Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Interview with Sean Chercover, author of BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD

Sean Chercover is an ex-journalist, ex-PI, ex-film editor who’s finally settled into a far more stable profession: crime writing. His debut, Big City, Bad Blood (referred to as BC, BB for brevity’s sake), has garnered fantastic reviews across the board and proves that the PI genre, contrary to popular opinion, isn’t dead yet. It’s a hardboiled tale of corruption, detection, the movie industry and those cold, cold Chicago winds (although they ain’t got nothing on those cold, cold Tayside winds).

I first met Sean at the Chicago Bouchercon in 2005, where I said hello, shook his hand and puked on his shoes. Yeah, everything you hear about those ‘cons is bang on the money.

For whatever reason, he still talked to me, and thank Goodness for that because it means I got to know one of the best new writers in the business right before his big break.

Sean’s enthusiasm for the crime genre – and for good storytelling – is evident not only in his work but in conversation. But we don’t care about that – we just love the idea that a Mexican waiter once told him out of the blue that he looked like Mel Gibson (anything for a cheap joke round here).

Doug told me, if he starts talking about international Jewish conspiracies, or calls anyone “Sugartits” I should walk out.

Which is hard to do over the internet.

RUSSEL McLEAN: Sean, welcome to the CSS interview.

SEAN CHERCOVER: Thanks for having me.

RM: We tried to get Mel Gibson, but for some reason he wouldn't let us anywhere near him, so we decided to get a look-a-like instead. And, of course, unlike Mel, you know what noir is all about (and you generally don't go on crazy religious rants).

SC: There was a time when I would've been flattered by the comparison, but I don't lie to myself as well as I used to. Anyone who makes me for a Mel Gibson look-a-like is blind in one eye and can't see out of the other. Mel and I do, however, share one thing in common. We both know that THE BUDDHISTS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR ALL THE WARS IN THE WORLD!! Damn Buddhist warmongers.

Please excuse that last outburst. It was the booze talking. Of course, I have nothing against the Buddhists.

RM: And they’ve got nothing against you… except the court order…

BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD – which, I tell you, is miles better than APOCOLYPTO - automatically appealed to me because, as anyone who reads the site regularly knows, I’m a big fan of PI fiction. One of the things I always look for is a level of realism. Ray Dudgeon – apart from having a tough guy name – strikes me as a believable PI: not exactly a “have-a-go” weekend hero, he's a real guy doing a real job

SC: I'm glad you like Ray's tough-guy name. He actually had quite a few names on the way to becoming Ray Dudgeon. I almost went with Cecil Girlypants, but it wasn't quite tough enough.

RM: Aside from getting the name right, it was obviously important to create this level of believability in Ray as an investigator…

SC: It was important to make Ray believable. Like you said, “a real guy doing a real job”. I didn't want to create him as a 'white knight' who always does right and wins every fight. I sometimes enjoy reading those sort of PI heros, but I'm usually more interested in reading (and writing) about the murky grey area where real life takes place.

In BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD, Ray is offered a bodyguard job - protecting a guy who thinks the Outfit want him dead. So Ray goes to his contact within the Outfit and says, basically, "Look, if you guys want this guy dead, I won't take the case." That's not a very 'white knight' thing to do, but it is very realistic. The way Ray looks at it, if the mob wants this guy dead, then he's dead, and nothing will be served by Ray getting dead along with him. He'll simply tell the guy to develop a case of amnesia and refuse to testify against the guy on trial.

RM: Even though you claim you didn't want him to do the right thing every time I think there's still a morality to Ray. Something at his heart that knows what the right thing is. He's not a bad or amoral man. But he is a man, with all the contradiction and complications that implies. Which is a great thing for a character. It’s, I suppose, the Chandlerian archetype given that extra degree of humanity and fallibility.

Sticking with the PI as reality theme, there's a great sequence where Ray talks about selling the image of the PI to his clients. I know that you were an investigator yourself for a while, and I'm guessing this sequence comes from experience? Is there a gulf between the fictional PI and the real deal? And are there any crime writers who come close to capturing the real experience of the work?

SC: When I began working as a P.I., I got some good advice from a Chicago P.I. named Ernie Rizzo. Ernie gave me the tip about selling the image to the client (you can read a little more here). He was very helpful to me when I was just starting out, and years later, he gave me a nice blurb for BC,BB. He died last year, just as we were starting to work together on his autobiography. Bummer.

Anyway, yes there is a huge gulf between the fictional P.I. and the real deal. And in many ways, there should be. These books are fiction, after all. Your first obligation is to the story, not to portraying reality. I think when we talk about wanting books to be realistic, we really mean that we want them to be plausible. And there are some writers who write about the work in a very plausible way. The first that springs to mind is Loren Estleman, with his Amos Walker series. The way Walker works a case is very believable and certainly captures the feeling of the job. Bill Pronzini's Nameless detective series also does that very well.

