WRR 4.4 1 AUGUST 2007
The Dark World of
Mysteries and Thrillers
Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love, home to the Liberty Bell, birthplace of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and the setting for Bill Kent’s novels. Kent is a journalist and author of more than seven novels and has published in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. In addition, he teaches writing at the University of Pennsylvania.
Street Legal, Kent’s fourth and newest street mystery was published in June 2006 and features recurring protagonists Shep Ladderback, an obituary writer, and Andrea Cosicki, a consumer-advice columnist. Booklist states that Kent “...constructs an engaging detective story by creatively combining the obit writer’s narrative skills with the crusading consumer-reporter’s ability to ferret out wrongdoing.”
In speaking with Kent, it became apparent why this author loves writing and the city of Philadelphia.
WRR: Philadelphia plays a significant role in your novels. Why?
It’s close. When you need it, it’s there and when you don’t need it, you can’t avoid it. Unlike the suburbs, which tend to be subtle and gradual and strongly modified by terrain, the city changes rapidly in landscape, ethnic and cultural composition, architecture, and mood. Every visit shows me something new.
I would not be a street or a neighborhood. If you’re asking me about favorites, I’ve always liked Tenth Street because it varies so much as you travel north or south. I love parts of South Philadelphia, especially the sections where you get a dramatic clash of cultural, racial, religious, and ethnic characteristics. Fairmount Park is wonderful, especially the sections that are some distance from roads. I’m also drawn to ruined neighborhoods because I know that what appears to be lifeless and abandoned is anything but that.
WRR: You stated that you are “...overwhelmed by the number of stories worth telling.” Where do you get your inspiration and ideas?
Everywhere. I’ll be sitting in 30th Street Station, watching people going to and fro, and wonder where they’re going and what’s waiting for them when they get there. I’ll look out of the El onto a part of West Philadelphia and imagine what could be going on down there. When a bus or trolley I’m riding stops and I see the door of a house, I think about what could happen if that door opened to me, and I stepped into a different world. When I’m riding my bicycle through the city, I’ll catch a spicy odor from a kitchen and think about the person preparing that food and the people who are going to eat it. I also get inspiration from “secondary” sources, stories I read about in newspapers and magazines, as well as people I might meet in the course of doing journalism and participating in the lives of my wife and son. The novel I just finished, for example, has scenes in a rural regional theater that are based on theaters I visited when my son began to get parts in musicals and plays.
WRR: You novels are infused with local flavor. When starting a novel, do you discover your location, character or plot first? Explain.
WRR: Describe your writing process.
It’s different every day because I do journalism, which ends in writing, and I teach, which ends in a classroom. Both journalism and teaching require research and preparation, so the amount of time I devote to writing will depend on how close I am to a deadline or a class meeting. In general, I give myself the opportunity to write every day. This is not as precious as it sounds: I have more than enough excuses, distractions, household chores, and things I would rather do than write, and, though I’ve been writing daily for most of my life, I still get the equivalent of stage fright before I begin: feelings of anxiety, nervousness, vague premonitions that what I’m about to write is going to be a waste of time or turn out bad. When the writing begins, it is never fun. It’s usually awkward, hesitant, uncertain. I’ll revise a sentence a dozen times and not like it. But, what happens sooner or later is that I enter a different world, and I forget who I am; I forget where I am; I don’t pay attention to the time or whatever music is playing until, either the phone rings (and I’m typically grouchy when I answer-how DARE you bring me down to earth when I’m jumping over the moon!) or I reach a stop pointing and gently return to the real world. This period can last a few minutes or several hours. Then I’m usually finished writing for the day, but I can go back and write more, if I feel like it, or the deadline is approaching and I have to complete what I started. The rest of the day I’ll read, exercise, run errands, do the laundry, mow the lawn, cook meals, be a father to my son, and a husband to my wife.
WRR: You stated that you “...write the best book you possibly can...” What happens next explain the process?
A piece of journalism can be written in, at most, a few days, but books take a long time, usually far longer than I anticipate. And it’s never a straight forward, pile up the pages kind of achievement. With a novel, I tend to start strongly in the opening chapters and then, when I hit Page 161, I run out of steam, or I hit a wall, or I realize that there are problems with the logical flow of the plot, and everything stops. I don’t know why this happens a little more than a third of the way in.
In some books, it’s been a little early or a little later. But when it happens, I go back and examine what I’ve written with a withering eye. Things begin to look hopeless. I have moments when I feel that the book is a mistake; my career is a mistake; my whole life is a mistake! I’ve learned that I can’t talk these problems through with my wife, my agent, or another writer. I just have to hold on until I either slog my way through or I get a flash of inspiration and see how the problem can be solved. Then I’ll go back and fix things and go forward for a while until I hit another wall. The important thing is that I eventually finish the book and the act of finishing that teaches me something about myself and what I value that I would not have learned any other way.
When I began writing books, I thought that “real” writers didn’t have these problems, that they’re just so cool, emotionally secure, and certain about the efficacy of their labor that they just pound the stuff out and then go down to the local tavern, hoist some brews to the ghost of Ernest Hemingway. I’ve since learned that just about every writer has these moments of doubt and uncertainty. I tell my novel writing students that if you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing and that everything is going to turn out bad-welcome to the club! And yet, part of the reason that writing a novel is a worthy human accomplishment is entirely the result of the author’s determination. You don’t have a boss giving you the carrot and the stick, a lover offering eternal affection when you hit Page 400, or an agent or editor who will tease you with visions of wealth, glory, and a movie sale. And you can’t buy one of those how-to-write-a-novel books, follow instructions and depend on everything coming out right. Even if you’re writing within a genre in which you know the major conventions of your story, the really important parts of the novelist’s art cannot be taught. They can’t even be ripped off from other novelists. You just have to discover how you do what you do, on your own, and, believe me, the price you pay for this discovery can be very steep, and you never stop paying for it. That’s why I say, success for a writer is having the opportunity to write; success for a novelist is finishing a novel. What happens after that is beyond your control.
WRR: How have the twenty-five years you spent as a reporter and free-lance writer for publications such as the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post influenced your writing?
The great thing about journalism is that it takes me places, gives me information, and puts me in the presence of people that I would never normally encounter. Most journalism is intended to be interesting so I have had many experiences that are, to say the least, very interesting. In terms of inspiring art, journalism can be so rich that it’s almost toxic: my first novel was based on experiences I had hanging out in the Atlantic City Vice Squad, for an article I did for Atlantic City Magazine. Those harsh, funny, pathetic, dangerous experiences were so amazing to me-a middle class guy from the suburbs-that I spent a great deal of time trying to put them into the book. I learned to pay more attention to the story, and not the journalism, because I believe that people who want to learn about police procedures can find that information in non-fiction books. I turn to fiction because I want an adventure that is “better than real.”
WRR: You stated that although you are the author of your novels, you don’t know all there is to know about them. Tell us about that.
The author only knows the experience of creating the work. What makes the work meaningful or valuable is the relation it has to each reader. I have met readers of my books who surprise me with things they’ve found in a book that I was not aware of when I was writing it. I’ve also read reviews from critics who speak with absolutely certainty about what my book means and why I wrote it, and they’re 100 percent wrong. Having been a critic myself, I am grateful when critics do seem to “get” what I wanted to do in a story.
WRR: You have had some interesting experiences such as flying a kite off the Great Wall in China, studying archaeology in Israel, teaching karate, and working as an apprentice to a novelist. How have these experiences impacted your writing?
When I was younger, I assumed that having such experiences would make me a better writer. Now I’ve come to understand that it isn’t the experience, but the quality of experiencing, that gives you the potential for making great art. So, I’ve done some wild things, but who hasn’t? For an artist, nothing is wasted. Everything can be (and is) useful in making your art. Teaching karate made me a better teacher. Studying karate helped me understand that no matter what happens in real life, the last thing you want to do is start a fight, because fights are always unpredictable. If you have a choice, the third best thing that can happen to you if you’re in a fight is to get away from it. The second best thing is to end the fight in a way that does the least harm to all concerned. The best thing is to be sensitive, cleve,r and modest enough to stop the fight before it happens. That helped me when I wrote a novel about fighting, and it helps me in portraying genuine action heroes-the cops, firemen, the military and security people who make the ultimate sacrifices for the rest of us. As for other experiences, Tom Clancy will use his connections to find out about military hardware that most of us will never come near. If you don’t know anybody in the military or the defense contracting industries, and you want to write a Tom Clancy novel, good luck. If you want to write a spy novel and you have no knowledge about what spies really experience, good luck again. But if you want to write an Anne Tyler novel, a magnificent work of art shaped from the awkward, ordinary, in-between moments in life that we all tend to experience, you already have everything you need.
I once lived, as an apprentice, with Keith Laumer, a science fiction writer who had suffered a paralyzing stroke. I mowed the rather huge lawn he had and did the household chores, hoping that he would help me be a better writer. The experience gave me insights into his craft-I learned that he based a loathsome policeman in one of his books on a traffic cop who gave him a speeding ticket. Hey, you write about what you know, right? One of his non-science-fiction novels was a tell-all tale about corruption in a US embassy in a south-east Asian nation based on his experiences in the US diplomatic corps. It came out at the same time as The Ugly American and everybody paid attention to The Ugly American and nobody read his book. I learned that, though he claimed never to have seen a rejection slip, his agent saw plenty of rejection slips for his work but didn’t show them to him. He still had to put up with lousy editors, venal publishers, stupid jacket copy and ugly cover illustrations. So nobody has it easy, even when you have achieved a level of success that most aspiring writers would envy. When he read my work, the best he could tell me was how he would do it. From my apprenticeship I learned that discomforting, but necessary lesson: that nobody can make things any easier for me; I’d have to discover the important things myself.
WRR: You teach novel writing at the University of Pennsylvania and state that you are pretty good at critically reading other writers’ work. How do you critique your own work prior to submission?
I can’t. With journalism, I have a pretty good idea of what the editor wants. I’m too close my fiction. I don’t see words on a page. I see words that are the results of thoughts, experiences, doubts, and even a few nightmares. So I usually let my wife read it and then I trust her judgment.
WRR: What is the most important advice you give your writing students?
That the opportunity to write is a gift you give yourself and that you owe it to yourself to give this gift as often as possible. In other words, don’t see your writing as a special thing that you can do only when you’ve put the rest of your life on hold; see it as thing you do regularly, with as little fanfare or expectations as possible. When writing becomes a practice-something that you do regularly because it’s just something you do-you start to learn things about yourself and what you value that you could not learn any other way. That way, even if you don’t publish everything, the experience of creating it remains worthwhile. This is, in a sense, the same lesson from practicing any art, but with writing, it’s vital because when you loosen up, waste time a little, make mistakes or even goof around with your writing, you permit little things to happen in your work that have a way of piling up to create big, unexpected things, of lasting value.
WRR: There is an “enormous amount of really good books...” published each year and “...most people only hear about a precious few.” What are some really good books that have been published lately that you believe deserve greater recognition?
I’d rather not mention them for an important reason: this interview is for writers and my assumption is that some writers will see a book I mention and think, “Maybe I should read that.” Without being in any way disrespectful of these fabulous books and their authors, I believe that it is of vital importance for each writer to develop his own antecedents, his own shelf of important books that have inspired him, nurtured his craft, influenced him in his art or were just so much fun to read. One the worst ways to build this shelf is to read what other writers, critics, English professors, pundits, educators, and celebrities recommend, because what we want to happen-a deserving book gains more attention and, perhaps, the author’s reputation is elevated-almost never does. What happens is similar to the what you see in all these book clubs-people buy the book because someone else said it was good, and they just can’t get through it, or they figure out what the fuss is all about and they have one of those moments when they would rather be scrubbing a toilet bowl than reading this damned thing. Reading, which is the best investment a writer can make in himself, becomes a chore, an obligation, a thing you have to get through in order to do what you enjoy. Also, it’s obvious to me that some works of art require a few years of experience or maturity before they become valuable. Much of what was really important to me when I was younger is not as important to me now, and vice versa. Instead, I would urge writers to give themselves some time, go into a library and just grab anything that’s remotely interesting, or that they’re curious about. Go to the library because it’s free and no publisher has slipped the library some extra change to give favorable displays to books that the publisher wants to sell. If what you find fails to interest you after a few pages, close the book, pick up another. Sooner or later you’re going to find something that you’ll love, and it will be even more important to you because it was your discovery, not the recommendation from someone you might hold in a dubiously exalted position.
WRR: What does an author need to do in today’s market to obtain widespread readership?
If I knew I would do that, because I like the idea of many people reading my books. Notice I said reading. The best seller lists can tell that books are being sold, and we presume that people who spend money on a consumer item will consume it somehow, but we have no indication of what books people are actually reading. Publishers encourage first time writers to spend a fortune promoting their books, but promotion doesn’t always sell the book and promotion certainly cannot put a book in the hands of someone who will read and enjoy it. Some publishers will spend great sums to push a book, only to have a book that doesn’t sell. It’s nice when Hollywood buys the screen rights, but movies made of novels are never the equivalent of the book. Both movies and novels use characters, plots, and settings, but they are distinctly different arts, with different strengths and limitations. Also, an inept movie adaptation can affect an author’s destiny in unpleasant ways. As far as media attention goes, I’ve been interviewed in the television, radio, and in print media. Most of the reviews I’ve received have been positive and I’ve even won a prize or two. I tend to enjoy the attention that comes when the media’s spotlight shines on me, but I’ve also been in situations in which the interviewer has not read my book, doesn’t care much about me, and is asking stupid questions to amuse his listeners. So right now, I think that the best way to gain readers is to care as sincerely and honestly as possible that the book I write will be worth the reader’s time.