John Wisniweski interviews Dana King

Crime Fiction, Dana King, Interviews, John Wisniewski, Private Eye, Punk Noir Magazine

JW: When did you begin writing, Dana? Did you write short stories? 

DK: I did start with short stories, in 1993. I was in the process of getting divorce and what I had been calling my musical career was coming to a close. There was talk of a recent trumpet audition having been fixed, which is no crime but it meant a lot of people spent time and money flying to the audition not knowing the winner had already been decided. I wrote a short story about a private detective who used to be a trumpet player who is asked to look into it. It’s sort of a parody of Mickey Spillane and used my friends as characters. It was great fun to write and everyone liked it, so I wrote another for my job at the time, then another for the next job until people said I should think of writing a novel. Looking back, I have the same feelings most authors have about their very early works, that I had no idea what I was doing and I’d never show them to anyone now. On the other hand, that first story was the basis for my third Nick Forte novel, The Man in the Window, which did earn me a Shamus nomination, so it couldn’t have been all bad.

JW: Any favorite crime pulp authors?

A: I have a handful who started out in the pulps but made their names as novelists, and it’s the usual suspects: Hammett, Chandler, Cain, John D. Macdonald. I guess strictly speaking Donald Westlake and Evan Hunter (Ed McBain) cut their teeth on the tail end of the pulps but are of a different generation.

JW: Could you tell us Dana, about writing your book The Man in the Window which won the Shamus award?

DK: Actually, it didn’t win, but I like the way you think.

The Man in the Window takes Nick Forte back to his musical roots and also marks the beginning of his descent as the violence and injustice he’s encountered start to wear him down. The original short story was written as a satire and much of the humor remains in the book, but the novel is much darker. The title refers to the final scene, where Forte catches his reflection and starts to wonder what kind of man he is becoming. By the time we get to the next two Forte books (A Dangerous Lesson and Bad Samaritan), as well as his guest appearance in Grind Joint, Forte is more accepting of what he has become and starts to embrace it. I have an idea for a story down the road where he essentially becomes his own psycho sidekick.

JW: What makes a good crime novel? What inspired you to write?

DK: To me a good crime novel allows me to look at situations through the eyes of one or more or the characters and play along. “What would I do here?” or “How would I feel if this happened to me?” I’ll confess that means I don’t “get” everyone. I’m not going to name names but there are great writers out there, whose greatness I readily acknowledge, but their stories don’t reach me because I can’t identify with the characters’ situations.

I was inspired to write after that first Forte story was well received. I was out of work and had large chunks of time to read and a good library nearby. I picked up some Robert B. Parker novels and read of how much he was influenced by Raymond Chandler, so I read some Chandler. I read The Big Sleep and that put the hook in me. Then I watched Double Indemnity because Chandler wrote the screenplay, which led to me reading Cain’s novel. That reeled me in. For those who haven’t read the book, get busy. The ending is quite a bit different from the movie and one of the most powerful I’ve read. I remember finishing and just sitting there holding the book thinking, “Damn.” The people who are that good can meet comfortably in my living room (I would not be there), but reading something like that is the carrot that dangles in front of all writers.

JW: Could you tell us about creating the Nick Forte character, Dana?

DK: Forte was easy: he’s me. He’s the main character of the first story I wrote with thinlydisguised descriptions of my friends playing the supporting characters. He’s my age and size (at the time I created him, that is), a divorced dad who’s painfully aware that no matter how much energy he devotes to being a father it’s not the same as actually living in the house, and has a musical background that’s a couple of careers distant from what he’s doing now.

James Ellroy once said that Chandler wrote the kinds of main characters he wished he was and that Hammett wrote the kinds of main characters he was afraid he might be. Nick Forte is the man I’m afraid I could be if given his circumstances, experiences, and skill set.

JW: Is Penns River a location you created, or a real locale? 

DK: Penns River is real but not under that name. It’s an amalgam of three small cities in Western Pennsylvania where I grew up. I use an many real locations as I can and read the local paper on the Internet to keep current with what’s going on there and grab the occasional story idea. These are towns where the economy dried up in the 70s when the steel and aluminum industries pretty much left the Pittsburgh area. Pittsburgh recovered and is back probably better than ever, but many of the smaller cities up and down river did not. Pens River is one of those cities.

JW: Could we talk about Grind Joint and Wild Bill. What may have inspired you?

DK: Very separate inspirations for those two.

Wild Bill is that rare example of what non-writers think happens all the time: it came to me in a dream. Well, the ending, anyway. I was in that half awake, half asleep state and the germ of a scene came to me. I let my imagination wander and by the time it was done I had the climactic scene and the plot twist set. Took me several years to come up with a story that led to that ending. There was a major mob trial in Chicago that opened up some inside material on the Outfit that picked up about the time Gus Russo’s outstanding book The Outfit left off. I knitted the two together and came up with a book
I’m proud of even though as my only standalone it doesn’t get the attention of the series books.

Grind Joint is the result of driving through my old home town in Western Pennsylvania and seeing an abandoned strip mall. Two formerly major department stores (Ward’s and Penney’s) connected by some local businesses and restaurants. All the business moved out at least ten years earlier and the building looked it. I lived in Maryland then and the state was pushing casino gambling as a way to solve the state’s economic issues. I pointed to the abandoned mall and said to The Beloved Spouse, “They should put a casino in there. Everyone in Penns River gets well.” After that it was a matter of thinking how such a casino would affect the exiting power structure in town.