Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Literary James Bond or My Contribution to Podcast #4

Last weekend, I couldn’t join my fellow DSDers in the fourth podcast. But I, like every reader here (hint, hint) have listened to it. Aside from the flat-out fun of hearing English being spoken in three different accents, I enjoyed the talk that Jay, Russell, and Dave had. They talked about Bon Jovi (yeah, really), Jay’s favorite comics, and other things. What struck me was their discussion about James Bond movies. I’d have liked to put in my two cents then so, guess what? I get to do it now.

I’m a child of the 1970s so Roger Moore was my first Bond. The Spy Who Loved Me was my first 007 movie. Two years later, I had no problem at all with James Bond Meets Star Wars (aka Moonraker). I went back and watched the Sean Connery movies and love them quite a bit. I was one who liked Timothy Dalton (especially in The Living Daylights) and cheered when Pierce Brosnan finally got the gig in 1995 that he wanted in the 1980s (note: I’m glad he waited). And I absolutely loved Casino Royale and Daniel Craig’s portrayal of 007.

As I’ve aged, there’s been a gradual change in the type of Bond movie I enjoy. Originally, with TSWLM and MR and the middle Connery films and the latter Brosnan entries, I loved the megalomaniacal villain out for world domination. One day, however, I stopped liking those kinds of stories in favor of the smaller scale Bond movie. I’m talking From Russia With Love and For Your Eyes Only primarily, but Casino Royale can slide into this category. Heck, the two Dalton films can, too. In FRWL, Bond wasn’t out to stop a giant villain. He needed the SMERSH decoder device. Get it and Tatiana back to London. Period. In FYEO, Bond needed to obtain the stolen ATAC device, part of the British nuclear codes (IIRC). Simple tasks. And believable.

That’s how the books Ian Fleming wrote are. Believable within reason. Well, okay, let me state something for the record: I haven’t read all of of the books. I’m reading them, in published order, about one a year for the past five years. Thus, I’m able to spend time with the books and get a real sense of what the literary Bond is like. Needless to say, he ain’t like the movies.

Let’s look at the order of the first five films: Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice. Think about those for a moment and get them in your head and remember how they flow together. Okay, here’s the first five books: Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Diamonds are Forever, From Russia With Love. Think about those films and get those in your head. Yeah, I get the same idea: that’s just wrong.

The movie versions of CR and FRWL have many similarities with their novel inspirations (CR less so since it was an update; but the famous torture sequence in the movie was in the book). LALD has none of the blaxploitation aspects the film had. Mr. Big was a dude in Harlem, part of SMERSH, yes, but still just a drug dealer. MR is vastly different that the movie and is very satisfying if you’d like to know about Bond’s home life. The entire first third has Bond in the office, at home, getting dressed, and outsmarting Hugo cards. DAR has a few things (horse racing; old western town; Bond on a push rail car) that would have been laughed at in 1971 when the movie version was released. FRWL is interesting since Bond doesn't even show up in his own book until chapter 5. And, in the end, Rose Klebb actually poisons 007 with her shoe/knife. Connery would never allow that.

The books are not spectacularly written. They’re stiff at times with some labored structure. But they are thoroughly enjoyable. Since the movie James Bond is so ingrained in our pop culture, the literary James Bond lives in an alternate universe. What’s best about them is that the Fleming novels stop with his death in 1964. What remains is a series of novels completely of its time: the Cold War, back when you knew who the bad guys were. As the movies (and subsequent books) marched forward in time, they lost some of their charm, getting wrapped up in the "new." Some of the John Gardner novels are pretty good, chiefly when they reference the original Fleming novels. Same with the Raymond Benson novels. Sebastian Faulks’s 2008 contribution, Devil May Care, has two distinctions. One, it’s a direct sequel to the last Fleming novel, 1967's The Man With the Golden Gun (again, check that with you memory of the movie order). Two, to date, it’s the last adult Bond novel.

This little post is but the merest glimpse at the vast array of thrills awaiting you if you crack open the Fleming novels. I have my parents’ 1960s paperbacks (like the MR photo above). To be honest, it’s made me want to get on with the six book, Dr. No (first movie).

What about you? Have you read any of the Bond books, the original Flemings or any of the others? If so, what are your favorites?

