One Bite at a Time




Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Twenty Questions With Dale Phillips



When fledgling writers ask me why they should go to conferences, “To meet people like Dale Phillips” comes to mind as an answer. Dale and I first crossed paths at Bouchercon Albany in 2013 and have developed a taste for each other’s work we might not have had that path-crossing not occurred. There are so many good writers and so little time, whatever might make one stand out is always a good thing. Dale asked me to read his newest, A Certain Slant of Light and to blurb it if I liked it. I’m leery of blurbs in general, or of requests to me in particular. (“He wants me to blurb his book? Really?”) A Certain Slant of Light put its hook in me early and kept me there with an unusual setting and story. Here’s what I said about it when I finished: “Phillips combines two of my favorite PI elements: No good deed goes unpunished; you can’t always get what you want. Combine those with an uncommon backdrop (organized crime in the art world, where the competition is less lethal) and a protagonist who, while not falling prey to “Damaged Hero” Syndrome, wants to be better than he is, and the result is an entertaining read that flies by. I’ll be looking for more.”

I mean every word of that, but what I can say is thin gruel. Let’s hear from Dale himself.

OBAAT: Where did you get the idea for A Certain Slant of Light, and what made it worth
developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
DTP: Each book in the Zack Taylor series has a theme, and this title and theme is from Emily Dickinson. At this stage in the series, I wanted Zack to get closer in his dance with Death. A woman’s dying wish is to see her grandson, so Zack agrees to look for him. As usual, he gets sucked into a dangerous situation he cannot control. Things hit home for him to a degree he hasn’t accepted before. And he still has a vengeful killer on his tail.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write A Certain Slant of Light, start to finish?
DTP: About two years of typing and incorporating edits. And a lifetime of experience and practice writing.

OBAAT: Where did Zack Taylor come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
DTP:  Zack originated as a character who would take on dangerous tasks when people need help. But what kind of person would drop his life to do such a thing? I had to come up with a character with a completely different background from the norm (and from me). And I wanted to create someone who didn’t use a gun to solve all his problems, because I see too much of that in mystery fiction. It makes for a tougher story to write when the protagonist starts with a disadvantage. Again, that helped shape Zack, determining certain aspects. Why doesn’t he like guns? Ah, because of his past. Why is he driven to do the things he does? So I had to create his life, which had to follow a kind of path, and detail after detail fell into place. When the writing is good, it’s like a puzzle that all fits neatly together.

Like and unlike: Zack is consumed with long-buried anger and guilt, and because of his inner demons has a self-destructive streak. I’ve kept mine mostly in check, but Zack has let the beast loose, and it has cost him dearly. Like me, he’s a smartass with no tolerance for people who hurt innocents and those who can’t fight back. He’s got far greater physical skills than me, and enjoys fighting, whereas I avoid it. Unlike me, he’s avoided romantic entanglements, and shut himself off emotionally for many years. He’s been in jail (I haven’t) and isn’t above breaking the law. He also enjoys liberating large sums of cash from lawbreakers, and I haven’t had that opportunity yet.

OBAAT: In what time and place is A Certain Slant of Light set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
DTP: Portland, Maine, in the mid-1990s. The setting of Maine is critical, because Zack is a fish out of water, coming from urban environments. He’s in a different world, and finds it a place to heal. He doesn’t have the advantage of cellphones and computers, either, so he’s limited in the kind of searching and contacting he can do. It’s important to show him dealing with limitations and the setting.

OBAAT: A Certain Slant of Light is Book Four in the Zack Taylor series. Did you always have a series in mind, or did you set out to write one book and decided to run with it? If so, what made you like the character or universe enough to spend years at a time in it?
DTP: The story was originally planned as a single novel, but once I got going on A Memory of Grief, the first book in the series, I realized the character had more adventures that needed to be told. And this allows me to showcase Maine and the people that live there. It’s a different world, and I get to explore it over and over. And Zack changes from book to book.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
DTP: I’m multi-genre. For me it’s the story, in whatever form. I focus on stories with interesting characters (I like to identify with some aspect), where something actually happens, and the characters struggle and undergo change. So many favorite authors, many listed on my website: John D. MacDonald, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, James Lee Burke, Chuck Palahniuk, Margaret Atwood, Shirley Jackson, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Wallace Stegner, thousands more!

