Wednesday, October 6, 2010

More One-on-one with Reed Farrel Coleman

Welcome back! Today Reed Farrel Coleman and I are talking more about the Moe Prager series and his newest Moe installment, INNOCENT MONSTER. Before we get back to the interview, I just have to say that this is one of the coolest book jackets. Not only is it aesthetically wonderful, but I think it captures the essence of the book. That doesn't happen all the time so I wanted to give some kudos to Kristie Langone of 2Faced Design. Seems as though she really understood what Reed was doing. O.k., so enough for my sidebar. Let's get back to this interview because I want to hear what Reed has to say:

Q. The Moe Prager books have a rather unique story arc that spans the majority of the series. The skeleton of that arc makes up WALKING THE PERFECT SQUARE and then subsequent books fill in that skeleton. Was that your plan when you wrote WALKING THE PERFECT SQUARE or was it originally meant to be a stand-alone novel?

Reed: Who knows what I meant to do? Although my family and friends will tell you I am a good planner, I don’t do any planning in my writing. I see what comes and work with it. It’s what makes writing exciting for me. God, I would be so dreadfully bored by outlining and doing story arcs and timelines. Frankly, I don’t know how people do it. While writing WTPS, it occurred to me to break some rules. I’m from Brooklyn, it comes naturally to me. I decided to let the readers know more about what would happen to Moe than Moe would in subsequent books. For the reader it would be like seeing the train approaching the car stuck on the tracks, but the guy in the car not seeing the train at all. It’s a thing Alfred Hitchcock used to do. He’d show the audience the ticking bomb but not the characters. Of course once I did that I had to figure out how to make a series of the book when the audience knew what was coming. **PARENTAL WARNING: AUTHOR BRAGGING TO FOLLOW** Given that the series has garnered three Shamus Awards, the Barry and Anthony Awards, two Edgar Award nominations, two Macavity nominations, two Barry nominations, and a Gumshoe nomination, I’d say I managed to make it work.

Jen: Uhm, yeah, I'd have to say you did just that.

Q. Moe has, throughout the series, lived his life in the past. The constant reminder of his secret hanging over him for years and years; his desire to have the gold shield he earned but didn’t receive continued to control him. But in INNOCENT MONSTER, Moe seems to be moving more toward the future and living in the here and now. He’s trying to straighten out his relationship with Sarah, and he’s looking toward a new relationship, being open to that idea. Throughout the series Moe has evolved, grown, he’s been affected by the events that have transpired in his life. Do you find this essential in a series? Not all series characters change. So what are your thoughts on that and why did you decide to have Moe grow, age, change?

Reed: Moe changes because people change. One of the traditions of detective fiction that I have always loathed is what I think of as the Next! conceit. That’s where one client, having received the news about the resolution of a case, leaves the office as the next client comes in. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. I’m not interested in super heroes, archetypes, or cardboard cutouts. For me to be interested in writing a character, the character has to be a human like the humans I know. They don’t become vampires or werewolves or zombies or have unlimited ammo or possess super powers or ridiculous powers of observation. The humans I know age and change. Their lives are full of joy and grief, of highs and lows. They face a slog every day just to get out of bed, raise their kids, and earn a few pennies. As Moe ages, he can see the end in sight. That’s a powerful thing, let me tell you. As my wife said to me last night, “I remember when I read about characters in mid-life, I used to think they were like a different species.” Well, having reached the ripe old age of 54, I can tell you you begin to see the end in sight. It probably won’t make Moe find religion, but it has a profound effect on him. I want readers to know this Moe too. Yet even as we change, we are essentially the same. It is the pull between these two things I find fascinating about life and characters.

Q. One of my favorite characters in INNOCENT MONSTER is Declan Carney. He’s incredibly symbolic, and of course, he’s pivotal to the plot. Is Declan a creation of your imagination or was he inspired by someone?

Reed: Well, his first name is sort of an homage to my Irish buddies Declan Burke and Declan Hughes, but he isn’t inspired by anyone at all. He’s symbolic of the kinds of damage and punishments humans inflict upon each other, but especially upon themselves. Carney is meant to sound like carnage. He is also meant to represent the tragedy of how we ignore the damage done to returning veterans. Whether you agree with our military policies or not, you have to feel for these people whose lives have been changed forever.

Q. Declan is also an example of how every character is rich and fully developed, no matter if they show up once a book or once a page. Obviously that’s important to you as a writer, so why is that? If they’re a minor character, why do they need to have such dimension?

Reed: There is no such thing as a minor character, because there are no minor human beings. Whether we want to admit it or not, we see ourselves at the center of the world. So Declan Carney is the center of the world. Every character is at the center of his or her world. I treat them that way.

Q. There are a number of themes that recur throughout the series. Of course we know Moe is on a bit of a journey. Throughout the series he’s trying to find his identity. There’s a lot of focus on relationships. And one of my favorite themes: the haves versus the have-nots. Can you talk a little about this last theme in relation to INNOCENT MONSTER because it really exists in many different forms in this book?

Reed: I didn’t exactly grow up poor, but my upbringing was definitely lower middle class. We were renters, five of us in a four and a half room apartment. We only ever had one car and it was almost always a used car. My dad, in spite of having bone cancer, worked six days a week, 10-12 hours a day for years. My mom had to work as a secretary. Even so, I loved my old neighborhood because we were all have-nots. We were unified in that. Moe and, to an even greater extent, I see ourselves as poor schmucks from Brooklyn, so Moe has a very jaundiced eye when it comes to the wealthy and powerful. Moe doesn’t resent people for having, but for wasting or squandering what they have. He also despises how the haves laud their power and treat have-nots. But Moe also disrespects have-nots for their ambitions and their willingness to sell their souls for a taste of honey. I don’t want to give away too much about the book, so maybe the next time we do a Q &A we can discuss how this pertains in particular to Innocent Monster. As far as relationships in general, when you’re a have-not and you don’t possess things or the means to get things, what’s left to you but your friends and family?

Q. Setting is a very important element of the Moe Prager series. You really couldn’t pick Moe up and set him anywhere else and have this series create the same experience. Why did you choose to make Brooklyn such an integral part of the series? Does having a strong setting present any challenges for you?

Reed: Not having a strong setting would be trouble. Having one is a joy. Let me tell you, writing a lot of 300-page books is no easy task. Having Coney Island to fall back on is like having another favorite character to turn to when the book is dragging or you don’t know where to take it. Brooklyn, Coney Island in particular, is so meaningful in my own life that it just seemed like the perfect fit for Moe. Coney Island and Brooklyn, until recently, are places that are all about their pasts. I was born the year before the Dodgers moved to LA. Coney Island’s glory days had long since passed. So I grew up in a world of wistful people looking behind themselves, not ahead. Brooklynites are very much tied to the place itself, so my parents’ generation looked for glory in the past. Their best days were behind them. That attitude greatly affected me and, by extension, Moe.

Q. The plot of INNOCENT MONSTER deals with the art world. Again, we know that setting is vital here because the art world in say Lincoln, Nebraska, is not the same world that exists in New York City. But why the art world for this go-round with Moe?

Reed: Well, a few reasons. One, my son Dylan is an artist. The New York art world is, he hopes, his future, but if it’s anything like the world of New York publishing he’d better watch out. Any artistic pursuit is fraught with danger and pitfalls and constant judgments. Second, I have always been fascinated by child prodigies. For all of its craziness, I loved my childhood. But what if you never had a childhood and were expected to be the family’s major source of income? I’ve read about some child art prodigies and wanted to play with the notion of what that world must be like for a child. Three, I have the great good fortune of knowing mystery writer and artist Jon Santlofer who helped me understand the unseen differences between being a real artist and a kid who makes pretty swirls. I have to say that this is more about the fringes of the legitimate art world than the New York art scene per se.

Q. Titles fascinate me and especially so with your titles because they are so integrally tied to the plot, and they are incredibly powerful. Each time I’ve read a Moe Prager novel and reached the point where the title and its meaning become clear I’ve been wowed and then it just continues to play out and expand as you reach the end. So what’s your process for titles? Do you have the title at the beginning; is that the basis you work from? Or is it something that comes along as you’re writing?

Reed: I always start with a title. How I get the title changes from book to book, but it is astute of you to see that not only is the title about the book, but that the book is about the title. Someday, maybe at Bouchercon, we can sit down and go over how I got each title. Or maybe we can do a blog about it, but I don’t want to give away too much because I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t read the earlier Moe books. Innocent Monster came about one day when I was playing word games in my head. I do crosswords every morning and it was probably right after I finished doing a puzzle. The words monster and innocent popped into my head. I flipped them around, added words, subtracted words, but in the end, the only two words left were innocent and monster. When I put them together like that I began to think of what an innocent monster might be like. What did those words imply? So it was from the title that my mind moved to thinking about the art world and childhood prodigies. The book is almost completely the result of me playing with those two words.

Q. Very quickly, I know I’m getting carried away here; another series came about while you were also writing the Moe Prager series and it features Joe Serpe who is a former NYPD narcotics detective who becomes a home heating oil delivery driver. You wrote this series under the pen name Tony Spinosa. What was the motivation for this new series? And why chose to write it under the pen name? And I’m especially curious where the very Italian pen name came from.

Reed: It’s a long boring story having to do with my contract at the time and a no competition clause. Let’s just say, I had to write Hose Monkey under a pen name and that by the time I wrote The Fourth Victim, the die was cast. I would have been happy to write those books as Reed Farrel Coleman and, when I get the rights back, the reprints will bear both names. For many years I delivered home heating oil on Long Island and noticed that as a delivery man I was basically invisible. People knew more about their mailboxes than their mailmen. The concept of invisibility fascinated me and I wrote a short story about it. SJ Rozan heard it and said, “There’s a novel there. Write it.” Who was I to argue with SJ?

Fooled ya! Spinosa is not an Italian name, but taken from the 17th century Dutch-Portuguese-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinosa or Spinoza. Like Joe Serpe, the protagonist of the Spinosa books, the real Spinosa wasn’t very popular among his brethren in his day.

Q. Where to from here? You’re working on another Moe Prager novel. Will there be any more in the Joe Serpe series? Any more collaborations? Anything completely unrelated to any of the series?

Reed: I doubt there will be any additional Joe Serpe books. I have toyed with bringing Dylan Klein back. I think it’s possible there will be some future collaborations with some unexpected co-authors. I have a high concept stand-alone being shopped now. I have been discussing a short story anthology about the Holocaust with Busted Flush for over a year. There will be more short stories. There will always be a lot to write and not enough time.

Q. Okay, last one, I promise! Last year you very generously contributed to the memoir project with six six-word memoirs. And they each are truly poetry. I know a lot of people who read those memoirs would love for you to elaborate on them. So, can you share a little with us on your memoirs:


Dad, standing at the hospital window.
My dad was diagnosed with bone cancer when I was 4. In those days kids weren’t allowed to visit hospitals, so my strongest early images of my dad are seeing him at the hospital window.

My mom, at the mirror, empty.
My mom had a terrible self-image and it’s always what I imagined she saw when she looked at herself.

Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach, Coney Island.
These are the three neighborhoods in which I lived the early part of my life. For a long time I thought they would be my entire universe.

Saturday morning, my brothers, we’re happy.
I have two older brothers, Jules and David. We shared a room growing up and we always had a great time on Saturday mornings, fighting, clowning around, watching TV.

My children. My wife. Our life.
Kinda self-explanatory.

Ken, Reed, Tower, movie rights sold.
Again, self-explanatory. We sold the movie rights to Tower. No movie yet.

Many thanks to Reed for his time. You know I can't ever do anything short. Maybe it's compensating for BEING short? Who knows. Tomorrow for Audiobook Thursday and to continue Reed Week, I'll be talking about SOUL PATCH, the fourth Moe Prager novel. For those of you who do not know, the Moe Prager series is now available on Audiobook from Audible, narrated by Andy Caploe. INNOCENT MONSTER will also be narrated by Andy. And finally, on Friday, I'll share my thoughts on INNOCENT MONSTER.

For you print devotees, INNOCENT MONSTER is out from Tyrus Books, and the older books in the Moe Prager series are available from Busted Flush Press in trade paperback. Reed is also going to be at Bouchercon, so you can meet him in person in San Francisco. Can't make it to San Francisco? I'm over the moon because this year Reed will be at Murder and Mayhem in Muskego. You can also meet him in person there. Of course, I'll have reports from both events for those of you who can't make either.

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Kaye Barley October 6, 2010 at 8:30 AM  

I couldn't wait to read "Part II."

Jen - this may be the best interview you've done yet. Your questions are thoughtful, intriguing and astute. You also had a fascinating person as your subject. And oh boy - am I so glad to finally read the stories behind those six-word memoirs which I found so compelling. Thank you!

Thoughts of Joy October 6, 2010 at 10:20 AM  

I am just as excited (if not more) as I was yesterday after reading Part 1 of your interview with Reed. I love how he thinks about his characters and series in general. Now, I don't mind reading them, but I started nodding my head in agreement when he mentioned the revolving door of clients. I'm very curious as to how he approaches his books without implementing that strategy.

There is so much that I could respond to, but I'm going to leave it at this: I was thoroughly engrossed in reading what Reed had to say that I can't imagine I wouldn't like his books. I'm going to squeeze The Tower into my lineup soon because it's the shortest. I know that sounds lame, but time is limited when your TBR shelves are overflowing and promises are hanging over your head.

I'm sorry if I missed this, but does Reed have a collection of short stories or are they just distributed in a variety of anthologies? I love short stories, and it would be great if I could get my hands on some of his work.

Thanks again Jen for your questions and to Reed for his in-depth and interesting answers. I loved it.

I just realized that the length of my comments are beginning to resemble your questions, Jen. *smirk* I'm going to look at it as a positive thing, because I love your questioning style. :)

Kathleen A. Ryan October 6, 2010 at 10:56 PM  

Hi Jen,
I thoroughly enjoyed Part II ~ you did an outstanding job. I couldn't help but chuckle when I read,
"While writing WTPS, it occurred to me to break some rules. I’m from Brooklyn, it comes naturally to me." I have several family members from Brooklyn.

I've never had the privilege of reading the Moe Prager series, but you've certainly convinced me to put them on the TBR pile (which is taller than a mountain right now). I listen to audio books all the time ~ it's a great way to get my fix when I can't sit down to read. How impressive that Reed's books have garnered so many awards. Bravo!

I was intrigued by your question about title selection. I'd love to hear more about that someday!

That's exciting news about TOWER ~ I hope it gets made ~ I'd certainly see it on opening day.

See you in San Fran!

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