Friday 8 July 2011

Terry Holland interview: Chicago Shiver

Chicago Shiver by Terry Holland

Terry Holland has spent his life avoiding pigeonholes. He has worked, among other things, as creative director of an advertising agency, as a fishmonger, as a political consultant to governors and senators, as a syndicator of thoroughbred racehorses, as a farmhand, as a professional gambler, and as a geodemographic targeter. He lives in a tree house in Louisville.

Can you sum up Chicago Shiver in no more than 25 words?

Harry Pines bluffs the Illinois governor into releasing his client from jail on murder charges out of fear Harry will expose his affair with the victim. That’s 26.

What was your motivation for writing it?

I see myself as an entertainer. I’ve got stories to tell that I think will bring pleasure. So I’ve got to get them out.

How long did it take you to write?

About six months. It gets easier. It’s all the ancillary stuff that slows you down.

How much difference does an editor make?

A good one can bring you closer to great. A bad one can bring you closer to homicide.

Who designed your cover?

My editor, JT Lindroos. He’s wears many hats.

How much difference does a good cover make?

Well, you can’t tell a book by its cover, but you can sell it that way. I sorted the covers of the Kindle file of the work of John Locke by sales volume and each of the top dozen sellers featured legs. Babe’s legs. JT thinks I’m overblowing that but he’s living in wedded bliss.

How important is a good title?

It matters. It has signature potential. John Sandford’s “Prey” series benefits from the brand. John D. MacDonald put colors in his. I’m working my way through references to temperature. An Ice Cold Paradise. Chicago Shiver. Next is Warm Hands, Cold Heart.

How important is a book's central character?

It’s just everything with what I do with the Harry Pines series. I wrote a profile of Harry before I wrote the first word of his first story. From the cradle. I learn a few new things about him as we go along. He’s a very sweet guy until he’s pushed. In An Ice Cold Paradise, Valerie, just getting to know him, asks if he’s belligerent. No, he says, obstreperous. Don’t like being handled. We can all relate to that.

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

Find big villains. Don’t take on bureaucrats. Get big bad guys. Credit for that goes to my friend, Stu Miller, a Hollywood screenplay agent. In an early draft of An Ice Cold Paradise the target was Eric Fox, the silky pimp on the gambling boat. Stu said kill that guy, he’s a vice president. Find somebody really threatening. I was reading Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner of Heaven at the time and there it was. All those loony Mormon Fundamentalists. I built Orrin Massey from that.

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

Trust no one.

What's your favourite part of the writing process?

I love it when I’m into a story, feeling good about where it’s going, and I pace and prowl around and come up with the next scene in my head. It’s there and I believe in it. That’s not my favorite part, though. That launches the favorite part. I begin. Writing the scene. Ignoring the phone. Ignoring fatigue. It will take hours and they’re greatly spent. Rewrites follows, of course. Tidying up. But laying down a couple or more thousand words without knowing which word is coming next is the reason I write. I love that, love where it takes me. When I smoked — and I still do but I’m between cigarettes — I would go through a pack in a few hours while I was writing a scene. And not know they were gone. Reach for another and, uhoh, all gone.

What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?

My strengths are my ear for dialogue and my comfort with what language can do. I’m lyrical. My weakness is I hate to create bad people so I compensate by not having many of them and making the ones I have really bad.

What aspects of marketing your book do you enjoy?

Almost none. In the beginning, I said I wouldn’t scramble around like a cocker spaniel looking for a hand to lick. Great attitude if obscurity is your goal. JT hounds me to blog, to get out there among them. Like this. I like this, by the way, because it’s an interview. You’re asking good questions and I like this. I don’t like the Hey-see-me-over-here thing. I would like to market your book. It’s marketing mine that makes me uncomfortable.

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

Keep it moving. Some of the guys, especially the big guys whose books are big, put in too much fluff to bulk up the page count. I’m into lean. Let’s gallop.

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

My ideal reader is me. He’s the only one I write to please. To think of another person’s needs, especially an unknown, invisible person, would drive me mad. So I am my audience.

What was the last good eBook you read?

I’ve never read one. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

What crime book are you most looking forward to reading?

Gee, I read them all as fast as they come out so I can only say Ian Rankin’s next one. Or maybe Martin Cruz Smith.

What are you reading now?

The last one I finished was yesterday and it was The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly. It annoys me that he goes from the first person singular to the third person. What’s that about? How is that valid? Think about it. And I think it went on too long. But there were great moments in it and vivid imaginings.

