Dan (and Kate) Present… The Dan O’Shea Interview

Dan (& Kate): PENANCE is your debut novel, but many people know you for your short story work. For example, Dan is a big fan of your story “Thin Mints” in the first Noir at the Bar collection. With this novel, did you set out to write a full-length story for your hero Detective John Lynch or was this a short story that kept going?

Dan O’Shea: PENANCE wasn’t just my debut novel, it was my debut, period. It was the first work of fiction I ever wrote. And yeah, I know how that sounds, but the thing is I wrote it (or more accurately didn’t write it) over a period of about thirty years.

I guess that takes some explaining.

I’ve been a professional writer my whole life. Majored in English, which I parlayed into a thrilling job proofreading patent applications for Standard Oil, then to a copy editor position in the accounting industry, which lead to writing for accountants, which is what I’ve ended up doing in one form or another ever. Always wanted to write a novel, and I’d mess around at it from time to time, but I’d make all these grown-up sounding excuses about why I couldn’t. How I had mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay and I couldn’t take time away from chasing paying work to write fiction on spec. So the novel always stayed on my someday list.

Then people started dying. I guess at my age (I’m in my 50s for those who don’t know me) that happens. Over the space of a few months, my best friend was killed in a car accident, an aunt I was close to killed herself, my dad died. Finally sank in that we’ve all only got so much sand in the glass and none of us know how big the glass is. Got my head out of my ass and realized that, if I wanted to write a novel, then I’d better get to it. After that, I had a draft of PENANCE done in about a year. The first draft of my second novel, GREED (coming Dec. 31, 2013, hint hint) only took a couple of months – it’s a lot easier once you prove to yourself you can do it.

The moral of the story being don’t piss on your own dreams. The whole world is lining up at that urinal. If you join in, you just drown in your own piss.

So far as short fiction goes, I never wrote any until after I wrote my first couple of novels.

But since you mention THIN MINTS… I was reading the paper1 one morning, see this article about a Girl Scout trying to break the cookie sales record. Flashed back to those halcyon days of yore (in my case, early 1970s) when my sister was in the Girl Scout cookie racket and how she had this official Girl-Scout green pencil-case type thing to haul the loot around in, how the cookie business seemed to be a cash business and not one with a lot of security. I got to thinking about what might happen if the wrong sort of fella saw that article, and I end up with a couple of meth heads looking for an easy score. Some people, on hearing that tale, think “What the fuck is wrong with you? Girls Scouts? Nice, sweet little Girl Scouts? And you gotta do that?” Of course there are probably some others thinking “Serves ‘em right, secular humanist, abortion-loving, lesbian-promoting Satan worshipers. Girl Scouts are the devil’s fund raisers.” But, when I told the origin story of THIN MINTS to a writer friend of mine, I got as far as saying, “I read this story about some kid trying to break the Girl Scout cookie sales record, and I’m thinking cash business, right? So suppose-“

Guy cuts me off and says “Oh yeah, I can see where you’re going with this.”

And that’s when you know you’ve found your people.

D (&K): In PENANCE, the city of Chicago comes across almost as a living, breathing character. Aside from having all of your characters wearing Cubs hats, what is the secret to making your setting so real?

Dan O'Shea AuthorDO: I’ve heard that from a few people and it’s nice to hear. But I’m not really sure how to answer it.

I’m not a planner, don’t work from outlines or anything. When I started PENANCE, the only reason it was set in Chicago was it’s the only city I knew well enough to set something in. All I had was an idea about a disturbed gunman with a theological motive. (That dated back to high school, by the way. I went to a strange high school. A Catholic military academy. School motto was Crede De Deo, Luctari Pro Eo.2 Theology class junior year, out of the blue, this priest says “If you were going to die unexpectedly, say you were going to be murdered, when would you want that to happen?” I was leaning toward never, but the answer he was looking for was stepping out of the confessional, on account of you’d be in a state of grace, which is basically a Get Into Heaven Free card. So that bit had been rattling around my head for a while.)

Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, Chicago. So I’ve got the confessional killer bit, but as the other characters emerged, I had to think about who they were, where they were from, what motivated their decisions. The interlocking web of Chicago ties and Chicago history just emerged organically from that process. As that happened, the sense of place became more important to the story.

I’m not sure I have any tips on how to do that. I don’t really talk about places that much, and when I do, I take liberties. I make Chicago’s Chinatown a little grander than it is in real life, and, in a predominately Catholic city where a lot of people will answer the question about where they are from with the name of their parish, I make up the ones I use, mostly because actually driving around the city trying to find churches that set up for sniper shootings the way I wanted was too much work. I did try to avoid the obvious, tried to skip the usual travelogue destinations. Didn’t set anything on Navy Pier, didn’t kill anyone at Wrigley Field. I guess it’s mostly about the characters and how they reflect the culture of the city.

D (&K): Our readers may not know that many authors have day jobs in addition to writing novels. We always thought authors spent all their time hanging out at the bar at Bouchercon, and the books just appeared on the shelves by magic. Apparently, we were wrong. Tell us about your day job and what made you decide to make the leap to writing mysteries.

DO: My day job is writing for an accounting firm. You want a few thousand words on how the latest changes in China’s tax policy will affect transfer pricing for US businesses? How to use your ERP system to set up a benchmarking dashboard for your C-suite goons? An explanation of the excise tax on medical devices that’s one of the funding mechanisms for Obamacare? Then I’m your guy. Maybe you’ve read some of my stuff. The Manual of Oil and Gas Taxation? A Guide to Fiduciary Responsibilities for Board Members of Not-for-Profit Organizations? Taxes and the Family Business Owner? Might want to try one of them. Beats the hell out of Ambien.

I will say this – a few decades of writing about the tax code will drive to writing about killing people.

This is a story that blends the traditional police procedural with government Black Opps thriller elements. Do you see yourself as falling into the traditional mystery genre, or the thriller genre? As a newly published novelist, how important is this classification, if at all?

Blending genres wasn’t a conscious choice. I read all kinds of stuff and never really made a distinction in my mind about genres. Like I said, I had this idea about a guy killing people coming out of confession. As I got thinking about that character and what would drive him to those actions, I ended up with a guy who had a shadowy intelligence background, a strict Catholic upbringing, and, as a result, some conscience issues and a bad case of cognitive dissonance. But I also ended up with some murder victims in the middle of Chicago. Having the police turn up to investigate those killings just seemed like a logical progression, not a departure from some genre boundary.

I watch the Bourne movies – and I love those, they are fun as hell – but what strikes me as odd is how you’ll have a horrible murder in the middle of a city, at the end of which scene usually you see the police cars pulling up, or at least here those funny foreign siren noises. And then they cut back to Pamela Landy and friends, who’ve taken over a full floor of some office building on 12 hours notice. And those guys never even mention that the locals are going to be investigating the murder, or more usually murders. It isn’t even on their radar. It’s like they think they exist in some weird parallel universe that the cops can’t even see. Which just doesn’t make sense.

For me, the real fun started when I brought the cops into the equation. I had a killer and I had two different sets of folks chasing him – his formers masters out of DC who want him dead before the cops get their mitts on him and start asking him questions that his masters REALLY don’t want him answering, and the cops, who have some nut job sniping people coming out of confession. I didn’t decide to blend genres, I just followed the story. In fact, until I’d written the book and signed up with Stacia Decker, I didn’t even realize that publishers divided genres up into all these narrow slices. I guess PENANCE falls more into the thriller genre than the mystery genre, but it’s not something I think or worry about.

D (&K): Word is, you’re also working on a detective novel told from William Shakespeare’s point of view. This sounds like something we could totally sink our teeth into. Please tell our readers more about this endeavor. And you better use as many Olde English-isms in your answer as possible.

DO: I’ll let the Bard, or my poor imitation of him, answer with this passage from ROTTEN AT THE HEART, penned by my alter ego Bartholomew Daniels and coming in spring 2014 from the good people at Exhibit A:

In Stratford, every face was known. And not the face only, but also the facts and habits of each person, so that you walked fettered by your own history and that of your father and his and his, fenced from birth within a pasture of expectations from whence you might escape only at the cost of reputation and livelihood. As my father was a glover, then I was a glover’s son and destined a glover to be.

