by James W. Hall
Published by St. Martin’s Minotaur
352 pages, 2005
Novels by James W. Hall:
|James W. Hall writes big, bold thrillers full of big, bold action and big, bold ideas that, for all their bigness and boldness, never lose sight on the humans involved. The New York Times calls him “the master of suspense,” the San Francisco Chronicle pegs him as “brilliant” and Michael Connelly — no slouch as a crime novelist himself — readily acknowledges Hall’s influence on his own writing, saying that Hall’s “people and places have more brushstrokes than a Van Gogh.”
Hall is the author of more than a dozen novels, most of them set in his beloved South Florida and featuring Thorn (no first name), a cantankerous would-be rebel who makes a barely discernible living handcrafting expensive fishing flies. Thorn is a sort of Travis McGee without the social skills, the eternal square peg in the round hole of corruption, greed and ecological rape that is modern-day South Florida. Imagine John D. MacDonald on a more epic scale, or Carl Hiaasen with the gonzo humor turned down just a notch or two, and you’ll start to understand why Hall is a perpetual resident of the best-seller lists.
That’s no fluke, by the way, because the simple truth is that if there’s one thing the 57-year-old Hall knows, it’s reading and writing. It’s in his blood; it’s in the food that he eats, the air he breathes. He has a Bachelor’s Degree from Eckard College in “St. Pete, Florida,” an M.A. from John Hopkins University and a Ph.D. from the University of Utah. He’s taught writing for more than three decades at Florida International University, in Miami, and many of his former students are guilty of perpetrating a few best-sellers themselves. Clearly the man knows his stuff.
I caught up with Hall earlier this year, as he was preparing to hit the road and promote his latest thriller, Forests of the Night, an ambitious standalone tale that is at once a sweeping family saga and a literary excavation of America’s often violent past, a riveting unearthing of long-buried dark secrets both familial and historical. (Of course, because it’s Hall, Forests is also challenging and provocative — not to mention one sweet, white-knuckled ride.) We talked about his research techniques, the pleasures and pains of teaching writing for a living, his turn from poetry-writing to crime fiction and his almost-career as a pro tennis player.
And forget those notions of the tortured artist — it’s clear Hall is having a ball.
Kevin Burton Smith: I think I’ve O.D.’d on your books, prepping for this interview. But I’m very impressed — every time I think I’ve got you pegged, you surprise me. And Forests of the Nightwas yet another change of pace — much of the action is a lot more psychological than I expected, and it takes place far from Florida. Where’d that one come from?
James W. Hall: I’ve always loved the mountains of North Carolina, dating back to the many summers I spent up there at camp. And later, I worked there as a counselor and did some other grubby kitchen jobs — all just to be around all that mountainous green. For the last seven years, my wife [Evelyn] and I have owned a house in Boone, North Carolina, and it’s become our second home. So the change of scenery grew out of that long-term love affair.
But I don’t think that, as a novel, Forests is essentially different. It’s fast and quirky like the others, although maybe the style is a little more streamlined and less poetic than usual.
Any idea where that style came from?
Well, I’ve been reading and loving John Sanford’s novels for some time, so I guess some of that shorthand writing rubbed off. As for the change of setting, well, you can only rhapsodize about the water and sky and breezes and the beautiful light of Florida for so long. After 12 novels I guess I just felt it was time to re-energize on some other setting.
Forests also seems a little more human-sized, a little less spectacular, although the generations-long feud was a neat twist. Very Ross Macdonald, that, in a Hatfield-McCoy way.
Yeah, I’ve been edging closer to more mainstream realism. Although, living in South Florida — where the daily news is so bizarre and extreme — our day-to-day realism may seem completely over-the-top by Oklahoma-Illinois standards.
A friend recently described your books as “over-the-top thrillers that quite often have an ecological theme.” Now, personally, I think she’s shortchanging you on the themes, but there’s definitely a sense of larger-than-life about your stuff, and I love the way you use the thriller format to tilt at your own personal windmills. So … what gets your goat these days?
I don’t see the books as soapboxes for any particular cause. I think that’s kind of dangerous — it can make the novel seem like a treatise (like the new [Michael] Crichton). It isn’t intellectually fair to argue only one side of a position.
Still, one does get a clear sense of, if not outrage, at least a vivid awareness that all is not right with the world.
Well, I love Florida, and I hate to see it hijacked by those who see it simply as a buck-making machine. Of course, that’s nothing new, but my approach to it is convey what I love about the place, not write sermonettes on what I don’t love, or spend page after page lamenting the lost golden age of Florida.
Thorn, who makes most of the cranky observations, is isolated from the world. So when he is dragged out into it and must deal with it, he’s almost an anthropologist visiting a newly discovered country. He’s shocked, appalled, fascinated and naïve. That kind of personality — the hermit, agoraphobic — is somewhat characteristic of writers. We don’t get out much.
But in each novel I try to find at least a couple of issues that have mattered to me for a while, and that I might be wrestling with. In Forests, one of those issues was mental illness. I wanted to try to get into the head of a schizophrenic, to the extent I could. I have a close friend with a schizophrenic son and have watched his agony for years.
Also, maybe I read too much Ross Macdonald at an early age, but I’m forever fascinated by the effects of some long-ago trauma on the present moment.
At times your work, particularly those stories featuring Thorn, remind me of James Lee Burke‘s fiction. But your stuff is generally less dark, less somber, more action-oriented, looser, more captivating.
Hey, I can be pretty somber. OK, maybe not as dark as Burke, but pretty dark. By the way, I love Burke, despite the fact that he’s been writing the same book over and over for a few years now. But it’s such a damn beautiful book that I really don’t care.
The same accusation has been hurled a few times at Ross Macdonald.
Old Ross, now there’s one of my inspirations. I keep The Underground Man on my desk at all times. I love what he could do with faces — nail a character in one sentence, then see into their damn soul with a facial tic.
Burke does weather as good as anyone. I’ve been around the water a lot, but I have to say, I never once smelled fish spawning. There’re a lot of spawning fish in Burke, for some reason.
Actually, that’s another thing you and Burke have in common. Not the fish spawning, but a certain feel, a certain visceral awareness of the land.
I don’t take many photos, but I take a lot of sensory snapshots. I spend lots of time out on boats or in natural surroundings, and my brain buzzes for weeks afterwards.
You mentioned grubby jobs before. What others have you done in your life?
Besides teaching writing, you mean? [Smiles] Oh, I’ve worked on landscaping crews (planting huge palm trees around new condo developments), [as a] lifeguard, marina gofer (washed yachts mainly); [I’ve] sliced roast beef in a buffet restaurant, [worked as a] mechanic at a go-cart track [and a] ranch hand at Redford’s Sundance place (which means I built a fence for him with some other guys).
Just one star-studded escapade after another, right?
Yeah, right. But actually, I met James Dickey once. He’s about the biggest star I ever saw.
Who have been your influences? At times, your work reminds me of a cross between Arthur Hailey, of all people, and John D. MacDonald. The MacDonald is obvious, but I also see the Hailey in the way you really dive into a hidden world and come back to the surface with all sorts of info in your teeth.
John D., yeah, of course. A big influence. And Elmore Leonard, and Bob Parker, and James Lee Burke. And [Ernest] Hemingway. That spare, understated style, the ironic tone. The things left intentionally unsaid. That hard-boiled tone, that’s [Dashiell] Hammett‘s voice, and Leonard’s too — but it all comes in a direct pipeline from Hemingway. He was the Papa of Hard-Boiled. Stiff upper lip, grace under pressure, personal code of ethics and ironic as hell. Another huge influence.
And Hailey — yes, him too, but only indirectly. I read him, but I never thought much of his abilities.
Me neither, although he did manage to set up some real potboilers in what, at the time, were unusual places — airplanes, hotels, the automotive industry.
True, true. This is one of the dozen or so characteristics of best-sellers: presenting insider information about a previously unknown world. [Hailey] was great at that. A sociologist of some of our big national institutions.
But for my money, John D. was actually better at dovetailing his research into the forward movement of the story, and into the detection itself. So the reader needs to know about coin collecting, for instance, to fully understand the nature of the crime and the nature of the people.
All that stuff about farmed tilapia in Mean High Tide, the electromagnetic zapper in Blackwater Sound, for example, or Charlotte Monroe, the face-reading cop who’s the hero of Forests — those were real thunks on the head for me. Do you do a lot of research for your books?
I’ve always liked novels that had a good quotient of information. The trick is not to swamp the story with it. A tough balancing act sometimes.
And does the idea for a story come out of the research, or does the research come out of the idea?
I like to spend about a month researching the subject that I’ve chosen (pain management, illegal animal smuggling, fish farming, etc.). I do some book research and Internet Googling, but mostly it’s just the out-on-the-street stuff that gives heft to the work. Anyway, during that month my initial idea usually changes substantially.
And now, I understand, you’re doing your own non-fiction book, on — what else? — writing. How’s that going?
I’m slogging my way through. It’s not like anything I’ve ever written before. It’s based on a course I’ve taught several times over the years, on the biggest best-sellers of all time: Gone With the Wind, Jaws, Valley of the Dolls, The Godfather, The Exorcist, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc. and what all these very different books have in common.
The DaVinci Code?
Didn’t care much for it, actually. “His eyes were wide as saucers. His jaw dropped.” I like my potboilers with less clichés.
And yet, Dan Brown’s novel has sold skedillions of copies. What do you think is its appeal?
Mega-skedillions, actually. I’m not going to give away any of the 12 recurring features of best-sellers (yet), but rest assured, The DaVinci Code has all of them — in spades. As you might guess, one of those recurring features is not stylistic gracefulness. But I can tell you this — the biggest best-sellers all share a fixed set of common denominators that are so similar, it’s scary.
It’s been fun to research this book, but man, writing it is tough. I really don’t want it to sound academic or stodgy or snooty, so finding the right tone and sustaining it is the hardest part.
How long have you been teaching writing?
I’m in my 32nd year at Florida International University.
Think you’ve got the hang of it yet?
Just about. I’m a full professor, Ph.D. in Literature, all that stuff.
A few of your former students are familiar. Care to drop a few names?
Well, Dennis Lehane is the big one, I guess. Though I’ve read interviews that Dennis has given about who influenced him in grad school, and my name doesn’t come up. But that’s fine. With a guy like Dennis, a good student, very well-read and opinionated, it was clear he didn’t need a lot of guidance — I’m just glad I managed not to screw him up. Barbara Parker, who writes very successful legal thrillers, is one of ours. She was writing romance novels when she began our program. And Vicki Hendricks wrote her first novel, Miami Purity, as an MFA thesis which I directed. Christine Kling published her first crime novel a couple of years ago, Surface Tension, which she started in one of my classes. Again, I take no credit for any of this. We have a bunch of great faculty members at the university here, all very successful writers in their own right, who all contributed. But mainly it’s those students, their persistence and ability and their belief in what they were doing, that made it all work.
But I’m a little shy about publicizing my academic record sometimes, because readers hear that and think, “Oh, god, he’s stuffy and difficult.” Robert Parker has a Ph.D. in Lit, but I notice he dropped it from his bio early on — about the same time he started wearing leather jackets and posing with a mean-ass dog.
I’m assuming your dogs, Carrie and Stella, aren’t particularly mean-ass, then?
I used to have Great Danes that I’d put up against any of Parker’s runts. But lately, I’ve downsized to Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. They’re bred to lie in your lap and make you feel important. Just what the doctor ordered for my twilight years.
What’s the most gratifying thing about teaching writing?
Seeing that occasional kid in an Intro to Creative Writing class “get it” and write something, often just a fragment, that shows serious talent. Pointing that out to the student and the class is a great joy. Occasionally, that student will go on to become a writing major or even get into the MFA program here, or maybe even be published themselves. To witness that whole process, and know that I played a part, maybe even a pivotal part in it, is very rewarding. And exciting.
And what’s the least gratifying thing about teaching writing?
Students who want to be writers, but who’ve never read much of anything, or at least never read anything they liked. Yet they’re often the most arrogant and difficult. Also, those students who are so lacking in basic writing skills that they shouldn’t even be in college. Talk about a major time drain.
So, how do you think teachers can screw up writers?
By trying to instill their own values in students, hammering them relentlessly with certain aesthetic beliefs. Some developing writers can lose connection with their own voice, their own perspective, if they surrender to that kind of browbeating. I try to tread lightly on the really talented ones. Let them find their own way with a light nudge, at most.
Truly good young writers are always rare. They were 30 years ago when I began — and they still are. Meanwhile, passionate readers seem to be a little less abundant, which worries me a bit.
Well, what have you been reading lately?
Just finished T. Jefferson Parker’s California Girl, and it was stunning. Love Jeff’s work, but this one is very special. Not that he’s “transcending the genre” — a term I find amusingly condescending — but I do think he’s broadening the genre. Finding a way to overlap with the mainstream novel.
Another book that made me twitch with envy recently was Don Winslow’s California Fire and Life. Wow, that guy knows his soot. But somehow, it never gets in the way. And the investigator’s voice — very tough, but fresh somehow.
