Thursday, January 8, 2009

Author Interview: Charles Ardai

When asked, many mountain climbers state that the reason they scaled a mountain was because it was there. Back in 2001, Charles Ardai and Max Phillips decided to do something because it wasn’t there.

Over drinks one night, Ardai and Phillips lamented the proliferation of books so large that chapter one could be printed on the spine. These shelf hoggers edged out the smaller, cheaper titles, leaving potential readers fewer choices, both in authors and styles. One line of book that seemed lost to the world was the hardboiled crime story. In a recent interview, Ardai posed the central question: “Where were the lean stories of the 1950s, the ones that hooked you on page one with a dead body or a man on the run or a naked woman getting out of the shower (or all three) and then hauled you bodily through the rest of the plot in five- or six-page chunks, ending finally with a breathless, heart-stopping finale on page 176 or 192 (or, sometimes, 144 or 128)?”

The answer was easy: nowhere. Ardai and Phillips saw a mountain that didn’t exist and decided to make one. Hard Case Crime is the result. Wondering if anyone else in the reading world pined for those kinds of books, Ardai and Phillips set out to reprint some classic, but out-of-print, books while sprinkling in works by new authors. They thought they might publish six or a dozen. As of January 2009, they have published their fifty-first book, Killing Castro, a 1961 “lost” work by Lawrence Block. Ardai himself wrote Fifty-to-One, a comedic celebration of Hard Case Crime with a most unique framing structure (more later on).

Ardai is generous with his time and you can find a few of his recent interviews here (The Tainted Archive), here (MostlyFiction.com), and here (Arts and Literature). In advance of Ardai’s scheduled book signing/presentation this Saturday, 10 January, at Murder by the Book in Houston, TX, Ardai agreed to answer a few questions for this blog. I am excited to publish my first interview and sincerely thank Mr. Ardai for taking time out of his day to answer these questions.

You have said that when it comes time to select and out-of-print book to republish, you merely go to your bookshelf and find an old favorite. Describe the process of getting permission from the family of a dead writer. How do you locate widows, children, or grandchildren? Have any descendants contacted you to publish a lost work?

To answer your last question first, yes: the daughter of Robert Terrall got in touch with me to tell me about her dad's work, and that led us to publishing KILL NOW, PAY LATER; I'd already had the book on my shelf and read it and enjoyed it, but I had no idea how to find Terrall (who actually is still alive as of this writing, so he doesn't quite fit your description) or his children and I might never have gotten around to pursuing that book if it hadn't been for his daughter contacting me. There are a few other cases like this as well, though so far not ones that have led to us publishing the author's books.

But for the most part I have to do some detective work for myself to find these people. There are some obvious starting points. There's a service called the Authors Registry that is vastly incomplete but does have some information about what literary agencies handle what authors' estates. If that fails, I try to find the last publisher who brought out one of the author's books to see if they have contact information for the estate. If that fails -- and often it does, since very often these authors haven't been in print for decades -- the next step is to check with knowledgeable sources in the field, people like Marty Greenberg or Ed Gorman, who have dealt with thousands of authors over the course of many years and have a powerful institutional memory. If even that fails to turn up a lead, I switch to more traditional sorts of detective work.

To find the estate of Day Keene, I started with the fact that Keene's real name was "Gunnar Hjerstedt," and I tracked down every person in America named either "Hjerstedt" or "Hjerdstedt" (it wasn't a huge number) to ask whether they had any information about a relative named Gunnar who had died in the 1960s. Eventually I found some loose threads and started pulling on them. It turned out that not only was the author dead, but his wife was dead, his son was dead, even his literary agent was dead...but his son's wife was still alive, and it was through her that I got the rights for HOME IS THE SAILOR, one of our very best books.

E. Howard Hunt was a prominent figure who only died recently, but it turned out to be hard to find his estate. His son, surprisingly, didn't have the information, so I reached out to Hunt's co-author on a non-fiction book, and he was able to put me in touch with an attorney, and the attorney connected me with Hunt's widow. More steps than you'd think would be needed, but it worked out in the end.

To find the estate of Robert B. Parker (not the one who writes the Spenser novels -- the one who wrote espionage thrillers and died in 1955), I started with the very brief bio notes published on the backs of his books and got on the phone to call every school the man ever attended (including one in France) and every company he ever worked for, just to see if they might have any information in their records that would help. Bit by bit I built up a detailed biography for the man and a set of contacts who knew something about him. Finally, one of the people I was talking to about the case turned up the slender bit of information that Parker was obliquely related, by marriage, to the one-time U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg...and when I called that one-time ambassador (now a very old man), he was able to pass my email address to one of Parker's three children. The story didn't end there: I then had to track down the other two children, one of whom the third had only met once twenty years earlier (they were half-siblings) and the other of whom she'd never met at all. Google was very helpful. Eventually I found them, signed contracts with all three, and Parker's PASSPORT TO PERIL will come out this summer.

