by Steve Hamilton
Published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Minotaur
288 pages, 2002
Steve Hamilton broke onto the crime fiction scene in a big way. He won the 1997 Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin's Press Best First Private Eye Novel Contest with his book A Cold Day in Paradise, featuring reluctant sleuth Alex McKnight. That work went on to pick up both the Edgar and Shamus awards for Best First Novel in 1999, and it spawned three critically acclaimed and best-selling sequels: Winter of the Wolf Moon (2000), The Hunting Wind (2001) and, most recently, North of Nowhere (2002). Hamilton is currently at work on his fifth McKnight book, Blood Is the Sky, scheduled for publication in the spring of 2003.
McKnight is an ex-Detroit cop in his late 40s, who has sought the isolation of Paradise, a small town in Michigan's heavily wooded Upper Peninsula (U.P.). It seemed the ideal place for McKnight to brood over his fears and especially his failures -- his traumatic police career (which ended after a shootout that left his patrol partner dead and a bullet lodged less than a centimeter from McKnight's heart), his long-ago divorce and his all-too-brief prospects as a minor-league baseball catcher. He figured that getting out of the Motor City and moving to the U.P., where his father had built half a dozen rentable log cabins back in the 1960s and 70s, would allow him the quiet he craved. However, theft and murder can happen anywhere, even in a backwoods burg one giant step away from the Canadian border. And as much as Alex tries to avoid investigating the sordid crimes around him, his promises not to get involved last about as long as the warm weather in Paradise.
Hamilton has so far eschewed the high-caliber pyrotechnics of many contemporary novels -- action that emphasizes the heroic elements of this genre, but too often stretches believability. Yet he delivers all of the modern detective fiction essentials, including plot twists that the reader flat-out never sees coming. Hamilton's storytelling turf is the connection between friends, the making and breaking of bonds. Put one of Alex McKnight's friends in jeopardy -- whether it be his old baseball teammate Randy Wilkins, in The Hunting Wind, or his bar-owner buddy, Jackie Connery, in North of Nowhere -- and the detective will take his gun out of the shoebox in his closet and go to work. Assisting him more often than not will be Leon Prudell, a man with orange hair and a burning desire to be a P.I. Prudell is no Hawk, but he plays a substantial role in Alex's crime-solving successes.
If it's not a comrade in dire need, then what gets McKnight's mojo going is the knowledge that somebody he feels responsible for is in trouble. In Winter of the Wolf Moon, for instance, he steps in to help Dorothy Parrish, a young Ojibwa Indian woman, who is on the run from an abusive relationship and, as the story progresses, goes missing. References to northern Michigan's Ojibwa culture have become consistent elements of the McKnight stories, with Wolf Moon being especially evocative.
While the 41-year-old Hamilton already has four novels to his credit, only recently did he publish his first short story, "The Nerve," in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (December 2001). Though it's told from the first-person point of view, just like the McKnight tales, "The Nerve" is not a detective adventure, but is more reminiscent of Raymond Carver's best work. Its unnamed leading man is a parolee with a predicament: he's afraid to be himself. Working a dead-end job making gyros in a fast-food restaurant, he's accused by the store manager of stealing money. The protagonist's attempts to clear himself set in motion events that ultimately lead to his getting his "nerve" back. Even in this shorter format, Hamilton's smooth prose style pushes the narrative effortlessly along. And "The Nerve" ends with a hell of a twist.
In person, Steve Hamilton is a tall, amiable man, who tries hard to thoughtfully answer questions about his work. He and his wife of 11 years, Julia, have two children -- Nicholas, 7, and Antonia, 2 -- and they live in the upstate New York town of Cottekill. Despite his authorial achievements, Hamilton hasn't quit his day job. He's an information developer (a fancy term for technical writer and Web developer) with IBM, the company for which he's worked over the last 19 years. To find enough writing time each day, he stays up after the rest of his family has gone to bed; it's not unusual for him to work until 2 a.m.
