by Brian Thornton
Tonight's blog entry features an interview I recently conducted with Bill Fitzhugh, author of ten comedic novels with a variety of crime fiction elements to them, including his latest, Human Resources.
I came across Bill's work quite by accident. Mutual friend and fellow funny guy author Steve Brewer introduced us over poker at Left Coast Crime a number of years back. I've never enjoyed getting cleaned out at poker more. Poker with Fitzhugh and Brewer is an experience I highly recommend you put at the top of your bucket list (and if you can get Parnell Hall, Matt Coyle and the Immortal Craig Faustus Buck into the mix, so much the better!).
So Bill is a friend from way back, and it's always fun to sit down and shoot the breeze with him. I remember reading Pest Control a few years ago, but didn't recall much about it (which is no slight on Bill or his work: I was tending a very sick infant at the time, and running on zero sleep), and hadn't read anything else by him, and didn't know much about his work, other than hearing at one point that Pest Control had made into a musical.
I like it when people I like are also good writers (and vice-versa), and so when I heard that Bill had a new book coming out, I made a point of getting my hands on Human Resources as soon as it was available, and dove in.
And with Bill launching a "shameless" (and clever) Facebook campaign to get his book some attention, I thought, "Hey, maybe I can get my blog readers (BOTH of them) to take a look at his work."
Hence, this interview.
Now, bear in mind, I know Bill first and foremost as a guy who routinely kicks my ass at Texas Hold'Em and Ocho, and as someone whose work has been on my shortlist to read more of for a while, now, second. So I started asking questions, and got a lot thoughtful responses.
This guy's stuff is well worth the time invested to read it.
Here's the interview:
You started out in comedy. Radio comedy, specifically, right? How did you get to the point where you rolled that in to a career writing crime fiction?
Well. I ‘started out’ in radio as a DJ at WZZQ-FM, a 100,000 watt killer fm rock station in the days just before the consultants got hold of the thing and killed it. One of my jobs was to write commercials and my tendency was always to write funny spots. After moving to Seattle to attend UW, I met up some folks and we wrote, produced, and voiced Radio Free Comedy. The show was pretty standard audio comedy stuff, so commercial spoofs, parody of game shows (we did a spot for the law firm of Shaftem, Dickem, Hosem, and Marx; game show called Bowling for Hours where condemned inmates could have extra hours added to their lives for hitting a strike!). We turned that into a TV pilot that we couldn’t sell. So moved to LA to write sitcoms. Landed some fringe jobs then got fired from a show and it wasn’t ‘hiring season’ any more. (TV used to be very cyclical and if you didn’t get hired during hiring season, you waited until the next one.) So started writing screenplays. First one was a mess. Second one was Pest Control. Couldn’t sell it to anyone. All the studios passed. Then I decided to turn it into a comic novel. 127 agents passed on it. Then one bit. He sold film rights to Warner Bros and publishing Avon and foreign rights as well. So suddenly I was a novelist. But I knew zip about crime fiction; that’s not what I was trying to write. I was writing comic novels where people happened to commit crimes.
Yes and no. It’s the third book involving organ transplants. The Organ Grinders was first and dealt more with xenografting and biotechnology. Heart Seizure was an idea I had while writing The Organ Grinders (the president needs a heart that is bound for a sweet old lady… the black helicopter people try to take the heart, the sweet old lady’s son steals it back and goes on the run, trying to find a hospital to do the XP before the feds catch him). So Human Resources has no connection to Pest Control except that it’s a brilliant book that everyone should buy for themselves and their entire extended families.
Speaking of Pest Control, it was made into a musical. How did that come about, and what can you tell us about the experience?
The musical was actually done in 2008. The producer (John Jay Moores) was a fan of the book. He optioned the stage rights (nobody saw that coming!) and handed it over to James Mellon and the crew at NOHO Arts Center in North Hollywood. The show was fabulous. We saw it half a dozen times. I had ZERO to do with the musical other than cashing the option checks and loving the show and the cast and crew.
(For some video of the play, including musical numbers, click here and here!)
Back to Human Resources: how much and what sort of) research did you have to do in order to believably (and it IS believably) recreate the workings of a black market organ transplant ring for this story?
