Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Yet Another Benefit of Journaling

I’ve written about my journal before. How it’s a relatively recent phenomenon and how I’ve come to enjoy it. Turns out it has real benefits for someone in my situation.

I was about to start the final draft of the fifth Penns River novel, Pushing Water, when my father took ill. I set it aside until that situation worked itself to its inevitable conclusion, then again while we got Mom situated in an assisted living facility close to The Beloved Spouse™ and me so we could keep Mom out of as much trouble as possible. I finished Pushing Water in early March but still had enough stuff going on that I wasn’t ready to jump right back into a new book.

First drafts and edits are entirely different animals for me. Editing I can always sit down to do. Pretty much all I need is time. Drafts are a different matter. That’s much heavier lifting and I need my ducks in a row before I can start. This is why I outline. The outlines are flexible and I leave plenty of room to write things up as I see fit at the time. The thing is, I’m not much for writing things down as I make them up. Charlie Stella has described my writing style as “documentary,” and that’s pretty accurate. I don’t make things up when I write so much as I describe things that have already happened, at least in my head. My outlines are the equivalent of a journalist’s notes.*

The book I’m outlining now is a bit of a departure for me. The plan is to write it more as a series of vignettes that describe life in Penns River, though there will be a couple of primary crimes that will keep appearing through the story. This is a different challenge from picking a crime early on and writing the whole book around it. It won’t be quite so linear, and I need more ideas to make everything come out as interesting and not feel padded. Given the lengthy period of inactivity that’s been enforced on me since I first started thinking along these lines, I don’t know what I would have done without the journal.

I don’t think I’m unique among writers in that I get ideas I’d like to write that don’t have any place in the work in progress. I’m not just talking about major story lines that can carry a book all by itself. I mean little character-based anecdotes that I like and can do something with, just not in this book. For example, with I was writing Pushing Water I came up with an idea for a relationship for Detective Ben Dougherty that could be a lot of fun, as well as tell us a lot about Doc. Problem was, I already had one of those in Pushing Water. Compounding the issue was I noodled out the whole plot line for the new idea and no way would I remember it by the time I got around to outlining the next book.

William Goldman once said he never kept notes because he’d remember any ideas worth using. I agree with that in principle, with a twist. I’ve come to realize I might not remember an idea because it wasn’t worth using at the time I came up with it. That doesn’t mean it might not have legs in a different context a few stories down the road. That’s where the journal comes in handy. Just because I wrote an idea down doesn’t mean I have to use it in the next book. It also doesn’t mean it’s not available three books from now when it might fit well and I’m sitting there with the terrible feeling that I once had an idea that would fit here perfectly if only I could remember it. (Sorry, Bill. You’re still The Man.)

What I’m in the midst of now is working through those notes, as well as newspaper articles I’ve saved from the real-life equivalents of Penns River to see what’s worth using, what needs to stay in storage for future reference, and what belongs in the “What was I thinking?” file, a/k/a the recycle bin. I have close to 40 “index cards” in a Word file I’ll print on card stock and use to build the outline when it’s ready. With my average chapter coming in at around 1500 words, I need 50 – 60 chapters in total. I figure another couple of weeks and I‘ll be ready to start organizing. I’ll let it sit while I write a short story I owe and then will get to work describing the events I’ve chosen to happen in Penns River.

(* - I am aware of the school of writers who refuse to outline because they believe the reader can’t be surprised at a plot twist if the writer isn’t surprised when he writes it. News flash: I’m just as surprised as you when I come up with it. Having set it aside I can now concentrate on how best to describe it so the reader gets the full effect.)

Friday, June 22, 2018

An Interview with Jim Nesbitt, Author of The Right Wrong Number

Jim Nesbitt is the author of two hard-boiled Texas crime thrillers that feature battered but dogged Dallas PI Ed Earl Burch -- The Last Second Chance, a Silver Falchion finalist, and The Right Wrong Number. Nesbitt was a journalist for more than 30 years, serving as an editor and roving correspondent for newspapers and wire services in Alabama, Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C. He chased hurricanes, earthquakes, plane wrecks, presidential candidates, wildfires, rodeo cowboys, migrant field hands, neo-Nazis, and nuns with an eye for the telling detail and an ear for the voice of the people who give life to a story. He is a lapsed horseman, pilot, hunter, and saloon sport with a keen appreciation for old guns, vintage cars and trucks, good cigars, aged whiskey and a well-told story. He now lives in Athens, Alabama, where he is writing his third Ed Earl Burch novel, The Best Lousy Choice.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about The Right Wrong Number.

Jim Nesbitt: It’s an old-school, hard-boiled crime thriller set in Texas and northern Mexico, with a little bit of the decadent charms of New Orleans, a dash or two of Houston and Dallas and a whole lot of the stark, harsh beauty of the desert mountains of the Trans-Pecos country thrown in.

