The detective novelist is also a writer and producer on the HBO show Treme, the third season of which premiered on Sunday. Noah Charney talks to him about the many jobs he’s had.
You’ve had a number of jobs before writing: woman’s shoe salesman, line cook, dishwasher. How do these various jobs color your work as a writer?
I started working in my dad’s diner at 11, so I had 20 years of blue- and gray-collar work experience before I wrote my first novel. I had fun. It wasn’t like I was an undercover artist masquerading as a worker. I was paying the bills. I mine those experiences for my fiction to this day. But I think the greatest influence those jobs had on me was that they gave me my work ethic as a writer. I treat this as a job. When someone asks me what I do for a living, I say, “I’m a professional writer.” In a way, I think of myself as a small business owner. My office has doors on it, and I open my business every morning, just as my dad turned the key on his diner each and every day.
Your work has been described as quintessential of, and about, D.C. What do people mean when they say that? Did you set out to chronicle your hometown, or did it happen organically?
I realized from the beginning that there was a hole in Washington fiction. I had no interest in the political novel or the spy thriller, or the Georgetown novel set in the milieu of Washington society. Others could do that better, because I was not of that world. Washington is a city with its own language, culture, music, style, and racial politics. As a young Greek American straddling many different quadrants here, mainly because of work and sports, I thought I might write about the city from a different perspective than had been done before. After awhile, I started to see the chronicling of this city as my life’s work. The crime novel gave me a narrative engine, and a window into the social elements I wanted to explore. Of course, I’m not the only one who has written about middle-class and working-class D.C. Edward P. Jones comes to mind, obviously. He’s the best fiction writer to ever come out of this town.
What gets your heart rate up in a good book? It seems that it takes more to sustain thrills, in this age of film, Internet, and quick-cut editing.
Good writing. A compelling story, yes, but also characters who speak and act honestly, as they would, without regard for the reader’s expectations or desires. In other words, present the world as it is, rather than the way the reader wants it to be. I don’t care about twists or manufactured surprises. I don’t really care about the solution to the crime. I’m currently reading Tana French’s first novel, In the Woods, and it’s extraordinary. She had me from page one. That’s the kind of voice I’m looking for.
Out of your 18 novels, which is the best one for a reader to begin with, if they’re unfamiliar with your work? What about it makes it a good starting point?
Hard Revolution. I’d wanted to write that book my entire career, but I waited until I had the chops to do it. It’s centered around the ’68 riots that occurred here after the Dr. King assassination. Its protagonist is a young Derek Strange, who appears in three other novels as a middle-aged man. If feedback is any indication, people seem to like King Suckerman. The Night Gardener is a solid, epic crime novel. For down and dirty pulp, I like What It Was.
You’ve been producer on a number of feature films and TV series (The Killer, Treme, The Pacific). What did that role entail, and how is it different when you are also a writer of what is being filmed, for instance in The Wire?
I was the American distributor of The Killer. My producer’s credit on The Pacific was a gift. I was one of the writers, and had no actual producing duties on that show. For The Wire and Treme I was an on-set producer and executive producer, which encompasses many duties. In television, the producer is a filmmaker, but he or she is not alone. The various directors, the costume designers, the cinematographers, the hair and make-up people, the actors, the editors, the sound department, the grips …everyone makes the film. You never hear that at the Emmy acceptance speeches, but it’s the truth. I’ve been in the film business for over 20 years and I still get a rush, and am fascinated by the process, when I walk onto a set.
You’ve written fiction, short fiction, and scripts. Does your approach differ from one medium to another? Does one come more easily to you?
None of it is easy. With short fiction, I feel like every single word has got to count. In the TV shows I’ve worked on, we’ve brought novelists in who’ve gotten into the writers room and said, “This screenwriting thing is going to be easy compared to writing a novel.” Some of those people have fallen short with what they’ve turned in. I sweat just as much blood writing a script as I do a novel. If my name’s going to be on it, I want to be proud of it.
