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
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.