Monday, March 31, 2008

Steve Hockensmith

Yesterday, we let Steve Hockensmith grill fellow mystery scribe Bill Crider. Today, it’s Bill’s turn to do the asking.

Steve Hockensmith first broke into the mystery field as a regular contributor to both Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen magazines. Holmes on the Range, his first novel about cowboys (and wannabe detectives) Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer, was nominated for the Edgar, Shamus, Dilys and Anthony Awards. He’s written two sequels since then, the second of which -- The Black Dove -- was released in February. You can learn more about him at

Crider: You wrote short stories before you started writing novels. Which form do you prefer, and why?

Hockensmith: Short stories win, hands down. I love the instant gratification. You whip up an idea and then, bam -- two weeks later you’ve got a completed story. (I know “two weeks later” doesn’t really qualify as “instant gratification,” but compared to a novel that’s pretty damned fast.) And because short stories are so...well, short, you can do a lot of them. Which means you can experiment and take chances you can’t necessarily take with a book. I’m a really, really, really slow writer, and at this point in my life I can’t afford to blow months and months on a project that might not pan out. But with a short story, there’s not the same investment of time, so there’s less risk when you try something new and wacky.

With novels, I find that I love having written them, I love planning to write them, I even love writing certain parts of them. But 11 months on one project (and that’s about how long my current book’s going to take)? It drives me a little nuts.

Crider: We all know that the western is dead. So what led you to write stories about Big Red and Old Red, stories that are, let’s face it, westerns? And when you decided to write a novel, why these characters and not someone else?

Hockensmith: Why Westerns? In a word, stupidity. You see, in the beginning I had no idea I was writing Westerns. To me, the Big Red/Old Red stories were -- and are -- mysteries first and foremost. They just happened to be set in the Old West. I love Westerns, but I never set out to do them myself. It was an accident.

If I’d been smarter and really thought the premise through, I never would’ve tried writing books about these guys. I mean, really -- fair-play puzzle mysteries starring cowboys who worship Sherlock Holmes? Chuh? It’s so retro and off-the-wall and uncommercial it’s ridiculous.

Thank God I didn’t think it through, though, because by some miracle it’s all worked out dandy. I wrote the first book about Big Red and Old Red because I’d done a couple short stories with them and I knew they were fun. I wanted to try to sell a mystery series, so I plugged them in and gave it a crack. Simple as that. Sometimes it pays to be dense.

Crider: Okay, now that you’ve answered that, I notice that the cover for The Black Dove is quite a bit different from the covers of the first two books in the series. Obviously that’s deliberate. What happened? And along with that, the setting of the book isn’t as “western” as the settings for the first two, which, I suppose edges The Black Dove closer to the “history mystery” category than the first two. Was that a deliberate choice? Will Big Red and Old Red get back to the Old West, or will they stay in the big city?

Hockensmith: Short answer: The cover change was a marketing thing, the setting change was a story thing. In other words, one was motivated by a need to sell more books, the other was just me following my gut as a writer. That both approaches brought us to the same place -- a book with a slightly grittier, urban feel -- was a happy coincidence.

And now the slightly longer answer: There was a feeling at St. Martin’s Minotaur that the first two books (and particularly the second one) didn’t do quite as well as they should’ve and perhaps weren’t served well by their colorful covers. Me, I liked the covers fine, but wow...they really do look like Westerns, don’t they? So Minotaur, God bless ’em, put a lot of time and energy into coming up with a new approach. Et voila: the cover for The Black Dove, which is far more somber and subdued. I think it’s great. We’ll see if the book-buying public agrees.

As for the settings, I decided early on I wanted this to be a “walk the earth”-style series, at least in the beginning. There was just so much kooky stuff going on in the 1890s it seemed silly to tie the guys down to one place. So for now, at least, they’ll keep bouncing around: Book #4 takes place in San Marcos, Texas, and book #5’ll be in Chicago. After that, only time (and a new contract from Minotaur) will tell....

Crider: You asked me, and I’ll ask you: Do you have any other kinds of novels in mind? Do you long to break away from Big and Old and do a hot, “edgy” thriller with two-page chapters, serial killers, FBI profilers, and a female protagonist?

