Wednesday’s Author Interview – Robert Crawford
PLEASE NOTE: Robert has asked me to let you know that he is currently running a promotion on all three of his books from now until the end of July. American Zen and Toy Cop are both reduced to $1.99, and The Misanthrope’s Manual is on sale for $.99. Links at the end of the interview.
Today, it’s my pleasure to welcome author Robert Crawford to Bookin’ It. So nice to have you here, Robert. Could you tell us a little bit about how you became a writer? When did you decide that’s what you wanted to be, and what steps did you take to prepare for a writing career?
RC: I’d always shown aptitude as a writer. My mother would tell me about the wagon full of building blocks they’d bought me when I was a toddler and I’d perfectly spell out words with them. As a kid, I’d make little four-page comics for my classmates (although I was more into the artistic aspect than the writing) and they’d pay me with their milk money. Five or ten cents apiece. My first royalties! But I wouldn’t begin writing in earnest until the end of my high school days. The month before graduation, we learned about the Romantic poets and when we were studying Keats, suddenly I woke up as he had when he’d read Spenser’s Faery Queen for the first time. Keats showed me the possibilities of the written word and I’d like to think the little guy would be heartened by that fact.
So for 19 years I wrote poetry that I largely couldn’t even give away (although I did place some of it in magazines, an anthology and two Little Brown college texts). Then 20 years ago, I got bit by the novel writing bug and I’ve been at it ever since. It wasn’t so much a process of preparation as just one of trial and error. Eventually, I learned how to write query letters, synopses at the same time I was honing my craft and learning the Do’s and Don’ts of good storytelling.
BI: Wow, you’ve really been working on this quite a while. I’m impressed that you didn’t give up during the poetry years. (Poetry can be a tough sell.) Were you inspired by any particular authors, past or present, and what is it about their work that impresses you, or moves you?
RC: As stated earlier, I was first inspired by Keats as a poet, although I did not write like him at all. My Dad had bought us as part of his Encyclopedia Americana library a set of 50 of the greatest books ever written as well as a Treasury of the Familiar. That was my introduction to Robert Benchley, whom I still adore. By young manhood, I was also a huge fan of Isaac Asimov, Alexandre Dumas, anything by Piers Anthony. However, I can’t say I was influenced by any of them.
Most if any writers will not be honest or forthcoming about who their influences are. Yet as a mature man I grew to admire my elders and betters such as Thomas Harris, Caleb Carr, Jeffery Deaver, etc. So it was a natural progression from poetry to writing thrillers. As much as I still admire these men, I eventually saw the piano wires and smoke machine behind the curtains. Once I learned how to achieve the same effects they had, it was matter of time before I found my own voice.
BI: Luckily for me, I’ve found most writers to be very open about the authors who influenced them, even if they were commercial authors as opposed to more literary ones. How about reading…what genres do you read most often for pleasure…those books you gravitate toward the minute you walk into a bookstore?
I write as a reader. As with some other authors, I tend to write the books I’d like to see others write and when they don’t, I do. I tend to gravitate toward thrillers, suspense, psychological knuckle-biters involving ingenious serial killers. John Connolly, one of the best in the business, heavily influenced me when I began writing my Joe Roman trilogy. Joe’s a former cop from the old USSR who defects to the USA, becomes an NYPD detective before striking out on his own and working for both the proper authorities and the Russian mob in Brighton Beach. While Joe is his own character, his attitude and caustic sense of humor readily recalls Connolly’s Charlie Parker. What I love about Connolly’s books is his ingeniously-delineated bad guys who are weirder than anything this side of 007.
BI: Your Joe Roman trilogy sounds intriguing, and I’ll have to make sure I check it out. Let’s talk about the way you write. Do you have a dedicated workspace, and are you consistent with the amount of time you spend writing each day?
RC: Generally, I work at my kitchen table, which is exactly how Mary Higgins Clark wrote her first thriller when she was a single mother on Cape Cod and JK Rowling when she wrote her first Harry Potter book. But when I feel like getting out of the house, I go to the local coffee shop, which my fiancee and I both adore. It’s comfortable and the internet access is fast. It’s such a comforting place and so conducive to writing I can literally walk in without a thought in my head and begin writing as if I was auto pilot. By my estimate, I wrote at least 25% of my novel, Tatterdemalion at that coffee shop. To put that into perspective, Tatterdemalion was originally a quarter of a million words long.
I’d love to be consistent and to treat my writing as if it’s a 9-5 job and to reach a certain goal each day but I’m not that kind of writer (I’ll get more into that later). It’s largely a matter of inspiration. When I’m onto a really good story, I’ll have a fair idea of what the next chapter will consist of. Typically, I can pump out about 1000 words a day. On a really good day, it’ll be 6000 or more.
BI: Sorry, Robert…I’m still trying to get my mind around a book that’s a quarter of a million words long. That’s…doing math here…250,000 words or roughly 1,000 pages, right? Wow. Stephen King territory! So…when you are writing, whether long or short books, do you use visual aids, like Inspiration Boards/Photos or maps of your book’s setting? What reference books or other material do consult most frequently as you write?
