Thursday, July 28, 2016

Nigel Cox on Elmore Leonard and Sara Paretsky

Today is 10 years since Nigel Cox died. Bah. If I was in in Auckland today, I would cheer myself up by heading for Unity Books, which he co-founded with Jo McColl in 1989. Amazing to think that was 27 years ago. Unity announces:
We’re only making plans for Nigel...
This Thursday is the 10th anniversary of the death of writer/Unity Books Auckland co-founder Nigel Cox. We’d love you to come to the shop to raise a glass to Nigel at 5pm, July 28. Victoria University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman will speak, we’ll be playing the blues and we’ll have discounted copies of Nigel’s books in stock.
To mark the occasion, the 90th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is by Nigel and is from the March 1994 issue. The intro read:
Top US crime writers Sara Paretsky and Elmore Leonard visit Wellington this month to perform at Writers And Readers Week. But first, they help NIGEL COX with his enquiries.
The voice on the phone sounds thoughtful, interested, pleasant, but very relaxed, as though it’s used to talking, about itself at length to unknown interviewers from the other side of the world. At four o’clock in the afternoon in a suburb of Detroit, Elmore Leonard has put down his pen for a moment to deal with one of the chores that comes with producing the best work in your field.
The pen itself is clearly of great significance. “I used to use a 29c one, and then I used a 98c orange pen, my lucky pen, I wrote a bunch of books with that, then I graduated to a pen that cost about 7.95, and then I jumped up to a pen which is probably 150 bucks. I don’t write any better with it.”
This of course is just the kind of modesty expected of a man universally described as one of the nice guys in crime fiction. A particular quality of Leonard’s is the way he reinvigorates the genre he uses with each book. “A reviewer will say, Oh, now this book, it’s more reminiscent of his older work,” he says as though amused. “To me they’re all the same. They all have the same sound.”
That sound is the sound of people talking. “I emphasise dialogue. When I started writing it was my purpose to move my books and stories as much as possible by dialogue. The writers that I liked were dialogue writers, Hemingway, John O’Hara... Finally, when I developed my style, the idea was to move the story as much as possible by people talking – let one of the characters tell it. You maintain the sound of the people who are in it.”
Yes, but where does he find those wonderful talkers, with one foot on either side of the law, and their hearts in the right place, and their heads full of laconically articulated rationalisations and dreams? “If I’m going to do a book I don’t go out into a bar and hang out listening to people, but I’m always listening, y’know. I was watching a movie the other night, Menace To Society, which is a black-rap-and-street-gang kind of a thing, taking place in LA, and it’s all young black guys, and they’re all shooting each other. Or talking – they talk, talk talk, all the way through it, and so I picked up a couple a things. Like, they’re talking about tripping. Whataya trippin’ at me for? That’s tripping, like getting down on ya – not tripping, having a good time. Y’know. Or calling each other niggers – when they do it, when they don’t. I usually have a black character in the book, ’cause I like the way they talk. They have much more interesting dialogue than highly literate people, people sitting around the country club.”
You get the impression country clubs weren’t what he aspired to. “I got out of school in 1950, from the University of Detroit, majored in English, and I had only written a couple of stories – that was short stories – and I decided if I was going to do it [write fiction] I should approach it professionally and pick a genre in which to learn how to write, and I chose westerns, because I liked western movies – westerns were big in the 50s – and the idea was, I hoped, to sell to Hollywood. To get into writing westerns and make some movie sales. And that’s what I did. And I concentrated on the south-west, Arizona, New Mexico, Apache Indians, cavalry – cavalry was very big in the 50s – and then I researched the cowboys and horses and guns of the west.
“I subscribed to a magazine that was on highways, that was loaded with colour photographs of the land, so that when I needed a description of a canyon or something like that I’d go through the magazine till I found what I wanted, and describe that, instead of going out there. So that was how I got started. Then by the end of the 50s the book market for westerns had dried up, because of all the westerns on television. I didn’t want to write for TV because I didn’t like any of the westerns on TV, so I didn’t do it. And I had just quit my job at an ad agency in order to have more time to write fiction – I’d written about five books and 30 shorts, and two movies. “For a few years I just did freelance advertising, and I did industrial movies and some history and geography movies for Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, and then when I got back into it again, I was into crime. The first one was The Big Bounce, and then what I’m doing now really started with Fifty-two Pickup.”
Since then there have been 20 pitch-perfect books in 18 years from the master of the American vernacular. Currently he’s working on a sequel-of-sorts to his last book, to be called Out Of Sight. Raylan Givens, the slow-talking, quick-thinking US marshal from Harlan County, Kentucky, who came in half-way through Pronto, will get a whole book to himself, if Leonard’s current plans work out – always a worry, apparently, for a writer so determined to focus on character rather than plot. But “once I get into a book, I’ll start about 9.30 and usually I’ll go right through to six. Today I forgot all about lunch – the time just flies by.”
Just like the pages he writes when you’re reading them.

