Sunday, March 30, 2008

Bill Crider

Rather than link to a profile elsewhere, we’ve got something special on tap today: The first of a two-part Q&A done exclusively for Author Interviews. In part one, Steve Hockensmith (of the “Holmes on the Range” mystery series) interviews Bill Crider (of the Dan Rhodes mystery series) about Crider’s new book, Of All Sad Words. In part two (which we’ll be posting tomorrow), Crider questions Hockensmith about his new book, The Black Dove.

Since introducing Sheriff Dan Rhodes 22 years ago in the Anthony-winning mystery Too Late to Die, Bill Crider has brought the small-town lawman back in 14 more novels. He’s also written a number of other mysteries, thrillers and even children’s books, and his short fiction has been nominated for several awards (including both the Edgar and Anthony last year). You can learn more about him and his writing at

Hockensmith: Of All Sad Words was my first Dan Rhodes experience, yet it was easy to slip into his world. It seems really well delineated -- and highly populated. There must have been a dozen or more characters that I assume are recurring regulars, and I also noticed a lot of references to earlier novels and even a crossover with one of your other series. Is that one of the things that keeps a series fun for you: the world building, I-am-God aspect? Or does that get to be a burden eventually? I'm just working on the fourth book in my series now, and already I have a tough time keeping the continuity straight.

Crider: At about the time I was working on the fourth book in the Dan Rhodes series, someone said, "You do have a 'bible,' I hope." I was so naive that I thought she was talking about the Old and New Testaments. But she meant a notebook full of things like characters, descriptions, even a map of Blacklin County. It had never occurred to me that I'd need something like that, mainly because I never dreamed the series would go beyond four books, much less that it would reach fifteen, with more to come. Even if I'd known what I was doing, it's doubtful that I'd have been able to create a bible because my mind just doesn't work in an organized fashion. (Some would say that it doesn't work at all, but they're only a slight majority, and I prefer to ignore them.)

But to sort of answer your question, I do enjoy bringing the characters back from earlier books and referring to events from them. In fact, the major crime in Murder Among the Owls, which came out last year, is something that's referred to fleetingly in the very first Rhodes book from more than twenty years ago. I've brought back a character named Rapper three or four times, and each time I've maimed him in a new way. Sooner or later, he's going to stay out of Blacklin County.

Hockensmith: With a series, how locked-in do you feel stylistically? Would you say all the Dan Rhodes novels are similar in terms of structure, mood, viewpoint, etc.? Or have you mixed it up a bit?

Crider: All the Rhodes books are pretty much of a piece. In a way, they seem to me like one really long book, a sort of history of Clearview, Texas, and Blacklin County, with murder. (The fact that they might not seem that way to anyone else doesn't bother me at all.) So the style is consistent throughout. I don't feel locked in, because I like that style, which I think of as clear, clean, and readable. (The fact that it might not seem that way to anyone else doesn't bother me at all.) As you mention in the next question, I can obviously write in different styles when I want to. The Truman Smith books (and I really liked doing those) are first-person private-eye novels, and a good bit different, I think. My short stories are all over the place stylistically.

Hockensmith: One of the charms of Of All Sad Words, it seems to me, is its relaxed pace and quirky down-home setting. Not that nothing happens or it's set in Mayberry RFD. But it's not trying to be a hard-charging, "edgy," urban thriller, either. Which is good, because Lord knows there are plenty of hard-charging, "edgy," urban thrillers out there. But I gotta wonder: Do you ever feel the pressure to be hard-charging and edgy and urban? I know you've done books more in that style -- Blood Marks, for example. Why not more?

Crider: I did several books in the Blood Marks style, the others being published under the name Jack MacLane, who is now chained up in a basement somewhere. If he ever gets to a computer, maybe there'll be some other books in that style, but I think they have him on Prozac. The closest I've come to that kind of thing lately, and even this one's different, is in "Cranked," my Edgar-nominated short story, which I hope will become the basis for a novel. A proposal is making the rounds (editors looking for a great book, take note).

Hockensmith: From your blog it's obvious you have a deep love for genre fiction, and you've written just about every kind there is. But the mystery genre's what you've worked in most. Is there a reason for that? Something unique to the genre that particularly suits you? And how about science fiction? Anyone who visits your blog knows you're a fan (of the old school stuff, anyway). Did you ever try your hand at it?

