Friday, January 28, 2011

7 Questions: Fred Zackel

Interview by David Cranmer

What is a typical writing day like for Fred Zackel?

Writing is self-indulgent, and I try never to forget that. After thirty-odd years of writing, I write for myself, not for New York or Hollywood or magazines or anthologies. I have no idea what they want and I cannot write to their expectations. But I write all the time every day. I am OCD about it. I compose by hand, so I am always taking notes. And if the moment allows me, I keep writing until I have to eat lunch or teach or take out the trash. If I wake up at 4 am with an odd but interesting dream, I'll sit in the dim-lit living room and write until the story is done or until I run out of ideas or new ways to develop them. I carry a small notebook around. At the gym, I carry paper and pen ... and later trying to figure out what I wrote with sweaty trembling hands on wrinkled paper. "Molasses and Murder? What the hell is that?" If I get an idea while driving, I'll ask my wife to write it down for me. Later each day I collate what I have garnered and input it into the computer. I usually spend an hour daily at that. But I will stay at the computer until I run out of new developing ideas or a favorite TV show comes on or it's time to go to bed. As they pop out and onto the screen, the various ideas get parceled out into whatever story file they most likely belong. Ninety minutes of every morning is for editing or composing, whichever strikes my fancy, and then an hour around suppertime is set aside for inputting. Since I always have four or five writing projects unfinished at any given time, I write about whichever project grabs my attention. With juggling that many unfinished projects, I never sweat Writers Block. And since I don't give a s--- about my writing career anymore, I just write compulsively about whatever I want. Lots of freedom, once you abandon the concept of a writing career. But what vindicates this self-indulgent behavior of mine, sooner or later everything I write gets accepted somewhere.

Who are your primary influences on writing?

Although I was too young to ever meet her, the science fiction writer Andre Norton was the librarian at my local (the Nottingham) branch of the Cleveland Public Library, so she was a role model in so many ways. Through her books, I fell in love with reading. With genre and Adventure. When she became a full time writer, she moved to Florida, where it's so much warmer than Cleveland. As a teenager, I fell in love with writing first through Lawrence Durrell's Alexandrian Quartet. I must have read the novels a half-dozen times in all. I never wrote like Durrell at all, but geez the poetry and the lyricism and the sensuality are enviable.

In mystery I learned most from Ross Macdonald, first through reading and then by asking specific questions. He was a very generous man. Then, over time and repeated readings, I learned minimalism from Hammett and then I learned attitude from Chandler. James Cain taught me about dirty sex and postmen. Elmore Leonard taught me visual shortcuts in form and structure a writer can take that work wonders in a manuscript. Thanks to teaching lit in college classrooms, I re-discovered as a writer, instead of just a reader, the joys of the classics. Once a year I re-read Shakespeare's Othello just to be awed by a master craftsman. He can turn on a dime from comedy to horror within a sentence. Voltaire's Candide is the most ruefully funny novella ever. Read that at least once every year for the proper attitude toward life and the Big Picture. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is the most under-rated novella in English. Of Mice and Men is a perfect thriller. Marcus Aurelius' Meditations is the wisest book ever written; it teaches you how to deal with Daily Assholes. C.F. Cavafy's poems were a huge influence on how I write character. (Both of those last two books are still bedside, close at hand.) Albert Camus' Notebooks gave me a strategy I use daily about how to gather my thoughts in one place. Giovanni Boccaccio, who wrote The Decameron in 1353, a collection of one hundred novellas, still teaches me to write any goddamn genre I want.

