Wednesday, January 13, 2010

LOUISIANA SATURDAY NIGHT - AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR D.B. GRADY

Little more than a year ago last November, I popped over to crimespace.com to see what was happening. As is my custom, I searched the membership to see if there were any new members from Louisiana. That’s when I found D. B. Grady from Baton Rouge. I was in the middle of helping with our local conference and I wanted everyone within driving distance to come. Still… did I dare contact a strange man via the Internet? I stared at David’s unsmiling picture and decided to take the chance; I’m so glad I did. D. B. Grady is a multi-talented writer who (during the past year) has sold a novel, published in Boy’s Life, been a columnist and become a contributor for The Atlantic. Focused? Determined? I would say so. Read his answers to my questions and learn the who, what, where, how and why of author D. B. Grady.
1. Have you always wanted to write? What’s your background and what did you study to further your writing career?
I've wanted to write since the second grade, where I wrote a swords-and-sorcery epic that spanned two handwritten, loose leaf pages. Somewhere along the line, though, I was dragged into the corporate world, and writing became just as fantastic a notion as being an astronaut or movie star. I studied computer science in college. I wish I could say I took every English Literature elective I could find, but I didn't. I was a typical student, and exerted just enough effort to graduate.

Still, I did have a knack for the written word, and the notion of writing never left me. And I was (and am) a fanatical reader. So while I have no formal literary training, I can say that I've studied under Raymond Chandler and Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood and Douglas Adams and Stephen King. Reaching further back, Voltaire and Victor Hugo. The Bronte sisters.

At some point, I read a really good book followed by a really bad book. "Nineteen Eighty Four" was the good one. (I won't name the bad one.) I became fixated on what made Orwell's book so emotionally resonant, and what made the other such a poor read. At that point, I think I decided to really give it a go, to write a book and see it through to the end. I figured if this other guy could do it, I could, too. The book I wrote is "Red Planet Noir."

So while I wish I had a Masters in English Literature, I do think the key to being a good writer is being a good reader.

2. Tell us about your path to publication.
Long. After deciding I wanted to write a book, I had to learn *how* to write a book. It meant learning about non-finite dependent clauses and subjunctive mood and everything else I forgot after I graduated. And little things like split infinitives and the Oxford comma. And it also meant learning how to discipline myself to write every day, to edit dispassionately, and to develop my style. Once the manuscript was finished -- it took two years from conception, but the bulk of the work was focused over six grueling months -- I got to the hard part: the publishing industry.

I've been to college. I've worked in the cutthroat corporate world. I've been in a war. Nothing could have prepared me for the publishing business. Everyone dreams of typing "THE END" and submitting a manuscript, and the phone ringing off the hook for the rest of the week with agents and editors begging to produce your masterpiece.

While that may happen to some, it didn't in my case. I've got a stack of rejection letters that could wallpaper my living room. Most of them were form letters. The nice rejections scratched out "Dear Writer" and wrote in "Dear David." After a couple of months, I refined my query -- this was key -- and inadvertently revised the entire manuscript. (I say inadvertently because I started out simply wanting to change a single sentence. Before I knew it, I'd burned through eighty thousand words.) Then I started getting hits. Lots of requests for partials and full manuscripts, and eventually a contract.

Getting from contract to a physical book is another horrifying struggle, but it's mostly psychological. You expect the worst at every turn, and live in fear of your baby being disfigured. I wish I could say for my next book I'll be a bit more relaxed after signing the contract, but the truth is that this is art -- this *is* your baby -- and nobody's going to defend it but you. (Or your agent. That's the other thing I learned -- get an agent.)

3. What are some of your writing credits? And we want to know all about your book.
Before my book was published, I had no publishing credentials. I had no experience. No education. I had no business being published whatsoever. So the book had to stand on its own -- it didn't have my reputation to fall back on. After signing the dotted line, I turned my attention to freelancing and short stories, having learned how important credits are to query letters. I attended writing conferences and workshops and groups, and eventually found work everywhere from Boys Life to The Atlantic. It is all about personal connections. Aspiring writers have got to go out there and meet people, because the personal connection trumps the cold query every single time.