The Wire has been one of the most critically acclaimed TV series of all time. Which other series do you admire and enjoy watching?
I liked a couple of shows that were recently canceled unceremoniously: Terriers, and Men of a Certain Age. I think The Good Wife is a terrific network show. Game of Thrones is impressive. The last few episodes of Boardwalk Empire’s most recent season were the best television I’ve seen in years. There’s a show on Cinemax called Strike Back that is really cool and entertaining. Eastbound & Down was probably one of my favorite shows of the past few years. I try to catch Louie every week. I like to laugh.
Describe your morning routine.
I work all morning and have a late lunch, then work out, ride my bike, or go kayaking. Basically, I do something physical to clear my head. I come back at night and rewrite what I’ve done in the morning, then move forward the next day. When I’m writing a novel, I work seven days a week. I’ve done it the same way for 19 books now, and I don’t plan to change.
Do you like to map out your fiction plots ahead of time, or just let it flow? I imagine, with crime and police procedurals, you need to know ahead of time whodunit?
Well, I don’t really write whodunits, so I’m not carrying that burden on my shoulders. I start with a situation, then go out and do a bunch of street research, as well as interviews and archival work if need be. When I have all my ammunition I lock myself in my house and start writing. I discover the novel as I’m writing it. Yeah, it can be nerve-wracking, but it seems to work for me.
You love reading Westerns, but you write noir crime fiction. Do you see the two genres lining up in any of your work? And can you name a few Western novels that readers unfamiliar with the genre should try reading?
Many of my novels are urban Westerns. The contemporary Strange/Quinn trilogy, starting with Right as Rain, is the most blatant example. I read a lot of Westerns and wish I could write one, but I’m a city boy, so I’m not sure how that would work out. The Big Sky, by A.B. Guthrie, is an American classic. Glendon Swarthout’s The Shootist. The Westerns of Ron Hansen and Tom Franklin. Oakley Hall’s Warlock. Monte Walsh, by Jack Schaeffer. Hombre and Valdez is Coming, by Elmore Leonard. Elmer Kelton for trade Western paperbacks. My favorite novel of any genre is True Grit, by Charles Portis. I could go on.
What has to happen on page one to make for a successful thriller that urges you to read on?
No idea, specifically. I know if it kicks when I’m reading it back to myself. And I think I know when I’m writing it, too.
Anything particular that you keep on your desk, or a ritual you need to enact before you get down to writing?
On my desk, while I’m working, I like to keep a razor blade, a rolled one-hundred-dollar bill, and a mountain of blow on a mirror set before me.
When you invent a new protagonist, like Spero Lucas, do you map out his career for more than one book? How do you determine which protagonists to bring back, as part of a series? Did you know what would happen to Derek Strange and Terry Quinn before you wrote the novels in which they appear?
Lucas grew out of a short story I wrote called “Chosen.” Terry Quinn was supposed to be a side character in Right as Rain, but as I wrote the book I realized he had to come back in subsequent novels. Whether or not I write a series is determined by how much I’m into the characters. Historically, I’ve never written a series that has gone on for more than three books. I’m leery of stepping into that trap—and it is a trap. My favorite character is Derek Strange, and I’ve solved the problem of keeping him fresh by jumping him around in time. I think you can see a pattern here: I’m not much for planning.
For visitors to D.C. who want to avoid tourist traps, what restaurants do you recommend?
Greek food: Mouraye on Connecticut Avenue. For a nice night out, old style, cocktails and steaks, I like the Prime Rib. Soul food: The Florida Avenue Grille and The Hitching Post. In my neighborhood, Vicino and Sergio’s, for Italian.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Read voraciously and live a full life.
What is your next project?
I’m putting the finishing touches on my next Spero Lucas novel, The Double. Soon I’ll be headed down to New Orleans to shoot our fourth season of Treme.