With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite MulhollandBooks.com posts from the past year!
Sophie Littlefield: So let’s get the basics out of the way first. You write, I write. You’re the much, much older east coast sibling and I’m the fun-loving west coast one. We both have kids and we both grew up with our noses in books. What else should people know about us to start off with?
Mike Cooper: We’re bicoastal now but we started in Missouri! – and in a much different time, when children were allowed freedoms that seem extraordinary to me now. My memory, perhaps unreliable, is that we were completely unsupervised after school and on weekends. The woods and fields just over the backyard fence were a place of fantastical play: ponds to swim in and skate on, the cemetery and the quarry, the derelict airport with runways like the Bonneville Salt Flats. How could we not become people who live by our imaginations?
Of course, my stories involve ruthless banksters and exploding helicopters, and some of yours have decidedly noir, even dark elements. In some ways our lives were difficult and complicated, and that’s as essential as the sunny memories.
We both came to write seriously somewhat later in our lives. In my case it was after my daughter was born – my wife and I decided that I’d be the stay-at-home parent, and what with two naps a day, I suddenly had time to try what had been only a hobby. (I took one of those naps myself, true.) I recall you publishing stories, fiction and non-fiction, for many years before you buckled down to novels. What was the impetus?
SL: I think the better question is, “What took you so long?” And the answer, of course, is fear. I’m astonished at how much I’ve given away to fear over the years. Oh well, middle age took care of that in a hurry. My first novel was tentative, limp, diluted, and derivative. But I learned something from it and from every one that followed, until I finally ended up writing a novel with teeth.
Nowadays, I seek out opportunities to be brave. Lots of extra points if someone chokes on their coffee when I propose a new project. For instance, when I first told my agent my idea for my January ’13 book (A GARDEN OF STONES, MIRA) the pitch was “Japanese internment in WWII, plus taxidermy.” I stubbornly believe there is an audience out there that longs to be challenged.
Which reminds me. Do you remember when you wrote that short story a few years ago and I read it and told you “that story’s a best-seller for sure, drop everything and turn it into a novel”? And then you spent the next few months writing and polishing and submitting it?
MC: Well, the short story sold… The full-length version never found its audience, unfortunately, although it remains my favorite unpublished novel. That’s how it goes sometimes. I’ve always written stories that I’d like to read myself, but I forget that I’m not an accurate representative of the American reading public.
SL: And then you wrote CLAWBACK.
MC: Indeed. I’d actually wanted to write a full-length Silas Cade story for a while – I’d published some short stories with him as a protagonist. The original concept was a hit man accountant. I was amusing myself there; after years in finance, who wouldn’t want to bring automatic weapons into an audit? Anyway, the character and setting were ready to go – then Wall Street cratered the world economy, and the plot practically wrote itself. (The novel’s tag line could be “Don’t bail them out, take them out!”)
My new agent – the inestimable Heide Lange, at Sanford Greenburger – liked the idea, got an auction going, and sold the book to Josh Kendall at Viking. Josh is a wonderful editor, by the way. However good the book is now, it’s a lot better for having him work it over … three times.
SL: I’ve learned to appreciate a demanding editor. I do not appreciate being let slide. I rewrote a book four times once – it was terrible; it got so I was beginning to doubt my very existence, or at least my relevance to this word-thing I’d created, which seemed to have taken on a life of its own, whose sole purpose was to reveal my own inadequacies. But that process taught me lessons which inform everything I’ve written since.
Incidentally, my editor for that book was roughly half my age. She has since shared with me that sometimes, younger authors are reluctant to work with her due to her relative lack of experience. That’s a mistake, all you aspiring writers out there: I believe you should set your sights on juice and determination, not length of time in the industry (some might argue that there’s a calcification that takes place, a loss of flexibility and innovation, from certain hoary corners).
Of course, it’s often the longest-tenured folks who control the taps for what authors want: rivers of cash and juggernaut-style promotion. So it’s a tricky balance, right? I guess my ideal team would be a fearless, energetic editor who’s still green enough not to have become jaded…and a publisher who’s unflappable, ruthless, and capable of seeing the long view. Strategic rather than reactive. And smart enough to appreciate me. With a lot of cash.
