I suppose every writer needs someone in the field with whom he feels a deep kinship — a sounding board, a confidante, a pull-no-punches straight talker who is walking the same path. For me, that’s Jim Thomsen, an aspiring novelist and true-crime writer based in Bremerton, Washington (an hour’s ferry ride west of Seattle). Nary a day goes by that we don’t check in on each other, and we’ve shared our highest hopes and deepest fears about what the future holds for us in this nutty business. (My wife says he’s my boyfriend, which is silly; Jim is too tall for me.)
Owing mostly to the fact that my aspirations aren’t as wide-ranging as Jim’s (more on this later), he’s enjoying a front-row seat as I stumble through my first publishing experiences, no doubt meticulously taking notes and promising himself that he won’t be nearly so stupid. His time is coming, so we’ll find out soon enough.
Q: You’re neck-deep in a true-crime book and a suspense/thriller novel. Tell us a bit about each project and how you find time to balance them.
OK, first things first. The true-crime book is a collection of stories about people who have committed one big crime in their lives — including murder — and been caught and taken their punishment. Along the way, they’ve cleaned up their lives and maintained largely spotless records. Some have retaken their place in society; others have satisfied themselves by being leaders of their prison societies. With the passage of years — and in most cases, decades — comes their belief that they are no longer the people they used to be, the people they were when they committed their crimes. But either they can’t get a parole board to go along with that, or, if they’re out of prison, their felonies dog them in dozens of ways — they pop up every time they apply for a line of credit, or a mortgage, or a lease or a job. They can’t bear firearms, they often can’t travel out of the country because they can’t get a passport, and often they can’t vote as well. One guy I’m writing about simply wanted to cast a vote in last year’s presidential election; as he put it to me, with a tear in his eye: “I cast my first vote for LBJ. I cast my second vote for Barack Obama.”
Anyway, in Washington state, where all these stories originated, there’s only one way to get your rights restored, or to get your felony off your record, or to get out of prison before your sentence is up if the parole board has said no and you no longer have any avenue of adjudication in the court system. In Washington, the court of last resort is the governor’s office. When you petition the governor for relief, your case is heard before her handpicked Clemency and Pardons Board. They hear your case and make a recommendation to the governor one way or the other. The governor is then free to decide as she wishes, when she wishes.
My book collects a dozen of the more compelling stories drawn from the last decade of board hearings. It’s very research-intensive, and as such has been slow going for the last several months.
Sorry, that was a long description. Guess I flunked Elevator Pitch School.
The fiction work is spread among several projects. One is a mainstream suspense novel set on a fictional island in Puget Sound, with a 30-year-old small-town newspaper reporter — a female — as the protagonist. Another, started last November during NaNoWriMo, is more of a hardboiled crime noir tale about an estranged father and son who reunite and bond over a single night amid an ever-growing pile of dead people. I’m also tooling here and there on a handful of short stories.
How do I balance them? Very schizophrenically. It shames me that at age 44, I am in many ways no more disciplined than a 6-year-old with ADD who’s off his Ritalin. I’m far too whim-driven for my own good, and often each’s day productivity is determined by what I feel like doing at a given moment. Some days that turns me into a perpetual dabbler, doing a little of this and a little of that, and not often “moving the chains,” to use a favorite idiom of yours, in measurable and meaningful fashion. It’s not that I don’t have a work ethic; it’s that my work ethic has no work ethic. I work hard, but not necessarily so smart.
What gets me past that is fear. I’m so scared of failing, or not finishing, that I often force my way through my self-imposed roadblocks like a frightened bull. That fear comes from the fact that I don’t float very high above the poverty line, and one big setback — like losing my job, which is a very real possibility — could pull me under. (It also, apparently, causes me to mix metaphors like mad.) I don’t have much money saved, I don’t have family that can help me out very much, I don’t have a safety net of any kind. And I’m not a subscriber to the myth of the romance of poverty. I don’t need to be rich, just able to take a shower and have a quiet, dry, warm space to call my own. All I have to keep me there is my talent, and my only talent in this world is writing.
Q: You have deep working relationships with well-established authors, like Gregg Olsen, and with some of those who have tread an indie path. How does providing penetrating analyses of others’ work benefit yours?