The main character is a cashiered Dallas homicide detective and private eye named Ed Earl Burch, a saloon sport and ex-jock gone to seed with the bad knees, wounded liver and empty bank account to prove it. He’s also deeply in debt to his lawyer and needs cash -- right now. He’s desperate enough to take a job from an old flame who burned him badly, signing on as a bodyguard after the disappearance of her husband, a high-flying Houston financier who ripped off his clients, including some deeply unsavory gentlemen from New Orleans.

It’s a simple job that goes wrong fast, plunging Burch into a ruthless contest where nothing and nobody can be trusted. Money and sex tempt him to break his own rules—twin temptations served up by the old flame, a rangy strawberry blonde with a violent temper and a terminal knack for larceny and betrayal.

Those New Orleans gentlemen give the game a more murderous edge by sending two hitmen to reclaim their stolen goods and kill anybody involved in the score. When his best friend gets murdered in Dallas by hired muscle, Burch blames himself and grimly sets out for vengeance that also delivers a bloody form of redemption.

OBAAT: Readers love to ask where authors get their ideas and most authors reply with something along the lines of “we’re tripping over them. The trick is to find the idea that works best for me.” What made this idea worth developing, and how much development from the original germ was required?
JN: I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer and usually start off with a few very simple ideas about who the main characters are, what kind of brier patch I’m going to throw them in and what brings them all together -- in this book, greed and money early on, revenge and redemption later. From there, I let the characters, the action, the dialogue, and a keen sense of place drive the story. I write with a very loose rein and am often surprised by the characters and dialogue that pops up on the page -- where the hell did she come from and why the hell did he say that?

For The Right Wrong Number, I was intrigued by the notion of Ed Earl Burch being so desperate for money that he’d take a job from Savannah Crowe, an old flame who burned him badly in love and tried to frame him with the cops for a drug deal that went sideways. He still hates her, doesn’t trust her but wants to suck up as much money as he can from her -- to get out of debt and get a little payback. I wanted to see just how far astray money and sex would lead Burch from the threadbare code he lives by.

That same question applies to an old adversary -- Houston homicide detective Cider Jones, a mystic with Comanche blood who blames Burch for his partner’s death and wouldn’t mind seeing him wind up dead.

I was also interested in developing Savannah’s backstory and that of her husband, an ex-jock and financier named Jason Willard Crowe, a man with some nasty clients he decides to rip off. Savannah is no longer the party girl and small-time hustler she was when she dated Burch in Dallas. She’s flying in much higher circles in Houston, part of a power couple who prey on the coke-and-daddy’s-oil-money set. Until her husband pulls his disappearing act, she doesn’t know he’s also laundering money for the New Orleans mob.

OBAAT: Where did Ed Earl Burch come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
JN: Short answer -- from my fevered brainpan.

We’re both bald, beefy, bearded guys who wear glasses and like saloons, bourbon, Colt 1911s and difficult women who can tear your heart out. We both carry a Zippo lighter -- Burch carries his to fire up his Luckies; I gave up Luckies for cigars. I also hung up the saloon spikes and quit chasing women who tote emotional straight razors. That’s why Burch has one more ex than I do. We’re both terminal smartasses who don’t know when to shut up. Burch was a cop, I was a reporter -- we both made a living by making people pay for underestimating us. Burch doesn’t mind shooting people with that Colt; I never have and hope I never do.

When I started writing the first Ed Earl book, The Last Second Chance, I wasn’t at all sure he would wind up being the kind of durable character who could anchor a series. It was certainly what I hoped for. I wanted him to be strong, flawed, reckless, cagey, cynical and utterly human, a guy who has a code he sometimes forgets to live by but returns to under pressure. I didn’t want him to be a Spade or a Marlowe -- I wanted him to be more angst-ridden and tortured than those guys.

Ed Earl’s a little slow on the uptake, but not dumb. He’s dogged rather than brilliant. And he sure isn’t supercool like Frank Bullitt -- he’s the polar opposite of that. He’s Columbo without the caricature -- people he goes up against think he’s slow and easily duped when he’s really pretty cagey and lulling them to sleep. He makes them pay for that mistake. Sometimes with a bullet.

What I wound up with in the telling of this story is a guy with whom I think most people can identify. Ed Earl’s a bit of an Everyman who’s been smacked around by life. A friend calls Ed Earl a classic American anti-hero. I’ll buy that.

OBAAT: All the women in your books, whether good or bad, are strong. What did you want to portray with them? 
JN: Exactly that -- strength. A strong story demands strong characters of both genders. I’ve always been attracted to strong, smart, sharp-tongued women who know they’re smarter and tougher than men and aren’t shy about showing it. I find them endlessly fascinating, maddening, alluring and sometimes dangerous. They’re a force of nature to be reckoned with and I’m usually four or five steps behind them on the uptake. So is Ed Earl. Women seem to like and love him anyway -- for reasons I don’t fully understand.

