Monday, January 14, 2008

Q & A with James Mitchell

In this Q & A we talk with James Mitchell, author of the Brinker novels like Choke Point.

Q: What makes Brinker different from other fictional private eyes?
Brinker lives in Tucson, Arizona, about an hour's drive from the U.S. border with Mexico. He's very much a product of the American southwest. He is Anglo; his girl friend and his best friend since childhood are Mexican-Americans. Brinker is a former Border Patrol agent. His P.I. cases reflect the region. They deal with problems of immigration, drugs, and missing persons who might be on either side of the border. In the new one, "Queen of the North," all those things come into play.

Q: What are your thoughts on the psycho sidekick in PI novels?
They're like most literary devices. In good hands, they work. Otherwise, snore.... The closest to "psycho" that comes to my mind is Bubba Rugowski in Dennis Lehane's Kenzie-Gennaro novels. He's pretty entertaining. So is Joe Pike in Robert Crais's Elvis Cole novels, although he's much darker and more complex than Bubba. Joe is no psycho, nor is Hawk in Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. But hard guys like these do allow some bending (or breaking) of the rules in a P.I.'s pursuit of justice. Brinker knows a drug kingpin in Nogales. The guy is not psychotic, but he obviously operates by a different moral code. He can know things and do things that would never occur to Brinker.

Q: Do you do a lot of research?
"Research" is too fancy a description for what I do. My pawing around in information isn't formal or scholarly. I use the news for ideas, and that may lead me to look more deeply into some element. For example, "Choke Point" was inspired by the many murders of young women in Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican city across the border from El Paso, Texas. I moved the murders to Nogales, Sonora, which borders Arizona, and connected them to maquiladoras, the factories run by foreign companies in Mexico. I had to learn something about how the maquiladoras work. I just came back from a day trip to Nogales, Sonora. I try to get down there every so often to refresh myself on local atmosphere and to see how customs and immigration services are working now. One of the characters in my new novel is a helicopter pilot, so I asked my friend Chuck Street, "Commander Chuck" of Los Angeles TV and radio fame, to fly me around in his JetRanger and tell me about choppers. I also toured the Robinson Helicopter factory in Torrance, California.

Q: Has your writing changed a lot since the first novel?
I have found myself willing to look more deeply into the characters, especially Brinker himself. The third Brinker, "Queen of the North," is a bit longer than the others. There's a danger of becoming self-indulgent, though, so I try to keep things moving along. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that every word in a book should give life to a character or advance the story. I like to keep that in mind, along with Elmore Leonard's famous rule about leaving out the parts that people tend to skip.

Q: How do you promote your books?
Any which way I can. I have a web site. I go to conferences. I answer every e-mail from any correspondent who's not obviously insane. I grovel for and happily accept virtually any speaking invitation. I try to arrange signings at independent bookstores. Independent booksellers are crucial to us non-famous crime writers, because they know which of their customers would like to read our stuff. They really believe in books and they genuinely like writers. I'm nominating them all for sainthood. Barbara Seranella said that the best thing she did as a writer was spend her first advance on a great publicist. Barbara was very smart and that was surely a good idea. So far, I have been too cheap.

Q: What's next for you and Brinker?
I have finished the third Brinker novel. A high school friend of Brinker's has become a prominent immigration attorney in Los Angeles. She calls him for help investigating murders of clients. My agent has the manuscript now. He always makes wonderful suggestions, so I expect another round of changes before he submits it. If the publishing gods are on my side, it should be out in late 2008.

Q: Do you have any favorite Sons of Spade yourself?
The first crime fiction I read was "The Underground Man" by Ross Macdonald. There were some anachronisms Macdonald's language, even in the 1960's, but I find that the Archer books hold up remarkably well. I admire Richard Barre's Wil Hardesty books. Spenser still entertains me. Succinct narrative and dialogue are P.I. hallmarks, and I just marvel at how well Parker does them. I have an Arizona law license. I like stories where lawyers become investigators, sort of de facto P.I.'s. D.W. Buffa is outstanding in that way. I just read a first novel by Gordon Campbell called "Missing Witness." It's about a young attorney in 1970's Phoenix, Arizona who helps defend a mother and daughter against murder charges. It's part courtroom thriller and part "almost a P.I." novel, and was very effective, I thought.

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?One important influence has already come from writers such as Sara Paretsky, Manuel Ramos, Marcia Muller, Walter Mosley, and certainly Sue Grafton. They showed that the P.I. doesn't have to be a white guy with a smart mouth and a drinking problem. The current and next generations can create heroes from any world, give them any attitude, plunk them down in any situation. If the story is original, the character is real, and the writing is compelling, the genre can be stretched without limits.

Q: Ed Gorman came with the following question: What is your greatest joy as a writer? Your greatest sorrow?
I realize that this answer is a cliché, but the big joy has to be when a publisher says "Yes." A great pleasure, to my surprise, has been feeling like part of the crime writers' community. Stars in the field, people like Elmore Leonard or Ridley Pearson or Michael Connelly, seem to regard all of who write as part of the club. How cool is that? When my first novel, "Lovers Crossing," was about to be published, I introduced myself to Jan Burke. This was right after she won the Edgar. I was thinking, this must be tiresome for her, having newbies like me corner her and bend her ear. Then she said, "Tell me about your book!" She was really interested. I've adored Jan and treasured that moment ever since. Sorrow? Not yet. It could happen, of course. Writing is a rough racket, and better authors than me have been disappointed by it.

Q: What questions should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?Question: are you making any money? Answer: Way too little. I think this may be useful information for those who dream of earning their livings as writers.

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