Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Q & A with David Levien

Q: What makes Frank Behr different from other (unofficial) PIs?
He's flawed, taciturn, has a shattering event in his past that shaped him, he is reluctant to use violence, but ultimately qualified to do so and willing to beat information out of someone if he has to, and is dogged to the point of near obsession once he has his hooks into a case. These are qualities perhaps shared by some other fictional PIs. The main individualizing character marker for Behr is: he is aware of and isn't immune to the emotional residue of the crimes he encounters, and the actions he takes while trying to solve them. He knows intimately the cost of his life and career, but does what he has to anyway.

Q: What do you enjoy more, writing novels or screenplays?
Writing novels has always been a passion of mine, and a large part of what I do. Some stories are best told as movies, some best when they begin as a book and end up on film, some just as books. Writing a screenplay is creating a blueprint for a future work. While the screenwriter does need to take a reader on an emotional journey, he often indicates use of music, a sense of editing, and mainly a visual template for the way the story will ultimately be told on film. With a novel the entire experience has to be created on the page in its finished form. The reader has to be engaged, kept, taken for the ride and left satisfied. This puts a lot more pressure on the detail in the writing. On the other hand, the novelist is able to use interior monologue to get at the characters' inner voices and states of mind in a way that is not usually possible in screenplays. I suppose I more enjoy whichever one I'm not doing at the moment.

Q: How did you get published?
Several years back I got a screenwriting job on the film adaptation of "The Runaway Jury" by John Grisham. It was a project that a lot of money had been invested in and which had stalled for various reasons. The draft that me, and my screenwriting partner Brian Koppelman, wrote got the project rolling and produced. The movie turned out quite well, our script was nominated for an Edgar for best adaptation, and importantly won the favor of John Grisham. We got to know John a bit, did a television pilot of "The Street Lawyer," and began spending a lot of time with John's longtime agent David Gernert. Gernert had run Doubleday and launched Grisham's career with The Firm. When I had finished a draft of City of the Sun, I submitted it to Gernert. He told me he loved thrillers and would consider the manuscript as long as whatever results, or lack thereof, wouldn't affect our friendship. I agreed, and he became the first big fan of the book. He submitted it to various publishers, and got multiple offers, but ultimately Jason Kaufman at Doubleday was the most effusive so we landed there. They were terrifically supportive as a publishing company, and now that Random House has closed the Doubleday imprint, I will move with Jason to Knopf for publication of the sequel.

Q: What's next for you and Frank Behr?
Frank Behr will be back in Indianapolis as of Summer 2009, in WHERE THE DEAD LAY. On his way to morning jiu jitsu training, Behr discovers his friend and instructor shotgunned to death. Behr gets caught up in the pursuit of the killers, just as his old boss, police Captain Pomeroy, comes to him with the veiled promise of getting back on the force if he'll look into the disappearance of some high-end private detectives. Behr must call on his street contacts and all his skills as the search for the two detectives thrusts him into a web of crime, violence, corruption and evil. Rather than leading him away from answers in his friend's murder, Behr uncovers a possible sinister connection that places him in the path of a formidable, new type of organized crime family.

Q: How do you promote your books?
I do interviews--television, radio, print, internet--as well as readings and appearances. I'll be at the Harrogate Crime Festival in England this summer. I'll do pretty much anything, hell even ladies' teas and renaissance fairs, to make readers aware of my books as long as there is some willingness out there.

Q: Do you have any favorite Sons of Spade yourself?
Though he's known mostly as a literary novelist, I have to say Cormac McCarthy. His crime writing, No Country For Old Men, for instance, and his understanding of human behavior, and use of the language, most recently in The Road, has taken things to a new level.

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?
Lawrence Block, who is now an old pro, for his no-nonsense style, his consistency, and his skillful writing. Michael Connelly for his veracity both in the practical sense, and in regard to character. Kem Nunn for his gravitas and sense of milieu. George Pelecanos, for being willing to go convincingly lo-fi, and who writes both great novels and great scripts ("The Wire"). And James Ellroy for his audacity and his amazing take on history and the motivations of human beings.

Q: Jeri Westerton came up with the following question: What sort of experience do you have that informs the subject you write about?
I first began following disappearance stories about 20 years ago. Countless newspaper articles true crime shows, Bill Curtis shows, John Walsh's story, investigative reports, etc. of child abductions have haunted me since then. The specific details fell away, but horrifying tragedies like these striking in seemingly bucolic settings where children and their families are unguarded, made the story of Jaime Gabriel one I had to tell.

I have a stepfather who had a very decorated career in law enforcement--he was LAPD and U.S. Secret Service--before going on to private investigation for several decades. He worked some kidnapping cases, and while there were no elements particularly similar to my book, his accounts further fueled my fascination.

Through my screenwriting career I have also spent lots of time with high-end private investigators and law enforcement ranging from DEA to ex-CIA, FBI and countless NYPD officers and detectives. These sources were invaluable in writing about Frank Behr.

Q: What question should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
What is your writing practice? I write in the mornings, mostly on a MacBook Pro, sometimes by hand, and get a lot done on the train from my home in Connecticut on the way to my office in New York City. Fridays at my town library are very productive as well.

If that one has already been done, then:
What was your first dose of the genre? Mine was Mickey Spillanes' I The Jury. The combination of violence, sex and atmosphere blew my ten year-old mind.

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