Tuesday, October 5, 2010

One-on-one with Reed Farrel Coleman

Today is the release of Reed Farrel Coleman's new Moe Prager novel, INNOCENT MONSTER. The award-winning Moe Prager series has been lauded by critics, booksellers, crime fiction fans, and of course ME! In celebration, I'll be highlighting Reed all this week, starting with a two-part interview and ending with my review of INNOCENT MONSTER on Friday. I'm a big fan of Reed's work, as you've seen through my reviews of previous Moe Prager novels; Reed's collaborative novel, TOWER, written with Ken Bruen; and his poetry. So, it is my distinct honor and pleasure to share this interview with you on Reed's release day. If you've not experienced Reed's work and you wonder what I'm talking about when I say his prose is very poetic, you'll get a good taste of that in this interview. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Here he is, Reed Farrel Coleman (Part 1)!

Q.  Reed, you started out writing poetry, having studied it in college. What drew you to poetry to begin with?

Reed: Actually, I started writing poetry when I was 12 or 13. I had a great seventh grade English teacher named Mr. Isaacs who focused on poetry. He used song lyrics and other stuff we could relate to and I got the bug. Also, I grew up in a family that communicated by shouting. We even expressed love that way. Eventually all the shouting made it impossible to be heard. Poetry gave me a voice that could be heard above the noise. When I saw how powerful and economic the vocabulary of poetry could be, I got really into how poets used the instrument of language and poetics to express themselves. Then in college I had some formal training with David Lehman. He was a great teacher and really freed me to think of myself as a writer. He also emphasized that writing and playing with words should be fun. I’ve published poetry on and off for years and was recently asked to join the editorial staff of The Lineup, a poetry journal that features poems on crime. It’s great to be writing and editing poetry again. One of the coolest things ever was getting to go to one of David Lehman’s readings and giving him a set of my novels. Oddly enough, he too has been nominated for an Edgar.

Q. Unlike some other writers, you didn’t grow up reading and loving crime fiction. You kind of discovered it by chance. Can you talk about that a little?

Reed: Sure. To me, crime fiction was the cheesy paperback on my dad’s nightstand. I was pretty snobby about what I read—a poet, don’t ya know—and never paid the genre much mind. I did like film noir, but the movies didn’t much impact my reading. Then when I was working in the cargo area at Kennedy Airport—think the real Goodfellas—I had to commute to Manhattan once a week and to kill time I decided to take a night class back at Brooklyn College. The only class that fit my schedule was a class on American Detective Fiction. From the first day in class I was totally and utterly smitten. We read The Continental Op; Farewell, My Lovely; Red Harvest; The Maltese Falcon; The Glass Key; The Long Goodbye. It completely changed my world. For the first time I saw how I might apply the lessons I learned in poetry to prose writing. After about a month in that class I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I guess it’s a good thing it wasn’t a class on Poetry of the French Renaissance.

Q. And how did you transition from writing poetry to writing prose? Were there elements that you found especially challenging because of your training in poetry? Or was it just more of a natural flow from one to the other?

Reed: It took me two and a half years to write my first novel, Life Goes Sleeping. I knew what I wanted to do, but had no training. I was really lost and stumbling about in the darkness. Then when I sort of found a plot idea, I tried too hard to make every sentence poetry. What a mistake. But you have to get the overwriting out of your system eventually. I wasn’t trying to write the great American novel. I was trying to write the great American sentence … every sentence. It was a very difficult transition because the techniques don’t easily translate. My first three books are really an exercise in someone teaching himself how to write. What I found was that if I relaxed, my writing improved. And once I relaxed the poetry came out of me naturally. In the first two books, I really forced it. You could see the promise in those books, but you needed to look hard. By the third book, They Don’t Play Stickball in Milwaukee, I think I had gotten it. That’s the thing most beginners don’t understand: You learn by doing. All writing when you start out is valuable. You need to do a lot of it before you get good at it. It doesn’t happen magically. No one walks out onto a major league pitcher’s mound without first throwing hundreds of innings in Little League, high school, college and/or the minor leagues.

Q. You’ve also said that crime writing is a poetic art form. Can you explain that a little and tell us who in the genre you feel really has a grasp on the poetic element?

