Thrill-Ride: The Dark World of Mysteries and Thrillers
Including Interviews with Bestselling Authors Lawrence Block & Steve Hamilton
We all love a good mystery. The search for the answer, or for hidden knowledge, or to understand a secret is part of the organic process that makes us human. If we had never wondered about things, if we had never sought for answers, we’d probably still be living in trees — we’d never even have made it down to the caves. Religions and spiritual movements are built dedicated to understanding universal mysteries; exploration is built around grasping geographical mysteries; both allopathic and homeopathic medicine came about from a need to understand how and why the human body works. Problem solving, scientific investigation, artistic experimentation, the process of discovery — all of these things spring from the same human need to know. Mysteries abound; they’re part of everyday life, from solving a crossword during breakfast to attempting to interpret the dreams you’ll have that night. We are organic problem-solving machines, so it’s not particularly strange that our love of mysteries has stayed with us.
Our literature is the most telling reminder of our love of the unknown. Most books, no matter what the official genre, contain some element of mystery. There is something to be discovered or uncovered, something to be solved or resolved. Many of the greatest works of fiction have been, in whole or part, mysteries. Consider books such as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, George Orwell’s 1984; or go further back to any of the works of Homer, Aesop, Chaucer, Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens. These books and stories may be primarily about romance, redemption, coming of age, society — ,but each has some element of the mysterious, something unknown that must be known for the story to resolve.
But when we think of mystery as a self-contained genre of literature we tend to think of it as relating to some kind of crime, and to a large degree this is a fair assessment. Over the last century and a half the mystery genre has taken form and evolved into a recognizable pattern: there is some kind of mysterious event, generally dark in nature, and the hero or heroine gradually uncovers its nature, and we follow along, watching as the clues are collected and the mystery ultimately solved. As this genre evolved, particularly during the boom of pop psychology, therapy, and self-exploration of the second half of the twentieth century, the mystery story also frequently included subplot where the investigator was looking inward to assess some personal issue or crisis and was struggling to solve that as well. This was an important step in the evolution of the mystery, a sure sign that it was becoming more mature, more complex, more real.
THE HISTORY OF THE MYSTERY
The mystery genre as we know it today was born in 1841 when Edgar Allen Poe penned his short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. This was the first of a kind of story he called “tales of ratiocination”, in which a mystery is rationally studied and ultimately solved. These tales were also the origin of one of the most enduring subgenres of mystery: the amateur detective (in this case the witty and brilliant C. Auguste Dupin.)
To honor Poe, the Mystery Writers of America established the Edgar Allen Poe Awards, which are given annually for the very best in mystery writing. Here is a link to the list of Edgar recipients: www.mysterywriters.org/pages/awards/.
If Poe is the father of the mystery story, and certainly of the mystery short story, then Wilkie Collins is the father of the mystery novel. He kicked off that tradition in 1860 with The Woman in White (which outsold Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities), and followed that up with 1868’s The Moonstone. At the time of their release his books were known as “sensation novels”, but soon the label “mystery” was applied and it fit nicely. Unlike Poe, Collins’s main character was a policeman — and thus the detective novel subgenre was born.
To some purists the family tree of mystery should start with the heading of Crime Fiction, which is the search (by anyone) for the solution of a crime, be that a stolen diamond or a murder. The next step in this family tree is Detective Fiction, which involves police or “unofficial” detectives such as amateur sleuths; then a subgenre to this is Mystery Fiction, which has a far less defined definition and which may involve mysteries of all kinds, from quests for something lost to a hunt for a killer. In modern terms, however, the entire genre is generally and conversationally known as “Mystery Fiction”.
Dickens himself took a swing at the mystery genre with his 1870 novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and perhaps laid the groundwork for some of our greatest film mysteries, particularly some of the open-ended films of Alfred Hitchcock. Drood, you see, is left unresolved, the case unfinished, allowing (perhaps forcing) readers to imagine the ending, constructing a resolution that fits the facts as they interpreted them. It was a risky literary trick and few save Dickens could have pulled it off.
In 1887 a story was published that would change popular literature forever. A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle, introduced the world to the king of all amateur detectives, Sherlock Holmes. Vain, idiosyncratic, drug-addicted, socially inept, and occasionally vicious, Sherlock Holmes emerged as a true three-dimensional character, and has become the most famous, most imitated, most often filmed literary character in history. Doyle kept the Holmes stories going for years, establishing the pattern of the serial character, which until then was not a common device for writers. Readers shared in Holmes’s private life as well as his detective work, and over time the character himself actually aged and, ultimately, retired.
