Wednesday, December 30, 2009

“If I wasn’t going to write crime fiction, I’d write...”

John McFetridge

The last of the Secret Santa topics, “If I wasn’t going to write crime fiction, I’d write...”

I guess first I’d have to figure out why I am writing crime fiction. Or why I'm writing at all.

I wasn’t one of those people who grew up reading all kinds of books. In fact, I didn’t read many books at all. The truth is, I still don’t read a huge amount of books.

I had newspaper route when I was a kid – back when the papaerboy was actually a kid - the Montreal Gazette, and I used to get up at six and deliver the papers. I’d get back from my route and read the paper while I ate my Cornflakes before going to school.

I really liked the newspaper. Later on, I realized what I really liked was the storytelling, the personalities.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Gazette had some great writers. I liked the sportswriters best, Red Fisher, Dink Carrol, (later Jack Todd) and lots more. What I liked about them was the characters they wrote about. Jean Beliveau, Ken Dryden, Rusty Staub, the great Montreal Canadiens teams of the ‘70’s and the always-underdog Expos. I remember when an American football player, Johnny Rodgers, came to play for the Alouettes and said he just wanted to be, “an ordinary superstar.” I thought that was such a great line. The sports pages were full of great lines.

As I got a little older, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, I started to read the whole paper. At that time in Montreal, the mid-70’s, one of the things that was going on was the rise of cocaine as the popular club drug and a mob war to control the supply, a struggle between two families – the family that ‘won’ became known as the Sixth Family, a kind of branch office of one of New York’s Five Families. The newspaper stories were great, full of characters, violence – real stories with great plots. Just like the movies only real, right there in my town.

(a sidenote here, the son of the family that ‘won’ in the 70’s, Nick Rizuto, was shot and killed on a Montreal street in the NDG neighbourhood - where I lived for years - a couple days ago. Newspapers are calling him the boss of the Montreal Mafia. His father, Vito Rizuto, has been in prison in the USA since 2007, convicted in the killings of three Mafia captains in New York – murders that were made famous in the movie Donnie Brasco.)

At the time I thought maybe I wanted to be a sportswriter, but the older I got the less interesting sports seemed to be. The newspapers even seemed to get cleaned up, or at least the stories in the sports section seemed to be full of a lot more innuendo and a lot less of what I’d call direct prose.

It was about that time I found out Hemingway had started out as a newspaper reporter so I thought maybe I should check him out, maybe there was something there after all. That’s when I discovered the clean, declaritive sentence, and I liked it. I liked the sports stories like “Fifty Grand,” and the Nick Adams short stories and what is “The Killers,” but crime fiction?

So, Hemingway led me to Dashiel Hammett and I liked him, too.

Then I started writing short stories, or trying to. I tried to write those Hemingway-esque “young man” stories and thankfully none survive. I tried some genre stories, sci fi and even mystery. In the mid-80’s, after going out to Alberta for a few years and working on construction sites, getting married and having a daughter, I was back in Montreal and in a band called Smiley’s People. The bass player, Michel Basilieres (who would later write the award-winning novel Black Bird) introduced me to John le Carre and I tried spy stories. I sold one to a magazine called Espionage, which was like Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock but it went out of business before my story appeared.

Then the drummer, Alan Taylor, handed me a novel and said, “You might like this.” It was called Unknown Man #89 by some guy named Elmore Leonard. And everything came together for me. The clean, declarative sentences of Hemingway, the crime stories of Hammet and the ‘regular guy’ characters from the newspaper stories. Here they were, all fleshed out, the little things in their daily lives, their relationships with women – especially that maybe – the most realistic, complete relationships between grown up men and women, none of that cutesy romantic comedy stuff.

So, then I discovered this Elmore Leonard guy had a bunch of novels out and I read them all. Some of them were westerns.

And I thought maybe I could get serious about this writing thing. I enrolled in the Creative Writing program at Concordia University – taking night classes and working in a warehouse during the day. I Was in my late twenties then, divorced with my daughter living with me, usually ten years older than anyone else in the class. Still I spent five years at Concordia and it took me another ten to unlearn everything they tried to teach me. It seems literature had moved on from declaritive sentences and stories about real people. Most of the young people in my classes had come straight from high school and were looking at writing as if it was a profession, like law or accounting, something you studied, learned how to do and then did. I’ll admit, I was very intimidated by how many books they’d read, how many literary references they could drop into a conversation so casually. I was way out of my depth.

It looked like this writing books thing was going to be way too hard. There didn’t seem to be any way I could go back to being twelve years old and read all the Hardy Boys novels instead of the newspaper stories about Montreal’s gangland wars. I really couldn’t get into Dickens. I liked Alice Munro, though, her rural Ontario was an awful lot like my mother’s rural Nova Scotia where I spent a lot of summers as a kid. Even the current stuff at the time, American Psycho, Slaves of New York, Less Than Zero, all filled with irony and knowing inside references went right over my head. Most of the other people in my writing classes were basing everything on other books, on other writers’ work.

So, I looked into writing movies. I saw a lot of movies. Another mistake it took me years to undo. But while working on movie sets and trying to write screenplays, I met Scott Albert and he had the idea to enter the three day novel writing contest. We collaborated on a book, each writing stories from the points of view of different people working on the set of a movie. We didn’t win the contest, but we had a decent first draft, we rewrote it a few times and sent it to publishers.

Karen Haughian of Signature Editions published it as Below the Line and I started to think maybe I could write a novel. A few years later I had the first draft of Dirty Sweet.

I didn’t realize at the time it was crime fiction but I liked it and I’ve just continued to write that kind of fiction.

So, if I wasn’t writing this, I guess I wouldn’t be writing.


Dana King said...

This question--and you're writing in particular--could prompt a whole other conversation: do you really write crime fiction.

You write books about people who are, mostly, criminals. Crime is not the purpose of the story, in my mind; it's how they get their stuff done. We could debate whether that's crime fiction for a long time.

While your style is clearly influenced by Elmore Leonard, I see a lot of Ed Mc Bain in how the stories play out. Leonard's books are about criminals, yes, but he still focuses on the crime in hs best work. Otherwise he tends to ramble. McBain 87th Precinct novels were about people who happened to be cops, and the crimes' resolutions were how their characters were explored. That's very much how I read your novels.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, Dana has something here. The best books are ones that are about people in trouble-characters. And I think you would always write that sort of book. Whatever the genre. And so would I. I just sometimes have trouble explaining to editors of zines that the crime doesn't have to be the whole story. Just like the crime isn't the whole man/woman.
Great post, John.

Mike Dennis said...

Patti and Dana's observations ( the character who commits the crime, and not the crime itself, or even the anticipation of the crime, should be the centerpiece of the story ) are right on the money, IMHO.

At the risk of leading us into an endless debate, I would say this type of story veers away from crime fiction and into noir. Noir, where the character and his/her flaws are what drive the story, where the character is often forced to cross the line because of being in over his/her head, and where the crime is a by-product, not the cause, of that character's downward spiral.

Dana King said...

Mike's comment got me to thinking about the eternal question: where is the line between noir and hard-boiled?

It occurred to me after reading his comment that noir and hard-boiled may start out in the same place, and read much the same, but it's the element of getting in over one's head with no good way out that distinguishes noir. The protagonist thinks he can control the situation, but once events are put into action, the situation develops a life of its own, sometimes beyond anyone's control.