One Bite at a Time

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ray Donovan, Season Four

 This isn’t my first blog post about Ray Donovan. I loved Season One and liked Season Two almost as much. Season Three I didn’t say anything about, mainly because it wasn’t as good. Season Four is a half notch down again. I see a pattern developing.

The show has always lived on the edge. Ann Biderman created a fascinating anti-hero, a sociopath with a conscience. (Yes, I know that’s an oxymoron. Watch the show and see if you don’t agree with me.) Ray had a knack for creative solutions, often using one problem to solve another and getting what each client wants, though maybe not in the manner expected. Or hoped for. Too bad. What a lot of powerful people forget about someone like Ray is that once you ask him to get you out of trouble, he has something on you. Ray has a code, so your secret is safe. Unless you fuck with him.

The show rides on the backs of the Donovan boys: Ray (Liev Schreiber, who has become
one of my favorite actors), Terry (Eddie Marsan), Bunchy (Dash Mihok), and the anti-matter to their matter, father Mickey (Jon Voight). Seasons One and Two played on the dynamics between them, exacerbated by Mickey’s criminal history and the brothers’ problems with a pedophile priest. Ray’s business associates Avi (Stephen Bauer) and Lena (Katherine Moenning) were devoted to Ray for reasons never explained but understood, and he stood by them. His family—wife Abby (Paula Malcolmson), daughter Bridget (Kerris Dorsey), and son Conor (Devon Bagby) exist mainly to break Ray’s balls, as if he doesn’t have enough going on already.

Seasons One and Two worked because there was a line to how crazy things got. Ray always found a clever way out before things overwhelmed him altogether, and the solution never strained one’s suspension of disbelief.

Then Biderman left the show. I can’t find anything that said she was forced out—though she did appear to run over budget based on one account—and I did get the impression from interviews she prefers getting a project off the ground to keeping it running. For whatever reason, she left. And took her vision with her.

I’m big on vision in creative projects. As an old boss used to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Biderman knew where she was going, and she knew how to get there. She had a gift for creative, multi-tiered solutions to Ray’s problems. Combining that with the interplay between the Donovan men made the first two seasons fascinating television I’ll definitely watch again.

Biderman’s replacement—I could look up his name, but don’t feel like it—lacks her gift for the clever solution, and doesn’t appear to understand how best to leverage the Donovan family dynamic. His solution is to keep creating more outrageous situations with solutions that require brute force more than wit. The best thing about Season Four was promoting Mickey’s son by a different mother, Daryll (Pooch Hall) into a more interesting part. Terry doesn’t do much more than run the gym, and Bunchy’s story has become a soap opera. Abby got breast cancer early in the season and made a miraculous recovery; Bunchy’s wife Teresa (Alyssa Diaz) comes down with post-partum depression and snaps out of it just in time to resolve a crisis. So, meh.

The worst failing in Season Four is Ray. He recovers from the wounds at the end of Season Four and takes six months to stop drinking and looking to live a better life. First problem he finds, and boom!! He’s worse than ever. He’s always asked Avi and Lena for extraordinary devotion, but they knew, no matter how much he broke their balls, he had their backs, and they owed him. In Season Four he’s become a prick with them, too, hanging them out to dry until Avi find himself in a situation—thanks to Ray—he can’t get out of. Ray comes through, but things have reached a point where one has to wonder what it is he did for Avi and Lena to inspire this level of devotion.

With all this in mind, will I watch Season Five when it’s ready? Damn right. Schreiber as Ray
is too compelling to miss. His performance here got me to looking him up elsewhere and I’ve yet to find anything he doesn’t do well. (Examples: Spotlight, Pawn Sacrifice, Defiance, Goon. Yes, Goon. You don’t think he was good in Goon, I will lay you the fuck out.) The show’s worth watching just to see him and Jon Voight go at it. (And the other brothers, too, when the writers give them something worthwhile to do.) But the other reasons to watch get thinner by the year.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Journal

I think it was William Goldman who said he never kept a notebook because he’d remember any idea worth writing. I subscribed to a similar position for many years, with no more than random notes in a Word file and saving online newspaper articles for anecdotes that might be of use in Penns River. Then The Sole Heir™ bought me a wholly unexpected Christmas gift: A Novel Journal.

It’s a nifty idea. A nicely-bound, sturdy journal with a difference. Each “line” is actually miniscule text of an actual author’s work. She bought me Arthur Conan Doyle; the first story I wrote between the lines of was “A Scandal in Bohemia.” I appreciated the gift but wasn’t sure how much use I’d get from it. After all, I was never much of a note taker. I made a point to use it to show my appreciation and found it much more useful than I’d expected.

