Monday, December 18, 2006

Why Rick Helms Can Do Just About Everything and Still Write Award-Nominated Fiction

Hi, Rick! Thanks for chatting.

You are a former racecar driver, now a writer and psychology teacher, and a self-proclaimed social phobic. What’s more frightening—being in a car hurtling through space at more than 100 miles per hour, or facing a room full of strangers?
That’s easy – the room full of strangers scares the willies out of me. Racing, if done right, should raise your heart rate once in a while, but overall it’s actually kind of relaxing – after the green flag falls. It sounds strange, but when you think about it racing is just a bunch of cars all going in the same direction at roughly the same speed – kind of like the interstate (or perhaps more precisely the Autobahn). The main difference is that, unlike on the ‘Bahn, you’re taking very sharp corners at ridiculously high G-forces, at the limits of the tires’ adhesion coefficients (science-speak for ‘burning rubber’). I’ve been scared once or twice on the track while racing with someone I didn’t know who did something I didn’t expect, or when something critical broke unexpectedly on the car, but a room filled with people I don’t know ALWAYS gives me flopsweat. I try not to show it, though, because being “out there” is really a large part of this writing game. It’s funny – I also teach college psychology, and standing in front of a group of strangers and speaking is a cinch. It’s just having to interact with them that makes me antsy. Go figure.

If I had my druthers, I’d probably live on top of a mountain somewhere in a cabin with a really nice woodworking shop attached, and only come down once in a blue moon for groceries or other supplies. Thank goodness for my socially competent wife Elaine – without her I surely would have become a hermit!

You also make your own guitars—a hobby you just sort of picked up along the way. Are you a person who actually craves a creative outlet? What does the psychology teacher in you say about this?
Creativity is very important in my life. I grew up in a family where self-expression was highly encouraged. My brother is a fine guitarist, but I can’t play two consecutive notes correctly, so I build the instruments. People seldom think about it when they go to a symphony concert or a jazz festival, but almost as much work goes into crafting the instruments the musicians play as the musicians put into learning the music. A good guitar takes between 100 and 150 hours of close-tolerance woodworking, often with exotic hardwoods that would cost a week’s wages to replace if you were to – say – break a side while bending it to the traditional guitar shape. Since I can’t make the music, I make the music maker, which is an art unto itself.

As for the psychology instructor inside me, he would tend to say that I am stuck in Erikson’s Generativity versus Stagnation stage. With both the novel-writing and the guitar-building, I’m obviously aware that I have more good years behind me than ahead, and I’m concerned with leaving something behind that says, “I was here.” A truly good book or a fine musical instrument can last centuries beyond the lifetime of the person who crafts them. I kind of like the idea that, perhaps a hundred years from now, some bluegrass picker will be pounding out Rocky Top on one of my guitars.

Ah, Good Ol' Rocky Top. You have been nominated for the Shamus Award three times, most recently for Cordite Wine. How did you celebrate this last nomination?
It was interesting. We had just gotten back from our annual beach vacation, and my wife and daughter had decided to redecorate my daughter’s room. They were in the process of pulling down the old wallpaper, with shreds and shreds of paper at their feet, when I read the email in my office down the hall. I got up, walked to my daughter’s room, pulled my wife to me, and said, “Kiss me, you fool!”

She did, and it was pretty good. Then I said, “I bet that’s the first time you ever kissed a three-time Shamus Award Nominee.” I’m surprised the neighbors didn’t call the cops, she screamed so loud. Then I went out, bought four Angus ribeyes for the grill, and a very expensive bottle of merlot. We had a first class dinner that night. That’s about as celebratory as I get.

