Monday, April 4, 2011

Interview -- Loren D. Estleman

Since the appearance of his first novel in 1976, Loren D. Estleman has written more than 65 books and hundreds of short stories and articles. Among those books: Writing the Popular Novel, from Writer's Digest Books; the second in a new series featuring Estleman's Los Angeles film detective, Valentino (Alone, featuring Greta Garbo, December 2009); American Detective (the nineteenth Amos Walker novel, April 2007); The Adventures of Johnny Vermillion (a rollicking comic western, May 2006); the Spur award-winning The Undertaker's Wife (2005); and a novel about hanging judge Isaac Parker, The Branch and the Scaffold (April 2009). 

There are several short stories in the hopper, and proposals for future novels in both the mystery and historical western genres. He recently finished writing a historical crime novel, which is his largest project to date, and is currently working on another Valentino novel.

All of this on a manual typewriter, no less.

Estleman has received fan letters from such notables as John D. MacDonald, The Amazing Kreskin, Mel Tormé, and Steve Forbes. He has acquired a loyal cult readership across the United States and in Europe, and his work has appeared in 23 languages.

An authority on both criminal history and the American West, Estleman has been called the most critically acclaimed author of his generation. He has been nominated for the National Book Award, and the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award.

He has received seventeen national writing awards: four Shamuses from the Private Eye Writers of America, five Spurs from the Western Writers of America, two American Mystery Awards from Mystery Scene Magazine, two Outstanding Mystery Writer of the Year awards from Popular Fiction Monthly, two Stirrup Awards for outstanding articles in the Western Writers of America magazine, The Roundup,Nicotine Kiss was named a Notable Book by the Library of Michigan, and three Western Heritage Awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. In 1987, the Michigan Foundation of the Arts presented him with its award for literature. In 1997, the Michigan Library Association named him the recipient of the Michigan Author's Award. 

In 1993, Estleman was Guest of Honor at the Southwest Mystery Convention in Austin, Texas. He was Honored Guest at Eyecon '99 (Private Eye Writers of America Convention), held in St. Louis in July of that year. In June 2001, he was Guest of Honor (the first American chosen) at the Bloody Words Convention in Toronto, Canada.

He has been a judge for many literary honors, including the prestigious Hopwood Award given by the University of Michigan. He has written book reviews for many newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, and in 1988 he covered the filming of Lonesome Dove for TV Guide.

He's worked hard to get where he is, beginning in the unheated upstairs of the 1867 Michigan farmhouse where he was raised. His fondest childhood memory is that of curling up in his robe with a mug of hot chocolate in front of the television to enjoy such grand western series as Maverick and Gunsmoke.

When he was fifteen years old, he sent out his first short story for publication. Over the next eight years, he collected 160 rejections. He attributes his tenacity to ego, and he's earned that, too. He and his brown-bag lunch commuted to Eastern Michigan University to cut expenses after his father was disabled and his mother went to work to support the family.

Estleman often says he's not a fast writer. He is, however, consistent, spending an average of six hours a day at his typewriter. He polishes as he goes, consuming a prodigious amount of cheap typing paper; a process he refers to as "writing for the wastebasket."

His favorite writers -- and those who have inspired his work -- include Jack London, Edgar Allan Poe, W. Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, and Edith Wharton.

A sought-after speaker and a veteran journalist of police-beat news, Estleman graduated from Eastern Michigan University in 1974 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature and Journalism. On April 27, 2002, EMU presented him with an honorary doctorate in letters. He left the job market in 1980 to write full time. He lives in Michigan and is married to writer Deborah Morgan.  (PHOTO AND BIO BY DEBORAH MORGAN)

Tell us about your new novel:

THE LEFT-HANDED DOLLAR finds Amos Walker being hired by a sharp lawyer, Lucille Lettermore--known as “Lefty Lucy” to her opponents in court--to investigate an old conviction against her client, mobster Joseph Ballista—“Joey Ballistic”--for bombing an investigative reporter's car. If she can clear him, he'll be a step closer to being released from his latest conviction. Trouble is, the victim who was maimed in that bombing is Barry Stackpole, Walker's only friend.

How is this novel different from your previous novels?
Early in the series, editors tried to get me to tell more about Walker's background; his failed police training, his divorce, the murder of his private-detective partner, etc. I resisted, because that would have clear-cut a forest I'd just planted. Every few books I revisit his past through new cases that touch upon it, fleshing out the character further and building a solid new foundation on which to build later books in the series. EVERY BRILLIANT EYE centered around his service in Cambodia during the Vietnamese War, SWEET WOMEN LIE brought his ex-wife back into his sphere, and THE HOURS OF THE VIRGIN explored his partner's murder. DOLLAR, in which his attempts to get to the bottom of Stackpole's attack jeopardizes his only real relationship, is one of those touchstones: A novel about a detective rather than a detective novel.

