(Editor’s note: This 56th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series brings to The Rap Sheet Bryon Quertermous, who I first encountered back when he was editing an e-zine called Demolition–long since demolished itself. Born and reared in Michigan, and now living outside of Detroit, Quertermous has penned short stories for Plots With Guns, ThugLit, and Crime Factory. In 2003 he was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger Award from the UK Crime Writers’ Association. His first novel, Murder Boy–about which he writes here–was released last month by Polis Books.)
I remember exactly where I was when the idea for Murder Boy popped into my head. I was driving along State Street, in downtown Ann Arbor, and passed by Angell Hall where the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program for the University of Michigan is housed. I was a student down the road at Eastern Michigan University in its less-prestigious writing program, and was struggling between a desire to attend a high-profile program like Michigan’s and go on to write boring, high-profile literary short stories, and be a famed writing teacher, or go all in with my pulp influences and take whatever job I could find while writing fun and crazy books and stories as quickly as I could.
That was my mindset as I drove by that hallowed hall, when a snotty voice popped into my head and said, “The great American novel can’t be about murder.”
I spent the rest of the day thinking about that line and the person who was saying it. The story sprung almost completely formed in my mind about a disgruntled creative-writing student who wanted to write crime fiction and the professor who was making his life hell because of it. I fiddled around with it in my head for a while, trying to figure out the best way to tell that story, before writing a long and messy novella version of it. Eventually I cut that down to a manageable length and it found a home in the Webzine ThugLit, and then it found a more permanent home in the ThugLit print anthology Hardcore Hardboiled (2008). But I wasn’t done with those characters. I knew there was a novel there–I just had no idea how to write it yet. The struggle to figure that out would consume me for more than six years, almost ruin my honeymoon, and lead me to such a debilitating case of anxiety that I quit writing for a year.
But before you can fully understand how I got to that point, we need to go back a ways to the moment I knew I was meant to be the next great private-eye fiction writer.
My earliest reading and writing was in science fiction and fantasy. I spend most of junior high reading Star Trek and Star Wars novels, plus the occasional epic fantasy. I wrote a few stories here and there that conformed to all of the worst stereotypes of beginning science-fiction writing. There was nothing to indicate any sort of talent or originality in my voice. But around high school I discovered crime fiction. This was the early ’90s and crime fiction was in the midst of a private detective novel renaissance. I would spend most of that decade reading nothing but P.I. fiction: Robert Crais, Sue Grafton, Laura Lippman, Harlan Coben, Sara Paretsky, Dennis Lehane, S.J. Rozan, and so many others. These were the writers who formed the core of my influence. It started, though, with Robert B. Parker and his 1988 Spenser novel, Crimson Joy.
That novel itself is rather mediocre, but it was the first time I’d read a novel and immediately wanted to go out and write my own version. It was also my first exposure to series fiction and the idea that I could work out my fantasies and my struggles and my life influences through fiction. I promptly set about writing some of the worst Parker knockoffs in history. And I loved it. The more I read, and the more I wrote, the more I began to develop my own voice. Parker’s fiction was so important to me that, in 2008 when my first kid was born, I named him Spenser. Shortly after he was born, I finished the first draft of my third P.I. novel, Ruins of Detroit. It was the best book I’d written so far, but it still didn’t work. It didn’t have a very good ending and I hated how much it had taken out of me without giving me back a book I could be proud of. I knew deep down that I had reached the ceiling on what I could do with that form and I’d need to write something different going forward. Unfortunately, I had too much invested in the P.I. novel form to let it go that easily.
I tried to write another P.I. novel, but it was just awful. I tried to write a P.I. novel version of Murder Boy that was even worse. I tried to write a mixed third-person/first-person thriller P.I. novel that was the worst of them all. I even wrote a draft of a Murder Boy novel that wasn’t bad, it just didn’t have any soul. I also wrote two more version of Ruins that got closer to being good, but not totally. The draw of Murder Boy was strong, and everyone I told about it said that was the book I needed to be working on, but I’d banked my identity on being the next great P.I. writer and I had a very, very hard time letting go of that. At this same time, my life changed drastically in a short period of time. I changed jobs, I bought a house, I got married and had two kids back-to-back. My life was exciting and these changes were good, but it was very disorienting. To balance that out, I tried to find solace in the familiarity of a form I knew rather than try and figure out how to write this weird literary/pulp hybrid novel I couldn’t stop thinking about. So for five years, I went back and forth like that, trying to bang a doomed P.I. novel into shape, or trying to write an Elmore Leonard knockoff that I couldn’t manage to tap into emotionally at all. Eventually it just got to be too much and I stopped writing.
After another year or so and some other failed experiments (the less I say about the screenplay adaptation the better), I finally switched Murder Boy to first-person and realized that point of view had been as much of the draw to P.I. fiction as anything. I set about pouring every bit of struggle and triumph and fear and inspiration into that book and that character. I blitzed it with autobiography and then kicked it up to an absurd level. It was cathartic and freeing, and the effort resulted in a book that has been praised as much for it’s emotion as for its over-the-top plotting.
I can’t bask long in that relief, though. Now I have to write a sequel.