MysteryPeople Q&A with Miles Arceneaux

Miles Arceneaux is the pseudonym for authors Brent Douglas, John T Davis, and John R Dennis. Their first book, Thin Slice Of Life, is a fun crime novel set on the gulf Coast in the early ’80s with a ne’er do well Charlie Sweetwater returning home to find out who killed his shrimper brother. Their latest, La Salle’s Ghost, finds Charlie sixteen years later, a shrimper himself now and getting involved with sunken treasure from a French settlement and the shady characters it attracts. Both Brent and James will be in the store tonight at 7PM. In a recent interview, we learned the three of them can not only write but actually answer questions together, as well.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: How was this writing experience different from Thin Slice Of Life?

MILES ARCENEAUX: Well, for one thing, this one didn’t take us 25 years to complete. We managed to get a pretty good work flow established with TSOL, in terms of passing the manuscript back and forth, editing and embellishing on the fly and incorporating input from a handful of trusted readers. It also helped that when we started the book, we had a real-time deadline. The international La Salle museum exhibit was originally supposed to open at the Bullock State History Museum this month (October, 2013), and we had hoped to time the release of La Salle’s Ghost to coincide with the opening. Alas, the exhibition has been pushed back one year, and will open in October 2014. From what we’ve heard, it should be a spectacular exhibit.

MP: How has Charlie Sweetwater changed from the first book?

MA: The book takes place 16 years after TSOL. Charlie is older, though not necessarily wiser. He’s not as given to impetuous gestures and actions as he was in the previous book, but his heart still overrules his head on frequent occasions. He’s also stumbled into a small pile of money, which is pure wish fulfillment on the authors’ part. Among the things that haven’t changed, Charlie remains kind of a magnet for trouble and ne’er-do-wells. But the wisdom that comes with age hasn’t completely escaped him, and he can generally spot trouble on the horizon. He just isn’t much inclined to avoid it.

MP: There is a lot about the history of the French in The Gulf. What kind of research did you do?

MA: Yes, the French flag is one of the famous “six flags over Texas,” but the French role in our history has long been nothing more than a footnote. The excavations of La Salle’s ship, La Belle, and his doomed settlement, Fort St. Louis, created quite a buzz in the archeology world, and the research that resulted from these two discoveries added much to our historical knowledge of a short, but fascinating chapter in our state’s history. The narrative of La Salle and his ill-fated colony offers a great story, particularly since we didn’t have to live through it. We tried to tether our modern story to the historical events surrounding the La Salle expedition, and several times in the book we ask the question, “what would Texas be like today if the French mission had succeeded?”

We relied heavily on three books: From a Watery Grave—The Discovery and Excavations of La Salle’s Shipwreck La Belle, by James Bruseth and Toni S. Turner (Texas A&M Press); The Wreck of the Belle, the Ruin of La Salle, by Robert S. Weddle (Texas A&M Press); and of course, the eyewitness journal of La Salle’s friend and Lieutenant, The La Salle Expedition of Texas, The Journal of Henri Joutel, 1684–1687  (Texas State Historical Association). Additionally, we received excellent feedback from Jim Bruseth, who directed both the La Belle and the Fort St. Louis excavations.

MP: In both books, the Gulf is a character in itself. How do you go about creating a sense of place?

MA: Some stories are just linked to particular places. I mean, Dracula just kind of belongs in Transylvania, and the gothic setting makes the gothic story possible. It wouldn’t work in Kansas. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee anywhere but the Florida coast or James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux outside of Southern Louisiana. And the thing about Texas, and the Coast in particular, is that it spawns a certain type of person which makes a certain kind of story possible. We’ve spent years down on the Texas Coast, and we’re very connected to the people and the history down there.

MP: Do you have further plans for Charlie?

MA: Charlie is in for further adventures, but our next book in the series will take place in the 1950s, and will feature Charlie’s kin, who butt heads with the Galveston Mafia. Charlie is around, but he’s too young to get into serious trouble. He leaves that to his uncles on Ransom Island.

MP: How is three writers a plus?

MA: We can keep each other going when our enthusiasm flags, which is a definite plus. Also, one of the three of us might have a particularly sharp insight on a given character or aspect of the plot, so it’s good to have three people with different expertise to call on. Being three authors, we can—and do—call bullshit on one another when the need arises. It changes your perspective when you begin to think of yourself in the plural, offering a kind of absolution that’s hard to come by even in church. Anytime someone doesn’t like a particular passage or turn of a phrase, we can always blame it on each other, “Yeah, that was Brent”, or “James insisted on it.” Each of us can therefore remain blameless, or at least create a reasonable doubt.

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Meet the guys of Miles Arceneaux here at BookPeople tonight, Wednesday October 2 at 7pm.

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