The latest novel by bestselling author (and the master of effortless cool) George Pelecanos is on sale today. What It Was is a paperback original, which means no waiting through the hardcover cycle to get the softer (and cheaper – only $9.99!) edition.
Pelecanos is the guest blogger today over at Mulholland Books, where he shares some of his favorite movies from the book’s era, the 1970’s, and talks about the book in a few videos.
RJ Ellory has earned a great following in his native England writing about the US. In some ways, his books contradict normal crime fiction. They tend to be more sweeping and episodic and, while he takes you through some rather dark and noirish territory, he doesn’t carry the cynicism many crime writers in this country do. At the same time, he captures the American as well as the human experience as well as many of our American writers.
His most recent book to come to the states is A Quiet Vendetta, where the “interrogation” of a mob enforcer, Mr. Perez, in order to find the kidnapped daughter of the Louisiana governor is interwoven with the story of Perez’s life, a story that follows the history of the mafia from the 1950s to the present. It strikes a brilliant balance between sweeping and emotional, and tight and intense. Picture the first two Godfather films with the structure of The Usual Suspects.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Mr. Ellory some questions about A Quiet Vendetta and his process
MysteryPeople: A Quiet Vendett a is a sweeping look at the history of the American Mafia in the last half of the 20th century, yet the story relies on two flawed men in a room. Which came first, the era you wanted to explore or the characters?
RJ ELLORY: Well, the emotion always come first, and that may sound like a strange answer! I don’t write a synopsis or an outline for any of my novels, but I do start with a vague idea of the kind of story I want to write, and also a very clear idea of the kind of emotional response I want to evoke in a reader. In the case of A Quiet Vendetta, the intention was to write about the worst kind of human being I could think of, and yet have the reader be sufficiently seduced by this character to even come to like them by the end of the book. I wanted to write a vast Mafia epic, something that spanned several decades and many cities, and have each city be as much a character as the individuals who drove the story forward. I wanted it be many stories within one story, and I wanted to write one chapter in third person, another in first, and alternate them back and forth. I also wanted to blur the lines between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
MP: How did the character of Perez, a Cuban enforcer for the Italian mob, come about?
RJ: Well, very simply, I wanted to create a character who – no matter how deeply he became involved with the Mafia – would always remain an outsider, simply because he was Cuban. I also wanted to begin Perez’s story during the era of Mafia domination of the Cuban casino business. Therefore it made sense to have Perez be picked up by the Mafia in Havana coincident with Castro overthrowing Batista.
MP: What draws you to using US history as a canvas for many of your books?
RJ: I always read as a child. I was orphaned at seven and sent away to various institutions, and there was always great access to books. When I think of my childhood I think of three things: long-distance running, reading and being hungry! I started with Christie and Conan Doyle, Shakespeare and the classics, and then I found Harper Lee and Truman Capote, Steinbeck, Faulkner and Hemingway. I found a tremendous difference between English and US literature, and the rhythm and style of US prose appealed to me so much more. There was a grace and atmosphere and slow-motion style to it that really resonated.
Later on, in my early teens, the kind of TV we watched was predominantly American. I grew up with Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, all those kinds of things. Additionally, I became – and still am – a huge fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and count amongst my favourite actors such people as Stanwyck, Hepburn, Edward G. Robinson, Bogart, Bacall, Cagney, Cary Grant and James Stewart. I also loved the atmosphere, the diversity of culture presented by the US. The politics fascinated me. America is a new country compared to England, and it just seems to me that there’s so much colour and life inherent in its society.
I have visited a great number of times now, and I honestly feel like I’m going home. And I believe that as a non-American there are many things about American culture that I can look at as a spectator. The difficulty with writing about an area that you are very familiar with is that you tend to stop noticing things. You take things for granted. The odd or interesting things about the people and the area cease to be odd and interesting. As an outsider you never lose that viewpoint of seeing things for the first time, and for me that is very important. Also many writers are told to write about the things with which they are familiar. I don’t think this is wrong, but I think it is very limiting. I believe you should write about the things that fascinate you. I think in that way you have a chance to let your passion and enthusiasm for the subject come through in your prose.
