Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Anatomy of Murder: An Interview with Bill Pronzini

Well, ladies and gentlemen, my move to the seminary is now official, which makes this my first-ever blog post coming to you live from there.  (Unfortunately, my Internet access is much more tenuous, which means that I have added less pictures to the post than I'd have liked. I am not sure what this means for future blogging, but I'll figure it out in due time.) It gives me great pleasure to announce that today I am being joined by writer Bill Pronzini, whose work I have tremendously enjoyed and reviewed on this blog in the past. This interview is a follow-up of sorts to my review of Pronzini's Strangers, which I recently reviewed here. Without further ado, below is the interview I conducted, and which Pronzini was kind enough to answer.


1. I have an old paperback copy of your novel Blowback, which features praise from John Dickson Carr on the front cover: “An immensely likable addition to the roster of private investigators.” What was it like being the “new kid in town” in the 70s? Did you ever get to meet or correspond with some of your writing heroes?

When I first began publishing crime fiction, I was one of the youngest writers in the business.  Now I’m one of the oldest…

JDC’s praise for Nameless, in his review of the series debut novel, The Snatch, was the first I received from a major writer in the field and forever endeared him to me.  I had some correspondence with him in the mid 70s, in which he encouraged me to write more detective stories (I’d begun to do standalones by then, with Snowbound), but unfortunately didn’t have the pleasure of meeting him.  I did get to meet and break bread with Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, one of my boyhood idols, Fred Dannay, Clayton Rawson, Kenneth Millar, and William Campbell Gault who became a close friend during the last several years of his life.  The one writer I regret neither meeting nor corresponding with is Thomas B. Dewey, whose Mac series was a major influence on Nameless in his and my formative years.

2. Nameless made his debut in novel format in 1971, with The Snatch. Now in 2014, he’s appeared in his 43rd book. Did you ever imagine the series would be this successful? Is the series as fresh for you to write now as it was then?

No, I never imagined that the series would last anywhere near this long.  Frankly I’m amazed that it has.  The reasons, I think, are two fold:  One, the evolution of Nameless as the focal character and of me as a writer honing (still trying to hone) his craft.  As you pointed out in your review of Strangers, Nameless is not at all the same individual now as he was in the beginning; he’s grown, aged, had his personal and professional life altered by circumstances planned and unplanned, positive and negative.  Just as I have, just as we all have.  He has been referred to, not always favorably, as an Everyman detective – one who does his job without fanfare or glitz, and occasionally in a nonheroic fashion, and whose private life and relationships are given as much weight as the cases he undertakes.  I consider the Everyman tag a compliment.  In my view, the series is an ongoing biography of a decent, compassionate, reasonably intelligent human being (I hope) who also happens to be a detective.

The second reason the series has lasted lies in the fact that I make an effort not to write the same book in the same way twice, but instead try different approaches with each one:  single, double, and multiple plotlines, different formats (the shift from straight first-person narration to a combination of first and third) and stylistic tweaks.   Experimentation helps keep the series fresh for me and thus for the reader.  Of course, this approach isn’t always successful.  In Hellbox, for instance, I combined the detective story with an intensely personal psycho-thriller plot, emphasis on the latter; I thought it worked well enough, but a lot of readers disagreed.  Too emotional, too bleak, they said, and the mix an uneasy one.  They may well be right.

3. One of Nameless’ old friends appears in Strangers, a woman we have not seen in the series for a very long time! It’s not the first time you revisited a character from earlier in the series – you did it in Shackles, for instance. Why did you decide to revisit these particular characters?

Partly for the reason stated above:  revisiting characters from previous books and stories is just one more way in which to experiment.  Also, I enjoy writing stories which have their roots in the past.  The villain in Shackles, the former pulp writer Russell Dancer introduced in Hoodwink, Cheryl in Strangers all interested me enough to want to explore what became of them after their initial appearances, how their lives changed and what happens when they once again intersect with Nameless’s.

4. One of the more cliché questions authors get asked is “Where do you get your ideas?” But not every idea makes it to the page. Once you’ve gotten hold of your idea, what’s the next step? How do you go about transferring those ideas from your head to the page?

My novels are character-driven, so normally I start one with a basic idea or theme, two or three characters, an opening situation, and a vague notion of the direction I want the book to take.  The story’s progression depends on how the principal characters and their interaction with one another develop.  So in effect, writing a novel becomes the same voyage of discovery for me as for the reader.  (The only one I’ve written in which I had the entire progression worked out from the beginning is The Crimes of Jordan Wise, coincidentally one of my three or four best books.)  Utilizing this approach means occasionally writing myself into a corner, which then takes more than a little rewriting to get out of, but that’s a small price to pay.  I do a lot of rewriting anyway before I’m satisfied with any piece of fiction.

My approach to writing short stories is generally just the opposite.  When I get an idea for one I work out the opening and the ending, then draft both before continuing with the rest; that way, with the ending already done, I know exactly where the story is going and the effect I want it to have.  Unorthodox, I guess, but it works for me. 

5. You are married to a fellow crime writer, Marcia Muller, and you recently began collaborating on a series of novels about John Quincannon and his partner Sabina Carpenter (beginning with The Bughouse Affair). What does the collaboration process between you two look like?

Collaborating with Marcia has always been an enjoyable process, since her approach to the craft of fiction is the same as mine.  On the C&Q novels, we do a bit more advance plotting than on our individual books, outlining a few chapters at a time, after which she writes the scenes from Sabina’s point of view and I do those from Quincannon’s.  Since the characters were my creations to begin with, I sometimes do a bit of tweaking on the Sabina chapters for the sake of consistency.  This was the method for the first three books in the series.  I did most of the writing on just finished C&Q #4, The Plague of Thieves Affair, because Marcia has been working on a difficult plot and tight deadline for her next Sharon McCone novel.

6. Do you plan out the events of your series in advance, or do you do it on a book-by-book basis? Will Nameless be returning soon? Are there any other books you have in store?

On a book-by-book basis, except for personal storylines such as Kerry’s breast cancer which carry over from one book to another.

The next Nameless, Vixen, has been delivered and will be published by Tor/Forge in July of next year.  It’s an expansion and revision of the novella “Femme” which Cemetery Dance published as a limited edition in 2012.  Pure noir, this one, very dark, and atypical of the series in that…well, no spoilers here.  Cemetery Dance has another limited edition novella, “Revenant,” scheduled for late this year or early next.  The 2016 Nameless title will tentatively be a collection of four stories, titled Quartet – two novellas, one original to the volume, the other “Revenant,” and two short stories.

In December Perfect Crime Books will publish a collection of my nonseries short stories, The Cemetery Man and Other Darkside Tales; it’ll be available in both trade paperback and e-book editions.

The third C&Q novel, The Body Snatchers Affair, is scheduled for publication in early January.

7. You are recognized as an expert on the crime fiction genre – you’ve written some terrific books on the subject, such as Gun in Cheek, Son of Gun in Cheek, or the massive collaborative project 1001 Midnights. And rumour has it you have a pretty sizable collection of pulps, mystery novels, and other good stuff! How did your love for this fiction start? Any items in your collection you’re particularly proud of?

My passion for crime fiction began at around age ten, when I discovered the Ken Holt YA novels by “Bruce Campbell” – The Secret of Skeleton Island, The Clue of the Marked Claw, etc.  Far superior, these, to the Hardy Boys books.  I graduated to adult fiction a few years later:  science fiction and mysteries from the library, and then paperback originals, especially those published by Gold Medal, in my mid teens.  Also digest mystery and sf magazines, which my grandfather regularly read.

Our house fairly creaks with hardcovers, paperbacks, pulp and digest mags (I have about 3,000 pulps, half the number Nameless owns) – some 25,000 or so at a guess.  Most of the books are crime fiction, with fair numbers of sf/fantasy, western, mainstream, and nonfiction volumes.  Just a few highlights:  a complete run of JDC/Carter Dickson/Carr Dickson first editions in dust jacket; similarly complete FE runs of Fredric Brown and Evan Hunter under all his pseudonyms; and jacketed FEs of most of Chandler’s novels including The Big Sleep, most of Steinbeck, Cain’s Postman Always Rings Twice, McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat (inscribed).


  1. Well done Patrick - Pronzini is one the true greats and I get so much pleasure from his work (I picked up RUNNING OF BEASTS again the other day - I remember it well and how it ends too, but I still enjoy it greatly) as an author, editor and all round champiion of the genre. Terrific interview, thanks chum - and congrats embarking on the next stage of your life - enjoy!

  2. Great questions, great interview! Heckuva a nice guy. No surprise he was willing to answer your questions. I still hear from him via email every now and then when he comes across one of my blog posts.