Despite the popularity of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle was not a fan of his own creation, and wanting to pursue other literary pursuits, he invented a master criminal to be Holmes’s nemesis and had the two of them fight to the death over a waterfall. The story ended with Holmes plunging into the void. Believing himself liberated from Holmes, Doyle went about writing novels in a variety of genres, but the public outcry was deafening and the demand for more Sherlock Holmes stories was truly overwhelming, so Doyle relented and concocted a clever way to bring Holmes back (not from the dead but from a faked death and self-imposed exile), and from them on Doyle devoted more time, and more enthusiasm, to his amateur sleuth.
The Sherlock Holmes stories opened the floodgates for more detective fiction, and the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw tens of thousands of mystery stories and novels appearing, some cheap and exploitive, some marvelously ornate and insightful. The principle genre of amateur sleuth and official detective expanded and then splintered into dozens of new subgenre, though the majority of these followed Doyle’s lead to maintain a central recurring hero and, at times, a recurring villain.
Among the more popular and enduring mystery series we have: G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, E. D. Biggers’s Charlie Chan, S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, Leslie Charteris’s “The Saint,” Robert van Gulick’s Judge Dee, and countless others. Agatha Christie shared some of Doyle’s loathing for her character, Poirot — a reaction to having written fifty novels featuring the rather pompous Belgian detective; however as tempted as she was to do in her famous character, she stayed her hand until a year before her own death in 1976, but allowed the now-retired detective to die peacefully in his sleep.
From the very beginning of the age of cinema the mystery has been the perfect subject matter, lending itself to the visual storytelling format, and the very first narrative film was indeed a mystery, the 1903 silent film, “The Great Train Robbery”. Since then the mystery film has been the visual laboratory for some of the world’s most inspired and innovative filmmakers. Consider films like Fritz Lang’s dark and stunning “M” (1931); Otto Preminger’s understated “Laura” (1944); John Huston’s noir masterpiece, “The Maltese Falcon” (1941); the insightful view of perception and truth in Akira Kurosawa’s “Rhosomon” (1950), and the whole range of Hitchcock’s work from “Shadow of a Doubt” to “Psycho”, in which camera angle, lighting, and mood became as much a part of the storytelling as the plot.
Today mysteries are big business. Agatha Christie’s books alone have sold more than two billion copies since her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920. The “Mystery” shelves of bookstores are packed with thousands of titles by many hundreds of writers; and the genre has spawned a number of subgenres, each with its own breed of writer and its own rich history. (See below for a handy guide to the principle subgenres and some of the top names writing those kinds of books.)
However many authors are crossing genre lines these days, especially with the popular increase in the “thriller” genre, which is a very loose description for books that have an even broader mainstream appeal. These books are typically placed in with the main body of “Fiction and Literature” in bookstore, especially the chains, because their popularity draws more readers than might browse the mystery shelves — and that is really saying something.
The Wild River Review interviewed a handful of top authors who write mysteries and thrillers, including the mega-bestseller Lawrence Block, as well as great authors whose careers are constantly on an upsurge: Steve Hamilton, Barry Eisler, David Housewright, and Bill Kent. Be sure to check out these fascinating Q&A’s with some of the most devious and fascinating writers of the mystery genre.
Following is a list of the most significant of the mystery subgenre, along with the names of some of the notable authors in the field. (By no means is this a complete list of all of the top authors who write these kinds of tales).
These novels follow one or more official police through the process of gathering evidence and hunting down the criminal. Ed McBain (the pen name for award-winning author Evan Hunter), was regarded as the king of the police procedural due to the fifty-eight books in his Eighty-Seventh Precinct series (many of which were filmed.) Other notables in this subgenre include James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly Nelson Demille, Jeffrey Deaver, Tony Hillerman, J. A. Jance, and many others.
This is a genre of much less threatening stories which generally lack graphic violence, ease down on the harsh language, and very often overlap with the companion subgenre of the amateur sleuth. Agatha Christie is clearly the queen of this genre, and maintained a number of series (Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford etc.) as well as a number of stand-alone novels. Although this genre is dominated by women, just as the Police Procedurals is dominated by male writers, there are excellent books in both genres written by both sexes. Other Cozy authors include Mary Higgins Clark, Margery Allingham, Philip Craig, Lilian Jackson Braun, and others.
