A native of Washington D.C., Ed Lynskey is the author of the crime fiction novels The Dirt-Brown Derby, The Blue Cheer, and Pelham Fell Here, all three featuring private investigator Frank Johnson. His work has appeared on major publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Washington Post, and San Francisco Chronicle. In this interview, Lynskey talks about his crime novels, and writing and inspiration.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, Pelham Fell Here. What inspired you to write it?
Pelham Fell Here is a prequel written later, in this case as the third book, of my P.I. Frank Johnson mystery series. In other words, Pelham is the first book but has been published as my third. This came about due to two different publishers and slipping release dates.
Actually I believe it has worked out better in some ways. I had the advantage of knowing the character when I wrote the back story, sort of reverse engineering. Anyway reviewers and readers have written and told me Pelham Fell Here is the most complex and fulfilling title to date in the series. That’s gratifying to hear, but I probably like it the least. So go figure.
The premise behind Pelham Fell Here is to relate just how Frank Johnson falls into the crazy private detective trade. I’ve read a number of P.I. series by vintage and contemporary authors, and I don’t know of one where that’s been previously done. Pelham is a story of self-discovery, too.
Frank returns home from his Army M.P. service, and his old assumptions of the place and the people he thought he knew are jarred. Frank prefers to view his native town its old cozy way. But all that goes out the window when his cousin Cody Chapman is found murdered.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
Avid is the perfect adjective, too. When I was four, my family migrated from the Virginia suburbs in Washington, D.C. to the sticks near a small town. Back then I was bummed, but I’m nothing but glad these days. We lived on the corner lot carved off what was once a giant plantation (growing corn and wheat, I was told) and no other kids lived near us.
So, I sought alternative forms of entertainment. Reading supplied one big solution. First-rate genre stuff: mysteries, westerns, espionage, adventure, YA, and anything that told a good yarn. For instance, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Three Investigators was a gas. Now I’ve find myself like when I was a kid and reading just for the fun of it.
Who is your target audience?
I’ve mulled over this question throughout my writing the P.I. Frank Johnson mystery series. My target audience, I believe, has widened as the series has progressed. The Dirt-Brown Derby was a straight male detective story. There’s a murder and Frank is sent to solve it. No larger concerns really emerge from the narrative. Frank carries the burden of the dramatic role without even a sidekick. The back story is kept to a minimum.
Then The Blue Cheer came. Frank moves to West Virginia and is forced to rely on his friends. More back story is introduced. So, I hope Blue Cheer will appeal to a wider spectrum of readers.
In Pelham Fell Here, my current book, Frank involves his pals again, but he also finds himself entangled in a couple romances, including a dark and sinister one. Reviewers have written Pelham is the best of the series titles, it being more “complex” and “intriguing”. So, I see Pelham as appealing even more to readers. For instance, YA libraries are now buying my P.I. Frank Johnson mysteries.
What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?
My life is pretty dull fare, so I definitely fall in the latter camp. Pelham was inspired by my sense of a place, the rough equivalent of the small town where I grew up. The mental snapshots I had weren’t manufactured in a fantasy or daydream but from distant memories. I guess in that way the plot does spring from my life experiences. Then I embellished and dovetailed the setting to suit the storyline.
The climax occurring on Uncle Sam’s satellite farm also derives from an actual place. Our egg lady (yes, we bought our eggs from an old lady who raised hens and sold eggs) lived next to a sprawling complex surrounded by a chain link fence. These different sizes and shapes of satellite dishes and towers filled the field. The vista I gawked at was something out of a pulp science fiction. What all went on there I don’t know. Something to do with the Cold War or UFOs, I suppose. Anyway, I knew the satellite farm was a ripe place to stage a noir’s mayhem and nastiness.
Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg says he gets his best ideas while driving on the highway. When do you get your best ideas and why do you think this is?
When does the Muse bite? What a great question. You know, I’m about halfway through the first draft of my W-I-P. I can see there are plot holes in the narrative arc. I can see I have several options to go with creating the bad guy. But right this instance I don’t know which way to go. So all I can do is trust the creative process and keep the faith that ideas will come tomorrow, or the next day. So, it’s the daily process.
My analog brain doesn’t experience too many Eureka moments. My solutions come when I’m sitting and working on the current project. Daydreaming is bad for me. I might fall off the roof while cleaning the gutters. Or I’ll mow off my toes while mowing the lawn. Or I’ll rear end another motorist while I’m out driving. My thinking process, I’ve come to see, requires the discipline and focus to work on the task at hand which for me is writing and editing my long fiction.
What is your opinion about critique groups? What words of advice would you offer a novice writer who is joining one? Do you think the wrong critique group can ‘crush’ a fledgling writer?
I guess critique groups and partners are useful for starting out of the gate. After that, I don’t know. Larry Block in his fiction-writing primer Telling Lies for Fun & Profit includes a semi-prayer. He basically gives thanks for his talent and asks for guidance in doing his own work and not to be concerned with what and how other writers are doing. I like that. Look, this is a solitary gig. You’ve got to be cool in your own skin. You’ve got to be content with your output. That means forgetting all the blogs, twitters, agents, MFAs, coaches, editors, and the all the rest of the hue. You just do it.
What will the reader learn after reading your book?
I think today’s readers want to learn about stuff. I mean look at the avalanche of self-help books and huge nonfiction market. Readers want to feel like it’s worth their time to invest in your book. Telling a good story makes for a distraction and entertainment for some readers. But other readers want more than that. Dan Brown writing about The Da Vinci Code makes that point.
My work is rich in historical details such as the title to Pelham Fell Here suggests. Pelham was a famed Southern artillerist from the American Civil War. Since Frank is an ex-MP and a detective, I use investigative techniques and police work. Frank Johnson is a gunsmith by trade, so I include details about firearms, not so much about calibers and ballistics, but how they’re made. Years ago I worked for the late Sam Cummings, the international arms merchant.
What type of scenes gives you the most trouble to write?
For a time, I had difficulty writing the scenes set in large cities. To me, cities all look alike. You’ve got the same streets, shopping malls, and Starbucks. What else is there to see? But I’ve lived just outside of Washington, D.C. for the past ten years, and I go downtown frequently to catch sporting events and to see shows and exhibits. Ten years is a long time for residing in a transient city like D.C. Life experience, then, has taught me what makes a city — at least this one — really tick.
Writing love and romance scenes that ring true are tough for me. I just wrote and rewrote the scenes, striving to make them sound natural and credible. I’ve gotten better at it. But relationships are the glue to fiction so I want to write them well.
Thanks for stopping, Ed, and good luck with your book.