Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bouchercon meta-fiction

Before heading off to Bouchercon this year I started to write a bit of fiction about the trip. I present the beginning of it here and will post the rest of it over the next few weeks.

Remember, it's fiction. It's all made up. All of it.

The Ten Rules

When I wrote my novel, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, I used Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, and I’m pretty sure that Declan Burke used them when he wrote his novel, The Big O, so it was natural when we teamed up to pull armed robberies on our way to Bouchercon in Baltimore, we’d use Elmore’s Ten Rules for Success and Happiness from his novel Swag.

In both cases we had to make minor changes to the rules. For one thing, grocery stores and bars never have much cash on hand anymore and one exclamation point for every hundred thousand words? Come on, these are crime novels, people getting robbed and beaten up yell.

In Swag, Frank Ryan, a used car salesman from Detroit, meets Ernest ‘Stick’ Stickley, a car thief from Oklahoma and they team up to rob people. I knew a Frank when I lived in Calgary in the late 70’s, Frank Kloss, and he was a used car salesman. When I met him he was selling truck parts for the same company where I worked in the warehouse. Calgary at that time was a lot like the Detroit Elmore Leonard described in Swag -- full of young people moving in from somewhere else to make money. The apartment building the guys live in in the book was an awful lot like the townhouse complex I lived at in the Woodlands, in the southwest of Calgary. Young people, under thirty, thirty-five anyway, all making money and not thinking past the weekend. In fact, a band from Calgary at that time, Loverboy, had a hit with “Working for the Weekend.” In Swag the women sitting around the pool were stewardesses and models working the car shows and in Calgary they were hairdressers and oil company secretaries but they had the same kind of snotty attitude they thought was being independent and they didn’t mind trading up if a guy making more money moved in. Pretty much everybody living there was from somewhere else.

Frank, my Frank, didn’t live in the complex, he was married already and had a couple of kids, but he was a lot like the Frank in the book. He could see a car drive by and tell you within fifty bucks how much he could sell it for and you just knew he was right. Frank had his scrapes with the law, too, and I always wondered how far he’d go if he didn’t worry he’d get caught. Or if the pay-off looked big enough.

At the same time, My uncle John got out of jail in Nova Scotia and like so many maritimers came out to Alberta. He stayed with his sister, my aunt, Mary, just like I did when I first got to Alberta. And John was a lot like Ernest ‘Stick’ Stickley. Being from Nova Scotia is like being an Okie, especially if you can take cars apart and put them back together and you just got out of jail. We were driving around Calgary, trying to find work on construction sites and John said if things got really bad he was, “sitting on two grand,” and it took me a few minutes to realize he meant his Pontiac Parisienne. Frank might’ve been able to get two grand for it, but John never would’ve gotten more than a grand. Anyway, it was that way of thinking about his car that made me think of Stick. That, and the way he stood up to guys in bars and never raised his voice or lost his cool and you could tell he wasn’t going down without a fight. Well, I could tell because I knew what he went to jail for.

So it was easy for me to see Swag come to life, the characters were so real for me, they were people I knew.

Now, twenty years later, living in Toronto, I’m a successful Canadian novelist, which means I don’t really make any money form writing and I meet this Irish writer, Declan Burke, online. We have the same US publisher, Harcourt, and had the same editor, Stacia Decker, till the company merged or got bought or something, and she got laid off.

Declan and I’ve both had our Elmore Leonard comparisons – the Irish Mail on Sunday said he was, “Elmore Leonard with a harder Irish edge,” and Publishers Weekly said I was, “a clear disciple of Elmore Leonard... not a bad thing for a fun read.” Ken Bruen said nice things about both of us.

So, we came up with this plan to do a mini promo-tour together, driving from Toronto to Bouchercon in Baltimore, stopping at as many bookstores along the way as we could. The first night at Sleuth of Baker Street went well and the next day we hit the road. Driving the boring 401 from Toronto to Kingston, we got to talking about the Elmore Leonard comparisons and how, sure, it’s great, but pretty fucking hard to live up to.

I said, “The thing is, with these kinds of characters, crooks, but professionals – not insane serial killers or unrealistic James Bond stuff – we all want them to be as real and natural as possible, so that’s going to mean sounding a little like Elmore.”

Declan said, “You don’t call him Dutch?” and I said, no, I don’t.