OBAAT: You don't pull back on the sex and violence. Is there any kind of line you don't cross when doing this kind of story? 
JN: Yes. My books are bawdy and bloody, but the sex and violence isn’t gratuitous or served up just for shock value. I’m writing a violent tale and want to be frank about both the sex and the violence in service of that story. I don’t want to shield the reader’s delicate sensibilities with euphemisms and sanitized scenes. That’s an insult to the reader. Might be a different story if I was writing a chicken-fried cozy.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JN: I’m a bit of an omnivore. I like history told with a literary flair -- James D. Hornfischer is a favorite. I’ll read anything Larry McMurtry writes, although Lonesome Dove remains my favorite. I like Elmer Kelton’s Westerns, although his masterpiece is The Time It Never Rained, set in Texas in the 1950s when a deep drought scorched the land. It’s the story of a stubborn rancher who tries to survive this crisis and still keep his independence. I’m fascinated by the interplay between the land and the people who live on it and try to wrestle a living from it. Kelton captures that perfectly. Hemingway’s short stories and one of his posthumous novels, Islands in the Stream, are works I’ll return to in order to rejuvenate my own writing. The common thread here is all these writers paint vivid character portraits and create such a keen sense of place that it becomes a character unto itself. In recent months, I’ve been reading the early novels of the late Milton Burton, who was just brilliant about setting his crime stories in the 40s or 50s without making them sepia-toned nostalgia pieces. Check out The Rogue’s Game and see if I’m not right.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
JN: I’m a fiend for Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson, so I’m sure they provide some undertones to my writing. James Ellroy and Hunter S. Thompson are lurking as well. But I’d say the biggest influences are James Lee Burke and the late, great James Crumley, a vastly underappreciated talent. Not that I’m in the same league as any of these giants, because I’m not. I come from a long line of hillbilly storytellers who instilled in me a deep and abiding attachment to family and place. Reading Burke reinforced that attachment and taught me how important it is to writing a story. Whether his setting is Louisiana or Texas, he makes those places come alive in a very visceral way. Crumley, whose raucous crime novels are laced with whiskey, sex and drugs, taught me it was okay to let it rip with graphic depictions of blood and debauchery as long as it’s in service of the story.

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?
JN: I’m a ‘tweener. I tend to give each chapter a light edit after I finish and will re-write passages that are clunky or just don’t wring true, but I don’t want to kill off the spontaneity and surprise of a character who takes over the story and drives it somewhere I didn’t intend to go because that’s often better than what I had in mind. A character in my first book, Carla Sue Cantrell, is a good example. I intended her to be a minor character, but she just exploded onto the page as this tough and sexy redneck badass who loves muscle cars, high-grade crank, the high-wire double-cross and shooting people. Louis, the New Orleans hitman in my second book is another example. I started off giving him the looks and style of a good friend of mine and wound up with this conniving, cold-blooded and fully fleshed out character who is a driving force in the story. He’s also a snappy dresser and nasty piece of work. More often than you’d like, you run into a rough patch and the writing feels like chipping away at a rock wall with a chisel and hammer or you’ve got a logjam of ideas and scenes and words. The only way out is to just plow forward and get the words on paper to see what you’ve got. You can break out the chainsaw later.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JN: Research, research, research. Facts are a writer’s friend. I learned that the hard way as a young journalist with the bad habit of trying to write my way around things I didn’t know. The bullshit cliché is a writer should write what they know. That’s just the starting point. You need to expand your knowledge and hone your writing chops by finding out the answers to things you don’t know and reading other writers who are better than you. That knowledge gives a tremendous power and authenticity to your writing and, in a counter-intuitive way, frees you up so you can really fly.

OBAAT: Is there anything you wish interviewers would ask about more? Some topic you’d like to see writers discuss more in forums such as this?
JN: Readers want to peer inside a writer’s brainpan and see how we think -- get a glimpse of the creative process and learn as much as they can about the why and the how of what we do. They’re not interested in whether you check every box in the template of Chandler’s The Simple Art Of Murder. Their questions are more meat-and-potatoes than that. Why did Ed Earl shoot that guy in Chapter Seven? Why did you kill off one of his ex-wives? I liked her. Why do your books have so much graphic sex and violence? What is it about West Texas that fascinates you? Why does everybody sound like a Bubba in your books, even the women? That hitman reminds me of my grandfather -- did you model him on anybody in your life? We call it dialogue, character development and sense of place, but if you strip away the jargon, you’re answering questions the readers want answered.

