“A fierce and fearless talent”—Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River
Can you give us a sense of what you’re working on now?
I just finished Fur People so that’s the one I can talk about. I’m generally known for my erotic crime or noir novels, but Fur People belongs in the animal lit genre—if that’s considered a genre. It certainly deserves to be. Very little sex and no murder in this one. As usual, my main character is obsessed, but this time with passion for animals. I know what my old fans are thinking—bestiality—but no, not even a hint! Sunny Lytle is a young woman caring for many dogs and cats, and a couple rabbits and ferrets, and hoping to eventually open her own animal shelter. She’s a dreamer, sacrificing everything, struggling. She gets evicted from her apartment and moves back to the woods near her hometown in central Florida. Sunny hopes to rekindle the relationship with her high school boyfriend, avoid her drunk father, and provide for the growing number of animals, by then living with her in a school bus. She develops telepathy with the animals, which wreaks additional havoc in her life, and gains a buddy, Buck, a homeless man. He’s a pretty good guy for her, but is bedeviled by harmful rays from the sky, so even though there aren’t any murders in the book, there’s plenty of trouble.
What is the greatest pleasure of a writing career?
I would have to say the friendships I’ve had with writers over the years, the writing life altogether. Writers are the kindest people and lots of fun. They’re always willing to share their expertise and their time, and there’s little competition among them, certainly none of a mean-spirited nature that I’ve ever seen. I have to cite Top Suspense Group as a great example. Busy people, always, yet willing to help each other out—to help me out—in every way possible. Of course, I love books, and I love that I’ve written some.
The greatest displeasure?
The writing process itself. I could live without that. I hear people saying how much they enjoy getting words down on paper or up on the screen, but to me, it’s pure torture—I’m torturing myself right now, although I hope it sounds like I’m enjoying the heck out of talking about myself. And this isn’t anywhere nearly as bad as writing fiction—mainly my back hurts from sitting in the chair too long. I can only think that people who enjoy writing must have hypergraphia, like Stephen King supposedly does. I wish it was contagious. I sat next to him at dinner once—no luck, but it was fun. I guess, in part, though, it’s the tedious, frightening, prolonged agony that makes you feel so good by comparison when the writing is done. I’d still rather have magic.
Nowadays, to add to the displeasure, is the need to get your book out to the public. If Internet exposure had been required when I wrote Miami Purity, I would have given up right then. I’m fairly incompetent at quick response, technology, and spotting publicity opportunities. My skill is to wrap myself up in characters and chew around on their words until things happen. One sentence leads to another, and then I double back and start over, and over, and over. Then I really just want to sit back and hope people like it and tell their friends. This is not the way it works right now, and I can’t see it changing back in the near future.
Advice to the publishing world?
Relax. Everyone: sit down, grab a nice cat, place it on your lap, and pet gently. A small dog will work just as well, and one of each would be really groovy. Other than that, I don’t have a clue about that business, especially now.
Are there any forgotten writers you’d like to see in print again?
Harry Crews, one of my number one favorite writers, recently deceased, has no novels available on Kindle, and several are unobtainable for less than $300. Back in the late 80’s when I discovered his work, some were already collectibles in that price range, so I never read a few of them. I don’t know who has the rights, but I wish somebody would at least put them up as ebooks. I don’t know why there’s never been a film of any of his novels either. He’s always had a passionate following, and his stuff is gritty and wild, perfect for film.
Tell us about selling your first novel.
It was a fairy tale, a dream that I never dreamed. Miami Purity was my thesis for an M.F.A. at Florida International University, and I was just happy to finish it and get a raise at Broward College for completing a terminal degree. Since I knew it was the thing to do, I sent the novel out a few times, and kept working on it for about two years, and through the writing program, I got the name of an agent who took it to Sonny Mehta at Knopf. He loved it instantly and I actually got a call when I was sitting in a fiction workshop at a writers conference. It was late afternoon on a Friday and the agent left a message, which someone brought to me in the middle of the class. I thought it was a joke, but everybody started congratulating me and buying me drinks, and I celebrated while the time was right. Sure enough, come Monday, the fantasy became true.
Mehta published it under Pantheon, and the company treated me like a queen. Those were the good old days with wonderful fringe benefits. Editors, publicists, cover artists, assistants of all kinds—in the U.S. and the U.K.—seemed available for my bidding. Random House treated me to the most luxurious book tours I could imagine. In New York they took me out to dinners and a Tom Stoppard play that I wanted to see. For my bookstore reading, I’m certain the whole staff was obligated to attend. On the West Coast, I was partnered up with James Ellroy, for a sort of apprenticeship, so I reaped the pleasure of having a huge audience everywhere I went. Also, an advance like I received back then is almost non-existent now, and the traditional book tour is all but dead, so I consider myself supremely lucky in many, many ways.