Thursday, September 04, 2014

Visiting with James Reasoner

Prolific. That’s just one of the deserved, superlative words that immediately comes to mind if I was asked to describe the author I’m interviewing today. Talented, entertaining, dedicated and disciplined are a few more. I could go on with the glowing words and you know what? They would all be accurate.
This man has been plying his trade for a good long while now and he hasn’t slowed down a bit. If I did my homework right (and there was plenty of that with this gentleman), he sold his first novel in the fall of 1980. For the mathematically challenged, that would be almost exactly 34 years ago…Some of you reading this didn't even have a birth certificate yet. Some of you have never changed a ribbon on a real typewriter. 

Since that first novel, Texas Wind, he wrote about ohhhh let's see, I don't know...more than three hundred more. Novels. Three Hundred. Throw in another 100 short stories and you have an astounding body of work. Think about those numbers for just a moment folks. Then maybe think about some of the things this author has to say below, because I believe he knows of what he speaks. I’m very honored and pleased to bring you an interview with James Reasoner.

James, I hardly know where to begin so I’m going to start with that photo of yourself as a young boy on , the one with the cowboy outfit. I have several of those old pictures myself as it seems every kid born in the 1950’s did. I was more of a bandito I guess, my black hat had little balls hanging down that circled the brim. My holster also had a fancy tie strap for the leg, which I tied so tight I’m sure I cut off all circulation below the knee. And of course the worst set of chaps you’ve ever seen. My first unofficial questionbefore we get this thing going is a deep thoughtful one so think hard on this; Did you have a world war two get-up too? You know the gear, green plastic canteen, green plastic helmet with a razor sharp green plastic chin strap, etc. etc. – plus the not so authentic grubby sweaty white t-shirt, bad jeans that were about two sizes too big and worn out high top Converse tennis shoes. ---
Oh, yeah, I played war as much as I played cowboys, so I had all that stuff! I also had a toy Thompson submachine gun and a toy BAR, so I was well-armed and ready if the Nazis ever invaded my street. One of my favorite TV series from that era was COMBAT!, and I still like to watch an episode now and then. With that sort of background, I really enjoyed it when I got the chance to write some World War II novels a few decades later.
So anyway, it’s painfully obvious that you and I are one year apart in terms of age but we’re about a thousand years apart in producing the written word. I could start right now and go 24 hours a day until I keel over and I still wouldn’t catch you. After you started writing at the ripe old age of ten or probably younger, at what point did you start writing like a damn machine gun? I would think by the time you left High School you had to have the engine fairly revved up. (Bonus question alert; did you write for the school newspaper (H.S. and/or College) ---
Nope, I didn't write for the school newspaper at any level. I wrote a little for a church newsletter when I was in high school but didn't care for it. I just don't have the journalism gene. I wrote quite a bit of fiction from fifth grade on through junior high, most of it mysteries starring me and my friends and heavily influenced by the Hardy Boys. I didn't write as much in high school, although I did turn out what we'd now consider fan-fiction novels about the Lone Ranger and Tarzan. All that stuff is long, long gone. I was in college before I started submitting stories to magazines (usually magazines where there was no hope of me selling them, but I didn't know that at the time). It was really after I was out of college and married before I started turning out quite a few stories and trying to sell them, and that was at the urging of my wife Livia. I didn't start writing fast until I started to sell. It seemed like the more I sold, the faster I could write.
Then I got the job of writing the Mike Shayne novellas in MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE and had a regular deadline every month, so that really boosted my production.
I’ve read where down through the years, you have written under thirty different pseudonyms and house-names for multi book series as well as stand-alone novels. You’ve written over two dozen books under your name. Did you find it any more difficult or challenging to write under a house name in perhaps a different style or persona that you had to uphold and be consistent with? ---
I've always had the knack of being able to pick up another author's style and make my work reasonably consistent with it. Don't know where it came from,  but I'm glad I have it. However, I've noticed that the longer I stay on a series, the more it becomes "mine", so to speak. But it's a gradual process.
This next question is almost impossible to answer I suppose, but I’ll ask it anyway, which of the series written under a house name were you most pleased with? - Personally pleased and happy with in addition to being commercially successful.The one you would suggest to a brand new reader of James Reasoner. ---
My favorite house-name series has always been Longarm. I was a fan of the series as a reader for quite a few years before I started writing them. I was really fond of the character and liked the way I was able to tell many different kinds of stories with him. I was also able to get quite a bit of humor into those novels. I contributed to that series, off and on, for 18 years and wrote, I believe, 47 books in it.
Here’s a potentially dicey one for you. Your work has appeared with some of the biggest publishers there are, or were. Out of all of them them; Pocket Books, Harper, Signet, Bantam Berkley, Cumberland House, Manor to just name a few- which did you feel the most at home with and have the most enjoyable experience with?…..Don’t worry James, I have a readership of 3 so feel free to tell it like it is.---
I've been lucky and have had good experiences just about everywhere except at Manor, and I'm grateful to them anyway since they published my first novel. They didn't pay me for it, mind you, but at least they published it. At the other houses it was more a matter of I meshed well with some editors better than others. It's no secret that I've sold more books to Gary Goldstein than any other editor and have sort of followed him from publisher to publisher over the past 30 years.
What was, and is, the greatest motivator or driver for you to write – and to be so consistent with the production in the early days compared to now. Or do you even need a strategy, or an occasional spur? To write a million words a year,which I know you done on several occasions, I have to think you use something from time to time. The discipline and time dedicated needed for that level of work is just mind boggling to me.---
I hate wearing a tie, and I'm not fond of keeping regular hours. Plus, to be honest about it, I'm not really qualified to do anything else except what I do. That was what prompted me to try to make a living at writing in the first place. Of course, along the way there were other things, like the fact that being a writer gave me the flexibility to be around my kids a lot while they were growing up. I was able to volunteer at the schools and was even the president of the elementary school PTO one year. That was a busy time in my life, but I really enjoyed it. Now I'm old enough that I'm looking toward retirement, but I want to keep working as much as I can so that I'll be able to enjoy that retirement. Of course, for me if I slowed down and wrote half a million words a year, I'd probably feel like I was retired. I've hit the million words a year mark for the past nine years and am trying hard to make it ten years in a row. My plan was to go ahead and slow down after this year, but I've already agreed to write more books than what I intended, so it looks like I'll be in the neighborhood of a million words again next year.
As far as a specific strategy, I'm pretty good at keeping track of how much work I need to turn out every month in order to get everything done, and I write down each day's pages along with a running total so I can see if I'm maintaining the required pace.