I had the chance to sit down with Steve Hamilton at a restaurant in New York City on the night after this year's Edgar Awards presentations. We talked about the discipline he learned from joining a writing group, the "soft-boiled" character of Alex McKnight, the role of nature in his books and his aversion to reading his own work in public.
And no, he didn't order a Canadian beer.
Anthony Rainone: In 1999, you were given the Edgar for Best First Novel. What was that like, winning right out of the box?
Steve Hamilton: That was really kind of amazing. It's going to sound corny, but it's really true that just being nominated is such an honor -- just being listed as one of the year's best. That's basically what I said when I got up there [on the podium], and then I concluded with a line from Tommy Lasorda, when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame: "Who are you people? And what are you doing in my dream?"
Did that win put pressure on you when you were writing the second McKnight book, Winter of the Wolf Moon?
It did put a little more pressure on the next book, yes. I guess I was about halfway done at that point, and already putting plenty of pressure on myself -- just based on the fact that with or without the awards, I wanted the second book to be better. It didn't get any easier until I learned to pretty much forget everybody else -- especially editors and reviewers -- and to just go back to the way I wrote the first one: Trust the story. Trust the voice.
How did you become a crime novelist?
I've always wanted to be a writer of some sort, going back to when I was a kid. I didn't always know that I wanted to be a mystery writer. I think when I was a kid, I [considered it]. Then, I sort of outgrew that, and I wanted to be a real serious, literary writer. Whatever that means. And then I sort of rediscovered [mystery writing].
It would seem you had a natural talent for fiction. You won a literary award in college, right?
Yes, there was something at the University of Michigan called the Hopwood Award. Arthur Miller won [it] when he was there, so he and I have that in common, if nothing else. [The award] was for a short literary novel that I did. It was never published -- just something I did for the award. So I thought when I graduated from college that ... I would keep writing, because that's what I really wanted to do. Of course, I was going to school and I was getting a practical major. I was a computer science major. My dad was paying for college, and he wasn't going to pay for an English major. He was going to pay for something that would lead to a good job. So I took the minimum to get a degree in computer science, and I took all English classes besides that. When I graduated, I went to work full-time for IBM.
But you kept on writing?
I figured I would sort of keep that promise to myself [to write], because I'd have all this free time. You go to work from 9 to 5, and you're single and you're unattached and you do what you really want to do after work. That was the idea.
So about 10 or 12 years go by -- and I haven't kept that promise to myself at all. The reason [being], there was nobody making me do it ... And I'm not self-disciplined enough, or inspired enough, or whatever it takes to do it just for [myself]. So, I eventually found out about a writing group, and I joined. That's what got me started again. It was in the basement of this little library across the river from my home upstate, and I would go there every Thursday night. And now I had this deadline every Thursday night. These people were in that library waiting for me. So I had to have a short story, or a chapter, or something -- or they're going to want to know why I hadn't done anything. I had this little deadline and that's all that I needed.
Was it as part of that Thursday group that you started developing A Cold Day in Paradise?
I started with some short stories, some literary stuff. And I sold one to a magazine. Then, I figured OK -- I'll try some mysteries, because I always loved reading mysteries. I sold a short mystery story to a magazine called Pirate Writings, which is this really cool cross-genre magazine. I got paid a penny a word, which came out to $44, which was my first paid writing. And then I figured, OK -- I've written some stories. I feel I can start a novel. I tried to figure what else I can write about. I saw this listing in Writer's Market for the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best Private Eye Novel Contest. The basic idea is you write a private eye novel, and if they like it, they give you a publishing contract. It seemed like a great idea. It wasn't one of these contests where you get a prize, or an award, or a title, or a piece of paper. If you win, you get published.
Which is ultimately what matters to a writer.
Yeah, so it seemed like a great thing to do. I had a deadline that I could shoot for again. And I've always loved reading private eye books. Chandler, Sam Spade -- all the great private eye classics. And I always thought it would be easy to write one, because it always looked easy. And I had all this time off from work at the end of the year -- 16 days off from work with nothing to do. I figured in 16 days of doing nothing but writing, how much could I get done? I could get 100 pages done! So I'd get this big start on this book. I'd end up getting the book done well in time for the deadline, and I could send it in to this contest.
So like I said, a private eye novel is so easy to do. All you've got to do is put your private eye in an office, right? The client comes through the door, and you see the shadow against the glass, and it's the beautiful blonde -- or, the rich guy looking for the beautiful blonde. And they exchange wisecracks. And he takes the case and that's the end of chapter one. Right? In chapter two, he goes out looking for trouble and gets beaten up. And you go from there. I figured I could do that. I picked up a couple novels by the current crop of private eye writers and I read them. I still thought it looked pretty easy to do.
[Pausing for a few beats] Well, in the two weeks off from work, I wrote exactly two words: Chapter One. I went back to work on a Monday, and I was in such a bad mood that day. It felt like I had set up this test for myself and I had failed -- I was a total failure. I went around work saying to myself, "You're a failure and you don't have what it takes. You can write a little short story -- good for you. Writing a novel, being a real writer, you don't have it. You don't have the discipline." And I went home from work -- it was a Monday night in January -- and I went upstairs and turned the computer on. I brought up the file I had started the group with. I decided that instead of torturing myself, I'd do something else, just write something for my group. I don't want to make it sound mystical -- like this voice came to me from the heavens -- but I got this idea for a character in the same mood I was in. Someone who was feeling like a failure, and he was by himself, like I felt by myself that night. So I started asking myself who this guy was and why he was feeling that way. And I got this idea for a character and started following it. Why was he a failure? Why was he in such a bad mood? Maybe he was a cop in Detroit, my hometown. So where is he [now]? If you're a Detroit cop and you're all alone, there's only one place, and that's up north. So he's in a cabin. Why is he there? And I started following that, and I ended up writing [A Cold Day in Paradise].
I didn't think it was a private eye novel at all. [McKnight] doesn't take a case, or go out and try to solve someone else's problem. He doesn't want to be a private eye at all. So I was sure it wasn't a private eye novel. But I had it done, so I [sent] it in. And I was sending it around to agents, too. I was surprised when [St. Martin's editor] Ruth Cavin called me and told me it had won. And the month after that ... I'm at Bouchercon. There are all these mystery writers walking around -- guys that I had read. And I couldn't believe that I was really there and soon to be one of them. It was a really odd experience. In a way, I'm still trying to catch up to that. That it's really happening.
Has your process of shaping novels changed since writing that first one? How do you go from the initial idea to the finished manuscript?
Very painfully. [Laughs] I definitely do not have an outline, or any kind of full idea of what the book is going to be about. I almost wish I did -- and I know some people do. Bob Crais will have the whole thing laid out in his mind, all on paper. This happens and this happens and this happens. It must be nice, because you know when you are halfway done, or almost done. You know when you're on your act, or off your act. At the same time, I think it sort of shows ... if you have it laid out too well. It reads like there's too much formula. In my case, I start with the beginning. Like in [North of Nowhere]: What would happen if Alex goes to play a poker game, and some guys break in and rob [the homeowner, Winston Vargas]. That's all I had -- I just followed it. What happens next and what happens after that.
I'm working on the fifth [novel] right now, and I have less and less idea [of where I'm headed] when I begin -- I just start going. If I waited until I had the whole idea in my mind, I'd never write a book. I'm never more than a chapter ahead -- and I hope that it works; so far it has. I'm not really sure where it comes from. I don't want to over-analyze it too much, because maybe it would stop.
How many drafts, or rewrites, do you go through with each book?
Four or five drafts. With the first, I'll capture the whole story. That's what the first draft is really: finding out the story. The second draft is cleaning up little mistakes, filling in some of the details and the color and the description. The dialogue all comes pretty fast for me. It's all the little stuff that I fill in with each draft after that.
You say that the story is determined, or discovered, in the initial write-up. Do you allow yourself the freedom to change the story in later drafts?
Not so much change it, as refine it. If something doesn't sound right, or if something doesn't sound reasonable -- I might change that. Motivational stuff. I pretty much stick to the story from the first draft.
Let's talk about your characters. I like Alex McKnight. His motivations are all from the heart. You want to go along with him, even when he shows poor judgment.
Yeah ... He always does things for the right reason, even though the results can turn out badly. There's a scene [in The Hunting Wind], where this crazy left-handed pitcher has found him and asked him to do this crazy thing -- go back to Detroit and find this girl he hasn't seen in 30 years. And Alex stands at the bar and asks Jackie if he should do it. And Jackie says, "Why are you even asking me, when you know you're going to do it?" As tough a guy as Alex is on the outside, he's a sucker on the inside.
McKnight's cases fall into two main categories: he's either helping friends or people he comes into contact with who are in trouble. The stories often become complex, yet their foundations are simply constructed. Do you think that many of your fellow private eye novelists are more willing to stretch credibility to impossible limits?
There are guys who write about high-powered people with guns and connections. And they do a great job. Lee Child and Bob Crais -- they do a great job. But I can't do that, that's just not me. And not because I don't know anything about guns or the police; it's easy enough to find that out. I just can't outdo them. I can't write the tougher, more macho, more firepower, more guns [books]. I can't do that, and I don't even want to try. I'd rather write about this guy who's a total sucker for a lost cause. And when his friend needs help, he's going to go out and get his butt kicked again trying to help him.
In fact, Alex gets his butt kicked fairly regularly, unlike the archetypal American private eye. Also going against recent genre convention: Your man doesn't have a sidekick prone to violence, like Elvis Cole's Pike or Spenser's Hawk.
No, he doesn't have that. That's a device that's been used a lot. If you do it well, like Dennis Lehane, Robert Parker and Bob Crais, you can still get away with it. I just didn't want to do that. Instead, I thought it would be a lot more fun to [give] McKnight a goofball sidekick ... although [Leon Prudell] is sort of proving he's not a goofball, he sort of knows what he's doing. I wanted to have the anti-sidekick, if I was going to have a sidekick at all. And all that happened accidentally -- I never thought Alex would have help from anybody. Leon was just a character in the first chapter [of A Cold Day in Paradise]. Alex took his [private detective] job away, and [Leon] wanted to fight Alex in the parking lot. Later in that book, there was just a great place for [Leon] to come back. Then even later, there was a great place for him to come back and help [Alex] a bit. [Leon] was not supposed to be anything more than a first-chapter guy -- a local character. But he sort of took over, just came back on his own. And he's been a big part of the whole series.
Do you anticipate the relationship between Alex and Leon changing? Do you foresee a time when Leon might be more prominent in these books?
He won't be more prominent, but he will always be there. In [Blood Is the Sky], which I'm still finishing, Leon has a small role. And Vinnie LeBlanc is back, the Ojibwa friend from [Winter of the Wolf Moon]. Alex has been estranged from him since that book. They come back together, because Vinnie really needs him. Most of [Blood Is the Sky] is set in Canada. It isn't until they get back to Michigan, that Alex needs some help finding out something, and he goes back to Leon. Leon will always be there whenever Alex needs to do some genuine private eye stuff, which Alex has no real interest in doing, or even knows how to do.
McKnight has endured a failed marriage and a failed baseball career, and he suffered a traumatic event as a cop --
He blames himself for his partner's death.
Right. Those feelings have been continuous for Alex through your first four novels. Do you see Alex ever coming out of his isolation and somehow forgiving himself?
That's a good question. [In] the first book, he had to deal with the real fear that he was still feeling. Fourteen years [after being shot], he still has this blood fear that he lives with. And he's not equipped to deal with it, as most American males are not. Men who grow up in a sporting environment, or a military environment, or a police environment -- [they're] not supposed to show fear or give in to fear. You don't know how to deal with fear. And if you have this thing happen -- and you're living with being afraid -- you don't know how to deal with it. The last thing you're going to do is ask somebody to help you. It's not the American macho man thing to do.
In the first book, ... his past comes back to haunt him a little bit, finds him way up there on Lake Superior. He finally has to deal, at least, with that aspect of it: the physical fear that he feels. So he got over that a little bit, but he still has other things to deal with. In [North of Nowhere], he's sort of slipping back into that ... It starts out with him noticing that he's not even leaving his cabin much anymore. There's a line in there -- in the first chapter -- about how that was the summer he had to decide if he was going to retreat all the way, or rejoin the human race. By the end of the book, he has to make a decision that he is going to be part of the human race again. So, he's gotten over [his fear] a little bit more. Each book, maybe he takes one little step toward getting over all this stuff. It's hard to say if he ever will. I think it makes him more interesting, if he has all this stuff to deal with. But I'm learning a lot about him with each book -- and I don't know where he'll be a few years from now.
Maybe in a relationship? Outside of his failed marriage, he has not had a meaningful relationship with a woman. Though, I guess his marriage wasn't meaningful, either.
[Laughs] Yeah. Not to make this sound mystical, because I have no idea what's going to happen, since the character just takes over. I was very surprised at the end of this fifth book I'm doing now. [Alex] actually ends up with somebody in his life. I think the sixth book -- whatever it's going to be, I barely have an idea for it -- is that he's going to be with someone. Someone who has their own baggage, really, something kind of similar to what Alex has, so that they have that in common. It'll be interesting to see what he's like when he's with somebody else in a real relationship.
In your books, the women characters are believable. Writers can't always pull off the opposite sex. But Bob Crais does a great job, and so do you. How are you able to make your women characters flesh-and-blood figures? Are there strong women in your life that you draw on for character development?
Wow. I happen to be married to a great woman; that helps. I think that men writing about women and women writing about men -- they fall into a trap, when doing the opposite sex: they exaggerate. Men will exaggerate the "female qualities" and the women might exaggerate "male qualities" that make men and women different. When in fact, all men and women are not that different. Obviously, there are wonderful differences, but I think if you write about the opposite sex as alien, you are in trouble from the beginning. I think everybody wants the same sort of things in life.
Let's turn our attention to Jackie Connery, the owner of Paradise's Glasgow Inn, the guy who brings Alex his beer and dinner most of the time. You've developed him more in North of Nowhere, which is great. In the other books, he was pretty limited in scope. But here, we see him as a family man, we see him in trouble and we see a much stronger bond growing between Alex and Jackie. What does this foretell for Jackie in your forthcoming novels?
I think in the first three books, Alex took [Jackie] for granted, and I took him for granted as a writer. I realized that here was this great character in the background. I mean, he was born in Scotland, [but now] he was running this little bar in Michigan. How did he get there? I just thought it was high time to find out why he was there. Of course, once you do that -- flesh out a character -- they can never go back to being just a secondary character, even though they may not have a big part in the next book. Neither Jackie nor Leon have huge parts in the next book, mainly because Alex ends up going to Canada. I sort of got into this rhythm, where Alex is at home in the heart of the U.P. [in one book], then he'll be away somewhere, like in [The Hunting Wind], where he was down in Detroit. In [North of Nowhere], he's right back in the heart of Michigan. The fifth book, he'll be going away. The sixth book, I'm sure he'll come back home. I sort of got into that rhythm, and I think it's a good one. You stay fresh that way, by not always writing about the same place again and again and again.
So, there will be a sixth McKnight book?
Oh, definitely. St. Martin's paid for it, so there will be a sixth Alex McKnight book. I'll be starting it next year. And I can't tell you anything about it at this point.
You show an affinity in your work for Native Americans. Can that be traced back to your having grown up in Michigan, or did it develop during the course of your writing these stories?
Setting the books in the Upper Peninsula -- it's not like out west, where there's a reservation staked off. They live there, other people live here -- its totally separate. No, the one thing I was impressed with: When you go [to the Upper Peninsula], all the Ojibwas and other people live together. And they intermarry a lot, and there's a lot of mixed blood up there. And everybody has to stick together, especially during the winter. You never feel that separation. The [Ojibwas] live in a reservation, but you don't realize it. You drive into the subdivision and you realize, "Oh, this is where all the Ojibwas live." I just like the fact that they all live together up there, and they all seem to get along together pretty well, all things considered. And yet, there's always going to be a little bit of a divide there, because of the differences in culture.
That's why I wanted to have Alex's friend Vinnie as part of the second book, and he's back in the fifth book. There's a lot more [to tell] about the Indian way of life. And they call themselves "Indians"; "Native American" is not used. Of course, I would never try to tell a story from the viewpoint of someone from that culture, because I wouldn't have the authority. It wouldn't be right for me to try it. But I can tell the story from Alex's viewpoint, as a close friend of Vinnie's, who is a member of that culture. And Alex can understand a lot of what [Vinnie] is going through, and even be a part of some of it. At the end, there's always going to be a bit of a gulf there. There's always going to be a bit of a difference there. I have worked with this amazing woman, who is the daughter of a very famous medicine man of one of the tribes up there. ... And she's read all the books and loved them, and she's given them to her friends up there, and they all really like them. And that means a lot to me. They feel I respected the whole way of life up there. I tried to be respectful and truthful ...
You've mentioned several times that your next book is set in Canada. How much research went into getting the Canadian setting correct? And how much research, in general, do you do before writing your books?
Just like having an outline: If I waited until I had all the research done, I would probably never get the book done. I sort of start with a half-assed idea, and I hope that by the time I'm done, I can go back and make it a quarter-assed idea. I'll do a lot of stuff after the fact. In [Blood Is the Sky], it involves flying and hunting way up in Ontario. I've done some of that already, where you drive as far as you can go, then get on a plane and fly up to a lake -- and they drop you off for a week, and then come back and pick you up. I sort of drew on that ... That's really all I had to go with.
You're from Michigan, originally, but you now live in upstate New York. Why did you decide to set your novels in Michigan and not in northern New York, or even in New York City?
We don't need any more New York City private eyes! The reason I picked the Upper Peninsula is really for only one good reason, and that's Lake Superior. It is the biggest lake in the world. It is over 1,000 feet deep. It is just a huge, huge body of water. You can call it the Sea of Superior. And if you've ever been up there to see this thing, you'll realize it's just an awesome force of nature. This lake kills people every year. Handfuls and sometimes dozens of people every year. In this land up there -- where there is hardly any crime -- you have this cold-hearted killer right at your back door. This beautiful, huge lake will turn into a monster every November. It's really true. ... And I thought -- what a great backdrop and character of its own, to have this lake always in the background. And that's why finally, in [North of Nowhere], Alex has to go out on the lake and deal with the lake itself.
That's a fascinating wrinkle: the lake as character. It reminds me of Lehane's standalone novel, Mystic River, in which he attempted to turn a river into a palpable character. And it makes me want to ask: Do you think you, too, have it in you to write a standalone?
That's a good question. You see a lot of writers, like Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben and Dennis Lehane -- they do [standalones] really well. I think they did it because they had some other kind of story burning to come out. So they had to put their series aside and do it. I think if you did it just for commercial reasons, it wouldn't work. Someone like Lee Child [Without Fail] has said publicly that he will never do a standalone ... He will do a Jack Reacher book every time.