On your blog you noted that “Nobody is going to give a major mystery award to a guy published by a micropress. It ain't gonna happen. They'll happily nominate me, and I'm grateful for that, but to expect any more than that is folly.” Why is this, do you think?
First of all, I don’t want anyone to think that I meant that in a disgruntled way. I really am extremely grateful for the nominations I’ve received, even if I never have really expected to win. A small press – say, someone like Akashic or Hard Case Crime, or maybe even Bleeker Books – has a much better chance of grabbing off an award than a one-author house generating a single book each year. Before my first nomination, the smallest houses receiving major nominations for the Edgar, Shamus, or Anthony to that point were The Imaginary Press (K.J.A. Wishnia), and Ugly Town (Vic Gischler). Neither won. Back Alley Books probably most closely matches Imaginary Press in size and format, and I am damned proud to represent the only press of its kind ever to get three nominations for any major mystery award.

This is a crazy business, but it is – when all is said and done – a business. Cordite Wine has sold fewer than a thousand copies. Okay, a lot fewer than a thousand copies. I’ve been an award judge myself (Edgars once, Shamus twice), and I am happy to say that – for the most part – judging is based on the quality of the writing.

On the other hand, speaking now as a psychologist, I tend to believe that books from major publishers tend to be read with something like a ‘halo effect’ surrounding them. It is my belief, again having been a judge, that some books may be given ‘subconscious points’ in the judging process, either because they arrive with some degree of critical acclaim as a result of active promotion by their well-heeled publishing companies, or are written by authors the judges already know to be excellent – most of whom are published by major houses. That being the case, the likelihood that a book which is virtually unknown and published by a mousehole house is going to take home all the marbles is extremely remote. If it does happen at some point in the future, I’d say it will happen with the Shamus Awards, because the PI genre just isn’t terribly strong at the major houses right now, and is largely being preserved by independent publishers.
I’m not holding my breath, though. Last year, I secured the services of a terrific agent, who is working her butt off to get me signed with one of the major houses. I would love to see my next nomination come for a book with a much more recognizable colophon.

I feel obligated to say this again. It is an honor to be nominated. Sounds like the mantra of losers, but try it sometime. Just being nominated can have you walking on clouds for months.

I will let you know. When did you start writing mysteries?
When I was about fourteen. I wrote a series of short stories featuring a character named Tucker Donovan. They were dreadful – very derivative of the worst that television had to offer at that time. Lots of maiden-saving and wisecracks while beating up the bad guy. I cringe to think of it.
However, it was around that time that I had the very great fortune to be taken under the wing of Belva Dare Steele, a playwright who was also a teacher in my high school. She liked my writing, and decided to nurture it. I took her Creative Writing course, but she also provided me with many extra assignments which we worked on outside of class. The biggest lesson she taught me was to persevere, and that there was nothing I couldn’t achieve if I wanted it badly enough and worked hard enough. She also told me to write something every day, even if it was only a couple of paragraphs or a particularly well-crafted line of dialogue. She said that writing is a physical as well as a mental act, and that frequent exercise keeps your chops in shape. Over time, it also helps you learn how to recognize dreck when you produce it.

Sadly, time was something she did not have in abundance. She passed away the next year. She never told me while she was working with me, but she was dying even then of cancer. I dedicated one of my books to her. It would be completely accurate to say that, but for Dare Steele, I never would have become half the writer I am today. I owe her a lot. I’m aware of that every time I sit down to the keyboard, and I realize that, as I write, she is looking over my shoulder.

It’s starting to creep me out a little.

What was your major in college? Was racing a career you planned?
I did consider a career in racing. That was in 1973, however (yeah, I’m kind of old…), and back then racing was nothing like it is today. There wasn’t a huge amount of money to be made by the average driver, and the glamour factor was definitely much lower than it is now. At that time, NASCAR’s top division ran up to 60 races a year, many of them on dirt tracks slightly less illuminated than your typical high school football stadium. Most of the drivers openly smoked and chewed tobacco, and there was a lot of sleeping around. Fights in the pits were common. It was not very respectable at all.

The upside back then was that you could build a car in your garage for less than $10,000 and go run with Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, and Cale Yarborough. A company could put their name on the side of your car by buying two or three sets of tires. There was no corporate pressure on the second tier drivers to produce every time the green flag dropped. Nobody had a wind tunnel or a squadron of engineers working overtime to squeeze one more horsepower out of the engines. The cars actually looked like the street cars on which they were based.

I worked for the late Rick Newsom’s Winston Cup team between 1973 and 1976. I was racing from time to time at the local dirt tracks, and entertained thoughts of moving up. I asked Rick what he thought. He asked me if I enjoyed what I was doing. I told him I was. He told me to keep doing it, because going pro meant turning your entire life over to racing. If you weren’t tire testing, you were making a PR appearance at the opening of a new grocery store, or doing lunch with potential sponsors, or simply trying to put the pig back together well enough to get to just one more race. Rick eventually talked me out of going racing, and my parents talked me into going to college at the ripe old age of 22.

I graduated with a degree in psychology, but that was all an accident, or maybe fate. My intent for the longest time was to get my degree in physics, and then go to Cornell for grad school, to sit at the feet of Carl Sagan and learn all there is to learn about cosmology and astrophysics. Then, I wanted to move to Socorro, New Mexico, to work at the Very Large Array radiotelescope range, perhaps with the SETI project. You may recall the VLA from the movie Contact with Jodie Foster. Mile after mile of huge radiotelescopes sweeping the heavens to measure all sorts of celestial radiation, and perhaps the wayward remnant of an intelligent broadcast from an ancient alien civilization.

Yeah, it’s another solitary profession, I know. What can I say? There aren’t any lighthouse keepers anymore. In any case, I didn’t become an astrophysicist. Instead, I became a psychologist. As you might imagine, there was a woman involved. But that’s another story…

Speaking of women, what does your wife think of your multitude of successes and creative endeavors? Did she always know you were a creative person?
The older I get, the more convinced I am that I don’t understand a damned thing about women. My only consolation is that my wife, Elaine, clearly doesn’t understand men. I have tried to get her to see things from my point of view.
“Man like fire,” I say, when referring to cooking.
“Man like wood. Man like stone,” I tell her, regarding interior decorating.
“Man like to yell at television during football games,” I explain, repeatedly and futilely.
She, to her credit, has attempted to get me to abandon animal skins and eat with utensils.
She is also my number one fan, though she does note sometimes that I seem to maintain employment solely to support my hobbies.

She might be right. She knew I was creative when we married, but I think she believed it would wear off. Almost twenty-three years later, I’m still going strong. I try to finish at least one book each year, because she likes to read them on our beach trips. Man, if that isn’t loving support, what is?

I would be completely remiss if I didn’t mention that she is a graduate of the UNC School of Journalism, and has been a professional editor for almost thirty years. She has edited all my books, and is easily as responsible for any success they’ve enjoyed as I am. She refuses to take any credit for them, but I couldn’t have done it without her.

At Bouchercon, you wore a tag that said “Will blurb for beer.” Does this still apply if I SEND you some beer?
I’m rather partial to Anchor Porter and Anchor Steam right now. I also like Scrimshaw Pilsner, Labatt’s Blue, and Bass Pale Ale. Just be aware that I tend to blurb after drinking the beer, so it may come out something like “Juckith Buddley’s epic cozy ‘In Hot Thighs’ will leave you drooling in the aisles…” or something to that effect. It won’t be spelled well, either. But thanks for the beer…

Foiled again. There’s a cool picture of you and Robert B. Parker on your website. He also wrote a blurb for your Shamus-nominated mystery novel, Cordite Wine. Did you feel intimidated meeting this big name in the business?
Y’know what’s funny about that picture? If you go over to Diane Vogt’s website, she has a picture of herself sitting next to the Bobster, and he’s in the exact same pose! The pictures were taken about two minutes apart during a booksigning at SleuthFest in Fort Lauderdale a couple of years ago. Somehow, Parker and I wound up signing at the same time, just three seats away from each other, so I asked if he would mind doing a picture.

He had just finished saying in his panel presentation that nobody on earth had seen his doctoral dissertation since it was published in 1971. As it happened, I had a copy in my briefcase, and asked him to sign it. We became fast buddies. We tossed back a few beers and told war stories. He renamed his dog Pearl after me…

Well, not really. Actually, we did the picture, and he eventually went his way and I went mine. However, when Cordite Wine was in prepress, I sent him a copy of the galley proofs, reminded him of the poor schlub who carried around his dissertation like a crazed stalker, and asked him if he’d consider blurbing my new book. Got a letter back from him several weeks later, with the blurb and his warmest wishes for the book. I have it framed in my office now.

This was a big moment for me. I started reading Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels back in the early 1980’s, at a time when I was writing thrillers. He really turned me on to the private eye novel as an art form, and was a huge influence on my own PI novels, especially my Eamon Gold series.

Interestingly, I didn’t feel intimidated, any more than I am when I’m around people like S.J. Rozan, Reed Coleman, P.J. Parrish, or any of a number of other big names in the business. By the time I met him, I was in full conference mode, and was relatively in control of my interpersonal anxiety.

There was a moment, however, when I was overcome with pure awe. At Sleuthfest last year, I was chatting in the bar with one half of P.J. Parrish, Kelly Nichols, when the other half, Kris Montee, walked up and said, “You have to come join us at this other table!”

We followed her, and I found myself sitting at a table with Michael Connelly, Janet Evanovich, and Robert Crais!

I’m sad to say that my social phobia kicked in with a vengeance, and it was all I could do to get through the introductions. After that, I just sat and marveled at the fact that – just five years earlier – I had only known these people from book covers, and now I was sitting at a table knocking back jello shots with them! Okay, not really. I actually nursed my ginger ale and listened intently, hoping to learn whatever I could from the masters. Didn’t learn much, but it was really cool.

Your writing contains a lot of snappy dialogue. Is this the sort of thing you hear in your head? Perhaps while you’re making guitars or driving racecars?
Actually, it comes to me in the shower. I’m really snarky in the shower.

You know how, sometimes, you come up with just the right comeback line five minutes after you really need it? The fun thing about writing is that you have time to think dialogue through, run it a few times to work on timing and delivery, and get it just right before you put it down on paper. For some reason, this works best for me in the shower. Often, my lovely spouse Elaine will walk into the bathroom to ask me a question, note the wallpaper peeling off the wall, and the cloud of steam hanging two feet down from the ceiling, while I stand in the shower mumbling to myself.
She’ll just say, “Oh, you’re writing. I’ll come back later.”

I owe whatever success I’ve enjoyed as an author to a very large hot water heater.
I’m trying to write my natural gas bill off as a legitimate business expense. As for the ‘snappy’ part, that’s just the way the people in my head talk. I’ve had several friends read my books, and then say “It sounds just the way you talk!”, but I’m not aware of ripping off sharp rejoinders or witty repartee on a regular basis. I have been told that I have a curious way of describing things, but I probably ripped those off from more interesting people I’ve encountered along the way. It’s possible that I’m nothing more than the Uncle Milty of hardboiled fiction.

What are you writing now?
I am actually spending most of my time re-writing. I submitted a manuscript to my incredibly wonderful agent a couple of months back, and she loved it, loved it, loved it… except…
There is an issue of action and immediacy. I wrote it as a character-driven piece, and it came out just the way I wanted it, but apparently the way I want it is… how can I put this? I think the word is unsellable. So, I’ve jacked up the main characters and most of the snappy dialogue, and I’m putting a new book underneath them. I hear this is not uncommon in the world of major publishing, which is where I hope this book will land. I suppose I should get used to it. It’s called The Unresolved Seventh. I think. They might want to change that, too.

When not rewriting, I’m working on the third Eamon Gold novel, entitled Brittle Karma. I’ve just recently finished the first draft of the sequel to a book my agent is trying to sell, featuring the police chief in a three-cop North Carolina town. The first title in the series is Six Mile Creek. My sequel is Thunder Moon, and I think I’ve let it cook on the back burner long enough to return to it with a fresh eye for rewriting.

I’ve been toying with a fifth Pat Gallegher book, still set in pre-Katrina New Orleans, entitled Paid in Spades. I have about twenty thousand words in the can. I have a forensic psychological thriller in the early stages of first draft, entitled The Four-Nine Profile. The lead character in that one will be more like me than any protag I’ve ever written, as it is derived from experiences I had working for the courts in Cabarrus County, North Carolina.

