Call this one another "lost interview." This happens from time to time, far more than you want to think as a hustling author. You agree to an interview, and it just vanishes into some void, never surfacing again.
Was cleaning out some old files and discovered this one today.
It a deep-dive interview, and one that seemingly simply never saw the light of day.
It would have been conducted sometime in or about summer of 2018, as it teases the release the following year of ONCE A WORLD, a book now very much in my rearview mirror.
I tried with no luck to look back through my email to identify the interviewer —vague memory is, he intended a new site of some kind with author interviews — but it appears it never happened.
That said, he asked some solid questions, so I'm presuming to put it out there rather than just pull it into the digital trash can and hit empty...
Q. You’ve been nominated for multiple awards and received praise from several well-known crime authors for your Hector Lassiter series. How would you describe the series for those who don’t know it?
A. The elevator pitch is something like, “James Ellroy meets James Bond meets Joseph Campbell.”
Slightly longer form: It’s a portrait of the artist (a crime novelist, in Lassiter’s case) and his journey through the 20th Century, using key historic events—most often crimes—and iconic, historic figures to explore the spark points between history and the arts. Particularly, the way popular culture dictates what we take for history. Hector becomes known as “The man who writes what he lives, and lives what he writes.” The tension between those two poles drives the stories. They’re thrillers, but often darkly humorous, too.
Q. I recently read Death In The Face, the penultimate book in the series, having previously read Head Games. These novels – as well as others in the series – feature lots of real people. Ian Fleming in Death In The Face, Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich in Head Games. How much research did you have to do while writing each book?
A. I write to my passions and populate my books with people and events I’ve already made a kind of informal undergraduate study of through countless nonfiction treatments and biographies. So really, more than researching most of the Lassiter novels, I was actually fact and memory checking.
Q. How do you approach your depictions of real people in your books? Do you try to get them as accurate as possible? Or do you come up with a fictional character that is pretty close? How do you navigate that line?
A. I try to put the actual person on the page—at least in so far as how I view them. And I try very hard to have them where they were or could be in a historical context. If Ian Fleming was famously in Japan during a certain month of 1961, I’m not going to place him in America for the purposes of plot. With Ernest Hemingway, who is in many of the novels, I actually went to his letters to capture his voice. His prose is justly storied, because he was our premiere American prose stylist. But that famous laconic voice was also a posture. Outside of a Woody Allen movie, Hem certainly didn’t talk the way that he wrote.
With someone like Orson Welles, I mostly turned to all the interview videos on YouTube out there to capture his conversational voice and quirky cadences. You can’t do that with Hemingway and get a real Hemingway voice. If you listen to the few surviving recordings of Hemingway speaking, it’s clear he knows he’s being recorded and he adopts this very stilted, odd delivery.
Q. How did the idea for Hector Lassiter first come to you and how did you know you had a great idea on your hands?
A. There was a solicitation by the Mississippi Review for short stories combining literary flourishes mixed with pulp fiction conventions. I’d never written a short story, but several writers I admired where going to be part of the mix so I desperately wanted to make the cut. I wrote a short story about Hector called “The Last Interview” inspired by Hemingway’s short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” about a dying writer, and by a song covered by Tom Russell called “Tramps & Hawkers.” The story was accepted, anthologized, and I ended up writing a novel using the same character (Head Games). Somehow, I just kept writing novels with Hector on some kind of instinct and from an obsession with spending more time in his growing and exotic and sometimes erotic world. By the time Head Games was actually accepted for publication, I’d probably completed at least first drafts of six or seven more Lassiter novels, and had a firm idea for what was to become the final entry. Nobody has been more surprised than me that a single short story triggered over ten novels that have seen numerous translations, as well as a graphic novel. That short story was a one-off, it seemed at the start.