You write in multiple genres, do you feel like you have to defend yourself for writing genre fiction?

I never felt the need, partly because I also write mainstream, but mostly because the “mainstream novel” as most people define it is dead. Mysteries, westerns, romances, and science fiction have expanded to take on broader themes, explore deeper issues, and effectively hijack the themes and issues that once were exclusively the territory of fiction that defies categorization. Publishers worry about accepting non-genre work by new writers because it's harder to track sales records than it is with, say, fantasy/horror. The powerhouse mainstream authors are all aging, and so is their demographic; but all the categories I mentioned are going strong and continue to attract new readers by the fiscal quarter. The bottom line is I don't have to be defensive because no one's ever put me in that position.

Why do you write westerns?

They're fun. I love the research--my westerns are always solidly grounded in historical fact--and they represent a freedom of expression I don't always find in contemporary suspense. So many towns sprang up, thrived, then vanished, it's fully acceptable for me to make up my own town, and if I want the bank to be next to the general store, I can damn well put it there without having to look it up. I can't do that when I write about Detroit. And there's something deeply satisfying about having your character order a steak and a bottle without having to fret about his cholesterol or his liver.

Why do you write mysteries?

They're not westerns. When I’m tired of writing about horses and Colt Peacemakers, cars and automatic weapons offer a refreshing change of pace. (Conversely, westerns help me wind down from writing mysteries. I refer to this as literary crop rotation. The soil is always fresh and ready to plant.) The modern-day setting also lets me explore social issues that are most relevant to today's reader. The wonder of those two genres is I get to say anything I want, so long as I don't forget to throw in a gunfight or a car chase for those readers who pick up a western or a mystery looking for them specifically.
What are the difficulties and pleasures of writing a long-term series?

I have to go back frequently and read passages from earlier in the series to maintain consistency. It's very distracting, when you're reading a new book in a series you know well, to find that a character from the protagonist's past has changed names or eye color. What's neat about writing a long running series is you know your continuing characters so well they draw a lot of the fear out of starting a new book. It's like going to a party where you know one of the guests, who'll greet you at the door, put a drink in your hand, and introduce you around. Walker, Page Murdock, Peter Macklin, and Valentino are terrific ice-breakers.

When did you know you were a writer?

I'm not sure. I like to think I was born with a pencil in my hand, but I wouldn't wish a difficult birth like that on my mother. I started sending stories to magazines when I was fifteen. It took me eight years and 150 rejections to place anything--my first novel. By then I was pretty sure. Before that I spent twelve years studying art, only to realize in my third year in college that I was a mediocre artist.
What’s a work day like for you?

Up at 8:30, two cups of coffee, a glass of orange juice, and the newspaper, then at the typewriter by ten. An hour break for lunch and a walk, then back at it until I've got my five clean pages in, minimum. Polishing yesterday's work further is what warms me up for the next five.
What’s a day off like for you?

Reading, if the grass doesn't need cutting or the limbs trimming. But pushing a mower and swinging an axe are great releases too. I don't have to think about motivation or what happens next. Oh, maybe dismemberment.

If you could be anything other than a writer, what would it be?

A lounge singer.

Any advice for new writers, especially those considering self-publishing instead of taking the traditional route to publishing?

I'm not as judgmental about self-publishing as are some of my colleagues. Before the twentieth century, that was the mainstream; all the late-great writers from Shakespeare through Dickens were self-published. But I have no time for writers who go there directly without even trying the established publishers. This is the only business where you start at the top and work your way down. The worst an editor can say is no. And I'm as good a writer as I like to think I am in part because of editing. You can't perfect your craft if there's no one to point out your mistakes.

How do you define success?

Finding out the talent you were born with, acquiring the skill to put it into practice, and making a living at it.

What’s next for you?

I have another Amos Walker novel (No. 21), INFERNAL ANGELS, coming out in July. It has to do with the caliber of the people who have appointed themselves our protectors in these unsteady times. In 2012, Forge will publish a dream book I wanted to write for years: THE CONFESSIONS OF AL CAPONE. It takes place in Miami in 1944 and Chicago during the 1920s, and deals with a number of subjects I hold dear: bootleg liquor, machine guns, twelve-cylinder sedans, and the nature of corruption. This novel came in at 796 pages in manuscript, biggest thing I’ve ever done. But the subject needed a big canvas.


Phil Dunlap said...

Good interview with a darned fine author.

Matthew P. Mayo said...

Oh boy! I cannot wait to read THE CONFESSIONS OF AL CAPONE ... and all the other Estleman novels I've yet to read. Despite my best efforts, there are still quite a few. But I'm working on it....