Friday, February 5, 2010

"Nobody kills me until I say so..."

By Russel D McLean

Regular readers of DSD will know that I have a weakness for French crime films*, so it should come as little surprise that – having missed it during its all too brief appearance in Dundonian cinemas (in fact, did it appear at all?), I was down to me local video emporium to get grab a hot-on-the-shelf copy of Mesrine, France’s biggest movie(s) of last year. And yes, you’re right, I said movie(s) because his story is so big they had to split it into two hour chunks subtitled, Killer Instinct and Public Enemy Number One***. This was not the first time they had attempted to make a film of the man’s life, but I think it’s the version that has so far made the most impact.

Jacques Mesrine (pronounce it Meh-Reen; apparently even the French don’t always get it right) is a real-life French gangster whose career ran from the early sixties through to his death in 1979. His crime crossed borders and he served maximum security jail time not only in France but also in Canada. But even maximum security jail wasn’t enough to hold Mesrine, and he staged a series of spectacular escapes, going back at least once to try and rescue some of his fellow inmates.

I went into the first movie knowing little about Mesrine beyond his reputation as a criminal and found myself quickly dragged into the mind of a man whose very nature was that of the sociopath. What is fascinating about Mesrine, as portrayed here, is the way he constantly tries to justify himself. For every act of brutality is an odd act of kindness that almost makes you warm to him – Mesrine is played as charismatic and yet never once do you edge over into sympathy with him. For all his talk of being akin to Robin Hood, we know the dangerous man who stares out contemptuously from behind the charming façade.

Does any of this have to do with his experiences in Algiers prior to his return home and his involvement with organised crime? The movie implies this once or twice, flirting with the guilt in modern French film-making over what happened during the war with Algeria, but does not offer quick and easy answers. It lays out events in a matter of fact manner with little editorialising, allowing the viewer to do much of the work.

But don’t think that this is a slow burn movie experience. When Mesrine moves into action set-pieces – the hold ups that start the second part, or the incredible return after his first prison break in part one – the film-makers show their power with some incredible bursts of adrenaline. Even on the small screen, I was wincing and tensing up with each bullet wound, with every smash of metal, with every drop of blood. The direction is assured, here, and when you combine that assuredness with the chameleon-like nature of its star, you have something very special indeed.

Mesrine is an incredible movie. Hands down one of the best crime movies I’ve seen in a long time, helped by a central performance that is chilling, charismatic and ultimately doomed. Mesrine’s attempts to reconcile his true nature with the man he wishes he could be result in a strange empathy between character and viewer. When Mesrine publishes a “fictional” novel of his life and crimes, you can see the thin line he has to walk to maintain his own sanity and self image and despite everything, you feel you can perhaps understand something of what drives him. But never once do you feel sympathy. You come to know him too well for that.

Mesrine took the French box office by storm, and its easy to see why. This is powerful, confident and compelling film-making at its finest.

*they may also know that Dave White has an objection to subtitles**
**and unnecessary footnotes
*** Or, if you want to be exact about it, L'instinct de mort and L'ennemi public No. 1

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Writing Advice

by Dave White

You all know me, you know what I do.

Make fun of blogs.

But I'm serious about this one...

If you cruise through the writing blogs, one of the things you'll notice is everyone and their mother is handing out writing advice.

Outline, don't outline. If you do it right the first time you won't need a lot of revision. Keep everything off the page. Use as many details as possible. Adverbs suck. Adverbs rule.

And everyone will be adamant about their advice. Whether they've written fifty novels or whether they've written one fan fiction short story published in some chat room. (Note: The fan fic people will not being willing to change or bend their advice. They are right. They are always right.)

But here's the one piece of writing advice you (if you are a new writer) need.

Do what works for you.

It's that simple. Go through the blogs, read what everyone has to say, whether they're a good writer or a bad writer. Whether they've written 14 NY Times Bestsellers or wrote that piece of Klingon FanFic. And then think about what they say. Don't just listen idly. Think about what they say, try it, and decide if it works.

If it doesn't work, it's not for you. If it does... great.

