By Rick Reed
Robert S. Levinson is the bestselling author of nine prior crime-thriller novels. His short stories appear frequently in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines. He is a Derringer award winner, Shamus award nominee, has won the Ellery Queen Readers Award recognition three times, and is regularly included in “year’s best” anthologies. His nonfiction has appeared in Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Written By Magazine of the Writers Guild of America-West, Westways, and Los Angeles Magazine. He has served four years on Mystery Writers of America’s (MWA) national board of directors, as well as wrote and produced two MWA annual “Edgar Awards” shows and two International Thriller Writers “Thriller Awards” shows. Now, all of that talent shines in his newest novel, PHONY TINSEL, to be released in February 2013, by Five Star Publishing.
There’s no shortage of tinsel in best-selling author Robert S. Levinson’s tenth mystery-thriller and latest trip back in time to PHONY TINSEL, set in 1930s Hollywood, “The Golden Age of Movies.” The non-stop action twists and turns across the Southern California landscape and the body count multiplies once internationally adored film star Sarah Darling, more femme fatale in real life than in reel life, digs her claws into Charlie Dickens. A young and naïve, quick-tempered screenwriter desperate for success, Charlie is easily seduced into Sarah’s cockeyed scheme to murder her husband, Max Moonglow, an autocratic, skirt-chasing producer-director forced to film Charlie’s disaster of a screenplay, Showdown at Shadow Creek, or risk a scandal that could destroy his career. There’s romance, too, as Charlie juggles his emotions between Polly Wilde, a conniving ingénue desperate for fame beyond bit parts in Hopalong Cassidy westerns, and damsel in distress Robin Moon, a vanished migrant worker he’s vowed to rescue from the realities of life beyond the hobo hoodlums, Hooverville homesteaders, Ku Klux Klan terrorists, Bible-thumping fanatics, club-wielding railroad yard bullies, and assorted others.
“A delightfully improbable romp through 1938 Hollywood with all the usual Levinson wit and humor.”—MARGARET MARON, Mystery Writers of America Grand Master
“One of the freshest, liveliest and page-turningest takes on Old Hollywood ever written. Buy a copy for yourself and then rack up a few more for gifts.”—ED GORMAN, Shamus, Anthony and Spur award-winning author
“The author takes a lighter tone, peppering the tale with humor and wordplay…Fans of Hollywood’s Golden will have lots of fun with the real-life movie references.”—BOOKLIST
“A tale filled with as much ambition, greed and treachery as a Joan Crawford double-feature.”—JOSEPH FINDER, New York Times bestselling author
“Boffo!…a wry, fast-paced, often hilarious tale of love, ambition and making movies in Hollywood’s Golden Age…Truly a delight!”—CHRISTOPHER REICH, New York Times bestselling author
“…a twisted tale of love, sex, and egos.”–The Jury Box, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
Why did you become a writer?
Why? I suspect it came in my genetic code and I had no choice. My father at one time wrote a weekly newspaper column. An uncle was a Broadway playwright. My mother often spoke of hearing about a great-great-great grandfather back in Hungary who had been the country’s poet laureate, (something I’ve never quite accepted as fact, but it sure makes for a nice story).
I was eight or nine years old when I taught myself to type and began cranking out a single-copy newspaper, THE NIEGHBORHOOD NEWS, which I’d hand-deliver from one neighbor to the next, allowing them just enough reading time before snatching it back and moving on. I grew up to become editor of my junior high newspaper, my high school newspaper, and the Scholastic Sports Association program of the LOS ANGELES EXAMINER; graduated to newspaper work (LOS ANGELES TIMES, RIVERSIDE PRESS-ENTERPRISE), then into public relations, then writing for television, finally to writing novels, fulfilling a dream I’d harbored for years.
What was your first experience with being a published writer? How did that experience influence your future writing?
It occurred at Book Expo America in Los Angeles, the day before I was to sign Advance Reading Copies of my first novel, THE ELVIS AND MARILYN AFFAIR. One of the publisher’s staff members discovered that the names of the series’ lead characters, Neil Gulliver and Stevie Marriner, were printed on the ARC spine, not mine. Red-faced publicists were up for hours printing labels and labeling over the goof on hundreds of copies. I found the incident funny, later learned that the error had turned the ARC into a much sought-after “collectible.”
What influenced my future writing, however, was the publisher inquiring, “What celebrities will you be writing about in the next book?” Next book? Until that question, I hadn’t realized there might be a next book. I’d achieved my goal of getting a novel (one) written and published; period, over and out. The question also settled me into an infrequently mined genre niche, show business stories blending a degree of fact with a whole lotta fiction, an approach that’s worked well for me the past dozen years, with a series, with stand-alones, dozens of short stories, and only a couple exceptions.
Do any of the characters in PHONY TINSEL resemble real people you have known? If not, how do you create your characters?
“Resemble,” yes, to a degree, but none are out and out representations of people I knew, dealt with or heard “insider” stories about during my adventures as a newspaperman and in the entertainment industry. Some are wholly invented, created from the inside out or the outside in to meet the needs of the story I’m telling. Others borrow more heavily from the appearance, attitude, traits and eccentricities of many blended into one. The screenwriter “Charlie Dickens” is pretty much in the first category, movie star “Sarah Darling” in the latter. (My father grew up around mobster types in Brownsville, N.Y., and chunks of memory he shared with me helped shape some of the key characters in PHONY TINSEL and earlier work…)
As the bestselling author of nine previous crime-thriller novels, how difficult, or easy, do you find it to keep coming up with plots, characters, and endings? Where do your ideas come from?
Easy it ain’t, and it gets tougher every time I prepare myself to tackle a new book or short story. I use the “What if?” principle—What if this? What if that?—in struggling to come up with and settle on a plot that’s unlike anything I’ve tried before, sounds fresh and fun to write, and is in territory that I can deal with honestly and adequately without having to spend an ungodly amount of time on research. Experience figures heavily in the equation. I write from the gut, not from an outline, figuring the reader will be surprised if I surprise myself with a turn here, an unexpected twist there. I usually know my lead character from the git-go and a sense of who the secondary characters are or will become. I like to think I know how the story ends, but usually wind up with two or three or four possibilities by the time I reach the final chapters.
What kind of research did you do to write crime-thrillers?
In the beginning was the word, and the word came from an agent, suggesting I write a mystery, because it would be easier to sell into the current marketplace. I hadn’t read a mystery in decades, the likes of Doyle, Queen, McBain, Spillane, Prather, Wambaugh. I headed for my local mystery bookstore, asked for five or six of the store’s best-selling titles, returned home with books by Lawrence Block, Robert B. Parker, Elmore Leonard, Sue Grafton, Ed McBain, Jonathan Kellerman, Jack Higgins, and Ken Follett. I read and reread the books, broke down a couple on paper, chapter by chapter, making note of where, how and when change-ups and twists occurred. Finally, I took a deep breath, and began Chapter One of what became THE ELVIS AND MARILYN AFFAIR. Suffice it to say, lessons learned during that private classroom of my own making have stuck with me right up to PHONY TINSEL.
How important is a writing routine?
For a creature of habit like me, it’s extremely important. In order to sustain a rhythm to my writing, I need to write something, anything, every day. It’s a way to make sure I don’t lose story points that have been working themselves out in my mind. It keeps me from growing stale. It’s the best way I know to prevent “writer’s block” (so-called), writing to write, writing anything, especially when I’ve written myself into a corner and am struggling to find a way out.
Without giving your ‘special’ place away, is there a special type of place that you like to work? Do you require quiet and solitude, or do you need to be near activity and music?
Writing is not a team sport, anyway, not for me. You’ll never find me slaving over a hot laptop at my neighborhood Starbucks. I need privacy and quiet; no distractions. I get it in my converted bedroom of an office, where I routinely become so focused on the work, I pretty much shut out the world. I don’t hear the front door bell when it rings or the phone when it sings out. The blinds are drawn on three picture windows, but once in a while I’ll open the one that provides a view of the orange trees and shrubbery in our backyard.
I would ask who your favorite author is, but I know you should say, “Bob Levinson, of course.” So, I’ll ask if there a special genre of book that you like to read? And does this reading contribute to your writing in any way?
Mysteries and thrillers, no surprise there, but I don’t read much fiction when I’m writing, for fear of being influenced subconsciously by the author’s style or turns of phrase. My greater passion since elementary school and my earliest library visits, has been with non-fiction—biography, contemporary history, crime and criminals, various aspects of fine art, anything to do with show business, especially the glory days of Broadway and the beginnings of the motion picture industry. In my writing, I draw a lot on what I’ve read and retained over the years. The facts frequently inform the fiction.
What is your typical day like?
I keep what amounts to regular “office hours” at the computer. My writing day starts after breakfast, about 8 a.m. I break for an extended lunch at noon, (usually over an old movie on TCM for dessert), resume writing until my sentences quit working the way I want—somewhere between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.—and let my thought processes do the heavy lifting after that. (The schedule is far more relaxed on weekends, when I get in at least two or three hours of writing…)
What advice would you have for aspiring authors?
Write. If you expect others to take you seriously as an author,treat writing as a career from the beginning, not as a hobby. Set out a regular schedule for yourself and stick to it; as little as an hour a day of writing eventually adds up to that book or short story. If you’re dissatisfied with what you’ve written, junk it, and start fresh. Write what you know, sure, but research what you don’t if it will lay the foundation for a better story better told. Don’t trust the opinion of others more than you trust your own opinion; it’s your story, not theirs;if they think they can do better, let them go away and write their own damn story. Rejection comes with the territory. Don’t let it to destroy your confidence in yourself. Keep writing, understanding and appreciating you’ll ultimately meet up with an agent or a publisher who believes in you as much as you believe in yourself. What? You still here, reading this? Why aren’t you writing?
With the proliferation of electronic reading devices, how do you see the future of hardback and paperbacks?
There’ll always be a hardback market, smaller, but sustained in large measure by libraries unable or unwilling to deal exclusively in electronic editions. I suspect the mass market paperback is on its way out, if not already (poof!) gone, but the trade paperback is likely to emerge in greater number and demand now that authors can create them for themselves and traditional publishers recognize the greater potential for profit they offer in and by the electronic revolution. However the new technology plays out, it’ll definitely be to the benefit of writers. I’m enjoying positive vibes already with ebook editions of some of my earlier hardbacks, short stories, an original novel, THE ENDING WE DESERVE , and a trio of original novellas, RESERVED FOR A FRIEND, SUITABLE FOR FRAMING, and CRAZY IN L.A. Thrilling times, these…
You can find more about Robert and his book, PHONY TINSEL, at www.robertslevinson.com. AND–If you have questions you can send an email to the link on his website.