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
DTP: I grew up as an outsider, not understanding a lot of things others took for granted, so I watched people and worked to understand their motivations. I worked hard jobs, and a lot of different ones, that taught me many life lessons. Travel helps, too. I’ve lived and worked in a number of states, been to all 50, and traveled overseas. I’ve interacted with all strata of society, from dirt-poor folk in the backwoods to the ultra-rich at expensive resorts. Crime is quite different between the levels, as are the consequences, and a good writer of crime fiction has to understand the dark and dirty side of life, as well as the idle rich.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
DTP: Getting to create worlds and live in them. Creating characters you enjoy spending time with. And then having someone come up and tell you how much something you wrote moved them.

OBAAT: Do you have a specific writing style?
DTP: Dunno. I couldn’t call out a particular thing without some guidance.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
DTP: Music, art, film are hugely important, and I’m influenced by so many, mostly iconoclasts and incredibly talented individuals. I put a lot of that into my writing. We’d have to have a much longer conversation about this one question alone!

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
DTP: At times I do both. I love having a plan and working to it, and also enjoy “writing into the dark” as Dean Wesley Smith calls it, not knowing where you’re going, but trusting your subconscious and the story. Some great stuff has come out of that method, stories of power. I’m a big believer in going down to the dark myth pool and just dipping a bucket in. You never know what you’ll bring back, but much of the time, it’s pretty interesting. I dislike fiction that’s completely formulaic and predictable.

I wear at least shorts when I write, often pants.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
DTP: Yup, all of that at times. Sometimes I just want to get the rough shape of a scene, knowing what’s there is mostly a placeholder. Other times it has to be done completely at the beginning.

OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
DTP: Music is such a powerful influence that I can’t listen to anything with lyrics while writing, so it’s classical, usually. My tastes are so broad, and the “writing sauce” is distilled from all the combinations. So no one special tune.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
DTP: Ignore all else and just tell the best damn story you can; the kind you like to hear.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
DTP: You certainly dig to the roots here. I guess story/plot comes first, because otherwise it simply doesn’t matter, if there’s no story. But you have to present characters that interest the reader. As long as you grab them with a character, you can go in any direction. I need characters I want to spend time with. Setting provides depth and verisimilitude, and can give the characters something to act with or against. Certain places in my life have had a tremendous influence, so I’ll work those in.

Narrative and tone have their places, all part of the craft. It’s best when they all contribute. Look at The Martian, where all these components you mention are there, and done well. Since I write in different genres, these things can shift, and other facets will rise to the fore, depending on the needs of the story. For example, in a humorous story, tone is critical.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
DTP: Flowers for Algernon (expanded to book) or To Kill a Mockingbird. Both are perfect and powerful every time you read them. The craft and the story combine so well that you cannot separate them. Understanding each of these makes anyone a better person. Now that’s fiction that matters.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
DTP: Probably eating ( J ), as I don’t have time for much else these days. Used to enjoy sports.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
DTP: Two new novels, a book of short stories, and a couple of special projects.

OBAAT: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
DTP: Read more, and support writers and those who create good stories. They are the memory and future of our kind.

There’s plenty more of Dale on the web. The best places to start are his web site, his blog (One Rounded Corner of the Writing World), and his Facebook and Twitter feeds.




Monday, December 28, 2015

River



I can’t remember the last time a TV show, book, or movie touched me the way the limited run series River has. A BBC production streaming in the States by Netflix, the story of a London police detective (Stellan Skarsgård) with social and mental issues is affecting in a way few “entertainments” ever are.

The six-episode series has an arc that is, in some ways, reminiscent of Memento. We pick up John River’s life in the aftermath of a trauma. The rest of the series consists of not only solving the murder of someone close to him, but of revealing bit by bit the depth and reasons for River’s condition.

This is a tough review to write because much of the joy of watching River is in learning about him as you go. Suffice to say he sees—and interacts—with what he calls “manifests.” These are people, usually dead, with whom he holds conversations. I’m not going to describe how real they are to him. Again, the viewer’s discovery is too key an element of the show. Elements of A Beautiful Mind are also present, though John River has one benefit John Nash lacked: he knows who is real and who isn’t. That doesn’t keep him from acting out in public with people no one else sees. It also doesn’t mean those “manifests” aren’t as real to him as Nash’s demons were.
 