Many of these older reprints were published under pen names. For me, the publication of Grave Descend and Zero Cool was the first time I’d ever heard of Michael Crichton’s pseudonym. How do you discover these writer’s true identities?

Sometimes an author will tell us himself -- Lawrence Block gave me a copy of the book that we published as KILLING CASTRO, and it was good that he did, because otherwise I'd never have known "Lee Duncan" was him. It was a name he'd never used before and never used again. But generally if a writer became well known later under his real name there's someone, somewhere who knows the pseudonyms he used earlier in his career and is delighted to share that information, usually by publishing it on the Internet. Once again, Google is a detective's best friend. Spend a few hours searching and you'll discover that Martin Cruz Smith was once "Simon Quinn," and Gore Vidal was once "Edgar Box," and on and on and on.

When you and co-founder, Max Phillips, decided to start Hard Case Crime, you probably made a list of reprints you would like to republish. The third book was Top of the Heap, a Bertha Cool and Donald Lam story written by Erle Stanley Gardner (using the pen name A. A. Fair). Were it not for Money Shot, Top of the Heap would have been my favorite Hard Case Crime book I read in 2008. And I’m not the only blogger who loves these books. Of the nearly thirty Cool and Lam books published, how did you come to choose Top of the Heap?

As a kid, growing up, I'd always assumed that the A.A. Fair books were inferior work because Erle Stanley Gardner was famous under his real name, and the character he wrote about under his real name -- Perry Mason -- was even more famous...the A.A. Fair stuff had to be the dreck he didn't feel was good enough to bear the Gardner moniker, right? Wrong. I finally picked up one of the Fair novels a few years ago, and I was blown away. They're much, much, MUCH better than the Perry Mason novels, certainly for anyone who prefers hardboiled crime stories. So I sat down and read my way through the series, and TOP OF THE HEAP turned out to be my favorite of the lot. Part of it was that a lot of the others had bits of racial caricature that probably didn't raise too many hackles in the 1940s and 50s when the books were written but just made me uncomfortable today -- dialect-spouting black servants, sinister Japanese during WWII, that sort of thing -- and I preferred to find one that didn't have too much of that stuff. Why needlessly give modern readers pain if you don't have to? Plus TOP OF THE HEAP had an extra soupcon of emotional resonance that most of the others didn't have -- in addition to the puzzle, there's the relationship between Lam and Millie. Plus there's that great ending, where everything just clicks into place perfectly...it's just a terrific book.

Alan Sklar (A Diet of Treacle) and Stephen Thorne (Somebody Owes Me Money) are two of the readers on the handful of Hard Case Crime books that have been produced as audiobooks. Thorne, especially, brought out the humor in the late Donald Westlake’s prose. Who selects the books to be made into an audiobook? Do you have any influence as to the actor doing the reading?

We have no influence at all as to the actor and only minimal influence over the selection of books. We have a relationship with BBC Audiobooks America, and to date they've bought audio rights to about a dozen of our books. If you look at which ones they've chosen, it's not hard to discern their method: they've done all our books by Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Ed McBain, Mickey Spillane, Pete Hamill...in other words, our biggest-name authors (except for Stephen King, where Simon & Schuster owned the audio rights and brought out their own audiobook). The audio business is, alas, even more big-name focused than the book publishing business is, so trying to get an audio publisher to bring out an edition of Gil Brewer or Day Keene, or even David Goodis or Cornell Woolrich, is pretty much hopeless. But I'm glad we at least have managed to get audio editions of some of our books out there -- more than 20% of the line, which isn't bad.

On New Year’s Eve, the world lost Donald Westlake. Hard Case Crime has published three Westlake books to date with a fourth on the way. What was it like to know and work with Westlake?

