Jim Nesbitt is a former journalist with more than three decades of experience as a reporter and editor for newspapers and wire services in Texas, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri and Washington, D.C. For the majority of that time, Nesbitt was a roving regional and national correspondent who specialized in longer trend stories told with a writer’s flair and the authoritative voice of someone who mastered complex subjects ranging from controversies over grazing rights and wildfire policies on public lands, the rise of neo-Nazis in the South and West and the horrifying potential of pandemic flu.
Along the way, he covered presidential, gubernatorial and Senate campaigns; the aftermath of hurricanes, earthquakes, train wrecks and airline crashes; dragnets for serial killers; and, standoffs between Christian patriots and the FBI. He also wrote about rodeo cowboys, ranchers, farmers, truckers, migrant farm laborers, illegal immigrants, and the hard life and stark beauty of the border between Texas and Mexico. The hallmarks of Jim Nesbitt’s writing are a sharp eye for the details of a time and place and a keen ear for the voice of the people who give life to a story. He now lives in Athens, Alabama and writes hard-boiled detective thrillers set in Texas.
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Right Wrong Number. When did you start writing and what got you into hard-boiled detective fiction?
Thanks. I’ve always been a writer and come from a long line of hillbilly storytellers. My nose was always in a book when I was a kid and I loved the stories of family and place told by my parents, uncles and aunts. I always liked to write stories, but I didn’t think of myself as a writer until my eighth-grade English teacher pulled me aside after class to talk about a paper I had written for her and said: “You know you’re a writer, don’t you?” From then on, that’s all I wanted to do. I’m also a fiend for the hard-boiled crime fiction of the masters—Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain—so when I finally decided to try my hand at fiction, that was the natural genre. I didn’t choose it, it chose me.
What is your book about?
The Right Wrong Number is a hard-boiled tale of revenge and redemption set in Texas and northern Mexico. It’s more of a thriller than a whodunit and features Ed Earl Burch, a cashiered Dallas homicide detective eking out a living as a private eye. He’s an ex-jock gone to seed, a guy who’s been smacked around by life and has the bad knees, wounded liver and empty bank account to prove it.
In this story, he’s been hired to protect an old flame threatened by partners ripped off by her husband, a high-flying Houston financial consultant who has disappeared. These partners include some mobsters from New Orleans who send a pair of hitmen to get back their money, drugs and jewels, and kill anybody involved in the score. Ed Earl finds himself locked in a deadly contest where nobody can be trusted and he’s tempted to forget his own rules by the money and sex offered up by the old flame, who has a lethal knack for larceny and betrayal. When his best friend is killed in Dallas by hired muscle, Ed Earl blames himself and sets out for revenge that winds up being a bloody form of redemption.
What was your inspiration for it?
My primary inspiration is the desire to write well-told, hard-boiled crime fiction. I’ve always regarded hard-boiled or noir stories and movies as a particularly American art form. And when you read the novels of Hammett, Chandler and more contemporary writers like James Ellroy, James Lee Burke and the late, great James Crumley, the stories are so much more than a whodunit. They’re commentaries on politics, crime, art, sex, culture, music, and the time and place of the stories being told. That’s the kind of hard-boiled fiction I wanted to write. Still do.
Did your book require a lot of research?
Yes, but not exactly in the way I think you mean it. My novels reflect what I experienced and researched during my years knocking around the border between Texas and Mexico as a journalist. They say a writer should write what he or she knows and I knew some cops and outlaws and love the stark beauty of West Texas and northern Mexico. But that was just a starting point for more research and reading.
As a journalist, I learned that facts are my friends and help me build a firm foundation that results in much stronger, authoritative storytelling with far richer detail and voice. Instead of using my writing to dance around what I didn’t know, I armed myself with the facts that turned my writing into a much more powerful weapon.
What do you do when your muse refuses to collaborate?
I get up and take a walk, hit the gym, go catch a movie, take a long drive in my ’72 Cutlass ragtop, pour myself a deep whiskey and fire up a cigar—anything that tears me away from the stone wall I’ve hit in writing. Anything that gives my subconscious some room to breathe and get untracked enough so the next scene can rise up from the depths and I can write again. Sometimes that doesn’t work, though, and you’ve got to get mean, get your butt back in that chair and just blast your way through, knowing you’re going to write a lot of crap you’ll throw away until you finally hit paydirt again.
How do you keep your narrative exciting?
There’s a great Raymond Chandler line in response to a question about solving plot dilemmas—something like: “I just have somebody open the door and walk into the room with a gun in their hand.” Not a bad rule of thumb. Chandler wasn’t a stickler for plot—his novels are driven by snappy dialogue, narrative and action. I keep that in mind when writing my novels, not that I’m anywhere near the same galaxy as his talent.
There’s something else I learned the hard way by reading Chandler and other great writers — everything they write is in service of the story they’re trying to tell. If it isn’t, kill it. You can see this discipline even in the wretched excess or wild tangents of a James Ellroy or Hunter S. Thompson. My books are pretty graphic—they aren’t for the Sunday school crowd. I’m frank in my descriptions about sex and violence because I think using euphemisms insults the reader and doesn’t serve the story I’m trying to tell.
The characters in my books aren’t nice people. Even my main character, Ed Earl Burch, is profane, violent and reckless, with a mean streak a mile wide. These folks can be flat nasty whether they’re fucking or fighting. That’s who they are, so that’s how I tell it.
How do you celebrate the completion of a book?
With a deep glass of whiskey and a big cigar. With the stereo cranked up, blasting some Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash or Drive-By Truckers. Then I’ll do a Maori tribal war dance and chant “my chi is mighty” until the neighbor’s dog starts howling. After I recover from the hangover, I start thinking about my next book.
How do you define success?
If I can look in the eye of the guy in the mirror and tell him I wrote the best book I possibly could and he doesn’t sneer in response, that’s success. If a reader takes the time to send me a note or post a review —good or bad—that’s success because my writing reached them enough to provoke a reaction. If good writers whose work I admire and respect like my book and give me a detailed reason why they liked it, that’s success. If one of those writers sits me down and tells me what they did and didn’t like and how they think I can make the next one better, that’s success. Lots of money would also be nice.
Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about your work?
George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Comments?
Wish that line was mine. This is the closest I can get: “Writing is a merciless mistress and I have no choice but to obey her.”