Everyone writes differently. And, what I'm finding out is, each person writes each piece differently. My first two novels were seat of your pants first drafts following one character around with a ton of revision. My latest was: outline, seat of your pants, outline, revise, revise, revise, character sketch, revise, re-read, revise.

And the next one is going to be different too.

But that's okay. That's what's working on this one.

So, once again, here's my advice. DO NOT LISTEN TO ALL THE BLOGS... In fact, you're probably better off selecting 3 or 4 you like (like DSD!!) and ignoring the rest.. .and take the writing advice that helps you...

Good luck!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The One in the Drawer

John McFetridge

Someone once said that every writer should put their first novel in the drawer and never show it to anyone. I have three novels in that drawer no one’s ever going to see (and a bunch of screenplays, but I look at the spec screenplay stage of my life as a kind of ‘blackout period’ where I wasn’t really thinking, like a ten year long bender or drug-addicted haze or my first marriage).

I think I learned from those early tries at novel writing, though, and it was a different lesson each time.

In the early 80’s I was going to Concordia University, taking night classes in English Lit and creative writing and working in a warehouse during the day. The classes were all very literary, full of classics and lots of debates about literary theory.

But in my own time I was reading Ian Flemming and Robert Ludlum and Gregory MacDonald.

And there was a rumour in my hometown of Greenfield Park that a writer named Philippe Van Rjndt, who wrote Ludlumesque thrillers with titles like The Tetramachus Collection, The Trial of Adolph Hitler and Last Message to Berlin was really Oleg Michaelchuck.

I knew Oleg, he was a few years older than I was, but I’d been the bat boy for the baseball team he played catcher for. He was a regular guy, we went to the same high school. And he had novels published?

So I figured maybe I could do that. I wrote a kind of combination spy thriller-private eye novel. It was about an RCMP officer who’d been fired (of course, he was set-up by higher-ranking bad cops) and who gets hired to spy on a Russian embassy employee by a mysterious older guy. To be honest, I forget a lot of the details, I just remember that the big surprise ending is our hero ex-cop thinks he’s working to help catch a Russian spy but he’s actually working for a Russian spy (the mysterious older guy) and he helps prove the embassy employee is really a double agent working for the Americans. Oh the irony.

Not a good book.

Luckily General Publishing, the Canadian mass market paperback company that published Philippe Van Rjndt went out of business before I could embarrass myself sending them my manuscript and no one else in Canada was publishing genre. (I guess this was the beginning of my luck with publishers. If only I’d known)

So then I decided to write a straight-ahead private eye novel. I’d started reading all the Robert B. Parker Spenser novels and he made it look so easy.

It’s not easy.

Again I had an ex-cop (not fired this time, he was laid off due to budget cuts, we had a big recession in the 80’s, ask your parents) and the book was full of intrigue and double crosses and lots of beer and eating in restaurants.

This time I got as far as sending out query letters to agents and a couple asked to see the whole manuscript. Oh happy days. Of course they passed once they’d read it, saying that it wasn’t hardboiled enough to be a paperback and not literate enough to be a hardcover. (I wonder what they would have said it lacked to become an e-book?)

Then began my “lost weekend” of screenplay spec writing. The less said about that the better.

And then one more book for the drawer, a police procedural and this time the cop got to keep his job. I was reading a lot of Ian Rankin at this point so I created a Toronto cop named Winston Abernathy and gave him a very dark case. A young couple – very early twenties – are at the beach in Toronto and their two and a half year old daughter goes missing. They only took their eyes off her for a second. The year before two teenagers drowned at the same beach (that’s true) so the lifeguards get right to work. No sign of the little girl.

Then someone who was filming his girlfriend (in a solo sexual act in their car in the parking lot) for their website sees in the corner of the frame a guy dragging a little girl into a van and driving away. It’s fuzzy and in the background of the shot, but it's enough to get everyone on it (every cop wanted to check the video). Winston Abernathy, lone wolf as all detectives in novels are, is given the job of babysitting the couple while the rest of the cops go out looking for the kidnapper.

Right from the start Abernathy knows something is wrong with the story and by the end of the book he gets to the truth – in a spur of the moment act of desperation and frustration the father held the daughter underwater. When no one around him noticed he just kept holding her until she was limp and he let go. Just like the teenagers the year before, the body was pulled under into the depths of Lake Ontario. The young parents had no plan, no idea what was going to happen and when it became a missing person they just went with it.

Dark? Oh yeah. Depressing? Too much even for me. Into the drawer.

So I tried one more time and came up with Dirty Sweet.

I think the three books in the drawer taught me the most valuable writing lesson there is – I stopped trying to wite a book I thought would sell and started writing the book I wanted to read.

So, sometimes the “one in the drawer” is three in the drawer. And some people publish the first thing they write. I hate those people.

But most imporantly, write to please yourself.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Scott Phillips Interview, Part Two

by Jay Stringer

Yesterday We kicked off an interview with author Scott Phillips. I think if i hold him for any longer, qualifies as a missing person and the cops will come looking. I better get this thing wrapped up quick. So back to it, we pick up the interview with Scott's second published novel, THE WALKAWAY....

- THE WALKAWAY blew me away. Where did this story start for you, had you got a scene or a plot you'd been carrying around for awhile?

I thought I might write about Charlie Arglist's kids, ten or fifteen years on, but that didn't gel. Then I thought about writing about Dot and Gunther from the end of the Ice Harvest, which would allow me to bring back many of the characters in the first book. And then I remembered a day when I was driving up the inramp onto the 405 freeway in Los Angeles and saw a man, eighty years old or more, in a suit, hitchhiking. It struck me as odd, and then later I wondered if he hadn't just escaped from the Veteran's Hospital just up the road (where, incidentally, my grandfather used to work as a barber).

-Gunther was just a cameo character in THE ICE HARVEST and I honestly wasn't expecting to like him as much as I did. By the end of the book I just wanted to keep reading about him. He seems like a real throwback to the stoic good guy which plays off well against the charm of Wayne Ogden, did you intend for them to work that way?

I didn't expect to like him that much either. I knew from the end of the Ice Harvest that he was kind of a taciturn, grumpy guy, but as I wrote it, and as his fragmentary memories came back to him it occurred to me that he might just be one of those guys who's not very good at showing his emotions. Wayne, on the other hand, was pure id. The clash of personalities between him and Wayne wasn't thought out from the beginning, in fact Wayne was going to be an offstage presence, someone from the past whose actions would have been alluded to and remembered, but not experienced firsthand.

- I've seen you blog about a project called Smut Sarge, is this a Wayne story?

It's "Supply Sarge," actually, but I like "Smut Sarge." Yeah, I had written two short stories about Wayne as a teenager, and he really stuck with me. My agent at the time I started it was having trouble selling a novel I'd written and told me that editors kept telling her they wanted another one just like the Ice Harvest, short and pulpy. So I thought I'd write about the year Wayne came home from WWII and tried to be a civilian and failed, utterly.

-Part of the structure of THE WALKAWAY seems to play with the conventions of a mystery novel, except that instead of a detective we have an old man and the puzzle he's trying to solve is his own memory. Am I reading too much into that?

I think that's right, though again it wasn't conscious on my part. There are characters who know quite a bit--Dot, for one, and Sally. But there's no mystery in the traditional sense. My editor at the time, Dan Smetanka, called it "more of a 'novel novel.'"

-Another element that slowly reveals itself through the book is just how much this is a simple love story, and has an emotional core to it that I don’t often see in Noir or crime. Was it hard to get the balance right between the darkness and the love story?

For Gunther the love story--mostly for his wife, but also for his unacknowledged son and grandchildren--is what makes the darkness he's seen worth living through.

-Again I’m curious about the process. The story takes place over two different time periods, and they seem to be written in different voices. Did you write them separately?

I was a third or so of the way through the novel, set entirely in the late eighties, when I started worrying about all the people who were going to be buying it expecting another Ice Harvest. And around that time I realized that the 1952 story was getting short shrift, getting mentioned in that cursory "he remembered the time he...." or "she thought back to that night at the cabin" manner. It wasn't reading very well. So just for the hell of it I started writing that second chapter in Wayne's voice, starting with his arrival at the train station, and I thought, yeah, that's what this needs. So I shoehorned that in as the second chapter and set every second chapter in 1952, in the first person, and tried to get a good Fawcett Gold Medal, Lion Books feel to it. In fact you can read those even-numbered chapters separately, and they make perfect sense as a really short novel (the odd chapters, set in the eighties, require their other half to be intelligible, however.) "Supply Sarge" is very much in the vein of the Wayne chapters of the Walkaway.