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

I hate questions that ask me to compare my pleasures. I love, loved, all my pleasures. But you gave me time to walk around the room so I’ll give you an answer. Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith. Arkady Renko, that most obnoxiously persistent unglamorous pursuer of truth, on a disgusting, abominably massive fish tanker in the Bering Sea with a psycho killer at his throat, the fate of a lovely woman in his hands, and his heart broken from a lost love, fought on as though … well, this is what we do. The unheroic hero. But it’s a close call. If you want, I’ll tell you of a dozen more.

Who's your favourite living writer?

Elmore Leonard. Tick, tock.

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

Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. When I got to the last page, and of course I saw it coming, I was sad. Not for the characters. For myself. I knew it was done and gone and I wouldn’t have it to look forward to any more. Lonesome Dove. I wouldn’t have minded being William Manchester, either, but that’s a dodge.

What makes you keep reading a book?

Hearing the writer trying. When I hear him quit, I quit.

What do you look for in a good book?

Escape. Take me to that strange enchanted land grown-ups seldom understand.

Where do you find out about new books?

I keep coming back to P.D. James and Sandford and Rankin and . . . the list is shrinking and so is time.

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

I’m not a particular fan. I think the fault for that lies within me.

What are your views on eBook pricing?

Cheap. Real cheap. A buck. Where’s the hard cost? There isn’t any. Oh, I know, servers and algorithms and crap like that. But I think they’ve got the device, and it wasn’t cheap, so all that’s left to account for is my needs, the author’s. The rest is air.

What are the biggest problems facing writers these days?

Readers. They are changing and we’ve got to quit whining about it and give them what they want, even as they don’t know what they want.

What are the greatest opportunities facing writers these days?

Technology. I think we have to do more in less space. Make it better shorter. No reason not to. Maybe we flip the Cliff Notes concept on its head. You buy the short version, which is damn good, and if you want go for the longer one with pages you can turn, it’s available.

Ever tried your hand at screenwriting?

I have. I love it. I think cinematically. I wrote a screenplay I’m very proud of called Wounded Lion. It’s the story of Winston Churchill in the first years of the First World War. He was, at 39, the First Lord of the Admiralty and the youngest and easily the brightest member of the War Council. The war turned into the grotesque horror of trench warfare in the Western Front. Unimaginable carnage day after day with nothing gained or lost. Churchill devised a plan to open an Eastern Front by forcing the Straits of the Dardanelles with his navy, seizing Constantinople, and bringing Kitchener’s army to a new front along with Greece and Rumania. Only Winston, for God’s sake, of all the people He ever dropped down here, could get so big a picture as that and run with it. Which was, as it happened, the problem. His naval commanders hadn’t been to war in their lives and their primary thought was not losing any ships. They blinked. Gallipoli ensued. Winston was savaged, ridiculed. Thus ever with prophets. But he licked his little wounds and decided to take command of a battalion in France. He performed heroically. Do you know that he invented the tank? Winston Churchill? He was so much larger than life. So, have I tried my hand at screenwriting? Read Wounded Lion.
Ever tried your hand at poetry?

I have. Ogden Nash is one of my heroes and, like him, if it doesn’t rhyme I won’t write it until it does, no matter how long the line gets. My last great poem was written for my granddaughter on the occasion of her 21st birthday. You can find it on my web site or, if you’d rather, I’ll come over and recite it at the dinner table.

How do you feel about the ease with which anyone can publish?

It’s cool. Places a burden on the consumer but they’ve got to figure it out. I do wish more of them were paying attention in school.

Which author should be much better known?


What's the book you've recommended most to friends?

Recently, 1861. Adam Goodheart’s story of what it was like here in that year.

Do you read outside of the crime genre?

I do. Mostly history.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Robert Louis Stevenson and the Hardy Boys were there,

Do you enjoy writing?

Yes. When it’s going well.

Do you enjoy the editorial process?

Sure. But that doesn’t mean I don’t resent it.

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

What’s my favorite color? Or movie?

How do you feel about reviews?

What else separates one thing from another better than the expressed opinion of one who seems not to have an axe to grind.

How do you feel about awards?


Do you have any other projects on the go?

Warm Hands, Cold Heart is the next Harry Pines story. I expect to finish it by September, 2011.

Chicago Shiver by Terry Holland