Saturday, January 14, 2012

NIGHT LIFE: The Story Behind the Book

Never say never. I speak from experience. There was a time when I vowed I would never write a sequel. To anything. I was opposed to sequels because most of them — whether books or movies — were not only inferior to the original but struck me as little more than a cynical attempt to keep cashing in on the popularity of something original and entertaining that was the result of actually applying effort and imagination to its creation rather than just rehashing something that worked the first time. And to be fair, that’s a pretty accurate description of most sequels. There have been exceptions, but they are rare

My erotic vampire novel Live Girls seemed to strike a cord with readers and became quite popular. For the next 18 years, the question I was most commonly asked was, “When are you going to write the sequel to Live Girls?” Not if but when, and not a sequel but the sequel, as if this book already sort of existed in some metaphysical pre-written form and they were just waiting for me to make it available. But I resisted.

I was always sincere when I said there would be no sequels because I wasn’t interested in repeating myself. I meant that. At the time, anyway.

When I finally decided to write a sequel to Live Girls, I was laid up with a lousy hip that, at that point, had required two operations (with a third to come), one of which was a hip replacement that didn’t seem to be working because I was still in tremendous pain. I was full of narcotic painkillers that weren’t all that good at actually killing pain but fucked me up so much that I almost didn’t care about the pain. Almost. Looking back on those eight years, I don’t remember doing much writing. I remember spending most of my time stretched out in a recliner in an altered state of consciousness, and avoiding walking, which only ground at the jagged chunks of broken glass that seemed to be lodged in my right hip. But in fact, I wrote a good deal during those years; I’ve found a number of short stories and novellas that I wrote, but which I have absolutely no memory of writing. Reading them was like reading someone else’s work, but it was mine. It was bizarre.

At some point, I started considering the possibility of writing a sequel to Live Girls. It was the first time I’d advanced to that point — where I was actually considering writing a sequel. The drugs might have had something to do with it, I don't know, but I began thinking about the possibilities. Would it focus once again on Davey Owen? Would he still be with Casey Thorne? 18 years had passed since the publication of Live Girls. Would the sequel take place 18 years later, or would it pick up where the first book left off? I had no idea. But I had a lot of time on my hands and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And then I passed the point of no return. I got an idea I loved. Our first meeting with Davey and Casey in the sequel came to life in my head:

They are having a romantic nighttime picnic at the foot of the “Y” in the Hollywood sign on Mt. Lee overlooking Los Angeles. They are still together all these years later, still in love. And when they leave their mountain picnic, they fly away.

I had the opening of the novel. Obviously, they had gone west to Los Angeles, because there they were dining beneath the Hollywood sign. And what’s in Los Angeles? The movie business, for one thing. And vampires, of course. This wouldn’t work without vampires. Bloodthirsty vampires in Los Angeles? Hell, it was practically a work of nonfiction!

And that was it. I was hooked. I had to follow it through to the end. The book has kind of a romantic opening, but I knew it would not be a romantic vampire novel.

No matter what story a novel tells, it’s almost always the characters who carry me through the book. I want to find out what they do, who they become, how the story changes them, if at all. I’d forgotten how much I liked Davey Owen. In Live Girls, he’d started out as a pretty spineless, self-pitying and even irresponsible guy but had been forced by extraordinary circumstances — and with the help of Casey Thorne — to grow a pair and grow up. Of course, those extraordinary circumstances would not have gone away. To vampires, 18 years would be like ... brunch. I knew they would not have forgotten Davey and they would still be out for revenge for what he’d done to them in New York. Those vampires still would be after retired journalist Walter Benedek, too, who’d helped Davey back in the Big Apple. I wondered how he would handle that. I had enjoyed writing Walter in Live Girls because I wrote him as one of my favorite movie actors, Walter Matthau, only a little younger. I don't do that sort of thing normally but Matthau just seemed so right for the role! Suddenly, I looked forward to getting to know these people again.

