Dennis Tafoya got the attention of both hard boiled fans and writers alike with his debut, Dope Thief, before quickly following it up with the equally emotional The Wolves Of Fairmount Park. His deeply felt novels look at family and the working poor and have drawn as many comparison to Bruce Springsteen as to Dashiell Hammett. His latest, The Poor Boy’s Game, has already been getting glowing reviews. It deals with Frannie Mullen, a disgraced US Marshal, who has to protect her dysfunctional family from her own father, a union enforcer who broke out of prison. To promote the novel, Dennis will be teaching his One Hour Mystery Class at BookPeople on Wednesday, May 1st at 6:30pm. We caught up with the man to ask a few questions.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: Even compared to your other books, Frannie is a truly damaged character. Is it a challenge or more freeing to write for such a flawed lead?
DENNIS TAFOYA: More freeing, definitely. I wanted to write about somebody on the right side of the law, who lived an upright life, but I saw Frannie as somebody who leans on a hard sense of right and wrong as a way to draw a line around herself. She’s trying to wall herself off from the consequences of what she sees as the bad decisions other people make out of weakness, even if that means being remote from her family and keeping friends at a distance. The Poor Boy’s Game is structured as a thriller, but I hope that the real attraction of the book is watching Frannie’s elaborate defenses break down as she is forced to come to grips with her past.
MP: The book kicks off with an intense shoot-out. How do you approach your actions passages?
DT: I spend a lot of time thinking about the action in those sequences. I want them to be exciting, but I want them to reflect the ambiguity and messiness of real life. It’s ridiculous how much research I do and how much time I spend looking at streets and intersections in real life and online. I also try to read as much as I can by people I think do that well, folks like James Dickey and Denis Johnson. In everything I write, I try to keep coming up with a way to make things new. I’m always worried about cliché and familiar language and situations.
MP: I really enjoyed your criminal characters. They reminded me of George V. Higgins characters with a darker shade. How did you approach writing them?
DT: Love Higgins! I can’t imagine a better guide to writing criminals as fully realized people. In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Eddie himself is a bundle of contradictions, and Higgins is never afraid to show his main character as a blowhard or a guy who thinks he knows the angles when the reality is that he’s being manipulated and outmaneuvered by his friends. Writing guys like the career criminal Jimmy Coonan are a lot of fun because they’re guys you could see yourself having a beer with, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous.
MP: While reading The Poor Boy’s Game, I felt it had as many cinematic influences as literary ones. Is that a fair assessment?
DT: Sure! I love crime movies, just like every crime writer I know, and I think it’s pretty clear now that there’s an interplay between page and screen that goes both ways: books become movies, and movies influence writers. I especially love the small, independent films like Frozen River or Hard Eight, films that show criminal behavior as human behavior with complex motivations. There are the big films, too, like Heat – I think it would be tough to write gunplay without a film like that coming up as a reference in your head.
MP: Broken families appear in much of your work. What draws you to that dynamic?
DT: I think we all wonder how much we’re made by our families of origin and how much by our circumstances and character. It’s a question I think we spend our whole lives thinking about, and our perspectives shift as we age. We want to believe we’re independent actors, but are we, really? Certainly, even if we’re in perfect control of our lives, For better or worse, I think the way we’re raised provides a context and a way of thinking about experience that is very hard to leave behind.
MP: You’re giving your short mystery writing class at our store on Thursday, May 1st. Can you tell those attending what to expect?
DT: I hope it will be a fast, fun introduction to writing crime fiction. We’ll do some quick readings from a number of crime classics and talk about how some of the masters like Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block have approached character, setting, plot and the other elements of fiction. And we’ll do an exercise or two, because writing is always more fun than talking about writing.
Thanks again to Dennis for answering our questions. Check out a review of The Poor Boy’s Game here on the MysteryPeople blog and be sure to stop by the store Thursday May 1st at 6:30for a free Mystery Workshop with the author.