Friday 10 June 2011

JB Kohl and Eric Beetner interview: One Too Many Blows To The Head

One Too Many Blows To The Head by JB Kohl and Eric Beetner

How did you two meet?

JB: I'd like to say Eric discovered me at a drugstore counter and could tell I was a brilliant writer. The truth is a little more mundane. We started out being two networking writers with similar interests. Eric sent me a short story to read and I really liked it. His voice was enough like mine that I really thought it could work nicely if we wrote something together. So I asked him if he'd like to give it a go. And that's pretty much it. 

How do you decide on storylines?

EB: It’s very collaborative. We each throw out ideas. Once the germ of the plot is agreed on, like: Ray gets a mysterious package from a sister he didn’t know he had, we build on it brick by brick. No one owns any ideas or characters. We both suggest things for the other to do but mostly back off and let each of us handle “their” character. One way it works so well for us is that we have the same instincts. We’ve never come up with anything that the other person had said, “No way. I’m not doing that.”

Who writes what?

EB: We alternate chapters and in these books I write from the POV of Ray Ward and Jennifer writes Dean Fokoli. Occasionally they overlap but not much.

JB: Very true. But there are times when we do have to write each other's characters. The first time that happened I was a little concerned. What if Eric suddenly became a literary diva? Thankfully, he didn't, and he has had to write Dean Fokoli too sometimes. At this point, I really enjoy the opportunity to write Eric's character and we work well enough together that it's not a big deal. It's actually sort of fun.  

What happens when you disagree?

JB: That doesn't really happen. Like Eric said, we both toss around ideas, and those build on each other. Occasionally one of us will say, "What if we do this instead?" or "I don't know if that will work here." But when it comes time to actually writing the novel, we've got enough of an outline that we know what direction we're heading and if things change, they change. It's eerily easy. 

Can you sum up One Too Many Blows To The Head in no more than 25 words? 

EB: An ex-fighter stalks the underworld looking for the men who killed his brother with a detective on his trail who has issues of his own.

(that was terrible- Jen want to try?)

JB: Sure-- Is ex-fighter one word or two? I'm going to say one. Ahem. OTMB: A dead brother, an ex-fighter, a crooked cop. A game of cat and mouse through Kansas City. 

EB: Much better. See how this works?

How long did it take you to write?

EB: We write fairly quickly, but then life gets in the way. We both have kids and other jobs. I’d say about a month of back and forth on outlines and then about 4 months of actual writing that could have been condensed into half the time if we did it full time.

How much difference does an editor make?

JB: In the overall plot--really not much. We edit each other constantly during the process and then again a couple of times once we've got a complete manuscript. Any official editing has only pointed out the grammatical stuff that we're too blind or fatigued to see. 

Who designed your cover?

EB: I guess I “designed” both of them and I drafted an illustrator I know named Marc Sasso to paint the cover for One Too Many Blows To The Head. I gave him a photo for reference and said, “Like this but with blood.”

For Borrowed Trouble I nicked an image off an old pulp magazine I have from 1953 and used my very limited photoshop skills to make us a cover. I sent Jennifer about 5 options I think, but the others were dreadful. I’m glad we agreed this was the one. We’re quite proud of both of them. It’s very easy for a book to have a cheap or unprofessional feel with a lousy cover. I think our covers stand out and don’t look like they were both done for free. Guess I shouldn’t cop to it even.

We had professional designers! We paid thousands!

How much difference does a good cover make?

EB: It will make me pick up a book, that’s for sure. Judging a book by its cover is a cliché but it came from a kernel of truth.

JB: I hate to say it, but I judge books by their covers all the time. I remember having a serious discussion with Eric about how we DIDN'T want our cover to look when One Too Many Blows was getting reviewed for potential publication. He did a great job on both covers. 

How important is a good title? 

EB: I did a piece recently for the Mulholland Books website about the importance of titles. I think they are very important. It’s an entry point into the world of the book.

JB: A good title is tricky. But I agree, it's important. The working title for One Too Many Blows was FIST, which worked well, but probably wouldn't have invited the masses to flock to it. 

How important is a book's central character?

JB: A central character is important, obviously, but it's the supporting characters that keep him afloat. OTMB had lots of supporting characters--Eric created three brilliant drunks early in the novel. They added so much to a scene just by existing that when my character had to revisit the area where they lived, I couldn't resist bringing them back onstage for a little encore. 

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

EB: I avoid free advice feeling that you get what you pay for.

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

EB: I’m still waiting for that one.

JB: Me too.

What's your favourite part of the writing process?

EB: I love it when I surprise myself. I do very rough outlines so I know where I’m going but once I’m into a chapter or scene I leave a lot of latitude for exploration and every now and then I type out something that I did not see coming. I love it as a reader and as a writer.

JB: I love reaching that point when the characters take on a life of their own and start writing the story themselves--when I become nothing more than a device for them to speak through. It certainly doesn't happen daily or even weekly, but when it does happen, it's the best rush ever.

What are your strengths as a writer?

EB: I’ll answer this for Jen and she can do me since we don’t like tooting our own horns. I love that she can infuse characters with real depth. The thing I liked about her first book, The Deputy’s Widow, was that there were real characters that I felt for. In our books I think Dean Fokoli is a marvelously three-dimensional character who is a hardboiled detective but with pathos. Without him, especially in One Too Many Blows To The Head, you just have carnage. He is a great balance to Ray Ward.

JB: Aw, thanks. I'm blushing. Here's the thing about Eric's writing--there's humor to be found in it--even in the bad stuff. Over the last couple of years he's sent me things to read over--things that are going to be put into anthologies or e-zines, etc. I remember this one particularly violent story had me laughing so hard I thought there must be something wrong with me. I remember writing to him as follows: "I can't quit laughing. I'm a sick woman."  I just had the pleasure of reading his soon-to-be-released e-novel and the same thing happened. The character was so human, so angry, so violent, and so funny. And the humor is never in your face. It just flows from the lips of the characters. I was laughing before I realized I was laughing. To me, that is total brilliance in writing. It's one thing to write the things we write--it's another to make people laugh when you do it. 

What aspects of marketing your book do you enjoy?

EB: Almost none of it. I like doing interviews like this. Anything where I am invited to do it, I can embrace. I hate shouting, “Look at me! Read my books! Spend money on me!” Hate it, hate it, hate it.

I’ve been a musician, a film maker, a screenwriter, a painter and in all these pursuits I was the absolute worst at self-promotion. 

The social aspect of it I don’t mind – meeting people and talking about my writing is okay if it’s not me starting a conversation with, “You know, I’m a writer.”

JB: I've yet to meet a writer I didn't like. The thing about writers who are trying to do it professionally is that we all know we're in the same boat. That makes talking with other writers a lot of fun. It's marketing to the general public that's so painful--trying to get your book noticed among the hundreds of thousands of books out there. I hate that. And I've recently read that it can cause a rash. 

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

EB: Hardboiled. I’m not a procedural guy. Not really a detective guy. I like sad losers getting in over their heads and trying to claw their way out of a deepening grave.

JB: Hmmm … the truth is I read anything and everything I can get my hands on. 

What was the last good eBook you read?

JB: I just finished The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

What crime book are you most looking forward to reading?

EB: The new Duane Swierczynski, Fun & Games, comes out in a few weeks. That’s tops on my must list right now. I also just picked up a copy of Fast One by Paul Cain, a little known pulp writer in the 1930s. I usually mix up a contemporary read with a vintage one and alternate. Excited to dig in to that one.

What are you reading now?

EB: Just finished a GREAT old pulp called The Kiss-Off by Douglas Heyes. So good. I’m about to crack a non-fiction book called Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother which is about the women in China who abandon their children in such high numbers. I have two daughters adopted from China so I am eager to see the other side of the equation and get a little insight into my girl’s experience.

JB: Currently reading The Chameleon's Shadow by Minette Walters, Charity Girl by Georgette Heyer and Made in the U.S.A by Billie Letts. (Yes, all at the same time. Short attention span.) 

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

EB: A Simple Plan by Scott Smith

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

EB: Sunset & Sawdust by Joe R Lansdale.

What makes you keep reading a book?

EB: If I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I really want to find out. That’s the short answer, and if I may Allan, a reason why I really love your work. It’s why I don’t read very many series. If I know the hero is going to be fine in the end the tension is sapped away for me. I need to know anyone can die at any time and I need to be thinking, “There is no way out of this.”

JB: Believable characters and suspense. If I can't believe the characters I'll shut the book and move along to something else. 

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

EB: Either of the collections of Cornell Woolrich stories, Night & Fear and Darkness At Dawn. Love his short fiction. The Big Book of Pulps is great though I’m not all the way through it since it is freakin’ massive!

What are your views on eBook pricing?

EB: Cheaper books means more accessible books and that is a good thing. I don’t rely on writing for a living so I can say that. I don’t think a super-cheap ebook like .99 devalues the work in any way. It is a question of whether it is sustainable if you have more than just an author in the mix. You can only slice a pie so thin. Even with big publishers and best sellers I think the e-book should be priced considerably lower than a print book. And I’ve always felt hardcovers are too expensive. I’ll always prefer trade paperbacks.

JB: I'm an ebook junkie. I LOVE ebooks. If I'm blocked with my own writing, I'll jump onto my Kindle for PC and read something for a little bit. My real Kindle is with me everywhere I go. The cheaper the book, the more likely I am to buy it. I am, after all, a starving writer. The point of writing is to find a reader. Whatever gets my book into a reader's hands is cool. If that's an inexpensive ebook, so much the better. At least I know that particular reader is as much of a bargain hunter as I am! 

Ever tried your hand at screenwriting?

EB: I was a screenwriter for years. I actually got paid for it. Nothing ever got made except the film I directed myself. It is a brutal business. I still love it though. It’s a skill to be that efficient in your storytelling. 

