Monday, August 28, 2017

A Conversation with Terrence McCauley

I discovered Terrence McCauley and his writing when we shared a panel at Bouchercon Albany on noir vs. hard-boiled fiction. We hit it off right away and I quickly discovered he’s a great foil for discussing a wide range of literary topics, as he someone who actually thinks about the things his books are about instead of settling for a good story well told. (Not that I’m implying a good story well told isn’t important. It’s the most important thing, but it’s also just the entry point. Readers should expect/demand that just to buy the book.)

Terrence is the author of the University series of novels featuring James Hicks. Of his new book, A Conspiracy of Ravens, no less than Reed Farrell Coleman says, "In our new reality, Terrence McCauley’s A Conspiracy of Ravens is not far from the realm of possibility. He hits all the right notes while creating a simultaneously entertaining and frightening scenario. Read it." (A Conspiracy of Ravens is the third book in the University series, to be released by Polis Books September 19.) He also writes a series of books set in Prohibition-era New York that includes Prohibition, Slow Burn, and the upcoming The Fairfax Incident.

Terrence started an enthusiastic discussion in Facebook a few weeks ago about heroes and villains, right about the time I got word I’ll be on a panel covering heroes and anti-heroes at Bouchercon in Toronto. One thing led to another and here we are, chatting about exactly those subjects.

One Bite at a Time: In your mind, what’s the difference between a hero and an anti-hero?
This man is NOT an asshole.
Terrence McCauley: To me, the anti-hero is the character that does what he or she is going to do anyway to serve their own purposes. They just happen to be for good. A hero, often in my opinion misdiagnosed as the protagonist, seeks to do the right thing for the cause which he or she serves.

OBAAT: You write the much-acclaimed University series of thrillers. Where does your main character, James Hicks, fall in this spectrum?
TM: In Hicks, I sought to create the anti-Bond. Hicks and the University do what they feel they need to do to protect the interests of the West. Sometimes that puts them in direct conflict with their own government who isn't sure of what the University is or what it's trying to accomplish. He spends a good amount of time in Sympathy for the Devil and A Murder of Crows combating his own government as much as the terrorists seeking to attack the country. This is why I would call Hicks an anti-hero.

OBAAT: We had an interesting conversation on Facebook a few weeks ago about Vic Mackey from The Shield. Vic trod a very thin line between anti-hero and villain for the show’s entire run. You know what he’s willing to do when he shoots a cop in the pilot, yet by the time Forrest Whitaker tries to take him down you can’t help but root for Vic. How does he managed to do this, and what is it about him that makes him a villain in the end?
TM: Secretly, everyone likes a bad guy. Who would you rather hang out with in Deadwood? Dudley Do Right or Al Swearengen? Vic Mackey is compelling because he does a lot of good while he's doing so much bad. He's a conflicted character and therefore believable. We can relate to him in a way we can't really relate to a hero like Superman. We're not perfect, hence the reason why so many people like Batman. To borrow from another medium, people related to Oprah because she faced a lot of the same struggles her viewers had faced. Poverty, weight problems, professional problems and, finally, success. Megyn Kelly has said she wants to be the next Oprah. A thin, blonde white woman who looks like a model? I don't think that'll go over so well because her audience can’t relate to her. In many ways, she is what many of her audience will never be. In Vic Mackey, we could relate because he was as flawed as the rest of us. We knew he was bad, but he was relatable.

