04 April 2013

My Interview With Crime Fiction Author James R. Winter

by Brian Thornton

"Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game."

                                                                                                                                  - North Dallas Forty

Writing is a funny business- erm- game.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of this business/game is the networking, and the connections that result from same. One of the first I made when I first ventured out in search writing success was with a funny guy from Cincinnati named Jim Winter. Here are his basics:

Jim Winter was born near Cleveland in 1966. In 1991, he moved to Cincinnati marry the love of his life. He finally met her in 2008 and married her before she could change her mind.  Jim is the author of Road Rules, Northcoast Shakedown, Second Hand Goods, and The Compleat Kepler. He has previously reviewed for Crimespree, January Magazine, and Mystery Scene. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife, Nita, and stepson, AJ. Visit him at http://www.jamesrwinter.net.

I first met Jim nearly a decade ago through the Short Mystery Fiction Society's email list. We met up in person for the first time a couple of years later at the Toronto Bouchercon. Toronto was also where we both met crime fiction icon Ken Bruen for the first time, camping out for hours in an Irish pub across the street from the downtown convention center, an encounter later immortalized (fictitiously) by our mutual friend Steve Hockensmith in a short story called "Envy," which later made it into one of the annual Mystery Writers of America anthologies (Still waiting for my cut on that one, Steve...)

 Anyway Jim is a real mensch, and if you haven't stopped in at his blog and given it a read (especially his hilarious take on politics and his deep thoughts on music), you're missing out. Many of his novels and short stories feature a smart-ass P.I. based in Cleveland named Nick Kepler, and each of them is worth a look. I was so impressed by his work that I made a point of inviting him to contribute to West Coast Crime Wave, an anthology I collected and edited a couple of years back. The resulting story ("Bad History") is one of my favorites.

 And so for my third outing as a Sleuthsayer, I figured a guy this interesting was worth an interview. It's transcribed below.

Many authors have interesting paths to publication. None less-so than yours. Tell us about it.

Well, I did, in fact, play in someone else’s sandbox through most of the nineties. Probably a bad thing, since it absolved me of having to deal with rejection slips and editing and so on. But it was a good experience to use a prefab world and focus on building plots and characters on my own. By the time I rid myself of that habit, I realized a lot of the characters I’d created would have been better off in something original. Too late. By then, I was creating Nick Kepler’s world and leaving the land of space battles and lumpy-headed aliens behind for the real world, and a version of the real world of my own making.

And yet you wound up writing crime fiction. What is it about crime fiction that motivates you enough that you chose it as the genre in which to express yourself?

I thought it was easier for people to relate to someone’s seemingly normal life disrupted by a man-made catastrophe, like murder or theft or an accident. Also, I didn’t have to spend three paragraphs explaining that this takes place on another planet in low gravity where the trees all have feathers and two moons hang in the sky. Crime sort of demands tighter writing. To me that was a challenge. The first Kepler short I ever wrote went almost 8,000 words. Now I can usually wrap up a story in about 3000-4000 words.

As I stated in my intro to this piece I'm familiar with your work having edited one of your stories for an anthology I worked on. I see a whole lot of the likes of Mark Twain and his spiritual descendants in your work, with more than a dash of Ed McBain and others from the no-frills, straight narrative school in your writing. Do you agree with this assessment? Why do you consider your greatest influences as a writer, and why?

It's funny you should mention McBain because the 87th Precinct was an inspiration for (his latest project) Holland Bay. But yes, there's definitely a little Twain in there. I love how he's able to say something uncomfortable and call everyone out on it for not questioning things around them. He is a master of sarcasm.

Stephen King is probably my earliest influence. I try not to be as long-winded as he's become over the years, but King had a certain talent for making a fictional place as real as anything out there. I love that he blends the real world with fictional places so that you're almost convinced that Castle Rock really is about 40 miles from Portland, Maine.

Getting into crime, I picked up on Robert Parker when he was at his peak. He had this ability to hang a one-word description on a nameless character and give him or her a personality without having to stop and go through half a page of backstory. I also was a student of Chandler early on. He taught me about dialog and made me comfortable with being a smart ass in my narratives.

