Saturday, March 9, 2019

Interview with Jim Nesbitt

     What’s there not to love about a Dallas PI who’s more battered than an airport bollard and a saucy chick whose tongue can turn a cherry stem into the Gordian Knot? Add to that a scumbag named T-Roy who killed the PI’s partner long ago and a fixer who goes by the name of Mr. Badhair and you’ve got the fixin’s for a hard-boiled thriller named The Last Second Chance, the start of a trilogy featuring ex-cop Ed Earl Burch.

15) On your author site, you say that as a reporter you “chased hurricanes, earthquakes, plane wrecks, presidential candidates, wildfires, rodeo cowboys, migrant field hands, neo-Nazis and nuns.” From a humanistic standpoint, what’s the assignment/story that still stands out the most to you?

Hell, I loved it all -- from the adrenalin rush of heading toward a hurricane or earthquake when most normal people were headed in the other direction to ferreting out the regular folks swept up in a disaster or government policy change or turbulent social or political issue -- they give voice to the story and easy access for the reader, someone who strikes a chord with them. That’s the genesis of my belief that you ought to drive your crime novels with character and dialogue. Always had an eye for the former and an ear for the latter as a reporter. You had to be careful about that, though, because it’s way too easy to find the perfect Bubba or Bubbette that spins you off into caricature that isn’t true to the story. You have to exercise discipline -- sure, that guy in the beat-up Stetson and a big chaw in his jaw was right colorful and had some killer quotes, but the story ain’t about him, now, is it? I try to use the same discipline in my novels, although I’m sure some reviewers think I don’t exercise any restraint.

Thinking about your question brought to mind another story in West Texas I was chasing on the return of mountain lions. I was with my good buddy, ace photographer Joel Salcido, who has graciously let me pick one of his landscape photos to use on the cover of my next book, and we had spent the morning with two former bounty hunters at the Big Bend Ranch State Park who used to kill wolves and lions but were now working with wildlife biologists to find mountain lions and get tracking collars on them. We ended up at the Chisos Mountain Lodge in Big Bend National Park and walked all around the grounds, past an amphitheater, barn and corral, a concession stand, several long loop paths. I had missed connecting with a Texas A&M wildlife biologist who had studied the mountain lion population in the park, but caught up with her when I returned from my trip. Told her where I had been and she asked me to name where we went on our walk. After what seemed like every feature, she’d say ‘That’s where so-and-so lion likes to hang out. You probably walked right past her and didn’t know it.’ She had names for them and every place Joel and I had gone was another lion’s hidey hole. That’s on the slightly unnerving and cool side of the spectrum.

On the other side are ones that stay with you because they’re heart-wrenchingly emotional and sad. I interviewed the parents of a flight attendant who died in the Air Florida Flight 90 crash into the Potomac River shortly after takeoff and they spent a lot of time with me because they wanted their daughter’s story told. You get a bit schizophrenic during interviews like that -- the reporter part of you is saying ‘Jesus, what a great quote.’ The part of you that still has a soul is just aghast at the grief and range of raw emotions you’re witnessing -- and taking advantage of like a goddam vulture. That said, I always felt honored and obligated to tell the story of a dead loved one and never, ever asked the TV question ‘How did you feel when you learned your daughter was killed in that crash?’

14) Since your background’s in journalism, what’s the source for your information on law enforcement/private detection?

Like most print journalists, I cut my cub teeth on the cop shop and the court beat. Met a lot of cops during those years and what little I did learn about detective work boiled down to this -- forget Sherlock Holmes and the wizardry of deductive logic. Detectives are a lot like reporters -- lots of shoe leather, lots of phone calls, lots of running down routine details, lots of talking to people who may well lie to you, lots of record checking. The good ones have an intuitive feel for who to track and who to dismiss and where to find the key nugget of information that can make or break a case, but all of that rests on the results of a helluva lot of legwork. I also worked the court beat and met a lot of prosecutors and defense lawyers -- and one or two private investigators, most of them ex-cops. Those guys don’t have a cop’s authority and have to rely on guile, stealth and, if they’re working for a big-time lawyer, some long green to get what they want, but when you boil it down, the goal is the same -- getting the information you need to help a lawyer help their clients.  

13) You told me recently that, as with me, your biggest strength is in character delineation and dialogue (Like Chandler, you believe that “plot is secondary to characters and dialogue”) and that you’d most readily talk about that. So what’s your philosophy about character delineation?

