Sunday, October 11, 2009

Interview with the Interviewer: David Cole

David Cole has been conducting great interviews with Cool Canadian Crime Writers on this Blog for several months now, and I thought it was time that I interview David. I think some of what makes David Cole such a great guy and good writer shines through in his answers. For the rest, you'll need to meet him in person. I'm so happy to call David my friend.

Janet Rudolph: The first question I have to ask is why did you choose to interview Canadian authors?

David Cole: I don’t have a simple answer, but the friendships I’ve made and maintained with many Canadians is a major factor. And their mystery conference, Bloody Words, is another huge plus. Bloody Words is like the best of smaller American cons; Left Coast Crime and Mayhem in the Midlands come to mind. Smaller conferences, intimate sessions, great bar and restaurant group discussions. This is not to say that I don’t have many US mystery author and fan friends; somehow, being in Canada seems more . . . I’m groping for a word here, perhaps . . . civilized. This is in no way to suggest that US and international writers aren’t civilized; but somehow large US mystery conferences like Bouchercon tend more toward rewarding recognized authors.

A huge caveat here - please do not read this as though I’m disregarding or disrespecting in any way the vast majority of US authors and fans I’ve met in the past twelve years. What I say about Canadians most definitely applies to others; I’m only speaking of my friendships and influences of the past ten years and trying to figure out why I do, indeed, enjoy Canadian authors so much.

While some Canadian authors are as adept as writing about violence as US and international authors, Canadian authors place a stronger emphasis on character. Yes, there’s a crime, usually a murder and often by poison (seemingly archaic, as though we’re back in Agatha Christie days), and then the book seriously probes character of both protagonists and location (village to city).

At the last Bloody Words conference, I startled my audience by listing all the ways I’d slaughtered people in my books and the conversation somewhat inevitably shifted to the overarching seriousness of US crime, violence, drugs, and vigilante/loner cops. (I love Michael Connelly, but really, Bosch’s character has major aspects of a vigilante/loner, despite working in a major US police force.) It’s as though US law enforcement and political organizations are inefficient, incapable and unimpressive in their jobs. Just reflect a bit on how corruption works so well in US mysteries. How many authors aren’t, shall we say, kind to such major institutions as the FBI?

Finally, I must mention how really outgoing Canadian authors are, especially when it comes to helping beginning writers. (Read the recent tributes about the wonderful and very popular Lyn Hamilton; she was enormously giving in advice and encouragement.)

JR: You’re a member of CWC, but you live in the U.S. Tell us something about CWC and why you’re a member and the extent of your membership?

DC: I live only three hours from Ottawa, four from Toronto or Montreal. Ottawa is dear to my heart. Their mystery writer’s group, Capital Crime Writers, is astonishing in size, ambition, talent and just plain excitement. (Other writing genres, eg. romance, also have big groups here. By contrast, Syracuse - where I live most of the year, has many well known writers but no central writer’s organization.) Through the past seven years I’ve become great friends with more than a dozen Ottawa mystery writers, including Barbara Fradkin, Mary Jane Maffini, Tom Curran, Alex Brett, Linda Wiken (who runs a wonderful bookstore Prime Time Crime), oh I’m leaving out so many names here.

I first joined CWC (Crime Writers of Canada) because of these wonderful people, but quickly grew to enjoy the near constant stream of CWC emails about book signings all over Canada, author news, all kinds of semi-weekly and up-to-date professional information that I’m just not accustomed to getting from other groups.

JR: Are you a member of any other professional writing groups?

DC: MWA, Sisters in Crime, and until recently Private Eye Writers of America (I stopped only because I’m no longer interested in writing PI books).

JR: Why do you set your mysteries in Southern Arizona? Do you consider yourself a regional author?

DC: I love the desert, I love southern Arizona. But most of all, this region so vividly represents major aspects of US crime and politics. It’s not just the starkness of the desert itself, it’s the border between Mexico and the US, a border which - despite government claims of “fences” and security against drugs/immigrants - is immensely porous. Drugs of all kinds stream over the border, up along a major highway through Tucson, into Phoenix, and then around the US.

Illegal immigrants, or undocumented workers, brings out the worst in many people, but also the best in others who provide free water stations in the merciless desert.

Native Americans also play a large factor in why I write about this area. My first book, Butterfly Lost, tells in part the antagonism between Hopi and Navajo, which I expanded to border issues with my succeeding books.

