At the time, I was working feverishly to finish the third novel in my Mulligan crime series, and I resented the interruption. Besides, the Associated Press, for which I write book reviews from time to time, has a policy against its writers making commercial endorsements. And I’d never heard of David Freed. I had no reason think the book would be any good. But I cracked Flat Spin open anyway and was immediately hooked.
Before I reached the last page, I knew this newcomer had written one of the best crime novels I’d read all year. So, instead of writing a bit of book jacket copy, I cranked out a full-blown review.
I also decided that I, and my readers, would like to get to know David better, so I interviewed him for this blog. Here’s how the conversation went:
BD: Pitch Flat Spin to us in 25 words or less.
DF: A wise-cracking government assassin-turned-flight instructor is asked by his ex-wife to help investigate the murder of the man she dumped him for.
BD: One of the reasons I like crime novels is that they are usually written by people who led other lives before becoming writers–unlike those who go straight from MFA programs to writing careers. That gives crime novelists something real to say about the world we live in. You’ve had more experiences than most. Tell us about that, and about how it enriches your work.
DF: There is no better training ground when it comes to writing fiction, in my opinion, than writing nonfiction. I spent nearly 20 years doing just that, largely covering the military and law enforcement as a newspaper reporter. I hung out with homicide detectives and convicted killers, rubbed elbows with spies and commandos, covered a war, watched a few autopsies, once witnessed an execution, and interviewed literally thousands of people, from the truly heroic to rabid sociopaths. And the cool part was, I got paid to do it—although not very well, as I’m sure you can appreciate, Bruce, being a former newspaper guy yourself.
BD: Since you’re being modest, I’ll add that during your stint at The Los Angeles Times, you were a solo finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and shared in the Pulitzer for coverage of the Rodney King riots.
DF: After leaving the world of daily print journalism, I labored briefly as an investigator for CBS News, helping cover the OJ Simpson murder case, before landing work in Hollywood as a screenwriter, writing for national magazines, and as an asset within the U.S. intelligence community. As a recreational outlet, I also earned a pilot’s license along the way. I suppose I always figured that all of that real world experience would eventually lend itself in some fashion to the less-than-real world of crime fiction. That I‘ve been able to incorporate some of my experiences in my first novel has been very satisfying.
BD: Flat Spin, the title of your debut thriller, is the name of a complex, treacherous flight maneuver that only the most accomplished pilots should risk. Have you tried it? And if so, did you live through it?
DF: Chuck Yeager inadvertently entered a flat spin in The Right Stuff and crashed big time. Ditto Maverick and Goose in Top Gun—and Goose died! If pilot gods like that couldn’t recover from a flat spin, there’s no way a mere mortal pilot like me ever would. I’ve never attempted one and I hope I never will. However, the hero of my book, Cordell Logan, flew Air Force A-10 Warthogs in Desert Storm. He probably wouldn’t hesitate to give it a shot under the right circumstances because that’s the kind of balls-out dude he is.
BD: Logan is tough, all right, but he’s vulnerable, too. When he longs for his beautiful ex-wife Savannah, his pain is so real that the reader’s heart will ache. Something you know from experience, or are you just good at making the love stuff up?
DF: I’ve never been divorced, fortunately, but I certainly have had my heart broken a time or two. Like all of us, I also can count no shortage of friends and relatives who’ve gone through traumatic break-ups of their own. Some, like Logan, never get over them. The searing emotional pain that comes with watching a special person walk out of your life is endemic to us as a species; it’s an experience to which virtually every reader can relate. Which makes our work as a writers that much more relatable when making the “love stuff” up.
BD: I have been divorced, but when it comes to writing love scenes, I freeze. Fortunately, I am now married to one of our greatest living poets, Patricia Smith. So when I need some of that “love stuff,” I call her over and say, “Honey, what do you think these two love birds would say or do here?” I do feel comfortable touching on my characters’ religion, however, so I was fascinated by Logan’s. His recent conversion to Buddhism doesn’t seem to be going very well, his struggles to find inner peace providing the funniest parts of the book. Anything autobiographical about that?
DF: I’m not a Buddhist, though I am intrigued with the religion and admire those who strive to achieve its Zen-like tranquility. Buddhism boiled down espouses little more than the Golden Rule. It encourages a peaceful, nonjudgmental, live-and-let-live lifestyle. Nothing wrong with that. Logan’s problem is that he is a man quick to action and does not suffer fools gladly. Plus, he has a weakness for carne asada burritos, which true Buddhists, who are generally vegetarian, tend to frown on. In that regard, there may well be some autobiographical linkage between Logan and me. I doubt I could ever fully embrace any religion that rejects meat burritos.
BD: Or, in my case, Irish whiskey and cigars. In describing your life experiences, you downplayed your technical expertise, which includes scripting computerized training simulations for the Defense Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Army’s Battle Command Lab. Most novelists who have a lot of technical expertise are clumsy writers. Your prose is both muscular and musical—and sometimes verges on poetry. Where did you learn to write like that?
DF: Thanks for the compliment. Truthfully, though, I’m not sure how to answer the question. Writing is a craft. The longer you hone any craft, the more competent you should become. I believe that writing is rewriting. The only way to write well, for me anyway, is to never be content with what you’ve written. Rewrite your prose until it sings to your ear. Always strive to improve it, even if it means rewriting it a dozen times or more.
BD: Amen. People think they read with their eyes, but they really read with their ears. Years ago, the late great Robert B. Parker told me that people love his Spenser private detective novels for the same reason they like certain songs. They like liked the way they sound. Flat Spin, of course, is not really a P.I. novel. How would you place it in the various crime sub-genres? Which writers in that tradition most influenced you, and how?
DF: For better or worse, I’m not sure Flat Spin falls squarely in any defined sub-genre of crime fiction. It’s not a police procedural. It’s not a cozy.
BD: Well, it sure isn’t a cozy. I’d categorize it as a literary thriller.
DF: If anything, I’d say it’s a funny whodunit. Logan is a hardboiled bad ass in the mold of Parker’s Spenser. He’s also a sardonic smart ass ala Gregory McDonald’s Fletch. Toss in a reluctant amateur sleuth who flies his own airplane like “Sky King,” and what you have, I hope, is a book that humors readers more than it horrifies them.
BD: Whatever it is, it’s damned good. Tell us about your writing process. Do you outline or make it up as you go along? Do you polish as you go, or do you bang out a rough first draft and then revise?
DF: I start out with a fairly basic outline to the extent that I know where the story begins and where it will end. I’ll add a few major plot beats to the skeleton. Then I’ll go back to the beginning of the outline and, in narrative fashion, with as much detail as I can reasonably muster, script the first several dozen pages of the book. It’s not unlike a football coach who lays out the first 10 or 15 offensive plays he wants his team to run. Doing so creates foundation and rhythm, both of which help dictate the rest of the game. I’ve found that some of my most satisfying creative turns come on the fly, when I allow my characters to speak to me. Holding fast to a set outline, for me anyway, does not allow much maneuver room.
BD: I do pretty much the same thing, minus the initial outline. I start off with a vague idea of what the book will be about and then just set my characters in motion to see what they will do and say. I find that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, my readers probably won’t either. So tell me, what do you read for pleasure, and what recent books–other than mine, of course–do you most admire?
DF: By virtue of my journalistic background, I tend to read a lot of nonfiction, especially biographies, political exposes, American history, and modern adventure. I like a lot of Jon Krakhauer’s stuff. Likewise the work of Sebastian Junger. If I become particularly interested in a subject–the JFK assassination and the decisions that led George W. Bush to invade Iraq are two recent examples that come to mind–I’ll typically read many books in that area, one after the other. As far as fiction goes, I’m all over the map. Nobody did it better than Faulkner and Steinbeck, in my opinion. Relatively little-known James Salter is certainly among the most brilliant American wordsmiths alive today. I read “City of Thieves” not long ago by David Benioff and thought it exceptional. I’m currently reading “Matterhorn,” a very impressive novel about Marines fighting in Vietnam written by Karl Marlantes, himself a former grunt. Truth be told, I tend not to read many mystery-thrillers these days, if only because I don’t want to be envious of authors who are vastly more skilled than me, and also because I don’t want to subconsciously imprint their work on mine. That said, however, I am truly looking forward to reading “Cliff Walk,” the much-anticipated second Mulligan crime novel written by a certain Edgar Award-winning author whom we both know but who shall remain nameless here ‘lest I be accused of flagrant pandering.
BD: Pander all you want, pal. So what’s next for David Freed and Cordell Logan?
DF: If all goes according to plan, the next Logan mystery will hit the shelves in 2013. I won’t give too much away other than to say something dramatic happens to Logan that will change his life forever. How’d that for a tease?
BD: Perfect. I can hardly wait. Any advice for aspiring crime novelists?
DF: Live as large a life as you can–and take good notes. That way, you’ll have material that resonates with at least a patina of authenticity when you ultimately do decide to try your hand at that first novel. Then write. Don’t go to Starbucks and say you’re going there to write when we all know you’re really there to eye the local talent. Don’t go to endless workshops and talk about being a writer. Write. Even if it means missing a couple hours’ sleep a night, getting up early before your day job begins, or staying home when your friends are out partying, you cannot be a writer without walling yourself off from the world, planting your butt in a chair, and writing. Maintain a schedule. Tell yourself you’re going to crank out a certain number of words each day, then do it. It’s like going to the gym. You’ll never build any muscles by working out once a week or every couple of weeks. Build up a head of steam and maintain it. The late great John Gregory Dunn once described writing as nothing more than laying one length of pipe in front of another until the pipeline is complete. Dunn definitely had it down.
BD: Great advice. The main difference between a novelist and someone who aspires to be one is discipline. I urge the wannabes not to be overwhelmed by the seemingly huge task of writing a whole book. Just write 800 words a day every day and you can finish an 80,000-word crime novel in 100 days. That’s how Parker managed to write 70 novels between the age of 42, when he started, and 82, when he died at his writing desk.
DF: And one more thing: don’t share your crime novel with anybody until it’s 100 percent finished and as good as you can possibly make it. Little will undermine a writer in mid-project faster than the often half-baked creative suggestions of otherwise well-intentioned acquaintances who wouldn’t know good writing if it kissed them on the lips. It’s your book. Don’t let anybody else tell you how to write it until a reputable publisher offers you a seven-figure deal. Then rewrite it exactly as they say!
BD: When you win the Edgar Award for best first novel, where are you going to display it?
DF: LOL, as my kids would say. Hey, don’t get me wrong. I’d love to win an Edgar. From your lips to the Buddha’s ears. But I learned long ago that a writer’s true reward comes not in plaques or shiny pieces of hardware to put up on the mantle (or in a box up in the attic, as the case may be in my house). It comes in connecting with the public. If Flat Spin brings readers pleasure, helps them escape for a few hours the pressures and frustrations of daily life that we all endure, I will be more than happy.
BD: That’s how I always felt about awards during my long journalism career, but as a novelist I love awards. Why? Because they help sell books! One last thing, David. Where can we find you online?
DF: David-Freed.com. Thanks, Bruce!