Interview with J.D. Rhoades
Jon: So we’ve known each other almost 20 years, going back to when I first started posting on the rec.art.mystery newsgroup. I always knew you as Dusty. What does the J.D. stand for?
J.D. Rhoades: My birth certificate name (or as a friend calls it, my “government name”) is Jerry Delano Rhoades, Jr. My grandpa was a big admirer of FDR. So J.D. is the first two letters of that. I’ve been known as “Dusty” all my life, but when I published my first novel, the editor thought “Dusty Rhoades” lacked the gravitas they wanted for a “serious” crime novelist, so we went round and round on that for a while before settling on J.D.
JJ: You’ve written 6 books, DEVILS AND DUST being the latest. But you have also been writing a column for a local paper for years. Do you still write that?
JDR: Actually, 10 including the self-published ones. Yep. Still do. I still see enough things that red-line my bullshit meter and drive me to the keyboard and another spasm of savage mockery.
JJ: Your latest is the fourth Jack Keller novel, do people need to read the first three to enjoy it or understand what’s going on?
JDR: I try very hard to make each one self-contained and readable on its own. There are references to what came before to help the new readers understand, and hopefully I’ve kept those from bogging down the story in exposition. Of course, if you’d like to buy the first three and get the whole back story, I won’t kick.
JJ: So who is Jack Keller?
JDR: Jack Keller is a guy with some terrible scars on his soul. He’s trying to make it back to a normal life, but his strategy for that doesn’t work. He tries to break through the emotional disconnection and numbness of his PTSD by putting himself in situations that get his adrenaline pumping, but that ends up just making things worse for him, because the violence and chaos in his life drives away the people he loves. He wishes he could quit, but people keep needing for him to pick up the gun again.
JJ: Is there any of you in Jack? Either real aspects of you or things you wish were like you?
JDR: My first reaction to this question was “Jesus, I hope not.” Jack Keller is neither a well nor a happy man. But upon reflection, there are a lot of things I love about him. I love his dedication, his relentlessness and his loyalty to the people he cares about. He can and has driven himself over the edge of sanity to protect and help those people. I hope I could do that, and pray I never have to.
JJ: You also have an interesting day job, I remember you used to sign posts with a tag line about being a country lawyer. I also remember talking with you one time and mentioning that sometimes you had clients who were sort on cash and would barter with you. Do parts of the day job drift into the writing?
JDR: Sometimes. It happened a lot with my book “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, in which some of protagonist Andy Cole’s wisecracks about clients and the legal profession are my own and many more were outright stolen from my colleagues. And any time there’s a courtroom scene, it’s a pretty good bet I’m describing a courtroom I’ve actually been in.
JJ: And when do you find time to write with kids, and awesome wife and a day job?
JDR: I don’t watch a lot of TV, at least during the week. That’s the main thing. I told someone the other day that the tools that make it possible for me to be a writer are the laptop computer and the DVR, because I can record the shows I want to watch and binge watch them all on the weekends, which frees weeknights up to write.
It also helps to write efficiently, by which I mean not wasting a lot of time when the time comes to actually do it. I think writing the column has helped a lot with that. When I sit down to write the column, I’m up against a deadline, and spending a lot of time moping around waiting for inspiration is not an option. Ass in chair, fingers on keyboard, words on page, let’s do this. You apply that same attitude to fiction, you’ll be amazed at what you can get done.
Another thing that contributes to writing efficiently, at least for me, is that I’m mentally composing all the time: in the car, in the shower, walking the dog, wherever. I’m putting the words together in my head, so that by evening, at least some of the work is done. I just need to type out what I’ve been thinking about all day. Doesn’t work 100% of the time. Nothing does. But it works enough.
JJ: What kind of research did DEVILS AND DUST entail? Did you have to delve into the worlds od human trafficking or white supremacist groups?
JDR: Strangely enough some of the research came to me. There are a number of people who seem to read the weekly newspaper column for the sole reason of commenting or e-mailing me every week about how much they hate it. One of those is a fellow who for several month was e-mailing me all kinds of crazy white supremacist articles and links. Stuff like “proof” that Michelle Obama is actually a transsexual or that Jackie Kennedy was actually a highly trained Mossad assassin who, if you look at the Zapruder film really close, can be seen pushing a pistol up under JFK’s chin and blowing his brains out, because, you know, Jews. That got me looking into some of the stuff these people actually believe, including their weird conflation of Norse mythology, like the use of the Odin Cross, Christianity, and bat-spit craziness. I wove all of that into the Church of Elohim.
JJ: One of the things I like about Keller is that he doesn’t come off like a superhero. He can handle himself and he’s smart, but not in an unbelievable way. Was it important to you that he come across as someone you might really meet?
JDR: Absolutely. Keller isn’t Superman. He’s flesh and blood. He has doubts. He worries. He takes damage, even as he’s inflicting it.