JR: Why do you choose to write in the first person with a female protagonist?
DC: Ah, damn good question, and I don’t have a simple answer. When writing Butterfly Lost, I waffled between first and third person, male and female major characters. Ultimately, I find women more interesting as people than men, and I was hugely influenced by Carol Gilligan’s classic study In A Different Voice posed a simple question to young men and women. A wife lies dying, needing a special drug to live. The husband finds a drugstore that carries the life-giving potion, but has neither the required prescription or money to get it. What does he do?

To simplify Gilligan’s answer (my apologies), men generally say they’d rob the drugstore, while women would return home to talk over the problem with friends and family. From this (again, apologies for simplifying the explanation), Gilligan created the gender constructs of ladder and web. Men sought solutions in the hierarchy of climbing to a specific and desired result. Women wove a web of relationships, seeking guidance and hopefully the best answer.

Once I settled on my character as Laura Winslow, not Larry Winslow, I wrote at high speed.

JR: The Laura Winslow mysteries seem to also represent a different subgenre from Thriller to whodunit to classical mystery. Did you set about to this on purpose?

DC: Now that’s an interesting observation. Alas, it most probably represents my mind creating myriad plots and subplots, with corresponding characters and solutions. As I recently skimmed through my books, I discovered that my approach to my latest novel has changed significantly: plots are more straightforward, still politically charged but not so many threads to weave into a book. I think in my earlier books I tried too hard to “solve” too many unsolvable political problems, with a resulting distraction that didn’t keep the plot moving in a straight line.

In my defense, I’d have to also say that I’m enormously right-brained, at times highly visual and even symbolically complex to the point of knowing my own mind in a left-brain, linear sense. My biggest help/support from friends and fans has been to help me focus on less symbolically and metaphorically flooded imagery and, at times, whole chapters.

Also, I’ve hardly a simple, positive answer to criminal and political problems; my tendency was to at least bring them up with scattered suggestions on resolution. I think this question/answer is probably as much out to sea as what I’m trying to explain.

JR: Your books deal with different tribes of Native Americans. Why and in what ways are you involved with Native Americans?

DC: I’m co-creator and contributor to, an online database dealing with native peoples of the world. NativeWeb started fifteen years ago as a Native American website, quickly expanding to First Nations peoples of Canada and then to ethnic/native groups in Central and South America. Avoiding politics, NativeWeb was selected by NEH as one of their original 21 top Humanities sites on the internet. Alas, with Google’s popularity, specialized websites aren’t much needed any more.

JR: You’re a Renaissance man. You were in the theatre world for 20 years. Tell us about that and has your involvement in theatre influenced your writing? Did you always want to be a writer?

DC: Since I was seven, I think, which was during World War II (yeah, I’m that old). I wrote a story about US and Japanese fighter pilots, and I vividly recall being embarrassed when my dad found the story and asked me what the Japanese pilot “got it in the guts.” Several years later, I submitted my first ever short story to Boy’s Life, thereupon beginning decades of rejection slips.

My ex-wife, a Broadway actress, got me seriously interested in writing plays. My biggest success turned out to be street theatre against the Viet Nam war, staged around the San Francisco Bay Area.

JR: Has your intense personal interest in politics entered into your writing?
DC: 100%. All life is political.

JR: You began writing mystery novels at 61. Why so late and why mysteries?

DC: Notwithstanding earlier years at short stories and plays, never really fruitful, I began writing mystery novels because I have Post Polio Syndrome. (Some 30+ years after the original disease, nearly all polio patients have to readjust their bodies because of an as-yet unknown decrease in muscle ability.) Simply put, I had to figure out what I could do for life satisfaction, and of course enjoyment, in later years when my physical abilities slowly weakened. I tried several serious plays after moving to New York, but a friend and Off-Broadway dramaturg said not quite gently to me, this ain’t a play. So go write a movie or a book.

At that time, in the late ‘80s, mysteries were really hot sellers. I wanted to write political novels but was told I’d never get an agent. So “mysteries” became fortune cookies I’d wrap around political themes. If the reader wanted to ignore the politics and just read the book, ok with me.

JR: It’s been 4 years since publishing your seventh book, Falling Down. Any plans for another Laura Winslow?

DC: Very little., a short story featuring Laura, will be published next year in Indian Country Noir, Akashic books. She may come back as a minor character in another book,.

JR: What other fiction are you writing now?

