I’ve had a sort of crap week, but I’m at the end of the semester, ready to give one more exam, and then sit back for a few weeks of Holiday cheer, reading bestsellers, and writing feverishly.
How would you describe yourself in a sentence?
Melancholy, like Poe, but with a better furnace.
How would your best friend describe you in a sentence?
I asked him. He said: “I think you can take Neil at face value and trust he’s going to do what he says … as a writer: brave.”
Crime fiction is at its best when…
It’s unpredictable and makes you care far more about these characters than you expected to.
The worst literary vice is…
Ah, well, I’m tempted to go with John Gardner’s concept of “frigidity”, but I think it’s the writer thinking that what he or she is writing is actually “important”.
The highest literary order is…
Telling a good story that not even we, the writers, know the full impact of.
What’s your favourite word?
Goddamn. It was the one I was always told was the worst possible curse word. Pretty much blasphemy. But if that’s true, why was my dad saying it all the goddamned time, right? It’s two perfect, nasty syllables.
Which single word would you remove from the parlance of our time?
“Like”, when used in place of “said”.
Which single profession would you remove from the business world?
Professional baseball player
Which single person would you remove from the planet?
Oh, wow, that’s loaded. Let’s say, if I could live on a spaceship like The Enterprise or that weird bubble in The Fountain, then myself so I could soar through space and see planets and shit. I know that’s not the spirit of the question, but fuck it.
Which fictional character is going to be shot, come the literary revolution?
Obviously Jack Reacher, but he’ll be prepared for it and will keep charging, boring millions of more readers.
What’s the best one-liner you’ve ever read or written?
Well, Victor Gischler and I both had a hand in Emerson Lasalle’s assertion that “Technology is ruining science-fiction.” Or maybe it was all Victor. But I like that. Otherwise, it’s probably “Says you.”
Your five favourite party guests are…
Seeing a “u” in “favorite” always looks weird. Also, not a big fan of parties.
Which book by another author do you wish you’d written?
Lush Life by Richard Price
Sum up your latest book in no more than 20 words, including its title:
All The Young Warriors. Minnesota. Somalia. Terrorists. Pirates. Heartbreaking. Thrilling. Cheap. Ebook. Eight words left. Okay, not any more.
What scene or theme did it start with?
I saw a story about some young Somali-American men in the Twin Cities who “disappeared”, only to turn up in Somalia fighting for the terrorist group there who is decimating the whole country. Since the prairie town where I live is three hours from the Cities and also a place where many Somali families are settling, I wondered about the impact of that on a small town, but more importantly on the people left in the wake.
What happened next?
I thought up a scene where two small town cops stopped these two Somali men because they weren’t driving so well in a blizzard. One is a pretty ordinary middle-aged Midwestern man, and his partner is a pregnant woman. Then the driver ends up shooting both of them and getting away. I think that chapter set the whole chain of dominoes falling down in a powerful way. At least I hope so.
What made you take the story abroad?
It was a suggestion from Allan Guthrie, who really thought I could pull it off even though I wouldn’t be able to actually travel to Somalia. So I spoke to a couple of Somalian students here, and then I did a lot of research. But I also had to be inventive. I’m not trying to recreate the “real” Somalia as much as I am inventing one for the world of the novel. The same way I have to reinvent the small town in Minnesota and the Twin Cities. To me, these settings are going to be more “hyper” than they would be in reality. Kind of how Tony Scott saturates scenes in his movies with too much exposure, color, motion, and scratchiness. It’s seeing the world through a particular lens.
What was the greatest challenge in writing that novel?
Other than writing about Somalia having never been there, I think the emotional content. I wanted to shed as much authorial intrusion as possible. I wanted it to feel very raw. I wanted less of my usual attitude and swagger.
What was the greatest moment in writing it?
There was a moment near the end when all of the Somali “warriors”, led by the character Jibriil, break out into song, but it’s not a song you’d expect. I wasn’t allowed to use the lyrics, unfortunately, but I still thought the title alone would bring it up in nearly every reader’s mind. That scene felt kind of like a Werner Herzog or David Lynch scene, and it helped set up the finale very well.
What reader response did you hope for when you wrote All The Young Warriors?
I honestly hoped for a “You’ve GOT to read this!” response and crazy sales and awards and a big movie deal.
What reader response do you hope for now?
Oh, I’m still holding on to that. At least in my daydreams.
What are the greatest problems in writing today?
In *writing* (because I won’t get started in “publishing”), I’d say the same as ever: too many writers, too many books not being able to find the right readers. Also, unnecessarily long novels. We need really good editors.
What are the greatest opportunities in writing today?
I would say it would be new digital publishers trying a new model and helping get writers noticed on a bigger stage. They can do it cheaper than print publishers.
What are the problems of self-promotion?
The same people who have no problems accepting pitches and ads from huge corporations (including some people who sympathize with the Occupy Movement) get really upset when an individual self-published author (or even small press author) tries to convince people to buy their books. Some of those authors are bad at it, I agree, but the outrage on Twitter is way off-scale. It’s taken very personally, and that’s disappointing.
What is the most surprising situation you’ve found yourself in because of your writing?
I was invited to Italy when Yellow Medicine was translated and published there. I was surprised by the outpouring of support and the enthusiasm of the people there. I was also surprised to be asked to sing something on camera in an interview while overlooking the River Po.
What have you learned from teaching creative writing?
