Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Ben Boulden of Gravetapping interviews me

Ed here: Ben Boulden of Gravetapping did a beautiful layout with many of my books covers. Owing to my stupidity I don't know how to reproduce it here.

Ed Gorman has been a full time writer for nearly 30 years. His first novel, Rough Cut, was published in 1985, and since then he has published dozens more. He has won nearly every major award—the Shamus, the Anthony—for “Best Critical Work”—the Spur, and the International Writers Award. And, rightfully, he was awarded The Eye for lifetime achievement by the Private Eye Writers Association in 2011.

His latest novel, Riders on the Storm, his tenth novel featuring small town lawyer and investigator Sam McCain, was recently released by Pegasus Books. Riders has been welcomed with strong critical support, including a starred review from Booklist, and it is highly anticipated by, at a minimum, me.  

Mr Gorman kindly answered a few questions about Sam McCain, his fiction in general, and even a little about life, forGravetapping. The questions are italicized.

I’ve been reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio and I have been struck by the similarity of his small-town Midwestern characters, and the characters you populate your Sam McCain novels with. Who are some of the writers, and works—fiction or nonfiction—that influenced your Sam McCain novels?

Well I’ve been reading and rereading Anderson since I was in high school. He’s one of my Hall of Famers. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Twain, Hamlin Garland, James T. Farrell, Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Stephen Crane (who’s sort of an honorary Midwesterner)—they’ve all had great effect on my world view and writing.

Your work is often from the perspective of the outsider. Your Sam McCain novels—generally—have a softer shade of outsider than much of your other work, but McCain is something of a man without a country. He doesn’t quite belong to the lower socio-economic class he grew up in, but he also doesn’t fit the more educated middle- and upper- middle class. How much of this outsider perspective is from your own experience, and how much is from observation?

Very good question. That’s one of the traits I share with McCain. I’ve never fit in anywhere. Bill Pronzini once said that my characters are outsiders who are trying to make peace with the world but can’t ever quite make it.  That’s certainly true of me.
Esme Anne Whitney. Judge Whitney is a gentrified judge from a wealthy family whose influence in Black River Falls is waning. She is a character who is astonishingly out of touch with Main Street. Did you have a particular person, or type of person, in mind when you created her? And where did the rubber-band flipping come from?

I like the Judge. She represents everything Sam despises but he enjoys her and respects her. She was created from whole cloth as was the rubber band bit.

The historical detail you include in your McCain novels is impressive. You tend to have one or two significant background events—the death of Buddy Holly, the 1960 presidential campaign, the release of the Ford Edsel, the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc.—that frame each novel’s era, but more interesting are the smaller details. The novels, movies, fashions, haircuts, stores—Woolworth, Rexall, etc.—and the small town politics. What type of research do you do when you write the novels, and do you have any recommendations for further reading?

The things you cite are as fresh in my mind as when I was living through them.

Sam McCain’s favorite actor is Robert Ryan. Do you share that sentiment, and if you were to recommend one or two of his best films, what would they be?

Ryan was a man of parts—rage and sorrow. He never got his due. He was the perfect Irish actor. The Iceman Cometh and Odds Against Tomorroware my favorites.

In the first three Sam McCain novels there were two significant recurring characters, the beautiful Pamela Forrest and Mary Travers. Sam McCain loved Pamela Forrest who loved a married Stu Grant, and Mary Travers loved Sam McCain. This strange love triangle was written with humor, but it was shaded dark with undertones of pre-destined unfairness. All three of the characters lost something—love, acceptance—that could easily have been theirs for the taking. What were you trying to say about McCain, and the world, with this relationship?

I wasn’t thinking of anything more than how when you look back over your life you see how perverse romantic entanglements are. You lose a woman and yet she circles back years later. I like the French philosophy: “Sometimes the only thing worse than losing the woman is winning her.” You chase and chase a woman until you’re finally in a relationship with her only to find out that she’s less than wonderful. Then after you’re able to function again despite the pain you see somebody you should have been with all along.  I wrote a long story called “The End of It all” that is exactly about that theme. It’s been optioned three times for darkly comic cable but it’s never been made.

 Speaking of Mary Travers. Is there any relationship between her name and the folk singer Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary? 

No. She’s named after a girl I knew in Catholic school.

The Sam McCain novels are populated with a colorful cast. There is the rubber-band flipping Judge Whitney, the incompetent bully Sheriff Cliff (Cliffie) Sykes Jr., the beatnik sleaze writer Kenny Thibodoux, and medical examiner Doc Novotny—graduate of the Cincinnati Citadel of Medinomics. I can only imagine the fun you had creating these characters. Do you have a favorite, and are these small town oddballs something of an homage to The Andy Griffith show?

I used to love watching Andy Griffith even though I knew it was, you’ll forgive the phrase, a white wash. Amusing as it was there never was a town like Mayberry anywhere anytime. No, my characters all have dark sides. And Black River Falls, while there are many decent people in it, is a town of shadows and secrets like any other small or large town.

The tone of the novels have shifted as the series has unfolded. The early titles were more innocent and hopeful than the later novels. This shift in tone is aptly geared towards matching the changing times—from the late-1950s to the early-1970s. When you started the series, did you plan to take it into the 1970s, and is this shift in tone something more than just matching the era where the story takes place (i. e. is it also related to the current political climate)?

Each book got a little darker on its own. The times became more and more turbulent and Sam, who was growing up, had to respond accordingly. 

I recently re-read your fine novel The Autumn Dead, featuring part time private eye Jack Dwyer, and I was struck by the relationship between Dwyer’s childhood neighborhood “the Highlands,” and Sam McCain’s “the Knolls.” Both are presented as lower class enclaves dying of poverty, decay, and desperation. Your work often showcases the tension between classes, and these neighborhoods display the “less than” segment of society. How much of this tension comes from your own childhood, life?

From age six to approximately age seventeen these were the neighborhoods I lived in. Mixed race, violent, girls who got pregnant around fourteen or so, boys who went to reform school as prep for prison, spending Saturdays downtown just for a glimpse of the very pretty girls we considered (from where we lived) rich but who were really just middle-class.

Your most recent Sam McCain novel, Riders on the Storm, is scheduled to be released by Pegasus in October. It is the tenth novel featuring Sam McCain. Would you tell us a little about the novel, and is it going to be the final entry, or can we look forward to another?

Since it’s a sequel to Ticket to Ride I don’t want to give away the storyline. It’s a novel about the Viet Nam where Sam is forced to change in ways that would have been unimaginable even six months before. 
I heard this question in an interview on a BBC program a few years ago. If you were stranded on an island and you had only one book. What would it be?

Oh man my answer would change day to day. Today it would probably be a Graham Greene novel.

The opposite side of the coin. If you were allowed only to recommend one of your novels, or stories, which one would you want people to read?

Probably The Autumn Dead which is being reissued as a two-fer with another of my books The Night Remembers.

[Editor's note: Stark House Press is scheduled to release The Autumn Dead / The Night Remembers as a trade paperback in December 2014.]

In 1996 you published a novel titled Black River Falls, which is the name of the fictional city Sam McCain inhabits. Are these the same city—removed by a few decades—or did you simply like the name? On a side note, BRF has one of the most heart rendering scenes I have read in popular fiction; the protagonist, a young boy named Ben (as I recall), sneaks ice cream licks to a kitten dying of leukemia.   

Black River Falls may have come from my friend the late Dick Laymon. He may have used a town by that name in one of his books.

[Editor's note: Richard Laymon used the name Black River Falls in his 1986 novel Beast House. The protagonist, Gorman Hardy, wrote a nonfiction book titled Horror at Black River Falls. Interestingly,Black River Falls, Wisconsin was home to a crime outbreak, and general misfortune, in the 1890s.]

I don’t get a lot of fan mail but Black Rivers Falls is frequently mentioned by readers as my best novel—that or Cage of Night.

When I was getting clean from alcohol and drugs my little boy Joe brought me a kitten because he said he knew I’d be lonely. His mother and I had divorced six year earlier. The kitten was tiny and beautiful. I named her “Ayesha” after the woman in H. Rider Haggard’s She. She developed leukemia when she was six months old. It took her three months to die. It broke my heart watching her become more and more frail. I can still feel her tiny warm body in my hand sometimes.
I know you grew up in Iowa, but did you, like McCain, grow up in a small town environment?

