Steve Hockensmith Interview
TSOI: Our guest today is Steve Hockensmith. Steve is a journalist and short story writer with many short stories published in both Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Just recently he signed a book deal with St. Martin's that has allowed him to quit his day job. Steve, why don't you tell us a little about yourself?
SH: I started out as a journalist, which was (as far as I could figure) the only viable way to be a writer and (sort of) make a living. I've done a lot of entertainment journalism over the years, and I recently launched a TV/film column called "Reel Crime" in Alfred Hitchcock, which is a ton of fun. In between journalism gigs, I've done communications work for two national nonprofit organizations: the YMCA of the USA and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Writing about pop culture is a blast, but I'm really glad I spent at least part of my career working with folks who are actually making the world a better place.
TSOI: Do you think that your short story writing helped you get in the door at St. Martin's?
SH: Not really. The fine folks at St. Martin's made an offer on the basis of the book they were presented with, HOLMES ON THE RANGE, not my previous writing credits (which I doubt they were even familiar with). But that's not to say my short fiction didn't play a critical role in getting me where I am now (wherever that is). For one thing, I have a fantastic agent, Elyse Cheney, thanks to a story that appeared in Alfred Hitchcock a couple years back. Elyse saw the story, wrote to ask if I had a novel to show her, and ended up working closely with me to whip HOLMES into shape. And I wouldn't have even started HOLMES if it weren't for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. The novel's heroes, a couple of cowboys named Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer, first appeared in EQMM, and if I hadn't enjoyed writing that story so much (and found such a good home for it) I wouldn't have written HOLMES. On top of all that, I didn't even try writing a novel until I was confident I had the necessary skills -- skills I developed over the course of four or five years spent exclusively on short fiction.
So did my short story writing help me get in the door at St. Martin's? You bet!
Wait...did I just contradict myself?
TSOI: What do you think about the conventional wisdom that humor doesn't sell?
SH: It depends on the market you're looking at. When it comes to novels, the CW seems to be right. I asked a similar question of Bill Fitzhugh once, and his answer was, "You bet your ass humor's a tough sell, but you gotta write what you gotta write. If you enjoy writing humor, if you think you're good at it, then don't give up." On the other hand, I once got a ding letter from an agent who told me, "You're not funny, and if your name's not Hiaasen or Westlake you've got no business trying to be funny." In other words, give up. I think HOLMES ON THE RANGE dances around this particular minefield because it's not meant to be a comedy-mystery -- it's a mystery that, as an added bonus, just happens to be funny. At least that's how I see it.
When it comes to genre short fiction -- and here's one of the many reasons to love genre short fiction -- the conventional wisdom doesn't apply at all. You'll find humorous stories in EQMM and AHMM (and Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Asimov's) all the time, and folks like James Powell and Ron Goulart have been selling humorous short fiction for years. Which isn't to say selling a (supposedly) funny story is going to be easy. Writers who want to take a stab at humor should keep in mind that (A) not all editors have the same sense of humor, (B) not all editors have your sense of humor and (C) not all editors have any sense of humor. But, as a wise man once said, if you enjoy writing humor, if you think you're good at it, then don't give up. I don't recall offhand where that quote's from, but I think it's good advice.
TSOI: What pointers or tricks-of-the-trade would you give someone who wants to write a humorous story?
SH: "Don't try too hard" would be my first bit of advice. You can be funny without being ZANY! or WACKY!. Droll is good. Dry is nice. I wish more people would give wit a try. Then again, this is coming from a guy who recently wrote a KOOKY! story for AHMM about Soviet spies kidnapping Santa Claus, so maybe I'm being a hypocrite. Let's move on.
I would beg anyone who's thinking of writing a hardboiled private eye parody or pastiche to reconsider. Please. Maybe it was still funny the third time they parodied The Maltese Falcon on Your Show of Shows, but ever since then the "Sam Shovel, P.I." shtick has been pretty tired. Then again, this is coming from a guy who recently wrote a hardboiled private eye parody (or, to be more precise, a parody of hardboiled private eye pastiches) for an MWA anthology, so maybe I'm being a hypocrite. Let's move on.
I would advise genre writers shooting for humor not to go for laughs at the expense of the plot or characters. Have a real story to tell -- even if it's damn silly -- and don't fall into the easy trap of making everyone a contemptible clod. Yes, contemptible clods can be funny, but a universe populated with nothing but contemptible clods isn't funny -- it's actually kind of depressing. If you've ever been to West Virginia, you know exactly what I'm talking about. (Just kidding, Mountain State! A big shout out to all my homies back in Matewan, Fraziers Bottom and Droop!) Anyway, as this is advice I think I actually stick to pretty consistently, maybe I ought to stop here.
