Thursday, March 24, 2016

A conversation with Neely Tucker

By Alex Segura

You should be reading Neely Tucker.

Whenever someone asks me for a crime fiction author suggestion, one that might be flying a little under the radar, Neely comes to mind. He writes great mysteries and makes it seem easy - an impressive feat.

Tucker’s Sully Carter books - The Ways of the Dead and Murder, D.C., out now, with a third, Only the Hunted Run, on the way - paint a realistic, compelling and eye-opening picture of the nation’s capital through the eyes of a flawed and all-too-human protagonist. It has the ingredients of some of of my favorite private detective series - think Lippman, Pelecanos, Connelly and Lehane - with a flair and rhythm all its own. Carter’s petulant, smart, thick-headed and brave. He’s a guy you can root for and curse at in the space of a few pages. Tucker’s prose is vibrant but compact, befitting a journalist of his pedigree. The only downside to his novels? I usually read them in a few days and have to wait for the next one.

I was first introduced to Tucker through mutual journalism friends and finally had the pleasure of meeting him in person at Miami Book Fair last year. Trust me when I say you won’t regret picking up his books.

Thanks to Neely for swinging by and chatting. This interview was edited for space and clarity. A version of this interview will show up in my newsletter this week, too - you can sign up for that here.

Neely, thanks for taking the time to chat. Can you give readers a quick introduction to you and your work?
Sure. By day, I'm a reporter on the Washington Post's national desk, currently assigned to the 2016 Presidential campaign. By night, I'm a novelist and non-fiction author. I've been a journalist for thirty years,  sixteen of them at the Post, eight of them abroad. Worked in sixty plus countries or territories in Europe, Africa, the Mid-East, lots of it in conflict situations. Published four books (three fiction) and a chapter in another. Three kids. Wife. Dog. Grill. Football. Bourbon. Seventh-generation Mississippian now living just outside D.C.

What was the inspiration for the Sully Carter books? What made you want to shift to writing fiction after your success in newspapers and nonfiction?
When I came back to the U.S. in 2000,  the Post assigned me to the courthouse as a way of getting to know the city. There was a fascinating case of the last serial killer to work in D.C., a guy named Darryl Turner. He killed prostitutes in a rough part of town. Got away with it for years. That was the inspiration for the novel. In the first draft, Sully  was just one of several primary characters involved the case. He was a reporter who'd come home from covering the Bosnian war, damaged psychologically and physically. He was an amalgamation of things that I and a lot of other reporters had been through. My agent thought he was the strongest character in the draft, and, besides, he had the possibility of being the narrator of a series. So I rewrote it from his point of view.

As to the switch....I wanted to be a novelist since I was a kid. I grew up outside of a tiny little town in Mississippi and loved to read and write stories. I don't know why. My parents were very conservative but they'd let me read just about anything in the town library. So I was reading "Lord of the Rings" and Hemingway and Stephen King and the Hardy Boys and Faulkner and "The Exorcist" and Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote and Eudora Welty, even when a lot of it was WAY over my head.

I got interested in journalism only halfway through college. Willie Morris, the first actual writer I ever met, said that since I wanted to travel as well as write, there was always a newspaper where ever you wanted to go, and then you could meet interesting people all the time and never have to get a real job. Plus, you need to learn how to write sentences, and newspapers can teach you that. I may be the only person who  took career advice from an inebriated southern writer at a Saturday night baseball game and didn't wind up in a holding cell.  

And the advice paid off! 

Like some of my favorite detective series, the Sully novels feature a strong sense of history and place. I know you’re not a native of DC, but what made you want to set the first few books there? And why was it important to give Sully a journalism background?
Practicality, mostly. I wanted the books grounded in reality, but I also wanted them to have a natural way of taking place in a national spotlight. Ergo: Gritty crime in D.C. that gets tangled up, one way or another, with the "ruling class" of federal D.C. In the first book, the teenage daughter of a powerful D.C. appellate judge who might be the next Supreme Court nominee - hello, today's headlines! - is killed in a bad part of town. Like that.

As far as the sense of place....thank you. I think reporting from so many different places around the planet gives you a pretty good idea for what's distinctive about a place, and how to dive into that. 

The second book in particular, was steeped in D.C. history - some fictional, most real. What was the research for that like? Do you find that aspect of writing fiction - the research and organization of data - easier to handle with your background as a journalist?
Murder, D.C. is about the death of the scion of one of the city's wealthiest black families. He's killed in a waterfront park that's long been a haven for drugs. Which, as it happens,is on the site of a former slave-holding pen before the Civil War. The park is wholly invented, but not that much -- the nation's biggest slave-selling auction house was just across the Potomac in Virginia, a distance of about half a mile.

I would argue that the background as a journalist both helps and hurts the research. It helps in that you know how to find what you're looking for and how to synthesize large amounts of information. It hurts in that you tend to rely on that too much.

In fiction, readers don't care if you describe the interrogation room exactly as it is. It only matters you describe is so authoritatively that they believe it. I once profiled Richard Price, who is famous for doing tons of research. He'd go out riding with cops and hanging out in bars and take all these notes and then....never look at it. Never opened a notebook while writing. He said his job was to understand the plausible and then lie responsibly. I thought that was brilliant. (Even in "Clockers," perhaps his most famous book, the title is not actually slang for a street dealer. He just made it up, but now everybody thinks that it was real. The Oxford English Dictionary even called him about it.)

That's a great Price story - and such a relevant point about fiction. It's all about making someone believe your story. My own novels feature a washed up journalist in Pete Fernandez. Sully’s career is much more successful, though they both seem to suffer from similar problems - drinking and a dangerous curiosity being the most obvious. How important was it for you to have a protagonist who wasn’t a seasoned detective, per se?
Very. Sully needed to be a reporter in order to bring in the mysterious workings of the media (some good, some not so much) in these high-profile murder cases. That was something I wanted to write about. Also, so that  he could be a surrogate for the reader. He's not a cop or detective. He doesn't have subpoena power. He can't make people talk to him. He doesn't get to analyze fingerprints or DNA or shell casings. He is bound by a fairly strict ethical code. So he's just this guy on the street, behind the yellow tape,  trying to figure out a violent crime. Of course, everybody's lying to him about their role in it, or might be, or they might be telling the truth as they know it, but they might be factually mistaken. He has to figure out who's telling the truth, then publish the public narrative of the crime...but if he gets it wrong, he gets fired. Or worse. High stakes all around.  

Your third Sully book is on the way. What can you tell us about it?
Only the Hunted Run, is based on the very real assault on the Capitol Building by a schizophrenic named Russell Weston. In 1997, he made it into the building and killed two security guards. In "Hunted," a killer makes it much further into the Capitol and eventually winds up at St. Elizabeths (no apostrophe), the gothic-era  mental hospital on a hill in Southeast DC. Happily, in real life, it really does overlook the rest of the city, which it also does in "Hunted." (Take that metaphor as far as you wish.) Sully is in the Capitol when the shooting starts. Like all the Sully books, it's sort of a crime story about the American Dream gone really, really wrong.

I can't wait to read it. Now, I have to ask this, because his books played a huge part in my own decision to write crime fiction, and I see a lot of echoes of his work in your own - are you a fan of George Pelecanos’s work? The D.C. you portray isn’t identical to his, nor would I expect it to be, but you touch on a lot of the same issues afflicting the city. Mainly things like the dangerous racial divide and the stark contrast between the political elites and the nameless poor that are sometimes just a mile apart. Can you talk about that a bit?
George and I are both greatly influenced by the late great Elmore Leonard, particularly the dialogue. I think what you're seeing in both of us is the ghost of Dutch. I worked in Detroit and got to know him. We were friends for twenty years. You learned from Dutch just by being around him. Lovely, lovely man.  I've only met George once, but we've talked several times by phone and e-mail. He's great. We share a lot of the same likes and dislikes, and I really admire his writing. I stopped reading him, though, as soon as I started my books in the city. I didn't want to be unconsciously influenced in how I was doing my stories set on the same turf. You've got to do your own thing. But, man, I'd love to work with him on a script or something. How fab would that be?

Sign me up. I see the Leonard influence, too - that makes a lot of sense. What an amazing person to learn from.

Are there any books or movies that you’ve been enjoying lately?
I've got two jobs and three kids. I'm way behind on everything. The wife and I just watched all five seasons of "Game of Thrones" in about three weeks. It was awesome. Just read All the Light We Cannot See, which I really liked. Read So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell's classic. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. Into the Heart of the Sea. At the moment, I'm picking through stories in The Annotated Lovecraft. As a journalist, I should be thrilled that "Spotlight" won the Academy Award for Best Picture....but I would have voted for "Mad Max: Fury Road."

No comments: