A Great Interview with David Levinson

virginian-titleThe good folks at the Classic TV History blog are doing God’s work. They’ve just done their second, in-depth interview with TV writer-producer David Levinson, whose many credits include THE BOLD ONES: THE SENATOR, SARGE, CHARLIES ANGELS, HART TO HART, NIKITA and scores of other shows. It’s a long, detailed, terrific interview filled with fascinating anecdotes about the writing and production of the various series that he’s been associated with over his long, varied career. It doesn’t matter whether you know the shows that he’s worked on or if you liked them — this is gold for anybody interested in TV history or in a career in television.  I loved every word of the interview. Levinson has been around a long time and he’s got some great stories, like this one about an episode of THE VIRGINIAN…

Oh, this is good.  By the way, I was a total asshole about this.  This is my second season on the show as a producer.  I’m like 27 years old.  I’d done like four episodes the season before, and I wanted desperately to do a show about black cowboys.  I talked to a writer by the name of Norman Jolley, and we’d come up with a really good story about a cowboy who had worked his whole life to save up the money for his son to go to college, and then he got ripped off.  In order to get his money back, he falls in with a bunch of rustlers to steal the cows from John McIntire’s ranch, and bad things happen.

Nowhere in the script did it mention that the father and son were black.  Just the character names.

Everybody liked the script, and I go in to see the executive producer, and he says, “Who are you thinking of casting?”

I said, “I want to cast James Edwards.”

There’s this long pause, and the executive producer – who, by the way, was the nicest fellow you’d ever want to meet: Norman Macdonnell, who had produced Gunsmoke all those years – looked at me and said, “Isn’t he black?”

I said, “He was the last time I saw him.”

Very gently, he explained to me that we had a primarily redneck audience and you just couldn’t cast a black man as the guest star in one of the shows.  I said to him, “Well, listen, you’re the boss, and if that’s the way you feel, that’s what we’ll do.  But I feel it only fair to tell you that I’m going back to my office and calling The New York Times and The L.A. Times to tell them about this conversation.”

He came up from behind the desk, and he was a big guy.  His face was totally flushed and he looked at me and said, “You little cocksucker.”

I said, “Yes, sir.”

And we cast Jimmy Edwards.  The show went on the air.  There were no letters.  Nobody fucking noticed that there were two black actors playing the leads in this show.  But shortly thereafter I left The Virginian.

No surprise. But the real pleasure of the interview with Levinson aren’t dramatic moments like that but the meat-and-potatoes stuff about the making of TV. I strongly recommend the interview… and everything else on the Classic TV History blog, especially their incredible Oral History of THE SENATOR, which is better than a lot of TV books that I’ve read.

A Field Trip to Australia and New Zealand

Nothing beats “boots on the ground” for researching locations for a book. I always pick up details that no guidebook, or Google Earth trawl, will turn up. Not only that, but I love to travel to new places…here or abroad. I just returned from a three week trip to Australia and New Zealand to research the as-yet-untitled sixth Fox & O’Hare book.

2016-03-26 13.45.37My travels this time took me first to Sydney (and Manly Beach and Bondi Beach), where everyone was too damn good looking. Even the old people looked like models. All the women seemed to be wearing black… my theory is that they were morning all the fat, imperfect friends and relatives that had been exiled from the city. After three days roaming Sydney, we headed off to Brisbane, where I was relieved to see not everybody was perfect. My wife desperately wanted to see some Koalas, so we went to a local reserve where we could hold the cuddly animals and get up-close-and-personal with kangaroos. We roamed the city on foot and by ferry, then rented a car and headed off to explore the Gold Coast one day and the Sunshine Coast the next. The two coasts couldn’t be more different. The Gold Coast highly developed, with skyscrapers, high-end stores, and endless beaches…while the Sunshine Coast is more laid-back, less developed, but also with long, flat seemingly endless beaches.

From Brisbane, we flew on Emirates to New Zealand. I’ve never been on an Emirates plane before and was amused by the wood-grain trim around the portholes and the faux-wood toilet seats in the unusually spacious lavatories. We were welcomed in both Auckland (and later in Wellington) by cousins of actress Alexia Barlier, who was one of the stars of my movie FAST TRACK: NO LIMITS.  We spent a day roaming around Auckland on foot, then the following day we took a boat out to Waiheke Island, rented a car, and explored the entire island. We managed to visit all of Waiheke’s beautiful beaches and even visit two wineries for meals and some wine-tasting.

My wife Valerie and me with a furry fan
My wife Valerie and me with a furry fan

We arrived in Wellington in time to enjoy the final day of Cuba Duba, a  vibrant street fair, and were met by more of Alexia’s cousins, who introduced us to the city and entertained us in their incredible, hillside home, where they have breathtaking views of the city. We also met up with Jeroen Ten Berge, the artist who designed the covers for my DEAD MAN books, WATCH ME DIE, KING CITY, McGRAVE, and many other titles. He showed us around and it was a real treat to see the city through his eyes. After that, we rented a car and explored the countryside and the coast on our own, catching some dramatic vistas along the way.

Then it was back  to Australia for a few days in Tasmania, where we explored the city of Hobart and followed the so-called Convict Trail, soaking up the dramatic history of the island…and its roots as a penal colony. We also visited the bizarre, controversial, stunning, and unforgettable MONA Museum…which was like visiting an art galley designed by SPECTRE.

The entire trip was a fascinating and inspiring experience. I’m looking forward now to delving into the history of Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand, searching for those nuggest that will make the places, and the characters who live there, come alive in Nick and Kate’s next adventure. I took hundreds of photos that I can use to refresh my memory as I write. Here are just a few…

My wife Valerie and me on a beautiful beach on Waiheke Island
My wife Valerie and me on a beautiful beach on Waiheke Island
The Gold Coast in Australia.
The Gold Coast in Australia.
The ruins at Port Arthur in Tasmania
The ruins at Port Arthur in Tasmania
A machine/sculpture that eats, digests, and poops food at MONA in Hobart
A machine/sculpture that eats, digests, and poops food at MONA in Hobart, Tasmania.



Working up a Storme: WL Ripley on Creating Series Characters

Storme Warning_FrontCoverMy friend W.L. Ripley is the author of two critically-acclaimed series of crime novels — four books featuring ex-professional football player Wyatt Storme and four books about ex-Secret Service agent Cole Springer. His latest novel is Storme Warning, a stunning new mystery/thriller that’s earned him well-deserved comparisons to Robert B. Parker…and from the likes of Ace Atkins, who is now writing Spenser. Here Rip talks about creating Storme…and series characters in general.  

Wyatt Storme evolved from a love of mystery characters like Travis McGee, Spenser, and the protagonists of Elmore Leonard’s many novels. But in shaping Storme as a series lead, I wanted a neo-classic mystery/thriller hero who would seem familiar and yet would be uniquely his own person and uniquely my own creation.

Storme is neither a detective nor a police officer, which places him in Travis McGee territory, but he will use deduction and reasoning to isolate and learn about the villain.  This is a nod to the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes, without whom the modern mystery would not be what it has become.

Storme & Chick vs Spenser & Hawk

Wyatt Storme and his friend Chick Easton, a deadly and deeply troubled ex-CIA agent, are often compared to the Robert B. Parker’s team of Spenser and Hawk. But I believe Storme is more closely related to John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee because he is a man apart; a man taking his retirement in pieces. Yet unlike McGee, Storme is often reluctant to insinuate himself into other people’s troubles and does not seek a financial reward.  The character of Chick Easton is closer Nero Wolfe’s Archie Goodwin, only more deadly.  Easton’s character often prods Storme into action and, like Goodwin, he keeps the dialogue lively and caustic.  The Wyatt Storme novels blend three sub-categories of the mystery/thriller genre:  tough-guy, western, and reluctant detective.

If you look at Robert B. Parker’s Spenser (brilliantly continued by author, Ace Atkins), the most recognized tough guy in the modern literary world, you’ll find that he possesses some traits associated with Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe but is distinctively his own man.  Spenser quotes poetry and literature like a University professor yet he is as comfortable throwing a left hook to dispatch anyone foolish enough to bull up on him.  He still carries the classic .38 police special but is at ease handling the modern semi-automatic weapons.  Spenser is the first Renaissance man in the tough-guy mystery genre and has opened up possibilities for all of us who write.

Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens Reflects his Pantheon of Characters

Elmore Leonard never saddled himself with just one hero yet many of his protagonists shared attributes that were singular to his pantheon of characters.  They usually were unflappable regardless of the situation.  They rarely spoke excitedly or in anger.  The best example of this, and Leonard’s most memorable and likewise most singular character, is Raylan Givens.

W.L. Ripley
W.L. Ripley

Givens was the son of Kentucky coal-miners and a U.S. Marshal who was an expert with a hand gun.  He taught marksmanship to other U.S. Marshal’s and was deadly cool when dispatching a bad guy quite often giving the outlaw a chance to re-consider.  “I’m a dead shot.  I hit exactly what I aim at.  If I pull I shoot to kill.”

Note the nod to the old Western heroes of cinema and the western genre.  Givens is a Marshal like Matt Dillon or Wyatt Earp.  Givens participates in shoot-outs like many Clint Eastwood characters (There are marked similarities between Givens and Clint Eastwood in the novels.  Height, body-build, cold statement that his enemy is about to die).  At once, we are familiar with Raylan Givens and at the same time he is a unique character in his own right.

Storme is, like the above, a neo-classic hero. Both of my main series characters, Wyatt Storme and Cole Springer, are denizens of the new American West.  They are throwbacks, as comfortable in the great outdoors as they are with their backs against the wall, guns blazing.  Like old Western Cowboys, they ride into town and save the day.   Storme is Wyatt Earp to Easton’s Doc Holliday, Butch Cassidy to Easton’s Sundance Kid.

Dave Robicheaux and Stephanie Plum Are Among The Best

One of the best contemporary series characters is James Lee Burke’s, Dave Robicheaux, a disgraced N’Awlin’s cop whose desperate struggles with alcoholism and personal tragedy place Dave (now a Sheriff’s deputy in New Iberia Parish) in his own niche.  Burke is unsurpassed at making the setting a part of his stories and the tortured soul of Dave Robicheaux is on display at all times.  Robicheaux, like Spenser, is an intelligent man.  Yet, unlike Spenser, Robicheaux is often confused and even lacks confidence in his assessment of his moral stance.  Still, when his blood is up, Robicheaux is among the most violent of mystery heroes.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is smart, tough, and given to romantic adventurism that heretofore was a part of the male hero make-up.  Evanovich plows new literary ground by making Plum a bond enforcement agent (Chick Easton performs this duty at times in the Storme lexicon). Plum is of Italian/Hungarian descent and vacillates between the romantic overtures of two different men.  She is honest about her foibles, which create problems in her job, but it is this very self-deprecation that endears her to her readers and makes Stephanie Plum one of the most successful characters in the mystery genre.

There are many, many more examples.  Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone (a classic detective in the Phillip Marlowe/Jim Rockford tradition), James Patterson’s Alex Cross (criminal profiler), Ace Atkins other best-selling character, Quinn Colson (Ex-special forces Ranger), and Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta (Medical Examiner) are among the best.

All of these authors write sharply drawn, well-researched characters that give us a peek behind the curtains of very unique aspects of these justice-dealing heroes and their occupations. They have also been successful mining the classic nature of the mystery/thriller genre and giving their character remarkable traits, not quirks.  Too often beginning writers think they need to make their characters quirky. Quirky characters are the province of situation comedies, not mystery/thrillers.

Characters We Love, Books We Want to Read

One of the hardest aspects of a series character is keeping them fresh through many books.  All of the writers that I’ve talked about do so brilliantly and aspiring writers should study their work to learn how they pull it off.

Developing a lasting series character is the hardest thing you’ll ever love doing.  I enjoy looking into Wyatt Storme’s past, how he evolved into the person he has become and witnessing the sights, sounds, and his interaction with the universe he inhabits.

I write novels that I would like to read.  My hope is that they are also novels that you will want to read, too. I want the reader to keep turning pages and be continually entertained with laughter, hope, suspense, sudden danger and the consequences of life….and that you will find all of that in Storme Warning.

The Recipe Behind Gerald Duff’s MEMPHIS RIBS

Memphis RibsMy friend author Gerald Duff shares the story behind the writing of his tasty new novel Memphis Ribs, which Entertainment Weekly calls ‘A tangy tale of murder, gang warfare, crack cocaine, and barbecue.’ I’m sucker for a great thriller and for barbecue, so this was a home run for me! 

When I wrote my novel Memphis Ribs, I did it for the same reason that all writers take up a task that lasts so long and uses up so much electricity. I was mesmerized by the topic, in this case my trying to understand the essence of the Bluff City where I had come to live for a spell. And it was a spell, because that’s what Memphis casts upon those who come to live with her.

Memphis is an embodiment of the central paradox of the South. It is both tight and loose, and so are Southerners. Memphis has more churches of every denomination, conducting more worship services, attended by more of the faithful, than any comparably sized city in the nation.

Memphis also has more low dives and honky tonks, more high and low bars, more prostitutes and drug houses, more robberies and gang shootings, more muggings and murders, just generally more of the fast life, than any other metropolitan area in the country. If Nashville, Tennessee’s richest city, is about the greed for money and the drive to make it, Memphis is about giving in, abandoning all hope, and having a good time.

Memphis has suffered from calamities over time, including a yellow fever contagion which decimated the city in the nineteenth century and the assassination of Dr.King in the twentieth century which dealt the finishing blow to Memphis’s status as a contender in the big world of growth and commerce. For the commercial hopers and city planners, these disasters were apocalyptic, but for the writer they created a climate and culture conducive to dream, disillusionment, regret, and loss.

The advantages for a novelist are clear and compelling. All is vanity, endeavor is doomed, and success is fleeting, evanescent, and gone. That’s the country where a novelist feels most at home.

How all this influenced me as a chronicler of a fictional pair of police detectives – one black, one white – trying to solve some crimes in the Bluff City is clear enough. Memphis and its contradictions and energies and despair and humor emboldened me to try to capture in fiction some of its toughness, violence, obsession with barbecue and beautiful women, its racism and restiveness, and its hard-edged hilarity. I tried to do so by casting as a Memphis homicide cop a man in North Mississippi I had come to know. He was an independent cotton farmer, a Vietnam veteran who wasn’t outwardly bothered by his year in that war as a combat infantryman, and a man completely at ease with himself. He drank copious amounts of bourbon without seeming to become drunk, he loved his wife, and he had many friends, black and white, who admired and gave him great room and latitude. His fictional partner in the novel knows him to the core.

All I’m trying to do in Memphis Ribs is to show how Danny M. would act if called upon to sort out some crimes in the Bluff City. In my attempt, I hope I’ve captured some of the gut and soul of that city on the big river that flows through the heart of America.

Mark Smith on Writing “The Death of The Detective”

My friend Mark Smith’s The Death of the Detective is widely considered to be one of the best detective novels ever written…and was a National Book Award finalist. It was a honor for me to be able to republish it this last month through my company, Brash Books.  I’ve asked Mark  to share the story of how his remarkable book was written. 

Death of the Detective Front CoverI think it was Heywood Hale Broun who said, “When a professional man is doing the best work of his life, he will be reading only detective novels,” or words similar. I hope, even at my age, I have my best work ahead of me, but when I was writing The Death of the Detective, in my leisure hours I was exhausting the classic English who-dun-its written between the Wars, favoring Dorothy Sayers and Freeman Wills Croft, while also re-reading Raymond Chandler and re-discovering Nero Wolfe. In this regard I shared the addiction with the likes of William Butler Yeats, William Faulkner and FDR, among others.

My first two novels, the companion novels, Toyland and House Across the White (original title, The Middleman), were psychological thrillers and a modern retelling of a fairy tale. Before taking on the ghost story, my fourth novel, The Moon Lamp, I settled on my favorite genre, the detective story. Originally sketched out as something of a short story in which the detective in his quest of a killer discovers only his victims, with each murder leading both men to the next, the book became seriously ambitious when I added the moral and ironic complication of the detective himself being somehow responsible for the deaths by reason of his continued pursuit of the killer. This seemed to me a wonderful metaphor for the America of my time and place. And the detective as my representative American—or hero, if you wish. So much better for an urban environment than a cowboy.

The novel became enlarged when I added an interwoven subplot of young people and a minor plot of gangsters and made the killer’s victims believable round characters who were either sympathetic or interesting, so that, in a departure from the genre and the movies, the reader would be emotionally effected when their deaths occurred. After all, the tradition in Chicago writing, from Dreiser to Bellow, is compassion. Adding to the novel’s length was my recreation of each particular setting where the corpses were found strewn across the landscape of what is now called ‘Chicagoland”, thereby involving as many varied localities as I could in the crimes.

Many readers would say Chicago was the main character in the book, a response that surprised and disappointed me. Only years later did I come to find there was some justification for this observation. In my day, Chicago, for guys like me, was pretty much an open city, and I felt free to venture where I pleased. After high school, I worked as a mucker (sandhog) digging the subway extension beneath the post office, was a tariff clerk for the CBQ Railroad, the timekeeper on the foundation work for the Inland Steel Building and a merchant seaman on the Great Lakes before graduating from Northwestern University and living on the Gold Coast– across from the Ambassador East, no less.

Some readers, including allegedly mafioso and their children, have claimed the gangster plot is the best piece of the book, and that the gangsters are entirely believable, recognizable characters, perhaps something of a first in American fiction. The question asked then, is how did I come by my insights and knowledge? Henry James said writers should “receive straight impressions from life”, a piece of advice I find irrefutable for a naturalistic writer. Lo and behold, at the age of sixteen I worked as a busboy one summer at a nightclub-restaurant on the outskirts of Chicago owned by a former Capone mobster that was frequented by his fellows in the trade, alone (sometimes to play cards in a closed-off dining room), or with their families. These people not only became human to me, they became ordinary, and for a writer, now accessible to the play of his imagination. For example, I witnessed the tipsy top mobster in Chicago at closing time fail miserably in his attempt to pick up a not-so-exciting waitress, while my boss, a rather comic character who reminded me of Lou Costello ( a new restaurant in the area that threatened to be competition for his restaurant was bombed that summer every time it tried to open) would show up at the restaurant furious after losing a bundle at the track and order the help to drain all the nearly empty catsup bottles into new bottles. Without these contacts I suppose I would have had to take my gangsters from the cliches of movies and television (pre-Sopranos) and yes, probably from crime novels, also.

Mark Smith
Mark Smith

I have a couple of regrets about the novel. I notice a reviewer claimed I had predicted the practice of criminal profiling. If so, I’m not sure where that occurs in the novel. However I did make two predictions that came true that I cut from the book when I reduced its original text by some twenty percent which included not only blubber but the author’s commentary, prophecies and missteps into outright fantasy. One was the prediction that we would suffer from some new and deadly sexually transmitted disease which I changed to suggest old-fashioned syphilis. It seemed to me that given our new libertine sexual proclivities with limitless partners that such was likely to occur. Hence, soon thereafter, Aids. The other was my direct assertion that the mindless violence on film and television not only deadened us to the pain of violence, but encouraged violence, making it a centerpiece of our culture, a notion that was dismissed as hogwash at the time, but seemed an obvious cause and effect to me. Today this observation is pretty much accepted. So much for my career as Nostradamus.

A final admission. Although the Viet Nam war is never mentioned in this novel, and occurred after the time this novel takes place, it occurred during the time I was writing it with the nightly death count on the news. I like to tell myself my rage against that misadventure, along with my nostalgic love-hate relationship with the lost Chicago of my childhood and youth, were the energy sources behind the novel’s composition. It could even be said, with some hyperbole, that I wrote this book alone in my study in place of publically marching with the thousands demonstrating in the street.

One of my great pleasures of publishing this book, along with receiving a nomination for the National Book Award and seeing the novel on the New York Times paperback bestseller list, were the invitations to join the Mystery Writers of America and the British Crime Writers Association.

The Death of the Detective is available from Brash Books, Toyland and The House Across the White, from Foreverland Press.

The Boy Who Killed Demons

demonsMy friend and Top Suspense colleague Dave Zeltserman is a dual threat — equally adept at writing terrifying, and deeply unsettling horror novels as he is at writing stunning crime novels. His latest horror tale, The Boy Who Killed Demons,  earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and raves from both Kirkus Reviews and Library Journal.  I invited Dave here to talk about the influences that shaped his new book.

Every author has influences we’re aware of for our books, and sometimes we have subconscious influences that we might become aware of after the book’s been written. My first novel, Fast Lane, was heavily influenced by the great crime noir writer, Jim Thompson, even when I wasn’t aware of his influences. My crime novel, Pariah, was consciously influenced by the Whitey Bulger crime saga and a well-publicized plagiarism scandal involving a chicklit book. My Frankenstein retelling, Monster, was obviously influenced by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but also by the Marquis de Sade, the German horror writer E. T. A. Hoffmann, and John Polidari’s The Vampyre. While I wasn’t aware of any influences on my crime noir novel, Small Crimes, years later I could see Dan Marlowe’s influence in my writing. With my latest horror novel, The Boy Who Killed Demons, that’s being released today, there are obvious influences by Lovecraft, the film They Live, and Spider-Man.

The Boy Who Killed Demons chronicles the struggles of 15 year-old high school student Henry Dudlow to keep the world safe from demons. When Henry was 13 he was a normal, outgoing kid, but then he started seeing certain people as demons, and things change dramatically for him. After convincing himself that these really are demons, he sets about to determine what they’re up to, and when he discovers that they’re trying to open the gates to hell, he has to do whatever it takes to stop them.

When I was a kid I read all the Lovecraft I could get my hands on, often (as Henry does in the book) riding my bike into Boston to visit used bookstores. While stylistically The Boy Who Killed Demons is very different than Lovecraft’s writing, the influences can still be seen, both in the way I sometimes show Boston and with the forces at work to allow evil, all-powerful entities into our world that will cause the destruction of everything we know.

One of my favorite horror films is John Carpenter’s They Live, and Demons gives a nod to the film as Henry watches it on TV one night and identifies strongly with Roddy Piper’s character, and the sacrifices Piper must make once he can see the aliens for what they are.

Finally, there’s the Spider-Man influence. As a kid, this was my favorite comic book, and Henry keeps watching the first Toby Maguire Spider-man for inspiration, identifying strong with the ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ idea, and later in the book the first Spider-Man comic book plays a role.

Writing Advice from Owensboro

The Chase

As some of you may know, the finale of  The Chase, which I co-wrote with Janet Evanovich, is set in and around Owensboro & Hawesville Kentucky. Last week, author Joel Goldman & I trekked across the country to Owensboro for “An Evening with Lee & Joel,” a program put on by Riverpark Center and Daviess County Library. We talked about self-publishing, plotting, how we broke into the business, etc….and now you can see some excerpts from the event up on YouTube.

Here’s a clip of me explaining why I believe this is the Golden Age of Publishing for Authors…

Here’s Joel and I talking about how we broke into the business:

I’ll have more clips from that event up on my website in a few weeks.

Create Suspense

Libby Hellmann
Libby Hellmann

From my friend, author Libby Fischer Hellmann

So…. Imagine this. You invite your neighbor round for coffee. You don’t like them much, they’re kind of irritating, not really your type. But you start up a friendly conversation anyway. Nothing particularly revolutionary, elaborate or interesting. Just a pleasant, enjoyable chat.

So far, so dull.

While you’re chatting, you casually get a roll of duct tape out of the kitchen drawer. You know, the one you keep for fixing stuff around the house? You come back and tie your neighbor’s hands and feet against the chair. Then I want you to take out your .38 revolver from your closet– you know, the one you keep around the house for emergencies– release the cylinder, put one bullet in the gun. Just ONE. Then close it up.

Now I want you to put the gun against your neighbor’s head. Nothing should change. You will still have that pleasant, inconsequential conversation. Except for one thing. Once a minute, every minute, pull the trigger.

I guarantee you that conversation will be the most riveting, suspenseful conversation you and your neighbor will ever have.

Why? Because suspense isn’t so much what is happening, but what might happen. It’s a situation in which the outcome is in doubt. You’re asking questions not immediately answered. Posing posing a threat that isn’t being immediately resolved. Raising concerns that are not addressed. The longer you stretch those questions, the longer you delay, the longer you parcel out information without providing answers, the more suspense you generate.

Hopefully, you’ll learn more tomorrow evening, February 20, 2014, from me & authors Lee Goldberg, Joel Goldman, and Paul Levine in a lively Google+ Video “Hang Out”. You’ll see us live, on video, discussing the secrets of creating top suspense…and you can ask us questions, too.



The Art of Collaboration

I’ve been collaborating for most of my professional life as a screenwriter and as a novelist. For twenty years, I wrote & produced TV shows with William Rabkin and plotted countless episodes with large writing staffs. I’ve also collaborated on over thirty books, most recently on the internationally bestselling Fox & O’Hare series with Janet Evanovich (our next book, The Chase, comes out on 2/25). So I am always interested in how other writers collaborate…and when I learned that my friends Rebecca Cantrell and James Rollins were writing together, I had to find out how their creative partnership produced the bestsellers Blood Gospel and Innocent Blood. Their answers are fascinating…and tremendously useful for any authors who are thinking about teaming up on a book.

How did you two meet? How did you decide to write a book together? Was there any initial reluctance or concerns that you had to work out first?

Rebecca: We met at the Maui Writers Conference when I took a course in thriller writing from Jim. He blurbed my first book (thanks, Jim!) and we stayed in touch off and on afterward. So, we’d already known each other for a few years when Jim called to ask me if I was interested in collaborating on a project. When I asked for details, he said it was “confidential.” Trying to trick some information out of him, I asked if he could answer yes or no questions, which brought a ten-second pause before he caved and told me everything.  Obviously he was not mean to withstand that kind of brutal interrogation! After he explained premise and the world, I said yes immediately—it was too intriguing and controversial not to.

Jim:  Yes, I would not withstand torture.  As to the genesis of this series, I was visiting the L.A. Museum of Art, where they had a Rembrandt exhibit.  I became fascinated by that Old World master’s depiction of the raising of Lazarus.  There are many oddities about that painting:  like why does everyone have such looks of horror at this miracle by Christ, why are there weapons painted above Lazarus’s tomb (according to the Bible he was merely a banker), and why in one version of the painting did Rembrandt have blood dribbling from Lazarus’s lips?  This, of course, made me think “Hmm, maybe Lazarus was actually a vampire.”  Yep, that’s how my mind works.  And that got me wondering if vampires did indeed exist during the time of Christ, how might have Christ dealt with them.  Would he have tried to save them?  How would that have changed the Church?  How might that look today?  So I created a vampiric sect of the Catholic Church, vampires who swore an oath to Christ and the Church to stop feeding on humans and to only subsist on “Christ’s blood,” which for this series, is consecrated wine, which Catholics believe does indeed transubstantiate into the physical embodiment of Christ’s blood.  Once I had this idea, a grand epic story slowly built in my head, one spanning history and delving deep into the divide between science and religion.  I knew this story was too big for me to tackle alone, especially since what was in my head was not really my wheelhouse as a writer.  I could bring my skill at twisting history and science and building elaborate action sequences, but this story needed more than that.  It needed to be richly textured and gothic in atmosphere.  Not my skill set.  But from reading Rebecca’s books, I knew she could.  So I thought, “what if we took the best of both our skills and crafted this story together?”  So I made that call that Rebecca described above.

How did you know your two voices and approaches to writing would ultimately mesh?

Rebecca: We did a lot of work before we wrote the first word, tossing samples of scenes written in different styles back and forth until we found the ones that we thought would work best for this kind of story. We wanted something that was different from our regular voices. Once we agreed on that, we wrote to those styles. To make it mesh, we edit and edit each other’s work. After we’re done with that, we edit some more.

Jim:  We definitely challenged each other.  Rebecca would push me to look deeper into characters’ motivations, while I tried to find ways to ratchet up tension and keep those action scenes taut and varied.  But, like Rebecca said, it was a learning curve in regards to finding that “style” and “voice” for the story.  Initially there was lots of debate and trials in regards to how to make all those choices fit the story.  But eventually we discovered it and ran with it.

How did you handle the plotting?

Jim:    The first thing we did was to build a “World Bible” for this world and characters.  There’s actually much more in that bible than is actually in the books, but we needed to understand this world and its characters in as much depth as possible before beginning.  This helped us have a roadmap from which to work from.  And it’s still a work in progress as we work through this third book in the series.

Rebecca: The world bible might end up being longer than the books! But it’s definitely been a great resource for keeping track of things and helping to keep us on track for plotting. Which brings me to the outline (and the next question).

Do you outline? If so, how detailed do you get and how closely do you stick to it afterwards?

Rebecca: For the first book Jim had a detailed plot outline in place, which we ended up deviating from quite a bit as time went on. For subsequent books we’ve done a lot of brainstorming via email and Skype. We usually come up with the big moments of the book and the locations first, then drill down into a list of scenes. The outline changes as the book moves ahead, but we expect that.

Rebecca Cantrell
Rebecca Cantrell

Jim:   For my own books, I generally work from a pretty loose outline, but to work together, it was clear from the start that we would need more of a paved road.  I don’t know if we actually achieved that, but we at least carved out a gravel road.  We mostly stuck with it, but it did allow us some elbow room to venture off a bit from that path.  But I have to say, it’s sort of fun outlining with a partner versus doing it solo.  It was that back and forth on Skype where some of the most imaginative elements of the story were created.

How do you divvy up the writing? For instance, does one of you write the first draft and the other do revisions? Or do you trade chunks back and forth?

Rebecca: We trade chunks back and forth. I usually first draft historical scenes, love scenes, and character-oriented scenes, whereas Jim does more of the action and plot-driven scenes. But there isn’t a hard and fast rule on that.

Jim:    Exactly. There is a small love scene in book two (Innocent Blood) that I tackled (not without a lot of blushing on my part) and Rebecca cracked out some very awesome ambush scenes.  But I don’t think either of us would have been able to pull those off without going through the tempering flames of writing the first book.  We both learned a lot from one another in that first venture.  But one of the coolest things Rebecca once shared with me (and I think it highlights the success of our collaboration) is how one night she was reading a section of the book aloud to her husband and he stopped her and asked her who wrote that last paragraph she read.  She had to admit to him, “I really don’t know.”  That’s how intensive we are about editing, re-editing, and turning pages back and forth between us.

Here’s a techie question about the process…do you both work on the same operating system (eg are you both on Macs?), do you use the same software (Word?), do you share files using a Dropbox, Google Docs, etc. or do you just send email attachments back and forth?

Rebecca: I use a PC. I think Jim uses a Mac, but I’m not even sure. We email the manuscript file back and forth, using MS-Word with Track Changes and Comments.  We only have one manuscript file and we’re usually pretty good at not stomping on the other guy’s stuff by accident, although I have had to use Word’s Compare Documents feature a couple of times.