You’re very generous to other writers, I must say.
Well, I’m first and foremost a reader, so all I’m really trying to do is write the book I’d like to read. I like so many writers, it’s hard to list them all. I’ve loved Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Elmore Leonard’s short-story collection [When the Women Come Out to Dance]. I’m reading Russell Banks’ The Darling right now. I love [Robert] Ferrigno and Jan Burke and Sue Grafton and Bob Parker. I also read outside the genre quite a bit, especially for my university class. And of course all those best-sellers — a wild assortment of books, but a lot of fun.
Ah, another question. You’re one of the few mystery authors to incorporate characters with mental illness into your books, be it crime-scene photographer Alexandra Rafferty’s dad (a retired police detective, introduced in the standalone Body Language, who shows up again in the Thorn novels Blackwater Sound and Off the Chart), who’s succumbing to Alzheimer’s and keeps getting into situations, then forgets — for example — why he’s holding a gun on someone, or Charlotte’s Monroe’s daughter in Forests of the Night, who’s schizophrenic. These people play active, major roles; yet you never resort to pandering or making them disposable victims. Where does that come from?
I love characters who are unpredictable, who have an inner system of belief that’s not necessarily coordinated with the world at large. My bad guys are frequently this way. They act without restraint, operating from the Id, the animal, amoral zone of the psyche. Any character who has such a radically different point of view from the norm can bring a wild-card excitement into the story.
My job, as I see it — one of them anyway — is to make even the most extreme characters, the deranged and even the outright evil, somehow sympathetic, or at least understandable. I don’t like psychotic killers who act without rhyme or reason.
Even if it’s only rhyme or reason to themselves?
Exactly. All actions, even wild and seemingly crazy ones, should have a source. A good writer peels the onion and finds that source. A not so good writer stays on the outer peel, and that’s not good enough for me. One of the reasons Hannibal [Lecter] resonated so well in The Silence of the Lambs was that [Thomas] Harris hinted at the source of his cannibalism — a hunger to consume the souls, the essences of his victims in order to fill up his own void.
Plus, of course, from a strictly autobiographical perspective, most writers are a little crazy, anyway. We sit around all day hearing voices and writing down what they say.
So the only difference between writers and your standard-issue wingnuts is that writers and other artists have a way to channel those voices?
Yes. Writers are just wingnuts with keyboards.
How do you feel about the publishing industry these days? Encouraged or discouraged?
There’s plenty to be discouraged about relating to the book business and reading habits of Americans. For one thing, the average age of readers continues to go up. That’s a scary fact for the future of books.
The biggest issue in the business itself is that book people no longer run the show. The corporate types, who are used to making larger profit margins than books traditionally do, now are in charge. That distorts the whole process.
What was your childhood like?
I had a lucky childhood. My parents decided to let me be as independent as they could tolerate. They let me follow my bliss, even when my bliss was adolescent foolishness.
So were you always a reader, and did you always want to be a writer?
I started reading in grade school. Hardy Boys. Loved them, wanted to do nothing but read and play sports all day. I read voraciously and indiscriminately. Bob Cousey’s autobiography one day and Dickens the next. I didn’t want to be a writer — I wanted to be a professional tennis player. But as a senior in high school, I had the misfortune of playing a younger kid from a nearby prep school, a ninth-grade hick named Roscoe. I should whoop his butt, right? Turns out it was Roscoe Tanner. Future Wimbledon finalist. So much for that dream.
So, there but for Roscoe Tanner …?
Exactly. Then, in college I met a poet-professor who was very cool. Peter Meinke, a writer of great wit and emotional honesty and depth. He wrote poems that were funny and clear, and just blew me away. I decided then that I didn’t want to be a preacher after all. I dropped my Religion major and changed to Lit and have never looked back. I think I’d decided on being a preacher mainly because I thought it meant only working one day a week.
So you wrote poetry?
I wrote pithy little one-liners, Kahlil Gibran-like stuff when I was a teenager. I thought it would impress girls. That’s how out of it I was. And then, as I said, I met Meinke when I first went to college, and decided I wanted his life. I had some early success — a poem accepted in Antioch Review at 19, letters from New York editors soliciting manuscripts (which were rejected). So I stuck with it until my novel-writing career kicked in. My poems were funny and accessible and narrative. A few are posted on my Web site so hard-core fans can have a sample.
What did you learn from writing poetry?
