The Writer from the Writing

by Ken Bruen

Should writers live up to the expectations of their readers, should e.g. Lee Child be more Reacher in his appearances? Or Barry Eisler be more like Rain . . . Scratch that, Barry pretty much is .

My point, which I’ll eventually make, is readers get a picture of the author from what they’ve read, so is it better if they never actually get to meet the writer . . . because by Christ, most of the time, they are in for a shock.

If you write about psychos and convincingly, when your readers meet a mild gentle soul . . . are they going to go, Hello?

For a long time, readers and reviewers believed that Jim Sallis was black; he couldn’t have written such a compelling, convincing character as Lou Griffin if he were white! Jason Starr has written some of the most noir characters to come down the pike since Charles Willeford, and a few weeks back, taking his daughter to school, he got talking to one of the other dads and told him he was a noir writer. The man went, "You!"

Jim O. Born writes of the homicide squad and so believably that he won the major award last week . . . congrats, Jim. And he is just the funniest sweetest guy till you see him demonstrate weapons and talk about his daily job . . . as a cop.

Vicki Hendricks writes the sleaziest down in the gutter noir that I’ve had people say to me, "That can’t be a woman?"
And I tell them she is a lecturer and they go, "Not the same person."

Years ago, Val McDermott and I were together at a convention in Germany and as we huddled over a brew, Val said, "See, the looks?"

I did.

She added, "They figure, two hardboiled mystery writers, discussing mystery and mayhem when we’re actually exchanging photos of our kids!"

I write about the lowest of the low, the losers, the alienated, the seriously deranged and when my readers meet me, they always ask, "Are you sure you’re Bruen?"

I think so, most days anyway.

The best example of this was two years ago when I went to Dublin to meet a Sunday Times journalist, and we agreed to meet in The Shelbourne. The hotel closed a week later but the two events are not connected.

Are they?

I was early and saw a lady breeze in, all biz, power dressing, well, I mean she was English and thought that shite still mattered and was glancing furiously at her watch. I approached and asked if she was looking for Ken Bruen.


She gritted and, "He’s late."

When I told her I was, am . . . the person, she stared at me in total wonderment and said, "But you’ve manners?"

She’d read me books, and works, C.V. and expected a branded hell’s angel. I was a sad bitter blow.

We did the interview and she kept snapping, "Don’t do that irony on me!"

You’ll gather that we didn’t bond, become email buddies and go on to write a book together.


When the article appeared, the heading was . . . Benign Thug.

I can certainly be thuggish but benign . . . I’m working on it.

23 thoughts on “The Writer from the Writing

  1. Alex Sokoloff

    Hah – that journalist must not have read any of the Jack Taylor books, then, because Jack is exactly you. I mean, not EVERYTHING, but essentially. Brandt, not so much. But I think your style is exactly you.

    I think Lee is completely Reacher. Actually, I mean vice-versa. And I haven’t met Val, but I have no problem imagining those twisted stories coming out of that complicated and powerful woman.

    It’s funny what people do and don’t see about a writer. What I get a lot (and I bet a lot of you do, too) is – “You write all these horrific things but you’re so NICE.” Well, no, I’m not, actually. I’m moral, and I can be charming, but I think really most of us writers are good actors and know how to act nice around nice people. We save the rough edges for the people who really know us.

  2. Mark Terry

    Actually Ken, I think “Benign Thug” is a pretty cool label for you. If you don’t want it, I’d be glad to use it.

    Of course, maybe you’re hoping to work up to Malignant Thug.

  3. Karen

    I spoke to a book group meeting at a library last year and one woman said, “You’re not what I expected at all! You’re so sweet!” I think they expected “fuck” to be every word out of my mouth. Although they’d never seen me at deadline…

  4. Ray Banks

    The writers I’ve met don’t share a lot with their characters except some intangible knowledge that only those people could’ve written those characters. For instance, I don’t blur Ken with Jack, just as I don’t blur Al Guthrie with Gordon Pearce or Charlie Williams with Royston Blake. And I certainly hope to hell that nobody mistakes me for Callum Innes.

    It’s almost as if they don’t believe we can make stuff up, isn’t it?

  5. Naomi

    Hilarious, BT.

    And welcome.

    Maybe we all need stand-ins for public appearances and interviews. Mine would be in his seventies with no time for anybody.

  6. Jason Starr

    Ken knows the way it is…It’s actually the cozy writers you have to look out for. Don’t let the prose fool you; they’re a bunch of cruel, evil mo fo’s.

  7. Louise Ure

    Dear Benign Thug,

    Clearly you’re a man of dichotomy. You speak lowlife, the downtrodden and noir, but you have the reputation for being the best hugger on the planet. Well done, you. Keep ’em guessing.

  8. JT Ellison

    Ken, welcome to Murderati! We are thrilled to have you on board.