RM: I suppose I'll have to cop here to never having read Estleman. These interviews show up the gaps in my education, sometimes... but Nameless, bloody hell, I love Pronzini's work (and I think you can definitely see the influence of these classic 'tecs in BC,BB)

SC: Yeah, Pronzini is impressive. And since you've confessed, so will I… I'd actually never read a Nameless book until this year. People used to talk about the great Nameless Detective books and I always assumed they were talking about the books by Derek Raymond (one of my all-time favorites) who wrote a series about a London police detective who was nameless. A couple of years ago, I learned that they were talking about a different Nameless. And this year, I finally read one. And then another...and another...and another...great stuff. You should definitely read Estleman's Amos Walker. Different, of course, but also a very authentic vibe.

RM: I suppose that the gap between fiction and reality is that the best fiction is "hyper-real" or an idealised version of reality. Which means that your basic 'tec on the page has to have a far more exciting life than the real thing...

SC: More exciting, yes, and definitely less complicated. A few examples...

- In real life, you work mostly for lawyers. The woman who thinks her husband is cheating doesn't usually hire you; her divorce attorney hires you. You pin your business card on cork-boards in bars and laundromats and community centers, and yes, once in a while, the damsel in distress comes to you. But it's mostly lawyers, insurance companies, and so on. Less dramatic, but that's the way it is.

- A real PI rarely works one case at a time. Again, once in a while, someone will hire you to work one case exclusively, but that's pretty rare, except when a case takes you out of town, or you're on an executive protection or secure courier gig. Usually, you're juggling at least a few cases at a time, but that's too unwieldy for a novel.

- Time compression. Cases often stall. Sometimes you've got an open file for months, with very little activity. And even when a case doesn't stall, it usually unfolds over a longer period of time in reality than in fiction. Which leads me to...

- Boredom. Sure, in fiction we get a few scenes of the P.I. sitting in his car on a long surveillance, bored out of his mind. But it would be tedious to draw it out to reflect how it is in reality. I mean, you can just sit there, day after day after day, week after week, swallowing caffeine pills and eating beef jerky (and switching cars regularly - something else they don't often do in the books) and it can begin to feel like the movie Groundhog Day - except you don't get to learn how to play the piano or make ice sculptures. The books don't even come close to the tedium of a long surveillance where nothing happens. If they did, they’d put readers to sleep.

- Resolution. You do your job, you get paid, you move on. Your job is not to find the Ultimate Truth and bring all Bad Men to justice. Your job is to uncover sufficient facts for your client to achieve his or her objective. Once you do that, the job is over. And sometimes you can see that there's a lot more going on, but you're not being paid to pull those threads. You just have to let it go and move on. A few of the books hint at this, but they usually wrap things up in a neat little package, maybe leaving only a few, relatively unimportant threads dangling to make the point. Real life is WAY messier that that.

RM: Talking about reality (hey, it’s a famously patented McLean tenuous link!), one of the other things about BC,BB that got me was your obvious love of Chicago... You bring it to life in the novel… when I was reading, I got kinda nostalgic for a place I’d spent, what, all of three days in! What is it that draws you to the city? I mean, the Outfit connections aside, what made you fall in love with the city enough to use it as such an effective backdrop for the novel?

SC: I first moved to Chicago in January 1987. January. Chicago. F***ing cold, man. And I moved here from South Carolina, so the change was extreme. But it was love at first sight. Beautiful city, awesome architecture, incredibly rich history of crime and corruption, as well as art and science and commerce. Great live music scene, blues, jazz, reggae, you name it. And when it's not trying to freeze you to death, it's got amazing lakefront parks, neighborhoods, vibrant street life. Great baseball town. Incredible energy and maddening contradictions. I just immediately felt at home here. When I started writing BCBB, I'd been away from the city for a while, and I was missing it terribly. So the book is almost a love letter to Chicago.

RM: Of course the first time I ever heard the name “Chercover” was in Chicago... I seem to remember it was at that B'Con (or shortly after) where you made the deal for BC, BB. So Chicago is paying you back in spades for that love letter (gotta say I love the city - that was my first Bouchercon and I remember I wished I'd stayed beyond so I could see more of Chicago itself)...

SC: I signed my contract with HarperCollins just before the Chicago Bouchercon. We had a deal months earlier, but it takes some time to iron out details and get lawyers to approve everything. The process was amazing to me. My agent told me we had a deal, and my reaction was, "When do I see the contract?" because, coming from the television industry, I didn't believe anything that isn't on paper. And she said, "Welcome to the publishing world. We said we have a deal, we have a deal." And of course we did. So, in the end, New York is paying me for my love letter to Chicago. But you should come back to Chi-town some time and let me show you around.

RM: You know I’ll be back to take you up on that!

