Showing posts with label Author Interview. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Author Interview. Show all posts

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

16 April 2015

Author Interview: David Corbett


by Brian Thornton

One of the benefits of working in crime fiction is that you get to meet a variety of true "characters". Most of them are terrific people, generous with their time and free with their advice. None more so than critically acclaimed author and writing guru David Corbett.

 David has graciously agreed to sit for an interview about both his newest book and his career in general, beginning with his work as a private investigator. First a bit more about David:

David Corbett is a recovering Catholic, ex-PI and onetime bar band gypsy who’s written five novels, numerous stories, multiple scripts, and far too many poems. One novel was a New York Times Notable Book, another an Edgar Nominee. The latest, The Mercy of the Night, was published in April, 2015. Two of his stories have been selected for Best American Mystery Stories and his book on craft, The Art of Character, has been called, “A writer’s bible.” He lives with his adorable wife and insane dog in Vallejo, California, which really, truly isn’t the hellhole it’s cracked up to be. You can learn more at: www.davidcorbett.com

And now to the interview:

David, you're an experienced private investigator. Did you get into that line of work with an eye toward one day using it to inform your work in crime fiction, or were the two career choices made relatively independently?

I’ve often said I’m not a PI who became a writer, but a writer who became a PI. Actually, it’s a bit more involved than that.

In my late twenties I was studying acting and writing short stories, with about the same success in both fields: getting some nice attention, but nothing to crow about. I was realizing I needed to pick a lane, and went back and forth as to whether I should pursue writing or acting.


As it turned out, two of my friends in acting school were working for Palladino & Sutherland, a high-profile husband/wife PI firm that was beginning to attract attention because of its work on two Hells Angels cases and the DeLorean case, among other matters. (They also got a lot of press because they were the real-world equivalents of McMillan & Wife, a popular PI TV series during the mid-seventies.) My friends – who were working as a stringer and a receptionist, respectively – suggested that, if I wanted to write, I try to get a job at the firm. “You can’t beat this place for material.” This proved, as you can imagine, an understatement.

It took me nine months to land the job, and one of the reasons they ultimately hired me was because I was the most persistent applicant they’d ever had. I realized my work for the firm would be my “years at sea,” giving me the experience and worldview that would inform all of my writing. I didn’t specifically foresee a career as a crime writer, and I’ve always considered myself more concerned with character than crime per se, but the justice system and its inhabitants – both domesticated and otherwise – have provided me with my subject matter ever since.

How does your experience as a PI inform your work as in fiction?

Beyond the obvious element of subject matter, I learned several things that continue to serve me well.

First, since we often worked criminal defense I gained an intimate knowledge of the types of people who are accused of crimes – not just them, but their families, their friends, their classmates, their pet-sitters, their gardeners, etc. This helped me move beyond the usual “bad guy” clichés and see the people we call criminals as fully realized human beings.

Expanding that observation, I saw firsthand how everything in the justice system isn’t the result of abstract rules and ironclad principles: “the law.” It’s driven by people pursuing their self-interest and trying to serve the interest of their principles: their clients or the public.

Second, I worked with a lot of very tough, very smart lawyers, and I learned what it means to fight for someone’s freedom, livelihood – even his life in death penalty cases. This isn’t hypothetical to me. I’ve lived it, and that responsibility shaped me both as a writer and a person.

I also gained a profound appreciation for the criminal defense bar. I’ve remarked elsewhere that, contrary to popular opinion, many of the criminal defense lawyers I’ve known are some of the most decent, honest, committed men and women I’ve ever known. It’s a shame they’re almost always portrayed as scumbags and weaklings in film and TV. I’m hoping, with the new series, to rectify some of that. (I love Mike Connelly’s Mickey Haller series for this same reason.)


So tell us about the new series, and about your new protagonist, Phelan Tierney. Where did the idea for the series come from, and what was Phelan’s genesis like?

Wow. Well, that’s a lot of ground to cover, but I’ll try to be brief.

Despite my background, I had no interest whatsoever in writing a PI novel until recently. From what I could tell, readers expected their PI protagonists to be something akin to the plains gunmen in an urban setting, and that was as far from my own experience as imaginable.