The casting and acting are, as expected from the BBC, brilliant. I’ve been a fan of Skarsgård for years, but his performance as River places him on a plane with the finest actors of his generation. Taciturn, shy, and uncertain of his place in the world—you’ll know why by the end, but not until very near it—he is also a rock in his way. His idea of the right thing to do, while affected by his manifests, drives the rest of his team. His new partner (Adeel Akhtar) doesn’t know what to do with him at first and grows not only to look out for River—as do many of the other cops—he also comes to respect him, both for his police work and his dignity in coping with his situation. Their boss (Lesley Manville) understands River’s demons and sees him as a friend and confidant. The layers of complexity the characters display is poignantly described and heartbreaking to watch. The Beloved Spouse and I never got through the evening of an episode without discussing what we thought of River’s condition (our opinions of what was “wrong” with him evolved as we learned more) and his place among his peers.

Much more can be said, but I won’t. River is enthralling, and much of what makes it special is the manner in which the police solve the crimes to mesh with the ongoing revelation of River’s condition and history. Watch it without distraction and let the storytelling draw you in. There no tricks. No “How did he know to do that?” No “I see dead people.” It’s a story about a man whose life is one none of us would want. My heart broke, though I never felt sorry for him.

Television—storytelling in general—doesn’t get better than River.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Twenty Questions with S.W. Lauden



S.W. Lauden’s short fiction has been published by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Dark Corners, Akashic Books, WeirdBook, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey and Crimespree Magazine. His debut novel, Bad Citizen Corporation, is available now from Rare Bird Books. His novella, Crosswise, will be published by Down & Out Books in 2016.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Bad Citizen Corporation. (Which is, by the way, a bitchin cool title.)
S.W. Lauden: Thanks for having me! Bad Citizen Corporation was always the name of the punk band featured in the novel, but I never considered it for the title until one of my beta readers suggested it. It made sense since the story revolves around the former lead singer of that band, Greg Salem, who goes on to become an East LA cop later in life. He ends up shooting a kid during a pursuit and might lose his badge over the incident—which is bad enough—but then his best friend gets killed by gunmen at a punk show. From there he goes rogue and tries to track down the killer in the beach town where they grew up.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
SWL: I grew up near the beach in SoCal and spent many years as a musician. I knew I wanted to incorporate those experiences into a crime/mystery novel, but didn’t feel inspired until I came up with the idea for a punk rock cop. I liked the conflict of him surfing and playing shows at the beach on the weekend, but having to be an authority figure at his day job. It’s a nice metaphor for growing up in general, only with more violence and murder.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Bad Citizen Corporation, start to finish?
SWL: I started it five years ago, writing early in the morning and late at night. Probably had a first draft around three years ago. Made final edits and tweaks on it pretty much up until it got published this October.

OBAAT: Where did Salem come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
SWL: Greg Salem is all the disparate parts of my life—the good, the bad and the ugly—totally fictionalized, deconstructed, put back together wrong, run through the filter of a faulty memory, and rolled up into one neat little collection of contradictions.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Bad Citizen Corporation set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
SWL: The story is primarily set in a fictional SoCal beach town called The Bay Cities. South Bay is where Greg lives now, near the beach and among the wealthy elite. North Bay is the rough-and-tumble, blue-collar neighborhood where Greg grew up. The bulk of the action takes place in the last few years.

The setting was very important to me because, in addition to Greg’s own internal struggles with his past and present, I wanted to explore the juxtaposition between the beach towns I grew up around and what they’ve become over time. Although I have to admit that I rolled other well-known SoCal towns like Santa Barbara and Silverlake into the equation.

OBAAT: How did Bad Citizen Corporation come to be published?
SWL: At first I went the usual route of querying publishers and agents for about a year after I’d gotten to the fourth or fifth draft. Many rejections later, I started going to conferences and joining organizations like MWA and SinC LA. Through all of that, and doing author Q&As on my blog, I got to know the amazing SoCal writer Naomi Hirahara. She introduced me to the team at Prospect Park Books. They read my manuscript and thought it would be a good fit for Tyson Cornell at Rare Bird Books. He agreed. Here we are!

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
SWL: I’m pretty immersed in a lot of really great west coast Indie crime and mystery fiction from the likes of Eric Beetner, Anonymous-9, Rob Pierce, Matt Phillips, Will Viharo, Sarah M. Chen, Josh Stallings, Joe Clifford—way too many to name. But, you know what? I’m also a sucker for hooky YA, I enjoy literary fiction, and I will even read the occasional science fiction novel. As for favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut is the one who really opened my eyes. I also like a lot Umberto Eco’s books, Kem Nunn, Raymond Chandler, Lev Grossman, Don Winslow, Jo Nesbo, Arnaldur Indridason, Neal Stephenson. The list gets longer every day.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
SWL: I love to read. Not really sure it’s more complicated than that.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
SWL: For this book in particular, my life experiences were important. In addition to my music background and where I grew up, a lot of the action is set in bars and clubs. I was a bartender for many years and believe that the people serving your drinks often have the best (and worst) stories to tell about you.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
SWL: Coming from bands, it feels like I’ve gone solo. No more organizing rehearsals, gigs or driving around in a beat up old van with three or four other distinct personalities. But I still get to be creative. And I don’t have to worry as much about whether or not my skinny jeans fit (they don’t—deal with it).

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
SWL: Hard not to name drop punk heroes like Henry Rollins, Keith Morris, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and Ian McKay. Dave Grohl and Marc Maron have been great sources of inspiration in recent years, along with Seth Godin. Paul Westerberg always makes me smile. Same with Ryan Adams. James Gunn too. I’ve watched the Grant Hart documentary Every Everything about five times. Everybody should watch the Mike Judge movie Idiocracy.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
SWL: I outlined the first draft of BCC, or at least tried to, but Greg Salem wasn’t having any of it. Neither was his sidekick Marco, who wasn’t even in the original concept. Marco was born of long, sleepless nights and a certain kind of computer-fueled punch drunkenness. I’ve come to the conclusion that pants are overrated, unless they’re those sweats that look like jeans.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
SWL: I have to accept that it’s done when I publish it. That’s true of short stories and longer works. Up until that point I will happily tinker and tweak until they come to take me away. So I start at word one and just tap-tap-tappity-tap myself silly. But I do leave extensive notes for myself at the end of every session, making sure to capture whatever stream of consciousness I have managed to get flowing with the plot. Then, when I get to the end, I go back to the beginning and start shredding.

OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
SWL: It’s hard for me to write with music playing most of the time. Too easily distracted. That said, I had periods during the editing process where I was listening to some of my favorite SoCal punk songs. I made a YouTube playlist that features a lot of that music right HERE. (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLbNzvRx9lF_Tw6oi-I8iYbhBWNf775kwR)

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
SWL: Don’t wait for inspiration to strike, the perfect environment, or the right mood. Just sit down and write, whether you’ve got fifteen minutes or a whole day to yourself.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
SWL: Just do it™

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
SWL: It will probably vary from book to book, but in my case I would say: Character, Narrative, Story/Plot, Tone and Setting. At least that’s my answer at this moment.

I think they’re all important, but as a reader I am most interested in the characters. I’ve put setting last because, although it is crucial in BCC, I’ve found it can be easily fictionalized and manipulated based on character development. If Greg Salem told me he was moving to Bali, I’d follow him there.

Narrative is near the top of the list because it’s closely related to character in my mind, giving shape to the people who drive the action and finding a compelling way to let their stories unfold.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
SWL: Too many to choose from. So I’ll go way back and pick Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. That book hit me in just the right way at just the right time in my life. Ripped my head clean off. I still think of Vonnegut as some kind of surrogate grandpa, although I can’t claim to have inherited any of his amazing talent. Those kinds of personal connections between writers and readers are beautiful things.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
SWL: I still like playing drums, although setting them up and breaking them down has lost its luster. Hiking and biking are a constant. Also, long walks on the beach, holding hands and snuggling.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
SWL: In the middle of final edits for my novella, Crosswise, which comes out from Down & Out Books next March. Just crossed the half way point in the second Greg Salem novel. There will probably be three of those, if everything goes according to plan. Does anything ever go according to plan?

Got your interest piqued? Keep up with Mr. Lauden at these fine Internet locations: