earlemerson.com Mysteries, thrillers, home of PI Thomas Black

Black is back and other stuff

This is an interview I did in April of 2010 with Naomi Johnson over at the drowning machine blog, which you can find here.

Your books take place primarily in Washington state. The Thomas Black books and your standalone thrillers  mostly are set in and around Seattle, while the Mac Fontana series occurs in  the fictional town of Staircase, in King County, Washington. How important  to your work is the familiarity of setting, and what role does setting play in  your books?  Any desire to ever drop Thomas and Kathy down in, oh, say Acapulco and see what happens?

It has occurred to me more than once that  setting and background functions much like another character in the story. They can be detailed and complex or glib and facile, just as any other character in the story can be those things. For me, setting plays a different role in a series, at least it does in my series. People  expect a “Seattle” mystery to move about the city and perhaps show them something new or interesting or familiar about the city and because people expect that, I’m compelled to keep these attributes in the Black series. I’m writing a book now which takes place in a fictionalized version of America and while politics and atmosphere take up a lot of space, setting takes up almost none. I wouldn’t think this was possible with a Thomas Black, which  relies upon Seattle for it’s backdrop. Also, I’ve always been amazed at how littleit takes to frame a setting in the reader’s mind. Re-reading Raymond Chandler, who is noted for his strong settings, I’m struck by how little description his novels really carry.

Many of your fans were happy to see that after several years of writing standalone thrillers, you brought Thomas Black back out of mothballs. What made you return to this character? How difficult was it to pick up the threads of his life again, or to find that voice that is so distinctively Thomas’s voice?

I don’t know that I did find Thomas’s voice in Cape Disappointment. I sure tried to find it and I thought I did, but I’m still not sure. The narrative structure is unlike any other Black and was heavily influenced by my thrillers. I brought Black back simply because so many people had asked for him. After I finish the project I’m working on now, I’m thinking about writing four or five Blacks in a row, really get back into it. Elmer ‘Snake’ Slezak is one of those off-beat characters made for the screen. To find, in Cape Disappointment, that he has a twin who is even more eccentric and also has a dark side, was an absolute delight. Have you ever considered giving Snake and/or his brother their own stories?  Have any of  your minor characters ever threatened to hijack a novel for themselves?
Oddly enough, Snake was the main character in a novel which I failed to sell back in the beginning of my career. I liked him enough to bring him back and put him in a Black novel. He’s based on a world  champion bull rider I met for about thirty seconds when I was eighteen. I guess  he made an impression on me. So far, none of my books have been successfully hijacked by a minor character. At least, I don’t think they have. Generally, if  a minor character is running away with the story, there’s something wrong with the main character.

Throughout your books, almost from the beginning, it’s been easy to see you stretching yourself as a writer: Changing voices and multiple POVs, playing with the time structure, and so on. Do you consciously set these tasks for yourself, or do you see them arising naturally from the demands of the story? Which book presented the greatest challenge to you as a writer?

It took me a long time to get published. I started writing in late 1968 and made the sale of The Rainy City in late 1983. It took so long that I got into the habit of asking myself serious questions after each effort. The biggest question of  all was how could this book be better? So I’m always trying to improve. The  more techniques one has in the tool box, the greater variety of stories one  can spin. Another reason for stretching myself as a writer is that I get bored easily. The biggest challenge is always the book I’m working on right now, though if I had to go through my list of published books,  the switch from pure mysteries was hard, so Vertical Burn,  my first thriller, would be right up there with the toughies. In some ways, though, it was almost as hard to go back and write a Black after so long. I was quite nervous about that.

What’s up next for Thomas, now that he’s reemerged? And can readers expect to see a similar reappearance by Mac Fontana? (This is my not-so-subtle way of asking, what’s the next book about and when can readers expect it?

It’s going to be a while before the next  Black. I’m not sure what it will be about, but Black has always been  concerned with class differences and those are really coming to the fore with the new  economy of the last thirty years. I’m sure he’ll be brushing up against  moneyed interests and those who are injured by monied interests. I’m between publishers right now and working on a futuristic novel. I’m not sure  I’ll ever get back to Mac Fontana. The best incentive for that would be if I got the Fontanas back in print or if there were interest from Hollywood, each of which would spur me on.

Chapter titles are something of a lost art in novels today. Your Thomas Black series has no chapter titles, the Mac Fontana series contains some extraordinary chapter titles, while the thrillers are mixed: some have them, some don’t. How do you decide which books get those titles and which do not?

I had fun with chapter titles in the Fontana series, which for some reason seemed to lend itself to them naturally. For reasons I cannot explain, not all of my thrillers call out to me for chapter titles. If the writing of the book puts me in the mood for them, I include them; otherwise I don’t bother. Sometimes I simply cannot think up enough chapter titles, so I don’t do it.

You’ve never been shy in your fiction about some negative things regarding fire department administration and how politics affects firefighters. Even some readers have come right out and accused the Mac Fontana character of that dastardly crime — gasp! — political incorrectness. What kind of blowback  have you had from city and fire dept administrators and the public for your sometimes less-than-flattering depictions of characters in positions of power?

There’s been all kinds of blowback. There  was a fire station in Seattle that didn’t have an electric typewriter because a  chief I’d crossed thought I might write books on it. Ten years after I  transferred to another station, they were still using a manual typewriter. One  chief in particular took offense and sent my crew and me repeatedly into a ship fire while other crews had yet to take a single turn inside.  People who do that sort of thing are usually bat-shit crazy, so I don’t worry too  much about them. In Pyro I depicted a chief who’d done some rather outrageous things and gotten away with them. I’ve had a lot of readers complain that I’d gone over the top, when the truth was, I had to tone  down the facts, because the character was based on a real chief and the offenses in real life had been a lot worse than in the story. The problem with fiction is it has to be believable. What this chief had done and gotten away with, was not.

Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest as a whole, is teeming with successful crime writers. Besides yourself, there’s Aaron Elkins, Ridley Pearson, GM Ford, JA Jance, Gabriella Heckert, Carl Brookins, and many  more. What’s in the water up there? What about the area lends itself to  crime writing, and why so many good ones, as opposed to say, Columbus, Ohio?  What are some of your favorite places that are unique to Seattle and its surrounds?

I can’t speak for the other writers. I was  born in Tacoma, Washington and have lived in the state most of my life. I like it here. Whenever I travel and come back, I marvel at the beauty and variety of the area. Of course, for six months of the year we get a steady diet of rain and crappy weather, too, which could turn anyone to crime.

Even more than cops and military personnel, it’s been my experience that firefighters have the best stories to share about their work. The pig falling from the plane in The Smoke Room would be one example. Anything wild and crazy happen to you recently? No more arsonist-fans stalking you, I trust?

Two shifts ago we responded to a guy who jumped off a freeway overpass and landed in the middle of Interstate  90. He fell about thirty-five feet and miraculously was not hit by any traffic, broke only his hip and femur and badly compressed his L-5. He  also knocked out two teeth from the jolt when he landed, but he didn’t lose consciousness. The strange part was we have a new GPS system in our apparatus and when we had to drive east to Mercer Island in order to turn around on the one-way freeway, everything from the middle of the lake and beyond was blanked out on the GPS. I guess the city honchos were afraid we would run away with their fire trucks if we had a map that extended  beyond the city limits. As a consequence, a medic unit with this patient in the back got lost on Mercer Island while the patient lay in agony. The  stories in    the fire department come with maddening frequency.

As part of Detectives Around the World Week, Jen Forbus is  conducting a bracket tourney to determine the World’s Favorite Detective. (These  are fictional cops and licensed PIs, no amateurs or non-law enforcement characters.) Naturally, your first vote would go to Thomas Black. But what fictional PI or cop would get your second vote? As a novelist, who has been your greatest influence?

I love anything written by Charles  Willeford. Actually, his Hoke Moseley books, which are his most famous, are  probably his weakest. They’re good, but the early stuff was magnificent. He’s written two memoirs that rival anything from Steinbeck. Talk about an  artist who never got his due. Early on I was a huge fan of Hemingway, Chandler, Hammet, Rex Stout, Ross MacDonald, and John D. MacDonald.

I heard that you used to participate in a race in which firefighters, in full gear, ran up the steps of a 20+ story skyscraper. Are you still a masochist? What’s your current role in the fire department? Any thoughts about chucking in the day job and living off the 401K?

I’m still a lieutenant on Ladder 3. I can’t  tell you how much I love the job. Well, maybe I can. I retired from it this past December, actually filled out the paperwork, mailed it in, and called the state to make sure I had done it all properly and was on their books. They said I was slated for my first retirement check in February. I then went to the station to work my last three shifts. By ten o’clock of the first shift, I’d phoned the state to beg for my job back. So, I’m still working. It will be interesting, when I finally do retire, to find out what it’s like to write full time, to sleep in my own bed every night of the year, and to never, ever, be writing while in the throes of exhaustion.

Blogging and social media have become a very visible means of marketing books. I understand you’re working full time and writing books, so that leaves little time for surfing the ‘Net,’ but once you retire from the SFD, can readers expect more online activity from you? Can fans east of the Mississippi ever hope to meet you on tour again?

I will definitely be more available when I’m writing full time. As far as touring east of the Mississippi again . . . the days of publishers sending mid-list writers around the country are gone. I’m not ruling it out, I’m just not sure it will happen.

The recent fracas between Amazon and MacMillan probably caught your attention, although Mac is not your publisher. Any thoughts on what went down there, and about the new “agency” model? Or on the publishing business model in general?

The publishing business has been raped and pillaged by big business. Ballantine, the company I published with for over twenty years, is only a shell of the great company it once was, most of the personnel who made it great long ago riffed out the door or encouraged to retire. Mainstream publishers have been incredibly slow to embrace new technologies and I believe it’s because they realize those technologies make them expendable. One can now publish a book on the Internet and get it into the Amazon cannon, along with every other major online bookseller, and you can do it all without going through New York. We have electronic books and on-demand printing which makes it  cost-effective to print one book at a time as it is ordered. All of this scares the hell out of the big publishers. Who needs them? In the past they were good for getting review attention, but that has all but dried up after  newspapers around the globe cut costs by eliminating their book sections. I don’t know what form published fiction will take in the future, how the business will evolve, but it isn’t going to be anything like the past. It’s a revolution that will be talked about a hundred years from now.

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