Hockensmith: I definitely want to do a non-Big Red/Old Red novel sooner or later. And I’ve got about a dozen ideas I’ve been kicking around for years now. The hard part’s going to be picking one to commit to. At the moment, novel writing is my job, which is both a dream come true and a burden.

Hooray -- I never have to go into an office or punch a time clock!

And boooo -- if my books don’t sell, my kids don’t eat.

Oh, don’t worry. They won’t starve. Their mom makes more money than I do. I guess it’s more like, if my books don’t sell, my kids eat Ramen noodles and I become a stock boy at Safeway.

So that leaves me writhing on the horns of the art-vs.-commerce dilemma. I’ve got ideas aplenty...but are they commercial ideas? Do I follow my muse or do I crank out that “edgy” thriller? I want to listen to my heart, but my brain keeps whispering, “Don’t be a schmuck.”

I guess all I can say for now is “Stay tuned”....

Crider: You write a lot of short stories for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. How do you balance the writing of the stories with the writing of the novels? What I mean is, do you work on a novel and a story simultaneously, or do you work on one thing at a time?

Hockensmith: I do not multi-task. For me, writing a novel is such a monumentally overwhelming undertaking I can barely work up the energy to brush my teeth and bathe until the damned thing’s done. So I have to squeeze in short stories between books. And sadly, that’s gotten harder and harder to do.

I used to be in AHMM two or three times a year, but I haven’t even sent them anything since 2006 because I’ve been so busy with the books. I even had to quit writing “Reel Crime,” the TV/movie column I used to do for them. It’s kind of frustrating.

The book I’m working on now will probably be finished in July or August, depending on the amount of revising I have to do. That’ll give me a window of maybe six weeks before I need to get started on the next one. Given how slowly I write, that’ll be enough time to finish something like 2.65 short stories, when I’d really love to be writing eight or nine a year.

So there really is no balance. The novels come first because they pay the bills. (Well, about half the bills.) The short stories I sneak in when I can. And if I ever try to (God help me!) do two books in a year, I’ll probably have to give up short fiction altogether. Which would be, as the old saying goes, like, a total bummer.

Crider: You’ve done a lot of nonfiction writing, too, especially about movies. Do you find that as satisfying as writing fiction? Do you plan to keep doing it?

Hockensmith: Same answer as above. I enjoy doing nonfiction -- I started out as a journalist -- but I just don’t have time for it anymore.

I will say, though, fiction’s more fun. Writing a good short story’s like painting a beautiful picture, whereas writing a good feature article’s like building a sturdy chair...that’ll be sat on once. Journalism is disposable. Storytelling at least feels timeless.

And one thing I definitely don’t miss about entertainment journalism is dealing with the studios and networks. Oy vey, how it used to drive me nuts trying to get past the publicists. If I never have to kiss another flack’s ass, I’ll die a happy man.

Crider: Since you asked me about movies [in yesterday’s Q&A], let me return the favor. When Hollywood comes calling, who will you demand to star as Big Red and Old Red? You can pick anyone, ever, but you have to pick redheads. And keep in mind that Hollywood’s two great redheads, Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl, have already made Slightly Scarlet.

Hockensmith: Hmmmm...redheads, eh? Well, I don’t think Lucille Ball would take kindly to being cast as either “Big Red” or “Old Red.” And who else does that leave us with? Kenneth Tobey? Carrot Top? Woody Woodpecker?

I just cheated and checked a website devoted to famous redheads. (Google strikes again!) And since I see that two of my favorite character actors of all time -- Darren McGavin and Jack Warden -- were supposedly redheads, I’ll go with them. Just don’t ask me who’d play who....
Read an excerpt from The Black Dove, and visit Big Red's blog to learn more about Steve Hockensmith and his writing.

Hockensmith's previous novels include Holmes on the Range and On the Wrong Track. Holmes on the Range, the first novel featuring Big Red and Old Red, was a finalist for the Edgar, the Anthony, the Shamus and the Dilys Award.

The Page 69 Test: On the Wrong Track.

My Book, The Movie: Holmes on the Range.

The Page 99 Test: The Black Dove.

--Marshal Zeringue