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.

1 comment:

jhegenbe said...

"Nice interview of a nice guy." I think Scott said that back to Hemingway.