Q&A With Reed Bunzel
Looking back at your childhood, in what ways did your parents most influence you as a person—and as a writer?
My mother read to me every night. When I was really young it was mostly the standard picture books of the time, including Dr. Seuss (I particularly enjoyed Happy Birthday To You), P.D. Eastman (Sam and the Firefly), and Robert McCloskey (Make Way For Ducklings and One Morning in Maine). Eventually the selections evolved into Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and one I particularly liked—and caused me to want to visit New York—was George Selden’s The Cricket In Times Square. Every one of those early books ingrained in me a passion for storytelling, and by the time I graduated to the Hardy Boys when I was nine or ten, I was hooked.
What other influences did you have that turned you toward a career in writing?
I was fortunate to have had an amazing teacher when I was in the third grade. His name was Tom Hamil, and he was an award-winning children’s book author and illustrator. He used to read us the books he’d written, and one day he assigned us a project to write and illustrate our own book. When I held that finished, bound volume in my hands I couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything other than write for a living.
How did you get your start in writing?
When I was ten years old, we moved from a pretty hip town on the California coast to a small crossroads in the southeast corner of Vermont. The population of this tiny hamlet was about five hundred, and we were in a part of the state where there was no television signal at all—which was a real letdown, because at that point in my life TV Guide was bible. After being seriously bummed out for about a month, I got on my bicycle and discovered the town library, as well as a Top 40 radio station that played the hits of the day. I didn’t know it at the time, but these two influences—radio and writing—would encompass virtually all of my career as a reporter, editor, analyst, and publisher of broadcast industry trade publications.
What led to the publication of your first book?
Like most authors, I had taken a couple of stabs at writing some pretty underwhelming prose…stuff that makes me really cringe when I think about it (which I try not to do). Then, when I was living in Los Angeles in my early 30s, I decided to try my hand at writing a mystery. I had absorbed all the Hardy Boy books and Perry Mason reruns when I was a kid, and I thought I could weave a pretty good crime novel about murder in the radio and recorded music industries. Payola was something I’d covered in my business reporting, so I spent the next few years—writing mostly at night, after work—hammering out the manuscript for Pay For Play. I found an agent in New York who liked it, and she sent it to about a half dozen publishers. We got a lot of positive feedback, and Tom Colgan—who was an editor at William Morrow at the time—came through and made an offer.
But you didn’t just quit your job and write mysteries fulltime…
No, I did not. Several things happened around the time Pay For Play was published. Most important, I couldn’t settle on a good follow-up book. I didn’t really want to write a sequel, and I had too many storylines in my head to find something really saleable. I also got married and began raising a wonderful stepdaughter named Jenny, so my priorities shifted. It wasn’t until she went off to college that I was really able to hit the mark again, and that’s how the Jack Connor series began. First with Palmetto Blood, and then a few others followed along.
As a crime writer, you deal with the concept of evil on a daily basis. How do you define evil, and how do you approach it in your work?
Evil is dark as opposed to light. Right as opposed to wrong. Good vs. bad. Hate vs. love. It is my belief that all humans possess a measure of both, and it’s how each of us leans toward one or the other that ultimately defines who we are as a person. Of course, in every mystery or crime novel there’s always at least one character whose soul has shifted, for any number of natural or unnatural reasons, to the realm of darkness. As much as we love a solid (and often flawed) protagonist who pits him- or herself against the evildoer, it’s these heinous individuals who really are the center of the story, and around whom all the other characters revolve. It’s the yin and yang of good storytelling.
There seems to be a prevailing theme in your books about loss and suffering. Does this come from your own experiences in life, and how do you think it affects a character’s ability to rise above the challenges that such loss brings?
It’s true…each of the main characters in my novels have experienced some sort of personal tragedy at the core of their being. Jack Connor feels responsible for the death of his five-year-old niece, and is haunted by the trauma of seeing his buddies die in Iraq, as well as killing a young man at point blank range. In Seven-Thirty Thursday, Rick Devlin can’t shake the brutal murder of his mother thirty years ago. And Stuart Logan, the main protagonist in Pay For Play, has retreated into an inner cocoon after the death of his wife. My first wife died not long before I began writing that book, and I drew on that feeling of hopelessness and loss to make me a stronger, yet still fallible, human being. Those are two qualities I look for in characters, and I believe that dealing with tragedy in some form provides a very real depth that evokes genuine empathy from the reader.
Let’s talk about the actual process of writing. What is a typical writing day for you?
I’m an early riser. I’m usually in my office at 5:30 or 6:00 to make sure the world is still spinning, after which I go for a two-mile walk. After breakfast and coffee, I hit the keyboard until I come up for air around lunchtime. Then I’m back in the office for a few more hours, until I go for another long walk. I usually begin the daily writing process re-reading what I wrote the day before, after which I conjure up 1,000 to 1,500 new words, depending on where I am in a particular draft. When I’m revising a manuscript, I shift to proofing and re-writing, and generally run through two red pens with each draft. On Saturday and Sundays, I reduce my office time to only a couple hours, but I generally work seven days a week.
When you begin a new book, what is the starting place for you: plot, setting, characters…? How much of the book's plot do you know when you start writing?
It varies. I often have the title long before I have the plot or characters—except for a series, of course. I actually do a lot of plotting while I’m at the very edge of sleep at night, and I will either get up and jot down notes right then, or first thing the next morning when I get into my office.
Once I know how a book is going to begin, I then jump to how it’s going to close. I’m sure most readers would agree that there’s nothing more disappointing in a book—particularly those that have a great plot and truly memorable characters—than to discover in the last few pages that the writer had absolutely no idea how to finish it. For that reason, I outline the entire story; even if extraneous circumstances and the free will of the characters I’ve created alter things along the way, I always know how the story concludes.
