Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Nantucket 5-Spot interview

The new Henry Kennis novel , Nantucket Five-Spot 
will be released in January. I did an inyerview about writing for a local give-away newspaper, which never ran it. But I think it's worth reading, in the exciting run-up to the publication date!

First, the questions --
1. Tell me about your creative process. Where do you write? How do your ideas come to you? 

2. How does your day job influence your writing?

3. Are your characters based on real people on the island?

4. Tell me a little bit about Nantucket Fivespot.

5. How many more Kennis books do you anticipate? 

6. Where are you originally from, and how did you end up on Nantucket?

7. Tell me about your years in Hollywood and how they have shaped you as a writer. 

8. Do you see any of yourself in Kennis, or vice versa? If so, please elaborate. 

And the answers --

1 -- I always write early in the morning -- usually from 5:00 to 7:30 or so. Partly that's because the integument between dreaming and reality is thinnest when you first wake up, before all the mundane stressful demands of the day begin. I remember when my kids were babies -- they're 18 months apart, so we had two under two for a while there -- having to start writing at four in the morning, to get something done before they woke up, I went to work at seven in those days, so the routine was brutal. I did manage to finish a book, though! And I might just sell it some day. I got an interested e-mail from an agent this week, thirty years later!  Relentlessness pays off. That's my advice to writers: be relentless.

As to ideas ... the most literary ones come out of real life, the desire to distill and express my actual experiences. I remember driving in a cab in Manhattan years ago with a girlfriend thinking as we cut through the park to the West Side, with Pilgrim Hill dropping away to the sailboat pond beside us, thinking ... she is seeing a totally different place than I am. She sees a grassy hill with a  turbid, cement-walled pool at the bottom. I'm seeing a hundred sled-rides, and the day my dog fell into the water, and class trips to the zoo -- a whole lifetime of memories. I wanted to make her see my  Central Park.  That's where a lot of the serious writing comes from. In detective fiction, so much of it is just finding what I call decepticons ... things that seem to be one thing but turn out to be something else -- clues. Connections that my detective can see and other people can't. You don't actually think of those -- at least I don't. They sort of appear. Like when my friend showed up in a wet jacket on a sunny day and told me it had been raining in Madaket. I thought -- decepticon! The suspect says he was in Madaket but his jacket was dry. And Henry knows it was raining because his second-in-command is a bird-watcher and he was out at the west end on a birding trip that day. Those little moments are gold to a newbie detective fiction writer.

2 -- I say in most bios that I write novels and paint houses, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of my customers. Unfortunately Poisoned Pen Press cut out the last part. My Dad was right -- people love to take out the jokes. In fact painting and writing are an excellent match. Repetitive physical labor frees the mind and I often end a day of disc-sanding or sash painting with just the idea I need for the next morning's work.

3 -- Most of the characters are amalgams of numerous people, who have little in common. Billy Delavane is part Neil Brosnan and part Ginger Andrews, with some of my old pal Steve Vannerson thrown in. And of course part of him is me. Someone one pointed out that they could see a lot of me in both Mike Henderson (A house-painter ... hmmmmm) and Henry Kennis. But there's a little of me in Preston Lomax, too.

4 -- Nantucket Five-Spot comes out next January. Here's part of the query letter that convinced the editor at Poisoned Pen to read it:

Locals, my 92,000 word mystery, takes place on the resort island of Nantucket, and the action covers three weeks in late July and early August, the height of the tourist season. A series of bombings threatens to destroy the island’s economy, along with its cachet as a haven for the wealthy. A local carpenter is accused of the crimes, but careful investigation -- by a police chief reminiscent of Jesse Stone in Robert B. Parker’s Paradise mysteries – proves that he’s being framed.  The story takes an unusual twist when it turns out that the new suspect is also being framed -- for the bizarre and almost unrecognizable crime of framing someone else. Every piece of evidence works three ways, eventually leading to the true villain and an obsessive revenge conspiracy stretching back twenty years, rooted in betrayed friendship, infidelity and the quiet poisonous feuds of small town life
It sounds insanely complicated, and it gave me migraines to write it, but all the early readers seem to approve. So ... fingers crossed!

