(I adore Bill. Just in case that wasn’t obvious enough.)
Toni McGee Causey (TMC): Is Portland as full of coffee shops as Seattle is purported to be?
Bill Cameron (BC): Seattle is a perfectly nice coffee town, I’m sure. But Portland has Seattle whipped on the coffee front. Boo-yah! (But, Seattle, you know I love you!)
TMC: Are there any indelible lessons you’ve learned now that you are a published author?
BC: Whatever you think you know, you don’t. Whatever you think you’ve learned, it’s already obsolete. Last month is old and last year is ancient. But the future is at least two years away.
TMC: How can readers find out more about you, your books, and your future endeavors?
I am a hesitant blogger, though I did recently join the Criminal Minds group blog (7criminalminds.blogspot.com
) where I will pop up twice a month or so. Still, I find Twitter far more to my liking most of the time. It’s casual, friendly, and very low pressure. So if reading the 140-character natterings of a nattering natter monkey is your thing, follow me at twitter.com/bcmystery
TMC: How have things changed for you between your first book and now?
BC: I panic less. I understand better how little control I have over my success or failure. What I can best control are the words on the page. Everything else is a combination of luck and the support of others.
TMC: What is your favorite word and why?
BC: It used to be defenestrate: to throw something or someone out the window. And defenestrate remains high on my list. I’m just delighted by the fact that a word exists specifically for throwing things out the window. Such a useful word. Who hasn’t desperately needed to defenestrate someone or something at some point in their lives? All of us, I’m sure!
TMC: One of the things you do so well is bring to life unusual characters, or characters who have an odd outlook to life. I think of your characters with the same awe I have for Confederacy of Dunces–you find the details so many writers overlook that gives the character the neat-but-twisted point of view. What’s the most unusual character you think you’ve written? And why are you attracted to them? (What influences these choices?)
BC: First, wow. Being favorably compared to Confederacy of Dunces is, just, wow.
The thing is, I don’t set out to write unusual characters. I think I see everyone as being a unique mix of otherwise familiar characteristics. The soup may be different, but the ingredients aren’t. What I try to focus on is what’s important or formative to each character. With Skin , it started with imagining the impact of his distinctive birthmark on his experience of the world around him. I’ve spent a lot of time off the page imagining his life, how he grew, how he responded to challenges. Imagining his strengths and his weaknesses. I think if you go through a process like that with your characters, you give yourself a chance to grow them into unique figures who can then come to life on the page.
In Day One, one of the characters is a teenaged boy named Eager Gillespie. He came about first as a name. I liked the sound of it, but I didn’t know anything about him. So I started imagining the life of someone named Eager. Is it his given name, or a nickname. In time, I decided it was a nickname, and well-earned. I started to think of him as an eager puppy, eager to please, eager to do what he wants. He developed into a likable ne’er-do-well, which was fine, but what else? Ah, he has two younger sisters. His mother is a bit of a screw-off, less attentive than she should be, absent a lot. So Eager has to look out for his sisters, has to be more grown-up than his age. And there comes the conflict: a boy forced to behave like a man against his own nature. He’s only partly successful, though when he is successful, it shows a deeper reservoir of strength than he realizes he has.
That’s my character process in a nutshell. My goal is not specifically unusual characters, but compelling characters. I hope what I’m doing is showing the way ordinary traits shape people into distinctive individuals. And, then, of course, I make their lives as miserable as possible.
TMC: How did you begin as a writer? What prompted you to first think, “I can do that?” and how did you get from there, to here? (Classes? Winging it? Mentors? Sheer dogged determination?)
BC: When I was in high school, I was convinced I was mere minutes from the first of many Johnny Carson interviews. Yeah, I had this thing. Sadly, it was another twenty-five-plus years before my first book came out, and for reasons which still mystify me, The Tonight Show has yet to call. Alas. (Oh, and by the way, Team Coco!)
I took creating writing classes in high school and college. It was tough when I was in college, what with suffering from the “why hasn’t the world discovered me yet?” disease. I know I gave my instructor’s fits at times, what with my insufferable arrogance. Fortunately, decades of being ignored eventually got the message through to my pea-sized brain: all my teachers were trying to tell me something important.
Ultimately, it boiled down to a lot of practice, a lot of trying things out, and even more classes. Lost Dog got its start in a mystery writing class I took at Portland State back in the 90s. By then, I’d become someone interested in learning, and that was the point when my work began started to become something other people might actually want to read. Nowadays, I see myself as always having more to learn. My hope is each thing I write will be better than the last, but the only way that will happen is if I listen to other and learn what they have to teach me.
TMC: What stories (or authors) inspire you and make you want to hurry back to the computer to write?
Is it cheating if I say all of them?
