Today I am very lucky to have an interview with Howard Shrier. I've met Howard a few times via crime related things (writing about them, not committing them... at least not yet) and he's a pretty awesome guy and a damn fine writer. Here are Howard's answers to the many deep, meaningful, probing, and insightful questions I asked him. (For those who don't have time to read the whole interview, Howard's lucky number is 6, his favourite colour is blue, and he's a sucker for Butter Pecan ice cream).
And now, heeeeeere's Howard Shrier:
1. What can you tell me about your current work in progress?
The book I just finished is Boston Cream, the third in the Jonah Geller series. Still recovering from
post-concussion syndrome, Jonah goes to Boston in search of a missing surgical resident, and winds up in the middle of a murderous conspiracy involving some of Boston’s wealthiest, most powerful people. While I wait to hear from my publishers at Random House, which should be any day, I’m starting research on book four, which is mainly set in Montreal.
2. Name one living and one dead writer whom you were influenced by/whom you emulate. Tell me why.
The dead one is easy: Ross Macdonald. He was the first great detective writer I discovered, quite by accident, when my grandparents cleared out their house of thirty-five years to prepare for a yard sale. I was in my early twenties and with one of his books, plucked from a pile in between customers, began my life-long affair with crime fiction. I demolished every one of his books, went back to Hammett and Chandler, came back to Macdonald and sought him out in California in 1980, as he was the only living author of this great American triumvirate of the private eye novel.
All three influenced me in my choice to write first-person private eye books, but in many ways I consider Macdonald the best. Chandler is the more romantic writer, but it was Macdonald who brought his literary talents and keen insight to bear on the danger and treachery not of mobsters or gangs or police, but of the family, which so far has been more my territory. My voyage to meet him in Santa Barbara, when he was already afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease, was documented in this article I wrote for Concordia University Magazine when he died a few years later.
My favourite living writer is Elmore Leonard, and has been since I discovered his work in 1985. Westerns and all. Yet I don’t write at all in his style, at least not in the Geller series, which is first person. A smart, secular urban Jew isn’t really in Leonard’s palette, and my characters will always in some way be more naïve than his. For style, tone, personality, I’d have to say a bridge of Robert B. Parker and Robert Crais with a twist of Jewish humour. But I treasure Leonard for his uniqueness. He owes nothing to any crime writer who came before him. He simply took the ethos and characters from his Westerns, set them loose in the cities, and created his own world of crime from scratch.
3. How close – give a fraction or a percentage if you want – is Jonah Geller to you?
He is very close to me emotionally: we are both secular, urban Jews with a world view that mixes cynicism with hope. I think we share a sense of humour. I’d say we both have older siblings who are domineering.
Physically, he is miles away: he is six feet tall and one eighty five when in shape. He is a martial artist with a full head of hair. Those who know me will chuckle at that contrast.
4. Name two LIVING famous people (with whom you have no relation or connection) that you’d enjoy having dinner with. Tell me why or what you’d like to discuss with them.
I’ve been fortunate to meet Elmore Leonard before, so I won’t include him. My first choice would be Steve Earle, the singer-songwriter. Talented, productive, political, driven, a raconteur and survivor of many marriages: I think dinner with him would be fascinating. The other might be Sam Shepard, whose plays I devoured as a theatre student; Tom Waits, if I thought I could get a straight answer out of him; Bob Dylan, for a thousand reasons, and if he didn’t mumble his way through it. Dennis Lehane has been very warm and funny at conferences. And if I wanted to laugh all night until it hurt, I’d invite Mark Billingham, the British comic turned crime writer.
5. Worst memory of school (any grade/level).
Like Jonah, I was a very indifferent student in high school and CEGEP (Grades 12 and 13 in Quebec), so I’d say grades nine through 13 were painful. I hadn’t yet found my stride. It was only when I started writing that I began taking life seriously. Fortunately, I found a guidance counsellor at Concordia University who showed me how creative writing and journalism combined could earn me a degree, and it changed my life. I did as well at school as people always suspected I could and found a way out of those teenaged doldrums.
6. The one thing you wish you had known before getting your first book published...?
That no matter how many awards you win or great reviews you get, book sales in Canada won’t support a growing family. I knew I’d earn a lot less at fiction than I did as a corporate writer. How much less was a shock. I also wish I’d known how much the industry was going to change under my feet, how much the onus of promoting books would shift from publisher to author and how the recession would shake so many good people loose from the industry.
7. Who is (are) your favourite minor/supporting character(s), from your own work?
Dante Ryan is my favourite so far. I always feel like he raises the energy when he’s in the room. Because my books have shifted from city to city most other supporting players, for the most part, appear in one book only. I have a special fondness for Gabriel Cross, the Mohawk ironworker in High Chicago; Jonah’s office neighbour, the PR legend Eddie Solomon; Laura Silver, the targeted mother in Buffalo Jump; and Amy Farber, also from Buffalo Jump, a lovely woman who distributes Canadian meds to a circle of fiftyish friends to help pay for her own arthritis prescriptions.
8. Strangest thing a fan/reader has ever said or done to you (online, at a signing, whatever...)
I’ve been lucky so far; all my fan encounters have been very positive. There was, however, one fellow whose manuscript I was asked to evaluate for a miserably small free. I gave him a thorough and professional assessment which he didn’t like. He then posted a poisonous article about Jonah Geller on the net, demeaning the book and Jonah’s actions on a streetcar in the first chapter of Buffalo Jump, which anyone can read on my web site. I happen to love that scene and so do most readers. That was certainly the weirdest thing to happen to me so far, and may it stay that way. Sadly, it put me off evaluating manuscripts, which I generally like doing. Since then I have only done it through U of T’s School of Continuing Studies, where I teach writing courses. Including one week-long workshop in early July, which is still open for registration.
9. Titles. How hard are they to come up with? How important are they to the overall success of the book? Other thoughts on titles...?
I love book titles and am always thinking of them. When I hear a song, a snatch of conversation, a quote from the New or Old Testament, there is often a second where I consider, is that a good title? Is it copyrighted? Has it been used before? I often search the Library of Congress, amazon.ca and other sites to find out if potential titles have been used, and if so, when and in what media. Sometimes I am devastated to find out a great title has been taken. Poisonville, which I wanted for the name of an e-book I’m launching this summer, had been dormant for more than seventy years, since Dashiell Hammett used it in the book Red Harvest. I had gone through dozens of titles easily before coming up with it. A few days after I submitted the draft to my agent, someone got it first. I saw it in a review and nearly choked. So Poisonville was out and the search was on again.
On the other hand, once I came up with Buffalo Jump for my first novel, High Chicago and Boston Cream both followed easily. Book Four, however, may not follow that two word format. There are a few that I’m still juggling.
10. What was or is the hardest thing(s) for you to write.
A: Like Raymond Chandler, I believe the best scenes often involve two people working each other across a desk or table. But when there are three or more characters in the room, I find it gets tricky. Keeping the flow going without having any people drop out for significant time… that’s when I feel I have to switch hats to a degree, from storyteller to playwright, which is not as comfortable a territory for me.
11. What is on your writing “wishlist”? You know, that project you began in 1987 but more or less abandoned, or the project where you say if "I ever have time, I’d like to write..." ?
I spent five years as a writer at what was then called the Addiction Research Foundation, and is now part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. I learned a lot in those years and have always wanted to write a somewhat creepy, Gothic novel about a murder at a treatment centre for addicts. I took a writing course with Peter Robinson nearly twenty years ago–so long ago, he only had two Banks novels out–and that’s what I worked on. I have four chapters and an outline somewhere. If I wind up on a desert island that has power, I just might get it done.
You can find Howard's books on Amazon.