I have to include Thomas Pynchon, Jimmy Buffett's early songs, Rod Stewart's early songs, and a lot of Motown, just for How to View Life in General. Novelist Joe Kanon was my editor when I was first published. He knows the forest and the trees, and I am still learning how to look at what to leave in and what to leave out. I am flat-out in awe of Loren Estleman, his drive, his vision and his oeuvre. Compulsively I also read Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Ken Bruen, Andrea Camilleri, Philip Kerr. I love Megan Abbott's voice, and I think I have read all of Sue Grafton. She cares more about structure than most writers give her credit for. Two new guys, Michael Koryta and Declan Hughes, impress the hell out of me. Koryta, who writes about Cleveland but who is moving towards the supernatural which I think is the future, and Hughes, who writes like an Irish Ross Macdonald and makes me think of each character's family history and psychology. A third, Dave Zeltserman, has influenced me, too, with his skill and his drive. A fine writer of the hard-boiled, yes, but he also works twice as hard as any other writer and is incredibly determined. But then his last name begins with a Z. So he has to try harder. You think I'm joking? Readers go into a bookstore and they rarely get past the C's. Think: Agatha Christie, Joseph Conrad, Bob Crais, James Cain, Ray Chandler, Bill Crider, Al Camus, Harlan Coben, Mike Connelly, Dave Cranmer, John Connolly, Lee Child, Reed Coleman, Leslie Chateris, Peter Corris ... oh, you know I could go on. If you are a Z, forget about readers noticing you. They never get past the C's. But Dave will succeed brilliantly and deservedly. After he changes his name to Dave Celtserman. How do you make a smiley face emoticon?

Aside from the writing, what did you admire about Ross Macdonald?

As soon as I saw this, I knew this question would be the hardest to put into words. Nobody outside of family ever treated me nicer or gave me such hope. First off, he had me call him Ken, which in light of who each of us was still amazes me. You see, he was the Literary Lion of Santa Barbara. There was no one greater in those days. He had two dozen novels under his belt, had that huge feature article about him in Time magazine, he had a PhD from U of Michigan, Eudora Welty praising him the New York Times, two big movie studio feature length movies starring Paul Newman, all that talk about a TV series. Me? I was a kid driving taxicab at night in San Francisco. I worked for a Chinese cab company operating out of a unmarked garage at the edge of Chinatown; my bosses were refugees from Mainland China; they were both the owners and the mechanics. I drove a fifty buck canary yellow ex-taxicab too old and too beat to be a cab anymore. Another thing ... He was always Ken Millar to me. He wrote letters and signed them Ken. He wasn't Ross Macdonald. He was Ken. The first image I remember reading your question was ... how he walked alongside me. And I know how stoopid that sounds. When I was with him, we walked a lot, usually with a handful of dogs trying to run between our feet and topple us. I don't recall him ever using a leash on any of them. He truly loved dogs. His house was geared for the thundering paws of big dogs playing rough. We walked sidewalks and boardwalks and dusty creek beds and ... and ... I knew I didn't deserve that heartfelt warmth and generosity and friendship and patience, but he gave it to me without reservation. Two very public places where I met up with Ross Macdonald was the Santa Barbara Writers Conference two summers in a row back in the mid-1970s. The second time I was there, a woman showed me a photograph from the previous summer, with Ken Millar and I walking together under the palms in Santa Barbara, lost in talking together. We looked like two college math professors debating a math problem. An odd picture in so many ways. And I saw the woman's photograph of the two of us and I clicked on Ken walking alongside of me. He listened to me and talked to me and argued with me and advised me and ... We even swapped gossip about who was sleeping with whom at the conference ... and worse. At every opportunity he was kind and he was generous and nobody outside of my family has ever been that encouraging to me. I still have and read his letters; how he encouraged me, geez. Like nobody else has. There is other stuff, too, from him that my kids will get when I'm gone. Anyway, that woman got my address and said she'd send me the photo. I waited and waited. I asked around about her and the photo, but I never heard again from her. I never saw the picture again. About thirty-five years ago now. I would dearly love to have that photograph.

Did you ever get the sense that Mr. Macdonald recognized his importance alongside Hammett and Chandler as one of the leading architects of the hardboiled school of writing?

