MysteryPeople Q&A with Miles Arceneaux

Miles Arceneux is the pseudonym for authors Brent Douglas, John T. Davis, and James R. Dennis. Their manuscript for Thin Slice Of Life won the Writers’ League of Texas award in the mystery category, leading the rollicking story to get published. It’s an often humorous, hard boiled tale set on Texas’ gulf coast that features a brother out for revenge who teams with a stalwart Texas ranger going up against a Vietnamese gangster. When I sent them some questions recently, as their nature, they pretty much answered as one.

The fellas, along with author Stephen Romano, will be here at BookPeople Monday, October 1st at 7pm to talk about their work, take questions, sign books and generally just have a good time.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the three of you decide to write together?

MILES ARCENEAUX: A group of friends has been gathering in Rockport, on the Texas Coast, for Labor Day since 1980. As a lark, probably after a quantity of red wine or good whiskey, a bunch of us decided to take turns writing chapters of a serial novel (an earlier collaborative effort by several best-selling authors, Naked Came the Stranger, was an inspiration). It was almost like a dare. We originally had groups of friends writing in Austin, San Antonio and El Paso, where we three principals lived. The prevailing sentiment amongst us was, “How hard can it be?”

Pretty hard, as it turned out. People took a stab at a chapter or two and fell by the wayside until, lo these many years later, the writing team was whittled down to the three of us. (The group of friends in Houston, it should be noted, eventually provided invaluable assistance with cover graphics, website design and layout).

MP: How did you go about collaborating?

MA: We wish we could say it was intentional and the product of a laser-focused creative strategy, but our collaborative process just evolved in an intuitive fashion. Early on, we passed chapters back and forth like teenagers driving around without having much of an idea about where we were going.

But, as we passed the chapters back and forth and edited one another, the tone began to take on a certain seamless quality. It helped that all three of us were able to dish out and accept constructive criticism and suggestions without getting our collective knickers in a twist. The hardest part was editing the manuscript many, many times, until the three writers became a single narrative voice. Although Brent was given the title “Editor In Chief for Life, or 50,000 Miles,” the plot and style was discussed constantly via fax, phone and (midway through the process when the Internet came along) e-mail…and, inevitably, beer joints and barrooms. Spouses (a big shout out here from John T. to the lovely Kathy Cordova), sweethearts and friends helped keep the momentum going.

It evolved that each of us had a particular empathy for certain characters: Brent’s grandfather had been a shrimper, and he himself worked on a shrimp boat in college, so he knew that universe; James Dennis, when he was a lawyer in El Paso, contracted legendary Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson (by then retired) to do some work for his firm, so he got a close-up look at the Ranger history and ethos; John T. has a journalistic background writing about music in Texas, Louisiana and the South, so he was able to bring that expertise to the table

MP: How did the location and time period of the Texas Gulf in 1979 come about?

MA: The original Labor Day gathering was held in the twin communities of Rockport/Fulton, where Brent’s parents had a home, and where his grandfather had worked as a shrimper, so it had appeal for us—and it hasn’t been written about in fiction a great deal.

A couple of things drew us to that late-Seventies period. Most importantly, it was the period of time when Vietnamese refugees began settling on the Texas Coast and moving into the fishing industry, which created a certain churning cultural tension (and, in some cases, outright hostility) as the Vietnamese began to dominate the local fishing industry. It’ was an interesting and turbulent time and place that we wanted to explore. As James says, “I have spent lots of time living on and around the border. The intersection of two or more nations/peoples/values and cultures holds a real fascination for me.”

Additionally, we wanted to be able to isolate our characters, to a certain extent—in that era, there were no cell phones, no computers, no Internet. Fax machines were state of the art in those days. We wanted to have our heroes on their own, so to speak.

MP: While the plot and action is hard boiled, one of your heroes, Charlie, has a whimsical side and there is a lot of humor that runs through the book. What importance do you place on using levity with such a tough tale?

MA: The humor emerged from the characters’ voices; if they are predisposed to view their world in an ironic or irreverent way, that necessarily comes out in the dialogue. We all very much enjoy writers like Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard (and, to a lesser extent, John D. MacDonald) who all injected levity into their tales. We think it provides some needed counterpoint to the tension of the suspenseful sequences and, when juxtaposed against some of the scenes of extreme violence in the book, make that violence that much more shocking. The tone started out lighter originally, but darkened in order for us to remain true to the characters.

But beyond everything else, the irreverent, wisecracking stuff is just plain fun to write.

MP: You explore the Vietnamese society on the gulf, which is rarely depicted. How did you approach writing about that culture? 

Brent lived in Rockport in 1980 after finishing school. He says, “Although there wasn’t a lot of intermingling at that time between the Anglos and the Vietnamese (they were just getting settled in), we did see them, buy bait from them, etc. In addition,. I picked up their accents, speech patterns and backstories after listening to the 50 or so oral history audio recordings from the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History on the U.T. campus in Austin.

“From my perspective,” says James, “Most of what I know about Col. Bao (our villain) and guys like him came from what I read about the war, and the sort of people who tend to capitalize when a society is disintegrating or, in this case, coalescing after a disintegration.”

MP: Where did the pseudonym Miles Arceneaux come from?

MA: Miles was a character in an earlier draft of the book. Our good friend, novelist Stephen Harrigan, gave us invaluable feedback about slimming down and tightening up the manuscript and Miles was, unfortunately, a character that fell by the wayside. We resurrected him, like the Mummy, to be our author. Our original pen name was going to be either “John Grisham” or “Stephen King,” but cooler heads prevailed.

MP: Do the three of you each have separate solo projects or do you plan to continue collaborating?

MA: We are continuing to collaborate. We already have the first draft of a sequel featuring Charlie Sweetwater and some of the TSOL characters completed. It takes place several years after the events in Thin Slice of Life, and is set around the real-life underwater discovery of the La Belle, one of the ships belonging to the famous French explorer La Salle. Intrigue ensues.

We are also halfway through with a prequel of sorts, set in the same area in the 1950s, featuring the older members of the clan butting heads with Galveston mobsters. None of us rule out pursuing individual projects (John T. is working on a musical biography of the Flatlanders for U.T. Press, and James has written in other genres), but at this point, Miles Arceneaux is bigger than the three of us. As he should be.

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