Among the benefits of plotting in advance is that I rarely get stuck. When I do, my habit is usually to either take a walk, take a nap, or take a shower. Even then, the idea won’t work itself out until I noodle it out with pen and paper. Something about the physical act of writing unlocks a portion of my creativity. Maybe it’s the ability to draw lines and cross things out without permanently deleting them. Maybe because I’ve been writing by hand longer than I’ve been typing and the process doesn’t seem as mechanical. Could be the tactile sensation of pen on paper. I don’t know. All I know, or care about, is that it works.

What I learned with my first few dutiful entries in the new journal was I enjoyed the new process. Not resorting to longhand only because I was stuck made it more fun. My imagination loosed itself to play more easily. The journal became less a warehouse to save fragments of ideas than a place to work them out once I decided they were worth keeping. Some entries are several pages long.

It’s become my go-to source anytime I need to think creatively. Flipping through it now I see notes on what questions to ask at the Bouchercon panel I moderated last year; a temporarily set aside proposal for a detective fiction class I’m thinking of teaching; random ideas for future Penns River books, or even just characters or subplots within a larger story; the noodling out of the core idea for the story I plan to read at an upcoming Noir at the Bar; blog posts; and notes on the work in progress. The most recent entry is for a character in a future Penns River book that grew into a plot as I wrote it. Soon as I’m done here I have a potential ending for that story I’ll get down.

What the journal allows me to do that I hadn’t before is to let ideas ripen. Most of us are aware that teachers use repetition of concepts as frequently as they do because one never knows which other influences have worked on a student so that today becomes the day something you’ve said fifty times before makes sense. I have ideas in here I’m started to noodle and given up on. I have little doubt that at least some of them will find more fertile soil should I stumble across them in six months or a year. Or five. They’re not going anywhere.

This new concept works so well for me I’ve expanded on it. Last summer The Beloved Spouse and I took a road trip west that included a stopover on Dodge City KS. There I bought a small journal at the Boot Hill Museum specifically to take notes on the research I plan to do this summer for a Western I still hope to write. Earlier this year TBS and I went north to visit TSH at medical school and went to the Mark Twain Museum, which sold the Twain counterpart to the Conan Doyle journal I like so much. Arthur is filling up, so I brought Mark home with me.

There’s not a lot of stuff in my journal by many writers’ standards. It’s not like I feel compelled to make a notation every day. (As anyone who has read my books can tell you, I don’t come up with things worth writing down every day.) Still, it’s become a trusted companion that I rarely go away overnight without. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

A Conversation With Jochem Vandersteen

Jochem Vandersteen is a rare bird, a Dutch aficionado of private eye fiction. A rock music reporter by day (by night?) he’s the founder of a group of hardboiled writers known as the Hardboiled Collective. Jochem made his bones in crime fiction in two ways. He’s the owner of one of the pre-eminent blogs for PI fiction, Sons of Spade; and writes his own stuff, best known for the Noah Milano series of novellas and stories. His newest Noah Milano novella is Serving Justice.

Jochem’s the kind of guy with enough things going on that he lends himself to a more conversational approach to an interview, so I was delighted when he agreed to take some time out of busy schedule to chat with me.

One Bite at a Time: It’s been a while since we heard from Noah Milano. What’s he up to this time?
Jochem Vandersteen: The security specialist business is slow. That's why he decides to do some process serving for Maxwell Slim, his dad's lawyer who has gotten him out of some jams in the past. When he clashes with a MMA fighter and stumbles on a dead body stuff gets nasty. Also, it's his birthday! All of this can be found within the pages of the new novella, Serving Justice.

OBAAT: It’s been a while since you’ve been here, too. What have you been up to lately?
JVS: Living life, working, taking care of my family and finding the energy to write again. Sometimes the fact I get good reviews but sales stay low can drag me down a bit. Luckily I read some good PI fiction lately that sparked my energy.

OBAAT: Your blog, Sons of Spade, has earned an intercontinental reputation. What is it about private detectives that winds you up so much?
JVS: I like mystery, I like action. PI's combine that. Also I love the fact that in most PI stories you really follow the story through the eyes of the protagonist, making you live his life within those pages.

OBAAT: Who do you consider to be the cream of the crop in PI fiction?
JVS: In the past of course Raymond Chandler. After that Andrew Vachss, Dennis Lehane, Robert Crais, Robert B. Parker, Todd Robinson, Dave White, Alex Segura, Les Roberts.

