Detective novels often have a studiously old-fashioned air about them. Rooted in a genre that celebrates (and invented) the anti-hero, the modern version more often than not is a story set in an urban environment of gritty realism, where profanities fly and the protagonist carries a huge chip on his shoulders.
Author Ed Lynskey manages to avoid these conventions gracefully. Lynskey’s P.I. novels, which take place in rural West Virginia, feature protagonists who are less hardboiled than tenderized by life. A keen sense of language and pace distinguishes his writing, and I happily spent a week immersed in a world that was both familiar and alien: Applachian America. His latest novel, THE BLUE CHEER, combines the suspense of a crack mystery with keen observations on life, and is generating buzz among noir circles.
We are pleased to bring you the first of our two-part interview with Ed Lynskey.
Q: Tell us about your journey to publication.
EL: Tons of reading and writing came first. I was a latecomer to try my hand at producing. I’ve completed a dozen novel manuscripts, including the editing rounds. That lengthy effort taught me a few things. I don’t recommend that route. It’s too much head-banging and pain. Al Guthrie (TWO-WAY SPLIT, HARDMAN) signed me to publish my first novel, THE BLUE CHEER, at Point Blank/Wildside Press. Three years later THE BLUE CHEER saw print. Progress at a small press sometimes moves at a snail’s pace. THE BLUE CHEER, a trade paperback original, received a starred review at Booklist and positive reviews from newspapers so far like the San Diego Union-Tribune, Halifax Herald-Chronicle, Tucson Citizen, Virginian Pilot, and a half-dozen others.
Q: What is it about noir and crime fiction that you love? Did you have any literary influences?
EL: Like every reader at an early age, I found my niche was the enjoyment of mysteries. My aunts subscribed to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery, and passed along their old issues to us. Vibrant tales came from Hugh Pentecost, Ed Lacy, Jack Ritchie, and other writers largely forgotten today. I can remember buying a paperback version of FIRST BLOOD by David Morrell in 1972. This was years before Sly Stallone made the over-the-top Rambo movies. I was drawn to Morrell’s spare voice and style more than the plot. When I hit college, my reading habits veered in a more literary tangent (you know, those Required Reading Lists for English classes). Harry Crews’ FEAST OF SNAKES (about a rattlesnake roundup in Mystic, Georgia) empowered me to see “literary” didn’t have to mean highbrow, artful, and inaccessible. For me, the lines between the different labels of writing blur and meld which is less constraining. Anyway, I mostly wrote poems (Atlantic Monthly) and reviews (New York Times, Washington Post) for twenty-five years. I’m not certain what, if any, impact that’s had on my long fiction. Perhaps it’s enriched the lyrical content or symbolism.
Q: What’s your writing process? Do you plot extensively or “fly in the mist”?
EL: My past few novel manuscripts actually started with published short stories. This isn’t always such a smart idea. One noir I wrote last year bombed. It just started from the wrong place. Maybe you learn more from the flops. I have a new noir I’m much happier with. I write the first draft and revise extensively, including changing, adding, and deleting hefty chunks of prose. I do use a timeline and an outline as I slog through the first draft to keep my organization and structure straight.
Q: I’ve heard writers say that they have a different writing process for each book. Is that the same with you? When do you get to the point that you know you’re done revising?
EL: I guess it depends. The book I’m revising right now, Pelham Fell Here, the third in the P.I. Frank Johnson series, is under contract to appear next. I know the character and can make tweaks to suit him. When revising a first draft to a new novel, the changes are more general in nature like reordering events. If I have the time, I’ll let the round of edits sit and go back to read the draft. When everything major feels settled, I usually let it go.
Q: The pace in THE BLUE CHEER is swift, yet I never felt rushed some of your pacing tips, when to lean on the gas and when to pull back?
EL: Good question. THE BLUE CHEER starts with a literal bang and runs on an adrenaline rush until the end. But my characters can’t keep going at warp speed. They have to sleep. They have to calm their thoughts and organize their logic. So, I look for slow intervals to dip into their minds to give some introspection. You know, like when trapped inside a car traveling somewhere. Or during moments before finally falling asleep. But when the action kicks in, I don’t see how a character can have profound thoughts or provide back story.
Q: THE BLUE CHEER is set in the West Virginian outback, and you spent a lot of time getting the reader to understand the unique beauty of the landscape and the people. Is setting important to you creatively?
EL: Thank you for noticing, and commenting. Yes, I tried to make the setting to play a meaty role in telling the story. West Virginia is yoked with the unfair stereotype as a remote, violent flyover region populated by insophisticates. So, I took special efforts to break that silly notion without sounding condescending or patronizing. Setting is important. Look, do we need another crime novel set in New York City, New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, L.A. or whatever large population center? I’m not adverse to those settings and enjoy reading them all, it’s just that I’ve read so many. Living just outside of Washington, D.C., so I’m pretty hip to the urban/suburban scene. One challenge to write THE BLUE CHEER was to identify what’s unique and picturesque in West Virginia and Appalachia and then attempt to make the reader experience those things.
Check back next week for part two of our interview with Ed Lynskey.