DC: Ransom My Soul, a thriller in progress, features a male detective in the Tucson Police Force who’s also a two-time Iraq war Marine veteran. The novel deals with the methamphetamine pandemic in Arizona, as well as crises in real estate and private banking that lead to major criminal activities

JR: You’ve begun a non-fiction project about women in law enforcement. Tell us about the project. How are you researching it? What’s the focus? Anything unique come across your desk or email since you began this project?

DC: This is a long term project with a working title The Blue Ceiling. Over the years, I’ve come to know many women in all branches of law enforcement: city, state, and federal. A year ago I was stunned to learn about deep gender bias in many law enforcement organizations. I did a study of “cop” books and discovered that 90% of them either deal with men or, more dramatically, just “cops” while never mentioning gender differences. For example, pregnancy is a key issue that is still not entirely protected at all levels from federal down to city. This forces many women not to publicly announce their pregnancies until later months; once they announce, they’re often shoved off to some peripheral duty, if not openly dismissed.

So far I’ve gathered preliminary stories from nearly two dozen women, many of them friends, ranging from detective to assistant police chief to federal prosecutors. I’m currently setting up securing software systems so women can blog, discuss, and otherwise share experiences without fear of being discovered. Lest you think they’re paranoid about the security, talk it over privately with a law enforcement woman you know well. This is all ways around a non-profit, long-range project; I’ve no real idea where it’s going in the early stages.

JR: Why do you strongly believe there's a seismic shift from print to e-books/e-pub.

DC: I don’t think it’s anywhere near “seismic” yet, but the e-universe is abuzz. A distinguished Harvard librarian wrote recently there are roughly four historical phases of writing (and by extension, libraries): the onset of written texts; the introduction of a “codex,” that is, a “book” with separately numbered pages; the printing press and the means of mass and mechanical book distribution; the Internet.

Clearly, we’re in that fourth stage. But nobody truly knows where we’re going. Nothing is yet shaking out. Fads like Facebook and Twitter appeal for a while then lose favor. Where I most understand the dimensions of this “shift” is the blog “comment” asked for by most online news sources; anybody, that is, any person, can create a login name and then write any kind of comment. At its worst, this open grasping for comment from readers produces intensely political nonsense, often in scathing language.

Newspapers and magazines always feature “letters to the editor.“ My worst imagined scenario is that one day I’ll open The New York Times to discover that the entire newspaper, front to back, consists of blogged/emailed "letters.” Print and TV news is already shifting this way.

Look around, kids. Print newspapers disappear every month; publisher’s print books are down again in a recent study; e-readers like Kindle appeal to many readers who despite their love of print books (ah, the smell of a new book, that delicious tiny crack of a spine) already have a few thousand books on hand with no storage space left. Libraries are understaffed, underfunded, and unable to provide reference assistance that competes with Google and hundreds of online specialized databases. As a published author, I have real concerns about some aspects of Google’s stated goal of digitizing nearly every book out there once it becomes unavailable or the copyright expires.

Self-publishing, or vanity press, used to be the last refuge of authors with a book and no publisher. Overwhelmingly, these books didn’t much reflect literary talent. Now, I regularly hear stories of truly inexpensively published or POD books, quite often of quality.

JR: Are there any writers who have influenced you in your writing and in your life?

DC: Oh god, we have no space for that. Two examples. My favorite book is One Hundred Years of Solitude. If I’m allowed only two contemporary mystery authors on that hypothetical desert island, I’d treasure T. Jefferson Parker, especially his Merci Rayborn trilogy. In a single paragraph, James Lee Burke can describe a person or place as well as any living writer.

JR: Where did you learn to dance?

DC: Ah. The one true regret of life after my polio years. Stricken at 17, I was dancing before I could really walk; of course in those days we hung on to our partners. I would so dearly love to boogie; occasionally I weep with the certain knowledge it’s beyond me forever.

JR: Nothing is beyond you, David, and I've seen you boogie!

JR: Any question I didn’t ask that you’d like to answer? Just the answer. Keep us guessing!

DC: In order, one two three. Petra (in Jordan); Northern Thailand; Galapagos Islands.


Unknown said...

Great reading the interview. Must go back and read your reviews on Canadian writers. Looking forward to seeing you in LA. We have missed you the past few years at LCC.
Sylvia Ulan
note new location

Cheryl Tardif said...

This is an awesome interview, Janet and David. I especially enjoyed your reasoning, David, behind choosing a female protagonist. :-) And I found your views on Canadians and Americans very interesting.

Wishing you both huge success always!

Cheryl Kaye Tardif