TSOI: What's different about writing a novel as opposed to writing a short story? Aside from the length.
SH: In all honesty, I think I've reached a point where it really is just the length. Instead of getting better and better at firing off tight-as-a-preacher's-sphincter 3,000-word gems, my stories have been growing longer and more sprawling -- in other words, more like novels. (By the way, just kidding, Protestant spiritual leaders! A big shout out to all my homies back at the Bob Jones University divinity school!) I've had really good luck selling 12,000-14,000 word novelettes, but I wouldn't recommend that anyone else give it a try -- that kind of length is going to make breaking in pretty tough. Hell, I should knock it off myself...I just can't seem to.
That's probably not a very helpful answer, so let me give it another whack. Short stories give you the freedom to tackle stories, characters and styles that would wear out their welcome at a longer length. The aforementioned Santa kidnapping story, for instance -- it's good fun for 6,000 words or so, but 80,000? There might be a writer who could sustain that kind of silliness over that length (Paging Christopher Moore!) but it sure isn't me. I have a series character in AHMM, a semi-retired detective named Larry Erie, that I've thought about using in a novel, but I'm not sure if anyone could stand him for 400 pages. I mean, I love the guy, but he's a complete mope.
In addition, I've found that novels aren't just longer than short stories, but wider, too.
TSOI: Which would you rather write, novels or short stories?
SH: You've seen those dorky "I'd rather be -- " bumper stickers, right? "I'd rather be sailing." "I'd rather be knitting." "I'd rather be strangling squirrels." Well, I guess mine would say, "I'd rather be writing short stories." If short fiction were a viable career path for anyone other than Ed Hoch, I'd be on it in a heartbeat. Writing a novel can be fun, no doubt, but for me it starts to feel like a death march somewhere around month four. Typically, it takes me two to four weeks to write a short story, and when I finish I don't feel burnt out -- I'm excited about moving on to the next story. The idea of endless variety (a third-person procedural this month, a first-person satire next month, etc.) is really appealing to me. It's comforting to know that, no matter what happens to my career as a novelist, I'll always be able to write and sell short fiction.
TSOI: Now that we've gotten the obligatory short story stuff out of the way, tell us about the novels you're working on.
SH: Ahhh, an opportunity to plug! Thank you! First off, as someone who's doing his best to master the fine art of BSP, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that my first novel, HOLMES ON THE RANGE, will be out from St. Martin's Minotaur first quarter '06 -- reserve your copy today! (Gee, why do I feel the sudden need to shower?) I've been collecting research material for the sequel since November, and though I've had a rough idea of the plot for months I only started officially outlining it this week. Like the first book, the sequel will be a whodunit set in the Wild West. There'll be a lot of humor and action, as well as tips of the Stetson to Old School masters like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. I should have a first draft done by the fall, and in between revisions I'm hoping to pull out something completely different -- a contemporary satirical thriller that's been sitting in a drawer for a few years -- and give it a polish. I have another sequel to HOLMES ON THE RANGE due in about two years, and I'm already thinking about the plot for that, as well. So I've obviously got a lot going on -- but I'll keep squeezing short stories in whenever I can!
TSOI: Do you have anything else you'd like to say about short stories?
SH: As for my final thoughts on short fiction, let's give this a shot. Short stories give writers license to experiment. The marketing pressures just aren't the same as they are with novels. A magazine or anthology isn't going to live or die on the basis of one story, so an editor can take a chance on something offbeat. Novels are a much riskier, much more expensive proposition -- anything that doesn't fit neatly into a niche is going to be a tough sell, and editors' careers are riding on the writers they throw their weight behind. So short story writers should really take advantage of the freedom they've been blessed with. James Powell does some wild, wacky stuff in EQMM. R.T. Lawton writes stories for AHMM that are incredibly varied in setting and style. Rob Lopresti and Mat Coward and Bob Levinson never give you the same thing twice. There are half a dozen other writers I could name here. They've got the right idea. Surprise the editor. Surprise the audience. Surprise yourself. That's what short stories allow you to do.
TSOI: Thanks a lot for your time, Steve, and good luck with the novel.
Interview with Steve Hockensmith Tomorrow
Re: Your Murder by Christopher Gooch
“Re: Your Murder” by Christopher Gooch, Thrilling Detective, Spring 2005
Mr. Gooch wrote this story in the form of a report from a detective agency to a client. Something out of the ordinary, to be sure.
It seems that Derek Smyth hired Bob Durkin, of Durkin Confidential Investigations, to find out who was trying to murder him. Mr. Smyth had received a threatening note followed the next day by an attempted poisoning. The main suspect, Lawrence Melton, a former business partner, had a heated argument with Smyth the night Smyth drank hot chocolate laced with arsenic.
A few days later a body is found in a burned-out car. Mrs. Smyth identifies that body as that of her husband. With information from Durkin, the police set out to question Melton, but find that he has disappeared.
Almost immediately after that Mrs. Smyth takes off for parts unknown, leaving Durkin with his bill and no one to pay it. This gives Durkin some incentive to track her down, discovering that Derek Smyth isn’t dead after all. I’m not giving anything away here, because that fact is stated as the first item in the report.
The story has a bit of a twist at the end, but nothing you wouldn’t expect given the actions itemized in the report – and the actual report itself.
As I said above, the form of the story itself is somewhat innovative or, at least, rare. Unfortunately, being written pretty much in reportese, the story is somewhat awkward to read. While this form is OK as a one-off, I don’t think it could stand repetition.
From a plot standpoint there was one glaring non-sequitor, the Smyth daughter who apparently lives at home with Mommy and Daddy. Daddy is supposedly sleeping under a dirt blanket when Mommy disappears off the face of the earth. This leaves kiddo home alone. Mommy and Daddy must be very cold fish indeed to abandon their only child. There was no indication in the story that relations between parents and child were anything other than loving. This turns the abandonment of Miss Smyth by her parents into a major speed bump, at least for me.
In short, an interesting experience, but not one I would care to repeat.
Seduction by Maureen Tan
“Seduction” by Maureen Tan, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2005
The first sentence of this story, “Ian Fleming lied,” was enough to catch my interest. The main character goes on to say that seduction in the spy game is unnecessary and irrelevant.
This spy story doesn’t fit at all into the pigeonhole one normally associates with spy stories. The main character, a spy, is a black woman, 58 years old, who is about fifty pounds overweight and carries a large tapestry purse wherever she goes. She’s been in the spy business for forty years.
Corilla’s assignment this time is a thoroughly rude, unlikable, but brilliant physicist who is on the brink of a breakthrough on a new low-power propulsion system for small satellites. This man, Professor Smith, keeps all of his research in his lab and in his head. When he wants to make a report, he dictates to a typist. Since he is such a completely unlikable man, his typists don’t last long. Corilla becomes his new transcribing typist, one considerably more tolerant that the others.
Corilla bides her time until Professor Smith makes his breakthrough. She comes back after work and downloads all his research onto the laptop she carries in her large tapestry purse. She then goes to a coffee shop and sends the files to her bosses back in her country. Once they confirm that the information is good, she is to return to the professor’s lab, corrupt all his computer files, and, as a bonus, she gets to kill the rude son-of-a-bitch. After all, her bosses don’t want any competition for the new propulsion system they will be selling to the US military.
On her way to finish her assignment, Corilla finds something that introduces a twist into the ending, a twist that adds meaning to the title of the story.
I enjoyed “Seduction.” The characterization is excellent. Ms. Tan presents Professor Smikth as a complete bastard, referring to Corilla as “you there”. She also establishes Corilla as a consummate professional spy. I particularly liked the twist at the end.
In short, well worth the time.
New Audio Story
Kevin Burton Smith, editor and webmaster at Thrilling Detective has announced that an audio version of Dave White's story "Get Miles Away" (link to printed version) will be posted tomorrow. Dave's a fine writer, so go on over and give it a listen.UPDATE: The mp3 is now up at Thrilling Detective. The production values are great (at least as far as I could tell on the trashy sound card I have in this computer), and Ryan Krewer does a bang-up job of narrating. I especially liked the phone effects. That and the bookended music added a lot to the experience. I like the way this seems to be catching on and evolving.
Reunion by Eric Wright
“Reunion” by Eric Wright, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2005
I have to wonder why EQMM published this story. It must have been Mr. Wright's name and reputation as a crime writer (Canadian, received several awards), because this story certainly doesn’t fit EQMM’s usual fare.
Don’t misunderstand. The story is well written, but it’s more a slice-of-life, New Yorker type of story. There’s no plot to speak of and certainly no crime either in the pages of the story or, as might be implied from the editor’s introduction, the mind of this reader.
