’m done here. (I did.)

The Wild Bunch (1969) Not just a great Western, a truly great film. Sam Peckinpah’s
magnum opus shows the opposite side of coming of life stories: seeing the end. Shocking in its day for the graphic violence, Peckinpah didn’t waste it. Even the battle of the Bloody Porch is no more bloody than scenes in a lot of movies today, but none of the violence is sanitized. It’s a painful to watch ending that still hits me after half a dozen viewings though it never veers into violence porn. I can’t recommend The Wild Bunch strongly enough, but you need to be in the right mood to watch its uncompromising and unapologetic look at outlaws whose times have passed.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Movies Since Last Time

This is the summer of Western research for me, so my movie choices lean heavily in that direction. It’s also got me watching a lot more movies than usual, so I’ll add to this list next time.

3:10 to Yuma (2007) Quite a bit different from Elmore Leonard’s original story but, like Get
Shorty, the director (James Mangold) and the screenwriters (Halsted Welles, Derek Haas, and Michael Brandt) knew how much to keep along with what and how much to change to stay true to the spirit of the story. A first-rate cast is led by Russell Crowe and Christian Bale with excellent supporting work by Peter Fonda, Gretchen Mol, a frightening Ben Foster, and young Logan Lerman as Bale’s son. The easy Hollywood ending is eschewed and The Beloved Spouse™ and I debated Crowe’s final motivations afterward, but it was the kind of debate that reflected a feeling we were discussing what it was that made an actual person do something, not dismissing a character’s facile change to make a plot point. Not quite a transcendent Western in the mold of Unforgiven or The Wild Bunch, but damned good.

Wonder Woman (2017) As anyone who knows me on Facebook can attest, I don’t do comic book movies. I’ve also been recently burned by the action genre with Fate of the Furious.
Still, Wonder Woman received such buzz on multiple levels I couldn’t refuse the pleas of The Beloved Spouse™ to check it out. Yes, it’s a comic book movie, but the universe building doesn’t clank too badly and the performances are all outstanding. Gal Gadot nails Wonder Woman and Chris Pine is outstanding as Steve Trevor. (I’m still trying to decide who some of his deliveries remind me of. It’s someone I like, so it’s a compliment.) Particularly gratifying is the filmmakers’ willingness to make Trevor a valuable assistant, but only for things Wonder Woman couldn’t do herself. (Negotiating her way to and through England, getting to the front, and various bits of information she needed and could not otherwise have gotten.) None of it was remotely like, “he’s a man and she’s a woman so he has to handle this bad guy.” (Or open this jar or be smarter or whatever.)  All told, an enjoyable couple of hours with my baby. The sequel is negotiable.

The Hero (2017) Any woman past the age of 50 who claims Sam Elliott isn’t on her List™ can’t be trusted to tell the truth about anything. One of the coolest people alive, playing what
was billed as the role of a lifetime, how could we not go? Well, this’ll teach me not to be so hasty in the future. Elliott gets a few good lines, and his speech at the award ceremony made things worthwhile, but that’s about it. The move—sorry; I’m sure its auteur would want it described as a “film”—hints at several plot developments that would have been more interesting than what he chose, then follows none of them. The actors do their best, but the end result plays like someone in his 30s or early 40s who wanted to make a movie about facing one’s mortality without even having known anyone well who faced it. By the end it just didn’t pass the “So what?” test.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) Not quite sure what to make of this noir Western. There’s
nothing wrong with it, though the ending is a bit flat. That may be because I expected a little different movie. Not that I’m sure what I expected, but the film takes a while to settle into its mood and never does seem all that comfortable with it. The performances are excellent, and it’s definitely worth watching for what I expect is as close to an authentic look at the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th Century as you’re likely to find. I’ve also come to appreciate it a lot more since the next movie I saw was

Nevada Smith (1966) which is exactly the kind of Western I was hoping to stay away from, a bit of formulaic tripe that is not helped by 35-year-old Steve McQueen playing what is supposed to be a 16-year-old kid with revenge on his mind. Full of holes and dubious
A 16-year-old boy?
propositions throughout, and the ending stinks. (Spoiler alert.) McQueen seriously wounds Karl Malden, the man he’s been chasing the whole movie. When Malden taunts him to “finish me off,” McQueen’s character finally takes the words of a priest to heart and spares him, with the parting words, “You’re not worth killing.” So he leaves the seriously wounded man to die in a cold stream alone in the mountains. Not that Malden’s character didn’t deserve it, but that’s what passed for compassion in the 60s. (It also didn’t help that the movie I was looking for was Tom Horn but couldn’t remember the title.)

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Conversation With Paul Brazill

Paul Brazill is one of the too large number of authors I know well through the Internet but have never met. What makes Paul special is that he lives in Poland, which severely limits the chances of running into him even more.

It’s my loss. Apart from being great fun and a man I’d love to tip a few glasses with, Paul’s a hell of a writer, and prolific to boot. His books include Big City Blues, Too Many Crooks, A Case Of Noir, Guns Of Brixton, The Last Laugh and Kill Me Quick! His writing has been translated into Italian, Polish, Finnish, German, and Slovene and has been published in various magazines and anthologies, including three editions of The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime.
One Bite at a Time: Paul, it’s been too long since we caught up here. What’s been up with you lately?
Paul Brazill: Writing wise, I’ve had three books published this year by the British indie publisher Near To The Knuckle. Too Many Crooks, A Case of Noir, and Big City Blues. A Case of Noir was previously published by the Italian publisher, Lite Editions. Near To The Knuckle will also publish a collection of my flash fiction later this year.

I contributed to Ryan Bracha’s latest project, The Thirteen Lives of Frank Peppercorn, which is a novel in short stories. There are lots of top writers involved.

I’ve also had a veritable cornucopia of flash fiction published online at places like Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey, Pulp Metal Magazine, and Out Of The Gutter Online.

OBAAT: That’s great news. Congratulations. How did you get together with Near to the Knuckle? (Which is a great name for a crime publisher, by the way.)
PB: I’ve known N2TK’s Craig Douglas online for ages via the Near To The Knuckle flash
fiction website and a few other online joints. I’ve had yarns in a couple of their anthologies too. When I saw that N2TK were going to publish novellas I knew that I wanted to get on board!

OBAAT: You’re British by birth but have lived in Poland for a long time. How did that come about?
PB: In 2001 I was living in London—I’d lived there for ten years though I’m from the north east of England—and took a sabbatical from work. This included trips to Toulouse and New York and also Madrid, where I did a TEFL course. After I finished the course, I applied for a few jobs and quickly got a job teaching English here in Poland. And here I stay, though I have moved around the country a bit.

OBAAT: Did you speak Polish when you first arrived?
PB: Not a dicky bird! I applied for TEFL jobs in various places as soon as I finished the course and I got the job in Skierniewice, Poland pretty much straight away. Two weeks after that I was living in the country. My Polish isn’t much cop even now, to be honest, since I rarely have to use it. More and more people speak English to a good level.

OBAAT: I know the interest in crime fiction varies quite a bit by country in Europe. France digs it and I’ve heard there’s practically nothing going on in Germany. Is there much of a crime fiction community in Poland?
PB: I don’t know about community but crime is certainly a very popular genre—and there are lots of Polish crime writers, mostly female it seems. Poles seem to favour Nordic noir or similar. Violent and grim! There’s an international crime fiction festival in Wroclaw every year and I’ve seen a few others mentioned too. The one in Wroclaw is the only one that’s in English, I think.

OBAAT: I never get political in an interview and don’t mean to now, but it must have been something to be a Brit living on the Continent when Brexit took place. Leaving politics out of it as much as possible—sorry, I know that’s a loaded question—what did—do—you think of that?
PB: What’s that German word? Schadenfreude. The whole thing seems to have been a case of chaotic, bad improvisation. A bit like the political version of Derek Smalls’ ‘Jazz Odyssey’ in Spinal Tap.

OBAAT: You have your own niche carved out of the crime fiction community. Probably your best-known creation is Roman Dalton, werewolf detective. How did you come up with the idea for Roman?
PB: A few years ago, Katherine Tomlinson was putting together the late lamented Dark Valentine Magazine. She was looking for cross-genre stories. About that time, I was listening to Tom Waits’ song “Drunk on The Moon.” It’s very noir in its feel and of course Tom sounds like a wolf—and he was also in the film Wolfen. So I wrote a yarn about a werewolf detective called Drunk On the Moon. And a few more yarns after that. Roman Dalton is having a bit of a kip at the moment but he’ll be back.

