The following interview with Susan Evans was published in the October 2011 issue of First Draft, a newsletter for The Guppies - The Great Unpublished - a chapter of Sisters in Crime.
Susan Evans: When did you begin writing? How did your experience as a journalist and advertising copywriter inform your fiction writing?
David Housewright: I began writing when I was in the sixth grade--or rather I should say that that's when I knew I wanted to be a writer. I learned a great many things from journalism and advertising that have found their way into my novels--the ability to do research and converse with sources among them. Probably the most important thing, however, was how to find the most interesting story out of a series of events.
SE: Why did you choose to write mysteries?
DH: You could argue that mysteries chose me. It had always been my favorite genre. I read maybe five mysteries for every non-mystery. But when I actually sat down to write my first book, I had planned to write about political corruption--you could say I was channeling Gore Vidal. But after I got into it, it occurred to me that if I tossed a few dead bodies on the floor, it was would make a dandy crime drama. And so I did. And Penance won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1996. I've been a crime writer ever since.
SE: You've been described as a modern noir writer. What do you think that means and do you agree?
DH: I think it means that I have taken the traditional trench-coat
detective--Philo Vance, Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Mike Hammer--and
given him 21st century sensibilities. Beyond that, I have no idea.
SE: Who are your favorite mystery writers? Anyone you have learned from?
DH: I think you learn from everyone you read. I've been greatly influenced by crime writers like James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, James Lee Burke, Ross Thomas, Donald E. Westlake, Ed McBain, and Lawrence Block. But I have also learned a lot from Kurt Vonnegut, E. L. Doctorow, Larry McMurtry, Patrick O'Brien, and Scott Fitzgerald.
SE: Penance was your first published novel and it won an Edgar. That's a tremendous achievement. Was it the first novel you wrote?
DH: It was my first finished novel. I had attempted to write books when I
was younger but they went nowhere. In fact--they sucked!--largely because when I
got out of college I didn't know anything.
SE: Can you explain your timing on Penance. How long did it take you to write it? Did you have an agent and how long did it take to sell?
DH: It took me a year to write the book (I was running my own advertising
agency--Gerber-Housewright--at the time and that slowed me down). It took another year to find an agent and a third to find a publisher who liked the book as much as we did. Such is the world of publishing.
SE: Penance is a political story, a theme that you return to often. It postulates the first woman governor of Minnesota and it was published in 1995. In it you create a remarkably corrupt cast of characters. In fact Pretty Girl Gone has a cabal of business leaders and influence peddlers
running the state's government. Did this theme grow from your years reporting?
How accurate a view of power and politics do you think it is?
DH: I believe it is inaccurate only in that it is much less organized than I made it out to be. The truth is that there are a lot of very rich and powerful men who are trying to "run" things and they're not always secretive about it (read the campaign donation lists and their names pop up all over the place). Yet they are nearly always concerned with their own self interest. They want what they want so they can become richer and more powerful than they already are. Beyond that they couldn't care less about government.
SE: Rushmore McKenzie and Holland Taylor are very similar characters, both ex-police, both unmarried, both investigators in Minneapolis/St Paul. What made you create McKenzie when you'd won an Edgar with Taylor? What are their differences? What can you do with McKenzie you couldn't do with Taylor?
DH: Taylor and McKenzie are significantly different from each other in
many ways including their motivation--Taylor was in it for the money, McKenzie
wants to make the world a better place. Yet, I can see how you might find them similar, and not only in the obvious facts you present. I write both of them, and as a result they both have my sensibilities.
SE: How much do you identify with them?
DH: This is a question all authors get--how much of you are in the characters and the answer is that I invented them so you can argue that they are all a part of me, even the bad guys.
SE: There are a number of things I admire about your writing. The first is the way you rarely give physical descriptions of your characters. I loved the scene in Madman on a Drum where McKenzie goes to a dangerous bar, Lehane's, and encounters six customers and a bartender. Your description is a sociological treatise. When you first started writing did you consciously avoid more conventional description? How long did it take you to create such gems?
DH: I try to give the reader only enough description as necessary to evoke the impression I want them to have. The description of Lehane's--which is a tip of my cap to Dennis, whom I like very much --was meant to let them know that this is a very dangerous place. Beyond that, I'm more than happy to let the reader fill in the blanks from their own experiences. Odds are they'll do a better job than me, anyway. As for how long it takes--sometimes it comes easily, sometimes it doesn't.
SE: You also do a great job with thugs. I particularly like Big Joe and Little Joe in Highway 61. The characters are so larger than life, but as a reader I believed them, mainly because of Big Joe's love for his brother. I think inexperienced writers are afraid to draw characters too large. Do you have any advice on how to go big, but not too big?
DH: All you need to do--and this sounds much easier than it is--is to
portray your bad guys as "real people" who get up in the morning and go to bed
at night and in between live their lives with the same thirsts and hungers as
everyone else. Yes, they do terrible things. But they don't see it that way.
They don't believe they are bad guys.
SE: I especially like your women characters. C. C. Monroe feels like a
classic noir woman but she works perfectly with the ultra modern Marion Senske.
In fact Penance is peopled with stunning female characters, as is
Highway 61. And Shelby and Nina and Cynthia Grey and Erica? What is your
inspiration for so many nuanced and multi-faceted woman?