As I mentioned, the title of my novel is "Red Planet Noir." It's a classic down-on-his-luck private eye novel set in an anachronistic future. (That is to say, it takes place a century from now, but is written as a 1930s pulp mystery, from dress to vernacular.) Our hero, Mike Sheppard, is hired for a high-profile murder on Mars -- quite a reach for a New Orleans detective who hates working cases out of town. His investigation reveals a larger conspiracy, and Mike is soon chased by everyone from the cops to the mob. And every time things can't possibly get any worse for poor Mike, they do.

4. What is your writing process? Do you outline or do you just sit down and start writing?
I am easily distracted, so I prefer to write in absolute silence, and alone. Stephen King once described the importance of closing a door, and he's right. When I'm holed up, it’s just me and my universe.

When I've got all cylinders firing on a manuscript, I write early in the mornings – 5 am at the latest, because when you're up that early, there's a real motivation not to waste time. And I never write as I edit. I just accept that my first draft will be terrible, even if, at the time, I think it's Shakespeare.

Before I edit, I take some time off in order to reread my manuscript with a fresh set of eyes. I'm never sure if what I've written is good, but I always know when I've written something badly. Those are the parts I cut out.

I do outline the major parts of the story. I write whodunit mysteries, so I like to have a timeline of events, and it helps to jot down where and when I'm going to drop a clue or throw a red herring at the reader. But the details, dialogue, the humor -- all of that stuff is written from thin air.

5. What does a typical day look like for you?
As I mentioned, I write in the mornings, then I try to get out my correspondence. Lately my volume of mail has increased exponentially, so I'm weeks late on some letters. But I do respond to everyone. Real life stuff aside, I spend about two hours a day (broken up, mind you, into five or ten minute intervals) on social networking sites to promote my book and meet new people. For a first-time novelist with a limited marketing budget, this is where the money is made. And of course, I read every day.
But I've also got a one-year-old, so she's the one who gets the final word in the matter.

6. What is your best self-marketing advice to first time novelists and since you’ve hired a publicist, can you tell new authors why they should consider hiring one too?
I'll get back with you on the publicist. I love mine, and she's been a huge help in educating me on the business, but I'm not sold on that expenditure yet for first time authors. (It can be substantial.) But it's early yet in the process. So far, I've found that all the real successes I've had have been of my own creativity, and drawing people from the other work I do. (That is, mentioning my book or website in the bio-line of my columns.)

Most serious readers get their book advice from word of mouth. And that's where social networking is invaluable. People enjoy John Grisham's books, but they don't know him personally, and probably can't call him up for a chat. When I sell a book through Twitter or Facebook or wherever, "knowing me," so to speak, is a selling point. And I'll talk to a reader all day, about my book, or film, or life. Self-marketing is just that -- marketing yourself. The book is secondary to the personal connection. And an added benefit to this is that I've made hundreds of very good friends around the world that I wouldn't have otherwise known. And when someone sees my book on their coffee table, that's a conversation point -- "Yeah, I know this guy. You should read this book." At least, I hope they say that.

7. What is the biggest challenge you face in writing and publishing?
Walk into Borders. There are hundreds of thousands of titles there. Most people can name five or six authors, and maybe three or four new releases. I can assure you that my name is not on their lips. So they're not going to find me in the ocean of literature. Add to that the problem that, being with an independent press, I'm not in Borders to begin with! So without question, the biggest challenge I face is obscurity. My most pressing job as an author is selling myself, and then my book.

8. What are the biggest surprises you've encountered as a writer?
Easily, the biggest surprise is how kind and generous and supportive other writers have been. Everyone who's set pen to paper knows what a challenge it is. Everyone who's had to sell that paper knows the challenge increases exponentially. But rather than build jealous walls of bitterness or resentment, every writer that I've met has reached his or her hand out and offered to help. Published, self-published, unpublished -- it's a unique and beautiful kinship.

9. How do you inspire yourself? What are your sources of creativity?
Good books always inspire me. Good movies, too. As for creativity, when I'm writing, I know that if I'm not having fun, the reader won't either. So I try not to let the roadblocks and headaches discourage me or seep into the prose. When I'm trapped in description, I try to cut loose and write madly, as though the rules of literature don't apply. When I'm trapped in plot, I follow Chandler's advice and have a guy walk through the door with a gun. Oftentimes, this produces my best work.

10. What's the best advice you were given about writing?
Every page of "On Writing," by Stephen King. It is a nuts-and-bolts instruction manual on how to write a book. It's inspiring. It's motivational. It's funny. Get a copy of the Strunk and White and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate 11, and you've got everything you need to write a book.

