Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Q & A with Mark Coggins

In a very interactive Q & A we present the author of the August Riordan novels, Mark Coggins.

Q: What makes your P.I. August Riordan different from other fictional private eyes?

That’s a tough one. If you read reviews of my work, you’ll often see a reference to the writing of Hammett or Chandler, which some see as a sign of a lazy reviewer or lack of talent or ability to innovate on my part. But in The Immortal Game, Candy from Strangers and, most recently, Runoff I am trying to pay homage to Chandler—particularly with usage of similes. In Vulture Capital, I explicitly tried to pay homage to Hammett’s The Glass Key.
Furthermore, Riordan actually lives in Sam Spade’s apartment, works in the building that Hammett worked in when he was a Pinkerton and has a habit of tapping the Samuel’s Jeweler’s street clock in San Francisco—which is the clock that used to be in front of the jewelry store Hammett wrote advertising copy for—although the Hammett connection is never mentioned in the books.

What I’m trying to relate, I suppose, is that there is an explicit intention on my part to emulate—and hopefully update for the 21st Century—the work of Hammett and Chandler.

The differences between Riordan and, say, Spade or Marlowe, undoubtedly come from my personality and background. He is more fickle than either, less hardboiled compared to Spade and less romantic compared to Marlowe. Jazz and jazz bass are what chess was to Marlowe and he is far less successful with the ladies, certainly than Spade and probably than Marlowe. Although he remains a technophobe at heart, he is thrust into cases that involve present day technology and cultural phenomena—such as the Internet—and has to sort them out. He has also learned to be more tolerant of diversity than Spade or Marlowe ever were.

His sense of humor is closer to Marlowe’s, but he’s got a goofier bent to his, and he dresses worse than either. He might be able to out-drink the other two men, but I wouldn’t give good odds on him in a fist fight.

Q: What are your thoughts on the psycho sidekick in PI novels?

As I say in this blog post, the “PI Helper” character as I call him is often used to simplify plotting by doing off camera some of the work that the PI might otherwise do, and perhaps more concerning, serve as a “firewall” between the PI and morally questionable things done in service of justice or resolution of the crime.

The problem with having the PI undertake shady things him or herself, of course, would be that the PI could lose stature in the reader’s eyes. Thus, the PI Helper tortures someone to get the information required to solve the mystery, or calls a favor in from the crime boss or murders the bad guy in cold blood.

Contrast this with characters like Hammett’s Spade or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, who in some sense have the courage of their convictions and don’t rely on others to do their dirty work. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, PIs like Chandler’s Marlowe who have such an (improbably) romantic or idealized view of the world that they would never condone those methods to resolve a case.

Q: Do you do a lot of research?

Yes, I do—two kinds. The first is the research I do on locations. I usually walk around a neighborhood I’m going to set a scene in, taking both pictures and notes that I use to jog my memory when I get to the actual writing.

The other sort of research I do is about the theme or social issue I’m using to drive the plot. Most recently in Runoff this was electronic voting and the possibility of defeating the security of voting machines to rig an election. To do that research, I interviewed computer science experts on the topic and also talked with poll workers who had an “on the ground” understanding of how the machines are used in a precinct.

Another example is the research I did for Candy from Strangers with a young woman who has a web site where she solicits anonymous gifts.

Q: Has your writing changed much since the first novel?

As I describe in this blog post for the Rap Sheet, August was actually born in a short story in an issue of The New Black Mask that was published in 1986. Since I wrote that first story when I was nineteen, I can say—thankfully—that my writing has changed since then. It, like the character of Riordan, has hopefully gotten more mature and more nuanced. For instance, I would like to think that I do a much better job with dialog and with characterizations.

Q: How do you promote your books?

The selling of books is quite an arduous task, and getting more arduous. I’ve tried just about everything from doing the traditional signings at bookstores and libraries to working to get on radio and TV programs to placing advertisements. In the end, I think what matters for an independent press author like myself is establishing good word of mouth about your work. Interviews and reviews on sites and blogs like Sons of Spade are a good way to make that happen.

Q: What's next for you and August?

I’m in discussions for a new contract with Bleak House Books. If those go well, I’ll be bringing back August in another novel I’ve tentatively titled The Dead Beat Scroll. The title refers to a previously unknown novel by Jack Kerouac that is discovered when the house he once lived in while working on On the Road is demolished. The new book is worth a lot of money, both as a collector’s item and as a publishing opportunity and lust after it—like lust after The Maltese Falcon—drives the plot. (As you probably know, Kerouac wrote on long, continuous scrolls, so that fact and his association with the “beat generation” are what’s hinted at in the title.)

Q: Do you have any favorite Sons of Spade yourself?

Absolutely. My favorite would be Milo Milodragovitch. That was why I was so thrilled to get a blurb for Runoff from James Crumley.

Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI-writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation and in what way?
I think Crumley has been very influential, including on Lehane himself. Looking out further to more recently emerging folks, if you’re talking strictly PI writers, I quite like Peter Spiegelman and his character John March. I think he may be influential because he has found a way to update the PI and drop him in 21st Century cases that a PI might really have in today’s world, all while retaining the best from traditional PI yarns.

Q: Tim Maleeny came up with the following question: The PI is usually the one standing up for the underdog, the person who takes on the powerful and the corrupt on behalf of the little guy. Do you have any favorite targets (or people) at which you like to take aim through your characters?

A question I might have for Tim is does his wife know exactly what he’s been up to on a recent signing with me!

Seriously, I wouldn’t say that I always have an “agenda,” but I did have a bit of fun with the venture capital industry in Vulture Capital, and in Runoff, have written a sort of cautionary tale about electronic voting. But most of the time, it’s ex-girl friends and acquaintances who need to worry about having bits of themselves portrayed in books.

Q: What questions should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?

Q: If your PI and Sam Spade were having a drink at a bar, what would they talk about?
A: Spade would ask Riordan how he managed to turn his (Spade’s) apartment into such a dump.

For more info about this author visit: www.immortalgame.com


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