OBAAT: It’s traditional for PIs to have done something else first. Usually they’re cops. Noah has a different pedigree. What did he do before he turned Shamus?
JVS: His background is pretty unique. I didn't want him to be a cop or soldier, so I thought... Who would have criminal contacts and who would be able to fight off the bad guys? A criminal of course! I also love redemption stories (like the Xena tv show) and from that the idea was born that Noah Milano would be the son of a big mobster, looking to better his life because his mother asked him to just before she died. One of the main plot drivers of the stories is how hard it is for Noah to do his work as a security specialist but still stay far away from the man he used to be.

OBAAT: I was in an interesting Facebook chat a few weeks ago, talking about detectives and their psycho sidekicks. Some of your favorites have them, some don’t. What’s your thought about detectives who have helpers like Hawk or Mouse or Bubba Rogowski to handle some of their dirty work for them? Does Noah have one?
JVS: Noah has one, maybe two. Tony Hawai is his buddy but also a small-time crook. He's more of an informant than a real pyscho sidekick though. Kane, Noah's mentor, taught Noah all his fighting skills and works for Noah's mobster father. He doesn't hesitate to kill or torture when necessary. That's not to say Noah doesn't cross the line himself every now and then. The main reason Kane is there is to connect Noah to his darker past and because... psycho sidekicks are just insanely cool!

OBAAT: Your taste in PI writers run the gamut from Chandler through Parker to younger writers like Dave White and Todd Robinson. What do you think has changed most over the years?
JVS: Stories have gotten a bit deeper I guess. More character development. More influences from the thriller genre or with female PI's the chick-lit genre. Basically though I think nothing has changed that much, really. It's still about loners out for justice, just like I like it.

OBAAT: When did you first decide you wanted to write PI fiction?
JVS: When read my first Spenser novel I guess, back when I was an early teen. When I later read Dennis Lehane's Gone Baby Gone I was inspired to really go ahead and do it. His characters felt so young, fresh... It showed me that a PI doesn't have to be into jazz and be in his forties, I could relate to them more so I decided I could write about a PI I could relate to as well. Ironically I am in my forties myself, I still listen to metal and punk rock, not jazz though.

OBAAT: I can see Noah’s unorthodox background causing him trouble, though. Fictional cops and PIs have a history that alternates between cooperation and animosity. Noah’s background and family must make that even tougher. Does he also have problems with clients who come to him to skirt the law, assuming he’s still connected somehow?
JVS: Yeah, that played a part in some of the short stories like can be found in Tough As Leather. There's also a lot of trouble he runs into because the cops, especially his nemesis Detective Williams, still want his hide. He can't count on much cooperation from them, so he has to use his more criminal contacts or his best friend, Medical Examiner Minnie.

OBAAT: I’m in the process of re-reading Declan Hughes’s All the Dead Voices. Hughes spoke at Bouchercon several years ago and gave an impassioned plea in favor of private detective novels, arguing that, when done right, they are the highest form of crime fiction. Reading one of his books provides a compelling argument in that direction. Do you agree with Declan? Either way, why do you agree, or disagree?
JVS: I guess they can because of the chance to do a good character study. I'm not sure other crime novels can't be just as good. Just depends on the writer. I'm not in this racket to be the highest form of crime fiction. Just to serve up some very good entertainment.

OBAAT: To me, the core difference between a traditional PI story and much of current Elmore Leonard-George V. Higgins-influenced crime fiction is the first person vs. third person point of view. The PI can put his or her thoughts directly into the mind of the reader, but can only transfer knowledge he or she is privy to. Multi-POV stories allow the reader to know more than any of the characters, but lose a little of the intimacy of speaking directly to the reader. You’re a PI guy to the core. How to you take advantage of those strengths and try to minimize the weaknesses?
JVS: It's cool to see the story through the eyes of the PI and I find it comes very naturally to write that way. I try to take the reader along the ride and make the voice entertaining. I find the voice of the first person PI just more entertaining. Also, I think it prevents people from skipping parts because they're just not interested in the other character whose POV you follow. Also, there are no clues given away like that. Basically I see more strengths than weaknesses in the first person POV.

OBAAT: What can we expect from Noah in the near future?

JVS: Not sure yet. Right now I'm writing my first Cash-novella, where an ex-cop gets out of jail after being wrongfully imprisoned there for killing his family. Now free, he wants to find clues to the real killer and ends up being hired to track down the missing daughter of a mobster. Don't worry, Noah will be sure to return in another short story, novella or whatever. He's been with me so long I won't every let him go.

Monday, May 8, 2017

A Conversation with S.W. Lauden

S.W. Lauden get around. He’s had short fiction published by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Dark Corners, Dead Guns Magazine, Akashic Books, WeirdBook, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey, and Crimespree Magazine.

