Q&A With Reed Bunzel
Did you always want to be a mystery writer, or was it something you edged into over the years?
When I was a kid growing up in California all I wanted to be was an architect, and that’s where I thought my life was heading. I was always drawing pictures of houses, and became interested in the creations of Frank Lloyd Wright and some of his students. But at the same time, when I was in elementary school, I was fortunate to have a teacher who was a children’s author and illustrator. His name was Tom Hamil, and he had more influence over my ultimate career than I ever realized at the time.
The big turning point came when I was ten years old and we moved to a small town in Vermont that had no television reception. What a bummer for a kid who was addicted to Batman and The Green Hornet. But I found myself listening to a great Top 40 radio station, and I used to ride my bicycle to the small library we had in town. I checked out all the Hardy Boy books they had, and even read a couple of my sister’s Nancy Drew books when no one was looking. Little did I know at the time that radio and writing would become the cornerstones of my career.
You earned a degree in Anthropology in college. Did you ever see yourself as an archaeologist exploring some ancient Mayan ruins, like Indiana Jones?
I knew from the start that a degree in Anthropology was one of those things that’s low on the list of high-paying college majors. But it gave me a great opportunity to study both ancient and contemporary cultures, with an overall focus on the media. During college I also had a show on the campus radio station for three years, and I found out just in time that I was the world’s worst DJ. During college I actually explored a number of career interests, and thought I would be – in no particular order – a lawyer, a TV reporter, a college professor, and even the architect I had thought so much about when I was a kid. But after I graduated from college I got a job at an NBC affiliate station in Portland, Maine, which got me started in the broadcasting business.
What moved you from Maine to the Washington, DC area?
I had intended to get my Masters Degree in Journalism at American University, but when I got down to D.C. there was a problem with one of the undergraduate courses I had taken, so I had to delay the program for a year. Stuck in the nation’s capital with no job I answered two ads in the Washington Post: one was for an editorial job at the American Anthropological Association and the other was for a similar position at the National Association of Broadcasters. It turns out the AAA had already hired someone to fill that opening, but I managed to get the job at the NAB, where I worked for a total of five years. I’ve always wondered how my career could have been different if I’d been hired for the other position. In any event, I became editor of the NAB magazine, RadioActive, and I took that experience with me when I moved out to Los Angeles and became an editor at Radio & Records, a trade publication covering – you guessed it – the radio and record industries.
So you truly were able to merge those childhood interests of writing and radio…
I was, and I felt very fortunate, since it was not something I consciously planned. Sometimes, despite all the effort and thinking and planning you might put into it, life follows its own course. That’s what happened in this case. I’d moved to L.A. with the idea of becoming involved in television or film, but the pull of radio was too strong. Still, I’d had this idea for a long time that I wanted to try my hand writing a mystery novel. I’d read dozens of them as a child, and I used to watch Perry Mason reruns on TV after school, so I figured I’d write one. The ultimate result was “Pay For Play,” which went through about ten separate drafts before it finally was published by Avon Books in 1992.
That’s a mystery that deals with payola in the radio and record industries, right?
Exactly. There’s always been talk about payola – also known as “pay for play” – in the business, and during my years in L.A. I came to know people who had either direct or indirect involvement with it. It made great sense to write about something I had both an interest in and knowledge of, and it was a fun experience.
Who are your favorite mystery writers…those writers you have to go out and buy their book the day it comes out?
There are many, and this sort of question always carries the risk of leaving someone off the list. But I will mention a few, because of the influence they’ve had on me personally and professionally. First, there’s T. Jefferson Parker, whose debut novel “Laguna Heat” I credit with really getting me going on “Pay For Play.” What an excellent book! Michael Connelly has been an inspiration from his very first novel, “Black Echo,” and he also co-wrote an excellent feature article on a major airline crash, which took the life of my first wife. I believe James Lee Burke is one of the finest writers alive, and his characters are just dripping with life…and death. Stephen Hunter is the master of sniper adventure fiction, and I know when I buy his latest book that I have to have one long stretch in which to read it. I only recently discovered Lee Child, whose Jack Reacher is one of the strongest, best-defined characters to live in the pages of suspense fiction. And then there’s the master of dialog – the late Elmore Leonard, who simply got it. All of it. The long and the short of it. Period.
How did you come to write “Palmetto Blood”?
At some point a few years ago the title “The Cleaning Crew” came to mind, and I was struggling to figure out whether I should write a mystery or a suspense story about a CIA “cleaning crew” that makes problems disappear. I opted for the murder mystery, and decided to focus on a company that cleans up “death scenes,” and set it here in Charleston. The lead character is named Jack Connor and, as I mention in the acknowledgments, he is loosely based on the experiences of my son-in-law, who is an Iraq war veteran with tattoos covering a good portion of his body. This is one of those cases where the story had been percolating in my mind for a long time, but it essentially came together all in one night when I was having trouble sleeping. I did use the title “The Cleaning Crew,” but eventually changed it to “Palmetto Blood” to better reflect the South Carolina “lowcountry” locale.
What do you tell people who ask you what it takes to be a writer?
It’s the same answer everyone gives to this question: you have to write. That means actually sitting down and writing, either on a computer, a typewriter, or with a pen and a legal pad balanced on your knee. It means dedication and commitment. It means creating words that come out one after another, without trips to the kitchen to get another cup of coffee or to put the laundry in the dryer. And that takes discipline. Nothing gets written on its own, so you have to make time to do it every day. Not ten minutes here and half an hour there. You have to create a schedule where you can let your brain guide your fingers and put words on paper (or a hard drive).
I know I’m going to catch some flack here, but I don’t think it includes writing in a journal. Diaries and journals are excellent pursuits, and they may help you hone your writing skills. But unless your goal (and that of the editor you’re eventually going to need) is to publish your diary, it doesn’t count. Actual writing takes what you’ve experienced, researched, outlined, or conceptualized, and structures a manuscript around it. Of course, that manuscript can take on many forms. It can be a poem, a whole book of poetry, a song, a novel, a magazine article, or a movie script…but it has to be something tangible that you’re comfortable sharing with others.
Do you ever have trouble getting started with a new writing project?
Not really. I usually have several ideas percolating through my mind whenever I’m working on something, so when I finish with one thing, another thing often is sitting right there, egging me on. Still, I have to take a break between writing projects, or my brain will burst. And sometimes an idea that seems great when it’s lurking in the back of my mind turns out to be a dud when I finally allow myself to really think about it.
What advice would you offer to someone who wants to become a writer, but doesn’t know how to start?
This ties into the last question: just write. But it’s a lot more complicated than that, and I don’t feel qualified to offer advice to other people who want to become writers, except to mention that, as with any professional pursuit except investment banking, the entry level pay is pretty lousy. That said, I would recommend two excellent books: “On Writing,” by Stephen King, is necessary reading for anyone who seriously wants to learn the craft; the other is titled “On Writing Well,” by William Zinsser, a beautifully crafted volume that has been the guidebook for several generations of writers, reporters, and editors. The great news is both books are short, and to the point. Read them both and you can’t go wrong.