In 2012, I had my first Murder & Mayhem experience. One of my favorite people to meet was Reed Farrel Coleman, who in spite of the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy, was a cheerful, gracious author. He spent some time with the Word Nerds Q&A and answered a few of our hard hitting questions about books, writing and life.
WN: Short stories or novels? Which form do you like best?
RC: Kind of like asking which of my children I prefer. I am more comfortable with the form of the novel and am more skilled at it, but I get a different kind of charge out of short stories because they are often more challenging. With short story gigs, you often are limited in terms of word count or subject. I have always enjoyed that kind of challenge. Brings out the best in me.
WN: You’re also a poet, earning the praise of NPR’s Maureen Corrigan and the title hard-boiled poet. (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104130531). Tell us more about your love of poetry and how it impacts your fiction.
RC: I began writing poetry when I was thirteen years old. Nothing earth shattering. The usual stuff thirteen year old boys write about: death and loving girls who don’t love you back. But I enjoyed the ability to express myself in very few words with as much power as possible. I was the editor of my high school literary magazine, which, given that Joseph Heller and Arthur Miller went to my high school, is saying something. I was an assistant editor of my college literary magazine and studied poetry under David Lehman at Brooklyn College. I never thought there was a future in it for me, but loved to write and edit it. I was published occasionally and wrote even as I pursued a career in the freight business. But when I fell in love with American Detective fiction, I knew what all that poetry training was for. There is great poetry in Chandler and Hammett. What my training did for me was help me with economy of language, strength of image, power of emotion. It also taught me about rhythm and pacing. Being called a hard-boiled poet by Maureen was the greatest compliment ever paid me.
WN: Various interviews have covered your co-written novel, Tower. It is fascinating to me that you received a file containing half the novel from Ken Bruen and the one-line email “Have at it, brother.” Would you do it again? Why?
RC: Probably not. It was the hardest damned thing I ever had to do in terms of writing and I will always be grateful for the opportunity afforded me by Ken. However, I feel no desire to climb that Everest a second time. I have collaborated on other books and I would love to write with Ken again, but not with quite that same arrangement. That said, I am very proud of TOWER.
WN: Three sets of characters – Moe Prager, Joe Serpe, and Dylan Klein – means three sets of details and characters. How do you keep them straight and what it is like to start and stop series?
RC: Actually, you left three series out. I am currently writing a series of novellas for Orca Books-Raven Books in Canada featuring a little person detective name Gulliver Dowd (DIRTY WORK, VALENTINO PIER) and have written the first in a series of ebooks for Hyperion (BRONX REQUIEM) co-authored by NYPD Detective(retired) John Roe, featuring NYPD Detective Jack Kenny. I can’t yet talk about the third, but hope to soon. As to your question. How do I keep them straight? That’s easy. They are all different people to me. They all have different voices that sound different in my head. I don’t really ever mix them up. As long as I am true to the characters and develop them fully, I’m okay. The second half of the question is harder. Stopping a series is the easier part. Sometimes you stop for contractual reasons. Sometimes because you can see the character reaching his or her logical stopping point. Sometimes the series just runs out of steam. Starting a series is the big risk. And of course, for me, it’s about feeling excited by a character and feeling I have places to go with him or her where I haven’t quite gone with other characters.
WN: Brooklyn serves both as your hometown and your story backdrop. What do you love about the city? What would you change?
RC: Alas, I haven’t lived in Brooklyn for 30 years, but I live close enough to visit frequently and my daughter lives there. However, just because I don’t physically live there doesn’t mean I don’t spend a lot of time there in my head. Brooklyn is such a part of who I am that there is no escape. And I wouldn’t want to escape it even if I could. It is such a rich and fertile place for the exploration of the human condition and such an intense backdrop against which to paint crime stories. As I have often said, if you can’t write a crime story set in Coney Island, you can’t write a crime story. What I love about the place is that it is a thousand different places. From borough to borough, from neighborhood to neighborhood, from street to street, it’s all so different. They speak like 200 hundred distinct languages in the borough of Queens alone. What would I change? I would make it less expensive so I could afford to move back.
WN: Tell us about your writing space. What do you consider essential for starting out your session?
RC: I work in a home office about ten feet from my bedroom. It is lined with bookshelves and framed covers of my books. On top of the shelves are artifacts and gifts from fans and friends and from childhood. There’s one window over my right shoulder I never look out of. I like absolute quiet when I write. I am a morning writer. Start my day with coffee, the newspaper, the crossword and then down to the office for hours of work.
WN: You’re also the former executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America. What was it like to serve in that capacity?
RC: Hardest and best job I ever had. I took over the job at a tough time for MWA and spent a lot of time putting out fires, but it’s like any administrative or management job. It’s a lot of thankless work without much reward or recognition. Still, it was enormously gratifying and I am proud to have represented a great organization.
WN: Do you have a favorite quote or piece of advice you’d like to share?
RC: Yeah. If you’re a new writer, marry up. I did.
WN: What is one of your favorite Murder & Mayhem memories?
RC: There really are too many to recount. There was the time at Sunday breakfast that Tom Schreck was telling funny stories about working as a towel boy at an Albany gym and made Dennis Lehane, SJ Rozan, Judy Bobalik, and I spit coffee through our noses. Or the time Gary Phillips, Andy Grant and I were discussing whose ethnic meat products were more disgusting. Or the time Ridley Pearson was telling me funny Stephen King stories on the way back from the library. I mean, everything about Muskego is wonderful and unique. Penny Halle, the Jordans, the Iron Horse, all the authors and the great attendees. I have been to many different book related conferences and events. None of them is like Muskego.
WN: What question did WN not ask, that you really would love to be asked?
RC: What is it like sharing a room with Tom Schreck?
Definitely a question that should be asked (and told) while at M&MM. Can’t wait to see you there, Reed!