-What drew you to the 1950's for THE WALKAWAY? And why does crime fiction still fit so well in that era?

That whole postwar period works well for crime fiction, whether in the US, Europe or Japan, because things had been turned on their heads for a while and suddenly there was this other upheaval of returning vets, occupation, etc. It was a great time to be crooked, I imagine.

-Lets pretend, for a second, that I was the sort of idiot who would interview you without having read COTTONWOOD. How would you describe the book to me?

It's the story of the first few violent years of a Kansas town as seen through the eyes of a randy photographer/saloonkeeper. It works in the story of the Bloody Benders, a family of killers who lived in Kansas in 1872-73 and killed upwards of fifteen travelers, drained their blood and buried them in their orchard.

-I noticed a lot of references to the town Cottonwood in THE WALKAWAY. I've also heard you mention somewhere that Wayne made passing references to classical literature because his grandfather was a scholar, but you didn’t write about his grandfather until later on. Do characters come to you fully formed, or do you go back and work in little details like that later?

They don't come fully formed, generally. Usually I'll come up with a detail like that and go back. And it's Wayne's father he's thinking of as a scholar, but it's passed on from the grandfather. It doesn't last, though--neither Wayne's daughter nor his grandson follow in the tradition.

-I'd like to take another look at your writing process. You’ve written stories set in a number of different time periods now. Do you approach the writing differently for each era?

Not really, except when I'm writing a period piece I try and immerse myself in the culture of the era as much as I can. I read a lot of old newspapers.

-What's your technique to writing and editing dialogue, do you read it aloud? Do you steal from real conversations ? I often lift whole conversations from my work commute.

I just make it up, mostly, but if I hear something that's too good not to use I'll put it in. I just heard a story from my Mom about a guy who was in trouble wit his wife for sleeping around, and he said, "Honey, if I could un-fuck her I would." You'd better believe that's going in there somewhere. And I'm a great believer in reading aloud, though I often do it sotto voce, just to see if the rhythm's right. One thing I learned early on from James Lee Burke was that it has to scan, just like a poem.

-Had any problems with writers block, or any tips for readers of our site who might have?

I've had periods where I was just writing badly. I'm a great believer in Charles Willeford's formula: Just write something down, anything, and then you have something to revise, and if you revise enough you can conquer anything.

-I think one of the things I notice most about your work is a sense of mundanity, but I mean that in a good way! It's as if you look for the normal element buried away in a lewd story, and the lewd element buried away in something normal. Do you set out to do that?

I do. It's when the everyday cracks open and a little bit of weirdness spills out that I find my stories. Or vice versa, where the mundane flows into the bizarre, like when Bill Gerard in "Ice Harvest" says he'd rather be home in Kansas City watching his grandchildren open presents instead of torturing information out of Renata the strip club owner. I really did think that that was a believable motivation for him: Goddamnit, this really fucks up my nice Christmas I had planned.

-Okay, we're into the home stretch now and then we can let you out of the DoSomeDamage basement. James Ellroy recently said that writing was going to be 'survival of the fittest' and down to 'how bad do you want it?' What are your thoughts on the state of the publishing industry?

It's a huge fucking disaster, so much worse now than when I started off. I no longer count on making a living writing books, but books have given me enough exposure that I get a little action with comic books and TV and movies. I now look at writing books the way I used to look at writing short stories: something I do for pleasure and exposure and if I make some money at the same time, great.

-If you could change one thing about the whole industry, what would it be?

Demolish the big chain bookstores and the blockbuster mentality that they bring with them.

-I've always found there's very little transparency, and a lot of people not getting credit for the work they do. Is there anyone you'd like to mention or thank from behind the scenes?

My agents, past and present, including David Hale Smith, Nicole Aragi, Sylvie Rabineau, Abner Stein, and the late Paul Marsh; my editors, especially Dan Smetanka, Maria Rejt, Dennis McMillan and Patrick Raynal; and any number of anthology and magazine editors, not to mention the people working with and for all the above. I owe each of them more than I can say.

