Flashback: The Bill Fitzhugh Interview

Crimespree issue 6 – May 2005


by Jeremy Lynch

In 1996 a “struggling” screenplay writer retooled a story he’d developed with partner Matt Hansen in 1991. Rejected by studios everywhere PEST CONTROL had a great reception when it found a home in print form. Author Bill Fitzhugh has been entertaining and shocking readers ever since. Fantastical characters wrapped within explosive plots are what one expects when cracking open a Fitzhugh book and that’s just what Fitzhugh delivers.

Jeremy Lynch: I really enjoyed HIGHWAY 61 RESURFACED. It struck me that the characterization was different … Maybe it was because the characters weren’t as crazy, but seemed to be the most real since the family in PEST CONTROL. They’re everyday kind of people. Was that a conscious effort going into the series? Most of your characters are pretty out there.

Bill Fitzhugh: Well, let’s think about this: PEST CONTROL, what was really weird other than the stylized assassin, was the funny insect signs. The people were pretty normal again except for the cross-dressing dwarf. ORGAN GRINDERS was kind of way out there. Arty cutting his arms and legs off. The biker, all that stuff is kind of nuts. CROSS DRESSING was based pretty much in reality. The situation was a little exaggerated, but I felt those people were pretty grounded. FENDER BENDERS, I thought, was pretty grounded. HEART SEIZURE was out there just because it was so high octane.

JL: I guess that what was really coming into my mind was ORGAN GRINDERS and HEART SEIZURE.

BF: The circumstances of some of the earlier books give you the impression of all these crazy characters, and all this crazy stuff.

JL: We’ve talked about DJ-ing, that’s something we have in common in our pasts. Did you find yourself tapping into the personal for the series?

BF: Moving into the Rick Shannon, the whole thing was grounded in a reality – FM rock radio. It never really occurred to me that now I really needed to develop some strange, far-out characters. These were going to be some of the normally goofy people that you run into in the radio business. This book is virtually 50/50 black and white. I grew up in Mississippi when the restroom signs still read “women”, “men” and “Negro”. The water fountains were “whites only” or “blacks only”. We had a maid who virtually raised us. So, I know a lot of the black people of the south from a pretty coddled, middle-class, white perspective. I still got to know these people. They hung around, they did yard work, they babysat you and you knew them for years and years. A lot of things had happened back then that don’t think now. Gertrude Crawford, the woman who raised us, her aunt worked for my mother’s aunt, and there were cousins who worked for… So there were these two families that paralleled each other. I used all of that stuff to write the story. Of course to write about blues, there have to be black guys – it was their music. The old cracker delta folks, you can’t help but run into them, some of them are still running the state. I guess the material lent itself to being pretty grounded in reality… I grew up in Mississippi. It’s my home state and Rick Shannon shares a profession that I not only did, but loved. It can’t help but be more personal than these other stories that I’ve just made up. Granted I lived in California where some of the other books took place and I’ve been to New York, but I never “lived” in those places

JL: When you sat down to write HIGHWAY 69 REVISITED, it was the first time that you had used a character for the second time. When RADIO ACTIVITY came out you decided that this would be your series. What was it like sitting down and writing a second book with the same character?

BF: Well, it was weird, and I’m not sure why. I thought it would be easier. I was talking with Carl Hiaasen once and he thought I was out of my mind to start from scratch each time. His protagonists are different each time, but they’re essentially the same guy. It’s basically him as a newspaper guy in some form or another. He’s an obituary writer, a PR guy, but it’s always essentially him, and it’s always set in Florida, and there’s always a developer bad guy. He chooses not to have to go out and learn about biotechnology. I kind of took that to heart. Based on that, I thought that once you have the main character figured out, you can just flesh him out a little more in successive books. That turned out to not be the case.

