Thursday, August 28, 2014

Fiction and Friends

Robert Ellis

I'm taking a break from the blog until Tuesday, September 2, but I did have a question I wanted to ask.

Have you ever noticed that when you meet someone who got off on the same book, you feel as though you know them well enough to be friends? Maybe it's just me, but I have. I can remember being a huge fan of Colin Wilson in college. Wilson was self-educated, practically lived in the British Library, and became a very prolific writer best known for THE OUTSIDER series. The two books that got to me were stand-alones that seemed to fit together like a glove, THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE and THE MIND PARASITES. Unlike THE OUTSIDER, both are works of fiction, an odd mix of sci-fi, fantasy, all backed up by Wilson's extraordinary understanding of history and philosophy. To this day, when I meet someone who read these books and got caught up in Wilson's spell, it's almost as if we've known each other our entire lives.

Colin Wilson
The same thing happened when I started reading Elmore Leonard.  A guy I worked with was reading THE SWITCH  at the same time I was. All we talked about was the book, and then the next one and the next one. We became friends.

The reason I mention it is that I can't remember this ever happening with a movie or a song. And I don't think this has anything to do with the quality of the work. It's more about the experience. Unlike any other form of art, novels find a way of getting inside us.

Could I be moved to personal change by watching a movie or listening to a song? I don't think so, but I could rip off a list of ten books that changed my life forever without even thinking about it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hitchcock, Truffaut, and John Buchan

Robert Ellis
The reason I wrote about seeing my first Hitchcock film yesterday was because of the impact the filmmaker has had on my life as a writer. Most of Hitchcock's films are about innocent people being thrown into horrific situations. With the entire world stacked against them, these characters are under extraordinary pressure to defeat their opponents in order to survive. Because these characters are innocent people, rather than cops, lawyers or even PIs, we experience their ordeal with a heightened sense of concern and compassion.

I was reading Truffaut's wonderful book about Hitchcock. Actually, the entire book is a conversation between Hitchcock and the French director. By the time they finish, Truffaut has managed to examine Hitchcock's entire career.

Master Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock
But what turned out to be most important for me was the point when Hitchcock started talking about his favorite author, John Buchan. Hitchcock had made the film THE 39 STEPS, which was Buchan's first novel in the Richard Hannay Series. At the time I had no idea who John Buchan was and ran out to the bookstore. I found all of them: THE 39 STEPS, GREENMANTLE, MR. STANDFAST, THE THREE HOSTAGES, and THE ISLAND OF SHEEP. But also, a remarkable standalone entitled THE POWERHOUSE. Within about fifty pages of THE 39 STEPS, John Buchan became my favorite author as well, and I read these novels over and over again.

One of the most striking realizations I made was that almost every memorable scene from Hitchcock's films can be found, at least in spirit, from Buchan's novels. In fact, Cary Grant's chase through a cornfield by the biplane in NORTH BY NORTHWEST came right out of GREENMANTLE. While Hitchcock allowed himself to be inspired by this novel, and all of Buchan's novels, he refused to make a movie out of GREENMANTLE because it was his favorite of them all.

John Buchan, a.k.a Lord Tweedsmuir
But John Buchan didn't just influence Alfred Hitchcock. Buchan's work was so well realized that it changed the entire genre, and still has an impact today. You can see Buchan's hand in a film like THE FUGITIVE, where an innocent man has been accused of killing his wife and is on the run. After getting about three chapters in on Robert Harris's terrific novel THE GHOST, (as well as Roman Polanski's perfect film version), I knew that Buchan and played a big role in both of these artist's lives. What's so amazing is that Buchan was writing these novels around the time of World War I. The original copyright on THE 39 STEPS is 1915.

So I guess when my parents decided that they wanted to see PSYCHO at the drive-in that night, they were right. I may not have been able to sleep, but everything was cool.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Hitchcock's PSYCHO

The reasons I write crime fiction are many. Beyond the strong desire to make the world a better place, one of them might be that when I was six or seven-years-old, Hitchcock's PSYCHO happened to be playing at the local drive-in and my parents wanted to see the movie. Their rationale for not getting a babysitter went something like this ... They had a station wagon. If they lowered the backseat and brought the sleeping bags, my younger brother and I would fall asleep and everything would be cool. They could sit up front and watch the movie.

Yeah, right!

I can remember Detective Arbogast entering the Bates's house, making that slow climb up the staircase, the music going (Oh, I forgot. I was supposed to be sleeping!) I can remember "Bates's mother" running into the hallway with the butcher knife raised, Arbogast taking the hit, tumbling down the stairs onto his back, and then that shot of the knife in the air ... I can remember watching the entire scene with my father trying to hold my head down.

Forget about it! I couldn't get to sleep that night.

The movie scared the living daylights out of me, but I was hooked. Once the initial shock wore off, Hitchcock would become one of my favorite directors ever. And in the end, show me the way to writing my first novel, which we'll talk about tomorrow.

Monday, August 25, 2014

What I'm Reading

I was searching for something new this past weekend and pulled out a couple of Erle Stanley Gardner novels. I can't help writing about this without smiling. I read THE CASE OF THE NEGLIGENT NYMPH, and I'm halfway through THE CASE OF THE FIERY FINGERS.

I could feel the era Gardner was writing in---the language, the changes in the way we act and view the world. But the truth is that both novels stand up to time really well. As a huge fan of the original PERRY MASON series on television, I had to get past seeing Raymond Burr as Mason, Barbara Hale as Della Street, William Hopper as Paul Drake, Ray Collins as Lt. Tragg, and William Talman as Hamilton Burger. Casts like that don't come along every day, so it wasn't easy. But after about fifty pages, the actors seemed to fade some and I was caught up in the murder case.
Erle Stanley Gardner

The reason I'm smiling is that both novels have been a delight to read. A delight to go back to. So much so that I didn't want to read them too quickly. I had forgotten the obvious pleasure Gardner took in describing his characters, and the mysterious personal life that Perry Mason seems to live. I had forgotten how much respect the core characters had for each other, even in the heat of battle.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Throwback Thursday ... Why I Wrote THE LOST WITNESS

I have always felt that each one of my novels is better than the last. I have always felt that writing is a learning experience, and with each new set of circumstances and story problems, you get better at solving them. All the same, if I had to pick a personal favorite, I think it would be THE LOST WITNESS.

The idea for the story hit me in two big chunks. The most obvious hit continues to this day if I watch the evening news on any channel. I find the pharmaceutical ads on television to be way, way past disturbing. They run when most people are eating dinner, and if you have young kids, then you know exactly how out of line they are. How do you explain what a four hour erection is to a six-year-old child? Why should anyone have to? Why are these ads there?

Money, baby. When the corporations snap their dirty fingers, you dance or you disappear.

I smiled because the answer seemed like the kind of story I could work with. A homicide detective investigates the grisly murder of a young woman, going up against a pharmaceutical company and a psychotic hit man, only to learn ... that's the first half of the premise to THE LOST WITNESS.

The second idea chuck has more do to with the psychotic hit man than anything else. I wanted to have some fun with him. As I played with the idea for a few days I realized that I was headed back to those idiotic drug commercials on TV.

It's about money, baby. It's always about money. When Big Pharma snapped his dirty fingers this time--I had it! Why not make the hit man someone who can't watch a TV ad without thinking he NEEDS the drug? (That's what Big Pharma wants us to think, right? So let's flesh it out!) Why not make the hit man a psychological wreck with one false symptom after the next? Why not make him someone who is experiencing all the side effects we hear listed in those commercials? And why not take it past the moon, and have those side effects hit him all at once while he's trying to kill someone?

Nathan G. Cava was born. They say that a story is driven by the bad guy. Cava's behind the wheel in THE LOST WITNESS, and he likes to drive real fast. He turned out to be scary and funny and all too human at the same time. Nathan G. Cava. He turned out to be one of my favorite characters ever.