This is a subgenre where the central characters are as often bad guys as good guys, and these stories frequently have a lot of humor in them. Authors in this genre include Elmore Leonard Carl Hiassen, Lawrence Block, Janet Evanovich, Kinky Friedman, Dave Barry, and Tim Dorsey.
These are novels spun-off from the Cozy category in which an animal (typically a dog or cat) is prominently featured and even somehow manages to aide (however deliberately or coincidentally) in solving the crime. Authors include Lydia Adamson, Carole Nelson Douglas, Rita Mae Brown, Shirley Rousseau Murphy, Marian Babson, Susan Conant, and Lilian Jackson Braun.
These stories follow one of more members of the military or intelligence services (CIA is a favorite) as they work to solve a threat to national or world security. Tom Clancy is big in this genre and a number of his books have been made into successful films (“Hunt for Red October”, “Patriot Games”, etc.). Other writers of Military Thrillers include Dale Brown, Patrick Robinson, Stephen Coonts, Nelson DeMille, Brian Haig, Jack Higgens, Brad Thor, Alistair MacLean, and John Katzenbach.
There is a lot of leverage in the genre of Political Thrillers, ranging from stories about assassination attempts to insider trading scandals to environmental crimes. Authors lobbying for room on the bestseller list include Frederick Forsyth, Richard Condon, Pete Dexter, John Grisham, Stephen Hunter, Brian Moore, Greg Rucka, Scott Turow, and J. D. Smith.
These stories allow us to share in the cultural diversity that makes the American melting pot simmer. Ethnic Mysteries may involve any group from African Americans to Native Americans, and often deal with the issues of racism, bigotry, intolerance, and social change. Prominent in this genre are Rudolph Fisher, Ed Lacy, Chester Himes, Eleanor Taylor Bland, John Ball, Walter Mosley, Tony Hillerman, Lev Raphael, Robert Skinner, Harry Kemmelman, William Kent Krueger, Steve Hamilton, and Bill Pronzini,
Mysteries set in specific locations — usually towns — allow the locale to become as much a part of the story as the characters and plot. These books share with us the richness of culture, the idiosyncrasies, and unique twists of these towns, and often let us glimpse behind the scenes in order to understand the social dynamics. Regional mysteries include the works of Robert B. Parker, William Kent Krueger, Jonathon King, Harlen Coben, Lawrence Block, Bill Kent, Navada Barr, James Lee Burke, Mas Allen Collins, Michael Dibdin, Batya Gur, Sharyn McCrumb, Gilian Roberts, Janet Evanovich, Lisa Scottoline, Robert Skinner, and Dana Stabenow.
Another spin-off from the Cozy genre is the Holiday Mystery subgenre, which sets its stories on or around (you guessed it) holidays. Authors include Valerie Wolzien, Leslie Meier, Lee Harris, Jessica Fletcher, Mary Higgins Clark, Carolyn Hart, Ann Granger, Martin H. Greenberg, Jeffrey Marks, Nancy Atherton, and Anne Perry.
These are books where the mystery appears to be the result of something supernatural, or actually is something supernatural. These books are peppered throughout the bookstore, mysteriously appearing in Fiction, Literature, Mystery, Horror, and even Science Fiction — depending on the degree of supernatural content and the marketing strategies of the publishers. Early authors include Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and H.G. Wells. Since then the genre has expanded and changed many times, often bearing little resemblance to its gothic roots. More modern authors include Peter Straub, Robert McCammon, Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, L. A. Banks, Laurell K. Hamilton, Richard Matheson, Neal Gaiman, Jonathan Maberry, Katherine Ramsland, F. Paul Wilson, Thomas Tryon, Ira Levin, Jim Butcher, P. N. Elrod, John R. Passarella, Simon R. Green, William Mark Simmons, Dan Simmons, Kelley Armstrong, and John Connolly.
These stories are often private detective stories and, though edgy and gritty, are often deeply philosophical. The characters are generally conflicted and troubled, and their attempts to make sense of their crumbling world is as vital to the plot as is the mystery to be solved. Authors include Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Chester Himes, Ross Macdonald, James Ellroy, Joe R. Lansdale, James Crumley, George Pelecanos, Jim Thompson, and Andrew Vacchss.
These mysteries have become very popular over the last thirty years, and these have more than once crossed over into the realm of the true “literary” novel. These stories may are set in various historical eras and often include historical figures of note. Authors and series include Stuart Kaminsky, Robert van Gulik, Laura Joh Rowland, Umberto Eco, Anne Perry, Walter Mosley, Laurie R. King, Phillip Kerr, Barbara Hambley, Lindsey Davis, and Ellis Peters.