When I was first writing the proposal for the publisher I wrote a chapter and an outline, because this was the first book I had written since my four-book contract ran out. The chapter is unrecognizable between what I submitted and the final draft. It was… I was almost ready to not do it because it was completely derivative of Maltese Falcon, China Town and probably a million other movies that I’m not as familiar with. The PI is there, a woman comes in, says she’s so-and-so and it turns out she’s not who she says she is, then the other character shows up later. There’s also a statue. I told myself “I can’t write this, everybody will think that I ripped off the Maltese Falcon and China Town.” Then I realized that there is really no way around that. When you’re writing a PI story, a client better come in the door or there is no story. I also couldn’t have him stumble across something inorganically like in the first story that takes Shannon from “I’m a DJ” to “Okay, here’s a new job”. I got over the notion that it was a little bit derivative, so is a lot of plastic stuff. It’s all been done before. Get over that and start writing the story. Sometimes it felt like it wasn’t as exciting as it could be because I kept thinking about things like HEART SEIZURE. It’s entertaining. It was just weird. Trying to convince myself that I didn’t have to have somebody cutting his arms and legs off and all those other things. Once I got into the Mississippi delta setting, chasing down these 80-90 year old black men, and slowly developing this relationship between their past and present, I got more comfortable doing this first part of series work. I like the idea of what Donald Westlake does. Periodically he does whatever the hell he wants. It can be dark and not at all funny. It’s not necessarily what I would do. I can do Rick Shannon stories whenever I want, but also switch to an insane story in a space station. I like that idea. I don’t think I would write a Kinsey Millhone series, seeing the rest of the letters of the alphabet – stretching out in front of you – I couldn’t do it. I think I would get bored writing the same character over and over again. I think that the readers of that sort of stuff – I’m not saying specifically Sue Grafton because I haven’t read enough of her stuff to say – it seems like it’s akin to Murder She Wrote or Diagnosis Murder where people just like that main character. They don’t care that they have seen these stories before, they want to see that character go through the stories.

Of course, if HIGHWAY 61 takes off, I’ll probably rethink the whole thing. I can write Rick Shannon from now to 2010.

It appeals to me to not write the same book every time. I don’t think that RADIO ACTIVITY and HIGHWAY 61 are that similar other than having Rick Shannon and the radio business.

JL: Have you ever thought about revisiting any of the other characters you’ve used in the past?

BF: Lance Abbott was the organ procurement guy from ORGAN GRINDERS, and when I found that I needed a similar character in HEART SEIZURE, I thought about using him. Other than that, my agent keeps telling me to write a sequel to PEST CONTROL. The idea is fine, and when I originally wrote the screenplay with my partner Matt Hanson a hundred years ago, we ended it the same as the book. They have gotten away from New York and they’re alive when they hear on the radio about killer bees that have arrived in southern California and nobody knows what to do, so all hell’s about to break loose…..

When the sequel begins, they head down to Los Angeles to deal with the killer bee situation. The people who have taken out contracts on Bob figure out that he wasn’t killed in the explosion at the end of the book, and the assassins all descend on Los Angeles……

You then do the story again using the dangers of Los Angeles instead of New York to deal with them. I don’t think that I could get out of bed to write that story. It would be just terrible. I mean that’s what the movie would be. That’s why so many movies are so bad. It’s the same story, it’s a formula, it works.

JL: I was going to say that I see Hollywood doing that sequel on their own for you.

BF: I’ve said that I would be happy to do another PEST CONTROL story if I come up with the story. If it’s a cool story and the bugs are still fun…Science has changed a bit since then. Other than the sequel to Pest Control, I hadn’t really thought about resurrecting any of the characters until Shannon. I work mainly from story and plot. Finding a funny or extreme situation and putting a regular person into that situation is what I like to do. I look at the news and magazines for strange situations and how people deal with them. A lot of writers write from character, i.e. given these characteristics of my character, a story will come about. That’s just the difference between those who write character driven and story driven material.

JL: They are in the process of redoing all of the covers, including PEST CONTROL. What do you think about that?

BF: Actually when they showed me the artwork for these they were going with a new idea for PEST CONTROL. I said “No, go with the thing that got us here. Put that original bug on the cover.” They’ve changed it a little bit. They put some shadow behind it, but you’re killing yourself if you change the one cover that we know works. You don’t want to change that. Shockingly, they agreed with me and stuck with that one. Then we had to tweak some of the other covers a little bit, but Bill Meyer is the one who does all this, and he’s got a really cool website too. He’s a really cool artist.

JL: So you’re really happy with him then.

BF: Yeah, I think the covers look great. I guess that two of them come out in April, two more (CROSS DRESSING and FENDER BENDERS) in June, and then HEART SEIZURE is April, 2006. Dark Alley is the imprint. Dennis Lehane and Elmore Leonard are being also redone on Dark Alley as well.

JL: Well, you’ll be in good company

BF: I guess that I couldn’t be more pleased that they allowed me to be in this group. Wow! That is good company.

JL: Does the actual writing come pretty easily to you or is that a more difficult process?

BF: It seems to be getting more difficult with every book. One of the first book signings I went to was at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego. Don Winslow was there, and Jan Burke was there. Jan was on her third or fourth book at that point, and I asked her if it got easier, and she said “No, not really.” I mean I had fun writing Pest Control. There was no pressure, because I really didn’t think that I would be published. I had no deadline. It was a writing exercise, which was fun because it was the first time that I had used the form. It was kind of cool. And with ORGAN GRINDERS? I remember that I couldn’t wait to get up out of bed and go write that book. CROSS DRESSING was fun. FENDER BENDERS was fun. Heart Seizure was some fun, but it was becoming more and more of a job. I had book signings, there were tours, marketing considerations…

There were a lot more things required of me with each book. It still beats the shit out of going to work at an insurance company every day, but there is a little more work involved. I’m less spontaneous about it. I think that I think more about the writing than I used to. I used to just write something to see what happens, and I think I’m falling into the trap of trying to wait for a “good” sentence to pop into my head. I’ve got to kind of slap myself and get over it. Remember that you just sit down and start typing. You can always change it later. It really depends. Periodically a scene will just sort of write itself. It just seems that I’m thinking more, not that it’s reflected in the quality of the text, than I used to.

JL: Now I’d like to talk a little bit about you and your thoughts on some things. What’s your favorite drink?

BF: One of the best drinks I ever had was an Irish whisky called Middelton. John Connolly gave me a bottle at Bouchercon in DC for reasons that I’m still unclear on other than he’s a nice guy. Maybe the stuff is cheap in Ireland or something. I don’t know. This stuff was great, and I came back to look for some here and it was over $120 a bottle. Other than that Middleton, I drink scotch and love a good martini.

JL: What do you consider your ideal comfort food?

BF: I’m a cook, so that’s a hard one. Grillades and grits. You probably can’t even spell that.

JL: I have no idea what it is.

BF: G-R-I-L-L-A-D-E-S, it’s a New Orleans, Louisiana dish that I grew up eating. You can make it with veal or beef, and it’s a spicy-meat in gravy that you can put on a pile of grits. It’s really good. Shrimp Etouffee is good, but that’s a little fancy so it’s not quite comfort food. A good beef stew; I mean if you make it, not something that comes out of a can. A good lamb stew with winter vegetables.

JL: Usually when we run into each other we end up talking about music. What’s been in you cd player of late?

BF: Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes, do you know whom I’m talking about?

JL: I do not

BF: Rolling Stone was all over this guy. The cd says Bright Eyes and the title is “I’m Wide Awake and its Morning”, but his name, I think, is Conor Oberst. Kind of like what’s his name from Whiskey Town – Ryan Adams – sort of along that line. The new Casey Chambers is great; “the Mavericks Live in Austin, Texas” because it’s a great record.