I’ve learned so, so, much about that transition we make from “wannabe writer” to “writer”. At some point in all of the students, that lightbulb goes on over their heads and the work begins to really sing. I wonder when it happened for me. At some point during grad school, and then again during the writing of Hogdoggin’, or I don’t know…but it’s nice to see that “crossing over” moment on the page. I’ve learned that creative writing can absolutely be taught as a craft, and can help beginners see their own work differently, usually by reading and commenting on classmates’ works. Helps to develop a thick skin, too. Many students avoid me after the first workshop is done because I’m pretty direct with my critique, because I want them to know what they’re up against out there. An editor won’t tell them in as much detail as I will. So they get frustrated and a bit mad. Then, by the time they are ready to graduate, they’ve come around and are glad they took those classes with me. And I’m really proud of the work they’re handing in for the final portfolios.
What advice do you start your courses with?
“Write about what you’re interested in”. Enough of that silly “write what you know” stuff. Write what you want to know is more like it. Research. Learn. Writing about it gives you an excuse to do it…within reason.
What advice do you end your courses with?
Don’t stop trying to learn more about how to do this. Ever.
What is your creative blind spot?
It seems that no matter how hard I try, the “big cop thriller” that I wish was in my head just never comes out right on the page. It’s always too dark, with unsympathetic characters, or is a bit too over-the-top, or has too much explicit sex and violence and bad language in it. As much as I would love to write a book that would appeal to fans of Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane and James Lee Burke, it’s always as if I sabotage myself in order to keep from being bored.
What do you like about your writing?
The voice and the risks.
What is your writing about?
In a lot of the books, there’s always a character (or two or three) trying to start over. Change who they are and go somewhere else and just start over. While in the long run, I hope that changes, it always seems to incorporate itself into the novels these days. Maybe it’s because after grad school, that’s exactly what I had to do–a couple of times! I moved over a thousand miles from home, where I knew no one, and had to start again. Then three years later, I had to move again (new job) to another state, another new set of people, another landscape. So, until the next obsession comes along… (I just rewatched the movie Velvet Goldmine the other night, and it’s got the same theme or recreation and starting over. Good music, too).
What is your ambition as a writer?
I would love to one day have a great crime series going that sells well enough so that the publisher keeps wanting a new one from me. Would love to do a couple of novels a year–one in the series and one that’s not. Sort of a Simenon thing. But as long as I can stay with publishers who are willing to help me build an audience and keep asking for the next novel, I’d be thrilled.
What made you decide to publish All The Young Warriors as an e-book?
Several things: 1) a very close (heartbreaking) call with a traditional publisher, 2) another weirdly close call (or maybe not) with another traditional publisher, 3) the idea of having to send out another round of submissions to more traditional publishers–smaller indie places this time–after thinking this was a pretty big book, and by “big” I mean “lots of people will like it”. And that round of submissions would take longer than the first, and it would be another year or so before it would get published even if one of those places did buy it, and I wanted people to read it now. 4) About the same time I asked my agent, Allan Guthrie, that maybe we should try some digital publishers, he mentions he’s trying to start one, and he’d like All The Young Warriors as one of the launch books. So…
What made you move to Blasted Heath?
…with Allan becoming my publisher instead of my agent, and this Kyle Smudge guy with his wealth of social media, *and* the success I’d had on my own with e-books all year, *aaaaaand* hearing about the line-up that included Ray Banks and Douglas Lindsay, I knew I’d found a really good home for the digital version. I love the indie press/indie record company vibe, and I love being a part of a strong brand, so this was looking like a lot of fun. It’s new, it’s untested, kind of like when I joined up with awesome indie publisher Two Dollar Radio for my second novel. Ground floor, baby. Had to climb those walls without stairs or an elevator. Same here.
What makes a good title, and how important is it for the success of an e-book?
In my own reading, I hope the titles give me a sense of the book without telling me what to think about it. Don’t point me the right way. Just intrigue me, please. Allan is a lot of help with titles. I think I’ve had some good ones (Yellow Medicine and Hogdoggin’, Psychosomatic) but sometimes I hit the wall.
Just a side rant: one thing that shows big publishers don’t “get it” is when they make the name of the author HUGE on the cover, and the title is less than half the size. And there’s hardly any cover art. Come on. You can do better. It’s almost like “Generic Book by Big Author! You liked his last one? You’ll like this one the same!” That sort of branding isn’t the same as when a great publisher nails a strong look for a line or an author. Old Penguins or Vintage Crime or Melville House. Or, like with Blasted Heath, all of the covers are done by J.T. Lindroos, so you have a sharp and consistent feel across all of them. Excellent.
So, titles? Yeah, good ones help.
What will be your first words at the pearly gates?
Wow, how about that? Real pearls. So do I get to stay?
What do you wish you’d known when you started writing?
That publishers would change so much so quickly just from the time I graduated high school to the time I published my first novel (about 14 years). They used to build a writer’s audience book by book. Now they want the big score first time out without doing a whole lot of promotion. But wait, that’s… that’s typical author whining.
I wish I’d known it was all going to be okay even if I didn’t get on with the Big Six and become a bestselling crime writer from the first novel. Because yeah, I love my life and my job and the fact that I get to write novels. But I tell you, I lost a lot of time worrying about it.
CLICK HERE FOR THE ONE BOOK EVERYBODY SHOULD READ: All The Young Warriors