The investigative techniques of psychologists, medical examiners, physicians, scientists, and crime scene investigators have become the basis for one of the fastest-growing subgenres. Authors include Jeffrey Deaver, Tess Gerritsen, Thomas Harris, Noreen Ayers, Jonathan Kellerman, Aaron Elkins, Patricia Cornwell, Ridley Pearson, James Patterson, Kathy Reichs, and Keith Ablow.
Often called “thrillers”, these stories involve some point of law on which the plot and its resolution turn. Legal thrillers have a long and rich history, thanks to books (and movies) such as Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird”, and the Perry Mason stories by Erle Stanley Gardner. Legal thrillers make the leap to film more quickly than any other subgenre of mystery, powered by writers like John Grisham, William Lashner, Erle Stanley Gardner, Michael Gilbert, Harper Lee, Phillip Margolin, Steve Martini, Nancy Taylor Rosenberg, Scott Turow, and Stuart Woods.
These stories are generally built around iconic returning characters and are often cross-genre books that can overlap with Cozy as easily as they can with Hard-Boiled. Many of these series feature characters who are not technically private investigators — often they’re reporters or even private citizens, though the formula is roughly the same. Outstanding authors and characters in this genre include Robert B. Parker, John D. MacDonald, Robert Crais, Joe R. Lansdale, William Kent Krueger, David Housewright, Jonathon King, Steve Hamilton, Nevada Barr, Lawrence Block, Raymond Chandler, Harlen Coben, Max Allen Collins, James Crumley, Walter Mosley, John Dunning, Loren Estleman, Janet Evanovich, Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillaine, Ross MacDonald, and countless others.
As a category the “Thriller” is almost beyond definition. Books ranging from political potboilers to horror to espionage fall under the Thriller label, and lately a number of mystery writers have been shifting their identity to that of “mystery thriller” writers. This is also one of the fastest-growing genres and appeals to a wider range of readers than does the pure mystery genre. Thrillers vary between series characters and one-shot stories; and like legal thrillers they translate well to the screen. Top thriller writers include Lee Child, Barry Eisler, Tom Clancy, Dale Brown, Stephen Coonts, Richard Condon, Nelson DeMille, Ken Follett, Jack Higgins, Alastair MacLean, Frederick Forsyth, Stephen Hunter, John Le CarrŽ, David Morrell, Greg Rucka, John Sandford, and F. Paul Wilson.
MEET THE MYSTERY WRITERS
Several of today’s top mystery and thriller writers have taken the time to chat with the Wild River Review about the genre, their approach to the craft of writing, and the process of crafting these intricate and fascinating tales of murder, mayhem, and mystery.
AN INTERVIEW WITH LAWRENCE BLOCK
How does a writer move from penning porn paperbacks under assorted pseudonyms to becoming a widely respected best-selling, award winning author of over fifty novels and more than a hundred short stories? Just ask Lawrence Block, acclaimed author of the Matthew Scudder, Chip Harrison, Bernie Rhodenbarr, John Keller, and Evan Michael Tanner series, as well as fifteen stand-alone novels, and a man who professes he rarely knows what he is gong to write next.
Block is a Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster and winner of four Edgars, four Shamus’s, two Maltese Falcons, a Nero Wolfe, and a Philip Marlowe award. Additionally, Block was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America and received the Cartier Diamond Dagger for Life Achievement from the Crime Writers Association. If there is an award associated with mysteries that he hasn’t won no one has heard of it.
Published around the globe, Block’s novels continually bring him critical and commercial success. In addition to his novels, Block has published articles and short fiction in a variety of magazines ranging from GQ to Cosmopolitan. And, three of his books were made into films, with two more in development (“Keller” and “Walk Among the Tombstones”). Penning a weekly column on writing for Writer’s Digest for fourteen years enabled Block to share his writing wisdom with both aspiring and published authors.
Most of Block’s fiction is set in his hometown of New York City, but he frequently travels across the globe with his wife, Lynne. While juggling several series — churning out book after best-selling book — it’s a wonder Block finds time to travel. Maybe Lawrence Block is really like his protagonist, Evan Tanner, the spy who never sleeps. More probably he has developed into such a master at his craft that his writing process allows for a life apart from the computer.
Called, the “Best Detective Writer in the Business,” Lawrence Block joins tight prose with gripping plots, a recipe that results in continual success. “Hit Parade” (July 2006), Block’s third novel featuring genial assassin John Keller, received rave reviews from Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly, a feat that came as no surprise to Block fans. His we
WRR: Larry, if you had to live your life as one of your characters, which would it be?
Lawrence Block: Probably Bernie Rhodenbarr.
WRR: Why him?
Lawrence Block: He seems to have the best time of it.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bernie Rhodenbarr is a professional burglar with a heart of gold, introduced in Burglars Can’t Be Choosers. The second book in the series, Burglar in the Closet, was filmed as “Burglar,” and the character was transformed into a woman, played by Whoopie Goldberg. Sadly this character no longer bore resemblance to the Bernie of the book.
WRR: You stated that you like when your books come out and you hold them in your hands. Is it still as thrilling?
Lawrence Block: Satisfying, but not thrilling.
WRR: Do you remember the first time you held a copy of your book and felt that tingle?
Lawrence Block: ‘I don’t really recall the first time,’ as the actress said to the bishop. After sixty or seventy books, it’s not all that thrilling anymore.
WRR: You’re one of those rare writers who not only writes several different series but who completely changes voice and style with each. How do you set your mind for those changes?
Lawrence Block: It sets itself without conscious effort.
WRR: Has there ever been a character you created that you didn’t like and decided not to use?
Lawrence Block: Probably, but if so I had the good sense to forget the sonofabitch altogether.
WRR: Which of your books do you feel provides the most insight into the inner workings of Lawrence Block?
Lawrence Block: It’s been observed that Keller (in Hit Man, Hit List, and Hit Parade) sounds more like me than any of my other characters.
WRR: But… he’s a professional killer.
Lawrence Block: Keller… sounds like me. Our vocational history, I should say, is vastly different.
WRR: Your 1993 novel, Eight Million Ways to Die, was made into a movie that didn’t bear much resemblance to the gritty NY Matthew Scudder story. What are your feelings about that flick?
Lawrence Block: Same as almost everybody else’s — that it didn’t work.
WRR: For years there has been talk about Harrison Ford playing Matthew Scudder. How do you feel about him as Scudder?
Lawrence Block: Ford’s universally acknowledged to be a perfect choice, and everything looks good.
WRR: What don’t you like about writing?
Lawrence Block: It does take a lot of time and energy.
WRR: You stated that a writer should “… write what you want, not what you think people want to read.”
Lawrence Block: I think it explains itself. It’s not my job to give people what they want; trying to do so serves neither of us well. It’s my job to give them what I want, and make them like it.
WRR: You wanted to be a writer since the age of fifteen. If you had the talent and opportunity to make a living at something else and couldn’t be a writer, what would it be and why?
Lawrence Block: I think perhaps a philanthropist. Those guys always seem to be in good shape financially.
WRR: You stated that Donald E. Westlake “… has never written a bad sentence… Give him time… ” After writing for so many years, have you written a bad sentence yet or should we be on the look out for it?
Lawrence Block: You know how those rug weavers purposely make a mistake in every carpet, because only God is perfect? Well, I always make sure every book of mine contains a bad sentence. But you’ll have to hunt them down yourselves.
WRR: During your tribute at the Gumshoe Award for Lifetime Achievement, your prose was described as “… razor sharp, the dialogue crisp, and precise.” And, the characters as “… multi-dimensional, expertly-crafted players who seemed ripped, not from the pages of a book, but from life itself.” Is this something that came naturally to you as a writer or something that needed to be learned?
Lawrence Block: I suppose it’s a combination of the two. Assuming, that is, that the statements are on target.
WRR: You spent your early writing career in the mailroom of a New York publisher and as a reader for a literary agent. What insights into the business did those experiences give you?
Lawrence Block: The several months at Pines Publications were illuminating, but I couldn’t tell you what I learned. The year as a literary agent was extremely helpful. I learned a great deal about what fiction was and how it worked.
WRR: Most of your plots follow a basic formula, yet each one is fresh. How do you keep the process fresh and exciting?
Lawrence Block: I have a low boredom threshold.
WRR: You write your books in marathon sessions and then don’t write for months. Do you spend time thinking about your next project when you are not writing or do you wait until you sit down to write again and assume the plot and character will come to fruition?
Lawrence Block: Since the process is largely unconscious, I’d be hard put to describe it.
