WRR 4.4 1 AUGUST 2007
The Dark World of
Mysteries and Thrillers
Housewright’s first novel, Penance, earned him the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America and his second novel, Practice to Deceive, won the Minnesota Book Award. In addition, Housewright was nominated for a Shamus Award by the Private Eye Writers of America.
Born and raised in Minnesota, Housewright expresses great appreciation for his home state and hopes that by incorporating what’s important to the area into his books, readers will better appreciate why both Housewright and his characters like it so much. In fact, how could his protagonists, Rushmore (Mac) McKenzie and St. Paul private investigator, Holland Taylor not like Minnesota? They too were born and raised there.
Minnesota informs David Housewright’s writing-his settings and characters are ripe with real locations, behavior, and speech. And although violence is part of his stories, Housewright emphasizes it's how the characters react to violence that’s important, not the violence itself.
Published in May 2006, Pretty Girl Gone, is Housewright’s third Mac McKenzie novel and Publishers Weekly states “Housewright’s unapologetically flawed hero charms, while the clean plot lines, palpable Minnesota winter and understated humor make this a good, satisfying read.”
In addition to his novels, David Housewright wrote a memoir for Crime Spree Magazine, collaborated on a novel with his wife, published short stories in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and True Romance and contributed original works to various short story anthologies.
Believing writing is a business, David Housewright does not write for fun but is thrilled that he enjoys what he does for a living. In an effort to assist other writers and to hone his own skills, Housewright teaches novel writing courses at places such as the University of Minnesota and The Loft Literary Center. And each year, he returns to Roseville Area High School to speak to its mystery writing class.
David Housewright lives with his family in Minnesota.
WRR: Has writing always been a part of your life?
WRR: The creative and business sides of the writing life seem to be at odds-how do you manage these right-brain, left-brain aspects of your career?
A lot of writers are very naive. Especially first-time writers. They’re surprised by how little money most people get for their first books and how few authors get to write full time and how a guy could sell 80,000 copies of a book and lose his publisher. I teach a novel writing class at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and my students are all adults-bankers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, marketing guys, people who have been something else, usually with some success, who now want to write books. They’re not innocents. Yet when their artistic selves meet the world of cold, hard commerce, it can be heartbreaking. And very funny. Yet, I have to say, I’ve never had that problem. I’ve never experienced that conflict. I started writing for money when I was extremely young. I was covering AAU swimming and Big Ten gymnastics and nine-man football in Fergus Falls for the Minneapolis Tribune when I was eighteen and was paid for it. Paid well. So I’ve always looked upon writing as a business, as a way to make a living. When people ask me to write something, my first question isn’t “What?” It’s “How much are you going to pay me.” That may sound awfully mercenary, but Samuel Johnson once wrote that anyone who writes for a reason other than money is a blockhead-or words to that effect-and I agree with him. Yes, I get a lot of pleasure out of writing books, short stories, ads, TV and radio spots, brochures, direct mail, and all the rest, just as I’m sure landscapers, carpenters, accountants, and grocery store owners get a lot of pleasure out of what they do. But I don’t write for fun. I write for money. The fun is just a nice extra.
WRR: How has your extensive experience as a copywriter and creative director for advertising agencies influenced your writing?
Elmore Leonard-another reformed ad man-once said that the secret to his success is that he’s learned how to cut out the parts of his books that readers skip. That’s a skill that every successful ad writer knows. You look at a product or a service and you ask yourself, “What is the story here? What does the customer need to know?” If you have only a 60-second radio spot or a 30-second TV spot or 150 words in a print ad, you must engage the audience quickly with relevant information if you expect to make a sale. Same is true of fiction.
WRR: Each author has his own unique writing processes. Tell us about yours.
I doubt that my process is particularly unique, although a few months ago I was helping to promote an anthology called Silence of the Loons. There were about fourteen writers present at a publicity event when someone asked, “How many of you belong to a writer’s group?” Everyone raised their hand except me. And we’re talking about some serious writers here-William Kent Krueger, Pete Hautman, Judith Guest, K. J. Erickson. It made me wonder if I had any idea of what I was doing. For one thing, unlike many authors, I do not set aside a certain amount of time to write each day; I don’t assign X number of pages or X number of words or X number of hours to work. Mainly, I write when the spirit moves me. Sometimes I’ll write for 15 minutes. Sometimes I’ll sit down at 8 AM and suddenly look up at 8 PM and wonder where the day went. I always use an informal outline. I consider it a “living document” in that I am always changing it as I go along. But because of the outline I always know where I am and what I was thinking when my spirit moves me. The one thing I insist on is knowing how the book will end before I begin. From a practical viewpoint, it is much easier to direct the events of your book to a satisfying conclusion if you know how the book ends before you start. From a philosophical viewpoint, I believe the ending of the book often tells the reader what the book was about. More important, it tells the writer what the book is about.
WRR: Some authors are adamant about using fictionalized locales. You continually fill your novels with places that exist even if their names or locations change. Why?
“If you lived where they live and you were taught what they were taught, you would believe what they believe.” A poli-sci teacher once told me that back in college. He was speaking about politics, but I think the observation can be applied to all of our lives. Where a person grows up, what they learn while growing up has a profound impact on who that person is. The characters in my books behave and speak the way they do because they’re from Minnesota and I want the reader to know that. (If they were living in New Orleans, then they would behave and speak the way James Lee Burke’s characters do.) I use all real locations because it helps the reader understand who the characters are, where they come from.
WRR: In your novels, violent things occur but the character reactions are emphasized rather than the violence. Do you think that the violence in today’s society has an influence on the type of novel that interests readers?
