Tuesday, July 04, 2006

INTERVIEW: The Bill Cameron Connection

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Doesn't that sound like a sixties pop group? But in fact Bill Cameron is a mystery writer with an upcoming book called Lost Dog, and he recently agreed to answer some questions about himself, his craft, his menagerie, and life in Portland.

You live in Portland, Oregon. Is it as full of coffee shops as Seattle is purported to be? And how far are you from Seattle, anyway?
Portland is very much like Seattle when it comes to coffee. I can’t say as I’ve done a survey of overall coffee shop penetration, but I’m sure we rank very close to that Center of the Coffee Universe a mere three hour drive to our north. On average, the distance between coffee shops is approximately equal to how far one can stroll before requiring a refill.

Your first novel is called Lost Dog. Is there an interesting story behind the book? How did you come up with your story? Your protagonist?
In a way, Lost Dog came about by accident. I’ve read mystery and suspense most of my life, and written since grade school, but for several years I struggled to translate my love of mystery and my love of writing into actual words on the page. I had ideas, but they always seemed to fizzle out. So I signed up for a mystery writing class offered at Portland State University, hoping for guidance and maybe a little inspiration.

The class, led by a writer named Gordon DeMarco, was wonderful. He had a playful, engaging teaching style and encouraged us to experiment. Our first assignment, a kind of warm-up exercise, was to write a scene with an elephant in it. I fumbled around a bit and ended up writing about a guy wandering around a park at dawn looking for a toy elephant his niece had lost. As it turned out, he doesn't find the elephant; he finds a dead body. Gordon really enjoyed the fact that I failed to write a scene with an elephant in it, but succeeded in writing a scene without an elephant in it. He enjoyed the mood of the piece, and I found myself infected by his enthusiasm for what I’d written. That scene, with the missing elephant transformed into a missing plush dog, became the basis for the first chapter of Lost Dog.

Like the novel, the main character, Peter, grew slowly over time. He’s something of an archetypical Portland outsider—not a native Oregonian, but someone who has made Portland his home. He drinks lots of coffee, forgoes an umbrella, and walks everywhere. He loves the city, but he doesn’t always understand it. And like the character of the city, he can be reserved and introspective, but at times he lets his passions loose, often to his detriment.

Who are your literary inspirations?
This is a tough question. The simple answer is “anyone I like.” Whenever I read a good book, I look at what the writer does well, and how, and try to learn from it.

But a few authors do come to mind. Lawrence Block (particularly his Matthew Scudder novels) and John Straley have influenced me in a way that I feel most conscious of. More recently I have become a huge fan of Sarah Stewart Taylor, and Lori Armstrong knocked my socks off with Blood Ties. I really love anything that’s powerfully character-driven.

How has your family dealt with your literary life, especially now that it is taking more of your time?
So far the demands haven’t been too bad. Next spring, when Lost Dog comes out, things may be a little different as I try to juggle my day job with promoting the book and writing. But I figure I’ll deal with that when the time comes. I’m certainly looking forward to it.

Since Lost Dog was accepted by Midnight Ink, I have tried to establish a more consistent writing schedule. In the past, I was more likely to let the demands of life, particularly my day job, come before writing. These days, I’m much more jealous of my writing time, and maintain a much stricter boundary between job and writing. Plus, my wife is very supportive. If she catches me dawdling during scheduled writing time, she gives me hell. She reads new chapters as I finish them, and it helps a lot to have her breathing down my neck for more.

Your daughter, now 21, posed for an artistic photo on your website, which depicts a dead woman’s foot. I think this was quite game of her. Did she actually have to lie down in the leaves for the shot?
Not just leaves, but dirt and bark dust and litter! Actually, we brought a blanket to our informal little photoshoot so Jessica, my daughter, wouldn’t have to roll around in the crud. My goal was to shoot an image from chapter one of Lost Dog, the discovery of a body at a playground. I didn’t even have any specific plans for the photo. Just seemed like it would be fun. Besides, I had a new camera.

