21 March 2019

"That's Fertile Ground": The Glen Erik Hamilton Interview


by Brian Thornton


One of Seattle's favorite prodigal sons is in town this week on his way to Left Coast Crime in Vancouver. and graciously made time with me for an interview. (And for those of you who have never made it to Left Coast, what are you waiting for? Or maybe you're one of those people who doesn't want to TOO MUCH FUN at any one time–in which case you should defimitely STAY AWAY!).

All Glen Erik Hamilton has done so far in his writing career has been to win Anthony, Macavity and Strand Critics Choice Awards for his debut novel Past Crimes, in addition to receiving Edgar, Barry and Nero nominations!

This friend of the blog is a seriously righteous dude. But don't just take my word for it: he's appearing at the University of Washington Bookstore (directions here) next Wednesday, March 27th, beginning at 7 PM, to discuss his newest book, Mercy River. Stop in and say hello!

And on that note, on to the interview!

I've heard it said that the great film director John Ford worked hard to make the setting for any of his films, "another character in the story." (Regular readers of this blog–both of them!–will recall my own thoughts about setting as character getting an airing like a million internet years ago, here.) You set the Van Shaw books in and around Seattle (with side trips around the PNW), and as a resident of the region, I have to say that Seattle as another character in the books comes through loud and clear. What led you to write a series set in the Emerald City?

Moving away from it.  In our first couple of years living in Southern Cal, I would return home to Seattle for visits, and every time I was astounded by how much had changed in just a few months.  It was finally seeing the forest instead of the (mossy, needle-dropping) trees.  I liked the idea of a character returning after years away, and all those changes to the city coming as a surprise and reflecting his personal transformation while he'd been gone. 

Plus, Seattle is a great town to inspire crime fiction.  Shipping, international travel and immigration, technology, biotech, loads of old money and new, and a national border just hours away.  That's fertile ground.

Great points, all. Was there any particular reason you chose Irish immigrants and their descendants for this narrative? I mean, Seattle isn't exactly famous for its Irish connections.

I wanted Van and the man who raised him to have a remove between them despite their blood connection.  That's part of the reason I made Dono Van's grandfather rather than his father -- for a deeper generational gap -- and giving Dono a radically different childhood offered even more possibilities.  Plus, we have a good friend who is a speech therapist in Galway in both the English and Irish languages.  The notion of Van and Dono communicating in Irish when they wanted privacy was too much fun to pass up.

As for how Dono wound up in Seattle rather than in eastern cities with larger Irish communities -- we'll get into THAT history in another book...

Of course Van Shaw is a literary creation, and not a real person. How much of you is in Van, though? How alike/different are the two of you?

Setting aside the obvious differences in age, toughness, military skills, and readiness with a snappy comeback -- Vans aces me on every front -- there's a lot of my personality in Van.  We're both sardonic, we prefer to stay a little outside of polite society (or at least prefer to think of ourselves that way), we tend to be abrupt and obstinate when pushed, and neither of us can stand bullies of any sort.  The one advantage I have over Mr. Shaw is the wisdom of experience.  Van didn't have the benefit of loving friends and family, and he's still figuring out how to be a whole person.  My mantra for Van is that he's an expert at surviving, but not so great at living.

Sounds like you just laid out Van's arc Trying to find his place in the world, build a family, or at least a group where he feels he belongs. Is that close?

That's right.  Without consciously intending to, Van has become part of an patchwork family, a foundation I'm building on right now in Book Five.  Finding his place -- his purpose -- is harder.  He's really good at crime, at violence, at getting himself into tough situations while trying to protect others.  None of those traits endear him to society.  Or often to himself, when he's forced to bend his own hard-won principles.

Van's facial scarring (and at least in the first book his still mending left arm/hand) play a very big role in how the rest of the characters see/react to him. Can you walk us through your decision to use that facial scar as part of his character?

There were a few useful outcomes, some of which I only realized after the fact.  It started from my wanting Van to suffer a significant wound early in his Army career, and for him to have made the decision to move past that and continue in the regiment.  I didn't want that injury to permanently reduce his physical abilities or require frequent care.  And then I hit on the idea of an injury that's more socially impactful than physically.  It makes Van more obtrusive, and adds to his already intimidating presence, which is not always in his best interest.

And although he's largely recovered from it, the damage done to Van's face when he was twenty years old was a significant psychological blow to him.  He believed it made him hideous and that any hope of a normal life was destroyed.  I've only glanced toward that topic in previous books, but it's something I'll explore in some detail in the next adventure.

Yep. Facial scars are a very effective way of "otherizing" a character. And with our all-volunteer military, Americans have by and large been shielded from the evidence of the physical costs paid by some of its military personnel and the psychological costs paid by all who serve. So it can be all the more jarring to people when they come into sudden contact with evidence (like Van's scars) of said cost.

Is that why Van has stayed in the military (at least up until the action of the first book)? Looking to belong? I recall him mentioning that he makes a difference there.