WRR: You are described as the “Best Detective Writer in the Business” and “The King of Mystery Science Fiction.” If you had to label yourself in six words or fewer, what would you write?
Lawrence Block: Six words: The Luckiest Man Since Lou Gehrig.
AN INTERVIEW WITH STEVE HAMILTON
Racing onto the publishing scene at breakneck speed in 1997, bestselling mystery author Steve Hamilton won the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press Best First Private Eye Novel Contest with his book A Cold Day in Paradise featuring ex-cop Alex McKnight; and secured a publishing contract with St. Martin’s Minotaur. The novel garnered both the Edgar and Shamus awards for Best First Novel and was short-listed for the Anthony and Barry Awards. A modest man who states he will never really be satisfied with his writing, Hamilton works for IBM during the day and writes at night. His seventh book in the Alex McKnight series, A Stolen Season, was released in September 2006. And if Hamilton’s last six books are any indication of his talent, readers soon will be scrambling to the bookstores. Publisher’s Weekly gave Hamilton’s previous novels starred reviews and the New York Times’ Book Review named Winter of the Wolf Moon a “Notable Book of the Year.”
Known for unexpected plot twists, Hamilton’s novels showcase intriguing, complex characters coupled with riveting suspense. Alex McKnight, the protagonist in Hamilton’s series, is an ex-cop from Detroit whose commitment to his friends and to helping others in need continually draws him into danger. Because Hamilton believes that centering each novel in new places keeps his writing fresh, Alex McKnight finds himself in different states and exposed to a variety of new situations and cultures.
Writing late at night after his family has gone to bed, Hamilton listens to his characters and writes what they are saying, filling in the details later. With a gem of an idea, he writes without knowing where his story will lead him or where it will end and relies on hope, determination, and the guidance, and criticism of two close friends to help him reach his goals.
In addition to the McKnight series, Hamilton published stories in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine; Meeting Across the River: Stories Inspired by the Haunting Bruce Springsteen Song (2005) and the recently released Murder in the Rough: Original Tales of Bad Shots, Terrible Lies, and Other Deadly Handicaps from Today’s Great Writers (June 2006.)
In a recent interview, Steve Hamilton speaks about his work and the craft of writing.
WRR: You are the only author to win the Shamus and Edgar Awards for a first novel, and that novel was published after you won a contest sponsored by St. Martin’s Press. Were you surprised at how quickly your writing career flourished and what did you expect would happen next?
Steve Hamilton: I did get off to a fast start, I suppose, and it was all like one big out-of-body experience, especially the Edgar award. I really didn’t know what to expect next, but I got some good advice — that the only thing I had any control over was how much work I put into the next book. Years from now, those awards will be nothing more than the answer to a trivia question. The books themselves are the things that last, assuming I keep up my end of the deal.
WRR: You have wanted to be a writer since childhood but did not begin writing seriously until ten or eleven years following college graduation. What went through your mind when you realized you were not fulfilling your dreams and what steps did you take to remedy the situation?
Steve Hamilton: Well, you’re right about the ten or eleven years going by — funny how you can forget about that one promise you made to yourself, when there’s nobody else around to make you do it. For me, it was joining a writer’s group that got me back to writing. Every Thursday night in the basement of that little library across the river — that’s what I needed, those people waiting for me and expecting some pages.
WRR: A Cold Day in Paradise was an award-winning book. How has your writing style evolved from that beginning, and how much pressure was there to top a stellar debut of that magnitude?
Steve Hamilton: That was a first novel, with all of the ups and downs that most first novels have. First time out of the gate, you’re throwing everything you can into the thing. Then you have to settle down and prove to yourself that you can do it again, that you might actually have a chance to stick around for a while. I tried not to think about any pressure, or anything else other than just doing my thing again, trying to tell the best story I could. I think that’s why the second book, “Winter of the Wolf Moon,” is my secret favorite — because I managed to prove to myself that the first one wasn’t a total fluke.
WRR: You stated you would tell your sixteen-year-old self that “most people spend half their lives trying to change the one thing they don’t like about themselves, when in fact they should be embracing it because it’s the thing that makes them truly themselves.” What one thing did you try to change about yourself when you should have been embracing it? Did you learn to embrace it and how has that impacted your writing?
Steve Hamilton: Did I say that? That sounds too wise to be me. Anyway, I guess the one thing I might have tried to change at some point was to stop being such a daydreamer, and to put aside the impractical dream of writing stories that other people might read some day. Kinda sounds like growing up, I guess. But I didn’t really do it.