OBAAT: Do you have a favorite quote about the writing process?
JN: Hemingway’s line to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.”

OBAAT: What are you currently working on, and why does it kick ass?
JN: I’m slogging my way through the third Ed Earl Burch story, The Best Lousy Choice, and I’m trying to make this one more of a whodunit. In terms of time, this one takes place just a year or so after the nightmare ride of The Last Second Chance, which has left Ed Earl with a bad case of the PTSD jangles. He’s a train wreck who self medicates with whiskey and Percodan and only seems to function when he’s got a case to occupy his mind and help keep the demons at bay. He’s still in debt to his shylock lawyer, Fat Willie Nofzinger, and is forced to take on a divorce case out in the fictional West Texas town of Faver, named for Milton Faver, one of the pioneer ranchers of the Big Bend country. Ed Earl hates divorce work, makes him feel like a slimeball who can’t hose himself down with enough whiskey to get clean. But he gets the job done and is about to leave town when he gets into a gunfight with two sicarios sent to kill the owner of the used car lot where Ed Earl is dropping off a rental. That brings him to the attention of the outlaw cousin of a prominent rancher who has been killed in a barn fire that may not have been an accident. The cousin hires Burch to find out whether the rancher was murdered because he doesn’t trust the crooked county sheriff, a tough-talking ex-Texas Ranger with his eye on the governor’s mansion and his hand out to the drug lord just across the river. The rancher has also ticked off some Houston developers who want his land, an outfit with a reputation for terminal payback. Everybody’s a suspect, even the cousin, and more than a few of them want Ed Earl dead because he’s poking his nose where he shouldn’t. Lots a gun play, lots of sex, lots of snappy patter and lethally picaresque characters. And Ed Earl couldn’t be happier because he gets to do something he hasn’t been able to do since he lost his gold shield -- investigate a murder, a case that might just get him killed. Why does it kick ass? Hell, son, it’s Ed Earl run amok in the West Texas brier patch again.

Monday, June 18, 2018

A Conversation With Terrence McCauley

Terrence McCauley may not write about white hat good guys, but he is one. We’ve been friends since sharing a panel at the Albany Bouchercon and hit it off right away. (To give you an idea of the kind of person he is, he handed me a signed copy of his book Prohibition the first time we met. Past experience shows first acquaintances are more likely to present me a restraining order.)

Terrence is probably best known for his University series of techno-thrillers that includes Sympathy for the Devil, A Murder of Crows, and A Conspiracy of Ravens. He also writes a connected series based in Prohibition-era New York, of which The Fairfax Incident is the new release.

One Bite at a Time: Terrence, there’s a lot of stuff I want to say and ask about this book, but let’s not forget the most important part of any author interview: Give us a taste of what The Fairfax Incident is about.
Terrence McCauley: It's a noir/spy tale set in 1933 New York City that involves Charlie
Doherty - a disgraced former NYPD detective - who is hired by a wealthy woman to prove her husband's obvious suicide is, in fact, a murder. I'll give away too much of the plot if I say much more than that, but believe me when I tell you that things get awfully complicated very quickly. It doesn't take long before the bullets fly, the intrigue deepens and the bodies begin to pile up.

OBAAT: Charlie Doherty has risen above your other 20th Century characters to become the protagonist in Slow Burn, The Devil Dogs of Bellau Wood, and now The Fairfax Incident. What is it about Charlie that appeals to you?
TM: I've spent an awful lot of time writing about Charlie. He also appears in my novella Fight Card: Against The Ropes. I love the character because he's the most human of my protagonists. He doesn't have a code. He has a gut instinct and a pang to do the right thing for reasons of his own. He doesn't have many morals, really. He's as corruptible and as flawed as the rest of us. That's not because he's a bad guy or an intentional anti-hero. It's just the way he is. He's a product of his time, just like all of us are, and his time happens to be the early part of the twentieth century. I often write his stories in the first person, which is a great way for me to set up the world in which I write. I know some people yawn or roll their eyes when they see a book is set in the 1920s or 1930s. They figure it'll just be another hats-n-gats rehash full of tough talking guys and dames with lively banter and long legs. I've never written to stereotype and Christ help me if I ever do.

Instead, I describe the times through Charlie's perception of things. Setting my stories back then isn't just an excuse to write pastiche or write Chandler fan fiction, but to relate real-world events in a fictional context. It's fun to write that way and, based on several early reviews, people really enjoy this character.