He was a great guy. I've written at greater length elsewhere (for the Guardian's Book Blog, among others), so I won't rehash the same stories again, but I'll say this: there's no author who has been more professional, more cordial, more pleasant, or more fun to work with. Every time I got an e-mail from Don, I'd get a big smile on my face, not just because I'd just gotten e-mail from one of my heroes, but because I knew that no matter how trivial the subject of a message was, he'd always write it in a supremely witty way. The man could say "yes" or "no" and make it funny. Plus, he was a mensch, a down-deep good human being, generous and patient and supportive. Out of the blue I got an e-mail from him once saying that entirely on his own he'd picked up a copy of my first novel, LITTLE GIRL LOST, and enjoyed it: "I read more than half of it on the train, and am looking forward to the next. Nice job." Unasked for, unsolicited -- and I was walking on air for a month because of it. That's what it was like to work with Westlake.

Not only are your classic reprints just plain fun to read, they are also snapshots of post-war America in different eras. Pete Hamill’s The Guns of Heaven remind everyone of the IRA bombings in Ireland in the 1980s and any number of the 1950s novels reference World War II. A title I’m particularly interested in reading is the forthcoming Passport to Peril. Do you seek out books showcasing certain eras or times or is that aspect a nice by-product? And was it a coincidence that Killing Castro was published on the 50th anniversary of Castro's revolution?

The timing of KILLING CASTRO was a coincidence, although a happy one. (We certainly aren't shy about celebrating 50th anniversaries, as anyone who's read our fiftieth book, FIFTY-TO-ONE, knows.) We also didn't know when we bought it that Castro was about to make headlines by retiring. Sometimes the world cooperates better than you have any right to expect.

We don't often do political books -- THE GUNS OF HEAVEN and KILLING CASTRO are the exceptions -- and we don't seek out books because of their relevance to a particular moment in history. If anything, we prefer the opposite, books that, although set in the past, feel more or less timeless and for that reason will appeal as much to modern readers as they did to readers at the time they were written. Donald Hamilton's NIGHT WALKER makes passing use of Red-baiting and the Cold War as plot devices, but they're really incidental to the core story, and even PASSPORT TO PERIL, which is explicitly a post-WWII tale of international intrigue, complete with former Nazis and Communist Russians skulking around the war-torn streets of Budapest, is more an adventure yarn than a serious look at the politics of the time. I do find the politics interesting myself -- I like the time capsule aspect of these books -- but I think more readers would find that sort of thing distancing or offputting than would find it appealing, so we don't emphasize it. When the time came to choose a Hamilton book to reprint, for instance, I deliberately chose one in which the political element was secondary rather than THE STEEL MIRROR, which is just as good a book and which Hamilton himself told us was his favorite, in part because the reader needed to know too much about WWII-era politics to make sense of the plot of THE STEEL MIRROR.

Christa Faust’s Money Shot landed on many Best of 2008 lists. She is also the first female author published by Hard Case Crime. How did this powerful book end up on your desk and, later, on our bookshelves?

I saw a blog post Christa had written about her love for the work of old-time paperback writer Richard S. Prather, who'd been one of the field's big bestsellers in the 50s and 60s but today is largely forgotten, and I was impressed -- that she knew who he was, first of all, and that she appreciated just how good he was and what he was good at. Then, as I read through some samples of her writing, I realized this woman could really write. And when I find someone who both loves the sort of books we do and can write like a master, I don't miss the opportunity to reach out. So I dropped her a note, asking if she might have a book of her own we could take a look at. A little while later, MONEY SHOT showed up in my inbox and I read it and bought it. Simplest decision I ever made -- though I did check first with Dorchester Publishing, our publishing and distribution partner, to make sure they didn't feel uncomfortable about the porn milieu in which the story is set. (It didn't make me uncomfortable, but then very few things do.) Dorchester loved it as much as I did, and we were set.

There's been a lot of talk about how Christa was our first female author, and that's true, and I'm proud of her for breaking this barrier, but the truth is that things would have played out exactly the same regardless of her gender. If I'd seen the same post on a male author's blog I'd have sent him a note just the same, and if he'd sent in the manuscript of MONEY SHOT I'd have bought it just the same. I probably wouldn't have been able to get a sexy photo of him into Penthouse magazine when the time came to do PR for the book the way I did with Christa, but in terms of the book itself, the only question was quality of writing, not configuration of genitalia.

You have penned three novels for Hard Case Crime, Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence (as Richard Aleas) and Fifty-to-One (as Charles Ardai). Many authors who blog describe their method of writing. What is your writing process? Do you use a computer, typewriter, pen-and-ink, or some other method? How long does it take you to write a first draft? With your first two books, did you plot out the action or just write and see what happened?

I use a computer (I did write longhand for a while, but that was in the days before the ubiquity of PCs -- I'm probably the last generation of writer who actually turned handwritten manuscripts in to editors). I prefer to write in the morning, before everyone else is up and other things start intruding on my attention. My wife, who is also a novelist but not a morning person, prefers to write at night, so we have something of a 24-hour fiction production line going in our household.

