Tag Archives: fiction

The Four Questions

And the voice of J. D. Rhoades was heard throughout the land: post four questions relating to yourself as a writer, along with an image and link for your latest book. Then invite three other authors to do likewise the next Monday.

1. What am I working on?

I’m in the middle of polishing an essay collection called Let the Devil Speak: Articles, Essays, and Incitements. (Historian Rick Perlstein and music writer AMERICANDICTATOTSFRONTMichael Gray have given me the most awesome cover blurbs.) I’m also plotting out a sequel to my first crime novel, We All Fall Down, that will take the heroine to some pretty harrowing places. I’m also doing preliminary research on a couple of likely nonfiction projects that will be a decisive break from the political boss/political machine orientation of my first two nonfiction books, The Last Three Miles and American Dictators.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I like to think my fiction is distinguished by its level of realism, its intensity of emotion and its preference for unconventional protagonists and points of view. A big part of the impetus for writing We All Fall Down was my wish to create a woman cop who reflected the ones I’ve met on the job. With that in mind, I decided to complicate the picture by making Karen McCarthy an unattractive woman who under regular circumstances would probably be ignored by most men. Giving someone like that a job that makes her impossible to ignore opened up lots of intriguing possibilities.

3. Why do write what you do?

That question assumes I have a choice. I go in for crime stories, partly from taste and partly because newspaper work and the things I observe on the job provide fuel for my imagination. Part of the inspiration for We All Fall Down was a trial in which a jeweler was accused of using an armed robbery at his store as an excuse for killing his wife during the gunplay. (The novel’s opening chapter has nothing to do with the case, I was just struck by the idea of using a crime to cover up another, even bigger crime.) Echo was in part an angry response to some sexual assault cases I knew about, as well as a local sex-crime case in which many locals (smart people I had never suspected of Neanderthal tendencies) sided with the aggressor, a local pillar of the community. I like fantasy and science fiction but I have no gift for writing either. I tend toward hyper-realism in my fiction.

 4. How does your writing process work?

My pattern with fiction is to start with a scene and play with ideas and plotlines that lead to and away from it. Once the novel’s first quarter and final scene are Cover 2a - 5in 72dpi - front for screenfixed in my mind, I start writing in earnest. I don’t work with outlines in fiction — I like to surprise myself. (Nonfiction is a different matter. Structure is your best friend when writing a large nonfiction work.) While working on something I usually develop odd fixations on certain pieces of music that have no obvious connection to the project. I let them play themselves out, because writing is a conscious and subconscious activity. Once a project is finished, I put it aside to cool off before revisions. There are always revisions, and coming back to the project after a brief interval allows you to see things and make new thematic connections.

This past fall saw publication of my latest nonfiction book as well as my second crime novel. American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine (Rutgers University Press) is a dual biography of two men I consider the ultimate political bosses in terms of power and influence: Frank Hague, master of Jersey City and Hudson County, and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, the preening Boardwalk peacock of Atlantic City. (He is the inspiration for the heavily fictionalized Nucky Thompson in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.) The book has gotten some very good notices and even rated a mention in the New York Times. Echo (Black Angel Press) is my black diamond: the darkest, most hard-edged novel I will probably ever write. It’s proved to be much less popular than We All Fall Down, which doesn’t surprise me because it’s a much harsher book, but I think its heroine and her sister are the two best female characters I’ve written to date. It’s also produced the most extreme reactions of any novel I’ve written: some thought it was a knockout, but one friend resolutely refuses to say anything about it one way or the other. (She’s still willing to associate with me, so I guess that’s a positive sign.) Joyce Carol Oates was the presiding spirit for the project.

As for tagging some other writers and authors — any volunteers? Bathsheba Monk, any irons in the fire? Anybody else?       

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What’s the diff

Marissa Lingen raises an interesting question for any writer: How is writing fiction different from writing nonfiction?

For me, they overlap significantly. I’m not prepared to say that they’re identical, because writing 750 words on Hilbert spaces for an encyclopedia and writing 750 words of short-short story are not at all similar for me. But, for example, telling a story about my cousin and telling a story about one of my characters are not all that dissimilar. I think most people tell stories about their family and friends naturally, without necessarily identifying what they’re doing or how they’re doing it, so it’s harder to apply it to fictional characters because it feels like your ordinary conversational stories are just saying what really happened, and with fiction, that’s not an option.

I’ve written nonfiction in the form of newspaper articles, longer magazine pieces and a book-length work of narrative history, the last published a couple of years ago as The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. I’ve also written several novels, the first three of which were tyro jobs that will probably never be published, but the rest of which may yet see the light of print via the good offices of my invincible agent.

Personally, I think of fiction and nonfiction as arms strengthening each other. Writing nonfiction instills the necessity for thorough research and good organization of one’s materials. Writing fiction keeps one aware of the need for narrative drive and convincing presentation. (The amateur writer’s last-ditch defense for unconvincing fiction — “But it really happened!” — only works in nonfiction, and not always there, either.)

In my case, research provides fodder for my imagination. I enjoy and admire a lot of science fiction and fantasy, but I have no gift for writing it. My mind tilts toward social realism, and the years I spent in the county courthouse — particularly the times I pitched in on covering trials — fired my imagination in all kinds of ways.

And if my agent can pull some of my projects out of the quicksand of the publishing industry slowdown, you may get a chance to see where that imagination led me.

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