Interrogation—Bill Fitzhugh

Who: Bill Fitzhugh

What: Award-winning author of more books than you’d like to tote around in a sack all day.  He has worked in radio, television, and film.  He is currently at work on his next novel.

Where: Los Angeles

Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.

RADIO ACTIVITY is a really fun read with interesting characters and plenty of small town darkness. Where did you get the idea for this story?

I worked in a town and at a station just like the ones in the book.  That’s where I made the (illegal) recording of a phone conversation that is the basis of the blackmail story in the book.  I didn’t KNOW it was illegal (both a state and a federal crime, as it turns out), but ignorance of the law and all that.  Fortunately the statute of limitations has run out on that.  In any event, that was in the late 70s, early 80s.  Fast forward fifteen years or so and I’m out of radio and into publishing.  After HEART SEIZURE (my 5th book), I was thinking about my next one and thought it might be fun to write a series character.  It dawned on me that I had this fabulous tape recording that I could have used to blackmail the general manager of the station where I worked if I had been the blackmailing type.  So I took the tape and came up with the blackmail scheme and wrote it.  Easiest book for me to write because I didn’t need to do any research.  I’d already worked in radio 10 years, so I had all my background.  BTW, the tape in the book is a word-for-word transcript of the actual tape (except names and places).  I still play the tape for people now and then.  It turns out that’s also a crime.

Radio Activity AmazonYour protagonist, Rick Shannon, is a DJ who becomes an amateur PI. How did you bridge those two worlds in creating this character?

Rick is essentially me.  All the arguments he has with staff members about what constitutes ‘classic rock’ are my arguments.  If there is a bridge between the world of a DJ and that of the PI that I created, it’s just how I imagine I might have behaved under the circumstances Rick found himself in, more or less.

How many books are there in the Rick Shannon series? How much does Rick Shannon evolve throughout the series?

There are but two Rick Shannon books.  RADIO ACTIVITY and HIGHWAY 61 RESURFACED.  I had more Rick Shannon books planned, but Harper Collins had other ideas.

I’m not big on the ‘character arc’ thing for some characters.  While it’s fine to have a character change/grow over the course of a book or series, it’s not required if the character is interesting.  Sam Spade in the MALTESE FALCON is the same guy at the end of the story as he was when it started.  I love that about him.

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Prior to writing the Rick Shannon novels, you wrote several satiric crime novels including HEART SEIZURE, THE ORGAN GRINDERS and CROSS DRESSING. How has your writing style change over the course of several books?

I’m not sure I can judge how or if my writing style has changed over the books.  I like to think I get a little better with each book but it’s not for me to say.  Because the genre of books I write changes from one to the next (PEST CONTROL and THE EXTERMINATORS are comic thrillers with an almost sci-fi angle; CROSS DRESSING is a satire of religion and Cross Dressingadvertising wrapped up in a comic crime novel, FENDER BENDERS is a straight ahead mystery) there are some stylistic differences owing to whatever genre I’m writing, but I always write from omniscient POV and, essentially, am writing movies in book form and always with my sense of humor.

So much crime writing is intentionally dark and unforgiving. Is there a trick to writing satirical crime? How did you find your voice?

I tried writing a straight thriller once but quit:  (A) it wasn’t any fun for me (B) it wasn’t particularly good.  Not sure I’d say there’s a trick to writing satirical crime, so much as there is a point of view.  In general, my narrator doesn’t take things too seriously.  He (my narrator) sees the world for the absurd place it is.  Hypocrites abound, catch them with their pants down and expose them.  Humiliate the powerful and the corrupt.  Punch UP, not down.   I think my ‘voice’ (to the extent I have one) came from trying to write to amuse myself and friends whose sense of humor I appreciate and who I hoped to impress.  Also, I’ve been writing professionally since high school, so a lot of practice.

Hwy 61You and I are on a Left Coast Crime 2016 panel together this week called “Rock and Roll Is Not A Crime.” Why do you think crime fiction and rock and roll make such good partners? Is it an aesthetic thing?

I’d say R&R is a better partner for harder edge crime fiction, noir, and thrillers and less so for the cozy end of the spectrum.  Rock and roll is about sex and rebellion, love and rejection, and not infrequently about the inner-demons of the artist.  Of course there’s rock ’n roll and there’s rock ’n roll.  Bill Haley and the Comets is considered rock and roll but it’s not exactly on par with Led Zeppelin.  On the other hand, I think Michael Connelly’s use of jazz fits Harry Bosch, so it might be that different types of music are better fits for different types of crime fiction or the protagonist of any given book.

Rick Shannon has pretty specific musical tastes. Are his tastes in music aligned with yours? What (if anything) do you like to listen to when you’re writing?

Yes.  Rick and I have the exact same taste  in music.  In RADIO ACTIVITY you only get to hear about his favorites from the world of album rock (1964-1979 or so).  But Rick and I like jazz and country and the blues…I don’t listen to music while writing.  I get distracted and stop writing.

Pest ControlYou have also written two novels in the “Assassin Bug” series—PEST CONTROL and THE EXTERMINATORS. What is the story behind that series?

PEST CONTROL started as a screenplay that was rejected by every studio in Hollywood.  I adapted it to a novel and Warner Brothers bought the film rights (though they still haven’t made the film).  My agent at the time hounded me for years to write a sequel but I never had a story I liked enough.  When I finally came up with a good story, my agent quit.  But I found another one and THE EXTERMINATORS was published by Poisoned Pen Press.  PEST CONTROL, meanwhile, was published around the world, was produced as a radio show in Germany, and as a stage musical in Los Angeles (where it won the Ovation award for best costume for the 6 foot tall cockroach).

What other publishing plans do you have for 2016 and beyond?

I’ve just finished a second draft of a new book.  I’ll send that off to my agent soon.  I have a short story being published later this year in an anthology being edited by Jim Fusilli.  The anthology is a collection of short stories that involve Crime + Music.  I have an idea for a play that I want to write and there are a couple of books that I want to adapt into a screenplay.

Find Bill Fitzhugh: WebsiteFacebookAmazon

Previous Interrogations:

CROSSWISES.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available now from Rare Bird Books. The second Greg Salem novel, GRIZZLY SEASON, will be published in September 2016. His standalone novella, CROSSWISE, is available now for pre-order from Down & Out Books.

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