For me, I don't have that other story burning to get out yet. If I had to guess, I would say that I will at some point. But I'm not going to do it just because Harlan Coben is on the bestseller list now, or Dennis Lehane. ... If you point a gun to my head, I would say one more Alex, and then maybe a standalone after that. But then I would come back to Alex. It would be to give him a break, maybe. Things are really rough on him in the next book. There's only so much he can do, or can't do, book after book after book. If he goes through something really bad in the sixth book, then maybe it will be time to give him a break. Do something else, and then come back to him.
Since we're back to talking about your writing process, I'm curious: When you have a finished manuscript, who do you give it to for feedback?
When I'm writing [a book], there're only two people in the world who can see it: that's a man named Frank and a man named Bill. They are two of the members of the writing group that I joined, [and] that got me writing again. And to this day, I still meet with them once every week or two weeks. They read everything I'm doing, as I'm doing it, and they are fantastic. Frank is more of a plot guy, sort of a grand-scale storyteller -- a gifted storyteller. Bill is more of a good close editor, for things that don't sound right to the ear. Between the two of them, I have just the best support team for helping me along the way. Letting me know if I'm being lazy, or if what I'm doing isn't working. If it doesn't get out of Frank's living room ... well, everything I do has to get out of there first, before Ruth, my editor, or anyone else sees it.
Do Frank and Bill give you specific comments, or more general recommendations?
They'll give me specific comments and general comments -- they'll tell me what's not working for them. I'll take stuff back and work on it. And what they say is always right. It's always stuff that I sort of knew while I was doing it. I'm not sure if I'm going to get away with this -- and I fly it by them and I see it doesn't really work. And they tell me that. I don't need somebody telling me everything is great. I need somebody to tell me, "This is good, this is good, but then right here -- what the hell were you doing with this? This doesn't make any sense. You're a lot better than this. You can think of something better than this." Then, it's my job to go back and think of something better. They're actually my two secret weapons, and I'm glad that I'm the only one who has them.
Has your success changed this process, or Bill and Frank, in any way?
The funny thing is, the whole experience hasn't changed much at all since the old writing group days. When we're into it, it still feels the same. This whole business of selling the books and having success -- that sort of fades away. It's just me and a couple good friends hanging out like always and reading over some pages. Bill will still bring in stuff, too. He's mostly writing literary short stories, but Frank has stopped for a while. After writing eight or nine books and having plenty of agents and close calls, he sort of got burned out on it. I've tried to help him out in marketing a couple of his crime fiction novels, but nothing has come of it yet. It's frustrating, because he's such a naturally gifted storyteller.
How do you feel about writing from the first-person perspective versus third-person? First-person has become the standard in private eye novels. But have you ever thought about changing your viewpoint?
I'm so comfortable with first-person -- sort of being inside the head of the character, the way he's thinking and how he talks to himself. Alex talks to himself all the time. I'm just comfortable doing that. I have never published anything in third-person.
Although your first-person voice is compelling and seems natural, you must work very hard at developing it.
That voice is what feels the easiest. It feels natural to tell the story through [Alex's] viewpoint. I don't outline, but if I sketch ahead to the next chapter, I'll write down ... notes to myself. I'll call the character "I," like I'm [Alex]: "I'm going to do this, or maybe this is going to happen to me." ... Not to say I become him, so much. It's a strange process and I don't want to think about how it works too much. I don't want to mess with it.
The one thing that's different about Alex -- somebody pointed this out to me -- is that he is older than I am. This is one of the few series where the main character is older than the author, and I hadn't even thought about that. I thought about all the guys that I read, and it's always [true that] the main character is about the same age as they are, or a bit younger. There's nobody else who's writing a character 10 years older. That's just sort of the natural voice that I got when I thought of this character, because he's been through a lot more in life than I have. So he has to be a little bit older, I think.
Sue Grafton said, at a conference I attended once, that she never sits down without looking at that blank page and feeling scared, feeling butterflies. Is it the same for you?