I’ve laid down about ten thousand words on a sort of Jack Armstrong, All America Boy meets Indiana Jones adventure yarn entitled Carter Crossfield and the Excalibur Runes. It’s very self-indulgent, which is the fun part. Basically, I’m just waiting for inspiration to strike on one of them, and then I’ll probably write it all the way to the end.

I’ve also been on a tear writing short stories of late, including a noir amateur detective piece I have out to Linda Landrigan at AHMM entitled "Paper Walls/Glass Houses"; a Pat Gallegher short story which introduces the protag from Six Mile Creek and Thunder Moon (Judd Wheeler) entitled "The Gods for Vengeance Cry"; an Eamon Gold short called "Religious Wrong"; a piece set in the 1920s revolving around the use of detective agencies to break up labor strikes entitled "Busting Red Heads"; and a sort of wacky satire piece in which a costumed crimefighter named Captain Dynamo, in his secret identity as divorce dick Eddie Shane, investigates the serial murder of other caped crusaders. It’s entitled "Superheroes".

Listen, it's time to quit slacking off and actually do some writing. Geez. You make me feel like quite the layabout. What’s your reading-for-fun table look like?
Right now, it’s a little skinny, because I’m waiting for Santa to replenish it. Over the last several months, I’ve read: S.J. Rozan’s Absent Friends, which made me want to slit my wrists because I fear I’ll never write that well; Reed Farrel Coleman’s Redemption Street; Robert B. Parker’s Blue Screen; James Lee Burke’s Crusader’s Cross, after which I actually did slit my wrists, but only enough to make my autobiography interesting; and right now I’m reading Jonathan Kellerman’s Rage.

Kellerman and Clive Cussler are two of my guilty pleasures. I don’t believe that either one is a particularly outstanding author, and in fact I don’t think Cussler can write at all. I do love their stories, though. Cussler writes ripping yarns, and Kellerman has such interesting characters that I read them but don’t really admit to it much. The thing that bugs me most about Kellerman is that he refuses to end the book when the story is over. He writes the longest denouements since the fall of the Roman Empire. But I read them, bless their hearts. And I can’t wait for each new title.

In my ‘waiting to be read’ bookcase next to my bed ( is that lazy, or what? ), I have a couple of Michael Connellys (The Closers and The Lincoln Lawyer ), Robert Crais’ The Two Minute Rule, Kellerman’s Gone, Larry McMurtry’s Duane’s Depressed, and five or six Ross Macdonald novels I’m going to re-read, because I haven’t read them in thirty years, so they’ll be practically new to me. I also have a copy of Richard Brautigan’s psychedelic PI novel Dreaming of Babylon that I want to get to soon. I have a Dale Brown techno-military thriller in the wings also, and a couple of nonfiction books I’ve been meaning to crack.

I hope that Santa brings me a case of books…

What are your other hobbies that don’t relate to the world of mystery?
I am a gourmet cook, which always surprises people until they see me waddle in through the door. I specialize in Italian, grilling, and fish dishes. My signature dish is something called Shrimp Gamberini, which is sautéed garlic seasoned shrimp, sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and Portobello mushrooms served over pesto-drenched capellini pasta. Sometimes I add three or four grilled and marinated bacon-wrapped sea scallops. It’s the dish my wife asks for on special occasions.

I’m also an amateur astronomer – a holdover from my days as a physics major. I have several scopes, including a 60mm short-tube refractor I use for quick glimpses, and a monster 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain with electronic slo-mo controls and off-axis guiding for astrophotography work. I use the monster for deep-sky photos of nebulae and galaxies and stuff.
I enjoy other kinds of woodworking in addition to instrument making, including building arts and crafts furniture, and woodturning.

Lately, I’m getting into building stereo speakers. Next month, I’ll get turned on by something else. It drives Elaine crazy. Every time she turns around, I have a new passion, and I have to read everything that’s ever been printed about it.

