Friday, January 1, 2010

A Conversation with Rick Mofina

International bestselling novelist Rick Mofina says that writing has been a lifelong affliction. One of the world's leading crime writers, Rick's work is what James Patterson has termed "tense, realistic and scary in all the right places."

Rick, your extensive journalism experience in Toronto and California must have prepared you to write crime novels. How much of your fictional crime is autobiographical?

A larger part of my news reporting experience involved working the police beat. It put me face-to-face with the best and worst of the human condition. I was expected to write about it. I was expected to derive some sense out of horrible incidents that made no sense at all then present it to readers on deadline.

Sadly, the true horrors that happen everywhere everyday seldom end well. If they end at all. This is something I bear in mind in writing crime fiction. I try to apply the fundamental code of most crime fiction, which is the restoration of order to chaos. And I try to start with a ‘grain of truth’, to build on a solid foundation for a compelling story.

Novels allow you to drill deeper. To probe a person’s thoughts. Journalistic objectivity, in that sense, goes out the window. Journalism still allows you to convey many things against impossible deadlines. Still, some of the best writers, and copy editors who help them, are found in newspapers. But crime fiction allows you to go deeper into characters, themes, and the actual soul of a story. And maybe on that level you do get closer to some universal truths. For example, a news story in good hands can convey quite powerfully how sickened a homicide detective is, say, over a child murder. But the novelist can take you further. The novelist can take you into the detective’s heart, make you feel what he or she feels witnessing an autopsy, or informing an inconsolable parent, or questioning a lying suspect, or grappling with their own anguish at night when their head touches the pillow and sleep is a fugitive.

The opening of my first published crime novel, If Angels Fall, begins with a toddler being abducted from his inattentive father while they are riding San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit System, known as BART.

Readers have told me that it reads as if I’d drawn it from a real case. I didn’t. The scene is entirely fiction. However, the seed for that moment of terror arose from a real moment of truth I experienced years ago while I was working at The Toronto Star, the paper that Ernest Hemingway reported for early in his career. The summer I was a Star cub reporter, a tragedy hit the city. A child who vanished under chilling circumstances was later found murdered. Fear gripped the metropolitan area and the story screamed from page one headlines of Toronto’s major papers.

In that climate, I was riding Toronto’s subway when I saw a father and his toddler. Dad was hidden behind the newspaper he was reading, one that happened to be blaring the latest on the tragedy. His little boy was toddling up and down the full length of the subway car aisle. The father was oblivious. The train would stop. Doors would open. Waves of commuters would rush in and out, even bumping the toddler. Doors would close. The train rumbled to the next station.

The father was had no idea what was happening as the scene was repeated at the next station. Then the next. Then the next. As I witnessed this, I became a little angry at the father for not watching his kid. Then I grew a little fearful as my imagination went into overdrive. If I were a crazy person, I could easily abduct that boy without his father noticing until it was too late.

That moment haunted me until years later, when I fashioned it into the opening of, If Angels Fall, the book which introduces my ongoing series characters, San Francisco reporter Tom Reed and SFPD Homicide Inspector, Walt Sydowski.
I drew a lesson from that subway ride. By beginning with a seed of ‘reality’ I was able to shape a stronger story. It was in keeping with the universally accepted notion that writers should write what they know.

Was the novel you wrote about hitchhiking from Canada to California as a teen ever published? Tell us about it.

I was 18 when I wrote it and it was largely drawn from the journal I kept while hitchhiking from my home east of Toronto to San Francisco, a kind of On the Road, thing. It was never published and never will be.

You’ve interviewed murderers on death row, covered serial killings and armored car heists as well as other horrific crimes. Did the real life violence and gore finally get to be too much? And is that why you turned to fiction?

No, not really. For me, writing has been a lifelong affliction. My urge to write reaches back to my earliest years when my mother read bedtime stories to me. She drew me into worlds that were sketched by the writer's words and brought to life in my imagination. This was wild magic.

It had captivated me with such intensity that I was compelled to craft my own fiction based on the real things I'd observed. Like how my mother smiled when my father came home and handed me his big lunch bucket, with one cookie left in it for me. Or the way his hands were creased with fine threads of dried concrete as he unlaced his heavy work boots. I observed the world I was in, and then created fictional worlds based on what I saw. Eventually my parents bought me a typewriter and one thing led to another which led to the sale of my first short story for $60.00 to a magazine in New Jersey. My father stared at that check for a long time, trying to make sense of what had transpired. At age 15, I was a professional writer. Or so it seemed. There was a lot to come; high school, university, marriage a family and a career as a news reporter, which laid the foundation for me to become the author of several thrillers.

You’ve had some great reviews, including one from James Patterson, who said your work is “tense, realistic and scary in all the right places.” And Penthouse Magazine called you one of the leading thriller writers of the day. Do glowing reviews actually translate into book sales or do they simply pump up a writer’s ego and keep him writing?

I’ve been very lucky, honored in fact, with endorsements and publishers take notice, as do readers. Most readers, anyway. I think the jury’s still out on whether they translate into sales but they sure don’t hurt the look of a cover one bit!

Your first novel, If Angels Fall, introduced San Francisco reporter Tom Reed and homicide inspector Walt Sydowski, and was optioned for filming along with a following book, Cold Fear. Did you ever quit your day job to write full-time?

