MysteryPeople Q&A with Bill Durham

Bill Durham’s Amarillo has been a consistent seller in our store since we took it on consignment over a year ago. The story of a New York lawyer finding a new home and troublesome murder client in the panhandle town is full of great characters, twists, and laugh out loud moments. Bill will be joining us for our Lone Star author panel with Reavis Wortham, Tim Bryant, and Ben Rehder. We asked Bill a few questions to learn more about this talented newcomer.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: I’ve noticed when many of our customers pick up your book they ask themselves, “Why would anybody want to write about Amarillo?” What is your answer to them?

BILL DURHAM: Why would anyone want to write about any place? My answer is that it’s the people and the history of the place that make it interesting to write about. I’m not a particular fan of Houston, although I love David Lindsey’s books set there. I’ve never been to New Iberia, Louisiana, although I devour James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux novels. I don’t think that “glamour” (ooh, he’s using the British spelling, from before Noah Webster changed it. What a snob!) makes a place such as New York or Los Angeles inherently more interesting than any other location. It’s true that London gave us Shakespeare, the greatest story-teller of them all, but my uncle Egbert Norwood Durham (known as Buddy) from DeKalb, Texas, who barely had a fourth-grade education, and my close friend Dick Pena from Muleshoe would fair threaten the blue ribbon from Master Will in a story contest. As a student of American history, I can promise that not everything interesting happened on the East or West Coasts. I’ve known as many fascinating characters in the Panhandle and seen as many heroes and villains there than on any Manhattan boulevard, Hollywood street, or theatrical stage.

In this specific case, I was writing a contemporary Western, and Amarillo seemed the perfect setting, Plus, I used to play a lot of pool there.

MP: Even though your book is Texas through and through, your protagonist is a Jewish lawyer from New York. Why such an outsider?

BD: Even though I’m Texas born and raised, I always have felt like somewhat of an outsider. My family moved from Texarkana to Iowa when I was 6 and when I was 15 we moved to Muleshoe. Kids there made fun of my “funny” (to them) accent, and so I felt like an outsider. I also had different attitudes and beliefs about politics and religion than most of my peers, so I felt like an outsider for those reasons. It took me years to become comfortable in my skin as a Texan. I spent ten years in New York City, and so when I chose my main character, I wanted to pick someone who could see Texas culture from the outside yet come to love certain aspects of it, as I did. Max is half a doppelganger for me.

MP: The characters really stand out in this book. They’re funny, they all have memorable dialogue, are multi-dimensional, and a reader can even understand the worst of them. How did you approach creating each character in the book?

BD: The book started here in Austin, when I was taking an acting class with Mona Lee, a wonderful teacher. I had an assignment to write scenes that could take place in different locations. The first had to be in a car, and I wrote a scene where a husband and wife are going to Luby’s. She is afraid that her husband knows something about the disappearance of her best friend’s husband, and she knows she shouldn’t ask but she does. He threatens to show her where the guy is, but he tells his wife if he does, she probably will end up in the same place. i.e., a grave. It was a scary scene. A couple of weeks later I was partnered with a very beautiful blond woman, a cheerleading coach who later went on to become a professional wrestler. You could slice her Texas accent with a fine-honed hunting knife. I wrote a scene where she was a D.A. who ran into a defense attorney in the grocery store, and they were on opposing sides of a trial. I had very long hair back then, which would have marked me as an outsider. So I realized in a flash that the long-haired guy was defending the man in the previous week’s scene on the murder charge. I had the bare bones of a story. Then I looked at the other people in the class and though “Hmm, I wonder who this person could play?” One guy who was kind of scary-looking became a criminal named Smith Dixon, a Latino became a guy named Carl Puente, and on from there. So I wrapped characters around class members. Of course, all characters are versions of the writer. So Joe Wagner, an angry and sadistic redneck, and Max Friedman, a sarcastic Jewish lawyer, both represent aspects of my own feelings.

MP: While some very tragic things happen in the story, I frequently laughed out loud while reading it. Is humor an important tool for you?

BD: It is, yes. Ever since I was a little kid, I would just naturally do impressions. I loved comedians such as Bill Cosby, David Frye, and Rich Little. Later I became a fan of Richard Pryor and Robin Harris. I think that humor, as it is for many people, is a way of deflecting the attention of bullies. I also love satire, from Aristophanes to Benjamin Franklin to Jonathan Swift to Jane Austen to Carl Hiaasen to Christopher Moore to–well I think you get the picture. It’s easier to express criticism and your desire to change the world if you’re making people laugh. If you’re the crazy guy whose car is slathered with bumper stickers and you’re shouting into a megaphone on a street corner, sane people will cross the street to avoid you. If you’re a writer or comic, they’ll read what you say, laugh, and then think about it.

MP: Amarillo is a mix of legal, crime, and regional novel with brushes of several other genres. I know you’re well read. Were there any influences you drew from when writing?

BD: Quite a few, of course. I’m a big fan of the American regionalists from the late 19th century, including Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, Jack London, and others. Yet I’m more of a romanticist than the naturalists who came from that movement. I won’t kill everybody off. I love how those writers portray certain American places through description and dialect. One of the reasons I’m a mystery writer is because I think that those folks are the modern regionalists. Whether it’s Michael  Malone in North Carolina, Sue Grafton in Santa Barbara, Loren Estleman in Detroit, or Timothy Hallinan in L.A., these are the folks who really delve into what makes a city or region tick. My favorite crime writer is Lawrence Block, who has almost become a minimalist. Yet he knows New York City so well that he can paint a picture of it with barely any description.

MP: You spent a lot of time as an actor. Do you believe it helps you with your writing?

BD: Absolutely. I was raised by story-tellers from East Texas–my dad’s family. They couldn’t help but act out their tales, and so as I mentioned previously, humor and acting have always come naturally to me. I love to read books out loud to my wife, and I also love to listen to audio books. I think that my actor’s ear is honed to be able to tell when a line of dialogue rings true or not. If it doesn’t, then I rewrite it. When I was revising Amarillo, I read it aloud to my wife, who is also a performer, so both of our ears were listening. I have looked into recording Amarillo on audio, and it’s a bit more than I have in my budget right now, so if any of my readers have deep pockets, I’d be happy to entertain an offer! However, my explorations into that realm have netted me an offer to read other people’s work, which might lead to me doing my own.

MysteryPeople welcomes Bill Durham, along with Reavis Wortham, Tim Bryant and Ben Rehder, to BookPeople for a conversation about crime fiction on Wednesday, August 1st at 7pm.

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