MAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
An interview with T. Jefferson Parker
L.A. native (and lifelong SoCalian) T. Jefferson Parker broke in as a cub reporter and went on to win multiple awards for his reporting in Orange County, California. He wrote his first novel LAGUNA HEAT (1986) during time off from his newspaper work. It earned rave reviews, made the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list and was made into an HBO movie.
Jeff basically lives on the bestseller lists. He’s earned just about every accolade that reviewers can gin up, not to mention two Edgar Awards and the LOS ANGELES TIMES Book Prize.
His last five novels have featured Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy Charlie Hood, who will make his swan song in the series’ sixth novel, THE FAMOUS AND THE DEAD. Jeff graciously took time out from writing in an airplane hangar (really!) to answer a few questions for THE BIG THRILL. (Including why he writes in an airplane hangar.)
Let’s begin at the end. Why did you decide to make this the last Charlie Hood book?
His story is over and I’ve left him where he deserves to be. I’ve put Charlie Hood through so many trials and tribulations, given him so many victories and accomplishments, I believe it’s time to give him a rest. I think most series lose their punch after a few books, and I didn’t want to be on stage just to repeat myself. You know in your heart when it’s time to move on. I can’t wait to see what’s around the corner for me as a writer. That’s my version of excitement. Truly!
Now let’s go way back to the beginning. At what point in your journalism career did you begin to think about writing fiction?
You know, in high school I was forced by an angry Mythology and Folklore teacher to read CATCH-22. She was tired of trying to teach us. We were stubborn, rude and inattentive. She’d brought in a box of old paperbacks from her garage and assigned us a book at random to read that day. I started reading that book and found myself laughing. I couldn’t stop reading. After I finished that novel I wanted to write. I was 15 or so. So, by the time I was working as a reporter after college, it wasn’t a matter of deciding to write fiction, it was just a matter of finding the hours in the day. Mainly I wrote after work, and on weekends and holidays.
Hemingway famously attributed at least part of his unique style to the strict discipline of newspaper writing. You also write in a distinctive voice. Did newspaper work have anything to do with that?
The best thing about being a reporter was getting to see first-hand how a city works, and the way the media fits into the social fabric. Here I was, an English major fresh out of school, and suddenly I’m expected to cover city hall, crime, education, the arts – pretty much everything but sports and business. We had specialists for those topics. I wasn’t studying books any more, I was right there in the action, with a pen and notepad in my hand, asking some poor citizen how he felt watching his house burn down. I did lots of crime stories, because I was working on LAGUNA HEAT. I still draw on things from those early ride-alongs and early crime stories I wrote. So far as voice went, that came later. The thing about newspaper writing is you don’t want a voice, or at least not a loud one. Your job is to get out of the way of the story and just tell the facts in an organized way.
You once described LITTLE SAIGON as “an offbeat literary novel masquerading as a mystery thriller with this totally oddball sense of humor running through it.” Sounds like a recipe for huge success–witness GONE GIRL–today. Why do you think it wasn’t well received and what did you learn from that experience?
I just re-read LITTLE SAIGON for an electronic edition. It’s certainly those things I said above, but it’s also overwritten and overcomplicated and there’s something non-charismatic about Chuck, the protagonist. The reviewers were pretty much ho-hum on it. They were also disappointed it wasn’t a genre mystery, as was LAGUNA HEAT which reviewers mostly loved. I’m not sure what I learned from the experience. You put your heart and soul into a book, then it’s done and you commence again. Not every one comes out as well as you’d hoped.
You’ve created both male and female protagonists. How did the writing experiences differ? Do you prefer one over the other?
Well, it’s easier to write a man because I am one. One of the reasons I wrote Merci Rayborn in those three mysteries was because I wanted to see if I could write a woman. It was kind of a challenge. See, every time Merci walked on stage or said something, I really had to think about who she was and how she would behave. I had to start with her basics: gender, age, upbringing and the like. There was none of that easy, second-nature habitation I feel writing Charlie Hood. And I think, as a result of that extra care and respect for her, Merci turned out to be a good and detailed and highly specified character.
Truman Capote wrote in bed, Hemingway standing up. You write in, of all places, an airplane hangar. How’d that happen?
That’s where I am right now! It’s a big metal building you could use as a hangar, or as a machine shop or to…write books in. Part is finished off as an office, and the other part is storage and whatnot. I’ve got a view of a nice little orange grove and some rocks where the squirrels and lizards hang out, and this is Fallbrook, so there are tons of birds around. I’ve got red-shouldered hawks nesting in an oak tree, and I can see them from here, too. So many distractions!
Some writers—Martin Cruz Smith comes to mind—do exhaustive research. Others—Lee Child, for one—take a minimalist approach. Where on the research spectrum do you fall?
In between. I tend to research on a “need to know” basis. For instance, when I was writing THE JAGUAR, I realized I wanted a major scene in Veracruz, Mexico, so I took my wife and son down there and we stayed a week in a hotel. The building was formerly a convent, dating back to the 17th century. We took lots of pictures and shot video and talked to some locals about the music and the crime – two big subjects of THE JAGUAR. Two things we were looking for, specifically, were 1) a bar where a small, red-haired American devil might hang out, and 2) an apartment where he might live when visiting Veracruz. We had a blast walking those old streets, checking out the bars and looking for rental apartments. The older and moodier the better! This was early 2010, before the terrible series beheadings came to Veracruz as the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel duked it out. We were lucky to miss those.
Publishing is changing dramatically today. Could you envision the future for us, and offer some advice to new writers just coming up into this maelstrom of change?
Yes, publishing seems on its heels these days. I wish that book publishers would have foreseen that electronic readers would come to be a huge share of the market, and invested in the e-readers as a way of maintaining their power in the marketplace. But, you know, bigger picture: people still love stories and publishers still need stories and that’s a good thing. The real difficulty in publishing isn’t the market, it’s the story. Making one is a hard thing to do. The traditional route of publishing is not the only way to go. You can make success by self-publishing, building a following on the social networks, then turning that audience over to a literary agent or publisher who will direct your efforts, possibly, into old-fashioned books.
You once said that “life is self-control.” For accountants and cops and surgeons, maybe, but for a novelist? How do creativity and self-control blend in your life?
Self-control in the sense of ignoring distractions and maintaining a steady gaze at the world around you. We all know people – large numbers of them – who swear they have a story to tell but they will not sit down and write it. They’ll talk the game. They’ll research. They’ll fret about agents and editors. They’ll even agonize. They’ll do almost everything but write. So, self-control as discipline. Another important form of self-control is not allowing yourself to be talked into things by your society – your government, your industry, even your friends. It’s a battle sometimes to see what’s right through the fogs of politics and consumer culture. So, self-control in the sense that you’re controlling your beliefs, not ceding that control to the powers that be. God: make me skeptical.
Let’s end with any thoughts you’d like to offer to aspiring authors.
For me, in the beginning, there was the Word. It was my first inspiration and remains so today. I hope you new writers – young or old – feel the joy of immersing yourself in the work of the masters. You may decide who they are, for you. It’s all been one long attempt to record and examine this world we’re given and these brief lives we lead. I think I understand why cave people scratched animals into their rock walls: because the cave people were amazed by what they saw around them and they wanted to give form to their amazement. And you know, as I go through my days, I’m often amazed too. And so I write on my cave walls. What a wonderful way to engage the world. No matter if you publish one book, or a hundred, or none at all, your writing will help to identify you and form you. It will demand clarity from you and force you to see. You’ll be a better person for it.
T. Jefferson Parker is the author of twenty crime novels, including the Edgar-winning SILENT JOE and CALIFORNIA GIRL. His first book, LAGUNA HEAT was made into a TV movie by HBO. He was born in Los Angeles and now lives in Fallbrook, California.
To learn more about T. Jefferson Parker please visit his website.
Photography Credit: Marion Ettlinger