Yes, after the big war my family did live in a few small towns. I draw on a lot of memories when I’m fleshing out Black River Falls. But basically I lived in Cedar Rapids which is small by many standards but large if you live in Iowa.
Posted by Ben Boulden at 10:29 AM No com

Monday, September 29, 2014




Brash Books co-founder Lee Goldberg was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America for his work on the A&E TV series “Nero Wolfe.” This article about adapting the Rex Stout novels for TV first appeared in Mystery Scene magazine and is reprinted with the author’s permission.
Archie sits at his desk, OILING HIS TWO MARLEY .38s. As we hear his voice-over, he switches to OILING HIS TYPEWRITER with the SAME OIL.
Nero Wolfe is a creature of habit. Every morning, from nine
until eleven, he tends his 10,000 orchids and I, Archie Goodwin,
his confidential secretary and legman extraordinaire, tend to
business. And since there wasn’t any business to tend to, I was
preparing for action — if and when it ever came.
The PHONE RINGS. He answers it.
I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gave me to write those words, the opening scene of the A&E adaptation of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novel “Champagne for One.”
For one thing, I’ve been a fan of Nero Wolfe since I was a kid. The Brownstone on West 35th Street where Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin live and work in New York City was as real to me as my family’s suburban tract home in Walnut Creek, California. I read each and every book, reveling in Archie’s amiable narration, his lively banter with Nero Wolfe, and Wolfe’s wonderfully verbose and brilliant speeches. While I may have been underwhelmed, even as a teenager, by Stout’s lazy plotting, I loved the language and, most of all, the relationship between Wolfe and Archie. I never dreamed I’d have a chance to write those characters myself. And, in the case of that opening, to write new words in their voices, at least as I’ve always heard them.
It was a screenwriting assignment unlike any other that my writing partner, William Rabkin, and I had ever been involved with. Because “Nero Wolfe,” starring Maury Chaykin as Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie, was unlike any other series on television. It was, as far as I know, the first TV series without a single original script — each and every episode was based on a Rex Stout novel, novella, or short story. That’s not to say there wasn’t original writing involved, but it was Stout who did all the hard work.
Everyone who wrote for “Nero Wolfe” was collaborating with Rex Stout. The mandate from executive producers Michael Jaffe and Timothy Hutton (who also directed episodes) was to “do the books,” even if that meant violating some of the hard-and-fast rules of screenwriting.

Breaking The Rules

Your typical hour-long teleplay follows what’s known as a four-act structure. Whether it’s an episode of “The West Wing” or “CSI,” the formula is essentially the same. But “Nero Wolfe” ignored the formula, forgoing the traditional mini-cliffhangers and plot-reversals that precede the commercial breaks.
Instead, we stuck to the structure of the book, replicating as closely as possible the experience of reading a Rex Stout novel (which, sadly, few viewers under the age of 50 have ever done).
In the highly competitive world of primetime network television, and in an era of “MTV”-style editing, it helped “Nero Wolfe” stand apart (and, perhaps, sealed its doom). “Nero Wolfe” required the writer to turn off most of his professional instincts and, instead, put all his trust in the material — which was a whole lot easier if you were already a Nero Wolfe fan.
archie-and-nero1“It’s amazing how many writers got it wrong,” says Sharon Elizabeth Doyle, who was head writer for “Nero Wolfe.” “I mean very good writers, too. Either you get it or you don’t. It’s so important to have the relationships right, and the tone of the relationships right, to get that it’s about the language and not the story. The characters in these books aren’t modern human beings. You have to believe in the characters and respect the formality of the way they are characterized.”
That doesn’t mean writers for the show simply transcribed the book into script form. It can’t be done. There’s no getting past that a novel and a TV series are two distinct, and very different, mediums. The writer’s job on “Nero Wolfe” was to adapt Rex Stout’s stories into scripts that could be produced on a certain budget over a seven-day schedule on a particular number of sets and locations. Beyond that, the writer had to re-tell Stout’s story in the idiom of television. By that, I mean the story had to be shown not told, through actions rather than speech, which isn’t easy when you’re working with mysteries written in first-person that are mostly about a bunch of people sitting in an office and talking. And talking. And talking. It’s very entertaining to read it, but can be deadly dull if you have to watch it.

