Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Q & A with Russell Atwood
Q&A with RUSSELL ATWOOD, author of LOSERS LIVE LONGER, a Payton Sherwood mystery novel
Q: What makes Payton Sherwood different from other (unofficial) PIs?
A: He is a post-Singing Detective detective (referring to the British mini-series by the late-great Dennis Potter). For years people have been making fun of (often brilliantly) the traditional hardboiled private eye hero, from The Firesign Theater's Nick Danger to Garrison Keillor's Guy Noir, and currently in the new HBO series, BORED TO DEATH (to name but a few). It's gotten so bad that many PI writers avoid using what's come to be known as "Chandlerisms" in their writing for fear of being laughed at (unintentionally) and/or mocked by reviewers. So Payton Sherwood is painfully aware that in many ways he's a living-breathing pastiche. His problem is that he believes in all of that. He originally got into the PI game because he wanted to be Philp Marlowe and Sam Spade. So it's difficult for him to complain now that he has ended up as a loner and a loser, since that's basically what he wished for. On the other hand, he knows in his bones there's still something honorable in what he does and how he does it, so as cynical as he pretends to be, he at least feels his life has some meaning, whether as an avenging angel trying to set things right, or simply as a punchline in some cosmic joke.
Q: How did you come up with the character of Payton Sherwood?
A: Originally I tried writing the typical, ordinary, two-fisted PI who was the best man for the job. But because I write in the first person, all my friends laughed at me and criticized my tough guy's actions with the refrain, "You'd never do that!" So to avoid their derision, I just told the truth instead. So Payton Sherwood is very much born of my own personal experiences.
Q: What would a soundtrack for your novels sound like?
A: Traffic noise played on a scratchy LP.
Q: What's next for you and Payton?
A: That's largely dependant on the success of LOSERS LIVE LONGER, for both of us. We'd love to stay in New York City and continue to "fight the good fight," but for financial reasons we both might have to relocate elsewhere, as if the city is expelling us like some foreign object from its system. So, if you're reading this because you're a fan of the book or the detective himself, I urge you to make a difference and buy as many copies of the book as you can afford and give them away as birthday presents, Christmas gifts, or else just leave them in public places like a message in a bottle. Help to make LOSERS a WINNER.
Q: How do you promote your books?
A: With great difficulty. I have neither the time nor the resources to make a good job of it. So I try to do everything that is free (Facebook, e-mail blasts, my website www.loserslivelonger.com, even blogsite Q&As) and mail out comp copies to anyone I feel can give the book's sales a much-needed lift.
Q: Do you have any favourite Sons of Spade yourself?
A: Yes. They are (in no particular order):
Michael Collins' Dan Fortune, Lew Archer, Tucker Coe (a.k.a. Donald E. Westlake)'s Mitch Tobin, Fredric Brown's Ed Hunter, Fletch, A.A. Fair (a.k.a. Erle Stanley Gardner)'s Donald Lam, the Continental Op--oh, cripes, the list goes on and on, frankly I love 'em all. However, one of the biggest influences that made this new book (Losers Live Longer) work was my devouring of the entire QUILLER series by Adam Hall. Of course, Quiller is a spy and the storylines strictly espionage, but the narrative style is straight out of Raymond Chandler. No other writer has taught me more about how to convey peril and white-knuckle suspense than Adam Hall (the pen-name of Elleston Trevor, who also wrote the classic Jimmy Stewart film FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX).
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?
A: I heard--second-hand--that a very well known and influential book critic gave a speech at a mystery-writers conference reporting that the private eye novel is dead, or at least on its last legs and wouldn't survive another generation. I believe the justification of this opinion was that crime-detection in the modern world has become far too complex an affair for a one-man operation to handle. Increasingly more and more people will start to only write about this archetypical character within some earlier historical context. It's certainly true that a "cheap" detective just can't get the job done nowadays, because so many of the necessary tools are tied into expensive technology--Internet databases, industry-specific search engines, DNA testing, etc.--all of which doesn't come cheap. So one guy standing in a shadowy doorway--out of the rain--waiting for his prey to go on the move, will be completely ineffectual, because the crooks are warm inside video-conferencing or else texting each other to get their stories straight before the detective can confront them about discrepancies in their accounts of an incident he's investigating.
I don't agree with this assessment, but I know where it's coming from and acknowledge that it's a real problem. So actually I don't know who, if anyone, will influence the coming generation, except for maybe Michael Connelly (and none of his heroes are private eyes anyway), for the simple reason that success always spawns imitators.
Q: Mike Knowles came up with the following question: What are you tired of seeing in PI fiction?
A: I have to say I'm tired of reading passages about the detective's personal life unless it bears directly on the case he or she is working. Frankly, I don't even like to hear my friends and family prattle on and on about their lives, so I have even less patience for it when I'm reading fiction. Invariably I skim those passages in a book, and yet find I'm still able to follow the storyline without feeling I've missed something (so, I ask, why put it in at all?). But that's me, I'm a murder maven, and it's probably more a reflection of my pin-hole limited scope on life than other writers' quality and purpose. My ideal detective novel is RED HARVEST, in which you never even learn the private eye's first or last name.
Q: What question should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
A: Why do you do it?
I mean, for the majority of us, there's really no money in it. Nor fame for that matter (if I wanted to be world-famous, my time would be better spent by creating a 40-second YouTube video than in writing a 60,000 word novel).
And my answer to this question: I don't know.
Then again, one of the things I've learned over the years is that our motives really don't matter all that much. We tell ourselves we do things for a particular reason, but more often than not our actions thwart those goals to begin with. So basically, to preserve my sanity, I've stopped asking myself why and instead just put my head down and go on doing it. I've tried to quit a number of times, but it never takes. I guess I'm a lifer, so why fight it? However, I would still like to hear other writers' responses to this question. Maybe if I ever read one that makes sense to me, I'll adopt it as my own.