OBAAT: Doherty is the classic and perfect mix of the world-weary and cynical private eye. One line describes him better than anything else in the book, and even that is his description of someone else: “For a man who didn’t have many good qualities, Wendell Bixby had more than most.” It’s a great line on two levels: describing Doherty by what he thinks, and just outstanding writing that captures the period flawlessly. On the other hand, your University thrillers are as fast-paced and contemporarily written as anything out there. How are you able to switch back and forth.
TM: The expected pacing of each genre I chose helps. For example, no one picks up a 1930s novel expecting breathless action. Sure, I could write one, but it would throw the reader and pull them out of the world I'm looking to create. In contrast, if I start a Hicks book with a long set-up about why he's working on an assignment, I'll lose people before I even get them interested in the book.

As period fiction is often set in a world we've never experienced, I think a reader appreciates a little extra time spent on justifying the world-building that goes on at the outset of the story. That world needs to be subtly re-enforced throughout the book because it's easy for the reader to forget the time period of the setting. Historical references and some choice lingo can help.

When writing the University novels, I drop in plot points here and there while keeping the action moving. I intentionally avoid too much exposition because I don't want to slow down the book. As the stories are set in modern times, I also keep the descriptions and backgrounds of the characters to a minimum because I want the reader to make their own connections to the characters. I've received some criticism for this minimalistic approach. There's merit in that. People have said they'd like to know more about the past of my characters to help explain their motivation.

Frankly, I haven't come up with a way of doing that without it appearing like writing or a data dump. And since I want to avoid stereotypes, I didn't want to have a scene where one character is reviewing the file of another, filling in the reader on the character's past. Can it be done? Sure, and it has been done plenty of times. But since I'm trying to do something different, I have to take chances. Sometimes they pay off and most of my readership agrees. Sometimes they don't and I try to change things up a bit in the next book. Those who have read the University series starting with Sympathy For The Devil see a clear change in minimalist storytelling to a more expanded and explained motivation for many of the characters. Instead of showing who they are simply by their actions and motivations, I'm a bit more blunt about it. The criticism has been good for me and better for the books. I think each new book is better than the one before it.

OBAAT: The story revolves around the death of an insurance magnate named Walter. Any tribute here toward Walter Neff of Double Indemnity?
TM: I hadn't thought of it that way. If there is, it certainly isn't intentional. I wanted to write about a wildly wealthy man who wasn't very well-known. A wanna-be Astor who wasn't quite there and never would be. Oil or railroad barons were too sexy for Walter Fairfax. So, I made him an insurance executive. His wealthy obscurity also made it possible for the events in the book to transpire as I wrote them.

OBAAT: You do as well as anyone I can think of in evoking the period, in this case just before World War II. The scene in the New York Athletic Club had me seeing the characters in black-and-white as if in an old movie. I wasn’t around then and you’re substantially younger than I am. What kind of research did you do?
TM: I watched lots of documentaries about the time period. I wanted to get a sense of how
people moved and dressed and spoke back then. Some movies give you a sense of that, but only a sense. People didn't roll their r's or speak with a slight British accent in the way actors do in old movies. We have diction coaches to thank for that one. Not everyone sounded like Cagney or Bogey or Raft, either. Charlie certainly doesn't. He's tough without being a tough guy. He's not a hero, but he's no coward either. To paraphrase the Bard, he doesn't seek a fight as he is, though as he is, he won't run from one.

As I've stated in several other interviews, my grandmother was born in 1902, so I grew up hearing stories about how things were back then. Subsequent research has made me love the period even more.

OBAAT: You’ve shown you can handle techno-thrillers and period pieces with equal aplomb. I know you’ve also done a Western. Tell us a little about that.
TM: I've always had a warm place in my heart for westerns because they tend to reflect the soul of the nation at the time they're made rather than reflect the time in which they are set. For example, 1930s westerns had the romantic lead and the damsel in distress. In the 1940s, they were detectives with cowboy hats and six-shooters on their hips. In the 1950s, television killed any authenticity the genre could ever hope to have, but it was popular, so what do I know? The movies of the 1950s began pushing the limit, though, with Anthony Mann and some John Ford westerns showing a darker side of the genre. A revisionist movement spread through the genre in the 60s and 70s where cowboys, save for Clint Eastwood, could've easily been hippies rather than denizens of the old west. Boundaries of the genre were pushed by wandering esoteric westerns that asked more questions than they answered. The 1980s saw more action-oriented westerns like Silverado and the 1990s more realistic tales like Unforgiven, Tombstone and others. Lately, the anti-establishment western has enjoyed something of a resurgence.

With all of that in mind, I wanted to try something different. I wanted a straight-up oater that told a good story people could relate to and believe. In short, the prosperous town of Dover Station, Montana finds itself under siege by a band of renegades and thieves. It's up to Sheriff Aaron Mackey and Deputy Billy Sunday to stop them and free the prisoners they have taken hostage.