Talking of that Bouchercon, reminds me that I heard some very odd stories about how you actually got your agent in the first place... most people go around leaving polite queries in inboxes but as I understand it you took out an ad in the Toronto Bouchercon handbook... takes some balls and a twisted brain to come up with a plan like that, surely?

SC: Okay. . .I guess I should set the record straight on this, since I've heard the story told back to me and I've read it on blogs, and there seems to be some 'broken telephone' thing at work.

Here's what I did:

I'd just finished my manuscript and the Toronto B'con was coming up. Ray Dudgeon (my protag) is a disillusioned newspaper reporter turned private eye. So I had some reporters notebooks made, with custom covers designed by my wife - the title of the book at the top, the Chicago skyline, and "A new crime novel by Sean Chercover, a new author seeking representation" at the bottom. Then I got the list of registered B’con attendees, and read about the attending agents in the Writers Digest Guide to Literary Agents. I picked about 16 agents who seemed like a good fit, and wrote a cover letter - basically the same query letter I was going to send out by mail, but with an introductory paragraph explaining that the notebook was a bribe to try and get their attention and avoid the slush pile. Then I found out which hotels the agents were staying in, packaged my letters and notebooks, and had them delivered to the agents' hotel rooms. That was step one.

Step two: Never being one to shy away from overkill, I took an ad out in the B'con program book. The ad was extremely tongue-in-cheek, kind of a carnival barker over-the-top sales pitch. A "Step right up, you lucky agents" kind of thing, with about a thousand exclamation marks. It was supposed to make people smile, and send the message that I wasn't taking myself too seriously. What totally floored me was that some people didn't get the irony of the ad, and I got some very negative feedback from folks.

But not from agents. The agents got it, thank goodness. After the conference was over, I went home and started sending out query letters to agents, the old fashioned way. A week later, I started getting e-mails from a few of the agents who'd received notepads at the conference. Basically, "Hey thanks for the notepad, send me the first two chapters," sort of thing. So I started sending out partials, while getting rejection letters from the queries that went out by mail. And a few agents wrote who had not gotten notepads, but had seen the ad in the program book and thought it funny. So I sent partials to them, as well. But I did not actually get my agent from the ad - I don't think she even saw the ad. She was one of the agents who'd gotten a notepad.

Bouchercon was in October, and I officially had an agent by the first week of January. So my harebrained scheme worked. Yet I still get negative feedback from other writers who say that I "disrespected the process". Whatever. I intended no disrespect and the agents who asked for partials did not feel disrespected and I ended up with a great agent and a great publisher, so bite me.

RM: While I haven't met your agent, she's gotta be good to get you your publisher - you're in distinguished company... but its pretty clear that the writing is what got you into this position rather than any tricky sales pitches...

And that's a pretty awkward segue into talking about writing for a bit, specifically how you approach your work... Obviously you worked on BC,BB for a while and I'm kinda curious, because its led almost equally by action and character, whether you're a plot-it-out kinda guy or a "seat of the pants" scribbler?

SC: Going in, I need to know my ending, and what I call the 10 or 15 "tentpole" scenes (because, like tentpoles, they hold up the plot and without them, the story would collapse). But I don't need (or want) to know everything that's going to happen along the way. And as I go along, I'm open to changing the ending and any tentpole scenes. While writing BC,BB I did change the ending (although not dramatically), and I did change many of the tentpole scenes (dramatically). When that happens, I stop and restructure, making sure all the necessary tentpoles are in place before diving back in.

But the question is an interesting one, and it raises the relationship between plot and character. With a grand total of one book under my belt, I'm hardly in a position to pontificate, but for me, plot really is character in motion. I can't outline a novel in minute detail, because I don't fully know all the characters until I start writing them. And if the process of getting to know the characters doesn't change the plot, then it's probably not a plot with any depth to it. I'm generally not attracted to "High Concept" plots, either as a reader or a writer.

RM: The "trim bin" concept is pretty intriguing to me - I assume you may even come back to some of these ideas and notes on other stories if it seems appropriate...

SC: Absolutely. The Trim Bin also makes it a little easier to "kill your darlings." Those beloved scenes, witty exchanges of dialogue and beautiful descriptive passages that have no business being in your novel are easier to cut, because they aren't really dead and gone, they're just 'resting' in the Trim Bin.

RM: This clearly comes from your background as a film editor... the job relating to a novelist in terms of the need to concisely and clearly convey a sequence of events (or story)... which makes me wonder if you perceive a difference between telling a story in film and in prose? Of course, knowing my luck you'll answer this one with a straight "no"! Although I think that telling a story in film can lead to a clearer narrative - with prose, that extra "internal" dimension is often what leads to sluggishness - something I believe you avoid in BC, BB.

