The characterization of male baddies in To Sleep Gently impressed me. What was your method of generating such characters? Do they have a basis on reality? Or did you generate them from scratch? Has your process evolved?
They pretty much just came from out of nowhere. That particular book was primarily inspired by two things: the Parker novels by Richard Stark (really Donald E. Westlake), and the movie (as well as the W.R. Burnett novel) High Sierra, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino.
The baddies came out of thin air, as far as I know, but not all of the characters did. The protagonist’s old buddy is based on a friend of mine, while both of the leading women were based on the same girl I’d at one point had a very obsessive (both ways) femme fatale experience with. Other than that I think all the characters just kind of walked into the scene and said hello.
You say, "I’m a character writer far more than I am a plot writer." So do you spend time sketching down lives for characters, base them on experience, or just plunk them into a bad situation and have to dig themselves out?
Usually a character just comes along and says hello, and I say hi back. Then the character usually says something like, “Wanna hear a story?” or “Hey, could you come here for a minute?” When I say sure, why not, then it’s more often than not just like meeting any other person. I learn more and more about them as I go along.
Many of your works take place where you have been. Are you inspired by the arid lands of New Mexico, or is it the idea of writing what you know?
I think it’s both, really. I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest and I’ve lived all up and down the western side of Florida, but I was born and raised in New Mexico, and I’m a desert rat at heart. I love the desert. Sometimes I make up cities or towns and sometimes they’re very specific. Someone pointed out how geographically accurate Butterfly Potion was, taking place in Santa Fe. But then my novel Destination Unknown needed things both deserty and mountainy and watery, so I made up a place called Watercrest, and I think it’s only named once in the book. In my mind it was somewhere in California, but a friend said it reminded him of Pennsylvania. Either works, because Watercrest doesn’t exist. My Watercrest doesn’t, anyway.
How did you create Watercrest? Did you make it first, or give it what the story needed? Were you forced to draw up maps?
The story created Watercrest. It is very rare that I create visual aids for myself, unless it’s something like a battle, one against ten or something like that. Then I might do a quick little drawing, mostly so I can keep track of where each character is.
The world just forms in my mind. For myself, I won’t believe my own story if I don’t believe the world it takes place in, and no plot or character can help that. The main character, or characters, create the world for me, and if they stop building it, then it doesn’t matter what they do. I no longer believe it, and when I don’t believe it the story stops, and usually gets filed away, unfinished.
You've spoken of poor education, lack of motivation, and class-clown-ism. Since I'm a teacher who writes about teaching, how do you wish your teachers would have treated you so that you could have been more motivated?
Good question. I honestly don’t know, to tell you the truth. While I had some terrible teachers I also had some truly great ones—some I’m still friends with today. One of my English teachers didn’t like me because she was a writer who couldn’t get published and my father was a multi-award-winning author. Everybody knew that’s why she kind of picked on me. But a lot of my school problems were really home problems masked as school problems, which I’d rather not get into at the moment.