I have tons of research for the previous transplant books and continue to gather more since I find the field fascinating. This explains why I’m currently writing a play (with music) that revolves around organ donation. The fact that we can do this Frankenstein stuff raises so many legal, ethical, and economic questions that it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Who would you consider your influences?
I read a lot of Vonnegut as a kid and Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America and though I’m sure I missed a large % of what they were doing, I liked the absurdity. I also read Steps by Jerzy Kosinski (which is just odd and semi-smutty in places). I watched all the variety shows for the comedians and same with The Tonight Show. Loved Carson’s monologue and any comedian he had on the show. And I listened to a lot of comedy albums: National Lampoon Radio Hour, Firesign Theater, Bill “Would you like a drink” Cosby, and Dolemite! Monty Python, etc. Oddly I wasn’t influenced by Carl Hiaasen for the simple reason that I hadn’t heard of him until someone read Pest Control and they said it reminded them of Carl. Then I read Carl. He’s so good but we definitely do things differently. He makes more normal situations funnier than I can. I tend to take a normal guy and put him in absurd situations and find the funny in there. Writers who weren’t influences: Hemingway, Faulkner, Bronte… Other non-influences are all the standard crime writers, Hammett, McDonald, Dorothy L, Agatha C., etc. I've always loved crime movies and film noir but never read any of the 'greats' growing up. I've read some of that stuff since being in the crime writing community but not much.
You shift point of view frequently, sometimes in mid-scene. Does this sort of “head-hopping” present a challenge to you at all? You seem to handle it pretty well, with the proof being that it’s not a distraction, so wanted to know what you thought of it. Many writers (and I number myself among them) find it a genuine challenge, especially changing POV mid-scene. (Thinking of the scene with the spider monkey, especially, here.).
I never really think about it. The thing with the monkey I figured wasn’t a distraction because it was so clear what was going on. It was strictly for comic effect. And done only in that one scene. Dave Barry did this much more in Big Trouble with the dog which is where I nicked the idea.
Building on the previous question, you occasionally slip from close third person into third person omniscient. Is there a rhyme or reason to how you do that, or is just something to do by feel?
You’d have to show me where I do this because I don’t know. Not saying I don’t do it but I’m not clear on some things. Okay, many things. I always think I’m writing from third omniscient. I want reading the book to be like watching a movie. The reader knows and sees everything that’s going on even if the character in the scene doesn’t.
One example that springs to mind is the point early in the book where Detective Densmore meets Special Agent Fuller for the first time. You talk about how she's looking through CCTV footage at St. Luke's Hospital, tell the reader what she's thinking (you don't actually have internal dialogue, or anything like that, but it feels a lot like close third person), and then you talk about how, if she'd looked at the monitor behind her, she'd see the guy in the black SUV roll up and badge the security guard. Don't get me wrong, I think it was deftly done. Just wondered whether that sort of move was a conscious one on your part.
Nope. I thought it was the same POV for all practical purposes. Wasn’t trying to make any moves there.
You balance narrative with dialogue incredibly well. Any tips for writers who struggle with that balance?
Pro tip: Write for 20 years (radio commercials, sketch comedy, sitcoms, screenplays) and then spend another 15 years to write 10 novels, you’ll get better at it. All of my early books could have 20% or so cut and the books would be greatly improved. I used to insist on sharing all the ‘fascinating’ research I’d done and I would tell the reader what was going to happen, then show it happen, then tell them what just happened. Elmore Leonard is great at giving you all you need and not a thing more. I edited Human Resources more than any book I’ve written. If you don’t need some bit of dialogue or narrative (in service of plot, character, or a really good joke) cut it. This isn’t advice that I figured out; it’s old advice and it’s hard to make yourself do as much as you need to.
You've mentioned both Hiassen and Leonard now, and reading Human Resources those were the two fiction voices I found most similar to yours. Others that came to mind were narrative nonfiction specialists like Michael Lewis (The Big Short), Peter Hopkirk (The Great Game), and Stacy Schiff (Cleopatra: A Life). I mention these three authors specifically because you set your scenes in a very similar manner: quickly, thoroughly, and with a surprising economy of words. Also, another fiction author your work recalls for me is Ruth Downie, who writes an at times very funny historical mystery series set in ancient Roman Britain. This isn't to say that you two have similar styles, so much as you both put regular people into absurd situations, and let the story rip from there.
