For more than 30 years, Jim Nesbitt roved the American Outback as a correspondent for newspapers and wire services in Alabama, Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington, D.C. He chased hurricanes, earthquakes, plane wrecks, presidential candidates, wildfires, rodeo cowboys, ranchers, miners, loggers, farmers, migrant field hands, doctors, neo-Nazis and nuns with an eye for the telling detail and an ear for the voice of the people who give life to a story. He is a lapsed horseman, pilot, hunter and saloon sport with a keen appreciation for old guns, vintage cars and trucks, good cigars, aged whiskey and a well-told story. He now lives in Athens, Alabama.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Right Wrong Number. To begin with, can you give us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: The Right Wrong Number is a hard-boiled tale of revenge and redemption set in Texas and northern Mexico. It’s more of a thriller than a whodunit and features Ed Earl Burch, a cashiered Dallas homicide detective eking out a living as a private eye. He’s an ex-jock gone to seed, a guy who’s been smacked around by life and has the bad knees, wounded liver and empty bank account to prove it. In this story, he’s been hired to protect an old flame threatened by the partners ripped off by her husband, a high-flying Houston financial consultant who has disappeared. These partners include some mobsters from New Orleans who send a pair of hitmen to get back their money, drugs and jewels and kill anybody involved in the score. Ed Earl finds himself locked in a deadly contest where nobody can be trusted and he’s tempted to forget his own rules by the money and sex offered up by the old flame, who has a lethal knack for larceny and betrayal. When his best friend is killed in Dallas by hired muscle, Ed Earl blames himself and sets out for revenge that winds up being a bloody form of redemption.
My primary motivation is the desire to write well-told, hard-boiled crime fiction. I’ve always regarded hard-boiled or noir stories and movies as a particularly American art form. And when you read the novels of Hammett, Chandler and more contemporary writers like James Ellroy, James Lee Burke and the late, great James Crumley, the stories are so much more than a whodunit. They’re commentaries on politics, crime, art, sex, culture, music and the time and place of the stories being told. That’s the kind of hard-boiled fiction I wanted to write. Still do.
Q: What do you think makes a good hard-boiled crime thriller? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: Crackling dialogue, rich and detailed narrative that gives the reader a vivid sense of time and place and lots of action. To me, plot takes a back seat to those three elements, although I know a lot of damn good writers will forcefully reject this notion.
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: I didn’t do a detailed plot, more of a skeletal outline that gave me a general notion of where I wanted to go and where I wanted to wind up. But I also wanted to make sure I had enough freedom to let the characters and action take me where they wanted to go. If you’re strait-jacketed by an intricate plot, you might miss some marvelous surprises along the way. That said, you always have to make sure those surprises serve your story. If they don’t, kill them off and look at that rough outline again.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
A: I didn’t do any character interviews or sketches, but I did a lot of thinking about who this guy is, what he’s experienced in life, what he’s done as a result of those experiences and how to make him utterly human. I wanted him to be strong, flawed, reckless, cagey and cynical, a guy who has a code he sometimes forgets to live by but returns to under pressure. I didn’t want him to be a Spade or a Marlowe—I wanted him to be more angst-ridden and tortured than those guys.