Yes.  Van had intended to make a full career in the Army, having found a place where his abilities were both accepted and needed.  It was home.  Fate had other plans.  And in any event: serving in Special Operations, especially the uncompromising Rangers, is a little like being a professional athlete.  It's a young man's game.  At twenty-eight with about nine years in the Regiment at the start of the series, Van was probably facing the downslope of his active deployments.

And what was researching the army ranger angle like? Can you take us through that?

I sort of backed into having Van be a Ranger.  I wanted him to be far from home for a long time -- not just moving away, but really gone -- and the military seemed a logical route for a tough young guy with no prospects or money.  I was talking with a friend who had served in the Special Forces for many years about different branches of SpecOps, and he described the Rangers as (in polite terms) "knocking down doors and blowing stuff up".  That sounded exactly like what Van would be drawn to at age eighteen. 

I'm not a veteran, so I started by reading whatever I could get my hands on -- a shout-out to Dick Couch's excellent book Sua Sponte, about the selection process of the Rangers -- and by interviewing active and former members of the 75th Regiment.  The more I learned about the Rangers, the more I knew it was the right choice for Van.  They are shock troops, raiders, going anywhere in the world within eighteen hours to accomplish a specific objective.  Mercy River gave me a chance to go deeper into Van's own journey into the Regiment and the mindset of that brotherhood.

You make your home in Southern California these days. What are the challenges of writing about a place you now live a thousand miles away from?

The biggest challenges are the small ones -- remembering what a particular street is like, getting the proper feel for the current incarnation of neighborhoods, all that stuff where Seattle Times and Google Maps aren't going to be of help.  I sometimes scout new places when I'm in town with an idea toward using them later.  I also keep a list as I'm writing of Things-to-check-next-time-I'm-in-town.  In a pinch, I've sent out friends to photograph locations or FaceTime with me while they do the legwork.  The twenty-first century offers some advantages to the writer.

For the new book Mercy River, my daughter and I took a long weekend to drive around central Oregon and look at volcanic rock fields and ghost towns.  If all location scouting was that much fun, I'd never get around to actually writing the books.

Was it tough taking Van out of Seattle? I mean, this is the fourth novel, right? Seems like sooner or later he's going to have to expand outward. It also sounds like you're far from done having him travel beyond the Emerald City.

It's fun, and I think important, to flex new writing muscles with every book.  I could have placed Mercy River and the gathering of Ranger veterans in a real town in Oregon, but after three books set within easy driving distance of Seattle, it was a treat to create the town and the fictional Griffon County from scratch.  Plus, there's the advantage of making up whatever geography and jurisdictions is required to make the best story.  Van will continue to stretch his legs and visit new places.  At least enough to keep the dust off his passport.

What are the easiest things for you to write? 

Easy is a relative term, as every writer knows.  But I usually find that writing from Van's perspective as a child comes out pretty well-baked on the first drafts.  And scenes where he's exercising his skills in burglary and other illicit objectives.  I'm sure a shrink could have a field day analyzing why those two aspects of Van's mindset come naturally to me.

How about the hardest?

The hardest scenes in fiction are the hardest in life: when Van's figuring out the right thing to do, or say, or feel.  Sometimes I don't even know how I feel about a situation until I let Van wrestle with it.  I push him out there to do the emotional heavy lifting.

And there's a hybrid answer to your question:  Action scenes.  I love writing action sequences, and sometimes they even have the proper gut-punch feel I'm aiming for on the first attempt.  But to get them right, I probably make at least a dozen more passes depending on the complexity and length of the set piece.  Considering geography, character blocking, reaction times, perspectives and moods, sensory impact, and all the rest. The faster the scene, the longer it takes.

Yeah, writing action is a blast. And having your character in his own head can take quite a bit of layering of the writing.

But what about writing the likes of Van's grandfather Dono and cronies such as Hollis and Jimmy Corco? I'd think they'd all be a hell of a lot of fun to write.

Hollis's voice in particular comes easy.  If there's one character who sits down at the table with me and hands me his dialogue wholesale, it's Hollis.  He's a gregarious fellow.  And Jimmy C. is so sour, I just think of the meanest thing someone might say at a particular moment and half the time that's Jimmy's take on it too.

Okay, last question: can you give us a hint what's next on the horizon for Van Shaw and Company?


Van’s mother Moira died when he was only six years old, so his memories of her are very limited.  His grandfather closed himself off from the pain of losing Moira, and subsequently never shared much about her with Van as he grew up.  Neither of them ever learned who Van’s father was.  It’s high time that Van discovers more about his family, perhaps more than he’d truly like to know. 

And that wraps it. Thanks to Glen Erik Hamilton for taking the time to sit for this interview! And if you're in the Seattle area, consider dropping by the U Bookstore to say hello and talk thriller stuff with him next Wednesday, March 27th!

And for those of you planning to attend Left Coast (including you, Glen!) see you in Vancouver!


Prodigal Son & Thriller Writer With Hometown In View

1 comment:

Leigh Lundin said...

Making Van to think he's ugly is an interesting approach. So much depends on attitude and approach to life. A couple of the homeliest guys I know married the most beautiful women, beautiful inside and out. It's a clever take on a character.