We shot the photo at the actual playground where the body is found in the novel. Unlike the scene in the novel, which took place just after dawn, we went in the middle of a sunny, warm Saturday afternoon. The playground was crawling with families, with little kids running back and forth as we set up. I ended up taking about 50 shots, trying different poses. At first, people ignored us, but at one point I said to Jessica, “Try to look more dead. You’re not dead enough. Think corpse!” I did a few more shots, and then I noticed that it had gotten very quiet around us. I looked up and saw that most of the parents had moved their kids away from us. We were getting some worried looks.

Oops. We finished up quickly after that, and gave the playground back to the living. I ended up putting my favorite shot on the web page for Lost Dog, at least until I am able to display the cover art.

Aside from your own blog, you are now a member of the Killer Year Class of 2007, and will take turns blogging there. Tell us a little bit about your “class.”
The Killer Year is an amazing group of writers who all have debut novels coming out in 2007. (Be afraid, be very afraid.) We come from a whole range of backgrounds. Some of us have published non-fiction or written screenplays. We have doctors, true crime writers and editors, and more. It’s a wonderfully diverse group, all delightfully funny, energetic, and engaging. Great writers, great bloggers.

Together, we plan to help promote each other through the year to come and beyond. I encourage everyone to visit the Killer Year website and blog and learn about this amazing group of writers. For myself, I feel it’s an incredible privilege to be part of the Killer Year.

You are both an artist and a writer. Are you also good at math and science, or can we assume you have a very strong left brain?
I love math, so long as I don’t have to actually do any of it. Or know it. Or recognize it when I bump into it on the street.

I’m not sure I would call myself an artist, actually. By day I work as a graphic designer, and there is certain a creative element to that. Many graphic designers I know are genuine artists, but I think of myself as more of a craftsman. Graphic design, at least in the way I practice it, is more of a collage art, a means of expressing someone’s marketing vision—usually someone other me. I enjoy it, but my real creative expression comes out in my writing.

Your website (www.billcameronmysteries.com) presents you as a sort of modern day, literary Francis of Assisi—a lover of all things in nature, including your menagerie of pets. Is it my imagination, or do all writers have pets? Do you think there’s any sort of connection between writing and animals? And have you noticed how many writers pose with their pets in their publicity shots? To name a few: Robert B. Parker, Elizabeth George, Mary Stewart. There are many more. Have you forgotten what the question was?
I have to admit, I never would have thought of my self as a modern day Francis of Assisi! I’m just a guy who loves dogs and cats and lizards and birds and other critters. It does seem like lots of writers have pets, especially cats. I, of course, don’t have a cat. A cat has me. She tells me what to do and I do it—or else. It’s a relationship I respect greatly because there is no ambiguity to it.

I find that having animals in my life is very calming and very centering, and I don’t wonder if the introspective nature of writing makes many writers amenable to the grounding influence that animals can have. I know that when I feel the restless or anxious, a few minutes playing with the dog or watching the birds bicker in the yard is very relaxing and rejuvenating.

I read on your blog that you and your wife like Sushi. Why?

Ohmigawd, sushi! There is no easy answer to that question, except to say “Sushi Is.”

You will be at Bouchercon. Where can your fans get in touch with you to learn more about Lost Dog?
Fans? My family already has my email address!

I’ll be at Bouchercon for the entire event, and anyone who wants to say hello should have no problem finding me. I’ll be the guy standing around dumbstruck by being in the presence of so many wonderful writers. Look for the guy with the drool cup.

I’ll also be keeping my website up to date with news about Lost Dog, as well as blogging and participating in Killer Year activities in support of my Class of 2007 buddies.

More importantly, will you speak to me there?

Hah hah! Of course! The real question is will you speak to me?

We both have eleven-year-old sons. Should we start a support group?

Definitely. Anyone who’s had an eleven-year-old knows why.