11. Who/what do you like to read and why?
I read everything. I cut my teeth on Tolkien and Douglas Adams and Michael Crichton, so science fiction and fantasy will always have an important place in my heart. Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick are both geniuses of the first order. These days, I read mostly literary fiction. Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood are probably the two best living writers today. Both deserve Nobel Prizes for Literature. (Atwood, especially, given the daring breadth of her work.) I'd give one to Roddy Doyle, too, who wrote my favorite book, "Paula Spencer." (Though I'm pretty sure there's already a prize with his name engraved on it.) I love Stewart O'Nan. "Last Night at the Lobster" and "The Good Wife" are mind-blowingly good. Chris Bohjalian. Going back a few years, John Updike, of course. Vladimir Nabokov wrote the most perfect love letter to the English language with "Lolita." Raymond Chandler is the master of crime fiction, and always will be. And of course the classics -- I adore the Bronte sisters. Victor Hugo. Emily Dickinson. I could really do this all day. The popular writers of today: Stephen King, J.K. Rowling. I'll stop there.

I just love reading. I think any writer who is serious will, if not develop a love for reading, then develop a habit of reading. If you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write.

12. From reading reviews of Red Planet Noir, you have some followers who are hollering for a sequel. Is there one in the works and what are the chances that you’ll write many more Mike Sheppard novels?
I could spend the rest of my career writing about Mike Sheppard. The characters, the world -- it's like a playground, really. An absolute delight. I've got two more novels in my head ready to be poured onto the page, but for now, I'm expanding my horizons a bit. I'm currently writing a paranormal mystery, and I expect that to take most of 2010. I've got another idea I'm kicking around, too. Mike Sheppard will return, but it'll be long after the end of the Mayan calendar, assuming the world doesn't end.

13. What is your favorite writer resource, one that keeps you inspired and informed?
I'm subscribed to a daily email called Publisher's Lunch, which keeps me up to date on the happenings of the industry. And these days I read as much as I can on self promotion. (Though probably not enough.) I also love reading interviews with authors. But I try to stay away from most writing websites. They tend to depress me. It's a hard business, after all, and I don't need to be reminded of it.

14. You seem incredibly focused and methodical. Yes? No? And is that an inherited trait or have you trained yourself to be that way? How can we procrastinators become more like you?
Comparatively speaking, I'm thirty-one and working in the mailroom. So I really have no choice but to stay focused.

I'm trying to make a living of this. Writing is an art, but a writing career is a business, and I treat it no differently than I'd treat starting an auto repair shop or a bakery. Aspiring writers should also note that a lot of this initial grunt work is free, or stingy on the pay. Again, that's part of making contacts and getting a foot in the door. Mark Twain once said, "Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for."
But believe me, I know procrastination. And I'd love to kick my feet on the ottoman and play video games all day. I'm just not there yet, so I work hard.

15. Wrap it up: Tell us about any stories, articles, etc you have coming out that we can look forward to, and point readers to your blog, website, etc.
Jess, it's been an absolute honor and privilege to chat with you today.
For those interested, the name of my novel is Red Planet Noir. It can be found pretty much everywhere online, to include Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

I'm at http://www.dbgrady.com, where you can download the first chapter of the book, and get links to reviews and such. And of course, I'm always happy to meet new friends on Twitter. My username is @dbgrady. I hope to see you there!

I thank David for doing this interview with me and I just had to post this picture of a D.B. Grady fan!

3 comments:

Peg Brantley said...

Jess, what an amazing interview. Good job.

And D.B., other than the fact that you look like you're about fourteen, we have so much in common! (Except for the being published part. Oh, and maybe one or two other things.)

I just learned about steampunk. Sounds kind of like you might write steampunk noir. Ya think?

Great interview!

jody said...

I read and thoroughly enjoyed "Red Planet Noir," felt like I was right there with Mike and O.W. tracking clues and dodging bullets. Great interview!

Winona said...

Just now getting around to reading older posts on the blogs. This interview is exceptional. I must have D. B. Grady's book. And, I agree completely with him about Stephen King's "On Writing." It is a trove of information in a reader friendly format. Thanks, Jess, for all you do. Love the photos. Wish I could figure out how to add more and do more for my blog. Can't even get it to let me change my email address. Miss you,

Nona