For the most part – the part that would best lend itself to a crime novel – I was a cog in the justice system, a “people’s pig” who tracked down witnesses, debunked prosecution theories, and sifted through evidence on behalf of criminal defendants. And it became pretty clear in my reading through the genre (and listening to agents, editors, and readers) that when it came to crime no one much cared to hear from the defense table.

But then in conversations with Charlie Huston and Michael Koryta, I began to reconsider my anti-PI-novel agenda.

When I told Charlie my job hadn’t been that dramatic, he asked me to describe an average day. I said I was the guy who had to go the door of the family of a murder victim and try to find someone in the house who didn’t want the killer – my client – executed. Charlie replied simply, “I think that’s interesting. You should write about that.”

Michael, a former PI himself, thought I was turning my back on a goldmine of material. When I told him the rough idea I had for the next book (which would ultimately become The Mercy of the Night), he expressed genuine enthusiasm for the idea.

Also, by this time I’d read more in the genre and realized I’d given short-shrift to the suspense inherent in a good investigation – finding the truth is a tricky business, regardless which side you’re tracking – and I trusted my own instincts as a writer a bit more. I felt, at least, up to the task of trying.

But my first attempt at writing a PI faltered because I didn’t take the time I usually do with a character to flesh out the unique details of his life. I just assumed I knew the guy, which turned out to be a mistake. He came out flat on the page, and I realized I had to go back and start over, make my hero someone I recognized but didn’t fully understand, so I would have to discover him.
"You come at the king..."

And so I conjured Phelan Tierney – the oddity of the name alone made me wonder about him.

I made him a lawyer, not a PI, which also required me to raise my game. I’ve known a number of lawyers who’ve traded their bar card for a PI license, and most of them have done so for the simple reason they preferred interacting with people to shuffling paper.

But my own experience with lawyers (including my marriage to one) also made me aware of the distinct habits of mind they acquire. The best combine a bare-knuckle pragmatism with a capacity for abstraction that an algebraist would envy. That too engaged me in a way my bland cipher of a PI hadn’t, and it helped me avoid some of the classic tough-guy clichés that afflict too much PI fiction.

I also wanted to make him more of a helper and healer than a hunter or a fighter, though he can handle himself (he’s a former high-school and college wrestler). I just had an idea of him as a man who, after failing in a brief stint as a prosecutor (he “lacked a killer instinct when it came to putting poor people in jail”), then spending twenty years as a hotshot litigator specializing in construction defects, he wants to do something nobler with his life.

He’s a widower, and has had to put his life back together after some serious wreckage related to his wife’s death. He’s financially set, so he decides to walk away from being a hired gun. He wants to care for the wounded.

He carves out a unique niche for himself in the justice system. He knows what it takes to help people in trouble, and the unsparing honesty required from all concerned, even himself (especially himself). He has a special devotion to those who hope to turn their lives around, and for those who, for whatever reason, find they’ve become invisible, or voiceless.

That’s my take on a man who can walk the mean streets who is not himself mean.

Anyone familiar with your work, from The Devil's Redhead to The Mercy of the Night, knows you write about outsiders and underdogs, be they ex-cons, cops, Latino teenagers, or... musicians. What is it about these types of characters that causes you to gravitate toward them?

Damned if I know. Sometimes I think you just come hard-wired with certain themes ingrained in you before you’re even aware of them.

That said, I was the youngest of four brothers, which pretty much sealed the underdog thing. And I was raised in a family where there was a “company line” that I never really bought into. I was also raised Catholic and pretty early on realized that word and deed often resided in parallel universes.

I had to fight my way home sometimes and developed a profound contempt for bullies (and I’ve experienced way too many people in positions of authority who qualify). I also had friends who got targeted by the nuns unfairly (one of those friends had a dad who was connected, which I didn’t know at the time – he was always great to me), and I just seemed to gravitate to “lost dog” stories.

Your novels have garnered all manner of awards/nominations/ critical acclaim, but what many people might not realize is that you're also an accomplished short story writer. (Full disclosure: David's short story "Returning to the Knife," a stream-of-consciousness take on a stabbing, appears in a crime fiction anthology I collected and edited a few years back) You've even published a collection of them. What do you enjoy most about writing shorter pieces? Is there anything different about your preparation/process when "writing short" as opposed to "writing long"?