What do you do during an average day, aside from your Thoreau-like communion with nature?
I wish I could say my average day is a roller coaster ride of thrills and chills. (Or maybe I don’t wish that—I’m not sure how I’d handle a car chase or a helicopter explosion.) I usually get up early, cater to the whims of the cat, and start my work day. If all goes well, I am able to switch to writing late in the afternoon, which I do until dinner. Unless something else is going on, like a Little League game or something. On weekends I might go bird watching or mix it up with a little gardening. Hold onto your hats, that’s all I gotta say.

You were, at one time, what I consider to be the most wonderful male role model: a stay at home Dad. For other dads who might stumble across my blog, was this a worthwhile experience?
Absolutely. I encourage any father who can make it work to spend at least a little while as a stay-at-home dad. It was an incredibly rewarding experience for me. The thing is, it’s not just about being with your children—it’s the whole experience of caring for the home. I love taking care of things around the house, cooking, cleaning, all the domestic needs. My ultimate dream is to be able to quit my day job altogether and just write and keep house.

How did you happen to find your publisher and mine, Midnight Ink? Tell us the feeling of finding out your book would be published.
Finding Midnight Ink was really easy for me—my agent found them for me! Now finding the agent, that was the trick.

The day she called to say that Midnight Ink had made an offer was very surreal. I know I was excited, because I couldn’t actually do anything, like work or eat or breathe. I walked around the yard and stared into space. My wife kept asking me if I was excited, and I kept saying yes, but it almost didn’t seem real. I kind of think I was expecting to wake up, or get another phone call that they’d changed their minds.

Now I’ve moved into a state of almost perpetual giddiness. I’ve come to believe it’s real, and I just think it’s crazy wonderful.

Two more questions about your blog: how does one become a “Killer Year Friend?” Also, I see you posing in front of a huge and lovely stone fireplace. Is it decorative or real? And just how cold do Portland winters get?
Isn’t that three questions? ;)

That huge and lovely stone fireplace is, I’m sad to say, not my own. It belongs to my good friends Ted and Melanie, and happens to be found in a beautiful cabin they have on the Little White Salmon River up in Washington state. It’s definitely real, made of gorgeous Montana river rock. I have had the great privilege of being able to use the cabin a few times this past year for a little solitary writing. It’s a wonderful spot to get away from everything and concentrate for a few days. I wish I could do it more often.

As for how cold Portland winters get—eh, not very. We occasionally have some nasty cold snaps, but it’s actually quite rare to see the temperature drop below freezing. Grey, misty days are common, however, all through the winter and spring. Not everyone can stand it, but I have a great tolerance for Portland weather.

As for becoming a Killer Year Friend, well let’s just say involves secret rituals founded upon dark traditions going back into the misty deeps of time. I can’t reveal anything about them, except to say that those rumors about a sacrificial offering of Zima are utterly unfounded.

Is there anything that I’m forgetting?

I thought of something earlier, but now I’ve forgotten what it was.


Janet Reid said...

We're actually thinking of getting him a bib for Bouchercon!

Julia Buckley said...

Do you mean for sushi, or just drool in general?

Trace said...

Great interview!

Sandra Ruttan said...

BoucherCon is going to be a blast!

And you have fans! Right now, the kind that lurk in secret and don't come out of the shadows.

Julia Buckley said...

Hey, thanks, Trace! I assume you mean because of my brilliant questions rather than Bill's pedestrian answers. :) Amd who is that in the picture with you?

Sandra, Bill has at least two fans in you and me, right? And it's pretty good to get fans from a blog alone.

Bill Cameron said...

I am blushing!

M. G. Tarquini said...

“Try to look more dead. You’re not dead enough. Think corpse!”

Kiss the Diet Coke goodbye.

And the monitor.

Julia Buckley said...

Hey, M.G. Bill and Sandra had to assure me that you weren't threatening to take away my computer and my Diet Coke. :)

Bill Cameron said...

Sorry about that, M.G.!

M. G. Tarquini said...

Hey, M.G. Bill and Sandra had to assure me that you weren't threatening to take away my computer and my Diet Coke. :)

Bill and Sandra assure about all sorts of things, Julia. You wouldn't believe the assurances they gave regarding the congressman in the clown suit.

Apology accepted, Bill. Drycleaning invoice is in the mail.

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