WRR: What inspires your story ideas and how do you take those ideas and create a novel from them?
Steve Hamilton: It’s scary just to read that question. Seriously. Trying to take an idea and then somehow seeing a whole book at once is something I just can’t do. All I try to do is find a good beginning. A guy is at a poker game and some masked men break into the house. What happens next? I just follow it and hope it goes somewhere.
WRR: Do you write for yourself or do you have a reader in mind?
Steve Hamilton: I’m up in my room, late at night, following the thread and seeing where it goes. So I guess at that point I’m not even thinking about anybody else at all. I think if I did, it would show. And not in a good way.
WRR: You are known for writing without an outline or any complete idea about your novel when you begin, and yet the stories are tight and logical. How do you make certain that the novel lacks plot holes?
Steve Hamilton: Well, if it does have a hole, I can fix it. That’s what rewriting is for. But even as I’m writing it the first time through, I have two guys from my original writing group — Bill and Frank. I have lunch with them every week, and they go over the chapter or two I gave them the week before. (I do the same for them in their own work.) The best thing about these guys is that they do me the incredible honor of totally destroying anything that’s not working. They rip it to pieces. If I listen to them, and I almost always do, then I have the chance to make it right before anybody else sees it. Bottom line, as critical as they are, I know if it works for them, it’s probably going to work for anybody.
WRR: How do you pace your stories, find a balance between dialogue and description?
Steve Hamilton: The first time through, I’m usually moving very fast. The dialogue comes most naturally to me, so most of that is pretty much there in the first draft. Then I’ll go back over and try to add some more color here and there. I’ll always err on the side of having too little than too much. To paraphrase Elmore Leonard, I try to leave out the parts that readers will skip anyway.
WRR: If you don’t know where your stories are going until you arrive at the end, how do you find the end of the story?
Steve Hamilton: About halfway through, I’ll start to get this sense about what the ending might “feel” like, if that makes any sense. The whole process is still kind of a mystery to me. I just go and I have faith that I won’t get too lost. I’m afraid that if I analyze it too closely, I might ruin it.
WRR: Your advice to writers is to “… trust the story. Trust the voice.” How do you accomplish this without the interference of outside sources such as editors, readers, reviewers, etc.?
Steve Hamilton: Well, I suppose any outside source is only going to affect you as much as you let it. Your editor obviously has some ultimate authority over what you’re doing, but I’ve been pretty lucky there. I’ve never gotten the infamous “Ruth Cavin” letter where she spells out in exhaustive detail (using the language of a sailor, by the way) all of the ways in which you’ve managed to mess up your story. Aside from her, of course, Bill and Frank have already had their shot at the story, as I said. But before they see it… Hell, it’s just me in my room. There’s nobody else there. It’s usually so late at night; it feels like the rest of the world is sleeping. It’s me and the story and that’s it.
WRR: You stated that the best piece of advice you ever read on writing was to “… listen to what your characters say, and then write it down.” “If one of your characters was talking about you, who would it be and what would that character be saying.”
Steve Hamilton: That was some left turn you took in that question. One of my own characters talking about me? Probably Jackie, I guess. He’d say I’m too hard on myself. Vinnie wouldn’t say anything at all, of course — he’d just shake his head.
WRR: When you complete a novel, you “… think it’s horrible. Really horrible.” And then after extensive rewrites, you “… still think it’s horrible” and only believe it might be alright months later. What will it take for you to believe that your novels are as good as others perceive them?
Steve Hamilton: Assuming anybody thinks the books are any good… No, I’ll never really believe it. I’ll never be totally satisfied with anything I write. And I would never, ever trust any writer who could seriously convince himself he had truly nailed it. Think about it. A writer comes up to you and says, “Read my book. It’s GREAT!” I wouldn’t touch the thing.
WRR: You stated that you become depressed when you complete a novel and leave that world. Which world was the most difficult to leave and why?
Steve Hamilton: You’re making me sound like a basket case here. But really, a writer’s life is already pretty close to that of a bipolar, manic-depressive. It’s so bad when it’s not going well, and so good on those rare days when it all seems to be working. As far as actually leaving the world inside one of the books… Alex’s world seems like one place to me, throughout all of those books. So I always get to go back there. But last year I tried to write something different, a standalone, and it just didn’t come together the way I wanted. (Dennis Lehane calls this “the book that says, ‘No.’”) No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make it work. Maybe I’ll go back to it again some day, but at the time it was hard to leave that particular “world,” because it felt like I had unfinished business there.
