JEFF ABBOTT quizzed by Mike Stotter
Jeff Abbott may be a new name to UK readers but in his native USA he is a national best-selling author. A fifth-generation Texan, he spent his childhood in Dallas and Austin, where he now resides with his wife and two sons. The nominations have been flowing in: an Edgar, an Anthony and a Barry. But what makes this guy tick? Let's find out, shall we?
Can you talk a little of your original motivation for writing?
I've wanted to be a writer since I was a teenager; I wrote a 400-page
manuscript, in longhand, when I was sixteen. Truly dreadful, I hope they bury that manuscript with me so it never sees the light of day. But I have always loved reading, loved stories. I come from a tradition of Southern story tellers; my grandmother, grandfather, and dad could
really spin great stories, and I grew up listening to them.
A lot of writers talk about having read a really bad mystery novel, and that motivating them to try writing a book themselves, but I'm much more motivated by reading the greats in the field, seeing how they push the boundaries of the crime novel. To me trying to reach higher is a bigger motivation than trying to trump someone who wrote an unreadable novel.
Before the success of CUT & RUN, you had previously written four Suspense novels featuring Jordan Poteet. For the benefit of UK readers, could you give us some background to these novels?
They were very traditional mysteries, featuring a young man in a small East Texas (think pine forests and rivers) town, with an extended family of Southern eccentrics. The books had humor but also tragedy, because that's the way I think life is. The books were published in the US by Ballantine as paperback originals and amazingly, they are all still in print in the US and Japan and still sell well, even though there has not been a new entry in the series since 1996. I get many requests to write another book in that series, but I'm really focusing on writing mainstream suspense now. The books were great fun to write and first showed the themes that are still of interest to me: family relationships, loyalty, and the cost of choices people make when under extraordinary pressure. I think they stand well as a quartet of novels because I ended the last one with Jordan, as an amateur detective, finally paying a terrible price for playing at policeman.
Why change direction and introduce the partnership of Whit Mosley and Claudia Salazar?
The Jordan books were told in first person, and I wanted to move into writing third-person and move more into a suspense novel structure. But I liked the idea of a detective who wasn't exactly a professional teamed with a real investigator. I also wanted to explore bad guys who wouldn't fit neatly into Jordan's smaller world. I was very interested in writing about the Texas Gulf Coast, which is a funky, fascinating scene. When people think Texas, they tend to get this Wild West vision in their heads, tumbleweeds and flat prairie, which is only part of this huge state, and I wanted to explore the opposite end, which is the Gulf coast. It has a wild history of money and crime, fortunes made and lost, pirates and immigrants and cultures clashing. People on the edge seem to be drawn to coasts, where one world ends and another begins. At least in Texas. So all those elements of character, structure, and setting came together in the Whit novels.
Tells us a little about Whit Mosley & Claudia Salazar.
Whit is a justice of the peace, which is a magistrate who handles
misdemeanor cases, issues arrest warrants, and in rural Texas, they
often serve as coroners. Justices of the peace don't have to be lawyers. They are elected and then get a couple of months of training and then off they go. So you have what is basically a rookie investigator who is ordering autopsies, conducting inquests, and ruling on causes of death. He absolutely has jurisdiction to investigate cause of death, but Claudia, who is a detective on the Port Leo police department, leads the investigation. They work as a team normally, except in CUT AND RUN, where Whit is decidedly on the opposite side of the law and Claudia is out of her jurisdiction. Whit got the job because of a political appointment; he wears tropical shirts under his robe. He is about as far removed from a stereotypical judge as I could imagine. He's from a very old Texas family, the youngest of six brothers, with a cantankerous father who's married to a young Russian mail-order bride. Whit is the son who has not fulfilled his potential in anyone's eyes quite yet, but he doesn't seem to be much worried about it; he's very much a guy who follows his own path. He is more interested in justice than law, which could easily be a failing of being a judge without a law degree.
