Friday 27 May 2011

Harry Shannon interview: Running Cold

Running Cold by Harry Shannon
Amazon UK, Amazon US

Stoker-nominated author Harry Shannon has written four Mick Callahan mysteries, a number of horror novels, a thriller called The Pressure of Darkness and the motion picture and novel Dead and Gone.

Can you sum up your newest book in no more than 25 words?

Running Cold (A Mick Callahan Novel)
The alcoholic television psychologist is depressed and angry. Mick is also on a collision course with another violent man, the son of a murdered client.

What was your motivation for writing it?

"Running Cold" is a gambling term for bad luck. A lot of people have asked me to return to Mick Callahan a fourth time, but it took me a while to find another story that seemed appropriate. He's grown a lot since "Memorial Day" was released back in 2004. I like Mick best when he's troubled and really struggling to be decent. I felt I needed to find the right plot. Once I realized that he needed to fall almost all the way down and have to fight his way back up again, the story took off.

How long did it take you to write?

This novel was a tough one. I tried first person, since Mick has always been that way, but it didn't feel right this time out. Threw all of that out. The structure wouldn't settle down, either. When I landed on the second male lead, it came together. And eventually it became almost two story lines, both men in third person. The entire book took almost a year and a half to come together.

How much difference does an editor make?

If it is the right editor, all the difference in the world. It's difficult to edit myself at novel length, I cherish sharp, focused and impartial input. Unfortunately, that's not easy to come by these days, with or without a formal publisher.

Who designed your cover?

It's not finished at the time of this writing, but the photography will be by Yossi Sasson who directed my horror film "Dead and Gone." Yossi also did the cover art for "Daemon" and "A Host of Shadows." The cover design itself will be by graphic artist Lon Shapiro.

How much difference does a good cover make?

In the age of Kindle and Nook, the cover design is a lot more important than I'd realized until recently. The art has to pop and do so at a very, very small size. Making good book covers in the age of Amazon is fast becoming a new art form. Indie covers are often created by the author, and unfortunately that really shows--so great cover art is another way of trying to emerge from a crowded field.

How important is a good title?

Well, it's really about marketing, isn't it? The title and cover will not sell me a book, but can convince me to read the product description. If the story sounds intriguing, I'll download a sample. If the sample grabs me and the price isn't outrageous, I'm a goner. I love collecting books. My TBR stack, both electronic and paper, always runs to well over 100.

How important is a book's central character?

That depends upon the story, at least for me. I like a protagonist who is tormented in some way, someone like Mick Callahan. He always struggles to be good. Poor Mick is someone whose integrity causes him real suffering. I grew up on John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, James Lee Burke is another idol of mine. That probably shows in my stuff.

What's the best piece of craft advice you've been given?

Mystery novelist Jan Burke told me, "Keep your head down." By that she meant ignore praise, criticism, failure, success, other people's failures and successes, just keep your head down and try to become a better writer. Stay with the craft, keep trying to improve. The rest will come if it's meant to happen. Don't be in a hurry but don't give up, just keep your head down at the keyboard and type.

What's the best piece of business advice you've been given?

I had a boss in the music industry Sam Trust of ATV Music. He told me, "Just do your homework and don't back down." Good advice.

What's your favourite part of the writing process?

That first moment of inspiration, when you know a problem is solved, an idea is bearing fruit, something magic is happening. A close second is opening a box of my own books for the very first time. That never gets old. Somehow I doubt downloading an ebook will every feel quite the same, you know?

What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?

Very good questions. I think my strengths may be character and dialogue. I struggle a lot with plotting. My weakness may be a wandering attention span. After rewriting a couple of times, I tend to lose interest and want to move onto something else. With lyrics decades ago, I'd rewrite a page for months. I cannot seem to do that with prose. Perhaps I'd be a better author if I did, but then it would take me five years to complete a book!

What aspects of marketing your book do you enjoy?

Meeting and communicating with new people. Readers, other writers. I love books and I am a fan of good writing. I can get completely lost in a conversation about the existentialist philosophy in Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men" and "The Road." The way a sentence that seems perfectly crafted can stick in your skull forever. One example that comes to mind is from Michael Scharra's Pulitzer Prize winning Civil War novel "The Killer Angels." He starts a chapter after the battle of Gettysburgh with the sentence "Black smoke rising.") So the part of marketing I enjoy most is just communicating with other authors and fans who adore the written word. In person, on Facebook, Twitter, wherever. We share a passion.