Q. What are the pros and cons of writing a series, as opposed to separate, standalone novels?
A. I’d argue most series really aren’t series by my definition. They’re really more like a linked series of standalones using the same changeless character. Often, they are the same book at base, written over and over, with no real character arc in mind and little sense of a fully realized life for the main character. My approach was to go in a very different direction, and aggressively look at Hector’s series as one larger novel. There’s an unfolding storyline across the series that climaxes in the last novel (Three Chords & The Truth). Also, many series characters never really age. They don’t seem to endure loss that haunts them from book to book…injuries that take a permanent toll. Hector ages in real time across the series. In the end, through the ten novels, a series of short stories and a coming prequel novel, I have written about this character in every decade of his storied life, essentially womb to tomb. I’m not sure any other series or author has done that with one character across multiple and aggressively linked books.
Q. What comes first for you when you write? Character? Plot? Scenes? Location? Scenario? Do you plan your books out in advance or are you a seat-of-the-pants kind of writer?
A. I have a story to share. A beginning, maybe a few midway set pieces, and a certain conclusion. About two-thirds through the first draft, I write that climax, then go back and fill in the gap. Character and plot, ideally, feed off one another. I can’t read novels written to rigid plotlines, because it always feels to me like the characters aren’t people, but simply plot donkeys, pack animals doing and saying things that seem false but surely freight and feed story and that’s all that sort of author strikes me as caring about. In one of the novels, Hector lays out his own vision for how crime fiction should be crafted. Of course, Hec’s definition is my own:
“Character is plot. Obsession is motivation. The quest, whatever else it may appear to be, is always a search for self — a race against time to a blood-spritzed epiphany. When that light bulb goes on, the world goes dark. No happy endings.”
Q. With 10 books in the series, was there ever a time when you struggled to come up with a new idea or felt like you were struggling to keep it fresh? How did you deal with that?
A. I was never “stuck” with the Lassiters. I had definite ideas for the larger series and that each of the novels was going to deal with some aspect of creativity or the arts. If you go through them knowing that, you can tick off where I was going in each book. A couple novels focus on the craft of fiction writing. Another on painting and sculpture. Another on radio and still another on the rise of television. Roll The Credits, as implied by title, is about film, particularly the birth of film noir. The last novel focuses on the music industry, and so on.
I also let the novels do something few “series” do, by changing up point of view and narrative voice, writing some books in first person, others in various forms of third- or omniscient-POV.
Q. Death In The Face seems to be written in a Fleming-esque style. Is that deliberate – and is each of the novels in a different style?
A. Deliberate. I’d dearly love to write a sanctioned James Bond novel set in the 1950s in classic Fleming mode. This was a way to at least kind of realize that ambition. Fleming was a huge inspiration and still a potent literary force when I was growing up and starting to write.
The kind of moody and fatalistic airport opening of Death In The Face, of course, is an homage to the opening of Goldfinger (the novel, not the movie, with that damn duck on Sean Connery’s head). Some other novels salute some other authors’ styles.
Q. Is Lassiter a reliable or unreliable narrator? Are we supposed to trust him? What were the challenges of writing in the first person and dealing with some of the more technical writing issues like that?
A. Excellent question. You go straight to the heart of the series and its final reveal. Despite the changes in POV and voice from book to book, as the series unfolds, we see Hector writing and publishing novels that have titles that are the same as those in the Hector Lassiter series that carry my by-line. The conceit is that all of the novels are being handed down by Hector himself. As to his reliability, as an artist, I suspect he’d go for impact ahead of simple facts, but it’s really for each reader to decide in a kind of choose-your-own-adventure way what’s fact and what’s fiction as presented by Hector. As reader, you build your own Hector.
In writing him, I always view him not so much as an untrustworthy narrator, but instead a scrupulous storyteller if that makes sense. He’s going to put reader impact ahead of history every time if he can do it honestly and not just to goose plot. That said, in putting these books together, I’ve also tried hard not to twist history or to screw with the facts, because if I were my own reader, that kind of thing would irk me and probably bounce me out of the book for keeps.
Q. The Hector Lassiter books are an interesting mash-up of literary and film influences. You
write at the end of Death In The Face about the huge influence of Ian Fleming’s work and the early James Bond films. What other media or writers have influenced you and why?
A. Hemingway is probably my clearest inspiration and a major character through several of the early books. Pulp fiction writers, particularly Lester Dent, also shaped my early reading and so probably my views and passions as a writer. Les Dent crops up in a novel called The Running Kind.