I think character and dialogue go hand-in-hand, with dialogue, whether internal or external, being one of the primary ways you show who you characters are -- are they smart or stupid, wiseasses or strait-laced. There’s a dance going on with dialogue, action and how the character reacts and their interaction with other characters that ‘show’ the reader who this guy or gal is. You have to ‘tell’ a bit to flesh them out and give them depth, but I think the dance is where the reader gets the truest notion of a character. You and I have talked about the cliché definition of ‘character development’ used by bad reviewers and lousy contest judges. These folks seem to think that the only way to develop a character is give them a love interest or a dog or show them in their private life -- whatever that means -- doing something ‘normal’ -- damn if I know what that means, either. You see this even in the best crime novels, movies and TV shows -- Harry Bosch and his relationship with his ex and their daughter comes to mind. It seems to be an expectation; a must-have and I reject that as a cop-out. I try to flesh out all of my characters, even walk-ons, giving them a bit of backstory and letting them reveal themselves through dialogue and action. A lot of writers don’t bother and wind up with a lot of stick figures strewn about their stories, blowing the chance to add complexity and richness.

12) The Burch series would seem to be a period trilogy, since his birthdate of 1946 would put him in his 70’s. Why write period novels set in post-S&L Dallas and not contemporary ones?

I hit Dallas during the depths of the real estate and savings and loan bust that also wiped out some big Texas banks, making them bargain-basement targets for acquisition by out-of-state outfits that were on an expansion spree. What I saw in Dallas really made an impression -- met a lot of folks who were white-knuckling their way through bad times and bankruptcy, trying to keep up appearances. When I started writing the first Ed Earl Burch novel, having him chasing financial fugitives seemed to be a natural. I also wanted to make him about ten years older than me, which was a natural reflex because I’ve always hung out with an older crowd. The other reason, probably rooted in my days as a reporter, is my desire to keep technology at bay. No smart phones, laptops still a few years away and this thing called the Internet still Al Gore’s brainchild. It meant Burch had to rely on the things I relied on -- and the cops I knew relied on. Shoe leather, phone work, records archives, files, court documents and his connections with people. I write crime thrillers rather than whodunits, but I didn’t want to junk up my stories with cell phones and other technological trappings. In one of the late, great James Crumley’s final books, one of his two main characters, Milo Milodragovitch, seems to pull out a cell phone every two seconds and it damn near ruined the book for me. One thing I tried NOT to do was make my books a sepia-toned homage to a particular time. You see small references that let you know when the story takes place, but I don’t hit you over the head with it. You want to get the details right and not make a bone-headed mistake and include a glaring anachronism -- that will ruin your credibility and kill reader interest in your story. But I’d much rather let the story be driven by character, dialogue and a keen sense of place.

11) You create some of the weirdest bad guys this side of John Connolly. And weird, compelling but frightening bad guys are a personal fetish of mine. Who or what was your inspiration for Mr. Badhair?

Damned if I know. Both Badhair and Teddy Roy Bonafacio -- T-Roy -- leapt onto the page fairly fully formed. For Badhair, I had a vague notion of creating someone who was a really scary homicidal maniac with two ridiculous traits -- a high-pitched voice and that bad toupee. This really wasn’t on my mind when he appeared in the book, but it’s a good way to describe what I was going for -- what if Mister T really was a remorseless and hyper-violent killer instead of this gold-chained poseur with a Mohawk? T-Roy was the son of oil-field trash. He’s part Mexican, but it doesn’t show -- he’s skinny with a mop of red hair. El Rojo Loco. He’s delusional, believing he has the power of this weird hybrid religion practiced by this old woman and her sons he’s partnered with in the drug business, a combo of voodoo, Santeria and Aztec heart sacrifice. The power to cheat death. He also has visions in his dreams that quickly turn to nightmares of a winged serpent that wants to eat his heart. And he’s an impulsive killer just as liable to smoke a friend as he is to ice an enemy. Another example of characters hijacking your novel -- I meant Carla Sue Cantrell to be a very minor character, but she just elbowed her way into the story and became a major player. The interaction between Ed Earl and Carla Sue, their smart-ass banter and the bond they form during their fugitive run across Texas, defines them both, I think.

10) Was there a real life inspiration for Ed Earl Burch or is he an amalgam of several people?

There’s a lot of me in Ed Earl. I gave him my bad knees, bald head and beard, taste for bourbon and fatal attraction to smart, sharp-tongued and crazed women who can take a wooden stake to your heart. He’s got one more ex than I do. I smoked Luckies and carried a Zippo back in the day. Gave up the Luckies. Kept the Zippo. And we both prefer John Browning’s most famous and enduring gun design -- the 1911. But I’m not engaging in an extended ego trip or Walter Mitty fantasy with Ed Earl. What I’ve tried to create is a character who isn’t super sharp like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe or super cool like Frank Bullit. More of an Everyman. He’s tough, reckless and smarter than most, but dogged more than brilliant. With a mean streak and a willingness to shoot people ‘what need killin,’ as they say in Texas. What I was gunning for was an anti-hero more along the lines of Hammett’s Fat Man, the Continental Op. Or Crumley’s Milo Milodragovitch.