Claudia is much more a by-the-book investigator. She grew up with Whit and likes him but I don't think there's going to be a romance between them any time soon, despite many reader pleas. She is a woman and a Latina, but I didn't want to give her an endless or stereotypical set of problems of racism or sexism of working in law enforcement. Those problems exist for her to a degree, but she's respected by her fellow officers for the most part. More of her conflicts come from that she divorced another law enforcement officer. In small towns, everyone knows your business and that's magnified in small police departments. I think she is an extraordinarily brave and resourceful woman--especially in BLACK JACK POINT, where I put her through hell, and I love writing about her. I could easily do a book where she is the focus more than Whit.
Of course, the third major character in the books is Whit's friend, Gooch, a grizzled and mysterious fishing guide who obviously has dealt with a lot of violence in his past. Gooch is the kind of guy who believes force always wins the day. Readers have sent me lots of theories on Gooch: that he's ex-mob, ex-CIA or FBI, ex-Army, whatever.
One day I'll do a book that explores Gooch's background, and I think it will shake up the series. Whit loves Gooch like a brother but Claudia is not crazy about Gooch, so that puts the three characters in an interesting triangle. Readers love Gooch because he says or does what so many of us would like to with complete disregard for the social or legal consequences.
What motivated you in writing about mobsters & drug dealers as part of the themes in CUT AND RUN?
My first goal is always to entertain, but I also wanted to explore the issue of trust, because that is what Whit and his mother, Eve, don't have, but is what they both need to become whole. Because trust is the foundation of both love and forgiveness. Putting Whit and Eve with mobsters gave me an interesting juxtaposition, because mobsters are supposed to have this unbreakable code of trust between them. But they don't; many of the old crime families in America have been shattered by successful racketeering prosecutions. These families have self-destructed as they turned on each other once the government got a foot in the door. So I wanted to put Whit and his mother in a situation where they have to trust each other, and maybe love each other, but the world they are both caught in, the mob, is falling apart because everyone is betraying each other when things get extremely tough.
Do you think people will draw parallels to the power struggle and characters from THE GODFATHER compared to the Bellinis in CUT AND RUN?
Possibly. I didn't have the Corleones in mind when I wrote about the Bellinis. The Bellinis are more typical of a modern crime family, in that they're on their last legs and they're attempting to redefine themselves in a world where they've lost most of their power and reach.
In CUT AND RUN, you move the action from Port Leo, Texas to Houston - why?
Whit's long-missing mother could have turned up in Port Leo, but I think that would have been too easy and rather boring. Whit needed to go on a journey, both inside himself and outside, to reconnect with his mother.
Houston is very much a city of individualism and survival. It's a very contrary city. For instance, it has no zoning laws; you can have a strip club down the street from a church. Houston was built on bayous and swampland; the brochures failed to mention to the early would-be settlers that they had a high risk of dying of malaria or yellow fever.
It went from being a small city to being the fourth largest in America in a matter of a few decades, all driven by a single commodity, oil.
Houston is, in a crazy, gigantic package, the American Dream with all its warts and beauty. Houston is power and poverty and hope and hurricanes and a thousand fortunes that never got made for every one that did. I thought with all its history of ambition, failure, and survival, Houston made a good stage for CUT AND RUN.
Could you explain the reasoning behind Orion publishing Cut & Run, the third in the Whit Mosley books, first?
Orion acquired the books in an auction situation after UK publishers had seen CUT AND RUN in manuscript form. I think Orion has a great deal of enthusiasm for CUT AND RUN, and so wanted to release it first. Hopefully it won't be confusing for people, as there's not really a lot of story carryover from A KISS GONE BAD and BLACK JACK POINT. I have tried to write them as books where you didn't have to have read them in order to understand the characters or their relationships. And readers won't have to wait long: A KISS GONE BAD is due out in the summer and BLACK JACK POINT in the winter, so all the books will be out in 2004.
What does it mean to you to have been nominated for an Edgar Award, an Anthony Award, and a Barry Award?
Well, it's extremely flattering and humbling when there are so many good writers out there who deserve recognition. BLACK JACK POINT, the second Whit novel, got nominated for all three awards you mention. CUT AND RUN just this week got an Edgar nomination, and I was also nominated for an Edgar for a short story, "Bet on Red", about a Houston hitman who goes to Las Vegas and makes a surprise bet with his unsuspecting target, and then everything goes wrong for the hitman. It was a fun story to write and I'm adapting it into a screenplay for a short film. I was absolutely floored to be a double nominee this year. It is truly an honor.