At that time I was about halfway through writing a novel called either Tumbling Dice or Emotional Rescue, or maybe even Some Sing, Some Dance after the Michel Pagliaro song, and the car stereo was blasting out late 70’s top forty – Fleetwood Mac, Gerry Rafferty, - research I called it, the novel being about a late 70’s band called The High who reunite to play the casino circuit and rob a few along the way. Declan had an iPod and was fingering the headphones, trying to be polite and not just stick them in his ears.

Then I said, “And really, it’s hard not to follow those Ten Rules of Writing, they really do make for a good book.”

“Oh right, yeah.”

“Said is a shortcut for me. I pick up a book, I flip through it, if people are exclaiming, or announcing or demanding, I put it back on the shelf.”

“Or querying,” Declan said, “never heard anybody query in my life.”
To be totally honest, I’d been thinking about this for a while, so I started talking about Swag, how everybody says it was the real breakthrough for Elmore, took him from cult status to mainstream and Declan said, “Fantastic book.”

I said, yeah, fantastic. “And it had ten rules in it, too.”

“That’s right, the original title was Ryan’s Rules. What was it, Frank’s rules of robbery?”

“Frank Ryan’s Ten Rules for Success and Happiness.”

“Right,” Declan said, “written on bar napkins. Ten rules. Have you read Troy Cook’s 47 Rules of Successful Bank Robbers,” and I said, 47?

“Good book.”

We’d been driving an hour, we were finally out of Toronto, passing through Oshawa, it’d been city all the way but now there was some countryside, flat and bland. Traffic was still steady, three lanes in each direction. It was a dull October day, the leaves gone off the trees but no snow yet.

Declan said, “You’re right, though, 47 is a lot. I’d have to carry the book with me on robberies.”

“Right, ‘hang on, everybody stay on the floor, I’ve just got to look this up.’”

“Don’t see it working.”

“No,” I said. “But the general idea, the armed robbery.”

Declan said, “Yeah.”

“Like in The Big O. Karen pulling the stick ups.”

“Till she meets Ray. Did you notice,” Declan said, “we both have women with similar names, Karen, Sharon, both involved in illegal activities who both meet guys named Ray.”

Oh, I’d noticed. Our books also had exactly the same dedication, mine’s, “For Laurie, always,” and his is, “For Aileen, always.” It was freaky.

I said, “In my new book, Swap, I have three women pulling stick ups at spas.”


“There was an article in the paper, three women robbed some spas in Toronto. They got caught and one of them turned out to be a beauty queen. Miss Toronto Tourism, something like that.”

“Do they always just hand you the material in Canada, then?”

“Pretty much. Hand me all kinds of ideas.” I waited a moment, saw Declan looking at the miles of nothing we still had to drive, holding his earphones, and then I said, “You just have to follow the rules.”

“Right, back to Elmore. I can see he has a point about not opening with weather here, how long could you hold a reader talking about grey clouds?”

“I was thinking about the other ten rules,” I said. “Frank’s. Be polite, don’t say more than you have to, never call your partner by name – they all make sense.” Declan was looking bored and I was thinking the driving was longer and straighter than he’d imagined. I said, “You know, in Swag Frank gets the idea because he read an article in the paper, too. A couple guys who had a three or four year run doing exactly what he was talking about.”

Declan said, “Yeah.” He was still looking straight ahead at the highway, probably getting near the end of being polite.

I said, “Elmore must have read that article.”

Declan said, “You think?”

Yeah, his patience with the road was coming to an end, and probably his patience with me. I said, “You wan to stop for a coffee,” and he said he’d kill for a smoke.

Pulling into the gas station I said, “If you were going to take that kind of risk, wouldn’t you want a bigger score than a cigarette?”

(okay, that's it for part one)


Corey Wilde said...

Well, hurry the hell up with the rest of it, eh?

Dana King said...

I thought there was something fishy, and a little jumpy, about you two at Bouchercon, even before I knew of the swath of destruction you left behind on your trip south.

This explains a lot.

Gerard Brennan said...

Oh, I like where this is going. Nice one.


adrian mckinty said...

Nice to see in that pic of you on Dec's blog you apparently were wearing a Carrick Rugby Club top. We didnt know you cared.

Benny said...

I know that stretch of road
musing in the mist
musak in mcdonalds
can't wait for
return through
harlen county

Peter Rozovsky said...

I can't tell where the meta ends and the fiction starts. Beautiful! I think I'm going to go get some Elmore Leonard now.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

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