Is there a question pending, counselor?
Nah, I just really liked how you did all of the above, and I wanted our readers to know what they were in for when taking a crack at your work.
The easy answer is: It’s life and death. it’s also Frankensteiny. Taking parts from the dead to give to the living. Organs are useful only for so long after being harvested (they like to use the word ‘recovered’ now, but I like harvesting better) so that gives you an organic ticking clock. In Heart Seizure (where the gov’t is trying to get the heart back from the guy who has run off with it because his mother is entitled to it), people keep asking why someone would do something so crazy and the answer is always ‘What would you do if it were YOUR mother?” It’s not like someone has stolen your priceless piece of art. You can live without that… The new project (a play, more specifically a tragic-comedy in two acts with some singing…) is also about the property aspects of human tissue. We can sell blood, semen, eggs, bone marrow but not a kidney? Who’s kidney is it? There is an area of law where this is unfolding in the courts and it’s fascinating (to me at least).
You really nail the description of one of your main character’s PTSD-in a Stephen Crane, “Gee, it’s like he LIVED it, must have BEEN there” kind of way. How much research did that involve (and did any of it involve spider monkeys?)? Was there anything about it that really stuck with you?
I struggled with that. I started writing this as a straight thriller. But I’m no Lee Child. God, what he does and how he does it LOOKS so simple. But it ain’t. After 70 pages I couldn’t go on with it. Jake was having flashbacks and taking drugs to deal with the ptsd but i wasn’t buying any of it. I put in in the drawer and thought about writing something else. Eventually decided to write what’s in my wheelhouse. So I rewrote it in my voice and stopped trying to be Lee. In the course of it I cut most of the PTSD stuff. There’s just the scene with him and Densmore and a vague reference or two elsewhere. I read Elmore’s Mr. Paradise and liked how little he told me about the characters. It wasn’t mired in backstory and stuff from childhood or some traumatic thing that led to the characters doing what they did. What you got was a tiny morsel of someone’s background. All that mattered to the story is what the characters said and what they did. That was very freeing for me. This was also true of the film adaptation of one of his stories (Life of Crime, based on The Switch, starred Jennifer Aniston). They didn’t bother us with backstory on the characters. We saw what they said and what they did. That tells you most of what you need to know.
And that's where I was going with the question above. Everyone has read stuff where the character has the childhood trauma/debilitating physical or mental condition that occasionally (or in many cases, all too frequently) swamps the character and adds to the challenges said character must overcome in order to win through to the goal dictated by plot/action, etc. That sort of thing can be really effective when done right: but it is very difficult to pull off without hitting the reader over the head with it, and can (and frequently does) descend into unintentional parody. I really liked that you let the reader know about Jake's PTSD, and then held back and his actions dictate how much of a factor that was going forward. It's easy to do too much, and sometimes hard as hell to show restraint.
Thanks! It’s possible to use a load of backstory to explain a present motivation but do it in as few words as possible since it kills momentum unless you are REALLY good at it. Otherwise, I prefer to let character be revealed by what they say and do in the present.
A lot of writers who are very funny in person aren’t able to replicate that in their writing. You do both well. Do you have any suggestions for writers who would like to “write funnier”?
I don’t have any useful instructions for that. I think I naturally see things in a funny way and I think I’ve honed it over the years and absorbed a lot of how it’s done by immersing myself in all the comedy stuff I mentioned in Question #5. And I’ve spent years writing, as I said sketch comedy and sitcoms. I toyed with the idea of stand up in the 80s when I was in Seattle and stand up was booming. I hung with a bunch of local comedians but I didn’t have the courage to do an open mic because I never found a voice for on stage the way I think I found a voice on paper.
And finally, you've mentioned beginning your career as a DJ, and we've certainly had our share of long discussions of music. In fact you had your own show on Sirius for, what? Five years? So obviously music is important to you. What are you listening to lately, and do you ever listen to music when you write?
Never listen to music when I write as it draws my concentration from what I’m doing. I don’t have any current artist or new release that I’m crazy about but I like to check out any artist that Jim Fusilli recommends as he has such wide ranging interests and great taste.
Thanks a lot, Bill, and good luck with both the sales of Human Resources and with your new musical project!
Thanks Brian! I enjoyed this.