His short story, Itchy Feet, was published in Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns (Down & Out Books). His short story, Big Shots, is included in the anthology Fast Women and Neon Lights: Eighties-Inspired Neon Noir (Short Stack Books). His short story, Customer, appears in Waiting to be Forgotten: Stories of Crime and Heartbreak Inspired by The Replacements (Gutter Books).

He is the author of the Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series including Bad Citizen Corporation and Grizzly Season (Rare Bird Books). His Tommy & Shayna Crime Caper novellas include Crosswise and Crossed Bones (Down & Out Books). He is also the co-host of the Writer Types podcast with Eric Beetner.

One Bite at a Time: Hi, Steve. It’s been a little while since we chatted. Welcome back. Shayna Billups and Tommy Ruzzo are also back in Crossed Bones. Tell us a little about those two and their story.
S.W. Lauden: Thanks for having me back, Dana. Tommy and Shayna are star-crossed lovers who first showed up in my novella, Crosswise. She's a femme fatale who cost Tommy his NYPD badge before luring him down to her hometown on the panhandle of Florida. She leaves him high and dry shortly after he gets a job as head of security at a retirement community where several of the tenants start dropping dead. He tries to solve the murders to win Shayna and his badge back, but things quickly spiral out of control in the most ridiculous and violent ways.

By the time we catch up with Tommy and Shayna in Crossed Bones, she's off partying in New Orleans and he's a drunken wreck stranded in Florida. A chance meeting with a mysterious older gentlemen at a pirate-themed bar sends Shayna on a treasure hunt in North Carolina. When things get out of hand, Tommy and his bartender/boss/best friend set off to rescue her. They soon find themselves caught between a biker gang and a band of cocaine-dealing pirate impersonators. That's when things get interesting.

OBAAT: I see you fell back onto Raymond Chandler’s famous advice, that when stuck for what happens next, have a biker gang and a band of cocaine-dealing pirate impersonators come through the door. I know you didn’t expect to drop that on us and not have me ask you where you got the idea.
SWL: Chandler truly was a visionary! I’m not exactly sure where the inspiration for Crossed Bones came from—might have been a fever dream, or maybe I ate too much sugar—but I do know that I set out to have fun with these characters. The folks over at Down & Out Books started referring to the Tommy and Shayna books as crime capers, and I think that fits. In general, they’re a little more freewheeling and fun than the Greg Salem books. Something about the length and pace of novellas sets me off in a different direction I guess. The books are still pretty dark and feature lots of bad people doing terrible things to each other, but some of the situations tend slightly toward the ridiculous.

OBAAT: I think of you as an L.A. guy, yet Crossed Bones takes place largely in North Carolina, which is about as far from California as one can get without a passport. Why there?
SWL: I’ve lived in L.A. most of my life, but I’ve done a fair amount of traveling. In particular, touring in a band offers up a unique view of cities you might not otherwise visit. It’s just a series of very short, very intense experiences in specific places that often only reveal the most extreme parts of their personalities to you. You don’t leave there pretending to truly know the place—how could you?—but it’s possible to develop some strong, often misguided impressions based on your limited experience there. Years later, I find that business travel and certain types of whirlwind vacations (weekend weddings, etc.) can have the same effect. That’s kind of the perspective I was writing from when I created the fictional locations in both Crosswise and Crossed Bones.

OBAAT: Did you plan to have Tommy and Shayna come back even before you wrote Crosswise, or was that a more recent decision?
SWL: Not originally. Crosswise itself grew out of a short story I wrote while on vacation in Florida. That short story never got published, but a few people who read it encouraged me to expand the story, which is how it evolved into a novella. My editor, Elaine Ash, was a big supporter so she passed the novella along to Eric Campbell at Down & Out Books and he agreed to publish it. One of the things we discussed back then was potentially turning these characters into a series, but that's as far as we got. And then one day last year I got an idea for a story that quickly evolved into the second Tommy & Shayna Crime Caper, Crossed Bones.

OBAAT: You describe Tommy Ruzzo as a disgraced NYPD cop. Greg Salem, protagonist of Bad Citizens Corporation and Grizzly Season, also had a police career that didn’t work out so well for him. What about fallen cops plays so well into the stories you like to tell?
SWL: Believe it or not, I didn’t really realize I had done this until after Bad Citizen Corporation and Crosswise were both published. Could be a uniform fetish, but more likely there's a pretty pragmatic reason—an ex-cop has certain skills and training that will come in handy when they try to solve crimes, or otherwise stick their nose where it probably isn’t wanted.

I also like the idea of failed authority figures. There’s a certain romance to a flawed person who tries to do the right thing, only to succumb to the parts of themselves they were avoiding all along.

