Friday, June 17, 2011

Interview with Author Bill Cameron

Today I'm happy to share an interview with mystery author Bill Cameron with you.  Bill's newest book, County Line, will be released next week. Bill has several novels under his belt, plus a number of short stories.

1. What can you tell me about the writing of your newest release, you know, the behind the scenes story that readers don’t know...

County Line is the most autobiographical story I’ve written in many a year. In the acknowledgements, I describe a bit about my years in Farmersville, Ohio. A lot of the story is crafted around my memories of that time, though the specific events aren’t anything I experienced myself. But there is one thing which happened to me before it would happen to Ruby Jane in County Line many years later. 

As a football player in training, I got into a fight with a teammate, and the coach sentenced us both to run the bleachers at the football stadium every day for a week. When it was over, I’d gained the same ability Ruby Jane would gain after her own stint running those same bleachers. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t say what that was, but I will say Ruby Jane used her newfound talent to much more dramatic effect than I ever did.

2. Who would you rather dine with: Don Henley, Don Knotts or Donald Trump? Why? 

Well, Donald Trump is totally out after the way he ate his slice of pizza with a fork. What the hell was that about? Don Knotts always kind of creeped me out. That, coupled with the fact that “The Boys of Summer” is one of my all-time favorite songs and the edge goes to Don Henley. But we’re not allowed to talk about the Eagles.

3. How close is Skin Kadash to you (give a % if you like). Have any friends or family been inspirations for characters?

Skin and I are both bird watchers, though he’s much more knowledgeable than I am. In addition, we share a kneejerk hostility toward authority, and we both value compassion and empathy. Beyond that, differences mount. Skin is more dogged than I am. He’s tough in ways I can only dream of being. I’m not sure where the percentages would be, but in the small stuff we are more different than similar. My feeling is the differences add up quickly, but Skin is still someone I could be friends with, even if he would probably intimidate me.

I try not to actively base characters on real people. That means I’m doing it unconsciously, of course. Little pieces of friends and family do make their way into my characters, but more often than not it’s a synthesis. I don’t think it’s fair to put people onto the page, whole cloth. It’s also not as interesting as building my characters up piece by piece.

That said, there is one character in County Line who is drawn more directly from life than most. Mrs. Parmelee, Ruby Jane’s English teacher and advocate, is named for my favorite high school teacher. While I’ve given the fictional Mrs. Parmelee her own life history, the caring aspects of her personality are based on my memories of the real Mrs. Parmelee.

4. What manner of killing would you like to use in a future book/story?

There is a defenestration in my future. I love the word defenestrate, so I really have no choice in this matter.

5. Which provides a greater challenge: novels or short stories? Which provides greater satisfaction?

Short stories are more difficult on a word-for-word basis. I often struggle to my focus enough to write a short piece. Even when I do write a short story, it’s likely to trend long. My average is about 6,000 words. So pulling off a short story can be a real treat. But the long haul of the novel offers its own pleasures, and the satisfaction I feel upon completion has more staying power.

6. Is there such a thing as too many bodies? What’s the optimal number of corpses in a whodunit? Do you think readers of today have a greater tolerance for death and violence than readers of a generation or two ago?

This is a tricky question. I do believe there’s been a kind of arms race on the dark thriller side for a while now. You only have to look at the Thomas Harris/Hannibal Lector arc for the archetypical example. The push to kill more people, more horrifically, more quickly has probably been most evident in movies, horror in particular, where they are now buying fake blood by the tanker truck. But there’s no doubt it’s happening in print as well.

At the same time, I think the broader category of mystery is about people more than bodies. Though “character-driven” is a phrase which oversimplifies a complex approach to storytelling, in recent decades it’s fair to say we’ve seen a significant shift toward stories which fall into that category. Mystery is often glibly described as being about the puzzle, the plot, or the solution. But look at any great mystery and at its heart you’ll find fascinating, richly-drawn characters. I think the blood-soaked arms race at the fringes will ultimately be overshadowed by these great characters.

7. Your thoughts on social media and book promotion...

For me, the key to social media is to keep it social. While I know it has a certain promotional value, my first interest is in getting to know people. I want to chat with friends, make goofy jokes, see what others are up to. If some book promotion comes along for the ride, great. I’ll mention events and releases, or share a good review. But the first order of business isn’t business, it’s friendship.

Book promotion is tough, because I don’t think anyone is all that sure what works. Oh, some people THINK they know what works, and when they do, they won’t shut up about it. Is it about appearances, blogging, Twitter and Facebook? The answer is most likely a little of all of it, but measured and with a mind toward engagement rather than the hard sell. If all you do is fill your Twitterstream with pleas for people to buy your books, then I’m going to stop following you. You’re not talking to me, but at me … or past me.

But if you talk to me like I’m another person, not just a credit card number, there’s a good chance I’ll take a look at your stuff without you even having to ask. And if I like you, I’ll probably end up promoting for you. Because what are friends for but to support each other? And share bacon recipes.

8. What would Skin Kadash say to Glenn Beck if they ever happened to meet?

Skin doesn’t fault anyone for being wrong. Being wrong is a side effect of being alive and taking risks. Most of us are wrong more often than we’d like, and we can only hope our mistakes aren’t too harmful for ourselves or others, and that we learn from them. But there’s wrong, and there’s venally, wilfully, malevolently wrong. Skin’s response to someone like Glenn Beck would be not to the demonstrably false nonsense he spouts, but to the fact the makes money by hypocritically exploiting and encouraging other people’s fear and ignorance. He probably wouldn’t have much to say to Beck—waste of breath—but he would look for any opportunity to take him down.

9. Name a favourite NON-MYSTERY author. What do you like about his/her writing and what did you learn from him or her?

It’s hard to point to one. I adore Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. I’ve read One Hundred Years of Solitude more times than I can count. If I’ve learned something from him, it’s to appreciate the wonder and beauty and sorrow of life.

I grew up on science-fiction and fantasy (with lots of mystery mixed in). Robert Heinlein was huge to me. I probably learned more about dialog from him than anything else. Stephen R. Donaldson was a master of the unsympathetic protagonist.

In the last few years, I’ve become a huge fan of a number of young adult authors. Courtney Summers stands out for me there (and she both inspired me to attempt the young Ruby Jane’s story and helped directly by reading and commenting on an early draft). I am also a fan of Laurie Halse Anderson.

10. I’d love to hear your thoughts on motive, in my opinion the whole raison d’ĂȘtre for a mystery novel...

I see motive as at the heart of all storytelling. We don’t just want to know what happened, we want to know why it happened. Our day to day lives are bound up in trying to make sense of world; we’re always looking for reasons. Stories are one of the ways we do that.

The old saying, “truth is stranger than fiction,” is a clichĂ© for a reason. Events in real life often make no sense, are beyond our understanding. Stories serve as one way to make sense of the senseless. Ripped from the headlines books, movies, and television all attempt to make fathomable the unfathomable.

While I don’t go for the ripped from the headlines approach myself, I still see the act of writing as one which is about making sense of the inherent ambiguities of existence. Yet, that said, I don’t always feel the need to explain everything away. Some things we can never know, so all my work features some element—a character choice, an event, something—which remains unexplained.

11. What’s on Skin’s iPod?

If Skin had an iPod, it would be mostly 60s cool: Creedence, Stones, some Dylan. He wouldn’t skip the Beatles, but for the most part they were a little too giddy for him. Of course, while Skin is hardly a Luddite, he’s not interested in gadgets much. He has a low-end cellphone, a three-year-old computer, and no DVR. He’s content to listen to whatever music is playing in the coffee shop, from Lady Gaga to Philip Glass to Blake Shelton. What’s important to him isn’t what’s playing or the device doing the playing, but who he’s with and what they’re talking about.

12. What are your thoughts on settings? Does the city/setting almost become a character?

To me, setting isn’t almost a character; it IS a character. Sometimes it’s a background presence, like that creepy guy eavesdropping on your conversation in the coffee shop, sometimes it’s directly involved in the action at hand. Our decisions can be shaped as much by our environment as by our feelings and reactions to other people. The same can be said for who we are.

In developing characters, my first step is to map out their personal landscapes, how their environment influenced and tweaked the raw genetic material they started with. Skin would be a different person if he came from somewhere else. Portland is infused in him as surely as rural Ohio is infused in Ruby Jane. Understanding their environmental biographies is as important as understanding the interpersonal aspects of their lives.

13. What are you working on now?

Well, it’s half secret, half a YA mystery. I’m putting more time into the secret project at the moment, though I plan to get into the YA mystery as the summer wears on. Both are a departure from the world of Skin and Ruby Jane, though I’m not leaving them behind. Just shifting gears for a little while.


  1. Excellent interview with very good questions and thoughtful, informative answers. Well done!

  2. Dorte: I enjoyed the interview. I especially appreciated your question on body count. I am not a fan of endings layered with bodies.

  3. Jill: Sorry I did not get your name at the start of my comment. There was a moment of mental blanking.

  4. Jill, thank you for hosting me. The questions were great, a lot of fun to ruminate upon!

  5. GREAT interview. I love these questions!

  6. Very nice interview. Lovely take on the social media aspect. In fact, I got to know him before I knew he was an author, and then ended up reading his books. So... friendly advertising? haha

    I forgot what else I was going to say (sign #92832 I should be asleep) but now I just want to go listen to CCR...