What: Sam Wiebe’s award-winning debut novel LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS was published by Dundurn Press this fall. His short fiction has been published in Thuglit, Spinetingler, and Subterrain, among others.
I thought that LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS was one of the best modern P.I. novels I have read. What was your inspiration for writing this story?
When I started LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS, I’d just finished school. I was out of work, broke, and pissed off. I’ve always loved the classic detective fiction writers, like Chandler and James Crumley, and I wanted to pay homage to them while speaking about contemporary life. The P.I. novel seemed the perfect vehicle for discussing ‘real’ problems, without being a crushing bore.
Vancouver is familiar to everyone from the thousands of movies and TV shows shot here, from X-Files to Highlander. Yet it’s always dressed up as New York or Seattle or some other American city. In a way it’s an American city, with American problems, and yet it’s above the 49th parallel.
So is it American? Is it Canadian? Technically it’s on unceded native land, so who knows what it is? It’s a city without a fixed mythology, and that’s very appealing.
LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS does a good job of paying homage to classic P.I. novels while pushing the boundaries of the genre to update it. Is that a task you set for yourself?
Chandler’s famous speech from ‘Simple Art of Murder’ has been quoted ad nauseam…and I’m happy to do so again here: “[D]own these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…He is the hero, he is everything.”
But that doesn’t really speak to me. It seems dated.
In the same essay, he mentions, on the topic of theme, that “some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest.” That to me is the heart of the P.I. novel. It’s about work; it’s about entrepreneurship; it’s about keeping honest while surviving in a hostile economy. What could be more relevant in 2015 than that?
The plot moves along at a fast pace, but you tackle a lot of character development and subplots. How did you strike that balance?
I haven’t totally thought this through yet, but the basic idea is counterpoint. I love a good fistfight scene or sex scene or shootout, but the more of those in a novel, the less impact they have. I think you have to set them against the more prosaic stuff, the ‘character stuff’, so that you actually care about people when they wander into danger.
And it’s the same with description: no matter how brilliant your novel’s eighty-seventh description of a flower bed is, it’s not going to have much impact.
To put it in music terms, it’s the difference between a band like Zeppelin or Soundgarden that covers a range of dynamics, and then builds up to the really heavy parts, versus an average punk or metal band that just plays the same dynamic all the way through. It’s not about volume, it’s about intensity, and you have to build intensity.
I really enjoyed your dialogue, especially the hard-hitting one-liners: “Luck provides no encore.” and “We’re an infernal mystery to ourselves, aren’t we?” How much time do you spend perfecting dialogue? Are the one-liners more often a happy accident, or do you labor over them?
I think more about flow, and having the characters speak in a way that’s true to them.
One of the most frustrating things is coming up with a great comeback or witticism, and knowing the character would never say that in that situation. That’s where the whole “murder your darlings” thing comes into play.
Music plays a big role in the novel, both in the character development and in the overall atmosphere. Was this your intention when you sat down to write the novel? How did you research this piece and how did it develop as you wrote?
My dad was/is a studio and jazz guitarist, and I grew up immersed in jazz , country music, psychelic rock, and all sorts of esoteric stuff. One of my best friends runs a recording studio, and his trials in keeping his business afloat influenced the novel quite a bit.
A musical reference can be a very concise shorthand for character development: if I say someone is a Kenny G fan, or a Nickelback fan, you get the general idea. The flip side is that it can lead to stereotyping.
LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished First Novel in 2012. How far along on the novel were you when you first decided to enter the contest? What made you decide to enter a contest vs. taking a more traditional road to publishing?
I’d finished the novel when I submitted it for the Arthurs. I figured even if it didn’t win, it would get more eyes on the manuscript. It wasn’t a conscious strategy so much as pursuing every avenue to get the book out there.
Contests and awards can be really worthwhile, or they can be a total ripoff, depending on the entry fee and the prestige. With a reputable contest, just getting nominated gets attention to your work.
What advice do you have for unpublished writers who are trying to decide the best path to getting published?
John D MacDonald said you have to be willing to write ten novels without the hope of publishing one, just to learn your craft. Obviously with self-publishing you can circumvent that now, but it’s good advice anyway: that’s the commitment it takes to get good.
The best advice, other than the old stalwarts of read a lot and write a lot, is to be professional and polite. Proofread and revise everything, especially cover letters. I once sent a cover letter with the salutation, “Dead Sir or Madam”—that’s the kind of mistake you only make once.
How does your short fiction differ from your novel? What did you learn from writing and publishing short fiction that helped you with writing the novel?
You can experiment more with short fiction, but you can also strip things down to their essence. It’s good training in getting to the point.
By writing short stories, you get exposed to all aspects of the process, from first draft to revision, and from submission to rejection, at a faster rate than novels. Then when you encounter those same problems with your novel, they differ in degree rather than kind from what you’ve already faced.
Can we expect a follow up to LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS?
My second novel is with my agent Chris Bucci right now. Hopefully we’ll have an announcement to make soon.
What are some of the best novels you read in 2014?
The best crime novel has to be John McFetridge’s BLACK ROCK. I’ve been a fan of his since EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE, and I think this new Montreal series is his best work. I can’t wait for the sequel, A LITTLE MORE FREE.
The best mainstream novel I read is Janie Chang’s THREE SOULS. Beautifully written, interesting characters, and a provocative take on what happens to us when we die.
S.W. Lauden is a writer and drummer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Akashic Books, QuarterReads and Crimespree Magazine. He is currently working on the novella, CROSSWISE, and his debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION. You can read one of his recent short stories right HERE.