It's hard for me to answer the question "How long does it take you to write a first draft?" because I've never written a first draft, precisely, in the sense of there ever having been a second draft that followed. The first draft I write is, in classic pulp fashion, the draft that goes to the printer. That said, I do re-read compulsively along the way and polish each chapter before moving on to the next, so it's not as though my books don't have the benefit of at least some rewriting. But it's always on the level of individual sentences, not major overhauls of plot or character or structure.

As for plotting out my books, I generally start with an opening scene that appeals to me and then wing it from there, although in the case of SONGS OF INNOCENCE I did know how I wanted the book to end (including the very last sentence of the book) before I started. But even there, I didn't know how I was going to get to that ending. In the case of FIFTY-TO-ONE, I gave myself the challenge of writing a book in fifty chapters, with each chapter named after one of our fifty books, in publication order -- so Chapter One would be "Grifter's Game," Chapter Two would be "Fade to Blonde," and so on, all the way up to Chapter Fifty, which would be "Fifty-to-One." I had to come up with a story whose plot would make logical sense of each chapter title as it arrived (so there had to be a vengeful virgin of some sort in Chapter Thirty and the phrase "the guns of heaven" had to have some relevance in Chapter Twenty-Four, etc.). But I didn't plot it out in advance -- that would have robbed the project of a lot of the spontaneity and the improvisational quality that made it fun for me to write and I think also makes it fun to read.

In other interviews, you mentioned that your first love was fantasy. Mine was science fiction. It wasn’t until Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River that my eyes were opened to crime fiction. What was the book you read and then realized you had just fallen in love with crime and mystery fiction?

I had a couple of eye-opening experiences like that. When I read Lawrence Block's SUCH MEN ARE DANGEROUS, it chilled me to the bone. It was perhaps the first crime novel that made me fully aware of the potential of writing a book in which the nominal bad guy gets away with his crimes. No one has ever crept into the heads of criminals and made them sympathetic the way Block has. I also remember being blown away by James M. Cain's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (heart-stopping) and by Raymond Chandler's THE BIG SLEEP (heartbreaking). Then there was Bernard Malamud's THE ASSISTANT, which floored me. Reading masterpieces like those four woke me up to just how powerful a crime story could be.

Back in the Golden Age of pulp fiction, cheap magazines and paperbacks were the medium whereby readers of all socio-economic classes could read fast-paced stories. With modern technology, I think ebooks, read on cellphones, iPhones, or Kindles, might be the 21st Century version. What is your take on ebooks and might Hard Case Crime strike out and make ebooks available?

We might -- but I have to admit I'm not a believer myself, or at least not yet. People have been talking about e-books in one form or another for two decades now, and they've never amounted to much. I don't care for reading fiction on a screen myself -- I do a lot of it, but I don't much like it, for all the reasons old fuddy-duddies always cite: not portable, requires electricity, screen has too much glare, gives me a headache, doesn't smell like a book, etc., etc. Hard Case Crime in particular is not merely about the stories we publish, which in principle could be presented in any format -- we're about reviving a particular physical artifact, the mid-century mass-market paperback book. It's not just 'content,' to use a modern buzzword that annoys the hell out of me -- it's a thing, a physical object that has certain dimensions and not others, a certain weight, feels a certain way when you shove it in the back pocket of your jeans, cracks a certain way when you open it too far, rots a certain way if you leave it out in the rain. It's got a painting on the cover that is a certain size relative to your hand and to your eyes and that you keep seeing out of a corner of your eye as you read the book and turn pages and lay the thing down spreadeagled to get a cup of coffee. It gets dogeared and creased and dropped and stepped on and chewed by the dog and shelved upside down. If an author does his job really well it might wind up with some pages stuck together. It's a book, not a goddamn computer screen or earbud or corneal implant. It's dead trees and ink and varnish and yeah, maybe a hundred years from now when we're all dead there won't be any more books like it, but not today, brother -- not today.

Speaking of the golden age, in May, the first of the Gabriel Hunt books will be published. These books look to do for pulp adventure stories what Hard Case Crime has done for hard-boiled literature. Will you be discussing these books at Murder by the Book on Saturday? And how did you come to realize the literary world had another mountain that needed building?

Yep -- I have a slide in my talk that shows all six Hunt covers and I'll say who wrote each and maybe where each one takes place. If people want to know more I can say more.