I also believe that you should challenge yourself with each new book. Take on different and varied subjects. Do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of writing things to a formula. Someone once said to me that there were two types of novels. There were those that you read simply because some mystery was created and you had to find out what happened. The second kind of novel was one where you read the book simply for the language itself, the way the author used words, the atmosphere and description. I think that the truly great books are the ones that accomplish both. A classic, for me, is a book that presents you with narrative so compelling you can’t read it fast enough, and yet written so beautifully you can’t read it slowly enough. I think any author wants to write great novels. I don’t think anyone – in their heart of hearts – writes because it’s a sensible choice of profession, or for financial gain. I certainly don’t! I just love to write, and that love, that passion, has been there since my early twenties. First a reader, then a writer. And the range of subjects and issues and cultural differences inherent in the US draws me to it completely.
MP: Many times you use the concept of a story within a story. While at first look it seems limiting, how is it freeing for you?
RJ: Well, the last thing I would ever wish to do is write a series of novels about the same characters. That seems to me to be the most claustrophobic and limiting thing of all. I can write a historical saga, a romance, a political conspiracy, a serial killer story, anything I like, and all within the framework of a crime novel. To write a story within a story just gives me endless scope to write about whatever interests me, and I have often found that if you write about those things that fascinate you, you tend to find that others are fascinated. I think your enthusiasm for the subject matter comes through in your prose. I consider that the very worst novel you could write is the one that you believe others will enjoy, whereas the best novel you could write is the one that you yourself believe you would enjoy reading.
MP: What sets you apart from many of today’s current crime fiction writers is that you offer a deep, believable sense of hope about life and humanity, no matter how dark the tale. As somebody who survived a pretty rough early life, is this something you feel necessary to convey?
RJ: Well, I don’t really consider that I had a rough early life, to be honest. Is it worse to be orphaned and raised without parents, or to be raised in a loving close-knit family environment, only to then witness the aggressive, bitter and violent divorce of your mom and dad when you’re in your teens? I think the former is easier than the latter. As Joni Mitchell said, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’, and if you never had anything to start with, well you can’t miss it! The simple truth is that people fascinate me. The human condition fascinates me. The mind and life as a whole fascinate me. People are crazy and funny and flawed and brilliant and scary and intense and sad and apathetic and lost and focused, and everything else. No-one is perfect. No-one gets it right all the time. I have a pet hate for those crime novels where the lead investigator jumps to wild conclusions and is proven right all the time. Life is not like that. People are not like that. If they’re surviving, then they’re getting things right slightly more than fifty percent of the time. I think I have a deep and believable sense of hope about life and humanity, and I think how I write is just a reflection of my own philosophy. That’s what makes each book unique to each writer. I think that’s what makes a part of each book written somehow autobiographical, not in the story that’s written, but in the philosophy of the characters.
MP: You’ve hit several American regions during different periods. Is there a time and region you’d like to tackle that you haven’t yet?
RJ: I am doing it now! The Deep South (Mississippi), the era (the end of the Nixon administration), and a character who is a Vietnam war veteran. That gives me three areas to write about that I have not written about in detail before, and I am enjoying it thoroughly. This is for a book called The Devil and The River, due for release in the UK in 2013.
MP: You have the sense of sweep and of emotion of a literary or historical fiction writer. What keeps on bringing you back to crime fiction?
RJ: Very simply, my love and fascination for people. The thing with crime, as a genre, is that you can incorporate any sub-genre – history, politics, culture, music, homicide, blackmail, conspiracy, forensics, serial killing, the CIA, FBI, kidnapping, bank robbery, anything at all! – within that story, and it is still a crime novel. Additionally, and more importantly, confronting a regular person with the extraordinary nature of an act of violence or crime gives me opportunity to write across the entire range of human reactions and emotions, and that’s the thing that excites me the most.