Two men, Stan and Billy, who were friends in the British Army during World War II, meet accidentally at a race track twenty-two years after having last seen each other while escaping from the advancing German Army on Crete. This is not the hail-fellow-well-met meeting you might expect in such a situation. There appear to be no emotions whatsoever. It was more like they had shared a bus ride rather than a life-and-liberty-threatening retreat before an advancing enemy.
The two men had been separated during their flight, neither knowing what had happened to the other. Stan eventually tells the story of the last time they saw each other and offers an explanation, of sorts, of the reason they seem so cool toward each other.
Ultimately, however, the explanation is unsatisfying. These people do not act the way two men who have endured such an experience act after twenty-two years of uncertainty about the other’s fate. However well written, this story does not belong in EQMM.
In short, the next time EQMM gets a story like this, they should forward it to the New Yorker.
Business Models -- Part 1, Sponsorships
The Resurrection of Daniel Mason by Patricia McFall
“The Resurrection of Daniel Mason” by Patricia McFall, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2005
This story continues the adventures of Ms. McFall’s series PI, Lane Terry, former actress and performance artist. In this story the younger brother of Lane’s first boyfriend approaches her unexpectedly. It seems that the former boyfriend, the titular Daniel, fell onto evil times and died of a drug overdose. He had willed his body to the medical school. When they were done with it, they cremated the remains and sent them to the family. Sean, the younger brother, wants Lane to help him and his parents dispose of the ashes at sea. In the course of doing that, she finds a tag amongst the ashes that identifies them as anatomical waste with a date a month prior to the death of Daniel.
That starts an investigation into what really happened to Daniel’s body. This brings Lane into contact with a ghoulish morgue supervisor, Nick, at the medical school who is obviously, at least to her, dishonest. She knows he’s got some kind of scam going on, but she’s not sure exactly what it is. She infiltrates the morgue as a temporary worker. Nick’s boss, Dr. Cannon, almost immediately discovers her as a fraud, but keeps her on the job. If Nick is doing something wrong, she wants to know.
Lane eventually finds Daniel’s body still residing in the cold room of the morgue. She also discovers the scam Nick is running, a really profitable scam analogous to an automotive chop shop. Lane is due for one more surprise before being almost killed. Fortunately Ms. McFall allows Lane to escape death through her own skills and actions rather than having her rescued at the last moment.
This is a long story, very dense and well plotted. One step leads to a discovery, which leads to another step, another discovery, and so on. Just the way a good PI story should. I liked the human side of Lane that Ms. McFall showed through Lane’s gradually increasing attraction to Sean. It certainly made her more real.
In short, a well-done story with a likable protagonist.
Road Hazard by David Dean
“Road Hazard” by David Dean, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2005
In this story we have a police dispatcher with a problem: an intimidating neighbor. Rueben is a police dispatcher, and a good one, even if he does say so himself. His neighbor, Danny, has been a thorn in his side, and in the sides of everyone in the neighborhood, since he was a teenager. The boy was sullen and threatening, playing destructive and cruel pranks on everyone in the neighborhood. If complaints were made to the police, retribution was sure to follow. Danny’s parents were as intimidated as everyone else, if not more so.
When Danny’s parents died, the neighborhood heaved a sigh of relief. Surely the boy, now a young man, would have to leave. He had no visible means of support, so he wouldn’t be able to make payments on the mortgage. Unfortunately Danny’s father had paid off the house before his death. Now it seemed Danny would never leave. And Rueben seems to feel himself more put-upon than anyone else, particularly since Danny killed his cat and painted “FAG” on his front door. He can’t talk to his friends on the force about what’s going on because he’s afraid of what they will think of him.
One night driving home from work, Rueben hits a deer with his car. He calls a patrol cop he knows to make the police report for his insurance. Then he has an idea. Danny rides his bicycle home from a bar every night about the time Rueben gets off from work. He’s already got damage to his car. It’s like a free pass. He can run over Danny and get the car fixed without worry. So the next night he waits for Danny and commits vehicular homicide.
But can he really get away with it? There is a nice twist at the end.
Mr. Dean does an excellent job in building up the resentment that Rueben feels to the point where we believe that he can kill Danny. And don’t forget the fact that he has established Rueben as something of an egotist, thus making believable Rueben’s belief that he can get away with murder.
In short, a little more noir than you usually see in EQMM and well done besides.