A New Life in Seattle

A New Life in Seattle
August, 2018

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Mr. Excitement: The Interview with Wild Bill Kirton

Introduction: What's the skinny on Bill Kirton, in 71 words or less?
Born and raised in Plymouth, England. Primary school? Loved it. Seconday school? Hated it. First attempt to get into university? Failed. Thereafter? Got my PhD and was a lecturer at Aberdeen University from 1968 to 1989. After that? Retired to concentrate on writing. Three children, eight grandchildren. I sit at a computer, keep our garden in check. carve wood, ride by bike, enjoy food and wine and generally have a great time.

1) You have a strong academic and classical background. You've written and directed plays, a historical novel, mysteries and children's books...translated Moliere...been a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow...Yet you're best known for your Jack Carston mysteries. How did you come to the genre? And what do you get out of it?
Like most things, it was an accident. My agent sent a standalone novel to a publisher. They liked it but were more interested in publishing police procedurals and asked if I'd written one. I hadn't but when you get an offer like that you can't refuse, so I wrote Material Evidence and they published it. It was my third novel and I liked the fact that the genre had rules which I had to follow. By that I mean obvious things--the need for a crime (probably a murder), a culprit, clues, red herrings and a solution. So, in a way, it gave me a recipe but I could choose and adapt the ingredients and focus on the things that interest me most--why people do things, how they interact, their external appearances, internal shadows and the areas where the two overlap.

2) Your books are available as ebooks. Have you published traditionally as well?
My first two Carston novels were published as hardbacks in the UK and paperbacks in the US (by a different company). But today publishers come and go, and I've been with 2 others in America. Last year I published all my own fiction as both ebooks and paperbacks but two of my satirical novels are now with a new publisher. I've also written five books for students on study, work, and writing skills for a big educational publisher, so I've been on both sides of the fence (still am).

3) Has the ebook experience, overall, been positive for you? If so, in what ways?
Definitely. The old, traditional system took ages. You could wait for months with no idea whether your manuscript was being read or had slipped down the back of a radiator. It could take up two years from submission to receiving the first proofs. And all these apparently creative people asked the same question. No, not 'Is the book any good?' but 'Will it sell?' I suppose in the commercial world that's understandable but I'm naive enough to think the two may be connected.
    You were at the mercy of agents, publishers, editors. (Don't get me wrong, good editors are invaluable and I've had two truly excellent ones but, as in all walks of life, there are the professionals and then the rest.)

4) What limitations have you had to overcome in order to succeed?
Thanks for assuming I've 'succeeded', Reb. If you're asking about my personal limitations, there's my congenital laziness. But if you mean limitations in the whole submitting, self-publishing, formatting process...Well, Amazon's made it fairly easy to get books formatted and listed but that's also a drawback because more and more people are doing it and the reader's now faced with bucket loads of titles.
    So you need a good marketing strategy. And that isn't a skill all of us have. There's plenty of advice out there, and you blog, Tweet and pester all your Facebook friends, most of whom are also writers, to buy your latest world-beater. If anyone has the solution to this conundrum, I'd be grateful to hear it.

5) Many writers insist that Twitter and social media in general are either useless or over-rated. Yet I came to your writing only after discovering you online--and engaging with you through Tweets or quips on Authors Electric (the collective UK online blog). Is social media savvy a natural talent or did you have to develop it?
I think whoever I seem to be online depends on who I'm interacting with. I don't tend to initiate much, I react. People interest me, which is normal for a writer. I'm curious about them and online I can be that without transgressing any social norms. So I have lots of genuine friends there.
    Also, like you, my online contacts have introduced me to books I might not normally have read but which I've enjoyed. So I guess I'm saying that I think the online world has enriched my experience of writing and of people. We're all characters in the Facebook fiction.

6) What special gifts do you bring to the table as a mystery writer? And, by extension, what is a Bill Kirton book?
Well, I wouldn't call them 'gifts', but there are things I try to do which don't necessarily conform to the rules I mentioned earlier. When I first started sending stuff away I chose radio drama because writing dialogue helps keep me from over-elaborate or too precious prose. Plus, dialogue lets the characters reveal who are they are without me intervening. 
    More generally, when faced with seemingly antisocial behavior, I'm more interested in asking why it's happening than in  judging it. What is it in someone that allows them to do outrageous, hurtful or just plain embarrassing things without conscience or self-awareness? I don't think there's an easy dividing line between good and bad. Sometimes it may be okay to sympathize with a 'baddie' or feel that a crime is justified.
    Also, at the end of each book, when the mystery's been solved, I always add a very short coda featuring one or more of the characters. Why? To remind the reader that the world's back in balance as far as this crime's concerned, but there are still new injustices and pain around.
    But the thing I enjoy most is when a readers finds funny bits in the books. Humor's essential everywhere.

