Reed Farrel Coleman’s Onion Street, is our Pick of The Month for good reason. Both well plotted and poignant, it takes Reed’s Moe Prager character and gives us his coming of age in 1968 through an involving mystery. We got a chance to ask Reed a few questions about the book, the Sixties, and Moe, for a fun and interesting MysteryPeople interview.
MysteryPeople: In the Moe series, he refers to his past, but there isn’t much detail. Were you waiting to do this book?
Reed Farrel Coleman: I never planned the books in the series. I never sat down and said, “This is going to happen then,” or “Such event will be revealed in book 7.” It’s just not my nature to write that way. I wrote the Moe books as a kind of reflection of where I was in my life and where I had been. That is not to say they are strictly autobiographical. They aren’t. I just liked seeing where I was, the world was, and what I felt like exploring at any given time. Having said all that, I knew there were only going to be nine books in the series and that next year’s The Hollow Girl would be a book that took place in the here and now. It occurred to me that I had never really explored Moe’s becoming an adult. I thought the time had come for that because I’d just watched my children pass through that stage and I was nostalgic for that time period in my own life. It was a dangerous thing to do, to tackle a prequel and the 60s because they are often done so badly. But what the hell, right?
MP: Onion Street and Walter Mosely’s Little Green, which also deals with the late sixties counter culture, both came out this week and other crime fiction writers of your generation like Libby Fischer Hellman (Set The Night On Fire) and Edward Wright (From Blood) have used it lately for their novels as well as Robert Redford in his new thriller. Other than it being a the time period of Moe as a young man, what prompted you to look at that era?
RFC: Well, I think most things written about the 60s focus too much on the incredible chaos of the times and not the lives of the people who actually lived through them. I lived through them as a child and as a young teen, so I tried to see that time through the eyes of my older brothers and their pals. It also made me go back and look at Brooklyn not through my world wearied eyes, but my fresh eyes. I wanted to remember Brooklyn as I first saw it, long before it became the coolest place to live. Do you know that in France when they think something is hot or chic, they call it Tres Brooklyn or very Brooklyn. That was unimaginable to me in the Brooklyn I grew up in. I wanted to look at that world.
MP: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the period?
RFC: Great question. As I was telling my kids recently, just in the first 6 months of 1968, the following events happened: the Pueblo Incident, the Tet Offensive, Apollo Missions 5 & 6, Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. 6 months! Are you kidding me? Yet in spite of that, my dad got up every morning and went to manage his grocery store. My mom still shopped and cooked and sent us off to school. My brothers went to college and I went to PS 209. I played stickball after school. Life went on. That was the thing. Life went on. Not everyone wore love beads, granny glasses, bell bottoms and long hair. Life shouldn’t be reduced to cliché and neither should books.
MP: I thought Lids, the burnt out prodigy turned drug dealer who helps out Moe, is one of your best supporting characters. He seemed so painfully real. Was he inspired by some of the people you grew up around?
RFC: I went to high school with some totally genius kids who never seemed very happy. I mean, is anyone very happy in high school? In any case, it was easy for me to remember those kids and extrapolate a character like lids. Lids, by the way, for those of you who didn’t live through the 60s, was a term for an amount of marijuana. You bought lids, not ounces or nickel bags. Research. I swear. I was too young to know that myself back then.
MP: Many of the Moe books take place in recent history. What is a key thought to have when writing about a period the reader may have lived through?
RFC: As I referenced earlier, make it about the characters’ lives, not about the historical touchstones. Don’t be heavy handed in your depiction of an era. Allude to it without shoving it in your readers’ faces. In the early books I did this by having Moe make predictions about the relevant new technologies and always getting it wrong. I do it in Onion Street as well. I think I learned that lesson because I grew up reading a lot of sci-fi and many of the predictions those writers made were totally erroneous.
MP: Can you give a hint about what you have in store for Moe in the last book?
RFC: I’d be glad to. In The Hollow Girl, Moe is in a bad way. A woman out of Moe’s past hires him to find her missing daughter, but he’s not convinced she’s even missing. As Moe tries to pick up her trail, he confronts some hard questions about his past and about the rest of his life. I dare not say more. I can tell you I think it will be a fitting end to the series.