Are you a morning or a night writer? Or hell, an anytime writer? I know with my job I’m awake early anyway so I cheat in a hour or two of writing before the paying work starts. I find my head clearer and less cluttered. I’m much more productive than late at night. Are weekends a different story?---
I write for three to four hours in the morning, take a break for lunch, then write three or four more hours in the afternoon. I hardly ever work at night. It was different when I was young and would sometimes start late in the afternoon and work all night. Having kids put an end to that. I tend to write on the weekends and take my days off, if there are any, in the middle of the week.

Clearly, the Western has always been a main pillar of your writing and there is the mystery writing including of course the entertaining Mike Shayne Mystery Series, but in my humble opinion your historical novels are equally as impressive. The ten novel series that followed the Brannon family through the Civil War,covering the battles from Manassas to Appomattox was a classic collection in every sense of the word. Have there been periods of time when a particular genre has basically ruled the Reasoner roost for a year or two? Demanding and getting the bulk of your attention and work.---
Part of the time while I was writing the Civil War books for Cumberland House (two books a year), I was also writing my World War II series, The Last Good War, for Forge Books, one per year of those.
So that meant three big historical novels each year and those took up a lot of my time. Of course I was still writing house-name books, too, between the historicals. There have also been stretches when the house-name books were all I was writing. One year I had what I called my Longarm Summer, when I wrote three of them back to back because that was the only work I had.

I doubt this but have you ever stalled out completely on a novel length book, one that was near completion, say three quarters done? If so, what was the cause? Did you become too judgmental, too critical, the more you wrote the more you didn’t like it? If so, what did you do to right the ship and sail on? Did you let it sit and come back to it, revamp the story, change the outline or do a character change? I have a very selfish reason for asking you this.---
No, I've never put aside a book that was almost done. Never felt the need to. I've gotten part of the way through a book and realized it wouldn't work the way I'd written the outline, so I've had to toss that out and go a different direction, but I've always been able to adjust on the fly.
I've abandoned short stories because I couldn't figure out where to go with them, but in most cases I've been able to come back to them later, look at them, and think, Oh, sure, this is what I need to do. Then I go ahead and finish them.