Jim:   Until this very moment, I didn’t even know there was a “Compare Documents” feature on Word.  But yes, we both use Word and I do indeed work on a Mac.

How much time do you have to write each book? How do you handle the deadline pressures?

Rebecca: About 6-9 months but we’re also writing other books at the same time. I’m pretty fast and Jim is ridiculously fast (which has made me faster because I can’t let him win), so we muddle through. We had some serious deadline pressure on a short story once and that’s where the time difference came in handy—Jim started when I was done for the day and I came back online when he was ready to go to bed, so we worked on it 24 hours a day. Crazy, I admit, but the story did get done quickly!

Jim:  I always work best (and fastest) under deadline.  The first book (while it took about 6-7 months to write) actually took us just shy of a full year to create.  Those additional months were occupied with building that World Bible, outlining, playing with styles, etc.  With that worked out, we crafted the second book slightly faster.  By the way, one other advantage in regard to having your writing partner living halfway around the globe is that difference in time zones does allow some magic to happen.  It was not uncommon for one of us to end our day by emailing a series of “problems with the story” to the other—only to awake the next morning to find solutions to those “problems” in our in-box.  It’s like having magical elves working on your project while you sleep.

I come from television, so collaborating with other writers is easy for me. But authors are a solitary lot. I know many authors who would have a very, very hard time writing with anyone else. They’ve worked hard to develop their own voice. They are used to writing alone and not having to deal with the input of anyone but, perhaps, their editor and agent. How did you reconcile your individual approaches to writing novels so that you could work together?

Rebecca: I was surprised at how easy it was. I’ve worked with teams of writers on technical documents before, so I was used to breaking things up and putting them back together, but I expected a lot more discord when it came to fiction. It helps that Jim is very easy to work with—mellow, generous, smart, and without a lot of ego. I think the work we did at the beginning to set up a world bible and the style we wanted it to be written in helped build up trust between us so that by the time we started writing the book itself we both were confident that we were working from a shared vision. Also, we communicate a lot during the process, with daily emails and weekly Skype calls, and that helps to make sure we’re both on the same page.

James Rollins
James Rollins

Jim:  And I had no background at all with working with another author.  So it was probably a steeper learning curve for me than it was for Rebecca.  One of the great tools she brought to the table, which indeed made things easier, was her organizational skills.   She is very good at making sure all elements of the story stay on point.  Also whenever some question would come up in regard to plot we had a simple solution:  we would look to the story itself.

How do you resolve disputes on plot issues? Or on the rewrites? Does one of you have the final word?

Rebecca: Again, this has been a lot easier than I expected. Because we’re both committed to the same story, we don’t tend to argue about much. There was one scene at the end of Innocent Blood where we spent a couple of hours going back and forth about what a certain character would do, but it was more about us trying to figure out what the story needed than arguing for one position or another. I would say that the story has the final word, not either one of us. I think that we end up with stories that are very different than what we would have come up with one our own and that’s good.

Jim:  Exactly.  Rather than letting ego be involved, conflicts were resolved by deciding what best suited the story.  And that one time where a critical moment of the story had the two of us on diametrically opposed opposite sides of a fence, it was debating the pros and cons of our two positions that created an entirely new scenario, a better one, one we would never have come up on our own.

Did you learn any lessons from your first collaboration that made the second one easier?

Rebecca: I think we developed shorthand of communication that helped speed things along, but it was pretty easy from the start.

Jim:   I also think that having that World Bible grow alongside the crafting of the first book gave us a great foundation from which to write that second book (and now the third).  And I agree that we have found ways to communicate much more efficiently.  We both have learned somewhat how the other thinks and writes and that helps, too.  I remember our initial forays on Skype were more tiptoeing around each other a bit, so as not to insult or come off too harsh.  Now we’re even better friends that we can forgo the niceties and get down more quickly to brass tacks.  Not that we’re harder on each other, just more real.

Has your collaboration changed the way you write novels on your own?

Rebecca: I’m faster now. Jim’s a faster writer than me and my pride forced me to keep up.  I’m also more comfortable writing action scenes than I used to be.

Jim:  I’m also much more conscious of character and the emotional inner world of those characters.  Seeing Rebecca’s approach to building character has definitely influenced my own writing.

Based on this experience, and assuming you had the time, would you collaborate with other authors?

Rebecca: Absolutely. It’s been a tremendous amount of fun!

Jim:  I wholeheartedly agree.  But I also think it still takes finding that special person who complements your own writing and is simpatico with you on a personal level.  For me, it was great (and I suspect a rare commodity) to find both of those in Rebecca.