Somehow I see my own mistakes more clearly when I see the same one made in the works of others — a tendency to bog down in details or backstory, or to shoehorn in too many characters, or bridge my big scenes with trite boilerplate. And often what I take away is what they do right. Gregg, for instance, is a fairly disciplined writer with a good sense of pacing, and it’s somehow easy for me to compare my work to his and see how mine comes up short. He keeps his plots on track, and that makes me think about how mine often lost lost down the side roads of my subplots, for instance. I tend toward a lot of expository backstory, for instance, and he is good as mixing in the background his readers need with forward-moving action.
In short, seeing what he leaves out of his work teaches me what to leave out of mine, and often what makes the difference between good literature and bad is what you leave out, not what you put in. That and other lessons are the same ones I learned in college when I was taught to read literature with a critical eye; somehow those lessons got lost over too many years of pure pleasure reading. In recent years, I’ve gotten a lot better about reading for pleasure and for form and function at the same time. Doing so has made me not only a better reader but a better writer.
Q: We’ve talked privately about the “quiet desperation” of a writer. What does that mean to you, and how is it brought to bear on your work?
We’ve talked before about my belief that artists have what I call “overdeveloped interior lives.” What that means in this case is that when we suffer what others might see as a minor or moderate setback — say, the realization that you and a longtime friend are growing apart — it takes on the apocalyptic proportions of operatic, Shakespearean tragedy in our heads. As a result, a lot of us are a bunch of gloomy, moody fucks, and it gets in the way of not only our writing but our ability to navigate through the exterior writing world.
In my case, my Shakespearean tragedy (maybe more Eugene O’Neill) is that I have literally spent decades trembling in fear of my talent, which is strong but more than a little scattershot. And that’s led to a fear of being successful that’s outpaced, until recently, my fear of failure. In my twenties and thirties, I lived subconsciously by the paralyzing idea that I couldn’t fail if I didn’t try. And that was made worse by the fact that I DID try in all that time — I have several boxes filled with spiral-bound notebooks bearing my half-finished and barely-began stories — but that I gave up the minute I made a single misstep. Then I would berate myself for fooling myself, however briefly, that I could possibly be any good or get anywhere with this writing racket. Then sink into a funk that sometimes dragged out months, drowning out any contrary opinion with empty distractions. It’s a freaking wonder that I never seriously took to drink. I suspect I’d probably make an excellent alcoholic.
Today, I still torture myself — not over what I do or don’t do, but HOW I do it. In my world, that represents earth-shattering progress.
Q: Like a lot of us, you’re paving the way for two possible paths in publishing: the traditional route and the indie route. What do you see in publishing that is guiding your approach?
Pure pragmatism, which also represents earth-shattering progress in my world. Pragmatism reinforced by reality.
I am more than 90% certain that my true-crime book will be a self-published endeavor. That’s because the book simply is too regional in scope to attract and agent or a major publisher — and I was flat-out told as much at the recent Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference I attended.
So my plan is to write my book my way, get a kick-ass cover design and have my friends help out with story vetting. Then I’ll hire a professional “book doctor” and a professional copy editor so my book goes through just about as much torture testing as one put out by a mainstream publisher. Then, I’ll either publish via one of the top-of-the-line print-on-demand outfits out there, like Lightning Source, or find the financing to put out a run of at least 5,000 through a quality printer. Once that happens, I’ll knock myself out trying to sell 5,000 copies in six months by doing whatever it takes — social networking, public appearances, pimping myself to any reviewer or friendly media outlet I can get on board. If I meet that goal, then, if I feel there’s still more readers to tap in the Pacific Northwest (my chosen market), I’ll then go to a reputable Seattle or Portland publishing and house and say, “Hey, I walk the talk … how about walking it with me from this point forward and making some money together?”
With my fiction, I see mainstream publishing as the more desirable route. I believe everybody who says it’s harder to make a go with self-published fiction as opposed to nonfiction, and I don’t see the problems of regional limitation that impair me with my nonfiction book. Suspense and mystery are perpetually hot fiction niches in nationwide publishing, and while my books are set in the Puget Sound region that I know and love, I think their characters and themes have universal appeal. I think I have a pretty fair chance of landing an agent with a good work of fiction, and from there a good chance of landing a publisher with coast-to-coast reach.
Q: True crime, perhaps more than any other genre, runs a wide gamut from slapdash crap to high art. How do you balance literary concerns with giving readers the crunchy, pulpy, voyeuristic goodies they expect?
