Please welcome our January featured author, Sean Chercover!
Chicago- and Toronto-based author Sean Chercover's career has hit the ground running. His first novel, Big City, Bad Blood, won the Shamus, Gumshoe, Crimespree Magazine, and Lovey Awards for Best First Novel; it was shortlisted for the ITW Thriller, Anthony, Arthur Ellis, and Barry Awards. His recently released second novel, Trigger City, is even better. Sean has worked as a private investigator on Chicago and New Orleans, and written for print, television, and films. He lives in Chicago and Toronto with his wife, son, a clever dog, and an unusual cat, and says holding up a copy of your book is a good way for an author to get through Customs easily.
Sean took time from his Trigger City promotional tour to answer some question's for NMR's Dana King.
NMR: Maybe it's just me, but I sensed some homage to classic detective stories in Trigger City. Colonel Richmond struck me as a younger, healthier General Sternwood from The Big Sleep: rich and belatedly concerned for his daughter. He offers Ray more money than the case is worth, but enough more to make it all right, considering Ray's circumstances, which reminded me of Brigid O'Shaughnessy's $200 in The Maltese Falcon. Am I guilty of high school English teacher's syndrome, reading more into this than was intended?
SC: Half-guilty. The General Sternwood parallel was intentional, although I went in a very different direction with Richmond as the story progressed. But Brigid OíShaughnessy? Never crossed my mind.
NMR: Gravedigger Peace is a psycho sidekick with a difference: he doesn't spend enough time with Ray to really be a sidekick, and his psycho tendencies are discussed rather than exhibited, though the potential menace is always there in his scenes. Is this a conscious rejection on your part of the Hawk/Joe Pike/Louis archetype?
SC: I love Hawk and Joe Pike and Louis and Clete Purcel and Mouse, but I didnít want to give Ray an archetypal psycho sidekick. To my mind, the downside of the psycho sidekick is that it shifts moral responsibility away from your protagonist. Which is great, if thatís what youíre trying to do with your story, but I wanted to force Ray to carry the full burden of his violent acts. So donít expect Gravedigger to step in and do the moral heavy lifting for Ray.
If you want a closer look at Gravediggerís psychopathology, thereís a Gravedigger Peace story in the anthology HARDCORE HARDBOILED. Rayís not in it; itís just Gravedigger, and he lets loose in that one. The story is called ďA Sleep Not Unlike DeathĒ.
NMR: The narrator's voice is dead on in both Trigger City and Big City, Bad Blood: serious, with a keen understanding of the gravity of the situation, but with an underlying smart ass outlook that doesn't let things become morbid. Is this a conscious effort, or did it come more naturally?
SC: First of all, thank you. Thatís gratifying to hear.
Now that Iíve locked onto the voice, it comes naturally. But it took conscious effort (and a few half-written manuscripts) to develop. One thing that bugged me, having worked as a PI, was all the smart-ass comments that fictional PIs make to cops and bad guys. Try that in real life, then count your teeth. So, youíll notice that Rayís smart-ass comments are made to himself (and the reader), but not out loud. When he occasionally speaks out of turn to cops and bad guys, he pays for it.
NMR: What's next for Ray? Or will the next book go in a different direction?
SC: I have another Ray book planned, but Iíve also been working on a standalone thriller. Iím excited about both of them; itís too early to say which will be next.
NMR: You've worked as a private investigator in Chicago and New Orleans. Why did you choose Chicago for the Ray Dudgeon stories? Will Ray ever go to New Orleans, or do you have plans to set something else there someday?
SC: I chose Chicago because itís my favorite city. That simple, really. While I canít say for certain that Ray will never go to New Orleans, heís pretty hard-wired into Chicago.
NMR: What part of your experience as a private investigator is most evident in your books? (Nothing personal, but I'm assuming your work wasn't quite as exciting as Ray's.)
SC: Thankfully, no, it wasnít. The thing about being a real life PI is that a lot of it is intensely boring. There are moments of incredible adrenaline, but mostly youíre just doing your job, and like most jobs, thereís a lot of routine.
One thing that I try to do with Ray, however, is give an accurate picture of how information is gathered. A lot of the work is really about relationships, and what you have that you can trade. Information is the coin of the realm, and whoever has it has the power.
NMR: You recently moderated a panel at Bouchercon that discussed the effect of television cop and PI shows on writers. Did you consciously include parts of any TV or movie cops or PIs when you came up with Ray?
SC: Not consciously, but Iím sure they made their way into my brain. My biggest TV cop/PI influences as a kid were Joe Mannix, Jim Rockford, John Shaft (yeah, it was a movie, but it was on TV a lot when I was a kid), Tony Baretta, Kojak. Oh, and Alexander Scott and Kelly Robinson. I know, they were spies and not cops or PIs, but they had a huge influence on me as a kid.
NMR: Who are your greatest influences as a writer?
SC: How long you got? Lawrence Block, Walter Mosley, Hunter S. Thompson, Ralph Ellison, Derek Raymond, Elmore Leonard, Harper Lee, Kurt Vonnegut, Chester Himes, Patricia Highsmith, F. Scott Fitzgerald, ee cummings, Nelson Algren, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Mickey Spillane, Samuel Beckett, Dashiell Hammett, Donald Goines, Raymond Chandler, John D. McDonald, Ross Mcdonald, Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, David Goodis, James Baldwin, Iris MurdochÖ.
NMR: Is there a book you wish you had written, or a character you wish you had come up with?
SC: Not really. If I gave it some thought, I suppose I could wish Iíd written many of my favorite books, but it just doesnít occur to me to think that way.
NMR: Some writers love the freedom of the first draft and despise the tedium of editing. Others are intimidated by the blank screen and enjoy the crafting and perfecting that comes with revision. What are your favorite, and least favorite, aspects of writing?
SC: I used to hate editing; now I love it. The blank screen is the worst part of it, by far. Especially when I donít have a plot worked out yet. Thatís the really blank screen, when I donít even know what story Iím trying to tell. Once Iíve got some characters I care about and a basic plot idea, it gets better. But that first stage is murder.
My favorite part, besides typing ďThe End,Ē are the days when the story really has a grip on me and the words are just flowing. Man, I love those daysóIíll write till I drop when that happens.
NMR: Do you plot the story out in advance, make it up entirely as you go, or use the "headlights" system, plotting only a few chapters ahead?
SC: Before I begin writing, I need to know the ending and maybe five or ten major scenes that will get me there. But I like to be surprised along the way, so thatís about as much outlining as I do.
NMR: Please complete this sentence for the benefit of those who have not read you yet: If you enjoy the books of ________, you'll like Sean Chercover. Pick multiple names if you like.
SC: I see no way of answering this question without sounding like an arrogant prick. So in an effort to preserve some modesty, Iíll pass. You tell me. (Interviewer's Note: Okay, I will. Off the top of my head I can think of Chandler and Hammett, though the book isn't quite like either. Chandler for some of the descriptions, and Hammett for the crispness and lack of sentimentality. Michael Koryta, too, in some ways.)
NMR: Is there a writing question you'd like to answer but no one ever asks?
SC: Can we offer you a million dollars for your next book deal?
NMR: You split time between Chicago and Toronto, which presents an obvious question: Old Style or Labatt's?
For more information on Sean Chercover, please visit his website at: www.chercover.com