OBAAT: Crossed Bones and Crosswise are billed as novellas. What appeals to you about the shorter form?
SWL: I really like novellas as a reader, especially for crime fiction. There's not a lot of room for exposition, so the writing and the pace of novellas tends to be quicker. And, if you're somebody who reads a lot, it's nice to be able to finish a book on a long plane ride or when you’re on vacation beside the pool or at the beach. It's a unique experience that's different than getting pulled into a novel that takes a week or two to finish. Novels can be more of a commitment, but novellas are like a one night stand or lost weekend. Both are enjoyable in their own special ways.

OBAAT: We talked a little about your life as a musician when last we chatted in December of 2015. As a recovering musician myself, I wonder if anything you learned as a musician carries over into writing. Not just story ideas, but craft elements.
SWL: When I was still playing in bands, I always thought that playing shows was a lot more fun than rehearsing. That might seem obvious, but I've known plenty of musicians who are perfectly content noodling away in their bedroom or studio. If your aim is to get your music (or books or paintings or interpretive dance) in front of more people, you have to do both. One feeds off of the other. As tired a cliché as it is, I have to remind myself to sit down in a chair and type...and just keep typing. As far as I can tell, that's the only way that you're ever going to make anything happen. It can be lonely, tedious, frustrating, and emotionally exhausting, but that's the gig. It makes those agent and publisher phone calls, book launch parties, writers conferences, and five-star reviews that much sweeter when and if they come along.

OBAAT: The hero of your novels Bad Citizen Corporation (one of my favorite titles ever) and Grizzly Season is Greg Salem, former cop and punk rock legend. As a punk rock legend yourself, how much of you is in Greg?
SWL: Greg is a punk rock legend in his hometown and other little pockets of super fandom around the imaginary world I've created for him. I'm not even a punk rock legend in my own living room—just ask my wife and kids. But I did play in bands for a long time and I'm not sure I would have written a trilogy about a punk rock P.I. if I didn't have a personal perspective on that world and an emotional attachment to the people who inhabit it. Music—whether it was punk, glam, alternative, indie, metal, or good old fashioned rock and roll—was pretty much my whole eco-system from the time I hit puberty until, well...what's the opposite of puberty? Let's just call it middle age. Even now I can get lost in songs in a way that is unlike almost any other experience in my life. That's something that I've tried to build into Greg's character, both as a foundational part of his backstory and as something that he struggles with as he gets older.

OBAAT: You mentioned last time you were here there would probably be three Greg Salem books. Is that still the case, and, if so, what’s the status?
SWL: The third book in the planned Greg Salem trilogy, Hang Time, is with my publisher, Rare Bird Books. I'm pretty thrilled with how it turned out and have gotten some great feedback from beta readers. That book should be coming out in October of 2017.

OBAAT: You’re currently partnering with Eric Beetner on a monthly podcast called Writer Types that I’ve already come to look forward to, and I’m not usually into podcasts. How did that come to be?
SWL: I'm really happy to hear that you're enjoying the podcast! Eric and I hit it off pretty quickly when I started poking around the LA crime writing scene a few years ago. We both have backgrounds in music, and we both see the need to support the Indie crime/mystery scene in our own ways. He is, of course, one of the founders of Noir at the Bar LA and has given countless authors the chance to read in front of a supportive, drunken crowd. I've been doing interviews (much like this one) on my own blog for a couple of years now, often featuring many of the same writers from the N@B LA events. We are also both big podcast listeners, so all it took was a road trip to a book signing in San Diego to bring it all together. That happened last October and the first episode was published in January of this year.

OBAAT: What impressed me right away about Writer Types is the caliber of guests you get. The first four editions had the likes of Megan Abbott, Lou Berney, Reed Farrel Coleman, and Sara Paretsky, just to name a handful. That’s truly skimming the cream. How do you and Eric decide who to invite, and how hard is it to work out schedules?
SWL: When it comes to the crime/mystery community, we're truly spoiled for choice. There are so many talented authors to choose from in various stages of their writing careers. And so far the vast majority of the ones we've contacted have been responsive and open to giving us a chance to interview them, or have a little fun with them on microphone.

So, recording an entertaining conversation with an interesting person is actually pretty easy. Getting the stars aligned so that all the players are available at the same time and with a stable internet connection? Not so much. Everybody involved is busy, including me, Eric, and our reviewers, Kate and Dan Malmon from Crimespree magazine. But this whole thing is a labor of love, so it's all been worth it as far as I'm concerned.