Reed: Well, I think certain writers have a natural poetry in their work. To me, Chandler is like the TS Eliot of detective fiction to Hammett’s William Carlos Williams. Chandler is the king of the image, of the powerful metaphor. Hammett is more manifest, he tells it like it is. You have to get what you’re going to get out of what he gives you. They both have an implied rhythm in their prose. You can’t read Daniel Woodrell, Megan Abbott, Peter Spiegelman, Ken Bruen, Lawrence Block, SJ Rozan, or Don Winslow without getting a sense of poetry in their work. Don Winslow’s narrative style has had a great effect on my recent poetry. This is not to say that crime writers who don’t write poetic prose aren’t fantastic writers. I never want people to misunderstand that. In fact, if it’s poetic prose not done well, it’s godawful.

Q. Then it wasn’t until later that you wrote your first short story. So from short works to long works to short works. How do the various experiences compare for you? Do you find any easier or any that you more readily jump into than the others? What are your favorite parts of each?

Reed: Writing short fiction really helps sharpen the instrument. It makes you focus. You’re forced to cut out the superfluous. I tell my writing students that a short story is like a road flare: It burns hot and bright and it’s about one thing. Novels are like the night sky: It can be about the moon, the stars, the clouds, a thousand different things. Or, if you prefer, the difference between short fiction and a novel is like the difference between red and white wines. Red wines tend to be more complex and about a variety of tastes and experiences. White wines tend to be about one thing. What I love about novel writing is the chance to explore the small corners of things. Hey, look at that old spider’s web and the copper penny. I wonder who left them there. When? Why? What could they mean? Short stories aren’t about the small corners or painting with the fine brushes. It’s broad strokes and bright colors.

Q. You’ve also collaborated on a project with Ken Bruen. Together you wrote TOWER. In what ways did collaborating make the process easier and in what ways did it make the process harder? Did you find any element of the book that you couldn’t come to an agreement on? If so, how did you deal with it?

Reed: To paraphrase the great actor Edmund Kean: Comedy is easy, collaboration is hard. Collaboration cuts against the grain of writing fiction. As Ken and I have often joked, one of the reasons we write for a career is that we don’t play well with others and we hate bosses. Well, by definition, if you collaborate, you have to play with others and one of you has to be the boss. Tower was Ken’s idea, so he was the boss. His decisions were the final decisions, though we didn’t have many disagreements and we usually worked through them together to reach a consensus. The fact is, Ken isn’t like anyone else I know, so collaborating with him was unique. He mentioned Tower to me about five years ago and I agreed without a second’s hesitation. Then he never said another word about it although we emailed each other nearly every day. I just figured he had moved on. Then, six months later, I get a one-line email from Ken that reads “Have at it, bro.” This was shocking in itself as Ken’s emails used to be yards long. Attached to the email was his half of Tower. That was it: no instructions on how to finish it or what he wanted me to do. It was all very mystical and Zen. I had to be the other hand in the one hand clapping metaphor. So I absorbed Ken’s half of the novel and after months of thought wrote my half of the book. It was murder, the hardest work I’ve ever had to do. I loved it and hated it, but am a much better writer for it. Man, did I have to stretch. A lot of people love the book. Some hate it. But you won’t find many books like it. In the end, the nature of the collaboration made it quite unique.

Q. Would you want to collaborate again on a work? Or is once enough for a lifetime on that experience? If you were to collaborate again, anyone other than Ken you’d like to work with?

Reed: I have worked on some other collaborations. Peter Spiegelman and I have toyed with the idea and have made a few stabs at it. I have a few other collaborative projects in mind as well. Some that might surprise people. Ken and I have kicked around the idea of doing a Western together. A crazy Irishman from Galway and a Jew from Brooklyn writing a Western. Makes a twisted kind of sense, doesn’t it? But Ken is so busy these days, I don’t know that it will happen.

Q. Your first series that you published featured Dylan Klein who was an insurance investigator turned novelist and Dylan’s best friend Johnny MacClough. Now their friendship mirrors a real-life friendship of yours, correct? And Dylan gives up his career to pursue writing, like you. Is that the extent of Dylan’s connection to you?

Reed: Yes, Dylan Klein’s friendship with Johnny is based upon my friendship with a retired NYPD detective named Tom McDonald. Tom and I worked at a restaurant together and became very close friends—partially because we came from the same area in Brooklyn. Getting to know Tom gave me a center to write the DK series around. Tom and I are still good buddies, though he will never forgive me for what I did plot-wise with Johnny MacClough. Actually, Dylan Klein was named for my son Dylan before Dylan was born. Huh? I knew that if I ever had a son, I would name him Dylan, but when I began writing I didn’t have kids, let alone a son. So I was determined to name somebody Dylan. My first child was a girl, Kaitlin—now a senior at Hunter College, studying animal behavior and biology—so who knew if I was going to have a son. Well, my son Dylan—a freshman majoring in illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology—showed up after my first novel was published, but I figured I still owed him the name. Please, buy my books, I have two kids going to college in Manhattan!