OBAAT: You have a way with anti-heroes. Both your Prohibition Era novels, Prohibition and Slow Burn, are filled with characters who embody many admirable traits but are by no means heroes. Charlie Doherty from Slow Burn is a particular favorite. Truly a corrupt cop, he still does the job so it comes out right. Terry Quinn in Prohibition is a mob guy through and through, but his loyalty to Archie Doyle is moving, and reminds me in some ways of Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key. You mentioned a minute at what attracts you to such characters. What makes you so good at writing them?
TM: I always try to create believable characters, whether they're anti-heroes or villains or heroes. I make them believable by not allowing myself to write cookie-cutter characters. In my University series, Roger Cobb does horrible things to people, yet my readers tend to like him because they can relate to him. Same thing with Doherty and Quinn. They're products of their respective times and have their own motivations for doing what they do. Quinn has no problem murdering someone, but he's loyal to Archie. Doherty went into the Van Dorn case looking for blackmail money, but he gets won over by the family and the case. James Hicks is cold-blooded and distant, but he acts in what he feels are the best interests of his country and our way of life. They're complicated characters who aren't perfect and aren't flawed in the ways readers have come to expect in literature. My characters are all perfectly flawed and I wouldn't want them to be any other way.

OBAAT: I’ll tell you why I’m asking this in a minute, but can a hero become an anti-hero?
TM: Spoiler alert here, but Vic Mackey went from being hero to anti-hero to villain. The reason why it worked was because of consistent, strong writing. The seeds for his evil turn were planted from the very first episodes of the series and came to bloom in the final two episodes of the show. He was always the villain. We just never saw it. That's why I consider the ending to be the best ending of a series I've ever seen. It fit perfectly. It took a stand. It was believable.

Circumstances in a story can change so that a hero can become an anti-hero, but it has to be done well and it has to be done over time lest the writer be accused of jumping the shark. It can't be sudden and it can't be contrived. But if it's planned for over time, then I think it can be achieved. To use the comparison with another TV show, I think you're starting to see that in Homeland.

OBAAT: The reason I asked—and the reason I’m so glad to hear your answer—is that’s what happened to my PI character, Nick Forte. He starts out as a Chandlerian hero, doing the right things and trying to do them in the right way. Each book wore him down as things didn’t work out the way he wanted them to until now he’s reached the point where if he decides someone has to go, they go. Period. The thing about Forte that’s completely different from Vic Mackey is that I didn’t realize what I’d done until I was four books in and took a few years off to work on another series. Have you ever had a character evolve on you like that, even within the course of a book?
TM: Sure. Doherty evolves big time in Slow Burn and even more so in the upcoming The Fairfax Incident. James Hicks, over the course of three books, evolves into a character the reader can understand. With Hicks, that was by design. In Sympathy, I spend a lot of time introducing the reader to the world and technology I've created. I show who the protagonists and antagonists are and kept the backstory and motivations to a minimum. In Crows, the reader learns more about the University and sees a more human side of Hicks. I folded it into the plot of the book, rather than blatantly show you who he is and where he's coming from. In Ravens, readers will see a much more personal side of Hicks than they've ever seen before. My beta readers have all given me wonderful feedback on Ravens because they feel the evolution is believable and fits with the story. My goal is to continue this evolution in future novels and I hope to have the opportunity to keep the University Series going both during the current day and in the University's past with Charlie Doherty.

OBAAT: I know you’re a fan of the TV show Justified. Where did Raylan Givens fall on your personal hero/anti-hero scale?
TM: I love Raylan, but I'd classify him as a hero. Sure, he broke the rules, but not enough to make him a criminal. He was good with a gun, maybe too good, but all of his shootings were, indeed, Justified. Great character. Great performance and skillful writing made the show one of my favorites. But Vic Mackey is in a class by himself.


Elgin Bleecker said...

Dana – Thanks for posting this exchange. Interesting takes on heroes, anti-heroes and villains. THE SHIELD was a terrific series. I always saw Vic as a dangerous villain. The men in his squad were less so, and their varying degrees made the group interesting.

Dana King said...

THE SHIELD was a unique show, successful on multiple levels. I agree with Terrence that it had the best final episode ever, again on multiple levels.

What the creators were able to do was to make one root for such a character. In Season 4 (I think), when Forrest Whitaker comes in from IAD to bring Vic down, everyone roots for Vic. It's amazing. True, Whitaker is an even less likable character in many ways, but still.