Inspired by the high standards of my original mentor, the late Jack Olsen, my stories are ones primarily of character and motivation against a backdrop of horrific doings, police process and judicial proceedings. I’m gambling, much as Jack and many other great true-crime authors I admire, that readers primarily want to know why as much if not more than they want to know how. The pulp goodies will be there without being overstated, because I find a story that’s written from, say, the police reports and court records of case to be tedious if they don’t offer any insight into the people behind them. But they will be there as a framing device for characters and motivations, and that’s where my background of two decades as a newspaper editor and reporter (one who often covered cops and courts) comes in handy. I know how to do research.
One way I ensure this high standard is this: I won’t write any story in which I am denied access to the main character or characters. Without their unique insights and memories, I might as well be practicing stenography. That the publishing industry sometimes rewards such flat, colorless bottom-feeding is to the discredit of everyone who aims to do a little better in this genre. I wish Jack Olsen, who died in 2002, were still around, if only because he made a prominent cottage industry of calling out these hacks in the press and putting them on the perpetual defensive. If I gain one-fiftieth of his stature, I just may do the same.
Q: You read voraciously, across all sorts of genres. What is it about suspense/thrillers that makes it your preferred genre when you put on your writer’s hat?
I love better understanding the dark side of human nature. Every since I was a little boy, when I inhaled the Hardy Boys and Tintin and Encyclopedia Brown and Three Investigators books, I wanted to understand what makes bad people do bad things. Or, even better, what makes good people do bad things. I think what drew me to my true-crime project was the chance to come full circle with those childhood obsessions — almost every story involves good people going bad, and them morphing into bad people doing good.
I think it’s all in an effort to sort through the moral ambivalence that dwells inside me to some degree. I mean, I lie sometimes. I’ve stolen before. I’ve cheated. I’ve sometimes fucked over other people. I think I’m much more good than bad, but there is bad in me and I want to understanding it so I can keep a firm lid on it.
Apart from that, I think sociopaths — people with no conscience or empathy, but smart enough to be able to fake them when necessary as social camouflage — are just about the most interesting people in the world. Statistically, it’s believed they make up 3 to 5 percent of us, and that means that the odds are that we’ve known at least a handful during the course of our lives.
Haven’t you ever known somebody who charmed you, wrecked you and just couldn’t seem to feel bad about it — or worse, deflected that reality by making you feel bad about thinking bad about them? Haven’t you tied yourself in knots wondering what makes such people tick? I know I have. Now, I have excellent sociopath radar (or maybe I just think I do), and try to hold them at telephone pole’s length while I watch and study them. If an author’s good, it’s people like this that populate their tautly told fiction and hold my fascination. And fortunately, there are dozens of authors who have not only grasped the nature of such people but have a first-rate ability to plop them into a potboiler of a plot. I gobble up those kinds of books like a lovelorn woman scarfs up chocolate.
I find myself wanting to write fiction that fascinates me as I write as much as I want it to fascinate others who might deign to read it. Both my novels-in-progress are populated by characters of incredibly flexible morality who still manage to operate without too much discomfort within their own personal codes of ethics. And frankly, as I write, I find myself excited to find out what they think and do and feel next. To me, they are living and breathing human beings who have chosen me as their life-support systems. Writing these stories is almost too heady an experience to sustain too long at any one stretch.
Q: Who, if anybody, helps you shape your work? Do you have a writing group? Trusted friends?
A few friends, no group. I need to expand myself in that regard, for sure. I probably put too much trust in my own instincts, and I’m probably a little too thin-skinned about it when people challenge the products of those instincts.
Q: You’re intent on breaking through in true crime and fiction. What lessons have you taken from others who have successfully made that daunting leap?
Just that it works; that fears of “damaging the brand” of an author simply haven’t proven to be true. Gregg Olsen’s doing fine, for instance. Not all my readers may cross the previously mentioned Rubicon between my fiction and my nonfiction, but that’s OK. People like what they like. As long as I put myself in a position to get their fair consideration, I will be able to sleep well at night.
Q: What question would you ask of fellow writers who are trying to make a go of it?
1. Do you feel you are doing what you’re meant to do with every molecule in your being?
2. Have any good platform-development or promotion tips to pass along?
Jim Thomsen’s blog: http://jimthomsen1.wordpress.com/