WRR: Alex McKnight is a great character, very complex — how do you keep him fresh book after book?
Steve Hamilton: Well, thanks for saying that about Alex. I think a big part of keeping things interesting is the fact that he’s clearly not me at all. I’m just as curious about what’s going to happen to him as anybody else. That’s why, even when I go do something different, I’ll always want to go back to Paradise. I’ll always want to see what kind of trouble can find him, no matter how hard he tries to hide from it.
WRR: You call the book tour process “insane.” What do you like about it?
Steve Hamilton: Okay, I’m not mentally deranged. I promise! It’s actually the sanest people in the world who find things crazy, right? As far as the book tour process goes, the absolute best part is the one hour a day you get to spend in a bookstore (or library, gift shop, antique wood boat show, whatever) hanging out with readers and talking about books. Then you’re all by yourself, far from home, for the next twenty-three hours.
WRR: What do you like and dislike most about the writing process?
Steve Hamilton: Going back to that manic-depressive thing, it really does feel like the hardest thing in the world some days. If you still manage to get some work done, that’s when you look yourself in the mirror and call yourself a writer. Then you might have one of those days where it all comes together and you get a lot done, and you know it’s all probably going to hold up. As I said, I usually work late at night. When it’s going well, it’s hard to turn off. So oddly enough the good nights for me are the nights when I stop writing but I can’t sleep.
WRR: If your life as an IBM information developer, writer, spouse, and father were to take an unexpected plot twist like your novels, where would you like to see it go and why?
Steve Hamilton: As great as IBM has been to me, I’d have to say the plot twist where I drop that first part and it’s just “writer, spouse, and father.” I’ll get there one day, I know. But for now, it’s nice having things like health insurance.
WRR: You have a half hour to talk with any author, dead or alive. Who would it be and what would you want to know about that person?
Steve Hamilton: Dead or alive, you say? So I could talk to Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Hemingway, or anybody? I was thinking Edgar Allan Poe, but he’d probably just creep me out. So maybe Mark Twain. He more or less invented the book tour, come to think of it. But more than anything, I’d just want to sit and listen to him talk about his life.
WRR: What is one thing about yourself that you are willing to share in this interview that you have never shared during another interview?
Steve Hamilton: Aside from the fact that I’m not crazy? We got that part, right? Other than that, let’s see… Something I’ve never mentioned before… Maybe the fact that I’ve received formal training in ballroom dancing, English riding, judo, magic, and the accordion. Oh, and I listen to jazz like all the time now. Mostly free jazz, real out-there stuff, the kind of music that makes most people hold their ears and say, “You call this music?” But I’m not crazy. Really.
Janice Gable Bashman is the Bram Stoker nominated author of PREDATOR (Month9Books 2014) and WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE (w/NEW YORK TIMES bestseller Jonathan Maberry) (Citadel Press 2010). She is publisher of THE BIG THRILL (International Thriller Writers’ magazine). Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies and magazines. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, and the International Thriller Writers, where she serves on the board of directors as Vice President, Technology.
All Articles by Janice Gable Bashman:
For Better or For Worse: How Lynn Johnston Became One of the World’s Most Read Comic Strip Artists
From Tragedy to Triumph: New York Times Bestselling Author L.A. Banks
Photojournalist Margaret Courtney-Clarke: Finding the Soul of Africa Through the Lens
Connie Dover – Singer-songwriter and Trail Cook: Home on the Ranch
Kathryn Ball – Fire Watcher: On Buck Rock Lookout
Thrill Ride: The Dark World of Mysteries and Thrillers:
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Lawrence Block and Steve Hamilton
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Barry Eisler
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Bill Kent
Thrill Ride: An Interview with David Housewright
Jonathan Maberry, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Editor at Wild River Review in 2007, has been a professional writer for thirty years and has sold over a dozen nonfiction books, three novels (including Ghost Road Blues, June 2006, Pinnacle), and over 900 articles, as well as short stories, poetry, plays, video scripts, song lyrics, and more. He is a book doctor and writing teacher, and is a frequent lecturer at writers’ conferences.
Works by Jonathan Mayberry
Thrill Ride: The Dark World of Mysteries and Thrillers:
An Interview with Lawrence Block and Steve Hamilton
An Interview with Barry Eisler
An Interview with Bill Kent
An Interview with David Housewright