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.

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