The first draft was more Deadwood than Gunsmoke and the publisher asked me to tone it down by quite a bit. I wanted to depict two lawmen doing the right thing, leading by example and showing themselves ready to go to any lengths to uphold the law. It's a typical McCauley story with Gray Hats vs. Dark Blue Hats rather than white hats v. black hats. I did a fair amount of research on how life was back then and wanted to write a novel that reflected that reality as much as possible. For example, those showdowns at high noon? Didn't happen. The shopkeepers cringing while bandits robbed the town blind? Not as often as you might think. Like one man I interviewed in Arizona a few years back told me, "You're not going to spend months riding out here in all types of weather, where damned near anything could kill you, just to stand there and let some son of a bitch shoot at you or steal your stuff without a fight.” It made sense to me and helped me increase the dose of realism in my story.

OBAAT: Thrillers, period pieces, Westerns. Is one more fun to write than the others? Do each of them feed different part of your Muse?
TM: I've always loved the period pieces best because they have the benefit of hindsight to draw upon for inspiration. For example, the first Charlie Doherty novel - SLOW BURN - was loosely based on elements of the Getty kidnapping. THE FAIRFAX INCIDENT discusses the very real presence that the Nazis unfortunately had in this country in the early 1930s. My fear with westerns is that people who don't already read them have a preconceived notion of how they'll turn out. The strong, silent cowboy ready to defend the school marm against the hired gun. That's not the kind of stuff I write, but I may suffer from that kind of genre bias. The same goes for the spy thrillers. If I make it too technologically based, the stories won't age well. Writing about anything too current is always risky because the subject matter could be outdated by the time the work sees the light of day.

That's why I try to make sure all of the work I do is character driven. Current events may come and go, but good characters stand the test of time. Just look at LeCarre and Deighton. Their work still holds up because their characters and humor remain interesting even the world is a much different place than it was when they wrote their books.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The French Connection

It’s safe to say The French Connection is a seminal film. Not just among the all-time greats, but as influential a movie as one can think of. All subsequent crime films had to take The French Connection into consideration when making artistic decisions. (The Godfather is not a crime film. It’s an epic soap opera about criminals. One of a handful of the greatest films ever made, but it’s just proof that no genre is irredeemable when done properly.) I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen The French Connection, and I can reliably be counted on to watch the chase scene anytime some Facebook reference gets me to looking at car chases in general. (The Seven Ups will also get a chunk of my time in those circumstances.)

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about the greatest screen adaptations of all time, particularly those where the film exceeded the book. Jaws. The Godfather. L.A. Confidential. I mentioned The French Connection, too, but it had been years since I read the book. I decided it was time to renew acquaintance. I was 15 years old and had never read such a documentary account of the innards of a detail police investigation when I read it the first time. I wondered how it would hold up to my more experienced eyes.

I needn’t have wondered. In fact, I wish I hadn’t. To be fair, the book is dated. Tastes, even
in reportage, have changed dramatically. Robin Moore’s The French Connection came years before Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Still, it’s been a long time since I read such a deadly dull recitation of events that are themselves not inherently interesting.

Legend has it that much of the movie was improvised, even though Ernest Tidyman won an Oscar for his screenplay. He earned it, if only for getting people to realize Moore’s examination of every goddamn tree in the forest could be turned into an entertaining and still realistic film. Where Tidyman and William Friedkin use Popeye Doyle’s obsessive investigational techniques to hold together what is, when viewed closely and critically, a pretty flimsy plot, they never let you forget what’s at stake. Sure, Popeye’s an asshole—so was Eddie Egan, the cop that character is based on—but we’re fascinated to watch how he relentlessly pursues an investigation no one else has much confidence in. (When Doyle’s boss, Samuelson—played by the real Eddie Egan—asks Popeye’s partner if he agrees with Doyle’s wild claims, the best Buddy Russo can come up with is, “I go with my partner.”)

Granted, the film has the luxury of making the entire investigation seem as if two cops and two feds handled it all; in fact there were over a hundred investigators. The film also has the advantage of being able to gloss over things the book pretty much has to explain. The problem is that those are often the best parts of the book. How they figure out who Patsy Fuca (Sal Boca in the movie) really is. How they get the name of Jean Jehan (Alain Charnier in the film) after following him to his hotel. That was fascinating. Unfortunately it’s only about 20% of the book. The rest is spent describing, in detail, which streets the cops followed Patsy down as he tried to lose them. Then which streets they travelled trying to find him after he gave them the slip. Gruesome detail of the most tedious events until it’s hard for a reader who knows what’s going on to figure out where they are. Maybe a native New Yorker would bask in the intimacy. I’m a country boy and it just got tedious.

The French Connection is a wonderful example of how fiction can tell a better truth than facts. The filmmakers made up almost everything about the main story except for its inciting event—Egan and Grosso actually did stop by the Copa for a drink when they stumbled across Fuca and his friends throwing money around “Like the Russians were in Jersey,” to use a line from the movie. Little throwaway lines characterize the cops and provide backstory better than twenty pages of minutiae.

