By Tim O’Mara
“All right,” I said as we both settled into a new booth a few moments after the waiter spilled milk on the signed copy of his Robert B. Parker novel. “You’re probably tired of talking about it, so you get to make one statement about taking over the Jesse Stone series.”
Reed Farrel Coleman leaned back and smiled. “You know,” he began in that gravelly voice that sounds as if he’s ordering one more slice of pizza, “everyone loves Spenser. People look at him like he’s the Everyman: the boxer, the PI. But Jesse’s more like most people. He struggles with the stuff a lot of us struggle with: drinking, relationships, regrets. And he’s got the regrets most of us can relate to. His failed marriage, the baseball career cut short by injury, lost opportunities. We all have that woman who got away, that job we didn’t get, something we said that we wish we could take back.”
In the past six weeks, I’d read Coleman’s HOLLOW GIRL; the last Moe Prager novel; BLIND SPOT,his first in Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series; and ONION STREET, the novel that shows us how Moe became a cop. In that order. It’s very clear that Reed is a writer who understands regret.
“Man,” he said, “I took on all my parents’ foibles. I was a resenter, a regretter, I was jealous. It took me eight years of therapy to work that out. I moved to Milwaukee to to be with a woman. Probably the worst decision I ever made, but it made me realize at the age of twenty-one, I needed help.”
Twenty-one? That’s kind of early too figure something like that out.
“I was always introspective. I’ve been writing poetry since I was twelve. But I was a quitter.” His voice took on a retrospective tone. “Back in high school, I was the long snapper for the football team. I was good. One time in a big game, I snapped the ball over the punter’s head. And I decided it was time to quit. Like I said, I was good at it, but I was afraid of failure. I got that from my dad.”
I pointed out the obvious: quitters don’t become novelists.
“That’s where the therapy came in. If not for those eight years of therapy, you and I are not having this conversation. It’s probably why I started out with poetry. The stakes are lower.”
I asked Reed to make a brilliant comment connecting poetry to crime fiction.
He smiled again. “Tone. Economy. Impact.” He accented each word, and left a space between them. Just what you’d expect from a writing teacher. Then he added, “Hammett and Chandler wrote in meter, but no one noticed.”
“What’s the most poetic line you’ve ever written?”
He barely paused before answering. “ ‘There are victims of the Holocaust yet to be born.’ ” He paused a bit before going on. I had the feeling he was waiting for me to appreciate the power of those words. “I’ve always been fascinated with the impact that violent crime has, on both the victims and the victimizers. It doesn’t stop with the crime; it ripples out for generations. I grew up with the children of concentration camp survivors. I saw the effect this ripple had on my friends.”
“When did you realize you wanted to write for a living?”
“I was working at JFK Airport for a big French company. Making good money. Remember those guys from Goodfellas? I worked with them. I was going to therapy in the city and I was looking for something to fill my time between getting off of work and heading into Manhattan. I checked out the schedule of Brooklyn College and the only course that fit my schedule was American Detective Fiction. I knew I wanted to write that kind of stuff. I realized this is what all that poetry training was for.”
“You’ve written about stickball in both your poetry and your fiction. What life lessons are there to be learned from the game?”
“It’s not a team sport,” Reed explained. “It’s you versus the other guy. It’s your reputation in the schoolyard. I’m a lefty so I was hard to play against, hard to hit, but I struggled with control. It teaches you limitations.”
A line from an old Clint Eastwood film went through my mind. When it passed, I said, “You take a few shots at Long Island in your work. What’s that about?”
“People on Long Island,” he said, “believe that the way to achieve world peace is through shopping. Not even the Dalai Lama works harder toward that goal.” He took a sip of wine. “Growing up in Brooklyn, I actually felt sorry for Long Islanders. They didn’t have as much concrete as we did; they had grass. They couldn’t go outside and take a bus or a subway. Those poor kids got cars on their sixteenth birthdays and didn’t get to share a bedroom with anyone.”
“But you raised two kids on the Island.”
Reed smiled. “They had to learn to be street smart. At least they didn’t hate their childhoods.”
I first met Reed at Bouchercon a few years ago and have seen him at a few conventions since then. He’s an entertaining panel member and a good moderator. What’s his dream panel?
“Daniel Woodrell, Philip Kerr, Lee Child. And me, of course.”
“Inspiration,” he said. “I’d love to ask them: would you do this for no money? Full disclosure. Complete honesty. None of us tells the complete truth up there. We’re performing for the audience. We’re worried about what our publisher thinks, what our readers think.”
One final question: Reed’s lost seventeen pounds recently—I know that because he told me the exact amount before the interview even started. “What’s that about?” I asked. “Everything okay?” I couldn’t help but think of Moe Prager’s health issues.
He laughed. “You know,” he said. “I realized you see a lot of old men out there and you see a lot of fat men out there. What you don’t see? A lot of old, fat men.”
Sounds like the words of someone who plans on being around for a while. That, fellow mystery and crime readers, is very good news for the rest of us.
Reed Farrel Coleman is the author of twenty-one novels and novellas. He now writes Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series and has been signed by Putnam to begin a new series featuring PI Gus Murphy. Reed is a three-time recipient of the Shamus Award for Best PI Novel of the year and is a three-time Edgar nominee in three different categories. He has also won the Macavity, Audie, Barry, and Anthony Awards. He is an adjunct English instructor at Hofstra University and a founding member of MWA U. He lives with his family on Long Island.
To learn more about Reed, please visit his website.