Today Reed Farrel Coleman is Guest Blogger on the Partners in Crime series (Authors who Write together). Reed and Ken Bruen are the authors of Tower, one of my personal 10 bests for 2009. Mystery Readers NorCal chapter has been lucky to have both Reed and Ken as guests at our Literary Salons (aka At Homes) at my home in Berkeley, CA, but at different times. Check out the At Home Online interviews with Reed (interviewed by Megan Abbott) and Ken (interviewed by Reed) on the Mystery Readers website.
Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman have both been twice nominated for the Edgar Award and between them have won almost every other American mystery writing award including the Shamus, Barry, Anthony, and Macavity. In addition to TOWER's movie option being sold, Ken has had an amazing year. His THE GUARDS, LONDON BOULEVARD, and BLITZ have all been adapted for the screen. Reed's 6th Moe Prager novel, INNOCENT MONSTER, will be published by Tyrus Books in October 2010. New paperback editions of SOUL PATCH with a foreword by Craig Johnson and of EMPTY EVER AFTER with a foreword by SJ Rozan will be published by Busted Flush Press in 2010.
All Kinds of Partners and Partnerships
by Reed Farrel Coleman
Almost from the day Ken Bruen and I met seven years ago at Partners and Crime Books—talk about auspicious beginnings—in Greenwich Village, we had kicked around the idea of writing together. We were big fans of each other’s work and often joked that Jack Taylor was sort of Moe Prager inside out. Ken had granted me permission to use Jack Taylor in two short stories—“Requiem for Jack” Crimespree Magazine and “Requiem for Moe” Damn Near Dead. So when Ken approached me with a serious offer to write a book together, I assumed it would be a Jack and Moe book of some sort. Wrong! Of course I said yes before Ken told me what he had in mind. Besides, even after Ken described what he had in mind—two childhood friends from Brooklyn, Nick and Todd, whose fates are inextricably linked, fall into a life of low level crime—I didn’t blink. What, I wondered, could be so hard about that? Stupid me.
Six months after I said yes, I got a one line email from Ken—a rare thing from a man whose emails in those days tended to be the length of a football field. The email read, “Have at it, brother.” Attached to this terse note was Nick’s narrative. That’s it, nothing else: no suggestions on how to proceed, no advice, no nothing. It was like getting a model airplane kit with only half the parts and without the instruction booklet. Suddenly, saying yes without thinking about it didn’t seem like such a brilliant idea. I’ve joked many times that at that moment I understood how my wife must have felt six months after we were married. Nonetheless, I was committed and had a book to finish.
At first, I confess, I was daunted. We’ve all heard the Buddhist line about the sound of one hand clapping. My task was to figure out how to be the other hand and to change the sound so as not to simply double the volume. There had to be a reason Ken needed a co-author, so I understood he didn’t want whatever I was going to write to be an imitation of his voice. After all, he could do his own voice better than I could. And as his section of the book was one character’s narrative, I figured out that the form of the book would be a dual narrative: Nick’s then Todd’s. Beyond that, I had nothing, but instead of seeing it as Ken torturing me, I chose to see it as Ken challenging me to push myself past my limits, to push myself harder. I just had no idea how hard hard was going to be.
First thing I did was absorb Nick’s narrative as if I were preparing to take over that character’s life. In so doing, I realized that what the book needed was more than a simple dual narrative. What it needed was a parallel narrative; Nick and Todd giving their POVs on the same period in time, about the same events, involving the same characters. Think the movie Casino. I would give Todd a life that alternated between diverging from and converging with Nick’s. Easier said than done. Think about writing a novel with a timeline, characters, events, settings that are not of your own creation. Believe me, I wasn’t optimistic that I could manage it.
Several months later, I had Todd’s narrative. That narrative appears in Tower essentially unchanged. What I noticed as I wrote was that Ken had written Nick’s narrative with spaces between the lines. His narrative was sparse and lean and left me room to develop both protagonists, not just Todd. What at first appeared to me as Ken abandoning me on an island with no escape was, in the end, something very different. What Ken had done was to let me do the showy stuff, to crash the cymbals as the book crescendos. He had done a lot of the heavy-lifting, but done it quietly. If he had written Nick’s narrative densely, I would have had nowhere to take it and the book wouldn’t have worked. I liken it to the movie Rain Man. Dustin Hoffman had the part on which everyone’s attention is focused, but it was Tom Cruise (and I am no fan of Tom Cruise) who did the heavy-lifting.
Yet, when the two narratives were in place, Ken and I agreed the book wasn’t finished. It was of a piece, but not a whole book. It needed context. We struggled nearly as long to come up with a solution as it took us to write our narratives. First we agreed to try a prologue, a page out of my style book. We both contributed to it and we got it to work, but the book still lacked the necessary context and balance. Well, if you have a prologue, you might as well have an epilogue, right? Great in theory, a nightmare in practice, because no matter what we tried, nothing worked. We had balance, but still no context. Finally, when we were both ready to just give up, we hit upon introducing a third narrative voice, a voice of a character who had appeared earlier in the book. Ta-da!
Tower was the hardest thing I’ve ever taken on in terms of writing. I think Ken would agree that neither of us anticipated the difficulties we would run into along the way. I don’t think either of us would suggest doing a collaboration this way. It certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted. Working on this project created the only real strain on our friendship (long ago resolved) we have ever experienced. Yet it is difficult to argue with the results. It is not for Ken or I to judge Tower’s merits, but it is a unique book. I don’t think that’s debatable. The movie option was sold even before Tower was published. The project suggested the form of the collaboration and the form of the collaboration directly affected the end results. What I can say is that none of the tension between Ken and I during the creation of Tower had anything to do with ego. We never disagreed over who had final say. There were no pissing contests. But as I joked during the tour, it was probably a good thing there were three thousand miles of ocean between us when we were working on Tower and that neither one of us owned a handgun.
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