Is there one mystery you read that made you think, “Yes, I’d like to do this one day?”
Oh, hell yeah. Most of the stuff by James Lee Burke leaves me deeply depressed for days after I shut the covers, because I would love to have his lyric sense and feel for the magnolia-dripped Louisiana bayous. He’s one of those authors who write stuff that makes me stop and think about the words. His prose is about as transparent as a brick, but I do love reading it.
As I mentioned, I recently finished S.J. Rozan’s Absent Friends, a paean to post 9/11 New York City. It is a beautiful book, which I believe marks S.J.’s transition from exceptional genre writer to first-class literary author. I dearly look forward to her next book, In This Rain, which she describes as a mature love letter to Manhattan. I consider S.J. one of my friends in this crazy business, and it’s a true honor to be able to say I know someone who writes this well.

I have been reading Reed Farrel Coleman a lot lately (Walking the Perfect Square, Redemption Street, The James Deans). He’s another author, like Burke, with a background in poetry, and it shows in his prose. I also like his insights into his characters’ backgrounds and motivations. I met Reed at a conference several years ago, and he subsequently changed part of a new book he’s written based on a talk I gave on traumatic amnesia. Gave me credit in the Acknowledgements section, too. Reed and I were both nominated for the Shamus this year, in the same category, and I knew right after reading The James Deans that he was going to win. I joke about him taking my award, but he really deserved it. The book was head and shoulders above the competition.

The best book I’ve read in the last fifteen years was Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. I’ve heard the same thing from a lot of people. After finishing it, I considered trying my hand at a historical epic, but decided after a couple of halting starts that I needed a little more seasoning before taking it on. I have a back-burnered project waiting for me to get back to it, a story covering seventy years in a man’s life, from the moment he observes the birth of the baby who will become the woman he loves unrequitedly all his highly accomplished life. Working title is Hopsewee Plantation. On my thumb drive, it’s slugged as ‘Oprah Book’.

The hard thing about having a favorite book over the last decade and a half is that you expect the author to match it with every title. After Pillars of the Earth, I read everything Follett subsequently wrote. I especially liked Night Over Water, and A Dangerous Fortune, but then he began to devolve back into writing second-rate thrillers. Finally, after I reluctantly slogged through the nearly unbearable Code To Zero, I decided it was time to get in touch. I wrote him an email and asked him not to do that again. He actually wrote back, and apologized that I hadn’t enjoyed his book, as he had put a lot of work into it. He hoped that I would enjoy his next book better. Sadly, that book was the execrable Jackdaws. I haven’t read a lot of Ken Follett since then. I hear he’s planning a sequel to Pillars of the Earth. When it comes out, I’ll probably give it a spin.

How can readers find out more about you and your award-nominated mysteries?
You can always drop by my website: . I update it relatively frequently, and you can even watch me build a guitar step-by-step. Also, I will be appearing in a Southeast Mystery Writers of America Skill Build at Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC, on February 3, 2007. I’ll be doing a panel with Reed Coleman on Character, Dialogue, Serials, and Standalones, and after a break I’ll sit on a panel on publishing. It’s a full day of writing tips for a very low price.

Hope to see you there!
And I hope you don't get flopsweat.

Thanks for chatting, Rick. See, it was painless because we didn’t have to meet in person. Although now if we ever do meet, we won’t feel like strangers, and there will be less of an intimidation factor. :)


Anonymous said...

Well, I wouldn't have guessed Richard was socially phobic. I was actually on a panel which he moderated some years ago and being a total introvert and utterly scared stiff, I at least took comfort seeing that there was at least a steady hand at the helm, so to speak. Holy cow, I'm shaking now just thinking about it. This was a very entertaining interview.

Julia Buckley said...

Yes, from his interview you'd think he'd be quite talkative and comfortable. But we're all more comfortable on paper, aren't we?

Eric, will you and Mary be at Love is Murder?

Anonymous said...

I fear we hardly ever get to conventions. Partly for the reasons in my note but perhaps that'll change someday.

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