Because I’ve been working on this radio show pilot, based on the music that was in RADIO ACTIVITY, I’ve been listening to a lot of the records that we used to play. I was going to say classic rock, but not according to what they’re playing on classic radio they’re not. In terms of new stuff: J. J. Cale’s last record, John Fogerty’s newest record, Lyle Lovett’s newest, Steve Earl’s newest, those are the main ones. Oh actually, Joan Osborne’s “How Sweet It Is”, her cover of a bunch of R&B and a few other songs is really good. She has a really great soulful voice.

JL: She does, and she is expressive.

BF: Yeah. Annie Lennox, who I love did an album of cover songs called “Medusa” about eight or ten years ago. It was fine, but none of the arrangements were all that different. They weren’t changed in any cool way, just straight covers. I didn’t listen to it much after the first month of so. This one I think that I’ll pull out for a long time and still think it’s a great record in terms of someone doing a bunch of cover songs.

JL: There is something when I listen to covers. I don’t think an artist has to make them drastically different, but there is something nice when an artist makes it their own or puts their personality into it.

BF: I loved Clapton’s acoustic Layla, because you can’t recognize it. It’s sort of a different phenomenon of what we’re talking about. When you take a song that is as much of a standard as Layla is, the temptation would be to make it pretty close to the way it was. When I was listening to Eric Clapton Unplugged, that song started and I was like “What is this?” “Oh, I see, he’s rearranged it.” Van Morrison will do that because he’s as close to being a jazz musician as he is a pop musician. He doesn’t want to play the same song twice. He might play the same song twice, but never in the same way is my point. Go and listen to a record if you want to hear that. That’s one of the things I love about Van. Van live is great. It seems that he’s taking some time off. I haven’t seen a new Van Morrison record, usually they’re about every three months. Van’s one of my favorite artists.

JL: So what are you up to these days?

BF: I’m getting ready to do a tour, but then again there are all these funny little things going on. I have a mailing list, so I have to print out mailing labels to produce postcards letting people in different cities know where I’m going to be and when. It tells them when the new book comes out in a bookstore near you on this date and time. I have to go buy the postage stamps to put it all together. So that means that I’m not writing. I am compiling my files for the next book I’m going to write. I’m not under contract, so there’s really no hurry.

JL: That poses kind of an interesting question. Do you enjoy slacking off? Do you enjoy taking long periods of time, or do you always feel that you need to be busy or working on new ideas? Can you separate yourself from that and sit back?

BF: This is the first time that I have not immediately begun the next book. As soon as the last one is done, you write the next book. I’ve done that since before we sold PEST CONTROL. My agent said that he was going to sell it and to start the next one, so I started ORGAN GRINDERS. With every book, I’ve done that. I have just automatically gone right back to work. This time I was a little burned out, so I’ve taken a lot more time off. I can’t sit around. I’m either online trying to track down some cool what-if scenarios, I read three or four days papers online with all of these fun stories that I print out. I’ve got these files in different subject areas where I put these stories that could potentially lead to something. I’m looking around. I refinished the front door and re-asphalted part of the driveway. I can’t just get up, shuffle into the living room, turn on the television and surf all day. I have a hard time simply watching an entire college basketball game now. I tend to record them and fast-forward through the commercials because I don’t want to waste any time. In college I was able to get up, smoke a joint and sit down and watch tv all day. I think I managed somehow to cobble together a work ethic. Now, even though I’m not puffing hard to get a book written, I’m doing something. I’m rarely not doing something. My wife’s the same way. She just works and works and works. Periodically we have to say: “When was the last time we had a vacation?” That’s one of the reasons I like to go on book tours. It makes it impossible for me to do anything around the house. I get to drive from city to city to city if I’m not flying, and that’s kind of nice. I’m sort of forced into not looking for something else to do. I’m starting to get itchy to get back to writing. It’s been many months since I handed in the final draft for HIGHWAY 61. Like I said, it’s the longest period of time I’ve gone without starting on the next book.

JL: Very cool. I want to thank you for your time.

BF: Thank you.