9) Give us a picture of your average writing day: Do you go Old School and write in just notebooks or do you go straight for the laptop? Do you set word count goals?

Used to be a night owl and could stay up writing till two or three in the morning, then put in a full day’s work. Still have a day job, but I’m older now and can’t pull the all-nighters. If I’m making notes about characters or plot, I grab a pen and a steno pad. But I write on a laptop, either sitting in a front porch rocking chair, if the weather’s good, or in a beat up leather recliner in my den. Usually with a cigar providing spiritual inspiration. I find I write best in a long session on the weekends -- six or seven hours, with occasional breaks to stretch the legs or get coffee and a fresh cigar. Still have a day job, so weekday writing sessions tend to be two or three hours, every other night. Never have set word-count goals or other milestone markers. I usually start out with a scene in my head that I want to get in the manuscript and set my cap to getting that done. Sometimes you surprise yourself and go well beyond that point and into fresh ground you may or may not have planned on plowing. Sometimes you’re chiseling rock with a ball-peen hammer.

8) The third Ed Earl Burch novel, The Best Lousy Choice, is about to launch in May or June. Can you give us a brief synopsis for it?

The Best Lousy Choice takes place about a year or so after The Last Second Chance.  Burch is an emotional wreck, living on the edge of madness, hosing down the nightmares of that last case with bourbon and Percodan, dreading the next onslaught of demons that haunt his days and nights, including a one-eyed dead man who still wants to carve out his heart and eat it.

He’s also a walking contradiction. Steady and relentless when working a case. Tormented and unbalanced when idle. He’s deeply in debt to his shyster lawyer who forces him to take the type of case he loathes -- divorce work, peephole creeping to get dirt on a wayward husband.

Work with no honor. Work that reminds him of how far he’s fallen since he lost the gold shield of a Dallas homicide detective. Work in the stark, harsh badlands of West Texas, the border country where he almost got killed and his nightmares began.

What he longs for is the clarity and sense of purpose he had when he carried that gold shield and chased killers for a living. The adrenaline spike of the showdown. Smoke ‘em or cuff ‘em. Justice served -- by his .45 or a judge and jury.

When a rich rancher and war hero is killed in a suspicious barn fire, the rancher’s outlaw cousin hires Burch to investigate a death the county sheriff is reluctant to touch.

Seems a lot of folks had reason for wanting the rancher dead -- the local narco who has the sheriff on his payroll; some ruthless Houston developers who want the rancher’s land; maybe his own daughter. Maybe the outlaw cousin who hired Burch.

Thrilled to be a manhunter again, Burch ignores these red flags, forgetting something he once knew by heart.

Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it. And it might just get you killed.

But it’s the best lousy choice Ed Earl Burch is ever going to get.

7) Burch strikes me as a “slow and steady wins the race” kind of private eye. He’s old, has got a paunch and bad knees yet is indefatigable. What specific, identifiable quality do you think makes Burch keep putting one foot in front of the other?

Yeah, he’s not quite as physically wrecked as I am. He’s an ex-jock gone to seed, although he still jogs and pumps iron and has some hard muscle under the belly fat. He can take a punch and dish one out. But he’s no super-hero with six-pack abs and bowling ball biceps. There’s a redemption theme running through all three books. Ed Earl used to be a murder cop and was pretty good at it. That gold shield gave him a sense of pride and a calling bigger than himself. He was a street cop who believed in nailing the bad guys to keep John and Jane Q. Citizen safe. He believed in evening the score -- rough justice instead of law book justice. When he gets bounced from the force, he loses that pride and sense of purpose -- and sometimes forgets the code he used to live by. When you meet him in The Last Second Chance, he’s retreated into this safe shell of office, apartment and favorite bar, chasing financial fugitives from the S&L bust and the occasional divorce case he loathes. At least, he thinks he’s safe -- until he gets yanked from his lair and plunged into action that reminds him of who he used to be and forces him to step up and live by his old cop reflexes, savvy and code or die. He’s as surprised as anybody to find he’s still got it and still believes in evening the score. That’s the lapsed Baptist in Ed Earl, with vengeance and revenge being very Old Testament motivations and redemption being very much a New Testament promise. I’d say Ed Earl has to be reminded of who he really is -- by a murder or an unpaid debt to a dead partner -- before that relentless and remorseless side of his character wakes up.

6) Now that you’ve established Burch as a character, do you have any plans for another series or standalones? Or are you just going to continue the series?