As somebody who has hung out with Roger, I can attest we’ve only scratched the surface with him. So join us January 27th at 7pm for his signing and discussion of A Quiet Vendetta over a couple of beers (or wine if you prefer), and other refreshments.
The Mary Higgins Clark Award is given out at a special party the night before the Mystery Writers Of America’s Edgar Awards, which are given to suspense writers. I’m very happy to announce that two friends of ours (who we had the honor of hosting with their debut novels) made the list.
Sara J. Henry with Learning To Swim – This is a great cross between Du Maurier’s Rebecca and your favorite Harlan Coben thriller. Just released in paperback.
Janice Hamrick with Death On Tour – This is a very funny mystery about a murder on a discount Egyptian tour. Janice is an Austin author who not only won the MWA/St. Martins First Crime Novel Prize, but also wrote a chick lit style mystery an affirmed hard boiled fan like myself can love.
We’re kicking off 2012 in The Hard Word Book Club, our group that discusses hardboiled crime fiction and westerns, with Death Along The Spirit Road, a book the straddles both genres. The author CM Wendelboe (Curt or “Chick Magnet” to his friends) was a protege of Craig Johnson, creator of the Walt Longmire series, and shares Craig’s human and often humorous representation of American Indians. Picture a slightly less politically correct Tony Hillerman.
Death Along The Spirit Road is the first in a series featuring Lakota FBI agent Manny Tanno. Manny is sent to the place he wanted to get away from, The Pine Ridge Reservation, to solve the murder of developer Jason Red Cloud, who was killed with a war axe. Under a deadline, Manny has to deal with the chief tribal cop who was his high school rival and his brother who is a suspect. The book has incredibly well developed characters and some funny dialogue, and takes an interesting look at the notions of tribe, family, honor, and history in a place where Crazy Horse, Wounded Knee, and the arrest of Leonard Peltier still linger.
Curt will be calling in to our group discussion of the book on Wednesday, January 25th, 7p. I’ve gotten to know him through moderating a panel he was on at the Texas Festival of Books. He’s funny and very knowledgeable about law enforcement on the reservation, being a deputy near Pine Ridge.
We’ve been looking forward to welcoming Taylor Stevens back to BookPeople since her event with us for The Informationist back in March of last year. The wait is finally over – Stevens is here tonight at 7p! She’ll be joined by one of our other favorite authors, Austin’s own Jeff Abbott (his latest, Adrenaline, is now out in paperback) to talk about her brand new thriller, The Innocent.
Taylor was recently featured in both the Chronicle and the Statesman. For more info about the book and Stevens, scroll down and read Scott’s Q&A with her and his review of the book. We’re big fans and hope you can make it out tonight!
I’ve been talking about James Carlos Blake here on the blog for the last couple of weeks. I recently read his latest novel, Country of the Bad Wolfes, in preparation for his event here on Sunday, January 22nd. In this new book, he looks at his own ancestry with two generations of twins who dueled, loved, and built fortunes in both the US and Mexico, and also looks at the relationship we have with those South of the border, as well as eighteenth century (and possibly current) manifest destiny.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Blake about what it was like to tell a story of his own family, his research, his influences, and what the border means to him as a writer.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: While this book is as rough, brutal, and unflinching as your previous work, with characters who you have to accept on their own terms, it has a slightly more romantic quality than the other books. Did writing about people that were a part of your own lineage have a different effect on you?
JAMES CARLOS BLAKE: Not that I’m aware of. While the skeleton of the story is formed of my family’s history, the book is a novel, a work of invention, and I freely altered family facts to suit my tale. I think the “more romantic quality” you perceive in it may derive from there being so many women in it. One of the joys of writing this book was that it so naturally involved many women of every age and kind — from a wise and ancient crone to a truly bad-ass 16-year-old.
MP: What kind of research did you have to do for a story you’re so connected to?
