Tuesday, June 23, 2009

An East Coast Party for GREGG HURWITZ

Today is the release date of Gregg Hurwitz's new book TRUST NO ONE. So, since I can't be out on the West Coast in Santa Monica to celebrate the release live with him, I asked him to join me here so we could celebrate virtually in the form of an interview.

As you know if you read the blog fairly regularly, I discovered Gregg's work last year with his amazing book THE CRIME WRITER. It was one of my "Favorite Reads of 2008." I'm a little late getting to the game on Gregg's writing, though, as THE CRIME WRITER was his eighth novel. And you can tell Gregg didn't want to be pigeon-holed because his plots are all over the map, topic-wise. When it comes to thrillers, this guy is among the elite writers. And he's become quite well known in the comic book arena as well. So I was elated to have the chance to meet and chat with him in Los Angeles when I was out at the Mystery Bookstore, and I'm equally excited to have him join us here today. Please help me to welcome Gregg Hurwitz!

Q. Gregg, you come from a family of doctors. So what prompted you to deviate from the family medical line and pursue writing?

Gregg: Probably a lack of math skills. I can’t add. I can’t even use a calculator. But honestly? I always wanted to write. I have crayon-illustrated mysteries that I wrote in third grade. So I suppose it always felt like a pre-determined course.
Q. You earned your Master’s degree in Shakespearean tragedy from Oxford. While Shakespeare was probably the crime/thriller writer of his time, one doesn’t often think of the natural progression to then lead to modern crime/thriller fiction. What led you in that direction for your writing?
Gregg: Well, in some ways, it is a more natural progression than one would think. Shakespeare was intensely plot- and structure-minded, and wrote some kick-ass crime stories. Othello: Tale of Passion. Macbeth: Mob Thriller. Hamlet: Ghost Story. Etc. I think I was always drawn to strongly narrative-based writing—I love my Faulkner and Dickens.
Q: Your writing spans many platforms. You’ve done script writing, novels, comic/graphic novels, short stories, and also academic writing. Do you try to rotate what platform you’re writing on? Or do you determine what you’re writing based on ideas that come up? Is it determined by publishers? What’s the formula that decides what you’re going to sit down and work on each day?

Gregg: Well, the books take the most energy by a factor of ten. They simply require more ass-in-chair time than anything else. But I’d say that when a story occurs to me, it also suggests which format would suit it best. A script feels like a script, a comic like a comic. Whichever project my head is in (or has the pending deadline) is the one I wake up and work on.

Q: Do you find any of the formats easier than the others to write? Are any of them more enjoyable or rewarding for you?
Gregg: Novels are the hardest and therefore often the most rewarding. But you know what? It’s hard to answer that, because I can only write something when I think I can write it well—those are the only jobs or spec projects I’ll undertake. And for me to write it well, I have to find it absorbing and engaging. I just finished up a comic arc that was completely gratifying—and draining.
Q: Not only are you diverse in the formats that you choose to write in, but within those formats you have quite a bit of diversity as well. With your novels you started out writing stand alones. Then you wrote a series of four books around U.S. Marshall Tim Rackley, and came back to the stand alones with THE CRIME WRITER and your new release TRUST NO ONE. How do you like writing the series as opposed to the stand alones? What are the benefits and drawbacks to a series for you?

