Thursday, April 10, 2003

T. Jefferson Parker, interviewed by Harlan Coben

Over the years, the NorCal East Bay chapter of Mystery Readers International has had many "At Homes" -- intimate evenings with favorite mystery writers. We've hosted Anne Perry, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, Janet LaPierre, Sharan Newman, Laurie King, Rochelle Krich, Carolyn Hart, James Ellroy, Steven Saylor, Janet Evanovich, Eddie Muller, Taffy Cannon, and many others.

These events are held in private homes, and they're similar to Literary Salons. Since so many of our cyber members and friends aren't able to attend these intimate evenings, I thought it would be fun to have a "visiting" author each month interviewed by another "visiting" author. This month we feature T. Jefferson Parker interviewed by Harlan Coben.

T. Jefferson Parker was born in Los Angeles and has lived all of his life in Southern California. Parker received his bachelor's degree in English from the University of California, Irvine, in 1976, and began his writing career in 1978, as a cub reporter on the weekly newspaper The Newport Ensign. After covering police, city hall and cultural stories for the Ensign, Parker moved on to the Daily Pilot newspaper, where he won three Orange County Press Club awards for his articles. All the while, he was tucking away stories and information that he would use in his first book.

Laguna Heat, written on evenings and weekends while he worked as a journalist, was published to rave reviews and made into an HBO movie starring Harry Hamlin, Jason Robards and Rip Torn. The paperback made the New York Times Bestseller list in 1986. Nine other novels have followed, including the Edgar Award-winning Silent Joe and his most recent book, Black Water (2002). In April 2003, his eleventh book, Cold Pursuit, will be published. Booklist has called it "another wonderful mystery from one of the very best."

--Janet Rudolph

Harlan Coben: Let's start with the chicken-'n-egg question. You're starting a novel. Which comes first: Plot or character? What I'm mostly interested in is that "moment," if you will. The seed that grows into the book. Where does that come from?

T. Jefferson Parker: It's the characters first, then what happens to them. The first moment of a book is always kind of interesting. Sometimes it's something that just happens to you and the story lands in your lap. I remember many years ago when I'd finished Laguna Heat and I was hanging out, trying to play heads-up ball, looking for a story. I'm in a liquor store and the guy in line in front of me is an American Vietnam war vet. The clerk is a Vietnamese woman. I got curious about their histories so I eavesdropped on their mercantile transaction. I wondered -- could they have crossed each other's paths in Vietnam? Could her father or mother have fought with this ex-soldier, or against him? So, before the vet can say anything, the clerk reaches up and takes a pack of Lucky Strikes out of the overhead rack and sets it on the counter. He says, how did you know that's what I wanted? She says, Some things I just know. That blew my hair back. I knew I had a Vietnam mystery on my hands.

HC: Give me an idea of your writing routine, Jeff. Are you a morning or evening guy? How many hours? Are you consistent? Do you count words or pages? Do you play music or do you prefer silence? In the house or at your local coffee bar? Details, man, details!

TJP: I start early, around 6:30 and quit around 5 p.m. It's not always all writing, but sometimes it is. I set a daily page count for each book. Usually 5 or 6 pages per day. Then there's the weekly count. If I'm ahead I feel smug; if I'm behind I sense panic. I go through all these labyrinthine calcs every morning to see where my stock is. It's really kind of funny.

HC: I'd like to steal your question to Jan Burke from last month. What would you like to see more of, and less of, in crime writing these days?

TJP: I think the Achilles heel of mystery/crime writing is character. You have to have good characters and sometimes I think mystery writers rely to heavily on plot and velocity of plot at the expense of characters. This leads to the question of what is a good character, and that's up for interpretation. Certainly a character who is passionate. One who is more than just competent. I think the best mysteries are the ones where you've got an outer mystery and an inner one going on together and these two stories compete and collide and finally become one. Another thing I really enjoy is a story that zooms off in directions you're not expecting. It's difficult to work within the confines of the genre and make that happen.

HC: You've written critically acclaimed, award-winning stand-alones and series books. Is one harder to write than the other? Is the process different when you're doing a stand-alone or series -- or is writing a book, er, writing a book?

TJP: Harlan, that's a coin-toss for me. The stand-alones are harder because you have a whole world to create. But the series books are harder because you can't create a whole world. Somehow, for me, the whole thing boils down to the emotion behind the story. My new book, Cold Pursuit, was the most difficult one to write since Laguna Heat. And that wasn't because it was any larger or more complex than the others, it's because I started working on it on September 12 of 2001. My emotions toward writing fiction at that point were almost completely dead. But back to series or stand-alones, I'm beginning to believe that the stand-alones are easier. I'm working on one now, and I've never felt such joy and enthusiasm for a book.

HC: The old Batman TV show, the one with Adam West and Burt Ward. Who was your favorite villain and why? (If you didn't watch the show, you can skip this question but hang your head in shame).