Have you ever faced writer's block? If so, how do you defeat it?
Writer’s block comes at me in a counterintuitive way. Rather than sitting at the keyboard with no idea what I’m going to write next, I’m usually cursed with having too many ideas from which to choose. If I’m starting a new book, I’ll usually have a half dozen floating around in my head. Likewise, if I’m working on a particular scene in a current novel, I can find myself having to pick which way it might go. In each of these cases I’ve learned that making a decision—any decision—is the best way to decide; in other words, just start writing. Write the first chapter, or the first paragraph of the scene. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, I’ve only wasted a few hours of my life, and I can delete it and save it to a scrap folder in my computer. I never know when something that didn’t work in one scene might not be perfect for another.
Have you ever dealt with a character who goes “off script”; in other words, who takes on a life of his or her own that you hadn’t planned on?
Many times, and I know from talking to a lot of writer friends that it’s quite common. One time I was at a writer’s conference and a well-known writing instructor claimed—in a rather snarky way—that when this happens, it’s because the writer doesn’t have a clear grasp of who that character is, and what his or her role in the book is. I disagree. While it’s important that I maintain control over every character I create, the “inner mind” often has a better grasp of what will make a character seem (and act) real than does the conscious “external mind.” Sometimes the most fun we have in life is when we do something absolutely spontaneous, and the same is true of our characters. Within reason, of course.
You write both crime fiction and non-fiction biographical books. How do you balance them out as a writer—and vice versa?
I could claim that, because I’m a Gemini, that I have two writers inside me trying to get out. Leaving zodiac signs out of the discussion, I do sense a distinct balance when I’m working on both a novel and a non-fiction book. I love the absolute freedom that writing a new mystery or thriller provides, developing every aspect of a story from scratch and carrying it through to a suspenseful conclusion. In fact, there’s an element of playing God in it. But I also thrive on all the primary and secondary research that goes into carefully crafting a biography, and then shuffling all that information into a narrative that makes a person, a time, and a place come alive. I think it’s because I spent decades interviewing hundreds of people in the media industry, having them tell their stories through their words but in such a way that they come across in a way that’s almost larger than life.
Who are some of the people you interviewed that stand out as the most interesting, most fun, and most bizarre?
At the risk of dropping too many names, there are quite a few. The most fun interview I ever had was with George Carlin, talking about obscenity and “the seven words you can’t say on television.” Tony Bennett is right up there, as well. What a talented and gracious gentleman. Dick Clark was a fascinating human being who also became a good friend. Same with Casey Kasem, who twice asked me to be producer of American Top 40. Wolfman Jack was incredibly entertaining, and Howard Stern turned out to be a lot more intelligent and human than I expected. I’ve interviewed a number of talk show hosts who were totally bonkers, as was one of the co-conspirators in the Watergate scandal. And I have to say the time I spent speaking with a former president of the United States—I won’t name him here—was, without a doubt, the most baffling and freakish Q&A I’ve ever conducted.
Who are your favorite mystery or thriller writers…those writers you have to go out and buy their book the day it comes out?
This sort of question is always problematic, because there’s always considerable risk of leaving someone off the list. But I’ll answer it anyway, beginning with several who actually inspired me to try my hand at writing. At the top of that list is T. Jefferson Parker, whose debut novel—Laguna Heat—I read on what I call “the bus ride from hell.” What a beautiful book, and it was the initial inspiration to write Pay For Play. Also, in the same vein, is Dash Hammett, whose San Francisco apartment— unbeknownst to me at the time—was where I hung my hat three nights a week while I commuted to the City by the Bay for five years. I wrote a good part of what eventually became one of my Jack Connor novels in that hotel suite. Also, in no particular order: Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Stephen Hunter, Dennis Lehane, John le Carre, Steve Berry, Lee Child, Elmore Leonard, Harlan Coben, Joseph Finder, Alafair Burke, Michael McGarrity, Don Winslow, Sue Grafton, and the late great Trevanian—whose The Last Summer of Katya is, in my estimation, one of the greatest mysteries ever written.
What projects do you have in the pipeline…and what are you working on next?
I’m about six to eight weeks away from sending Indigo Road, #5 in my Jack Connor series, off to my publisher. Also, I just finished reviewing the final line edits for my international thriller Greenwich Mean Time, which is scheduled to be released later this year. I’m still awaiting word on a publication date for another thriller, titled Signs of Life. And as soon as Indigo Road is out the door, I begin working on The Fall Of Vivaldi, the sequel to Greenwich Mean Time. Meanwhile, at some point soon I’m expecting to dive back into “ghosting” an autobiography of a soul music icon from the 1960s and ‘70s.
What's your advice to aspiring novelists?
Read. A lot. And then a lot more. Write, every day. If you’re married with kids and a job, find time. At least thirty uninterrupted minutes a day, if you can. Develop discipline; it’s absolutely critical. So is patience. On average, a first book takes three years from start to finish. Be prepared for that. Also, grow a thick skin, because you’re going to need it. When you try to find an agent, the acceptance rate for a request just to read more is about 2%. The acceptance rate to then sign a representation agreement is about 20% of that. Then comes the hard part: publishers reject most of what they receive, so brace yourself.
However—once you do sign that first book contract (or any contract afterwards, for that matter)—it all seems worthwhile.
One more thing: don’t give up. Stephen King tossed out his manuscript for Carrie; his wife Tabitha pulled it out of the trash and pressured him to submit it. Imagine if.