I already considered The French Connection a film that exceeded its source material; I
underestimated how much. No need to read the book. Watch the movie, understanding it’s a fictionalized account and what really happened took a lot longer and was a lot harder than what you see. (Not that the real cops weren’t extraordinarily lucky a few times.) Keep all that in the back of your mind and enjoy one of the best examples ever of not letting facts get in the way of the truth.

(Someday I’ll get around to breaking down Don Ellis’s superb soundtrack.)

Friday, June 8, 2018

Guest Post: Controversiality by Chris Bauer

Submitted for your approval, a new word: controversiality. Shakespeare invented words all the time. Assassination, cold-blooded, arch-villain, addiction, scuffle. Thousands of them. It might not have been the first time they were used in conversation, but scholars say it was the first time these words were seen in print.

A level set: I am to Shakespeare as Mad Dog 20/20 and Two-Buck Chuck are to Château Mouton-Rothschild.

Controversiality is a literary minefield. A place where under-published genre authors are often told not to tread, by agents, publishers, and other writers. Writing a thriller? A suspense tale? A horror title? Toss in some hotly contested topics, and it could become a literary death wish.

But I like using controversial topics in my stuff, he says. Topics that are original because they’re taboo, or because they utilize discomforting characters or situations, their uniqueness oftentimes coming from the controversial topics themselves. Controversies, and taking risks in the interest of originality, can provide great backbones for plots and character traits.

Examples, you say? Why yes, got a few handy, thanks for asking.

The landmark Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision. It’s a catalyst for the political crime thriller Jane’s Baby by yours truly, about assaults on the Supreme Court both legal and physical. Are the characters pro this, or anti that? Conservative? Liberal? Progressive? Is it right to make them, or their institutions, targets of bad actors? The novel’s heroes and villains have biases; how could they not? Some parallel the author’s. Gotta stir the pot, he says.

Or characters with physical and mental challenges that make readers wince. Like a hero fugitive recovery agent with Tourette syndrome. Or his ride-along who’s a little person, with the hero consistently using that one very derogatory term to describe his ride-along because his subconscious can’t help itself.

Wait, what? And you made these characters recurring, in a series? You’ll be excoriated.

Or gender identity, where a transitioning transgender character with conflicting body parts is mainstreamed as a cold-blooded assassin (thanks, Mr. Shakespeare) fueled more by revenge than environment, and not by his internal wiring. America is a Gun, a thriller work in progress, is an example.

 “But transgender people have enough real-life challenges trying to fit in. Don’t show one as being psychotic and evil. It fuels the hate.” Sorry, but nope. Genre fiction is a great equalizer. It can blast right past the sensitivities. Don’t make the story the character’s struggle in dealing with his/her inner conflict and/or lack of acceptance. Normalize it as just another genre character trait. Give him non-gender identity motivation for why he goes batshit crazy enough to kill people. He’s a genre villain who is transgender, is sympathetic, and not a villain because he’s transgender, also not any batshit crazier because his gender packaging is reversed. Story is king, with the character’s personal conflict simply an accouterment.

Or illegal immigrants and their mistreatment in this country. Poor, frightened, and ripe for exploitation. It’s one of the plot threads for Hiding Among the Dead, the first crime novel in a series about commercial crime scene cleaners. Still working on convincing my agent it should go on submission.

Or the crème de la crème of controversies: guns, and gun control. It’s not simply controversial, it’s radioactive. The aforementioned America is a Gun addresses how characters who live and die by their firearms mimic many of our real-life law and order heroes in that they’re fed up with the proliferation of guns and would gladly accept changes to gun ownership laws, and their own rights too, if it could significantly reduce the real-life bloodshed, so they do something on a grand scale about it. As a novel it dives head-first into the gun lobby mosh pit, but accepts that firearms are ingrained in the civilian pursuits and lifestyle of past generations and present, are so much a part of America’s history, and are here to stay for generations to come.

And here’s where things can get dicey. Why would an author spend time producing material for public consumption that he knows will immediately piss off half, maybe more, his potential audience? Where, when looking for blurbs from acclaimed bestselling authors, she receives kudos for the material, the plot, the pace, the entire story, but the kudos need to be off the record because she flew too close to the sun for the blurber’s brand?

The answer is the other half of the audience is still a helluva lot of potential readers, and this author should be so lucky to write something that appeals to them. But this isn’t the way all publishers and agents feel, unfortunately. Shooting oneself in the foot before one un-holsters a weapon (sorry) can severely stifle a manuscript’s salability, they say.

How is all this working out for me? Only one novel sold so far. Ask me in another five years.