I think of novels as being about a journey, whereas stories are about an epiphany. Short stories typically revolve around a potentially life-altering moment of awareness: What was I thinking? What have I done? What does this mean? So in staging a story I need to know what’s kept the character from the moment of awareness before, then break down whatever walls have kept him inside that box. The story ends when he sees the way out. In a novel, I’d let him leave, and wander around until he finds where he’s supposed to be headed. Or doesn’t.

A couple of years back you published The Art of Character, "a unique and indispensable toolkit for creating characters that come vividly to life on the page and linger in memory." Now, there are plenty of great writers out there who can no more explain their process upon request than a chicken can do long division, and yet you manage it nicely. That doesn't just "happen." Can you lay out for us some of the challenges in writing a "how-to," as opposed to "just doing it"?

I forget which writer friend it was that I had this conversation with, but after I mentioned I was writing a book on character, he asked why. I said it’s the thing I think I do best. He was dumbfounded. He said you never teach what you do well – because the fact you do it well means it’s probably instinctive. And the fact you do it instinctively means you’ll have a hard time analyzing what others need to do to get it right. And the process of analyzing it will gum up your own intuitive process.

Fortunately this didn’t prove to be the case, though I got his point. A lot of what I do in my character work I learned in acting school, so there was already a process to rely upon. And as I thought more carefully and deeply about the various problems we get into with our characters, I began to recognize what I was doing to solve those problems, even when I wasn’t fully aware of it. So the book in a lot of ways was just the result of my becoming aware of what I was already doing.


Now, like my friend said, that can be dangerous. Best way to fall off a bicycle is to pay too much attention to the pedals. Again, I’ve been fortunate that this isn’t the case. In fact I now look at character much more deliberately, and craft my characters in a more detailed, extensive way, precisely because of my own analysis as I wrote the book. And it’s paying dividends. I’ve had readers tell me that both the characters and the dialogue in The Mercy of the Night are the best I’ve written.

Well, I know a lot of teachers (go figure) and a solid majority of them would fundamentally disagree with the notion expressed by that friend whose identity has receded into the great beyond. Most teachers go with their strengths. I did encounter a guy once, a math teacher, who purposely chose math because he struggled with it in school, and when he did try to get help from his teachers, they were unable to assist him, because they had never struggled with math. The guy was a great teacher. That said, we’ve all struggled at something, and extrapolation from our experiences is something we as writers must practice on a fairly consistent basis. How do you square that with your statement above about your “years at sea.” Obviously there are some things you can’t fake, and so you must take the time and trouble to research/master them. Do you have a hard and fast rule when it comes to what you’ll BS on, and what is too important to leave to invention/extrapolation?

I generally try to avoid rules, because they’re almost always designed to protect you from something you’re scared of. I try to play to my strengths, but if you’re not risking anything in a book the reader will feel it.

I talk to a lot of people (one benefit of having been a PI, I’m not afraid to ask anyone anything) and do a lot of research so I can write with authority even about things I initially know little about. But in the end writing is a lot like a magic act – you’re creating an illusion, and indirection is often required, getting the reader to focus on what you do know so they don’t notice you’re bluffing your way through what you don’t.




 With your statement above you’ve proven all over again the old teaching axiom, “If you want to really master a subject, try to teach it.” That’s clearly what you’re doing with THE ART OF CHARACTER. It’s teaching. Any chance we’ll get more from you on this subject? And lastly, what’s next on the drawing board for you?

Anne Perry wants me to write a book on plot, because she liked The Art of Character so much. She’s an amazing woman, insatiably curious.

Actually, what I’d like is for The Art of Character to sell well enough we go into a second edition, because there are some sections I’d rework now that I’ve been teaching with the book as a guide.

But the most immediate task at hand is the next Phelan Tierney novel, which I’m currently researching and plotting. Beyond that, I’ll say no more. I never like talking about works in progress, because it tends to take away from the sense of urgency required to get the story down.

And that is a great note on which to wrap things up. Thanks so much for sharing your time and insight with us, David. As always, it's been a real pleasure!

Thanks for having me here, Brian. You’re a mensch.

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If you'd like to read David Corbett's stuff (and I STRONGLY suggest you do!), why not just click here and let Amazon do the rest!