I’m already thinking about a fourth Ed Earl book. I think it’s high time I drop the notion of his really being a Dallas PI and somehow get him to West Texas. However, I’ve also thought about trying my hand at Westerns. A lot of folks think the Ed Earl books have the feel of a classic Western, underneath all the hard-boiled, noirish trappings. Maybe they’re right.

5) Plotter or pantser?

Very much a pantser. I’ll do a very rudimentary outline or eight or nine paragraph riff on what I think the book will be about and major turning points. Might even do some notes on characters. All on that steno pad. But once I do that, I shove that pad in a drawer and start writing.

4) Just to get back to him for a moment, you said you’ve read a lot of Raymond Chandler. Aside from characterization and dialogue taking precedence over plot, what else did you learn from him about crime fiction?

Chandler gets a lot of credit for defining the hard-boiled school of detective fiction because of his essay, The Simple Art of Murder, which was meant as a learned protest and denunciation of the dominant form of mystery -- the cozy or amateur sleuth solving a set-piece mystery with elaborate and often unbelievable plot twists and heavy use of deductive logic. Chandler did not intend for this to be an ossified checklist by which every detective novel or hard-boiled crime thriller would be judged from now until the end of time. And if you take a good look at The Long Goodbye, he seems to violate a lot of principles he set forth in his essay. That reminded me to chuck the template and write the story you want to write as well as you’re able to write it.

3) To talk about dialogue for a moment, you obviously have a keen ear for the patois of Appalachian America. Do you just give it straight to your readers or are you obliged to water it down in the interests of accessibility?

I’m the son of hillbilly Scots-Irish parents who were both raised in little mountain communities outside Asheville, N.C. I spent a lot of summers with the country cousins and we lived in my grandfather’s house for about two years when my dad got the chop at an oil refinery up north. My people were story tellers and the tales they told and how they told them fascinated me. I think that’s where I first developed an ear for quotes and dialogue and a keen interest in telling stories. I’m a writer, so I’m a failed talker, as the Irish would say. When you’re writing dialogue, you have to be careful with dialect -- at least, you get that hammered into you by all the know-it-alls. There’s hostility to dialect that seems to be rooted in a cultural correctness that seems to be snobbishness disguised as caring for the sensibilities of the poor rednecks your characters are supposed to represent. Thank the stars above that Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner ignored this. That said, I try not to ladle the dialect too thickly in my dialogue. But I’m not as stingy with it as the nabobs of writing demand. And there’s a difference between the speech patterns you hear in Appalachia and Texas, where there’s a Midwestern influence -- and, close to the border, a Mexican influence. That’s more of a tonal and rhythm thing than something you can capture on a page. The further west you go in Texas, the stronger those influences are. Ed Earl and Carla Sue both come from hillbilly mountain stock, so it’s natural for them to sound a bit more like mountain grits and slip into the pattern of speech they grew up hearing from aunts, uncles and parents when bantering with each other. It’s the glue of the bond that forms between them.

2) If offered a Big Five contract for the entire Burch series, would you take it or would you proudly cling to your indie status?

Money talks. But at my age, I’m more interested in getting my books out there and not waiting for an agent to sell them to a publisher then get in the conga line for publication two years from now -- with loss of editorial control.

1) Who do you admire in modern crime fiction and are any of them influences on you?

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot from three writers I got to know at a Killer Nashville crime fiction conference two years ago -- Dick Belsky, Baron Birtcher and Rich Zahradnik. Like me, Belsky’s an ex-newsie. He lives in New York and writes fast-paced mysteries with reporters as the sleuths. Lots of plot twists and lots of snappy patter. His writing reminds me to keep my dialogue sharp and not let it meander.

Birtcher writes these very lyric novels that feature an Oregon rancher-turned-reluctant sheriff that are set in the 70s, but really have a timeless Western feel to them. His writing reminds me that it’s okay to ditch the terse, clipped staccato of the hard-boiled template and let your writing fly.

Zahradnik’s novels center on a New York reporter named Coleridge Taylor, who covers the cop beat and gets sucked into the stories he covers. All his novels are set in the New York of the 1970s and he really captures the time and the place without making his stories sepia-toned or nostalgic. A great example of how to handle novels set in a different time and place without making that the dominant note.

These three guys reinforced what I picked up from my early influences -- Chandler, James Lee Burke and James Crumley. I’ve talked about Chandler already, so I’ll focus on what I learned from Burke and Crumley. Burke reminds me it’s okay to let fly with the purple prose and rich description -- and, to flesh out your characters’ internal motivations, their fears, foibles and demons. From Crumley, whose novels are streaked with violence, sex, drugs and drinking, I learned to drop the euphemisms that insult the reader and write frankly about these touchy subjects.


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