JCB: There wasn’t much research necessary by the time I decided to write the book . I’ve been familiar with my family’s history since I was a boy, and over the years I’ve read a good deal about 19th-century Mexican and American history. If there’s one general subject of study that benefits a fiction writer, it’s history, whether or not he writes historical fiction. History is human nature writ large, and the better you understand the past, the better you’ll understand people in general, including those of our own day. What’s more, I’ve lived, at one time or another, in almost every place in the book, and I have a good memory for places, for their weather, landscape, character. Together with imagination, those memories served me well in creating the physical and cultural worlds of the Wolfes.
Besides wanting to write a book based on my family, I’ve also long wanted to write about Porfirio Diaz, one of the most fascinating figures in Mexican history. And for some time I’ve wanted to write a sequel to my third novel, In the Rogue Blood, whose main character, Edward Little, was only 19 at the end of the book. InCountry of the Bad Wolfes I write all three stories.
MP: These two sets of twins have adventures for a dozen books. How did you keep the narrative thread from being overly episodic?
JCB: The book’s original title was A Natural History of the Bad Wolfes, because, like most family stories, the Wolfes’ is a kind of history. Moreover, “natural history” generally implies a non-academic presentation of facts and events about your subject. Because so much of the story is told in narrative summary — the mode of most good histories — I thought the title was apt and might also help the reader understand why the book is written the way it is. You’re right that there are countless episodes, but rather than develop all of them with “real-time” pacing (that is, with lots of specific details of manner and direct dialog), I present many of the episodes more compactly through summary description and indirect dialog. It’s a style that strikes me as much truer to the tradition of storytelling. Plus, it keeps the story moving along at a pretty good clip.
MP: What did you want to express about these four men?
JCB: I simply wanted to present the most interesting characters I could. And I’ve always been fascinated by twins. I think twinhood may be the most intimate connection possible between two people, though of course not all twins share the same degrees of intimacy. Both sets of Wolfe twins are close to each other, but the first set begins to diverge in both looks and in character by the time they’re in their teens, while the second set is not only physically identical all their lives, they are like a single soul in two bodies.
MP: Even though you use innovative approaches in some of your novels and stories, there is a classic feel to your work. Who are your influences?
JCB: Probably every writer whose work I’ve enjoyed has taught me something. William Goldman’s early novels had a great effect on me and taught me much about point-of-view before I even knew what that term meant — especially in his use of the third-person in a way that seems almost first person. Hemingway has taught me more than I can adequately credit, just as he has taught most writers who came after him. Steinbeck is another influence. Robert Stone. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Many others who don’t leap to mind at the moment, and probably many whose influence I’m not even aware of.
MP: Many of your books take place in the past and deal with historical figures both legendary and minor. What brings you to the past so often?
JCB: My love of it for one thing, my acquaintance with it for another. Aspiring novelists should be taught that the old adage, “Write about what you know,” isn’t limited to what you have personally experienced. Vicarious experience is also a great part of what you know. Read a lot of history and it becomes part of your store of knowledge, part of what you’re prepared to write about. The same goes for stories and memories that other people share with you. A crime story set in the past has the advantage of not having to deal with the high-tech detail that has to be dealt with in present-day stories. I like that the past doesn’t change, though there are arguments against that view. Despite all that, the book I’m writing now is set in our own time. It’s also about the Wolfe family but takes place a hundred years after the end of Bad Wolfes.
MP: Many of your books move between the Mexico and Texas. What does that border mean to you as a writer?
JCB: Brownsville is the place of my childhood and elementary schooling, and I still have a great affection for the town. In some inexplicable way, even though I haven’t lived there since boyhood, I feel that Brownsville’s my true home. It was inevitable that I’d someday write a big novel set in large part in that region. The Tex-Mex border has its own special character, an amalgam of two cultures and languages and outlooks, and its effect on me is undeniable. As a writer I feel lucky to have lived there at the impressionable age I did.