Ed Earl’s a bit of an Everyman who’s been smacked around by life. He’s fatally attracted to women ready, willing and able to drive a stake through his heart. He’s also a little slow on the uptake, but not dumb. He’s dogged rather than brilliant. And he sure isn’t supercool like Frank Bullitt—he’s the polar opposite of that. He’s Columbo without the caricature—people he goes up against underestimate him and he makes them pay for that mistake. Sometimes with a bullet.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: I learned a hard lesson from my first novel, The Last Second Chance, when I made the main villain way too over the top, haunted by visions of Aztec heart sacrifice and nightmares of flying serpent demons. I tried not to make that same mistake with the two villains in this book—the old flame and her fugitive husband. They’re smart, remorseless predators. She’s got a violent temper and a relentless sex drive; he’s an utterly cold and charming sociopath who just knows he’s the smartest guy in any room he walks into. They aren’t haunted by otherworldly demons—the devils that drive them come from good old-fashioned human evil.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: There’s a great Raymond Chandler line in response to a question about solving plot dilemmas—something like: “I just have somebody open the door and walk into the room with a gun in their hand.” Not a bad rule of thumb for keeping your narrative exciting. Chandler wasn’t a stickler for plot—his novels are driven by snappy dialogue, rich narrative and sudden and surprising action. I keep that in mind when writing my novels, not that I’m anywhere near the same galaxy as his talent. There’s something else I learned the hard way by reading Chandler and other great writers—everything they write is in service of the story they’re trying to tell. If it isn’t, kill it. You can see this discipline even in the wretched excess or wild tangents of a James Ellroy or Hunter S. Thompson. My books are pretty graphic—they aren’t for the Sunday school crowd. I’m frank in my descriptions about sex and violence because I think using euphemisms insults the reader and doesn’t serve the story I’m trying to tell. The characters in my books aren’t nice people. Even my main character, Ed Earl Burch, is profane, violent and reckless, with a mean streak a mile wide. These folks can be flat nasty whether they’re killing somebody or having sex with them. That’s who they are, so that’s how I tell it. You may not like them, but they won’t put you to sleep.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: You’re preaching to the choir on this one. I believe the setting of a novel IS a character unto itself. You should use rich, detailed descriptions to give readers a vivid sense of time and place and give your characters a compelling landscape for what they say and do. How they react to and interact with that landscape gives depth and authenticity to your story. Too many writers don’t bother to do this and their story reads like a cardboard cutout. As for the tools of the trade that get you where you need to go, nothing beats being there. Nothing beats walking the ground, as the Brits would say. My latest novel takes you from Dallas to Houston and New Orleans and winds up in the stark, arid beauty of the Texas Big Bend country and northern Mexico. I lived in Dallas in the mid-to-late 1980s and knocked around Houston, New Orleans and West Texas and northern Mexico as a roving correspondent in the early-to-mid 1990s, which is the timeframe for this book. If you can’t walk the ground, you do the next best thing: research. You read about the places you put in your story and the time you’re trying to portray. Find historians who know that time and place and talk to them, get their recommendations on what you should read. Find friends who have lived there and talk to them. That’s what I did to give me a deeper understanding that added strength and authenticity to my writing.
Q: Did you know the themes of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Are these themes recurrent in your other work?
A: Only in the subconscious sense when I wrote the first one because I was so focused on the specifics of character backstory and motivation and was having a helluva good time seeing where these guys would next take the story. I started out with a couple of simple rules about Ed Earl — he doesn’t get the girl, he survives but winds up a little more battered physically and spiritually, he reclaims a bit of his life by remembering his code and returning to it. But I really didn’t think about the overarching themes of my books until an old Houston friend who loves Ed Earl penned a review of The Last Second Chance and shot me a note that said: “Your book is about revenge and redemption.” So is The Right Wrong Number in an equally subconscious way. Not surprising since I grew up Baptist but like to think of myself as more of an Old Testament kind of guy.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: The raucous laughter and hoots you’re hearing right now come from all the editors I left bloody when I was a word-proud journalist too enamored with his own turns of phrase. I’m a little older and wiser now—and far less pig-headed. That doesn’t mean I meekly allow any editor to take a chainsaw to my work because I still believe bad editing can kill creativity while great editing can make it shine. It’s the difference between that chainsaw and a surgeon’s scalpel. As to where craft ends and art begins, I think about that question quite a bit but I’m not sure I have an easy answer. I do know that too many writers rely on artifice and obedience to the conventions and templates of their chosen genre and too many editors try to force writers into those cubbyholes. I think good writers learn about those conventions and master that template, then turn them on their ear and use what works best to tell the story they want to tell. You have to be brave enough to chuck the rules and let the story fly but smart enough to know if you’re taking a flight to nowhere.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: Storytelling talent, ego and dogged persistence.
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: I think writing is a cruel mistress who gives me no choice but to obey her.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: I think the best thing a writer can do is keep reading good writers, keep talking with other good writers to learn and get better and keep that butt in the chair to write that next story.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: There’s no silver bullet. You hone your craft by doing it and reading the work of great writers.