Probably the worst thing I learned was to care about how the sentences sounded as much as what they meant. So I futz endlessly with the language. Tweak, tweak. Cut words, rephrase. Looking for a cadence that’s more musical, more pleasing to my ear. All that takes a lot of time and I’m not sure most readers care, or should care.
So why crime fiction?
Well, this probably doesn’t reflect well on me, but I’d been writing novels during the same years as I was writing and publishing four books of poetry. I thought I was so damn good at writing that I could go slumming in the novel form and just do it without effort or revision. Four failed novels later, I thought, Hey, maybe I’m too dumb to write a decent novel. (I was trying to write meta-fiction. Remember that? Brautigan, Coover, Barth and Barthleme.) So I said, “OK, I’m going to really go down-market and write a stupid crime novel.” I was already secretly reading guys like Leonard and Parker on the weekends while teaching Barth and the literary canon during the week. That first novel, Under Cover of Daylight, which introduced Thorn, was actually far more difficult and more absorbing than the other experimental novels had been. I struggled to tell a story, to make believable characters, all the stuff I should’ve learned years and years before. And once I’d done it, I knew, without a doubt that I’d finally written a novel.
Writing a novel of suspense, I’ve discovered, is a far greater challenge than writing a mainstream, “respectable” novel, in which nothing much needs to happen for a lot of pages. I think this genre has attracted some of the best novelists of our era, mainly because it’s a form that demands great discipline and forces good writers to stretch themselves in all sorts of ways.
So, what traits of Thorn’s do you admire, and which ones are you glad you don’t have?
I’m isolated like Thorn, and I also spend a lot of time making these very small, tightly crafted items that only a few quirky weirdoes admire. Beyond that, no. The guy is a loose cannon — I’m not. He’s unpredictable, a lot darker than I am. It’s hard to be sunny when almost every woman you’ve ever slept with has been killed. In fact, originally Forests was supposed to be a Thorn book, but I couldn’t figure out any way to tie him in with a summer camp in North Carolina because, well, Thorn is just not a summer camp kind of guy.
If I had do it all over, I probably would have made Thorn a little more available to problems. As it is, one of his friends has to die before he’ll come down out of his treehouse — and I’m running out of friends of his to kill. That kind of reputation gets around a small place like Key Largo.
Ah, the eternal outsider who sees more than the insider. Again, a recurrent theme in much hard-boiled fiction. Why do you think it’s become so popular in American mythology?
Great question. I think there’s an aspect of the American psyche, that don’t-tread-on-me outlaw individualist, who we admire enormously. Cowboy heroes and Jesse James and Huck Finn, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird and on and on. Outsiders like Huck go into the world with a wonderful naïveté, almost an innocence. As a result, they’re able to see things as they truly are — all the hypocrisy, all the moral shallowness — more clearly than a jaded, more realistic character would. That’s sort of like the hard-boiled hero. Thorn’s a hard-bitten realist, yet he’s managed to keep his romantic edge, endlessly surprised and saddened by human frailties.
What’s your writing schedule like? Or does it vary from novel to novel?
My schedule is early to bed, early to rise. My wife is a consultant in the school system, so we get up before 5 a.m. After some exercise, I’m usually at work before 7. I write till I’m out of gas, which most days is about 4.
Seems to me you have plenty of stories still to tell.
An odd revelation I’ve had about the writing life is, it doesn’t get easier just because you’ve done it a lot. I’ve used up a lot of natural material. Explored certain areas down to the last nook and cranny. But yes, I still have the fever. I have no doubt I’ve got more stories to tell.
What literary accomplishments are you most proud of? Or is it always the next book?
I’m already in such uncharted waters, compared to what I imagined when I was a young man, that I’m still a little dizzied by it all. I try to concentrate on the next sentence. Watch the ball, watch the ball.
Yet, amazingly, more people than ever want to be writers, thinking there’s nothing to it. Any theories on why that is?
Everyone really does have a story to tell. They’re usually right about that. But if they haven’t learned how to tell it, well, it’d be like you or me trying to build a house just because we’d lived in a lot of them.
What’s your favorite thing about the writing life?
Somehow I’ve made it through my entire career without ever having a real job. I’ve been making it up as I go along for almost four decades. That’s just mind-blowing. I keep expecting a big thug to show up at my door someday and say, “OK, get up, you had your fun, now it’s time to do some real work.”
So, you still fish, hike, bird-watch, tinker with cars, have a 10-foot picnic table, a talented wife and a great house, or two. Life is good?
Life is amazing. | March 2005