In a lot of ways, I see Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles and Ian Fleming as kind of the same cautionary and harrowing persona. They comprise three borderline or actual artistic geniuses with very particular and idiosyncratic viewpoints and attitudes which are compulsively seductive and certainly won me over, back when. But all three creators couldn’t separate themselves from their creative works. Each, I’d argue, was undone by a need to embody the larger-than-life men they put on the page or the screen, and in every case, it utterly destroyed them. Having seen them annihilate themselves like that, up close and personal, Hector is, hopefully, made a survivor in the end, because he’s seen this terrible self-destruction on the part of his fellow authors and screenwriters and hopefully realizes those terrible holes and tries to step wide of them.
Q. What’s the secret to a great crime novel?
A. Fearlessness, coupled with artistic conscience. It’s that old saw about “Write like your parents are dead.” (The ballsy forerunner of the too trite, “Dance like nobody’s watching.”) It’s particularly true when writing period pieces: I have no stomach or patience for political correctness neutering historical accuracy. That’s an intellectual crime of the highest order in my eyes, as a novelist and as a lifelong journalist. Repugnant as some things might seem to us in retrospect and in some folks’ post-modern sanctimony, we owe it to those who came before to be intellectually honest in judging and placing them in the proper context of their time. God help all the Thought Police we’re fraught with in our crazy now when some yet-to-rise generation starts retroactively sitting in judgment of them.
Q. Head Games was your debut novel, published in 2007. Can you tell us how it came to be published? What was that journey like for you?
A. First novel and first published novel are rarely synonyms. I had my share of manuscripts piling up before Head Games got a contract. Because I’m prolific, I’ve probably got about a dozen or more full manuscripts in dry-dock, even now. Head Games was shopped around. It sat dormant on the desk of its eventual publisher, Ben LeRoy of Bleak House Books, for about a year before my agent eventually guilted him into what he described as a vindictive read calculated to find an excuse to say, “Scram.” But he said he read the first chapter, was hooked, and wanted to publish it. I think it came out about two years after I’d moved on to writing other things. It’s still a painful waiting game, nearly always, more than ten years in. To coin a phrase, it’s the business we’re in.
Q. How long had you been an aspiring fiction author prior to Head Games’ publication? What kept you motivated to write during that time and who were you writing for?
A. I tried to write a novel at the age of nine. I gave up writing and submitting fiction for several years in my late twenties and early thirties after not even securing an agent. When I became a father, I began writing again and found I had a different voice…a different outlook. There was more grounding and heart in what I wrote. An agent followed, then a book contract. I was 45 when Head Games was published; the same age as Fleming when he published Casino Royale. I think Chandler was in his early fifties when The Big Sleep was published. I was always holding on to those two gents as examples of middle-aged debut authors as the years passed me by. As to my audience when there was only me, I was writing for me, or really, writing the books I wanted to read but couldn’t find.
Q. You’re also a journalist. How much did that help or hinder you as a fiction writer?
A. I calculatedly went into journalism as a way to potentially feed the fiction, to gather source material, and also for writing discipline. Also, it struck me that Hemingway, Fleming and several other fiction writers I regarded as influences came up through print journalism on their way to fiction writing, so I was following a proven path.
Q. If you were starting again now and looking to get your debut novel published, is there anything you would do differently? If so, what and why?
A. I’m not sure I’d do anything differently. In the eleven or so years since Head Games was published, the publishing world has imploded, changed…continues to evolve in ways that often make little or no objective sense. As an author I interviewed some years ago lamented, writing novels is spiritual; everything else about the process, particularly publishing, can be anything but. Short of being a notorious public figure, a political pundit, or a celebrity with a ghost writer, I don’t think there’s any near-certain path to publication and serious sales results. It’s certainly not a meritocracy; more like a dice roll.
Q. Many aspiring novelists will be curious about what kind of sales you’ve seen. Did award nominations and rave reviews lead to strong sales for you?