Ask me again after episode six.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

April's Best Reads

April was a blur for several reasons I’ll not bore you with. (I certainly wasn’t bored, but my ego is not such that I would presume the events would be anything but to you.) I did, however read one worth passing along.*

The Mexican Tree Duck, James Crumley. Man, I love Crumley. It’s probably best not to try too hard to decipher his plots. Just go along for the ride. His Raymond Chandler meets Hunter Thompson style may not be for everyone, but I enjoy it. His characters sing, the dialog is as smart as its speakers would be but no smarter, and as interesting as you’d want them to be. This one sends C.W. Sughrue from Montana to Mexico is pursuit of a biker’s missing mother, who may be a rich woman who might be a kidnap victim, or just doesn’t want to be found. Who’s in charge and who’s the victim changes through the story and the ending had enough twists to do James Ellroy proud. Crumley’s famous for having written what many consider to be the greatest opening line ever, in The Last Good Kiss. Examples all through the rest of his books show he didn’t just pull it out of his ass.

* -- I did read an ARC that shows great promise, but I don’t like to do anything there until the time is right. No vaguebooker, I.

Friday, April 28, 2017

A Conversation With Eric Beetner

Those who say perpetual motion is impossible haven’t met Eric Beetner. I don’t know anyone else who maintains his pace. I don’t know two people who combined can match his pace on Eric’s day off. To give a brief idea of his resume, his books include Rumrunners and its sequel Leadfoot, The Devil Doesn't Want Me, When The Devil Comes To Call and Book 3 in the trilogy, The Devil At Your Door (released last week), Dig Two Graves, White Hot Pistol, The Year I Died Seven Times, Stripper Pole At The End Of The World, and the story collection, A Bouquet Of Bullets.

He co-authored The Backlist and The Short List, both with Frank Zafiro, and, with JB Kohl, the novels One Too Many Blows to The Head, Borrowed Trouble, and Over Their Heads. He’s also penned two novellas in the popular Fightcard series, Split Decision and A Mouth Full of Blood, and two novellas in The Lawyer series of Westerns, Blood Moon and Six Guns at Sundown.

(Pause here to give the reader a chance to catch her breath.)

He co-produces, edits, and hosts the highly-acclaimed podcast Writer Types with S.W. Lauden and has designed over ninety book covers, three of which I am proud to call my own.

Eric has toured as a musician, painted, written screenplays, acted in short films, been to China twice, fished in the Mississippi, met Barry Manilow, and directed films and music videos. His name has been on television over a hundred times, and he owns a real human skull.

He lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts the Noir At The Bar reading series in his copious free time.

In spite of all that, he still found time to shoot the shit with me. As you might expect, he started:

Eric Beetner: Your Penns River series is ongoing and I'm just wrapping up a trilogy, which
felt like the right amount of story for those characters. Did you have a plan going in about how many books [the] story would entail, or are you just following the stories as they come to you?

Dana King: I don’t know I had the idea it would even be a series when I started. Once I had the universe in place stories started to find me. I came to like that world so much I even made the PI from my other series into the cousin of the main character in Penns River so I could overlap the two. Now I’m curious to see how far I can take it.

I thought Lars and Shaine were great characters from early on in The Devil Doesn't Want Me. When you say three felt about right for them, is that an idea that came to you after you wrote the third, or did you have three stories in mind when you started, kind of how David Simon had a five-year arc in mind when he started The Wire?

EB: I really start every book as a standalone so at the end of The Devil Doesn't Want Me it could have been one and done. But at the same time the ending was very leading, at least for me, to wonder what came next for these characters. The relationship they establish in the first book is just beginning almost like he's adopted a new child. There was plenty of story left to tell. I haven't traditionally been a big fan of series work, or long series anyway. I think the Parker books over read ten or eleven. Beyond that I tend to tap out after three, with a few exceptions like Owen Laukkanen's Stevens and Windermere series, Joe Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series. I'm coming around to longer series. Maybe it's my age. J

But for me I like a story with real stakes and that means not knowing if a character is going to make it through to the end. If I go in knowing full well that Phillip Marlowe, for example, is going to be fine it takes a little away from the story. It might be why even in the sequels I've written I tend to still kill off a lot of people. That threat has to be there.

Part of me has wanted to do a series where the main character gets killed off and the books pick up with a minor character who gets pushed forward, then they die and so on. Something tells me a publisher might not be into that idea.

But for books two and three of Lars and Shaine I had a trilogy plotted out by the time I was pitching that book to publishers. Neither idea of the second and third books ended up being what they were about. I came up with new stuff when the time came.

All that said, I was sad to see them go. I've always wondered if writers who do a series 20-plus books deep, if there is some basic reluctance to let these characters go. Like if or when they do, do they go through a depression like losing a family member?