As a reader, how would you describe your taste in crime fiction?

I'm not at all "cozy," let's put it that way. I like the dark stuff, so probably noir or hard-boiled suit me best. I write a lot of horror, and it's a natural overlap for a lot of us, as you well know.

As a writer, how would you describe your ideal reader's taste in crime fiction?

I suppose the people who like my stuff have similar tastes. A lot of us can instantly connect over the writing of John D. MacDonald, James Lee Burke, John Connelly, Joe R. Lansdale, Michael Connolly, Robert Crais, Mo Hayder, folks like that. I'm not sure I'm good enough to be considered in their league, but that's my bag, as it were.

What was the last good eBook you read?

The last one to really grab me? Probably "Collusion" by Irishman Stuart Neville. I loved "The Ghosts of Belfast," too. Another great Kindle read was "The Terror" by Dan Simmons. I haven't read a lot of books original to the Kindle that blew me away, but that's bound to happen soon.

What crime book are you most looking forward to reading?

Right now? Michael Connelly's "The Fifth Witness." I just finished Joe R. Lansdale's "Devil Red." I'm also dying for a new Charlie Parker from John Connelly.

What are you reading now?

"Dead Zero" by Stephen Hunter, a Bob Lee Swagger novel. I'm also reading "Swamplandia" on my Kindle, but struggling with it for some reason. Seems slow to me.

If you had to re-read a crime novel right now, what would you choose?

I'd go back to a James Lee Burke like "Rain Gods." Loved that novel, and it's amazing that it's one of his more recent efforts.

Who's your favourite living writer?

If I must pick one, which is difficult, I'd say Burke. But Cormac McCarthy rocks. And so does John Connelly....Crap. Okay, Burke.

From an artistic rather than financial perspective, what book do you wish you had written?

"No Country for Old Men" by Cormac McCarthy

What makes you keep reading a book?

A mix of a confident style, courage and a talent for placing interesting people in serious trouble.

What do you look for in a good book?

Effort. Style. Skill. Lazy writing turns me off instantly.

Where do you find out about new books?

Anywhere and everywhere, word of mouth and Amazon and friends.

What's the best collection of short stories you've read?

Wow. Not sure about that one. Guess I would probably pick one of Ray Bradbury's or perhaps Richard Matheson. Hell, even Stephen King's if I gave it enough thought, they are all amazing.

What are your views on eBook pricing?

.99 for short fiction and special bargains, $1.99 for novellas, $.4.99 down to $2.99 for novels. Think it will end up there within a year or two.

What are the biggest problems facing writers these days?

We live in interesting times. The landscape is shifting in new and terrifying ways. I just hope deflation, our biggest threat, doesn't wreck our potential to make a living. Don't give your work away for less than minimum wage, people. We work hard at what we do. The downward pricing spiral could prove fatal if we don't suck it up.

What are the greatest opportunities facing writers these days?

I love what the technology has done. It's possible to do your work, upload it yourself, publicize it via social media and actually succeed--witness Amanda Hocking. But as she herself has pointed out, she worked long and hard to become a good writer. She did NOT just scribble some vampire, upload a mess of typos and make a fortune. She had already been working at her craft for some time, and two or three novels, before becoming such a winner. So keep your head down. Be patient.

Ever tried your hand at screenwriting?

Yes. Wrote "Dead and Gone," of course, as an homage to all those lovely, funny 1980's horror comedies. I've had a couple of scripts optioned. One zombie fest called "PAIN," another action/horror/thriller hybrid based on my novel "Daemon." I think "Night of the Werewolf" (aka CLAN) was optioned once by Relativity Media years ago, but nothing much happened after that.

Ever tried your hand at poetry?

I made my living writing song lyrics back in the 1970's, but haven't been motivated to write much poetry. The haiku aspect, the limitation in the form, just doesn't appeal to me as much as it once did. I'm always searching for new challenges, so who knows. Perhaps I'll at least give that a shot at some point. For now, it's novels and short fiction and a movie if anyone wants that.
How do you feel about anyone being able to publish?