7) Who are your favorite authors, mystery and other?
A lot of my favorites are authors who make me laugh: Carl Hiaasen, Janet Evanovich, Tom Sharpe, Michael Frayne, Terry Pratchett and umpteen others. Then there are those that make me realize I still have a long way to go: David Mitchell, William Boyd, Julian Barnes and, again, countless others. And, of course, the biggies, many of whom I studied in depth as part of my job: Hugo, Flaubert, Stendhal, Balzac, Zola, Beckett, Moliere, Racine, etc.
    And in the crime/mystery genre? Well, there are the usual suspects in the USA and, living in Scotland, I'm spoiled for choice. But the standout writer (and person) here is William McIlvanney. He's at last being feted as the founder of Tartan Noir but for me he's always just been a great novelist.

8) Do you agree with the Gospel according to Elmore Leonard: no adjectives or adverbs...no flashbacks...no fine writing...no back story...etc.?
I quote him all the time. I know his 'Gospel' was a tongue-in-cheek offering but it's very persuasive and I'm conscious of it a lot of the time when I'm writing. It's all too easy to indulge in fancy turns of phrase or extend sentences with brackets, sub-clauses and stylistic flourishes. The 'proof' of the legitimacy of what Leonard said lies in his own books--not a word wasted, everything in the right place, perfect pitch and pacing.

9) Which long gone masters would you have most liked to meet?
Beckett's not 'long gone' but he's top of the list. I think for him, even though he was meticulous in his choice of words and in the instructions he gave with regard to his plays, his writing reflected exactly how he thought. By that I mean there'd be no diatribes on abstractions of literary theory; he'd speak about how it is. And there'd be plenty of laughs.
    The trouble is that the fact that their being 'masters' might mean they'd take themselves too seriously. My admiration might wane if they turned out to be too po-faced and heavy.

10) Which skills came most naturally? Dialogue should be one, with your theater experience.
Yes, that still seems to me the best way of avoiding some of the worst excesses of writing. It presents material in digestible chunks, avoids (or should avoid) 'writerliness', and leaves it to the characters to show you who they are. If I'm speaking as character A or B, Bill Kirton's kept out of the equation. It doesn't matter what he thinks. It's also interesting to realize that characters do tend to choose their own vocabulary and tone and seem to differentiate themselves from one another without me being aware of it. The only problem arises when something renders a character literally speechless. But even then, if he/she's been chatting away quite happily before, the silence becomes expressive.

11) Any quirks or character traits at odds with your image as the consummate writing pro?
I'm flattered that you (and by implication, others) have such an idea of me. However, it's a construct which I recognize but over which I have no real control. For example, I've frequently revealed how lazy I am, but people choose not to believe it. They say, 'You've written all those plays and books', etc. But I've been doing it since the early Sixties (and before, for that matter); so, in fact, I should have written a lot more.
    A short anecdote may answer you better. Many years ago, I was having coffee with a French student who was spending a year at Aberdeen university. We were talking about precisely this topic--selfhood and image, the inner 'me' and the outer appearance, etc. At one point he asked, "Est-ce que tu as conscience de l'espace que tu occupes?" (Are you conscious of the physical space you occupy?) Since then, I've once or twice been in situations (such as the present) which have caused me to tell the anecdote and each time his question has been interpreted in different ways--the best two being that it meant 'You're invading my personal space' and, more directly, 'Do you realize how fat you are?'
    All of which is to say that this particular 'consummate writing pro' is as flawed, boring, inadequate, self-deluded (and all the other adjectives Elmore Leonard would delete) as the next person.

12) Have you done anything that your hero, Jack Carston, would draw the line at doing?
Now you're getting embarrassing. Of course I have but I'm not telling you about them. He's no innocent but I'm far worse.

