Monday, May 4, 2009

Reed explains how TOWER came to be...

"Building Tower", by Reed Farrel Coleman

It was Edgar Award week, the night of the Nevermore Awards held at Partners and Crime bookstore in Greenwich Village. I was very late arriving, having been caught in endless traffic on the Long Island Expressway. Traffic on the LIE, shocking, I know, but it turned out to be the luckiest traffic jam I’ve ever been caught in. When I finally found a spot and made my way to the store, the ceremonies seemed to be in full swing and I didn’t want to interrupt. So, I camped on the sidewalk outside and waited to see if anyone I knew would come out.

First person out of Partners was Anthony Bourdain—yes, that Anthony Bourdain—looking pissed off and desperate for a cigarette. We chatted about the ceremonies. And no, I didn’t ask him if I could send him my recipes. Next out was some happy-faced guy in a Florida State Seminole golf shirt. Being the obnoxious twit I am, I started doing the Tomahawk chop, imitating the football team’s fans. But instead of getting pissed off, he was just glad someone in New York City knew enough about college football to bust his chops about it.

Jim Born,” he said, shaking my hand.

Next out were Lise McClendon, Lauren Henderson—both of whom I knew—a thirty-ish guy with a square jaw and long dark hair (Jason Starr) and this other skinny gentleman with gray hair and an Irish accent (Ken Bruen). Lauren suggested we go have a drink at a friend’s bar near Washington Square Park. Jim, Lise, Lauren and I headed over to the bar. Jason and Ken said they’d catch up later. Yeah, right, I thought, and the check was in the mail too, but show up they did. Just so happened there was an empty seat next to me at the table where Mr. Bruen deposited himself. (At left: Jim, Reed, Ken, and Jason that evening.) Only later did I discover that Ken and Jason had the following conversation:

Jason: There they are.

Ken: I’m not sitting next to that bald-headed one.

Jason: Why not?

Ken: Strikes me as a mean-spirited bastard.

That night changed both my life and my career and was where the saga of Tower has its roots.

Ken and I became close friends and fans of each others writing. I think Ken—the fastest reader I know—read everything I’d ever published in about fifteen minutes. I went through The White Trilogy and The Guards in, as Ken might say, jig time. Over the next two years we shared our books before publication. It got so that I felt Jack Taylor was as real to me as Ken and so it was for Ken and Moe Prager. We often joked that Moe and Jack were the same character only inside-out and we fantasized about writing a book together that included both characters. With Ken’s blessing, I wrote a short story—“Requiem for Jack”—that appeared in an early issue of Crimespree Magazine and which also appears at the end of the new edition of The James Deans. A few years later, Ken again gave me permission to use Jack in a story for the Damn Near Dead anthology. The story, “Requiem for Moe”—also available at the end of the new edition of The James Deans—was well-received and some people thought my ability to mimic Ken’s writing of Jack uncanny. Of course, it’s much easier to do when you’re writing ten pages and not three hundred.

During this period, Ken embarked on a very successful collaboration with Jason Starr. Their first effort together, Bust, was published by Hard Case Crime. I was honored and delighted that Ken and Jason dedicated Bust, in part, to me. I have been asked if I resented their collaboration. The opposite is true. First, it encouraged me that Ken would actually collaborate on a full-length novel. Something I hoped he would, but didn’t think his agent, publishers or schedule would allow. Second, Bust was not something I could have pulled off. In spite of its humor, Bust’s pedigree is Noir, and much closer in spirit to Jason’s work and Ken’s Brant books. Third, Jason and Ken produced Bust (and its sequels) in these long, mad sessions together when Ken was in New York. I admire people who can work like that because I can’t. While I don’t consider myself meticulous, I do tend to edit, edit, edit as I write and can’t move forward until I’ve got the previous section down cold.

After Bust’s release, Ken told me he and an acquaintance had been kicking around an idea for a book. It was to be called Tower, the story of two friends who’d grown up together in hard times and survived all that life could throw at them. The concept was fascinating because Tower was to be told by both of the protagonists through first person narration. Both narratives would cover exactly the same time period with overlapping sections, but each protagonist’s tale would be distinct. I thought it was a great idea and a hell of a challenge, but I was simply giving him my opinion and didn’t think Ken was inviting me to be part of the project. Then in the winter of 2005, Ken sent me the first eighty pages of what would eventually become the novel you’re about to read. In fact, Ken was so confident I would do the book and we could make it work, that he had a mock cover made with both of our names on it. When I asked him for further guidance, Ken said, “Go for it!” So I did.

Easier said than done. Because the book is divided up into Nick’s narrative to be followed by Todd’s narrative, I had to learn Nick’s narrative like a spy memorizing the details of another man’s life, a man he was going to impersonate. Then I had to write Todd’s part so as to use the same timeline and incidents established in the first part of the book. I had to bring Todd together with Nick where and when Ken had had them come together. I had to follow the plot and themes Ken had established in Nick’s narrative. Yet, I had to write a life for Todd—the first character I’d ever written at any length who was not my own invention—that made him believable, three-dimensional, sympathetic, and worthwhile. The biggest challenge was to do this in a way that would allow the reader to accept the relationship between the two men and the evolution of that relationship.