DK: I’ll let you know about that depression business if people can bear to read that many of my books. You do touch on a problem with many series: the reader knows the main character can’t die. That’s why I think—well, I hope—I can keep the Penns River series going. Because it’s an ensemble cast and the town is the continuing focal point, I can kill off anyone I want. Maybe not Ben Dougherty, but there’s nothing that says something terrible can’t happen to him and maybe move him off the front line.

I had an idea years ago for an anthology where the main character in each story played a minor role in the previous story. Ideally the last story in the book would include the first story’s main character in a supporting role to close the loop and make it truly a book you could start anywhere and read. Patti Abbott started a cycle of flash pieces like that and it was great fun to fill a niche.

EB: That anthology sounds like a lot of fun. A different approach to a collection.

I like your approach with Penns River, too. I think it's interesting to make a series more about a place than a person. Like you say, there is a central character in Ben, but if you populate the world around him with compelling people and situations, your limit of stories is endless.

Not to name drop but I recently had the chance to interview Sara Paretsky (for my podcast Writer Types with me and SW Lauden) and we asked her how her character of VI Warshawski ages as the series progresses. Without giving away her answer, it is an interesting thought that most writers probably don't consider at the start of a series. I guess there is always the option to have them perpetually one age like The Simpsons or something, but crime novels generally try to stick to the realism. My characters Lars and Shaine go through some significant changes in just the three books over the course of only a few years, but it was important to me to show that growth, especially since age is such an important thing in the first book, The Devil Doesn't Want Me.

Of course I'm always fighting my instinct to write a character who is fifty as the "older" guy while seeming to deny that I am approaching that milestone myself in the fast lane. I suppose time marches on for us too. We don't get the luxury of being frozen on the page. *sigh*

DK: I bleed for you. I vaguely remember being fifty.

I thought a lot and made conscious decisions about how characters aged in the Penns River books. I haven’t been writing them long enough for anyone but me to notice, but the characters do age, just not in real time. I drop into each story little hints about how long it’s been since its predecessor, even though there may have been a few years since the previous books came out. Doc’s parents will start to show their age, Chief Napierkowski will retire at some point, but most likely at times when those actions will be of most benefit to a story. I borrowed the idea—okay, I stole it—from Ed McBain’s 87th precinct series. He wrote them for almost fifty years and the characters aged some, but not dramatically. The passage of time was most obvious in how Steve Carella’s kids grew up.

You mentioned the podcasts you’re doing with Steve Lauden a minute ago. I’ve heard both that are currently available, featuring names such as Megan Abbott, Joe Lonsdale, Reed Farrel Coleman, and Lou Berney. (Others became available since this interview took place.) What made you decide these were a good idea—they are, I look forward to the next one—and how do you get such good production values? They sound like they could’ve been lifted from NPR.

EB: Well thank you, I'm glad you are liking them. Steve and I both come from a music background that celebrated a do it yourself aesthetic that we both have stuck with into our forays in publishing. We had each been approached separately about doing podcasts as part of a larger "network" and while that appealed to us, we each had the same reservations of wanting to have total control over the product our names would be on. Add to that Steve's experience in marketing, my experience in editing and film and TV productions and we knew we could do something of the quality we required before we attached our reputations to it.

I'm glad to see you reference NPR because that really was our model. We wanted a variety show for crime and mystery fans. We have so many people we want to talk to and interview that we didn't want to limit ourselves to one guest per episode. Nor did we want the work load of doing a show a week. So we decided on once a month and heavily edited (there went that whole workload thing for me). It's been great fun for us to do and we look forward to doing it for a long time.

With being our own producers and engineers we can do it however we want. We recently have done mobile recording. We have two authors who are on tour out there with a list of things I want them to record and which I will then edit into a mini tour diary. We can play with those kinds of ideas.

Steve and I both try our best to promote other authors and build up the crime fiction community much like a music scene. Writer Types has provided us a new platform to do that which allows us to go national instead of just local with a Noir at the Bar or similar reading or event. If we can keep up the quality of the first four episodes, I'll be thrilled.

DK: You mentioned your workload. In addition to knocking out excellent books at a rate any 50s pulp writer would be proud of and everything else you mentioned just now, you also do book cover designs. Really good cover designs, if I do say so myself, having seen the three you did for me recently for the Penns River series. Not only are they good, you’re far more consultative with the author than are most cover artists. How did you get into that? Even better, how did you find time for that?

EB: Honestly, this gets back to the DIY thing and my lifelong curiosity of any art form, usually with the attitude of, "I want a painting in my wall. Why don't I paint one?" "I want to hear a song like the one in my head. Why don't I write it?" And in this case, "I need a book cover. Why don't I do it myself?"

I would not recommend this to everyone. That said, it's not like I have any special skills or anything. I am untrained in design or PhotoShop. I just like to get in and do things. I'm amazed people have trusted me for what is now more than 90 covers. There are many more talented designers, but I am happy to do it if it means helping out a fellow writer who doesn't have the means to do it on their own or a small press who needs it done on a small budget. (Yes, I come cheap.) For every cover I usually throw out four or five concepts and let the author weigh in, depending on the policy of the publisher. Sometimes that can backfire and it means a lot of cooks in the kitchen. But my overall goal is to have the author be happy with their cover.
As for the time, it's time I should be writing. You will see a slowdown in my output for the next year or two. My agent has three completed manuscripts yet to find a home, I'm working on a fourth now. I wrote some TV stuff that I doubt will ever see the light of day. But I did let myself get overextended in many ways and I am trying to really focus back on writing alone, at least for a while. The podcast takes time, other obligations come and go like signing on to write for anthologies or editing my own anthology (Unloaded Vol. 2 - out early next year) but I really need to be focused on only the book I'm writing when I get into it so I'm trying to clear the decks for the next few months to write this new one.

So quit bugging me, Dana! Are we done here? Sheesh!

Seriously though, it's been a fun chat.

Sincere thanks to Eric Beetner, the James Brown of Crime Fiction, for chatting here today. Eric’s newest book, The Devil at Your Door, Volume 3 of the Lars and Shaine trilogy, is available for Kindle now.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Where in the World is Dana King?

Okay, so I’m not the first person to use that “Where in the World is…” thing and I’m not as much fun as Carmen Sandiego. On the other hand, I can whip Matt Lauer’s ass and still have enough in the tank to handle Savannah Guthrie and that bald-headed stooge Al Roker, so watch your ass. There’s stuff on the horizon, some of which I can even tell you about.

The Big News™, for me, at least, is the release of Resurrection Mall next Monday, May 1, though reliable sources tell me books have been delivered as early as this past Friday. Res Mall is the third in the Penns River series and introduces a new character I think everyone will like in Sean Sisler, former Marine sniper and new Penns River cop. The story focuses on five shotgun murders that pretty much wipe out the local drug dealers, though no one steps immediately into the vacuum. Why is that? Buy the book and see.

A blog tour is rolling. Some dates are still firming up, but the definites are here:

Today, April 24: S.W. Lauden lowers the value of his fine blog, Bad Citizen Corporation, with an interview.

Friday, April 28: Patti Abbott’s outstanding blog, pattinase also asks what I think about things, always a dangerous proposition.

Monday, May 1 (launch date): An excerpt from Resurrection Mall appears in Omnimystery Magazine.

In Reference to Murder indulges my ideas on research on May 2.

I talk about the appeal of writing series for Elizabeth White on May 4.

Drinks With Reads has a fun feature on what kind of mixed drink characters in Penns River would enjoy. The response might surprise you.

For those who can bear me in person:

Saturday, May 20. Gaithersburg Book Festival, Gaithersburg MD. At 12:15 I’m moderating a panel, “Military Thrillers: Matthew Betley and Rick Campbell discuss using their experience in the military to craft international thrillers.” It’s a chance for me to spread out a little and I’m looking forward to meeting both Matthew and Rick in the flesh.

Also Saturday, May 20. Noir at the Bar DC at the Wonderland Ballroom, 1101 Kenyon Street NW, Washington DC. I’m in some fast company here at 7:00 as the lovely and talented Ed Aymar hosts Kim Alexander, Jen Conley, Eryk Pruitt, Laura Ellen Scott, Colleen Shogan, John Dunn Smith, David Swinson, Neely Tucker, Steve Weddle , and yours truly as part of a three-day, three-city Noir at the Bar crawl that begins Friday night in Richmond and ends Sunday in Baltimore. If you anywhere in what they now call the DMV, you have no excuse not to catch at least one of these fine events. (I always think of the DMV as the Department of Motor Vehicles and no one wants to go there, but such is life. This is a different DMV. Trust me.)

Friday, June 16. One More Page Books, Arlington VA. 7:00 PM. Ed Aymar moderates a panel on different approaches to crime fiction with Christina Kovac, Nik Korpon, and yours truly. We all have our own distinct perspectives on writing crime fiction, which promises to lead to an entertaining discussion. Of course, if Aymar has new pants, that may be all he wants to talk about.

Friday September 8 through Sunday September 10. Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity Conference. Panels are as yet undetermined; check back for updates. Keynote speakers are Peter Blauner and Jonathan Maberry, with local guest speakers Debbi Mack and David Swinson.

Thursday October 12 through Sunday October 15. Bouchercon, Toronto, ON, Canada. No schedule available at press time. I will be at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Wednesday to get my picture taken with the Stanley Cup.