Q. And that kind of leads into the next question - well, not the kids in college part. Often characters will start out reflecting their authors or people the authors know, but eventually don’t the characters really start to take on a personality of their own, influenced by the experiences they have? Where would you say that starts to occur? Or am I completely off my rocker and that doesn’t happen at all?

Reed: Well, you may be completely off your rocker, but not about this. Dylan Klein (to more fully answer your previous question), is much like me. Authors often give the advice that new writers should write about what they know. I think this is often misunderstood or misinterpreted to mean new writers should write about the jobs they have or have had, to set their works where they live. But what a new writer knows better than any of those things is his or herself. Writing is an internal process and what helps bring characters to life is a rich internal life. Whose internal life is a writer intimately acquainted with? His or her own. I ended the DK series because I was no longer engaged in writing essentially about my mirror image. Moe has features of mine, but he isn’t me. In writing Walking the Perfect Square, Moe, a reincarnation of a protagonist from a series of unpublished novels, became his own man.

Q. So after Dylan came Moe Prager. Was the desire to stop writing your mirror image the only catalyst to change protagonists and series?

Reed: Like I said before, I was bored. While I was writing Walking the Perfect Square, I latched onto a protagonist name Moe Einstein, a too-clever NYPD detective I used in two unpublished—thank goodness—novels I wrote while still working on the DK novels. Moe Prager was a construct of the old Moe and a new backstory that suited the plot of WTPS. He has since become as real to me and to my fans—all seven of them—as any human being I’ve ever met. I think a series runs its course. The trick is spotting it before it’s too late. I built in a sort of endline for the Moe series because he ages as the series progresses. In Innocent Monster, Moe is in his early sixties. In Hurt Machine, the next Moe book, he’s a year older. It would become farcical to write him much beyond that. As Moe muses in Hurt Machine, the only ID he can use with any credibility is his AARP card.

So there's a little carrot for you. Tomorrow Reed and I will delve into INNOCENT MONSTER and the Moe Prager series as a whole. Hands down, this is one of my favorite crime fiction series, so I'm very excited to talk to Reed about the books. I hope you'll come back tomorrow and join in the fun. In the mean time, if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments. If Reed isn't able to stop by - what with the craziness of release day - I'll go over to his house and harass him. No...not really. Please no one call the police and report me for stalking or anything.

In all seriousness INNOCENT MONSTER does go on sale today from Tyrus Books (ISBN: 978-1-935562-20-7). AND thanks to the brilliant mind and forethought of David Thompson, the beginning of the Moe Prager series is in print and available from Busted Flush Press.

See you tomorrow! Happy Reading!

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Kathleen A. Ryan October 5, 2010 at 10:15 AM  

I enjoyed this awesome interview, Jen ~ you asked fantastic questions. Congratulations to Reed (a fellow Long Islander) on the release of INNOCENT MONSTER. I think his view and explanation of short stories vs. novels is excellent.
I look forward to seeing both of you at Bouchercon, and to tomorrow's installment!

Kaye Barley October 5, 2010 at 6:17 PM  

Terrific interview, Jen!!!
I can't wait to read INNOCENT MONSTER!

Thoughts of Joy October 5, 2010 at 8:16 PM  

This was fab-u-lous! Thank you so much for introducing me to Reed and his work! I couldn't be more excited. :) Did I mention that I loved this interview? I don't think so. I loved this interview! That translates to . . . excellent job, Jen for bringing out Reed's personality. I can't wait to read his books. Woo!

I'm looking forward to more.

Jen Forbus October 5, 2010 at 8:46 PM  

Thank you for your very generous comments everyone! I think Reed is absolutely fascinating, which always makes it easier to come up with interview questions. But sometimes I come up with so many, I can be a pest. Reed is a saint to be so patient and willing to play!

Kathy, can't wait to see you next week, too.

Kaye, you are such an angel. Hugs my friend!!

Wow Joy! What a flattering comment. I appreciate your enthusiasm and can't wait to hear what you think of Moe.

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