As for why I created the series, it was something I'd been thinking about for a while, but the real catalyst was when I went to see the new Indiana Jones movie. I had such high hopes and it was such a disappointment. It was bound to be, since I'd been coming up with storylines for it in my head for 20 years -- no way could it live up to my fantasies, or to my memories of seeing RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK at age 11 -- but just objectively it was *so* poorly written, unforgivably so given all the talent involved... So I decided the time had come to launch my own adventure series, in which each book could be what the fourth Indiana Jones movie should have been but wasn't.

It's also a tribute of sorts to the adventure novels I grew up reading, from Tom Swift and Rick Brant to Sax Rohmer and H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Pure adrenaline, pure fun.

In the introduction to your guest appearance on the Behind the Black Mask podcast (2006), Clute and Edwards mention that you have never driven a car. Is that still true? And I wonder if you have seen any of the episodes of "Foyle’s War," the superb mystery series from the UK where the main character, Christopher Foyle, also doesn’t drive?

I haven't seen "Foyle's War," but yes, it is still true that I've never driven. Given that I don't have a driver's license, this is probably a good thing. I've ridden in a lot of taxis, and I've driven cars (badly) in a lot of computer games -- I can wreck a car faster in GRAND THEFT AUTO than anyone else I know -- but I've never driven an actual car in the real world.

I've also never drunk an entire cup of coffee. I've had sips here and there, but I can't stand the stuff.

What else, let's see. I've never drunk an entire beer. I've never shot and killed a man. I've never worn suspenders.

And yet I've written about doing all these things! Ah, the imagination.

You once said that your musical tastes end around 1959. Some of my fellow bloggers (David Cranmer, Paul Bishop, Chris Jones) and I love old jazz, particularly Miles Davis and John Coltrane. What are some of your favorite albums, old or new, jazz or otherwise?

I've got a lot of the classic jazz albums, but when I was growing up I never liked them much because I'd get annoyed with the performers, who I wished would just stick to the damn melody. I liked Porter, Berlin, Kern, Gershwin and so on, and I liked them because they wrote brilliant melodies, and those jazz guys would give you maybe four seconds of the melody and then they were off on some riff that sounded nothing like what I'd come to hear!

I've since matured a little and can listen to jazz without getting annoyed...but my first love is still the real thing, performed straight. So it won't surprise you to hear that a lot of my favorite albums are original cast recordings from Broadway shows and movie musicals. That said, one virtuoso pianist whose work I loved even though he'd occasionally tear off on flights of fancy like the jazz guys was George Feyer, and if you can find any of his albums I recommend them to you extremely highly. He had at least two Cole Porter albums, at least one Gershwin, at least one Kern, and they're all wonderful. Oh, and a modern jazz group that does spectacular covers of old material is the Howard Fishman Quartet (www.howardfishman.com) -- if you like this sort of music, you should definitely check them out.

9 comments:

Jacob Weaver said...

Thanks for the great interview Scott! I can't imagine paring down the list of questions to a handful but you did a great job. Since I'm just getting started on writing something of my own, I really enjoyed finding out about his writing process.

S. G. Kiner said...

"The Hong Kong Connection" is a legal thriller about a gutsy female attorney who takes on high ranking International officials. It's a taut, rollercoaster of a ride from New York to Palm Beach to Washington D.C. to Hong Kong. The plot is expertly woven, the characters persuasive, and the dialogue snappy and spot on.
www.StrategicBookPublishing.com/TheHongKongConnection.html

David Cranmer said...

Scott, a great informative interview and I'm on my way to check out the Howard Fishman Quartet.

James said...

His approach on literature is quite refreshing, but I'm not so certain about his ideas concerning e-books. I understand that holding onto a crisp book is cool, particularly when it comes to the genres of crime, mystery and suspense, but I think very soon that will be the way to go, or at least competitively the two formats will do well.

ARCHAVIST said...

Great interview Scott and I'm glad my piece on my blog helped. Charles gives such detailed answers to questions and I thought you asked some cracking ones. Excellent. Enjoyed that very much

ARCHAVIST said...

Oh and I should also point out but after I posted my piece I was Googling about and I found a great video on you tube of Charles at a book launch for Money shot. Type either into You Tube...take a look

bish8 said...

Scott!

I really enjoyed this interview. Having read several other interviews recently featuring Ardai, I was please to find you asked new and different questions, which took the interview in new directions.

Great job!

Scott Parker said...

Glad y'all enjoyed the interview. I'm looking forward to meeting Ardai this afternoon. I'll post a write-up later this weekend.

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