But I was determined not to repeat myself, and I knew that if I focused on all of the same characters again, that would be pretty hard to avoid. This book would need new characters and much of it would have to be from their points of view. That’s my favorite part of the sequel — the new characters.

Night Life introduces private investigators Karen Moffett and Gavin Keoph. She’s from Los Angeles, he’s from San Francisco, and they meet for the first time when they show up for a meeting with bestselling novelist Martin Burgess, a hugely successful horror writer. Burgess writes about ghosts, demons, vampires, werewolves and other supernatural creatures, and he harbors a genuine curiosity about their origins. He even goes so far as to wonder if they exist. So he hires Moffett and Keoph to investigate some things Burgess has heard about vampires living in Los Angeles. Where would a horror novelist hear such a thing? Burgess has plugged himself into a network of computer geeks who are seriously into the paranormal — extraterrestrials, ghosts, Bigfoot, demons, the Illuminati, a wide variety of conspiracy theories, that sort of thing. They keep him informed. Burgess knows that most of that stuff is nonsense, but when something stands out and looks possibly genuine, he pursues it. This time, he decides to hire professionals to pursue it for him — Gavin and Keoph.

Those three characters were the best part of writing Night Life. I enjoyed getting to know them so much that I knew I would return to them at some point. And I did. Gavin, Keoph and Burgess return in Bestial, the sequel to my werewolf novel Ravenous (another sequel!), which kind of links all four books together. I will be strengthening that link later this year when I begin work on a series of books in which the vampires of Live Girls and Night Life are pitted against the werewolves of Ravenous and Bestial, featuring characters from all four books. Those three characters also show up in Vortex, an upcoming novella from Cemetery Dance that has nothing to do with vampires or werewolves. I enjoyed Vortex so much, I’m considering expanding it into a novel — maybe even a few novels.

Night Life and Bestial aren’t the only times I broke my vow never to write a sequel. I followed my novella The Folks with a sequel (and I’m considering a third to wrap up Andy’s story). And there will be more. I still have ambivalent feelings about sequels, though, and I try hard to keep them in mind when I’m writing one. I try to make sure that sequels be connected in significant ways to the original but tell a different story in a different way.

Night Life is available for Kindle from Amazon, for Nook from Barnes and Noble, and as an audiobook. In addition to that, I'm selling mint-condition copies of the 2005 Subterranean Press signed edition of Night Life at a bargain price. To keep up with new releases and other information about my work, visit my website at

The vampires in Night Life (and in Live Girls) are not pleasant. They don’t want to discuss your feelings. They don’t attend high school. They don’t sparkle. They’re mean and dangerous. It makes me feel kind of old to know that I’ve been writing long enough for vampires like that to seem refreshing!

Monday, January 9, 2012

MURDER WAS MY ALIBI: The Story Behind the Book

Every novel I’ve written has been a unique experience and has come into the world in its own particular way. Every now and then, a book will drop into my head out of nowhere in one whole piece, but that’s rare. Wonderful, but rare. The most common origin is a “what if” question inspired by something I’ve seen, heard or read. For example, someone might tell me a joke and I’ll laugh ... and then I might think, Hey, what if that really happened? After considering it a while, I might discover that what’s funny when told as a joke would be quite horrifying if it really happened to someone, and that might lead to a novel. Some novels are difficult to trace back to a specific origin. The seed of an idea will plant itself in my head at some point, then grow slowly over time until it’s ready to write. Sometimes I might be inspired by something — an overheard conversation, perhaps, or a story in the news — that doesn’t really take the form of an idea ... just inspiration and the desire to write. I’ll sit down and start writing with nothing in particular in mind, and it will turn into a novel right in front of my eyes — that’s how Sex and Violence in Hollywood happened.

Murder Was My Alibi began with a man’s name: Myron Foote.

