Reed Farrel Coleman, interviewed by Megan Abbott
Over the years, the NorCal East Bay chapter of Mystery Readers International has had many "At Homes"—intimate evenings with favorite mystery writers. We've hosted Anne Perry, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, Janet LaPierre, Sharan Newman, Laurie King, Rochelle Krich, Carolyn Hart, James Ellroy, Steven Saylor, Janet Evanovich, Eddie Muller, Taffy Cannon, and many others.
These events are held in private homes, and they're similar to Literary Salons. Since so many of our cyber members and friends aren't able to attend these intimate evenings, I thought it would be fun to have a "visiting" author each month interviewed by another "visiting" author. This month we feature Reed Farrel Coleman, interviewed by Megan Abbott.
Reed Farrel Coleman grew up in Brooklyn, and in many ways, he never left. Now, as the author of the Moe Praeger series, he returns to his roots geographically and stylistically, touching on the books that first sparked his interest.
Reed was the first Coleman, in his family as those who preceded him were Cohens! Hence the explanation of the great Irish name for a good Jewish boy. Reed began writing what he calls "run-of-the-mill overwrought, teenage poetry" when he was in high school; in college, he worked on the school literary magazine. After school, Reed got a job in the air freight business. In the cargo area at Kennedy International Airport, Reed met several of the colorful people who help inspire the complex characters who appear in the pages of his books. It was also during this period that he met and married. "Rosanne and I met in a writing class, so she always knew that's where my heart was." When, out of boredom, Reed took an evening class in detective fiction at Brooklyn College, his fate was sealed.
Reed's first novel, Life Goes Sleeping, was published by Permanent Press in 1991. In 2001, deciding he'd never make a sufficient income as a writer, Reed went into the home heating oil business. Just at this precise moment, his fourth novel for Permanent Press, Walking the Perfect Square, was receiving rave reviews in Publishers Weekly and The New York Times Book Review. Plume purchased the paperback rights to Walking the Perfect Square. Subsequent to that purchase, Reed signed a two-book deal with Viking Press and Plume for his series featuring former NYPD cop Moe Prager. The latest Prager book, Soul Patch, was published by Bleak House Books in May 2007.
You are frequently praised for your characterization. Is it the most important thing to you in crafting a novel? Setting/atmosphere/plot/ pacing/dialogue—how do you rank these in terms of importance as a writer? As a reader?
Reed Farrel Coleman: My answer to this question today is very different than it would have been at the start of my career. Initially, my writing was all about character, atmosphere and tone—which, for me, are intimately related to setting—and dialogue. While I maintain that these factors are still most important to my work, I have come to appreciate the value of solid plotting and pacing. Readers may forget the plot the second they close the book and the characters may live on in their heads until the day they die, but unless you give the reader reasons to turn the page and a solid foundation upon which to hang the characterizations, you aren't doing your job.
MA: Do you see your characters in your head? Would you be able to spot Moe on the street?
RFC: Yes, I absolutely see the characters in my head. Sometimes, their faces are the first thing I see, but that's the exception. Usually, their physical appearance is an extension of the voices I imagine for them. Physical appearance can be a function of the dialogue I write for them or the sound of their voices. I know exactly what Moe looks like. There's an actor who is perfect for the role, but I won't ruin it for everyone by giving Moe that actor's face. For the readers, Moe should appear as they imagine him, not as I do.
MA: Why did you choose to have Moe married? Why do you think it's still the exception to have a married PI?
I'm not certain it was as calculated when I began to write the series as I remember it, but I did know that I wanted to turn Marlowe and Scudder on their ears. As I've said, as you've heard me say, the gun-toting, divorced or single Christian, alcoholic, white guy, loner PI character has been done as well as it could be done. Yet, there is just something so appealing to me about that kind of character. I challenged myself to write a character like Marlowe and Scudder, but one who was happily—for the most part—married, one who had good source of income beyond his PI work, but was still an everyman. The challenge, as I found out writing Walking the Perfect Square, was not in creating such a character, but making him compelling. That's always the challenge though, isn't it? Married PIs are the exception because a spouse limits the possibilities. But I've found that limiting the possibilities makes you work harder and helps avoid falling into cliché.
MA: Do your characters ever surprise you?
RFC: Every single day. That's why I keep doing this. If it was a known equation where all you had to do was to fill in X and Y to get Z, I'd have quit a long time ago. I live for the characters to surprise me and assert themselves.
MA: What's more challenging to write: action scenes or sex scenes?
RFC: Sex scenes, hands down. You have to walk such an interesting line between titillation and pornography, between excitement and cliché. I used to write more sex scenes in my earlier books. I had this one female fan who remembered the pages they were on. She said once, and I quote, "I just love page 111."
MA: I know you're a fan of Deadwood and The Wire. Why do you think so much exciting crime narrative is occurring on TV?
RFC: A huge fan of both. Channels like HBO and F/X let the writers write. They trust the writers to know what makes for good drama. Also, TV gives a show time to breathe, to have long story arcs and to develop characters.
MA: You were nominated for a slew of awards for The James Deans. What has the impact been on you and/or your writing?
RFC: Strangely, there's been little real impact. I was very honored to have been nominated and to have won the awards, but, in the end, they are things that have little to do with the process of writing or with contracts. It's about the number of books sold, not the number of awards the author has garnered. I do get asked for blurbs now all the time.
MA: If you could go back and rewrite any part of any of your books, which part/book and how?
RFC: I try not to be a regretter and rue mistakes I've made. I suppose there are parts in all my books I'd like to have a second chance at, but I don't lose sleep over it. I guess I regret not having fought harder with my editor at Viking to keep Redemption Street in its original form. I've gotten the rights back and have been toying with the notion of restoring the book to its original form. It was a much grittier, more thought provoking book as I wrote it than how it appeared in print. We'll see.
MA: If you weren't a writer, how would you spend all the time you now spend writing?
RFC: Being fucking miserable and earning a respectable wage.
MA: What's the most unusual/surprising thing a reader has said to you about your books?
RFC: That they make good door stops! I suppose it's when a reader says that I've made them cry. Think about that for a minute.
MA: What are the most underrated and overrated crime novels?
RFC: Underrated is easy: Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell. That that book is out of print is in itself a crime. As far as overrated, I won't criticize a living author. The job's hard enough and we all get enough shit from the rest of the world without us jabbing at each other in public. But I won't avoid the question completely. I love Hammett's writing now more than I did when I first read it, but I don't think much of The Thin Man.
MA: Why do you think the private eye novel persists? How do you get around (because you so clearly do) the challenge of the private eye novel, given the common structure: a string of conversations?
RFC: Oy! Do I have like 30 pages to answer that one? It would be easier if they all just went out and bought The James Deans or Soul Patch. I think the form persists because the energy of the PI novel derives from the struggle of the one against the many, the citizen against the state, the search for justice as opposed to convenience, the search for truth as opposed to justice. The PIs authority stems not from the state but from his or her own code. It's the story of the little man (or woman). It's Don Quixote. It's High Noon. We need these kinds of flawed heroes because, as readers, we can see ourselves in them. When will the appeal of that ever fade?
MA: You are a big Raymond Chandler fan and have said that The Little Sister is your favorite. Why that one.
RFC: Mostly because it's too easy to say The Long Goodbye. Besides, The Long Goodbye, for me, anyway, is more of a love story—between Terry [Lennox] and Marlowe—than a detective novel. Ask me tomorrow and I'll say Farewell, My Lovely. I will never say Playback.
MA: How has Chandler influenced (or not influenced) your writing?
RFC: He was, rather his writing was, my template. I was trained to write poetry and many exercises we did in class had to do with imitation of voice. For instance, we'd rewrite poems written originally by one poet in the voice of a very different poet. I remember writing William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" in T.S. Eliot's voice. Imitating actual voices is, as you know, a talent I possess, although Rich Little has nothing to fear from me. So my early books are very much an imitation of the Chandler voice. Over the years, that has waned. However, other aspects of Chandler have persisted in my work: Setting as character and tone are things I lifted from Chandler.
MA: Other than books, what influences your writing?
RFC: It would be easier to answer what didn't. Everything has the ability to influence my work.
MA: What do you think of the end of Coney Island as we know it after this summer?
RFC: Funny you should ask that. I was too young to remember the Dodgers moving out of Brooklyn and when they tore down Ebbetts Field, it didn't really mean that much to me. When they tear down Coney Island, it will be the Dodgers leaving and the razing of Ebbetts Field rolled into one. Coney Island is not only central to my work, but it has been to my life. When I was young, my dad got very ill. Between his sickness, his work and his own demons, we shared very little time together. But he would sometimes take me Coney Island and ride the rides with me, even though he wasn't supposed to. When I was a teenager, my best times were spent with my friends at Nathan's, riding the Cyclone, walking the boardwalk. For me it will be like tearing down a cathedral to put up a parking garage.
MA: If you could have dinner with three literary characters living or dead, who would they be? What would the evening be like?
RFC: Do you mean characters or writers? I'll answer that several ways.
Poets: Drinks and burgers at the White Horse in the Village with William Blake, T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Blake would see flaming angels in the light fixtures. Eliot would have trouble deciding what to order and Stevens would try and sell me insurance.
Fiction: Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Chandler, and Shakespeare at Katz's Deli on the Lower East Side. Vonnegut would order pastrami on club with a celery soda and Shakespeare would order kishka and matzoh ball soup. Chandler wouldn't order, but would bitch about why he and Ezra Pound weren't invited to drink at the White Horse with their fellow anti-Semite, T.S. Eliot.
Literary Characters: Daisy Buchanan, Holden Caufield and Lady Lazarus, three of the most annoying characters in the history of the English language. I'd take them to a clam bar in Sheepshead Bay and listen to them whine before tossing them into the bay.
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