So I’m just going to let this sit out there: Controversiality works if an author can weather the pushback and the rejection. If it adds to the originality of a story, or the voice, or the delivery of a good plot, then hell, go for it. Take the risk. Maybe even embrace it as your brand, or at least one of them.

Paraphrasing Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) in Caddyshack, while Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) lined up his iron shot after Ty’s blindfolded effort landed a few feet from the cup:

“Just be the ball. Be… the ball. You’re not being the ball, Danny.”

Naysayers? Fuck ’em. I’m just gonna be the ball.

*  *  *

Chris' new book is Jane’s Baby, of which Logan Krum, writing for The Northeast Times, says, “The plot is a tightly wound coil ready to spring at any second. Bauer wants to draw no conclusion for the reader -- he just wants them to contemplate their own thoughts.” As a Philly native Chris has had lengthy stops in Michigan and Connecticut, and he thinks Pittsburgh is a great city even though some of his fictional characters do not. He likes the pie more than the turkey. His short fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Shroud Magazine, and 100 Horrors, and has been podcasted by Well Told Tales. He's a member of International Thriller Writers, Pennwriters, and the Horror Writers Association. Chris is not to my knowledge related to the actor Chris Bauer, best known here for playing Frank Sobotka in The Wire. This Chris is a better writer, and that’s what OBAAT is about.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Movies Since Last Time

The French Connection (1971). I found myself home alone while The Beloved Spouse was helping with The Sole Heir’s wedding preparations and thought I’d watch L.A. Confidential. Realized as I was scrolling through the DVD collection I had the French Connection soundtrack running through my head as an earworm. The French Connection holds up to repeated repeated viewings (repetition intentional), and not even after the plot holes wear through the fabric is the overall value undermined. This is a film much more about attitude and the onsessions of Popeye Doyle than it is about any plotting and set the tone for what are now called “Seventies movies.” A true classic, and I don’t throw that term around loosely.

Wind River (2017). This is the kind of movie that could get me out of the house to watch movies again. Taylor Sheridan’s follow-up toHell or High Water, which I loved, is at least as good. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olson pair well as a hunter for Fish and Wildlife working with a junior FBI agent to solve the mystery of a young woman found dead on the prairie six miles from anywhere. Olson is not Super Fed. She was just the closest agent when the body was found, sent to stabilize the situation until more senior agents can arrive as a major winter storm approaches. She’s smart and tough and knows her limitations. When Renner tells her the way to find this killer is by backtracking where he’s been, she’s sharp enough to realize he has skills she doesn’t have, but needs. Their relationship is built on growing trust and respect and avoids the impulse too many movies have to make something sexual out of it. There’s already plenty going on in Wind River. Highest recommendation.

Sunset Boulevard (1950). A movie I actually did leave the house to see, driving to a theater to watch
one of Turner Classic’s screenings in a multiplex. Not quite like it must have been in 1950 when the whole building was one theater and there might have been organ music instead of commercials, but close enough. The acting is a little stylized for my taste, but that fades in comparison to the story and the personalities—more than just characters—portrayed. Another film that grows on me as I notice something different every time. I knew it was coming and was still crushed when Max confesses that he was Madame’s first husband. Also the only film to start with the dead man talking to you that gets away with it.

Whiplash (2014). J.K. Simmons deserves all the accolades and Milles Teller might be the best combination of actor/drummer ever, but the movie doesn’t hold water. Admittedly, my standards are
high, as I have a Masters in Music and worked as a free-lancer for almost ten years, but no teacher anywhere could get away with ten percent of the shit Fletcher pulls in this movie, not even for a week. Hell, drill sergeants can’t get away with some of the shit he pulled. No musician would set Andrew up for the gig at the end the way Fletcher did and ever work in that town again, and I have a hard time believing anyone wouldn’t have seen their drummer walk into a competition bleeding from the face and head and not turn to the jurors and say, “We’re gonna need a minute.” Still, it’s an absorbing film in the moment and the music is spectacular.

Kill the Irishman (2011). A 70s story told in the style of a 70s movie that works. It’s no French
Connection—it’s not even a Hickey and Boggs—but it does what it sets out to do and stays true to itself throughout. Based on a true story of Cleveland hood Danny Greene, who took on the Italian mob and dared them to kill him. Literally. On television. Ray Stevenson is outstanding as Danny, supported by a who’s who cast of crime film stalwarts including Vincent D'Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Christopher Walken, Robert Davi, Tony Lo Bianco (Sal Boca in The French Connection for those not in the know, bringing this post full circle), Steve Schirripa, and Paul Sorvino, with extra realism added through the use of actual news clips when Greene was big news not just in Cleveland but nationally. It’s not a classic, it’s not even great, but it’s solid, knows what it wants to be, and does it well.