A. Reviews are gratifying, but they don’t move the needle unless they’re in the New York Times or you’re anointed by Oprah, and even those were more of a back-when phenomenon. Head Games certainly got translation deals because of its awards attention, and probably some modest sales boost, but I was also with an independent small publisher for my first two books, which were my books that got the most up-front attention. Unfortunately, back then, I couldn’t go into any of the myriad bookstores where I live (several of those stores and chains have since vanished from earth) and find copies of my first two books, even with an Edgar nomination at my back.
Q. Publishing ten books in a series is not easy in today’s hyper-competitive publishing world. How did that work with your publisher? Did you sign a contract for two books and then earn out your advance and they extended by two more? Was it something else?
A. I had promises from two publishers that they wanted to publish the whole cycle, but they didn’t honor those pledges when it came time to step up. The first two were published on one-book contracts, then I signed a two-book contract with Macmillan, and also sold graphic novel rights to Head Games to another arm of Macmillan. Ultimately, the entire series was published by Betimes Books, along with reprints of the first four when I recovered all my rights from the other publishers. At the moment, I’m in the happy position of having virtually all of my published works’ rights back in hand, with the exception of a standalone novel, El Gavilan.
Q. You recently had a graphic novel adaptation of Head Games come out. Can you tell us how that came about? Was it difficult to adapt your own work?
The graphic novel rights for HG were sold before the novel actually was published and became a cult novel and got all the awards attention. I was asked to write a few pages of a sample script to secure the contract with the assumption another writer would be brought in to script it. They liked what they saw, and I was contracted to adapt it all for the graphic novel. My memory is I wrote the first draft of the entire script over a long weekend. It was an interesting process, kind of like watching a familiar movie as seen through different camera positions. When I write a novel, I’m really writing the movie I see in my head. With the change to graphic novel format, I kind of had to be the guy to move the camera for better effect for a different medium.
Q. Given the film influences, has anyone bought the film rights to any of your books?
A. Many flirtations, and from many unexpected directions, mostly for Head Games, and then El Gavilan, but so far, no consummation.
Q. What publicity or marketing have you done for your books? Do you have any hints or tips on techniques that worked for you that might work for others?
A. I wish I had a dandy, happy answer. For the most part, my books move through online sales driven by word-of-mouth. It’s been my personally-funded book tour experience that in-store appearances are extremely rare pay offs. For whatever reason, my best media exposure came with the publication of my novel Print The Legend, in France. I was flown over, did a major crime convention in Lyon, was interviewed by major French magazines and newspapers, and did my only significant television and radio interviews there. It’s a reading culture, France. America, by comparison? Not in the same league. Not even close. Interviews like this one, based on my website traffic reports, seem the best way to reach readers, because they go online, tend to stay there for perhaps ever, and so have a strong, long-tail promotional effect. Most of my official site traffic actually enters and leaves through various interview links, despite some of those interviews now being a decade or more old.
Q. As a working writer, you must be very productive with your fiction also. How long did it take you to write a first draft of a Hector Lassiter novel, on average?
A. Because Hector came out of the pulps and so would have been a certain kind of speed-demon writer, and for all the literary subtext I wanted to creep into the books, I also wanted them to read like pulp novels in terms of speed and punch. So I wrote every one of the novels in ninety days or less. The word-count wanders wildly from book to book, some around 70,000 words, a couple significantly over 100,000 words, but all of them, in first draft, took about three months or less to complete.
Q. What was your writing schedule like? Did you work on fiction in the morning? In the evening? On alternate days?
A. As a fulltime journalist, I stole hours where I could find them. I was, in my heyday, a more effective early morning writer. It’s been years since I’ve been able to go that route. And I can’t go ’til one or two in the morning and really get good results these days. Now it’s more about four or five hours in the evening on weekdays, as I can make that work, and a lot of weekend hours spent at the keyboard.
Q. Do you have any tips on how to be a more productive writer?
A. I spent too many years trying to write the perfect manuscript, polishing as I went along. I only really became effective as a fiction writer when I tore off the rear view mirror, and put foot to firewall. You have to storm through a manuscript, front to back, treating it like a car you stole: Floor it and finish that ride. Then you edit and refine. You get a first draft and go from there with the polishing. It took me years to figure that out.