-Who would win in a fight between Daredevil and Spiderman?

I'd have to know why they were fighting. Did Spiderman find out about Foggy Nelson fucking Aunt May?

-Well, given Matt's seeming mission to work through the whole female half of the marvel universe, maybe it was him and not Foggy? Okay, we'll let you go now. Next up for me is clearly going to be reading Cottonwood. What have you got coming up next?

The Wayne Ogden novel coming from Phoenix Books, that should be out in September. I'm also working on a novel called Nocturne le Vendredi for les Éditions la Branche in Paris, which is part of a series of thirteen books by thirteen authors, all of which will be adapted for French TV. I'm really hoping I get to adapt it myself. Also working on a comic series with artist Roger Peterson which we'll be pitching soon called The Paradise. And a couple of film projects working with Jedidiah Ayres as co-writer. So it's a busy year coming up.

-Sounds like it. I hope we haven't left you too damaged to work.

And that's all, folks. A huge thank you to Scott for taking the time to talk to us. If you're familiar with his work, i hope this expands on his stories and gives you something to think about. If you're new to Scott, what are you waiting for?

Just before I head off, you should check out Scott's reading of his short THE CUCKOLD AVENGED, over at Seth Harwood's CrimeWAV site. There's some great readings over there, and you can subscribe to it via itunes or rss.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Scott Phillips Interview, Part One

By Jay Stringer

Here at DSD we don’t want you to feel safe or secure. We don’t want you relying on the same things day after day. Sometimes, we want you to come home, switch on your computer, and find that four favourite blogger has been tied up and locked in a trunk, and there’s a ransom note waiting for you. Sometimes, we like to do the same thing to authors, too.

So we’re starting this week with something different. Weddle is missing, and presumed, ummmm, missing. You’ll get the ransom note in the mail, okay? And joining me in the DSD basement is author Scott Phillips.

Scott’s work needs no introduction, but we’ll give you one anyway. His first published novel, The Ice Harvest, was adapted into a film starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. The film is a fun and well made slice of Christmas noir, but the book is amazing. Its tight and fast, and won’t let you stop reading even if you really want to go to the bathroom. He followed it up with an even better book, The Walkaway, and has written screenplays and short fiction. But you’ll get to read all about that in the interview so I’ll shut up now.

You can catch Scott over at his blog and you could also check out the shiny new issue of Crime Factory which features Scott as well as DSD luminaries Weddle and White, and some fella named Bruen. But now, onto the first half of the interview.

-What’s your favorite swear word?

Hobotaint! Or Hobo Taint, if you prefer

-Lets go back to the beginning. What started you off reading crime fiction?

I got interested in crime movies long before I started reading crime fiction. I used to work at a revival theater where we were always showing Bogart movies--"Maltese Falcon," "Sierra Madre," Big Sleep"--but for some reason I wasn't motivated to seek out the books. The first one I remember reading was Jim Crumley's "The Wrong Case," which I took with me one summer on a working trip to Europe. That's the one that got me started. I also remember reading Jim Burke's first Robicheaux novels before I was really heavily into the genre, mainly because I knew him. I had him for Freshman comp at Wichita State, and his very serious attitude toward writing made a big impression on me. Then I discovered the original Black Lizard series, back before Random House bought the name, and started on Thompson, Helen Neilsen, Harry Whittington and that group. I got to be friends with Crumley about twenty years ago and he turned me on to a lot of good writers--Kent Anderson, Jon Jackson, Rick DeMarinis Robert Sims Reid and that whole Missoula crowd. I also met Dennis McMillan and Chas Hansen around that time and they got me reading Willeford.

-Any particular favorites?

Too many to name, though Willeford was obviously major influence, as was Crumley. I just did three excellent books in a row by friends of mine: "Last Known Address," by Theresa Schwegel, a cop novelist worthy of Anderson or Price; Ken Bruen's "Once Were Cops," which is maybe the darkest thing he's written; and "Bury Me Deep," by Megan Abbot, which is the best of her four so far, and that's saying something. Lots of others, though. I'm reading a lot of short stories by writers like Jedidiah Ayres, who I'm writing screenplays with, and Frank Bill and Tom Franklin. I could go on for days in that vein.

