Interview with Joe Finder

An interview with Joe Finder by Judy Bobalik.

The first time I met Joe Finder was in 2006 at the first Thrillerfest in Phoenix. Reed Coleman introduced us. We didn’t cross paths again until 2008, when I was co-chair for the Baltimore Bouchercon. We had several email exchanges when I put him on a panel and he had no recollection of registering. We had our first conversation when, in Baltimore, he joined Reed and me for breakfast one morning. I liked him. He’s good people and he gets my warped sense of humor.

We had a fun exchange in San Francisco involving a soup pot, a bunny and my gift for stealth.

We met up again in February 2011 in Chicago at Love is Murder. In the bar one evening we had a long (and I hope interesting) conversation about heirloom vegetables.

In the spring of 2011 Jon Jordan asked me if I would interview Joe for Crimespree magazine. I hyperventilated. I have never interviewed anyone or reviewed a book. I read his book BURIED SECRETS and started thinking about what I could ask him. Then I got busy putting together the panels for the St. Louis Bouchercon, and the interview got put on the back burner.

Joe and I made plans to have lunch in St. Louis, and during our lunch I found out he is even more interesting than I already knew he was.

Judy Bobalik: Is there anything you’re glad you didn’t know when you started writing?

Joe Finder: I like this question.  No one ever asks this.  In fact, I’m glad I was ignorant about all the complexities and difficulties involved in writing and publishing.  I’ve always believed that a writer needs to know how the business works, but I also believe it’s important for a writer not to know too much.  It’s like going in for surgery.  You need to know just enough about how it’s going to work and what you’re going to have to do and whether the surgeon knows what he’s doing.  But you don’t want to know every detail about how grotesque the procedure is going to be and how easily it might go horribly wrong.  Another analogy may be more apt: it’s like the old “Road Runner” cartoons when Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff and keeps going without realizing that he’s suspended in mid-air.  He falls only when he realizes that there’s no ground beneath him.  The lesson is clear: the less you know, the better.  The Cartoon Law of Physics is extremely useful to a writer starting off.  If you actually knew how slim the odds were of success, you might never want to become a writer.

JB: Is there anything you wish you knew when you started writing?

JF: At the risk of contradicting myself: yes, there’s plenty I wish I knew.  Such as that the secret to success in this business is really the long, slow build, and that it’s incredibly rare to hit it out of the park your first time at bat.  Or that no one cares about your career — no agent, no editor, no nobody — as much as you. Far too many writers are so grateful to just have an agent that they just go along blindly with whatever this agent decides.  It’s like being lucky enough to grab a cab in New York in the pouring rain — you just sit back, dripping wet, and watch through the Plexiglas window as your driver careens through traffic like a lunatic.  At least you got a cab. I wish I knew that the highest bidder in a publishing auction isn’t necessarily the right publisher for you.  And that the most successful writers aren’t necessarily the most talented, but the most stubborn.

JB: Were you one of those kids who always wanted to be a writer?

JF: Yeah, sorry, I was.  I know, I know — Harlan Coben, who’s a friend of mine, likes to make fun of writers who say they always knew they wanted to write. Who say, “When I was a fetus, a pen formed in my hand and I began scratching my first novel on the inside of my mother’s womb.”  But the fact is, I always loved stories and I always wanted to make them up, but I got talked out of it.  When I told my grandfather, who worked hard all his life and saved and invested shrewdly and left a good estate, that I’d just sold my first book, he barked: “Get a real job.”  Of course, the guy had a point.  I did try other things first, but it was like an alcoholic swearing he’s giving up booze — good luck.  There’s this great quote by the poet William Carlos Williams: “I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.”  OK, but let’s not forget, the guy was a doctor in Rutherford, N.J.  He never quit to write poetry full time.  He kept his full-time job.

JB: What appeals to you about the crime novel as a form of writing?

JF: It’s the only kind of novel I ever wanted to write.  So it’s not like I had a choice.  But there’s a lot about the genre that appeals to me.  It’s all about suspense, about the possibility of bad things happening to ordinary people, and it allows us to enjoy fantasies we don’t get in our everyday lives — like getting our due vengeance, getting back at bad guys, defeating bullies, seeing that justice is done.  As long as you meet the basic requirements — a character you can root for, strong and increasing suspense, surprise — you, as the writer, get to make observations and sound off and crack wise about anything you want, and actually have people pay attention to what you say. In my particular case, I get to talk to people who know secrets or just interesting things and tell my readers what I’ve learned.  Crime fiction deals with morality and justice and how people behave during times of crisis, and how can that not be interesting?
I love the discipline of the narrative line, the shaping of the plot, the creation of suspense.  I like telling a story that’s about something.  My mantra, while writing, is “Reverse, reveal, surprise.”  By that I mean that it’s my job to turn the story on its head whenever possible, and when I can’t do that, to reveal something shocking or hit the reader with something unexpected.  (As even the snooty T.S. Eliot wrote, the detective novel is the only genre in which “the unexpected is a contribution to, and even a necessary element of, our enjoyment.”)
Unlike literary novelists, who have refined backstabbing to an Olympic sport, crime novelists are by and large great people — supportive, generous, approachable.  Maybe it’s because we don’t get a lot of respect during our lifetimes.  Only after we’re dead will our novels appear in the Library of America editions or Vintage Crime and on required reading lists in literature courses at good colleges.  Until then we have to settle for selling a lot of copies and making a decent living at it.  As my daughter says, it sucks to suck.

JB: Do you have any wild and crazy hobbies or interests that would surprise your readers?

JF: I grow heirloom tomatoes and love shooting guns.  Make of that what you will.

JB: What book(s) have you been recommending lately?

JF: William Landay’s Defending Jacob.