I don’t know where it came from or why it lodged itself so firmly in my head and refused to go away. I liked the sound of it. It was an unusual name and had a nice ring to it. What kind of person would have that name? It sounded cynical to me, the name Myron Foote. I could not imagine him as a happy-go-lucky guy, a good-natured type who tended to look on the bright side of things. Myron Foote, I decided, was a man who noticed things others didn’t and was bothered by many of them. That led to him becoming a private investigator, which took me directly to my keyboard, where I started writing.

For the last decade or so, I’ve probably read more crime fiction than anything else, and a good deal of the crime fiction I’ve read was written in the first half of the twentieth century. The work of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler opened up a world I’d only glimpsed in great old black-and-white movies about tough-talking gumshoes and dangerous dames. Don’t get me wrong — those movies were iconic and I became a fan of them when I was very young. But the books of Hammett, who invented the tough-talking private eye subgenre of crime fiction, Chandler and many others of that time did not have the benefit of glossy cinematography or a swelling score to blunt their sharp edges. They were snapshots of a bleak world in which no one could be trusted and good things like love and friendship were twisted into hostile acts.

Those books led me into the grim world of noir. Most people in the know about this sort of thing seem to agree that noir pretty much began with James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. It's a cynical genre, with protagonists who are not detectives investigating crimes but people trapped in the consequences of crimes. Sometimes they are wrongly accused of a crime and sometimes they’re guilty as hell, but they are always losers. They’re driven by lust, greed, and quite often by some twisted, unhealthy desires, and they’re self-destructive in all kinds of ways, as if they know what lies ahead is bad and they’d rather hasten their own demise to avoid it.

The world of noir makes the world of the street-tough private eye seem optimistic by comparison. And it is! Those private eyes might talk tough, drink too much and hang out with lowlifes, but they have their own ethics, to which they adhere rigidly, even though everyone around them is rotten to the core. The protagonists of noir fiction have no such ethics; they’re as rotten as everyone else in that world and they know it, just as they know they are doomed. In noir, everybody gets what’s coming to them, and it’s never good.

The land of noir has been inhabited by some astonishingly talented writers like Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, Gil Brewer, David Goodis, W.R. Burnett, Charles Williams and so many others, some of whom lived pretty bleak lives themselves. And talented writers continue to keep the genre alive. The noir universe is a fun place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. It allows us to strip away all the decorations we hang on our lives in order to avoid the fact that we’re all infinitesimal specks in the universe hurtling directly to our deaths, an entertaining existential panic from which we, the readers, can walk away unscathed and return to our undamaged lives.

When Myron Foote, the name that had been stuck in my head for a while, became a private investigator, I knew I was entering some configuration of these two universes, and when I came through on the other side, I had Murder Was My Alibi.

Myron Foote is a private eye on the wrong side of the tracks who doesn’t like to be on the receiving end of violence but is sometimes a little too quick to hand it out to others. From his dumpy little office on the edge of the red light district, he works bottom-of-the-barrel divorce cases ... until a gorgeous redhead walks into his life and offers him $105,000 to pose as her uncle Percy. It sounds simple. Too simple. But who could turn down that kind of money? Or that kind of redhead?

More than one hundred thousand dollars soon becomes more than one million dollars and the job takes him down a dark path littered with lies and secrets, blackmail and murder. It’s a path that leads straight into Cynthia Thacketer’s arms ... and into a deadly trap. Soon, all that stands between Foote and life in prison is an alibi he cannot use.

Murder Was My Alibi is set in the northern California town of Redding, where I was born and raised. But it’s not really Redding. It’s an alternate Redding, a darker Redding — a Redding that has a red light district, for one thing. Actual locations coexist with fictional places that never existed.

Purists, of course, will tell you that noir is not about private eyes, and stories about private eyes are not noir. I’m not going to dispute that. But you’ll find elements of both in Murder Was My Alibi. It’s available in paperback, for Kindle from Amazon, for Nook from Barnes and Noble, and as an audiobook from Audible Audio. You can read an excerpt of Murder Was My Alibi here. If you read and enjoy the book, I hope you'll post a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, your blog or website — or anywhere else you like!