Monday, November 16, 2015

Talking with Germany's Polar Noir magazine (Part Two)

Part Two of an indepth interview with Sonja Hartl from the German crime fiction magazine/website Polar Noir, tied to the release of the first Crissa Stone novel KALTER SCHUSS INS HERZ (aka COLD SHOT TO THE HEART) in a German translation from Pendragon Verlag.
The German translation of the interview can be found here.
Part One of the original English version is here.

SONJA HARTL: You have worked as a journalist – does this experience help you?

WALLACE STROBY: Yes. It’s no coincidence that a lot of crime fiction’s most successful authors – Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, John Sandford, Gene Kerrigan, etc. – are former journalists. Working in journalism teaches you how to write under deadline pressure, how to organize information properly and also how to handle the editing process – you build up a very thick skin working in journalism. You also look at the writing as a product of effort, rather than strictly inspiration. You often find that, even on what seems like uninspired days, if you just do the work – one foot in front of the other – the inspiration will come. But sometimes it doesn’t, and you just have to deal with that as well.
In the end though, all writing routines, systems, etc. are about the same thing – the illusion of control. As Stephen King says, there are only two pieces of advice to give to aspiring writers – read a lot and write a lot. That’s it.

SH: When you started writing novels, why did you choose to write a crime novel at all?

WS: I think what you write chooses you more than you choose it. When I was younger I read a little bit of everything – fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc. But in my later teen years, I found crime fiction was something that seemed to speak to me more, especially once I discovered the work of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain and others. Those books felt like real life.

SH: In your blog "Live at the Heartbreak Lounge“ you write a lot about noir in literature and film. What is noir for you?

WS: I like to go with James Ellroy’s (possibly apocryphal) definition: “Everybody’s fucked – and then it gets worse.”

SH: A lot crime fiction aficionados (among them myself) like to say, that a crime novel is the best way to describe and analyse our society. What do you think about this?

WS: Crime stories have been around as long as there have been stories, beginning with Cain and Abel. So yes, I think they do give you a handle on addressing certain societal issues. Greed, corruption, jealousy and violence are the darker parts of human nature, but they’re always there, always have been and always will be. In traditional crime and detective fiction, order is restored out of chaos. In noir, chaos is the norm.

SH: Which noir writers have influenced you? (Please tell me something about them and how they have influenced you.)

WS: A long list. As I said above, Hammett and Cain at first, then Chandler to a certain extent, mainly for the way he evoked time and place. I loved – and still love – the dark prose-poem novels of Cornell Woolrich. Later I discovered more contemporary writers, such as John D. MacDonald, Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake and others, who all seemed to come from that tradition, but were taking it in new directions. Then George V. Higgins’ THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE ushered in an ultra-realistic style of crime fiction, which influenced a whole generation, from Elmore Leonard to George Pelecanos.

I’ve also been influenced by many non-crime writers. For story, I always go back to Rafael Sabatini (CAPTAIN BLOOD, SCARAMOUCHE, etc)., who was a master at combining character and action. The opening line of SCARAMOUCHE – “He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad.” – tells you almost all you need to know about the main character.

SH: In most articles about your novels, Richard Stark and Garry Disher are mentioned. What do you think about this reference?

WS: Both are excellent writers. Westlake’s “Richard Stark“ books are master-classes in terse writing and narrative drive. I reread them often. They were out of print in the U.S. for many years, so I always kept a lookout for them in used book stores. I wasn’t able to read the complete series until years after they were first published.
I enjoyed Garry Disher’s Wyatt books very much in the 1990s, during that long break when Westlake had retired his Richard Stark persona. I’ve read all of them, and originally acquired them on-line as imports in the early days of internet shopping. Most of them are out of print now, and quite valuable apparently.

SH: Do films influence your writing? (If yes, how?)

WS: To a certain extent, yes. More for visuals than for story. Certainly anyone who’s written crime fiction since the 1930s has been influenced by the hundreds of crime films that have been made since. The visual component of modern crime writing is strong, and I think that’s the direct influence of films. For a lot of authors working today (myself included), one of the biggest influences are probably the character-driven crime films of the 1970s, such as THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE GETAWAY, SERPICO, etc.

But I’m also a huge fan of the westerns of Sergio Leone, and the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, as well Vittorio DeSica’s neo-realist dramas, and almost anything by Samuel Fuller. Among current directors, Martin Scorsese, of course, as well as James Gray, Johnnie To and many others.

SH: Which are your favourite film noirs? 

WS: From the classic period – say 1940 to 1958 –- one of my favorites is a low-budget film called ARMORED CAR ROBBERY from 1950, which packs a great story, characters and action into 67 minutes. Also from that period, Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY (1955), Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (1956), and Robert Wise’s THE SET-UP (1949) and ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959).
From the ‘70s and ‘80s – what you might call the “neo-noir” period – I’d list TAXI DRIVER, CHINATOWN, THIEF, MANHUNTER and others.

SH: And are there any plans to adapt the Crissa Stone novels into a film? 

WS: Showtime Networks optioned the character for a possible series in 2012, and Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for adapting SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, wrote a pilot script. Like the majority of cable projects in development, however, it never went to pilot, and the rights reverted back to me last year. There has been a lot of interest since, but no commitments.

(In the interim, Pendragon Verlag created this full-cast trailer for KALTER SCHUSS ENS HERZ).

SH: My last question: Who are in your opinion the “unsung heroes” of noir?

WS: So many! I’ll stick with those who are no longer with us though, so as not to leave out any of my contemporaries.
Foremost, I’d say Malcolm Braly, who was probably America’s greatest prison novelist. His 1967 novel ON THE YARD is a masterpiece. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Eugene Izzi wrote a great series of crime novels set in Chicago, which are sadly out of print now. And although he’s best known for THEY SHOOT HORSES DON’T THEY?, Horace McCoy’s KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE (1948) is a brilliant noir novel, told in first person by a psychopathic career criminal. W. L. Heath’s trio of long out-of-print crime novels – VIOLENT SATURDAY, ILL WIND and BLOOD ON THE RIVER – are also forgotten classics. As far as one-offs, Dan J. Marlowe’s THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH is hard to beat for sheer cold-bloodedness.

I’ll mention one author who is still alive, though not writing and publishing fiction anymore. Poet and educator David Bottoms – once Georgia’s poet laureate – wrote two excellent crime novels in the late ‘80s, set in the rural South, ANY COLD JORDAN and EASTER WEEKEND. Both are beautifully written, but his only forays (so far) into fiction.

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