When Real Life Gets in the Way of Fiction
By Dawn Ius
Real life can get in the way of writing—and for author Tim Maleeny, “real life” created an almost 11-year gap between his last Cape Weathers novel, Greasing the Piñata, and his latest series installment, BOXING THE OCTOPUS.
“The gap came from four factors: real life, a perfectly puzzling plot, the necessary background research, and an innate talent for procrastination,” he says. “I’ll tackle the first three…
“About ten years ago my family and I moved from San Francisco to New York City, and between finding the right place to live, a new school for the kids, and all the other logistics of starting a new life, my schedule went completely sideways. I continued to write short stories and teach at a mystery writers conference every year, but I took a hiatus from novels until a couple of years ago. Fortunately, my readers and my publisher kept bugging me for the next book, so I had enough encouragement to finally get behind a keyboard and stop procrastinating.”
Maleeny might have been able to write through the chaos of the move, but there was a more pressing issue to deal with—he didn’t know exactly how to unravel the plot of his next book, in particular, the twists and turns inherent in his earlier work.
“I wanted BOXING THE OCTOPUS to have as many unexpected twists in the plot as possible, so it took a while to fit the jigsaw puzzle together,” he says. “I also got lost in the research into money laundering, piracy, illegal drug testing, and, of course, cephalopods. (You really need to do your homework when one of your characters is a giant Pacific octopus, otherwise you’ll get letters from frustrated marine biologists or zoologists saying you got your facts wrong.) The conspiracy in the book, as elaborate as it may seem, is based on real world events, so I tried to stay current on what was happening in the world as I wrote, so the final story would be as topical as possible.”
Added to that was the complication that, given the gap between books, many readers would be experiencing Private Investigator Cape Weathers for the first time—the book had to work as a self-contained mystery.
That mystery begins at the height of San Francisco’s tourist season when an armored car drives off a crowded pier. When the wreckage is uncovered, both the cash and the driver are gone. Weathers is called in to help crack the case—but things quickly get out of hand.
In this interview for The Big Thrill, Maleeny shares some of the challenges of revisiting old friends, and how he plans to avoid another extended writing hiatus—well, as much as he can control.
After the hiatus, did you struggle to get into the characters’ voices? How did you prepare to write the book?
Plot flows from character, so I always spend months getting to know the characters who will drive the story. Mysteries and the moral dilemmas they represent are driven by ordinary people put into extraordinary circumstances, so I obsess over the book’s opening—the triggering event that sets everything in motion. Once I know the characters and how they’ll react, the voices come very naturally. In that regard I am more of a “pantser” versus an outliner, someone who writes organically and tells the story as it unfolds from the characters’ perspective. BOXING THE OCTOPUS has eight interlocking points of view, so the trick was getting the rhythm between the subplots just right so chapters would stay short and the plot would keep accelerating until the end.
As for routine, on the good days I get up ridiculously early and ignore family, friends, and colleagues until I get a chapter finished. Then I edit at night and start all over again the next day.
Titles are hard—yours are extraordinary. What goes into creating the titles—in particular, how did you come up with BOXING THE OCTOPUS?
Titles matter, and finding the right one is tough. A good title can not only telegraph something about the plot, it should reflect the tone of the writing as well. My books often involve a collision of cultures, so I like titles with an unexpected rhythm to them that evoke some texture of the story. For BOXING THE OCTOPUS, the title is a metaphor for what it feels like to be outmatched in a fist-fight, which is exactly how my protagonist feels going up against a global conspiracy on his own. And since there’s an actual octopus in the book, the title just fit. Once a novel has a title, the story feels more real and the writing goes a lot faster.
I didn’t anticipate the underlying humor, which I loved. It has a bit of a Hiaasen feel. Which writers have influenced your work? And what do you think the role of humor is in thrillers/mysteries?
Booklist describes my books as “serious mysteries written with a light touch.” My novels have been called capers, comedic thrillers, or comic noir by reviewers who seem to enjoy the social commentary and irreverent tone of the writing. Kirkus called BOXING THE OCTOPUS “a Hiaasen-esque delight,” which is a huge compliment indeed. I’m surprised there isn’t more humor in mystery, because let’s face it, people under duress do stupid things.
My characters tend to be flawed rather than fearless, more than capable of getting in their own way and sending everything sideways. Through both dialogue and characters’ impulsive behavior, there are always opportunities to bring humor into a story, which can help with pacing and character intimacy—you really get to know someone when their filters are down and they’ll say or do almost anything to escape a bad situation. The scene may seem funny, even hilarious, to the reader, but to the characters it’s deadly serious. As Mel Brooks once said, “tragedy is when I cut my finger and bleed, but comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
There are a handful of crime writers who consistently master the balancing act between humor, pacing, and tension. Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, Ross Thomas, and Loren Estleman, to name a few. Carl Hiaasen is brilliant at mixing madcap humor with razor-sharp social commentary. The Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald and the Elvis Cole mysteries by Robert Crais are terrific; and in film, anything by the Coen Brothers. All deliver serious plots with unforgettable characters— characters you relate to regardless of which side of the law they’re on—in part because they make you smile, and that brings you closer to them. It’s the humor in the situation that brings out their humanity and exposes their flaws.
For readers new to these mysteries, please share a little about what inspired the series and how you would describe your protagonists, Cape Weathers and his deadly companion, Sally.
Another writer once told me that most readers discover an author four or even six books into a series, which is why it’s important that every novel works as a standalone mystery. So my books can be read in any order but all take place in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a singular cast of characters live, work, and break the law on a regular basis. BOXING THE OCTOPUS is set on Pier 39 in San Francisco, one of the world’s biggest tourist traps and an unexpectedly important hub for money laundering, but the story also jumps to mainland China over the course of the plot.
The lead protagonist is Cape Weathers, a private investigator who used to be an investigative reporter with a particular talent for finding people who don’t want to be found. He is more determined than clever at times, acutely aware that he lacks the resources of a police department or criminal organization, so Cape overcompensates by causing trouble wherever he goes. Cape’s basic philosophy is that if someone isn’t trying to kill him, then he’s probably not on the right track.
His partner is a character who has become a fan favorite, a woman named Sally with an unusual background. Sally was orphaned and enrolled by her caretaker—actually sold—to a secret school in Hong Kong run by the Triads, where she was trained as an assassin from a young age. Years later Sally left the school, something no one had ever done, and came to San Francisco. Now she’s the self-appointed protector of Chinatown. Sally is the mirror image of Cape, very considerate in everything she does, more thoughtful and less emotional, and much, much more dangerous. If it weren’t for Sally, I don’t think Cape would survive any of these adventures.
Those two characters are the catalysts for the investigation, but the plot in BOXING THE OCTOPUS is really driven by the criminal elements, a motley assortment of ne’er-do-wells with a common goal but competing agendas. BOXING THE OCTOPUS is a runaway tour of the underground economy, where extortion, drug smuggling, and money laundering are hiding in plain sight at some of the most beloved tourist destinations in the world. Those responsible include two Russian smugglers, a sociopathic doctor, a pirate who insists on talking like one, a trained assassin, a cabal of corrupt politicians, and a giant Pacific octopus named Oscar.
Prior to writing this series, you wrote a number of short stories—do you miss the short form? What were some of the challenges of advancing to a novel?
I came into crime fiction through short stories. When my story “Till Death Do Us Part” won the Macavity Award and got selected as the title story for an anthology edited by Harlan Coben, that gave me the confidence to finish writing a novel. (That book became Stealing the Dragon, my first novel to feature Cape Weathers and Sally as characters.)
The advantage of starting with short fiction is that it helps you think of each chapter in a novel as a story unto itself—a clear narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end—in a compressed number of pages. A lot of first drafts for a novel have superfluous chapters that might add texture but don’t advance the plot. Coming from a short story background, I was able to aggressively self-edit. Successful writing is all about editing, doing the work to tighten things up, so I’m grateful I wrote short fiction before tackling a novel.
I still write short stories periodically and have been fortunate to be in a number of anthologies, but so much of my writing time is focused on getting the next book out, so the stories are more intermittent these days.
Will there be another book in the series—and if so, what is the ETA?
The next book is called Hanging the Devil, and should appear in about a year—I’m writing as fast as I can! It deals with the shadowy world of art heists, forgeries, and the rampant use of stolen masterpieces as currency on the black markets by organized crime.