Q: How does it feel to be an 'overnight success' as a new mystery writer...after publishing 70 novels in the past 25 years?
It’s been a long road. When I first thought about being a writer, I went immediately for the mystery field. At sixteen, I wrote my first short story, “The Third Grave,” and almost immediately sold it to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. That was also the last time I sold to them! I got busy with college, with starting a teaching career, and so on and drifted away from writing for years. And then when I came back, I wrote fantasy and sf, and other things came along, too. So if I’m an overnight success, I must have overslept.
Q: You wrote a lot of fantasy and science fiction, and also before you got back to the mystery field, you published in many other genres, correct?
Yes. Years after that first story, influenced by friends who were in the sf and fantasy field, I wrote and sold short stories to sf/fantasy magazines. That led to Richard Curtis, the agent, contacting me to ask if I could write an sf novel.
You never say “no.” So I said sure, I’m working on one right now. He asked me to send it to him when I finished, and six months later I did. He sold that one (To Stand Beneath the Sun) and that got me started as a novelist. Since then I’ve written science fiction, fantasy, horror, historicals, and tons of YA books.
Q: Is there an advantage for a writer to work in so many different fields? Is that something you might advise younger writers to try?
Actually, it may have been my worst mistake. Richard Curtis always said that if I do ONE damn thing I might make a name for myself, but I tended to write the story that came to mind, so I wrote fantasy, horror, sf, a mystery, you name it. The result was that I landed firmly in the midlist and stuck there! And when John Bellairs died and his son Frank asked me to finish up some books in his father’s series, that cemented me as a YA writer for a long time.
Q: And you also wrote for that TV dog that liked to dress up in costumes.
Sure, Wishbone the Jack Russell terrier. Those were fun to write, but my gosh, they wanted a ton of them. Eventually I co-wrote a good many Wishbone books with Thomas E. Fuller, with whom I worked on radio scripts for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, and also with Barbara.
Through it all I still loved mysteries. When I was in college I corresponded regularly with Fred Dannay, half of the Ellery Queen writing team—a wonderful, encouraging guy—and also with Ken Millar, who wrote as Ross MacDonald. Our letters were often about the art and craft of mystery writing, and without being formal teachers, they gave me a great deal of instruction in the form.
Q: Tell us how you came back to the mystery field after all those other books.
Before Jim Dallas, I launched another collaboration, this one with my daughter Amy, a theater person—we created “Bailey Macdonald” (see the homage?) as a pen name for YA mysteries that call in a historical character—as a youth—to act as detective. The first of those was Wicked Will, in which a twelve-year-old Will Shakespeare solves a murder; the second, The Secret of the Sealed Room (I had a better title, but the publisher didn’t like it) does something similar with a teen-aged Ben Franklin. We have plans for one with a young Sam Clemens, but for some reason my daughter got married recently, so that one’s on hold! But before starting those, Thomas Fuller and I planned and even wrote in the adult mystery field. We had come up with the germ of Jim Dallas back around 2000.
Q: You'd intended a series of novels inspired by Travis McGee, right?
Yes, Tom and I had already published one mystery, a kind of romantic cozy, called The Ghost Finds a Body, very much in the classic amateur-sleuth mold. It was set in Florida, a place both Tom and I liked a lot. While we were working on a completely different project—an ARTC radio production—we were taking a break and Tom said, “Dammit, I want to read a new Travis McGee!”
I pointed out that, John D. MacDonald having died a few years earlier, that was not likely to happen. But Tom asked, “What if we wrote a tribute novel, one that isn’t a McGee but is in the same mold?” I was willing if he was, and he came up with the germ of the idea (I won’t spoil it), the odd fact that would make the mystery possible.
Q: How did you two collaborate? How’d you divide the work on the Jim Dallas book?
With Atlanta Bones, I suggested “Dallas” as the name for the character, since it is pretty widely known that MacDonald’s original name for his beach-bum adventurer was Dallas McGee. Unfortunately, his proposal landed on his editor’s desk on November 22, 1963. “Dallas” was, at that historical moment, a bad choice. But today the curse is off it. Originally our man was just going to be Dallas, no other name (like MacDonald’s Meyer), but that got to be awkward, so one day Tom said, “He’s Jim,” and that was that.
