MysteryPeople Q&A with Eric Beetner

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Eric Beetner’s new novel The Rumrunners is packed with fun action, perfect for those of us who grew up watching the Duke Boys and The Bandit outrun the law. The story concerns Tucker McGraw, a man from a long line of men who transport illegal goods – usually liquor or drugs – who has decided to go straight.

Soon enough, he gets pulled back into the business, when his father disappears with a mysterious shipment. The redneck ring of criminals employing the McGraw family force Tucker and the McGraw family patriarch, Calvin, to pay off the debt as drivers.  Full of car chases and colorful characters, it is a fast paced, run ride. I caught up with Eric to talk about the book, its inspiration, and how he wrote a book that moves as fast as Burt Reynolds in a Trans Am.

MysteryPeople Scott: Rumrunners is a much more rural crime novel compared to most of your other work. Did the setting effect your writing at all?

Eric Beetner: I was born in Iowa and although I only lived there a very short time it has stayed with me as part of my identity so when I thought of this crew I wanted to put them in Iowa. Plus, I like the small time crooks. Beyond the fact that New York and L.A. and Chicago have been done before and done so well, I like the small fish. Guys who aspire to be bigger but never stand a chance. Criminals who are deluded in thinking they are big time when they are anything but. Those make interesting characters to me. So, yes, setting was very important in this story. I don’t think it would have worked the same if it were a big city crime family. There’s a different dynamic there. And the McGraws in general just want to do what they do and not be bothered. To me, that’s a more rural or Midwestern attitude. They just want their slice of land and to live their lives how they want to. They don’t have to be top dogs.

MPS: You are dealing with three generations of a family trying to save a member from another generation. What did you want to explore with this tribe?

EB: I latched on to the idea of multiple generations and thought it would be interesting to explore what happens if someone rejects their criminal lineage and tries to go straight. Of course, he’s drawn into the family business out of his loyalty to his father (and the threat on his life) but I thought it made an interesting arc to see how Tucker tries to stick to the straight and narrow but is forced to bend and how he discovered what is dormant inside him.

And I love old guys who still kick ass. Calvin has turned out to be a fan favorite and I can see why. A criminal with a strong moral code, deep family ties and the ability to still mix it up in his eighties. What’s not to love? He force feeds a guy a crack pipe for heaven’s sake!

MPS: Most of the main characters are tested by their skill with cars as opposed to guns. How was dealing with that challenge?

EB: I think I’ve fooled a few people with this book, but I’m not a car guy. I love the artistic qualities of cars. I love vintage Ferraris and the aesthetics of auto design, but I don’t know squat about engines. I don’t even know how to change my own oil. Sad, but true. Also, I drive a hybrid. The secret is out. Sorry.

But for these guys, the cars in their life are as important as girlfriends. They are their office, their companion, the things that might save their life. And then there is the cool factor on top. When I write about a car like the Superbird, with its crazy wing on the back, it’s like porn to someone like the McGraws.

And for Tucker, it becomes a measure of his manliness. For him to excel at driving makes him more of an adult in his grandfather’s eyes. It’s his lineage and his birthright.

But for the cars in the story, I did my research. I learned what engines they had, what year they came out, what colors they came in. That part was fun.

And I love old guys who still kick ass. Calvin has turned out to be a fan favorite and I can see why. A criminal with a strong moral code, deep family ties and the ability to still mix it up in his eighties. What’s not to love? He force feeds a guy a crack pipe for heaven’s sake!

MPS: This book appears to be somewhat influenced by the hicksploitaion films like Dixie Dynamite and White Lightning. Do you a particular favorite in this genre?

EB: Of course you have Smokey and the Bandit. There is Vanishing Point, Gator, Grand Theft Auto, Dirty Larry and Crazy Mary. Plus the films with kick ass car chases like The Seven Ups, French Connection, Double Nickles, Bullit. (I’ve written about this before). 

I was drawn to the story more about the people than the cars or the action, though. I could have written all the crazy car chase action in the world and if it isn’t grounded in character then it won’t work, like many of these films. Some of what came out in the 1970s in the wake of great car chase movies was just an excuse to wreck a bunch of cars. Those aren’t the ones that have endured. The best of the bunch were character based and just happened to have some kick ass car driving action in them.

MPS: Your books move fast. What advice would you give to a writer wanting to pick up his or her pace?

For him to excel at driving makes him more of an adult in his grandfather’s eyes. It’s his lineage and his birthright.

EB: For this one the phrase “cut to the chase” was never more appropriate. For me, characters are defined by action. It’s the old ‘actions speak louder than words’ idea. I don’t need to waste a lot of time explaining character motivation in prose if their actions speak for them. How someone reacts, how they deal with a situation of pressure or stress – all this says a lot about a character in very few words.

I feel it is the reader’s position to ask an author, “What happened?” Ok, let me tell you a story. At the end of that story the author should be able to ask the reader, “Ok, why did that happen?” And if the reader can’t answer, then the writer didn’t do their job.

I read a lot of books where there is what I see as extraneous information, whether it is describing the streets someone drove on to get somewhere, the exact layout of a room instead of just the important highlights, a detour into backstory that doesn’t really need to be there. I know I’m an impatient reader, though, and some readers love the rich detail so good for them. I like to keep it upbeat and fast paced though because I know a reader will fill in the gaps with their own ideas and experiences. I don’t need to go into detail about settings in a lot of cases because if I lay out the basics, the reader will fill in the rest and in doing so they are more deeply engaged. I personally don’t want it all laid out for me.

For Rumrunners we did cut a lot in the edits. I had a lot more with the ex wife and the son, but ultimately it slowed down the main story. I balked at first seeing all these cuts – almost 5000 words worth – but I came around because it made the story move better and I didn’t miss the stuff once it was gone.

As you revise that is the test. If you’re in the fence – cut it – then see if you miss it a few days later. Chances are you won’t.

I’ve often thought I should start a business where I take manuscripts and cut 15% of them away. I think at least half of the books I read could use a trim. But I know that’s just my preference as a reader. But hey, shorter books = more books read in a year. I’m all for that!

MPS: Your publisher told me you’re working on a prequel to Rumrunners. What makes the McGraws so fun to write about?

EB: The next one, Leadfoot, takes us back to 1971 when Calvin is a much younger man and Webb is off on his first solo job. It was great fun to dig into the early lives of these characters and see them develop a little bit. I like that they have their moral code. There is a lot in Leadfoot about Calvin setting rules for what he will and will not do in his capacity as a driver. He doesn’t want to get involved in the violence and turf wars. He just wants to drive. But, like Tucker in Rumrunners, he comes up against situations where he has to decide and has to balance his own family’s safety in that decision.

But really it comes down to these people I can relate to in that they are small time, quiet and humble folks. They just happen to live on the other side of the law. I try to infuse them with likability. To root for a crook they need to be lovable, in a way.

And driving fast cars on the run from the cops and other criminals is cool, man. The boys get up to some serious shenanigans in Leadfoot. Lots of action, lots of unexpected turns. And the same way people reacted to seeing a kick ass octogenarian, I think they will really love a certain badass female in the book who really shows what she made of when the chips are down.

You can find copies of Rumrunners on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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