Q&A with Jack Getze
by Rob Brunet
Jack Getze is serious about being funny. If you’ve read any of his BIG series, you’re familiar with the helplessly self-aware Austin Carr. Layering Austin’s humorous point of view into tales chock full of crime and skirt-chasing is a craft Getze doesn’t tire of honing. As generous as they come, Getze coached me on book promotion a couple years ago with the following quip: “I think the best way to spend my marketing time from now on (well, 90%) is trying to write a better book.” Luckily for his readers, he keeps doing just that.
You write ‘funny crime’. Which comes first? The crime or the funny?
The funny. At least that’s what I’m shooting for when I write. You never know how people are going to take your art. (Unbelievably, my humor doesn’t appeal to everyone.) I just received a three-star review from a guy who never mentioned a laugh, giggle or chuckle, only the plot, including the “exaggerated” scene of a 70-year-old woman involved in a shootout. I’m sure plenty would agree with him, but the man was a Goodreads winner and probably signed up for a lot of free books all at once. Austin Carr will never be this man’s cup of tea, as exaggeration is a series trademark and one way or another, part of every book description. We’re funny first because of the main character: Austin sees everything through a screwball’s eyes.
When you’re not writing, how dark is your laugh?
Not dark at all. Most people who meet me seem to believe I’m a friendly, funny guy, my laughter easily brought out and sincere. That’s because I love to laugh and can—when the work hums—entertain myself that way creating the events and dialogue of Austin Carr and his pals. You want dark from me personally, you have to mess with my kids, my pets or my income.
How do you find new sources of humor in a series character?
This is something I struggle with, although it’s Austin screwball nature that provides most of the laughs—the way he talks to the reader about his own actions. He loves to make fun of himself no matter what’s going on. I’ve brought his growing children into the storylines, though, and I think that helped. Mama Bones started as a walk-on but now wants to take over the series. So maybe new characters is a good way for new laughs. I do have to admit I’m getting tired of the redheads. If any person with half a brain had so much trouble with any particular kind of woman, I’m pretty sure they’d try something different next time. Maybe I’ll introduce a blonde.
Are there places you want to go in the BIG series which aren’t funny?
Oh yeah. I touched on the subject in Big Shoes by mentioning Atlantic City and children being kidnapped, stolen and traded like cash down there. Mama Bones rescues them early and then involves Austin. In the next novel, I plan to bring this on-going tragedy and Mama Bones’ existing rescue operations into sharper focus. Austin and Mama Bones will battle slave traders—or somebody working for them.
When did you get serious about your fiction, and what have you done to deepen that commitment as you find readers?
I thought I was serious about my stories fifty years ago. I’ve written virtually every day since 1965 or 66. But now I think serious arrived in 1998: I’d produced nine or ten novels in the dark hours before work, including three or four versions of Big Numbers, but only once even attracted an agent (who failed to sell the manuscript). This one Sunday in 1998 my wife showed me a feature story in the newspaper at breakfast, a piece about Writers Retreat Workshop, a place where novelists took their novels to be shaped up by other writers and teachers of the craft. I spent the money and went to the ten-day workshop. My eyes were opened: everything I’d written for twenty years was either first-person newspaper narrative or omniscient fiction and almost unreadable. Once I understood point of view and could see when I read published novels what the pros were doing—one scene or chapter, filtered through one character’s POV—I became much more serious. I quit working a year later. These days I try to make at least one trip a year to a writing workshop, or otherwise participate in some form of critique group. Writing for the newspaper conditioned me: editors make your copy better, so I want to hear what other writers think. I’ve learned to take notes on what people say about my work so I don’t become defensive and forget to listen. When I go back over my notes a week or two later, I always learn ways to improve.
What’s hardest for you with each new book? The premise? The first draft? The rewrites?
The first draft is the hardest work because I don’t really know the whole story until I finish. It’s a rare first-draft session when I get on a roll and really entertain myself running Austin through a wringer. I block out the story mostly as I go, Doctorow’s car headlights showing just enough of the road. I stumble and fail, have to throw things out. The rewrites are the fun part for me. Austin’s asides and dialogue gets sharper and funnier, his enemies more dangerous. I like to play with the words more than get that first draft down. Duh. It’s easier.
What’s the most fun aspect of writing crime for you?
Most fun are those rare days when I can see people are reading and enjoying my work. Maybe the best ever was doing a bookstore signing at Murder by the Book in Houston, Texas. I couldn’t believe the owner stacked up twenty books for me to sign, or that a dozen people showed up to hear me talk. The crowd included two older guys who shouted out they were fans and loved my series. I almost fainted from joy, although that might be one of my exaggerations. A swoon maybe? I felt like a Novelist, that’s for sure. A dizzy novelist.
Between novels, do you take time away from the series? What do you like to do to refresh?
Actually, it’s the Austin Carr series that’s been interrupting my work. Funny story. At that 1998 writers retreat I mentioned, I began to outline a thriller I’d been playing with since the image of an Indian kachina stuck in my head. A few years later, I found an agent who wanted to help me with the thriller and we worked on it for several years, her editing me chapter by chapter. (To this day I am sworn to secrecy. She said she didn’t want to do that for anybody else.) One day over a year later, when we’d progressed to a whole draft manuscript each time, she called to say my latest version of the thriller really sucked; I needed to work on something else for a while. She asked if I had any other manuscripts in the drawer. I told her about the failed Big Numbers and she said try it again, but make the stockbroker more likeable. A year later she’d sold Big Numbers to a small press, and the series has been grabbing my time ever since. The Austin Carr books are fun to write—Austin’s really a part of me—but I keep going back to that darn thriller. It’s been rewritten more than a dozen times with three separate protagonists. A new agent almost sold that puppy last year, but shit happened and it’s still out there. Sigh. Right this moment, I’m working on a Christmas story without Austin. I don’t know yet if it’s short story or a novella.
You’ve been reading the submissions at Spinetingler for eight years. Have you seen anything trend up or down in submissions during that time?
The hit man stories have slowed, but I’ve always wanted to see a new twist on that old dish before I’d bite. I haven’t seen a strongly religious piece of fiction in several years. When I started reading subs back in 2007 or ’08, I remember being surprised at how many writers chose to write about Jesus, Buddha and Allah. Maybe it was the worldwide economic crash. I suppose the most popular sub-genre I see now is rural noir, and why not? It’s been hot and still is. But as a reader for Spinetingler, the sub-genre typically doesn’t work for or against a writer. I care about good, entertaining stories. (That doesn’t mean I want your romance tales, Brunet.)
When you read outside the genre, what do you reach for?
Bestsellers. I love crime: detectives, private eyes, cops and crooks, military or spy thrillers, so that’s what I read for entertainment exclusively. But every few years I’m curious about one talked-about novel or another, so I grab hold of a New York Times top ten. I want to see what the reading public’s responding to. Even so, many of the bestsellers I’ve tried were crime—Gone Girl, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—but I’ve read plenty of things with a strong romantic or inspirational theme as well. Cold Mountain, The Lovely Bones, the Bridges of Madison County. Women buy most of the novels in this world, so as a writer, father and husband, I feel the need to understand what the ladies like. The Lovely Bones was a wonderful tale, and by far the best of that bunch. Bridges was unreadable for me because of the clichés. I quit on the second page because it seemed every sentence included another writer’s words. I could never understand people’s attraction to that book until I saw the movie years later. Bridges—like many bestsellers—had a great love story underneath those clichés.