-Interesting that you were a fan of the movies before the books. You have a very lean and economic writing style, would you say this was influenced by films at all?

I don't think so. I do tend to imagine scenes visually as I write them. I worry sometimes that screenwriting affected my style by stripping it down. Typically I write spare prose and then go back and liven it up. Cottonwood was written in a more florid, 19th-century style than the others.

-Cottonwood is the one I haven't read yet. I look forward to it. When did you start writing?

As a child. I used to write short stories and plays in school. My first real attempt at a novel came in my late twenties, an un-publishable piece of shit that nonetheless proved to me that I could write a big stack of finished pages.

-Did you go straight from that unpublished novel to THE ICE HARVEST?

No, I stopped writing fiction for a while, though I made some attempts. Wrote the beginning of a science fiction novel then abandoned it. Mostly I was writing scripts at the urging of an actor friend who was quite well known in France at the time and wanted us to make a movie together. That didn't happen, but I ended up in LA where I co-wrote a movie called Crosscut. I found the finished product dispiriting and decided to go back to fiction for a while, which is when I wrote Ice Harvest.

-What took you to France, and did it change the way you see or write about your home country?

I went over as a teenager as part of a sister cities program and ended up going back year after year working for various University exchange programs. In my twenties I moved there full time. I suppose it gave me the luxury of seeing the place I grew up from a distance, culturally, but it also instilled a sense of foreignness in me. I don't really feel completely at home in either place.

-The first Chapter of ICE HARVEST has an almost short story feel, which I think helps suck the reader into the book.

That was an incident I'd seen one afternoon, a drunk getting his hair caught on fire and the bartender taking away his cigarettes and lighter and then pouring him another drink. I wrote it and rewrote it, always intending it to b the start of a novel, but it didn't gel until I put it into the third person. In first person it sounded like a poor imitation of Crumley, which of course it was.

-The setting is interesting. Firstly it's not set in the present, but then it also doesn't go back to the 30's-50's era that period Noir so often does. And it’s also set in Wichita. What was it about the story that lead you to 1979 in Wichita, and did this make it a harder sell to publishers?

1979 was just a very vivid year for me. It was the year I turned eighteen, the first time I really fell in love, two of my grandparents died, I made my first trip to France. It was also the year I started going to strip clubs with my pals, so I had a good feel for the era. As far as it being Wichita, that was never a problem. I also wanted to have a lot of snow and ice on the ground, not for any sort of metaphoric reasons but because it presents so many interesting problems and offers up so many ways to describe the look and feel of things. It only became metaphor after my good friend Chas Hansen suggested the title. Actually, Wichita's winters tend to be mild, but in '78-'79 (rather than '79-'80, as in the novel) we had a really cold wet winter with snow constantly on the ground and ice constantly on the road.

- The book has a real lack of moralizing, there's never a moment when you as the author appear to be judging anybody. Is this in there right from the first draft, or do you remove your own voice during the editing?

That's interesting. If I write a character who's nasty I often find myself getting fond of him or her. I'm very sorry I killed off Wayne Ogden in the Walkaway, because I've now gone back and written about him three times, and each time I had to go back into his past, since he dies in 1952. I intended him to be a character Willeford might have written, but I think he's also got some kinship to Ken Bruen's Brant. That said, I'm not there to judge, just describe.

-Along the same lines, the book is very trusting of the reader. You never stop the story to explain characters motives, and you don't give an explanation of the crime that Charlie and Vic committed just before chapter one. Was this an approach you learned as you went along?

I hate obvious exposition. Drives me nuts. And sometimes I don't know the answer myself. I have to keep myself curious or I lose interest. Jim Crumley once told me that he'd written the beginnings of any number of novels that he abandoned after a hundred pages or so because he realized he knew the ending and just wasn't interested any more.

-I'd like to ask a couple of questions about the film. Did you learn anything from watching the adaptation process that you've taken with you into your own writing?

It affected my screenwriting more than my fiction writing. Just adapted William Gay's book the Long Home along with Jedidiah Ayres, and I always felt I was betraying the author when I made even the most necessary changes. That's a strictly visceral reaction, though, not a realistic one.

