Monday, December 7, 2015

Interview With Dana King

Today we're having a chat with Dana King, author of the Penn's River books of gritty, dark crimes, and this one, the third book in the Nick Forte Mysteries.

Q. So how did this novel come to be? Was it envisioned from the start as a bigger canvas, or did it expand organically out of an idea? Please tell us a bit about the origin.

A. The Man in the Window started as a short story. At least the germ of it did. The first story I wrote as an adult with the idea of showing it to others featured Chicago PI Nick Forte, a former trumpet player. Forte was based on me, and the other characters were based on friends of mine. It was written for those friends with my tongue planted firmly in cheek. As I became more serious about writing, I found I liked the orchestra setting, and a couple of scenes moved almost verbatim into the book, though the story itself would be unrecognizable.

Q. Did you start with the germ of an idea and start writing to see where it went, or did you map a good deal out in your head (or even outline) before crafting?

A. I always work from an outline. It’s not detailed—maybe only a sentence to describe an entire chapter—but I need to know where I’m going. I was on a panel last year with Sandra Campbell, who described herself as a “plantser:” half plotter, half pantser. That’s a good description of what I’ve morphed into. My early outlines used to run up to 10 pages.

Q. What do you feel is the main theme(s)?

A. There are lines a person can’t cross and still be the same person. Forte has bent over backward trying to do the right thing as the man he believes he is, and it’s not working out. In this book, something wholly unexpected goes bad for him and he just doesn’t care anymore. He becomes fundamentally changed, and not for the better, though he might argue he’s getting “better” results.

Q. Why do you feel this is important, and what would you want a reader to take away from reading this book?

A. Forte starts out as an everyman with chops, doing a job he does well. The violence he encounters as the series progresses wears him down. People he tries to help get hurt, and others get away with far worse transgressions. What I hope the reader takes away—in addition to an entertaining story—is some germ of thought of how they might respond in a similar situation. The superficial answers we too often get in movies and television—where the hero remains essentially unchanged by catastrophe after catastrophe—is not how life works. We need to think beyond the immediate solution.

Q. What makes a good book or engaging story?

A. An engaging story—doesn’t matter if it’s a book, TV show, or movie—places me in a setting where I can easily suspend disbelief and feel as though everything described either happened, or could happen. I don’t much care how the creator does it. I’m not a fan of superhero or paranormal stories, but The Beloved Spouse and I blew through the Netflix series Jessica Jones in less than a week and loved it. Sure, she has a superpower—Jessica, not The Beloved Spouse, though TBS’s cooking is close—but that’s not what the story is about. Her power isn’t really used all that much. Among the things the show does brilliantly is show how having such a power might affect an otherwise normal person, for better and worse. It wove her “gift” into an everyday world that made everything feel real.

Oh, and the writing has to have a voice that captures me, too. Yeah, I ask a lot from my stories.

Q. Are there writers with similar themes to yours? Who are your influences (can be writers, or even artists, musicians, or others) and what is it about their work that attracts you?

A. I can think of a few with similar themes but hate to mention them because I’m afraid it will sound like I think of them as peers when in fact they’re who I aspire to. People like Declan Burke in his Harry Rigby books, Adrian McKinty in his Michael Forsythe and Sean Duffy series. Their heroes go through hell and it shows in subsequent books.

I’d have to say I’m most influenced by Elmore Leonard. (Like that makes me special.) Chandler plays a definite role in how I view my PI books and Ed McBain has affected how I write my procedurals. George V. Higgins for dialog. David Simon and The Wire attracted me to the multi-perspective storytelling I use in the Penns River series. They all share the ability to bundle me up and take me wherever they want to, time after time, though they all do it in different ways.

Q. Is storytelling mostly entertainment, or does it serve other functions? Do you have particular goals other than telling a good story?

