Interrogation—R. Daniel Lester

Who: R. Daniel Lester

What: As a keen apprentice in the story trade, he has consumed a lot of coffee (a mandatory requirement according to the manual), written himself into and out of countless corners, added many words to blank pages, self-published three books (including the novel, DIE, FAMOUS!), and made tens of dollars along the way.

His work has also appeared in print and online in such places as Adbusters, Geist, Shotgun Honey, Bareknuckles Pulp, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Broken Pencil, Pulp Literature and The Lascaux Prize Anthology.

Where: Toronto

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

DEAD CLOWN BLUES is one of my favorite book titles in recent memory. What came first, the story or the title? Is there a story behind the title?

Wow, that’s great to hear. Thanks. This project started out with another title and was more towards novel length. Circa 2013/2014, I got a few rejections on it and then decided to let it simmer for a while. A few months later I noticed that Shotgun Honey was open again to novella submissions and it dawned on me—simplify. Trim the fat. I had one too many subplots and stripping it away really made it sing.

But the first title was related to the extraneous subplot so I had to go back to square one. Which was strange. Usually, I have the title of the piece prior to writing it (or at least along the way) and that often helps guide the direction. But with the story mostly done, except for patching the holes in the wall that you get from any subplot demolition/renovation, I had to look at the core of the new story—what was driving it? And I always liked the dual meaning of “dead clown” within the story—(1) the former-clown-turned-janitor who dies, and (2) the name of the gang of criminal clowns that Fitch crosses path with. Then, once I figured out “Blues,” that was it, game over. I knew I had a winner. It just sounded right to me. Right for the story, right for the genre. Nice and hardboiled.

DEAD CLOWN BLUES is set in Vancouver, where you previously lived , but in 1957. What made you decide to write historical fiction?

Time-wise, when I was preparing to write this story I was reading a lot of Chandler, Hammett and L.A. Quartet James Ellroy, so the tendency was to think in those terms. Though I hesitate to consider it pure historical fiction. To me, that implies a high level of research and detail to create a story that literally takes the reader back in time. I appreciate when a writer does that well, but I never really set out to provide that level of experience. I wanted it to be more a vibe, a feeling of the past. All with the added bonus that it would allow me to add William J. Witham, (the grandfather I never met) into the story. I’d heard some stories about his past and thought he’d make a great character.

As for the location, I always wanted to set a story in Vancouver, where I’ve lived since 1988 (though I just moved to Toronto this past summer). One, write what you know. Two, Vancouver’s got some stories to tell. I’ll let the experts do the talking and recommend that anyone interested check out VANCOUVER NOIR: 1930-1960 from Anvil Press. This book came out a little bit after I wrote the first draft, but I read it between drafts and it definitely helped me set the tone. Vancouver was a wild town back in the day.

You describe your protagonist, Carnegie Fitch, as a “once-upon-a-time drifter and half-assed private eye.” What was the inspiration?

To give some background: the first draft was written over the 2011 Labour Day weekend, during a 3-day novel writing competition. So a lot of the choices were just…made. Less a decision making process and more a sleep-deprived-deer-in-the-headlights kind of panic. I had planned to write a more “serious” private eye story, but I think my default programming is to write the wisecrack, go for the laugh, find the dark humor. And for that kind of writing challenge you just have to go with what’s working and what makes the words flow. No time to be too picky. Then, when the dust had settled and I revisited the story a few months later, I still liked it. It worked. So I built from there.

In hindsight, two big inspirations were the private eye main characters from Richard Brautigan’s DREAMING OF BABYLON and Charles Bukowski’s PULP, both of which I’d read prior. Neither writer are known as P.I./detective genre writers, but I think they knocked their efforts out of the park. Goofy and poignant at the same time. Throughout the past years, as I edited and rewrote, I’ve read both books a few times (along with more Chandler, Hammett, Ellroy, etc.) to get in the zone.

What is it about the novella that appeals to you as a writer and as a reader?

