We’re fortunate this week that Wallace Stroby, one of crime fictions hottest young writers, was able and willing to take a short time-out from his swamped schedule down in south New Jersey to speak with the Mysterious Book Report about how he does what he does in such a compelling, forceful and so damned interesting way. It’s an honor to speak with one who will most certainly become a giant in the genre. So with all that said, here’s the first question:
Where do you write?
In my office at home. I can’t write anywhere else and reach the level of concentration I need. I have friends and colleagues who write in public – in coffee shops, libraries, trains, etc – but I don’t know how they do it. I’m easily distracted by – and hyper-sensitive to – what’s going on around me.
Who’s your favorite literary character?
I have a bunch. Of the ones I wish I’d created, foremost would be Will Graham from Thomas Harris’ RED DRAGON, and Ray Hicks from Robert Stone’s DOG SOLDIERS. They’re both multi-dimensional characters in incredibly stressful situations. The same is true of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux – 22 books later, he’s still one of the most compelling characters in American fiction. He’s a guy with more than his share of demons, but who still strives to do the right thing and live an honorable life.
And though she’s not strictly a literary character, I’d include Jane Tennison from TV’s PRIME SUSPECT, created by Lynda LaPlante and unforgettably played by Helen Mirren. A brilliant detective and usually the smartest person in the room, but not always right and not always likeable.
I’ve read, and re-read all of the Robicheaux novels, and I absolutely agree. Do you plot-outline or wing it?
Once I have the set-up – the characters, situation, etc. – then I wing it. It feels like a more natural process that way. For me, too much advance planning saps the energy of the story, so that it becomes less a journey and more of a task. Sometimes, of course, you end up in blind alleys you hadn’t anticipated, and then have to backtrack to find where you went wrong. So either approach is a trade-off.
Do you read your reviews?
I dip into them occasionally to get the gist, but I don’t read them all, and I try not to take them too much to heart. The exact same book can get a pan from one reviewer, and a rave from another. Of course, the bad ones hurt and the good ones are nice, but the only thing that’s ever under your control is the actual writing.
As for dealing with negative reviews, I always quote Hyman Roth from GODFATHER II: “This is the business we’ve chosen.”
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
There’s only one piece of advice that means anything: Read a lot and write a lot. Read everything. Find a book you love and reverse-engineer it. Strip it down and take it apart until you see how it works, where the seams are, how the parts fit. Then forget all that and write. Hopefully everything you’ve processed will emerge organically.
How did your book first get published?
As always, there was a lot of luck involved. I’d finished a draft of my first book, THE BARBED-WIRE KISS, in 1999 or thereabouts and was lucky enough to attract the attention of the legendary agent Knox Burger, who represented Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Martin Cruz Smith and many others. He led me through a top-to-bottom rewrite of the mss. with some excellent advice and suggestions. Unfortunately, by the time that redraft was done, Knox, who was in his late 70s, had fallen ill and was selling his agency. In the meantime, through my newspaper job at the Newark Star-Ledger, I’d met a writer named Mark McGarrity, who was writing a series of mystery novels set in Ireland, under the pen name Bartholomew Gill. Mark read the mss. and thought his agent, Robin Rue at Writer’s House, might like it. When Knox bowed out, I did another rewrite, then sent it to Robin in Feb. 2001. She sold it to St. Martin’s Press shortly afterward. Unfortunately, Mark died in an accidental fall in 2002, a few months before the book came out.
Does your style make use of adjectives and adverbs?
I’d write a book totally free of adverbs if I could, but that’s not possible (some adverbs, such as “slowly,” are too specific to be eliminated). In general, I adhere to Elmore Leonard’s Rules of Writing (though each of them has exceptions, as I’m sure Leonard himself would have admitted). Rule #4 is “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’. “I’d add my own rule: If you’re relying too much on adjectives and adverbs, then your sentences aren’t clear enough to start with.
Elmore “Dutch” Leonard is one of my personal heroes. Many thanks—I enjoyed our time together and look forward to your next one. Stay in touch!
Where could you be reached on the World Wide Web?
All the usual places:
Wallace Stroby is an award-winning journalist and the author of eight novels, four of which feature professional thief Crissa Stone, whom Kirkus Reviews named “Crime fiction’s best bad girl ever.”
A Long Branch, N.J., native, he’s a lifelong resident of the Jersey Shore. His debut novel THE BARBED-WIRE KISS, which The Washington Post called “a scorching first novel …full of attention to character and memory and, even more, to the neighborhoods of New Jersey,” was a finalist for the 2004 Barry Award for Best First Novel.
His 2010 novel GONE ‘TIL NOVEMBER was picked as a Kirkus Best Book of the Year, as was the second Crissa Stone novel KINGS OF MIDNIGHT. In 2012, the Crissa Stone novels were optioned by Showtime Networks for development.
A graduate of Rutgers University, Stroby was an editor at the Star-Ledger of Newark, Tony Soprano’s hometown newspaper, for 13 years.