As I said, love the fact that the cost of publishing or making movies has dropped to such an affordable level. Competition is a good thing, and keeps everyone on their toes. On the other hand, too many people think that this is an excuse to pump out unpolished material, and avoid constructive criticism much less good copy editing. It's amazingly difficult to get something together that is virtually error free. I can't proof myself for beans. So the down side may be a lot of junk to wade through in order to find the real gems created by indies.  My colleagues and I, authors such as Dave Zeltserman, Lee Goldberg, Ed Gorman, Libby Fisher Hellman, Max Alan Collins and several others formed Top Suspense Group to try to create a brand of sorts, a one-stop site where people could come and be certain to find quality ebooks. We just released our eponymous anthology TOP SUSPENSE on Kindle and Nook and in paperback.

Which author should be much better known?

Hate to say the obvious, but there are a ton of gifted people who should be better known. Off the top of my head, Stephen Gallagher. I'm always stunned that anyone has missed John Connolly. I know he's successful, but his name should be up there with the best of the best. Stuart Neville. Dave Zeltserman, and of course the other members of Top Suspense.

Do you read outside of the crime genre?

I read almost anything and everything. Biographies, historical fiction, military fiction, a few classics. My steady diet tends to be crime fiction, but I read an awful lot, and some fresh spices are absolutely necessary to keep me going.

What was your favourite book as a child?

A few that come to mind immediately are The Martian Chronicles, I Am Legend and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Do you enjoy writing?

Usually. When it is flowing. As we all know, it can also be hellish when forced.

Do you enjoy the editorial process?

I love good input from others, but the older I get the less I enjoy anything past perhaps the second rewrite of a novel. My attention span just doesn't hold up as well as it used to, or perhaps I'm less obsessive? The honest answer is no, I hate proofing and only get enjoyment from editing when it is a spark of real inspiration that vastly improves the story. As for editing other people, I'm absolutely awful. The best I can do is give general feedback on the plot or style. I greatly admire people who have the focus and discipline to conceive of and properly edit thrilling anthologies, or help save the author's bacon with a novel. They are few and far between and vastly underpaid.

What's the oddest question you've been asked in an interview?

One lady wanted me to go on and on about my cats. Since I currently have four, and adore them--especially my bromance Samson--it wasn't difficult to derail me into cooing about the wee beasties. Unfortunately, most of our limited time was spent on felines, not crime fiction.

How do you feel about reviews?

The only ones that sting--honestly--are those nasty troll reviews, a very 21st century phenomenon. You know, where someone makes up an Amazon name just to post something horrid and quite generalized out of spite (some standard phrases are "I love the authors other works but this one stinks..." and "I never post negative reviews but..." and "Cardboard characters, plot goes nowhere, gave up reading"). Okay, if you click on their names, you find (a) they have never posted another review and likely never will again, or (b) they post only negative reviews of other writers. You have to assume those come from frustrated competitors, or stoned teens taking revenge for their bad acne. The critical reviews that make sense, and sound like the person actually purchased and tried to read your story, not only don't bother me but often contain a lot of valuable advice. Writing is an impossible craft, all we can do is struggle to get better. Keep your head down.

How do you feel about awards?

I've won a couple of small press awards, and been nominated twice for the Stoker. Learned a long, long time ago in 1982, when nominated for an Emmy for original lyrics, that the process is always skewed. Awards are far more exciting from a distance, because they appear to offer some kind of genuine validation. Up close, where one can study the warts, they are far less attractive. The popular misconception is that they can launch a career, when the opposite is more likely. Have a great career, and you're likely to eventually win some writing awards. In other words...just keep your head down. My two cents, anyway.

Do you have any other projects on the go?

I'm doing a short story for an anthology, a novella for the Lee Goldberg-William Rabkin Kindle pulp series "The Dead Man" (mine will be called  The Dead Man: Lust for Blood), and have outlined a sequel to my horror novel/movie  "Dead and Gone," tentatively entitled "Dead and Gone 2--Deader and Goner." As you can tell, that one should be both scary and humorous, loads of gory fun.

Running Cold by Harry Shannon
Amazon UK, Amazon US


  1. Harry, two of my all-time favorites are The Martian Chronicles and I Am Legend. Bradbury and Matheson are so good. I had the big thrill of having a story in an in-flight magazine where only two pieces of fiction were published. My story and a new story by Ray Bradbury. Enjoyed your comments on Criminal-E.

  2. Thanks, couldn't agree with you more. Started a tradition with my daughter we read "The Halloween Tree" by Bradbury every October, a few pages a night. Richard Matheson is a friend, and my wife has known his family since childhood. Thanks for the comment!