One reason people read mysteries is because it gives them a sense of order. In real life so much violence-and many of the people who perpetrate it-goes unpunished. But in mysteries, the bad guy usually gets his comeuppance. Not always, of course. Mystic River comes to mind. But usually people pay the price for their crimes and readers find that entertaining. Perhaps they even find it comforting. It helps maintain the belief that the world is both a safe and good place to live.
WRR: Has the violence in society influenced your writing?
No, but the violence in other books by other authors has. I am a huge fan of Dennis Lehand, Michael Connelly, and the Matthew Scudder novels by Lawrence Block. I have over thirty of their books on my shelves. But often you get to the end of their books and you feel like a wet rag. That’s because of the terrible things that happen in the books and the effect it has on the characters. When I created Rushmore McKenzie, I did it with the intention of creating a more optimistic character. Yes, terrible things happen to people in my books and sometimes McKenzie is the one to do those terrible things. But he genuinely believes that at the end of the day, he’s making the world a better place. That’s how he copes with the evil (not unlike law enforcement officers and soldiers). As a result, my books tend to have more upbeat endings.
WRR: Your character, Mac McKenzie, is motivated to improve the world. If you had the ability and opportunity to do something to make the world a better place, what would it be and why?
If I was God, I’d make sure that everyone would feel the same pain and suffering and trauma that they cause others to feel for as long as their victims feel it. I wonder how many children would be abused, how many women would be raped, if the perp was made to suffer exactly as their victims do. Not many, I think.
WRR: You don’t believe in prologues. Why?
Prologues, with few exceptions, are mostly backstory and good writers can drop it in just about anywhere they want. Most writers use prologues because they’re lazy. They want to create dramatic tension by telling the reader that something is going to happen, that some danger lurks out there, but they can’t figure out how to do it on Page One, Chapter One. So, they write prologues. Unfortunately, now their readers have to wait until the characters in the book catch up with them.
WRR: You stated that the weather is your “...friend as an author.” Tell us about that.
Weather can influence any scene in your book. You can take a scene in a parking lot and rewrite it ten different ways-change the tone, change the meaning-simply by changing the weather.
WRR: Share with us your belief that writing is a craft and not an art.
The first day of class, I tell my students at the Loft that writing is NOT an art. It’s a craft! Granted, in the correct hands it might rise to a form of art, just as it does in carpentry, medicine, law, music, sports, even accounting. But first comes craft-the what, the how, the why. Charlie Parker didn’t wake up one morning and decide to reinvent jazz. First, he paid his dues, working speaks and brothels in Kansas City with Jay McShane before moving on to the small clubs and gin emporiums in New York. He would stand in the snow and listen to Salvation Army bands. He would pump nickels into juke boxes and listen to country western music. He spent night after night haunting jazz joints, not just playing, but listening. And when he was ready, he helped invent Be Bop. But first came craft.
WRR: You stated that when “...a book lands on a publisher’s desk these days it needs to be 90 percent ready to go or it’s rejected out of hand...” How does an author know when the work is 90% ready?
You can take it to writing groups. Or you can do as Stephen King does and send it to ten of your closest personal friends. But my take on it is this if you don’t know the book is ready, neither will anyone else.
WRR: The publishing industry has changed and publishers now require a greater return on their investment in a shorter period of time. How do you recommend a new author builds an audience and meets the demands of the publisher?
There isn’t all that much an author can do besides write good books and hope the audience finds them. You can spend a lot of time and money on promotion, on scheduling signings and readings-working to get bookstores on your side is important. But in the end, you put the books out there and hope for the best.
WRR: You stated that “a good book is a good book no matter what the genre.” Which five books are your favorites and why?
I’ve never thought much about it. The only three books that I have ever read more than once are the “Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, and “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, so they should probably go on the list. I re-read the books mostly for the ideas I find in them, and because of the humor and the richness of the language. Another selection is “The Postman Always Rings Twice” by James M. Cain. Cain is the best. If you want to learn how to write a novel, read Cain. The economy of his writing-he puts more in 100 pages than the rest of us put in 300-and his use of dialogue is unmatched. Really terrific. Finally, I’d take “The Empty Copper Sea” by John D. MacDonald. Actually, I chose that title at random. Nearly any of his Travis McGee novels will do because of the way he mixes social commentary into his stories. MacDonald was one of the first popular fiction writers to deal freely with the themes that used to be reserved for so-called “literary writers,” such as racism, religion, consumerism, and more.
WRR: If your favorite author were describing you as a character in one of his or her novels, what author would it be and what would that author be writing?
The author would be Elmore Leonard (I get to call him “Dutch” because I once bought him a beer non-alcoholic because he doesn’t drink anymore). I choose Dutch because he wouldn’t spend much time describing me, just a line or two to anchor me in the reader’s mind and then he would let the reader fill in the blanks according to my actions and dialogue. I admire that about his writing. It’s also a good philosophy when meeting people.
WRR: What advice do you give to aspiring writers?
One of the things that I tell my students is that the difference between me and every published author I have ever met-most if not all of them-is not talent or craft or experience. It’s perseverance. Come hell or high water we will finish the book and we will do whatever needs to be done to sell it. Most of them will not. They’ll tell themselves that it’s too hard, or the odds are stacked against them, or they haven’t got the time, the job is a hassle, the kids are sick, whatever. They will find a way to NOT finish the book or, if they do finish the book, they’ll let someone tell them it is no good and give up on it. I am not a self-affirmation, group-hug kind of guy, but my advice to anyone who wants to write a book- believe in yourself. If you don’t, no one else will.