Tom and I met and plotted out the novel pretty thoroughly, about fifteen double-spaced pages or so, and we laid out the kind of research we’d need to do. We took a run at writing a few chapters, six as I recall, three by me and three by Tom—we did alternate chapters. To distinguish these from Travis, we decided they’d be third-person. That didn’t work, and we decided that we’d need to go first-person instead. But at that moment we sold two YA series and got really busy working on them, so we tabled the novel. That’s where matters rested when Tom died of a sudden heart attack in November, 2002.
Not at all. By this time in our careers, we were identified as a YA team, and so we decided we’d do the Dallas novel under a pen name—not to hide our identities, but to brand them as PG-13! Tom suggested a “Mac” name to reference both McGee and MacDonald, and our first thought was McKee, but that seemed too heavy-handed and obvious. Then McKay. I came up with Ken as a tip of the hat to the OTHER MacDonald, Ken Millar. Trouble was, we discovered a whole host of Ken McKays. So we thought we’d spell it weird: McKea (pronounced McKay).
Q: Were you tempted to abort the novel with Tom’s death?
Oh, yes. Tom died intestate, so there were legal issues as well as the shock of losing a close friend. However, the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company began work in 2010 on recording The Dancer in the Dark, a Lovecraftian horror tale that Tom had written as a two-and-a-half-hour radio serial, and I was cast in it.
That reminded me that Tom had a very rough draft of a novel version of the story that we had planned to work on together. I dug that out, completed it, and published it as an ebook. That in turn led me to look at the groundwork we’d laid for Atlanta Bones, and I still liked the idea, so I began from scratch to write the novel from the outline plans.
Q: Once you'd decided to go on, was there any change in your thinking about the nature of the series? As I went on from the first book to the second, I found myself thinking: Here's a tribute that knows when to go its own way.
The first idea was a one-off homage. I think we put maybe too much backstory in Atlanta Bones because of that. But, doggone it, I grew to like the character so much that I figured there must be more stories to tell.
There’s a lot of Tom and me in the characters, you know. Physically, Sam Lyons is a lot like Tom—tall and bulky. He wears my Hawaiian shirts, though. The byplay is a lot like discussions Tom and I would have.
Detour for a story: Tom and I were on the way to a meeting of our writers’ group one Sunday. It was in Atlanta, south of our homes, but since I lived farther north than Tom, usually I’d stop by his house and pick him up and we’d drive down together.
This Sunday we had to pull over. Coming toward us in the other lane was a police car with a flashing light; behind it was a hearse. Behind that was one car. That was the entire procession. I said to Tom, “Nothing in the world looks sadder than a clown’s funeral.”
He didn’t react. Then, an hour later, in the middle of the meeting, Tom suddenly roared with laughter and yelled, “Because they’re all in the same car!” Everyone thought he’d lost his mind.
That kind of joking around shows up in the books and it always reminds me of talking with Tom.
Okay, physically Jim Dallas is . . . not me. Not Tom, either. Kind of an ideal man of action, but damaged both physically and psychically.
Anyway, with the two strong characters as a grounding, I thought there were many more stories to tell. Before I had finished Atlanta Bones, I had come up with two more ideas, and with a little ingenuity I found a title pattern. MacDonald’s McGee was color-coded: The Deep Blue Goodbye, A Purple Place for Dying, Cinnamon Skin, and so on. Instead of that, I decided that each book would have an alphabetical title: Atlanta Bones, Cuban Dagger, Eden Feint, Glades Heist….so I could do thirteen books, until I get to Washington Xray and the Y-Z one, which I know but which I’m saving. I can see a character arc for Jim now and I think it’s sustainable.
Q: What does Jim Dallas bring to the table that's new and refreshing and different?
I see him as a man struggling with despair. He is not by nature pessimistic. He has a great sense of humor and a real interest in life. But life has damaged him and has made him bitter and cynical in ways he’s aware of and doesn’t like. He’s solving his own mystery, in a way, through the books, trying to find his way back to a point of balance and evenness in his own life.