What would it be like to meet Keller in real life? Well, you might not even find him all that remarkable, except maybe to notice he’s a pretty good looking guy. He’s not suave or debonair. He doesn’t do small talk, and he doesn’t make friends easily. He’s very reserved with strangers, unless you have information he needs in order to track someone down, in which case you might find him more than a little intimidating.
JJ: Working on a series I wonder, did you plan to do the first Keller book as the first in a series? And if you did, did it influence your writing at all?
JDR: When I was writing The Devil’s Right Hand, I had no real idea of it becoming a series. In fact, I thought that ending of that one pretty much wrapped up Keller’s story arc. But everyone–my agent, my editor, readers, said, “oh, you’ve got to make this a series.” So I had to pull the poor bastard out of the good place he’d ended up in and put him through more horrible stuff.
JJ: What is the best writing advice you have heard?
JDR: From the late, great Elmore Leonard: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
JJ: Having published both with a traditional publisher and having self-published you’ve seen both sides of the equation. I think the way things are going it is kind of like building a stock portfolio and it’s a good idea to be able to have a balance of both. What do you see as advantages and disadvantages of these two sides of the publishing coin?
JDR: Jon, you hit the nail on the head. My mantra in the past few years has been “diversify.” Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, because everything changes so fast. A few years ago, Amazon made it very easy for self published writers to get their work out and make money. Then they changed some of their practices and made the “making money” part harder. Tomorrow that could change again. So it’s just good business to recognize that the stories you want to write now have a variety of different paths to the reader and think carefully about what you want out of each one when picking a path.
The advantage of self publishing is that, due to the larger cut that you take, you can sell fewer books and still make a profit. This gives you the option of writing a story that you really want to write, that may be too much of a “niche” piece for a regular publisher, but that you know will find an audience. If your book DOES take off, and you’re selling in large numbers, the financial rewards are far better than with a regular publisher.
The downside is obvious: you’ve got to put a lot of your own time and money into things a regular publisher would do for you: editing, proofreading, cover design, and especially promotion. But then there’s an upside to that downside: you’re in control of it all. It comes out exactly like you want it, when you want it.
On the other hand, there’s a lot to love about collaborating with an editor that gets you and who offers good advice. It’s nice to be able to hand a book in and let others worry about (and put the money in for) the design, the formatting, the printing, etc. while you write the next one. The downside is that you give up the control I mentioned earlier, and that can lead to some real train wrecks. I’ve talked to so many writers who have horror stories about terrible covers, changed titles, wrongheaded promotion (or none at all), etc. In traditional publishing, you put your career into the hands of people who, let’s face it, do not always know what the hell they’re doing, and who’ll blame their failure to do what it takes to make a book a success on you. That cripples your chances of going anywhere else.
The beauty of the modern publishing environment, though, is that I can be picky about who I decide to hand my work over to. I always have the option to walk away and do it myself. I don’t have to take a deal I don’t like just to get a deal. Which is why I’m so incredibly happy to be working with Jason Pinter and Polis Books. In addition to being experienced in the whole business side of things, Jason’s a damn fine writer as well. He gets it. His instincts are spot on, and the energy he puts into working with all his writers is incredible. I’m really psyched about what we’re doing together with Devils and Dust, and I look forward to working with him in the future. But I keep all my options open.
JJ: So what are you working on now?
JDR: It’s a secret, at least for now. I can tell you it’s a group series with several other writers I really like, using a “house” pen name. I guess you’d call the genre paranormal suspense. I just wrapped up my installment yesterday, and it’s been a lot of fun. Should be out for e-books by summer.
JJ: I’m guessing being local to Bouchercon this year we’ll see you there. Are you a fan of conventions and doing events with other authors?
JDR: I love ’em, but they can be a real drain on the bank account. You can’t beat the networking opportunities, though. A lot of great ideas have been cooked up in the back booth of the ‘con bar. Also some really bad ones.
JJ: If you were to give advice to a 13 year old Dusty what would you tell him?
JDR: That polyester leisure suit is really not a good look for you.
JJ: Here’s the speed round:
Superman or Batman?
JDR: Batman. Superman is overpowered, and therefore the writers have to keep coming up with ever more absurd risks to keep the story from getting boring
JJ: Morning person or all nighter person?
JDR: Definitely all nighter. I hate morning.
JJ: Favorite beverage for when you are working? And for when you are done working?
JDR: Water or coffee for work, rum for relaxing. This rule is not inflexible.
JJ: Favorite way to spend free time when there is nothing you have to do?
JDR: It’s been so long since that’s happened, I’ve forgotten. Probably read.
JJ: Favorite interaction with a fan?
JDR: I got an Amazon review from a reader in Christchurch New Zealand, right after the earthquake there. He’d loved Lawyers, Guns and Money so much that after a long day of “shoveling silt and shifting rubble,” he’d stay up late reading by the light of his electric headlamp. “I was so engrossed,” he wrote, “I barely noticed the aftershocks!”//Now THAT is a good review.