What about you? What do you think goes into the mix for creating quality fiction in 2012?
MW: Here are some things that don’t matter much: Relevance. Plot. Martial arts. And I say this having just published a plot-driven Wall Street novel with lots of action
Seriously, readers want to be entertained. To me that means heroic characters, good and bad; clear conflict over things that matter; and a constant sense of discovery. Every page should offer something new; yet everything new should fit perfectly into the story and world the author has already established.
Also, humor. Not slapstick, not zany, not absurd; just a sly wit, emerging every so often.
Finally, two things to avoid: exploitative violence against women, and bad slang (especially placed in the mouths of ethnicities and ages different from the author’s own).
Of course, all I’ve described here is what I myself like to read. As for relevance, you’ve probably noticed how little contemporary fiction deals with people’s actual lives, and rightly so. Who needs the reminder? There aren’t many authors who can make a typical office job interesting (Joshua Ferris, THEN WE CAME TO THE END, is one example). I’m sure there are several reasons you’ve written about, say, the zombie apocalypse; surely this is one?
SL: I’d say it’s not that most people’s lives are boring – it’s that everyone’s life is interesting at certain times and in certain circumstances, and the trick is to create a story that focuses on those moments, in a way that is recognizable to everyone. Most people know what it’s like to fall in love or feel terror or regret or to long for vengeance – but most of what happens in between these moments would make for crushingly dull prose.
That’s why we turn to genre – the genre elements are a cheat to get us to the place where we can talk about the truly interesting bits without a lot of distractions. The story is never the heist or the airplane crash, but why people feel and act the way they do. Stephen King’s THE MIST features a killer fog not because that fog is interesting – it really isn’t – but so that we can understand David Drayton and his relationships with his wife and son and neighbors. James Sallis’ CYPRESS GROVE isn’t really about the brutally-murdered body that turns up in a small town – yawn – but about Turner, the ex-cop/con/shrink who is pulled into the case, and his uneasy relationship with both past and present. My own AFTERTIME series isn’t really about the end of the world but about Cass Dollar’s redemption.
David Drayton and Turner and Cass are all fiction-worthy, but write about them making toast and you don’t have much of a story. Toss in some rotting bodies or carnivorous insects or zombies and we have something to work with.
Okay Mike, since you’ve got the upcoming release, how about if you have the last word? I’d love to know how CLAWBACK has changed you as a writer – what lessons writing this book taught you, what you’d like to repeat or avoid in the future.
For the first draft, that is. Although CLAWBACK is chockablock with detail of all sorts, I filled most of it in during the revisions – after it was clear what I needed. Much more efficient that way. For example, I didn’t bother figuring out every NYC location beforehand. I just imagined the settings I wanted – and then I found places in the city that fit my mental picture.
Which I think illustrates a larger point: story is all. Rhythm and character and making the world right – those are the fundamentals. Everything else is trim.
Second, first-person thrillers are much harder to plot than third-person POV. That’s advice you hear a lot, and as it turns out, for good reason. I’m deep in the sequel now, and it would make things so much easier if I could duck out into omniscient, or even third-close, for just one teeny scene. Or two. On the other hand, much of the appeal of Silas Cade (to me, at least) is his voice, and that would be diluted by other POVs.
Lastly, luck matters. CLAWBACK is all about rotten financiers and one-percenter psychopaths getting what they deserve – but I wrote it a full year before Occupy first showed up on Wall Street. The timing’s been great, and I can’t take any credit at all. Sometimes the stars align. Sometimes they don’t, as my drawer full of unpublished material proves. All you can do is write the best story you can, and try to make yourself laugh and shiver and maybe even sniffle now and then, and trust that readers will be out there.
Sophie, you and I talk often, but usually on the phone, with each other. Sharing thoughts this way and more openly has been fun! Someday we should do a joint appearance or something. Big thanks to Mulholland for giving us this platform.
The concluding book in Sophie Littlefield’s Aftertime trilogy, HORIZON, was released in January. Mike Cooper’s CLAWBACK has just been released by Viking. More at www.sophielittlefield.com and www.mikecooperbooks.com.