-Were there elements of the story that would work on paper but not on film, or vice versa?

Not necessarily. In retrospect I think we all agree that the change in the ending was a mistake, but the test audiences hated the original ending so much we all--myself included--at the time thought it was the thing to do. And of course it was shot in May, so the snowstorm was out. We settled for some fake snow on the ground in patches and a cold, nasty rain.

-I think the only choice that I had to stop and think about was Charlie himself. In the film there is more of an attempt to portray him with the dreaded word 'sympathy', and to lessen his culpability in what happens. Do you think this was necessary to make the film work as a 90-minute story?

I think it's purely and simply the fact that John Cusack is a likeable onscreen presence. I always found Charlie likeable; in fact my theory was that Charlie skated by on his charm.

-It was ICE HARVEST that secured you an agent, right?

It was indeed.

-There are people reading DoSomeDamage who are still looking for that magic person. Do you have any advice for them?

My advice right now would be to get published on one of the better-known internet sites--Plots with Guns, Thuglit, etc.--and then start approaching agents. It's a really good way to raise your profile, and before long others know your name and work, and soon enough the agents will, too.

Interview Continues Tomorrow

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Music vs Books

by Mike Knowles

Last weekend, I happened to catch the movie The Soloist on the movie channel. If you haven’t seen it, the film is about a reporter, Steve Lopez, who strikes up a friendship with a homeless schizophrenic name Nathaniel Ayers Jr. Steve hears the sound of Nathaniel’s violin playing on the street and soon learns that the homeless man was once a student at Juilliard. The movie chronicles their friendship and all and all it was pretty decent. One particular thing that struck me as interesting in the film was a question Nathaniel asked Steve. Nathaniel asked the reporter if his love for books was similar to way he felt about music. The reporter said no and changed the subject, but I thought about the question long after the movie ended.

I like music, but I am in no way an authority on it. I don’t devote massive amounts of time to music. I listen when I can, but I don’t go out of my way for it. I just don’t have Nathaniel’s passion for music. But books, books I love. Books I devote time to and read as often as I can. I would have to say that, unlike Steve Lopez, I find in books what Nathaniel Ayers Jr. finds in music.

My classical tastes are more for McBain than Beethoven. Writing for a whole orchestra is neat, but it is no way as cool as the way Ed McBain could weave the lives of the men and women of the 87th precinct together.

Rather than listen to Eric Clapton classic rock riffs, I’d rather read about John D. MacDonald’s classic PI. Playing the guitar is cool, but a PI living on a houseboat named Busted Flush is way more badass.

Punk has a lot of messages buried in the seemingly simple music, but I would rather listen to Ken Bruen and Jason Starr’ s daring use of language in their Hardcase Crime collaborations than anyone who headlined CBGG.

Heck who wants to listen to Canadian songstress, and all around skinny gal, Celine Dion when they can bury their nose in a McFetridge.

The more I thought about what Nathaniel had asked Steve the more I realized how I think about books. When I look at a book that has earned a place on my shelves, I don’t immediately recall the plot of the book. Instead, I remember particular scenes, description, and dialogue like they were favourite songs. Robert Parker’s workout conversations between Hawk and Spenser, Mike Hammer’s cold one liners, Stark’s mean descriptions, Eisler’s combat scenes. All of them are greatest hits to me.

Words hit me in a way music never has. I appreciate a good phrase more than a good song. When the movie ended, I remember enjoying the music of Nathaniel’s cello, but I remember a single clever description more. It was one of those things that was just so perfect, I had wished I had thought of it. Steve walked skid row narrating to himself for his newspaper column and he described seeing, “rats the size of meatloaf’s.” That line stuck in my head and I thought about how much I liked it long after I changed the channel. A description of rats will forever be my first thought when I think of that movie, not the beautiful songs, or the heartbreak of mental illness. Just rats the size of meatloaf’s.

Nathaniel’s question to Steve changed the movie for me. The homeless schizophrenic became so much more understandable when I realized we were the same. Something about books hits me deep inside in a way I can’t explain or define. And if my life were stripped away until I was left with nothing, like Nathaniel’s, I would still cling to the way I feel about books and the wonderful things inside them.