Saturday, January 31, 2015

Weekend Guest Blogger: Reed Farrel Coleman

I'd like to introduce the Type M for Murder community to Reed Farrel Coleman, who is making his second appearance as a Sunday contributor. A lot has changed for Reed since we last heard for him, as you will soon read.

Reed is the New York Times Bestselling author of Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series. He has published twenty-two novels and novellas as well as short stories, essays, and poetry. His a three-time recipient of the Shamus Award for Best PI Novel of the Year and a three-time Edgar nominee in three different categories. He has also won the Audie, Barry, Macavity, and Anthony Awards. Reed is a former Executive Vice President of Mystery Writers of America and an adjunct instructor of English at Hofstra University. He lives with his family on Long Island.

You can find him at:
Twitter: @ReedFColeman

Becoming Parker
By Reed Farrel Coleman

After his death in 2010, Robert B. Parker’s wife, Joan, went to Otto Penzler and asked him to create a project that would pay homage to Mr. Parker’s career. So was created In Pursuit of Spenser, a collection of essays on the subject of Robert B. Parker’s literary legacy. Contributors included Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane, SJ Rozan, Ace Atkins, a host of other noted crime fiction authors, and yours truly. Otto asked if I would do a piece on Jesse Stone, Mr. Parker’s second most popular protagonist after Spenser. I gladly accepted the assignment. I wasn’t a voracious Parker reader. I had read some of his novels: a few Spensers and a couple of Jesse Stones. But given my assignment, I went back and read several more of each, adding a Western as well, and gained a greater appreciation for the characters and Mr. Parker’s writing talents. In the end, I wrote an essay entitled “Go East, Young Man: Robert B. Parker, Jesse Stone, and Spenser.” The well-received tribute was published in 2012, and that, as they say, was that … or so I thought.

Skip forward to early May of 2013. Two weeks earlier I had finished writing The Hollow Girl, the ninth and final installment of my Moe Prager Mystery series. The only contract I had was to write novellas for the Raven Books imprint of the Canadian house Orca Book Publishers. These are twenty thousand word books featuring little person detective Gulliver Dowd. They’re fun books to write and I love Gulliver, but they only take me about a month to do. What was I going to do with the other eleven months of the year? I suppose I thought I would write the books I always wanted to write, but never had time to do before: the YA/sci fi novel, the straight literary novel, the series of connected short stories. You know, all the ideas that had been kicking around in my head for years. I never got the chance.

At about 3 PM on the first Wednesday in that early May of 2013, I got a call from my agent. He kept asking me if I was sitting down. He asked me so many times that I threatened to strangle him if he didn’t just say what he had to say. “How would you like to be Robert B. Parker?” is what he asked. I knew he couldn’t be asking me to do the Spenser novels because my old pal Ace Atkins was doing a brilliant job with those. I had never written a Western, so he couldn’t be asking about Hitch and Cole. Sunny Randall? Maybe, but I was hoping he was asking about Jesse Stone. Bingo! It took me about a nanosecond to say yes. My life has taken quite a turn since then, including a stay at numbers 11 and number 17 on the New York Times Bestsellers list last September and October.

Here’s the funny part, though. I had assumed I got the gig because of my essay in In Pursuit of Spenser. It made sense, right? And that was the narrative I had created. Only when I had my first conversation with my editor and I mentioned the essay, she said, “Oh, that sounds interesting. I’ll have to read it.” So far becoming Robert B. Parker has been a lot like that, full of unexpected turns and surprises.

Okay, so now I had the gig. How was I going to handle moving forward with Mr. Parker’s Jesse Stone series? Would I try to do imitation of style in the way that *Michael Brandman had? Or should I take a different approach with the series? I am good at imitating voice, but after twenty-five years at this, I have also developed my own strong authorial voice. I sought the advice of several respected colleagues. The most influential of which was with my close pal Tom Schreck, the author of the popular Duffy Dombrowski series.

Tom is a huge Elvis Presley fan. What has Elvis to do with Jesse Stone? For me, everything. What Tom said to me was that he had seen the best Elvis impersonators in the world, but that even the greatest of them was limited by one unalterable factor: they could never do anything new. I can’t oversell the impact Tom’s words had on me. I realized that to do imitation would be a trap, that no matter how skilled I might be at it, the readers would always see my work as imitation. I further realized I hadn’t struggled for so long and sacrificed so much to do imitation. And had I been willing, imitation is hard to sustain. Easy to do for a page. Difficult to do for three hundred pages.

I took following approach: 1) Respect the protagonist and his supporting cast as they had previously been written. 2) Keep the form of the previous novels—third person, short chapters—intact. 3) Return to the darker, grittier tone of the early novels in the series. Even with this plan, I had to find my own way into the character(s). Although I had written several series and knew the mechanics of writing series novels, this wasn’t my series. Jesse wasn’t my character. How could I get into his head, his heart, and, most importantly, into his soul?

I came at Jesse as I have always come at characters, through their foibles, flaws, regrets. Jesse has three glaring problem areas: alcohol, his ex, his baseball injury. Of these, baseball my way into Jesse.  He regrets his drinking. Is torn over his divorce. But it is the baseball injury that haunts him. It was easy for me to put myself in his shoes. Easy to imagine being one phone call away from Dodger Stadium only to have his future turned upside down by a stupid, careless incident. Once I found that sweet spot, writing Jesse became a joyful challenge, one I hope to keep at for many years.

*A longtime friend and associate of Robert B. Parker, Michael Brandman wrote the three Jesse Stone novels immediately following Mr. Parker’s death. He was, and continues to be, a major force in the production of the acclaimed Jesse Stone TV movies.

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