13) How has your taste for the classics impacted your mystery work?
Reading the greats critically, seeing how they use words not just to convey their surface meanings but also to evoke echoes, resonances, deeper narrative levels and also insinuate themselves into the reader's thought processes--all that opens up aspects of writing that are rarely apparent if you're doing is reading the 'story'. I've heard students say 'Why do we have to spoil the book by analyzing it?'. But it's very satisfying when, after a while, they realize that the book they didn't want 'spoiled' is still intact but that underneath the story other things are happening, things they'd missed by staying on the surface. It turns out to be an even better book than they realized.
    So, does any of that find its way into my books? I wish.

14) Do books by Bill Kirton put hair on the chest?
As an ex-academic, I'd need objective evidence to give you a valid answer. So I shall be calling upon reader volunteers, male and female, to take part in an exhaustive survey at my private laboratory.

15) What question have I failed to ask that you'd like to answer?
'To which address should I send the check?'

Now that you've met Bill Kirton, here are the links to his books. Curdle up for some bloody good, good bloody fun.

U.S.: http://www.amazon.com/Bill-Kirton/e/B00D918C2K/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1406373380&sr=8-1

U.K.: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bill-Kirton/e/B00D918C2K/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1406373443&sr=8-1

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rotten Timing Meets Good Luck

By far my worst experience with traditional publishing came about with the short novel that will be my next release. For now let's refer to the book as RC.

By the later 90's I had published four novels with two major houses and had spent years working on a pair of short Christmas thrillers that two agents loved but couldn't sell: too short, too dark, too funky...Rather than give up I decided, defiantly, to do one with a Millennial tie-in, a period novel set on the world's greatest train: The Twentieth Century Limited. This one would have more plot twists than a fun house maze and the timing would be perfect--if we sold the book in time to hit the stands by or in 2000.

I knew I had to sell the book by late 1998 at least in order to allow for a year's lead time with the publisher. I wrote frenetically and approached LP, the agent who'd sold my third and fourth books. I explained the timing and asked her--in mid-summer--if she could read the book in a couple of months because of the timeline and get back to me by fall. She laughed and said Of course. She could read a book this short in a couple of weeks...guaranteed in a couple of months. I asked if I could follow up if I hadn't heard from her by October. Once again, she agreed and gave me her home number in case of emergency.

I followed up with a post card in October. Another in November. Then in December, when I still hadn't heard, I risked calling her at home. She was livid. Here I was pestering here at home in the holiday season--because she hadn't read my book in only half a year. I was devastated. Now the book had no chance and I knew it. Worse still, LP went on to write about an unnamed has-been who had the nerve to call her at home--the sort of aggressive, selfish behavior, she maintained, that had tanked the loser's career.

My luck didn't get any better when the central plot device began surfacing in films: a hero's repeated return to the past to either solve a mystery or correct a wrong. This may not have been unique 20 years ago, but it was still unusual--and I'd put a cool twist on the ploy: a man returning three times to a three-hour window of time--but each time losing an hour and all memory of what had occurred.

Just recently, in fact, I died a little more when Tom Cruise's Edge of Tomorrow opened--with what sounded like a mirror image of my game. But no, the differences between that flawed film and my book are pronounced. It got a lot of things wonderfully right: grounding us quickly each time, for one thing, in the problem and time Tom returned to. But it failed to do something I'd spent years trying to perfect: showing how my hero reprograms himself each time before he loses his memory.

So, rotten timing and bad luck--along with a treacherous agent--combined to bury a cool little beauty about The Twentieth Century--the era and the train. But as I started reworking the book, I saw that a third factor had joined us: my good luck in having time to learn what needed learning to really nail this book. For one thing, when I first wrote RC, I'd gotten my first word processor. And I'd grown obsessed with typographical tricks: even dividing the page into multiple 'screens' as Brian DePalma would do. And I'd set the key clues off in boxes so readers couldn't miss them from one time pass to another.

But as I've written elsewhere, such stunts wouldn't play in an ebook, where formatting rules are quite strict.

Still, I'd learned enough in fifteen years to work around such problems. Finally, I knew, I could deliver a book as sleek and streamlined as my favorite train.

Coming your way this December,  thanks to a fortuitous blend of rotten timing, plus bad and good luck.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Coming soon: interview with Bill Kirton

I'm putting the finishing touches on an interview with Bill Kirton, a mystery writer whom you should check out if you enjoy gritty police procedurals. Bill's also one of the most articulate writers I've gotten to know...so look forward to a lively Q&A.