DH: I've been told by many people that I write strong female characters,
but I don't see it that way. I think I write strong characters, period. If my
female characters stand out from those created by, say, John D. MacDonald and
Mickey Spillane, it is because I have more respect for women than they did and
that simply comes from the women I've known in my life, those I went to college
with, those I dated, my wife, my mom. I don't tell myself I'm going to write a
strong female character. I say, I'm going to write an honest female character.
SE: In Penance Taylor makes up character lists for several people. Do you do that for your characters?
DH: Sometimes. It depends on the character and how important he or she is to the book.
SE: One of the greatest strengths of both series is your setting. How do you work that? Do you use a real map of Minneapolis/St. Paul? Are Spaghetti Junction and Dayton's Bluff and Tin City real places? What about Lehane's? I was wondering if that bar was a nod to the writer Dennis Lehane?
DH: Every place I write about in my books actually exists. I've been there. I will, on occasion, change the name and location for plot reasons--and to avoid getting sued--but they are all real, including Lehane's, which I named after Dennis because it's the kind of joint that he likes to write about. I believe in the old saying--"If you were from where they are from, and you were taught what they are taught, you'd believe what they believe." I carefully use my settings to give readers a sense of what Minnesota and the Twin Cities are like and to give them an idea of the kind of people that live there. It is essential to telling my stories.
SE: I think your love for your cities is most clearly expressed in
Jelly's Gold. How accurate is the history of Minneapolis/St Paul in that
book? Was it in fact a safety zone for criminals during prohibition? And are
the stories of legendary criminals in that book true?
DH: Everything I wrote about in Jelly's Gold concerning the gangsters and the people who lived among them in St. Paul from 1900 to about 1934 is true! I merely changed some of the names to fit my story. I spent months doing the research.
SE: To the extent that families are important to your heroes you are as
far away from a noir writer as anyone can get. In fact family seems to be a major theme, particularly in the McKenzie books. Do you feel you have any other themes? Have you ever written a book to make a point?
DH: The best crime novels have always been about more than who killed Mr. Body in the library with a candlestick. You ask have I ever written a book to make a point--hell, I hope that all my books make a point because I certainly intend them to. Jelly's Gold is about the moral compromises society makes to protect its safety. The citizens of St. Paul allowed the worst criminals to live among them as long as they committed no crimes within the city limits. And it worked. For 35 years St. Paul was one of the safest cities in America. It ended only when the criminals turned against them. The Taking of Libbie, SD is about the decline and depopulation of the Great Plain states and the
desperation of people who live in towns that are literally melting away beneath their feet. Highway 61, as you point out, is about family and how people will protect members of their family regardless of how undeserving they are (Erica and her father, the Joes and each other).
SE: Your pacing is remarkable. There's a wonderful scene in Madman on a Drum during which McKenzie goes into a bank to collect a million dollars for a ransom and you describe in great detail that complete process. The scene doesn't advance the story, and ends with a joke. Later we see McKenzie in a warehouse with the banker and watch the employees processing the money while McKenzie reflects on the case. I was struck by how much nerve it took to basically stop the action at that point and how well it worked. How do you know when a joke is worth it? How do you know what to tell in detail and what to summarize? Any rule of thumb?
DH: I disagree when you say that the action stopped while McKenzie was
gathering the ransom. There was a time limit after all and things were moving very fast. Besides, the worst moments in cases like this are when people are waiting for something to happen and I wanted to express that. The point of the sequences you mentioned was to let people know how it all works--you don't just walk into a bank and ask for $1 million in fifties and twenties and then carry it all out in an attaché case like they do on TV. I wanted people to know this is what happens when you kidnap a child and demand a ransom.
SE: I have read a number of your books and not one sags in the middle. Do you have any secrets to share? Do you have a way of thinking of the structure of your books that keeps them moving so well?
DH: Very simple--if a scene doesn't move the story along or reveal something significant about the major protagonists, take it out.
SE: What inspires you to start a book, what do you need to begin such a big task?
DH: Going back to an earlier question, the first thing I do is decide what the story is about. For example, once I decided that Curse of the Jade Lily, due out in April, 2012, was about how victims of a crime sometimes work to protect the criminals that harm them, it became much easier to plot.
SE: Guppies are always interested in the writing process. Do you outline or just write? About how long does it take you to finish a book? How many drafts do you do? Do you edit as you go along?
DH: I outline, but it is a very informal and changeable process; I do not
force myself to follow it. And I edit as I go along--there is no first or second
draft. One thing I insist on--what I would forcefully recommend to all writers--is knowing how the book ends before I begin. From a practical standpoint, it helps you shape the elements of the book so that you have a satisfying and impactful conclusion. Also, I believe the ending of a book goes a long way toward revealing to the reader what the book is about. Just as important, it tells the writer what the book is about.
SE: Have you ever been blocked? How do you handle that?
DH: I have never in my life experienced writer's block. I suspect it is
because I do outline, because I do have an idea where the book is going before I
begin. I have never stared at my screen and asked, "now what?"
SE: Are there any how-to writing books you would recommend?
DH: No. The best way to learn how to write a book is to actually sit down
and write a book.
SE: Do you have any advice for the unpublished among us?
DH: Don't quit. The difference between me and you is that I will find a way to finish the book. On the day my father died, I wrote three pages. They were lousy pages and I tossed them out, but I wrote them. Most wannabes will find a way not to finish the book--the job is a hassle, the kids are a handful, my mother is ill, I'm having trouble in my marriage, golf doesn't play itself. Finish the book and then find a publisher who likes it as much as you. It isn't easy. But it is simple. And if I can do it, so can you.
e-mail David Housewright