With great interest I read of your early plan to write and direct your own films. I believe you’re wonderful style of writing and the resulting novels you create are movies just waiting to be made. How close did that dream come to reality and what caused you to move past it? ---
My movie-making career never even approached reality. I was just never good enough at the technical aspects for it to be feasible. I think I could write scripts—in fact, I have written scripts but was never able to sell them (two of my published novels are, in fact, novelized screenplays)—but somebody else would have to direct them. And I'd be fine with that.

I always have to throw a food question in here so bear with me…We don’t live all that far apart and I love to grill and smoke. Let’s say I invited you over. What’s it gonna be? Steak, Brisket, Chicken, Ribs or Fish? ---
These days, definitely fish. It's brain food, and I need it!

With that, I guess I’m done bothering you – for now anyway. I consider this a real privilege James and I want to sincerely thank you for the time and insight. It’s been all my pleasure. And by the way, don’t even think about retiring (which I’m sure you’re not) because if you did, you’re going to leave a lot of unhappy people out there. ---
Thanks for asking me. I enjoyed it. And as I mentioned above, actual retirement doesn't seem to be in the cards any time soon!

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Visiting with Ace Atkins

I told you at the beginning of this little interview series that I was going to go way out of my league and I’ve certainly done that with my first two authors. Well people, I’m here to tell you - I’m going to continue that with my next guest. Don’t believe me? I’m gonna run out of dumb luck I’ve had lining up five star authors, right?…well you’re probably correct, I’ll hit the ground hard at some point but not today folks. Not today.  

My new interview is with a gentleman that has written some fifteen books that have been hugely popular - as in New York Times bestselling popular, as in critically acclaimed popular. 

Ace Atkins has been nominated for the Edgar Award as well as earning a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize. If that’s not enough, he was recently selected by the Robert B. Parker estate to continue the bestselling adventures of Boston’s iconic private eye, Spenser.Oh and hell, let’s just throw in the fact that he lettered on the defensive line for the University of Auburn football team in 1992 and 1993. Not just any team either. In that 1993 season Auburn went undefeated, 11-0, and there my guest was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. By the way, on that SI cover photo he’s sacking a future Heisman Trophy winner named Danny Wuerffel of the Florida Gators… 

Alright, enough already, clearly this is all way the hell over my head but it’s still my absolute pleasure and thrill to welcome Ace Atkins to Write Answers. 

Ace, thanks so much for agreeing to be here. Before I get to the questions, I just want to say that if I read where you had recently won, or had been awarded ANYTHING, I wouldn’t be surprised. You’re only in your early forties and you’ve already accomplished so much. Now you can call it jealousy if you want but I’m just letting you know, I’m gonna dig for dirt. There’s gotta be something… 

Okay, let’s get this thing rolling. 