Your back catalog includes some stuff that really makes your hometown (Cleveland) come alive for the reader, yet the city that's the setting for your latest work (the eponymous "Holland Bay") is at least as fictional as Ross MacDonald's "Santa Teresa" and Raymond Chandler's "Bay City." These fictional cities were thinly disguised doppelgangers for actual one ("Santa Teresa" for Santa Barbara and "Bay City" for Santa Monica). Is "Holland Bay" cut from whole cloth, or is based all or in part, on cities you've experienced over the course of your life?

Well, Monticello as a whole started out as a way to avoid having to go back to Cleveland or bug people in Cleveland about details. It’s a five-hour drive, after all, and the people I know up there have busy lives that don’t allow for running downtown and checking out if a certain restaurant is on still on Fourth Street or who owns what hotel and so on. So it does have its genesis in Cleveland. That’s what some of its culture is based on. Then I hit on the idea that it Monticello might be split up into boroughs, like New York, with each borough similar to its New York counterpart and the southern one that tapers off into suburbs kind of like Long Island. That plays well with Holland Island, which has become, over time, about as un-Staten Island-like as you can get. On top of that, each borough has taken on the flavor of yet another city I’ve been to. For instance, Holland Bay is part of Harbortown, where downtown is located, which looks a lot like Chicago. And yet Harbortown corresponds with Manhattan as well. All built over an analog of Cleveland. So it’s alternate reality Cleveland, which incidentally, exists in this story.

Take us through the process outlined above. How do you balance research and invention?

Well, a fictional city still has to look real, so I do have to look things up and ask questions. At the same time, fiction gives me the option to fudge things, put geographic features wherever I want, and indulge in a bit of history to make the city seem real. Like the city sits in Musgrave County, Ohio, which, of course, is not on any maps. But there’s a whole backstory as to how it got that name and why a bunch of other names and places around the city are what they are.

OK so you can't really expect to say something like: "But there’s a whole backstory as to how it got that name and why a bunch of other names and places around the city are what they are," and not get a follow-up on that. Can you give us an example?  

Well, for the county name, I came up with a founding father of sorts, a British colonel in the Revolutionary War who defected and wound up with a land grant in the area where the city sits now.

On the other hand, when I was writing some back history for the city, I decided I wanted it to have one of those wars between two sides of the river you hear about from the pre-Civil War days. Cleveland had one over bridge tolls around that time. So I had a neighboring city (now part of Monticello) take up arms over where these newfangled railroad thangies would go. Since the war was over "where the choo choo go," I stuck the name "Rock Ridge" on the western side of the city as a joke from Blazing Saddles. Only I never bothered to change it. So now we have a whole borough named for a Mel Brooks comedy.

Any plans to genre hop again? Maybe a detour back into spec-fiction, or some sort of cross-genre project, a la Kat Richardson's work?

I have something in the works, but I’m going to keep it quiet for now.


  1. Wasnt Monticello the setting for the mystery soap THE EDGE OF NIGHT? Interesting stuff, thanks.

  2. This was fascinating reading. And I'm going to have to get his books!

  3. @Robert Good catch! When I originally started working on that project, the city had the clunky name of Port Ontario. Since Ed McBain called his fictionalized New York "Isola," I decided mine needed something that rolled off the tongue a little easier.

    Just so happened at the time I was reading about Edge of Night and remembered the opening credits when my mom watched it in the 70's. That shot is the Cincinnati skyline from the Mt. Adams neighborhood.

    The city was called Monticello. Since Edge of Night's been off the air for 30 years, I "salvaged" the name. However, my Monticello and Edge of Night's are not the same, since I clearly state my city is on the shores of Lake Erie in sight of the famous Cedar Point Amusement Park and Put in Bay.

  4. Jim-

    Putting on my Mr Picky hat for a moment (hey, I'm a librarian): McBain's city had no name. Isola was the section (i.e. borough) of the city where the Precinct was located. In other words Isola (Italian for island) was Manhattan.

  5. I meant to say I appreciated the reference to EDGE> When I was a kid in the early sixties I would come home after school and join my grandmother in watching her "stories." At the time I couldn't figure out why EDGE was the only one that interested me. Of course, it was the only mystery soap, loosely spun off the Perry Mason radio show.


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