Dana King’s first Nick Forte PI novel, A Small Sacrifice, was nominated for a Shamus Award by the Private Eye Writers of America as Best Indie PI Novel for 2013. His first traditionally published novel, Grind Joint, was released by Stark House in November 2013, and was named by Woody Haut in the LA Review of Books as one of that year’s fifteen best noir reads. Earlier novels have received praise from authors such as Charlie Stella, Timothy Hallinan, Adrian McKinty, and Leighton Gage. His short story, “Green Gables,” was published in the anthology Blood, Guts, and Whiskey, edited by Todd Robinson. Other short fiction has appeared in New Mystery Reader, A Twist of Noir, Mysterical-E, and Powder Burn Flash.
Dana has worked as a musician, public school teacher, adult trainer, and information systems analyst. He lives in Maryland with his Beloved Spouse and The Sole Heir.
What made you decide to be an author?
That’s a harder question than it sounds. There was no “Eureka!” moment. About twenty years ago I “discovered” Raymond Chandler, and that put the bug in me, how he used the language to tell his stories. I started out writing short stories for friends and people I worked with, using them as characters. Those were well received, so I kept at it. The stories became more complex over time, and their construction started to engage more of my imagination when not otherwise occupied, and I let it run. I found I enjoyed the challenge of writing in the longer forms, so novels have been my main focus since.
What do you like best about being a writer?
First, it’s the wordsmithing, getting each phrase to come out as close to what I want as I can get it. I’m one of those oddballs who enjoys editing much more than first drafts. A close second is the company of other writers, whether it’s online, or, too rarely, in person. One of the perks of having writers as friends is one gets to deal with clever, often funny, people who think about things and are good at expressing themselves. That combination can’t help but be fun.
How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
Honestly? Hardly at all. My reading and movie and television viewing are my formative influences. Since I got into writing I’ve had a few things happen that have helped—having a cop point a gun at you is a good way to develop empathy for anyone in a similar situation—but the key element for me is to try to get into each character’s head. It’s been said a writer’s job is to get the reader to empathize with the characters. If I can’t, how can I expect them to? The trick is to draw on the experiences of those we know and place them into some of the extreme situations my characters find themselves in.
Have you ever felt as if you were being dictated to while you wrote a book–as if the words came of their own accord? If yes, which book did that happen with?
Not so much dictated as watching a movie of the scene play out, and my job is to transcribe what’s happening. This is especially true in dialog, where, once I get people talking, sometimes it’s all I can do to keep up.
You’ve written five novels and are working on a sixth. What’s your favorite time management tip?
Make the writing a habit, something that gets done every day, just like washing the dishes and picking up the mail. Writing is not a glamorous endeavor, though having written may be, with good reviews and attaboys from writers you respect. It’s a matter of locking yourself in a room and getting the work done.
I am very lucky in that regard. My daughter is grown and in graduate school, and my day job lets me work from home, so commuting is not an issue. There’s no excuse for me not to find time to write. That said, writers with far more demands on their time than I have find ways to do it. “Wanting to be a writer” is not “being a writer.” That hour or so of TV before bed may have to go.
Are you a plotter or a pantser, i.e., do you outline your books ahead of time or are you an “organic” writer?
Plotter, definitely. In fact, that’s what I’ve been doing this month, outlining the next book. The outlines aren’t very detailed—often just a sentence or paragraph of what has to happen in each chapter—but I need to know what happens before I sit down to write it. Any spontaneous creative talent I have lies in the telling. Once I know what I have to accomplish in a chapter or scene, how I do that is left to the spur of the moment, so I guess I’m that much of a pantser.
If you had one take away piece of advice for authors, what would it be?
Set reasonable expectations for yourself. There are a lot more people who want to be authors than there are spots in publishers’ schedules. Give your best effort on the things you can control—primarily writing the best book you have in you—and take the rest as it comes. If you base your idea of success on sales or a Big Five contract, well, those things are out of your control. Keep an even keel. Before I was published, I used to keep my spirits up by reminding myself that I wrote better than some published authors I’d read. Once I was published, I switched to reminding myself there are better writers than me who are not published. All I can control is to give each book, and its potential readers, my best effort.
Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
I used to, but not any more. Much of my style has to do with how the words sound, so much so I’ll sometimes choose a less than perfect word from a definition standpoint, because another word sounds better in that spot, based on the rhythm of the sentence. I can’t do that and have any musical diversions. Sometimes I miss having music around, but I’ve become a better writer since I made the change.
Tell me more about The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of.
Russell Arbuthnot is a ham actor who bears more than a passing resemblance to Sidney Greenstreet and has come into possession of a statue that may, or may not, be one of the props from the classic movie, The Maltese Falcon. Arbuthnot has built a one-man stage show around it, but ticket sales are weak. Private Investigator Nick Forte is hired to serve as a bodyguard after Arbuthnot receives threats. The threats aren’t well documented, and the hiring is given great fanfare, so just about everyone assumes it’s a publicity stunt until Arbuthnot turns up dead, and the falcon goes missing. This is the kind of publicity Forte can do without, so he sets out to at least recover the statue. The book is my homage to Hammett and the movie, as well as the other classic detective stories of the period.
How about an excerpt from The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of?
My pleasure. How about Chapter One?
A Handsome Woman
There was a time when Sheila O’Donoghue would have been described as a handsome woman. She guarded the vestiges of the beauty she must once have considered her birthright the way a drunk protects his last bottle of gin.
Her methods were paying off. I couldn’t guess how many hours on the Stair Master kept her legs in the condition she managed to show at every opportunity. Her eyes were aquamarine and barely possible to avoid staring at. She had a disconcerting habit of making eye contact without looking at me straight on, always showing a slight left profile. Must have been her good side.
She sat in the chair across the desk not looking any more comfortable than anyone else who sat there. It’s wasn’t a bad chair. Getting comfortable shouldn’t be a problem. Maybe it was me. Good thing I’m not insecure.
“Are you familiar with the name Russell Arbuthnot?” she asked in a resonant voice that must have given great phone.
“No, sorry. Are you familiar with the name Larry Conway?”
“Then we’re even.”
I got a hard look for a few seconds before a smile snuck up on her. She let it have its way and I got a tease of what she must have looked like twenty years ago. Anyone would fight to keep looks like that.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That was businesslike to the point of coldness, wasn’t it? May we start over?”
“No apology necessary. I understand no one really wants to come here to see me, so I don’t pay much mind to first impressions. I didn’t help matters by being a smartass. Now that we really are even, why don’t you tell me why you’re here?”
She smiled a mouthful of even white teeth and relaxed her posture. “Thank you. I suppose I am a little nervous. I’m a theatrical agent. Russell Arbuthnot is one of my clients. I thought a man in your profession would be familiar with his one-man show. It opens at the Goodman Theater the day after tomorrow.”
“Now that you mention it, it does ring a bell. Isn’t he doing that Maltese falcon show? What’s it called—The Black Bird? Is that him?”
“Yes. He lives in Chicago. The Goodman performances are the beginning of a national tour.”
“I read good things about it. I’ve been meaning to get tickets for next week.”
“Would backstage passes be all right? Of course you’d be working, but you’d see every performance.” She sat forward, smoothing the skirt of her suit, directing my attention to her legs while letting me pretend I had a choice about it.
“What’s the gig?”
“Threats have been made.” She waited for eye contact before continuing. “Nothing specific. Some notes and a couple of phone calls.”
“As I said, they’re very vague. ‘Don’t sleep too soundly’ was one. ‘I want what’s mine.’ Things like that.”
“Do you know of anyone with reason to hurt him?”
She shifted in the chair and I saw exactly how well the suit that matched her eyes fit her. Sheila O’Donoghue didn’t just throw on any old thing when she left the house. “Russell has quite a taste for women, and his position and charm allow him to indulge himself regularly. He is not always as discrete as he might be.”
“Anyone in particular?”
“I’m his agent. We’re close, but I’m not privy to his extracurricular trysts.” Her tone left it open whether she disapproved of the trysts or of not knowing the details.
“Have you seen any of the notes?”
“No. Russell destroyed them as soon as he read them.”
“Why? They could be useful to the police.”
“He doesn’t take the threats seriously.”
“He took them seriously enough to tell you.”
“We’ve been together for over twenty years. There’s very little either of us doesn’t know about the other.”
“Except for his extracurricular trysts.” She gave me the look I should have expected. Some day I’ll learn to think of that before I say whatever it is I shouldn’t have said to prompt that reaction. “You took the threats seriously enough to come to me. Why?”
“Because I’m worried, and because I know Russell wants me to.” I gestured with my hand for her to continue.
“Russell’s self-image won’t let him show any concern over something like this, even if he has some. By telling me, he’s tacitly admitting he’s worried enough to allow something to be done.”
I didn’t answer right away and made myself look away from her eyes. My attention wound up on her knees, crossed demurely enough to deny purpose, even if we both knew better.
“What do you want done?”
“I want you to make sure no one carries out any threats until Russell leaves for his national tour in two weeks.”
“We’re making arrangements with a national firm to provide security while he travels. We want someone local until then.”
“Why me? I’m just a one-man operation. A firm that could handle him on tour could just as easily do it locally.”
“You don’t want the job?”
“I didn’t say that. I’m curious what you think I can offer that they can’t? I can’t give him twenty-four by seven protection. I have to sleep and go to the bathroom once in a while.”
“Russell isn’t comfortable with the idea of a bodyguard. I’m hoping you’ll hit it off and get him used to having someone with him every waking minute. That should make everything more bearable for the four months he’ll be on the road.”
“What makes you think we’ll bond?”
She smiled without separating her lips. The victory of showing yet another man he had underestimated her filled her eyes. “Your background as a musician should make you better able to deal with an artistic temperament. At least that’s what I’m hoping.” My previous life as a musician is not common knowledge, for obvious reasons.
“He wants a pansy for a bodyguard?”
She sent me a more intense look. Her eyes were going to be a problem, as well as she knew how to use them. “Your adventure with Frankie Calabra was hardly the work of a pansy.”
“Ah,” I said, like it meant something. We played coy for a few seconds. She let me go first.
“He’s on the road for four months. Then what?”
“Then nothing, I hope. The threats can’t last forever.”
“Depends on whether you’re dealing with a crank or someone with an obsession.”
“You don’t seem very enthusiastic about this.”
“I don’t like to disappoint clients. I’m not sure I can deliver what you’re looking for.”
“Would ten thousand dollars make you any more sure?”
It took considerable self-control to keep from sitting up too quickly and breaking a knee on the desk. “For two weeks’ work?” I don’t like doing protection. It’s as tedious as a stakeout and you have to put up with the subject, but my fifteen minutes of fame from saving Frankie Calabra were over and bills had to be paid. Five grand a week relieves a lot of tedium.
“Yes.” She showed the same smile, but less of it. The full treatment would have looked smug. “I asked around and then talked to Russell. We think you’d be uniquely suited to ease his discomfort about having what he refers to as a ‘strong-arm man’ at his side.”
“Is that another fruity musician reference? You don’t think I can do strong-arm?”
This smile showed teeth. “Not at all. From where I sit, you seem admirably suited for it.” A lesser man would have blushed.
“When do I start?”
“You have to meet Russell first.”
“When and where?”
“Right now, at his home.” She stood and pretended to smooth her skirt again. That appeared to be her move, the way Michael Jordan liked to go right. When she turned for the door I saw a small lift scar under her jaw on the side she kept turned away. “He has a condo on Michigan Avenue near the theater. We’re expected.”
Confidence is an attractive trait in a woman. I gave Sharon a few calls to return, some reports to file, and the usual instructions bosses leave with secretaries. Then Sheila and I left to meet my new client and his ten thousand dollars.
Where can readers find more about your stories, books and you on the Internet?
Website: Launching January 2015)
Twitter: No Twitter. Most people think I’m a big enough twit already.
Blog: One Bite at a Time (http://danaking.blogspot.com )
Buy Links: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of
Thank you so much for being with us here today. I know my readers will enjoy your work and your interview.