1.) I read somewhere that very early on in school, reading and writing were not exactly you’re cup of tea. This is really a two part question, which is cheating, but that’s how I’m going to roll. At what age did the light come on and was it reading first that fueled the writing or the other way around? …and before that reading/writing light came on what subject or subjects held you’re interest?
I first became really interested in books about the time I read my first Ian Fleming novel. For a teenage boy, there was nothing better than meeting Mr. Bond on world travels and all his beautiful women. I was a good student but at that time I had not had a teacher to explain reading was meant to be pleasurable . . . not work. Bond was fun. And very quickly, I found out Mr. Hemingway was even more so.
2.)I would think a major step of your early writing career was in you becoming a crime reporter in the newsroom of The Tampa Tribune, because that led to many things, like a Pulitzer Prize nomination for a feature series based on your investigation into a forgotten murder of the 1950s. Then the story became the core of your critically acclaimed novel, White Shadow. Rave reviews followed and away you went. But back to the Tribune though, how did that job happen; was it just a job at the beginning or was it a passion and personal goal of yours to be a crime reporter?
Taking a lesson from Hemingway, I knew that to become a serious writer, I needed to go through the newsroom experience. After I graduated Auburn, I was a correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times and then later a staffer at The Tampa Tribune. It's funny, the crime beat was not what most reporters wanted. I, on the other hand, only wanted on the crime beat. I loved it. I learned so much and really miss the work. I would not trade that experience for any MFA program on the planet.
3.)I’m a history nut and I’d be willing to bet that you like history and historical events as well. So many of the writers I know and have talked to enjoy history, why do think that is? What’s the common tie-in or attraction for so many fiction writers; is it romanticism, heroic characters, fascinating plots or something else?
I think it's perspective. Being able to step away and see a period or era for what it really meant. I don't think anyone will be able to write really well about our time now. It takes a few decades to sort out what the politics and pop culture is all about. It's very attractive for the novelist.
4.)Here I thought almost making state as a high school wrestler was kind of good. Your story of being on that undefeated Auburn team and the SI cover caught my attention. Did you ever dream you’d reach the heights you did athletically - and what common strengths that you enjoyed in athletics also helped you in your writing?
I was very proud to be a part of a great football team my senior year at Auburn. I was proud to be a scholarship athlete and get in some good games. BUT I never wanted to continue beyond college. I was glad I saw my time through but I was equally glad when it was over. I am not one of those people who will tell you, "football is like life." I often don't have to sack anyone in the real world. But it's a great lesson to be knocked on your ass and get back up. That's good stuff for a writer to know.
5.)The selection of you to continue the tradition and legend of Robert Parker books had to be a tremendous thrill and honor. Can you explain briefly how that came to be or maybe how the opportunity presented itself?
I was fortunate to have published several novels with G.P. Putnam's Sons -- a legendary NYC house. Putnam's was Mr. Parker's longtime publisher. I learned, not long after his death, that the family was considering keeping Spenser going. My agent asked if I'd like to submit 50 pages and I said, "absolutely." Beyond that, I don't know who else was in consideration. Several weeks later, I got a call from Parker's editor, and now mine, that I'd been chosen for the job. I was just thrilled.
6.)When writing your current Parker novel Cheap Shot, or any of the other Parker novels you’ve written for that matter, do you feel the pressure of reaching the bar time and again? Producing what Parker readers want and love in what I imagine is a demanding publishing schedule.
Bob Parker made it look easy. But it ain't easy. I had nothing but the highest respect for his work. But now trying to continue the series, my respect has grown a thousand times. Yes, reaching the bar and pushing the series ahead is a challenge each time.
7.)You have enjoyed immense success with your titles as well. Is the writing process for The Forsaken entirely different for you than writing a Parker novel? Do you have to put on another hat or is it fairly seamless for you?
I wish it were seamless but it's liking having two careers. My approach and work on Spenser is completely different. And it's not just the obvious -- Boston vs. Mississippi, Quinn vs. Spenser. It's more in the feel, tone and world view. I am influenced by Robert B. Parker but my own style is quite different.
8.)I love your main character, Quinn Colson. Who is Quinn, really? Is he a combination of people you’ve actually known, maybe a little of yourself sprinkled in too, or is he a one of a kind that you completely created from the ground up?
That's a good question. I think most crime writers often go right for the alter ego. I know I did early in my career. I wrote an idealized version of myself. But as I get older and grow as a writer, the idea of doing that bores me. It's more fun and challenging to write someone like Quinn who is no way like me. He is really a combo of real vets who've I've met or interviewed. I know a hundred guys like Quinn Colson and that gives me a lot of confidence in his absolute authenticity.
9.)A few years ago I wrote a short story titled Black Velvet, with the song by the same name playing in my head the whole way. The song has been performed by many artists but this version was sung by Alannah Myles and it was perfect for the haunting moody feel that I wanted. It turned out to be a big part of the story itself. It still pops into my head from time to time. Have you ever had a song influence you that strongly while writing a book or story? In general what music do you like to listen to while drinking a beer or two?
For Quinn: Waylon and Charley Pride.
For Spenser: Chet Baker, Ella, Gerry Mulligan.
Music is everything as I write. It creates the mood, the style and flow of the story. I could not write without being influenced by music.

10.)Time for the traditional food question that I ask everyone. I know you live in Mississippi now but you grew up in Alabama. I've been to both states numerous times and I dearly love southern cooking . I think if I was checking out of this game tomorrow morning I'd have some fried chicken, homemade biscuits and corn tonight. Second choice would be some smoked Texas brisket. But hey that's me, what's your favorite meal?...And like I ask every time Ace, I want details.
I'm headed to Texas. Serve me up some beef brisket and ribs with slaw and beans on the side. And a cold Shiner!
Thanks again Ace. Really appreciate the interview. I’ll be seeing you on May 12th in Austin at the Noir At The Bar/BookPeople get together. Scott Montgomery and his crew, never disappoints.