I can't answer your question. I know he thought Hammett was the absolute best. Hammett we talked about. He also talked about some writers (at that time) who were writing near or at that level. Writing at that level, to Macdonald, was the greatest goal in our field.

Your poem, "Squish, You Babe," featured at BEAT to a PULP, was disturbingly unique. How long have you been writing poetry?

The poem came easily. On a rainy day I saw pink worms crawling across white concrete. A little later I saw a bunch of little kids in red rubber boots stomping in rain puddles, while their mother despaired. Combined, a nice pair of images, but not noir-y enough for what I wanted to write. But the polar opposite was a huge powerful man stomping on little pink worms in the rain. Why would a huge powerful man act like that? Well, he's feeling powerless and frustrated. Why? Because of a woman, of course. But where would a huge powerful man be so powerless and frustrated? Once I saw the prison, all the rest was detailing work, like using cotton swabs around the dashboard of your car.

What are your thoughts on eBooks?

Today I just happened to notice that in 48 hours it will have been one year exactly since I put my first manuscript up on Kindle. Maybe a celebration is in order. That book MURDER IN WAIKIKI is my biggest seller, and this month my wife and I are both surprised by how briskly (for us) it is selling. I don't market much (and always quit early at it) because I always feel, well, inept at it, like a giraffe pretending to be a ballerina. Nor do I feel I have to sell any writer, either, on the benefits accruing her if she puts her work up on Kindle. Stuff that's out-of-print, stuff your agent couldn't sell in the marketplace because another type of story was selling, stuff your agent had little faith in ... why, that's what Kindle is about. You get to be your own publishing house. New York turned down MURDER IN WAIKIKI three times. That's the reason why my first short story collection TIGHT FIT IN A LONG COLD BOX is freshly available at Kindle, smashwords and the Nook. So fresh, it doesn’t yet have a cover.

What is next for Fred Zackel?

An old Irish saying is that there are more great Irish novels spilled out on the floors of saloons than have ever appear in print. So you will forgive me if I skip over what's not yet completed. (Although I have a half-dozen short stories half-done, and a couple novels I have started, and ...) But there is a new novel, yes, it is completed, and it is in final edit. Soon it goes back to New York. Or Kindle.


  1. What a great interview. It is neat to read the minds of writers who've been at the art of story telling for a time and enjoying it. Part of me wishes I could slip into your shoes right now, part of me knows it is all about the journey (but I just don't want to wait that long- damn it!)

    I particularly enjoyed you telling the story behind the poem "Squish, You Babe". That was such an odd and disturbing piece with great imagery.

    I really enjoyed this, both of you. Great questions.

  2. It's great to read ABOUT Fred Zackel. Even greater to READ his novels and stories. The Michael Brennan books, early SF detective novels, should be available once more on Kindle. Zackel knows his cities -- SF, Honolulu, Cleveland. Crisp, acerbic, dark. Don't get no better.

  3. A fantastic interview guys! A great insight into the way an author works and where his ideas spring from. Also interesting that Fred never struggles with writers block because he has different projects going on at the same time. Maybe something to think about if WB ever kicks in!!

    Nice one, guys!

    Regards, David.

  4. Thanks, Bill.

    Jodi, I too was interested in the story behind "Squish, You Babe." A reader left an interesting response in the comments section (at BTAP) with a slightly different take that was interesting.

    Fred, Agreed. Mr. Zackel has a magnificent and abundant collection of books I can't wait to re-read.

    David, I'm a little like Fred myself when it comes to the dreaded WB. I just move on to another aspect of the process.

    Thanks for stopping by, amigo.

  5. Ross MacDonald has probably provided me with more hours of enjoyment than pretty near anyone.

  6. Fantastic interview! Dug the story about how you came up with that poem--taking an everyday image and making it creepy is an interesting idea.

  7. What an intersting bloke! Smashing interview!

  8. No doubt about it, I need to read more books by Ross MacDonald and by Fred Zackel. Excellent interview, guys!