I'll post the interview here by Friday.

Correction: the interview will now appear on Sunday. Bill and I want a little time, out of respect for your time, to edit it down to a breezier length.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Wow! An Action List for Heroes?

Live now on my other blog, The Seattle Kid: the second checklist for July:


You don't have to move to Seattle to gain from the examples both checklists offer in breaking large projects down to incredibly doable steps.


Saturday, July 5, 2014

On the Virtue, Now and Then, of Being Unreasonable

Charlotte Kills, the new Boss MacTavin novel, pretty much expresses my bleak thoughts on the city of Charlotte. I have a handful of warm memories of my seven years in the city. A favorite brother's children live here. There are places and people I treasure. But my sense of the place has been shaped by loneliness, misery and grief.

Charlotte for me will be:
--The racial beating at the transit center and looking up to see the bus driver's victory dance while passengers looked on and jeered as I bled...
--Getting set up and fired from Sprint on a trumped-up charge because my sales were slow....
--The long and brutal hunt for work while I faced eviction and half-starved with my cat....
--The night-shift job that rescued me but then became my enslavement--the boss blocking me from transferring or finding other work...
--Seven years without a date because of my lowly employment...
--Seven years of rejection for any meaningful job...

No, I don't feel kindly to Charlotte. But I like novels and movies with feeling and soul. And I don't not like Taxi Driver because it focused on the hellish side of New York. And though I like what I've seen of LA, I also revere Chinatown--which went a good deal further than just show the city's underbelly--it showed a city rotten with corruption, through and throw.

Martin Scorcese and Robert DeNiro went on to give us the far more romantic New York, New York. And to the best of my knowledge Robert Towne still lives in LA. But this doesn't detract from the power and the truth of Chinatown.

And if it's good for artists to be reminded that their passions are subjective, it's also good for readers and viewers to know that so are their own passions. Charlotte is heaven for many, I know. But Charlotte is also:

--The customer who broke into tears this past week. The town is killing him, he said. And after twelve years of failure and struggle, he's moving West...out to LA...to roll the dice just one more time.
--The restaurant workers who've heard of my upcoming move and have begged me to tell them if they too have hope of not having to work 60 hours a week for $2 or $3 an hour, plus tips.

No city is for everyone. Like the Naked City, Charlotte has millions of stories. I've written one that's far darker than most, grounded in--but not based on--my personal experience. (What's the difference? My own negative take on the city will be apparent to readers. No sweat. But this is a work of fiction with a first-person narrator--and Boss's quips and opinions are in character for him. I don't necessarily share them.)

The little book's called Charlotte Kills. And I'm not selling anything but the truth as I see it...and some good dark fun:


Friday, July 4, 2014

Change in Amazon Countdown Event

Well! I had a fine surprise today when I tried to set up a Countdown event for Charlotte Kills. Before doing so with any book, the price must have been unchanged for at least thirty days. I decided to publish CK at the $3.99 price rather than run an introductory special, further delaying the Countdown.

Sorry for the confusion. I'll list the dates of the sliding price scale before the Countdown in August. Till then, I'll make lemonade by using this month to try to gain some first reviews and generate some word of mouth.

Stay tuned!

Here's the link to Charlotte Kills:


Thanks, everyone, for your interest and support!


Thursday, July 3, 2014

The $.99 Boss MacTavin Sale

As promised, the first two Boss MacTavin novels are on sale through July for $.99 each...to celebrate the publication of the third book in the series.

Here the links:
Southern Scotch: http://tinyurl.com/qfq7nls
The Alcatraz Correction: http://tinyurl.com/lhkw7mr

I've raised the price for Charlotte Kills because of the labor involved after the computer crash. But a special Amazon Countdown event will make it possible for you to get it too for $.99. Details tomorrow!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Coming Soon: the big Boss MacTavin event!

The third Boss MacTavin novel, Charlotte Kills, will launch on Amazon soon. And I'll release all the launch information soon.

Meantime, I'll the prices on Southern Scotch and The Alcatraz Connection to $.99 through July. Your chance to meet the Southern Scot at an inviting price.

I'll provide the links for SS and TAC tomorrow, then provide launch details for TAC on Saturday, July 5.