Hi, Ed. Thanks for chatting on the blog. Your mystery novel, The Dirt-Brown Derby, has earned some praise from some big names: Barbara D’Amato, Bill Crider, Steve Hamilton, and Linda Fairstein. Wow! Have you met all of these icons?
Hi, Julia. Thank you for letting me participate on your wonderful blog. I hate getting blurbs, but it seems part of the business now. Bill Crider, Bill Pronzini, and Ed Gorman knew my writing essays on the pulp writers for Mystery File and Noir Originals, two ezines specializing in crime fiction retrospectives. Charles Ardai’s comment came from my manuscript, the first one anybody had ever submitted to Hard Case Crime, a hard-boiled/noir publisher. John Lutz, Jerry Healy, and Steve Hamilton I knew through Private Eye Writers of America.
I met Ed Dee at a book festival and I saw John Lescroart on a panel at the same festival the following year. Charlie Stella had liked my work from an ezine that he guest-edited. My cool editor Al Guthrie knows Ken Bruen. Finally, I’d read and admired the books by Linda Fairstein and Barbara D’Amato.
That’s a ton of name-dropping. But I’ve generally found established writers are generous helping those like me starting out if they’ve the time to spare. Of course they’ve got their own writing projects and promotions to do. You respect that and feel very grateful for the blurbs you’re given.
Hey, name-dropping can be fun.
Your novel takes place in the aristocratic world, on a “horse estate.” Is this a world you are familiar with, or did you have to research the horsey set?
No, I understood the horsey set, at least from the outside looking in. I grew up and lived for many years in Warrenton, the county seat of Fauquier County that sits right next door to Middleburg, Virginia. This is where the affluent horse squires live on their immense estates. Foxhunting is popular.
The Gold Cup Races are held in Warrenton every May. My co-worker’s father was Paul Mellon’s chauffer (He was called Mister Mellon). My dad, a lineman for the power company, also had stories to tell whenever they worked at the estates. One autumn I was a campaign worker for a political race held up in the horse country.
It’s interesting how suburban sprawl has rolled out west from Washington, D.C. and leapfrogged Middleburg only to start up again, leading up into the mountains of West Virginia. This certainly creates a unique society.
My character, PI Frank Johnson in Dirt-Brown, grows to have a cynical regard for the aristocrats he works for there, but I take a “live and let live” mentality. How can you not love driving around and grooving on all of that still rural countryside?
Okay, first things first: How many people have sung that Glenn Campbell song to your dad: "I am a lineman for the Coun-TEEE?" Or is it just me that started humming that?
Anyway. How did you happen upon the idea for the novel?
Good question. As I said in Dirt-Brown, the horse riding accident was suggested by the tragic death of a local girl, Shelly Malone, who was allegedly trampled to death by her horse. I’d heard stories on her riding accident and found an article citation from The Washington Post. But I did no research, as I wanted Dirt-Brown to use its own original plotline. But Ms. Malone’s accident was Dirt-Brown’s launch pad in my mind.
This year you will publish a second novel called The Blue Cheer. What’s it about?
Actually the publication schedule has slipped on The Blue Cheer, so we’re looking at maybe early next year right now. Anyway, I tried to imagine what a world-weary PI might do if he’d had his fill and wanted out. So, my PI, Frank Johnson, decides to move to the West Virginia mountains and loaf.
Of course that can't be if we’re to spin a tale. So, Frank clashes with an atheist hate cult called The Blue Cheer, which has terrorist designs. For one thing, The Blue Cheer has gotten its hands on some old Stinger weapons. I wrote technical manuals on Stingers for eighteen years, so writing that part was a little easier.
How do you come up with your titles?
I’m lousy at creating my titles; they sound goofy. But The Dirt-Brown Derby occurred to me while eating at an Outback near our home. I remember chewing on a steak at the time. Dirt-Brown Derby seemed to fit the novel’s grubby themes and sardonic tenor.
The Blue Cheer’s origin was a little bit different. I recalled a headbanger rock band from the sixties called Blue Cheer. I’d never listened to their music, just recalled the kids back in school referring to the band. Later I found out Blue Cheer was an old laundry detergent and later co-opted to label a potent LSD used to expand minds in the Haight-Ashbury days. Recently, I saw a church songbook using the title. So, there’ve been a number of Blue Cheers running around out there.
Do you have a “day job”?
I try to juggle my fiction with my non-fiction projects. Recently I restarted my pro book review activities after a long hiatus. I guess all that qualifies as a “day job”. It sure feels like it on most days. Like with everybody, time management becomes important.
What do you like to read?
I’ve been reading many of the old pulp masters like Ed Lacy, Charles Williams, Bart Spicer, Hal Masur (who recently passed away in Florida), Bruno Fischer, Wade Miller (who’s still living), and Dorothy Uhnak (who also recently had a tragic death) for my articles. I believe it’s important to understand the genre’s traditions and pedigree. Current writers I enjoy reading include George Pelecanos, Gar Anthony Heywood, Bill Pronzini, and Stephen Greenleaf. Tess Gerritsen’s medical thrillers blow me away. Sean Doolittle, Duane Swierczynski, Al Guthrie, and Ken Bruen write with great power and interest. I guess that list is long enough.
If you could cast your own book with current movie stars, who would play your main characters?
Wow. My only published protagonist, PI Frank Johnson, would be a tough call for me. I’d like someone with a fresh look to play him, maybe an unheard of actor who fits the role. But I’d hate for the role to typecast the actor. Maybe if Ralph Meeker could be made in his early thirties now, he’d be a good bet. I’ve never really pictured Frank’s face in my mind. He’s always been sort of a nebulous presence like Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer.
What part of the country do you live in? Do you find you tend to set your books where you live, or elsewhere?
I live six or so miles from the Pentagon across the Potomac Rover from Washington, D.C. 9/11 was also an uneasy time for us. I’ve lived or worked in all the locales I’ve hung my novels on. The fourth PI Frank Johnson book, Troglodytes, takes place in Turkey’s Cappadocia region. The weird rock formations and colors there make it look like a science fiction landscape.
Okay, hang on--You live near the Pentagon and you used to write manuals about The Stinger. What gives? Are you a weapons expert? A weapons designer? CIA? :)
Nothing so sinister. I worked for a private aerospace company who made the Stinger rockets. I just happen to live near the Pentagon. I've never worked for the CIA. Ha, that might make for an interesting bio. but I can't make the claim.
What are your goals for the coming year?
I’d like wrap up a few more projects, including my two amateur sleuth manuscripts. Quiet Anchorage, set in a small town, is making its way through the reading rounds at a mystery publisher. The Tree Surgeon’s Heart is finishing final edits for its submission campaign. PI Frank Johnson has two more titles under contract, Pelham Fell Here and Troglodytes. A science fiction title, The Quetzal Motel, is also due out in 2008. I relish the variety of working in several different genres.
Geez, you're prolific! Maybe some of that will rub off on me.
How can readers find out more about you and your books?
Well, I had a web site until the webmaster blew away all the code on a Linux server. Now, I’m trying to build a new one to set up elsewhere. Meanwhile, an author link for Dirt-Brown exists at:
An e-book of PI Frank Johnson short stories titled Out of Town a Few Days can be found on Fictionwise.
All of my books are available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the usual outlets. The Blue Cheer out from Wildside Press will receive a national distribution to the chain bookstores.
Thanks for chatting, Ed!
And thanks for letting share a few words with you, Julia. I’ve enjoyed it!