A. To me it’s entertainment that also serves other functions. I can enjoy a book that is merely entertaining, but the ones that stay with me are those that I have to sit quietly for a few minutes while the “holy shit” fades away. Books like Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day or James Ellroy’s American Tabloid. We finished watching the Netflix series River the other night and we both sat there for a couple of minutes, then talked about it half the night and into the next morning.

I like to hope readers will take away some of what I’m trying to get across in a book, even if it just sits quietly in the back of their minds and ferments over time. The truth is, if it’s not entertaining at some level, they won’t finish it, and that kills all hope for any kind of lasting effect.

Q. Any other goals you've set for yourself, professionally or personally?

A. Be happy. That sounds corny, but after almost 60 years that’s what’s most important. I don’t make any money to speak of from my writing but I enjoy it, and I’ll do it as long as it brings me some joy and satisfaction. If that goes away, I’m outta here.

Q. Some writers write fast and claim not to rewrite much. Do you do this, or painstakingly revise? When you send the book off to the publisher, are you happy with it, or just tired of it?

A. Get the first draft down. Shitty first drafts are the raw material for a good book. Revise, trim, rewrite. Add if needed. The key for me is to get the scenes out there so I can come back and mold a story out of them. No book or story leaves my possession unless I’m happy with it. If I’m just tired of it, I let it sit until I can look at it again. Of course, this is easy for me to say, not having a contractual deadline looming over me.

Q. Do you have good editors, and if so, how do they help you? Do they look for particular things? Do you have different people for different editing levels?

A. I belong to a writers group where I test drive scenes a handful of times a year, and I have had an editor (Peter Rozovsky) do copy edits for one of my books, but the only consistent “real” editor I have is The Beloved Spouse. I read aloud every chapter to her as they’re finished in the first and last drafts. She’s a great sounding board and her ideas are always worth a vigorous discussion. Even if I don’t take her suggestion, she makes me think of things I missed before.

Q. If a writer came to you for advice, how would you help?

A. Depends on what he or she needs. I’d talk to them and see what seems to be hanging them up, then, hopefully, tailor the advice to fit. Maybe they need to expand their reading. Or maybe they need to read more within their chosen genre. Sometimes they just need to quit jerking off and finish the damn book.

Q. Stories can be told by using a different medium. Can you see your book as a film, audio, etc.? How would that alter the telling?

A. I’ve been told my books are quite visual. I think they’d play out best in the limited series format many cable and streaming outlets have gone to. None of my stories relies on anything that would require a lot of special effects or budget-busting sets. I think they’d all do well in that format.

Grind Joint is the only book I’ve had put to audio. Mike Dennis did a hell of a job with it.

Q. What's the next step in your writing world?

A. I’ll publish the fourth book in the Forte series next spring. Right now I’m about three-quarters of the way through Forte Book Five, where things are getting pretty dark for him. I’ve also met with a publisher who may be interested in the Penns River series. I’m familiar with some of their other authors and books and I’m excited at the prospect.

Q. Tell us a fun fact about yourself.

A. I have a Master’s in trumpet performance. I did my military service as an army bandsman in Atlanta in the early 80s. That might not sound like much now, but it was during the Cold War and no Soviet military musical unit got even as far as Savannah during my hitch. I’m damn proud of that.

Q. Any other information you'd like to impart?

A. First, thank you for this opportunity. This interview has been great fun, and it’s always special to be asked by someone whose work I respect. When one doesn’t make any more money than most of us do, that’s what keeps me going: the respect of those I’d like to consider my peers.

Now something for readers. The authors I know best appreciate that you give us your two most limited possessions: your money and your time. If you find yourself at an event and the author doesn’t appreciate that—there aren’t many, but it happens—don’t read him or her anymore. Or buy their books used. There are plenty of excellent writers. You don’t have to put up with that.

Along those same lines, if you ever want to make an author’s day, drop him or her a line to say how much you liked the book. Take a moment at a conference to approach and do the same. Like anyone else, writers love to talk about what we do, and we work in far more of a vacuum than most. Positive feedback is always cherished.


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