Reed Farrel Coleman is a Brooklyn-based mystery writer and staff favorite. His New York-centric work depicts a city divided between grit and grace; full of troubled but endlessly interesting characters. Coleman will be at BookPeople to discuss and sign copies of his new book, Tower, on Tuesday, October 20th at 7 PM. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for the blog.
BP: Mystery, crime drama, noir… there’s a lot of names to describe the type of books you write. What’s your preferred classification for your work? RC: I guess if I had to choose, I’d say hard-boiled PI with a noir-ish edge. Give me five more minutes and I’ll work cozies in there somewhere. No, seriously, I think I strive to achieve making it difficult to classify my work. I’m not afraid of labels, per se, but I like to challenge the readers’ notions of what it is I’m doing exactly. I remember being on an Edgar Symposium panel with noir master Eddie Muller and asking him how he would categorize my books. I expected to hear the usual hard-boiled answer, but without hesitation, he said, “Noir, man.” When I asked him why, he said that in my books, the truth just makes things worse. “It doesn’t get more noir than that.” With Tower, I think Ken Bruen and I will fool people who come to the book expecting what they normally get from us. I know what the critics think, but I’m excited to hear what the readers think.
BP: You use New York as a setting in almost all of your books. What is it about the city that makes it so interesting to read about? RC: Well, on the one hand, because of all the movies, TV series, books, etc set in New York, even people in the most remote corners of the earth feel like they know the city, at least a little bit. So everyone feels a bit like a New Yorker. On the flip side of that is that the New York everyone thinks they know, doesn’t really exist except in fiction. If people know anything of New York City it’s Manhattan and the skyline. But writers like Peter Spiegelman(the financial district), SJ Rozan(Chinatown), Peter Blauner(Brooklyn, Westchester), Gabriel Cohen(Red Hook), Jim Fusilli(Tribeca), and myself, enjoy taking you to parts of the city that maybe you’ve never heard of before or only caught a glimpse of. For me, it’s Brooklyn and, more specifically, Brighton Beach, Coney Island, and Sheepshead Bay. New York is both one city and a hundred cities
BP: Moe Prager, one of your recurring characters, is a former NYC police officer. Is he based on any real life cops or people you knew while growing up in Brooklyn? RC: Let me start right off by equivocating: yes and no. Some aspects of Moe are based on my life. Moe and I went to the same high school and grew up in the same neighborhood. Moe’s older brother Aaron is broadly based on my older brother David. But the essence of Moe is his and his alone. The one aspect of Moe as a cop that comes directly from real life is how he injured his knee and was forced off the job. I have two friends, Tom McDonald and Jim Hegarty, who were injured in similar fashion to Moe and were forced to leave as was Moe. I think a big misconception the public has about crime writers is that we listen to cops’ war stories and then, with some tweaking, repeat them. I don’t. What I try to learn from the cops I am fortunate enough to know, is a sense of how it is to be on the job. I want to understand the pressures, the risks, the humor. I have no interest in regurgitating someone else’s experiences.
BP: Your latest book, Tower, is a collaborative effort with Ken Bruen. What was it like writing with another person? RC: That’s actually two questions, because there’s no one else like Ken Bruen. Hence writing with him wasn’t like any other collaborative effort I’ve ever attempted. Writing with another person takes a commitment from both parties to fight for what they believe, but not to fight over every comma or clause or plot point. Writers by nature have to have strong egos, not big egos, strong egos. And to write with someone else, both writers have to be willing to rein in the strength of their egos in the name of the project. It’s very difficult to actually describe what it’s like unless you’ve tried it. It’s like two new parents trying to cope with their first child. You’ve got to compromise or the kid will be a mess. However, Ken and I had certain advantages over other co-authors. We wrote the book in sections, so we didn’t have to agree on every line. With a basic structure in mind, we could do our own thing and build from there. Second, we live 3000 miles apart, so we couldn’t constantly look over each other’s shoulders. Ken was great. He gave me just enough guidance and freedom to give me a sense of where to go without having to be a roadmap for me. It’s more difficult than you think, but we pulled it off.
BP: Who are some of your favorite mystery/crime drama authors? What author(s) influence the way you approach writing? RC: I’ve already mentioned some of my favorites, but I would add Daniel Woodrell and Megan Abbott to that list. Lawrence Block was Moe Prager’s spiritual godfather and a huge influence on my work. Chandler and Hammett too, of course. You didn’t think I could get through an interview without that answer, did you? The funny thing about that influence question is that I am constantly being influenced by other writers and hope I keep growing and evolving. I don’t think writers should be afraid to learn from their friends or the books they’re reading. For instance, I’m currently reading Don Winslow’s California Fire and Life. There are things he does in that book I just love and would not hesitate to try them myself.
BP: I read that you have a commercial driver’s license. Do you still drive a truck, or has that been overshadowed by writing? Were any of your novels created on long drives? RC: I have a Commercial Class B license with Hazmat, Tank, and Air Brakes endorsements. As my friend and former partner Bob Gloria says, “As long as you’ve got a commercial license, you’ll never go hungry.” Great advice for a writer. I haven’t driven for a while, but because I hurt my left should a few years ago. Even after successful surgery, it would be tough to get back into the oil delivery business. Someday I hope to be able to frame that license and not need it as a fallback. My two books written as Tony Spinosa, Hose Monkey and The Fourth Victim, were both conceived of while I was driving the truck. Driving is great for clearing my head and letting the ideas flow.