Jim’s obsession—and he is compulsive—can be taken off his own problems by the intricate details of the cases he discovers and works on, but that’s at best temporary, leaving him antsy and disturbed between cases. Sam Lyons senses his potential for violence and destruction, but also senses that he is salvageable, and so he does what a friend can to help Jim deal with the explosive matters in his own past and his own psyche.
So I think the new element here is actually a very old one: the detective ultimately detecting himself. Oedipus the King is a detective story in which the detective is simultaneously the murderer he is pursuing, without realizing it. That can be incredibly powerful. That’s what I’m driving at right now in the series.
Q: Had you always planned on doing this as a limited, thirteen-part series? An inspired idea, by the way—the doubled-up alphabetized titles: Atlanta Bones, Cuban Dagger, Eden Feint...!
Well, you never know! You launch out on a series, maybe people hate it, and it dies. But I do see a clear character arc for the thirteen books. After that…I don’t know. Maybe, depending on how Y-Z turns out, there could be further adventures. At the moment, I’m concentrating on lucky thirteen, though!
Q: A fair number of writers, including myself, have switched from traditional to ebook publishing. You're one of the handful who work on both sides. Though you've been with the same agent for decades, he can't handle all your work...and has turned down a few precious projects, I think. You've written them, regardless. What have we here? A commercial, genre writer who writes what he will, from the heart?
The market is dismal at the moment. Traditional publishers don’t know how to deal with ebooks, but they need to learn, and damn fast. Really, what’s the point of bringing out a hardcover priced at $28.00, a paperback version priced at $7.99, and an ebook priced at…$14.00? That deters readers.
The midlist author is right now persona non grata as far as most traditional houses go. They want guaranteed best-selling writers, so we have pop stars getting six-million-dollar book deals, while talented writers can’t break in. That’s a shame, and it’s no wonder that writers are turning to independent publishing.
As for me, I want to write what I’d like to read. That’s why I never settled on a genre—an idea comes up and I want to follow it down the rabbit hole, and whether the hole leads to sf, fantasy, historicals, or mysteries, I want to go along on the trip.
And like all writers, I want readers, people to go with me.
Q: How goes life in EbookLandia? Have you succeeded in learning everything you need to know but hoped you'd never have to ask?
Getting there, not there yet. I’ve become pretty good at formatting for ebooks, and I design my own covers. The costs are minimal—you really have to have an ISBN, and they’re $125.00 each if you buy them one at a time, and you really need to register your own copyright, which is a further $35.00. Earning that back is a big milestone! Fortunately, ebooks have a higher royalty rate than paper books, and that helps get you to the break-even point (which, by the way, I passed fairly quickly with both the Dallas novels now out). I’m not getting rich, but I like to see the sales mount up. They provide some validation—“Somebody actually is willing to pay to read my story.”
I’m already getting emails asking why the books aren’t in paper. The answer is that no publisher apparently wants them. It’s barely possible that will change as the series goes on, but if it does, I intend to hang onto the ebook rights because I enjoy the process of controlling the book so much.
Which is not to say that I don’t need editors. Fortunately my wife Barbara has a good eye for a syntactical faux pas or a plot hole, and the members of my writers’ group backstop me on story logic and character and so on. Honestly I think at this stage the ebooks are as well-edited as most of my paper books have been.
But I am still learning. Actually, that’s a good thing. I can honestly say that I have learned something new with every story, every book I have ever written, and that keeps the process lively for me.
Q: What handicaps do you have to fight to succeed as an indie writer?
There’s the kneejerk response, of course: “If it was any good, it would be in hardcover.” I think that prejudice will fade over time. Right now ebook sales are outstripping traditional book sales.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of drek out there! It’s hard to carve a niche in a field where the really bad stuff, the stuff that doesn’t cut it on any level, outnumbers the good so decisively. That’s always true, though—Sturgeon’s Law in science fiction is “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” So you have to learn to trust the readers to find you and to make up their minds. If they like you, it would be nice if they’d tell five other people to buy the book!
With self-publishing in the traditional sense, distribution is the big problem. With ebooks, it’s publicity, letting people know the story is there and that it’s worth reading.
Q: What company would you like your work to keep on discriminating readers' shelves?
As a mystery writer, I’d love to see my stuff up there with all my idols: Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Ross MacDonald, John D. MacDonald. They are the ones I began to read before I was even a teen-ager and the ones whose stories linger in the mind. And there are writers in other fields who touch on mysteries now and then that I’d be honored to keep company with: Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and my long-time favorite writer, Robert Louis Stevenson. Among the ladies, Connie Willis, Dorothy Sayers, and Sue Grafton—who like me was inspired by Ken Millar to become a writer. And of course as you know I like your character Boss MacTavin, a hardboiled guy in a whole nother way from Dallas, but a hell of an interesting figure!
Q: What books can we expect from you besides more Jim Dallas thrillers?
My next paper book is a biography of Eddie Carroll, the most well-known actor that no one’s ever heard of. He was the voice of Disney’s Jiminy Cricket for 37 years. Wonderful guy with wonderful stories, and his widow Carolyn and I have co-written his bio. That one’s coming out early next year and is in the editing stage now.
One of these days, Sam Clemens, Detective. And Tom and I had a steampunk novel underway, The Empress of Time, that I think has real potential. A publisher has expressed interest in my writing another show-business biography. And—well, that’s probably enough to be getting on with!
Q: You've worn a lot of hats, Brad, and worn them very well: Professor (full title—where), son, husband, father, author of horror/sci-fi/fantasy/nonfiction/mystery...Which hats remain for you to wear—and which do you most yearn to wear?
Professor of English at the University of North Georgia (formerly Gainesville State College)
I’d like to be a grandpa one of these days! And I’ve always wanted to be…a lumberjack!
No, actually I love the sea and ships and boats, and though I don’t want the aggravation and expense of actually owning one, I’d really like to learn how to sail a sailboat one of these days.
Q: Do you close the bathroom door when you're home alone?
I do, because I hate peeing on my dog’s head. And it’s hard to avoid because he wants to look in there and see what’s happening.
Q: What's one thing about you that drives people nuts?
Barbara says I lie a lot—not maliciously, but I’ll start telling a story and if she doesn’t seem to be paying attention, I’ll keep embroidering it until it breaks down of its own weight. My kids say I shouldn’t sing in the car because my voice can cause sterility.
Q: Do you have any strength as a writer that some consider weakness? When Ovid's friends listed three lines of his work that they felt were too 'clever' to keep, those were the same three lines he swore he'd die before he changed. And Byron's friends begged him to abandon his work on Don Juan.
Some readers think I over-analyze now and again and explain things in too much detail—but I’ve learned that unless I do put some effort into it people tend to misread the story and get the wrong idea! So I suppose it’s a case of trying to balance clarity and leaving room for the readers’ imaginations.
Q: Has your adult fiction benefited from your efforts in YA?
Just the practice of storytelling helps, of course. In YA I’ve fortunately had a great deal of freedom. When I did the Wishbone adaptation of Treasure Island, I told the editor, Kevin Ryan, that every young-reader adaptation I’d ever seen soft-pedaled the story by omitting the onstage deaths of both good and bad guys, and I told him that in my version them what died in the original would similar die in the Wishbone version, by the Powers! And he let me do that. After all, pirates are not nice people. The line editor said that young readers wouldn’t understand Trelawney’s line, “Hawkins, I put prodigious faith in you!” but he let me keep “prodigious” in. I think kids get it—from context if from nothing else—and so both in style and substance I treasured the freedom I have had in writing for a younger audience. Traditional YA mysteries don’t kill anyone—but in my YA murder mysteries, murders are real, and kids help to solve them.
Q: Are you the guy who sits at the end of the bar secretively taking notes...or the wild party animal who jumps right into the action and hopes to remember it later?
More the quiet guy. At parties I talk with friends and strangers and don’t drink much. One thing I have to do with the Jim Dallas tales is to get connoisseurs to tell me what beers, wines, and liquors he would buy. Dallas didn’t start out as a man devoted to high living, but one way he copes is to make his existence as pleasant as possible, so he tends to seek out good beverages and good food. He’s not saving up for the future, so his simple life is spiced by a bit of indulgence (which he pays for with a rigorous exercise routine).
Me, a beer is usually all I want, just one. Not fussy about it. I actually have more fun watching, listening, and mentally filing things away than by trying to be a party animal. You get the seeds of stories by people watching. The fun is seeing what they grow into.