Crider: The mystery is where my heart is. I've been a mystery fan for far long than I've been a professional writer, and I did hundreds of book reviews and articles for mystery fanzines without ever being paid a cent for them, just because I love mysteries. But some of my writing heroes are guys who wrote in a lot of different genres. Harry Whittington did many westerns and backwoods books. Donald Hamilton wrote westerns. So do Loren Estleman, Elmore Leonard, Bill Pronzini, and Ed Gorman. Even James Lee Burke wrote a western. I like reading westerns, so I wrote a few. As well as lots of other things, mainly because writing them was a heck of a lot of fun. But I always come back to mysteries.

I love SF, and I read a ton of it when I was a kid. I still read it, though not as heavily. Instead, I just buy old SF digests on eBay. But to get to your question, as a teenager I really wanted to be an SF writer. I wrote a couple of unpublished and long-lost stories, and then I got sidetracked into getting a few college degrees. By the time I graduated, I was too much of a mystery fan to go back to SF, I guess. (I even wrote my doctoral dissertation on private-eye fiction.) I did write a series of kids' books that are SF, including Mike Gonzo and the UFO Terror, which won the Golden Duck Award as best juvenile SF novel. And I've done several SF short stories.

I'm not sure what the appeal of mysteries is for me. I've often wondered but never come up with an answer. I like and read all kinds, the tough guy stuff and the cozies. Maybe it's the plotting. I became an English teacher because I loved stories, and to me, that meant tales with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Mysteries never let me down in that regard. I'm probably not the only one who feels that way.

Hockensmith: You were in academia for a lot of years even as you were writing genre fiction. Did those two things always coexist peacefully side by side? And I'm not just thinking of deadline pressures here. Everyone assumes academics look down their noses on genre, so I'm guessing you ran into a fair amount of that yourself. Did it bother you? Or was it easy to shrug off?

Crider: Big-time academics would laugh if you said I spent my career as a teacher in academia. They most likely don't think of community colleges and small liberal arts universities in rural Texas as academia. [Crider taught English courses at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas, and was later dean of the English Department at Alvin Community College.] People who'd look down their noses at genre fiction would most certainly look down their noses at my academic credentials. But that doesn't bother me. Teaching was a great career for me. I loved being in the classroom (most of the time, anyway) and on the campus.

Besides, I'm introverted when it comes to talking about my writing. I'm the world's worst self-promoter. As far as I was concerned, my writing and my teaching were entirely separate, and I never talked about it to anyone on the campus unless somebody asked a direct question. Most of my students probably never knew I wrote novels, and the same goes for the faculty. That was fine by me.

Hockensmith: Is there a kind of novel you've always dreamed of writing but could never quite get a handle on? Or do you feel like -- with a few dozen books under your belt now -- you've accomplished everything you set your sights on as a writer? I mean, other than being as big as Stephen King, of course, which we'd all like!

Crider: Because I'm such an introvert, I don't even want to be as big as Stephen King. I'm perfectly happy with my (very) modest success, since I never thought I'd ever sell so much as one book, much less dozens. I've written mysteries, horror, westerns, and books for kids. I wanted to do all those things, and I did, so that makes me happy. I don't have a posse following me about at conventions, and having one of my books crack the bestseller lists is no more likely than my being the winning contestant on American Idol, but those things don't really matter to me. Not that I'm so content that I don't want to do a few more things. I'd love to sell that book based on "Cranked." I'd love to write another Truman Smith book or two. All I need is an editor who'd love to buy them, not that I'm hinting.

Hockensmith: Alright, most of these questions have been way too earnest. So here’s the curveball to end things on. If you could cast anyone -- ever -- as Dan Rhodes in an adaptation of Of All Sad Words, who would it be...keeping in mind that the production in question will be a MUSICAL?

Crider: My first thought was Elvis, but I think I'd actually prefer Dean Martin. He was great in westerns, and he did laid-back so well that I think he could play Dan Rhodes perfectly. I can't quite picture Rhodes singing "That's Amore," but Dean went through a C&W phase that would be just right.
Tomorrow: the tables are turned....

Read the Page 69 Test entries for Crider's A Mammoth Murder and Murder Among the OWLS as well as an excellent write-up about Dan Rhodes on the big screen at "My Book, The Movie."

The Page 69 Test: Of All Sad Words.

--Marshal Zeringue