    I still get a lot of what Alex is talking about — What’s a nice girl like you doing writing about such awful stuff? Or my favorite — I’m a writer — Oh, you write children’s books? Because I’m a woman, I guess, and I coulnd’t possibly do more.

    Wonderful topic. We’re going to see some interesting discussion on this.

  9. pari

    Um, Jason, excuse me? Cozy writers all sit around in fluffy hats and hold cats.


    I think mistaking the author for the character is a fairly new phenomenon; it’s only since we’ve had the potential to become icons ourselves that this has happened. I’m thinking of Hemingway or Fitzgerald here . . . I doubt people thought much in these terms before modern media glommmed onto authors as another commodity.

  10. Tom, T.O.

    I guess it’s like ‘they’ say: “The key to [fill in the blank]___________________is sincerity. Once you learn to fake that, you’ve got it made.”

    Welcome, Lad.

  11. Rae

    Very glad to see you here, Ken….

    …and speaking as a reader, I’m just happy when the writing lives up to my expectations – I have no preconceived notions about artists’ resemblance or lack thereof to their creations.


  12. MF Makichen

    Hi Ken,Wonderful post. However, I almost had a heart attack when you said the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin had closed. As an afternoon tea fanatic it’s one of my favorite places to visit in Ireland. I checked though and it was just closed temporarily, so maybe it did have something to do with you?

    I’m glad you introduced this subject. I went to a signing once and had the opportunity to speak with one of my all time favorite authors. I won’t go into details, and look maybe she was having a bad day, or was embarrassed when I told her how much I loved her writing, who knows. From my point of view she was kind of a cold fish, and not very friendly at all. I don’t hold that against her, and I completely understand that if I met her again I might have a different experience.

    However, from that encounter I realized that loving an author’s writing does not mean that you will necessarily like them. I know it’s naive, but that was a surprise to me. It definitely made me realize how much readers project onto authors concerning who they are. Also, that part of being an author is probably managing people’s expectations.

    Thanks again for Ken for the topic

  13. Elaine Flinn

    “Don’t let the prose fool you; they’re a bunch of cruel, evil mo fo’s.”

    Yep, you got that right, Jason! This is why Jason is so damn good. His powers of observation are so keen…

    But it ain’t easy – I’ve had to work hard to earn my Evil E name.

  14. JLW

    Not only do people not recognize me because I don’t look like my detective–my hair is white and short instead of brown and long, I wear trousers instead of breeches and stockings, and cowboy boots instead of buckled shoes–but they don’t recognize me because I don’t look like me.

  15. Cornelia Read

    Great to see you here, Ken!

    And when someone who’s read my book meets me, expecting to find this snarky bitch who swears a lot and likes to play Hank Williams tunes on the jukeboxes of skanky dive bars….


    Have I mentioned lately that I have no imagination?

  16. Brian

    Ken – I’ve been waiting for this day and cant wait for your next post.

    Karen – Guthrie doesn’t need to be confused with Gordon Pearce because he’s his own special kind of crazy. What about the poor limo driver that “Sunshine” beat on the side of the road for 20 minutes just this very day. The man’s coccyx will probably never be the same.

  17. toni mcgee causey

    I hope we don’t have to live up to our characters… I’d really hate to have to start blowing things up or inadvertently setting half of the state on fire or getting shot at (repeatedly).

    Then again, I thought I had written the character most unlike me. And all of my friends who read galley copies now tell me she is exactly like me. Which, frankly, is a scary thing.

    Welcome to here, Ken!

  18. Rob Gregory Browne

    Great post, Ken. I always hate author photos on books because I build an idea in my mind of what the writer looks like and am usually, as you say, disappointed.

    I can’t imagine what people think when they see ME…

  19. Steven

    Great post. Very funny.

    I’m very soft spoken and have books with great splashes of blood. I suppose it’s like standing in line to see some action hero movie star and finding out he’s shorter than you.

  20. Fran

    I’m in the fortunate spot of being able to meet many authors on a regular basis as part of my job. It’s always interesting and entertaining, and I love my work!

    Now it’s true that the authors who come to a small independent bookstore tend to be friendlier and nicer, not only to the staff but to their fans, the customers.

    Not always, but generally.

    Lots of people don’t want to meet authors. They don’t want to break the illusion. But generally people love to meet authors, although y’all are intimidating to aspiring authors and those who don’t write but love to read. It’s almost magical, what you do, and to a lot of folks, you’re supposed to be a little eccentric or odd.

    Preconcieved notions will trip up the best of us. But I assure you, your public does, in fact, want to meet you face to face.

    And let’s not overlook the fact that lots of authors haven’t had a new publicity shot in…well…yeah. So if the photo on your book is the one from your college year book, and you graduated more than five years ago, maybe it’s time for a new photograph. Just a suggestion!

    But do keep meeting your fans. From a purely commercial perspective, it’ll sell more books. It’s exhausting, I know, but it really is worthwhile.


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