Options are not the same as the sale of full film rights. Options are merely a small payment to lock up rights to a book for a short time, so that the interested party can try gather more financial support to advance production. In my case, even though a script was written, the options expired. So no, writing is an uncertain way to earn your living and I am pretty conservative about things. I don’t think I’ll quit my day job. That’s what lottery wins are for.

What does your communications advisory job entail? And when do you find time to write fiction?

My day job entails providing advice on communications. As for finding time to write, well I rise about 4:00 am and review my previous day's writing for 30-45 minutes. Then during my 30-40 minute commute by bus to my full time day job. I make notes in long hand in the journal I create for the work in progress. I let those notes gestate in my subconscious during the day. On the return commute, I revisit the journal and update my notes. If I have enough energy in the evening, I will try to draft a few new sentences, or go for an evening walk with my notebook before knocking for the evening to watch TV and relax a bit. At bed time, I will review my journal notes and make new ones. On the weekends, I sleep in until about 6:00 a.m. I'll work in my home office turning my notes into sentences and paragraphs that grow into chapters. If I am travelling, I'll take my laptop and attempt to work while waiting for flights, aboard jets, in hotels during down time. I adhere to this routine, but it is only possibly because my family accommodates it. I am very blessed that way.

Tell us about your new series?

Early in September, 2009, my publisher MIRA will release Vengeance Road, the first novel of my new series featuring crime reporter Jack Gannon. Gannon pursues the case of a murdered nursing student, the disappearance of a single mother, and their connection to a hero detective with a dark past. It will be followed in the summer of 2010 with THE PANIC ZONE, book two in the Jack Gannon series.

My previous series, another crime reporter series, is a trilogy published by Pinnacle. It begins with The Dying Hour. It was selected as a Finalist, Best Paperback Original, for a Thriller Award, International Thriller Writers (ITW). The Dying Hour introduces Jason Wade, a rookie crime reporter with The Seattle Mirror, a loner who grew up in the shadow of a brewery in one of the city's blue-collar neighborhoods. At The Seattle Mirror, he is competing for the single fulltime job being offered through the paper's intense intern program. But unlike the program's other young reporters, who attended big name schools and worked at other big metro dailies, Wade put himself through community college, and lacked the same experience. Wade struggles with his haunting past as he pursues the story of Karen Harding, a college student whose car was found abandoned on a lonely stretch of highway in the Pacific Northwest. How could this beloved young woman with the altruistic nature simply vanish? Wade battles mounting odds and cut-throat competition to unearth the truth behind Karen Harding's disturbing case. Her disappearance is a story he cannot give up, never realizing the toll it could exact from him. The Dying Hour is followed by two other Jason Wade books, Every Fear and A Perfect Grave

What’s the best part of writing and the worst?

The worst part is the loneliness of the craft. It is a solitary exercise. As for the best part, well, it’s not just one thing. It’s a number of things. Like writing the words “the end”, or hearing from readers, especially those who’ve enjoyed the story and have bought all your books, and have told others to buy your books. And I get a lot of nice comments, like ‘you kept me up all night,’ and ‘you need to write more books faster’. But one that stands out came from a lovely handwritten letter from a woman in Indiana. Seems she was on vacation in the west and bought my first book, If Angels Fall, in a used book bin for 25 cents. After reading it, she liked it so much; she cut me a personal check for the full cover price, $7.00, which she’d attached to her letter. She told me I’d earned it. I was blown away. I thanked her. And yes, I cashed the check, but I’ve kept a photocopy that I intend to frame some day.

Next to hearing from readers who enjoy your work and encourage you do produce more, for a writer there is nothing like the day when you learn your manuscript is going to be published. You’re walking on air for a while after that.

What changes do you foresee in the publishing business?

With respect to fiction, I don’t think reader demand for good stories will wane. I think the technical vehicle by which those stories are delivered will continue to evolve with portable digital devices becoming more common. I see them popping up more on buses in airports. I don’t think the traditional book format will disappear, much like with the hardcover and paperback formats we’ve seen the emergence of trade paperback. I think digital technology will emerge as another option, another choice and one that will become more popular with digital generations of readers.

Advice to fledgling crime/thriller writers?

It’s a tough business but above all it is a business whereby you aim to sell your product, your talent to craft a story. There are no magic beans, no secrets. You first of all must be honest with yourself and know whether you possess the intelligence, confidence, discipline and the talent to craft a story worthy of investment; investment of a publisher and readers in terms of their money and time.

When it comes to writing a book, the product, the only person standing in your way to reaching your goal is you. Be disciplined and write every day. Don't talk about doing it, do it. If the next word you think after reading this is "but" as in, "but I don't have the time, or I have this or that going on" fine. Guess you don't have what it takes. There is never “a good time” to sit down and write that book. That is an excuse, a rationale for failure. Don't make excuses. Create sentences. Read who you like and study them. All the while ask yourself if you know the difference between "being" a writer and "wanting to be" a writer? It's the difference between dreaming and doing.

Thanks, Rick, for taking part in the series.

Rick's web site: http://www.rickmofina.com

Thanks, Rick, for taking part in the series.

Tomorrow, Rick lists 16 steps to plotting a thriller.