TJP: Harlan, I was sort of a tough nut as a kid. Not really violent or hateful, but... impatient. I honestly wanted Batman and Robin to get slaughtered by one of the villains. I couldn't stand them, those asinine costumes. And so I hardly ever watched. I know this is perverse, and I do feel shame...

HC: Okay, Jeff, this is a variation on the Hemingway saying that the best way to become a writer was to have an unhappy childhood. Give me an event, preferably in your childhood but we can go up until you were, say, twenty-one, that I can see in your work today. In other words, what happened to you that made you write what you write?

TJP: Now you're getting me back for hating that TV show. Tough question. I actually had a very chipper childhood -- suburban Tustin, good parents and brother and sister, a little church, Little League, bodysurfing, a red family Country Squire station wagon with the wood-look paneling on the side. Lots of fun. So, if you try to trace my somewhat darkish fiction back to that, I guess the answer is that when I saw that childhood breaking up -- when I became aware of myself becoming a young man -- suddenly the whole bubble burst. That's an ugly sentence. Let me try again. It was like one day I was a crew-cut, buck-toothed boy looking for snakes in orange groves, and the next thing I knew there were seriously weird people taking huges doses of LSD, calling the cops pigs and trying to bring down the country. At that point I think I was just left standing gape-jawed at what was happening. I'm talking about 1963 to 1966, say. I'm writing about that period now.

HC: One of my favorite writing quotes comes from E.L. Doctorow: "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." Do you agree with this? Start with this: Do you know the ending of the book before you begin?

TJP: That's a really nice quote. Very true, I think. I usually know the ending before I start, but not always. The thing is, it's a long way from page one to page 500, so just knowing the ending doesn't mean the whole thing writes itself. You reach a point in a story, especially a mystery, where you've got to choose which story you're really telling. You can see, say, three different ways the story could go, and all three of them look tempting. It's a matter of going with the one that feels best. Here's an example. At the end of Silent Joe I had to reveal Joe's true father. Well, since he'd been adopted very early in life, and because he'd come from a rather evil past, lots of men could have been his father. I picked the one I thought would work best in the story. Some people liked the choice I made and others didn't. In the end, sometimes all you have to call on is instinct.

HC: You're one of our top writers and you've learned a lot during your remarkable career. Could you give me one piece of advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out?

TJP: I wish someone would have encouraged me to work harder. That sounds odd, but really, I spent a great many of my younger professional years just goofing off and not getting much done. When Laguna Heat was published so successfully and the HBO movie came out, I was so dumb I thought people would love me forever. Three years later when Little Saigon came out I think a lot of readers had forgotten who I was. I wish an editor would have said, look, Parker, write us a book a year for a few years and we'll get you a nice big audience. But I let another three years go by before Pacific Beat was finished. By then my personal life was in near shambles and it took me two more years to write Summer of Fear.

HC: Your new book, Cold Pursuit, is set in San Diego, a first for you. Why the move away from Orange County? Can you tell us a little about the story?

TJP: I moved down here to San Diego County three years ago, so writing about San Diego was just about inevitable. I really like the city. It's got a whole different feel and history and look than Orange County or Los Angeles. I'll tell you, Harlan, it was a little daunting to grab my old reporter's notebook and camera and drive into this new, "foreign" city and try to get a feel for it. Cold Pursuit is a straightforward whodunit that involves feuding families, forbidden love and a cop caught in the middle of things. It was interesting to see how the San Diego PD works homicides -- very different than most other departments, because they use five-person teams. When I first discovered that, I thought, oh damn -- now I have to write a book with five protagonists. But I worked around the problem okay, I think.

HC: I know the T in T. Jefferson Parker stands for nothing, but what's up with that? Give us the down low.

TJP: True story: my mother told me that she and dad put the T. there because it would look good on the president's door. But they got a mystery writer instead of a statesman.

HC: How much does your writing life bleed into your personal life? Are you grumpy when the writing muse is not paying extended visits, or can you keep the personal and artistic separate?

TJP: I really can't separate too well. When the writing is going well, it shows in everything I do. When it's going poorly, that shows, too. The worst time is always between books, when I'm trying to start. It's hard on my wife and family sometimes. But I've been lucky in my career. Especially when it comes to writing what I want to write. I've yet to sit down and write a certain book because I have to. I've always written the book I wanted, for better or worse. So, even if it's not going real well, I always know that it can go well. If I can just get the story to come out of those strong, mysterious emotions that make you write in the first place. At some point a story takes on a life of its own. It kind of draws you into its world. One good sentence leads to another, one good page leads to the next. When it's going well, like that, you start to really trust your instincts. You get confident, downright brave. It's like stepping into the batter's box, knowing you can hit this guy. You know it, and you do.

From Mystery Readers International

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