Okay, maybe not ALL of them, but any time I read good writing, I want to write. And there is a lot of great stuff to be read — I’m never short of inspiration. That said, if you’d like me to name names, there are a few stand-outs for me right now. Just looking across the room at my stack of recently finished books, I see a few names which have inspired of late. Timothy Hallinan, Ken Bruen, Courtney Summers. Ken’s books are so lovely and lyrical and heart-wrenching. Tim does such a wonderful job of evoking Thailand, and his characters are fascinating — I get lost in his books and don’t want to be found. Courtney is a young adult author whose first two books are so brilliant powerful I actually get twitchy wishing for the next one.
But there are so many more. I grew up on Lawrence Block and Rex Stout, found inspiration as I was getting serious about mystery in Sara Paretsky and John Straley. Then there’s John Dunning, Laura Lippman, and more recently, Kelli Stanley. I feel like I just want to start listing names, but this would be a mile long before I finished.
TMC: What’s a typical writing session like for you? Laptop in a favorite coffee house? Or quietly ensconced in an office somewhere? Do you need complete quiet? Noise? What are your other must-haves? What stops you cold? What gets you going again? What part of the writing process is your favorite?
BC: I’m solidly in the laptop at the coffee house camp. I like activity going on around me. I like to people watch. And I love to shamelessly eavesdrop. Note to the world: if you don’t want your so-called private lives to end up as story fodder, don’t overshare them noisily at the coffee shop next to the guy with the laptop and the cocked ear.
Now, once I get into a rhythm, I will probably put the headphones on. I like to listen to music while I write, usually playlists created to evoke various moods. I also find myself creating soundtracks for stories as I write them. For Chasing Smoke and Day One, I even posted the soundtracks on my web site. Music to listen to while reading!
What I can’t do is write in dead silence. Oh, lord. I go mad when I’m in a quiet house. A few times a year I get the chance to stay at a friend’s cabin in the woods, and while I appreciate the solitude (in small doses), I need to play music. Otherwise, I find myself first pacing, then rushing out into the woods, there to crash through the trees and, probably, eaten by wolves. So definitely music, or human activity — something.
As my favorite part of the process, that’s tough. It’s that time when I’m in the groove, when the words are flowing and I feel like I really have a handle on the scene I’m writing. That can happen during the first draft or during revisions. I’m not a “don’t like writing, love having written” type of writer. The process itself is genuinely satisfying. Still, it’s not always (or often) easy. But all I can do is power through the rough patches. I’m a firm believer in giving yourself permission to suck. Get it down, then fix it in revision if you have to.
TMC: If you could have a conversation with any five people (assume here that them being dead isn’t a hindrance)–all of them grouped together at a table–who would they be and what would you want to ask them?
BC: This is one of those questions I always have a hard time with. Whenever I get a chance in real life to ask questions of someone who I admire or am intrigued by, I always get fumble-tongued and end up blathering. And so I think my approach to the magic dinner party time machine would be to throw people together and see what they had to say to each other. Just let shit happen!
Here are my five:
Claire Clairmont, one time lover of Lord Byron and participant in the famous gathering when Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein. Byron, and Mary and Percy Shelley are often who you’d think of first among that group, but Claire may be the one whose life was most interesting in the aftermath.
H.G. Wells. He and Claire can discuss free love and Empire, at least until the others get into the mix.
Gloria Steinem. I’m sure she’ll have a lot to say to Wells and Clairmont. Also to:
Albert Einstein. Yes, because of relativity and general brilliance, but also because his own personal life was something of a hash. Let’s face it, if it was warm-blooded and female, Al would make a run at it.
Phyllis Schafely, because I would take such joy in watching the other four make mincemeat of her, all the while absorbing a conversation which will surely be wide-ranging, at times heated, but supremely fascinating.
As for questions? I wouldn’t need to ask any questions. Have at it, people!
TMC: What five words would you use to describe yourself? Can be a phrase, a sentence, or individual words.
Born and raised in southern Oregon farm country, Ellie Spaneker flees her home and abusive husband, her trail dogged by a brutal ex-cop in the hire of her vengeful father-in-law. In Portland, retired homicide detective Skin Kadash fills his idle days drinking coffee and searching for Eager Gillespie, a teen runaway of special interest as the only witness in a troublesome and long unsolved murder. Eager, meanwhile, is on his own, grifting and working the angles in the homeless underground, oblivious to the unfolding events which will force him to face the consequences of a crime, and a longing, which has haunted him for years.
These disparate trails converge at a bloody standoff, the harrowing end of a string of violence which stretches from the high desert to the streets of Portland.
Meanwhile, tell me your favorite unusual character–doesn’t have to be a main character–but what weird, off-beat, or just unusual character do you still remember long after having put down the book. One lucky commenter will receive a $25 book gift certificate to any of our indie bookstore friends or Amazon or B&N, Borders or Books A Million. (Certificate will be emailed.) Post through Friday at midnight central US time; winner announced next Sunday.