An Interview with Randall
The following “interview” is really me answering questions from readers. The best kind of interview, in my opinion.
Do you have an environment you write best in?
My writing habits tend to mirror Joe’s (or rather his mirror mine). Joe generally writes at his desk at home, but sometimes goes over to his favorite coffee shop to work. I generally prefer to work in my study at home. However, I occasionally take the show on the road, generally to a coffee shop or a library. Working without the distractions of home can sometimes be beneficial. Those are my PREFERRED environments. However, experience has taught to be flexible. As long as I have a pen and paper handy, I can write most anywhere.
Do you have specific habits of time/place/routine when you write?
The only routine I really have is my daily writing goal when I’m working on a first draft. I try to do five pages a day, Monday through Saturday. (And on the seventh day…I work on something else. No rest for the wicked.) The thing is, my desire to write books came along around the same time my son came along. Trying to care for a baby/toddler/small child/regulation child/pre-teen/teen has taught me to remain flexible in my work habits. The result is that I can write just about any time of the day or night and under just about any circumstances.
What is it about your genre that keeps you interested?
Here’s a story I like to tell: P.D. James, a very famous British mystery author, originally wanted to write “serious” novels. But she was unsure how to put together a plot, so she chose to write a mystery novel because plot is so integral to that genre. When she completed the book, she decided to remain a mystery author because, as she said, “I realized there was nothing I wanted to say as a writer that could not be said in the mystery genre.” People have a tendency to think of mysteries as a one-size-fits-all kind of exercise. I believe any fan of any genre will tell you there’s a lot more to genre fiction than the name implies. For mysteries, take a look at the work of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, P.D. James, Janet Evanovich and Walter Mosley and you’ll see vastly different writing styles and world viewpoints. If you look at TV series, look at stuff like Murder, She Wrote, True Detective and Psych and realize those are all from the same genre, even though they’re extremely dissimilar.
For me, I love my characters and the world they inhabit. I enjoy the comedy that comes from the way they bounce off each other and the ridiculous situations they get themselves into. The mystery is the excuse to tell stories about them and to increase the tension (which tends to produce more comedy). That doesn’t mean I dismiss the mystery plot, because ultimately, a mystery book isn’t going to be satisfying if the mystery isn’t. (Seems elementary, but you’d be surprised how many so-so mysteries I read.) So, the process of coming up with a mystery on which to set loose my characters keeps me coming back.
How worked out is the mystery in your head when you start writing (like who did it and why?)
Generally, I have the who and why worked out in advance. I tend to outline the story beforehand but frequently find I have to make changes during the actual writing (ideas that worked in theory don’t always work out on the page). The only Joe Davis book I wrote without an outline was the first one, Death is a Clingy Ex. And that probably had the biggest changes to the plot before it was completed. But generally I stick to the original plan.
Does that ever change while you’re writing?
Of the four Joe Davis books, there’s only one where I changed the murderer from the original plan. And that was because I eliminated the character entirely. I’ll explain:
In the original draft of Death is a Clingy Ex, I had a major character named Sara, who became a love interest of Joe, helped in the investigation and turned out to be the mastermind behind the conspiracy Joe was uncovering. While the reveal was certainly shocking, I couldn’t come up with a decent explanation for why Sara would help Joe in an investigation that might uncover her as a criminal. At one point, I took a few months away from Clingy Ex to work on other things because I was frustrated with the first draft. I was able to return to it with fresh eyes and one of the first questions I asked myself was, “What would happen if I just eliminated Sara altogether?” At that point, I realized that literally every time Sara showed up, I had been bending the plot to accommodate her being there. I further realized many of her scenes could either easily be eliminated or easily handed off to other characters. Including the mastermind of the criminal conspiracy. THAT was my biggest moment in writing Death is a Clingy Ex because it allowed the entire plot to come together. (Sorry, Sara. I’ll try and find another book for you in the future.)
The only other time I made a major change was the resolution of the most recent book, Death is Sleeping with my Wife. I didn’t change the murderer, but I realized the “smoking gun” piece of decisive evidence I had dreamed up wasn’t going to work. This time, I didn’t have the luxury of stepping away for a few months because I was working up against a deadline. Fortunately, I stumbled across another “smoking gun”. I can’t reveal it here, but I can say that when I figured it out, I WROTE IT IN ALL-CAPS IN MY NOTEBOOK AND HAD A BUNCH OF EXCLAMATION POINTS AT THE END!!!!!!!
Beyond that, I stick to the plan.
What piece of writing are you fondest of?
I’ve written two “flashback” stories that depict Joe in high school: Death is Old School and Death is on Summer Vacation. I’ve confessed to friends and family that I am more emotionally attached to those stories than anything else I’ve written. I wish I could tell you why. I have a few theories, but they’re probably best left to my eventual therapist to help me figure out. I can tell you that my friend Travis Bedard hit it on the head when he said to me, “I like the difference in the slightly less jaded Joe. It also gives you a chance to write something a little less wary.” I didn’t set out to do that, but I agree with Travis on the result. It’s an interesting (if emotionally-intense) experience to write about a character at two different stages in his life.
Which piece of writing are you proudest of?
That’s a hard call because I tend to be my own worst critic (there’s a few others in the running, though…) I have a tendency to look at everything write and see only the flaws. That said, there’s a couple pieces I stand by. On the eve of David Letterman’s retirement, I wrote a tribute piece to him on Facebook. There’s also a few Cup o’ Joe entries, one on Donald Trump and how celebrity and politics shouldn’t mix; and one on Oprah Winfrey and why she shouldn’t run for President. Honestly, when I look at all of those pieces, there isn’t anything I would change. That’s probably as much as I can ask.
Have you ever written something that you only later realized was inspired by an actual event or person?
Well, I’ve borrowed (sometimes shamelessly) from things that happened to my friends and family. But when I’ve done that, I’ve been fully aware of what I was doing. I DID come across something that may have been inspired by a movie. Without spoiling anything, one of the plotlines in Death Lives Across The Hall involves Joe’s participation in the All-City Touch Football Tournament. His friend Mike is the key player on his team, not because Mike’s skilled but because his play is so dirty, he intimidates the other team. Last year, I taped a podcast for a friend of mine in which we discuss “guilty pleasure” movies. Mine was Porky’s Revenge. One of the plotlines in that movie revolves around the main characters needing their friend Meat to remain eligible for the basketball team’s appearance in the state finals. Meat is the key player not because he’s skilled, but because he plays so dirty, he intimidates the other team. When re-watching the movie, I thought, “Oh my God, is THAT where I got the Mike storyline from? Has that been buried in my subconscious for 30 years?” I can’t say for sure. I confirm nothing and deny everything.
Will Deirdre the Contract Killer from Death Wears a Big Hat be returning in the future?
Oh, come on, you don’t think I’m going to waste a perfectly good character like Deirdre by giving her just one appearance in the books? (Particularly when she practically promised to return.) I won’t tell you when she’ll be back, but I will tell you I have the next several Joe Davis books planned out and Deirdre is prominently featured in one of them. In fact, I’m pretty excited by the hook to that story and the possibilities of further exploring that character.