Reading for Fun and Profit

Our first step in the adaptation process was the most fun — we’d sit down and read the book for pure pleasure, to get the feel and shape of the story (I couldn’t believe someone was actually paying me to read a book that I loved!)
After that, the real work started. We’d sit at the laptop and briefly jot down notes on the key emotional moments of the story, the major plots points, the essential clues, and most importantly, whatever the central conflict was between Wolfe and Archie. We’d also make notes of an obvious plot problems (and there were many). Once we were done with that, we were ready to read the book again, only not as readers but as literary construction workers who had to figure out how to take the structure apart and rebuild it again in a different medium.
Timothy HuttonWe”d go through the book page-by-page, highlighting essential dialogue while writing a scene-by-scene outline on the computer as went along. We used the outline, combined with our previous notes, to get a firm grasp on the story, to see what scenes had to be pared down, combined or removed. Within scenes, we looked for ways the dialogue could be tightened, simplified or re-choreographed to add more momentum, energy and movement to the episode. And we’d do all this while keeping one thought constantly in our minds: stick as closely to the books as you can.
More often than not, that meant loyalty to the dialogue rather than to the structure of the plot or the order, locations, or choreography of the scenes. Because the first thing we discovered as we took apart Stout’s stories and put them back together again was how thin and clumsily plotted the mysteries are — a weakness that seems to be more easily hidden in prose than it can be on camera (which is one reason plots are so often reworked in the movie versions of your favorite mysteries).
“Television does seem to make the plot problems more glaring. The Nero Wolfe mysteries, generally, are very weak,” says novelist Stuart Kaminsky, who adapted the novella “Immune to Murder” into an episode. “Wolfe seldom does anything brilliant. We are simply told he is brilliant and are convinced by his manipulation of people and language. His is a great act.”

The Three Ways Wolfe Solves a Mystery

Any avid reader of the Stout books soon discovers that there are three ways Wolfe will solve a mystery:
a) Wolfe either calls, mails, or in some other way contacts all the suspects and accuses each one of being the murderer, then waits for one of them to expose him or herself by either trying to steal or retrieve a key piece of evidence — or trying to kill Archie, Wolfe, or some other person Wolfe has set up as bait.
b) Wolfe sends his operative Saul or Orrie to retrieve some piece of evidence that is with-held from Archie (and, by extension, all of us) and revealed in the finale to expose the killer.
c) Wolfe uses actual deduction.
The challenge in adapting the Nero Wolfe stories for television was obscuring those plot problems by playing up the character conflicts and cherry-picking the best lines from Wolfe’s many speeches. The plots became secondary to the relationships and the uniqueness of the language. The vocabulary was never dumbed down or simplified for the TV audience, which is why the series felt so much like the books.

Those Long Speeches

“There is a pleasure in Wolfe’s speeches, what we call the arias,” says Doyle. “Wolfe has lots of them, the trick is isolating that one aria you can’t live without.”
In the novel “Too Many Clients,” which Doyle adapted for the show, there was one Nero Wolfe speech that she knew had to be in the episode:
“A modern satyr is part man, part pig, part jack-ass. He hasn’t even the charm of the roguish; he doesn’t lean gracefully against a tree with flute in hand. The only quality he has preserved from his Attic ancestors is his lust, and he gratifies it in the dark corners of other men’s beds or hotel rooms, not in the shade of an olive tree on a sunny hillside. The preposterous bower of carnality you have described is a sorry makeshift, but at least Mr. Yeager tried. A pig and a jack-ass yes, but the flute strain was in him too, as it once was in me, in my youth. No doubt he deserved to die, but I would welcome a sufficient inducement to expose his killer.”
Where else on television do you find a character who talks like that? No where. Not before “Nero Wolfe,” and not now that it has been cancelled.
“There is one thing we did that nobody else is doing. We played with the language and had a good time doing it,” Doyle says. “Most TV language is very minimalist.”
She’s right. When was the last time you heard a TV character use satyr and bower in casual conversation? I’m not surprised “Nero Wolfe” was canceled. Perhaps the creative choices that were made, while respecting the material, were wrong for TV. Not because audiences are stupid, but because television is, ultimately, not a book, and certainly not one written in the 1940s. By design, the show had a dated feel, one that may have alienated all but the oldest viewers and the most avid Wolfe fans.
That said, and with my obvious biases showing, I think the series, and especially the performances of Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton, will be recognized as the definitive dramatic interpretation of “Nero Wolfe,” the one any future movie or TV incarnations will be measured against. And I was honored to be a part of it.