5 -- Poisoned Pen Press only publishes series. Barbara Peters and her husband ran the Poisoned Pen book store in Scottsdale, Arizona for many years before they decided to start a publishing venture, and by then they knew  mystery readers inside out. Well, yeah --they'd been studying them for decades. One thing they figured out was that people like series. They want more of the same (but slightly different); and they like a character who grows and develops over the years. Obvious examples that come to mind: the Kenzie-Gennaro novels of Dennis Lehane and the Harry Bosch books by Michael Connelly. And don't forget Jack Reacher! Lee Child has a new one coming in September and I can't wait. Thomas Perry has #8 in his incomparable  Jane Whitefield series hitting the stores in January. People who come to A String of Beads fresh, and love it, will want to read the previous seven Jane Whitefield adventures, so every new reader's book-buying is automatically multiplied by the number of books in the series. Probably the most stunning example this is the Harry Potter novels, which built their audience exponentially, book by book. It works for little guys, too. Poisoned Pen doesn't really care how your first book fares in the marketplace -- they it will continue to sell as more books in the series come out. For that reason they want you to write at least four. I've outlined stories through #6, and I'm sure I'll have no problem carrying on after that. Nantucket is very inspirational
6-- I grew up bi-coastal in the days when air travel was a treat. First Class on TWA was giddy fun for a ten-year old, back in 1962. I was living in Los Angeles when I got back together with my college sweetheart. She move to LA, but she really hated it. "No matter where you go you're in the middle of nowhere," she said once. and another time, "These people think white wine is health food." We made a deal: if I didn't succeed as a screenwriter in five years, we'd move to someplace she wanted to live. That place was Nantucket. Her parent has honeymooned here in 1952; when they came back for their 20th anniversary it hadn't changed at all. They have two photographs, posed under the old Downeyflake donut on South Water Street. She had grown up as a vagabond following her Dad from state to state (He worked for McKinsey as a consultant), and she wanted her kids to have a hometown, even if they wound up leaving and never coming back. They'll always come back, but Caity is working as a social worker in Boston, and Nick is study for an masters degree in Public Policy at the American University in Beirut. You couldn't get much farther away than that. But he still misses his friends, the parties at 40th Pole. I hated it here at first -- I spent February of 1984 re-shingling the roof of the Stone Barn Inn! -- but I'm still here and Kim is gone. Very odd.
7 -- In Hollywood I learned two things:  story structure, and dealing with rejection. The one part of a screenplay that tends to survive the re-writes and director's touches is the structure. If you can carpenter together a solid plot, they usually leave it alone. The rest is action and dialogue. As a screenwriter, not to put too fine a point on it, EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING YOUR WORK FOR YOU. What about dialogue?, you might ask. Fair enough, but let's face it, dialogue is either easy and natural or just plain impossible for most writers. There's not much territory between perfect pitch and tone deaf, clever and stilted. Most screenwriters can spin out ten pages of dialogue before their first latte in the morning. Cutting it back is the tricky part. But other people do that job for you, too.

And every other aspect of the task is a free ride for the screenwriter. Atmosphere? The cinematographer and the composer handle that stuff. Creating the physical world in which the story takes place? The director, the production designer, the location manager, the CGI teams have that corner hammered down. Chemistry between the characters? It's Brangelina for chrissake. Or Bogey and Bacall, or Tracy and Hepburn. It's handled. Sex? That's the director's lookout. Screenwriters don't even have to try. As Shane Black said among his memorable stage directions in his Last Boy Scout script, "Hey, my mother reads this stuff. Actually I probably lost Mom in the hot tub blow job scene."

But the most crucial aspect of writing fiction scarcely appears in the screenwriter's life. The only faint hints are the stage directions 'CUT TO'and 'DISSOLVE TO'.

I'm talking aboiut transitions.

There's a reason why Virginia Woolf, when someone asked her how her writing day had gone, answered, "It was great. I got them off the couch, through the french doors and onto the veranda." That's the tough part, making those physical transitions work. Even tougher are the mental transitions... or as they say in the movies: 'actor's moments'. Describing the intricate mental process by which a character figures out something important,or changes his mind, or makes a decision, is the most technically demanding task a writer is ever faced with. If you make a single mistake, if a comma is out of place, if you say too much or too little, or lapse into cliche, rush or dawdle, over-play or understate, then you break the dream, and the reader becomes aware of you and your clumsy efforts, and the whole delicate machine comes to a grinding halt.

In fact, writing a book is just one transition after another, making things flow visually and physically, balancing action and thought and description in every paragraph. Compared to a screenwriter, it's like juggling a chain saw, a bowling pin and an apple (while eating the apple) ... versus, some guy lobbing a ball from hand to hand. "Look," he might remark, "Polish juggling." Pretty good line, slotted in there before the cut away. That's all a screenwriter needs.

Here's the last secret: this peripheral role in story telling is the real reason screenwriters are so miserable. Yes, they're at the bottom of the pecking order in Hollywood. Yes, they get paid worse than everyone else above the line. But their status is so low because they don't have enough to do. And they don't have enough fun. Making a narrative move all by yourself, keeping the action floating above the shallow spots, tacking through the perfect channels, is a challenge, yeah; it's tiring and frustrating. But it's also a gas. And screenwriters never feel it. Moving from the young hero to the about-to-be-killed mafioso whose death will kick the story into gear, all the screenwriter can do is say "CUT TO". The writer can do it any way he wants ... this way, for instance: "Eighty blocks downtown, Alfredo Blasi was thoroughly enjoying the last two hours of his life." You create momentum with a line like that. you jazz things up and put a spin on them. And you can do it as much as you want. You can play. Screenwriters can only watch the game from the outside, at that first preview (if they're invited).

No wonder they gripe all the time. But it's an easy complaint to fix. So I feel like saying to all those miserable scribes: Put that half-finished script aside, and try your hand at a novel -- or even a short story. Write a first sentence that lives and keep the action alive, hot and slippery, jumping in your hand, word by word until the end.

Try real writing. You may never go back.

That's what I did. I think it was the right choice.
8 -- As to me and Henry Kennis ... he is me! Just younger and smarter --  and much better looking.

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