RC: Typically, no. But this is an interesting question because it dovetails impeccably into what I do use for visual aids. In order to establish place and more properly orient the reader, I used a well-known map of 1888 Whitechapel in my latest novel, Tatterdemalion. To bolster that sense of place and time, every few chapters was headed by a period photograph. But my method of visualization is very akin to that of Stephen King. In his transformative essay, “Imagery and the Third Eye”, which has influenced my writing more than anything else, he ascribes his visualization as “cinematic.” For me, it’s the same. When I’m writing, it’s as if I go into a light trance and watching a movie played in super slow motion before my mind’s eye. If something doesn’t feel right, I hit the rewind button and start over. That way I get not only a vivid visual sense but also an audial one. I often read the dialogue out loud with the appropriate accents, something more writers ought to do to better spot clunky dialogue. Reference books depend entirely on what I need to research. With Tatterdemalion, I needed to study the lives of Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull, Arthur Conan-Doyle, the Jack the Ripper murders, the earliest days of cinematography (since the narrator, Scott Carson, invented moving pictures), 19th century speech, etc.
BI: See, I knew we were talking Stephen King. When you have an idea for a new book, do you sit down and start typing, or do you start with an outline, and figure out all the major plot points first? In other words, is your working style structured and organized, or more organic and free flowing?
RC: I never work off an outline. I’ve tried and have failed miserably. And even on those rare occasions when I had tried outlining something, no matter how well the outline went, what I’d actually end up writing would be something completely different. (Any writer can tell you the real writing is done between the fingers and keyboard.) So, like Edgar Allen Poe, who “fell into” his stories, I just sit down and begin typing or hand-printing into a notebook. If I get some heat from it, I continue. If I don’t, I stop and start something else or pick up an existing. Manuscript. So, yes, definitely organic and free-flowing. I’m a big believer in “Surprise for the writer, surprise for the reader.”
BI: It’s interesting to read your approach, Robert, though I’ve always felt there were a lot of different ways to go about writing. However it’s done, I never argue with success, so whatever works for you, it’s all good. And speaking of that, could you tell us about the books you have published, and where we can buy them?
RC: American Zen is my first self-published book and you can find it on Kindle and CreateSpace, links below. American Zen is unique in that it’s not a thriller, there are no car chases, body counts and nothing explodes. It’s a comically sweet yet tragic story of five guys who used to belong to a rock and roll band in the 70’s who reunite under mysterious circumstances. And, until Tatterdemalion, it was the only novel I’d actually written in chronological order. The Toy Cop, which I’d begun a decade earlier but took me 14 years to complete, is a hostage negotiation thriller also for sale on Kindle and CreateSpace, links below. The Misanthrope’s Manual is an amusing little book I’d pieced together during the early 90’s, one deeply inspired by Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary and, again you can find it on Kindle and CreateSpace.
BI: Are you currently working on a new book? When do you expect it to be available?
RC: Despite the lack of encouragement I get from the publishing business, I’m always working on a new book. I may have mentioned a little quarter million word epic named Tatterdemalion, which is about Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and her husband, Sitting Bull, Arthur Conan-Doyle and Sigmund Freud chasing after Jack the Ripper in the 1888 East End. I don’t know when it will be ready since I’ve hit a formatting snag that Create Space is bound and determined not to help me with. Plus, a literary agent informed me through his flunky that I need to remove literally 100,000 words out of the version I’d sent him so I’m also in the process of getting it down to a more manageable size without crippling or weakening it.
BI: Well, I’m sorry to hear you unhappy with these aspects, and I hope the situations sort themselves out soon, so you are less frustrated. Moving on, may I ask if you prefer reading eBooks, or print? Why?
RC: Print. I’m old fashioned. I think once we start reading words on ereaders, we begin to lose touch on at least a tactile level with the origins and traditions of writing. Writers lovingly wax purple about the intoxicating smell of paper and ink, the musty smell of old books and rightly so. Only a writer or bibliophile fully understands how and why those smells are so wonderful and necessary. I have a Kindle on my laptop but there’s no substitute for a paper book in your hands in bed and there never will be. I even tend to draft out my chapters in spiral notebooks.
BI: Interesting. While I adore books and have a full library of my favorites, I love my Kindle as well, and the control it gives my aging eyes over font size, and what have you. Plus there’s a lot to be said for carrying an entire library in my purse. But I do understand that not everyone feels that way. Can you tell me, in your opinion, what’s the best thing about being a writer? The worst?
RC: The best thing about being a writer. Hm. The intellectual freedom to go and do and say whatever you choose, the heady feeling of creating an entire planet or galaxy or universe out of thin air and to control it for your ends, the ability to see life crystallized with all the randomness strained out of it. Essentially, the novelist succeeds where God fails. The worst? The psychological, emotional and physical toll it can take out of you and at how families can suffer under the yoke and whip writers impose on themselves and, consequently, others. This is especially true of writers who need to write as opposed to others who merely want to or have to. This is why, in their acknowledgments, writers by and large thank their spouses and kids for their patience and indulgence.
BI: Thank you, Robert, for what has been a very interesting and different perspective on the craft of writing. Wishing you continued success!
Robert Crawford is an independent author who lives in central Massachusetts with his fiancee and surly cat. He is the self-published author of two novels with a third on the way and a work of satire.