Gregg: I think I’m naturally a stand-alone writer. I’ve had a lot of readers comment that even though the Rackley books are a series, each one reads like a stand-alone. I think my head works better in that format. Perhaps those are the kinds of stories I’m strongest with. What I love about stand-alones is that you can tell a story that could only happen once in the life of a character, and you don’t need to position him or her for future adventures.
Q: Is Tim Rackley done or do you have plans to revisit him later? Any other series considerations?
Gregg: Hmm. He’s taking a rest right now. But you never know when he might choose to assert himself again in my brain. For now, I’m loving playing in the stand-alone sandbox.
Q: The crime fiction genre has quite a few subcategories and you’ve hit an awful lot of them in your nine novels. Maybe it’s my obsession with character, but I seem to notice a lot of the psychological elements showing up regardless of how the book would be classified. You really bring out the “insides” of your characters’ minds. Does that come out AS you write or do you get to know them BEFORE you write?
Gregg: That’s an interesting question. I can’t start writing until I have a handle on the character. And often, the layers come out only once I’m writing them. Often I don’t know what they’ll sound like until they start talking on the page. And when characters are the strongest, they’re doing a lot of the lifting themselves.
Q: Both your characters and your plot tend to be complex and multi-layered. Which, if either, tends to drive your writing? Do you plan a lot out ahead of time or simply write and then cut at the end?
Gregg: It’s always a mess. I plan and change my mind a hundred times. I cut and hack and paste and rewrite and swear a lot. I got a loud-ass keyboard so when I’m banging on it, it feels like I’m really working.
Q: Gregg, you tend to have strong female characters in your novels, whether they are a central character as in MINUTES TO BURN or supporting characters. First I’d like to mention how much I enjoy those characters. The “damsel in distress” character just does nothing for me. So, I appreciate a good female role. Do you have an inspiration for these female characters? What are some other female characters in literature that YOU, yourself, enjoy/appreciate?
Gregg: Thank you—that’s high praise indeed. Yes, I never like the whiny wife who’s complaining that her man’s getting into trouble, or has no grasp of danger (or logic). I like my women tough and smart in real life, so I suppose that comes through in the books as well. Of contemporary genre characters, I’d have to say that (Robert Crais’s) Carol Starkey is a favorite. Of course I love Clarice Sterling. Oh—and Jeff Parker’s Merci Rayborn is pretty damn cool. As for classics? I love me some Desdemona.
Q: You mentioned in a previous interview that there were no female Navy SEALs when you wrote MINUTES TO BURN. Is that still the case or have they found their way in?
Gregg: Alas, no female Navy SEALs yet. You should apply.

Q: THE CRIME WRITER was unique for you in many ways, but especially so in that it was the first book you wrote in first person point of view. How did you like that? Or did you? What p.o.v. is TRUST NO ONE?

Gregg: It was very different. That book was a real jump for me—and very close to my heart. I think that’s why I wrote it through the eyes of the character. It was constraining, but oddly liberating too. TNO is first person as well, which I chose because of the intensity I wanted to impart from the opening scene, when a SWAT team crashes into Nick Horrigan’s apartment and drags him out onto the street....
Q: I’ve heard a lot of writers give thanks to the Internet as a research tool, but you seem to get your hands dirtier than that. You’ve established quite a network of contacts and have experienced more hands-on research. It’s not enough for someone to tell you what a chemical reaction will result in, you’re out there blowing stuff up so you can see for yourself! Can you talk a little about some of those experiences and why you choose to have a more hands-on approach to research? What kind of research did you find yourself involved with for TRUST NO ONE?
Gregg: I love the first-hand approach, because you never know what you might discover on-site as a happy coincidence. Plus, only once I’m on scene can I smell the smells and see ALL the sights. I’ve done a lot, I suppose—gone undercover into mind-control cults, sneaked onto demolition ranges to blow up cars, flown in stunt planes, conducted interviews while a medical lab technician parted out a corpse....Trust No One led me to some pretty cool research around the Secret Service. But the coolest thing was this extremely unique type of restaurant that I ate at—and which Nick finds himself at mid-way through the book. I couldn’t believe it!
Q: Another element of your writing that I’ve noticed is your themes. I see a lot of social issues pop up, and they’re never “easy” issues. Then you tend to dive head first into the “gray area.” Your protagonists are still “good guys” but there’s definitely little that’s pure black or stark white. Do you find that comes easy for you or does it challenge you as a writer? And what ultimately makes you say, “This is a great theme for my next novel?”
Gregg: As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve moved increasingly away from villains and more toward antagonists. It’s more compelling to me to find a character with a valid motive and perspective. And I think those stories tend to live in the gray zone. I know I have a theme for a book when a character collides with a ethical dilemma—often an impossible choice.
Q: O.k., so let’s get down to the important stuff here! Tell us about TRUST NO ONE. And what part of writing TRUST NO ONE was unique for you, different from the eight previous novels?

Gregg: Nick Horrigan, an average guy, awakens in the middle of the night when he thinks he sees a watery blue light along his ceiling. He blinks, and it’s gone. He gets up, rubbing his eyes, crosses into the main room, and looks through the sliding glass door onto the balcony. A black rope is hanging over the lip of the roof and lies coiled on the balcony floor. He opens the slider, steps out, closing the screen behind him.

Down below he sees dark sedans lining the curb on either side, and cop cars with their lights now turned off. Before he can react, the rope twitches, and a guy clad in full SWAT gear rappels off the roof and—not seeing Nick—hammers him in the chest with both boots. Nick soars back into his apartment, ripping the screen from the frame, and lands on his back. His front door flies out of the frame like a hurricane hit on the other side, and slides to within an inch of his nose. And before he can catch his breath, a full SWAT team storms the apartment.

The lead agent grabs him, asks, “Are you Nick Horrigan?” Nick still can’t catch his breath, so he nods. They shove a photo in front of his face. “When’s the last time you’ve had contact with this man?” Nicks says, “I’ve never seen him before.” They tug him to his feet. He’s barefoot, in pajama bottoms. He’s dragged outside. Cop cars everywhere. Neighbors lining the sidewalk. A loud thrumming shakes the air and then the palm trees behind his building light up. A helicopter rolls into view and sets down on the end of his cul-de-sac. He’s dragged toward it, and finally he stops, says, “You can’t just take me. Where the hell am I going?”

And the lead agent replies, “A terrorist has just seized control of the San Onofre nuclear power plant. He’s threatening to blow it up. And the only person he’ll talk to is you.”

That’s the end of the first chapter.

Writing this one was different for me because it takes off like a shot and never slows down. So it was a real momentum ride. I had to hold tight and type fast to keep up with it. (And then, of course, do tons of rewriting and editing to make sure everything stayed tight).

Q: You also recently had a script optioned by Double Nickel Entertainment. Can you share a little about that?
Gregg: It’s called Legacy, and it’s a dark little dramedy with a crime story at its heart.
Q: Your books have been translated into 16 languages. Whew! You often share the cover art of the translations on your blog, and you’ve had some very cool art on your books outside the U.S – which is not to say that the American covers aren’t good. You’ve also mentioned that crime fiction isn’t as respected in the U.S. as it is in Europe. What kind of differences have you seen between the two areas? Why do you think that is?
Gregg: Have I said that? How obnoxious of me. I think perhaps I’d phrase it differently now, which is to say that certain European countries are more aware of the actual writing while U.S. readers might be more focused on plot. We’re story people here and we want to know the basics first—what happened and to whom?
Q: O.k., I have a few final questions that are more about Gregg the person and less about Gregg the writer. First, it made me smile to see on your Facebook page under Favorite Music, “I love classic rock, country and Motown.” I just think that is so appropriate for a writer with such a dynamic bibliography. So what are a few songs on your iPod right now?
Gregg: I’m in love with this band called Glasvegas right now. As for my iPod, let’s see. Stevie Wonder. And Leona Lewis. Don’t ask. I’m weird and I like lots of music.
Q: Something else that you’ve experienced both in the U.S. and out is playing soccer. How does playing soccer in England differ from the U.S? You mention that you’re still playing and actively injuring yourself. What’s your most recent injury? What was the most debilitating?
Gregg: Playing soccer in England is different because every guy—no matter how out of shape, no matter how much he chain-smokes—has impressive ball skills. You can’t take anything for granted over there! I broke my wrist, rib, and collarbone in one three-month stretch—that was the worst. Except when I threw out my back. Or when I broke my rib that other time. Maybe I’m not very good and should take up badminton. Most recent injury....let’s see. That would be the back.
Yeah, you could say I got a little carried away on this interview. But can you blame me? This guy is fascinating, isn't he? He's also one of the nicest people you'll ever talk to, so if you get the chance, grab it! We only touched on his research activities, but there's a great article in the May/June CRIMESPREE magazine that has Gregg talking a lot more about those adventures. It's a must-read if you haven't seen it already.

Also, I DID ask Gregg about his 6-word memoir, but I'm saving that for tomorrow. He'll be one of our highlighted authors tomorrow, so make sure you come back. In the meantime, you can check out TRUST NO ONE which is available in bookstores starting today; you can check out Gregg's website for more fun stuff, including a video of a "shocking bookstore robbery" and info on a contest to win the first comic Gregg ever wrote. Gregg also hosts a blog, so you can stay up to date with Gregg there. I especially appreciate when he posts book jackets from his foreign editions.

I have to extend huge thanks to Gregg for joining us, and tolerating all my questions. It's a busy time for him and yet he still carved some of it out to play in THIS sandbox today. I know I had fun. I hope you all enjoyed this as much as I did. Come back tomorrow and find out what Gregg's 6-word memoir is!

Happy Reading!


Corey Wilde June 23, 2009 at 9:15 AM  

Good interview, as always. The book sounds good, too.

le0pard13 June 23, 2009 at 9:16 AM  

That was a great interview, Jen. And, you got some very interesting answers from Gregg--anyone that appreciates both Carol Starkey and Clarice Starling is aces in my book! I'll still be in NYC when the launch party goes off tonight in SM, and will be back in L.A. when he gets to NYC two days later. Bad timing! I'll have to catch up to him come July when he returns to the Mystery Bookstore. Thanks, Jen.

Jen June 23, 2009 at 5:45 PM  

Michael, I'm charging you with telling Gregg "hi" for me at the Mystery Bookstore. They are holding my book until his event so he can sign it for me. Just love those Mystery Bookstore folks, I do!

le0pard13 June 23, 2009 at 7:02 PM  

I surely will pass that along when I see him. TMB folks are a class act.

Timothy Hallinan June 24, 2009 at 10:59 AM  

Great interview, Jen. I was at Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood for the launch of TELL NO ONE, and the place was jammed, with lots of writers on hand. I always like it when writers show up to support other writers, but Gregg didn't need any help; it was standing room only. And he read chapter one, which is killer.

He's a great guy and a tremendous writer.

Thoughts of Joy June 28, 2009 at 1:19 PM  

Do you think Gregg is going to come back and read your comments? If he does - Sorry, Gregg.

I admit that I have not read any of Gregg's books. Eeek! I thoroughly enjoyed this interview, though, and it has encouraged me to pick up a book by him. Do you have a favorite? You mention that his plots are all over the map, so maybe I need to look at them individually and find which one appeals to me the most. I'll still take a suggestion, though.

Jen June 28, 2009 at 4:20 PM  

Joy, not sure if Gregg will make his way this way or not, but I'm sure he'd just be thrilled that you're picking up a book now.

I just finished TROUBLE SHOOTER, which I will be reviewing shortly, God willing. It was one of the books in the Tim Rackley series. It's along the lines of a police procedural dealing with motorcycle gangs. DO NO HARM is a medical thriller. And then CRIME WRITER, which I read last year and raved about, is a thriller dealing with a crime writer. So as he's experiences this amazing situation he's also writing the book in an effort to solve the mystery. It's really rather ingenius. CRIME WRITER is probably my favorite because of how unique it is, but they are all excellent thrillers, well written, great characters...

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