Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Q & A with Steve Ulfelder
This time we interview Steve Ulfelder, author of Purgatory Chasm.
Q: What makes Conway Sax different from other (unofficial) PIs?
There’s his backstory, of course; Conway is a once-promising NASCAR driver who drank away his big opportunity. Now a devoted member of an Alcoholics Anonymous group called the Barnburners, his cases – the series hook, essentially – is that he helps fellow Barnburners out of the jams that alcoholics get into.
The more important distinction, I think, is this: In the family tree of fictional PIs, one common trait is that detectives are wise-crackers, and this type of wit is born of cynicism. Conway is different. He’s not unintelligent, but he’s never the smartest guy in the room, never the best educated or the most well-read. Thus, he keeps his mouth shut a lot. I suspect that the most frequently used sentence in the Conway books is “I said nothing.”
Q: How did you come up with the character?
Believe it or not, the Barnburners came before Conway. I was regularly attending this AA meeting that featured many strong personalities, and it occurred to me they would make a good milieu for a detective series. (Not the most original idea, I know, but it apparently worked). Naturally, I needed a protagonist. I invented Conway Sax. His primary trait, I knew, had to be loyalty that bordered on fanaticism.
Q: What's next for you and Sax?
I’m finishing up revisions on Conway2 (sorry, no official title yet), which Minotaur Books will publish in May 2012. Then I jump right into Conway3!
Q: How do you promote your work?
For the most part, I simply do all the things smart professionals advise me to do. I blog. (OK, I blog infrequently.) I’m on Twitter (@SteveUlfelder) and Facebook. I’m reasonably assertive about visiting all the bookstores in my area, signing stock, setting up my own events, etc.
Because I race automobiles, I do have another avenue of promotion (see attached pic). I’ve got the book cover on the hood of my race car, and I’ve been featured in several US magazines devoted to racing. That’s a nice little edge that has definitely helped sales.
Q: What are your thoughts on ebooks as a reader AND a writer?
As a reader, I use ebooks less than I thought I would. They’re OK for fiction, but I read a lot of history and biography, and hardcopy is far superior for books with a lot of notes, maps, illustrations, and so on. As a writer, I think ebooks are wonderful. I’m grateful anytime anybody reads my work – whether they buy it in hardcover, wait for paperback, download it, or get it from the library.
Many writers want to dictate how readers read. That is, they want their work to be purchased at full price, preferably in hardcover, from an independent bookseller. Much as I love indies, this attitude is silly, as it places the writer at the center of the universe. Wrong! The CONSUMER, in this case the reader, is the center of the universe. And damn, it’s a great time to be a reader.
Q: What's your idea about the psychotic sidekick in PI novels like Hawk and Joe Pike?
“Psychotic” is a strong word, though I know exactly what you mean: sidekicks willing to do things the protagonist won’t do. I think such sidekicks are fine on several levels. They allow for some nice, dark vengeance to take place while the main character remains sympathetic. And they make for interesting explorations: How amoral or savage can a character be and still be likeable? How clean can Spenser’s conscience be if he knows full well Hawk is killing a man in cold blood – at Spenser’s behest? The line we walk as writers of hard-boiled crime is: a bad man trying to be good versus a good man who does bad things.
In the Conway books, I twist the hero-sidekick relationship. Conway Sax has a pretty heavy background. He has served time for Manslaughter, and there are hints that this was not the only time he killed. His sidekick, an Iraq War veteran named Randall Swale, actually serves as Conway’s conscience. He reins him in, tries to keep him at least somewhat on the straight and narrow.
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?
I would add Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole to that list; he seemed the clear successor to Spenser. And I suppose my overall answer is “All of the above.” The best series writers are almost uniformly students of the genre; that’s why it’s so fun to speak with them – they REALLY know what they’re talking about. Lee Child is influencing crime writers now, and will continue to: In the Jack Reacher books, he’s overlaid a mystery-series hero on the thriller template, which for the most part used to be dominated by stand-alones. You see many writers trying this. And then there’s Sophie Littlefield, who’s doing a brilliant job with Stella Hardesty, a dark-but-likeable protagonist who is (obviously) a woman.
Q: Terry Faherty came up with the following question: Is there a future for the PI subgenre in the face of the current competition from cozy mysteries and police procedurals/crime scene investigation procedurals?
Sure there is! I’m a naïve optimist; I believe that if you come up with a great set of characters and a compelling story, your book will find a market regardless of fluctuating tastes.
Q: What question should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
The question: How long will you continue to write your series? My answer: As long as the checks clear!
Actually, I do have a serious answer. One of the nice things that’s happened lately is that writers have more leeway to take a break from their series. Lehane, Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly and Crais are all examples. If, after writing 5 or 6 Conway books, I feel the need to try something different, I’m grateful to these bestsellers for showing that you can do so – and return to your series, recharged, when the time is right.