I am fortunate all three of the Whit novels have garnered major award nominations. It has definitely helped sales and increased interest.
What fascinates you in writing about the criminal side of life?
I was a pathologically well-behaved child. But when I was fourteen, I got into reading crime fiction, primarily British authors like Christie and Tey and American writers like Hammett and John D. MacDonald. About the same time, I found out a great-uncle of mine was in prison for killing a man who had been having an affair with his wife. Not to defend what he did, but my great-uncle had been crippled in World War II, was a decorated war veteran, and he had been beaten several times by this other man who was sleeping with my uncle's wife. The three of them were caught in this weird triangle of violence and forgiveness. But after one beating my uncle went home, got a gun, went back to the bar where the fellow was drinking, shot him dead, put the gun on the bar, and requested that the bartender phone the police. My great-uncle was convicted of manslaughter, not murder. His imprisonment was a closely guarded secret in my family, to protect my great-grandmother, who was a very sweet and proper woman and would have died at the thought of one of her ten children in prison. While he was behind bars, she thought he was working in oil fields and moving around the country a lot, and the family created this elaborate ruse to hide the truth. I found out about the whole scheme by accident and then had to join the circle of silence and swear not to tell. My great-uncle was a model prisoner and was paroled and moved in with his sister and his brother-in-law-- who was the county sheriff. Only in Texas. He never broke another law in his life. But I was just fascinated at the idea that this murder could have happened in my family, and that knowledge came at the same time that crime fiction seized my imagination. I think it was a combination of realizing that almost anyone can commit a crime under the right circumstances and that we never know the whole truth about anyone or what they are capable of.
What do you consider is the most important element in your writing?
I try to strike a balance between plot and character. It's easy to be
caught up in a cool premise for a suspense story, but unless that plot
is populated by characters that resonate with the reader, it's just a
writing exercise. Sometimes I think of a situation first, other times I
think of an interesting character and the plot develops from what I
think the character might do. With CUT AND RUN, I had a "what if. . ."
moment, being "what if Whit found his mother and she's a criminal". I
had already established in the books she had walked away from the family years ago, so she was not a sympathetic mother. So I started thinking about why she left, who she might be now, what regrets she might have, and the story grew from her character which came from that initial "what if...". But I am always striving for that balance between the two elements, because I think that makes for the most compelling suspense fiction.
I also try to give the bad guys sympathetic qualities. Bad guys think they're the heroes of their own stories, they're not sitting there thinking, "yeah, I get to be evil today." In CUT AND RUN there's a scene where Paul Bellini, heir to the crime family and a brutal killer, cries because his dad is slowly dying. Paul's an absolute bastard, but he's terrified of losing his father. He needs his parents just as much as Whit, the hero, does. I find villains who are nothing but evil to be nothing but boring.
What does it mean to you to have guys like Harlan Coben, Sharyn McCrumb and Rick Riordan praise your writing?
It means a great deal to me, as they are writers I admire tremendously.
Harlan has been unbelievably encouraging and supportive of my work.
Sharyn is writing mainstream novels now, not crime fiction, but she is one of the most brilliant writers working today. And Rick is just the nicest guy on the planet, aside from being a huge talent.
What are you currently working on?
I have a new contract with Dutton for two novels, and they asked that the first one be a standalone suspense novel. So I'm working on that now, and it's been great fun and hard work and it should be out in hardcover in summer 2005 in the US. After that, it will probably be another Whit/Claudia novel, we'll see. I'm also working on the screenplay for "Bet on Red" that I mentioned earlier.
JEFF ABBOTT BIOGRAPHY
CUT AND RUN (2004 UK)
BLACK JACK POINT (2002 US)
A KISS GONE BAD (2001 US)
Jordan Poteet series:
DISTANT BLOOD (1996)
PROMISE OF HOME (1995)
THE ONLY GOOD YANKEE (1995)
DO UNTO OTHERS (1994)
My thanks to Orion Publishing for their time and support.
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