As I mentioned, this one started out as more novel-length but it works better as a shorter piece. I love short books, whether they be novellas or short novels. Have to say, I’m semi-suspicious of high page count books. I don’t feel there are many writers out there who can say that much and say it well. Almost like I need to really trust the writer in order to take a plunge into a pool that deep. That being said, some of my favourite books are of the “deep end” variety. But I don’t think any of those are crime or mystery. Definitely not hardboiled noir. They may have crime or mystery involved but wouldn’t be considered “genre” pieces.

Generally, I think these are genres that lend themselves to shorter, concise stories. I definitely respect writers who can deep end a book and make it work. That much story served without fat takes skill, in the same way as it takes skill to serve a lean, mean story and have it feel complete. I don’t think I have that deep end kind of skill, at least not yet.

Prior to DEAD CLOWN BLUES, you self-published three books. What made you decide to work with a publisher this time around?

I self-published three books in 2009. One poetry collection, one short story collection and one novel. It was a great experience. I did readings, got some reviews and learned a lot about micro-press publishing, mostly that there was a lot more to learn. What I would say to anyone thinking about or planning to self-publish is this: if you’re aiming to get beyond your network of friends and family (which I did for brief, fleeting moments) and achieve real sales and get industry attention then you have to be a very good marketer as well. And that’s not my area of expertise at all. Meaning, getting the book written and into print is about 25% of the battle. The rest is trench warfare. You’re competing with a gazillion other self-published books and the stigma (sometimes warranted, sometimes not) that comes with it.

Following those challenging, though mostly positive, experiences, I wanted to get back to the more traditional route and re-entered the challenging-in-a-different-way world of the query letter, the synopsis, the wait, the rejection. But sometimes the acceptance. And it feels good because it feels earned. Working with a publisher on a novella or novel has always been my goal. Let the pros do what they do best—editing, cover design, retail sales, distribution, etc.—and I can focus on the writing and of course, the social media, website, etc. promotion and marketing that authors need to do these days. But it seems more manageable to me when I’m not the one who had to consider every other aspect of the process as well.

You’ve also published short stories. Do you prefer one form over the others?

For me, the story determines the format. I usually know what’s going to be what, which ones have the gas in the tank for the longer haul and which are only meant to go around the block. Both are good journeys, just different. What’s great with a short story is the chance to write a beginning, middle and end in a relatively short period of time. You get to work on everything and do it within a smaller word count, an art in and of itself. But basically the job is done. Tick that box. And they are a great way to get feedback and get published. Build the skills, build the CV. I’ve had some success with writing contests and placing pieces for publication in print and online, so I’m a big believer in crafting effective short stories.

As a reader, I love short stories, though I don’t read as many as I used to. I’m pretty sure one of the reasons I’m a writer today was reading Stephen King’s, SKELETON CREW and NIGHT SHIFT when I was 14. All those worlds in one book. I was blown away.

What’s next for you?

Fitch book #2 is in the works, with a late 2018/early 2019 release date. Very excited about that. And that removed subplot I talked about?—well, it’ll be there this time around. That’s the nice thing about writing, no good ideas ever have to disappear. Maybe they need to lay low while the heat wears off, get some surgery to alter their looks, but after that they can walk around again.

Other than that, I’m working on a short story for a Down & Out Books anthology due out in 2018 and of course chipping away at various other projects. It’s too soon to say anything formal, but hopefully I can announce one or two of these in the near future. It’s always been my belief that a big writing war chest, stocked to the brim, will payoff.

Find R. Daniel Lester: Website, TwitterFacebook

Some Recent Interviews:

S.W. Lauden is the Anthony Award-nominated author of the Tommy & Shayna novellas, CROSSWISE and CROSSED BONES (Down & Out Books). His Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series includes BAD CITIZEN CORPORATIONGRIZZLY SEASON and HANG TIME (Rare Bird Books). He is also the co-host of the Writer Types podcast. Steve lives in Los Angeles.

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