Yeah, well, especially page one. Page one is scary, page two not as scary, and then it gets better after that. You get your whole mind wrapped up in a book. I sort of get a little depressed [when] I'm done, [because] I'm not in that little world anymore. It's nice to have that second little reality that I can think about all the time. I think the one thing that makes it easier is that you have the same character. And I think for Sue, it's the same way. She has Kinsey [Millhone] to come back to all the time. [Kinsey] must be like an old friend to her by now. I try not to think about it so much. I just think it's time to go see what Alex is doing again.
We've talked about writing. Now, let's talk about reading. What kinds of books do you read?
There're so many good writers working in mystery right now. I've always loved reading mysteries. Even if I weren't writing, I'd still be reading all these really great writers, more sort of hard-boiled. Guys like George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Bob Crais, Jim Crumley. One of the biggest kicks with this whole thing [is], I get to actually hang out with them now. I get to meet these people and do conferences. Club Med flew a bunch of us down to do a week in the Bahamas. [My wife] Julia and I flew down to hang out with Dennis Lehane and George and Jim Crumley and Harlan Coben. These people are fun to hang out with, [and] they're doing some really good work these days. I think some of the best writing in America right now is in the mystery field.
I agree with that. Do any of your contemporaries influence you?
No, I don't think they do. They might inspire me to write the best book I can -- fire me up. I see them doing that. They're not mailing it in. They're not writing formula junk. Like Dennis' Mystic River -- he tried to do something great.
What about authors outside of mystery?
Outside of the mystery genre, I'll read Don DeLillo and Martin Amis. But I always find myself coming back to mysteries.
I understand that a small movie-production company is interested in "The Nerve," that short story you published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Would you be interested in seeing your books turned into movies, as well?
Yeah, a very, very, very small company called Jaguar Films is going to do ["The Nerve"]. It's really a one-man operation. Beyond that, I do have a guy in Hollywood. I can't even say that without being self-conscious. But I do have an agent out there. And he gets calls all the time -- he's talking to people. I just try to forget about it, as much as I can back here in New York, because you'll drive yourself crazy.
I was fortunate enough to see up-close [the experiences] of another writer who has the same agent. I saw what this writer went through with his books. Where he had this whole thing with a company, where they were going to do this and that, and contracts were signed ... and the whole thing went down the tubes in one day. It was a real eye-opening experience. You have to stay away from it mentally, or it'll consume you -- you'll just get caught up in the money that's out there. You'll think about a million-dollar or a half-million-dollar movie deal, and it just warps your whole perspective on why you're doing this. So I'm trying to keep it at arm's length. And if it happens, that's OK.
How does Jaguar Films intend to release its movie version of "The Nerve"?
[Jaguar] did a really nice version of [Edgar Allan] Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" a couple years ago, using the cinematographer from The X-Files. That short ended up in some film festivals and on the Showtime network. I imagine he'll do something with roughly the same scope this time around.
North of Nowhere has just been published. What does that mean for you next?
I start the insane process known as the book tour. I fly to San Francisco, then to L.A., then to Arizona, then fly home. Then back to New York [City], then D.C., then Boston, and back to New York. Fly to Omaha and back. Fly to Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, then on to Wisconsin. Then to Chicago, New Jersey, then go to Germany for a bit.
How do you write when you tour like that?
I don't. I can't.
Does that bother you?
Yeah. You would think being alone for all this time on the road -- in hotel rooms -- you would get a lot of work done. I've talked to other authors, and you can't do it. You're not comfortable. You're not in your own place. That's why you have to have the next book done before you start doing that.
Do you do readings, or just signings?
Well, I've been doing this for four books now, and I don't think I've ever done a reading. I just have this thing: I cannot stand there and read out loud from a book that I've written. From any book, really -- and especially from something I've written. Which is a real detriment, if you're giving a reading. | May 2002