But the tens and hundreds of thousands that peopled the streets of London offered in their excess a jungle of anonymity in which any man could invent of himself a creature akin to his own longings. And the soil of that jungle seemed enriched with a kind of humus grown from the constant droppings of ideas and the random interchange of the new and the old, the proven with the previously unimagined, so that daily some advance in science or art or even just whimsy sprang forth in odd and wondrous flower. And then each flower drew some curious bee that would carry its essence to some other and some other and some other until the riotous blooming of ideas enchanted me, and gave hope that our lives and their ends might be other than links in a chain of bondage forged in the dull fires of custom, but might instead be fashioned by our own hands in the manner of our own dreaming.

London made me think that man had supplanted God as the prime agency of our human fortunes, not in the stink of pride, but with his blessing.

London was not just the cradle of the wondrous, however. It was also the Stygian nursery of evils, both those familiar and their infinite and vile siblings. From across the river, I could hear the roar from one of the bear-baiting circles, where a noble beast would stand tethered as dogs were loosed to tear its flesh while it swatted and snapped at its tormentors, both bear and dog making unwilling wager of their lives while the crowd, in drunken bloodlust, wagered only their coins.

The infected horror of the crowd’s roar offered full reminder that London’s jungle offered its anonymous disguise to every appetite, wholesome or no, and that not just playwrights were drawn hence from our pastoral homes. Brigands, too, were drawn by the gravity of the city’s multitudes, knowing its lanes offered more purses for their hands and throats for their blades. I took care with the passing of each alley and doorway. A man alone in the London night took chance with his purse and life; and a woman alone held her virtue cheap. So I kept my guard, relaxing only upon reaching Bishopsgate and turning north the short way left to my door.

Relaxed too soon. From the dark maw of a court behind me and to my left, I heard the sudden scrape of feet moving with instant and urgent purpose. Alarmed, I turned quickly – my hand already reaching for the hilt of the rapier on my left side. I could see death’s avaricious smile in the curved arc of a blade shining faint in the dim lamplight as it slashed at me. I have done much playing at fencing, the clash of swords being an aphrodisiac to any audience. On the stage, though, the steps of that dance are predetermined. Now, for the first time, I would step to its tune for mortal stakes.

D (&K): In the spirit of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and the Bernard Pivot questions asked of every guest, we have our own set of questions we ask of every interviewee.

When did you finally say, “Yeah… I’m gonna write stuff for a living. And it will be AWESOME.”

DO: For a living? Dude, unless you’re talking about my day job, you’ve got me confused with somebody who gets bigger advance checks.

D (&K): What has been your favorite moment in writing so far? The moment that when you read it on the page, you smiled and said, “That was so cool!”

DO: I’m always pin-balling between moments of irrational elation where I’m rubbing my hands with glee, imagining I’ve birthed a moment of literary immortality and moments of eviscerating self-loathing in which I’m shocked that even the accountants can read the drivel I’m excreting. But I distinctly remember the night I put the period after the last word of the last sentence of the last chapter of PENANCE. After all the years of fucking around, I’d finished a novel. Didn’t know if it would get published or if anyone other than me would ever read the damn thing, but it was done and I knew in my heart I’d paid for worse books.

D (&K): What was the moment that made you say, “Writing books is amazing”?

DO: Isn’t that the same question? Trying to trip me up? See if my answers match? Huh? You’re taping this, aren’t you? Got a camera running behind that mirror? Maybe I need my lawyer.

D (&K): Our standard Beatles or Rolling Stones question: Hammett or Chandler?

DO: James M. Cain.

D (&K): Parting thoughts?

DO: Nice shirt, Malmon.

1 Newspaper. For you young punks, back in the mists of antiquity before the interwebs ruined everything, the day’s news was printed on these big, flimsy sheets of paper. Even the daily version came in sections – you’d have your national/international front section, a local section, a feature section, a sports section, a business section. Ads sprinkled in, big run of classifieds in the back. Kids would bind the whole thing up with rubber bands and then ride around on bikes and fling the news on to your porch. Or you’d pick one up at the train station on your way in to work. Part of the democratization of the American experience, everybody sharing a common source of news, back before we all disappeared down our own self-selecting rabbit holes where we’re never exposed to any opinions that don’t agree with our own. I miss newspapers. Yeah, I know, they still publish them. But have you seen what they’ve become? All thy greatness shrunk to this little measure.

2 – To believe in God and to fight for him. The motto always confused me. I mean if there’s one guy that can handle his on beefs, it’s the Almighty. Just ask the good people of Sodom.