Once I decided how I would attack these problems and challenges, I had to face yet a second set of hurdles. How could I write Todd’s voice so as to make it distinct from Nick’s, but not have it be so jarring as to make his narrative seem “glued onto” Nick’s? I decided not to directly parody or mimic Ken’s meter and style. That would have been a disaster. Instead I took a scalpel to my own style. I kept sentences short, severely limited descriptions, excised pronouns where I could. I edited out every spare word. As I said to Ken many times, it was more like writing with the names of words than words themselves. As an old philosophy student, I knew he’d get it. For consistency, I kept to Ken’s format of beginning important sections of the book with epigraphs, but chose to take mine in a slightly more poetic bent.

I was done with my section in about three or four months. It was the most difficult thing I have ever done as a writer, but in many ways the most satisfying. One thing about Ken, he doesn’t keep you waiting. When I sent it off to him, he wrote back the next day. He was delighted and frankly, I think, a bit surprised at how well the two pieces fit together. Still we weren’t nearly finished. The readers we showed it to said it felt incomplete, that although the narratives fit together, they needed to be framed, needed to be given more context. After consulting with Ken on a prologue, we tried several different approaches. None of which seemed to work at all. It took nearly as long to hit on the right prologue as it had to produce the bulk of the novel. Eventually, for reasons of balance and symmetry, we both came to see the need for an epilogue. Again, the notion of one was easier to come up with than the epilogue itself. In doing so, we introduce yet a third narrative. Tower, like a lot of modern construction, was built in modular units.

I have done a lot of writing here about my end of the collaboration, but if Tower is judged a success, it will be largely due to Ken. As authors, we often pooh-pooh ideas as being the easiest part of the deal. And we’re usually right. Not here. Not with this book. Because in this particular case the idea suggested form and form in Tower was destiny. Nick’s narrative, as written by Ken, seems deceptively simple and straightforward. It is anything but. It is the solid base, the skeleton on which I could build Todd’s narrative. Ken was so sage in his choices because he left room for me to do my work. A less generous, more insecure writer would have loaded up Nick’s narrative so that the second half of the book would have been constrained. Instead of letting the book breathe and crescendo, it would have withered. Ken was like the genius actor who recognized early on that it isn’t always the sexy role that’s the most meaningful.

Still, there was more work to be done. Ken and I let the book sit for a few years, and, I think, wisely so. But last year when Ken suggested we put Tower on the market, I don’t think either of us had an appetite for the usual back and forth between ourselves, our agents, and potential suitors. One of the reasons we shelved the project for a time was that people who had seen it and liked it wanted to change it. It had been such a difficult process to begin with that neither of us, given all the other things we were working on, was really willing to devote many more months to the project. Enter Busted Flush Press.

A few years ago, David Thompson at Murder By The Book in Houston, started up Busted Flush Press, a small imprint that would feature new editions of books he felt had been under appreciated, undersold, and/or misunderstood during their initial runs; books like Vicki Hendricks’s Miami Purity, for instance. He also wanted to do short story anthologies, but ones with untraditional or unusual themes. His first two, Damn Near Dead and A Hell of a Woman, were true to his intent. Damn Near Dead featured crime fiction stories about characters who were aging and, well, damn near dead. A Hell of a Woman featured stories with female protagonists and brief appreciations of B-movie and Noir actors and characters who had helped inspire the stories. Busted Flush also published a collection of Ken’s books, A Fifth of Bruen, that were not readily available in the United States. Last year, BFP began publishing new editions of my first three Moe Prager novels. Ken and I went to David and made him the proverbial offer he could not refuse. Tower will be the first full-length original novel published by Busted Flush Press.

David asked Scottish author-editor-agent Allan Guthrie to edit the book. He was an excellent choice. Not only do the three of us share an abiding respect for each others work, but we know one another. In about a month, Allan sent along his first set of changes. After two months we were done. The tweaking, however, is never quite over. As any writer will tell you, even after the book appears in stores, there will be things Ken, Allan, and I will think we missed.

I hope this little summary of the genesis of Tower will help answer some of your questions about the book. Fiction writers are generally lone wolves and the thought of collaboration an anathema. Even if a writer can conceive of collaborating on a novel, the logistics, the creation of a new process and routine, are enough to induce hives. Collaboration isn’t for the faint of heart, but when it works, it is an amazing thing to be a part of. I can only hope that people who pick up Tower find the reading of it nearly as satisfying as the writing of it.

Reed Farrel Coleman / January 2009 / Lake Grove, New York


Tower (by Ken Bruen & Reed Farrel Coleman; paperback; 978-1-935715-07-7; $15) will be published by Busted Flush Press in September. Watch this blog over the next few months for interviews with the contributors (interviewed by Edgar Award nominee Craig McDonald), Tower excerpts, and more.

Want a BFP catalog? Just send us an e-mail with your mailing address. We also have bibliography checklist bookmarks for Megan Abbott, Ace Atkins, Ken Bruen, Reed Farrel Coleman, A. E. Maxwell, and Cynthia Smith. We'll be happy to send you some!

No comments: