Friday, February 6, 2015

An Interview with Lou Berney

Lou Berney is a novelist, short story writer and screenwriter when he isn't teaching at Oklahoma City University. I've been a rabid great fan of his writing since I discovered his debut, Gutshot Straight, featuring ex-con Shake Bouchon.

Berney's third novel, a standalone called The Long and Faraway Gone, comes out Tuesday and I'm covering it for Shelf Awareness, so you'll hear about the book a little later. In the meantime, Lou and I connected via Skype to chat about all of his writing and provide a little first-hand research for his next Shake Bouchon caper.

Both Gutshot Straight and Whiplash River had nuggets of inspiration from somewhat unusual origins. But The Long and Faraway Gone is a story that hits a little closer to home for Berney.

There are two parallel plot lines in the novel. The first features Wyatt Rivers, a Las Vegas detective. His job takes him back to Oklahoma City, the hometown he left years ago trying to escape the trauma of his youth. The second is based around Julianna Rosales. She never left and is unable to move on after her ordeal from childhood. Julianna's unhealthy obsession is threatening her job and livelihood, but she's determined to find answers, regardless of the price.

Berney says both are "stories I always knew I was going to write." He's had their inspirations mulling around in his creative mind since his own childhood. "A murder happened in Oklahoma City when I was thirteen. The employees of a restaurant were walked into the freezer in the restaurant's kitchen and the armed men killed them. At the time I was working in a burger joint not far away. I would work late nights and we had a walk-in freezer as well. That event really created a tremendous sense of fear for me."

The other event that served as a seed for The Long and Faraway Gone happened when Berney was working in a movie theater. "Two girls went missing at a county fair. I worked with their mother and she still came to work after they disappeared. I wondered how she could work after everything that happened."

Even though both events happened in Berney's teenage years, it wasn't until recently that he decided they would work well together. And that was the beginning of The Long and Faraway Gone.

Throwing the various pieces into a blender and punching puree, Berney produced more fiction than fact for this story, but there's still much rooted in his personal experiences.

The murder takes place in a movie theater. Having worked in one myself as a teenager, I identified the details only a veteran employee would be able to illustrate so authentically. For Berney, he says, "It's the best job ever and the worst job ever. You could let your friends in and be very popular, have free popcorn and soda and watch movies. But the smell and the grease of having to clean out the popcorn machine each night. It was like a coffin and you practically had to get in it to clean it out." Readers may just end up with an unexplained craving for popcorn.

Those familiar with the Shake Bouchon novels know Berney loves to use exotic locales. He says, "it's a challenge to go to countries and then bring it all back to write the books, but it's also good to separate because what you do remember is what's vital." And Berney has a knack for this setting development. The world of Shake Bouchon always fills the story with color while still allowing the caper to be the main focus. He says this is absolutely on purpose, "Shake is experiencing a heightened life after being in prison, he's appreciating the freedom and all that's around him."

But Berney chose to keep his setting for The Long and Faraway Gone in his hometown and the location of the inspiring events, Oklahoma City. The reason for this? "Setting is vital to noir. I wanted something fresh, something not L.A., Chicago or New York. A lot is changing and has changed in the last decade in Oklahoma City. Last night I went to a reading where a couple of years ago you would have been afraid to park your car. Now it's fancy restaurants and boutique shops."

In his reference to noir, it's worth mentioning that The Long and Faraway Gone is a foreboding tale about people dealing with the most emotionally and psychologically challenging parts of their lives. Creating the book was a bleak part of the author's life as well, "I become very emotionally tied to the characters, so writing The Long and Faraway Gone was a darker period for me." That said, humor might not be the first thing people anticipate from this novel, but Berney deftly works it into the plot. And he explains its role, "Humor is real life. I never try to be funny. That would be death, but things happen in life that are funny and to deny that is being untrue."

One of the characters Berney employs to sneak in that humor is Candace, a former Vegas dancer who's inherited an Oklahoma City nightclub. She's having issues with a mystery person who doesn't seem to want her to own the nightclub, so Wyatt's on assignment to investigate the strange occurrences haunting Candace. Berney speaks fondly of his spirited character, "Candace wasn't inspired by anyone, but she took on a life of her own almost right away so I said I'd just stay out of her way and see what she does. Turns out she brings out Wyatt's true side."

A multi-layered plot cast with dynamic characters and garnished with Berney's signature humor sounds much like the Shake Bouchon novels, but certainly one doesn't write a dark mystery like a crime caper. "The real difference was in my approaches. With the Shake books I'm always writing for what's going to happen next. In The Long and Faraway Gone it's about what's in the past, and there are three mysteries to solve. That's a very different writing experience."

As is another element of Berney's writing life, screenwriting. When I inquired as to how it all shakes out in the wash, he said, "I think out a story idea thoroughly before starting. I don't want to get 40 pages in and decide it isn't a novel. But The Long and Faraway Gone could never have been a screenplay; there was just too much going on."

What did become a screenplay, however, is a movie Berney takes the writing credit for that I watched recently. Angel's Sing is the first of his screenplays to be made. This particular film is a book adaptation. Fitting, yes? I inquired about the differences in writing a screenplay from scratch as opposed to an adaptation. "It differs based on the producer, " he explained. "Some will come in and say, 'let's see what you can do with it.' Others may say, 'we want this, this and this to stay consistent with the book, you have free reign with the rest.'" Even though he regularly reminded me that approximately 90% of what he wrote was changed at some state, there are Berney thumbprints on this adaptation. "I encouraged the musical element since it was going to be set in Austin, and the tone was less serious than the book."

Lou Berney has a number of great quips about working for Hollywood, one of which references how a person can make a living without ever actually having their work made. So is having the movie filmed any different from turning in a script that never sees the screen? "Oh yeah, nothing compares to hearing your words--words that you wrote--from an actor on screen." Hearing Kris Kristofferson sing "Folsom Prison Blues" in an impromptu jam session on set isn't too shabby either.

The Long and Faraway Gone comes out Tuesday from William Morrow. Angel's Sing (Lion's Gate), as well as both Shake Bouchon novel--Gutshot Straight and Whiplash River--(also William Morrow) are all available now. You can connect with Lou on Facebook, Twitter or his book tour if he's in your area. And I'll be anticipating the Skype scene in the forthcoming third Shake Bouchon caper!


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