Friday, April 28, 2017

An Interview With Dana King

Although Dana and I have not quite met, we have known each other for years on Facebook and on online blogs. Right from the start, his stories impressed me along with his thoughtful blog and our interchanges on Facebook. GRIND JOINT was a favorite of mine a few years back. We catch up with him a few books later here.

Let's start with an elevator pitch of RESURRECTION MALL. 

Televangelist Christian Love has outgrown his church and studio in Pittsburgh. He sees an opportunity to expand his footprint by converting an abandoned shopping center into Resurrection Mall, a facility that caters to religious-themed businesses, with his expanded church and broadcasting facility as the anchor. What he doesn’t take into account is Res Mall is near the center of Penns River’s burgeoning drug trade, where having the Lord on your side isn’t as helpful as one would hope.

1. Did you always plan to write?

Nope. My dream was to play trumpet in a symphony orchestra. Got a Master’s in Music and everything. There was a catch. Remember those ads for the pro golf tour? These guys are good? Well, those trumpet players are really good.

2. Do you have a writing routine or do you approach it differently day to day?

I’m very much a routine writer. On work days I write every evening after supper. On days off I get in a couple of hours mid-afternoon, with a set amount of work I have to complete each day. If I miss a day I have to make it up.

3. Do you have a first reader? 

I have a first listener. I read each chapter to The Beloved Spouse as it’s finished, both first and last drafts.

4. Do your ideas for novels start with character, story, setting or something else?

All the ideas for Penns River novels have to be something I can reasonably make happen in the town. How the story progresses and shakes out will have a lot to do with the nature of the characters, but the town comes first.

5. What writers have influenced your writing the most?

Elmore Leonard and Ed McBain early and always. The others have shifted. I see more Joe Wambaugh in my work all the time. I can’t say James M. Cain’s writing has influenced me, but there’s a quote of his I love and try to keep in mind, especially in the Penns River books. (“I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hardboiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.”) There’s a draft in each book where I work on nothing but getting that voice right. Yes, I know Cain said, “with very little effort.” I ain’t James M. Cain.

6. What do you see as your greatest strength and greatest weakness as a writer?

I think my greatest strength is that I’ve learned how to take advantage of what I do well, and to minimize—hide, even—what I’m not as good at. My books are dialog heavy mainly because I’m comfortable writing dialog. I think my musical training helped me develop an ear where I can read a passage aloud and just know if it sounds right. 

My greatest weakness is a lack of creative spontaneity. I’m not good at thinking up what happens next while sitting at the keyboard. I’ve learned to minimize that by adopting what Charlie Stella calls a “documentary” style. I make rough outlines so I know what has to happen in each scene, then describe it as if it has already taken place. 

7. Is Penn's River a real place?

Yes and no. There are three small towns nestled together on the banks of the Allegheny River about twenty miles from Pittsburgh that are Penns River for all intents and purposes. I make things up as I need them, but I’m so closely tied there I use real maps when coming up with street names and describing directions. Many, maybe most, of the locations I use are real places and I look for excuses to drop them in. For example, if two characters meet for lunch, they’ll go to an actual local restaurant. Of course, if a business is a crime scene or front for a criminal enterprise, I make those up. I’m looking for local flavor, not lawsuits.

8. You have two series now, how are they different? How do you decide what plot idea fits each? Have you ever switched a story idea from one series to the other? 

The differences go back to an earlier question, about my ideas. Penns River stories have to suit the town. Nick Forte stories have to suit Forte. Resurrection Mall is the perfect example. I originally planned and outlined it as a Forte story. I even wrote 40,000 words before I realized it wasn’t going anywhere, outline or not. I took a week off to think about it and realized the problem was the story belonged in Penns River. So I started over from scratch, except for the title and the idea of a religious-themed shopping center. The only things I re-used were the minister’s name (Christian Love), and the tag line for his new mall planned for the site of an old one (“Raised, not razed.”)
Another difference is the Forte stories are in first person and are very much character studies of Forte’s increasingly dark life and world view. Characters in Penns River aren’t as introspective.
Speaking of ideas, I’d like to interject a quick side note. A lot of writers complain when readers ask where they get their ideas. (I’ve even heard of readers who don’t like the question from other readers. Go figure.) I love when people ask where I get my ideas. Readers sometimes think there’s a wall between them and authors, and that an ability to come up with good ideas is the ladder we climbed to get over it. That’s not at all true—all of us are tripping over ideas; the trick is which ones we can write best—but it’s always a good entry point into more detailed subjects and can often spur a good discussion.

9. What writers other than crime writers do you read? 

Aside from crime writers I read mostly non-fiction. Steven Johnson, Richard Feynman, David McCullough, and Cornelius Ryan are favorites of mine. Nicholas Pileggi and Peter Maas are favorites on the crime side.

10. Can beautiful writing make up for an average story? Can a great story make up for dull prose? 

I would much rather read an okay story that’s beautifully written. Let’s face it, The Big Sleep has story issues, as does The Long Good-Bye. They’re both so beautifully written no one cares. James Ellroy’s plots are sometimes indecipherable, but the writing holds me like few others, though not even I would describe it as beautiful. A great story can make up for dull prose, but it had better be a great story. I have in mind a writer who’s sold millions of books that I read strictly because the stories are so good, even though I find the writing ordinary. He’s the exception. I’m far more forgiving of a well-written book with a lesser story. Of course, when both come together—James Lee Burke, for instance, or Dennis Lehane—that’s when life is good.

Thanks for the visit, Dana. And best of luck with the new book. 


Rick Robinson said...

Very nicely done, Patti. Sorry you didn't win, but being nominated is a huge honor. Hope you're both enjoying NY.

Anonymous said...

Excellent interview, Patti. And, congratulations on being nominated.

Jeff Meyerson said...

Yes, indeed. Adrian McKinty was a tough competitor.

I've got three of Dana's books on my Kindle. I need to get to them.

seana graham said...

A lovely, meaty interview. And yes, do get to Dana's books if you haven't read any. They're good. Grind Joint would be a good place to start.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Where do you get your ideas for interviews? This was a good one.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Mostly I was trying not to ask Dana the same questions he asked me. And I have known him long enough to have some questions I wanted answered. Again, love the photos on your blog today. You are so talented.

Don Donovan said...

I've read the two Penns River books and they're both excellent. I'll be getting RESURRECTION MALL for sure. And I hear wisps of rumors that a fourth Penns River novel is in the works, but don't tell anyone.