OBAAT: Your current book, Big City Blues, has story lines and characters going every which way: a London detective, a Polish cop, and an American PI. No spoilers, obviously, but what gave you the idea of combining such disparate elements into the same book?
PB: The title is a bit of a clue. I was a big fan of the TV series Hill Street Blues—and later NYPD Blue—they usually had three stories running together at the same time. With Big City Blues, I wanted to up the ante a bit more and change location a couple of times too.

OBAAT: I loved both those shows. Actually I love NYPD Blue in the present tense, as I’ve only started watching it in the past year and I’m still working my way through it. I’ve always been drawn to stories where there’s more than one thing at a time going on, probably ever since I first read Ed McBain. Who are your go-to writers in the genre?
PB: I was first drawn to crime fiction after reading a Charles Shaar Murrey article about Elmore Leonard in the New Musical Express in the ‘80s. I got Stick and Swag from the library and never looked back. After that I mostly read American writers such as Jim Thompson, Joe Lansdale, James Lee Burke and Patricia Higsmith. Since then I’ve given a lot of crime writers a try. These days, Les Edgerton, Tony Black, Eva Dolan, Cathi Unsworth, and Ray Banks are always a pleasure, never a chore. And lesser known writers such as Martin Stanley and Ian Ayris. But there are loads of good writers out there. Far too many to mention.

OBAAT: Do see any direct influences of any of these in your writing? (refers to the authors cited in previous answer: Leonard, Thompson, Lansdale, Burke, Highsmith, Edgerton, Black, et al.)
PB: If it wasn’t for the likes Tony Black, Ray Banks, Charlie Williams, Nick Quantrill and Alan Guthrie, I would never have dabbled with writing myself. They showed me you could set things in a world that I was familiar with and turn them into interesting yarns. The humour in Charlie Williams’ Mangel books was a sure influence, as was Damon Runyon—who I should have mentioned before.

OBAAT: I want to get back to Big City Blues for a bit. With three protagonists and disparate plot elements, how do you keep them straight, or make sure none have been neglected for too long? Did you outline first? Any variance from your typical practice when working on a book?
PB: Big City Blues is very similar to most of my other books—Guns Of Brixton, Too Many Crooks, Cold London Blues—where an oddball cast of characters are thrown together and then we see what will happen. I’ve never outlined but probably should give it a shot at some time!

OBAAT: What can we expect from you next?

PB: Well, as I mentioned, Near To The Knuckle will be putting out my latest flash fiction collection over the next few months. I’m just finished a sort of companion to my ‘seaside noir’ novella Kill Me Quick! (which was published by Number 13 Press). This one’s called Hit The North! And I’ve a few other unfinished projects which I hope I can get moving on! I was thinking of writing a cozy noir about a guilt-ridden canine detective. I’d call it ‘Out, Damn Spot!’

Monday, July 3, 2017

June's Best Reads

This is the summer where I decide whether to fish or cut bait on the Western I’ve been toying with for several years now. My reading list reflects that, and likely will for the next couple of months. It’s okay. There’s no dearth of great stuff to read in this area.

Deadwood: Stories of the Black Hills, David Milch. This is the inside story book written to accompany the HBO series. In it Milch details how and why he made many of the creative decisions that made the show what it was, some of his research, and includes sections by various actors about how they played their roles and how the characters grew as the show moved on. A fascinating ‘inside baseball” look at what may have been TV’s most fascinating series, though with a melancholy ending: the closing article was written with the full expectation that the series would conclude with two two-hour movies, which we now know never happened.

Six Guns at Sundown, Eric Beetner. It’s a good thing Beetner is such a nice guy and so generous in his aid to other writers because he’s so good and so prolific it would be easy to hate him otherwise. Even so, I may give it a try. Not content to write some of the best and most concise crime fiction around, he branched out into Westerns and nailed it. All of the things one loves about his crime stories are here, including the cinematic textures that lead the reader to visual a movie scene while reading.

True Grit, Charles Portis. A re-read, and well worth it. As good as everyone who loves it says it is, a book that will survive endless readings. Portis was a treasure and should be better remembered for his other works (which include Masters of Atlantis and Dog of the South) but it’s no crime that True Grit holds the primary position. The only shame is that so many read this one and stop there.

Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and the Wickedest Town in the American West, Tom Clavin. I stumbled onto this at a book event and it followed me home. Lucky me. Meticulously researched and written with a dry and appropriate wit, Dodge City captures not just the flavor of the town but gives a good, broad look at the origins of law enforcement on the American frontier circa 1870 – 1890 or so, including why there was a need for it. Highly recommended.