SC: I think there are enormous differences between telling a story in film and in prose. Working in film and television teaches strict economy. You can't afford to waste words. You can't afford flabby dialogue, bad expository dialogue, or “on the nose” dialogue. You have to start every scene at the latest best moment, and end every scene at the earliest best moment.

Working as a picture cutter really drives these lessons home. Editors like to say that the edit is the final re-write of the script. It is in the cutting room that the script writer's last self-indulgent "darlings" are exposed and put mercifully to death. And the cutting room is the last chance to get the pacing right.

So I tend to write tight. Most new authors say that their agents and editors asked them to cut their manuscripts down to a manageable size. I had the opposite experience. My manuscript was 86,000 words when I got an agent. She said she understood that Ray was psychologically damaged and had an emotional wall, which was fine when he was relating to the other characters, but that I needed to let the reader into Ray's head a little more. Which was an excellent note. And then when we got a publishing deal, my editor at William Morrow wanted to see a little more of Ray's relationship with his girlfriend, and a little more of his backstory, so that added more words. I think the final book is just over 95,000 words. So my newbie experience was the opposite of most, and I attribute that to the economy I learned writing end editing film and television.

But it's a double-edged sword. Writing for the screen can lead you to write too visually, while ignoring the other senses. So I have to remind myself to engage all the senses. Don't just see it and hear it, but feel it, smell it, taste it. And while I agree with you that the "internal" dimension, when overused, leads to sluggishness, you can also err in the other direction (as I believe I did before getting my agent's and editor's notes).

Although this process works for me, I'm not at all convinced that having to add words during the re-writing process is objectively superior to having to cut. What do you think?

RM: Personally, I'm a fan of shorter works... not cool in modern crime writing, I know, with all these doorstoppers (since when was 80,000 words short? Huh?)… but... a good book is as long as it has to be. Luckily, I think BC,BB is pretty much the right length...

SC: Nice of you to say. And I share your preference. I realize that there's a market trend favoring doorstopers, but I like 'em lean and mean; no wasted words.

Case-in-point: Ken Bruen, a hero of mine and of many others who know great writing when it walks up and punches them in the eye. God, that man is a genius. He packs so much characterization, so much emotion, into so few words . . . truly amazing.

RM: One last question before we go... but it serves as a coda to our conversation earlier about fictional PIs and the real life... people keep sounding the death knell of the PI genre... yet BC,BB and other books keep disproving this myth... do you think there's any truth to the rumour and if not what do you think it is that appeals to readers about the PI in fiction?

SC: I don't buy it for a second. The PI novel will continue to wax and wane, but it won't die. The last time the PI novel was universally declared "dead" was just after the collapse of the counter-culture, during the Nixon administration. We were mired in a long and ill-conceived war, the president was using the constitution for toilet paper, the government was spying on its citizens, and conformity was the order of the day. This time, we are mired in a long and ill-conceived war, the president is using the constitution for toilet paper, the government is spying on its citizens, and conformity is the order of the day. Forgive me if I see a parallel.

The fictional PI is a deeply ingrained part of the American myth. He (or she – as there are many great female PIs) is not an outlaw, but lives on the edges of the law, and is ultimately a misfit in society. Legally sanctioned (barely) but willing to break the law when the law is wrong (and sometimes when the law is not wrong). In the best PI fiction, the world is not made up of Black Hats and White Hats, and the PI knows this. In the best PI fiction, those in positions of authority and power are sometimes morally inferior to your average whore or junkie, and the PI knows this, too. He disdains hypocrisy, and is not a follower. He disdains authority, and is utterly unfit for work as a cop or prosecuting attorney.

Does this sound like a hero for an Age Of Conformity? Not so much. But well-written PI novels will continue to be published during this time. And when our society moves past this ugly conformist era, the PI novel will again enjoy a resurgence in popularity.

Or perhaps I'm mistaken. . .

RM: I sure hope not… And as writers like Ken Bruen and Ray Banks have proven in the last few years, the PI isn’t even just an American archetype… that non-conformist with his own sense of justice can cross cultures, too…

SC: Good point. I didn’t mean to imply that the PI is just American. But virtually all of those who’ve declared the PI “dead” are American, from what I’ve seen, and the PI occupies a much larger share of American popular culture than of any other.

But yes, the PI is international, and I think some of the excellent PI novels coming from “across the pond” have helped to expand what is possible within the form and keep it vital. In addition to the authors you motioned, just look at what John Connolly has done with his PI, Charlie Parker. Parker is American, but Connolly brings an Irish sensibility to the work that has, without question, broadened the landscape.

Big City, Bad Blood is available now from Amazon, chain bookstores and good ol’ fashioned independents. We’re assured a sequel is on the way and if you need any more reason to seek it out, check out our review right here…

For more on Sean, check out http://www.chercover.com/. Tell ‘im the boys from Crime Scene Scotland sent ya…