In The Hemingway Thief, the recently released debut crime novel from author Shaun Harris, a writer of popular vampire novels is on the trail of the suitcase containing Hemingway’s original draft of A Movable Feast, with a cast of questionable characters. Our Meike Alana got to ask Shaun some questions about the book and the writing process.
- Interview by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana
“As I started to do some research I realized that I hate Hemingway as both a writer and a man. At the prospect of having to read more of his work and then aping it, I decided to go in a different direction.”
Meike Alana: How did the legend of Hemingway’s lost suitcase become the inspiration for your novel?
Shaun Harris: A number of years back I was watching the movie Wonder Boys for the 8 billionth time and Michael Douglas’s character mentioned the lost suitcase in a throwaway line. I looked it up and thought it was an intriguing idea. At first I went for the obvious idea of having the protagonist find the suitcase and pass it off as his own. As I started to do some research I realized that I hate Hemingway as both a writer and a man. At the prospect of having to read more of his work and then aping it, I decided to go in a different direction. So the idea sat in my brain for a while until I came up with what that direction would be. And that will be answered in a later question.
MA: Your main character, Henry “Coop” Cooper, views himself as a “failed” writer because he writes mass-market romance novels rather than “serious” literature. Yet his books do sell (and quite well at that) and another character points out to him that sales can be considered a measure of success. Can you tell us a little about your views regarding writing and the different measures of literary success?
“I’ll sum up that long rambling answer with this: if you set out to write a crime novel and people buy the crime novel and they like the crime novel then you are a success. I’ll be expecting to see that on a cat poster sometime in the future.”
SH: Coop’s struggle isn’t so much about success as it is about the artistic worth of his work. He’s been taught as an artist that popularity is not a sign of being “good.” In fact, popularity, to Coop, is more of a sign that something is bad. He’s a bit of an elitist, though I think he hates himself for it. I could have explored this struggle a little bit more, but I don’t think anybody would have been interested in a Melville-style tangent discussing the merits of popular culture in the middle of the story. I will say that Coop thinks of himself as a failure because he failed at what he wanted to do, which was literary fiction. If he were to acknowledge that he has talent as a romance writer then he might have to admit that romance is what he should be doing. That’s a tough thing with which to come to terms. He dreamed of being a writer and when he got there it didn’t match up with his vision. I think that’s his real struggle. He’s trying very hard not to let go of the original dream.
When I think of the push and pull between commercial and critical success I think of my personal Mt. Rushmore of writers. I have Shane Black, Elmore Leonard, Stephen King, and Raymond Chandler. These are my major influences. They have all had success in one way or another, but they are definitively genre guys. They are the very best at their respective fields, but none of them are going to end up in the Paris Review (I did no research on this, so if one of them is in the Paris Review I will be very embarrassed), with the exception of Chandler who has been dead long enough to be respectable. Somewhere along the way we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that literary fiction is somehow better than all other genre, but it isn’t. It’s just a genre with all the trappings and formulas that come with any other.
I’ll sum up that long rambling answer with this: if you set out to write a crime novel and people buy the crime novel and they like the crime novel then you are a success. I’ll be expecting to see that on a cat poster sometime in the future.
MA: Coop joins forces with a pretty ragtag bunch of characters as they set out to recover Hemingway’s missing suitcase. Was there any character that was particularly fun to write?
SH: Is it a cop out to say Coop is my favorite? He is an amalgam of some of my favorite people and so it makes sense that he would be the one I had the most fun writing. I really enjoy his bemused attitude. He doesn’t exactly take things in stride, but he doesn’t really freak out either. It gave me the chance to write, in my opinion, some fun lines for him in the face of adversity.
If I had to choose someone other than Coop it would have to be Dutch. I enjoyed coming up with his quirky backstory and I liked the idea of an itinerant pot guru hanging out with all these dangerous men and being pretty cool with it.
MA: How did you come to choose Mexico as the setting?
SH: I was at a bachelor party in Baja, Mexico. We went to this little hostel in the middle of nowhere owned by an ex-pat American who was a very laid back guy, so he was not really the inspiration for Grady. He had this guy working for him who lived in a teepee down the road a bit and kept trying to sell us weed. The teepee guy had all these anecdotes about his life that didn’t fit together or make much sense. I jokingly said to the groom that this man was an international assassin hiding from his enemies. Digby was born.
On the way back we got lost because I am terrible with maps. We were in the middle of the desert and found this small gas station with a couple shady tough guys working there. I thought it would be a cool place to set a book. On the drive I started thinking about the other book I had in mind, the one about Hemingway’s lost suitcase. I started to wonder if maybe the suitcase ended up in the Mexican desert. Then I started wondering how the hell it could have gotten there. The Hemingway Thief was born.
MA: Coop says, “Everyone writes shit when they start. That’s how it works. You write shit and then one day you get a little better, and then a little better than that, until you get good.” This is your debut novel, and it’s way better than good. What was your path to writing such a fantastic book?
“I think it’s important for first time writers to understand that your first work will most likely be terrible. Mine was. It now sits in a drawer trying to get out.”
SH: That is very flattering, thank you. Coop’s little speech here was my own version of the speech Michael Gambon gives at the end of Layer Cake which was an adaptation of J.J. Connelly’s incredible book by the same name. I think it’s important for first time writers to understand that your first work will most likely be terrible. Mine was. It now sits in a drawer trying to get out.
When I was a kid I read a lot, but I was obsessed with movies. I went at least twice a week. I probably saw every major theatrical release between 1992 and 1998. I knew I wanted to tell stories and I figured the best way to do that was to be a writer. I toyed with being a journalist, but I never seemed to get the knack for non-fiction. I guess I just felt reality was too boring. When I went to college I had it in mind that I would be a screenwriter. I majored in Film and Television and also American Studies so my parents would think I was doing something worthwhile. When I graduated I had zero money and zero connections. I panicked and took the first job I could find, which was as a claims adjuster with an insurance company. Screenwriters are people with the guts to move out to Hollywood wait tables and hope for a break (unless they already know somebody). I came to the conclusion that I was not that kind of guy, maybe someday, but not at 22 years old.
Let’s fast forward. I went back to school, got married, and started teaching. As much as I liked working with kids I still had that dream of being a writer. I would talk about it now and then and would drive my friends crazy with the-book-I’m-gonna-write-someday. Fortunately, my wife is awesome and told me that I had a year to write the book. I quit my job and went to work. A year later I had written a 600 page crime novel that was a steaming pile of terrible. I shopped it around because I didn’t know any better. A few agents told me I had talent, but to keep trying. In that time I came up with the idea of The Hemingway Thief. I had learned a few things along the way (mostly to kill my darlings) and I finished the novel in four months. It took me five years, over one hundred queries, and two agents to sell it.
MA: Please tell us you’re working on another novel?
SH: I’ve already completed the second novel in the Coop series and I’m working on the third. The next book is a spy thriller with a Hitchcockian edge to it. I’m afraid Grady isn’t in this one as it takes place in Coop’s hometown of Chicago, but Coop will be beset on all sides by some fun new characters I think people will dig.
You can find copies of The Hemingway Thief on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.