Q. With your journalism and your fiction writing, how do you make sure you still have time for family and friends?
A. I’m still a fulltime journalist, so yeah, some things have had to give to make room for all that other writing. As most people would define friend, there’s not been one of those for years, and I’d be a lousy friend back anyway because I just don’t have the time or frankly any interest or talent anymore just to hang out and shoot the breeze. I truly don’t really know how to loaf, anymore. I write a ton on vacations. I watch very little TV, and have zero interest in all sports because I’m adamant I’m going to spend my time writing rather than slinging one back while watching other people accomplish something. I’m just a terrible spectator, is what I’m saying. And I’ve interviewed enough other writers to believe I’m not alone in any of this anti-social stuff. Writing is apparently a monkish and it is certainly a solitary pursuit.
Q. What’s your editing process like? How long does it take to go from first draft to final proofs for the publisher?
A. I revise intensely before anything goes to my agent, who realistically speaking, is a non self-published writer’s most passionate and potent frontline editor. Most of my novels have been published probably 95 percent or more exactly as they first arrived to the acquiring editor. The only exception is one which went through a laborious and lengthy revision driven by hailstorms of exhausting epiphanies on the part of its editor. Some of his notions resulted in some great stuff. Others were frankly bonkers. There’s a line from someone about no book every truly being completed, but rather, simply abandoned. That’s my experience with that novel. The editor kept pushing and I finally said, “No more.” It came out as a potent work in the end, I hope, but he’d have gone much farther, and there was seemingly no end in sight. You’ve got to know when to call it done.
Q. What are your favourite parts of the writing process?
A. Just that: the writing. When the book is yours alone, and you’re shaping it, and you know where you’re going and its flowing, that’s nirvana. How often in any other aspect of your life do you have that kind of supreme control or confidence? That serenity of certainty? I’d submit, never.
Q. Are there any aspects of the writing craft that you still struggling with now? How do you overcome them?
A. The thing I struggle with now more than I ever did in writing the series is writing with the same speed and drive. The novel that will come out next year required more time than anything else I’ve written, and I think it was just because this many books in, there’s a compulsion to still be fresh and to thwart expectations in a compelling and meaningful way.
And at least the way I do it, I probably read every one of my books many dozens of times over than anyone else on earth would ever care too as I go through personal revisions, long before it reaches an agent even. That can become a challenge.
Q. As a journalist, you must be super-professional when it comes to hitting deadlines. Do you laugh in the face of writers’ block? What tips do you have for aspiring writers on dealing with the tyranny of the blank page?
A. I struggle only when I’m writing for writing’s sake, or grappling with editorial suggestions or demands I know in my heart and head are wholly wrong.
As to the blank page, my gut reaction to that is, if you have to think about what you’re going to write, for the love of God, don’t even start. A novel or story should erupt up from the heels. You write it because you have to write it, regardless of whether it’s potentially commercial, or even something anyone else will ever realistically have a chance to read.
Q. What’s the number one tip you would give to any aspiring author today?
Don’t write “me too” books—AKA, novels inspired by novels you might sincerely love. The world is lousy with those kinds of knocks-offs and why would you want to be another piece of debris in that sorry dump heap? Chart your own course. Cut your own swath. Write to your passions and write the book only you can write.
Q. I believe you’ll be releasing a new book sometime in 2019. What can you tell us about that?
It’s called Once A World. I can’t be too descriptive because a formal announcement is still forthcoming. The novel was completed about a year ago. It’s going to be regarded as a crime novel I expect, because as Daniel Woodrell once put it, it’s the brand they put on you up front that you can never shake even if you change the sort of books you write. But it’s really a coming-of-age novel set against the hunt for the Mexican raider Pancho Villa and the backdrop of the run-up to, and aftermath, of World War I. From my perspective at least, it’s more Lonesome Dove than straight crime novel. I’d hoped it would be printed in time for the centenary of the Great War, but we’ll be close enough with it landing in 2019.