JB: Ugh. No. 

Ever tried your hand at poetry?

EB: First thing I ever had published was a poem in a college journal. It was college-age poetry and was appropriately dismal. Do I even need to say I took the class for a girl?

JB: High school anyone?

Which author should be much better known?

EB: My go-to for this is always Steve Brewer. He’s as good as Elmore Leonard with a fraction of the accolades. I have an advance e-copy of his upcoming book, Calabama that I can’t wait to read.

JB: Eric Beetner of course. 

Do you read outside of the crime genre?

EB: Not as much as I should.

JB: Yes. Definitely. I read anything I can get my hands on. Lots of literary lately. I have a friend who brings me a fresh supply of bargain books constantly. We have books flying back and forth all the time. It exposes me to all sorts of writers I wouldn't normally read.  

What was your favourite book as a child?

EB: I’ll go with The Phantom Tollbooth. I also recently rediscovered a book I had forgotten about called The Great Cheese Conspiracy about a group of mice who live in a movie theatre in Times Square and watch a steady diet of old gangster movies and then decide to rob a cheese shop nearby. I bought it for my daughters when I saw it on a shelf and the memories of that book came flooding back. In reading it again a lot of my own tastes and writing styles now made a lot of sense. If I loved a book like that as a ten-year-old it’s no wonder I am a crime fiction and film noir junkie now.

JB: Funny, but my favorite book was about mice too. It was called "Mouse Tales" and was a book of short stories. In one of the stories this mouse was walking along and his feet got tired, so he stopped at the side of the road at a foot vendor and bought new feet. The illustration showed him removing his feet and attaching new ones. I was fascinated by that. In another of the stories a mouse was looking at clouds. The clouds turned into monsters and chased him. Sometimes I wonder why my mother bought me that book. Sometime I wonder why I'm afraid of clouds . . . 

Do you enjoy writing?

EB: Love it. Why do it if you don’t love it? I could be watching more movies and TV.

JB: I left a career in medicine to do it full time. Yes. I love it. I spent my life working to get to a place where I could leave everything and make a career of it.

Do you enjoy the editorial process?

EB: I certainly don’t mind it if it makes the work better, which is usually does. I’ve been lucky so far in that I haven’t had to deal with anyone who wants to make major changes to anything I’ve written. But I’m not a big re-writer. I like the plan it out and get it as close to right the first time out.

JB: It's been painless so far. Mostly I get tired reading the manuscript over and over and combing through things to make sure it's perfect. But that's all structural. The only major rewrite we've ever done was a chapter revision right before printing. But it was necessary. You can't complain when something's necessary. You just do it because it's the right thing to do. 

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

JB: I'd have to say this one. :0)

How do you feel about reviews?

EB: I love the when they go our way. They can be a great aide in helping choose a new book but I also like to know a little about the reviewer so I know if we share the same sensibility. It puts it in perspective that you can find negative reviews on Amazon for every book in the world. The Diary of Anne Frank. How can you shit all over that book on Amazon? What does it gain you?

I do like reviews to be honest, even about my own work. Better to be honest than sycophantic. 

JB: Naturally, they make my palms sweat a little bit. We put a lot of ourselves into our partnership and into our work. But they are necessary and the great ones are worth all the stress. 

Do you have any other projects on the go?

EB: Always. We just started another book together. A new storyline, possibly a series. I have three completed full length manuscripts, a novella that I plan to put out direct to ebook this summer and I always have short stories out there and this summer I’m in three different anthologies that I’m really excited about, Pulp Ink, D*icked, and Grimm Tales.

JB: I've just finished a manuscript, which I'm now in the midst of tweaking and preparing for submission. And, like Eric said, we've just started work on a new manuscript together. We're gearing for a little different feel this time around, so I'm excited to see how it pans out. 

One Too Many Blows To The Head by JB Kohl and Eric Beetner

JB Kohl lives and writes in Virginia. She has published three novels, The Deputy's Widow in 2008, One Too Many Blows To The Head in 2009, and her latest work, Borrowed Trouble (both co-written with Eric Beetner). She and Eric have still never met in person.

Eric Beetner is an award-winning short story and screenwriter. Beside his two novels with JB Kohl, he has published dozens of short stories and been anthologized in print in Murder In The Wind, Discount Noir, Crimefactory, Needle magazine and the upcoming Pulp Ink, D*icked and Grimm Tales.


  1. Good interview. I realize people write screenplays and television shows in groups sometimes, so I don't know why a novel sounds so strange. They work on different characters, and they don't even have to be in the same room. And yet, I can't imagine it. Writing a novel just seems like the most intimate of acts.

  2. Smashing interview. Jennifer and Eric have produced a couple of great books.

  3. Superb interview . . . Cliche of judging the books by their covers? Their Authors? Their lingering storylines?

    All that.
    Way to go Eric and Jennifer. Keep 'em comin ...

    ~ Absolutely*Kate