“I’m kind of worn out. I don’t feel like working, so I took the day off.” Well, in Chicago it’s a good day to stay home, 12 degrees below, cars getting buried in the snow. Sara Paretsky has just finished her eighth novel, Tunnel Vision, and wants a rest, not from writing, but from her private-eye heroine, VI Warshawski.
“I’m actually going to take a break from VI for a while. I think it’s time for me to see whether I can do something else. Something non-genre. A little funnier than what I’ve been doing, a little less sledgehammer. Maybe I can make a soufflé.”
Warshawski is bluntly direct – Paretsky wanted a character who “was not afraid to say what was on her mind, wasn’t afraid of getting fired, basically,” which, since Paretsky is so civil in conversation, makes you wonder if perhaps you’re talking to the wrong author.
“Yeah, people are often disappointed when they meet me because I look soft. I don’t look tough.” She sounds delicate and careful, creating an impression of fragility which is shattered by sudden bursts of ironic laughter.
VI Warshawski first lashed her tongue in 1982 in Indemnity Only. “Up until about two or three years ago I hardly read anything but crime novels, so when I wanted to test whether I could actually write a book, mystery was the thing for me to do, because that was what I knew. And then if you’re writing books set in Chicago... it’s a pretty blue-collar kind of city, that didn’t seem to lend itself to the polite novel.”
She also had “a strong reaction to the traditional depiction of women in American crime writing – where, if you were a sexually active woman, you were evil and, if you were chaste, you were ineffectual. I wanted someone who could act.”
Warshawski and Paretsky both dote on their golden retrievers and share a political outlook, but connections between creator and creation end there. Unlike the fiercely independent Warshawski, who lives alone in the industrial immigrant sector of Chicago, Paretsky, 46, lives with her husband of 10 years and three stepsons in a Victorian-era brick house, where she writes in a converted attic.
She found it hard to find a publisher, not only because her all-attitude private eye was female, but because the books were set in a precisely detailed Chicago, not New York, “which is 1500 miles away,” she says wryly. That first novel sold only 3500 copies – but by her seventh, Guardian Angel, her sales per book were up to 75,000, enabling her to give up her job as a manager for a large insurance company.
“Sometimes I drive past my old office building and I just think, Oh boy, you’re in there in pantyhose and you’re working, and I’m out here in my jeans and I’m not!”
Yes, but as a former student and office worker, how does she know about the world she describes? Is she the kind of person who just naturally knows about guns and shooting people? “As a matter of fact I made a lot of mistakes with guns. I read about them, but the most fervent mail I’ve gotten has been from gun nuts. An Englishman wrote me an 11-page letter pointing out every mistake I ever made with a firearm.
“But by the time I wrote my fourth book a Chicago police sergeant came along and offered to take me shooting. I wouldn’t say that I was an expert, but at least now I’ve handled firearms.
“The things I research really carefully are the financial crimes I’m writing about and I try to do detailed research on any scientific facts I’m including. Tunnel Vision is partly set in these tunnels which run underneath the city of Chicago. I was never given permission to go and look at those so that really I had to just make things up and rely on photographs.
“I didn’t know about the tunnels. Most people didn’t until two years ago. They were put in around 1900, to ferry coal and other supplies from the Chicago river to feed the skyscrapers. They stopped being used around 1940, were sealed up, and then two years ago someone negligently rammed a pylon into a tunnel, which flooded, and billions of dollars worth of damage were done to the buildings downtown. Immediately this seemed to me to be a custom-made setting for some kind of crime.
“The book deals a little bit with the violation of the embargo against Iraq by some of the big American manufacturing concerns, and also with the ideas suggested by the BCCI collapse, and – the manuscript is 610 pages long – runaway teenagers, domestic abuse, the homeless, illegal Romanian construction workers. You name it, it’s there.”
In 1986 Paretsky helped found Sisters In Crime, an organisation which supports and raises the profile of women who write crime fiction. The sense of engagement here, of activism, is echoed by Paretsky’s novels, which are often described as feminist thrillers, or politically committed – thus the “sledgehammer” quality she refers to. But when she talks about her detective, there’s real affection – VI Warshawski won’t die on us.
“I won’t abandon her. There’s some other stories I want to tell about her.” Which is good to hear. The world would be reduced, if somewhat less ear-bashed, without her.

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